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Archive for the ‘Creative Writing’ Category

Three Poems by James Hochtritt

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on June 13, 2018 at 6:45 am

James Hochtritt has been a featured reader of his poetry at venues in California and Oklahoma over the years. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Oklahoma and is a full-time professor of history at Rose State College in Midwest City, Oklahoma. He lives and writes in Midwest City.

EXETER, CALIFORNIA

He monitors smudge pots,
Shadows illuminating his face,
Black smoke burning his eyes.
A pungent aroma of citrus mixes
With an acrid blend of chemicals
Whose names he cannot pronounce.
His thoughts drift in and out,
Recollect his youth in Zihuatanejo,
Christmas memories, novenas, orphans,
Focus on the antics of a spotted dog
That ambles beside him.

Looking up at stars he fondles a small cross
On a silver chain around his neck,
Brings it to his lips as a gesture of faith.
Wishes he was back in bed
And the soft breathing of his wife.
Inhaling the bite of the night frost,
He squints at ornaments and candy-colored lights
Strung like a necklace around a house,
Counts three blessings for each of his children.

Disconnected from the earth in December’s dark
He dreams of home and his father.
Prays for those
Who bleed and give birth in the fertile soil of the fields
Among the insects and the furrows.
Hates that he understands
That men like him are necessary,
Harnessed mules, machinery,
Hands that sow what others reap.
The puzzling chasm that lies between
That which is holy and merely human.

VOTIVE

Passer’s by and visitors, strangers, reporters,
Relatives fold paper flowers and mementos
Into the honeycomb of the cyclone fence.
Tie ribbons onto wire, tape poems to poles,
Paste locks of hair onto photographs
Wrapped in angels made of foil.
Morning, noon, and night the vigil evolves
The guilt-ridden who survived, tourists,
The inquisitive and curious,
Weak knees, helplessness, countenance transfixed,
Palms and faces pressed against the barrier,
Introspection above the hole.
Low whispers barely audible,
Prayers to the beloved, Eucharist
For the grieving, comfort for the anguish.
Our penitence an epitaph,
Speechlessness, invocation of the lost,
Liturgy of tears, consecration of rubble.
Without pause, the requiem,
The mournful eulogy continues,
Watery eyes like reflecting pools or grottos,
Blank stares articulating silence,
Inability of the living to sanctify with words
The blasphemy of the aftermath.

HOUSE

Apologies were never enough.
Words flew like sparks from her mouth,
Her arms flapping up and down
Like some apoplectic bird.

Fixed in the cross hairs
Of her cubist eyes,
Her smeared lipstick
Angled her face into a cockeyed shape.
It was advisable to not say a word
But bob and flinch, hunch and cower.
Grit the teeth
Amidst the knickknacks
Swept from their places,
The shattered glass,
Interminable silences
Simmering like steam.
Ride it out the best a child could
Within the confines of the cage,
Until rage flattened to tears
And the claws retracted.

Only then was it safe
To venture a breath,
Feign a posture of guilt
With a downward glance
And tip-toe past the beast
Through the rancor and the ashes,
Escape into the fields
And the kisses of the rain.

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Daniel James Sundahl Reviews Sara Baker’s “The Timekeeper’s Son”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Novels on December 13, 2017 at 6:45 am

Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in American Studies and English at Hillsdale College where he taught for over 32 years.  Prior to retirement, he was Kirk Distinguished Professor in American Studies. He’s relocated from Michigan to South Carolina.

These days one can enroll in creative writing programs with coursework or workshops in narrative medicine, poetic medicine, expressive writing and even medical humanities.

It’s an interesting notion likely connected to “coming of age” stories, “family dynamics” stories, all to be told with within expansive and insightful narratives which apply to all fields of “work” and of course what it means to be human with an examined life. Storytellers, after all, are interpreters in professional and cultural environments.

What would be the point?

Narrative as healthcare can be the point especially since stories help build empathy, mindfulness, and are diagnostic tools.  Imagine for a moment a healthcare professional addressing an illness.  How quick and easy to venture into remote hypotheticals.  How better to address the illness through narrative, the interior experience of deep inquiry, confronting the illness as a story.

I mention this since it seems the way to address a review of Sara Baker’s The Timekeeper’s Son, a novel which asks the reader to recognize, absorb, interpret, and bear witness to a young man’s “difference” and his family’s dysfunction.

Why?

It can be used to explain motivation, even what organizes a novel’s plot or narrative development.

Here’s some context. I once sat with a student attempting something basic—how to use a dictionary.  It was fundamental, alphabet, phonetics, and a dictionary entry.  I gave the young man a word and then handed him the dictionary with the simple request: Look for the word which I had just sounded out.

He was flummoxed and looked at me and said, sweetly, “I don’t know how to use the air conditioner.”  The issue was severe dyslexia.

There’s a kinship between this small narrative and Sara Baker’s novel: In a Georgia small town, Josh Lovejoy, whose aspiration in life is to become a filmmaker, drives home late at night uncharacteristically “high.”  Accidentally he hits a jogger, David Masters, placing him in a coma.  In all likelihood, Josh owns some hidden disabilities, living as he also does in a fragile household.

The incident is shattering, more so because Josh is already estranged from his father, who sees little value in Josh’s aspirations.  The consequence of living with a “distant” father is Josh’s loneliness and lack of self-worth.

He’s adrift at an important moment in his life and culpable for the accident.  He takes up his court-ordered community service while waiting to see if his culpability will change when and if David Masters dies.  Josh works at the Good Shepherd School for Disabled Children.

Baker places the reader, then, in the heart and soul of a troubled young man; the plot, however, is diagnostic, addressing not only the Josh’s “troubles” but the delicate equilibrium of his family and the Masterses’ family.

It’s a “case study,” in other words; Josh’s father is a clockmaker whose sense of things is more devoted to the timepieces he keeps running but with the same disinterestedness he brings to his family life.  His “shop” is the place to which he retreats.  Josh’s mother, on the other hand, is equally preoccupied if not depressive.

