Archive for February, 2010

Bluebird Bukowski

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Two nights ago I was sitting at the old wooden table that I inherited from my Grandfather, when there was a knock at the door.  Regina was in the kitchen preparing a meal of black cod, brussel sprouts, and brown rice and Henry was asleep in his little yellow nursery.  I was nursing a glass of wine and writing a letter to my friend Chuck Stewart.  At the door, was our neighbor Pat.  I welcomed her into the house and almost immediately she handed me a red three-ring binder.  It was the poetry of her dead husband, and my friend, Tim.  She began crying, and explained that she didn’t know that I was a writer, but now that she did, she felt that I should read his stuff, because so many of his other friends had belittled him for writing, especially poetry.

I offered Pat a beer and then we sat around the table and talked for hours, all of us drinking.  At times crying, thinking about Tim and how quick we had lost him.

He was a big man and before he started a hot-dog vending business he had been a security guard tasked with protecting an empty warehouse in Southern Wisconsin.  I didn’t know Tim well, but I think that of our neighbors I probably knew him the best.  He made terrific gin and tonics and there were many summer days that he and I would sit in the shade and talk as we smoked and listened to Carlos Santana or Clapton.  He was curious about my own writing and was one of few people in my life who regularly asked me how things were progressing and if I had published anything recently.  I think that Tim was a marijuana dealer but this never bothered me as I’ve always been simpatico with minor criminals and there were a few afternoons when out mowing the lawn, he would whistle to me and then drop a bag into my backyard and wave his fingers at me happily.  Gratis.

The cancer took him in a year, eating at his backbone, and subtracting eighty pounds off his big frame.  Just before he got sick, I passed some kidney stones, and Tim was the one who drove me to the emergency room, speeding through traffic and consoling me as I beat the shit out of the interior of his car, kicking the door and punching his dashboard in pain.  All of my other neighbors were gone that day, but Tim was home, and he rushed me to the hospital like I was his best friend.

After he died, I visited him in the cemetery.  He has a beautiful shady spot, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of our backyards and the giant hackberry tree that he and I had spent hours beneath, sipping gin and tonics and talking about politics, or writing, or nature.

It bothers me that his “friends” would have belittled his poetry.  I’ve written on this blog before about Tim’s favorite bar (Woody Annes) and by all rights it ought to be the perfect place to read heartfelt blue-collar poetry.  And no one should be made to feel small for trying to create something beautiful out of nothing.  What I feel when I read Tim’s poetry is a big-hearted man who experience life sensually and who chased big emotions and big sensations.  He was sincere and sometimes angry but also tender.  His poetry is that of a man decanting his biggest emotions onto paper, perhaps dumb to say them aloud.  Too much poetry these days is contrived, or ironical.  Tim’s poetry was lyrical and raw.  I’m sorry that while he was alive we didn’t talk about writing more.

In any case, I’ve been thinking about Tim lately, and his widow Pat, and about the fruits and hurt of writing.  I suppose more than anything, I write about Tim now to sharpen my own memories of him.  To keep him from going away.  And I must say that Pat’s visit, her openness and mourning was one of the best gifts Regina and I have received in some time, and we feel fortunate to be her neighbors.

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called yesterday and offered me a teaching fellowship at the University of Iowa.  Full tuition waiver, health benefits, and the opportunity to learn with the best, from the best.  I took the call from Samantha Chang at Star Liquor, hunched in the back of the store, sitting on a stack of Fosters beer oil-cans.  The radio was blaring at Star and I could hear what sounded like fatigue and confusion in her voice as we talked – who is this guy I’m calling at a liquor store?  Over 1,400 people applied for just 20 spots, and I am one of those 20.  One day prior, I had received an unofficial telephone call from a friend and professor at another program with a similar offer at a program that has very much intrigued me.  Suddenly, and after eight years away from academia, I have options.  Great options.  The best of options.  Stunning.

