An Errant Conduit: Exchanges with Adam Golaski

WTMIn upcoming months, a conversation will be available between Adam Golaski and I—an exercise (which has been structured as an interview) that began in the autumn of 2017, one in which I was reluctant to conclude late last winter (the publication venue will be announced in due time).

About a year ago, Scott Dwyer (steadfast champion of the horror genre and editorial superintendent of the “nightmarish and…nebulous” site The Plutonian) had achieved breathing perverse life into his publicational labor of love, Phantasm/Chimera:  An Anthology of Strange and Troubling Dreams, for which he had a specific vision, fulfilling a specific vision for creating a project with a singular roster of writers.

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In addition to writers, Dwyer’s “cast” included writers who I’d previously established contact via reader-writer interactions on social media, namely Jon Padgett, John Claude Smith, Matt Bartlett, and Chris Slatsky.  Still, there were others whose paths I’d not crossed but who’d inked impressive reputations in the weird-fiction, dark fantasy, and horror communities—among them, Thana Niveau (From Hell to Eternity); Brian Evenson (A Collapse of Horses); Mike Allen (Unseaming); Jason Wyckoff (Black Horse and Other Strange Stories); Livia Llewellyn (Furnace); and Adam Golaski (Worse Than Myself).

In the following weeks, I’d read some commentary Golaski had made about Dwyer’s P/C project on his Little Stories blog, and I initiated what would be a rather humorous and insightful correspondence.

One of the things I admire most about Golaski’s work is his practice of utilizing what might be judged as discarded (or neglected) “ingredients” or premises which lend themselves to story-arc fecundity.  Golaski has the knack of taking a segment of all of our ostensibly mundane situations, and augmenting them into something brilliantly discordant.  I am reminded, in that way, of some of the Dadaist aesthetics, and in others in the specimens of surrealists, with how he executes his craft.

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One compelling parallel when describing Golaski’s inventive, non-conformist verve is from his story “The Animal Aspect of Her Movement” (Worse Than Myself, 2008).  In its opening sequence, the behind-the-wheel narrator—mentally magnetized to vehicle whose occupant is the source of a tepid obsession—alters his course to pursue a little red car; but Golaski deftly weaves his reader into a different lane all together.  With a seamless, anachronistic shift into the past, the narrator watches the girl (the object of perceptive fixation), after briefly exiting the vehicle and surveying a roadside overlook:

[she] returned to her car, shut the door, turned on the ignition, drove through the guard rail, and over the edge of the cliff. / I followed.  With deliberation, I backed up and drove my car through the gap she’d made in the guardrail, across a few yards of crumbling dirt, over, down.  I caught a glimpse of the picnickers, a delightfully absurd sight, as my stomach laughed its way up my throat to my brain.  My car hit the dirt, nose-first.  The river loud, a short distance from my shattered windshield.

And then, following the jarring crash, an understatement of normality:  “I was later coming home than expected.”

We, his audience, are repeatedly—sometimes subtly coaxed, sometimes viciously hauled—drawn across boundaries and reeled over cliffs of convention.  Often unorthodox, Golaski perpetuates his avant-garde undertakings while maintaining a resonate accessibility and an admirably dark weirdness (I defy you to read the final, uneasy paragraphs of “A String of Lights” without some sort of vertiginous, dread-induced shudder.)

In the wake of those occasional, conversational salvos, I’ve been, in this past year, reminded about the importance of this discipline—something which, in my mind, resembles a rickety, Temple-of-Doom rope-bridge conduit between writer and reader, and how an errant, conversational salvo can lead to genuine discovery.  It just reinforces one of the more rewarding aspects of this exercise:  that—though at times daunting and fraught with what might appear to be self-defeating futility—this thing works.

There’s recognition, resonance (think of Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth”—the trinity of fabrication, imagination, and stylization); and though it’s never necessary to reach out to other writers to converse about their work, our age (sometimes) makes it more feasible.  Conversely, the same platforms present myriad mirrors which can threaten to poison our private progress.  (Years ago, it seems, Golaksi was smart enough to preserve some distance between himself and social media, and he’s been fidelis about sustaining that phantomic fingerprint—yet another aspect about his ethos I’ll praise here.)

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If you haven’t familiarized yourself with Adam Golaski’s brilliant stories, essays, and poetry, remedy the misstep quickly.  If you’re fortunate enough to find them, snag a copy or two of the Golaski-edited nɘw gɘnrɘ, which feature haunting, oppressively well-crafted short stories (stories by Stephen Graham Jones, Jennifer Claus, Eric Schaller, and John Robins are found in previous installments of nɘw gɘnrɘ—in particular, a clever tale by Jaime Corbacho, “Honeymoon,” makes me want to be a better writer); and keep an eye peeled for some difficult-to-find stories in the back issues of David Longhorn’s Supernatural Tales.

Finally, it was welcome news last year (not once, but twice) to have discovered that my stories would share the table-of-contents for a pair of publications with Golaski; you can read his unsettling story, “The Wind, The Dust,” in the (aforementioned) Phantasm/Chimera:  An Anthology of Strange and Troubling Dreams.  2017 also afforded a Golaski story in the pages of C.M. Muller’s superb, annual undertaking Nightscript, the third volume containing the pleasantly distressing story, “The Beasts Are Sleep.”  Most recently, Golaski has an essay featured in the Bennington Review (update:  read his essay, “On David Lynch’s Revenge of the Jedi,” here).  Beyond that, here are some other projects to add to your homework:

Worse Than Myself (2008)

Color Plates (2010)

Oh One Arrow (2007)

A Sing Economy (2008)

Personally, one of the compartments of innate validation comes in the form of candidly sharing tales of toil:  against the clock, against failure, in finding time to suture-together “things” in the face of daily obligations—the Artful-Dodger methods we, as writers, exploit in order to “make” time.  The cynosure of being published is, of course, a criterion of progress and a benchmark for industry acclimation, but our courses require channels of calibration, criticism, and conversation.  Accolades roll in ebbs and neaps, but the integrity of our intrinsic endeavors endure.  “Some kind of supernatural thing,” Golaski writes in one of his stories, “that thing that occasionally [makes] lonely moments profound.”