In the novel’s time, then, as those hidden disabilities and wounds emerge against the background of the claims and limits of community, Josh faces a certain kind of annihilation which would include the “good” that’s in his heart.

Interview with Cyrus Webb Regarding “Of Bees and Boys”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Creativity, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Southern Literature on November 22, 2017 at 6:45 am

Talking “Of Bees and Boys” on “Writers’ Voices”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Writing on October 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Anton Piatigorsky, Author of “Al-Tounsi”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Criminal Law, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, liberal arts, Literature, Novels, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Writing on October 4, 2017 at 6:45 am

AM: Thanks for discussing your debut novel with me, Anton.  It’s titled Al-Tounsi and involves U.S. Supreme Court justices who are laboring over a case about an Egyptian detainee held on a military base in the Philippines. How did you come up with this premise for a novel? 

AP:  I was interested in the intersection between contemporary legal and political issues and the personal lives of the justices. I was particularly impressed by the ways in which the writ of habeas corpus has been used (and suspended) throughout U.S. history.

The Great Writ is a heroic call to responsibility—a demand made by the judiciary for the executive to live up to its obligations to imprisoned individuals. While it has obvious political and social ramifications, it also has philosophical ones. It encourages moral and psychological reckoning: what are our responsibilities to others?

I was excited about writing a novel where two strains—the political and the personal—overlap and blend. I realized that if I fictionalized the important 2008 Guantanamo Bay case Boumediene vs. Bush—by changing key events, decisions and characters—I could use it as the basis for a novel about the Court that explores all my interests.

Anton Piatigorsky

AM: How did you decide to change directions and write about the law?  Did this case just jump out at you?  Your previous writings address a wide variety of subjects but not, that I can tell, law. 

AP:  I came to the law, strangely enough, through religion. I’ve long been interested in how religion functions, and especially in the ways that secular systems mimic religious ones. When I started reading about American law and the U.S. Supreme Court, I saw those institutions as a part of an Enlightenment era secular religion. From this perspective, law is a system of rituals, codes and writings that helps establish an identity for a community, a set of shared values and beliefs, and a way for people to function within the world. I found that fascinating. It inspired all sorts of questions.

What are the general beliefs about people and the world that lie beneath the American legal system? How are those beliefs enacted in cases, courts, and legal writings? How do they play out in the rituals of the Court?  How do the justices of the Supreme Court —who are, in some ways, high priests of the legal world — reconcile conflicts between their personal beliefs and the foundational beliefs of the legal system they guide?

The fictional stories I wanted to tell about justices’ lives grew out of these general questions. Those questions also led me into an investigation of the main case before them.

AM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book, to me, is the Afterword, which consists of the concurring opinion of the fictional Justice Rodney Sykes.

AP: I have always loved novels of ideas, when a character’s emotional journey overlaps with their complex thoughts and beliefs. Whenever that type of fiction really works — as it does with Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the character’s philosophy or worldview stands alone as a work of non-fiction. And so the novel becomes part fiction, part critical thought. It functions as a critique on ideas that circulate in the real world.

That’s what I hoped to achieve for Justice Rodney Sykes’s formal opinion in the novel’s Afterword. I wanted Rodney to reach a powerful critique of basic tenets of the American legal system. I wanted him to address what our responsibilities are (or aren’t) towards others in the legal system, and the problems with that system’s fundamental faith in individual actors. In his concurrence, Rodney takes an unorthodox and unlikely stance for a Supreme Court Justice, but that’s what makes it a work of fiction. A novel can be the perfect forum to discuss how a real person might come to a radical decision, and how that decision might revolutionize their thoughts and actions.

AM: Who are your favorite living writers?

AP:  I particularly admire J.M. Coetzee and Alice Munro. I think about their works often while I’m writing and editing my own.

Coetzee has written several fantastic “novels of ideas.” Both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello manage to incorporate far-reaching critiques into their larger stories about characters, and they do so while using imaginative formal techniques. I also love Coetzee’s cold and austere style in his less overtly intellectual books. They’re cleanly written, shockingly honest, and endlessly compelling.

Alice Munro—although it’s almost a cliché to praise her at this point—shows remarkable insight into her characters, gradually revealing their motivations, resentments and surprising decisions without ever erasing their fundamental mysteries as people. Her stories are complex formally, but in such a quiet way that I often don’t notice their structures until I’ve read them a few times. Her writing is a great model for how to show characters’ lives and decisions with efficiency and imagination while maintaining mystery.

AM: Do you intend to continue in the novel form in your own writing?

AP:  Absolutely. I would love to write more legal fiction, as well. I’ve spent years learning about the law, but know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many potentially interesting legal stories. I’m also at the early stages of a new novel, which is not explicitly about law, but does feel like an outgrowth of Al-Tounsi in certain ways.

AM: I worked for a state Supreme Court justice for over three years, and I agree: there are many interesting legal stories out there, and I’ve found that facts are often stranger than fiction.

AP:  It must be fascinating to work on the diverse cases that roll through a court. I can only imagine how many potential stories you and other lawyers, judges and court workers can recall—ideas for a million novels and movies and plays.

I think legal stories are particularly exciting for fiction because they distill big questions into concrete human situations and personalities. The giant subjects of guilt and innocence, love and betrayal, responsibilities towards others as opposed to ourselves, community or self-reliance, greed, jealousy and ambition all play out in specific facts and events, in the concrete details of a case. It’s just like in a novel. And since the American legal system is, in my mind, an application of an entire Enlightenment, philosophic worldview, these test cases and stories also pose huge philosophical, ethical and moral questions. It’s no coincidence some of the best novels ever written involve detailed legal plots.

AM:  That reminds me of something Justice Holmes once said: “Law opens a way to philosophy as well as anything else.”  But it sounds as if you and I would go further and say it might open a way better than many other things do.

AP:  Law is like applied philosophy; It puts general ideas to the test in the real world. If a philosophy remains theoretical it never really touches what it means to live it, inside it. The answers theoretical philosophy provides are always tentative.

