Category Archives: Poetry

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


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

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

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

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

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

annexation  A means of keeping one’s rivals close.

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

bard  A singer of  the traditional art, compliance.

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

beggar  A friend, indeed.

borrower  A generous soul who invest in others.

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

confidence man  A mathematician who teaches other men their value.

essay  A thesis in so many words.

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

grift  The most common transaction in a bull market.

hiccup  An echo of swallowed resolve.

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

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

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

proponent  The principal heir to a disputed outcome.

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

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

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

suspicion  The most potent spell cast by reason.

theft  The highest form of flattery.

versatility  The ability to have a hand in multiple pockets.

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

wallet  Where scruples of varying denominations are corralled.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Nelson said the store has a fairly simple philosophy:

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

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

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

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

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

Bluestocking bookseller Dawn Marie said:

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

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

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

Bluestocking Books exterior.

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

Bluestocking Books.

Bluestocking Books interior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like it. Thanks.

When was that?

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

Before he died.

I hope so.

5th Avenue Books exterior.

5th Avenue Books interior.

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

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

A brief epilogue:

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

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

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

Oh my:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the first part of the interview.

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

This is “Wound” from Fast Animal:

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

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


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

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

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

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

darkness  A vast blanket that warms all ambition.

foot soldier  In any army, a tankless job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scuffle  A conversation expressed by hand.

veil  An item worn once per marriage.

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

So.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And these longer-term events:

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

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

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

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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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Fortune cookie fortune writing contest prize books announced, entries due June 15


PORTSMOUTH, Va. – There are less than two weeks left until the entry period ends for the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest, so if you haven’t sent your submission(s) via email to jhdouc@verizon.net yet you’re missing out on a chance to win copies of some terrific books.

This year’s prizes include the following books. Most of them by authors featured at the blog. Each book is autographed by the author.

  • Norton Girault’s short story collection Out Among the Rooster Men
  • Dana Heller’s Hairspray, a study of the film by John Waters
  • Connie Sage’s biography Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel 
  • Two copies of Tim Seibles’ new poetry volume Fast Animal
  • Wells Tower’s short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

The first place winner picks three books. Second place picks two of the remainder. Third place gets what’s left.

I’m hoping to add a few additional prizes. I hope you’ll enter as often as you like. I’ve enjoyed reading the entries so far.

Again, the official rules can be found at this link. For a taste of last year’s winners, click on this link.

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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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