Fairly articulate mammal

Sunday, November 8, 2015

American Stories One: The Luck of Roaring Camp

So, I’m a 53-year-old rookie. Very recently, I’ve released the first-ever audio track featuring my singing and playing. It’s posted for public consumption on my brand new youtube channel. I wrote the song years ago, based on Bret Harte’s story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” I first read the story in college, and it pulled me in with its pacing and won me over with its mix of sentimentality and darkness, and I was also taken with the tension between the narrator’s poetic language and the rough mining-camp dialogue. 

When I revisited it years later, it struck me as being even more dark, funny, and sweet than I’d remembered. Dark: it starts with a displaced Native American woman, whose circumstances have forced her into a life of prostitution, dying in childbirth at a mining camp, and gets darker later. Funny: the men at the camp are these hardscrabble anti-social types, and this results in a lot of fish-out-of-water humor as they set out to raise this orphaned baby. Sweet: they fall in love with the baby, the bunch of them, and find that there is a magic in being connected, and in taking care of someone. The rugged individualist way of thinking that has until now informed their lives gets some serious pushback by lived experience. 

Anyway, I like the mix of elements in the story. In its lyricism about a hard world, I hear some of what I like about Townes Van Zant. And I can see a just-emerging mix of themes and a storytelling style/voice  that I think informs Larry McMurtry’s writing (though McMurtry is a better writer). Harte was swinging for the fence here, hoping to become a famous writer back East while writing about the West. Mark Twain, a rival and friend before their falling out, was trying to do something similar at the same time, but “The Luck of Roaring Camp” put Harte way out in front for a while. 

Years ago, I’d gotten on a kick of writing songs drawn from famous short stories. I’ve got songs based on stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, and others, but this one’s my favorite of the batch. I had imagined the song as a short film, and at one point engaged Austin singer-songwriter Woody Russell to do a big, lush, widescreen version of my song, but I never did get the project together on the video side (see “time and money, lack thereof”). When I recorded the demo that Woody based his recording on, he nudged me to just play and sing the song myself. Even with his encouragement, though, I wasn’t quite there yet, in terms of feeling confident enough in my playing and singing. Since then, I’ve gained some ground on both skill and confidence. 

Anyway, with help from some talented friends, I finally made the recording I wanted, and now it’s the debut video on my youtube channel. If you enjoy it, please like, share, etc. I’m not trying to get rich or famous; John Prine has little to fear from me, but I am trying to slowly build up a small but appreciative audience/readership for my poems, songs, and stories. 

Check it out!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Time Travel Vision Quest Chapter Two

Time. It’s a tricky concept, huh? A moment ago I’d been standing at the edge of adventure, thinking about ritual, accomplishment, what our traditions mean, and, to be completely forthcoming, thinking about Lyric and if she might want to spend some time with me when we both got back. Now that moment—my very recent past—was  some unknown number of centuries in the future, and I was going to have to do some quick thinking about my situation. 

Step one was going to be to get to a safe place. Yeah, I know, pretty soon I was going to need water, food, some way to defend myself, all kinds of things, but it was almost dark, and the howls I had heard — oh crap, there they were again — told me that there was at least one species of deadly predator at large in the area. Everything but safety would have to wait. 

My first thought was to try to get a fire going, but I wasn’t very confident that I could make it happen under conditions this damp and this dark. So my next best bet was probably going to involve getting into a tree and moving high enough to get me out of range from these wolves. I found a small ash tree that was skinny enough for me to shimmy up a ways. I made it to a fairly sturdy branch, and moved out far enough to stretch up and out to reach a much sturdier branch on a bigger tree. Unless a bear or maybe a big cat came along, I was going to be okay. It was going to be a long night, but not a lethal one. Tomorrow I’d take a look around and see where and when I’d landed. Northern Europe? Canada? Had the American Revolution happened yet? Had the telephone been invented? The wheel? I wanted to know,  obviously, but it would have to wait. I got as comfortable as I could, pressed against the tree trunk, hoping I might drift a bit, maybe at least get some low-quality half-sleep before I had to face tomorrow.

