“You Can’t Just Pet My Head and Expect Me to Poop Out Jewels”

I didn’t intend to write this, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I like to think that in an alternative universe, Isaac and Charlie are working on a new album.

“Well, you can’t just pet my head and expect me to poop out jewels,” said Barney Carter, confusing and disgusting the patrons gathered at Stumpy’s Bar. But bass player Isaac “Pinky Man” Ray and guitarist Charlie “Bugaboo” Ramirez perked up, got out their instruments, and launched into a crazy improv number that turned into “Jewel Thief.” The song entered Billboard’s Blues Album chart in the summer of 1996 and climbed to number twenty.

“It was a trip when that song started doing well and getting picked up by radio stations, man,” Ray says. I’m sitting with him and his musical co-conspirator Ramirez after they tore up at stage at Asheville, North Carolina’s Bluesville Festival. “I mean, it wasn’t many stations, but I heard it a few times driving around in my truck. I was like ‘That’s far out.’ I never expected any of our music to reach the masses, let alone that song.”

By the summer of 1996, Ray and Ramirez had been playing for nearly thirty years in the Burnin’ Junk Blues Collective, a huge band with rotating members and only Isaac and Charlie as the only permanent fixtures. At one point, they even convinced Barney Carter to hit the road with them, despite the fact that he played nothing and couldn’t sing.

“Shit, Barney was crazy, that’s why we brought him on the road,” says Ramirez, fingering chords on his bright blue ’67 Telecaster and smiling. “We just wanted him there for the good times, you know? He always brought that with him. He jumped in on a few tracks of our Catfish in Heaven album, just making all kinds of hoots and hollers. We had him do one of his fucked-up spoken word things and we were going to have it as an intro, but decided against it.”

“Yeah, [producer Rick] Arnett was not down with that,” Ray picks up. “He didn’t even want him in the studio, period. Said he stank too much, which was true. Barney wasn’t too keen on baths and he slathered himself with that god-awful Patchouli oil.”

Of the inspiration for “Jewel Thief,” Ramirez says, “Barney was always spouting out shit that didn’t make any sense to anyone else but him. He was pretty fried all the time and drank this foul mushroom tea that sent him somewhere like the 5th dimension or whatever. I just kind of thought the idea of Barney pooping out jewels was funny, and so I came up with the riff real quick, and Isaac began cooking on the bass. We wrote the whole thing in, like, ten minutes.”

Ray laughs and takes a drag on his Marlboro Red. “It’s not like any of our songs are all that complicated or took all that long to write,” he adds. “The longest time we ever spent on songs was when we were making our last album, Shock Proof. Damn, the second track [“When the Cat Bites You, it’s Done Passed Time to Get a Dog] clocks in at eight minutes forty three seconds, but we wrote in under an hour and told the rest of the guys, ‘Do whatever you want to fill in.'”

As for their future, Ray and Ramirez are hopeful but also practical. “We had a modest hit in 1996, and now it’s 2016. I’ve got grand kids older than that song, and you know what? They don’t give a shit about it. They’d just like me to come around more often and take them fishing.”

Ray, who’s been married to his wife Bonnie since 1979 and has four children and seven grand children, feels similarly. “We’ll keep playing festivals like this from time to time,” he says, “but I like hanging out at home. Plus, carpal tunnel’s a bitch. We’re not the Stones, man. If we had that kind of money, maybe we could be. I don’t know.”

I ask about Barney Carter, the man who unwitting inspired a hit song, and both Ray and Ramirez chuckle. “I wish I knew where that bastard was,” Ray says. “I mean, he might be dead, or maybe he got clean and is living in a cabin or some shit. Sounds like something he might do.”

“Your job is to find him and report back to us,” Ramirez instructs me. “You got it? Using your reporting skills or whatever and find Barney Carter.”

“And if you do,” Ray says, “tell that old sonofabitch he needs to come up with another idea for a hit song.”

Experiences Never Tasted (Classic Poem Series #3)

I believe I wrote this in college, though I’m not entirely sure. 

Experiences Never Tasted

The train speeds along
like a black wolf,
howling smoke
to the belly of the sky,

and I look out the window
to see it slice across the land,
thinking that I have never
been clasped in its dark claws.

As it moves farther away,
I pour a cup of shadow
and drink to the evening
and to experiences never tasted.

