Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Good Old Days—Very Old

Good old days poster

And they’re so white!

Here in America we’re in that famous period when thoughtful people who have a hopeful power to inspire us present well-considered discussions of possible ways to solve our problems . . .  Ha ha ha ha! Of course not. We’re having a Presidential election.

Sometimes during elections I like to examine the rhetoric candidates are using, to look for patterns or to bring to the fore some of the unspoken assumptions. This year, however, since one of our parties has held up its middle finger to America and nominated a man who literally goes off raving on a daily basis, what’s the point of rhetorical analysis? Crude personal insults don’t need analysis.

Instead, I wrote a poem. This is for the little Trumpster. Or rather it’s for the people who vote for him. Donald Trump is not actually afraid, he just pretends to be. He’s lying about that, too.

It’s Too Late!

I heard the fearful calling,
wearing ties on TV, frowning.
They were red-faced, arms were waving,
angry tweets on Twitter, spreading.
We must dig holes and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

The fearful see the evil
in the sunshine and the moonlight.
They understand the danger
if night should follow day.
We must build a wall and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

The fearful run from strangers
who might hurt them, make them ill,
disturb them with their language,
way of worship, who they love.
We must keep them out and hide.
We must hide,
We must hide.

The fearful fear the future,
hate the present, love the past,
when everything was perfect,
but now ruined and spoiled and gone.
We must stand strong but hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

I heard the fearful calling,
looking sad, depressed, and scared,
crying, “Everything is lost!
And now what will we do?”
We must close our eyes and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

Writing That Flows

Chattahoochee River

Chattahoochee River

Have you read literary magazines? Have you even sent a story, a poem, or an essay to a literary magazine? There are many of them around the country and the world, and they come and go. Some are more than 100 years old, while others spring up with high hopes to print, flash before the world, and die.

The oldest literary magazine here in Atlanta is the Chattahoochee Review, started in 1981 by Lamar York, now retired. After decades as editor, and speaking of how he felt toward the publication, he said, “I had never done anything that gave me the satisfaction that the magazine did.”

Last weekend, I went to North Carolina to spend the weekend with Lamar, who I got to know when I taught at Dekalb College and worked on the Chattahoochee Review. While at Lamar’s remarkable hobbit house, surrounded by a wonderful garden and looking out on the mountains of western North Carolina, I interviewed him about the founding of the magazine for this blog.

The Chattahoochee Review began at what was then called Dekalb College, the only college in Georgia operated by a single county. Since that time, the school has been absorbed by the state system, changed its name to Georgia Perimeter College, and joined Georgia State University.

Had Lamar ever worked on a literary magazine before starting the CR? “No,” he said, “I don’t really know where that came from. I’ve always been fascinated by the essay. I think it was that as much as anything.” Lamar was a serious reader, however, both generally, and of other literary magazines, and he saw them as models for what he wanted to do. In particular, he wanted to have a magazine of essays, reviews, and poetry.

When he began working at Dekalb College, the school had another magazine called the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal. After that editor left, Lamar applied for the position as editor—and did not get it, but the idea of editing a literary magazine had been born.

His opportunity came when the college opened a campus to the north of the city. The head of the new Humanities Department, Carl Griffin, asked Lamar to transfer to the north campus, which Lamar had no interest in. Griffin suggested, however, that on the north campus Lamar could start a new magazine, a motivating enticement. Thus the idea for the Chattahoochee Review originated with Carl Griffin, and Lamar went to the new campus.

Whence the name for the magazine? “I was very conscious of the geographical names,” Lamar said. “Like the Georgia Review or Sewanee Review. I wanted a name like that.” Nevertheless, he started a contest for submissions to name the magazine, with a committee of students and faculty to judge the entries.

As it happened, in spite of the committee, Lamar was still thinking about the name, considering such possibilities as Atlanta Review or Stone Mountain Review, names derieved from the city where the magazine would be located or from the enormous strange boulder to the east of the city. Then one day while driving to Selma, Alabama, to visit his brother, he saw the Chattahoochee River and “Ah!” there it was.

Naturally a project like starting a new magazine, by a person with no experience, would take some curve and learning. Lamar said he had had no idea how to go about running the magazine, including something as basic as how to get manuscripts. In the early days, he said, the magazine “was a pale imitation of the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal”, the other magazine from the college.

As for the money to run the magazine, the Dean suggested at the time that Lamar ask the student government for money, and for five years they gave around $1,000 a year to fund the magazine, until the college took over direct funding. The small-budget magazine was also a work of love for Lamar, because as the editor, he had neither release time from teaching to run the magazine nor a magazine office.

Several years into the project, the college administration decided to close one of the two magazines at the school, the Chattahoochee Review or the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal. At the time, Lamar talked with the other editor, and they decided that they would merge the two magazines together, to be renamed as The Stone Mountain Review. In the end, however, no one ever told Lamar to stop publishing, and the CR continued to live.