I have a lot of people to thank, beginning with my family.  My parents who supported my writing from the early stages.  Regina and her family who are always interested in my work.  Alex, for reviewing my early drafts.  Swan and Novak and the Walters Family and Tracy Hruska.  Everyone at Round River.  Tara Mathison.  DEAN BAKOPOULOS – whose workshops were really the key this year, and whose advice and recommendations were invaluable.  Marysa LaRowe, who is an incredible writing talent and a hell of an editor, and friend.  Carrie, Erin, Aaron, Chris, Marsha, and Pat – amazing readers who sharpened my manuscript and built me up.  Professor Rebecca Walkowitz, Gail Kohl, Jason Smith, Doug Milek, Matthew Rothschild, everyone at The Lumberyard, Fresh Cup, Roast, Madison Magazine, and Volume One.  Joel Raney and Fred Poss and Doug Smith. The Stewarts.  The Meeks family.  My grandparents and aunts and uncles.  Gulig and Hogseth and the Purple Wings.  Shanna Germain and Julie Beals.

Man alive.

One reason I started Light Travels Faster Downhill was that I felt I needed some kind of inertia to build prior to sending out my MFA applications this year.  Last year I sort of approached the whole process haphazardly.  My portfolio was decent, but I hadn’t tried hard enough.  I hadn’t read enough.  And I hadn’t worked on my fiction.  I was reticent to ask for other peoples’ support, and prayers.  There is a saying, there are no atheists in foxholes, and that might describe me.  I do pray sometimes, but it tends to happen when things come to a hilt.  When my Dad suffered his aneurysm for example.  Or when I was stuck packing meat.  But this year, I asked for peoples’ goodwill, and I truly think that helped.  I think this blog helped.  I’m trying hard to be a good person, to be the best person I can be.  I think of this blog as a kind of horn, a trumpet.

I wish my Dad was healthy and right, because he’d being going crazy right now.  My Mom called this morning and I could hear the pride in her voice at the end of our conversation.  But Dad would have been through the roof.

I have to start thinking about a novel.  My white whale also happens to be the notion of attempting a novel.  Funny to think of a pen as a harpoon.

There is work again tonight at Star Liquor, and afterwards no doubt, many drinks to be drunk.  Last night we opened a bottle of champagne and my co-workers toasted me.  There is a great fellowship is slinging booze, in earning eight dollars an hour, in loving the bubbles of alcohol.  Everywhere, I am very lucky.

Also, this morning, Henry and I saw a hawk in the top of a hackberry tree.  Snow was coming down – movie snow.  Big and beautiful and white.  Snow to steal your breath.

If I publish a book, you have to promise to buy one.  If.

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Parfrey’s Glen is a state natural area outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin and not far from Devil’s Lake State Park.  It is also one of my favorite natural places, though it certainly cannot qualify as being “wild” in any way.  The first time I visited Parfrey’s Glen I was a sophomore or junior in college, and my geology professor took us into the glen, explaining its deep history as we walked amongst the ferns, our fingers on the slick wet walls of the canyon.  Since that first visit, Regina and I visit the glen about twice a year and I never tire of communing with the giant trees there, the high walls of stone, and the gently bubbling waters.

On Sunday, we took a family trip to Parfrey’s Glen after stopping at Batch Bakery for some delicious danish and muffins and Intelligentsia coffee (Burundi).  With Henry in the Baby Bjorn we trudged over the crusty snow path in temperatures hovering around 20.  On our trek into the glen, we saw just one other hiker, who happily snapped our family portrait.  It was a terrific hike, though at one point deep in the canyon I slipped and fell face first into a snowbank.  Somehow Henry escaped without any snow on his face, or in his jacket.

Dinner that night was home-made mussels, sweet potato french fries, Ale Asylum beer, and good bread.  We re-watched Juno, and fell asleep exhausted and happy.  A terrific day.

Still no MFA news.  I think my odds of being accepted into Vanderbilt are effectively zilch.  I am equally unsure about Illinois and Notre Dame.  Everything else seems in the air.

Steak for dinner tonight with frites.  I think I’ll open a bottle of wine and maybe even smoke a cigar over the grill.  One has to maintain one’s sanity.

Please continue to knock wood, pray, or what have you.  I need the luck.

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Schools are beginning to report in earnest and I have heard nothing. Fearful that I had a karmic deficit after sending the editors of KR a slightly shitty email, I immediately wrote two long letters, one to an old friend, and one to a group of new friends – the editors at The Lumberyard.  Injecting mail into the United States Postal Service is my own private way of doing good.  Some people donate to the Salvation Army.  I write letters.  I feel like I’m supporting a mostly defunct governmental agency, and also potentially brightening the recipient’s day.  Today’s letters were hand-tooled on some brown packaging paper I found in the basement of Star Liquor.  My hand is tired from writing, a good sensation.

