Category Archives: Journalism

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.

 

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Writing Craft, Vol. XIII: The AV Club contributor Will Harris talks about freelancing (Part Two)


NORFOLK, Va.– This is the second part of my Q&A with writer Will Harris, contributor to The AV Club pop culture Web site, among others. Harris also has his own blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link.

If you want to read part one first, click this link, and an earlier Belligerent Q&A is here.

This portion of the talk deal with making it work as a freelancer, as well as approaching Q&As by structuring questions and knowing how far to push.

Q: Can we talk about the nuts and bolts of being a freelancer? One of the things I always had to struggle with was getting the invoices out.

Yeah, my wife has been very helpful in giving me a wall calendar so I can monitor when my assignments are due for various publications, when I need to send the invoices out. I’m lucky a couple of them send emails automatically saying, ‘Please give me your invoice tomorrow.’ Otherwise, I’m keeping track as well.

Q: I have a client when I was in New York who was a good steady client, but, basically, they would forget to pay me. Have you been through that with various publications?

Well, with [one publisher] there were occasions when I was unable to cash a check. I had to wait. There was no money in the account. … I attempted to cash a check and was told there was insufficient funds in the account. For the most part, I haven’t had an issue with people not paying me in a timely fashion.

Q: When I was a freelancer, I basically had to do magazine stories to afford to do the newspaper stories I wanted to do. There’s a lot of working for clients you maybe would not [normally] work for.

For me, the only one I do is [writing about] real estate, which I didn’t love to begin with but have pretty much grown to live with. It’s not even difficult, it’s just so completely different from anything I’ve done previously or that I am doing, I just feel I have to change gears at the same time I’m getting all these emails from other people I am currently writing for – I’m literally shifting gears as I have to write the piece.

Q: You have to take this work sometimes.

It’s a steady check. I get it every two weeks. It’s hard to reject that kind of regular money.

Q: I’ve – more when I was at The Pilot – but I’ve talked to journalism students. One thing I loved doing at The Pilot was talking to the high school program they had at The Pilot at the time. And the one thing the kids talked about is how they were going to write this, and they’re going to write that, and that’s not the reality of what it is to write. Especially, I think, when you’re a freelancer.

The real reality is if you’re going to be a newspaper writer you have to basically surrender to whatever it takes to get on the paper and work your way to where you want to be. Freelancing, it’s a little bit easier to pick and choose, but you still have to have an amount of foresight as far as what’s going to pay the bills.

Q: You’ve got to make so much every month, no matter what you want to write.

Right. I was talking about this the other night. Jim Morrison, a freelance writer, when I went freelance I talked to him first because he’s one of the few people I know who have made a living at it. The first thing he told me was, ‘You can make it in freelancing if you can get five [clients you can count on] per month. You can build a budget based on that.’ I’ve fortunately been able to do that.

Q: In New York, I made enough to pay bills but I didn’t have insurance.

If my wife did not have insurance through Norfolk Public Schools, then I would be out of luck, and would probably not be working full time as a writer.

Q: I would never want to write for The AV Club because I would never want to be in the position of screwing up a site I read every day. [Laughter.] If that makes sense.

It makes sense.

Q: But one of the cool things is I read The AV Club – and you and I have talked about this before – but I read it pretty maniacally. I’m pretty sure I go there once, if not twice per day to see whatever Sean O’Neal is writing or whatever. It’s really cool to know somebody who writes there. I wonder if people come up and talk to you about that or just, ‘How do you do it?’

A lot of people around here don’t know I write for The AV Club, outside of Facebook, but I have several good friends who say, ‘How do you get in with The AV Club?‘ The best advice I can give you is what Noel [Murray, an AV Club contributor,] gave to me, which is you need to have an in, and even then there’s so many people who want to write for The AV Club that it doesn’t even get you that far.

Q: How much of the work is pitched to you? Or how much do you pitch?

I pitch a lot. I’ve built a pretty huge collection of publicist friends during the five years I was at Bullz-Eye, and the four years at Bullz-Eye while I was in the [Television Critics Association], and it’s incredible how far The AV Club name will get you in addition to the people I already knew. You just jump to a complete other echelon with The AV Club.

The biggest issue I find is a lot of the publicists don’t know what The AV Club is but they do know what The Onion is, and you have to sell it as being The Onion AV Club at the same time you’re clarifying, ‘It’s not the jokes. It’s for real and it’s serious.’ It’s kind of a delicate line sometimes.

Q: Could you talk about pitching? My pitches used to be letters.

It’s email. I get so many emails from publicists pitching me interviews. Some of them are not obviously huge names. One of the things I love doing at The AV Club is [a feature called] ‘Random Roles.’ You don’t have to be a big name. You just have to have a very long career. By virtue of that, whenever I even get remotely interested in a pitch for that, I send it off and it’s reached a point now where I’ll say 70 percent of the time they will be like, ‘Go for it.’ [Harris checks to ensure] nobody else has pitched it. I’m very sensitive about stepping on anyone’s toes.

It is literally a dream gig.

Q: The comments just go off the charts on that site, and they’re not always very kind to the writers.

They’re not, but there’s perpetual criticism about ‘Random Roles’ about, ‘Oh, how come you didn’t ask them abut this?’ I seem to have built some semblance of a fan base in the comments section.

Q: I think one of the reasons ‘Random Roles’ works so well is stories with big stars usually suck.

One thing about ‘Random Roles’ is it can be a big star. Like Mark Harmon, when I set that interview up, he was the number one most-loved TV celebrity, and yet I talked to him for an hour and asked him about all this stuff he never gets asked about anymore. And at the very tail end of it, I asked about NCIS, and prefaced it by saying, ‘This has got to be the longest interview you’ve done in years where you’ve barely been touching NCIS.’

Q: People who are character actors, those people tend to be, for me, more interesting, because they seem to be more forthright.

Yeah. I think they’re rightfully convinced they can get work even if they mouth off.

Q: One of the things I like about The AV Club, and your writing specifically, is an appreciation for the forms. Whatever you think about reviews, there’s an appreciation for an art. One of the greatest things I’ve heard in my life is the commentary by Roger Ebert for Dark City. It’s a great commentary, and I think one of the few film commentaries I’ve listened to more than once. There’s such an appreciation for film. I think you really get a sense that the people writing for The AV Club, too, they really care about the form and they find meaning in it. How does that work for you to get to write about pop culture?

I’ve been a trivia geek since I’ve been in single digits. … I was just eating this stuff up because I’d never heard of it and it sounded interesting to me. I’ve just been an obsessive about pop culture since then. The opportunity to write about pop culture for an audience that, as evidenced in the comments section, loves pop culture as much as I do, it’s an honor. And not one I thought I would ever see.

Q: Is it difficult to get people who have reached a certain level of success in the entertainment industry and get them to sit down and to ask them tough questions?

I’ve rarely been one to ask the hard-hitting questions. Not because I don’t think I could, but because I don’t think I have an interest in them. I’m never going to ask somebody a gossipy kind of question like you’d read in a publication like People or Us Weekly because I don’t have an interest in that.

If you send a reporter who actually enjoys talking to an interview subject or just is friendly with them, I think you get a better interview. At a certain point, if you are friendly with the person, they will open up about the stuff.

Q: Do you feel that’s what happened with the Larry the Cable Guy interview? You asked him some questions about a situation he had [with criticism from comedian David Cross].

Yeah, but I asked at the end of the interview and I didn’t ask in a confrontational way. I literally said, ‘I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you talk about this. I’m really just curious what you thought of it.’ As a result, I had another half-hour conversation with him. It was arguably a hard-hitting topic, but it was not a hard-hitting question. As a result, I got some really great answers. I don’t know if that tactic works for me all the time or some people any of the time.

Q: Do you feel like you have to ask questions like, ‘Do you hate gay people? Do you hate Arabs? When you make jokes like that?’ Do you feel that’s a responsibility for a critic?

I think it’s responsible to ask those questions. It’s just not something I would want to do. I’m very aware of the difference between a real person and an act. I’ve interviewed Andrew Dice Clay and I know that’s an act, but certainly it’s offensive to plenty of people.

Q: The thing that David Cross was kind of pointing out in Larry the Cable Guy’s act is that he goes for the easy joke.

You could argue that if you go back and read his responses, his response was a little disingenuous, you could say. Kind of avoiding the direct accusations in favor of being, ‘Why me? Why’s he picking on me?’ If I was a different kind of interviewer, I probably would have asked a harder hitting question, but I still got a better answer than a lot of people would have gotten. I just didn’t feel the need to go for it. That wasn’t why I asked the question in the first place. …

If it had been like a major headline story and I had an opportunity to ask him about it that would be one thing, but this was four years after the fact. It wasn’t like I was waiting with bated breath to find out what Larry the Cable Guy thought of David Cross’ letter.

Q: What I was going to ask about was actually structuring interviews.

When it comes to asking questions that could piss somebody off, I invariably wait until either the very end of the conversation or at a point in the conversation when I’ve developed enough of a rapport with the person that they know I’m not trying to be a dick by asking them. …

If you’ve got somebody on the phone where they’re in a position to hang up on you, you can probably wait until you have everything else you need first, and then ask the question.

Q: Have you ever had anybody just get pissed off and hang up the phone?

Ving Rhames, more or less. … Basically, it was for Death Race 2, the straight to DVD prequel to the remake of Death Race 2000.

Q: That’s the saddest line anyone’s ever said.

I’ve talked to a lot of people for straight to DVD sequels. I’m not going to lie to you.

Q: But no other film can claim that superlative.

No. So I think it was the day before or even that day and they said, ‘Oh, Ving Rhames is going to do some interviews.’ Well, I’ve got to get in with that. They forewarned me that they were not going to have copies of the video to screen in advance. So we talked for about five minutes, and we were supposed to have 15, and it’s going pretty well. I very casually and not trying to draw attention to it said, ‘I haven’t actually been able to see the film yet, but I understand you do such and such.’ Before I can even finish the statement, he goes, ‘What do you mean you haven’t seen the film?’ I said, ‘They haven’t sent me a copy of the film. It wasn’t available.’

[Rhames then quoted the Russian actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski as saying] ‘if you do not take your job seriously, I will not work with you.’ [Laughter.] So I wait to see if he’s kidding. Apparently not, so go, ‘Then the interview is over? I hope not.’ He says, ‘No, that was Stanislavski. I will finish this interview, but I think you need to, as a journalist, take your job more seriously.’ [The interview lasted about two more minutes.] I do take my job seriously. If they had a copy available I would have watched the film.

Q: What’s the name of the film again?

Death Race 2.

Q: Why didn’t you take your job more seriously?

Ah, again, I really have no more of an answer for you than I did for Ving Rhames.

Q: It’s not just a race. It’s a race about death.

The second race about death.

Playing us out is a trailer Stanislavski undoubtedly would have loved.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XIII: The AV Club contributor Will Harris talks about freelancing (Part One)


Chesapeake, Va., writer Will Harris sports a mashup tee combining his love of the United Transportation Union and Ram, Paul McCartney’s under-appreciated 1971 collaboration with his late wife. Oh, wait. I think that’s just a Futurama shirt with some letters obscured. So forget that first bit, though you might want to revisit Ram. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va.– Will Harris has a gig an awful lot of geeks like me wish we could pull off – TV criticism and interviews for the seriously fun The AV Club pop culture Web site.

Born effectively as the back pages to The Onion’s print and web operations, The AV Club of that has come out from under the shadow of its parodying parent to become a uniquely cool destination to read about the tube, flicks, music, and a strangely divisive substance called The Bieber.

Harris, a contributing writer at the site and for other publications, also has a nifty blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link, or check out his Twitter feed.

Harris, based in the Hampton Roads, Va., burb called Chesapeake, recently was the subject of a Belligerent Q&A here at the blog. You can read that at this link, but please let me apologize in advance for the whole Isabella Rossellini deal, and assure you I am keeping 1,000 yards away from her since I posted it. When the courts stipulate, I am compelled to stipule, which is to say I produce an outgrowth or two on the side of my petiole. Botany!

Harris met up with me a few weeks back at the Taphouse on 21st Street in Norfolk. Harris had a bourbon and diet Coke. To make up for his blatant carbs caution, I brushed some thick, refreshing Guinness onto my belly until I glistened like a dewy European hornbeam. Also botany!

Anyway, the interview went from there.

This portion of the talk focuses on how Harris got into music writing, the joy of freelancing, and then turning to TV criticism. It also includes me trying to make a foolishly hyper-local joke that makes up for with obviousness what it lacks in subtlety, unlike the awesome botany gags above.

Fortunately, we get through that quickly.