A huge inspiration for my novel was the work of the late French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. While Levinas’s writing is often arcane and difficult to get through, I find his thinking to be a powerful and searing indictment of basic Enlightenment principles. While I was writing Al-Tounsi, I used Levinas’s insights—directly—to help me construct Justice Sykes’s final concurrence. It was hugely inspiring to find a concrete way to use this philosophy I have long loved. All the questions and problems I was interested in exploring were present in this genuine legal situation, in the constitutional habeas corpus case, Boumediene vs. Bush, on which I based my fictional case of Al-Tounsi vs. Shaw.

So, yes, I completely agree with you and Justice Holmes!

AM:  So glad we had this opportunity to talk.  Let’s do it again.  

 

 

Four Poems by Julia Nunnally Duncan

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on July 26, 2017 at 6:45 am

Julia Nunnally Duncan is an award-winning poet, novelist, short story writer and essay writer who has authored nine books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her works often reflect upon people and events from the past, and she draws inspiration from her Western North Carolina upbringing. She holds an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College and lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

The following poems come from Julia Nunnally Duncan’s latest book, A Part of Me, published by Red Dirt Press.

Note:  Julia Nunnally Duncan will read poetry from her latest book, A Part of Me, at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe in the Poetrio event, 3:00 p.m. on August 6, 2017, Sunday. Address: 55 Hayward Street, Asheville, NC. For more information contact Malaprop’s at: 828-254-6734.

Click here to purchase on Amazon

His Song

He sat at the back of the classroom
during the weeks of our course
and remained quiet,
a student older than the rest.
He put forth his best effort
at grammar exercises and essay writing—
the Composition and Rhetoric assignments
that must have seemed unfair
to a man whose life work would be
to install and repair electrical systems.
Yet he was eager to learn,
occasionally staying after class
to ask if he was on the right track.
And when for his process speech
he came in with a guitar
and pulled up a stool,
I feared it would be hard
for him to speak in front of the group.
But after a few words about how to string
and tune a guitar,
he began to sing a country ballad
with lyrics so romantic and a voice so tender
that I blushed.
When he finished his song,
the class was hushed for a moment
and then burst into applause.
All I could whisper was beautiful
and ask, “Where did you learn to sing that way?”
He didn’t say anything,
and his eyes didn’t meet mine.
His face down, he went quickly to his seat
to reclaim his humble place
at the back of the room.
That was years ago,
and though now I don’t recall his name,
that day and his song
will stay in my memory.

 

December Evening

I was young and a little afraid
of the residents at the nursing home
who sat in the dining hall,
awaiting the Christmas treats my church had brought.
A white-haired lady growled, “I don’t want no cake!”
but devoured a hefty piece and would have eaten more
if not for the staff who feared it would make her sick.
They all ate quickly,
then gathered in the common room
where an upright piano stood beside the decorated tree.
I played Christmas carols and familiar melodies—
“Away in a Manger” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
A man stooped over me and crooned perfect lyrics
while others in their pajamas made up words as they went.
And so we spent time sharing food, and gifts, and song,
my fear of them gone,
that December evening forty years ago.

 

Paul’s Prayers

Often the preacher asked my uncle Paul
to lead us in prayer,
and our Baptist congregation grew still.
But when Paul’s baritone voice filled the sanctuary,
those compelled by the Spirit exclaimed Amen.
Paul proclaimed our gratitude for God’s blessings
and begged protection for our boys in foreign fields,
the Vietnam War having spilled the blood
of some from our community.
Two decades before,
Paul had been a young man
serving in North Africa in another war
that mangled his shoulder with shrapnel.
For weeks he lay in a VA hospital
and then fell back into his dissolute life.
But one day he found salvation
and thus began to pray for himself
and for all the rest of us.
Paul knew how to do it well.

 

President Ulysses S. Grant Three Days Before
Death From Throat Cancer July 20, 1885

Maybe because he was a skilled horseman
or that he loved his wife Julia so dearly
or that his last name was the same
as that of my great-great grandfather Samuel Bruce Grant
who also fought in the Civil War,
though on the opposing side—
maybe these are reasons why
I have looked at Ulysses S. Grant
not as an enemy of my Southern ancestors,
but as possible distant kin.
In the photograph
he sits in a rocking chair
on the front porch of his country home,
and he is surrounded by family.
His shoulders are draped in a shawl,
his face looks pale and gaunt,
and his beard has grown gray;
but his shiny top hat
seems a fashionable affront to the disease
that will soon take him away.
While the young girls in the picture look bored,
the women smile lightly,
as if to add an impression of gaiety to the scene.
But it is in Grant’s face—
his weary expression—
that I glean the truth.

Dysfunction Always Travels

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on April 5, 2017 at 6:45 am

John S. Maguire is a Telecommunications and FM Broadcast consultant living in Oklahoma City. He obtained a degree in English from Texas Christian University and at 53 years old went back to graduate school and obtained a Master in Fine Arts from Oklahoma City University. 

I didn’t sleep much the night before and awoke early to get ready. It was the first day of spring break of my first year in high school and it had been decided long ago that we would, as a family, drive to South Padre Island, Texas, one of the great southwest meccas of spring breakers, young and old. Specifically, everyone in my high school went to “Padre” for spring break. While I had been there before, this would be my first time as a high schooler and thus was particularly noteworthy, based on what was happening to the girls in my class. Their bodies had seemed to get slimmer, their legs got longer and some more important areas of their bodies were growing faster than I could keep track of. Daydreams of these girls and their new bodies shoehorned into tiny bikinis clouded my night and consumed my days as the date of our departure neared. Now that day was finally here and to say I woke up excited is not to fully explain what was going on in my body.

I hadn’t seen my father before I went to bed the night before and made the assumption that he was out drinking and would be slow to get up to pack the Ford Country Squire Wagon for the long 14-hour drive. I was wrong. He was up early, just after me, and when he saw me awake he yelled at me to come help him. I knew what he was calling me for. As with every other trip we had taken by car, I had to gather up all the bags that were packed the night before. I was one of the men in the house and that was what was expected of me.