And then I heard it. It was a voice. It was fairly close by and I was pretty certain that it belonged to a child. Therefore, that child was walking around at night in an area where I knew there were wolves prowling. Damn it! Remember a second or two ago when I was settling in for a luxurious night of shivering in a tree and trying to almost-sleep? That reality was gone. Time really is a tricky concept.

Making as little noise as possible, I eased down from the tree, and took a few tentative steps toward the voice I’d heard. I wasn’t hearing the wolves now, but that didn’t mean anything. The sky had cleared a little, and there was a three-quarter moon shining faintly through broken clouds, increasing my visibility some. Not much. Just ahead of me, I could hear footsteps, but the voice had stopped speaking.

Then the footsteps stopped. I could hear a rumbling growl just ahead, and was starting to imagine myself somehow saving the day and returning home in record time, having accomplished an amazing feat of straight-up heroism, when the seldom-heard-from practical voice in my head began to point out that I had no idea how to subdue a wolf or wolves in pursuit of an easy dinner. Just ahead, I could now see the silhouette of a boy, maybe ten or twelve years old.  I was about to speak, to shout out a warning, when I saw the wolf in a blur of motion, but not attacking the child. Nope. Sprinting directly towards me.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Time Travel Vision Quest, Chapter One

The soon-to-be-graduates of the initiation class had gathered at the lodge. 

Back when he was still alive, my father had talked a lot about the day I’d be here. “Burke,” he’d say, “life is full of adventures. We don’t always understand that fact as we’re going through something, but then we look back, and think, WOW, what an adventure that was! The initiation won’t be like that. When you’re old enough, that’s an adventure you will not fail to recognize. It’s amazing. I can’t wait to see you off, when the time comes, and to talk to you when you return.” But he hadn’t been there to see me off, and he wouldn’t be talking to me on my return. He’d died two years ago. He’d been quite an adventurer himself, and had lost his footing on a climb, and had a bad fall. I missed him all the time, but today it was a sharper feeling.

It was spring. The dogwood trees were exploding in blossoms. While Elder Pine was talking to the group of us, my attention would slip sometimes for a moment, but I was trying to focus, just in case any of this would be important to know when I got to the past. Whenever and wherever that was going to be.

“This concept is as old as human culture,” he was saying. “When the boy reaches a certain age — the age has varied somewhat across time and place, but for us it is 16 — it is time to become a man. Of course, we progressed as a species, and this long ago quit being gender-specific. The point is to mark the transition when you’re moving out of childhood and into maturity, to do this with a ritual or accomplishment or experience. You break the frame that holds the picture of your life as a child, so that you can form a new picture, so you’ll own your own life, to think of yourselves as, and for others to accept you as, adults.” 

I didn’t know if I’d ever think of myself as an adult. I’m the boy who is always lost in dreams and imagination, not the most analytical thinker, not the strongest, not the fastest. I’m the likeliest to see things in a weird way, to not be able to explain what I mean. Voted most likely to let my sentences trail off and then lapse into an awkward silence. The critics have spoken.
A hand went up. It was Lyric. 

“Why was it just boys, in so many cultures, for so long?”

“Because the assumption for girls was that they’d be taken as wives and would have children. Having a baby was the ritual for them.”

There was some uncomfortable laughter. He continued. 

“It was true for centuries, in many places, that fighting in a war, particularly killing another warrior, could serve as the ritual. But it has varied. For the Peyote Church of the Navajo, it was what they called a spirit walk, experiencing the world under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen. For a French villager in the Renaissance, it might have meant starting an apprenticeship. For an upper-class Brit in the 1800s, it could mean boarding school. For a 20th century suburban American, it meant a test to earn a license that would then allow you to pollute the atmosphere with a huge and dangerous motorized vehicle. From warfare to childbirth to mind-altering substances to privileges and tests, the core is the same: you return from the experience as someone with what the ancient Greeks called “arête,” meaning skillfulness and, importantly, the commitment to becoming skilled. Skill at a craft, skill at athletics, scholastics, the arts, skill at managing what life will throw at you … the important thing is the commitment to learn, to take responsibility for acquiring your own excellence. That foundation shows us that the true goal of developing arête is to become skilled in the art of living.”