Fear and Loathing in Twitterland

Since getting sober, I’ve pulled further and further away from social media. It started with checking in less frequently with Facebook, abandoning Instagram (which I rarely used, and never checked it after I posted a picture) and trying Tumblr for all of a day before giving that up (and we won’t mention my brief foray into Pinterest, which just left me feeling weird and somewhat creepy).

And now it comes to Twitter. I’ve tried using Twitter several times and never with any measurable success. By that, I don’t mean a big number of followers; I’m talking about meaningful interactions. I suppose that’s expecting too much from a social media platform. If I get nothing from Twitter, why Tweet?

I suppose I think it’s something I should do as a writer to expand my…I don’t know, circle of like-minded men and women? In the course of Tweeting and reading Tweets, maybe I’ll find a new journal to submit my work to?

I read an interesting article about poets and writers on Twitter, and that started me thinking that maybe it’s worth pursing. I refuse to put Twitter on my phone (same as Facebook and Instagram). My phone, smart though it is, is for calling folks,sending the occasional text to my wife, and playing music. That’s it. So I’ll only Tweet and read feed when I’m at the computer, where the order is: work, email, writing, and then–maybe, if there’s time–things like Twitter.

If the past is any predictor, I’ll be on Twitter for a few days before forgetting about it. In the meantime, if you’re really bored, you can check me out @writing4ghosts.

 

Us (Classic Poem Series #2)

Here’s another one from my grad school days. I remember it not doing well in the workshop. Oh, well. Methinks it’s good.

Us:
you and my foolish sensitiviy.

We seem strange now,
when before we shamed fireworks

by dying to each other so explosively,
never thinking it an unforgivable sin.

What worse than inventing pleasures
when pain is the dominant meter?

I have lost loves, though not enough
to expect such pangs from hunger

that chews, eats, but won’t swallow–
I’d rather be digested than linger.

Experimental Writer?

The writer Lydia Davis, with whom I’ve just become acquainted, said in a 2007 interview with the Boston Globe,

“I haven’t met a so-called experimental writer who likes the term. It must be people who aren’t experimental writers who call people experimental. It’s just the wrong word. ‘Experiment’ carries the suggestion that it may not work. I prefer the idea of being adventurous, exploring forms.”

Davis’ quote keeps ringing in my head and makes me wonder about the fiction I write. Is it experimental? Maybe. Most of my pieces aren’t “finished” in the traditional sense, and most of them flow from brain to fingers to keyboard. I write and then usually I have to go teach, or change the laundry, or make supper, or tend to one of my children. I rarely have hours stretched before me in which I can write. I would love to believe I’d fill that time with writing (now that I’m sober, I have a better shot at that), but I’m not sure if I would. 

I suppose Davis is right when she says that experiment may carry the idea that the piece may not work. Another way of looking at that “not work” is failure, and that’s not something I apply to my writing anymore. I like some pieces better than others, but none of them are failures. The only failure is when I don’t write. 

Shifting gears slightly, a colleague of mine asked recently what I wanted to be when I grow up. My truest answer is a full-time writer. Since I’m only 42, it’s an achievable goal. In the meantime, I’ll continue to teach, write poems…

and “experiment” with pieces like the following.

Dr. Bee and the Nurse

He couldn’t tell if there was going to be an end to the meal this time, but he knew if there wasn’t, his daughter would have something distracting to say about it. He supposed he was programmed for that, so he shouldn’t complain? Right? Like he was a yes-man to everything else in this god-forsaken world, so why not that? Why not when it came to his little deaths, his children? King Lear never had it so bad.

Now, why did he go and say something like that? For one thing, he had sons, not daughters so there was one huge difference between himself and King fucking Lear. There were others, he knew, but he couldn’t remember more than the gist of the play right now. That was happening more and more lately, his inability to recall poems, plot lines, entire plays he used to teach, year after year, to classes of mouth-breathing Philistines who wouldn’t know good literature if it reared up and took a money shot to their balls or wee little pussies, so pristine and good, pure stock from the Puritan passed down and watered through baptisms and Baptist fellowship chicken bakes, where fat fathers stuffed their sweating bodies into ill-made suits and Mamas bathed in cheap perfume because you never knew who was looking or smelling. One couldn’t be too careful, even the Holy Spirit picked up on whiffs of sin, and what better way to mask that than with oie de toilette and bacon fat?

