I have a few copies available of Storylandia 21, containing "Alias Chicken Smith". Anyone liking a copy, for review or otherwise, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free while supplies last.
Oh, and if any agents or publishers are out there who want to take on the Next Great American Postmodern Experimental Cold War Stripper-Spy Thriller Novella, please contact me.
Finally, the wait is over. The Next Great American Postmodern Experimental Western Novella the world has been clamoring for is here.
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Going through some old papers this morning, found this rather odd note. Undated, but probably at least four or five years old.
Any story can fit into a sentence, provided there is enough condensation in one with a corresponding expansion of the other. Any story-containing sentence can be broken into smaller and smaller sentences expanded back outward until they become a novel. Obviously, then, stories and novels are not about trivialities like plot or character, but about a particular composition and complication of sentences. That is to say, I have been sentenced to this story.
WordTech Press discontinued Dim Lanes, Open Space a while back. I've been meaning to do something with the manuscript, but I wasn't sure exactly what. So, I've decided that since no one read it the first time around anyway, I might as well just put it here free of charge, if anyone is interested.
A Review of The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings
The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings is a collection of pieces by Richard Brautigan written prior to his move to San Francisco and literary fame. They are the work of a young man still trying to find his own voice and style, though they already show the traits which would become hallmarks of his later work. As such, these poems and stories offer a fascinating glimpse at a prodigious talent in its embryonic stages.
Richard Brautigan combined a disarming innocence and surreal lyricism with a sexual frankness and focus on the everyday business of living to create works that become nothing so much as fairy tale bedtime stories for grownups. All of these characteristics are present, in one form or another, in the manuscript he left to Edna Webster, the mother of both his best friend and first real girlfriend. That he should simply walk away from the work of this period without looking back is perhaps a telling statement on just how badly he wished to escape his life in Eugene, Oregon. It is also possibly a realization that his most original, important work was still ahead of him. In any case, the book as it has been published is certainly of uneven quality, though no less interesting for all that.
The majority of pieces in this collection are poems, generally very short. The best have an epigrammatic or haiku-like quality. The poetics at work here seem fairly straightforward. The short lines appear to be the result of writing that tracks vertically down the page as quickly as the poet can think of the next word or two he needs. At its best, his is a poetry of arresting images and extended conceits. Most of them are concerned with love, or, often as not, its absence. In "That Thing Which Walks the Earth", the girl of the poem has blue eyes which become black vases, each one of which holds "a bouquet/of/dead/swans." The transforming power of the imagination is often matched by the transformation of the beautiful or joyful into something strange and threatening. There is also a healthy dose of irony, wit, and grim humor. Combined with Brautigan's often minimalist approach, the results can be devastating, as in "family portrait 1", a poem that simply gives the reader "A father tombstone,/a mother tombstone,/a baby tombstone."
Most of the prose pieces are comprised of fragments, strung together to make stories that are sometimes merely confusing, other times provocatively suggestive. Brautigan always conceals more than he reveals. It is often difficult to decide if an individual piece is poetry or prose, since Brautigan seems to use forms as playthings, tinkering, taking apart, bouncing off a wall. "A Love Letter from State Insane Asylum" combines isolated prose segments into numbered and lettered sections, followed by the letter of the title. Psychic fragmentation is surely in evidence here, though it is sometimes difficult to decide how much is conscious artistic effort and how much is a young writer not completely in command of his materials.
In the final analysis, The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings is filled with the flaws that Brautigan could be prey to: honest emotion that descends into sentimentality, descriptions of everyday life that become merely mundane, surreal imagery that risks simple absurdity. However, these are the perils of youth, and the perils of the reader who would delve into the work of youth. For all the awkward steps, there are strides of real power and beauty as Richard Brautigan begins his journey as an artist.
Three From Reed
Schools of poetry are notoriously fluid and unreliable categories. In post-War America, virtually every poet who came of age at that time who was not associated with the academy (itself a tricky characterization) became lumped in with the Beat Generation. With the publication in 1960 of Donald Allen's groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry, the situation was further muddled by Allen's own set of groupings. The title did, however, at least provide a handy name under which to gather all those poets standing in contrast with, if not outright opposition to, what was perceived as the monolithic poetry culture centered around the universities. In retrospect, one group, though small, stands out as a coherent unit.
