Wisdom, Vol. IV: The theft of Ambrose Bierce-isms walks among us

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – Another batch of emulations of entries in The Devil’s Dictionary.

This was my main writing exercise last night, when I had a block of time to do a few of them. I like this exercise a lot. It makes me think about what words mean, what they mean in different contexts, and what they don’t mean.

The cynicism of these aside, there’s also generally a pattern to what Bierce did and what I try to do when I write these. Not quite a formula. Anyway.

Feel free to add entries to the comments either below or at this permanent link, where older entries have been placed. Nobody’s taken me up on that, but perhaps offering what nobody wants is the sort of against the grain thinking Bierce might have liked.

achievement  A statement of adequacy most notable for prolonging the use of paper.

annexation  A means of keeping one’s rivals close.

attraction  In the fields of entertainment and matrimony, the power that ultimately results in butts in seats.

bard  A singer of  the traditional art, compliance.

base  The center of man, largely comprised of the digestive organs and resultant substances.

beggar  A friend, indeed.

borrower  A generous soul who invest in others.

commentator  An ass trained to emit the usual sounds at a greater volume.

confidence man  A mathematician who teaches other men their value.

essay  A thesis in so many words.

graft  A most dependable oiler deployed as a support to the flotilla of commerce.

grift  The most common transaction in a bull market.

hiccup  An echo of swallowed resolve.

homily  The dust that comes off when old words are shaken.

innocence  In the American justice system, one maintains this until they are proven.

mustache  An ingenious device that can be grown by its wearer to catch mucus when the skull becomes full.

proponent  The principal heir to a disputed outcome.

reverence  A silent demonstration that allows one’s dream to displace another’s sense.

salute  A sign of respect shown to the superior officer and an acknowledgement that another is wearing his hat.

sentence  At best, a means of doing justice to men and words.

suspicion  The most potent spell cast by reason.

theft  The highest form of flattery.

versatility  The ability to have a hand in multiple pockets.

vote  In America, by a certain age, each man or woman is entrusted with multiples of one; sadly, this was not always the case.

wallet  Where scruples of varying denominations are corralled.

Tagged , , , , ,

Writing Craft, Vol. XV: Author and journalist Mike D’Orso on Pumping Granite coming to paperback (Part Two)


NORFOLK, Va. – This is the second and final part of a conversation with author and journalist Mike D’Orso, whose book Pumping Granite chronicled a Barre, Vt., quarryman’s sexual awakening.

Hey now. Beg your pardon. Misread my notes there.

Pumping Granite (And Other Portraits of People at Play) [Texas Tech UP, 1994] is a collection of narrative sport-related journalism that is getting a paperback edition nearly 20 years after its initial publication. It’s a great read.

Prince Books and Borjo Coffehouse are hosting an event for the new edition tomorrow. It starts at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 7, at Borjo, 4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk. Borjo is at the corner of Monarch Way and W. 45th St.. There is nearby metered parking. The event is free. Beverages and eats will be for sale. Of course, you can also buy the book.

I caught up with D’Orso last week. The talk discuses how good reporters and nonfiction storytellers make their own luck, and how what you cover becomes a part of you. For those who missed the first part, you can find it at this link. Full disclosure: D’Orso and I are friends and former staffers at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

The last part got into reporting and spending time with subjects to find those special moments and notes that make stories sing – what D’Orso calls “telling detail.” We pick up with developing sense of place and then chew on how the writer comes to be almost one with the subject. This has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: One of the things I think you do well is world-building. A story that I think is a good example of that is “Beyond Bull Durham,” which is kind of this comic but tragic and also emotional story of a team that’s struggling, and through the eyes of this woman

You’re so right to catch that. Yeah, it’s hilarious, but it’s pathetic, and it’s real. It’s sad.

Q: How did you find that story initially?

I lived in Williamsburg, Va., for 17 years, so I always knew there was a Single A – the lowest level – minor league team … playing over there at War Memorial Stadium over in Hampton. I knew the Virginia Generals were over there, and I’d seen that the Generals had a horrible record. I thought I’d just go over there and do a story on this horrible [team]. That was the hook. Here they are, they’re at the lowest level of baseball, and they’re the worst. It was just so much more. I hardly talk about baseball [in the story]. There’s no baseball being played in the story.

Q: It’s not about baseball.

Right. The woman, she and her dad are really the central story.

Q: I learned a lot [about storytelling] from working with photographers at The Pilot.

So did I. We’ve talked about this.

Q: Right.

[The photo department] was where I lived. That was my office.

Q: A story I talk about a lot when I talk to other writers is – Ian Martin was a photographer at The Pilot. He and I had to cover an event at a [child care] center where there was a [Heinz pickle] mascot, Private Pickle, visiting. And he and I got there and one of the first things that happened was that, when they were going to bring the mascot out to meet the kids, the costume couldn’t get through the door. So they pressed the head in, and the thing comes out, and then the head of the mascot pops up and the kids jump. [Laughter.] Ian and I just looked at each other, and Ian’s first thought was, “Okay, we’re not just doing a story about some mascot.” So that changed what it was.