Q: You’ve got a neat story about coming to be a freelancer. Can you take me through the journey?

I really just wanted to write starting in about seventh grade. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that ability but I knew I was halfway decent at it. … Senior year of high school, I was actually on the newspaper staff, and I started to get more a feel for what I actually wanted to do. I went to a high school journalism convention in New York, and there was a guy there who was giving a speech about doing reviews for your high school paper. Basically, the thesis of his entire speech was ‘if you send a letter to record companies, they will give you free stuff.’ [Laughter.]

And that sounded really, really great to me. So I tried it, and sent a letter to I.R.S. Records [which represented acts such as R.E.M., The Cramps, and Fine Young Cannibals] and said, ‘I am a high schools journalist and would love to write a record review column. If you have any new releases you would like to send, I would love to review them.’ They sent me copies of Concrete Blonde’s first album, and the soundtrack to [the documentary film] Athens, GA: Inside/Out on vinyl.

What I really remember about that review is that it was the first and probably not the last but certainly the most egregious occasion where I totally wrote something inaccurate in a review. I referred to the version of ‘Swan Swan H,’ in reference to the original, as having intense orchestration, because I’d only actually heard it once and that’s what I remembered. It’s actually acoustic. That went into print and I still have a copy of it to keep me humble.

Q: What high school?

Great Bridge [in Chesapeake, Va.].

Q: What was the paper called?

The Bridge. [Laughter.]

Q: Makes sense. Did they change it to The New Bridge when they put the new bridge up?

I don’t think so but I can’t tell you that.

Q: What did you start out as?

At the time it was pretty much straight music reviews, because that’s what I was excited with. The idea of getting free stuff was a major impetus for that direction. … I’d just discovered alternative music – R.E.M., Morrissey, The Cure. I didn’t join the staff until my senior year. … And then when I graduated, my grades were not what you would call spectacular. I went to [Tidewater Community College] and I don’t know if they do now but they certainly didn’t at the time have a journalism program … I transferred to Averett [University], where I got my journalism degree.

I really didn’t do much actual writing until I got to Averett, and then essentially I’m writing for the newspaper on a regular basis.

Q: But you knew –

I knew that’s what I wanted to do, absolutely. I was writing for my own amusement. I wasn’t actually trying to send it off anywhere. There was really nowhere to send it, frankly.

Q: That’s kind of a thing, though. When you want to freelance, and you want to do a certain kind of thing, you want to be a music writer but you have to take a newspaper job. Did you find that right away that you couldn’t really write what you wanted?

No. I guess I did in high school, at first, because then I was writing just very basic stuff. I mean, whatever they handed me, I wrote. You know, who had the best fast food burgers in the area, to violence at football games. A variety of stuff. I mean, I still enjoyed writing it. … But then when I wrote the review, despite the fact that I wrote it very poorly, it seemed I knew what I was talking about.

Q: So you’re writing for the college newspaper –

The Chanticleer.

Q: What is it?

The Chanticleer.

Q: Really?

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Q: That’s a sweet name for a school newspaper. [It is French for “sing clear,” according to Wikipedia, which is French for “probably accurate;” it often refers to a rooster.]

Me [and former reporters for The Virginian-Pilot] Jim Washington, John Warren were all alumni of The Chanticleer. …

Q: Was there anything that really stood out from your time as a college journalist?

I had a column. Having looked back on some of those in retrospect, they were pretty terrible, but it gave me a feeling for wanting to spotlight the obscure. I think I still do now.

Q: What do you mean?

Well, I was coming off working at a record store for a couple of years. I was listening to a whole lot of albums that were not getting a lot of promo or press. I enjoyed the opportunity in that column to spotlight something I really liked and I didn’t think anyone had heard of.

Q: So what were some bands you really enjoyed focusing on?

Back then I did spotlights on the Judybats, Material Issue … I think probably the favorite [one] I did was on The Replacements. I think that was the first time I really sat there and tried to take it seriously, not just as a listener but as a writer. I probably don’t want to look back on it now because I probably remember it a lot more fondly than it actually was.

Q: I started as a freelancer when I was in college for The Pilot, but I used to write music stories just for the money. You know, you write an album review, you get $25. I think there was a time where I looked at those reviews and I wanted to write about music I liked and also kind of placing whatever I was reviewing in the scheme of things. Not just saying, “Hey, this is a good record or a bad record.” Was there a time that you really developed an understanding of what you wanted to do with reviews?

Probably after I got out of college because of the fact that I wasn’t necessarily my own editor anymore. I had been able to edit my own stuff in the column and that showed. [Laughs.] Certainly in retrospect, anyway. It certainly didn’t bother anybody at the time. Once I was able to work under an actual editor that went a long way toward helping me hone.

I did my internship at [the former local music pub] Rock Flash.

Q: That’s kind of a great internship.

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Q: Well, if you want to write music –

Yeah. For what I wanted to do, it was perfect. Our office was at the Beach. We shared a parking lot with The Raven [restaurant at Virginia Beach’s Oceanfront]. It was really cool for what I was able to accomplish as far as building connections and getting the feel for dealing with publicists. It was a little hard dealing with the reality that not every editor and publisher cares as much about the actual writing as you would like them to. It was more about advertising.

Q: Yeah, you’ve got to fill that space around the ads. Did you write for any other local pubs?

Acrtually, you may have seen on Facebook, I still have the letter from when I applied [for an internship] at The Pilot … ‘We’ll let you know.’ [The Rock Flash internship was] cool. I don’t think it was paid. Totally unpaid. I might have gotten like $50 at the end of it. You know, ‘Thanks for working your ass off for nothing, basically.’ But I got it. That’s really what mattered in the long run. I started writing for them. I got freelance after I got back from college. That was the first recurring gig that actually paid any money at all.

Q: What were you doing while you were freelancing?

I was working at the Tracks at Loehmann’s Plaza the first year after college. Then I went over to Harris Publishing. I started on the phones there and was on the phones for about five years. I started getting ridiculously good interviews. In retrospect, I have no idea how Rock Flash actually pulled them. I interviewed Robin Gibb, Johnny Rotten, Jellyfish, the Posies, a laundry list of people who were either big at the time or went on to become very important. …

At some point it went from Rock Flash to Flash Magazine. Then it went from Flash Magazine to 9Volt. I can’t remember the exact series.

Q: So how did you go from that to [fulltime] freelancing? … There’s a lot of dues-paying in freelancing.

To say the least. Pretty much all I was doing was freelancing pretty much for 10 years, basically. Rock Flash to Flash to 9Volt. 9Volt to Port Folio Weekly for a little while, and then I was writing unpaid for a couple of pop music magazines. One called POPsided and one called Amplifier. …

So I was writing for them with my friend David Medsker. … We were both writing for PopMatters and he got a gig writing for Bullz-Eye and then bumped up to editor, and his first act of nepotism was … to bring me on. Six months after that, the publisher said you’re our most prolific freelancer by far, and as soon as we’ve got the budget, we’d like to bring you on fulltime. Six months later, they had the budget and brought me on as an associate editor fulltime. That’s where I was for five years.

Q: I freelanced twice in my career. I could never figure out a way to make a living at it.

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was going to make a living as a freelancer. I didn’t know anybody else who was freelancing full time. Everyone I knew was using it as kind of for fun and on the side. The full time thing with Bullz-Eye was really out of the blue. It’s not so much that it doesn’t really have to do with what your abilities are, but it certainly does absolutely have to do with who you know.

Q: The big thing about stringing is you have to get people to trust you can do the work. So how do you do that? How important is that first assignment for a new client?

It’s very important. Certainly, with The AV Club it was invaluable. I was Facebook friends with [The AV Club contributing writer] Noel Murray for a year and he would occasionally hit ‘like’ on something I posted, so I felt he at least was aware of who I was. At some point he’d responded to something I’d written, so I sent him a direct message saying, ‘Out of curiosity, how do you get a foot in the door at The AV Club?’ Basically, he said someone had to foster an introduction to [The AV Club‘s editor] Keith [Phipps] and ‘I’ll do that if you like.’ Because I had a pitch. I pitched it and Keith said, ‘Would you be willing to collaborate with Noel, just because we’ve never worked with you before?’

Unfortunately, at the time I still was fulltime with Bullz-Eye. … Because I was so swamped for Bullz-Eye, I kept setting the piece for The AV Club aside in favor of something I had absolutely hard deadlines on, whereas I did not have one for The AV Club. It sat there and sat there and then I got the news at Bullz-Eye that I was going to be shifting to freelance whether I wanted to or not. That night, I sent an email to Noel and said, ‘Look, you have every right to not want to collaborate with me on this piece because I’ve been dormant for so long, but I had this pile and just kept shifting it because it wasn’t something I had a deadline for. I had to maintain.’ He wrote back, “I’ve got a pile like that. If you’re ready to start working on it, let’s do it.’ Within two days, I’d finished the piece and I’d worked harder on that than I’ve worked on any piece in my life. [Laughter.]

And then turned it in. I sent it to Noel first. Noel sent it back and said, ‘All right, normally I would send you my edits, but they were so negligible I don’t have anything to do but tell you you did great.’

Q: What was the piece?

It was an inventory on TV characters on real game shows. Like plots of episodes, Barney on How I Met Your Mother going on The Price is Right.

Q: That’s a really obsessive list.

[Laughs.] Yes. Extremely.

Q: That’s kind of The AV Club’s –

Yeah, I’d been an obsessive reader of the site, anyway. In fact, I had their book on inventory lists. I knew what I was getting into, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t aping it poorly.

Noel … sent it to Keith, and Keith wrote me the praise that ‘I really wasn’t sure which ones were Noel’s and which were yours.

That was invaluable in getting me a major foot in the door as a regular contributor. It’s a lot of relationships. You never know what’s going to turn into a relationship in the world of social media. It may be a very casual situation. They don’t know who you are. They just accepted your friend request. Versus them actually latching onto you because they like what they see. Virtual friends or whatever. Certainly, I’ve learned that social media is invaluable.

Q: How so?

A combination of self marketing, but also just meeting likeminded peers. I’ve certainly proceeded to bond with a lot of writers who I would not have ever had any way of crossing paths with were it not for Facebook or Twitter or stuff like that.

Q: When did TV coverage work its way into the mix?

Two-thousand seven. When I started writing for [Bullz-Eye] and realized how many promos they were getting, I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ Once I started doing more reviews, I found out about the Television Critics Association. I found you could apply, and they were accepting online writers. I sent them an application. They wrote back and said, ‘You need to tighten up the site a bit.’ [A certain percentage of Harris’ writing needed to be on TV.] … So I started bulking up the site. I started doing regular news briefs. I started reviewing more DVDs whenever possible. … The time came when I applied in 2007 again and they accepted me.

In the next post, we talk about the nuts and bolts of freelancing, some of the stories Harris has covered, and finding the right balance of questions to make an interview click.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XII: Beatty Barnes, Marlon Hargrave & Rob Wilson, executive producers of Keep the Change


Keep the Change executive producers Rob Wilson and Marlon Hargrave on Colley Avenue. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — Keep the Change, a new sketch comedy group in Hampton Roads, holds its debut show on Sunday, and I caught up with the group’s executive producers to talk about writing funny, writing the truth, and why their group aims to tackle sketch comedy from fresh perspectives.

Barnes and Wilson are both members of Plan B improv and sketch comedy. Wilson, of Chesapeake, recently was featured along with Plan B’s Jason Kypros in a discussion of comedy writing you can find at this link. Barnes, of Norfolk, is a veteran comic who I hope to speak with here again down the road. Hargrave, an actor, director and acting coach, lives in Portsmouth, which earns him extra points. Portsmouth living is what all the cool kids are doing. At least until the tolls kick in.

This conversation deals with the seeds of this group, including approaches to writing, collaboration, and seeking truths.

The Keep the Change show is at 8 p.m., Sunday, July 15 at Lola’s Caribbean Restaurant, 328 W. 20th St., Norfolk. There’s some free surface lot parking, and some limited nearby street parking. The restaurant is at W. 20th at Debree Avenue, within the Palace Shops & Station shopping center. Admission is $5, and the restaurant is running some drink and appetizer specials.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and there’s some adult language below.

Just a housekeeping note for those who are coming to this blog for the first time: I’m a writer, not a comic. I’ve been fixated a bit on comedy writing for the past year because I’ve been playing with joke structures within some new short fiction stories. The questions I ask writers and, in this case, writer/performers, reflect my interests, ignorance, and hang ups, such as they are, but my goal in doing these talks is to (a) talk to people I dig and (b) steal their hard-earned life forces to make my own writing better.

People seem to enjoy the conversations and get something out of it. That’s where this is coming from.

