Tag Archives: reading

Tunnel Traffic is back; New Jersey is ‘nice’


The Tunnel Traffic reading series shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, a Johnny Cash reference in which "shot" means "gathered writers to read a poem or whatnot" and "just to watch him die" stands for "just so people listening have this realization, basically, a kind of epiphany about the world." See? This cutline is totally not libelous, right Travis A. Everett, founder of the series? Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — The Tunnel Traffic reading series returned last month, and it will continue this week at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University.

The reading prompt, recently announced by series founder Travis Everett, a poet and and ODU student in the MFA Creative Writing Program, is say something “nice” about New Jersey. As regular readers of the blog know, I’m also a student in the program.

The next Tunnel Traffic is at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, at Borjo, located at Monarch Way and W. 45th St. in Norfolk. There is nearby metered street parking and some garage parking. Plenty of drinks and eats.

Here’s a video from the last one, and a brief Q&A follows.

Here’s the Q&A with Everett:

Q: The topic/prompt is “say something ‘nice’ about New Jersey”? Why is “nice”  in quotes?

We’re just following an old typographic “convention” for providing additional emphasis, John.

Q: New Jersey, as in the state, yes?

The Wikipedia disambiguation page for ‘New Jersey’ informs me that there’s a Bon Jovi album, and two battleships by the same name. Our fault, for introducing the ambiguity. If you have something ‘nice’ to say about Bon Jovi’s New Jersey or either iteration of the USS New Jersey, please do.

Q: We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Anything to add?

I have a lot of “nice” things to say about glam metal.

And that’s the whole interview. As a wise man, his guitarist, and Desmond Child once wrote:

You get a little but it’s never enough.

Show up Wednesday. Maybe Tico Torres will show up to sign autographs, though I am legally obligated to tell you he will not. Anyway, if you want to rock the mike by reading the lyrics to “Bad Medicine,” don’t do it all ironic. Rock the mike with sincerity, baby.

Playing us out is, well, you know:

P.S. Everett was the subject of a Belligerent Q&A last year, available at this link.

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Writing Craft, Vol. IV: Author and journalist Earl Swift


There's a world outside every darkened door/Where blues won't haunt you anymore/For the brave are free and lovers soar/Come ride with me to the distant shore/Here's a picture of Earl Swift/(Chorus) Life is a highway/I wanna ride it all night long/Photo by John Doucette

Back when Norfolk, Va., journalist and author Earl Swift was kind enough to participate in a mighty fun Belligerent Q&A here at the blog, I promised a more serious craft talk with him would follow.

This is it, starting below, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

His new film, in which anthropomorphic cars engage in an international spy adventure, has earned nearly $287 million at the international box office. This, despite the regrettable preproduction death of Paul Newman and the doubly regrettable continued involvement of Larry the Cable Guy, whose every utterance is the tonal reproduction of the sound a banshee makes when kicked in the throat. Oh, wait.

Yeah, I’m think of that new Pixar money grab. Swift wrote a terrific book that is 100 percent Larry the Cable Guy free.

His The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, had its latest strong review in The New York Times this weekend.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is also author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia. The Big Roads also has received favorable reviews in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

And, by way of full disclosure, Swift and I are friends. Without further ado …   

Q: Can you talk about how (The Big Roads) came about? What got you interested in the interstate system as a history?

Well, I’ve always loved road trips, and I’ve always been a bit of a techno-geek; I could identify most airliners by name, model number and manufacturer by the time I was ten, and could ID close to every tank used in World War II at 11 or 12. I could name pretty much every country on a globe, too. Some kids play sports; I memorized cubic yards of weird, arcane, seemingly useless crap.

I was fascinated to learn, at about the time I was perfecting my knowledge of tanks, that the interstate system boasted a numbering protocol, and I made it my business to commit some of the principal routes and numbers to memory. This was completely extraneous to my needs: I was years from getting my driver’s license; even when I got it, knowing such stuff came in handy only once in a very great while. Mostly, it occupied brain space that I would have done well to reserve for other matters. Calculus, for instance.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m watching a TV meteorologist serve up the morning weather, and I notice that his map of the Lower 48 has been reduced to its barest essentials—a few cities, the boundaries of the various states. And lastly, the interstate highways. At one point, any national map would have included principal rivers and mountain ranges. No longer: It features no topography at all.

It strikes me that I’ve come to see the country the same way, as a grid of high-speed roads. And that ushers a chain of mini-epiphanies: In the supermarket, I realize I can buy fresh asparagus and clementines and strawberries the year round; that a widescreen TV sells for about the same price in North Platte, Neb., say, as it does in New York; that Virginia Beach, the ultimate bedroom community, a quiltwork of subdivisions that covers a couple hundred square miles, was swamp and truck farms until the 1970s. Superhighways — the efficiency and ease of movement they offer — are the reason for all.

Not long after, I’m talking to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, an incredibly smart and gifted guy named Eamon Dolan. He’s been reading a proposal of mine in which I’ve pitched an entirely different book, and suggests that I instead tackle the interstates. It occurs to me that I’ve been preparing for the story. So I say: ‘OK.’

Q: There’s a great deal of history that coincides with your present-day reporting in Journey on the James, Where They Lay, and now (to some extent) this project, as well as some of your narrative features for The Pilot. What is it that draws you to history?

Living in Virginia, and especially in Norfolk — which has been settled since the 17th Century, and where every piece of property has been used and reused several times over — it’s hard to ignore the notion that our individual stories are part of a greater, never-ending narrative, and that each individual story is affected by those that came before and reverberates in some way to affect what comes after.

