Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Some Kind of Monster

Recently my wife and I happened across the last forty minutes or so of the Encore mini-series version of Moby-Dick with Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and John Hurt as Ahab. This was the first I’d heard of this newest version and certainly I watched as I always watch these things: possessed by something like disgust and horror (plus, I’ve never watched Ethan Hawke without wanting to punch him in the face).  This trailer seems to confirm my initial impressions (I don’t think I’m capable of watching the entire mini-series): that this version is about Ethan Hawke’s tug of war with John Hurt’s obsession plus some action and some adventure and some period costumes and some guy with mutton chops playing the role of Ishmael. From what I’ve seen, it is another fairly literal translation of the novel onto the screen with some alterations made to appease Hawke’s ego.

And according to this review from the NY Daily News “For the first 10 or 15 minutes, the film lingers on the genteel life Ahab has built on Nantucket, heart of the whaling industry in 1850.Whaling captains were royalty then and Ahab lives accordingly. This is no ruffian who slouches around until he can climb on a boat and go kill something. Hurt’s Ahab is a man of culture and refinement. He lives in a grand, tastefully appointed house. He eats good food, drinks good wine and enjoys relaxing in his library with a good book. He has an obviously caring wife, Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson) and all the money he needs to live out a comfortable life.”

To me, these seem like perfectly reasonable additions to add background depth to Ahab’s character (even if I disagree with them). In general, I’m in favor of any adaptation that bends from the source material and creates its own logic and reality. If this were, say, Pride and Prejudice I would see nothing offensive in any of this. However, Moby Dick is not a perfectly reasonable book. It is not about period costumes and mutton chops. Moby Dick is a novel written in full fever. It is a little bit insane, in parts, and all parts are written by a writer of high ambition.

I’ve been on a Metallica kick these last few weeks. I have no idea why, but every so often “The Call of Ktulu” calls to me. Anyhow, I’ve been listening to the entire output, but the album that I come back to, and enjoy the most, is the much derided St. Anger, best described as a 75 minute bludgeoning although it is probably most commonly called “laughably bad.”   The 2004 documentary of the recording of this album, Some Kind of Monster, shows a petty, desperate, emotionally strained group of musicians with enormous egos and thin skins who spend as much time in group therapy as they spend recording the album. Most seem to use this documentary to illustrate the reasons why the album is bad. To me, it sort of explains why it sounds so good. To me the album sounds furious and unhinged and frustrated and confused but it also sounds like a band of great talent going all out to make a really good record. There’s something about this coupling of insanity and uncertainty and talent and ambition that, for me at least, makes a really nice sound. At the least, I suggest giving this youtube clip of Frantic a listen. I may be the only person who like this record.

Anyhow, for me, this is what all film versions of Moby-Dick are missing–the unhinged ambition and risk taking and fearlessness. This brings to mind an article (I’ve since misplaced where or when it was from) about Werner Herzog’s Hollywood adventure/ rescue film Rescue Dawn. While making the film the Hollywood crew and producers were horrified by Herzog’s approach–considering him no better than an amateur in his methods. Not surprisingly, Rescue Dawn is a very safe, button-down movie compared to Herzog’s non-fiction take, the slightly unhinged and risk taking Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Dawn only works when Herzog’s madness peeps through, fleetingly, here and there. Give me madness and ambition and risk taking over professional and safe and well done any day.

Certainly, as critics of his day were glad to point out, Melville’s great novels from Moby Dick on were not “well made” in many aspects. Potentially major characters and plot points are introduced and then forgotten, inconsistencies abound in the point of view and in the plots (to the extent that there are plots). And a few even accused him of having gone insane.

I’ve often said that Moby Dick should be made into a film–I’m all for our greatest literatures being translated into other mediums. But it would take a filmmaker of a certain greatness and madness to pull it off. At times I’ve thought the Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic (probably the film closest in spirit to the true Moby Dick) is just weird and ambitious and fearless enough to pull it off. Other times its clear that the Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia would make a masterpiece. What do you think?


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You don’t need to have read Moby Dick to enjoy John Minichillo’s witty, short re-telling, The Snow Whale. But does it help? Having spent my life in academic literature programs, somehow I never read Melville’s seminal work, so I have no idea. And given that I have smaller, prettier fish to fry, I’m happy to leave the Dick appreciation to my co-bloggers. But if I missed all or some of the referential nuances of The Snow Whale, it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment. Essentially a story about a man in search of identity, The Snow Whale is an accessible, smart satire that is full of snow, making it a perfect summer read.

(Full disclosure: John is a writer-friend, and I got my copy for free, so I may be biased, but honestly? So far? Everyone loves this damn book.  It’s got a great hook, real momentum, and relevancy.)

In a nutshell, John Jacobs, an office drone who sells corporate novelties for UniqCorps Plastics Division, has grown tired of his middle class suburban life and his stale marriage. Ripe for a mid-life crisis adventure, Jacobs’ imagination is stirred when he learns that a co-worker has taken a DNA test that suggests Mongolian ancestry:

“I need to be with my people,” Mike said. “To walk knee-deep in the Mongolian snows and breathe the free Mongolian air. Before this DNA test I was nobody. Did you know they drink oxblood and have seventeen varieties of yogurt unique to the region?”

“You’re always eating yogurt,” Jacobs said.

 “I know!” Mike said. “Now it all makes sense.”

Inspired, Jacobs orders his own DNA test and discovers that his is “37 percent Inuit,” and so begins his journey to reclaim his heritage, an obsession that is almost irretrievably hazardous to his domestic life.  A turning point comes when he discovers an online  protest against the annual Inuit bowhead whale hunt:

Despite PETA’s complaint, Jacobs knew the hunt was for the continuation of his culture. . . . He imagined chewing the raw meat and using the whale oil for light and for heat. His mood improved immediately, and he called to his wife as he read on.