As I gathered the suitcases, I pondered a question that has been asked since the first time man moved from place to place: Why do women pack so much more than men? I carried one suitcase after another out to the driveway as I saw my father mixing a screwdriver in the kitchen. He knew that it would take me fifteen minutes or so to get all of them out by the car, so he had time for a little hair of the dog. I reported back to him when I had them all ready for the pack and he swallowed the last bit of his drink, smiled and said: “Orange Juice, great way to start the day.” We both laughed as he led me outside to help him get the bags on the roof of the car. I handed each bag up to him as he placed them like puzzle pieces within the confines of the luggage rack. Sober, drunk or hungover, my father took great pride in packing the car. When he had completed packing for some trip or another he would always get down from the roof of the car to admire his work. It was, in fact, amazing that he could fit that much in that small of a space and have it be so well organized. The load on the car could not have been stacked better by the Egyptian pyramid builders.

“Who else could pack a car like that?” he stated proudly.

Next came the ropes.

“Son, go in the garage and get those tie downs,” my father told me.

We would be traveling on the highway and I was sure at speeds much higher than the limit of the law and possibly of the car itself, so the bags needed, no matter how perfectly they were packed, to be tied down.

I was there and back in seconds, wanting the praise of my father, but he was too busy mixing another screwdriver to get him through the tie-down process to come. After a quick chug of his drink he came back out and first tied one end of the rope to the front of the luggage rack and then, with my help, began to loop the rope though the railings from side to side until the rope was at the back end. He looped the rope twice around the back of the rack.

“Let’s leave the tie down loose for now as the girls might have some more to pack,” he said.

More to pack? More to pack? Were we going to tie granny’s rocking chair down so she could sit on the roof on the way to “swimming pools and movie stars”? The car already looked as if we were fleeing the dust bowl, but he was probably right.

He scurried back into the house for his third screwdriver. It was only 7:30 am. I followed him in and went to watch TV, as I knew, from experience, that it would be some time before the family girls would be ready. After about thirty minutes of TV time, I heard the rest of my family stirring and got up in anticipation of finally beginning our fourteen-hour pilgrimage to Padre Island for a week of sun, sand, and bikinis. In reality, it took another thirty minutes to get everything ready and in the car but finally we were driving out of our driveway, on the side roads and eventually onto I-35 toward the border of Oklahoma and Texas.

Once on the highway, my father handed me his prized doctor’s bag that held his whiskey, vodka, mixes, and glasses, asking me to pour him a small Chivas. I had been the “Keeper of the Bag” for a couple of years so I knew exactly what he wanted. A double shot of Chivas Regal scotch. He was ready to cover some ground and needed to get primed. I poured the drink and handed it up to him just as he accelerated far beyond the legal speed limit, finally feeling like himself again after the long night before.

First hour. First Scotch. At this pace it would not only be a long day, but night as well. I wasn’t concerned about our safety, as I had been mixing drinks for a while and had always arrived home safely. I assumed that he would not need a drink for a while so I dozed off to sleep, hoping that would make me stop thinking about the buxom bodies that would be wearing bikinis. Other than packing the car and mixing drinks, all I could think about was bikinis. It was hard to sit still in the cramped wagon, particularly as I had to shift positions regularly.

About an hour later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something fly by the back window. I focused on what it was as it slid down the highway and finally came into view. It was a suitcase moving as fast north as we were south. In fact, it looked familiar.

“It couldn’t be,” I thought.

It was.

It was one of my mother’s suitcases and the cars behind us were dodging it as if they were playing some weird game of bumper cars. The last car didn’t quite make its swerve fast enough and clipped the suitcase, causing it to open—well, more correctly, to explode, as clothes flew through the air. Some of my mother’s clothes landed on that car’s windshield and blocked the view of its driver for a moment. I saw him reach out his driver’s window, grab the clothes and pull them inside.

I was panicked. Should I say something or act as if I were asleep? In our family, “kill the messenger” was a sport and I didn’t want to be sacrificed. I quickly put my head down and pretended to sleep. Safety first, I decided. Unfortunately, I hadn’t closed my eyes longer than ten seconds when I heard a loud squeal from my part of the car. I guessed that my sister had seen the bag, so I acted as though I were just then waking up and asked her what was going on.

“All of our bags are falling off the roof!” she screamed.

I looked back and feigned surprise as I saw bag after bag fly off the roof and onto the highway. Some exploded on contact; others were hit by oncoming cars and exploded. Clothes of every sort formed a huge cloud on the highway. As my father looked in the rear view mirror he spilled his drink.

“Son of a bitch!” he screamed more at his crotch being covered in scotch than at the luggage flying off the roof. “What in the fuck is going on?” I continued to stare as each bag hit the highway. I was sure this would be the cause of a huge pile up, but the cars successfully negotiated the flying debris with little trouble.

When my father finally pulled over to the side of the road to assess the situation my mother was screaming, crying and shouting.

“My clothes are all over the side of the road!” she shouted, between her sobs and screams.

Somewhere, somehow, my father was always able to tune my mother out, that is until he wasn’t able to and then took matters into his own hands, literally. My father got out of the car, looked down the highway to see the bags and looked up at the roof of the car to see a tie-down rope flying loosely in the wind.

“God damn it, John!” he screamed. “You didn’t tie the rope tight enough and it came loose.” At that moment everyone stared at me. If they could produce fire from their eyes I would have been incinerated. My brain went into overtime as I searched my memory for what had happened when we were packing the luggage on the car. Then it came to me. My father had not tied the rope off since he didn’t know if everything was packed yet. Happy that I had figured it out and it wasn’t my fault, I hadn’t considered that my father didn’t want it to be his fault either. I jumped out of the car to explain.

“Dad, remember when we were packing and you just looped the rope around the back rack to see if there was anything else that needed to go on the roof?” I asked.