I find it reassuring, this idea that we’re all connected through time — that the environment in which we pass our days in 2011 is no accident, but the sum of human enterprise over centuries. And that each of us, however big or small our lives might seem, leaves a mark.

Q: This clearly was a very research and reporting-intensive project. Would you please talk about how you began this process? How did you determine where to gather records, and what was that process like?

In that it was Eamon’s idea, I had to figure out what the story was — like most Americans, I assumed that the interstates were a product of the Eisenhower administration, and that they were largely a civil defense project. It took about 18 months to figure out that they really dated to the 1930s, and were based on ideas that harkened a lot further back than that.

I started by reading everything I could get my hands on that had been published before, from Caro’s The Power Broker to Phil Patton’s Open Road to Jane Fisher’s Fabulous Hoosier. From there, I moved on to academic journals, then magazines. I was well aware that a book about an inanimate object, no matter how huge or compelling that object might be, wasn’t going to fly, so most of that early research was aimed at identifying a handful of characters through whom I could tell the object’s story.

Eventually, I had four main players. Carl Fisher, a wild man from Indianapolis, would get things started: In 1912, he proposed the first coast-to-coast motor road, the Lincoln Highway, and in so doing inspired the creation of a primitive, mostly dirt web of privately sponsored ‘auto trails’ in the teens and early twenties — the country’s first interstate road network. Thomas MacDonald, a preternaturally uptight engineer who led the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, turned that network into a rational, numbered system in the late 1920s, then oversaw the research and assembled the policy that yielded the concept of interstate expressways in the late 1930s. Frank Turner, MacDonald’s quiet, teetotaler protégé, took that concept and translated it into concrete and steel in the 1950s and 1960s. And Lewis Mumford, a writer and amateur urban planner, was among the first proponents of what we now know as limited-access superhighways, then evolved into their harshest critic — and in both roles helped shape what we got.

I fleshed out all four through their papers, which are kept by university libraries scattered around the country, and through their families, who supplied me with letters, photos and such. I wound up with more than 10 cubic feet of papers.

I didn’t settle on the last main character, a Baltimore homeowner named Joe Wiles, until six months before I finished the first draft. I knew I needed a character who represented the thousands forced from their homes when interstate highway construction ventured into America’s cities, but considered several cities as the setting for that drama before settling on Baltimore. Even then, I had another character in mind — Barbara Mikulski, now a U.S. senator, who by reputation helped lead the fight against the concrete juggernaut. The senator’s staff repeatedly promised that I’d get face time with her, and repeatedly failed to deliver. That turned out to be a favor to me: My research was to show me that her leadership of the fight has been overstated. In her place, I chose Wiles, who was in the thick of Baltimore’s ‘Road Wars’ from the start.

Q: I’ve always been impressed at your early research. What I mean is, you seem to have always done a lot of homework before picking up the phone to do interviews or heading to a location to report or pull records. Can you talk about preparation and planning in reporting?

Interviewing is an organic process. The more you know, the better your questions will be, and the better your subject’s answers will be — which will yield better follow-up questions, and enable the two of you to get into territory you’d never reach if you, the reporter, came into the conversation knowing nothing.

But beyond that, it’s a question of respect. You’re asking somebody to give you something you want but don’t have. It establishes that you value that gift, and that you’re serious about putting it to its fullest possible use, when you’ve done your homework beforehand. Fail to do it, and you broadcast to your subject that he or she is of little importance to you.

I’ve heard some journalists say they don’t prep ahead of an interview because they don’t want to be ‘tainted’ by research. I think anyone who suggests that winging it beats preparation is a fool.

Q: Could you talk about how you organized the narrative? Did you do a lot of outlining? Did you plan out the ways you foreshadow some of the events that take place later in the narrative, such as the events in Baltimore, or does that tend to take shape naturally?

I did do a lot of outlining. I’m a bit of a freak for structure: I believe that it dictates whether a story works. The skeleton is key: Pretty words are all well and good, but they’re like nice skin — they can’t obscure the presence of ugly bones.

This book’s structure morphed substantially over the three drafts I took it through. Initially, I had all five main characters making their first appearances early on, and kept the narrative threads braiding through the whole story. My editors at Houghton, who were terrific, suggested that instead I should introduce each character at the point at which he reached prominence. I wound up with a hybrid of the two structures, in that I had some of the characters make cameos ahead of their full-on entries.

At one point, I was all but committed to using Washington, D.C., as my setting for the freeway revolt. I liked the idea that the protests there occurred within sight and earshot of the guys pushing the highways into town. But Baltimore came to make more sense to me, because it was the example that the Bureau of Public Roads used, back in the 1930s, of a city that would benefit from the interstates — and as things turned out, it’s one of the few major cities in the country that is not penetrated by them.

Q: You demonstrate very clearly that Eisenhower was not the father of the interstate system, and that thought is a kind of mythology. Was this something you understood going in, or did it come in your research? Have you had any feedback on this aspect of the book? It seems like something that would be widely known to engineers, let less so in popular memory of the interstate system.

I didn’t understand it going in; the research made it plain. It’s funny: A good many highway engineers know of Toll Roads and Free Roads, the 1939 report that served as a rough draft for the interstates. They know of Interregional Highways, the report that amounts to an actual blueprint of the system, and in response to which Congress authorized the network in 1944. Still, if you were to ask them, whether employed by the federal government or the states, who is most responsible for the system, a bunch would answer, ‘Eisenhower.’