“Look,” he said, oblivious to her resentment because he’d threatened their marriage, “the Inuit are allowed to hunt whale.”

“I’m supposed to care?” she muttered to herself.

“I want to hunt a whale. It’s my right.”

She stared at the lanky pale man who had been her husband for over a decade. People thought she settled when she married him, but he at least held more promise then. All her old ballroom dancing friends thought so. They called him light on his feet.  They said he cut a nice figure. Now she was married to a desk doodle salesman and he was losing his mind.

This is by no means a bad thing, but I think a lot of readers will enjoy The Snow Whale for its appeal to their research interests, whether it be cultural studies, environmental issues, general Melville enthusiasm, etc. For example, I know of a folklorist who plans to use the novel in her “Xenophobia/ Xenophilia” class. It’s the same for me I guess–I can’t stop reading as a writer because Minichillo’s modulations are so impressive; the tone adjusts to the emotional development of Jacobs, and the variation in intimacy and attention results in a dynamic narrative. The first three chapters of The Snow Whale are essentially about the frustration of being trapped in white suburban mediocrity, and the satire is dry and contemplative. But when Jacobs leaves to join the whale hunt with a black teenager named Q enlisted to film the adventure, The Snow Whale shifts into a lively buddy comedy. By the final third of the novel, when the thing-we’ve-been-waiting-to-happen happens, the tone shifts again, this time to make room for a genuinely thrilling adventure to play out. And while we think we know what to expect from The Snow Whale’s conclusion, the final chapter manages to be quite surprising and moving.

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Bl Pawelek is the jack-of-all-trades artist. His work has been featured in places such as Blood Lotus Journal, Curbside Splendor, Prick of the Spindle, Monkeybicycle, LITnIMAGE, decomP, and Dogzplot. Over the past few months, he has worked hard to craft the photographs and prose featured today at Plumb Blog. Below, he opens with an amazing shot of an oak paired with amazing prose.

Bl Pawelek

one definition of ‘plumb’ – ‘a weight at the end of line’

the plumb oak
the shortest route: a five-mile hike to get there. The last mile,
fields and stream. He is at the end of his line. I feel the weight on

I have visited about every month since I moved here, sang him Leopold
songs and fed him purple coneflower dust. He gave prizes in return.

Deer Creek slides along, small trout in its water. On sunny days, I
hide still, jump and dive, splash about in the water. Come up with
nothing in my hands.

Dinner the found fruit. Nothing more sour, tart and delicious than a
not-yet ripe wild apple. Nothing as sweet as wild raspberries.

Dead branches, black lines in the sky I sleep under. I ignore the
memories of Maryland’s black rat snakes, waiting in trees.

Parts of him will stay on the line after winter. Others will drop off
the end. Like the movie, I rub the bark, whisper, “you can, you will.”

In addition, Bl Pawelek snapped a few other photos on his journey to that beautiful oak tree.

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Mr. Pawelek has given me the opportunity to to a bit of Q&A with him as well:

What came first? Writing, painting, photography?

Honestly, it all started with hiking.

I started to take hiking seriously in 1997, and everything else started to branch from that. I brought a camera with me everywhere I went; started to read books of places I hiked (Desert Solitaire, Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess, Death Valley and the Country, etc); and started my hand in writing and painting what I saw. Most of my creative effort is still centered in that world.

You often pair photography and other artwork with a few lines of poetry. What is your process? Do you have a muse in mind that you seek out when you go out and snap photos? Do you write first then pair?

If I pair them, the artwork definitely comes first. The artwork is more intricate, takes longer and there is plenty of internal critique before I think it is “done.”

The lines that I typically add to them are based generally on the theme/tone/thought of what was happening during construction.

You have an MA in literature. How do you feel that’s shaped your literary voice and style?

Props to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles!!

Although the university did not have an MA in Environmental Literature, I did my best to weave as much as I could. The professors allowed me to bring in texts from Carson, Eastlake, Stegner, Snyder while taking some “deep dives” into Thoreau, Muir and Emerson.

As for the “voice and style” – I was (and am) horrible in the technique and mechanics of writing/editing/critiquing. I am sure that I have some sort of voice and style, but hell if I could describe what it is. Maybe Ben Tanzer said it best …

“Poems of isolation and detachment, punctuated by blasts of color and a longing for nature.” – Ben Tanzer, author of You Can Make Him Like You

What is the best independent novel you’ve read?

I could never do one! How about these best ones of the last year-ish:

We Take Me Apart, Molly Gaudry (the writing is so elegant)

Normally Special, xTx (the writing has zero fat)

Inconceivable Wilson, JA Tyler (the story is only the tip of the iceberg)

Whose releases are you looking forward to this year?

I am checking my mail every day for: Finding Everett Ruess (The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer) by David Roberts.

Your kids are drop-dead adorable. Do you find that they are a source of inspiration in your art?

Sidebar: Many times I have been asked if writing or artwork was a “passion” of mine, or something that I felt I was “meant to do.” I have always said “no.” I have always felt that I could simply “stop” and move on to something else.

However, once I started a family, I knew I was meant to be a “dad” – nothing else.  So, my wife and kids are the cornerstone of everything. They influence everything. Sometimes they are included in different pieces that go public, but mostly only my Facebook family and friends get to see my dadliness.

You’re a very active member in the literary community. What are a few words of advice you could provide aspiring writers out there? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since jumping in?

I cannot say it any better. Aspiring writers should start with this – http://htmlgiant.com/behind-the-scenes/22-things-i-learned-from-submitting-writing/

If you could pair these marvelous images with a brew of your choice, what would it be? Why?

Take a long hike, get lost, get worried, pray frequently, get bitten by an animal and try to bite back. Forget your phone, your map, your way home, your watch, bug spray, sun screen, sun glasses. Forget to tell your loved ones where you were hiking, forget to tell anyone.  Thankfully, you remembered your journal and pen. Forget food and water, drink water from a stream, drink rain water, lick it off the plants. Try wild fruit, eat cobwebs, try to catch a rabbit.

