Tag: creative writing

“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.”

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.

A Man, a Turtle, a Boy

This little story is significant for a few reasons:

  • no one dies
  • no one is involved in dangerous, compromising, or hideously embarrassing sexual situations…most of which end in someone’s death
  • tragedy–neither of the epic Greek variety or the dark Flannery O’Connor in which the Holy Spirit moves and wreaks destruction in its path–happens.

I suppose all bullet points can be summed up in the first.

The man with the turtle said, “Just give my money back and I’ll be going.”

The boy behind the ticket counter looked as unsure as a new-born shrimp. Shrimplet? He wasn’t sure which, but he knew he looked unsure. And pale. He watched himself enough in the plexi-class reflection to know that. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I’ll have to ask you to keep voice down.” There, he took a chance and was brave. He waited to see what that would net him.

The man with the turtle blinked. The turtle blinked. The whole world blinked at least four or five times before the man said, “I haven’t raised my voice.”

The boy sighed and picked at the scabs on the backs of his hands. “I’ll have to get the manager, and he’ll just tell you the same thing, sir.” So he was back to saying “sir” after giving himself permission to drop it once and for all.

The man placed his box turtle on the ticket counter. The turtle, which seemed ordinary enough at first with brown and pale green squares on his shell, slowly turned his head toward the direction of the boy. The boy suddenly thought he looked like the wisest creature that ever existed. Forget the owl and all its purported wisdom…the turtle–this turtle– was where it was at.

“If I understand you correctly,” said the man, calm as an unruffled lake, “even if a patron leaves fifteen minutes into a show and politely asks for a return on his money because the show was a colossal disappointment, it’s the policy of this theater not to return his money and thereby ensure that said patron will never return?”

The boy knew most kids his age couldn’t follow the man’s words or ride the wave of his cadence toward full understanding. Many adults thought the kid wasn’t very smart because he loved skateboards and strange music and smoke the occasional joint. The boy was incredibly smart. “With all due respect, sir,” he said–meaning it, for what it’s worth–“you brought a turtle into the theater, and that’s not allowed.”

The man looked down at the turtle. “Mr. Chow enjoys the cinema,” he said. “I bring him with me every Friday, and then I take him to my film club as we discuss what we saw and what’s soon coming to the screen. He doesn’t make noise or disturb anyone, I assure you, in either venue.”

“It’s a pet, sir. In our theater. If I bring out the manager, he’ll freak out.”

“I see.”

“You can hide Mr. Chow and I can get him, but like I said, he’s weird about giving money back.” The boy found himself relaxing more and warming up to the man. And Mr. Chow. “He figures that today, you pretty much know what you getting before walking into a movie because trailers give so much away, and TV spots, and stuff like that.”

“That doesn’t change my disappointment in the film,” the man said. “And as a patron, I assumed your establishment valued my business. As I said, Mr. Chow and I come every Friday.”

The boy liked how the man referred to himself as a patron and the theater as an establishment. The man had better manners than anyone who bought tickets from the boy. Genteel. That was the word that described him.

“Okay,” the boy said. He took out his wallet and open the register, breaking a ten and giving the man $7.50. “Here’s your money, sir. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the film, and I hope you and Mr. Chow will continue to be patrons.”

The man looked down at the money. Mr. Chow turned his head, looked at the money, and slowly nodded. The man swept it from the counter and into his hands. “We accept your generosity and would like to buy you coffee some rainy afternoon, for that’s the best time to have coffee with a friend.”

The boy found himself smiling. He didn’t have many friends, and certainly none like the man. Well, he supposed, he did now. “My name’s Alan,” he said.

The man bowed. “My name is Stephen. I believe you’ve met Mr. Chow.”

“Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure still.”

Now it was the man’s turn to smile. They talked until other customers showed up, demanding tickets quickly so they didn’t miss the previews.

Weird Poetry…My Calling Card of Late

A friend popped by my office this morning  and said, “I got your poems” (I emailed him two last night). And then he stared at me and nodded. And kept nodding.

“I don’t know what the nodding means,” I said after a few moments of awkward silence.

“Your style is definitely…unique.”

“Yeah, it’s a little odd,” I said. “Take your time getting back to me. There’s no rush.”

We talked a little more about submitting poetry and about the the book he’s working. After he went off to class, I began thinking about something I read yesterday. The article deals mainly with poetry contests, something I’ve yet to attempt (and may not after reading the article):

Typically there are two types of aesthetics (following the MFA division of poetry into two major camps): the narrative/formally uninventive/epiphany-based confessional or memoiristic short poem, and the experimental/avant-garde/language poetry camp, which takes its inspiration from deconstruction and makes a fetish of the insensibility of ordinary language.

While I think there’s room for blending between the two, I find myself more on the experimental side these days. I’m not avant-garde and I don’t fetishize the insensibility of language–there are poets that do, and they usually make me want to bang my head on a table. My poems lately have just become weird. They have Potato People and the Toothy Teethy Sister. They talk about a couple trapped in a masquerade party that only they’ve attended, and another has a man and woman using rib-spreaders on each other to get to what they assume to be treasure but finding doorways instead into which they disappear.