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For Bourdain: A Cult of Pain

Eight years ago, wanting to represent both my editor and the publication itself with some decorum, I’d slipped on a trendy-looking sport coat over a white dress shirt; and though I’d been told it would be a formal gathering, I wagered a pair of beat-up jeans would also be in order.

My daughter was born precisely a week earlier, and (aside from executing the requisite errands involved with having a newborn in the house) I hadn’t been absent for a significant amount of time. I recall feeling a touch of hesitation for leaving my wife and infant for several hours—this elicited from a sense of self-indulgence, but the truth was I had a job to do.

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Southside Times: September, 2010

I had a recreational gig writing a weekly cooking column for a local paper (this was before transitioning to full freelance). About a week before my daughter was born, I received an e-mail from my editor asking if I’d be interested in press credentials to an event promoting the annual Spirit and Place festival; and being a suitable fit for that particular year’s theme, “Food for Thought,” the Indiana Humanities Council was sponsoring “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert.” I considered it for a sliver of a second, responded, and immediately began preparing my questions.

Outwardly, as I entered Clowes Memorial Hall, I attempted to compose myself with the focused air of a “journalist,” but internally I was tempering a glee which comes from the anticipation of being in close proximity to a craftsperson of significant standing in a community’s trade—the self-instilled sobriety which comes in knowing a narrow opportunity is approaching to engage in a cogent conversation of some personal relevance and cultural substance.

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Southside Times: October, 2010

Though user-friendly and expedient, it would be too mundane, too simplistic to employ the term “celebrity.” But it would also be inaccurate to apply that nomenclature to Anthony Bourdain.

And though I certainly have them, I’m reticent to use the term “hero” in many of my written musings. The word makes me wince. No: I reserve that qualifier for those who have—in both figurative and corporeal ways at certain points along the timeline—saved my life. Besides, there’s a self-conscious whiff of the sycophant in such subscription—a casualness which (intended or not) at best rings fawningly, at worst parasitic.

But I’m not writing with the intent to cruelly or smugly split descriptive hairs. A hero, an inspiration, a mentor, a coach. Whatever. This is about being fundamentally affected, and it eclipses the ornamentation of being a cursory “fan.”

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On the morning of Friday June 8, 2018, I started writing a few minutes after hearing of Anthony Bourdain’s death (content-wise, these paragraphs have undergone some line-edit surgical grafts in the interim). As shocking as it was to hear about a figure—a voice—being instantly depleted from future conversations, it was not as shocking as the cause of death: Bourdain’s elected method that continues to unsettle me, and insinuates disheartening, philosophical implications.

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Pen in hand, the first thoughts I scattered onto my scuffed-up mental cutting board were of Chicago. Eighteen years ago.

Released in August of 2000, Kitchen Confidential was Bourdain’s “breakout” endeavor which smoothly sluiced him into the current of mainstream pop-culture. With the subtitle, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the book was part memoir, part comedic-acerbic account of the industry’s often unsavory trenches. I arrived in Chicago a month later, and the book was equally pervasive in both presence and conversation. It appealed to the industry’s codified patois and irreverent sensibilities. (The companionable memoir made it easier to adjust to my new, overwhelming home in Chicago, and offered some much needed guidance.)

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Credit:  Robert DiScalfani

But there’s a tangible duality in the book’s personality and contemplations: a Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of lecture in which the author (not unlike a culinary coach worth their salt) simultaneously encourages and warns the reader and, ideally, a would-be culinarian. Toward the end of book, in the chapter, “So You Really Want to Be a Chef?,” Bourdain submits fourteen “suggestions” to the initiate:

  1. Be fully committed
  2. Learn Spanish
  3. Don’t steal
  4. Always be on time
  5. Never make excuses or blame others
  6. Never call in sick
  7. Lazy, sloppy and slow are bad
  8. Be prepare to witness variety of human folly an injustice
  9. Assume the worst
  10. Try not to lie
  11. Avoid restaurants where the owner’s name is over the door
  12. Think about that résumé
  13. Read
  14. Have a sense of humor about things

Like Bourdain himself, Kitchen Confidential (as well as the sequel-esque collections: The Nasty Bits and Medium Raw) was inclusive, part of its mainstream charm; but as it appealed to me in my early-twenties, and as I attempted to apply it to that formative phase of my life, it was a series of lessons and anecdotes which reinforced an endeavor to which I’d been committed (advertently, for the most part) since I was eighteen. It was in these unsavory trenches that I’d learned an ethos which I applied to the rest of my life. And I mean, think about it: with a tweak to number eleven—and with the obvious, verisimilitude-related questionability of number ten—those fourteen, aforementioned “rules” have been applied to myriad aspects of my approach to creative writing.

And so, practicing this exercise of writing, I have discovered (as I reluctantly reflect on his death and riptide of death itself) an element that profoundly unsettles me.

“I’ll be right here. Until they drag me off the line. I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. / But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

And then, in a merciless, knife-like manipulation, there’s this: “Songs from some other time…will always mean something to somebody present, but maybe you had to be there. / You look each other with the intense camaraderie of people who’ve suffered together and think…“We did well tonight. We will go home proud.” His summary: “There are nods and half-smiles. A sigh. Maybe even a groan of relief. / Once again. We survived. We did well. / We’re still here.”

