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Coffeehouse Junkie

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Essays: The nights and days before and after Christmas | Under The Holly | When the Lights Go Out | Filling My Love Basket | Below an Oak Tree | In Pursuit of A Good Life | Was James Frey Framed? | Spills and Splatters | Confessions of a Coffeehouse Junkie | Books & Desktop Icons | iPod, Therefore iAm | Writing, Painting & Thoughts about Spirituality

Poems: Fragile | Narrative Kernel | Reading "My American Body" | A Tube of Wet Rage | Abstract Painting in Blue | Saturday Night, Coffee House

Reviews: Tear Down the Mountain | Cinephrastics | Speaking of Faith | Transfer | Artificial Lure | Gospel* | RedLineBlues | An Invented Hour | The Sad Meal | Vagrant Verses | Fixed Ideas

Write Stuff Columns: Archive: 2006 - 2007

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Book Review: Tear Down the Mountain

This is a book review I do not want to write. In fact, I have put it off for more than six months. Why the delay, you ask. Procrastination? Too busy? Lack of motivation? All of these. And yet none of these. It has nothing to do with the book or its author. For a first novel, the book offers a startling look into the contemporary scene of rural Appalachia. It is clear that Roger Alan Skipper reaches for a story that is close to him like a favorite coffee mug or faded denim jacket or even a place--an old diner where coffee is still served for fifty cents including free refills. The novel is not too complicated, nor too simple, nor too trite to write a review. In a manner of speaking--it is too true to be fiction.

I feel I might be he, Sid, who loves and hates the mountains where he once lived and left--as if the mountains themselves embrace and reject him. I feel that if I write about this book I may be committing myself to its plot. And I am not sure I like how the author left Sid Lore on page 208. The plot is simple and complex like the characters that pass through the pages between the book's covers. And if I write this review it will be like a rune that once it is carved into stone cannot be withdrawn--the future committed before it arrives--before it is lived. Is that possible?
During the alter call, the girl went forward. A swarm of growed-ups buried her in a mess of sweat and noise. "Give her your Spirit, Lord," one cherry-faced old bag bellered, and Sid shivered.... She couldn't get the tongues any better than he could, she said, and in the company of someone just like him, . . . he'd decided to talk in tongues whether they was the Lord's or his own, . . .
The author writes in an authentic voice; placing the reader in a small rural Appalachian mountain town, placing the reader in a small charismatic congregation, placing the reader on a road to tear down the mountain. Sid struggles with his identity, his sense of place and purpose. He sees Janet seeking acceptance in the church and identifies with her desperation, longing, isolation. Sid and his brother try to fit into this community, but Sid feels equally a part of it as he does a stranger to it.

Like the novel's title, some days I want to "tear down the mountain" in search of a place that has a better job market to match the housing costs. Sid and Janet "tear down the mountain"--a colloquial expression meaning to leave the mountains, not remove them--in a beat up pickup truck with no tags and "FARM USE scrawled on the doors with green spray paint. How were they to know that wasn't legal outside of West Virginia?"

Once left behind, the mountains change. After fourteen years divorced from the home where Sid and Janet met, they return separately to find the quiet little secluded place in the Appalachians transformed to a tourist getaway.
A sense of the ridiculous swelled as she drove slowly. . . . Familiar signs that she never expected to see--Perkins and Comfort Inn. . . made it all a mixed-up dream.
Several themes complicate and populate this novel: personal identity, community, the authentic and superficial attributes of religious life, gender roles in a traditional marriage, and the emotional strain of unemployment in an economically challenged and changing Appalachian town. All these themes resonate with the Asheville, North Carolina experience.

A couple years ago I shared a conversation with an older graphic designer. I asked him how Asheville had changed since he had moved here (because it is rare to find someone in Asheville who actually grew up here). He told me that Asheville resembles Aspen during the 1980s. The older graphic designer had moved from a comercialized Aspen tourist spot to the quiet enclaves of Asheville. This city had the mountain charm and vibe that Aspen had lost. But now Asheville is losing its mountain roots and values--replacing it with tourism. And tourists visit Asheville to see a city on exhibition and do not share the commitment and struggle to maintain a daily mountain lifestyle.