Q: The placement of this discussion isn’t exactly a revelation, as it is mentioned briefly early on (7), but it’s meat comes roughly 150 pages in, after you have demonstrated the fathers of the system – “career technocrats” – laying out the groundwork. That was an interesting choice that seemed very natural when I reread the selection in the context of the earlier chapters. Then you reinforce it at least two or three times by noting Ike’s absences on major policy events involving the highways.  Can you talk about how you determine what information supports what is a fairly major point, and how you decided to lay it out within the text?

Insofar as this is the story of how the highways came to be, and not a hatchet job on Ike, I didn’t see much need to burden the reader with an opening rant over his being given unjust credit for the interstates early on. I laid out the story in a fairly straight, chronological line, and built a case for who really authored the system simply by relating their acts in the order they occurred; by the time you come to Ike, it’s quite apparent that he’s arrived too late to play a substantial role.

Q: One cost of the highway system in urban areas was the removal of people in slums and struggling neighborhoods to make way for roads. You mention this issue throughout the book, even stressing that urban renewal efforts involving highways target neighborhoods but fail to address the human toll. One of you most compelling examples of the human cost is in Baltimore, where the effect of a planned highway is shown through a middle class black community. What led to this choice? What was it about Joe Wiles and the Rosemont community that led you to use them to illustrate a larger point?

The main argument for Baltimore, from a storytelling standpoint, is that it was the hometown of Herbert Fairbank, who wrote the bulk of Toll Roads and Free Roads and was the ideological brains behind the interstate system. Fairbank used Baltimore in the report as an example of a central city wasting in blight, choked by traffic on colonial-era streets, and losing population and influence to its suburbs—then proposed that encircling the city with a beltway and penetrating its heart with a spray of radial expressways might not only unclog its arteries, but provide a handy tool for clearing slums.

Baltimore was thus the first city of the interstate age, the test case. For my purposes, it was all to the better that it’s also a pretty cranky place, and that the interstates envisioned for it were met with 30 years of protest so harsh that the plans were ultimately abandoned.

Q: Were you aware of Thomas MacDonald and the role he played shepherding the interstate system before you worked on the book?

I’d never heard of the guy.

Q: Though you discuss the shortcomings of engineers behind the system, and unintended consequences of the system, you seem to have an appreciation for Frank Turner, who lost property to a highway and simply accepted that his parents would have to move for a road project – and never used this fact to gain favor or understanding in his role with the system. And then there’s a really poignant moment toward the end of the book that I don’t want to spoil for those who have not read it. Turner, as much as anyone in the book, seems fully realized as a character within the narrative – yet he is someone dramatically different and perhaps harder to bring to life than a showman and businessman such as Carl Fisher. How did you find these stories in your reporting and decide how to deploy them?

As you suggest, Fisher was easy—the guy was a total maniac, each of his ventures bigger and scarier than the last, his every word grist for the newspapers. He was way beyond a risk-taker; he could be downright reckless. That said, he was no dummy, and he had great instincts. I had a lot of fun digging into his past.

Writing about someone who lives a comparatively quiet and careful life is always tougher. Frank Turner was especially so, because he was so damn good — a man whose heart was almost always in the right place, and who didn’t think too much of himself, and who was a loving and responsible husband and father, and who was good at his job and decent to the people who worked for him.

Lucky for me, he left a hell of a paper trail, along with three children and a large number of friends and colleagues I was able to interview. He also sat for several long interviews, the transcripts of which were in his papers at Texas A&M. They were invaluable.

Creating a real character out of him — and of Thomas MacDonald, for that matter — relied on inculcating the reader with an engineering mindset. I hope I was able to pull that off. Engineers get a bad rap as overly sober, numbers-driven, careful. The best of them are, in fact, enormously creative. They’re puzzle-solvers.

Q: I understand you have some magazines stories in the works, as well as another book. Will you please talk about what you’re working on?

I’m halfway through a book about a local man named Tommy Arney, and his struggle to restore an old car. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t like to talk up a project until it’s farther along. I have another book in the outlining stage that’s completely unrelated to cars or transportation — it’s set in the Deep South in the 1910s and 1920s.

Besides that, I’ve been writing for Popular Mechanics and doing a lot of radio interviews. Not least, by any means, I’ve been finishing an MFA in nonfiction at Goucher College; I’ll be heading up to Baltimore to collect my degree in August. What a great program. I’m going to miss it.

After that, I hope, I’ll be back to writing full-time.

You can find out a bit more about Swift here at this link to his site.

And I urge you to pick up The Big Roads. It’s a great read.

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Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, reads Thursday at Prince Books


Norfolk, Va., author Earl Swift on Thursday will read, take questions, and sign copies of his new book,
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

The event is 7 p.m., Thursday, June 30, at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk.

Also, on Wednesday, June 29, Swift is scheduled to do an hour with Hampton Roads radio personality Tony Macrini on Newsradio 790 AM WNIS. Swift expects to be on at 9 a.m.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is a journalist and author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.

The Big Roads has received favorable reviews from Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, Patrick Cooke in The Wall Street Journal, and in The Pilot. It also is among the summer reading “treats” listed by the Charlotte Observer. Some other reviews are forthcoming this summer.

Said Swift:

This has been an unusual experience for me. I’ve never had a book get this much attention.

For what it’s worth, that may be because it’s freaking terrific. Finished it last week. Highly recommended.