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Credit:  Robert DiScalfani

Placing an emotional forefinger on it the best I can, I think, more than anything, I’m mystified and pissed—pissed that he quit before the end of (what I wanted to be) his shift.

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Yet, in other ways, perhaps clues (if you read close) existed all along. “Though I’ve spent half my life watching people,” writes Bourdain, “guiding them, trying to anticipate their moods, motivations and actions, running from them, manipulating and being manipulated by them, they remain a mystery to me. People confuse me.”

Bourdain was candid and unapologetic about the way he’d lived and the positions to which he’d adhered. Another way to put it: he was refreshingly (if not viciously) honest for an age and culture (read: for a spectator-based dining room) immersed in assembling a cosmetic, media-friendly image. “Though far more successful and famous, Emeril [Lagasse] projects a public image completely devoid of greed, vanity, lust, or ambition,” wrote Bourdain wrote in The Nasty Bits, “sins to be found in obvious abundance all over Rocco [DiSpirito]’s more handsome but need-riddled face.” Bourdain punctuates this point: “It may not be all about the food in the harsh, unforgiving business of celebrity chefdom, but it is still about cooking, about the pleasures of the table. Those who forget that, even the prodigiously talented, do so at their own peril.”

And though Bourdain had (well over a decade before) transitioned from the gastronomic gauntlet, there were references along the way that some of the most attractive aspects of kitchen culture, and the lessons they furnish, contain profoundly dark alcoves, the shadows harmonizing with some of our darker, inner antechambers. If not kept in check, these shadows linger and threaten to unexpectedly assert themselves. (I think, too, of the bewildering suicide of Homaro Cantu, who discovered in his own restaurant in the spring of 2015.) From Melville’s poem Clarel: “Degrees we know, unknown in days before; The light is greater, hence the shadow more.”

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In foodservice, and in the modern culinary craft itself, hope and dismality are twined in a complicated arrangement. The truth is the industry is inclusive, and initially accepts anyone—as long as you’re willing to abide by the required vagaries of those tacit contracts. Still in my late teens, and having appraised the mercurial nature of the industry, I was sensitive to consequences when it came to the notion of a culinary career. I relished, for a time, the lifestyle; but I was also cautious, as I’d bore (and would continue to bear) witness to the hapless demise of my culinary colleagues. In short, if one remains unaware, the manipulative machinations of the industry will overrun your endurance, extinguish the light of your ambition.

Bourdain, in his essay, “Is Celebrity Killing the Great Chefs?,” explains, “Cooking professionally is hard. It ravages the mind and body. Hard-core purist foodies may gripe that a chef is not ‘keeping it real,’ but I invite them to try working a busy sauté station six long shifts a week on forty-five-year-old legs. Chefs who are still doing that beyond fifty don’t look forward to living much longer.”

A self-acknowledged former drug-addict—and professed, former fuck-up—Bourdain vouched for our craft, hauling it out of those behind-the-scenes trenches, elevating thankless work into something presentable and palatable for “civilians.” In The Nasty Bits, he offers, “The restaurant business, after all, is the greatest business in the world. Cooking is noble toil. And fun. No supermodel or television producer is ever going to say anything more interesting than my line cooks and sous-chefs.”

Bourdain helped us navigate the avarice of the cooking industry. The Spoils System (pun intended) is very much alive, and Bourdain’s ethos and articulated commentary offered and alternative view of the preconceived concept of a menial foodservice worker. “There is no deception more hypocritical, more nauseating, more willfully self-deluding than the industry-approved image of ‘the chef.’” For guys like me in my late-teens and early-twenties who did not fit in to (nor was accepted by) conventional career paths, Bourdain demonstrated that the craft of cooking could be much more cerebral than assumed by the vox populi.

Bourdain became an applauded celebrity, his voice and views gaining cross-cultural recognition and respect; his kitchen-commentary, lessons, and anecdotes essentially relaying and reshaping concepts familiar to a common cook, reinforcing things were already. And because he was a storyteller, he knew how to encourage, how to help us cope; he offered a lamplight for those in the “back of the house,” in the shadows.

“Cooking is, and always has been, a cult of pain,” he writes. “The people in our dining rooms are different from us. We are the other thing—and we like it like that.”

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As much as it’s bothered me since hearing the news, the details, it’s not really about death.

In my nascent days chasing dead-end pursuits, due to my artistic tastes and ostensibly darker sensibilities when it comes to my attraction to the mediums of fiction and film, I used to receive casual criticisms that I over-focused on death. It’s nothing I took personal. I understand the misguided assumption; but what I’ve learned in my creative endeavors—namely writing and culinary arts—that many of my compulsions were braided not with death, but rather impermanence.

I realized a few years ago that what, in part, galvanized my writing was my desire to create a legacy in ink: that my life could be revealed—that my life could be an identifiable endeavor.

I attempt to teach my students that creating a plate of food is a privilege, and if done properly, we can tell a story on that blank-slate surface; but as much care and skill we put onto that plate, we are required to part with it—the craft compels us to practice, incorporate, and become fluent, all for the sake of a stranger. Out of chaos, something cogent is assembled, all to disappear in a dimly-lit dining room. The privilege part comes when someone, sometimes a stranger, asks us to do it again. To recreate a cherished experience.

In 2007, I received the gift of a book from my father: My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals / Portraits, Interviews, and Recipes. I treasure that book, mostly because it reminds me of him, but also for the tutelage it offers. Some of the stories are surprisingly comical, others understandably morose.