Hike quickly at night when you can’t see a thing; hike slowly through the desert feeling the water leave you. Jump cliffs, balance on rocks, climb tall skinny trees. Get hurt, lose blood, get worried again and pray more frequently, do not see another person for days, and then remember the one beer in your pack. For me, it was a Boddingtons.

My sincerest thanks to Bl Pawelek for devoting the time and efforts to this Plumb feature. You can find more of his amazing photography, art, and writing over at http://blpawelek.wordpress.com/ and he can be reached at blpawelek(at)gmail(dot)com

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Yesterday, while kibitzing at the inaugural Indie Lit Summit in DC, I saw the news that Reb Livingston has decided to shut down her enormously influential online poetry magazineNo Tell Motel after October and that No Tell Books would be going on hiatus after August. In a blog post Reb reassures us that this is a natural conclusion for a project that has required a lot of commitment to sustain:

Anyone who edits a publication knows the amount of time and energy required to start and maintain a literary magazine. After 7 years of channeling much of my time and energy into NTM I decided that I very much wish to channel it into new directions . . . I’m not sad about NTM ending. Everything has a lifespan.

Reb’s contributions as a writer and publisher of contemporary poetry cannot be over-estimated. I look forward to her future projects, should they be public ones. The body of work showcased at the elegantly designed Motel will astound you. If you have never been there yet, go now and spend the rest of 2011 getting caught up.

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A month and a half ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made something of a stir when he complained about his lack of a statue in front of the Staples Center; after all he had been a multiple MVP and a major part of 5 LA Laker championship teams.  This is a remarkable complaint, and maybe incomprehensible display of self-importance for anyone who is not a famous athlete, although I think most people could relate to the fear of being overlooked and forgotten.

Less incomprehensible, to me at least, was Jack White’s complaint during a 2005 interview with Charlie Rose about the lack of appreciation afforded Orson Welles in this country, suggesting at the minimum Welles should have a statue in Manhattan for his early productions of Macbeth and War of the Worlds, never mind Citizen Kane. And yet, it seems unlikely Welles would ever receive a statue in Manhattan or that you would find many people who would believe he deserves one—unlike Kareem, Welles is still often considered a career loser in this country—more famous for never directing a hit film or for getting fat or for his association with commercials and the Muppets and the Transformers. His early brilliance tainted by his disgusting fall—in some ways he’s seen as more of a Shawn Kemp than a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Welles was certainly aware of this impression, and it caused him much agony over the later 40 years of his life (and no small stress when attempting to fund a new film).

With this in mind it’s pretty remarkable how many writers with monuments or statues dedicated to them. In the case of the Jack Kerouac Memorial in Lowell, Mass, it’s all the more remarkable considering how badly and out of favor Kerouac ended. In many ways, Kerouac followed something of a similar trajectory to Welles (and many American artists)—the break out hit, and then years of failures, obscurity, ridicule, and money problems. I remember thinking about this when I first visited that memorial about six years go: how I regretted Kerouac died so long before his city honored him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was another writer who died young and out of favor and he has a statue in St. Paul. I tend to think of Fitzgerald in Paris or, more sadly, in Hollywood, where he was unable to find copies of his books in print, but I like the idea of a major city paying tribute to a native son.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has a statue, and several sites dedicated to profiting off his memory, plus a hotel named after him in Salem, Mass. I wonder how Hawthorne would feel about the tribute paid to him by a town whose major industry is exploiting the same witch trials he so abhorred.  Still, as with Kerouac and his writings on Lowell, Hawthorne does claim fairly frequent association with Salem and the surrounding area in his work.

While Kareem’s complaint is obviously thin-skinned, there’s something quite nice about a town going out of its way to pay tribute and to make immortal their appreciation for the contributions of some cultural or artistic figure. I wonder now how many other writers or filmmakers or artists have monuments and bronze statues dedicated to them in various towns and cities along the country. I can certainly think of a few who deserve them—most prominently, I believe Saul Bellow deserves something, Bellow who so memorably wrote of Chicago in The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift (and elsewhere). I think Bellow, who did worry over the lasting importance of his works (although his writing is certainly at the very top of our literature), would have greatly appreciated the gesture (or even the gesture of suggesting the gesture).

Who else?

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Lately I’ve been rather fixated with the popular reaction to Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life.  Other than the booing at Cannes, most articles and blog posts about the film have focused on audience members who were drawn into attending based on Brad Pitt’s name and high reviewer “scores” at sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. I will agree, this is one of the last movies most audience members would want to be unprepared for: in an over two-hour film there is very little dialogue or what would be considered a traditional “plot.” More importantly, the films makes two radical leaps–early on and then at the end–from a succession of images focusing on a family in 1950s Texas to extended portrayals of the creation and the end of the universe.

A post at The Film Experience collects various tweets detailing comments “over heard at The Tree of Life” (my personal favorite is the “Old Lady Yelling: CAN ANYONE TELL ME WHAT THAT WAS ABOUT?”) while a post at the New York Times Arts Beat recently touched on all the people who have walked out of the film (and in some cases demanded their money back). I’ve seen the film several times and cannot really report much for a disturbed audience (I’ve attended during the day when the crowd is pretty thin) other than a gentleman who, after arriving 45 minutes late (and thus missing the extended creation sequence), greeted the sudden cut to the end of time sequence  with a very loud, and apparently startled, “What the fuck?” (followed by snickers from several other audience members).

I can’t help but think of an interview I saw years ago where Frank Stallone discussed the moment he felt his brother, Sylvester, had become too self-important for his own good. At that time Sly was working on Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, and Sly’s coffee table was stacked with books about myths and symbolism and Dante’s Inferno. Sly insisted these were his research, and inspiration, for the film. Frank’s response, of course, was (to paraphrase): “What the fuck does this have to do with Saturday Night Fever?” No doubt, this is what goes on in someone’s mind at The Tree of Life. And I think that’s a good thing.