I've witnessed families relocate to Asheville, but within 12 to 16 months move to Raleigh or other cities because skilled-labor opportunities (especially for professionals in creative services and high-tech businesses) are rare in this region. Just last week on the bus, Route 13 to be precise, I overheard two women talking about their plans to move to Charlotte because the jobs that pay well don't exist in Asheville. One of the women said she found a six-bedroom house in Charlotte and a job that can afford the mortgage (i.e. Asheville's housing is too expensive and the wages too low.) In Tear Down the Mountain, Sid Lore faced the same dilemma.
"May back's no better. Unless we move where there's jobs I can do, its up to you. Or we can set here and starve." [Sid's] eyelids hung red and water shot like an old hound's. "You could go to college, learn that stuff."
Sacrifices must be made if one wants to live in the mountains of Asheville. Sid and Janet decide to move to a city in the valley where there are jobs.
Where Route 50 topped Allegheny Front Sid pulled to the side of the road and killed the engine. "What's wrong?" Janet said. "You want to give the mountains one last look before we fall off?"
"No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God. The Bible says that."
Sid laughed . . . "I didn't figure it come from the TV Guide . . ."
At this point in the novel I begin to dislike the story. They left the mountains. I knew before I left page 176 that they could never return to the same mountains they once knew. No one ever does. Once you leave you lose your ground--your roots. You change. The place changes. That is why I do not want to leave Asheville. That is why I sacrifice a lot to stay in this area. That is why a lot of citizens in Asheville accept low wages and high costs of living. They do not want to tear down the mountain. They accept the hardships and ironies of a mountain lifestyle. That is how I would have ended the novel, but that is not the life the author planned for Sid Lore and Janet Holler. Tear Down the Mountain is a tragic Appalachian love story. And Roger Alan Skipper's debut novel from Soft Skull Press could have no other ending. But it is not my ending.

Originally published in The Indie, Volume 5, Number 51

Essay: Filling My Love Basket

The first time I heard the music of U2 was from a double vinyl release of Rattle and Hum. Before cassettes and CDs and iPods there were vinyl records. The black and white grainy photos and reversed out lyrics (white text on black background) created an experience that's difficult to explain. I listened to it for days if not weeks and months. It expanded how I saw the world and expanded me a bit too. For those older than I, the musicians may have different names: Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. For me it was the rebel Irish rockers of U2.

I don't own a television. So, I was delighted the morning after the Grammys to hear NPR broadcast the results. U2 dominated the Grammys with Best Rock Song, Best Rock Album, Song of the Year and Album of the Year (there may have been more but that’s enough for now).

Here's something NPR did not cover. The previous week Bono spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. I know. It is very odd indeed and he thought so too. "If you're wondering what I'm doing here, at a prayer breakfast," began Bono. "I'm certainly not here as a man of the cloth, unless that cloth is leather."

He continued his introduction at the National Prayer Breakfast by commenting how "unnatural" it seems to have a rock star behind a "pulpit and preaching at presidents.” After a couple more comments he offered this reflection:

"I avoided religious people most of my life. Maybe it had something to do with having a father who was Protestant and a mother who was Catholic in a country where the line between the two was, quite literally, a battle line. Where the line between church and state was... well, a little blurry, and hard to see.”

He went on to observe how “religion often gets in the way of God” and his general contempt of the “religious establishment.”

"I must confess,” Bono said. “I wanted my MTV. Even though I was a believer. Perhaps because I was a believer."

I share the same cynicism toward organized religion that Bono confessed in his address. When people are placed in positions of power, whether it be religious or political, there is always the potential for the abuse and perversion of that power. Abraham Lincoln is credited for saying: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

Bono also presented a topic near to his heart -- poverty -- by stating that “It's not a coincidence that in the scriptures, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times... 'As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me' (Matthew 25:40)." The Christian Scriptures mention money and possessions over 2,300 times. Heaven is mentioned to over 500 times. I dare say this isn’t something you hear often in an American church service. He concluded his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on the topic of "a completely avoidable catastrophe" -- AIDS in Africa.