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Bourdain is present on the roster of chefs and wrote the introduction. Reading it the first time, there was a lantern-flicker of remembrance in something Hemingway once said, that the best, early training for a writer was an unhappy childhood. Considering the circumstances, that reminder of Hemingway is no comfort now.

[W]hen we ask ourselves and each other the question, what—if strapped to a chair, facing a fatal surge of electricity—would we want to as the last taste of life, we seem to crave reminders of simpler, harder times. A crust of bread and butter. A duck confited in a broken home. Poor-people food. The food of the impoverished but (only in the abstract) the relatively carefree. When we think of what we would eat last, we revert from the loud, type A, obsessive, dominating control freaks we’ve become back to the children we once were. Not that all of us were happy children, but we were children just the same. If cooking professionally is about control—about manipulating the people, the ingredients, and the strange, physical forces of the kitchen universe to do one’s bidding; always anticipating, always preparing, always dominating one’s environment—then eating well is about submission. About letting go.

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I have more ingredients in my mental larder than I did eight years ago. My existential kitchen better supplied with nourishing provisions. But I’ve had coaches. And even if I’d never vocalized the simpering need for guidance, there were (and are) those who’ve acted as course-correctors, inadvertent tutors who’ve altered the avenues of my self-destructive tendencies and demonstrated how to enrich one’s existence. I’ve been a bystander, a spectator, but Bourdain was one of my central mentors.

Bourdain offered some final, girdering sentiments for me in his introduction to Appetites. “I became a father at fifty years of age. That’s late, I know. But for me, it was just right. At no point previously had I been old enough, settled enough, or mature enough for this, the biggest and most important of jobs: the love and care of another human being.” There’s more:

From the second I saw my daughter’s head corkscrewing out of the womb, I began making some major changes in my life. I was no longer the star of my own movie—or any movie. From that point on, it was all about the girl. Like most people who write books or appear on television, who think that anyone would or should care about their story, I am a monster of self-regard. Fatherhood has been an enormous relief, as I am now genetically, instinctively compelled to care about someone other than myself. I like being a father. No, I love being a father. Everything about it.

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Eight years ago, I arrived home from that Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert and shared jittery anecdotes with my wife. My wife listened, allowed me to tell my story. I watched as she fed our infant daughter, who now eagerly, inquisitively cooks alongside me in the kitchen.

Hours earlier, in the media room where the journalists were allowed to interact with the chefs, both Bourdain and Ripert were gracious—there were no real surprises: they were disarming and engaged precisely as they appeared in their various pop-culture platforms. There was no bullshit. It was—for viewers and spectators who witnessed his celebrity-ascension—a fundamental appeal.

Time was limited in that pre-show session with the other stringers and the chefs. I didn’t get to ask all the questions I wanted, but I was allowed plenty. Enough, after all, is as good as a feast.

“Knot the Noose”

tarpeian rock

Augustyn Mirys

I’ve a new short (and I mean short) story up at DM du Jour, a deliciously insolent blogpost adjuvant to the Danse Macabre flagship.  “Knot the Noose” is a B-side of sorts to “Fiending Apophenia,” which appeared in Scott Dwyer’s 2017 project, Phantasm/Chimera.

burden of existence (1934)

“Burden of Existence,” Stefan Zechowski (1934)

From their site: “DM’s contributors range from previously unpublished newcomers to accomplished professional writers, editors, scholars, and musicians, too. They write from both their hearts and around the world, from the South Side of Chicago to South Africa.”

I’d like to submit a specific nudge of thanks to Jim Powell, who, as global rover, helped provide some (much-needed) insight into potential locales for this this sordid short.  (Unflinchingly factual:  the Dos Equis ad-mascot, “Most Interesting Man in the World,” is largely based on Powell’s exploits over the decades.)  Though I owe him much, I won’t embarrass the man with anecdotes on how much his mentoring has meant to my writing (read: academic discipline), though will say he produces not only a guiding gesture from time to time, but continues to assemble impressive short stories which can be found in our literary ether.  When time allows, get acquainted with him via some of his recent work:

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“Knot the Noose” clocks in just under 2,000 words.  I tend to pen long drafts (with second-passes substantially eclipsing the initial word-length—surpassing, then, the initial idea(s) while layering and unfurling the resultant narratives; I begin keenly reeling things in after that, contracting the scope into something tangible).  One of the most difficult aspects was pruning-back some of the interesting anecdotes tied to the indigenous, sacred strains of Jamaican Landraces.

Intuitively, flash-fiction prose and free-verse poetry have more in common with each other in that Spartan intersection of intention and words; and if I had to dabble in one, it’d be the latter.  Still, this was an enjoyable challenge to see what some shrewd whittling could produce.  You can find the story here:  https://dmdujour.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/clint-smith-knot-the-noose/

Lux’s Liminal Illumination

lux shotIn February, 2017, the poet Thomas Lux died of lung cancer at his home in Atlanta, Georgia.  I was unaware of his passing until months later when I snagged on his name in an “In Memoriam” section of a magazine.  The sneaky-swift riptides of shock and shame curled in under my midsection—shock:  the confrontation of another’s non-existence; and shame:  possessing an innate ignorance despite claiming an acquired awareness.  At the conclusion of 2017, now finally typing in its successor, it is that intersection of simple sadness and horizon-scanning curiosity that I’m assessing.

It’s certainly not hero-worship, though I would count Lux as one of my fundamental mentors.  And it eclipses belly-bitching melancholy.  There exists a group of influential individuals who’ve not cleaved to the social-media precincts which have seduced so many (indicting myself here, too) over the past decade and some change, and I find myself scrambling to keep pace with the creative rhythms which provided so much (wince, if you must) galvanic inspiration.lux cradle

My corporeal clock ticked-over to forty this past year, and in exercises which aim to strike a balance between conducive reflection and solipsistic introspection, I ruminate on the late poet Lux and what his work did for me.  “A poet may not be a hero,” wrote Stephen Dobyns, “but I can think of many who have been heroic, since certainly it is heroic to put the ego in jeopardy.”