Q:  Can you talk about going out to do the story and how it –

How the story changes. Absolutely. When I first came to Commonwealth Magazine, which was my first job as a professional writer, I learned early on that I was going to be surprised. I was going to find a lot more than I bargained for. And it was important to be open to that. It’s a cliché that so many reporters come in with the story they want, they get what they want to get their quote, and they go out, and they write their story. You know. I haven’t seen that. The people I’ve worked with at The Pilot, they’re fantastic reporters. They come in as blank slates. Sure, you have a broad idea, an expectation, but you’re ready to be led wherever they lead you.

Q: Can you give me an example on this story?

With the Generals? Oh, my God. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, as soon as I met the general manager. She was this 20-something year old woman who knew nothing about baseball. I didn’t realize, basically, the team was a gift from her daddy. As soon as she said that, I knew who he was. […]

And then all the evidence was just piling up. And, the thing was, she would share these stories with me and not realize how poorly they reflected. You know, like home plate being put in backwards by her brother. I went over a couple days. [The first day] there was a meeting. That was the meeting I opened up with. This kid comes in on a little scooter, and he’s in charge of program sales. … It was like manna from heaven.

Q: There’s humor in the story, but I don’t feel like you’re making fun of them.

Absolutely not. I always have compassion for my subjects. You know, show don’t tell. I want to bend over backwards to give them humanity.

Q: There’s a love in there for the game.

That’s what I got from the players a little bit, and a respect for the game, too. The respect. I hope that came through without saying it overtly. […]

We get so deep into the story, and we’re in an absurd world. When I switch the story in that section to the players’ viewpoint, we’re reminded, hey, for them, this is baseball. These guys want to play Major League baseball. This is their life.

Q: Did you have contact with them after the story ran?

He wrote me a thank you note. He thought it was a great story. The dad. […] I didn’t get any anger or praise from her.

Q: The last story in the book, about Dennis [Byrd, a former New York Jets player with whom Mike co-authored Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd; the 1993 book chronicled Byrd’s struggle to walk after a spinal injury caused paralysis].

It was about writing.

Q: Well, let’s talk about that.

That was a story – I had no medium to share that story. I’d just finished writing that book, and I was immersed in it. It was in me. It was in my mind. And I thought sharing that story gave readers a glimpse into what we do and how we do it. This was the perfect opportunity to share this interesting little glimpse of what it takes, just a little slice of reporting. Just out there in the middle of a prairie at midnight in Oklahoma with this NFL football player who is paralyzed. That’s what life is all about – having experiences. Who has more experiences than people who do what we do.

Front Pumping Granite Cover

Q: In the original epilogue you talk about that process where you become ‘entwined’ with the source.

And then leave like a one-night stand.

Q: Can you talk about what happens when you’re really open or really present when you’re reporting?

When I’m open and present with the subjects?

Q: Yeah.

Well, that is the key. From the very first story . The Pilot is the first newspaper I worked at and the only one. I had already developed a process of reporting after three years with Commonwealth Magazine that I share myself with – that you [the subject] understand what I’m there for. I’d make that clear at the start. Everything is fair game. There’s no off the record or whatever, unless – and then we’ll talk about it – there is. With that understood, I’m a person and so are you, and I’m going to share myself. We’re going to have a conversation. We’re going to have a relationship. I’m not going to interview you. We’re going to have a conversation. It’s not just a one-sided assault, you know? And there’s no transgression. There’s no journalistic violation there at all. […]

It’s also not any kind of subterfuge. I am interested. That’s the kind of person I am. When I talk to writing groups and they ask, ‘what are the keys to writing?’ Really, it’s what kind of person are you? How are you with people? There are so many people I’ve seen come and go and they’ve gone to journalism school and know all the nuts and bolts, but their social skills are lacking. That’s where it all starts. When you talk about creative writing, that’s as creative as anything else. What is your approach to people? How do you get them to open up. I do it by sharing myself.

Q: When I first came to The Pilot [in 1996], some of the [sources] would be surprised at what ended up in stories. Do you ever get people feeling violated by what you included?

I’ve never had a person — I think it’s because I really do put myself in their shoes, and I also put myself in the shoes of a, kind of, imaginary court of journalism. You know, there’s going to be judges judging me. I really put myself in their shoes. I’ve had spouses call me after a story or write me and say they broke down in tears. They didn’t know this or they never saw their husband open up or whatever. That’s a big point of pride for me, that I do earn their trust.

Q: If you’re talking to a young reporter, and they’re going out to do a feature, do you want them to talk through ground rules? Like, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m doing.’

Right. People, they’re not just material. They’re not just fodder. That’s a mistake some young writers make. They lick their lips. You’ve got to keep the sense of the humanity of your subject. […]

I always keep in mind how will I feel to pick up the paper and see myself eight columns wide and see myself there laid bare and naked. And that’s going to live forever. I feel tremendous responsibility, whether it’s positive or negative, that it’s accurate. That it’s true. […] It’s not them that I’m after. It’s the truth – the story. You can ‘get’ anybody. I’m out to get great story.

For more about D’Orso, visit his site via this link. Playing us out is a message about granite from our good friends in Barre, Vt. – and beyond:

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing Craft, Vol. XV: Author and journalist Mike D’Orso on Pumping Granite coming to paperback (Part One)

The writer Mike D'Orso discusses the paperback edition of Pumping Granite at Cafe Stella in Norfolk, Va. Texas Tech University Press is publishing a paperback edition of Pumping Granite nearly 20 years after the collection of sports-related journalism first appeared because (a) it is awesomely essential reading and (b) folks in Texas do whatever the hell they want and they do so whenever the hell they want to do the thing they want to do. Photo by John Doucette.