“What? Don’t blame this on me, you son of a bitch,” he said as his left hand drew back, came forward, and hit me in the face. I fell on the ground as my cheek stung as though it had been burned in the sun for hours. I had become numb to the strikes but this time I wasn’t at fault. I knew I was right, but to go on would mean that this would get worse. I was so angry but couldn’t express it. All this emotion had to get out somehow so I started crying. That is how I dealt with my anger from that moment on. My father seemed to never hit me when I cried and it didn’t take me long to figure out the pattern.

“Now you get started down the highway picking up all the clothes you can find and bring them here. I’ll get the suitcases back to the car so you can repack everything,” he said. “Stop crying and get up and get moving.”

I got up slowly and started walking down the shoulder of the highway as cars whooshed by me at breakneck speed, some drivers honking and laughing as they saw the clothes and the suitcases. This was going to be embarrassing since I had to retrieve clothes belonging to my older and younger sister, as well as my mother. I was right to be concerned. The first piece of clothing I approached was one of my mother’s bras. I stared at it for a moment and wasn’t really sure how I felt about it. I knew then that this would be the first bra that I touched. Why did it have to be my mother’s? I grabbed it dutifully and went to the next. It seemed as though I were a magnet for undergarments; I soon had a handful of bras, panties and assorted underthings. I started back to the car with my first load and as I got close enough to the car for my sisters to see what I was carrying, they both screamed, ran at me, knocking me down and grabbing their panties and bras, leaving me with only my mother’s undergarments to place in the suitcase. If I wasn’t humiliated by then I certainly was now. I turned quickly to go back for more and saw that both sisters were on their way down the highway to get their own clothes so as not to risk my seeing their unmentionables. Fine with me. I would stick to the clothes and leave the rest for them.

As I arrived with my second load consisting mostly of my and my father’s clothes, I noticed my father sitting in the front seat of the wagon, car started and air conditioner on. He was pouring a drink, and I was pissed. All of this was his fault and yet I had to take the blame, risk my life on the shoulder of the highway and pick up clothes. I stared at him for a minute and then realized that I didn’t want another backhand so I turned to retrieve more clothes. After a couple of hours or so, and two drinks, we had finished collecting the clothes that could be found and had packed them back into their suitcases. My father stumbled out of the air-conditioned car, onto the hood, and up to the roof. I handed him up the bags and when I finished he tied them off.

“Get away from here, boy. You fucked it up last time. I’ll do it right this time,” he said just loud enough for everyone to hear. “Go sit in the car with the girls.” I did as I was told and wedged myself into the back vinyl seat. It was midday and getting hot so the vinyl had heated up and burned as I sat. My father got back in the car, mixed another drink on his own, not allowing me to mix it for him, put the car in drive, and we were on the road again. I lay my head down, pissed that I was blamed for something I didn’t do and tried with everything I had to remember the bikinis I had imagined on the beach and in the hotels and, well, just about everywhere, but all that kept coming to mind was the sight of my mom’s bra and me carrying it up the highway.

 

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Paul Goldstein About His Latest Novel, “Legal Asylum”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Law, Law School, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Teaching, The Academy, Writing on March 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Paul Goldstein is an expert on intellectual property law and the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of an influential four-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law and a one-volume treatise on international property. He has also authored ten books including five novels. Some of his other works include Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, a widely acclaimed book on the history and future of copyright, and Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business. Havana Requiem, his third novel, won the 2013 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Paul Goldstein

Paul Goldstein

AM:  Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What has been your colleagues’ reaction to this satire? 

PG:  My colleagues are, by and large, a sturdy and good-natured lot, and most of the reactions I’ve received have been very positive. Several have told me that they actually found themselves laughing out loud while reading the book. Still, there are a couple of colleagues who I know have read the book, but who seem curiously silent, and avoid my glance in the hallways. Who knows what they’re thinking!

AM:  Were you afraid your colleagues might push back against the novel, seeing themselves in the characters?  

PG:  I decided at the outset not to make Legal Asylum a roman a clef—a genre that I find cowardly and mean-spirited, and that I put in the same category as practical jokes. At the same time, there are certainly recognizable types of legal academics in the book, and it’s been a good deal of fun talking with colleagues about which group they put themselves in—Poets, Quants or Bog Dwellers.

AM:  In an interview with Jon Malysiak, the director of Ankerwycke Books, you stated that you’d spent 50 years thinking about the absurd and eccentric features of legal education. What are some of these?

PG:  One absurdity of course is the grim-faced crusade of law school deans to secure for their institutions a higher and still higher slot in the US News law school rankings, or at least not to slip from their present perch. That’s the question that drives the story: Can a law school make it into the US News Top Five and lose its ABA accreditation, all in the same year? Another absurdity highlighted in Legal Asylum is that, where in other university departments academic advancement, including tenure, turns on publication in peer-reviewed journals, American law schools commit the credentialing function to second-year law students who run the law reviews.

AM:  Your book is funny.  Why is humor a powerful mode of critique?

PG:  I’m glad you found the book funny! As to why humor is such a powerful mode of critique, it is because, for humor to work, it has to surprise the reader. Wait…she said that! He did what! And it’s that surprise, that unexpected twist, that turns the reader’s angle of view a fraction of a degree—or if it’s a belly laugh, maybe a full degree—so that the subject of the lampoon suddenly appears in a different light. To discover, for example, that the emperor is wearing no clothes, is not only funny, but it’s also a powerful critique of a certain kind of political leader.

AM:  You’ve called your protagonist, Dean Elspeth Flowers, a hero.  Why?

PG:  For a literary hero to be at all interesting, she or he needs to be flawed—the deeper the flaw the better—because it is only character defects like pride, willfulness and grandiosity that will get the hero in trouble, and without trouble, what kind of story do you have? Several readers of Legal Asylum have told me how shocked they were to discover that, by the end of the book, they were truly rooting for Elspeth.

AM:  Is there anything good about the obsession with law-school rankings and the so-called “arms race” between law schools?