My first encounter with Lux—one of his poems, rather—came during a rather unforgiving winter in 2004.  After returning from Chicago, I’d taken to the notion of completing a bachelor’s degree (which had been simmering on departmental and bursar back-burners for a number of years), hewing toward the disciplines of my newfound preoccupation with creative writing.  I’d been privately penning some rather painful free-verse; and it wasn’t until I’d tapped-in to the frequencies of Thomas Lux (and for that matter, the works of Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic, Tomas Tranströmer, Kumin) that my amateur endeavors began to gain some modulation.


“Snake Lake,” Thomas Lux

My friends, I hope you will not swim here:
this lake isn’t named for what it lacks.
This is not just another vacant scare.
They’re in there—knotted, cruel, and thick

with poison, some of them. Others bite
you just for fun—they love that curve
along the white soft side of your foot,
or your lower calf, or to pierce the nerves

with their needles behind your knees.
Just born, the babies bite you all the same.
They don’t care how big you are—please
do not swim here. There is no shame

in avoiding what will kill you: cool pleasure
of this water. Do not even dip your toes
in, because they’ll hurt you, or worse,
carry you away on their backs­—no,

not in homage, but to bite you as you sink.
Do not, my friends, swim here: I like you
living: this is what I believe, what I think.
Do not swim here—lest the many turn to few.

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street clocksIn the summer of 2004, a number of coincidences which were punctuated by an unlikely tag-along invitation to accompany an MFA-student-acquaintance to Warren Wilson College outside Asheville, North Carolina (where they were finalizing said degree).  As it happened, Thomas Lux was an instructor at the time.  To recount my happenstance meeting and its ensuing discussion with him would dilute the point:  that, in my neophyte enterprises, I’d been appraising the triangulation of symbolic abstraction, manifest fulfillment, and the ossified insulation of the real—a contextual balance of emotion, intellectuality, physicality.


“A Little Tooth,” Thomas Lux

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all

over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,

your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.

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Like Lux’s poems, there were companionable comforts which sustained me in 2017.  Not the least of which being the actual friendships I’ve gained and maintained over the past few years—friendships which are less the result of ephemeral popularity, but the actual twofold transmission of ink and image.  Along with some ancillary notes on the progression of publication, here are some mediums which provided more than a little contentment.


Aural Accompaniment:

I had some ferocious companions this past year; and though some of the albums are a few years old, they provided an infusion of vibrant acidic-electricity, making the mundane vagaries of our typical day-to-day more tolerable.  Here’s what I’ve got:

logic

  • Power Trip: Nightmare Logic (2017)
  • River Black: River Black (2017)
  • Scour: Scour (2017)
  • Vektor: Terminal Redux (2016)
  • Iron Reagan: Crossover Ministry (2017)
  • Crimeny: Peat (1994)
  • Bolt Thrower: Mercenary (1998)
  • Magna Carta Cartel: The Demon King (2017)
  • Night Demon:  Darkness Remains (2017)
  • I: Between Two Worlds (2006)
  • Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (1976)
  • Immortal: Damned in Black (2000)
  • Immolation:  Atonement (2017)

Judge Read:

Just like some of my writing exercises, I find myself with a similar confession about reading:  I don’t do it as much as I used to or need to.  Still:  here’s a portion of what I was able to get under my belt:

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  • His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet
  • Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie
  • From A People of Strange Language, Christopher Slatsky
  • Palladium at Night, Christopher Slatsky
  • The Secret of Ventriloquism, by Jon Padgett
  • Worse Than Myself, Adam Golaski
  • With a Voice that is Often Still Confused But is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer, by J.R. Hamantaschen
  • The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
  • Stoner, John Williams
  • Phantasm/Chimera, edited by Scott Dwyer (which included my story, “Fiending Apophenia”)
  • Sweet land Stories, E.L. Docotrow
  • Nightscript, Vol. III, edited by CM Muller (which included my story, “The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein”)
  • The Bottoms, Joe Landsdale
  • Mrs. God, Peter Straub

Ocular Edification:

Because free time is spare and a rare commodity during the week, I’m tallying serial vehicles as well.

  • They Look Like People (2015)sdt
  • Super Dark Times (2017)
  • Absentia (2011)
  • A Dark Song (2016)
  • Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
  • The Invitation (2015)
  • Hush (2016)
  • Stranger Things 2 (2017)
  • It (2017)
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

 

 

 

Aesthetics of the Spine

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It was frigid, slate-skied, while afternoon gusts—droning through alleyway corridors like lips over the top of an icy bottle—drove snow into curved coves along lifeless sidewalks.  And though the weather itself may not isolate a specific calendar segment for the city of Chicago, I’ll go ahead and tell you this was February, 2001.

Block-by-block, brownstone-by-brownstone, for months I’d enjoyed getting to know the city and its outlying neighborhoods, and found an excuse to formulate scouting missions whenever I could.  On this particular day, I’d gone exploring again, forgoing the warm nest of my modest apartment in Uptown and layering-up, shrugging into my peacoat as I headed out on foot to the south and west for a (cheap) place to get a haircut.  I’d wound up down on Fullerton, settling for a spot that seemed comfortable, competent, and wouldn’t wither my frail stack of cash.

