Jim Powell’s ONLY WITNESS: The Intellectual and Liar That Reconstructed My Literary Life

This past Friday evening at the Indiana Writers Center marked the official launch of Jim Powell’s inaugural collection of short stories, Only Witness, an event which functioned as both a highly-anticipated release party and pilgrimage for the local literati.

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In attendance, it was easy to spot Dan Wakefield, long-time Indianapolis Star columnist, Dan Carpenter—Barb Shoup (novelist and Executive Director of the IWC); I was able to briefly catch up with Terry Kirts (senior creative writing lecturer at IUPUI), and gave a nod to Robert Rebein (novelist and interim Dean of the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI).  Susan Neville was also mentioned to be in the crowd; and of course present was Jim’s wife, former Indiana Poet Laureate, Karen Kovacik—his companion and ally, his “muse.”

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But there were many in attendance, from a spectrum of creative crafts, who packed the space to applaud not only Jim’s creative accomplishment in the form of Only Witness, but his influential vision as founder of the Indiana Writers Center in 1979.

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Only Witness release party:  March 8, 2019

To give Jim an errant, social-media “shoutout” would be an exercise in indolence; yet, on the other hand, I feel as though I could write in meandering, marathon-fashion about the man—about how he sobered my from my own indolent tendencies (read: lazy writing habits) as an apprentice, and provided guidance in how to develop into the thing that compels the more important thing into existence:  the writer producing the writing.  (There is, of course, a separate discussion here about whether or not writing—or any artistic discipline—can be taught:  about whether or not someone can teach another human being how to become a creative entity.  My answer is complicated, but I believe we have inherent traits which, if honed, can be calibrated to align with the frequencies of specific creative mediums.)

More than scribbling stories, Jim inadvertently guided me into how to become a more dependable husband and father.  Jim was my mentor during a particularly formative phase when I was desperately trying to grow up.  Those themes came out in my fiction, and Jim identified certain “pings,” suggesting how to negotiate and renegotiate (often through relentless revisions) the terrain of what I was trying to say—what I was trying to be.

Going back to the late-90s, my time on the campus of IUPUI (and along the landscapes of academes) was erratic.  But as the turbulence began to wane and my life began to gain some semblance of dimension (this was after I returned from my stint in both Chicago and “The Region” of northwest Indiana), so too did my devotion to the discipline of writing.  At some point, I began pursuing a degree in English.

I happened to be acquainted with (though various creative clicks) a number of local poets and writers, many of whom provided wisdom on how to navigate this venture—This is who you want for poetry…This is who you want for creative fiction…If you can, try to get David Schanker for his “Novel” class…This is who you don’t want for editing…

Jim Powell (who at that time was still acting as lecturer and advisor in the English Department) had somewhat a legendary reputation, mostly for his prowess in the literary arena, but he was also purported to be somewhat of a hardass.

Indeed, I would pass Professor Powell crossing campus, snatching covert, sideling glances at the man:  An ostensibly preoccupied individual, walking with an intent gait, toting a use-worn leather briefcase, surely filled with doomed manuscripts which had been mauled and executed with Powell’s red pen.  Poor, hapless bastards.  (Side note:  Jim used blue ink, not red; and that leather briefcase:  it’s a Coach from 1982, and has only once, in these thirty-seven years, required repair at a shoe shop.)  Thus, in pursuit of an English degree, it was statistically certain that the initiate’s meandering path would eventually intersect with that of one James E. Powell.

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What I would come to understand is that most of these misguided savants making caricaturist claims about Jim were rather flimsy when it came to being challenged by both their peers and instructors—yes, I refer to the micro-Coloseum of close readings and roundtable story analysis, but I’m also citing something more intrinsic:  they didn’t want to commit to the menial, solitary, and (sometimes painfully) private work of becoming a writer.

This didn’t appeal to their sensibilities, and so the calculus was that Jim was tough.  He is.  And he produces a durable product.

(My confession:  In my spring, 2009 semester portfolio submission, I attempted to give a wide berth to a pivotal revision within one of my stories.  Jim quickly noted that it was unacceptable, and that I would receive a grade of “Incomplete” until I made good on making the necessary narrative alterations; otherwise, I would fail the semester.  Inherently, I absorbed these demanding correspondences with a petulant validation for a suspicion I’d harbored all along:  that I had no business on a college campus—check that:  that my writing had no business on a college campus.  I made several attempts to change the dynamic between my characters and their circumstances, but nothing was working; and I would be nifty to simply say that all I would have needed to do was tinker with a few elements to mollify my instructor, but that’s not how it works, is it?  Although the art often requires agile embellishment, there really is no lying in earnest fiction.  Jim knows that, and he wouldn’t let me get away with it.  He never has.)