For those interested in inspired silliness, Swift recently participated in a Belligerent Q&A that can be found at this link, the most popular Q&A to date here. I hope to have more with Swift at the blog in the near future.

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Next Tunnel Traffic reading Wednesday at Borjo in Norfolk


Maybe it's true that you can indict a ham sandwich, but prosecutors are busy with this guy. Photo of former state Del. Phil Hamilton courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The next Tunnel Traffic open-mic reading is tomorrow, Wednesday, May 4, at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

The event is open to the public.

Tunnel Traffic is a topical reading series, meaning writers write to a prompt in advance of the reading or read something that aligns to the prompt. For tomorrow’s event, the prompt is “anything with the word ‘test’ in it,” as per series creator Travis A. Everett.

Perfect end-of-the-semester topic. Ode to my Classical Rhetoric exam?

Yo, St. Augustine

you freewheeling scamp

rhetor of God

the hippest of Hippo

linguistic test of faith

holy multiple choice

you KO my GPA …

Really writes itself from there. Unlike the second essay question. And let me mention how I’m not in the poetry program.

I wonder what we’ll hear tomorrow.

We’ve been reminded this week about ODU’s former Virginia state delegate hiring program and all. I’m sure Mace and Crown staff will get around to covering it after we get a freaking Chipotle in University Village or something.

Say, I feel another poem-like thing coming on. I call it “Quid Pro Oh No”:

A delegate tried to secure funding

for a state university

with a string attached

and unlike the assembly

that bestows such funds

it wasn’t general at all – no! –

the string was specific,

tied to the assemblyman himself,

job hunting, job getting

in a ‘corrupt arrangement’

federal prosecutors allege.

Boy. Need to work on that last line. And I didn’t get the word “test” in there. Nuts.

Oh yeah, Tunnel Traffic.

As I wrote here last month in a Q&A with Everett at this link, the series was developed by Everett in coordination with the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. A sponsor is Barely South Review, the program’s online literary magazine. I’m in the MFA program, by way of full disclosure. It’s pretty awesome, so I’ll hope you’ll check out these links in this graf.

This is a casual, fun event.

As Everett said last month, via email:

Seeing how other writers approach the same task can help expand your sense of what words can do. It’s a low-pressure way to get reading experience.

The reading starts at at 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 4, at Borjo at W. 45th Street and Monarch Way, Norfolk. More about Tunnel Traffic at this link.

A few oh-by-the-ways:

  1. I’ve started keeping track of some local arts events at this page, so please check it out if you are so inclined. Send events for consideration to jhdouc@verizon.net. Mostly I’ve tracked Tunnel Traffic, ODU readings, and stuff my pals are doing, but I’ll list other stuff, too. In exchange for a job at your organization. Just kidding, U.S. attorney’s office!
  2. Additionally, this blog’s new homepage address is www.jhdoucette.com. Bookmark or avoid as religious doctrine dictates.
  3. People accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty. Even former state lawmakers.
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Earl Swift shall rock you Thursday at the TCC lit fest in Norfolk, though in this headline ‘rock’ = ‘read to’


Norfolk, Va., author and journalist Earl Swift now has a more active name. His old-country handle? Earl Lentissimo. Photo by Saylor Denney.

Norfolk, Va., author and journalist Earl Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot, will read on Thursday as part of Tidewater Community College’s 10th Annual Literary Festival.

The festival’s theme is “How words can help consume delicious natural resources.”

Wait, I have that all wrong. TCC’s lit fest theme is really “Words of hope for our fragile planet.” Maybe next year.

But back to Swift.

He’s an award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in Parade and Best Newspaper Writing. In 2007, some of his best stories were collected in The Tangierman’s Lament. He’s also the author of the riveting Where they Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers, and Journey on the James: Three Weeks Through the Heart of Virginia, which began as a newspaper collaboration with photographer Ian Martin.

Swift’s latest book is due to be published in June. It’s called The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. If I’d had a subtitle that long back in high school, I would have been more popular.

This past weekend, Swift said he was still choosing the selections he will read Thursday, but was leaning toward something from The Tangierman’s Lament, something from The Big Roads, and a project that is in the works. The latter piece is one he hasn’t read in public before. He hasn’t read anything from The Big Roads, either.

He’s looking forward to Thursday:

The festival has a theme: ‘Words of hope for our fragile planet.’ I’m kind of bound to make selections that are connected to the theme. That’s something that has made me come up with stuff that I normally wouldn’t do.

You can read more about Swift at this link to his website.

The Big Roads is a history of how the U.S. interstate highway system came to be, and how it “changed the face of a continent.” To me, that fits in well with TCC’s theme. Nothing bucks up a wimpy planet like a thorough paving.

Should be a great lit fest. By the end of the week, pretend experts say, the Earth will be 5 percent sturdier. And, forever more, space children will taunt Earthlings thusly:

Your planet’s so fragile TCC called it out in a literary festival theme.

The reading is at 12:30 p.m., Thursday, April 14, at the TCC Roper Performing Arts Center, 340 Granby St., Norfolk. Free admission. Info at (757) 822-1450. There is some metered street parking but the best bet at lunchtime downtown is one of the garages, either at Freemason and Boush streets, or at MacArthur Center.

Some of Swift’s books will be available for sale, too.