I asked Lamar what the reception had been for the magazine, now so well respected. One of the things he really remembered is that he had been astonished by the number of submissions. “I was absolutely swept away by the number of people who wanted to be published,” he said. In later years he would occasionally talk with editors of other magazines who complained about the large number of submissions, but Lamar was always glad that people who could write wanted to be in the magazine. Summarizing his feelings about writers asking to be included, he said, “I loved getting the Chattahoochee’s mail.”

Lamar York has moved on to a house on a ridge looking out over the Blue Ridge mountains, but the The Chattahoochee Review continues to support contemporary literature and accept submissions.

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You Take That Sun, I’ll Take This One

child flying“The difficult, I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”
from the song “Crazy He Calls Me”, sung by Billie Holiday

Can you understand why someone would do something as crazy as tie helium balloons to a lawn chair, to go rushing up into the sky? I do. Maybe there is an element of stupidity (sometimes quite a lot), but there is also a rebellion of the spirit, and I sympathize with that.

On the one hand I’ll always think “My God, you dumbass, don’t try to jump a moving train with a motorcycle”. I know the reality is that the frail flesh I live inside is fairly easily damaged or destroyed. And yet. . .what is this “I” that lives in there?

It feels like there is something in the body (me), and whether you call it mind/spirit/soul or nothing more than biological reactions, it’s all the same, because after the age of—I don’t know—six months, we all want what we can’t have. Why can’t I walk for hours without getting tired, or run faster than I do, or for that matter walk across water or up the side of a mountain like a lizard?

I can imagine these things. In my mind I can do them. So what’s wrong with the physical world?

Whatever lives inside my body, the mind/spirit/soul is able to experience the universe in ways that I’d like to try: no one dies, we never feel pain, we can shrink down to the size of an atom to watch electrons hum by like comets, and we can fly into the heart of stars to turn in happy harmless swirls through the red raging fusion of those gases.

Instead, we are trapped in the flesh, and by God, we don’t like it. And why is my distance vision worse than it was a year ago? One response to our insubordination to materiality, rather than looking for helium balloons and a lawn chair, is to let the spirit speak.

Last Sunday I heard a beautiful example when someone read a line describing expansiveness of spirit: “I want to billow through the door.” To billow like the sails on a ship before the wind, to move large and grand, like a force of nature—you’ve had moments when you felt that way, when your spirit touched its own grandeur.

I love such metaphors of expansion and optimism, expressions of the vastness of our spirit. I think about a famous line from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The line is a response to the idea that he contradicts himself on occasion. Of course I contradict myself, he says, I contain many people. With that phrasing, Whitman shows an enormity of spirit and yet keeps it in human terms.

With the Billie Holiday song lyrics I used up above, the desire to exceed physical limitations is casually expressed as “Because I’m in love, I can do anything.” The same song also has the line “And I’ll move the mountains, if he wants them out of the way.” With the grandiosity of my soul when it is filled with love, what is a small physical impediment like mountains? Also taken from song lyrics, we can find an expression of enormity of feeling, in the Beatles song Across the Universe: “Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns.” With the huge panopticon of my vision, again from love, I can see the burning and flaring of a million suns.

Maybe this rebellion against the restrictions of physical existence is a major part of what makes us human, even if we often express it in stupid ways (smoking cigarettes, picking up rattlesnakes, jumping trains with motorcycles). The rebellion has also pushed us as a species, and we said “We will walk on water” and invented boats, “We will fly through the clouds” and invented airplanes, “We will go to the stars” and invented rockets.

I hope the same kind of impulse will someday push us to say “We will stop being savage, superstitious beasts and become human” and learn to celebrate the joy of life, and of one another’s lives, instead of living as we live now on this planet.

But until then, when I want to escape, I let the spirit speak.

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Filed under Language

And Now We Are at the End

dice spelling the endI heard a question tonight that rather astounded me. The question, directed at a writer, was “How do you know when to end something?” As I think about it, though, it’s not an unreasonable question to wonder about.

At the time I was in the basement of the large Unitarian church on Clifton Valley Way, in what they call the black box theater (a room painted, you know, black). Once a month, they now feature an event called Wine, Cheese, and Spoken Word. It comes with wine that you pay for, free cheese on crackers, and a featured writer who reads, also free. I believe the general intent is that the writer will be a poet, with an act I and act II, and between the acts, there is an open mic for freelance poets to place their bit into the universe.

I placed my bit into the universe, read a couple of poems, and in January I’ll be the featured poet, so if you could plan your vacation around that, I’d appreciate it. Take a look at AirBnB for a place to stay. Anyway, tonight we heard a writer named Kim Green, who read from her fiction rather than poetry. Afterward, during the question session, someone posed the question about knowing when to end something.

All pieces of writing do end at some point, and the writer decides when that will be. As a writer myself, however, I know it’s not so simple as just writing along, la de da de da, and now we’re at the end, which I knew was coming. Nevertheless, at whatever point I stop, I could have kept going, so I did decide to quit. How? “How do you know when to end something?” For a nonwriter, the question might be an interesting curiosity about how those mysterious writers work.