Oh, to be forty again, he thought, moaning a little. Was he asleep or just comfortably reclined? Who the fuck knew? “Comfortably Numb,” his oldest son, Falcon, would say, trying his damnedest to sing. The old man didn’t care for the original, let alone his idiot son’s butchering of the song. Jesus Christ, he was thirsty! And not for water, which is all the headstrong and head-banded nurses, seriously suffering in the art of beside manner and tender ministrations, seemed to bring. What about some whiskey, for God’s sake?! Something with some fucking kick to it, not just water, and for the food! Jello which shook like some red lady’s pock-marked ass, and some kind of torture-gruel that looked unfit for prisoners-of-war.

What was that dream, where I was the hero? What fucking war was that? Korea? Vietnam? The Big One that left Owen in a wheelchair, covered in his own shit half the time until his cross-eyed whore of a wife thought to change him? Jesus, so much suffering, so much pain on this blasted rock, and most of it never documented in pages, just left to rot in the minds of rotting bodies in the rotting ground. None of it matters.

He was sure he was awake now. The lights were brighter, poppier, and noises had the acute taste of metal. A fine meal to satisfy this craving, he told himself, and then he said it aloud, his voice a rusty pipe banged on by a screwdriver.

“Say what, Dr. Bee?” asked the nurse absent-mindedly, hovering somewhere near him, her giant, pillow-like arms able to suffocate him in a snake’s split-second. Oh, he knew! He knew! How could he not know?

“Say what, Dr. Bee?” the nurse asked again, taking a moment to cough up something extreme and hideous, her chest vibrating and nearly exploding with juice, the kind that made the Good Doctor wonder what the hell was next. Some drugs, he dared hope. Anything to take the sting of this pitiful existence away.

Did he have daughters? He did not. “I do not,” he said.

The nurse craned her head, big as a child’s balloon about to pop, toward him. “I gotta change you now,” she said. “Time to get and see if them britches is clean or soiled.”

“If you come near me,” said The Teacher, clear as a newly forged, bronze bell–the kind that’s inscribed with philosophy, its tongue made of some kind of amazing metal that never fades nor loses its ability to coax dulcet tones from its outer shell–the lip, shall we call it?–and therefore, the peals would go on and vibrate into eternity–“I will cut your jugular and watch you bleed like a stuck hog.”

Well…that took care of absolutely nothing. The nurse changed him and out the door she went, muttering curses.

Even in Death, the Ranch Hand Laughs (Classic Poem Series #1)

*chortle* Classic Poem Series…that makes me laugh. It’s true enough to me, though. These are poems I wrote in graduate school, and I’m glad I saved them. I’ve submitted some of these for publication, but as of now, I’m quite happy to post my work here. I hope you enjoy them.

Even in Death, the Ranch Hand Laughs

He was raised on cactus needles
and leather strips,
given only boiling water to drink,
had only rocks for friends.
He learned to tip his hat to no one.

He looked at us with the slightest of grins,
cool on the edges,
as we chewed our grass
and our many stomachs burbled.
He would puff out his match-struck cheeks
and sing as the night yawned into being,
sitting on the fence,
right with the world.

He died with the sunrise,
leaving us to our plaintive lowing.
Even now, we hear him laughing,
chastising us:

you silly moon-fed beasts,
when will you rise from the grass
and understand that you never needed me?
When will you shake the flies from your face?

Here and There

I’m considering doing something a bit different with this poem and perhaps others. I want to record me reading it, add some sound effects, and some music. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I’ll post it on Soundcloud when I finish. Maybe I’ll do the same for some stories I’m working on.

Here and There

Here are the open mouths,
gaping like nightmare fish–
here are the Spanish women,
lost in deft translation,
forgetting the original tongue.

Here are the long-lost vacuum
tubes of black amplifiers left
on my father’s stage the night
he winged in for a one-man
sobbing show that Rolling Stone’s
ghost editor called, “Incomprehensibly
terrible, yet savage in its beauty,”
despite an out-of-tune Fender
and a water-logged microphone.

Here I am, thirty years later,
controlling my anger by remote,
and you are still somewhere
in the immortal ether of music,
drunk on old applause, clinging
to a ratty velvet curtain, vowing
to never let go again.

“Winter” (published poem)

I’m honored to have one of my poems appear in Sweet Tree Review‘s inaugural issue.

Winter

When the snow is hard as brick
and the sun neglects its normal path,
she hides under covers and unthinks
the world, turning ice to water,

reminding the sky what it forgot:

the deep meaning of blue,
not the amnesiac gray
that scrolls like a player piano
sheet across the vaults of heaven.