The writer Mike D’Orso discusses the paperback edition of Pumping Granite at Cafe Stella in Norfolk, Va. Texas Tech University Press is publishing a paperback edition of Pumping Granite nearly 20 years after the collection of sports-related journalism first appeared because (a) it is awesomely essential reading and (b) folks in Texas do whatever the hell they want whenever the hell they want to do it. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – Author and journalist Mike D’Orso was the subject of the first craft talk I wrote for this blog a couple years ago, when we discussed the great story “The Project and the Park.” It captures the housing project near Harbor Park as that sports venue opened, and it is only one of 45 tales from his narrative journalism anthology Pumping Granite (And Other Portraits of People at Play) [Texas Tech UP, 1994].

Now Texas Tech University Press is publishing a paperback edition of Pumping Granite nearly 20 years after its initial publication.

Prince Books and Borjo Coffehouse are hosting an event for the new edition. It starts at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 7, at Borjo, 4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk. Borjo is at the corner of Monarch Way and W. 45th St.. There is nearby metered and garage parking. The event is free. Beverages and eats will be for sale. Of course, you can also buy the book.

I caught up with D’Orso on Thursday. The talk includes dicussion of stories from this collection of his newspaper and magazine work, with a focus on spending time with sources and subjects. We also talked about structure, how good reporters and nonfiction storytellers make their own luck, and how what you cover becomes a part of you. I’ve broken the conversation into two parts. This is the first.

By way of full disclosure, D’Orso and I are friends and both former staffers at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. This has been edited for length and clarity. Additionally, we refer to the Latin term in medias res below, though it may not be clear due to the layout setting on this blog. It means starting a story in the middle of the action.

The collection happened after D’Orso wrote a story for The Pilot about a Norfolk woman who overcame a tragedy by writing poetry. Texas Tech University Press published her collection after she won a contest, and considered using D’Orso’s story as an introduction. The editor liked D’Orso’s writing, but the poet preferred that her collection not include an introduction. D’Orso picks up the tale:

[The editor] said, ‘Well, how about a collection of your newspaper and magazine stuff.’ I said, ‘Believe it or not, I’ve already had a collection published. Hampton Roads Publishing had done Fast Takes [1990]… but I tell you, I’ve done a bunch of sports-oriented stories.’ We just batted it around back and forth and we ended up coming up with doing a collection of sports-oriented stories. Sports had always been – I’ve never been a sports writer, but I played sports. I loved sports, but I never wanted to be a sports writer. So that’s how Pumping Granite came about. …

Q: So why now did they want to do the paperback?

That was my question when I got an email from [Texas Tech University Press editor-in-chief Judith Keeling] with marvelous news. They were going to come out with a paperback edition of Pumping Granite. What I gather is they – it’s always about funds with university presses – they came into some money. … She really just loved this book and wanted to put it out again in paperback. It’s got a whole new cover for it. [We] revised the introduction and the epilogue to make it more timely, and there you go.

Q: I wanted to ask you one or two publishing questions, then ask about a couple stories and a couple things about reporting, the deep dive. First off, these stories appeared in different publications. There’s stuff from Sports Illustrated, stuff from The Pilot, Commonwealth Magazine. So when you’re republishing work in a collection, do you have to do clearances?

In terms of the copyrights?

Q: Yeah.

You know, I just did it.

Q: [Laughter.]

I’m serious. I mean, I do know the contracts with Sports Illustrated, I do own that story. They have one time rights. That’s the big deal one.

Q: But newspapers aren’t like that. I don’t own any of the stuff I wrote for The Pilot.

Right. As I recall, when Fast Takes came out, I talked to [former assistant managing editor for features at The Pilot] Carol Wood and [former managing editor] Jim Raper at the time … and they were like, ‘Great. Publicity for the paper.’ So they didn’t mind. We’re not talking about big money. [Laughs.]

Q: I wanted to talk to you about “Hell on Wheels,” which is the first story. I really thinks it sets it off – I assume you didn’t change the order for [the new edition].

Right. The way I arranged these was, really it was fun. It’s 45 stories. It just came out to that nice number. I decided to pick one for each sport or activity. I could have five basketball stories, but I just threw four away. I made my own rule. They’re in alphabetical order. …

Q: I think it’s a very good way to start off the book because I think it shows pretty quickly some things you do well. There’s the introduction of the sport [auto racing], of the main character.

I was really looking for a story that opens the book. I was looking for an ‘A’ story, an ‘A’ sport or game story, and that’s why I looked up and thanked the heavens that [this was an ‘A’story – auto racing]. That was published in the paper originally as a two-parter.

Q: There’s a really good introduction. You set the character and the scene, but the you also give the breadcrumbs. You give the information, that she works [her day job] at Chick-fil-A and putting on her uniform. The way you reveal the details of a person who has this other life. Can you tell about how much time you spend reporting and gathering the details? Then I’ll ask you about [structure] and spreading the breadcrumbs.