PG:  I’m sure there are some beneficiaries of the law school rankings game. The companies that publish all those glossy brochures touting law school achievements to prospective respondents in the US News polls certainly come out ahead. So do the airlines that fly admitted students to the law schools that are recruiting them like prized football prospects. And of course there’s US News itself, for which rankings must be a rare profit center in a bleak economic landscape for news media.

AM:  It’s interesting that the American Bar Association doesn’t dodge satire in the book, yet the ABA—or a division of it—published the book.

PG:  I have a wonderful and brave editor at Ankerwycke, and he didn’t once bat an eye at the parts of the story that poke fun at the A.B.A accreditation process.

AM:  Did you ever consider writing about lower-ranked law schools, or did you, a Stanford law professor, write from the perspective you knew—from a top-ranked law school?  I’m thinking now of Charlotte Law School and the troubles it’s been facing in light of the Department of Education’s decision to revoke federal funding there. It seems to me that law professors and administrators at these schools, who are in crisis mode, may not be in the mood for humor about legal education. 

PG:  My first law teaching job was at a state law school and, although this was long before the rankings game got underway, I can say that, like countless other schools today—state and private—that haven’t made it into the top tiers, it was preparing its students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? I expect that there are, and that has nothing to do with the US News hierarchy. But other schools have a legitimate grievance against rankings that pretend that their fine-grained hierarchical distinctions convey any useful information.

AM:  Why the noun “asylum” in the title of the book?  It’s provocative and suggestive.

PG:  I like book titles that are at once evocative and descriptive. It’s hard to beat Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, for example.  There is of course an asylum for the criminally insane that figures in the plot of Legal Asylum, but the book’s title also aims to evoke the sheltered craziness that passes for legal education at the state law school where the story takes place.

AM:  Thanks again for the interview.  Any closing comments about how readers can find your work?

PG:  It was a pleasure. Readers can buy the book at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Shop ABA.

Five Poems by Selma Mann

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on December 21, 2016 at 6:45 am

selma-mann

Selma Mann’s first book of poetry, Mourning Cloak, was published in 2013. She has poems forthcoming in Conclave, Red Dirt Forum and elsewhere. Her second book, Whimsical Warrior, will be released in spring 2017. An attorney by trade, her practice areas include land use and ethics. She reinvented herself as a poet in 2011 following a devastating series of losses. She resides in Newport Beach, California.

 

Alumna

I visited the large firm
where, as a fledging attorney,
I felt mercilessly forced
into the shape of a litigator,
a mold alien to my spirit.
I suspect my muse
miraculously maintained
my core,
guarding it,
until I could transform
to the person within,
urging me to seize
grief and enchantment,
as she patiently imparted
the language of the spirit,
enabling the alchemy
that translates my life
to poems.

 

Once upon a time

During my life as an attorney,
particularly as an ill-suited litigator,
which is not a sartorial comment,
I was repeatedly encouraged
to consider possibilities,
specters of catastrophic expectations,
labeling it risk assessment.
My outlook dwelled, quite comfortably,
in a community of like-minded colleagues and friends.
The process got a start in law school,
Socratic method sharpening analysis,
substituting questioning for assumptions,
even as it inexorably set aside my spirit,
any suggestion of miracles and magic.
Objective was to prepare for the bar exam,
tortuous final test,
orgy of ceremonial competition,
feeding frenzy of memory, analysis,
exhaustion and fear.

I innocently believed spending my day
pondering imaginary outcomes
didn’t leave a permanent imprint on my soul,
until my soulmate died.
Vulnerable and bereft, I surrendered to grief.
Fear insinuated itself among my thoughts
painstakingly disguising itself as logic and prudence
constricting me until I could hear only its hiss,
proclaiming omnipresence and reality,
as it barricaded connection and light,
assailed by visions of my own illness and mortality,
or, far worse, of those I love,
oppressed by weight of a future alone.

I wallowed in that tiny cell,
my world grew smaller,
until my muse illuminated a path
away from outcomes and the past,
grounded in the moment,
the journey within.
A floodgate of other memories poured over me
allowing my spirit to heal,
recalling life once upon a time,
when I was gifted with the magic of a soulmate.
The astounding privilege of raising two daughters,
time communing with second graders
teaching them to read, spell and compute,
even as they demonstrated more important lessons,
mastery over joy,
living in the present,
uncanny abilities to share their lives fully,
though our time together was defined to end,
nourishing my muse to survive her hibernation.

 

Moving on

It’s almost eight years
since the nightmare night
I came upon your lifeless body.
I’ve lived a separate lifetime
since that time,
changes building upon each other,
I learn to say “no”
to unwanted relationships,
swallowing guilt
for hurt feelings,
reluctant, against my will,
turn away from my career
as an attorney,
tripping over a calling as a poet,
unexpected passion in my path,
publishing a book,
seeing my poem/children fly
in lives of their own.
I notice men noticing me,
reminding myself that I get to choose,
suddenly aware of loneliness
lurking in my solitude,
feeling disloyal to you,
as possibilities of companionship
bring equal measures
of excitement
and disquiet.

 

Domesticated Monarchs

During my prior attorney-life,
I would not have believed,
however briefly,
in a domesticated butterfly.
Yet a magical Monarch
emerged from its chrysalis
as Donovan and I
watched, whispering,
inches away.
We carried the planter
to the garden,
on a mission of liberation,
but she remained in place
for several days,
undisturbed by our proximity,
as we hovered over her,
hoping she could fly.
The Monarch didn’t leave
until the anniversary
of the day my Love and I
were wed.
Little wonder I feel
a profound connection
to butterflies.
From time to time,
a Monarch in the garden
gracefully flutters to eye level
and remains, unperturbed,
as I stand transfixed,
within arms’ reach.
Could this be a descendant,
of the magical Monarch,
basking in my love and admiration,
feeling secure
in the safety of my garden,
predisposed to trust?

 

Arlington

Lives cut short
by war,
defending freedom
others’ greed for power,
gratitude mixed with tears
anger
sadness,
prayers for peace
echo,
whispers of wisdom
among leaves,
perfect order
blanketing chaos.