Ironically, the three poets who met at Reed College in Oregon following World War II were put in two different sections by Allen. Lew Welch fell in with the San Francisco Renaissance, while Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen appeared with what one might call the otherwise unaffiliated. This is stranger still when one considers how much more the poetry of Welch and Whalen have in common than that of Snyder has with either one. However, all three share several important qualities.
Each poet is clearly descended from the American Modernists, particularly Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. In the cases of Welch and Whalen, Gertrude Stein is a major influence. Pound's ideogrammic method, Williams' insistence on the use of native speech rhythms, and Stein's concern with the materiality of words and syntactic structures form the foundation of the Reed poetics. All three show an impressive range of reference; they also wear that learning lightly, which makes their verse as accessible or complex as the reader requires. The geography of the Pacific Northwest, an abiding interest in Buddhism and Zen, ecological concerns, familiarity with cultural traditions outside the American mainstream, all are common features in their writing. The level of commitment, sincerity, and seriousness to what they see as essential human work is indeed admirable.
Like the rest of the poets in the Allen anthology, there are at least as many differences as similarities in the work of Snyder, Whalen, and Welch. Their paths in life diverged in large measure after 1951. At the same time, a shared place, time, and outlook on the role of poetry in American life keep them linked as pioneers of a certain brand of avant garde poetry.
(published www.writinghood.com, 1/16/08)
The following nonfiction piece, first posted at Gather, was written shortly after the first time I saw Roky Erickson perform in July, 2006.
And Evelyn Danced the Night Away
His entrance onto the stage is without drama, without loud introductions, explosions, lights, or smoke. He merely straps on the guitar, exchanges a few words and knowing looks with the band, and starts to play. A few strummed chords and the rest of the Explosives kick in. "Cold Night for Alligators", propulsive, a driving beat that instantly energizes a crowd that is ready to cut loose.
This is my first visit to Antone's, the legendary club operated by the equally legendary Clifford Antone. I am sure there is an added poignancy for many of the Austin faithful this night, for as they gather in birthday celebration for one local luminary, they are also keenly aware of the recent passing of another. As clubs go, there is not really very much to the place, a couple of bars and only a handful of tables. Artwork depicting the musical elite who have graced this stage is all over the walls. Examples of merchandise for sale cover the wall by the entrance. Show-specific products are set up at a nearby table. At the other end of the long, narrow room are the restrooms and an upstairs area, encased in glass, for the VIPs I presume. And that's about it. Like C.B.G.B.'s, physical appearance belies the musical significance.
The first song ends amid an enthusiastic response. Cam King, the guitar player for the Explosives, calls for "White Faces." Throughout the evening he will be outgoing and demonstrative. Though it may appear that he is just playing to the crowd, it seems to me that he is also playing to Roky, providing a reassuring link to keep one connected to the other. Though apparently at ease and enjoying himself, Roky is reserved, his stage routine appearing almost regimented. Between songs he merely says, "Thank you...this is Don't Shake Me Lucifer," then, "Thank you...this is Creature with the Atom Brain." King keeps it all together, a conduit for energy flowing in both directions.
Roxanne and I had arrived early, before the doors opened. Though we had purchased tickets in advance, we wanted a place to sit, since the summer heat and her pregnancy had made the whole enterprise a little dicey. It was a good thing we did so, because there were very few tables; there were not even stools at the bars. We managed to grab a tall table near the door, and I was delighted to find that there was a waitress on duty to keep up a fairly regular flow of Shiner Bock in my direction. Though we would later abandon the table three songs into Roky's set in favor of a spot near the front of the stage, it served as our base of operations throughout the opening acts.