Gay Talese has this quote that what we do – meaning narrative nonfiction reporters. [He says] it’s the art of hanging around. All these great moments, all these great details, these great quotes, these great incidents or scenes or anecdotes, they just don fall into your lap immediately. They’re there because you hung around for four or five hours when nothing happened. Or a day or whatever. With my books, days would go by, but that’s books. They say God is in the details. Well, yeah, it’s in the ‘telling’ detail. You don’t just empty out your notebook. You know the old thing about the young writer, he’s worked so hard to get all this material he’s going to make damn sure they put it in the story. Well, no. I never went to journalism school. I never was taught all the rules and this or that. I’ve always believed very much in – you could call it instinct. All instinct means is it’s not magical. It just means you’re paying attention. It means you’re picking up stuff. You’re aware.

When I’m reporting, while I’m talking, while I’m getting all the obvious material, if anything just strikes me – it might just be something a person does, a little detail, a sound – if it strikes me, I might not even know why it strikes me, but I’ll put it in my notebook because it did. It resonated with me. I trust that if I share it in the way that it hit me, it will resonate with the reader, too.

Front Pumping Granite Cover

Q: I was a big fan of spending a lot of time. I think you give yourself more opportunities to find that little thing.

Absolutely. The more time you spend – Most people who know me wouldn’t exactly call me the most laid back, patient guy. But, as a writer, I’m extremely patient. …

Structure is really important. My typical, go-to structure is I will open up with an in medias scene.

Q: That’s what I was going to ask you about. Homer, he did that, too.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

Q: In the second leg, you start giving up the breadcrumbs really well. You start building up the character. And you do that by dropping in short grafs. How do you approach that? Do you outline?

 I do outline, but the way I outline – Baby Boomers are the first visual generation. We grew up with TV. We grew up with movies. So I tend to see stories visually. I see them by scenes. I see them by cut and editing, by a wide angle shot, by a closeup. And, you know, you write that way. A written scene can be a closeup. It can be a panning shot. And the voice, too – third person, whatever, second person, and of course the tone. Point of view. That said, when I outline I outline by – I storyboard.

Then I take all my material, and then what I’ll do is I have a file folder for each scene on my storyboard. I’ll work my way backwards from all the material I have. I know I’m going to open with this basic part of the story, and throw everything [related] in that folder. And then, within that part of the story, I’m going to have a scene, scene, scene, and I take other file folders and take that material out and keep winnowing it down until I’ve almost got it down paragraph by paragraph. Not really, but section by section. There are also scenes I’m going to be thinking about in the beginning. ‘That’s going to be a great opening scene.’ And always you’re asking yourself, ‘What’s the story?’ Because you might have a great opening. I almost started out Plundering Paradise [HarperCollins, 2002] with a scene in a whorehouse … It was a great opening scene, but it didn’t work for the whole book. To me, that opening scene has got to serve the whole story. It’s got to be something that’s going to kick you off to the heart of the story.

[In ‘Hell on Wheels’], we learn right away she’s in a pink car. … She works at Chick-fil-A. And then there’s these badass guys she’s banging fenders with. You see she’s not a tomboy, she’s a sweetheart, but she’s tough.

Anyway, I work in medias, it’s almost a classic structure. Then you pull back. You reel back, go forward and finally meet that scene, and then go forward. That scene is typically right before a climax. Or it might be right at the climax.

Part two will be up soon. For more about D’Orso, visit his site via this link.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing Craft, Vol. XIV: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper

Cast members from the CORE Theatre Ensemble adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper rehearse at the Little Theatre of Norfolk earlier this month. The play opens on Friday. Photos by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble revives its excellent The Yellow Wallpaper adaptation at Little Theatre of Norfolk this weekend.

I’m excited to see it again, and excited to talk to some old friends about how they adapted the Charlotte Perkins Gilman work – and how the show has evolved. The short story, a late 19th Century exploration of an isolated woman’s deteriorating mental health, is a key work of feminist literature.

The story is structured as journal entries of Jane, who suffers from the control of her husband, expectations of society, etc., which effectively deny her the ability to think and control her own life. Core is well known for its physical performances, and some of the themes and suggested characters within the story are reflected in the embodiment by actors of the wallpaper.

The show has been performed locally before, as well as being taken on the road. It has involved casts of varying sizes, and the latest incarnation features all woman in portrayals of the isolated, thwarted heroine at its center and the wallpaper itself.

I talked with members of Core shortly before the first run of 40 Whacks. At the time, we discussed the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of their adaptations and originals. This talk is with my longtime friends Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; and Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor and artistic associate.

The show runs at 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday, Nov. 30 to  Dec. 9, at the Little Theater of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave. in Norfolk. General admission is $15 or, for season subscribers, $10. FMI click this link or call (757) 627-8551. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: As you guys know, I’ve seen [and earlier production of] it, and I loved it. I really thought it was – I’d seen a lot of bad local theater when I saw it so  –

Ertugrul: [Laughter.]

Castillo: Okay.

Q: And I’m like, “Oh, I just paid eight dollars.” [Laughter.] But I really enjoyed this. I thought a lot about it afterward, thought about what you did, why you did it, and I thought it was a lot of strengths you guys have in a really great package. One of the reasons I talked to you about [40 Whacks], which I didn’t know going in, is that I liked The Yellow Wallpaper so much. So what I hoped we could do is talk about how you found that short story, and why you thought that might be material.

Ertugrul: I believe – It was long ago. [Laughter.]

Castillo: It was so long ago.