I thought hard about all he’d said. He turned to look at the time circle, which had been lasered into a huge piece of granite. The earth had eroded away around it, so that it looked like a small rock dome that had risen from below ground. Like everything else in our lives, the time circle was powered by the sun, but there the similarity ended. None of our other tech collected energy from the sun at this magnitude, nor could it harness or release that energy in such an intense burst. Every year, a handful of our village’s boys and girls turned 16, and every year they each left on a Time Travel Vision Quest. It was the only thing the time travel technology could ever be used for.  Every year, most of the boys and girls came back as men and women, having developed sufficient arête to return. But every year, one or two vanished, never to be heard from again. Maybe they liked it where they went, and decided to stay.

“This brings us to now, “ Elder Pine said. “I have assigned you each a time and place, which you will learn presently.” He smiled. “It will emerge. You will deduce. You have said your goodbyes. Moving on, then, the first traveler is … Burke.” They all looked at me. I nodded, and stepped onto the dome. Immediately, there was a flash of light and a silence more complete than I had ever experienced. I felt an urgent pressing on my chest, simultaneous to a lightness in my head, and  then I lost consciousness. 

When I woke, I was freezing cold, wearing only jeans, boots, and light shirt, in a forest I had never seen before. Dark was falling, as was sleet. The shadow of night enveloped all I could see. I could hear the howling of wolves not far away. I kept imagining that there were eyes watching me, and maybe there were. I didn’t know when or where I was. The ritual was underway. My Time Travel Vision Quest had begun.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Time for Something New

Did you ever see that ABC documentary from the ‘90s, The Beatles Anthology? There are interviews with the surviving Beatles about various parts of their work and legacy, and at one point they’re asked about the sometimes-debated idea that a sprawling and adventurous double album of theirs — The Beatles (known by most of humanity as The White Album) — should instead have been released as a nothing-but-polished-diamonds single album.
McCartney’s rebuttal to this criticism is pretty funny: “Shut up! It’s the bloody Beatles White Album!” Heh. Well said, Sir Paul. But George's answer is better. He says, “What do you do when you’ve got all these songs and you want to get rid of them so you can do more songs?” The gist here is hey, it's about process. He’s saying, dude, we needed to get these songs out there, to make room in our hearts and heads for the new songs waiting to be written. Since George’s next batch of songs turned out to include “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something,” the only reasonable response to the point he’s making is “Yes, sir; point taken.”
I have a similar feeling these days. I’m on a little bit of a rollhaving just jump-started my creative battery by writing thirty poems in thirty days in April. Some of them were even pretty good. Still, it’s true, that I have felt a bit frustrated from having old work scattered here and there, unpublished or otherwise inaccessible, maybe in media formats that don’t exist anymore, like the cassette of kid’s songs I wrote in the early 90s? Some stuff feels likely to be lost, whereas I want it out there in the world!
Whether it’s ignored or enjoyed, I want to feel like I’ve published it (that is, made it public). I feel some loyalty to it, and some unsettledness that it didn’t quite get its moment, at least not sufficiently. That’s part of why I was so happy to have “Train I Ride (1953)” recently published online in the new issue of The Museum of Americana.
For those reasons, one of the things I want to do on this blog/portfolio site is to archiving some older work I don’t want lost.
In that spirit, here’s an educational video I wrote, explaining the concept of Fact Families. This was part of a math course by Ignitelearning! (I’m not being over-enthusiastic, btw, the exclamation point is part of the company’s name). This piece was animated by hotshot animator Don Smith, arranged and performed by Jason Molin, and produced by the omnicompetent Erich Pelletier. This was a period where my work was particularly fun, creative, and satisfying, not least because I was inspired by all the talent around me, so you’ll surely see a few more of these from time to time.
But back to my main point: let’s test George Harrison’s theory, shall we? By his logic, I should be ready to do some cool new work. I’ve just had a favorite old poem published. I’ve recently gotten to do a very fun performance of (mostly) older poems at the Austin Slam Anniversary show. Right here, and not long ago on facebook, I’ve linked to some fun old educational media pieces. Will it make room in my heart and head for something new? I mean, the name of this blog isn’t Jeff’s Back Pages. This is mostly about the next page!
Therefore: I hereby commit to posting something brand new, whether that’s prose fiction (a story or maybe even the start of a novel), poetry, or song. Something. New.
It’ll be published right here next Monday morning, same bat-time, same bat-channel.
It will not be something that’s already underway. It’ll be something I begin from scratch, starting pretty much as soon as I click the “make it so” button on this very blog post. So I’ll see you here next Monday with, um, something. New.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Behind the Sonnet: Blues Edition