I always liked this idea of Sly Stallone becoming a little feverish and insane, and drastically, ridiculously, hilariously overreaching with his material. I’ve never seen Staying Alive, and I can’t imagine I ever will, but a 1983 article in People magazine describes how Sly concluded his picture with “a nine-minute, million-dollar dance sequence staged as a one-on-one bout. There’s even blood. Billed as “Dante’s Inferno,” this grand finale features Travolta dancing his way out of hell and ascending to heaven on a spaceship-like platform that resembles the one in Broadway’s Cats. Stallone originally planned to cap his movie with a musical rendition of The Odyssey, but he opted for heaven and hell ‘because more people know about it.'”

Has anyone seen this movie? Is it as ridiculous and bizarre as it reads? And yet, while I readily grant it seems like the sort of meltdown that could have cost Sly his career (and probably did cost him the gig of directing Godfather III with Travolta in the starring role) I would also argue that a Saturday Night Fever sequel with a journey to hell and an ascension to heaven is more memorable and significant with one than without one. And I think those people who snicker at The Tree of Life probably see the two films in similar terms.

The movie Tree of Life is most compared to is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a comparison mostly based on those ambitious narrative leaps. I’ve always wondered if audience members thought they had entered the wrong movie during the first 20 minutes of silence and primitive yelping in 2001. Film history has confirmed the brilliance of Kubrick’s  jump cut from those primitives to the reaches of space, but I can imagine, and appreciate, that even as some early viewers must have been exhilarated, many must have thought: “Wait… what? What does this have to do with apes?”

I’ve often wondered if a literary experience can equate to the “mind-blowing” jump cuts in that film (and now in Tree). The most literary example of an artist suddenly pulling the rug from the audience comes that I can think of comes some 60 pages into Moby Dick when Ishmael (or Melville) writes: “It is the systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would fain put before you” and from then on the sea adventure the reader has to that point been reading becomes something much grander and stranger and, to many readers, far more boring. And yet, its hard to imagine any reader having the same response to that transition as my fellow theater goer had at The Tree of Life that day. I’ve wondered if there’s something about the visual nature of film that allows movies to make really bold cuts in ways that do not seem so bold in literature–the reading experience necessarily slows down any such impact.

So, what do you think: what literary work has had that kind of impact on the reader (or attempted to)? Is it even possible? What did you (or fellow movie goers) think of those cuts in The Tree of Life? Have you seen Staying Alive? What can you tell me about it?

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A painting on the side of a truck trailer on Town Branch Road in Floyd County, Kentucky. Artist unknown.

Snake handlers.  Drinkers of Mason jars full of arsenic.

And those are just some of the Pentecostals.

Eastern Kentucky is a plethora of religious denominations, all unique in at least some way, even those claiming allegiance.  No musical instruments for Old Regulars or female preachers.  Nothing but good old creek baptisms for some churches, while others of the same faith will allow baptisms to take place in the church in these big fish tank like tubs which have an actual name but slips my mind just now.

Still others hold firm to the belief that “where two or more are gathered in His name that He will be present” and have services every Wednesday and Sunday in their own homes with a dozen or so close friends and fellow members.

Growing up in this melting pot of faith, regardless of interest or indifference, you pick up on things.  You learn scripture from having heard it again and again.  You learn it so well that you can tell when someone is mistakenly quoting verse.  I once corrected a lady by explaining the phrase “God works in mysterious ways” was not actually in the bible.  I ducked, just in case a her purse was gun-heavy.

Let’s say your grandfather was a preacher for more than 50 years.  Let’s say that because of that you had full access.  By this I mean you were able to ask questions at a young age that you would not normally feel comfortable asking your preacher otherwise.  Well, that can expand the philosophical and religious field.  The answers are the same, but it is the freedom to ask that makes the difference.

They say to avoid conversations about politics and religion on first dates, but this isn’t our first date now is it?  And besides, religion is one of the big three of culture, anywhere you go on the planet.

My thoughts?  I’ve read the Holy Bible – as a writer, I admire most sections.  I’ve read The Tibetan Book of the Dead – creative and lively and intriguing.  I’ve read the Sufri poetry of Rumi – poetics of the highest caliber.  I’ve read the Koran – didn’t get most of it.  I’ve read a fair amount of the Torah – strict isn’t the right word, but it’s close.  I’ve read fanatical pamphlets – funny.  I’ve read the Book of Mormon – no comment.  The Tao Te Ching – a bit mind-blowing.  And so on.  I think people need what they need to get by in this world.  Call it a security blanket or whatever you’d like.

When my dad was drafted into the military during the Vietnam War they issued him an M-16 assault rifle.  He was ordered to keep the rifle with him at all times.  When he left the service and returned home, one of the first things they took from him before departure was that M-16.  He needed it to get through the war, but when all was said and done, it had served its purpose.

Life is hard in Eastern Kentucky and many other places around the country and world.  Sometimes people need a good warm blanket or a gun that can cut a man in half if comes to it.  If handling snakes or getting dipped in a creek in December so folks have to bust away the ice to do it is what it takes, then I say that’s fine and well.

Don’t forget to leave something in the plate.  Light bill’s due next month and the roof is starting to leak.

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For a year I helped published the print journal Cellar Door Magazine. It was the early 2000s and we were full of piss and vinegar and ready to add to the already changing landscape of contemporary literature. It was a blast and we had a great time and had the chance to publish stories from many writers who are still working and doing well today. But we didn’t stop at literature. There were also some killer works of art included in each issue. Full series from graphite works to photographs. I’ll include some in this post for your consideration.

To introduce each of the four issues we printed we wrote a column called “From Pubs and Eds”. The following were the last two columns, written before we realized these would be the last we’d share with readers. And since there are no remaining copies of any of the four issues other than a handful we kept for ourselves, it further motivates me to share these columns.