Ertugrul: We were trying to look for things to adapt. We wanted to do more adaptations. We had done some before and thought, “Well, what else can we do?” I had read this story when I was taking English classes in college, and I believe someone else had read it as well. And we said, “You know, that story resonates with me.” So we all went back and read it, and it was amazing how concisely and beautifully that story is written. Everyone kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we can do that.” … There have been a lot of people who have done this as a show, but a lot of them do it as a one woman show. We did not want to do that. Just what we feel about –

Castillo: One woman, one man shows – [Laughter.]

Ertugrul: “A tour-de-force!” Of one person. [Laughter.]

Q: With that work, that isn’t really moving the ball that far.

Ertugrul: It isn’t.

Q: The short story is journal entries. It’s like journal entries for the stage.

Ertugrul: It’s like a giant monologue.

Castillo: That would be an easy way out with the story, that it’s one whole monologue, which technically it is. It’s a big monologue.

Castillo and Ertugrul

Ertugrul: We had seen another show’s [production stills] that had taken it very literally. … Someone was actually holding a roll of wallpaper behind the woman. … They were in period garb and things like that. I said, “The title of the story is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper;’ it’s not ‘Woman Loses Her Mind.’” It’s not anything like that, so we thought what if it’s this long piece of paper? And, if it’s this long piece of fabric that all these people manipulate, then they actually are all the people that she talks about. What if there really are women in the paper and we manipulate it as she deteriorates? If you give yourself four wall, or three in front of an audience, it kind of takes things to a – We opened up a door that meant we could put that door in the middle of a performance. It doesn’t just have to be the way that some set designer decided.

Castillo: Actually having people manipulate the same piece of cloth, you realize very quickly that if you’re moving one piece, then somewhere down the line [it affects another actor].

Ertugrul: Someone’s either got a lot or not enough.

Castillo: It’s a great physical dialogue between everybody holding the paper. They have to create this breathing entity, basically.

Ertugrul: We’re taught that everyone [in a cast] is actively crucial. The quickest way to make them even more crucial is to tether them together.

Q: How did you approach the journal entry structure of the short story when you determined what the text was going to be?

Ertugrul: We started as a monologue, because at the beginning she’s really trying to hold it together.

Castillo: There isn’t much cut from it.

Ertugrul: Yeah, we didn’t cut a whole lot.

Castillo: The story was natural to adapt for theater because its just first person. We made a compromise here and changed –

Ertugrul: A couple of things like tense or things to make it more conversational. Like we do have conversations between her and John [the husband of the main character and, effectively, her doctor]. We made that happen. Instead of her remembering a conversation with John, which is a very passive thing, we actually had the conversation happen. We just tried to have that conversation relived. It’s a little different in this production than it was in the one you saw.

Castillo: We’ve actually subtracted all the male [cast members].

Ertugrul: Someone would play John, but this time it doesn’t happen. It’s more of a choice. We came back to again and said, “You know, it really needs to be all women.”

Q: But why?

Ertugrul: What we’re going toward is that this really is inside her head. If there are no walls, if there’s nothing really tangible for her to hold on to, then we’ve got to start breaking down what’s real and what isn’t. From the very beginning, we’re in her perspective, so therefore these conversations really didn’t happen. Was she ever really in this situation? By not really nailing down our room, it opens up so many other interpretations. … With the original production, there was a person there in front of her that she could grab and pull and try to hug. … This is all head space.

Castillo: Really all you see on stage is the wallpaper.

Q: Was it a controversial decision to make the wallpaper plaid? [Laughter.]

Ertugrul: Yeah, the tartan. We had a problem last time when the MacCleods came. [Laughter.]

Q: Where did you get the idea to use fabric as the wallpaper?

Castillo: We were batting around a couple of ideas. I remember seeing this one production a few years ago and I thought it was really cool that they had pieces of spandex on one side of a room – a completely different play – but it was sliced up and down every, I think, six inches, and the actors would jump right through.

Ertugrul: [With fabric as the wallpaper], could be like cat’s cradle and you could be in it. [Moving her fingers.] So we found it in a remnant pile at one fabric store.

Q: Did you know the text at that point?

Ertugrul: We knew we weren’t going to change the text too terribly much. We said, “Read the story.” And then we met. We had the idea for the paper and we had two songs that we liked. We said, “This is the opening, and this is where things come. We’re in the middle of it.” And we said, “Do you want to do it?” And, as long as [cast members] bought into the idea that they we were going to choreograph this entire paper everywhere, and they were excited about it, they were the right people to have.

Q: The paper’s a character and plays characters. I’m not explaining very well, but it’s a setting but it’s also characters, individual characters. Am I explaining that right?

Ertugrul: Yeah, and then, how do you integrate that. As she starts deteriorating, the wallpaper starts talking back. … There’s a lot of choral work that goes on in it.

Castillo: It’s one character and then it becomes individual voices.

Ertugrul: [The actors in the wallpaper] have to speak as a chorus and also speak individually.

Q: But it’s not bat—-.

Ertugrul: [Laughter.] No.

Playing us out – because we are born of this land, and, like this land, immortal – is a tribute to Connor MacLeod that someone made on purpose.


Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


NORFOLK, Va. — Enjoy your enriched wheat flour (flour, ferrous sulfate (iron), “B” vitamins (niacin, thiamine, mononitrate [B1], riboflavin [B2], folic acid), diced apples (sulfate treated), vegetable oil shortening (soybean, palm, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, sugar, brown sugar, modified corn starch, soy flour, salt, sweet dairy whey, soy protein isolate, calcium and sodium casein ate, calcium carbonate, calcium sulfate, agar, locust bean gum, dextrose, sodium phosphate, partially hydrogenated vegetable and/or animal shortening (contains one or more of: soybean, cottonseed or canola oil, beef fat), cinnamon, nutmeg, citric acid, cornstarch, lemon juice solids, lemon oil sorbitol, tricalcium phosphate, natural and artificial flavors, sodium propionate and sorbic acid (to retain freshness), FD&C yellow 5, red 40, plus wheat, soybeans and milk while you can, because Americas is about to run out of apple pie.

Tagged , , ,

A little patriotic music for Veterans Day

Detail of a flag on a veteran’s grave in Suffolk, Va. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — Here’s a patriotic tune from sax player Talton Manning, an Old Dominion University student who took a request a few days ago while he was busking in the Ghent neighborhood.

Manning was the subject of a recent column by Mike Gruss of The Virginian-Pilot. Want to read more about Gruss via a Belligerent Q&A? Click here.

Many thanks to Manning.

Happy Veterans Day.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Books: The 3800 block of San Diego’s 5th Avenue in Hillcrest

Bookseller Jan Tonnesen thumbs through a first edition Dr. Suess book at 5th Avenue Books in San Diego, Calif., earlier this month. Fifth Avenue Books is one of two terrific bookstores on the 3800 block of 5th Avenue in the Hillcrest area. The other is Bluestocking books, almost directly across the street. Photo by John Doucette.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Folks here said the number of bookstores in the city has dwindled in recent years, but I had time during a recent work trip to visit two terrific shops on opposite sides of 5th Avenue in the Hillcrest area – 5th Avenue Books, which sells used, and Bluestocking Books, which sells a mix of new and used.

The former Borders location in Gaslamp notably lay empty, which is not unlike an awful lot of towns, but a big recent loss for rare and used book hunters fond independent sellers was the ultimate shuttering of Wahrenbrock’s Book House, following the 2008 death of its owner. But a few shops are still going, including in and around Hillcrest, and I keep hoping people will rediscover the joy of going to a cool bookstore and finding either something wanted or something you didn’t know you needed.

With 5th Avenue and Bluestocking so close, I urge them to mate and make some beautiful new bookstores. I’m not 100 percent certain of the science behind my proposal. Regardless, the Hillcrest Town Council should petition the City Council to fund the purchase of a huge scented candle, as well as the rental of a Commodores cover band to play an autumn evening set in the middle of the avenue. Just see where it goes, San Diego. Let’s see them try to resist the silky allure of 1978’s “Say Yeah.”

Anyway. I visited Bluestocking first, where owner Kris Nelson said the store’s name roughly means “oddball,” and also refers to an intellectual woman. There’s also a brief history of the term at the store site. The number is (619) 296-1424, and they have a Facebook fan site at this link. I browsed fiction, mostly, then compulsively bought a Tim Seibles poetry collection, which you can look forward to among the prizes for next year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest. Say, did you hear about the National Book Award nominations yet? Still cool.

Nelson said the store has a fairly simple philosophy:

Come as you are. Dress how you want. Why can’t we all just be equal?

She’s had the store for 13 years, though there’s been a bookstore here since the 1960s.

I love our neighborhood. It’s still a great walking neighborhood with trees. It’s a very tolerant neighborhood.

She even met her husband here in the store, when he showed up for a poetry reading and then bought a book. The store is doing well, she noted, in part due to the shuttering of Borders — similar to what I heard at an independent store in Rhode Island last year.

We’ve seen a bump. We’ve also seen a bump because some of the used stores have been closing, which is sad.

Bluestocking bookseller Dawn Marie said:

A lot of the bookstores we used to have closed, but so has Borders. There’s one Barnes & Noble, and they’ve really cut back.

In addition to new books, Bluestocking has taken on services such as handling magazine subscriptions. Said Marie:

It boils down to where can [customers] get the services they need? And that’s what lets us grow. There’s still growth happening, but its stores that are really service-oriented.

Bluestocking Books exterior.

Kris Nelson, owner of Bluestocking Books in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego, Calif.

Bluestocking Books.

Bluestocking Books interior.

I didn’t have time to venture out to other recommended shops — Adams Avenue Book Store in Normal Heights and D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla [the latter has a Loeb Classical Library and Western Philosophy wall and, man, check out their YouTube channel] — but I loved San Diego like stupid loves low expectations. I aim to be back, and also aim to check these spots out.

That said, I found so much great stuff at Bluestocking Books and 5th Avenue Books, I ended up with a challenging carry-on situation for the flight back to Virginia. There are worse problems to have.

Across the street from Bluestocking, I spoke with Jan Tonnesen, a bookseller at 5th Avenue Books. He worked for three decades at Wahrenbrock’s before it closed.

Fifth Avenue Books holds down a big, open space at 3838 5th Ave., with some back rooms, too. The number is (619) 291-4660 and they have a Facebook fan page at this link. I ended up choosing some Modern Library volumes, including the first San Diego-bought book I started reading on the ride home — a very nice copy of The Decameron.