Good news! A sonnet of mine, titled “Train I Ride (1953)” has just been published in a very cool online journal called The Museum of Americana, as part of a special music issue. This, of course, is right up my alley. I wrote the poem in 2003, submitted it a few places at the time, but I am recently seeking homes for a few old poems that I think deserve some attention and some light shining on them. This one’s a favorite. It’s my loosely-based-in-reality imagining of an awkward blues-obsessed Memphis teenager named Elvis Presley getting to meet and talk with local DJ and guitar hero Riley “B.B.” King. That’s the true part, along with Mr. King being pretty nice to the kid. But the scene I’m painting is imagined, not based on any existing account of a real meeting. I’ll link to the poem at the end of this entry, and I hope you’ll go read it after this behind-the-sonnet background.

So, some of y’all are familiar with my poem “Riley’s Blues,” which is more or less a superhero origin story for a certain recently-departed genius blues guitar player. A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to perform it with Wammo accompanying on bluesy harmonica, as part of the Austin Poetry Slam 20th anniversary show, and it’s been published a couple of places, including this excerpt in the San Antonio Current years ago, to promote a B.B. King show (which means there’s some chance Mr. King actually read a few lines of my poem about him, so how cool is that?).


Anyway, here’s the background story of two poems: “Riley’s Blues,” and this sonnet that I’m so happy to finally see published. It starts with my brother.

My brother Guy, who died in August of 2003, was an Elvis freak. Spend any time around him, and you found yourself in an Elvis-heavy environment. Skinny Elvis, fat Elvis, early Elvis, late Elvis, gospel Elvis, Vegas Elvis, Hollywood Elvis, it didn’t matter. For Guy, it was all good. Sometimes the fixation became annoying. He’d come to the breakfast table, and instead of reading the newspaper, he’d have the latest Elvis biography and he’d read passages aloud. No context. He’d just launch. To me it sounded very much like that old Far Side joke: “Blah-blah-blah-Colonel Tom Parker; blah-blah-blah-Elvis’s dead twin; blah-blah-blah-Elvis’s sorry excuse for a father, blah-blah-blah-Sun records,” and so on. And so on. And, God help us all, soooooo onnnnn.

I tried to be patient. My brother was, cell by cell, being destroyed by Huntington's Disease, the disease that had also killed our father, and for a while, Guy lived with me at my house and I took care of him. I tried to provide patience and love, and I (mostly) pulled that off for almost four years, till he got a lot worse, and went to live with our mother. She hired a full-time nurse and so was able to keep him at home until the end. But this isn’t mostly about my brother; it’s mostly about two poems and how I came to write them. It’s about how way leads on to way, to steal a line from Robert Frost. It’s about what one sets out to write versus what one actually does write, and it’s about the poems that keep following us around for a while, even when we think we’re done with them.

At the time Guy was living with me, I was transitioning from an academic career track (say it with me, folks: “crappy academic job market plus paralyzing dissertation dread”) to being a writer. Over a span of several years, I sold some essays, got a job writing poetry reviews for an online bookseller, taught some business writing classes, edited some online courseware, wrote album and concert reviews for some local papers and zines, came close but got turned down for a Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas, and — with an unerring instinct for where the money isn’t — mostly wanted to write, perform, and publish poems.

