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Duff Man, Oh yeah.

8612461Cyrus Duffleman is an adjunct university professor fighting to reach the end of what seems like the single longest day of his life. From dawn till midnight, he sprints amongst four different educational institutions where students test his patience levels–particularly the ones with a raging sense of entitlement and blind patriotism–and where tragedies such as suicide and murder go down. In the rare moments when Duffleman does catch a breather, he can’t help but stress about his financial limitations, school administrative bureaucracies, and on a more personal level, crippling loneliness, which emerges in his daydreams of what-if scenarios.

Occasionally, Duffy doesn’t always make the most rational decisions, but we sympathize with him since he just can’t seem to catch a break. On top of dealing with an aching knee, empty wallet, the chronic fear of not having his classes renewed, he falls victim to internet phishing scams, temptations gone awry, and losing control of classroom discussions. He also strains to come to terms with his failed pipe dream of writing a novel:

[Duffleman’s] terminal degree states that he has a “Masters” in theso-called “Fine Art” of creative writing, and he applied years ago, long before the seven deadly sins of literary blockage—daily drudgery, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, lack of talent and ambition, and above all, laziness—stole away any chance he had of concentrating for long enough to produce anything even loosely resembling a work of art, or tight and tidy enough to be considered that marketable commodity, “the contemporary novel.”

Despite the stressors and personal doubt, Duffleman never ceases to put his full effort into his work and his heart into the community. He tutors students for minimum wage, often gives away his last few dollars to those he feels need it more, and at the very end of his long day, he helps end a domestic terrorist attack.

An author with a phenomenal writing ability, Alex Kudera has written a powerful debut novel about perseverance, and seeing through not only work but life commitments with dignity, respect, and most of all, unyielding passion.

Dave K recently released a collection of steampunk stories drafted and fine-tuned throughout his creative writing degree program at the University of Baltimore. He’s generously taken the time to allow me to interview him about his collection How To Stone A Pig, his writing process, among other interesting tidbits.

 

L^2: You have a unique writing style in How to Stone a Pig; it’s almost Victorian intellectual but modernized with interjections of blatant Gen-X vocabulary. In your own words, what was your literary angle?

DK: There are two angles at play with that, actually. I felt like a combination of semi-formal narrative voice and modern casual dialogue would be both a fun anachronism to play with and a way to build up the surrealistic tone that I wanted for this collection. Speculative fiction (or genre fiction, whatever you want to call it) is uniquely equipped to do stuff like that, so I wish more writers in that ouevre would take advantage of it.

The other angle is that I didn’t want readers to think I was trying to sound British. Most people associate anything Victorian with England, after all, and I wanted a more American sound to my work because that’s where I’m from and where I live. The best way to achieve that, I thought, was through informal, American vernacular dialogue.

L^2: Throughout your writing career, who have been your greatest influences and inspirations?

DK: The writers who’ve impacted my voice the most are John Bellairs, Robert Louis Stevenson, Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams, Hunter S. Thompson, and Dave Barry. I’ve made it a point in recent years to build up a more diverse reading list, but those six guys grabbed me early.

My inspirations aren’t writers at all, for the most part. A lot of them are musicians: Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, and Lemmy being the dominant three. I like people who are stubborn and unorthodox and get away with it without sacrificing their curiosity along the way (which is why G.G. Allin is not on this list). There are some visual artists who stir something up in me, too; Edward Gorey is a big one, as is Ralph Steadman, and I really like J.M.W. Turner’s work, even the more Impressionistic stuff he did late in his career.

L^2: Who are you reading now and name the last 3 great works you’ve read, and why.

DK: Right now I’m working on my friend Justin Sirois’ book, Falcons On the Floor, and also reading Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow. They’re both fantastic.

As far as great works go, I’ve been singing the praises of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun to everyone everywhere – the prose is both gorgeous and graceful. Ander Monson’s Other Electricities is also a phenomenal book; the structure is as poetic as the content. And while it’s not a novel or even a piece of fiction, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life is a thumping good reminder that you don’t need traditional channels of patronage and distribution to be a working artist. Hell, you can even be riddled with insecurities and behavioral disorders and still make a go of it.

L^2: How has your formal education at University of Baltimore in Creative Writing and Publishing changed your approach to writing? The publishing industry?

DK: Well, it broke any lingering desire I had to work in the publishing industry, that’s for sure. But my MFA program introduced me to a lot of people who believed in my work and helped it grow. I don’t absolutely have to write from anger or cynicism anymore, as I once did, and it’s much easier for me to draw inspiration from other things (music, visual arts, etc.) now. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, I have a lot more keys on my piano these days.