Q: So how many people are in the group?

Wilson: [Whistles.]

Barnes: Ah.

Hargrave: At last count it was about –

Wilson: Fourteen?

Hargrave: No, 15.

Wilson: You know, I think we’re back up to 15.

Hargrave: We might be up to seventeen. We were at 22 before.

Wilson: We shed a couple pounds. [Laughter.]

Q: Did they want more snacks?

Wilson: A lot more snacks, a lot less work. That’s the funny thing to me, when people join a thing and they –

Barnes: They don’t think about the work.

Wilson: They don’t think about the work. They’re like, “Yeah, man. I would love to be famous.” [Laughter.] “Work? Yeah … I’m good.” [Laughter.]

Q: Is this going to be your first performance?

Wilson: This will be our first full show. We did a sketch at my [comedy] show, “The Business” [in May]. Did like a little standup thing, and I think it went over really well. Just trying to get our sea legs.

Hargrave: What makes the group really unique is we have poets, we have comedians, and actors. It’s pretty dynamic.

Wilson: We’ve got some straight-up writers, as well. That’s more their background, but they’re getting up on their feet and performing. It’s really cool that all these people come from all these different backgrounds, and we kind of have all bled into each others’ fields.

Hargrave: We also have musicians, too.

Q: Is it basically an improv-sketch group or more variety?

Wilson: Pure sketch, but we’ve got so many other elements like the poets and musicians. That’s an integral part of the show. So you talk about writing, and you’re moving out of a strictly sketch format, which is great.

Hargrave: With that type of dynamic, we’re able to expand our comedy to real life experiences and having a poet or writer is a beautiful thing because they write all the time. As a matter of fact, our poets come up with skits.

Wilson: It’s about expression, in that not everybody gets reached the same way. Some peope love musicals. Some people love straight plays. Some people love action movies. Some people love whatever. You’re going to get a different sketch, a different idea, a different performance from someone’s who’s writing from a musical background, because they’re concerned about the rhythm. … It’s pretty neat seeing what everyone is coming up with. And our job is, a lot of times, facilitating all this talent we’ve got, and funneling it and packaging it into one really cool show.

Beatty Barnes. Courtesy photo.

Q: So both of you [Wilson and Barnes] , you’re still in Plan B, right?

Barnes: Yes.

Wilson: Yeah.

Q: So why did you want to do something different?

Barnes: I’m going to go with because Rob pulled me into it. [Laughter.]

Wilson: It’s not necessarily a black voice.

Barnes: There you go.

Wilson: But it is.

Barnes: It’s a voice, a different voice that hasn’t been seen around here in a really long time in sketch.

Q: Is everybody in the group black?

Barnes: No.

Wilson: We’re equal opportunity. … We were Pushers. Beatty was the alpha black dude in the Pushers. I was, I think, beta. [Laughter.] … Plan B’s really cool because I look at our roster now, and we’re about 50-50. That’s cool, but you talk about when Beatty was in the Pushers, it was just him, and then when [another actor] came along it was them, and then [the other actor] left. When I came in, Beatty left, and then for the longest time it was just me. It’s nice to be in a place where you’re not the only. “Okay, we need a black guy for this sketch.” In this place, we make sure we’re all pretty diverse and we’re experienced knowing that feeling. We write people. We don’t write black people or white people. Well, sometimes we need a cop. [Laughter.]

Q: Irish accent?

Wilson: Aye. [Laughter.]

Q: We’ve [Wilson and I] talked before about some of the groups and the idea of representation, and you’ve got a sketch where somebody’s black and that’s what the sketch is.

Wilson: Which is tiresome, at best.

Hargrave: And also I guess my problem with it is, and this is even on large-scale with TV, even when they do [feature a black character], it’s not written well enough. It’s not written truthfully enough. There’s always what somebody’s perception is. Usually the people who write it don’t have experience. They’ll grow up in the suburb and write about somebody in the hood, and it’s just from their perspective, and it becomes very … generic homeboy-ish, not really getting into who this person is. Very cliché. Just the human experience is what we’re trying to cover. More of a truthful story through comedy.

Wilson: One of the things we talked about was we wanted to tell the truth. Not just my truth. I kind of grew up in the suburbs. Even in Queens, it was more suburban than the Bronx. You know what I mean? We want to write everybody’s experience. My truth and Beatty’s truth and Marlon’s truth. There’s a lot of different shades. … We’re trying to make it clear that there is no one black experience. That shit used to piss me off because in theater, in a predominantly white school, college I mean, and you’d have people come up and say, “Well, what do black people think of this.” Well, I can tell you what I think. Damn it, me and him think two different things. So in trying to start this group, you understand you’re going to hear black voices, but it’s a choir, not a solo.

Q: Why did you want to do this instead of or in addition to what you were already doing? Was there any sense you weren’t getting what you needed from the groups you’re already in?

Wilson: It’s necessary. Wherever there’s a lack of something, and it’s blatant, it’s glaring, you can see there’s nobody doing it here, at least. It needed to be filled. It’s tough. Some of us have three, four, five other projects. This is a necessary thing that needs to be done. Dave Chappelle and Tyler Perry can’t do it by themselves. …

Barnes: Tyler Perry is the Kenny G of black theater.

Q: He’s a regular reader of the blog, so this is really going to hurt him.

Hargrave: When Tyler Perry comes to town, there’s a group of people who will support him and we understand that. We’re far from that, and we would like to offer a different voice because our stories are so diverse and we don’t think of everything the same way.

Q: How do you avoid doing stereotypes when you do comedy?

Barnes: Don’t do it.

Hargrave: Because we’re real. … We do more of the human experiences, so we shy away from the conversations that have been done again and again through the years.

Q: Rob and I talked before about representation, which is a big thing I ask people about on the blog [because I’ve struggled with it in my writing]. … One of the things I’ve seen in some of the comedy, but people like Larry the Cable Guy, there’s a reinforcement of the subjugation of people who have been marginalized.

Wilson: My thing is the truth, man. That’s our mission statement: the truth. Even if you’re going into a stereotype, if it’s founded in truth, I mean, people get mad when you tell them the truth. … As long as it’s really true, then it will be funny. It’s an undeniable fact if it’s true. If it’s bullshit, people can sniff that out.

Hargrave: There’s this low hanging fruit if you go for the stereotype. We go for the fruit at the top of the tree, or at least we deal with the roots of it. Comedy is truth. Comedy and conflict is truth. We stay on that side of it. … I hate when you watch movies and the black guy is the sidekick. That never happens in real life. You’ve never seen a black guy be a sidekick to a white guy.

Q: I’ve had my personal ad out for a couple of years, and never got any responses.

Wilson: “Needed: black, funny sidekick.” [Laughter.]

Hargrave: We run into that all the time. It a voice that’s not there. For the most part … people don’t even realize that there’s another story until it is told.

Q: Can you give me an example where you were able to do that?

Wilson: There was one particular sketch that was written, it’s one of our favorites, I think, of church folks. It deals with an old-timey, you know … Sheeba McLeod wrote a sketch called “Church Folks,” and there was an appendage thing I wrote a long time ago, just all of those things in one sketch. The main thing is there’s a stereotypical preacher and we’re not poking fun at black church. A lot of people would have stopped there because when you think about black church, that’s a staple. You’ve got the preacher. He’s whooping and hollering. You’ve got folks falling out. You know, everybody knows the scene of black church. Tyler Perry has helped a lot with that. [Laughter.] No, but I mean even going as far back as Flip Wilson, these are your archetypal characters in this community. What she did, first and foremost, was kind of turn that on it’s ear. It became less about the archetype and more about the situation. This minister is lascivious, man. It bleeds through. … This is something that hasn’t really been addressed. Like infidelity. The scene is less about that character, that archetype you understand and you know and less about poking fun at him, and poking fun at the lady with the big hat. It’s more about poking fun at the abuse of power. In that way, you make it a real character piece as opposed to a stereotype piece. … A lot of our sketches – you’d think as a quote-unquote black sketch group. There’s a thing about suicide. There’s a scene about gay marriage and gay relationships with this thing about Obama not to long ago. We just seek out what’s funny, what’s true, and what’s poignant.

Hargrave: We spoke about how diverse the group is, and because of our different backgrounds we can look at the same situation different ways. I grew up in D.C., which is a little more hood – I don’t want to say I’m the hood-iest guy in here. [Laughter.] We end up writing from our truth. We write from ourselves, and I think that’s where the creativity and the story comes. Again, when Sheeba wrote this, we could easily have gone into that screaming preacher. … Instead of that, the undertone is infidelity and it is abuse of power and that’s what we want to address. When we have somebody who writes a skit like that, if it becomes too stereotypical or if it’s not good enough, then we get rid of it. One of my skits didn’t make it. It can’t even be reconsidered. It’s dead. It can’t be an ego about me or anybody else … If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If you don’t fit the role, you can’t be in it. We’re challenging our writers to be more creative. Don’t come to us with the bullshit, because we won’t accept it. We started off, and people were trying to get the feel. But now we’re in a groove and people know what expectations are. They’re really writing some good material.

Q: What’s the process for writing? Does it come usually from the comedians or is it a mixture of everybody?

Hargrave: Everybody.

Wilson: The thing about this group, man, is we told them right off that everybody writes. Nobody gets to be a diva and not write. Everybody writes. You’ve got to do one of two things if you want to be in sketches. You’ve got to write yourself into them, right? Or you’ve got to show you’re so hilarious that you want these people to be in your sketch, you know what I mean? … So the sketches come in. We do table reads, and it’s a little bit of the Saturday Night Live format. When things come in to the table read, then you’re seeing who is laughing around the table, what jibes. We do an analysis of every sketch that comes in. We send it around the table. [There are suggestions.] Then it goes back into rewrites, nine times out of ten.

Q: Is it the person who wrote the sketch who does the rewrites?

Wilson: Mostly what happens, I give a lot of writing notes and we send it back with the changes we want to make. We talk about different things. We talk about what the general scene is. A lot of the time, people who really haven’t done this kind of writing before don’t understand the format, so it’s a thing of finding what the joke is. What’s the thing that’s funny? A lot of people will just write and write and write and it’s not that it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s just that it doesn’t have any focus. We find the central point, the central joke, the central theme, and a lot of times the sketch will get turned on its ear. You know, there was one thing that they touched on that was really cool or really true, so we’ll take it all the way back to the drawing board and say, “All right, this part over here, I know that you’re going for some laughs, but you found some gold in this tiny little piece. Expound on this and leave all the rest of this out because it makes it muddy.”

Q: Beatty, you’ve been writing comedy for how long?

Barnes: Twenty-seven years.

Q: What do you look for in a joke?

Barnes: Having it not be a joke. Having not have a punchline, not have a tag. I like to teach, kind of, you know? Kind of do something that’s not regular, not normal. I don’t like the typical. I don’t look for the, “Oh, that’s funny right there.” You can get somebody else to say that. For me it’s more about the thing that is not normal, that’s not necessarily normal but comic. It’s easy to laugh at seeing someone fall, but [what about] the shoe that the person had on?

Wilson: We had a relationship scene. It was funny enough. It was a Lucille Ball misunderstanding kind of thing, and Beatty was like, “No. What if he was a woman.” And just that one change changed the whole thing. What it did was it didn’t make it a stereotypical scene that a man would have with a woman about a misunderstanding, just by plugging the woman into the place where the man was. … He found just in turning the head a little bit. It was funny.

Hargrave: We were right in the middle of it, too. We pulled him out right there, pulled the guy out and plugged the girl in. And boom.

Wilson: It was gold.

Hargrave: And Beatty has an older joke I love talking about. You remember when you’re talking about when you’rte driving and playing white music?

Barnes: Right.

Hargrave: And then the hood guys come across and say, “Why are you playing that white music?” And you say, “Oh, I just stole this car.” Right? It’s funny. You would never expect that. Me being from the hood, I worked at Bennigan’s, and I was the token black guy in Bennigan’s. One of the funnier moments that I has working there was when I went to the jukebox, I wouldn’t play the black songs. I would play the stuff they would never expect. I’m not lying, but the only other black person there, we’d both be nodding our heads, and he knew that I did it, but nobody else in the restaurant knew that I did it. I mean, nobody would have expected that was my lineup. I had Aerosmith. I had Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. I could have played Jodeci, easily, and they would have known it was my lineup. And the deal was that the other black person, who was a rapper, nodding his head lets me know that our story is deeper than that.

Q: Do you think really – I mean, I wrote on Thursday, and I listened to Funkadelic all day long. Actually, the same three or four songs over and over again. [Laughter.] Do we still live in a society where … is that really still a thing?