With the haircut over with (read:  no longer a shaggy savage), I headed back east, face pinched against the wind, thinking about school, thinking about the books I was reading—the books I wanted to read.  I was also thinking about how a person becomes a writer—how they practice…how they obtain affirmation that they’re on the right track.  Is the skill ingrained, developed?  Bit of both?  In all aspects of the things I aspired to be at the time, I was rather rough around the edges (we have some people trying to verify this, but I believe I still am), young in age, unseasoned in both academics and in undertaking genuine endeavors.

The previous November, I’d devoured a paperback copy of Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night.  (That novel continues to be one of my top-treasured reads—partly for sentimentality, I admit it.  Part of it was simple character identification:  I knew the wonder and uncertainty of Simmons’s eleven-year-old composites; and it was the first time that I remember reading, leaning against the window of a Greyhound bus (my favorite mode of transportation when visiting Indy), looking up from the paperback and peering out at the legendarily macabre Wolf Lake, and thinking:  How can I do this?  How does a person pull off this trick?)  At the time, and as an obsessive byproduct of my newfound absorption, I used my free time (some evenings, but mostly Saturday and Sunday mornings) wandering the aisles of used bookshops, seeking out any hardcover editions by the authors I wanted most to emulate (Simmons, Matheson, Bradbury, King, F. Paul Wilson).  I had indeed discovered a pair of signed, hardcover first-editions of Summer of Night (one at Bill’s on Belmont, another up in Evanston); alas, the appended price tags were, for my meager budget, out-of-bounds.

Hands shoved deep in my pockets, I was stalking down thesidewalk on the northside of Fullerton, nearing the L depot, when, passing by the Lincoln Park library branch.  I veered off the sidewalk, off-handedly grateful that, while browsing, I could temporarily knock-off the chill.  I’d had not, at that time, yet applied for a library card, so the books would be for browsing only, and, of course, nothing “for keeps.”

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Meeting Dan Simmons:  summer, 2005

 

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Almost immediately I spotted a cart parked askew near the entrance.  Curious, and knowing this to be a cart containing discard books with a cheap price tag, I appraised the cart, but only for a second or two before freezing.  Amazingly, there it was:  the black spine containing the white-lettered title—the cover, I’d memorized from months of pining.  It was, of course, a hardcover specimen—if only slightly battered—of Summer of Night.  With the cost of $3, and with five cold singles in my wallet, the price (as one lauded author once put) was right.

This one would be mine to keep.

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I understand it smacks of smugness, but before signing on to the ambience of Facebook back in 2014, the public library—my public library branch, to be precise—was an environment which not only served as a simple source of comfort, but was a locale of private indulgence.  (Make no mistake:  the ye olde F-book has provided, and will surely continue to provide, connectivity and camaraderie to a community and an audience that would otherwise go neglected.  I’d be missing out on a lot, in other words.  And for that, hell:  I’m grateful.  I also understand that expecting total extrication is just as unrealistic, and perhaps mentally unsteady, as the type of disconnection on which I’m commenting.)  But the library provided yet another, perhaps more profound purpose.

Before slipping off the synthetic shore and wading into the (more often than not) brackish stream of social media, I used alternate (perhaps even considered antiquated) mediums to measure my progress as a writer.

Facebook is, of course, a sort of virtual scrapbook.  (I was visiting with a childhood friend, one who’d endured each level of school with me, from elementary to secondary.  Our conversation drifted into the To-Be or Not-To-Be of participating in our twenty-year class reunion.  We ultimately agreed:  What would there be to talk about?  I mean, the revelation of almost every small-talk chatting point could be obtained via Facebook—career…spouse…ex-spouses…exotic vacations.  The consensus:  prior to reified organisms like Facebook, ritualized events like reunions may have been sincere, but they are bygone as our personal relationships have been whittled to a select few while we revel in our thousands of “friends.”)  In other ways, Facebook is a bathroom wall where just about anything goes.  Some of it’s ugly.  Some of it’s harmlessly inane.  Some of it’s fucking hilarious.

But I have, in these past two years, come to understand the contortive effects of such an insulated environment.  To put another way, social media—as its personality is wont to do—alters awareness, subjectively contorting and gently rending the scope of reality.  From the “friends” you make to the publishers to which you submit, the virtual realm possesses the capacity to warp how we approach our craft.  This is not a novel observation, and each emergent technology has instigated these sorts of suspicions; but having been slightly seduced by the ease of its connectivity, I am still attempting to come to some sort of rapprochement with the platform.

In the January / February, 2016 issue of Poets & Writers, Frank Bures contemplates the dilemma of self-promotion vis-a-vis social-media platforms.  “It can feel like a crushing weight, like social media has become a giant pyramid scheme in which we are all selling some idea of ourselves, even as we struggle to believe our own marketing” (94).  Bures goes on to examine where the intersection of the “self” and the “work,” asking, “Does the brand encompass both?” (94).

Fortifying the discussion, Bures cites psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990):  “When not preoccupied with ourselves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are.  Loss of self-consciousness can lead to transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.”

The library was (is) a cynosure as I “felt” my way through the formative stages of apprenticeship, possessing guidance which had a palpable gravitational pull.  And even as that apprenticeship continues to makes its tectonic, sometimes imperceptible shifts, the library continues to reveal clues about its role in my life.  Mainly, it’s a sobering reminder of my smallness and how much work (if I’m as serious about the craft as I claim) I have yet to do.