There was no Issue Five due to the fact that we took part in a reading to launch Issue Four which resulted in an obscenity scandal. The college where the reading took place formally protested the content we shared, sending out mass emails to both faculty and students offering apologies to those who might have been offended by the Cellar Door reading.

At the time we had just been shipped more than 200 copies of the new issue. Normally, to keep the boat floating, we sold the copies to pay for the next print run. This time, we thought it would be a good idea to instead take all 200 plus copies and litter them across the college campus. We left them in bathrooms, on desks, in classrooms, in lounges, we left about ten copies on a stand in the college’s bookstore. Apparently the work study student running the front counter had missed the memo or didn’t care.

We made nothing from this move, not a cent. And Cellar Door Magazine was no more. But what a hell of a fine way to go out.

So here are those final two columns. You can see the piss and vinegar was still strong, and remains strong today. We didn’t stop publishing, we didn’t stop holding readings. We didn’t stop writing. We didn’t change a single thing about how we do things and why we do them. Never will.

Issue Three Column:

More and more since starting this magazine, we’ve been faced with rejection in one form or another. Parents have stowed free copies away, afraid to have guests stumble upon some horrible subject. Some have laughed and called the subject matter “pretty rough.” But the truth of it all is that what we’ve published is rough and horrible at times, but no more so than much of what you can see any hour of the day on CNN or more than a mile from your front door. And it’s not even as groundbreaking in terms of literature.

Before he sang about himself, Walt Whitman wrote a rare story about a student getting severely beaten for falling asleep in class. The story is full of delightful details about each lash the instructor inflicted upon the unresponsive student. It takes a painful number of well-placed strikes before the instructor realizes he’s been beating a corpse.

Literature has long touched subjects that others prefer to turn their faces from. Society, although instinctively prone to denying such work, actually need writers willing to answer the call. And this must be done in appropriate measure within the fabric of the given time period. The stories of D.H. Lawrence might seem bland by today’s standards, while much of the material that has raised eyebrows that we’ve printed or written is seen as radical. There’s some basic points to be considered with this.

The first, and most important, is that our stuff is not really that radical. There are several good writers and good magazines out there doing very much the same stuff. As John Wayne said in The Green Berets when a buck private complemented him on his skill at skeet shooting, “That’s normal.”

The second point is that none of it matters anyway. We don’t write stories or choose stories for publication because they seem radical or over the top or any number of other worn out ideas. We write stories or choose stories because we like them. They pull something loose from inside of our guts and then hold it up and ask questions we’ve never heard before and make us think of things we’ve never thought of before.

The idea of using striking subject matter and themes and images to convey deeper meaning is as old a technique as literature itself, but has never been more aptly described than by one of the greatest writers to ever string sentences together. We’ll leave you with the words of the immortal Flannery O’ Conner, who we should all thank for her courage and foresight in matters of the written word.

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”

Issue Four Column:

One year down, no scars

With this, our fourth issue, we now have a full year to our credit, no doubt about that. But our scars are few.

Sure, we miss Salinger’s first edition printing, sold to ensure publication of our maiden issue, but our struggles and sacrifices have passed unnoticed.

There’s a simple reason we don’t have war wounds.

We’ve loved every second of it. And without pain, there can be no scar.

Every minute we’ve spent working to better this magazine has culminated in some of our best hours and days. When those efforts resulted in success, we enjoyed it. When we stumbled and made mistakes, we appreciated the opportunity to learn more and do better the next time.

Still, a scar or two wouldn’t be such a bad thing. There‘s nothing like a ragged scar to get a good story started.

But then, hell, there’s always beer bottles and pool cues. Maybe there’s hope yet.

The Bible Belt. It’s where we live and work and play. It’s the reason we’ve never expected to gain local standing. Despite this, a few local bookstores have picked up the magazine, and for that we’re grateful.

Still, there was no home for what we do at home. Our work, and the work of writers and artists we valued, was doomed to be left unappreciated in our own backyard.

That‘s what we thought, until some locals showed up and shattered that perception like so many brittle bones.

So now that our kicking and screaming is spilling back into our own neighborhoods, let’s hope the waves crack against this small ship and challenge us at every turn. What can we say? We grew up in Eastern Kentucky reading books and writing poems. We’ve developed a decent right hook and an appetite for a good fight.

Here’s to the first year, and the fights yet to come.

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Eclectic Pencil is 35 Years Old

When I open a document in a word processor there are two features that are so familiar I don’t think about them anymore. The document is on a white background. In some word processors the metaphor of a piece of paper is delineated by a bounding box the proportions of a sheet of typewriter paper with a drop shadow as if the paper is somehow lifted slightly off the a table. I have used a typewriter. When I open a word processor my major interaction with the word processor is to type. I type. The words appear on the screen. They unfurl from my mind appearing as a row of words accumulating on the virtual page. Unlike the noisy clatter of a typewriter on a desk with a hammer marking each letter, the letters on the word processor flow smoothly. In the early days there was some lag between my typing and what appeared on the screen. I would type a burst and then pause and the burst would flow onto the screen coming from the other major feature of the word processor: the cursor. The cursor blinks. At one time it was a colored box. Now it is a thin line that blinks and shows the mark between what I’ve have written onto the screen and what is still within my mind. The principle aim of the word processor is to capture that flow of text and store it in a document (a collection of virtual pages.) (more…)

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Christopher Higgs is one of my favorite minds and a real hero of art and literature. His output is constantly invigorating and thought-provoking from his brightstupidconfetti  curations, his series of posts on HTMLGiant concerning the nature of experimental literature, his short fiction, and his tremendous novel The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. Recently Mr. Higgs and I chatted about some of the implications of his April 14th HTMLGiant post What Could Small/Micro/Indie Presses Learn From the Concept of Transmedia Storytelling? 