Hargrave: You have the artists that get played on the radio. You’ll have Justin Bieber – Bieber, is that his name? – you’ll have him next to Lil Wayne now.

Wilson: On the same track.

Hargrave: Yeah. Now because of multimedia, because of the internet, we’re at a point in society where we see more cultural diversity. Justin was found by Ludacris.

Q: That’s the worst thing Ludacris has ever done. [Laughter.]

Hargrave: It’s a gold mine for him, that’s for sure.

Barnes: Justin’s all right, man. … I listen to what my kids listen to, and, “Okay, I can see why you would like that.”

Q: I listen to what my kids listen to, but I won’t defend the Wiggles. [Laughter.]

Hargrave: Then we have The Disney Channel, and there are a couple of kids who are artists and my daughter looks up to them all.

Wilson: There’s some regular folks who only stay in their lane, who only listen to the thing that they’re supposed to, who only watch the thing that they’re supposed to. They’ve decided to stay there. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. So I think that part of what we do is necessary in showing folks that there’s a different way.

Hargrave: I was born in the 1970s. My father tells me stories about growing up here in Virginia Beach that are unfathomable. He actually got arrested for sitting in a lunch – he got arrested for that. I can’t fathom that. We grew up post Civil Rights movement, so we don’t know anything about that. I don’t know anything about what my dad went through. My journey has been so different, so now my child’s journey, even though she remembers Bush a little bit, she’ll remember Obama on, for sure. It’s weird. My parents tried to explain the movement to us the way I’m trying to explain pre-Obama to her.

Q: Do you think the sketches you’re doing you could do with Plan B or The Pushers or another group? What is it that makes them unique?

Barnes: That’s a very good question.

Hargrave: I think that … you have to have experience in what you’re writing, and because we write from ourselves and our personal experience, the people who are in those groups didn’t experience it the way that we experienced it. The outlook, the joke of it, it just comes from a different area. And to be honest, predominantly white groups may not be able to touch something that we can touch. Just like the church sketch, I don’t know that another group can pull it off the way we do.

Barnes: It wouldn’t have been the same –

Hargrave: Impact. Would they reach the point we’re trying to reach? They might do that archetypal preacher, and it might be funny, but they wouldn’t touch what we’re touching in the same environment.

Q: What do you think of that, Beatty?

Barnes: [The sketches] stand by themselves, but to picture someone else doing them.

Q: Do you feel like you’re taking material you weren’t comfortable pitching to other groups?

Barnes: It probably would never come up. It would never come up. It would be, well, because you’re thinking – I don’t know if it’s commercial thought or you’re just staying away from what you really feel in sketches. Or maybe it’s because of the cast. You know, you just don’t have enough people for it … That might be the biggest thing.

Q: Because you don’t have enough black faces to make it come alive? Or am I misunderstanding?

Barnes: No. I think of our group [Plan B]. … We have five black folks.

Wilson: I don’t know if that was a move on their part …

Barnes: It was on us.

Wilson: I think Plan B can do it now because –

Barnes: That is a really tough question.

Wilson: I know when I was with The Pushers, we did a show up in New York. … I wrote a series of sketches called “Black Man’s Fantasies.” And a couple of them, when we were working them, they went over pretty well. It was easy. It was stereotypical. Like, calling a cab and it coming right to you. That was one of them, and they loved that one.

Barnes: I’ve never had a problem getting a cab in New York.

Hargrave: I would grab white girls off the street and say, “Please hail me a cab.” They would go right by me and pick up somebody else.

Wilson: That went over, but I wrote another one in the series and it was all about gentrification.

Barnes: Wow.

Wilson: Right? And immediately, [a] girl was like, “I don’t get it.” And she lived in New York. I was like, “What do you mean you don’t get it? Where you live right now … that’s gentrified.”

Q: It used to be called Harlem … Har-lem. [Laughter.]

Wilson: Maybe I could have written the sketch better, but there wasn’t [anyone] willing to help.

Beatty: Because of the cast it would be hard to do. Not enough black faces. I’m still thinking about that question.

Wilson: I could never write a black family. … I just wanted to be able to have the personnel to write the things I wanted to write. If there was a family, I could never be in the sketch. I wrote a sketch called “The Other Son.” The family was like, “We want you to know you’re black. You’re not like us.” I was like, “Yeah, we’ve all got mirrors. I figured it out.” [Laughter.]

Playing us out? Enjoy The Wiggles.

Remember, kids – make sure to use a plastic knife, and you may want to have a grownup around.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XI: Jean-Henri Fabre, entomologist with a knack for narrative


PORTSMOUTH, Va. – Sometimes soft dung can become a nourishing pill. I learned this from Jean Henri Fabre.

It’s not just the name I love; nor is it the science.

Fabre, a French entomologist, was a remarkable man of letters because he had a way of putting them in the right order. I picked up two volumes of his work last year at Old Professor’s Bookshop in Maine, and have since returned to them repeatedly for the descriptions of Fabre’s observations of nature.

As a bonus, his work often speaks to the nature of writing, particularly the ever-elusive narrative central to both the sciences and the humanities alike. And he writes things consistent with my own philosophies of discovering stories both in fiction and journalism. For what it’s worth.

The following quotes are from The Life and Love of the Insect, an early 20th Century English compilation of some essays. I am misappropriating some lines that deal not with narrative but nature. Hopefully for pure purposes. As Fabre wrote:

And now let us unfold the authentic story, calling to witness none save facts actually observed and reobserved.

On clarity:

I am convinced one can say excellent things without employing a barbarous vocabulary. Clearness is the supreme politeness of whoso wields a pen. I do my best to observe it.

On planning or editing:

It now becomes a question of shaping it.

On respecting the canon, if only to a point:

We take the genesis of the species in the act; the present teaches us how the future is prepared. (90)

On reaching that point, and continuing to achieve craft:

The creative power throws aside the old moulds and replaces them by others, fashioned with fresh care, after plans of an inexhaustible variety. Its laboratory is not a peddling rag-fair, where the living assume the cast clothes of the dead: it is a medallist’s studio, where each effigy receives the stamp of a special die. Its treasure-house of forms, of unbounded wealth, excludes any niggardly patching of the old to make the new. It breaks up every mould once used; it does away with it, without resulting to shabby after-touches.

On finding areas of study in one’s own backyard:

The gathering of ideas does not necessarily imply distant expeditions. …

Certainly, I have plenty. I have too much to do with my near neighbors, without going and wandering in distant regions.

On digging deep:

But what is the use of this history, what the use of all this minute research? I well know that it will not produce a fall in the price of pepper, a rise in that of crates of rotten cabbages, or other serious events of this kind, which cause fleets to be manned and set people face to face intent upon one another’s extermination. The insect does not aim at so much glory. It confines itself to showing us life in the inexhaustible variety of its manifestations; it helps us to decipher in some small measure the obscurest book of all, the book of ourselves.

On finding what matters within all the words:

She collect the remnants pouring down around her, subdivides them yet further, refines them and makes her selection: this, the tenderer part, for the central crumb; that, tougher, for the crust of the loaf. Turning this way and that, she pats the material with the battledore of her flattened arms; she arranges it in layers, which presently she compresses by stamping on them where they lie, much after the manner of a vine-grower treading his vintage. Rendered firm and compact, the mass will keep better and longer.

On clarity of form:

The poplar-leaf, with its simple form and its moderate size, gives a neat scroll; the vine-leaf, with its cumbersome girth and its complicated outline, produces a shapeless cigar, an untidy parcel.

For those interested in great bookstores, here’s a link to a post I wrote last year on Old Professor’s Bookshop. And here’s a video that originally ran with that post.

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2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest winners revealed; recount aboard Funk Mothership demanded


UPDATED; July 18 – Today the contest winners and many of the fine runners up go on display at Elliot’s Fair Grounds in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk, Va.

Fair Grounds is on the second floor of 806 Baldwin Ave., at the corner of Colley and Baldwin avenues. If you’re at the Starbucks, you are incorrect. Please cross Colley Avenue to Fair Grounds as briskly as the traffic allows.

Do not look back. If you make eye contact with Starbucks, you will taste like smoldering wood.

Thanks again to all at Fair Grounds, as well as the other sponsors listed below, including Naro Expanded Video and Local Heroes. And a big thanks to Jay Walker, a great Rhode Islander, for sharing gift certificates and movie rentals with the second and third place winners. They live in Hampton Roads and will be able to use them.

As far as I know, Walker and I are the only folks who can rock our Local Heroes tees while slugging a Del’s from our Fair Grounds mugs and simultaneously appreciating the New England Pest Control (now Big Blue Bug Solutions) bug as we hurtle along I-95 South.

If only for now.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — I am not a political person, at least not since my six vote loss in 1977 to Bootsy Collins in a bitterly interfunkular election to become recording secretary of P-Funk.

My memory is not what it used to be, and I was four at the time, and this may just be some Funkadelic fan fiction I’m remembering, or simply a thing that is not true because a lie is merely the purposeful application of what accuracy is not, but I seem to remember George Clinton’s support for Bootsy over me came down to delivery of enough Parliamentary votes to pass the Rent Act, which led to protected tenancy in England and Wales.

Though I certainly respect the rights of protected tenants of U.K. dwelling houses, this was not what I had in mind when I boarded the Mothership, thank you very much.

So was I outmaneuvered in my pretend youth by a fabulous bassist? All of us are, always, even still. Do I write self-indulgent, off-topic ledes? Ahem. Am I political? No, no, no.

Which is why I need to get some business out of the way before announcing this year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest winners, while preemptively directing my Republican friends to the comments section below. It was writer Connie Sage, not I, who delivered these fortunes, which work together, but did not win:

Connie Sage; author; North Carolina

Connie Sage; author; North Carolina

Had Sage won the competition, and should the election (Novemberish, I hear) go otherwise, the mountain of predictive credibility that is this blog would crumble. Additionally, she might have picked her own book as a prize, which would have meant that many months ago she effectively signed a first-edition copy of her book for herself, and so the universe would have little choice but to fold into itself, obliterating life on earth and possibly some other planets we don’t care about as much as certain works by Stephen Spielberg might lead you to believe.

I submit to you, gentle reader, that we have averted disaster and, frankly, saved this world and countless others.

Still, we have only the here and now, and the knowledge that prizes include a gift certificate and mug from Fair Grounds Coffee on Colley Avenue in Norfolk and a gift certificate and extra-large tee – plan your diet or weight gain accordingly – from Local Heroes on Colonial Avenue in Norfolk, as well as movie rentals from Naro Expanded Video on Colley Avenue and these autographed books:

And which election does Sage mean? The upcoming U.S. presidential election? Perhaps, but are we sure? When we make such assumptions, as certain musicians may have done, let’s say, when choosing as their recording secretary a bassist who was actually a contributing member of their collective over a four-year-old New England boy who was not really there at all because the opening anecdote is not a true thing, who really wins? And how can I properly thank this year’s judges – my sister Cate Doucette, my wife Cortney Doucette, and writer Tom Robotham, who voted for the finalists without knowing the names of the writers/artists? And how do I get out of this intro, already?

Say, dig these speculative meeting minutes from Clinton’s 1981-1982 Computer Games sessions:

Chairman Clinton called the meeting to order aboard the Funk Mothership. The roll was taken. Sub Woofer and Clip Pain were absent. Quorum confirmed.

Under old business, Capt. Draw moved that “Man’s Best Friend” and “Loopzilla” should be merged into a monumental track topping twelve minutes and ultimately released as a 12-inch single. Maruga Booker seconded.

Clerk Sir Nose D’voidafunk called the funk before the funk called him. The motion passed, 44-0-2. P-Nut Johnson abstained. Dennis Chambers was too busy making the goddess of time herself reset her celestial watch to care. Drumroll …

FIRST PLACE

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

 SECOND PLACE

Bob Voros; graphic artist; Norfolk, Va.

THIRD PLACE

Rich Neefe; educator; Portsmouth, Va.

A brief note about the prizes: Since the first place winner hails from the Ocean state, I may have to adjust the first place prize package a bit. When Mr. Walker and I hammer it out, I’ll update the post.

For those keeping track, a Virginian has yet to win this contest. Boy.

Here are some other great entries, including honorable mentions that were also on judges’ scorecards.

 HONORABLE MENTIONS

Arianna Akers; Norfolk, Va.

Merritt Allen; owner & executive director of Vox Optima LLC; Tijeras, N.M.

Sean Collins; eater of pizza, drinker of beer; Portsmouth, Va.

Rick Hite; retired professor; Norfolk, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima; Chesapeake; Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima; Chesapeake, Va.

Angelina Maureen; visual artist; Norfolk, Va.

Gary Potterfield, operations director of a PR firm & 2011 contest winner; Waldorf, Md.