In his essay, “A Defense of the Book,” William Gass is infinitely more adept at framing what I’m attempting so say:

The aim of the library is a simple one, to unite writing with its reading . . . yes, a simple stream, but a wide one when trying to cross.  The library must satisfy the curiosity of the curious, offer to stuff students with facts, provide a place for the lonely, where they may enjoy the companionship and warmth of the word.  It is supposed to supply handbooks for the handy, novels for the insomniacs, scholarship for the scholarly, and make available works of literature, written for no one in particular, to those individuals they will eventually haunt so successfully, these readers, in self-defense, will bring them finally to life.  More important than any of these traditional things, I think, is the environment of books the library puts visitors in, and the opportunity for discovery that open stacks make possible.

Though a dull observation, a book is a simultaneously simplistic and convoluted device:  a companionable chimera of, among other things, entertainment, tutelage, and time-bound tradition.  And while much of this is owed to the stories themselves and how they’ve wainscoted the curving corridors of my life, still there’s indelible residue associated with cover artwork, with the elementary innocence in learning of a place called Loch Ness—of the scaly, snake-necked thing which subsists beneath the black-glass surface.

Even as I wrote that last line, I felt a low-level thrill (what I’ve come to privately coin as an “Echoshiver”) at the mere memory of the era I first encountered some of my favorite books (think about those deliciously lurid covers from the late 70s and early 80s—those ghastly, Pocket Book, TOR, and Signet tableaus which still, for me, elicit gut-centered giddiness).

It’s Pavlovian at this point, something akin to mental-murmur-litany:  when I enter my library, I call up that line from Updike, which encourages me to hang my head a little lower—to think about that cluelessly ardent kid on the Greyhound bus.  “When I write,” says Updike, “I aim in my mind not toward New York but a vague spot a little east of Kansas.  I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.  The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”

It is a place to visit old comrades from childhood—The Cay…The Wishgiver…the aquiline outline of Sherlock Holmes…The House of Dies Drear—before moving on to check-in on more nascent though earnest influences:   Straub, Mark Frost, Shirley Jackson, Isaac Babel, Carver, Hawthorne, William Gay, Nathanael West, Leiber, Charles L. Grant—companions whom I’ve never had the compulsion to send a “friend” request.

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A few days ago, I had to part ways with, and return to the library, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol.  I happened to be accompanied by a travel partner—my five-year-old daughter.

Our stomping-grounds library location is the Franklin Road branch.  (Notable digression:  the Franklin Road branch resides on acreage which had, for a slim period in the nineteenth century, been allotted land for the town of Gallaudet, which then shifted north and became New Bethel, now Wanamaker.)  It has, over the past three years or so, become a sort of ritual with us:  she enjoys dropping the returns through the check-in slot before angling off toward the kids’ section, each time I whisper (still adhering to that accustomed social more), “I’ll be right there…don’t leave without me.”  She typically provides acknowledgment with a reciprocal whisper, at least  a thumbs-up, though I am already mentally shaping (read:  steeling myself for) the day when Dad is a public anchor—that she’ll want to fly solo on these literary trips.

Unlike the behavioral adjustments and compromises we employ in order to adapt these to these protean shifts in technology and communication, the library is a place in which wonder can be renewed.  Where modest awe has a chance for restoration.  Where we can ponder the fragility of affirmation.

We walked in together, unlatching hands as the automatic doors opened.

Before checking out, we came to the consensus that she was old enough for her own library card; so what was originally a somewhat compulsive jaunt turned into a literarily monumental occasion.  We were laughing, my daughter tamping a small squeal just beneath her breath, puffing up with pint-size pride at her “big girl” acquisition.  Not then—holding her hand as we walked across the lobby—but now something has snuck up on me from Vonnegut’s narrator in the earlypart of Slaughterhouse-Five:  “I asked myself about the present:  how wide it was, how deep it was, how much of it was mine to keep.”

And there is one more significant anecdote about this trip.

Rounding the corner by the front desk, I happened to notice the discard cart filled with for-sale hardcovers.

Again it was the aesthetics of the spine that caught my eye.

Back in the spring of 2012, after years of engaging in a prolonged, three-pronged campaign of 1) aggressive accumulation of my own composition; 2) reevaluation / excavation of delinquent sketches and neglected stories; and 3) continued study of authors (contemporary, established) whose style I intended to, if not in some way emulate, simply learn from.  Incredibly, in one case I’d discovered that many of them—namely Norman Partridge, Cailtlín Kiernan, William Browning Spencer, and Joe Hill—had contributed tales to an anthology titled Subterranean:  Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 (Subterranean Press, 2011).  Alas, while much had changed since that winter of 2001, my bookshop allowance had not; and, eyeing a price tag of $150, I found myself unable to acquire a personal copy.  So, I settled for the next best thing:  I placed a hold at the library.

discardFor months I toted that gorgeous thing around, devouring it upon first reading before renewing it, dissecting the sections that most impressed me before renewing again…and again.  Then, the inevitable:  Some (perhaps) similarly-spirited soul placed their own hold on the volume, and thus my grip slipped from it.

Over four years had passed between the time I possessed and studied that book and where I currently stood:  slack-jawed in front of yet another discard cart.  I pulled the copy of SubterreaneanBut this couldn’t be exactly the same copy…could it?—and ran my palm over the cover, scoured the pages.  Now, the price of $3 was well within my wallet-bound wheelhouse.

My daughter asked what it was, and I proceeded to provide a condensed version of what I’ve shared with you in the preceding paragraphs.  And just as I was marveling over the coincidence of happening upon a book I adored—flipping through the pages—I froze as a plank of paper fell from the interior, landing at my feet.  My daughter plucked it up.  But I suspected I knew what it was before inspecting it up close.

Stunningly, it was an index card which I had—upon what I thought to be an impermanent though extended era of ownership—utilized as a study aid in my private homework, adding words to my rickety lexicon, taking notes about language, descriptions, transitions.  In four years, not one of the presumed owners or scrutinizing librarians had discarded the index card.  Whatever the book’s Central-Indiana adventure had been in the interim, our erratic orbits again aligned.