Review of “The Final Days of Great American Shopping,” by Gilbert Allen

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Short Story, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, Writing on November 30, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

With so many journals and genres available today, the dependable reviewer has a duty to warn off the noble optimists and advise the faint-hearted when a book is not for them.  Obligation thus requires that I caution readers:  Gilbert Allen’s The Final Days of Great American Shopping, a collection of short stories, is intelligent, nuanced, poignant, and distressing—and hence not for everyone.

If you’ve read more than one Nicholas Sparks novel this year, this book isn’t for you.  If you think Oprah is a guardian of culture, this book isn’t for you.  If you believe Fox News and CNN are edifying, this book isn’t for you.  If you think David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, and Sidney Blumenthal are men of letters, this book isn’t for you.  If you prefer Dr. Phil to Jung and Freud, this book isn’t for you.  If Joel Osteen inspires you in a way that Augustine and Aquinas cannot, this book isn’t for you.  If, in fact, any of the aforesaid are true of your case, you might just be the unwitting target of Allen’s satire.

Having dispensed with the stereotypes and requisite preamble, I own that this is, in some respects, a personal review.  Allen was my professor at Furman University and a man I continue to admire.  He cannot be blamed for the way I turned out, and certainly not for my politics.  But he is partially responsible for my love of poetry and aesthetics.

Allen, I recall, loved cats, as well as his isolated, sylvan home in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, which is far from his native Long Island, both culturally and geographically.  His spoken diction was always precise, as was the pencil-thin mustache that grayed above his lips.  Tall and skinny, with belts so long they could’ve wrapped around him twice, he spoke softly and carried a big pen.

He commits poems to memory.  I once heard him recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” to the tune of La cumparsita, a curious performance he allegedly repeats using other poems and tangos.  Ancient or modern, free verse or rhyming, short or long, poetry is his lifework, calling, and passion.  So, I suspect, he suffers, as honorable poets are wont to do.  His suffering will surely escalate as he decides how to mass-market this latest book—his first one in prose—that’s critical of mass-marketing.

The book depicts a self-indulgent American suburbia starved for money and materialism, where people try to purchase happiness and other forms of fleeting satisfaction while fixated on their own or others’ sexuality.  These 16 stories, told in chronological order from the recent past to the immediate future—and, at last, to the year 2084—are not directly about sex.  Yet sexual anxieties, appetites, and insecurities bear a subterranean, causative relationship to the acquisitive urge and cupidity that complicate many of the characters in Allen’s dystopian community, Belladonna, a gated subdivision in South Carolina, probably near Greenville.

Allen’s opening story is a complex portrait of loving and loathing, and the fine line between the two.  A childless couple, Butler and Marjory Breedlove, still in their early 40s, struggle to remain compatible as they degenerate into a life of stultifying domesticity, having suffered through three miscarriages and the abortion of an anencephalic child.  Butler is an insurance salesman and a beer-drinking baseball fan who will pull for an aging veteran against his own beloved Atlanta Braves.  Marjory, the silent, brooding type, obsesses over her luxuriant, blooming flowers, the fecundity and fertility of which contrast with her own barrenness.

Butler, as if to compensate for a sense of emasculation occasioned by his inability to sire offspring, sets out to install storm windows one Saturday morning while Marjory is off visiting her mother.  If Marjory cannot be gratified through sexual activity, he presumably reasons, then she’ll derive pleasure from his dutiful, manly labor.  A client has told him that storm windows are “easier than a second honeymoon” because they require just nine “screws,” so there’s little doubt that Butler’s chore is substitutionary: it fulfills the need for virile exertion that, we may assume, is not met through copulation.

The problem is, Butler procrastinates and leaves the windows leaning over Marjory’s flowers for too long.  Any boy who’s used a magnifying glass to burn ants would’ve known not to do this, but not Butler.  He doesn’t consider what might happen to Marjory’s flowers as he sets aside the windows to pursue booze and television.  He does, however, manage to complete the window installation.  When Marjory returns, he proudly reveals his handwork, announcing, “I did it myself.”

He’s not fully aware of what it is until Marjory, ignoring the windows, says, “My flowers.”  She stares at her garden as if peering into an “open grave.”  The florae that were adjuncts for her lost children, that were little leafy lives she had created and sustained, are now dead.  She can’t bear the loss.  Tragedy compels her to mourn on a closet floor in her nightgown.  It’s an intolerable image—her sitting there, grieved and defeated—that captures the sad inability of two people to live out their most primitive desires.

The seemingly banal agonies in this story of strained marriage are subtly and quizzically meaningful.  What is the significance, for instance, of Marjory’s decision to serve up a scrumptious breakfast for Butler while she munches on blackened toast?  Such a small gesture, but so gravely significant.

With moments like these, impressively numerous in such a short, short story, Allen achieves, I think, the right amount of ambiguity: neither Butler nor Marjory is the “bad guy,” and both seem thwarted from intimacy and happiness by forces beyond their control yet caused by their own deliberate action.  They mean well, mostly, but they’re the same poles on a magnet, destined, it seems, to repel one another.  Even their surname—Breedlove—raises interpretive puzzles, since breeding and loving seem foreign to their relationship.  Whether it’s their childlessness or an accumulation of small disappointments that causes their desperation and despair remains unclear.

Perhaps they recognize, as most of us do at some point, that they’ll never become the people their younger selves wanted to be—and that this, whatever this may be, is all there is.  Youthful aspiration is bound to become dashed hope, and once we’ve made ourselves what we are, there’s no unmaking us.

John Beegle, the protagonist of the following story who happens to have purchased health insurance from Butler Breedlove—each story is delicately linked—faces a different problem, or problems: a growing estrangement from his wife and the incapability to connect with his teenaged daughters, one of whom has grown increasingly flirtatious in proportion to her budding breasts.  John likes “to understand things, piece by piece,” but he can’t make sense of the females in his family.  They move so fast, and he so slowly.