Gary Potterfield, operations director of a PR firm & 2011 contest winner; Waldorf, Md.

Earl Swift; writer; Norfolk, Va.

Oliver Mackson; investigator; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Brian Patrick Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

RUNNERS UP

Merritt Allen; owner & executive director of Vox Optima LLC; Tijeras, N.M.

Anonymous; Norfolk, Va.

Anonymous; Norfolk, Va.

Sam Cupper; Norfolk, Va.

Jeremie Guy; trainer at Planet Fitness; Reston, Va.

Bill Hart; shipyard worker; Norfolk, Va.

Christa Jones; Norfolk, Va.

Christa Jones; Norfolk, Va.

Christa Jones; Norfolk, Va.

Christa Jones; Norfolk, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

Judy Le; editor; Norfolk, Va.

Judy Le; editor; Norfolk, Va.

Tom McDermott; whereabouts unknown

Sharina Mendoza; MDMFA student at Full Sail University; Norfolk, Va.

Brian Patrick Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Patrick Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Patrick Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Meghan E. Murphy; education reporter at Newsday; Highland, N.Y.

Jim Noble; Virginia

Rachel O’Sullivan; director West Coast operations at Vox Optima; Greater San Diego, Calif.

Michael Perez; senior communications analyst; Rio Rancho, N.M.

Gary Potterfield, operations director of a PR firm & 2011 contest winner; Waldorf, Md.

Connie Sage; author; North Carolina

Connie Sage; author; North Carolina

Terry Schommer; self-employed; Monroe, N.Y.

Terry Schommer; self-employed; Monroe, N.Y.

Dani Al-Basir Spratley; art editor for The Quotable Literary Magazine & poet; Norfolk, Va.

Dani Al-Basir Spratley; art editor for The Quotable Literary Magazine & poet; Norfolk, Va.

Dani Al-Basir Spratley; art editor for The Quotable Literary Magazine & poet; Norfolk, Va.

Earl Swift; writer; Norfolk, Va.

Earl Swift; writer; Norfolk, Va.

Earl Swift; writer; Norfolk, Va.

Suzanne Tate; Bristol, Tenn.

Suzanne Tate; Bristol, Tenn.

Bob Voros; graphic artist; Norfolk, Va.

Bob Voros; graphic artist; Norfolk, Va.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Thank you. I think we’ll do this again next year.

And if anybody wants to buy me the Bootsy Collins shower curtain, I am into that idea a lot.

Playing us out is some prime Eddie Hazel on a song the writer Greg Tate called Funkadelic’s “A Love Supreme” (FYI, language) …

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Writing Craft, Vol. X: Poet Tim Seibles, author of Fast Animal (Part Two)


The poet Tim Seibles on Colley Avenue, Norfolk, Va., in May 2012. His most recent book is Fast Animal. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — This is the second part of a craft talk with the poet Tim Seibles. His latest book, Fast Animal, is now on sale via online and brick-and-mortar booksellers. Such as Prince Books – say, those guys are all right.

Seibles is a professor in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. As regular readers of the blog know, I’m a student on the fiction side.

As with the first part of the talk – click here to read it – this has been edited down quite a bit for length and, in a few spots, clarity. It contains adult language, but it’s nothing you didn’t hear that time in boot camp. No, not that time. Yeah, that one.

This section deals with how Seibles began writing, his love of Jimi Hendrix, and the kinds of societal changes that remain unfulfilled ideals.

We pick up after Seibles discussed how people can come to find poetry, something they may not have known they were missing. Seibles is a captivating, expressive reader, and I asked about that.

Q: Is that one reason you put so much effort into your performance of poetry?

You know, it’s funny that you ask that. Man, from the time I read poems, that’s how I read them. It’s always felt like a physical thing to me. … I’m not just reading some poems but I’m reading from my toes up, you know? So it’s not a conscious thing, exactly. I don’t remember ever thinking I should not be that way. And my favorite poets, the ones I’ve been lucky enough to see … the language was bursting through them.

Q: And people who haven’t seen you read [should know] this isn’t circus stuff.

No. I hope not.

Q: You have this real clarity in your reading. There’s emotion, but there’s clarity. When I read, I get real nervous. It’s letting the words land. Does that make sense?

Yes. And I hope that your sense of it is what most people have, because it isn’t something I’m trying to act. I don’t rehearse my poems. There’s a certain way I hear them in my head. There’s a certain way they come through me. I don’t make any conscious decisions about how I am with them. In part, that poem “Ode to My Hands’ is partly an examination of that, actually. Your hands do live in a certain way. I have no idea why my hands do what they do. Maybe people think I’m trying to do it, but I’m not.

Q: Maybe performance is the wrong word.

But it’s performance. It is performative. It certainly is not rehearsed or choreographed. So it’s different than a dance performance. … It’s not just the language. It’s rhythms. It’s sounds. They demand a physical response from me as a reader. The body just kind of goes with it. Not unlike watching a guitarist, a saxophone player, a pianist. The way they rock back or fall to the side or tilt. It’s a felt thing. The music demands a certain thing of them. Language is very similar to that. English is my instrument, my primary instrument.

Q: You and I have talked about this before, but when I was an undergraduate at Virginia Wesleyan, you came to our campus and did a reading.

It was a while back.

Q: I heard you read, and was like, “Ohhhh.” Not that writers have to read [aloud], but I think that’s something young writers don’t think about – how you read, what you choose to read does something to potential readers. It can either turn them on –

Or off. I agree. I mean, I love poetry anyway, and I loved reading lots of poets before I ever heard them read. Certainly, when you see somebody embody the work a certain way it gives you a clearer sense of the full range of feeling that accompanies the words. Poets and artists are bearing witness to forces within us that are largely not defined and not attended to in the larger society. So when you play the blues and you fall on your knees during the solo, you’re not just saying, ‘Look, I can play on my knees!’ [Laughter.] What you’re trying to say is there is something so much larger than my own thing that I can’t stand up and hold the music in me. … When you’re reading, you hope there’s something similar in the performative moment regarding the voice in poetry. The language is a marker of a certain level of emotion or feeling, but it’s not the whole of it.

I hope people are thinking: ‘Words are amazing. Words do things to people. … I see what they’re doing to him. I see how the words are living in his being and I want the words to live in me, too.’ When I first saw Hendrix on film … I already loved his music. I already was a total Hendrix freak. I was just riveted by what the music meant in him. The way his body bore witness to its power.

Q: I wanted to ask you about mortality. … I keep coming back to clocks, representations of clocks, someone mispronouncing thyme, the spice, and looking at the wall, and people not telling [a narrator] what time does. The poem “Later” – “Early, it used to be early all the time.” And then there’s this really striking photo of you as a young man.

I’m glad they included it, because this book is really about the transition from that young guy to the guy on the back cover. That’s really what this book is. It’s a portrait of sorts, a portrait over time of age sixteen to fifty-six. That’s what the book wants to be. Of course, it’s not an exhaustive portrait, but hopefully the quintessence of being basically a child-adult to being a middle-aged man.

Q: When you thought it was early all the time, what did you think you would do with your life?

I think what I’m trying to get at, in that line, is the idea that there was a certain kind of open-endedness to one’s life that was felt at a certain age that is no longer true. Of course, I hope to live until I’m eighty or something, but to me I’m twenty-four years from being eighty and that feels to me like a pretty clear finish line. A year is a long time. It doesn’t feel like a long time, but a lot can happen in a year. … But there’s a sense that there are certain decisions that I have made that have shaped my life. Thinking certain thoughts, imagining the world in certain terms … and it has made my life a particular thing. Earlier in life, I felt I could be almost anything. There are things I loved, football, music. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll be a guitarist, a football player. I’ll be a novelist. Maybe I’ll just travel the world and have a beautiful lover in each country on earth. [Laughter.]

Q: By the way, had my guidance counselor mentioned that one to me …

As one of the options? Amen.

Q: I didn’t do well on standardized testing.

Me neither. [Laughter.] But that’s what I’m trying to get at – there was an open-ended sense of things that I no longer have. That’s not to say I feel like I’m finished. I don’t. But there are certain choices I can’t make any longer. I have great faith in the possibilities of self-transformation at all stages, but there’s a certain level of anxiety I seem to live with now that I didn’t have as a young man.

Also, there was a certain abiding faith I had in human beings that I don’t have exactly any more. That’s not to say I think everyone is fucked up or anything. I’m not that kind of cynic. You just realize there are people who are a certain way, and that’s what they are. It’s not like they’re trying to be mean. It’s not like they’re trying not to be attentive. They find themselves in a life that has shaped them a certain way, and that’s what they are. I think realizing that as a man in my forties for the first time, I thought, ‘Wow, man, you can’t really fix the world exactly.’ …

Something it’s just people who do not know do not know that they do not know. … People who think, ‘Nah, fuck it. I’m going to buy the biggest car I can because there is no global warming.’ Because it’s inconvenient to think about global warming.

Q: Tim, we’re never going to run out of dead dinosaurs.

[Laughter.] Exactly. Why didn’t I see that?

Q: We’ll make some more dinosaurs. We’ll melt them down.

In many cases evil is not being perpetrated by people who are trying to be evil.

[A mild digression ensued.]

Q: Following this interview, we’re going to go over a list of things not to say while a tape recorder is running.

[Names deleted] – I will never punch them in the face.

Q: And, to my wife, I do not want a lover in every country.

I’m sure you have other questions.

Q: Actually, this part of my notes is “wander way off field.”

[Laughter.] Okay. We’re doing exactly what you want.

Q: When did you know you wanted to write?

Even as a little kid, I wanted to write. I still have some little notebooks filled with stories I wrote as a little boy. I was unaware that was not normal.

Q: Your dad was a scientist though. Did you think you were going to be a science guy?

No, I didn’t. He took me to the laboratory. He was a biochemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He took me to the laboratory a couple times and showed me stuff that was going on there. He showed me an early computer as big as this room. … He always wanted me to be my own boss, quote-unquote. ‘Be a lawyer. Be a doctor. Be an architect.’ … My passions as a kid were ultimately football and writing. I really discovered writing seriously in college. I took a workshop.

My mother read to me and my brother, and she was a great reader, very dramatic. She gave each character a different voice. I have no doubt that the way I read is wrapped up in her voice. I think my interest in literature in general came from her reading to us. She used to read the “Billy Goats Gruff” and do all the voices. And, you know, Little Black Sambo, The Three Little Pigs. I have no doubt that that was when my heart first opened to words.

I thought everyone loved stories. I found something in writing I couldn’t find anywhere else.’ The freedom of it was something I always loved. You could say whatever you felt like saying, you know? These were not stories I was assigned. I wasn’t turning them in. Mainly, no one saw them.

Q: What would be a story?

Science fiction. They were all science fiction. Robots from Venus. The grasshoppers that took over the earth. You know, the giant ants visiting Jupiter. I would come up with all these crazy things. Some of them were like six, seven pages long. Some were like 20 pages long. Handwritten, not typed.

Q: I still want to option one of them.

I was like all about, ‘The grasshoppers went there, and they ate all the people, and then they went there. They knocked over a building. …’ Man, I was into it.

Q: I like that grasshopper one. I think it’s got legs.

They were pretty fierce, man.

Q: When did you know, ‘I’m going to be a poet?’

The first workshop. The first part of the semester was fiction. The rest was poetry. I went into the workshop thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to write novels.’ I love novels and short stories. Then, ‘Poetry sounds cool. I’ll write poetry.’ I didn’t think one way or the other about it. So we were doing the stories, and it was cool, and then the other part of the semester was poetry and the guy teaching the class was a poet. He was Michael Ryan who won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. And he’s reading these poems, man, these wild-ass poems, these daring poems, sexy-ass poems, and I’m like, ‘You can do that shit? I think I want to write poems.’ And I couldn’t write worth a damn. I could speak English, but I couldn’t write poem worth a nickel. But man, it didn’t mean I didn’t have the fever. I had to make myself stop writing poems so I could do my other homework. I had the fever. I wasn’t doing much good, but it had me. I was about nineteen. That was all because of Ryan. I wanted to be that emotionally present.

Q: What did your folks think?

Well, they just kind of shrugged their shoulders. My mom was an English teacher, of course, so she said, ‘Well, that’s nice.’ But did they think, ‘You don’t really need to get a job; try poems?’ My father was saying stuff like, ‘Well even with a BA in English, you can still go to law school.’