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2011 genesis release party

But one the most pivotal periods of my life was between 2010 and 2011.  At this time, my modest house had evolved into a home which contained my recently-married wife, a six-year-old, a toddler, and a Golden Retriever approximately the size of Fenrir.  I was not only attempting to finish my English degree with the intent of becoming on English teacher (the former occurred in 2012, while the latter never happened), but I was also still trying to gain some footing with my fiction.

As I closed in on my final classes, viable options—essentially due to the day-long duration of my weekly occupation, and the fact that I had, during my prolonged stay on campus, exhausted all other available classes—were discouragingly sparse.  (It’s entailment, but the other element here was money, or in my case, lack thereof.)

Nearly optionless, I reached out to my coach.  Jim, after some light interrogation (“I will ask the questions!”) about my commitment to the craft, suggested a guided writing class, which was effectively a one-on-one workshop keenly constructed to propel a candidate through the rigors of a specific creative medium.  (In my case:  short fiction.)  His caveat:  The workload would be substantial:  enormous amounts of reading and responding, writing and revision, all of which necessitated sit-down discussions at certain intervals over the course of a both the spring semesters and three, summer months following that.  (Here’s some more entailment:  as opposed to roundtable story analyses, these sit-down discussions would offer no insulation—it was no secret that Jim has, like Hemingway, a built-in shockproof bullshit detector, and he would offer no quarter to a student who wouldn’t take the class seriously.)

The course was, in itself, course correction.  And while I was allowed to calibrate my own compass, Jim was manipulating the ambient magnetic fields.

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While Jim Powell has dozens of publication-ready stories in that proverbial, soft-side leather briefcase, nineteen polished pieces appear in Only Witness.  These tales therein have been refined over the past nine years or so, when Jim devoted less focus on what he could teach young minds as opposed to what he could teach himself.  There are a number of stories I had the honor of glimpsing their “bones” in their nascent days (“Shelter”); and there are more that resonate with peculiar significance (one of the stories contains a character bearing my daughter’s first name—coincidence?).  Still, more profoundly, there are echoes I can identify along my Midwest landscape.  Subtle sensibilities.  Sneaky, static-lashed frequencies.

What’s more, his collection’s title is quietly loaded as a directive:  it operates as, yes, a fitting, adjective-noun union, but it’s also quiet guidance:  that a writer, like a competent anthropologist, should only absorb and record the worldly interactions which they observe.

From Susan Neville:

Jim Powell has long served Indiana literature—both in his support of emerging writers and his knowledge and insight into the historical canon, which he has helped define.  and now in this new collection of short fiction, he adds his own unique voice to the list of writers who bear witness to this particular place.

Pardon the cliché, but it works in a summative sense:  Jim is a writer’s writer, and just as he’s generated his own stories, he has, likewise (though in mitotic fashion) helped to fashion the scaffolding for the lives of other writers.

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In 1977 (the year Star Wars premiered and the year I was born—I’ll let you rate the significance between the two), Jim and some literary comrades opened a bookstore in Santa Monica, California, called Intellectuals and Liars.  Jim is quoted as saying that they’re “two people you can’t trust,” and that, in his estimation, was an apropos description of both writers and poets.
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There are times when I’ve read Jim’s stories and wanted to ask a question—something to clarify, or something that, possessing an unshakable suspicion, I thought might be telling about his “real life.”  Jim is, of course, an intellectual, and, yes, a story-teller; but he is also aware of his audience which, for decades, were young writers.  “The artist acknowledges both the existence and importance of others,” writes Richard Russo in his introduction to 2010’s The Best American Short Stories.  “He starts out making the thing for himself, perhaps, but at some point realizes he wants to share it, which is why he spends long hours reshaping the thing, lovingly honing its details in the hopes it will please us, that it will be a gift worth the giving and receiving.”  Many years in the making, Only Witness is a gift which, if read closely, is not only entertaining, but—to the reverent reader—lovingly instructive.