For a poet, awareness compels connection.  C. Day Lewis put it this way:  the poet’s task is to recognize the pattern.  And as little faith and belief as I have in anything, I stole a small, incidental assurance in this ostensibly meek anecdote.  My daughter and I walked to the car, both with a prize from the library.  I thought about metaphors and meaning.  I considered coincidence and signs.  I wondered about work and ink—pondered my daughter’s stretching shadow—these hand-in-hand moments.  I wondered about what was ephemreal, what was concrete, and wondered how much of it was mine to keep. — CS

 

 

“My Soul For A Goat…”

 

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Frank Montesonti—respected poet, MFA instructor, creative writing raconteur, erstwhile Hoosier and current Los Angeles gadabout—has announced that the inaugural installment of the GNU Journal is now available.  The journal, among its intentions, “seeks to create a comprehensive creative platform for both readers and writers.”

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My story, “Goats Be Guided,” is included among other pieces in this inceptive release.  Take a few minutes to give the journal a head-to-toe—you’ll find diverse voices, tangled tales.  It’s time well spent:  GNU:  Literary Journal, Issue #1:  Winter, 2016

Dwellings—disparate, digressive—of 2015

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Naturally, situated here in this winter window between the consumer chaos of Christmas and the transitive threshold of New Year’s, many annual lists emerge over the transom, making it difficult to avoid accumulating some ruminative (albeit self-serving) notes of my own.

The challenge, of course, is compartmentalization, along with the exercise of striving to fit all the influential pieces into vivid unity.  (And while I still maintain an old-fashioned, long-hand journal, I will, inevitably, neglect to mention several events, though hope to polish these memories in the wake of this blog-based entry.)  More than anything, though—and in a feeble attempt to mellow the associated myopia—this sort of subjective exercise should be intrinsically instructive for the sake of appreciation.  A complicated, “Thank You,” in other words.

So, submitted for your (and simultaneously no one’s) approval, a modest exercise in reflection—this year, 2015:

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Personally…

…I’m loath to voluntarily (read:  carelessly) share too much of my private, family life (often failing due to the errant posting of photos) within the dodgy landscape of social media; but a doubtless highlight for my family was (after unpredictable upheaval) finally settling into our home, which seems tailored specifically for the unique rhythm of my humble clan.

The Movies…

…I’ve watched this past year are so minimal that it’s barely worth devoting space.  Still, I enjoyed several that linger:  It Follows, The Babadook, Silent House (late to that one, along with Room 237, Oculus, and Chef).  John Wick was a formulaically-fulfilling revenge flick.  One of those Star Wars movies was released in December (you might be able to find the trailer on the internet).  Saw it.  Pretty fun.

Music…

…was, as usual, a fluid entity.  Gorged myself on Ghost B.C.’s album, Meliora.  Uncle Acid was a fun find this fall, and have been consuming as much Baroness as I can of late.  And this year ends on a sad note with the passing of Lemmy on December 28.

Writing…

…is really what I come here to examine.  This year, I was fortunate to have crossed paths with Jordan Krall, publisher of Dynatox Ministries.  My novella, When It’s Time For Dead Things To Die, was released in early 2015 by Dunhams Manor Press (and imprint of Dynatox).  (Note:  thanks to David Bridges for placing the novella on his own year-end list.)  A few months later, DMP released Xnoybis, #1, a quarterly journal of weird fiction, which included my story, “The Rive.”  Over the summer, I was contacted by Stephen Jones who passed along word that “Dirt On Vicky” would be included in his annual Best New Horror anthology.  BNH #26 was published by PS Publishing this past autumn.  Also, fall saw the release of C.M. Muller’s eagerly anticipated anthology, Nightscript, Vol. I (which exceeded expectations—Muller continues to garner much-deserved accolades, including winning the Dark Muse Award for Best Multi-Author Collection via Anthony Watson’s Dark Musings).  “Animalhouse” found a home in Nightscript’s impressive TOC.

Now, nearing the annual end, the Mythic Indy anthology (after suffering a minor setback in its winter, 2015 publication) is scheduled for an early 2016 release.  You can find my short story, “The Fall of Tomlinson Hall; or The Ballad of the Butcher’s Cart,” in this inaugural project.  And just a few days after Thanksgiving, I received word that my tale, “By Goats Be Groomed,” found inclusion in the GNU Journal, which should gain readable life in the first months of 2016.

And the intimate orbit of my writing community…

…in which I’ve made some genuinely meaningful connections with in 2015.  The following folks have sustained with me, in a variety of ways, an ongoing, communicative comradery for which I’m galactically grateful.  A sober and sincere thanks to these guys in particular, along with so many more that this bonehead will forget:  C.M. Muller (for guidance, for the occasional epistolary exercise and, let’s not forget, razor-sharp and shadowed fiction); Jordan Krall (for giving my long story a shot); Scott Nicolay (for the kind words and for providing the far-reaching platform of The Outer Dark for a lesser-known “voice” like mine); Joe Zanetti (for the reviews, virtual head-butts and slaps on the shoulder); Matt Bartlett (maintaining a sort of inspirative edge in his fiction); Lou Perry (for providing unexpected—though infinitely appreciated—praise for Ghouljaw); Frank Montesonti (for his collaborative efforts with last spring’s F.C. Literati reading at Bookmama’s in Irvington); and, finally, to Jon Padgett, Daniel Mills, Christopher Slatsky (coolest initials in the biz), and John Claude Smith (coolest surname in the biz) for their endorsive support.  Thank you all for being both advocates and, in one way or another–on some level or another–friends.