Q: We’re coming at this from the point of view of publishing, so, would you talk a little about where you see the text itself fitting in with the rest of the media? Does the other media offshoot from the text (as in an audio book or a trailer) or is the text potentially conceived as just one piece of a larger project? Is there any concern that the print becomes the forgotten part of the equation?

A: Yes, I would imagine the text being only one node in the overall assemblage.  Since different media offer different strengths and weaknesses, I imagine manipulating or pressing the boundaries might yield interesting work.  For instance, perhaps part of the transmedia story “takes place” (for lack of a better phrase) on soundcloud, while another part takes place on flicker, another on youtube, another on tumbler,perhaps there are fliers or stickers that add to the narrative, which the producer would arrange to have posted in various cities across the globe.  At this point, the threat of losing the text is real, but only if you think of it that way, only if you privilege the text.  I don’t see this model working successfully if the text is held as sacred. It almost requires that the text share the limelight.  Since it’s NBA finals season, this has got me thinking about the difference between a team that relies on one superstar player versus a team that plays as a team. Transmedia storytelling is like the latter.  You have to think of the project as a project, a team, rather than think of the text as sovereign and the other stuff as extra.  Thus, I see the text and the other media working harmoniously as individual nodes in a nonhierarchical assemblage.  In fact, this model doesn’t actually threaten the text, it merely extends the definition of “the text” to include other media.

Q: The Jenkins hand out you linked to mentions “expanding markets” and “action figures.” He does so in the context of allowing the audience to participate in new ways, but it does seem there is a fine line between marketing and an interesting, exciting way of telling a story. Is there any concern about becoming George Lucas—where aspects of a book are written not out of some artistic impulse but where characters or events in the original texts are conceived by how well the spin offs will sell?

A:  Small press attempts at incorporating transmedia storytelling would need to negotiate the relevance of expanding markets and producing action figures.  It seems to me that expanding markets is a good idea for any level of storytelling: the larger the audience the better.  But as far as merchandising goes, I’m not sure that applies to small press ventures, although it would certainly be interesting to see how these might emerge.  As far as “becoming George Lucas” (that’s agreat phrase, by the way) it would seem to me that small press folks by virtue of being small press folks would find more creative and interesting ways to manage spin-offs rather than defer to them, in other words I imagine disallowing the marketing end to dictate the creative production as a general rule.

Q: Jenkins uses the examples of large, multi-narrative tales. I’m writing a novel now with a lot of vastness in it—time and characters and events— and I’m excited about the possibilities raised by this proposal of yours—but I wonder how you see smaller novels or novels that focus less on stories and events or even what people think of as a ‘literary realist’ novel fitting into this approach?

A: I think the possibilities and potential for imbricating experimental fiction and transmedia storytelling is vast – perhaps even greater than conventional, or as you put it “literary realist” work, because experimental work approaches the idea of storytelling differently.  If the narrative is fragmented to begin with that would lends itself to spreading across multiple medias, I would think.

Q: Have you put any serious thought into specific ways The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney could be translated into different media? It seems like that particular novel would lend itself particularly well.

A: Yeah, I mean, Ken [Baumann, publisher of Sator Press] and I tried to do a little of this transmedia stuff.  We made various cryptic videos (one, two, three), we made a cryptic website that appeared before the official release of the book, which is now the official hub, but before it had a bunch of strange messages and pictures and stuff that tried to push this mysterious “who is Marvin K. Mooney” narrative, we also tried to do this blog comment bomb thing where Marvin K. Mooney showed up in various comment threads, all of this in the hopes of building a kind of pre-release, pre-reveal hype.  Also, there’s the audiobook, which is more a performance piece slash re-imagining of the novel than your typical author-reads-text-quietly type of thing.  All of this was an experiment along transmedia lines.  But it came before I had studied any of Jenkins’s work.  And it came after the book had already been written.  To really succeed at transmedia storytelling, I think the transmedia element needs to be part of the original vision, needs to be part of the creation process from the very beginning.

Q: The focus of your post was on small presses so I may as well ask to what extent funding as a limitation in all of this? Especially with the smaller small presses?

A: Creative thinking trumps financial shortcomings 9 out of 10 times.  Makes me think of the independent film movement that caught fire in the 90s: these people with no money started making movies that embraced the fact that they had no money.  Clerks, Blair Witch Project, etc.  They didn’t let the absence of funding stop them from making important work.  Same should apply for publishing.

Q: Where does the idea of authorship fit into all of this? Is this idea tending toward a series of collaborations with equal say over a story? Or would a publisher potentially become the “producer”? That makes me a little itchy—does it make you at all itchy?

A: This is a good question, with a bunch of possible answers.  I could envision a project where the publisher serves as “the producer” in the sense of orchestrating the various media components, with a single author or multiple authors producing the individual content.  There could be some interesting multi-author or team-author work.  In that sense, it would require a different way of thinking about authorship.  On the other hand, although it would be super challenging for one author to produce all of the various media components of a transmedia story, perhaps that’s the kind of challenge an independent writer or publisher might best be suited.

Q: I know along with film and television that musicians like Trent Reznor and Radiohead have embraced creative thinking in this direction. I wonder to what extent  this owed to the fact that writers are, generally, isolated with their work whereas TV and film and pop groups are necessarily collaborative on many levels? As much as this is about thinking about publishing in a broader way should writers begin thinking more collectively?

A: Yes.  Exactly.  Collaboration holds possibilities beyond the scope of what a single author can produce.  Recently, I participated in a collective project called Pushcorpse for the print journal No Colony.  Sixty-five different writers contributed something like 100 words to a single story, and the final product is a stunning ensemble of riotously diverse voices.  That’s just one example, but what it signals is that collective work provides a different scope.  Look at the potency of collective websites like Plumb, or the one I write for, HTMLGiant.  Individual identity is not lost or even compromised by affiliating with collaborative projects like these, in fact, I would argue that the power of affiliation magnifies the intensity of the individual writer.  That’s the first hurdle to overcome: acknowledging that we don’t lose when we team up, we actually gain.  I know for many writers this seems anathema: giving up sovereignty.  Put another way, I think some novelists and poets tend to be novelists and poets rather than filmmakers or musicians because they get sole creative control over their creations.  This works for a certain model of creation, but as I’ve said, transmedia storytelling lends itself best to those who are willing to give up sole creative control and instead embrace the power of collaboration.