Most importantly, my MFA program helped me really enjoy writing. I went through a phase where I was pretty bitter toward it, because I felt like I wasn’t good at much else and had therefore been shanghaied by fate into writing. I feel much differently now. There’s more joy in my process now than ever before, and that makes it a lot easier to tell stories.

L^2: As a writer, describe your writing process.

DK: A lot of things change depending on what I’m working on, but I tend to be a night owl who doesn’t start writing until well after dark. I need to listen to music while I write, and lately I’ve been exploring experimental/ambient music; lots of soundscapes and long, droning instrumentals. What I’m listening to has a direct effect on my narrative voice, so it’s fun to listen to different things and pick out the changes they make in my writing.

I also have trouble concentrating in my apartment, so I often go elsewhere to write. Coffee shops and libraries are my go-to places right now.

L^2: There are some creepy and somber photographs woven in between each piece of How to Stone a Pig. Did you create them? What were you trying to highlight by placing them where you did in the collection?

DK: I did create those images, yes. They’re a mix of public domain photography, stock photos, hand-drawn stuff, and clip art, all fed through Photoshop sketch filters and layered with grunge textures to give them a worn-out, used look. I really like combining text and image – it brings me back to being a kid and tearing through John Bellairs books so I could look at Edward Gorey’s weird, wonderful illustrations.

Creating those images helped my writing, too. It’s easier to find the right words for things when you’re seeing what your characters see, and I’d like to think the images contributed to the overall mood of the collection.

L^2: Some of us are familiar with the genre of “steampunk,” for those who aren’t, would you mind explaining the genre?

DK: Steampunk has a lot of definitions, but I like to think of it as science fiction set in the Victorian/Edwardian era. Victorian interpretations of fashion, technology, art, politics, and culture are centerpieces of the genre, to the point where it can veer into alternate history at times. There’s also a pervasive man-against-the-world element to steampunk protagonists, which is where that “punk” part comes in, as well as a sense of optimism about human potential.

That said, a lot of steampunk literature is overly focused on the technology and aesthetics, and so there’s a lot of empty, rich-guys-in-airships fanservice as a result, but it’s such a clever and provocative setting when it’s done well.

L^2: I recall you mentioning that this collection was part of your thesis. Can you tell us about the journey to getting it from concept to print?

DK: All the stories in the collection were written at various points during my time in the program, and the first semester of my final year was an advanced fiction workshop where my classmates and I wrote some new stories and revised old ones and put together the manuscripts that would become our self-published books. The following spring was the thesis semester, where we all revised our manuscripts, thinking of them as whole collections rather than just clumps of stories.

Once my manuscript reached the point where my advisor signed off on it, I got to work designing the thing. Page size and layout, margins, typeface, all that stuff. I also designed the cover. That whole process was grueling, but I imagine it would be a festival for someone more OCD than me – there are so many mental doorknobs to touch, and the Adobe suite just enables that tendency in people.

My book design had to be approved as well, and I contacted a printer once it was. That was the most stressful part, honestly. Not because of the printer, but because that was the first time the book was actually out of my control, and they were far enough away that I couldn’t watch them physically assemble the books to make sure they didn’t do anything wrong. It was like sending my manuscript to summer camp for the first time and hoping the counselors would keep it from drowning or being eaten by bears or something.

When the books arrived, it took me a minute to accept that they were real, that all the stress and fatigue and countless hours of resetting paragraph indents and making Photoshop collages finally had a real, physical presence. I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life.

 

 

L^2: Big thanks to Dave for taking the time to chat. I’ve also highlighted a few of my favorite stories below of How To Stone A Pig in a flash review.

One of my favorite stories was How to Adopt a Cat, a story written in a somber, almost sedated tone, fitting of the protagonist’s state of mind post-psyche ward release. He touches on what it’s like to feel like an outsider in the “outside world,” and how the hustle of passersby created a deep-rooted anxiety for the protagonist. One of my favorite passages is: “When the conductor passes by and tells me my stop is next, I can only nod. My speech has slurred during the years, and I’m hesitant to converse above my station. When he leaves, I pat myself down to make sure I still have my papers, that none of them have fallen out of my pocket, that I am real and solid and free of that wretched place.”