I don't know about you, but I still find it difficult to believe that Bono didn't drop the f-bomb during his National Prayer Breakfast address. I suppose NPR would have run that story if he had. However, this really got me to think about why I don’t like to go to church. And further, why I still go despite me feelings about it.

Like Bono, I feel disillusioned by organized religion -- more specifically, Christianity (or church-ianity). Many Christians become so busy being religious and being political that they completely miss spirituality all together. Also like the stubborn Irish rocker, I'm not going to give up on God even though people can be down right disappointing.

It has been a long spiritual journey for me, and it's not over yet. I don't have it all together. I blow it more times than I'd like to admit. Sometimes I think I am more of a curse than a blessing to those around me. But I think that's exactly why God pursues me. God knows I need help. I guess, like Saint Peter trying to walk on water, God wants me to ask for help and He's ready to keep me from drowning. I guess that's why I have a particular interest in Bono's story. He's dealing with his Christian spirituality in a very public manner. Sure, he drops the f-bomb more times than is comfortable for television executives. But he's also known for his intense spirituality and a relationship with the God that listens.

***

It's difficult explaining to my children why I go to church because sometimes I just don't want to go. Why should I force them to do something I don’t want to do? Yet, I remind them to brush their teeth and wash their hands and eat wholesome organic foods and vegetables. Should I make them go to church? After all, Christianity is fubar. It’s a like an auto that is well beyond an oil change and the engine has locked up but the gears are still hammering away as if it will still move forward another inch. It’s like you can’t go to a Christian church in America that isn’t pressuring you to be a good little conservative Republican or insisting Democrats are social saviors. American politics is not what it means to be Christian. True spirituality is what it means to be a Christian.

***

Some days I don’t brush my teeth after breakfast, but I should. Some times I sneak over to a downtown café for confectionary goodness though I know full well that a spinach salad would be better for me. In the same manner, I force myself to go a small church up on a hill. There are a lot of really nice people there. They help the poor and sick and they put up with me -- unconditionally, I hope. I'm sure I'm one of those people who show up at church and congregates wonder, “Why the hell is he here? If he is here, then I had better find another church.” I explain to my children that I go to church for God not for the people that show up week after week. It’s like going to get me spiritual car refueled from a week’s worth of travel. A friend of mine calls it filling one’s love basket.

One Sunday I was daydreaming during one of those sermons that included a political rabbit trail that totally pissed me off. I dreamt that I was late for the morning service and there was only one seat available which was not quite in the front and not quite near the back and not quite near the end of a row. I had to squeeze in front of nicely-seated people in order to reach that chair. As I nervously approached that single vacancy I noticed the guy near it was wearing a leather jacket and looked a lot like Bono. I sat down abruptly and didn't notice his Bible on the empty chair.

"Shit," I said under my breath and hoped no one heard. But it was clear people did hear me for they all looked in my direction with angry eyebrows.

"Are you saving this seat for someone?" I asked as I handed the Bible to the guy who looked a lot like Bono.

"I was saving that seat for you," he said and sounded a lot like Bono. "It's about fucking time you showed up."

I looked at him again, as did other congregates around us, and, oddly, I felt at home. This must be the right place for me. After all, the guy who looked and sounded a lot like Bono had saved me a seat.

“Perfect people don't come to church,” he said. “Now quit gawking at me and pay attention to the minister. His homely is about not showing partiality to people whether they are rich or poor, clean or foul. It’s from the book of James.”

I guess the sermon that day must have ended shortly after that point in my daydream. Or maybe I actually said “shit” in church recognizing a political rabbit trail was about to take place and buried my eyes in the scriptures hoping nobody heard me and nobody saw me. But the idea from the daydream is still profound. One doesn’t go to an emergency room if one is healthy. So, if I’m spiritually hungry, then wouldn’t it be the perfect place to fill my basket?