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Graffiti by Nomad X circa 2004

Directly inspired by Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, Nomad X is the story of an American expat’s investigation into a postmodern terrorist, with scenes in Paris, Berlin, London and Barcelona. With a fair share of pulp fiction inspiration mixed with Wikileaks, documents, blog posts, newspaper clippings, pictures, and more, Nomad X is a mixed media tour de force. You can read the book, being published serially on the web by its creator, Drew Minh. The first chapter is available at http://nomad-x.com/2011/04/chapter-one/ with updates to be posted weekly.

SEEKING: anyone who has seen art by Nomad X, the Banksy-like guerrilla artist whose work has been seen in Paris, New York, Berlin and other capital cities. Submit photographs and creative renderings (or pseudo-sightings, i.e., your Photoshopped or real graffiti created by Nomad X-suspects) to the Nomad X website.

Check out the first chapter to see a sampling of what Nomad X has done, and keep checking in weekly to see the rest.

Why you should read Nomad X:

Nomad X is a literary novel with suspense and dark comedy elements. It centers around an American expat’s investigation into a postmodern terrorist, with scenes taking place in Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and London.

The year is 2003 and world opinion is at a boiling point over the imminent invasion of Iraq. An American diplomat has just died in Paris under suspicious circumstances, and conspiracy theorists, skeptics and pro-war neocons alike have their own narrative spin on it. Step in Deuce Delgado, former liberal “who has seen the light.”  An American expat living in Paris, best-selling novelist and columnist, he is also a controversial blogger whose posts enrage liberals and excite pro-war neocons.

An old acquaintance who used to be an informant for the CIA stops by his apartment one night with news that he is now working for The Lindon Group, a perception management company under contract to the CIA. Their job is to change the public’s perception on the US government’s policies. Together he and Deuce find the perfect bogeyman for the American diplomat’s death as well as the anti-American sentiment spreading across Europe: Nomad X, a mysterious and anonymous artist whose politically-charged graffiti, culture-jamming pranks and art interventions have popped up all over Paris.

Deuce and his associate link multiculturalism and moral relativism to what they perceive as the decline of western civilization. In true neocon fashion they feel that the western world needs a concrete evil to fight against. Nomad X, though elusive and anonymous, becomes the ideal target; that is, until their hype begins to take on a life of its own and Nomad X becomes a cause célèbre, a sort of postmodern Bin Laden.

Nomad X is told through a mix of narrative, blog posts, newspaper articles, documents posted to WikiLeaks, talk show interviews and press releases. It is a collage of linear and non-linear styles, taking full advantage of the multi-narrative universe we are now confronted with in the 21st century. Visceral and constantly moving, Nomad X is a story with elements of ultra dark humor, detective fiction, postmodern fiction and thrillers.

Check it out: http://nomad-x.com/2011/04/chapter-one/

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This morning I photographed, or rather attempted to, lizards mating on the floor of my sunroom.  These drab clay-colored reptiles with their puffy red faces were far from aesthetically pleasing, but maybe it was the fact that I just finished reading Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus (2005) that moved me to photograph the rather freakish scene.

 In a synchronistic moment, I stumbled across Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Shainberg and Wilson, 2006).  It was one of those rare afternoons where I had the down time and control of the TV remote, and I was very pleased with the film.  I am fascinated by Arbus and the representations of her offered through the factual text and the fantasized script.   Raised by wealthy parents in New York (her father a furrier), her over-sheltered and alienated childhood wounded Arbus.  Her way of dealing with the pain of life is expressed in her photography, quite often, of “freaks” which range from carnies, transvestites, triplets, and angry children (although Arbus would not want to be known only for taking photos of “freaks” — her goal was to show the interior of the person, regardless of exterior).   Arbus went scary places alone and is quoted throughout the text that the fear of going to taboo and often dangerous venues, such as 42nd Street in the wee hours, was both a visceral rush and a way of confronting her deepest fears.

Of the two, the movie and the book, I have to say (Writeit!) I preferred the movie, but the two together are the ideal mix. Why?  Because the film, while it is an imaginary portrait, draws heavily from the biography and is an excellent example of what a screenwriter and director can do to make a fact-laden text come to life.  In this case, one can see how the choice of the main supporting character (the imaginary mentor Diane/Nicole Kidman falls in love with in the movie, played by Robert Downey, Jr.) serves as a greater metaphor or amalgam of motives and people found in the biography.  For those who wish to write screenplays, the biography and film are creative endeavors to study closely.  Shainberg (director) and Wilson (writer) did an excellent job of moving book to screen.

 One of the major shortcomings of Bosworth’s biography (no fault of her own) is that she was not allowed to include any of Arbus’ photos.  This is a real shame, as it akin to reading a biography of a poet with not a single line of her poetry in the book.  While there are photos of Arbus, her family, and significant others, the biography is severely lacking in that none of her art is present.   You may see her some of her stunning work here

So I wonder if I will have another chance to photograph the mating lizards.  Or maybe it will be something else I spot, the camera in my mind now open to things I would not have previously been inclined to capture on film.  I wonder what Arbus would think of camera phones and the sudden ubiquitous ease to snap a shot.  I’m sure whatever she would see would be new and brave and edgy.

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As the royal wedding staggers towards us like kiss-starved auntie, it’s probably a good time for a reminder that the US and the UK look at things a little differently.