My other favorite was a disturbing piece titled The Experiment, a story that draws on the haunting and eerily creepy images of a man strapped down and electrocuted by a sadistic doctor without concern for safety or well-being of his subject: “Few words native to English or any other language are fit to describe how Mr. Crisp felt. Suffice it to say that the second-to-last thing coursing through his mind was a brief, white-hot, explosive realization of complete and total independence from everything. He flushed numb from fingertips to brain as electricity folded him into thin, sharp creases. The last thing to go through his mind, of course, was the fatal shard of current that popped his eyes like paper bags.”

There is inherent melancholia woven into Dave’s mature writing and bizzaro story lines. Reading this collection induced occult sensations, and though I was not always 100% certain about a story’s intent or direction at times, the literary ride was a psychedelic journey, and one worth taking a few times over. Check out his collection in limited availability here: www.beeohdee.blogspot.com

Timothy Gager’s recent poetry release called The Antisocial Network takes on numerous facets of the human condition such as addiction, the loss of innocence, father issues, and even suicide. Many of his poems reflect one’s struggle to get sober, stay sober, and find meaning in sobriety amidst life’s everyday stressors like breakups and loneliness, even the changing seasons.

As a writer, Gager relies on intense content to shape a narrator’s voice in a matter of a few lines. Some passages contain bizzaro analogies such as those found in his poem about a serial grape eater. Others were angst-ridden and unforgiving, like those in his poem titled poem for the ex-ex-girlfriend of the OD victim

you are
nothing that the world of vastness cannot smell
like bad karma caught in a pretty little package,
a trash bag, all tied up into this: yo hon
he’s dead now but recently
told people you were
a fucking bitch.

Gager’s unique perspective often emerges in his unhinged analogies. For example, in April Ends, he writes:

These are the truths to be told –
not the ones to cover up, like
schizophrenia runs in my family

(I try to hide that from my therapist)
what good would that do, she’d pick
daffodils from my head, plant them in her vase,

say to me they didn’t exist.

Gager ends his collection with a brutally honest poem called About Alison. It’s last line gives The Antisocial Network a final shank to the kidney to end on a memorable note:  

months go by
before you
call yourself an asshole,
for being out of touch,
then say, you think
of me often.

 

The Antisocial Network is available over at Redneck Press.

The Dirty Poet depicts the horrors of emergency room atrocities through desensitized eyes and powerful narratives in Emergency Room Wrestling, a poetry collection released in April 2011 by Words Like Kudzu Press.

The poems blatantly de-glamorize hospitals, emergency rooms to be exact, not that there was ever so much glamorization (maybe just a little with shows like ER and House). Everybody knows our bodies are disgusting, they seethe random juices, crust, disease, even terminal illness, but no one has highlighted all those ailments quite like The Dirty Poet. Take this excerpt from his opening piece titled You Think You Need A Beer

he’s got necrotizing fasciitis — flesh-eating bacteria —

of the crotch

and i’m helping three nurses reinsert his rectal trumpet

Yet amidst the twists and turns of the disease, emergencies, and sick humor, there remains a fragment of hope in The Dirty Poet’s overall conclusions:

dead end

i’m going to tell you the saddest story i know

because it happened

he was big and handsome, just 22

an unrestrained passenger in a car crash

he suffered a traumatic brain injury

leaving him wide-eyed and gone in an ICU

yesterday the nurses shoveled him into a chair

mom and dad resumed their vigil

mom shaky and crying, dad boisterous

all their family superhighways

leading to this disastrous dead end

dad took his son’s large, limp hand

and said come on buddy, thumb wrestle

i bet i can beat you

come on buddy, let’s do it

let’s thumb wrestle, let’s go

his thumb hopeful in a hopeless world

Emergency Room Wrestling is a gritty and grotesque read. It is a poetry collection which has emerged from the depths of the dankest hospital bowels, unbridled and unapologetic. Kudos to The Dirty Poet on a phenomenal debut. I definitely owe you a beer, if not a tall glass of scotch.

Charles Portis

Julie Cline writes a dandy piece about Charles Portis for the Los Angeles Review of Books

In 2003, Ed Park wrote an excellent essay on Portis that is well worth checking out as well.

Best known for penning True Grit, Portis’s cult-like status was built on his novels Norwood, Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis and Gringos.

Fairy tales. The genre shows up all the time, everywhere–in film, art, and literature. Consider films like M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, and the very aesthetic of Shyamalan himself, across the body of his work. (Lady in the Water  is itself a treatise on the interpretation of modern myth in light of its historical distillation.) With regards to literature, I recently had the opportunity to discuss the use of the fairy tale genre in contemporary writing with Sandy Longhorn, someone who is thinking and writing about this very subject. Sandy is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press), which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry.  Her newer poetry is forthcoming or has appeared recently in Cincinnati Review, New South, The Rumpus, South Dakota Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere.  Longhorn lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.