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UPDATED: Ted Danson coming to Norfolk for talk with Mike D’Orso


During a recent reading at Borjo Coffeehouse in Norfolk, Va., author Mike D'Orso points out something in a book he is holding. The microphone pretends to understand, but the microphone has a painful secret — illiteracy. Photo by John-Henry Doucette.

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 27

It’s back on, baby. Ran into Prince Books owner Sarah Pishko this evening in Norfolk, Va., where it is always sunny except when it is not, and she said Ted Danson is scheduled to come to Norfolk next month. And so it’s sunny again.

And you may recall, Danson had to cancel a planned visit this month to promote his writing project with local writer Mike D’Orso.

Danson was called away suddenly to battle the Yakuza, all of it at once, with his mighty anti-Yakuza Level 5 Power Handsome. Or do some voice work for a cartoon. Okay, the latter is what you might call true.

Mike D’Orso also sent out an email announcement this evening. D’Orso wrote:

We now have a new date and time set for Ted Danson to come and join me (and all of you – those can make it) in a discussion/signing of our book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. The event will, as before, be held at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, on Saturday, May 14, at 12 noon. As before, Ted will only be signing copies of the book (no other memorabilia).

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 19

Ted Danson has postponed his visit, according to Prince Books.

Prince hopes to have a new date to announce in the next week.

Mike D’Orso, in an email announcement, said Danson had to do a movie shoot:

Ted was extremely apologetic and we will set a new date soon. Sorry to all for the inconvenience. But rest assured he is still coming.

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 9

Welcome back to the blog that does little more than tell lame jokes about blood-spitting rock’n’roll bass players repping high-end insurance products and walk-up whatever Norfolk, Va., author Mike D’Orso is doing. Look, it’s a niche. When you see one, you gotta carve it out before James Franco does.

A while back, I wrote about D’Orso’s collaboration with Ted Danson, Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them, published this past month by Rodale Books. D’Orso — he’s a friend, full disclosure — recently did a reading and Q&A at Borjo. It was great stuff, but it was light on Danson.

Now D’Orso says Danson is headed to Hampton Roads for an appearance at Prince Books, one of the last independent bookstores in these parts. A discussion and book signing starts at 1 p.m., Saturday, April 23, at Prince, 109 E. Main St., at the corner of E. Main Street and Martins Lane.

D’Orso, via email, said:

We’re going to have a nice casual sit-down conversation for the first half, then open the floor to any and all questions not pertaining to ‘Cheers,’ ‘Damages’ or ‘Bored to Death.’

So fire up those Becker, Body Heat and Three Men and a Little Lady questions.

Just kidding. Maybe just stick to ocean acidification, commercial fishing and so forth. Though if you want to ask something cheap — say along the lines of Apparently our planet’s oceans are endangered; what can we do to save them? — it’s been done. Got there first, didn’t I, Franco?

Regarding Danson, D’Orso added:

He – and I, if people want it – will then sign books before I toss him back in my Camry and drive him back to the airport.

And while you’re at Prince, maybe you could buy some books. It’s National Poetry Month. Twenty percent off poetry. Not bad, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you head to Prince, there’s metered street parking and a couple city garages within easy walking distance. There’s also some free parking in the TowneBank lot behind the building on the Martins Lane side.

Please don’t park in Pete Decker’s space. It simply is not done.

Nothing left to say, so it’s boilerplate time:

Here’s a link to info on the Danson-D’Orso book.

Here’s a link to a recent video interview with and story on D’Orso by The Daily Press.

Here’s a link to D’Orso’s site.

Here’s a link to a James Franco fansite run by a lady named Vanessa, who will pay or already has paid good money to see Your Highness.

Finally, here’s an absolutely pointless link to the very post you are reading right now.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. III: Travis A. Everett of Tunnel Traffic


 

 

Travis A. Everett, who is from Texas, wears a hat with not one but two Ts on it in this photo. He is the founder of Tunnel Traffic, an occasional reading series. Texans seem to like a certain kind of alliteration. Photo by John-Henry Doucette.

Tunnel Traffic is an open-mike reading series that generally is held at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

The series was developed by Travis A. Everett in coordination with the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. One of its sponsors is Barely South Review, the program’s online literary magazine. By way of full disclosure, I’m a student in the MFA program and was one of the fiction readers for the review this past year.

I recently traded emails with Everett, since the next reading is coming up on Wednesday, April 13. The topical reading series is meant inspire new work and provide reading experience for students, according to the webpage. Writers write to prompts announced before each reading. The vibe is meant to be low-pressure and casual.

In addition to his studies at ODU, Everett is a poet and the founding editor of escarp, a text message-based review of “super brief literature.”

This Belligerent Q&A is about Tunnel Traffic. In case you missed the photo cutline above, let me mention that Everett is from Texas. I wonder if that will come up.

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

  1. An accident waiting to happen
  2. A typography/design geek
  3. A weekend programmer

Q: It seems to be an interesting choice to name something Tunnel Traffic and expect people from Hampton Roads to want to experience it. Please describe your marketing plan in a limerick, haiku, or rhyming couplets.

I come from West Texas
where sky is the coolest thing
you can drive under

Q: The bling, the flashy cars, the reality shows – hasn’t the public had enough of the ostentatious lifestyles of the creative writing community and its twisted, insatiable passion for the subversive forms of fiction, poetry and narrative nonfiction?