I have a few narrative/epiphany based poems that I’m proud of, but I’m shying away from that style (and it’s my friend’s style, so I’m curious and a bit worried about what he’ll say). I’m not sure if my poems will find homes in “respectable” print journals; I have quite a few out there, so we’ll see in a few months’ time. As much as I’d like to land a poem or two in a print journal, it’s not my sole motivation. Writing and sharing my work is, and so far, my poems have found homes with new, online journals.

The end of the article is quite encouraging:

O ye oppressed contest-submitters of the MFA world, throw away your shackles and start your own collective with like-minded friends, publish poetry you want to immortalize you, not poetry with the maximum chance of pleasing screeners and judges! Start your own press! If nothing else, write on scrap paper and share it with your wife and dog, but don’t dilute your work to win contests! It doesn’t cost $30,000 to publish a book of poetry. Maybe it doesn’t even cost $3! Just as it doesn’t cost $100,000 to “buy two years of time” to get feedback on your writing in an MFA program–maybe it just costs a library card.

Don’t dilute your work to win contests or to fit what others deem to be appropriate parameters. Just write.

Muse

When it’s time to write, it’s time to write.

Muse

“It’s time to write,” she says, standing in the corner,
smoking the cigarette I can no longer have.
“No, I need to get ready for class, and make some copies–”
“It’s time to write,” she says again. She walks over,
drapes her arm around my shoulders, and sighs.
Her touch is from the grave, but I like it. I always have.

“You’ll hang around for a bit?” I ask, foolishly,
knowing she’ll do whatever she damn well pleases.
She purses her lips and brushes my cheek with a kiss.
“Maybe just for a while. Until you’re warmed up.”
I hear her breathing next to me, feel her radiant cold.
I click over to a blank screen and begin to bleed.

Reggie and Len (a dialogue)

I was scribbling in my journal the other day while with my kids at karate practice, and this is what came out. As I continued writing, I began picturing Bert and Ernie and one of their many conversations at bedtime. You know (or maybe you don’t), the ones where Bert is desperately trying to go or stay asleep, but Ernie has something terribly pressing he must share. By the end of the conversation, Bert is awake and generally pissed off. Here’s one of my favorite examples.

What follows is a riff on Bert and Ernie’s Odd Couple‘s chemistry, though with decidedly fouler language. Reggie begins the dialogue:

My eye hurts.

Man, fuck your eye.

Well, it does.

You want me to punch you in the mouth so you can bitch about that, too?

No.

Alright then. Go to sleep.

I can’t.

[sighing] What?

My eye.

Ah, Jesus.

It really hurts, man. I think I need to go to the doctor.

You don’t need no fuckin’ doctor, man. Go wash it out or get some fuckin’ ice.

When we were little, my brother and I were playing with some neighborhood kids, and this girl–

Did I ask for a bedtime story?

Just listen. So this girl hurls a massive rock at my brother. I mean, out of nowhere. We hadn’t even been arguing with this girl or her friends. And she had damn good aim, too, hit my brother right in his left eye. She ran off after that, and we went home.

What the fuck was the point of that story?

My brother is basically blind in that eye now, like 30 years later. Started out with a detached retina and got worse.

All because some bitch hit him with a rock?

That’s my theory.

Reggie, did someone hit you with a fuckin’ rock today?

No.

Then why–

I worry about my eyes.

Please shut the fuck up and let me sleep.

[a beat]

It might be pink eye.

Are you fucking serious?!

Look, that stuff’s nasty. It’s basically caused by shit in your eye. Like real shit. Fecal matter.

What the Jesus, Reggie? You trying to keep me awake and make me sick?

I’m just worried.

Look, I get it, but you can’t do anything about it, right?

I could go get some ointment.

Then get your ass on a bus and go to the fuckin’ Rite Aid on Lincoln.

I don’t know. I’m kind of tired.

What?!

Yeah. Good night, Len.

The fuck? After all that running your mouth and hyping me up, you’re just gonna–

Shhh. Come on. It’s been a long day.

[Len, wide awake, stares at the ceiling]

Two Twirly Maids

Though the origins of the folksong “Two Twirly Maids” may predate Victorian London, it’s linked in popular culture to the story of, respectively, 14-and 13-year-old Minnie and Margaret Chattoway, who in 1845 were found guilty of murdering Leonard Brewer. The sisters confessed to cutting his throat and attempting to dismember the body, though they ultimately failed at the task and left a gruesome scene for police to discover.

The Chattoway sisters were sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to transportation. In March of 1845, the sister boarded a ship heading to a penal colony in Australia. Once the ship disembarked, the girls managed to escape and were never seen again.

Two twirly maids
cutting off his head,
O, that’s what I saw,
O, that’s what I saw,
O, that’s what I saw today.

Two twirly maids
sawing off his arms,
O, that’s what I saw,
O, that’s what I saw,
O, that’s what I saw today.

Two twirly maids
chopping off his legs,
O, that’s what I saw,
O, that’s what I saw,
O, that’s what I saw today.

Two twirly maids
burying the rest,
O, that’s what I saw,
O, that’s what I saw,
O, that’s what I saw today.