Though by this time it should be readily apparent, let me make the fact explicit that in no way, shape, or form am I an Austin insider. I feel very much the tourist in a foreign land. There is something akin to a tribal consciousness at work here; people of all ages mill around, vibrating on the same wavelength. Everyone seems to be a part of a single, extended family, generations stretching back into a tie-dyed past peopled by that strange amalgam of redneck and hippie that is uniquely Austin. The scene is laid-back and friendly, a Sixties cliche fully realized if only for one evening. A large part of the crowd seems to be Roky's age or older, and I get the distinct impression that if introduced to some of these people, chances are I would have heard of them. A member of Roky's teenage band, the Spades, is on hand, joining Sumner Erickson and the Texcentrics on stage. Roky's mother brushes against me as she passes by, visiting numerous groups of people she knows throughout the club. I overhear a woman, one of Roky's cousins, discussing the recent documentary about him with one of the guys at the merchandise table. An artist selling his own Roky-related work is passing out party favors he has assembled, telling everyone to wish Roky a happy birthday. Knots of people coalesce and disperse, the mellow energy in the room organizing and reorganizing all these related particles into strange and wonderful configurations.
As the club begins to fill, the temperature rises. Roxanne resorts to the use of her Roky Erickson mister fan. A goofy trinket, to be sure, but it does work, and the proceeds go to the Roky Erickson Trust Fund. So does the money from the sale at the show of T-shirts, posters, CD's, and the like. Though I have come to dislike incessant and excessive consumerism, I see Roxanne's purchase of a handbill and T-shirt as an investment in American culture. In a land where the common religion is the worship of empty celebrity and an almost willful mediocrity, where little of what we spend on purchases furthers our lives in a meaningful way, it seems a worthy act to help support, if only in this small way, deserving genius with a minimum of corporate mediation. No one is pure, and we all contribute in one way or another to the bland and superficial, the untalented and overhyped spokesmodels of our time. Should we not feel pleasure and atonement by dropping a coin in the palm of our forgotten and vagrant creativity?
As showtime rolled around, I was left with that final misgiving about what it was we were all about to witness. After all the lost years, what would be left of the once considerable gifts? Would he croak like Dylan, crack like Sinatra, fail to reach the high notes anymore like Bryan Wilson or Aretha Franklin? Would he forget the lyrics to his own songs as he strummed away on a guitar that wasn't even plugged in? From what I had been reading of his comeback, none of these things seemed likely, but a wave of elation broke over me when it became instantly apparent that none of my fears would be realized. His playing, on "The Beast" for example, still has a raw intensity and directness that one associates with the very best elemental garage rock. His voice, of course, is not the same, but he seems to have no trouble getting it around his words. In fact, I take a certain pleasure in listening to the difference between what he does now with a song as opposed to what he did thirty years ago. "Don't Shake Me Lucifer" for example. Even singing in a slightly lower register, there is a rasp in his voice on the chorus; but it sounds dead-on, the slight vocal stress fitting the song perfectly. Of course, he saves the best for last. "You're Gonna Miss Me": as perfect a rock and roll song as was ever written; as done by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators in 1966, as perfect a rock and roll performance as ever recorded. And when it came time to descend back into the past and summon that teenage prodigy with the ungodly wail one more time, there he is. The performance is stunning, the moment is perfect, and the set ends.
The band comes back for an encore, the laid-back sing-along "I Walked with a Zombie." With its single, repetitive verse, it seems like it could go on forever. It doesn't of course; Guy Forsythe is recording a live album later this evening. But there is time before that starts for Roky to take a seat at a table by the merchandise and meet the fans. When I get up to him I slide my ticket stub across the table for him to autograph. He does not sign with a quick scrawl, but carefully prints his name. "Thank you," I say, to which he replies, "You're welcome." Written this way, it seems a routine, almost meaningless exchange of pleasantries. But there is a true graciousness in his courtesy, infusing superficial rote with the glow of the genuine. I consider it one of the finest conversations I have ever had.
Another piece from Flash Fiction World. I did not realize it at the time, but any piece posted on the site was entered in their quarterly contest. I found this out when I received congratulations and payment for this story's second place finish. When I delved further, I discovered the judge was none other than the great Michelle Elvy, editor of Blue Five Notebook and Flash Frontier, and the editor who had nominated one of my stories for a Pushcart Prize. Small world. I'm not sure what exactly she saw in this, but I do appreciate her support and encouragement. So anyway, here is the award-winning...
The Wall Outside Graceland
It is possible, he believes, to make a complete portrait of the world if one could successfully excavate the surface. He thinks to say "surface" because the depth of its layers is only as thick as the successive generations of graphite and ink used to write on it.