 And I had some limited success. When I went to open mics, my poems were received well (but weren’t anybody’s favorites). When I went to poetry slams, I did okay (but didn’t win). When I submitted poems to journals, editors sometimes sent back appreciative comments (but only occasionally published the poems). But I was writing all the time; I was burning with it. Sometimes I’d start with a turn of phrase and run with it; sometimes I wrote scores of forced villanelles and awful sonnets, to build up my form muscles, because who knew when I’d want to write about something and only a sonnet would do? 

Sometimes I’d listen to instrumental music, and would write whatever flew into my head while listening. Sometimes I’d pull ten random words from the dictionary or from songs on the radio, or from Scrabble games, and I’d make myself write a poem that tied them together. Sometimes I’d start with moments of my own experience, and write a kind of lyrical reportage, like hey y’all, here’s what it was like to be in this moment. I felt myself on the verge of a breakthrough.

One morning in 1996, I was making a pot of coffee and Guy was sitting at the breakfast table muttering. I remember exactly what he said. It was “Blah-blah-blah-B.B. King.” I love B.B. King, and so, even though I was pretty sure I’d misheard, I said, “What was that you just said?” And he told me: when Elvis was a misfit rube kid from Tupelo, transplanted to the big city of Memphis, he heard blues music on B.B. King’s WDIA radio show, and, as a teenager, went down to Beale Street to puppy-dog around after the guitar-slinger and radio host. King at this point wasn’t famous outside Memphis, but he was a local celebrity, and there was no particular reason for him to give the kid a second glance. But he liked him, and talked to him about music a little, was slightly encouraging.
Well, I thought, this is the poem I’ve been fixing to write. What a great story! I could hear the rhythms of it in my head right away, and knew what the title should be. I told Guy, and he laughed, said, yeah, that’s just right. I wanted to write the poem as a conversation. It would be about a common love of the blues bringing together unlikely friends, and I wouldn’t sweat accuracy too much. After all, I was writing a poem, not an academic journal article. My brother was thrilled I was talking with him about Elvis and borrowing his books. He was looking forward to reading what he started calling my Elvis poem.

But if the academic in my soul was dormant, he was not dead. I began reading up on Mr. B.B. King (born Riley King), and, you know, way leads on to way, and pretty soon the story of King’s own hard childhood edged out the story of his brief and casual friendship with young Elvis Aaron Presley. My original title fell away. For a couple of weeks, I became obsessed with the new poem I was writing. If a line produced no bliss for me, I killed it. King’s story was so uplifting, such a testament to the power of art to heal and uplift, and I myself — not least because of the disease that was killing my brother and that I knew might someday kill me — needed some healing and uplifting. And the poem I wrote, “Riley’s Blues,” took me to a new place as a writer, a place where I suddenly felt some authority of voice, saw that I could combine hope with hardship, could conjure in my lines a musicality that had not been there before.

At open mics, the poem was an immediate favorite. “Riley’s Blues” gave me my first win at the slam. The poem has appeared in a couple of publications, one of which even paid. “Paid?” my poet friends asked. “What, like money?” Yep, just exactly like money. Some Austin poets have even written affectionate parodies or answer poems, or will sometimes refer to this or that line. In other words,  the poem was a genuine turn in our cool little scene’s ongoing poetic conversation. Not that I don’t still struggle in my journey as a writer, but “Riley’s Blues” was a nice leg of the trip. And for a poem that isn’t about me, it’s very personal. (In fact, it’s due to fandom and appreciation for this great musician and his beautifully transcendent personal story, that my youngest son wound up with the middle name Riley.)

You might be wondering, so I’ll go ahead and tell you: no, my brother was not happy with me at all. “It doesn’t say anything about Elvis anywhere in here!” he said, hurt and betrayed. This bit of predictable Elvis fandom was a little funny, a little sad. Guy was losing his ability to reason outside some very narrow boundaries of understanding. I told him I’d written a different poem from the one I had set out to write, but that I was happy with it. Someday, I said, I’d pick back up the original idea of the Elvis-B.B. King poem. Really. And I meant what I said. That was 1996.