Well, I think that’s actually one of the problems contemporary literature faces. So the equivalent of a Benz and a bottle of Cristal is a stuffy reading voice or a highly referential style that both resist non-writers — and the reality-show analog is writing about a writerly life like it’ll matter to anyone who isn’t a writer. There’s room for that, of course, but I also think it’s a really self-fulfilling prophecy to bemoan the lack of readership for very writerly books of poetry and prose. So in that sense, yeah — I think the public has had its fill of a specific kind of writerly lifestyle.

Q: Your readings are “topical” – please explain. Does that mean topical like a Jay Leno monologue, or topical in a way that prolongs one’s will to live?

Or topical like anti-itch cream? So you can listen to one late night monologue and hear a joke about, let’s say, a runaway Toyota, and you might laugh. But a single joke doesn’t show how far the content can stretch. Let’s say it’s topical like a roast, or a slam-dunk contest: shedding the usual rules of the dance give it a relaxed, fun, informal atmosphere with an undercurrent of both inter- and intra-personal competition.

In some sense it doesn’t matter, on The Tonight Show, if Jay has the best Toyota joke or not (as long as his joke is at least funny) because he’s not in a topical context. But if you take a number of late-night hosts and other comedians and let them know you’re having a runaway-Toyota-joke-night, they’re each going to be looking for an angle no one else will take and as a result they’ll cover a lot more territory, territory they probably wouldn’t have opened up as individuals outside of that context.

Q. We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

If you commit to coming, a topical prompt will help you write something you probably wouldn’t have written otherwise. Seeing how other writers approach the same task can help expand your sense of what words can do. It’s a low-pressure way to get reading experience.

The next Tunnel Traffic reading is scheduled from 8 to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 13, at Borjo at W. 45th St. and Monarch Way. The topics are Easter eggs and/or gunpowder. Members of the public are welcome to come out either to listen or to read.

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Mike D’Orso book signing Wednesday in Norfolk


Norfolk, Va., writer Mike D’Orso will discuss and sign copies of his new book this week at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University.

D’Orso, an award-winning author and formerly a journalist with The Virginian-Pilot, collaborated with the actor and environmental activist Ted Danson to pen Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. It was published by Rodale Books earlier this month.

The event is being held by Prince Books, a terrific bookstore in downtown Norfolk that for years has supported local writers – even when we haven’t had anything to sell.

Prince Books is one of the best things about downtown Norfolk. I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

The discussion and signing is at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 30, at Borjo, 4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk. That’s at the corner of W. 45th Street and Monarch Way. Pretty much all of the parking around there is metered before 8 p.m., so bring a couple of quarters.

As regular readers of this blog may recall – love you, Mom – Mike spoke with me for a couple of posts earlier this month, including guest starring in the inaugural edition of the inexplicably and, let’s face it, only relatively popular Belligerent Q&A feature.

Also a more serious discussion on one of his great journalism stories can be found here.

Hope to see you Wednesday at Borjo.

They have coffee and grownup bevs for sale. Just throwing that in there.

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Writing Craft, Vol. II: Kristin Naca (Part 2)


This is the last part of a discussion with Kristin Naca, the Spring 2011 Visiting Poet in Residence for Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, that took place this past June. There are two upcoming events in Norfolk, Va., featuring Naca that are open to the public. Admission is free. You should check them out:

  • From noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, there is a craft talk called “The Secret Tradition: How Translation Revolutionized 20th Century Poetry.” The talk will be held in the Burgess Room, 9024, in the Batten Arts and Letter Building, at the corner of West 45th St. and Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk, or across Hampton Boulevard from the Ted Constant Convocation Center.
  • And at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, March 17, Naca will hold a poetry reading at the University Village Bookstore. Copies of her book will be available for purchase and signing, and refreshments will be provided. The bookstore is located at 4417 Monarch Way, Norfolk, at the corner of Monarch Way and West 45th St.

Naca is the author of Bird Eating Bird. What follows has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: When you read the third draft or the fiftieth draft, do you know that you have it?

(Laughs.) Sometimes. Well, when it’s encroaching on really finished, I’ve probably been working on it for a while and typically I’ll be able to figure that out that it is done, that the plaster is setting. I think the trick for me is I’m pretty open. I didn’t care how long it was going to take me to finish a poem. There were a couple of poems that were published in a really different version that were reworked for the book.  Sometimes you really just need the right word from somebody and it will motivate you to work really hard at your work. … Like the last poem (in Bird Eating Bird), “Catching Cardinals,” Prairie Schooner published an earlier version of that poem. It went from a poem that looked like a baptism poem about the kid. It told the story that it wanted to tell in that form and then my advisor said I don’t want this to look like a composed poem, so she asked me to break it up into quatrains and then I did that. And then my girlfriend at the time saw it published in quatrains and she asked why it was in quatrains. When she said that, it helped me rekindle a memory of being in a poet, David Wagoner’s, class. David is a really well known poet who is a phenomenal teacher. He has a lot of poems memorized and he could just do off the top of his head. He was a poet who tried to help all of us at University of Washington train our ear. It was very much his idea that these numbered kinds of stanzas are more like musical measures. So a couplet is really supposed to work musically as a couplet in and of itself. So he would recite Wallace Stevens, and then it was like oh I can hear the couplets. I don’t need to hear them for the story to be told, I need to hear them because rhythmically it makes a song. … Then working with my friend who is a formalist … I’ve always tried to write formal poems to train as I write my work but finally I felt like this form, the quatrain form, would force me to cut out all the unnecessary language, for one, and it would shape the story in a way that I wouldn’t be in control of, but if I worked the form it would heighten the effect of the poem.