This all changes when he discovers, in the garage of his new house, an “autogyro,” or small helicopter, circa 1961.  This antique machine remains operational, and the more John works on it, the more his daughters take to him.  He even revives his libido, surprising his wife with a “midday tryst.”  The restoration of the helicopter refurbishes his own spirits, and he eventually takes the perilous contraption for a ride, rising high into the air until he can “see everything.”  Like Frost’s wistful narrator who imagines himself climbing a birch tree up toward heaven only to be set back down again, John, hovering in the sky, “begins to dream of his landing, of his own house.”  He thinks of his family and his return to the ground.  Earth is, indeed, the right place for love.

The book is full of characters like these: the widowed Priscilla Knobloch with her twelve-year-old, one-handed daughter; Ted Dickey, whose numerous speed-dating partners represent different social ailments from materialism to decadence; the unnamed hick hair stylist who likes to rear-end Porsches (just a “love tap”) and talk about blow jobs; a thrift store worker and his wife, the menopausal Meredith, who start a non-profit corporation for religious “bedding”; Jorja Sorenson, a painter, and her husband, Houston, who collaborate on the sculpture of a fetus that draws the attention of none other than Marjorie Breedlove; and on and on.

Through these hapless, heedless figures and their goods, interests, and acquisitions—television, cars, homes, designer shoes—certain symptoms of our national condition are projected: greed, consumerism, profligacy, extravagance, melancholy.  It’s not overstating to say that, with these stories, Allen has tapped into our national consciousness and disorder.  The quintessential American, restless and without a past, energetic and democratic, his works and beliefs at once enterprising and derivative—that iconic, preeminently rugged and relatable laborer—has, in our imagination, transitioned from self-reliant and industrious, always ready to “simply, simplify,” to dark and pitiful, burdened by the wealth and joy that forever elude him.

Although Americans once envisioned a vast frontier of possibility, an unknown and ever-widening expanse of hope and promise, imbuing optimism and idealism wherever we went, we now, sketchy and insecure, stumble along looking for opportunities that don’t exist, endeavoring to remain perpetually young and verdant, as if gray hair weren’t a crown of glory and splendor.  We want what we can’t have and have what we don’t want.

Once we were Franklins and Jeffersons, Emersons and Whitmans; today we’re Willy Lomans.  Or Cher Horowitzes.  Or Gordon Gekkos.  Without guilt we can’t identify with Reverend Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne.  Without abstinence, we can’t appreciate the allure of Rappacini’s daughter.  As coddled, perpetual children, we don’t get Ishmael and Ahab, Frederick Douglass, or Jay Gatsby.  We’re so phony that we don’t understand Holden Caulfield anymore.

So Allen has done us a great service.  By mocking us and portraying our ominously recognizable and quotidian depravities, he’s exposed the warring desires to which we’ve fallen prey: extravagance and simplicity, envy and indifference, aspiration and defeat, conformity and revolt.  He’s a spokesman for the disenchanted and disillusioned, for those who still possess the poetic vision about which Emerson intoned.   He sees a double consciousness, a conflict of the mind, that drags us into woeful insipidity and angst.  If reading his book isn’t like looking reluctantly and masochistically into the mirror, or less figuratively into your own split psyche, then you’re delusional or dishonest, or perhaps—just perhaps—the rare exception.

These stories are harsh, biting, titillating, disparaging, and sarcastic, but they’re also funny.  Allen derides us, and perhaps himself, with humor.  He’s a sensitive man, and very quiet.  Who knew that, beneath his silent façade, there was a hilarious personality?

I did.  Because his poetry reveals that about him.

His first collection of poetry, In Everything, was spiritual and serious, a sort of Buddhist mystical meditation on Nature and Being.  As time went on, he eased up and relaxed.  He moved from the intensity of numinous experience to the comic realities of everyday life.

It’s not that his writing became lighthearted, upbeat, or shallow.  It remained pensive and complex and open to rigorous interpretation, sometimes even cosmic in scope.  Yet there was something more playful and satirical about it.  He came to enjoy social criticism as much as he enjoyed, say, the splendor of sentience and the complexities of the mind and soul.

This tendency towards the witty and quirky, as I have suggested, finds expression in The Final Days of Great American Shopping.  It’s evident in a pick-up line: “Would you like to go on a corporate retreat next month?  As my tax deduction?”  It materializes in unsuspecting places such as the urinal, where a man talks on his cell phone as he pisses.  It even surfaces in the epithet “Confederate Flaggots,” which implies a phallic fascination with flag poles that’s endemic among men “who dress up in nineteenth-century costumes to do unspeakable things to one another in public parks.”

But not every attempt at humor is successful: the narrator of the story “Friends with Porsches” speaks like a redneck, but not a real redneck—just a forced caricature whose colloquialisms and ungrammatical syntax aren’t quite believable as actual speech.

Allen’s sardonic, unpretentious fiction renders a society that’s abandoned the “errand into the wilderness”—as Perry Miller so aptly labeled the once powerful theme of American experience—for the errand into the shopping mall.  Although some of the technology that appears in his stories is already dated—most of the stories were first published before iPhones and iPads made the Internet and email a ubiquitous, hand-held phenomenon—one senses in their representation a renewed and profane scrutiny that’s both subversive and daring.

Are we in the final days of American shopping, as Allen suggests?  If so, is that an apocryphal singularity, the secular equivalent to the eschaton?

Maybe.  Shopping, for Allen, is, after all, much more than merely examining and evaluating retail merchandise with an eye toward a trivial purchase.  It’s systemic and magnificent, a fluid cultural sickness with no immediate cure.  Alike in severity to those idolatrous practices which demand prophetic ministry, it signals a coming destruction that necessitates oracular warning.  Shopping has become the lord and king of us all.

As for the other events of shopping’s reign, those which don’t appear in Allen’s book, are they not written in the records of the Internet, the annotations of our technology, and the annals of our digital media?  Allen buries shopping with its ancestors.  And he buries us, and our endless wants, with it.

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