But my parent’s dreams, especially my dad’s, died pretty hard. Being a black man of that era, they had many kinds of limitations. He, like many of the black folks of that particular age, killed themselves to make a fucking statement about their capacities and their worthiness. So I think he was thinking that the next step would be have sons that would be doctors, build buildings, you know, be great lawyers, famous all over the country. …

Ultimately, I think they find some satisfaction in my success as a poet. My father reads all of my books, cover to cover. Not my mom, who is an English teacher, mind you. My father, the biochemist, reads them cover to cover.

Q: He’s probably really proud.

I think so. I think they both are. But he’s the only one who is willing to read them cover to cover. My mom is afraid she’ll find something that is too erotic, too off. It gets her nervous. My father, he’s also the one who said, ‘Son, this is jazz. Check this out. Listen to this. This is Yusef Latif. This is Wes Montgomery. This is Les McCann … This is classical music. Peter and the Wolf, you know. This is the blues.’ He had artistic impulses, I think, but he … suppressed them for the sake of practicality. I think he wanted to be practical. Get a job he could depend on. …

You may have noticed in Fast Animal a number of references to consciousness. … Consciousness itself has been heavily infringed upon by the imperatives of the culture. What we might imagine ourselves to be has been sharply limited, shrunken by the imperatives of a business culture. You ultimately want just full human liberation. … Someone has to say yes to a larger idea of our lives. William Stafford said ‘I’m the one to hum until the world can sing.’ That may sound melodramatic, but in the context of the poem it is not at all.

Q: Do you feel at some point you’re just running out of time to express what needs to be expressed?

[Laughter.] Not yet. My parents are both still alive in their eighties, and unless I get hit by a car or shot or something I think I have some time to say other things that I’d like to say. But I imagine, unless I’m really lucky, that I will die with poems still left to write.

Q: I didn’t mean to say I think you’re getting old. It just seems like there’s so much to do.

Oh yeah. Do I feel squeezed all the time. Oh man, I’m battling tooth and nail for oxygen to write in. All the time. This four-hundred line poem I’ve been working on for the last four months. Maybe more. I mean, that jam took a lot of time. At first I’m thinking, ‘Just let it flow.’ Then the writer in you kicks in. ‘I’ll do a couple of revisions.’ The next thing you know and you’ve revised it over and over and over. It takes a long time to go through 400 lines. …

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to make room to write. For two reasons. One is I love to write. The second is, if I don’t write, I start to go crazy.

Here’s an encore of Seibles reading “Wound” from Fast Animal:

And thanks to rocking Virginian-Pilot scribe Mike Gruss, a friend of the blog, for turning me on to this reading, and for recommending the poem at 5:25 or so:

And, playing us out:

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Writing Craft, Vol. X: Poet Tim Seibles, author of Fast Animal (Part One)


NORFOLK, Va. — The poet Tim Seibles recently released his latest book, Fast Animal, a collection you should buy and read now.

Back already? Great. I first heard Seibles read about 15 years ago at Virginia Wesleyan College, and it was just amazing. I bought a couple of his books, and have been a fan ever since. Here’s a taste of Seibles’ voice, from a quick reading he did on his deck the evening we spoke. This is “Wound” from Fast Animal:

Seibles’ work has been recognized with an Open Voice Award and a NEA fellowship, among others, and collected in Best American Poetry. He is a professor in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. By way of full disclosure, I’m a student on the fiction side.

This was a long talk, and it has been edited down quite a bit for length and, in a few spots, clarity. In case Mom figures out that Interweb doohickey, I should note that the following conversation contains some potty-mouthery, which is totally a real hyphenated phraselet, which is, in and of itself, wordish. Maybe I’m not selling this. Point being: language.

Seibles was incredibly generous with his time, which I appreciate. He also may be the tallest interviewee yet. That’s an implied milestone right there. Wicked.

Before we get to the interview, here’s some quick housekeeping. I’ve been wrestling with my thesis the past few months, so the posts have been less frequent. However, I have some talks planned through the spring and into summer around my work schedule. Say, did you know that, if you subscribe, the posts come right to you? In the night, baby. When you really need them.

Additionally, the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest is underway. Why not come up with an entry of two and email them to jhdouc@verizon.net? That should help you fill that hole in either your schedule or the awesomeness generator you call your soul. And there are prizes, including signed editions of Fast Animal. What synchronicity.

See how this works? When you provide me with free (hopefully) amusing content, everybody wins. Not after third place, actually. The General Counsel to the Imaginary Board of Trustees want me to stress this. What I mean is almost everybody, but still.

Back to Tim Seibles. This portion of the talk deals, in part, with perceived limitations imposed upon art, writing compelling poetry through personas such as the title character of the comic book and film Blade, and connecting with readers.

Q: You opened the book prior to Fast Animal, Buffalo Head Solos (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2004), with a preface that talks about … your feelings on limitations. I hoped you could just talk about what you feel when people impose limitations on art.

There are the literal limitations of language. There are all kinds of places you probably can’t go with words. That’s why there’s guitar and saxophone and sculpture and painting. But in terms of the culture we live in … I don’t know that the fact that we’re not a wildly, intensely well-read society really changes how I write. It seems clear that you may not reach as wide an audience as you’d like to with poetry, so you’re limited in the kind of impact you might have in terms of sheer number of engagements with people. But I think about some of the great musicians over the years who played Woodstock and other gigantic festivals, and just having lots and lots and lots of people listening doesn’t really add significance to what you’ve done.

I think every writer wants to do his or her best work and offer it as generously and as often as possible, you know, without losing your mind, and let the resonance be what it is to whomever. You don’t know who you’re going to reach or how deeply. You don’t know what they will make of your work if they’re writers. They may write something they might never have otherwise written because of one poem you wrote. …

I guess all writers are, in some sense, composites. The people who influenced me – like W.S. Merwin, certainly Langston Hughes, the Black Arts poets, certainly Gil Scott-Heron, Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton … they had no idea what their work was going to do to me. Yet they did the best work they could and they let the impact be what it was. So here I am, just one of their progeny.

Q: You talk in that essay about poets saying some of these things, and that seems almost like a self-marginalization before you’ve even done the art. There are four concerns you talk about in the essay, and one is this idea that poetry shouldn’t be political or argumentative. I can’t think of any way poetry could be other than that.

I agree, but people I’ve had conversations with – some of them have been teachers of mine when I was a younger writer – who have felt that poetry should – capital S – should assume a certain position in relation to the larger society, a more contemplative, don’t-want-to-seem-too-upset kind of position in the culture. Fortunately, I’ve heard all kinds of poets with a huge range of perspectives. Certainly the Black Arts poets were heavily focused on political outrage, for better or worse. That can be a limiting thing, too.  It can really put a stranglehold on your subject matter. A writer of any genre has to have room to go anywhere.

Not only do I disagree that poetry has to stay in a particular place or play nice … but I think all of the arts have to have their way of peeing on the rug, as a friend of mine used to say, or demanding a certain kind of attention through rage or even just pure mystical astonishment, I just think poetry, like all the arts, shouldn’t be bound by any particular kind of etiquette. If a poem is rude, let it be rude. All I care about is if it feels like what has been written comes from an honest place. If someone is shocking me just for the hell of shocking me, if someone wants to write ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ 40 times, I wouldn’t care much about that.

Q: I was talking to a friend [who writes poetry] and he said one of the things he forgets to do is write in a way that remembers the word is spoken. I think one of things people who have experience you reading understand, there’s a wonderful ability for these poems to be spoken.

I sure hope so, man. I like to think that when I’m writing I’m hearing the poems. I’m not sure I can explain it exactly, but the lines come to me as spoken things.  I hope they have a life on the page, but I’m also thinking about how they might hit the ear, how they might live in someone’s ear.

Q: I wanted to ask about the third thing [in the essay] which is poems that are “too imaginative,” and that this is a complaint some might have. I think people pick up your book, they’ll see the form of the poem on the page. Some are lean and some our stout and some move and change … but also within the words sometimes you write the word not the way it appears in a list in a dictionary, but in a way that you want the reader to feel the word – or that the character would say the word. Could you talk about why you do that?

For the most part, I use the language in a relatively conventional way. Now, what I say may not be conventional, but in terms of syntax and meaning for the most part ‘green’ in a Seibles poem is that color of grass. When I’m bending things or trying to tilt the language a little, I’m hoping it will jar them just a little bit, enough to make them kind of snap out of the trance of normal thinking. I’m hoping that with a particular bend in the language that you can pull someone up short and make them attend in a different way.

It’s the same thing, for example, with the use of similes and metaphors. You’re hoping for a kind of heightened moment that really reestablishes their attentiveness to the text. I don’t think a poem can be a shock and a surprise every second. I don’t think any art does that. You want there to be enough unpredictability, surprise in a piece to keep a reader or a listener on edge. …

I know, for example in Buffalo Head Solos, no one is expecting to hear from [the persona of] a cow. … I want to invite people in with a tempting promise and then I want to sustain their interest by rewarding their attention with fresh ideas, word music, etc.

Q: Especially the ‘persona poems,’ it’s about you giving the voice to something that doesn’t have a voice and talking in a lot of ways – I keep coming back to marginalization, but you talk about creatures that are used, that are consumed, or consume so little, and are punished for doing it.

I hope to be giving voice to things that often have no voice, but also playing out my own strange sensibility. I would never work with a persona that had nothing to do with me. Whatever it is, whomever it is – cartoons, cow, virus, whatever – if I’m trying to develop a persona, that means I’m finding certain aspects of my own voice within that voice. Certain things just compel me. What would a cow say about its predicament? How is the predicament of a cow like the predicament of a person. … My inspirations are necessarily connected to my life as a human being.  I don’t have any reason to speak in the voice of, you know, a doily. I’m not moved to speak as a doily. A doily does not know pleasure or suffering.

Q: They’ve got it rough.

[Laughs.] We concede this, their struggle. In terms of persona, I’m drawn to certain characters – animate or inanimate – because they allow me to chew on a predicament that concerns me. I have that poem [“Ambition: Virus Confessional”], which is trying to get at a kind of insidious and secret consumption of life. Culture – it doesn’t matter what culture you’re in. All cultures want to use their members to propagate and promote the culture as it is. That’s why radicals are not welcome. That’s why people who don’t bow to the imperatives of the culture are often marginalized.

So when I’m writing in the voice of a particular persona, I’m often trying to get into territories in that, if I were to try to address them strictly in my ‘own’ voice it would seem maybe too – It wouldn’t be naval gazing exactly, but it would constantly wrestle with certain issues as though my predicament was the central issue. … No one cares about my alienation, you know? People who read poems are more interested in how my sense of alienation or marginalization or joy or erotic insanity speaks to their own fascinations.

Q: Let’s move to Fast Animal, where you have poems about Blade. You read recently at Prince Books in Norfolk, and talked a little bit about some things that were going on around 2007, 2008. What was going on with you then?

I thought 2000 to 2008 was the most disturbing era, socially and politically speaking, in my adult life. As a young man, of course, the 1960s would have been wildly volatile, but in the ‘60s you had people actively engaged in trying to overturn a repressive and generally fucked up society. There were heads butting and people yelling, challenging complacency in the face of what was considered a really well organized evil – racism, sexism, militarism are bad for humanity on a massive scale.

Q: And poetry was part of that.

Yes.

Q: Even from The Black Panther newspaper to –

Yes. Yeah. Absolutely.

Q: – to “revolutionary art.”

Yes. ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’ by Gil Scott-Heron.

Q: Which you reference.

Yes. ‘Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni. That stuff was all about ‘Hey, you can not hold us down, goddamn it.’ You know? What I found most difficult about the Bush era, was that the administration was clearly unethical but people just played along. It’s not that people didn’t care. I knew plenty of people who cared, but it felt as if all resistance was being overrun, carried in the current we hated.

I thought Bush and company were just bloodsuckers of a kind, a psychic kind. Blade, you know … When I saw the first movie, I thought he had a certain purity of intention, a recognition that there are certain evils that cannot be tolerated, that must be confronted directly. … I mean, there had to be some place I could go with the kind of anger in my gut. And with that first poem, ‘Blade, The Daywalker,’ I thought, ‘Yes, this is the mind I can step inside that will allow me to say what I mean with a kind of controlled fury.’ I mean, I am not going to kill anybody.

Q: At least, don’t put it on tape.

[Laughter.] Right. But Blade will, Blade has, and knows exactly why. I don’t want to promote violence. Violence doesn’t seem like a great help. At times, perhaps it’s necessary, but to be avoided if possible. … When I was using Blade as a persona, I wanted to get at a certain kind of anger that I couldn’t articulate otherwise.

Now there’s a poem in Buffalo Head Solos, that poem called ‘Really Breathing.’ That’s in a voice that people might consider my voice – that is certainly not a persona. That poem also is about a kind of rage. It’s got playfulness, as well, but it’s a really stormy voice that is complaining and pointing fingers and taking names. The Blade poems allow me a kind of purity of voice. He kills vampires. There are no literal vampires in the world, but we are consumed. We are fed upon in various ways by ideologies and institutions that are not especially humane.