***

True spirituality conveys unconditional love. Maybe that’s the hope I have when I go to the small church up on a hill. I hope that if I sit next to some stranger from Asheville or Ireland that I’ll unconditionally love him rather than love him on the condition that he needs to clean up his life to attend church. Maybe that’s one reason why I keep attending that small church up on a hill -- people show up just as they are not as they pretend to be or think they should to be.

I go to church because I'm broken, fragile, hurt, abused or just down right rotten. In fact, I’ve shown up at church in a rather fowl mood a time or two or maybe more than I’d like to confess. And there are times I’ve stormed out of church because of one thing or another. I don't go to church to impress my neighbors. I don't go to church to impress the congregates. I sure as hell don't go to impress the minister. I go to church to because I'm spiritually hungry and need to be feed unconditionally even if I don’t like the taste of the sermon. God looks beyond what I'm wearing or what I drove to church. God even looks beyond why I was late for church or why I was daydreaming in church. God looks at my intentions. More importantly, God knows all about me and still listens and still helps and still loves me. People are people and need, as my friend says, their love baskets filled with wholesome, unconditional goodness. It’s a spirit thing not a religious thing.



Originally published in Blue Sky Asheville, Volume 1, Number 1

Essay: Confessions of a Coffeehouse Junkie

If you've been to any number of open mic events you are well aware that pretty much anything goes. A few weeks a go I witnessed a didge (didgeridoo) duet. I've even seen a guy play a PVC pipe as a didge. A week or two ago an aspiring musician played several REM cover songs and last week a Boston girl rocked out on an acoustic guitar.

I go to open mic events to listen, learn and practice reading my own poems. But open mics often defeat me. The crowds are accepting only because someone else is eager to have their 15 minutes. The applause is pleasant but forced. At times it's more of a support group for unknown artists (like myself) rather than a showcase of local talent.

Literary events, by comparison, jive with energy. People attending these events want to be there. They want to listen, learn and commune at the table of wordsmiths, chew the morsels of metaphors and drink from goblets of verse. There is an honest response to the poet and writer at these events. I've participated in both and enjoyed both.

However, reading a collection of poems for a literary event requires a bit more planning than an impromptu open mic. When I organize poems for a reading I want them to communicate a theme or motif. I've been at literary events where a poet reads a random collection of poems. But I don't want to deliver randomness... I want to deliver purposeful poetry.

As I prepared for the August 11th Bonfires gig, I sought inspiration from the Web site of The Academy of American Poets. I read about the historic San Francisco "6 poets at 6 gallery" event held on October 7, 1955:

"Organized by Ginsberg and . . . Jack Kerouac, the poetry reading became one of the most notorious literary events of the 1950s. Wine flowed freely from jugs and crowds cheered during the reading. . . . [T]he 29-year-old Ginsberg, having published little up to that point, unveiled an early version of his poem, 'Howl,' to a mesmerized audience whose relentless cheers of 'Go! Go! Go!' brought him to tears by the end of the performance." (www.poets.org).

"6 poets at 6 gallery" was a literary event. Not an open mic. I still enjoy contributing to open mics, but I get jazzed about poetry gigs.

* * *



While preparing for The Traveling Bonfires music/poetry gig at Malaprop's , I received a poetry rejection slip from a literary journal.

Then I discovered that my next poetry book would not be ready in time for the event. I like to provide guests to my readings with some sort of souvenir they can take home. My first collection of poetry is still available through Malaprop's (order by request), but I noticed they no longer stock it in the local poets section of the bookstore.

Through all the depressing news I learned that one poem has been accepted for publication in an obscure Southern lit mag. A California editor (who emailed, "I love it") is reviewing another series of poems. It can't shine every day, but I'll enjoy the sun while it shines.