Received a $200 energy bill in the mail yesterday.  Immediately opened a beer and that seemed to take the edge off a bit.

It was just me and Henry yesterday so we listened to a good deal of classic/old-school hippity hop including: Biz-Markie, Naughty By Nature, and others.  He is so beautiful.  Despite slathering my arms in pureed prunes and peeing on me with regularity, he is more than I could have ever anticipated – life has changed in all the best ways.  My hope is that we can channel all that we know and feel into this child and make him something better than who we are.  He is fortunate to have such great uncles, grand-parents, and god-parents.  He is fortunate to have been born in this corner of the planet.  The cosmic lottery, as my Dad used to say.

I hate to bump The Heavy off the top of my page.  What an amazing song.  Perhaps I’ll post some more music in the coming days/weeks.  In the meantime, I must also endorse Jim Harrison’s newest collection of novellas, The Farmer’s Daughter.  So far so good.  I must also here endorse the new FOX television program/story The Human Target, which we watch with some frequency on the Hulu.  Guilty pleasures.  Last night I napped on the couch with a glass of white wine by my side and I dreamed of landing on the moon.

Received a hysterical email last night from Doug Milek that had me laughing out loud.

If you never saw my Facebook post regarding that unnamed poetry contest I won, here goes:


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The Heavy

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I read online this morning that Sarah Palin recently “addressed” members of the so-called Tea Party, suggesting in a 45-minute rant that America is more or less primed for a revolution.

I don’t really know what revolution looks like; most Americans can’t, can’t begin to fathom the weight of that word.  What a political and ideological sea change actually looks like.  Many of us were excited by Obama’s election, which in my short life span represents the closest thing to a “revolution” America has experienced lately.  Certainly, some paradigms were shattered.  But in the aftermath, I’m not sure that we’ve changed.  That America is substantially different.

But I’ll tell you this, I was in El Salvador two years ago, buying coffee (on the American Taxpayer’s dime none the less), and I saw the aftermath of real revolution.  Bullet holes in stucco.  The faces of contras, rebels.  The hills they retreated to, and fought from.  When I met them, they were coffee farmers in the present, but their faces bore the weight of having killed people, and of having seen their friends and family killed.  Their farms burned.  Their land taken.  Over politics.

You bandy the word “revolution” around, I hope you know what you’re doing.  I hope you’ve witnessed the face of revolution.  I hope that you’re not claiming Christian moral values while simultaneously espousing violent rhetoric.  I hope that you’re not a monger of angry language, a conduit for hate and frustration.  Because the truth is, I’m frustrated and angry at the system too, but I’m not ready to start oiling my family’s shotguns either.

Words carry weight.  I’d like to hear someone suggest a word: sedition.  Or perhaps: treason.  These are high crimes against the state, not civilized political discourse.  My trouble is, at the end of the day, some of us will be struggling with right and wrong, law and reason, words and meanings.  But the rest of world might have already gathered their machetes and torches.

Sometimes there are barbarians at the gate, and sometimes it is our imagination.  The challenge is not to be afraid, not to over-react.  Be calm, be prepared, be smart.  When someone suggests that we start a revolution, ask them what they have to lose, ask them what they want to create.  Ask them what exactly they want to destroy, or revolt against?

There is too much anger in America right now, and it does scare me.  Because the citizens of this nation suggesting revolution have no idea what it means to be really destitute.  They are without question, white and middle-class, and they are reacting to the notion of sacrifice.  They don’t want to sacrifice.  They want everything, and they don’t want to give.  They think government is to blame.  And to a degree it is.  But careful what you wish for.  Because when the revolution happens, the truly angry, the truly well-armed won’t be coming for white collars in houses of government.  It will be the poor neighborhoods of Detroit and Chicago and Denver and Cleveland and Milwaukee and New Orleans and Phoenix and Los Angeles and St. Louis, and they will be coming for those that do have money.  And it will be the very same voices that had called for revolution in the first place.  I know who my bet is on.

I know who is skinny, who has sacrificed, who can aim a pistol, who walks to school, who believes in magic, who has nothing to lose.

I know who is pampered, who is fat, whose feet are soft.

Be careful with your words.

Godspeed America, we are better together than apart.

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