CR: Could you talk about your interest in fairy tales as a medium of interpretation in literature? What sparked it and what elements provide for the continuation of your interest?

SL: First, thank you for the interest in my work and for posing these intricate questions.

I started writing a series of fairy tale poems based on the Midwest after reading Mary Biddinger’s book of poetry, Prairie Fever.  Although not a book of fairy tales, I was impressed with the way Biddinger presented some of the darker undertones of living in the Midwest.

After I drafted the first poem “Midwest Nursery Tales,” I went back and read many of the iconic Western fairy tales as they are presented in the original Brothers Grimm books.  These are the non-Disneyfied versions where the ‘good guys’ are often injured or horribly transformed and the ‘bad guys’ often meet bloody ends.  There are versions that go back even farther, but I haven’t done the research yet to find those books.

The gender issues presented in both the Disney versions and the Grimm versions may be one of my primary interests, that and the social ethics the tales attempt to prescribe.  An education in literature gave me the skills to think critically about the tales, and from my first lit classes in college, I began to look beneath the surface of any media I absorbed and into the ideas of self-identity and social positioning, those powerful messages often at work without our acknowledgment.

 


CR: What are you doing in your own work in regards to the fairy tale genre?  How are you using it?

SL: My work in fairy tales is a bit different than what I’ve seen in the past when I’ve read re-interpretations of traditional tales.  Instead of building on the past, I’ve attempted to create new tales, tales that more accurately reflect my own experiences.  Those experiences are grounded in the landscape and the people of the rural Midwest.

In my reading of the Grimm tales, I was struck by the idea of transformation.  In many cases that transformation results from a spell put on a person by a witch or due to some other magical element.  However, in my reality, there was a rock-solid disbelief in anything but hard work and a pure heart.  People got what they deserved; we reaped what was sown, literally and figuratively.  Thus, each of my fairy tale poems is about a girl who is transformed not by magic but by the weather, the land, and/or the industry of agriculture around her.


CR: Going back to the original fairy tales–the gritty, unprettified versions where sometimes the characters get picked to shreds–do you think there is a need in the literary world for the censored (Disney) versions to be ousted?

SL: I don’t know about a need, but I do know that kids can take a lot more than Disney gives them credit for.  Even while I was happy as a child to watch the Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and all the rest, I knew that they didn’t match my reality.

I’m not one to exclude much of anything, but I would argue for a balance.  In particular, when talking about the ‘censored versions,’ we are usually talking about books and/or movies designed for children.  I’m not a parent and I wouldn’t begin to impose my beliefs on those who are; however, we live in a perilous world.  Ask the children who survived Hurricane Katrina about terror, stress, and heartache.  Ask the children whose homes burned down in wildfires in California, Texas, and Oklahoma.  Ask the children whose parents have lost lives or limbs or mental stability to wars overseas.  Ask those who have suffered from domestic violence.  Perhaps the argument for the ‘censored versions’ is one for pure entertainment and escape.  There is a place for that, surely, yet that escape will not necessarily help heal the wounds.  Reality will be waiting when the book cover closes or the movie reaches the end of its run.  How will we prepare our children to return to reality?

 


CR: Do you think we are creating our own fairy tales in this day and age?  If so, how and to what extent, in your opinion?

SL: I do.  The first examples that come to mind are many of the Pixar movies (and the like) that appeal to both children and adults.  I think of Wall-E, Up, and Finding Nemo right off the top of my head.  There are truly scary scenes in each of these movies that expose the hard truths about danger in our world and how we navigate it.  Certainly, the Harry Potter phenomenon lends itself to the fairy tale and draws in modern issues of diversity and a global morality.  The idea of Voldemort as the embodiment of evil fits how overwhelming the bad things of the world sometimes feel.

I suppose some might claim the rise in vampire and werewolf novels for young adults is another foray into fairy tales.  I confess I haven’t read them, as I have a really low scare tolerance (I’ve always had trouble with the line between fiction and reality).  Stephen King’s novels might fall into this same category, in particular The Green Mile comes to mind, although I can’t read much of his work, either, for the nightmares his scenes induce in me.

At the root, a fairy tale goes beyond entertainment.  There is a cautionary purpose there, a moral lesson meant to build a stronger community.  Even though we no longer gather around the hearth, we still have folk tales, just in a variety of media.