Tonnesen, back when he worked at Wahrenbrock’s, witnessed the late pop star Michael Jackson on a shopping spree there. His bill topped $1,700. This was by far the coolest story I heard in San Diego. Said Tonnesen:

I spent about 20 minutes alone with him in the rare books room. He wore a red silk shirt and a red surgical mask to match.

I suggested Tonnesen had a pretty good title for a memoir: I Spent 20 Minutes Alone with Michael Jackson in the Rare Books Room: A Survivor’s Story. Kind of sells itself.

I like it. Thanks.

When was that?

Oh, God. I don’t know. It was at least 15 years ago.

Before he died.

I hope so.

5th Avenue Books exterior.

5th Avenue Books interior.

A lion watches over a bookshelf at 5th Avenue Books in the Hillcrest area of San Diego, Calif.

Some nifty sketches at 5th Avenue Books included this one of Papa.

A brief epilogue:

The photos with this post are with my iPhone, so the indoor ones are a little grainy and blurry; sorry. But I want to make it up to you. I’m lighting a candle for you, bookstores.

And now it smells all like cinnamon, with just a hint of possibility.

Say, what’s that I hear from the middle of 5th Avenue?

Oh my:

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Norfolk poet Tim Seibles, author of Fast Animal, named finalist for National Book Award

NORFOLK, Va. — Poet Tim Seibles, a member of the Old Dominion University faculty, today was named a finalist for the National Book Award for his recently released book Fast Animal.

Seibles’ work has been recognized with an Open Voice Award and a NEA fellowship, and his work has been collected in Best American Poetry. He teaches in the ODU’s MFA Creative Writing Program in Norfolk and at the low-residency Stonecoast MFA in Writing program at the University of Southern Maine.

Seibles is one of five finalists in his genre. The others are David Ferry, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations; Cynthia Huntington, Heavenly Bodies; Alan Shapiro, Night of the Republic; and Susan Wheeler, Meme. The judges were Laura Kasischke, Dana Levin, Maurice Manning, Patrick Rosal, Tracy K. Smith. Winners will be announced on Nov. 14.

I had the chance to to speak with Seibles at length earlier this year about poetry, music, Fast Animal and its predecessor, the equally-amazing Buffalo Head Solos. It’s a long conversation, but people have been finding the posts again today, so I figured I’d leave another couple of links, and also link to some readings.

But first here’s one quote from Seibles, from our earlier conversation:

If people heard more poems, read more poems, I think they would be far less willing to live without it.

Click here to read the first part of the interview.

Click here to read part two (a link also appears at the end of the first part).

This is “Wound” from Fast Animal:

Additionally, this is a reading Seibles did this spring for the ODU MFA program; the poem is “Ode to Sleep,” also from Fast Animal:

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Wisdom, Vol. III: The theft of Ambrose Bierce-isms returns

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – Another batch of emulations of entries in The Devil’s Dictionary. Feel free to add entries to the comments either below or at this permanent link, where older entries have been placed. I try to come up with a couple of these before I start my writing or homework. Sometimes they get the juices flowing. Other times are other times.

bank  The arena in which money conspires against its owner, pending withdrawal.

buttock  A special paddock where unsolicited advice grazes and runs among its kind.

capital  1. Where the best ideas of a republic are heaped until the ones on the bottom and in the middle can no longer move. 2. The blood of the republic, regarded for its ability to clot only in select locations.

darkness  A vast blanket that warms all ambition.

foot soldier  In any army, a tankless job.

heel  1. The weakest part of an ancient warrior. 2. The most electable part of a modern society.

invasion  A great quest announced by one great trumpet and concluded in many little pockets.

mortgage  A means of buying today what will be lost tomorrow.

politician  A practitioner of situational idealism, the best of whom give displeased constituents directions to their neighbors’ houses.

politics  1. A chief means of monetizing duty. 2. An arena in which both contestants wear the same uniform. 3. An elaborate employment program providing for the second cousin of greatness.

privacy  The chamber into which a man withdraws from his friends for the purpose of devising their undoing.

robe  What a judge wears to hide his or her intentions.

rope  A tether fitted at birth, length to be determined.

scuffle  A conversation expressed by hand.

veil  An item worn once per marriage.

werewolf  A foolish myth with no basis in reality; rather, men grow more devilish at the new moon, when it is slightly harder to be seen.*


* Bierce’s definition: WEREWOLF, n. A wolf that was once, or is sometimes, a man. All werewolves are of evil disposition, having assumed a bestial form to gratify a beastial appetite, but some, transformed by sorcery, are as humane and is consistent with an acquired taste for human flesh. Some Bavarian peasants having caught a wolf one evening, tied it to a post by the tail and went to bed. The next morning nothing was there! Greatly perplexed, they consulted the local priest, who told them that their captive was undoubtedly a werewolf and had resumed its human for during the night. “The next time that you take a wolf,” the good man said, “see that you chain it by the leg, and in the morning you will find a Lutheran.”

Tagged , , ,

UPDATED: Allan Gurganus, Sheri Reynolds, Tim Seibles in lineup of the 35th annual ODU litfest

John McManus and Tim Seibles, co-directors of this year’s Old Dominion University Literary Festival.

NORFOLK, Va. – The 35th Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival kicks off today with a reception for two visual arts exhibits. Readings start Monday with author, poet and translator Yunte Huang, and the week goes full speed until Friday night, when Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, will write an entire novel while using only adjectives supplied by audience members.