For writers, though, it’s a weird-sounding question. OK, I’m being presumptuous. I don’t really know what other writers think, since none of them have returned the poll I sent out. But as the Representative of All Writers, in Charge of This Blog, I will tell you why that question is odd.

As stated, it makes several assumptions which do not normally apply to how writing works. First, it assumes that all creative pieces work the same way. The speaker might have meant only novels, since we’d heard a reading from a novel, but it sounds like “when you write (anything), how do you know when to stop?”

Second, there is a kind of assumption that a writer knows they have reached the end, so they stop. From this, we know the speaker is not a writer, or at least not an experienced writer. As the Representative of All Writers, I can tell you that I don’t know when to end something. You write, you aren’t sure, you write a little more, you think you’re done, and your writing group says, “Wow, were you trying to have a really crappy ending?” Uhhhh, yes, I was trying.

In reality, an ending may have been revised and thrown out and completely reconsidered. Obviously the writer Kim Green knows this. She began her reading by talking about what writers do, and she used the word “revise” at least three times.

More substantially, Kim named various things writers do, and one she did not name, but is doing in her new novel (not yet published) is to examine our place in the flow of cultural change. The new book has a protagonist who is a transgender man, born as a woman and making the change. The introspective character asks how people in the future will look at us, and what they will think of the desire of someone to change gender.

This kind of cultural examination is one of the things that I believe is the benefit of writers to society. A writer can take questions that are useful to consider and put them into a form that brings them to life and gives people a chance to really think about them. In this function, writers can let us think about where we want to go in the future.

We are going to go somewhere, in any case, like it or not. There is no end to that.

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Filed under How We Create Magic

Molecules of the Past

North Carolina mountains

Mountains of North Carolina

We begin today a little science-y, but if you’ll bear with it, I’ll go word-geek in a minute. Last Saturday I went with a friend up to the mountains of western North Carolina, a little over two hours from Atlanta, to spend the night in a rented house. We were in an area very close to where I used to live when I graduated from Western Carolina University, but I hadn’t been up there in 16 years.

While driving past the Karaoke Korral and cabbage fields, I saw things that suddenly returned to my memory, even something as simple as the way the road would turn at a certain point. If I had not made that drive, I might have said—apparently true—that those memories were all gone. Yet in some mysterious way they weren’t. Somewhere in my brain they lay dormant.

As far as we know, all of our memories are physically stored in the brain somewhere. The brain is made of course of cells, themselves composed of incredibly complicated amalgamations of molecules. And of course molecules, no matter how complicated, are just atoms linked to one another, jiggling around. Thus a sodium ion flows out of a nerve cell, and a potassium ion flows in, and so on, times a trillion. Exactly which molecules held the memory of the village called Tiger?

Who we are is mostly memory. The present is but a split second, and in fact our sense of the “present” is probably a creation of our brain based on memories of the few seconds that have just passed. Everything we know, everything we can do, our ability to speak, it’s all memory. Yet memory is such an inscrutable thing, and if we lose it, what are we? We then become like my father, who has Alzheimers, who can still smile and eat and walk, but he is become like an adult version of a one-year-old child. How are his memories gone?

How were they even there to start with?

Understandably, given that our very existence as a personality is based on memory, human beings can be obsessed with the idea, and we see this in literature. I’m thinking about what kind of list might be made of novels that concern memory, but among literary novels, maybe all novels, what book is not about memory in some way?

Of course some novels are more deliberately about memory, one of the most well-known being—some of you know where I’m going here—Remembrance of Things Past by the French writer Marcel Proust (though a more accurate translation of the French title is In Search of Lost Time). Any book looking back at the past is about memory, such as Gabriel Garciz-Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or we might include Margaret Mitchell’s Georgia novel Gone With the Wind, written from the point of view of looking back at a lost world.

Our obsession with memory also leads us into autobiography, books of “here’s what I actually remember”. The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov even published an autobiography called Speak, Memory. Nowadays we also see the extremely popular genre of memoire, a subtype of autobiography (I’m no fan of memoires myself, but I’m a fictionist and therefore partial to creative lying).

Writing done well can make the reader feel that they’ve entered someone else’s memory, as they walk into rooms where they see the winter trees out the window, dark against the snow, where they smell the spaghetti sauce cooking in the kitchen and begin to feel hungry, where they feel the rough texture of the cloth on the couch as they sit down to wait for dinner. More importantly, if we write well, we can lead the reader to feel what we want them to feel, as if it’s their own memory.

Long, long ago, when I first went to college, in Ohio, I would sometimes catch the bus down to my father’s house in West Virginia. After a few hours on the bus, I would arrive in the evening and we’d go to his house filled with books, up a steep driveway with other houses. I would feel tired from the bus ride, but relieved to be there and glad to be in a familiar place after the utter newness of college in an unknown town. I also remember the first time I rode the bus down, the evening I arrived my father asked me if I wanted a whiskey sour. I had never had such a drink, and I was a little surprised that he was offering it to me. I said yes, and sipping on that sweet-sour drink, I remember feeling like a grownup, come down from college to have a cocktail with my father.

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Filed under Writing While Living