Q: I hadn’t even thought of that but given the topic …

Yeah. I think I only learned that from taking a form workshop to varying degrees of success. Every time I took one I got better. ‘I’d better do this because this poem is going to be so cool.’

Q: The class we’re taking is an Asian American lit class and one of the themes that we’re talking about is assimilation and I wondered if you could talk about that poem (“Catching Cardinals”) and assimilation.

That’s a great question. This is a form of community established in the United States that inaccurately, historically combines conservative politics with conservative forms. I don’t know why that is but if you know the history of poetry, you history of form, cultures around the world are writing in various set forms. And I think the book of poetry that helped me get over the hump to learn how to write in quatrains was Songs of Gold Mountain, which was a book from Chinese migrant communities. The translations are pretty remarkable. They’re able to translate the meter of a couplet in the original poem. The translations are beautiful and demonstrate how different a couplet is in English, a British sort of influence, a Western influence, to what the couplet does coming from the East. There is a great deal more melancholy in the couplet from the East. It’s sort of relinquishes control. It’s haunting. I was teaching and Asian American poetic class that fall and finally I had the music of the couplet that I wanted to write in my ear. At first I’m doing something like classic borrowing but from an Asian form, not necessarily a British form. … I’m going from a Western concept but then from an Eastern concept I’m learning that sense of melancholy and this is the kind of couplet. It was an amazing opportunity for me. … Then there’s like resistance. People who don’t know that history will easily read it as a Western treatment.

Q: Is that frustrating?

It’s actually a little demoralizing. I think people sometimes like the sound of the poem but don’t understand. I don’t know that any one poet or any one audience could ever understand all of the treatments that I was using. Or the historical conversations that are happening … I don’t know (how) to feel about it but I definitely know that I do feel. I guess it’s just lucky if people get anything. … To hear certain lines in your voice and your construction and how you are translating – how you know a certain line or a certain thought – that has a lot of meaning for me. Maybe I talk to people who see the poems or good or relevant, but so much of the subject matter in the book it’s completely theological to them. That’s a little bit of an intensifying of my experience. … It’s kind of a sad reminder. You can’t teach people everything and you can’t say everything either.

Q: When I read the reference to your uncle in Manila I just think it takes the poem to a whole other place. The way I process things is it makes me think of things from my own life. But I don’t think I would have noticed certain lines that I noticed had I not taken this class.

That’s a good argument for those kinds of cultural studies and ethnic studies classes. The reason you do that is you don’t know anything in the first place.

Q: What do you want people to take away from your work?

Try to understand to let the poem effect you and to open your heart to the poem. If you can do that it really cuts down the barriers. If I could request anything, not even tell people to do it is, especially if they don’t understand it, is to read it with their heart first.

For more information on Naca, please visit her site here.

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Writing Craft, Vol. II: Kristin Naca (Part 1)


The following discussion with Kristin Naca, the Spring 2011 Visiting Poet in Residence for Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, took place this past June. It was for a class, and she graciously has agreed to let me publish sections of it. As I posted recently, there are two upcoming events featuring Naca that are open to the public. Admission is free. You should check them out:

  • From noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, there is a craft talk called “The Secret Tradition: How Translation Revolutionized 20th Century Poetry.” The talk will be held in the Burgess Room, 9024, in the Batten Arts and Letter Building, at the corner of West 45th St. and Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk, or across Hampton Boulevard from the Ted Constant Convocation Center.
  • And at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, March 17, Naca will hold a poetry reading at the University Village Bookstore. Copies of her book will be available for purchase and signing, and refreshments will be provided. The bookstore is located at 4417 Monarch Way, at the corner of Monarch Way and West 45th St.

Naca is the author of Bird Eating Bird. The poems include three languages, Spanish, English and Tagalog. I started out our talk asking about some poems that appear in Spanish and then in English, though the translations are not mirror images. I have edited the following for clarity and length.

Q: When did you start writing in Spanish? Was it for the MFA project, your first book?

I think I was revisiting the interest I had even as an undergraduate. My Spanish … really wasn’t in my bones in any way at that age. I’d been in Spanish class a lot but hadn’t really explored whether I had any personal connection to it. At that time I did, but I feel like I didn’t have the resources at that young age to align my memory and to get a thoroughly immersed in Spanish like I did in my MFA project. It shouldn’t have the same relevance to me when I was that young. Once I was out on my own longer … As an artist, you’re really crafting yourself and your personality. My personality and who I was is really interlinked in what I was studying.

Q: (One poem in Spanish is called “Seguir”; the English version is “Seguir: To Follow, Keep On, Continue.”) The title of the translation, it’s almost like there aren’t the words in English to explain this one Spanish word.

I think the title is very much like it’s own dictionary entry, you know? I’d been working on a few different words with that approach, in particular words where the concept was complex, and the construction of what they mean. I wasn’t sure I understood the translation. … The word is like a concept of time and how we experience time. … Imagine like how the word works in time, that’s what I think I was trying to find a metaphor for. It’s like a really weird word. Sometimes you can use it to cast out into the future and sometimes it talks about what has happened in the past and sometimes it’s related to the future. … It’s a verb that has a past and a future to it. I was trying to work with these phrases that were like reflections, and I think even “Todavia No” is even like one of those choices. … The concepts of something not quite being there or something still being there.

Q: I wondered how you are assembling the images and the words that get you where you want to go. Does it start with just one idea?

I don’t know if this unusual. I ended up just observing what was in my immediate environment, and tried to write down anything I could observe in detail and also in another language, when I was in Nebraska. Interestingly enough, this is in the details of nouns, but it’s what I can see around me.