That’s right, Hampton Roads — if you ever wanted to help a best-selling author modify his nouns and pronouns, this is your year.


For legal reasons, I must now explain that Gurganus will not write a novel with your help, but he will be here in Norfolk. Probably to read something and talk about literature. His call, really.

Sorry that lede got away from me there, but LitFest! It is great. There are a host of talented artists who will read and talk and so forth.

The full schedule is at the bottom of the post, and please do click on this link to visit the festival site.

Novelist and short fiction writer John McManus and poet Tim Seibles are co-directing the festival this year. Both have been featured here at the blog, and, by way of full disclosure, they are my professors at ODU. Seibles, who recently published the collection Fast Animal, is reading on Friday, and one of my other profs, Sheri Reynolds, who has a new novel out called The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, reads on Tuesday. Times and places are lower in the post.

I traded emails with Seibles and McManus about the festival this past week. Through the miraculous cut-paste function of modern personal computing, it seems as though I interviewed them together, but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from this year’s festival?

Seibles: The main thing I want people to take away from this litfest is a clear sense that language is alive and that poetry, fiction, non-fiction, etc., do, IN FACT, have something to say to and about their lives.

McManus: I hope writers in the audience will go away eager to write in response to the festival guests or in argument with them, and I hope everyone will leave wanting to read these writers’ books and read more in general. That’s what happens to me during and after a good reading: I fill up with a sense of urgency at the sheer number of worthwhile books that I haven’t read yet, and a sense of urgency to sit down at my desk and write.

Q: Are there any specific artists you are looking forward to hearing or seeing?

McManus: I will admit to being particularly thrilled about M.T. Anderson, whose novel Feed I’ve read five times. He won the National Book Award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, the first volume in a trilogy whose second book is partly set in Hampton Roads during the Revolutionary War. Two of my colleagues, Sheri Reynolds and Tim Seibles, are reading during the festival; it will be a delight to hear them both. I love both Dorianne Laux and Allan Gurganus. And I’m very excited about Alice Randall.

Seibles: I think all of the guests will be a good rush for the soul, but I am especially excited about Sean Thomas Dougherty, Jamal Mohamed, Robin Becker, and Yona Harvey.

Q: What was I too dumb to ask but should have asked? And will you please answer that question?

Seibles: The answer is ‘we swim in language – we drown or we stay alive in the language we think and speak.’

McManus: You’re a professional journalist and there’s nothing you’re too dumb to ask, but if you’d asked whom we’re bringing in 2013, I’d have answered that I intend to send invitations to famous recluses like Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon and Charles Portis so that I can frame copies of my invitation letters to them and also because why not, and if you’d asked where I find all the smart, modish clothes I wear to the festival, I’d have answered that Dillard’s has an amazing 75-percent-off sale every year in the last weekend of September, which is why the festival happens at the beginning of October.

A schedule follows. Please double check the litfest site. Garage parking is free for on-campus events. Events are free, except for the staged reading of 8, as noted below. Most events are in Norfolk, though one talk is in Virginia Beach. A campus map is at this link.

  • Woman, Image and Art & Photographs With Teeth: Visual arts reception. 3 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 30 @ The Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, 4509 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. Between W. 45th & W. 46th streets. Some paid street parking nearby. (Further details on both exhibits below.)
  • Dustin Lance Black’s 8: Staged reading. 8 p.m., Oct., 3-5; 12:30 p.m., Oct. 3-4 @ Old Dominion University Theatre, 4600 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, Va. General admission $20; students $15. Proceeds benefit ODU Out & The American Foundation for Equal Rights.
  • Author, poet and translator Yunte Huange. 2:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Chandler Recital Hall, Diehn Fine and Performing Arts, 481o Elkhorn Ave., Norfolk. Near W. 49th St.
  • Poet Yona Harvey. 4 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Robin Becker. 7:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Batten Arts & Letters Building, 43rd Street & Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk.
  • Author Sheri Reynolds. 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ Batten Arts & Letters.
  • Poet Patrick Rosal. 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ Learning Commons, 1st Floor, Perry Library, 4427 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, Va. Near W. 45th St.
  • Screenwriter and playwright Dustin Lance Black. 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ North Cafeteria, Webb Center, 49th Street & Bluestone Avenue, Norfolk, Va.
  • Photographer Karolina Karlic, 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Gordon Art Galleries
  • Poet Sean Thomas Dougherty. 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Dorianne Laux. 4 p.m., Wednesday, Oct.3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Author M.T. Anderson. 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Jan Freeman. 12:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Virginia Beach Higher Education Center, 1881 University Dr., Virginia Beach. Surface parking nearby.
  • Percussionist Jamal Mohamed. 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet and playwright Merle Feld. 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Tim Seibles. 2:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Alice Randall. 4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Author Allan Gurganus. 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.

And these longer-term events:

  • Woman, Image and Art: Visual Arts. Runs through Feb. 10 @ The Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, 4509 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. Between W. 45th & W. 46th streets. Some street parking nearby. FMI click this link.
  • Photographs With Teeth: Photography by Yunghi Kim, Cori Pepelnjak, Karolina Karlic & Greta Pratt. Runs through Oct. 14 @ Gordon Art Galleries. FMI click this link.

Please keep your adjectives to yourself – unless they are superlative.

Look, that was just a half-hearted grammar joke. Please do not shout out adjectives at Allan Gurganus.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,