 

 

 

 

TWICE-TOLD: A Collection of Doubles

 

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With the recent release of C.M. Muller‘s Twice-Told:  A Collection of Doubles the estimable Des Lewis is conducting another venerable “real time” review dedicated to the anthology.  Here’s a portion of what he has to say about my contribution, “Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow”:

[B]oundaries here in a residential area explicitly akin to sovereignty of identity and today’s nationalism. Whatever I go on to say, this remains a totally compelling first-person narration by a woman, self-seeking as well as self-conscious, ruthless in her ambition and optimisation of her nuclear family, husband and daughter. […] Finds herself in the house opposite where she had not yet met whomsoever lived there – a house described by her in a wondrously hypnotic mannered way, a sort of House of Leaves blended with something completely unique, with fleeting shadows and angles […] She foolhardily leaves her signature as it were, some written boundary of statically unique self-identity, on ‘stationary’ as stationery inside this house, a house aptly named Motley House […] another Clint Smith work to cherish. If I tell you more, I would spoil it.

Snag a copy (Kindle, paperback) here:

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WEIRD FICTION REVIEW #9 Now Available

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Weird Fiction Review #9 (Centipede Press, 2018), Cover Art by Colin Nitta

With last year’s passing of the illustrating titan Stan Lee, it’s suitable to celebrate his voice and verve (along with the great Jack Kirby) with the cover art of Centipede Press‘s latest installment of Weird Fiction Review, which offers a wry wink to the inaugural, 1961 issue of the Fantastic Four (released fifty-seven years ago this past November).  The odd quad featured on the cover are, of course, notables from the Weird field, with Caitlin Kiernan standing in for Sue Storm, Victor Lavalle repping the Human Torch, Stephen Graham Jones taking on Mister Fantastic, and Laird Barron depicted as (suitably, noting his affinity for the Carpenter film) The Thing.  The list price is $35, but Centipede Press’s site currently has it for $22.

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Weird Fiction Review #9 (Centipede Press, 2018) / The Fantastic Four, Vol. 1, Issue #1 (1961)

“The Weird Fiction Review,” goes the site’s synopsis, “is an annual periodical devoted to the study of weird and supernatural fiction. It is edited by S.T. Joshi. This ninth issue contains fiction, poetry, and reviews from leading writers and promising newcomers. This issue features fiction by Caitl’n R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Victor LaValle, Stephen Graham Jones, Scott Bradfield and others, and articles by Stefan Dziemianowicz (an illustrated history of Gnome Press), Adam Groves (on surrealist horror novels), John C. Tibbetts (on Marjorie Bowen), as well as verse and other essays and fiction. The feature of the issue is Chad Hensley’s outstanding article on H.R. Giger-inspired Alien toys.”

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Adam Golaski and Clint Smith, Brown University, December, 2018

In addition to a lengthy interview with author David Mitchell, Weird Fiction Review #9 also contains an exchange between Adam Golaski and me — an interview, of sorts, conducted by the Brown University English lecturer back in the fall of 2017.  The several weeks of correspondence was really an ideal way to get to know this writer who, perhaps, thrives in his obscurity.  We were able to spend a brief amount of time attempting to catch up back in December, 2018, on the Brown campus (shortly before our reading at the Arcade Asylum Author Series, Krampusnacht edition, at Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council).

My story, “The Pecking Order” (a tale which begins with a young woman attending a former student’s funeral, but transforms into something appalling) can also be found in Weird Fiction Review #9.

 

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DEAD THINGS: Kindle / eBook Pre-Order Now Available

Friends and literary allies: A tad ahead of the March 18, 2019 paperback and electronic release, Unnerving has made available the Kindle / eBook pre-order of my novella, When It’s Time For Dead Things To Die, at Amazon for a very reasonable $2.99.

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Eddie Generous has also updated the Goodreads page to reflect the new cover art for this expanded and updated edition:

Amazon Kindle / eBook Pre-Order: Here

Updated Goodreads Book Page: Here

PLUTO IN FURS Anthology: “Behemoth” Claws Its Way Onto the TOC

I was recently notified that my “rough beast” of a short story, “Behemoth,” has been accepted to Scott Dwyer’s upcoming anthology, Pluto In Furs.  The spectrum of the tale pendulums between 1969 and 1987, as my protag, Dox Ingram, a mechanic, is inadvertently compelled to confront a protean horror inextricably braided to a disturbing encounter during his younger years as a soldier in Vietnam.