Q: Blade is an outsider, as a character, but Blade is a very successful comic book that was turned into a very successful movie with, at the time, one of the biggest stars in the country. Made a lot of money, sold a lot of popcorn. And it is a piece of pop culture. It’s an entertainment. It’s to be consumed. But what you’ve done is taken that figure and used it to express something else, and I think that’s interesting.

I hope so. There was a kind of clarity of purpose in that character. I mean, even if I just wanted to run around and punch everyone I thought was evil, I’d either be dead or in jail in a few minutes. But Blade could develop a life around fighting evil. Does Blade have a job? No. Blade doesn’t have rent due or credit cards to deal with. Blade is someone who fights evil. That’s what he does. Blade doesn’t have vacations. He doesn’t say, ‘Boy this is getting old. I think I’ll go to Six Flags this weekend.’ [Laughter.]

Even if there’s no way to defeat an enemy, you still have to fight. That’s the way I feel about it as an artist. You have to sing your song, whether it’s to one person or a thousand. At times, I try to use poetry as a shield and as a blade.

Q: I was trying to think of things I see repeated in your poems, because I’m simple that way.

No. In this book, you may have noticed it, certain phrases recur in different poems, in different contexts. I’m consciously trying to knit the book together. It’s really built [the collection] to make certain patterns emerge, certain thoughts and arguments between the poems.

Q: I keep thinking about, you know, it’s meaningful what’s on TV and you come back to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” And then it strikes me, there’s this idea in your previous collection [Buffalo Head Solos] in “Visions.” It’s a poem about a man and a conversation with his cat, and then in the end he’s killed.

He’s killed intellectually, spiritually.

Q: And they find him. The TV’s on.

Basically he’s paralyzed staring at the television, and the nonsense that’s on.

Q: So what do you think of TV?

I think its purpose is distraction. I think people are invited to watch television so they will be less aware of the things that are chewing up our lives. It can also be a legitimate source of entertainment. We cannot attend to the difficulties of the world every waking second. Our heads would just blow up. I do think for most people it’s a substitute for actual thinking and feeling. …

This kind of idea that we can just consume the world, and we’ll always have more stuff to build and buy and sell to other people, there’s just a fundamental wrongheadedness about that approach to our lives. [TV] is constantly saying, ‘You will find meaning by consuming. In fact, the only real meaning is consumption.’ I think that’s a terrible way to subvert human beings and the impulse – the better impulse – of the human heart. …

You hope, because it seems that we have the potential for a certain kind of compassionate attentiveness that we have yet to find the institutions to support it, enact it. I like to think that poetry is a vehicle for compassionate attention. It matters that we feel grave despair and great delight and great longing and that we’re stunned by beauty, that we’re not just paychecks and car loans and mortgages. We’re these complex creatures that can do better, see more clearly, live more heartfully, and hurt each other less.

This is not a culture where people are beating themselves up to get to a gallery or read poetry or hear jazz or Bach. This isn’t a culture where people are killing themselves to get to a reading, you know? Most people don’t know that poetry can be something that triggers a larger grasp of the world they live in. …

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

The talk continues at this link.

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Media: AltDaily editor seeks public office


AltDaily editor-in-chief Jesse Scaccia is running for Norfolk City Council against three people who are not editor-in-chief of AltDaily. Among them is incumbent Councilman Barclay C. Winn. Photo by Sam Shinault.

NORFOLK, Va. – I’m glad to announce today that the online alternative media site AltDaily on March 20 announced what folks who read The Virginian-Pilot on March 9 probably already know:

AltDaily edit0r-in-chief Jesse Scaccia is running for Norfolk City Council.

Timeliness clearly is not this blog’s superpower. But I had a chance this week to speak with Scaccia and his rivals for the Super Ward 6 seat, presently held by Councilman Barclay C. Winn, the man with the most optimistic name in Norfolk government.

First, let me set the plate.

As The Pilot‘s Jillian Nolin reported, Scaccia is among three people who qualified to challenge Winn on the May ballot. The other candidates are John Amiral and Marcus A. Calabrese. As a proud resident of some whole other non-Norfolk city, I wish them all happy hunting.

This situation raises some questions for readers of AltDailywhich I’m on record as being, as well as for those who appreciate transparency in the local press. I wish AltDaily had noted Scaccia’s candidacy as soon as it became a matter of public record, if not earlier. However, they have acknowledged it both at the site and discussed it on AltDaily‘s Facebook page. Additionally, they’ve been clear about how AltDaily will try to avoid conflicts.

Here’s a graf from AltDaily’s announcement:

During the election any story on AltDaily that is in any way related to Norfolk politics will be edited by a member of our editorial board. AltDaily will not play a role in the campaign; should Jesse (or any of the other candidates) choose to purchase advertising on the site, they will have to pay for it.

And here’s Scaccia, responding to a reader’s concerns via Facebook:

If I win I’ll more than likely move on to a publisher role with AltDaily, with us bringing on a new editor-in-chief. I’ll still be a regular contributor, just with someone else at the helm making the overall (and daily) editorial decisions. It’s been 3 years of me–we could use some new blood/energy/passion here at the magazine, a fresh take on Norfolk/Hampton Roads and the role daily, independent, online media plays in supporting/fostering the community and culture. We’re stoked thinking about where an infusion could take the project. (J)

I spoke with Scaccia this morning, and asked why it took AltDaily a while to cover his candidacy at the site.

I felt like the news was out there. I mean, our paper of record had put it out there, so I wasn’t uncomfortable feeling we were hiding anything from our readers by any stretch of the imagination.

Scaccia said the decision was one he wrestled with, and one that AltDaily‘s leadership discussed at length.

We’ve had serious internal conversations about [it] – and they’ve been going on for a while now. And some people came at me pretty hard. But that’s good. That’s why they’re there. I mean, we all really love AltDaily and we all want to see it continue. So there’s a lot of people who want to make sure AltDaily has just as much credibility, if not more, on the other side of this.

AltDaily editorial board member Jay Ford, Scaccia’s campaign manager, told me he will not edit Norfolk stories during the election, either. Ford is listed as the treasurer of the campaign in Scaccia’s March 6 statement of organization, one of the records on political candidates available to the public via the Norfolk registrar’s office at City Hall. Additionally, AltDaily publisher Hannah Serrano is listed among those who signed Scaccia’s petition to get on the ballot.

Scaccia said:

In a natural month at AltDaily, which is what we essentially have between now and the election, I don’t know if there’s two seriously political – as far as Norfolk goes – pieces on AltDaily. And those will be handled by members of the editorial board. …

I think we made it clear. If we didn’t make it clear, please let me know. That’s something we need to be really up front with. That’s always been the key with AltDaily […] be up front. As long as you’re up front and you’re honest about the rules that you’re playing by and your intentions, then it’s easier to forgive mistakes after, if they should happen.

Scaccia and I discussed potential impact for the site.

I take AltDaily very seriously, and that was one of the big things I had to make sure I was at peace with going into this before I was going to sign up was, win or lose, can AltDaily make it through this with its credibility intact? And, you know, I feel very content that is the case. …

I think the most realistic scenario if I win is – and I think it’s time for this anyway, both for me and AltDaily – I would step into more of a publisher role, and we would look for a new editor-in-chief. Even if I’m a publisher, I’ll still be submitting columns that would be edited by somebody else and they’ll have ultimate editorial control. …

I think a 23, a 24 year old out of graduate school can get paid what we can pay the AltDaily editor and be fine on that, as far as their life, and it would be a great step for their career.

Is he looking to step down either way?

I think it’s likely that my time as editor-in-chief  is coming to an end.

They’re not hiring, though.

We’re not there yet. We’re taking things one step at a time. … This is really speculative. My life could be really different come May 2 or it could be exactly the same. I really don’t know what I’m going to learn through this process. I could end up on the other end and just really be energized – you know, if I lose – to keep working from the outside. And to be that voice … that tries to change things. But I don’t know.

Scaccia said his candidacy makes him feel like a “guinea pig.”

I feel like this is the direction journalism is going, as we’ve talked about before. I think we’re, just because of economic factors, because of the way society is changing, because of the divisions between rich and poor, for a million different reasons, I think we’re going more toward a world of activist journalism where it’s activism using the tools of journalism. I think that’s what hyper-local media is going to look like in the future. As long as that’s the future, I’m not going to be the [last] hyper-local, alternative magazine editor to run for public office. It’s going to happen again. And it’s going to happen again. So I think it’s good that we’re having this conversation and trying to figure out how things should work.

Earlier this week, I reached out to Scaccia’s fellow candidates to ask whether there were any concerns about the editor of a local media outlet seeking public office. For Isaac Dietrich, an advisor who returned my call to the Amiral campaign, not so much. He said they hope AltDaily will give their effort equal coverage. Beyond that?

We’re not in the business of saying that’s morally wrong to use his business and his organization that he started and founded and built up – if he wants to use that to his advantage, by all means he has the right to do that.

AltDaily obviously wants to avoid that perception, and has made it clear that Scaccia is not using the business for campaign purposes. I asked Dietrich whether a reporter for The Pilot seeking office would get the same response. He noted:

There’s a difference between The Virginian-Pilot and a blog like AltDaily. … We’re not in the business of attacking another candidate or speaking ill about Jesse.

AltDaily isn’t a news site, per se. It’s more of an arts, culture and opinion outlet, and activism clearly is part of its goals. The site is, as Scaccia noted this morning, “subjective from top to bottom, and never pretends to be otherwise.” AltDaily also has been a very civic-minded pub. Scaccia’s played a big role in that. Remember back when Norfolk wasn’t broadcasting work sessions and AltDaily went ahead and did it? That was cool. Among other things, AltDaily advocated for the legalization of street performances – the “busking” ordinance.

Calabrese told me he didn’t have “any negative concern” about Scaccia running, though he compared it “in concept” to Michael Bloomberg running for mayor of New York City.

I haven’t seen anything that would make me, you know, alarmed about it, but he does have a significant advantage. That’s a big bloc for him. That’s a big audience that he has. If they come out for him, he’ll definitely have a strong showing.

He added:

Could he definitely use it to get his message out? Yes. Will he? I don’t know. I would like to think that – for instance … [when] I announced my campaign, I did it with AltDaily. You know, they put an online article up. That was a pretty big help. …

I think the only thing that can be done is see what he does.

I also asked Winn, the incumbent, whether he was concerned.

Not really. Not unless he uses his media position to try to slant things. I don’t know that he’d do that.

As noted above, mainstream media is a different beast. Maria Carrillo, managing editor of The Pilot, said running for office is not an option in that newsroom due to The Pilot‘s ethics policy. A portion of the policy is quoted at the bottom of this post. The basic idea is to avoid the appearance of partiality or conflict because that would cripple the paper’s ability to do effective, objective newsgathering. Carrillo said:

We just wouldn’t allow it. It’s too tricky a thing.

On Jan. 1, I resolved here on the blog to continue writing about local alternative media, including AltDaily. I want to do that because I value its role in the public discourse. Additionally, I consume local media from various sources, primarily The Pilot, but also including AltDailyVeer, Bearing Drift, and Vivian Paige’s All Politics Is Local blog. Among others.

I have a stake in these publications as a consumer of their work, even when – perhaps especially when – it challenges my own opinions and understandings. Presumably, they want you and me to feel this way. Any publication that doesn’t, frankly, lacks real and lasting value.

Earlier this year, I had a conversation with Scaccia about writing for AltDaily, though I have not done so. At present, it would be hard for me to write for a media outlet that has a senior editor running for office against someone I might eventually have to interview. Whether or not that editor is directly guiding my copy, the situation opens the door for perceived or real conflicts.

Most assuredly, others disagree. My background is as a mainstream newspaper reporter, though I’m also familiar with and have written for the local alternative press. Wherever you work, conflicts are a fact of life.

On my own, I have a number of professional conflicts that limit what I can write about here and elsewhere. This is a big reason I don’t freelance. Frankly, I don’t think of what I do here as journalism. This is, at heart, an elaborate scam to speak with awesome writers and steal their collective mojo. But others might consider it journalism, such as it is, which is why I try to specify my own conflicts with the subjects I interview here.

So do I have a conflict wrapped up in all of this? You tell me.

I recently let Scaccia republish a Q&A from this blog. It was for a good cause, so I’m grateful AltDaily got it before a few more readers, but the Q&A was a blog post in which I interviewed a friend about a group in which my wife is involved. The post specified my conflicts both as it appeared here and as it appeared at AltDaily. By The Pilot‘s standards – I used to work there as a reporter – I never would have been able to file a Q&A like this. AltDaily has different standards.