* * *



Four days before the Malaprop's reading I met with some friends at a local restaurant. At supper, a friend told me that she was looking forward to attending The Traveling Bonfires music/poetry gig. But she couldn't understand why I read and write poetry.

"Why not stories?" she asked.

I told her that I do write in other genres but I chose poetry as my concentration because it requires deep thought to write and read. Not that prose is easy to write, but poetry buries textured truths, which requires those who seek it to search deliberately. What may be investigated in a novel is compressed in 32 lines of a poem.

The German word for poetry is Gedichte or Dichtung. The definition of poetry in German encompasses the idea of compression or density--to condense a thought or theme. The English understanding of poetry embraces beauty and harmony--graceful elegance.

That's how I approach poetry--condensed ideas in a lyrical framework.

* * *



It's odd to think that I spent four weeks preparing for 25 minutes. I suppose that is the nature of poetry. I'm sure there are some poets who perform public readings that don't plan what they will say or read. I find that approach insulting to people who come to listen to them. That's like attending a rock concert where the band doesn't have a set list.

A responsible poet respects the audience by preparing himself/herself for each performance. So, I carefully selected a series of poems--a performance manuscript. Some of the poems have been published. Others have not. I read the series out loud to hear how it sounds--how it flows. Does it convey the motif I chose? The performance manuscript presented three ideas: embracing peace in the midst of internal and external turmoil, what has become of America and the life of an artist through the metaphor of art theory.

* * *



Two days before the gig, I received yet another rejection letter from a local poetry journal. Talk about a morale booster. Maybe I should have sent him an invitation to the event at Malaprop's Café instead of six poems.

"Chin up," I said to myself. "Review the poems. Make sure they are a gift to the people who will attend."

A poetry reading is like an art gallery portfolio review. You want to pick your twelve best pieces and include a couple talking points per painting (poem). This enables the curator (audience) to understand the piece in context. It also allows room for conversation after the viewing (reading).

It is reported that it took the poet Philip Larkin three years to complete his 50-line masterpiece "Aubade." His literary legacy can be found in 4 small books (consisting of 117 poems).

This encouraged me, for I have been working on a poem for almost four years (I doubt it will become a masterpiece). Many poems have been created in that period and maybe they will be collected in four or five small books.

I also read that it took Thoreau five years to get rid of all 2000 copies of Walden. I thought of how I'd like each book I publish to be a gift. If it takes three years to compose a poem and five more years to circulate copies, it will still be a rewarding gift.

Unfortunately, the editor in question did not know he received a gift. Instead, he rejected the gift I sent him--finding no room in his publication for it. His loss really--not mine.

I saw this same editor at another literary event at Malaprop's and thought about discussing my poetry with him. But I didn't. I guess I was still licking the scabs of rejection. What do you say to someone who anonymously rejects your gifts?

* * *



Malaprop's Café anticipated a big crowd for The Traveling Bonfires and set up maybe twenty chairs. I know I should probably get bitter about this and write a poem, but six of my friends filled those seats--and half a dozen other folks filled empty seats. My wife and youngest son attended and I saw several people poke their heads out from around the bookshelves to listen.

So, when I looked out from where I stood reading my poetry, the vacant seats didn't bother me. The intimate crowd of faithful friends and fellow artists made me smile several times throughout my reading.

For a moment, I wanted to get angry that more people didn't show up for the event. But then I saw my friend who wore a tie-dyed t-shirt and sipped a mug of coffee. I realized in that moment those poems were for him. Sitting next to him, a tall stranger smiled while I read my first six poems and a dark haired woman in the back wearing a black halter-top seemed to claim my poem "Orbiting the Familiar." Two women sitting in the second row listened politely and seemed to enjoy my "Letter to Walt Whitman." As I read my new collection of poems about art theory and I discovered they were gifts to a young friend, her husband and her mother.

As I was walking away from the Café with my wife and youngest son, I realized that those poems were read that night for that audience and that audience alone. Maybe in some other café there will be another twenty chairs that are being prepared to receive new poems to be read for new listeners.



Originally published in The Indie, September 2005