He is sure there are many people, himself included, who attempt to put their names where they will be able to find them again upon returning years later. Four marriages in twenty-three years, four trips to the wall, and he can find none of the hearts he inscribed there, hearts enclosing initials joined by unimpeachable plus signs.
First published online in the now-defunct Deimos eZine, this is an odd piece of I'm not sure what; alternate history absurdism, postmodern Borgesiana, pseudo-scholarship satire. Who knows. At any rate, the whole germ of the thing dates back over fifteen years at least, when, in a poem entitled "In Praise of Dandelions", first published in Bellowing Ark back in the late nineties, I inserted the opening lines to the fictional poem referenced in this story. I always found former Texas Rangers centerfielder Odibe McDowell's name wonderfully mellifluous. Anyway, I was trying one day to think of a way to send the "Ode" to Bardball, which seemed impossible since, of course, there is only this fragment of a poem that in actuality does not exist. So I came up with the idea of a short, scholarly intro that would put the piece in some imagined historical context as a kind of ode in the tradition of Pindar. Out of all that came this.
Preface to the McDowell Manuscript
Of this poem, only the first two lines survive relatively intact. Though the author is unknown, later tradition has it that it may have been written by one Diplemeras of Amphortektondemos. This man, of whom little is known aside from military service which establishes his floruit as circa mid-nineteenth century, has been put forward as the possible author of the “Ode” on the basis of subject matter, though modern scholarship suggests any connection in this regard is tenuous at best. At worst, the assertion has been described as “completely spurious”, “a thoroughgoing fabrication”, and “utterly without merit” (McMillan, et al). The absence of any mention of the “Ode” in the classical corpus has led to the now widely held belief that its origin, shrouded in mystery though it may be, is not to be found in Greece or its colonies, and that the poet, whatever his place and time, may not even have spoken Greek as a first language. Others entertain the notion that the original version, the “ur-Ode” as it were, was composed in another language entirely, and only later translated into Greek.
Because of its fragmentary nature, how or if the “Ode” is related to the more familiar Epinicean Odes of Pindar is impossible to ascertain with anything approaching certainty. While the “Ode” is without a doubt a celebration of athletic excellence, there is no indication of how or when it may have been performed. We cannot say definitively that it was strophic as opposed to stichic, though it seems reasonable, barring future evidence to the contrary, to do so. The presence of a guiding myth and the imparting of a moral message, both central to the work of Pindar, are completely absent from the “Ode” as we have it, which is not to say they would be altogether missing from the complete work.
The English translation below, made by the present editor, is a literal rendering, and in no way attempts to preserve the original meter. The study of Greek prosody is, of course, an ivory tower cottage industry all its own, and while it is an interesting subject in, of, and for itself, it is also, unfortunately, beyond the purview of the present investigation, and indeed the scope of the editor's meager knowledge and understanding of the matter. Suffice to say, the first line is obviously dactylic. The four consecutive long syllables in line two, while troublesome to German philologists of the last century, and used by later scholars as an argument for non-Greek authorship, may be indicative of alternating lines of two and three feet, the second line tending to slow to a trot the gallop of the first. It is also possible that it is the result of loosening metrical restrictions found in poetry being composed in the area, particularly to the south of Amphortektondemos, at the reputed time of the composition of the “Ode” (see Whitman; for evidence of this occurrence farther afield, see the persuasive, if sometimes cryptic, arguments of Dickinson, same volume). Such are the academic wilds through which one may at times wander, lost in a labyrinth of conflicting, though equally well-informed opinions masquerading as established fact.
Though this is neither the time nor the place to expound on the principles of translation, and specifically the translation of poetry, a few remarks would seem to be in order. While this translation attempts to stay true to the literal meaning, there is nonetheless a natural inclination on the part of a translator, oftentimes an erstwhile poet himself, to attempt to make his translations come across as verse. As such, while no attempt is made at metrical conformity, either to the original meter or a substitution of my own choosing or invention, it is hoped that a sense of rhythm has been achieved, one that will impart to the reader at least some hint of that found in the words of this ancient poet, whoever he or she may have been. Here then, presented without further comment, are the words of that poet, followed by my own, admittedly inadequate, translation.
Ode to Odibe
Oh to be Odibe!