Off and on, I tried to write the thing, but failed and failed and failed. My brother died August 16, 2003, and his death, though awful, was a blessing, because he had been suffering so terribly. In the weeks after the funeral I felt something nagging at me, and one October morning, I knew what it was. Easily, in one sitting, I wrote the poem I’d been stuck on for seven years. Somehow the mess of lines in my head and on various scraps of paper came together as a sonnet, and that long-ago title became my last line.

Guy and I sometimes got along and sometimes didn’t. Here’s the two of us in our early twenties, during a good period, with my dad's mom, Grandma Ruth. 

Maybe you know this: the way it is between brothers can be complicated. I’ll never be square with mine. On this one matter, though, I can say — knowing what it would count for in our own set of books — hey, Guy, you know that poem I promised you? Here it is.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Welcome to Jeff’s Next Page

You know that Leonard Cohen song, “Bird on a Wire”? If you don’t, here’s Mr. Cohen performing it. If the author’s singing isn’t much to your liking (no judgment here; that’s why they make chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla), you could check out any of the zillion cover versions. I’m partial to these two by Ms. Warnes and Mr. Nelson, respectively.

There’s a lot to like about that song, but I want to draw your attention to these lines:

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

I like that tension, the fact that while both are right from a certain point of view (phrasing courtesy of Kenobi, Obi-Wan), they’re more right in their contradictory adjacency.

Cutting to the chase: I recently turned 53. I’m a husband/dad/friend. I’m a professional writer/editor, and I make a good living doing work I mostly enjoy. At the intersection of the things that matter most in life — connecting with people (love, family, friends), enjoying good health, being able to not just participate, but to really contribute and feel valued in a range of settings, feeling mostly centered and mostly good, most of the time — my life is an embarrassment of riches. I’ve got my troubles too, sure, but that’s true for everybody. Who am I to have all the good things I have in my life? Seriously, I feel like I ought to listen to that beggar, and quit asking for so much. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to listen to the woman in the darkened door. It’s not fair, but there it is. I want more.

Specifically, I am leveling-up my creativity and my art. I have spent quite a while letting that dimension of my life do its thing on autopilot, but now it’s wide awake. And it is hungry. It wants my significant attention, and it’s going to get it. Been a while. I’ve had some modest successes and plenty of failures, and I’m going to talk about them here. I’ve been stuck for a while, but now I’m not.

Some of the trouble has been just the daily grind of dinner to cook and dishes to wash and so on. Some of it is that it’s a “busman’s holiday” (that’s an old British expression meaning that the thing you do all day to earn money might look a little less shiny as a way to spend your free time, so maybe a staycation looks pretty good to a bus driver ). There’s truth in that. It’s tough to find energy to do my own work after a day of writing and editing in an office environment. And most days I’d rather engage with the people in my inner circle, or — you know, man — drink a craft beer or three and watch Game of Thrones or listen to some Jason Isbell songs or play guitar just for fun. But there’s a difference between what you want in the moment and what you really want in the bigger picture. And in the bigger picture, what I want is to kick my creative self back into gear. I want that part of my life to have its own place, to not just hang out in the margins. And this blog is that place.

People say life is short, and sure, I know what they mean, but it’s also long, from a certain point of view (Kenobi, ibid, something-something). We get chapters. We get years-long stretches where things are a certain way, and then one day we notice that it’s not that way anymore, that there’s been change, growth. I’m working on the premise here that more changes and more pages lie ahead, that there are new possibilities I’m just now approaching. Maybe that’s true for you as well. In that spirit, I’ll close this first entry with a Kenneth Rexroth poem I like a lot:

A dawn in a tree of birds.
And then another.

Here we are, then, in a story that’s still unfolding. Welcome to Jeff’s Next Page. Let’s see what happens here.