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“Some Bears,” Rolf Armstrong (PUCK, March 27, 1915)

 

“The title, Pluto In Furs, is obviously a play on Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs,” writes Dwyer. “But whereas his book postulates that the female and the cruel are his objects of a masochistic worship, Pluto In Furs will explore what it means if darkness and the nonhuman are also worthy of masochistic worship.” That said, the anthology will also include some loosely-themed horror tales compassing the surreal, erotica, weird, as well as “quiet” ghost stories. Some authors have announced, while others are keeping their cards close to their chests; but I’ve had a glimpse at some of the imposing contributors, and readers are in for a sinister treat.

UPDATE:  February 5, 2019:  Official Pluto In Furs table of contents announced at The Plutonian:

“An Abysmal Masochism” (An Introduction) by Scott Dwyer
“The Tangible Universe” by Jeffrey Thomas
“The Wolf at the Door or The Music of Antonio Soler” by Devora Gray
“Other Yseut and Romance Tristan” by Adam Golaski
“Dermatology, Eschatology” by Kurt Fawver
“Headsman’s Trust: A Murder Ballad” by Richard Gavin
“It’s Hard to be Me” by John Claude Smith
“The Gutter at the Bottom of the World” by David Peak
“Tender is the Tether” by Rhys Hughes
“With Shining Gifts That Took All Eyes” by Mike Allen
“Stygian Chambers” by Orrin Grey
“Behemoth” by Clint Smith
“Worm Moon” by Gemma Files
“The Silvering” by Thana Niveau
“Walking in Ash” by Brendan Vidito

Dwyer’s aiming for an August, 2019 publication date.  More in due time…

An Unnerving Announcement: DEAD THINGS Redux

I’m elated to announce a recent collaboration with Unnerving and its helmer, Eddie Generous, who’s picked up my novella, When It’s Time For Dead Things To Die, originally published by Dunham’s Manor Press (2015), and has now been updated, expanded, and slated for re-release mid-March, 2019.

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For those of you unfamiliar with this story, here’s a synopsis penned by the estimable C.M. Muller:

Things are in decline…for Joseph Lowe, a rootless young man who falls for the wrong girl; for Gregory Bath, an aristocratic magnate who spares Lowe an almost certain death for his ‘transgression,’ imposing upon him a kind of parasitic servitude. Now working as a line cook at Bath’s legendary Tudor Quoin, as well as catering to the growing needs of a man far older than he seems, Lowe desperately seeks release from a trap which has ensnared him for the past nine months. But who could possibly escape a family as powerful, as influential, or as far-reaching as the Baths? In the end, choices must be made, sides must be drawn, and for Lowe this means discovering an unlikely salvation between himself and his captor, as well as learning the true meaning of ‘family.’

From the scintillating mind of Clint Smith, author of Ghouljaw and Other Stories, comes a haunting, poetic novella, equal parts Dracula and Eastern Promises, set in modern-day Indiana but stretching its talons far back into history.

More news on the way; but in the meantime, check out Mr. Generous’s horror and dark fiction projects, submission guidelines, and other numerous upcoming releases over at Unnerving:

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“This Godless Apprenticeship” Makes TANGENT’s 2018 Recommended Reading List

A number of reviewers have taken notice of several stories from Weirdbook #40, and I’m pleased to remark that my contribution to that volume, “This Godless Apprenticeship,” made it’s way onto Tangent Online 2018 Recommended Reading List; and Dave Truesdale has penned an impressively insightful “foreward” of sorts to the actual list.  “This wildly varied rainbow of experience and perspectives,” writes Truesdale, “makes for an interesting barometer for writers, readers, and even academicians to set against other well known or familiar lists that may have become, over time, accepted as standards of reliability for the best fiction of any given year.”

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Also cited on Tangent’s list are six “colleagues” from the Weirdbook #40 issue:  John Linwood Grant (“Sanctuary”); Paul St. John Mackintosh (“The Prague Relic”); Matt Neil Hill (“The Giving of Gifts”); Mike Chinn (“And the Living is Easy”); Jack Lothian (“The Santa Anna”); and Darrell Schweitzer (“True Blue”).

Weirdbook no. 40, J. Florencio