I learned Scaccia was running for office after I agreed to let AltDaily publish the Q&A, but also before it actually ran on the site. Did my own conflicts with the subject of the Q&A prevent me from asking Scaccia to pull it when I learned he was running for office?

Yeah, it did.

Even if it hadn’t, when you have a real or perceived conflict, questions about motivations can – and should – be asked. This is the way of things. It’s about how you answer. I think AltDaily has done that.

For those who dig such things, here’s a piece by Slate on journalists running for office.

As promised, here’s that selection from The Pilot‘s ethics policy:

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

‘The independence of our editors, reporters and photographers is not for sale….’

PUBLIC LIFE

Staff members are encouraged to participate in professional, civic and cultural activities. To ensure that our credibility is not damaged, staff members have a special responsibility to avoid conflicts of interest or any activity that would compromise their journalistic integrity.

Politics and social causes:

  • Newsroom employees should not work for a political candidate or office-holder on a paid or voluntary basis. Attendance at public demonstrations for political causes is forbidden, unless permission is granted by the managing editor or editor. Participation in such demonstrations is forbidden.
  • Taking a public stand on controversial social, religious or political issues is prohibited. Such expression is also prohibited on personal Web sites, social networks and other online forums. This includes signing of petitions, either on paper or online. Staff members may not write letters to the editor.
  • Holding public office or accepting political appointment is prohibited, unless specifically approved by the editor or publisher.
  • If a staff member has a close relative or friend working in a political campaign or organization, the staffer should refrain from covering or making news judgments about that campaign or organization. A loved one’s activities can create a real or potential conflict for a staff member. In those cases, inform a team leader and take steps to avoid conflicts.
  • Donating money to political campaigns and parties is prohibited. Donations to or memberships in organizations with political agendas should be carefully considered.
  • Staff members should use common sense when displaying bumper stickers, pins, badges and other signs. We should avoid items that promote causes.
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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVII: Pop culture journalist Will Harris


As the journalist Will Harris so bitterly learned during a brief partnership, Elmo's one-two punch of icily avoiding pronouns and the rope-a-dope lovability ploy does not always translate into total supremacy in the blood-spattered arenas of the North American Chicken Fighting Association. Courtesy photo.

NORFOLK, Va. – Will Harris is a pop culture journalist, a splendid form of the muckraking arts that often dispenses with the muck by subbing in stuff that people enjoy reading.

Harris is a senior editor and TV columnist for Bullz-Eye, and he’s become a regular contributor to one of my favorite online destinations, The AV Club, a pop culture and criticism site that is a sister publication to The Onion.

Harris has written for a number of publications over the years. Additionally, and clearly most importantly, he was the runner-up in last year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest here at the blog.

He keeps a blog called News, Reviews and Interviews at this link. I recommend the Larry the Cable Guy interview, in which the subject opens up about a beef with comedian David Cross, as well as perceptions of him. There’s also an interesting discussion in the comments.

Harris can turn a phrase. He can write funny. One of the big things I enjoy about Harris’ work is that his writing often comes from a place of respect and appreciation for the possibilities of the various forms – movies, TV, music, etc. The best critics have this; the rest are just passing through.

And how much juice does this guy have now? When Morgan Freeman wants to drop the f-bomb, he asks Harris for permission.

This Belligerent Q&A was conducted via email. There is some brief potty mouthery below.

I hope to speak with Harris at a later date about freelancing, navigating conferences and junkets, and how he landed at The AV Club.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. I’m a street-walking cheetah with…no, wait, sorry, that’s not me, that’s Iggy Pop. (You can understand how people would get the two of us confused, I’m sure.)
  2. I’m a guy who got his journalism degree in ’92, worked a variety of retail, telemarketing, and I.T. jobs for more than a decade while continuing to do freelance writing and look for the elusive full-time gig in my field, and, after finally getting my foot in the door with Bullz-Eye.com as an associate editor, finally found the career I’d been seeking and have done everything in my power to make the most of it.
  3. I’m just this guy, you know?

Q: What is pop culture?

It’s the viewing, listening, and reading material that defines a generation even as it dates it.

Q: When pop culture gets on you, how do you get it off?

You don’t. Either it falls by the wayside because it isn’t worthy of permanence, or it sticks with you forever.

Q: Where do you, as a pop culture journalist and critic, place yourself in the pantheon of those engaged in the practice of assessing and, to some extent, propagating the entirety of thought and cultural reflections that represent the often media-driven, social collective of an increasingly globalized consciousness, which in turn could be said to reinforce culturally-dominant entertainments and artistic (and less artistic) works at the expense of marginalized perspectives? What are you truly assessing when you examine what is considered popular? What we value compared to what we should value? Also, what do they mean, the things I just typed?

I don’t think those things mean what you think they mean. But they might. I’m just a pop culture journalist and critic, so my knowledge and opinions – like those of my peers – shouldn’t be trusted any farther than you can throw them. They’re only ours. Yours are probably just as worthy. Well, almost, anyway.

Will Harris and the stars of Breaking Bad. Courtesy photo.

Q: You have interviewed Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad on various occasions, and even visited the set. How did this develop? If, after the next three interviews, the two of you join consciousnesses, how will your mental energy orb maintain dominance over the mental energy orb formerly known as Bryan Cranston?

The first time I met Mr. Cranston was at the Television Critics Association Awards in Pasadena, I believe, and I was subsequently part of the group of TCA members who was invited out to the Breaking Bad set the following winter while they were filming Season 3, which resulted in the greatest dinner conversation I’ve ever had. Subsequently, between in-person encounters and phone interviews, I have now interacted with Mr. Cranston more times than any other celebrity. In fact, I see and/or talk to him more regularly than some of the people who were in my wedding party. (Dammit, I knew I should’ve asked him to be a groomsman … ) But while he is one of the nicest and most genuine guys I’ve ever come across, someone whose head is on straight – he’s been happily married for two decades now, with a daughter who’s now in college – and whose many years in the acting trenches have enabled him to truly appreciate his success and not get an ego about it, I do not believe Mr. Cranston and I will ever join consciousnesses, as I invariably ask him about some obscure project on his resume which he hasn’t been asked about in ages, thereby breaking his concentration and preventing any such melding.

Q: What do you think of that show? Seems awfully fixated on meth.

A bit, perhaps. But no more so than Weeds is on marijuana. Hand on heart, I think Breaking Bad is the best show on television. Period.

Q: Your career field enables you to interview people such as Isabella Rossellini by asking her questions to which she responds in the actual voice of Isabella Rossellini. I suspect this is better than the Isabella Rossellini imitation I do after I ask Pretend Isabella Rossellini “Am I handsome?” And Pretend Isabella Rossellini replies, “Naturalmente – but only in the right light.” Emboldened, I then say, “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station.” But she spurns me. What am I doing wrong?

You’ve got to know when to walk away, man. Or when to stop talking. Or, in this particular case, when to seek out a licensed therapist.

Q: When Morgan Freeman asked you “can I say [f-bomb]?” during a recent interview, how did it make you feel that he phrased the question in such a way that he had dropped the f-bomb before securing your approval to do so?

If you were to go back and listen to the recording, you can hear the pride and amusement in my voice that he bothered to ask at all. But I like to think that, had I said, ‘No, I’m afraid you can’t,’ he would’ve offered an even more offensive word in its place, then upturned the table and said, ‘Morgan Freeman says [f-bomb] whenever the [f-bomb] Morgan Freeman wants. Now you get the [f-bomb] out … and when you hit the hallway, tell Michael Ausiello to get his ass in here!’

Q: Did you ask him “What’s in the box?” I assumed that question was edited out.

Actually, I asked him, ‘Do you still feel that ‘that reading stuff’ is out of sight?’ (He does, but he doesn’t like to take a public stance on it anymore. Too many publishing companies looking for endorsements, apparently.)

Q: Did Isabella Rossellini happen to mention whether she’s down with men of the, let’s say, “husky” persuasion? Please answer this one.

When I brought it up, her mind immediately went to thoughts of seduction. She even made a video about it.

Q: You have bravely waded into The AV Club comments section. For readers who do not know this online oasis of advanced thought and emotional consideration, please describe the sensation. What protective gear do you wear? Is there a ritual cleansing later?

Actually, I have been very, very lucky for the most part, as far more of my work for the AV Club has been in the field of interviewing rather than criticism, which limits the amount of vitriol spewed in my general direction. In fact, after my first interview (“Random Roles with Peter Gallagher“), one of the commenters wrote, ‘The comments above are all, like, sincere and shit. What’s going on here today?’ I’m as surprised as anyone that the readership has embraced me as quickly as they have, but I’m confident that I will somehow cause them to turn on me before long.

Q: What can we as a culture do to fight the spread of memes?

Stop being so damned creative. Creativity has always been humanity’s downfall.

Q: You sometimes string for our local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot. When you force The Pilot to pay a fee to purchase the supple fruit of your freelance journalism, do you ever feel guilty for reducing the available pot of money for executive bonuses?

In my scrapbook, I still keep a letter I received from E.F. Rogers, Jr., The Virginian-Pilot’s Assistant Managing Editor, Recruiting/Personnel, dated December 31, 1990. ‘This is to acknowledge receipt of your application for a summer internship on The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star,’ wrote Rogers. ‘Interns will be selected in January. If you are selected, we will be back in touch.’ The fact that Rogers did not, in fact, get back in touch with me handily assuages any guilt I may feel about reducing the available pot of money for executive bonuses. If they’d only brought me into the fold as a full-timer when they had the chance, they certainly could’ve cut me by now, thereby adding more funds to the coffers.

Q: Did you happen to get Isabella Rossellini’s phone number? For the purposes of fact-checking, I mean.

Sadly, we were connected by a publicist, so she herself did not call in. I say ‘sadly,’ but for Ms. Rossellini, this is probably a blessing.

Q: When you ask a subject such as Larry the Cable Guy whether they appeal to the lowest common denominator, do you have to define the word denominator?

It’s so tempting to mock ol’ Larry, but the truth of the matter is that he was an incredibly nice guy, and he liked me enough to discuss something he’d never been of a mind to talk about in the press before. I mean, it’s a shame he went and wasted such great material on a little ol’ blog like mine, but I still feel a certain allegiance to him for having done so, especially given that I once completely tore Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector a new one. (Funny how it never occurred to me to bring that up during our conversation … )

Q: When you use the word denominator in front of subject such as David Cross, do you look up what it means before hand, just in case he wants to challenge your understanding of the word’s meanings?

I always have Dictionary.com at the ready, just to be on the safe side.

Q: Mad Men has returned. It is quite popular. Why are they still so mad?

Oh, that’s just the lung cancer and liver damage talking. They’re really a swell bunch of fellas.

Q: If you did indeed write down Isabella Rossellini’s phone number, where do you keep it? I’m thinking an address book in the center desk drawer. Of course, that might be the decoy address book. You’re a clever one, Will Harris.

If you truly believe that I have the budget to afford a desk with drawers, John-Henry Doucette, then I don’t think you really know me at all.

Q: Has a certain series of questions in this Q&A effectively furthered the popular notion that a certain actress is a desirable person or merely slapped around a dead horse through repetition? How do both of those techniques – identifying a referent of a cultural perception and engaging in reaffirmation of the referent – fit into writing about pop culture?

Fact: Isabella Rossellini is endlessly charming … or, at least, she was during the 15 minutes she was chatting with me. But, then, she is an outstanding actress. As for repetition in the field of pop culture, I always return to the Simpsons scene where Sideshow Bob steps on a seemingly endless number of rakes, each one smacking him in the face, each time instigating a low grumble. It’s funny at first, then it isn’t anymore, and then all of a sudden it gets funny again. This doesn’t translate to everything in pop culture, of course, but it works on a surprising number of things. Like, say, this Isabelli Rossellini gag.

Q: Seriously, you find that number, I’m sure she’ll be cool with you passing it along.

See, now the joke isn’t funny anymore. Remember what I said about knowing when to walk away? This would’ve been one of those occasions.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Did I mention that I once interviewed Isabella Rossellini?  (I’m not sure, but I think the fact that I’m bringing it up this time makes it funny again. If so, you’re welcome.)

Beyond that, I’ll just say that I appreciate your appreciation of my work, and I hope that my ridiculous obsession with doing research in advance of my interviews continues to pay off both for myself and the people who seem to like the pieces that result from these conversations.

To read more Belligerent Q&As, click on this link.

The Stooges plays us out. Sometimes we’re all just the world’s forgotten boy.

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