Q: Did you write it first in Spanish?

First in Spanish. I was trying to demonstrate where the fragments of my Spanish were. Like, where the ragged ends of my lexicon were. If I didn’t know a word … Sometimes the word isn’t at my finger tips. And then there’s alliteration. I’m definitely someone who will alliterate until I hear the word I’m looking for. I’ll do that in Spanish and I’ll do it in English, too. …

Q: “Todivia No” was one of the poems where I read it and I wished that I had written it. One of the things I struggle with is structure and it just seems, it’s so hard to explain. I just can’t picture it being written another way.

I have a friend who writes fiction and she’s kind of a young literary fiction writer, and she says don’t you feel like you can just futz around with in for ever, when I was in the last two months of editing it, and I was just like no, poems are … at a certain point you cannot rearrange it. That’s when you know. If the poem has a life of its own then someone else can read it see the intangible elements. I think maybe because I’m a relatively young writer too, when you’re compositing a certain way. I guess the best way to describe it is reaching negative capability. You really do empty yourself out and try to comply to the will of the poem. If you hear that there is a poem in there or if you hear that there is a poetic dimension that are just like around the corner, the you let go of what you want the poem to be, what you were trying to force the poem to do, and eventually you let the poem come tell you how it’s supposed to go. It’s not the easiest process. It’s just like, strip down your ego, you know? And say my original intention is not what’s important. What’s important is the intention of the poem that’s there. Or at least the poem that’s better. (Laughs.) I don’t know if you feel that way writing stories.

Q: I do. Actually, I had a workshop last year where I kind of got out of my own way.

That’s exciting. It’s exciting and it’s hard to do. And once you do it once it’s like now I have to do that 100 more times or as many times as I need to. That can be a scary process.

Q: You had very little Spanish when you were a kid?

Yeah. Practically none. It was only like when certain relatives would come in from New York City. When my grandmother would come in from, I think she was living in Maryland. My father would speak Spanish only to them, and not to us.

Q: I just want to tell you, in “Uses for Spanish in Pittsburgh,” a line I love: “Still I remember he spoke a hushed Spanish to customers who struggled in English, the ones he pitied for having no language to live on.” One of my favorite lines.

Thanks. I really appreciate that. … I think my parents were very much like the economics of learning certain languages just don’t make sense. And Spanish doesn’t make economic sense. Though my father said that he heard a quarter of the globe would speak Spanish by 2000. But he wanted us to learn Chinese. He was much more in favor of us learning Chinese than Spanish. He thought that was more economically viable.

Q: Similar to my mother’s experience with Italian. The kids didn’t speak Italian. The words my mother and uncles carried forward are the words I heard when I got in trouble.

(Laughs.) The cursing and sometimes swearing, right? That’s gotten me in trouble once or twice with Tagalog.

Q: Did you have the same experience with Tagalog?

It’s exactly the same kind of thing as you said. We learned like body parts. My mother’s family is like I guess third-world poverty working class, and whatever I learned in terms of body parts were much more crude than I think people in the city were learning and, while I was aware that the Catholic Church is a power in the Philippines and there are elements of shame, like shame for the culture or social rules, I didn’t really understand how that shaped the language I learned. So I met a another Filipino writer and she was a year behind me and we talked about the shame involved in openly talking about sexuality. At the time any Filipino I knew was just saying the body parts and such. When I repeated it back (to the other student) when she heard me say – and apparently it wasn’t just like the names of body parts but I was also saying phrasing I didn’t know, and it had been vulgar. When the whole things went down, she blushed. I didn’t know Filipino people could blush. She just turned beet red. She was like afraid of me for the things I had learned to say. It was like in a really crude form. It was a little bit of class difference in what my family was teaching me, and her background. … I think the story of my life is I’ll come into contact with a language other than English and I may not know the dynamics of the way I’m learning it or a full sense of what I’ve learned or what I’ve actually heard. And then I have an opportunity to learn. … Luckily I realized I enjoyed learning about language. I had no idea I would enjoy learning about languages until I got further along in my studies.

Q: Did you feel personally that language was missing, that you wished you had more of it?

I really wanted to learn it. I was really good at languages until I was 13. When I started studying Spanish in high school …  generally, I was a really bad student, but that didn’t relax my curiosity about it. And when someone tells you not to it’s just burned into your memory in a way that it’s an indelible thing that you must have. That couldn’t have been more clear to me in that it developed into a profound interest in studying Mexican American writers. And then having them become my circle of thought and colleagues, and then I could not not pursue it. Everything is pointing in the direction  of this is what I should do. It was the first time I had a scholarly pursuit and my scholarly pursuit was hand in hand with like a natural curiosity.

Q: The poems are so personal and powerful, does it come just a core part of your personality at that point? Was it just real effort or was it both?

I think you’re asking the age old questions. I think what I learned in my MFA, though I couldn’t really express it, was I had more intellectual faculty than I thought I did. … I think when you’re an MFA student your main goal is to become a better writer, not to write a book. You’re going to write an entire manuscript, for instance, but it’s sort of like you don’t have to worry about it. You have to do it in order to graduate. The real opportunity should be to learn as much as you can, change and grow as much as you can. I learned that you just have to really study you craft and that so much of the world will sort of unlock for you if you work on it. It was sort of my passport into a community.

I’ll post more of this discussion shortly. For more information on Naca, visit her site here.

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