 


CR: Do you think there is an aversion toward fairy tales in some literary circles, and if so, why would you say this exists?

SL: This is so interesting.  I’ve heard this question several times now, and I must admit, I wasn’t aware of any aversion to fairy tales.  However, since the question has been raised, I’m beginning to sense that others have felt this aversion.

My own poems are quite new and still making their way out into the world of lit mags and publishers.  I simply might not have felt any push back against the content yet.  I did have one editor email me a rejection with a note that the poems I’d submitted (four of my fairy tales) didn’t fit her journal’s aesthetic but she would welcome a submission with other poems.  I suppose that could be the aversion to which the question refers.

I’m guessing that there have been a lot of poems and stories written that are based on traditional tales that have not gone beyond the tradition and made something new.  In some ways, writing in response to fairy tales might be similar to writing ekphrastic poems.  The writer’s duty is to use the previous art and explore some new territory.  If that isn’t done well, it could lead to a negative branding of the genre, I suppose.

There could also be some gender issues at work here, although I have no scientific proof.  Fairy tales fall in the realm of the domestic.  The connotation of the words brings to mind a mother, grandmother, or nanny with her children gathered around her listening with rapt attention.  Many feminist writers have re-imagined the traditional texts as a way forward into empowerment and a new paradigm.  If anyone has a problem with fairy tales for those reasons, then I’d say it is his or her loss.  Everyone’s voice, everyone’s vision, should have a place at the table.

 

I rarely, for the lack of better terminology, “fall” for a band, but recently, I’ve hit the asphalt hard for a band called Ludo: geek rock flavored with the ol’ synthesizer.

This band kicks ass because it takes on the quirky, possibly insane characters we all know: the creepy, the awkward, the desperate, and heartbroken. It’s all laid out in their brilliantly titled album You’re Awful, I Love You. Yes, at the end of the day, it’s pop rock from possibly three or so more years ago, but it tastes so good going down, and it’s fun to play in the background at a party because it’s like listening to our (possibly your) own woeful stories.

Take a track called Go-Getter Greg. There’s blatant creepiness in subject’s unrelenting attitude, and Ludo manages to maintain musicality and rhythm in the song despite the dialogue-riddled lyrics: “I haven’t seen you at the pool since the barbecue/Not that I’ve been checking/Here’s the deal/I’ve got this thing for work this weekend and I was wondering/If you don’t have anything going on that maybe/Okay, hey that’s cool you’re busy/But we should hit up Jose O’Flannegens for jello shots/Your call/It’s ok not this week/But Monday you could come over tonight/I’ll be watching cop dramas and smoking fatty fatties.” And of course, there’s the matter of the comical chorus, “I’m a go-getter guy with a gun on my hip/I’m just searching for that someone to be firing it…”

Other fabulous songs, Lake Pontchartrain and Drunken Lament, and their epic Love Me Dead. I’ve been told that every guy I’ve ever gone out with is singing this song now. Even funnier is the fact that my current boyfriend is the one who made mention of it. “Kill me romantically/Fill my soul with vomit then ask me for a piece of gum” ; “You’re an office park without any trees/Corporate and cold” ; “You suck so passionately/You’re a parasitic psycho filthy creature/Finger-banging my heart.” And then there are the awesome oxymorons “You’re hideous and sexy” ; “You’re born of a jackal, you’re beautiful” and the album title, “You’re awful, I love you.” The video is undeniably hilarious, and frontman Andrew Volpe proves himself to be one animated guy in this (seemingly…) one-shot production:

Ludo’s recent album kind of sucked balls, Prepare the Preparations (wtf, right?) but it’s possible I didn’t give it enough of a chance after a few run throughs. I was just so awe-struck by the previous album; though, the song Anything For You is a sweet take on the contemporary amorous ballad: “My ancestors planted some sequoias by a road/I’ve driven down that road since I was born/Oh, never have you ever seen so many perfect evergreens/But I would chop them all down just for you” And then “I’ve gotten drunk and shot the breeze with kings of far off lands/They showed me wealth as far as I could see/But their kingdoms seemed all shrively and they cried with jealousy/When I leaned in and told them about you.”

All in all, there is a crispness to Volpe’s voice, purposeful crackling on the high notes, a silliness engrained in the music and lyrics, lots of synthesizer and neurotic moments of self-loathing and unhealthy infatuation, though it’s all done tastefully.

Check them out, you won’t be disappointed, if anything you’ll laugh pretty hard. Happy geek rocking!

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