Last weekend, BBC Radio broadcast Kafka the Musical, starring David Tennant. It’s about Kafka forced to perform in a musical version of his own last days. The BBC iplayer link is set to expire May 1, so hurry up and give it a listen. Tennant does some great tubercular work here.  Or if you can’t be bothered with it, take a listen to the trailer, and you’ll get the gist of it. (“Writing is like praaayyyerrrr to me”)

Compare the BBC production to “our” head-banging Kafka, a brilliant mini rock opera from the much missed Adult Swim show, Home Movies:

You make the call.

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The following portion of this Chris Offutt interview has been reprinted here with the permission of Wrong Tree Review’s Jarrid Deaton.  Conducted by David Erlewine for WT Issue 2, it covers some ground.  I was still working with Jarrid on WT at the time and clearly remember Offutt telling us he would agree to the interview, but only if we held nothing back.  Only if we hit hard.  We put Dave on the case.

David Erlewine: As a graduate of the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop, you have first-hand experience in the MFA world. What are your opinions on the current state of MFA programs?

Chris Offutt: I have taught at several MFA programs, and been a short-term visiting writer at a lot of them.  That said, I can’t really comment on the current state of MFA programs.  I’ve never been a tenured professor, with the insight and understanding of a program.

I enjoy teaching very much, and believe in the vocation.  MFA programs maintain literacy in America.  They tend to be filled with young people, in their 20s, who love literature, love to read, and love to write.  We need these people in the world.  Some go on to write novels, stories, essays, screenplays and poetry.  Others become teachers and editors and reviewers.

At its best, an MFA program offers a short-term opportunity for young writers to be around each other.  For me, the MFA led me to a crucial moment – giving myself permission to write.

DE: With the release of No Heroes, did you expect the negative reaction from some of the faculty at Morehead State University?

CO: I had no idea there was a negative reaction.  It’s news to me.  That book was my attempt to reconcile the first 20 years of my life in Rowan County with the next 20 years of being away.  I learned a great deal from writing it.  For me the process of making art is one of discovery.  I try to use Eastern Kentucky as the means for psychological and emotional examination of myself.

The reason I use Eastern Kentucky is simple: writing is very, very difficult.  Since I know Eastern Kentucky better than any other environment, it reduces the stress and pressure of writing.  It never gets easier.  Just slightly less difficult.  Since Eastern Kentucky made me who I am, it is a very good medium for exploring my psyche.

DE: What are some documentaries and films depicting the south that writers could benefit from watching?

CO: I don’t watch many movies or documentaries.  I prefer to read.  I did like Hustle and Flow, written and directed by Craig Brewer and set in Memphis.  And I liked George Washington, written and directed by David Gordon Green, set in North Carolina.

If I watch anything for entertainment, it’s usually BBC dramas I rent through Netflix.  The overall standards for the BBC are very high – the acting and the writing both.  Plus, the characters look like who they are portraying, as opposed to the Hollywood style of primarily casting beautiful, fit people.

DE: What projects are you currently working on?

CO: I have a book of stories I’m about 90% finished with.  I also have a novel I’m working on, set in Kentucky, California, and Mexico.  There’s a currently-abandoned novel set in Lexington, Kentucky, where I was born.

For the past few years I’ve been compelled, for financial reasons, to write for television.  One son is in college, the other is on his way next year.  That has slowed down my fiction writing.  But my boys come first.

DE: In your “Indiebound” interview you said, “My idea of being postmodern is very small, I’m such a conservative writer.” Can you talk a little about your definition of “conservative”? After writing “No Heroes,” do you have more/less/same interest in writing postmodern?

CO: For me, the idea of being a “conservative writer” means that I write about people – what they do, what they think, how they feel, what they say.  A lot of Post-Modern fiction is about ideas, or about the act of writing itself, or is a highly intellectualized response to post-WWII life.  That has recently expanded to include post-911 life.  I like the old-fashioned books about people, about human yearning.

At that same time, the novel I’m working on could easily fall under the umbrella label of post-modern.

DE: Your wikipedia page says you held more than 50 jobs while hitchhiking across the United States. Is that accurate? If so, can you talk about two of those jobs and discuss whether experiences from either/both worked themselves into your fiction.

CO: Yes, it’s accurate.  A long time ago, my mother asked me how many jobs I’d had and I wrote down a list for her.  Over the years I maintained a list.

I’d say that all the jobs worked themselves into my writing.  Frankly, I’m not that interested in talking about jobs other than writing.  For any writer, the necessity of a job is something that takes away from reading and writing.  Of course, once you have a family, financial pressure begins in earnest.

Probably the best jobs I ever had were dishwasher at the Grand Canyon, tour guide in the Everglades, and family photographer in New England.

DE: Your book “No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home” recounts, in part, your year teaching creative writing at Morehead St. University about 20 years after graduating there. Have you read “Alma Mater” by PF Kluge of “Eddie and the Cruisers” fame? He taught a year at Kenyon years after graduating from Kenyon and then wrote “Alma Mater.” I thought about it a few times reading your book. They’re drastically different books, but both explore themes of displacement, among other things. Kluge had the great scene where he was sitting in a department meeting, pretending to pay attention while writing down names of pro baseball players with animal nicknames (I loved Moose Skowron).

CO: I have not read Alma Mater.  And am unfamiliar with Eddie and the Cruisers.  I don’t read many memoirs.  Frankly, it’s surprising to me that anyone would read mine.  Most nonfiction I read is research for my writing projects.  The fields I read for pleasure are Quantum Physics, Zen thought, histories of the various clandestine intelligence services, and histories of stage magic.

DE: The strand of “No Heroes” involving the Holocaust and your in-laws (both survivors) was quite powerful. Have you seen “Shoah”? It’s classified as a documentary but the director considers it outside the genre and I can see why. It is basically nine hours of interviews with Holocaust survivors. My brother teaches religion and philosophy and has written extensively about the Holocaust. He has gotten on my case about trying to write stories about the Holocaust. He disliked “Life is Beautiful” and said (to summarize his position, probably poorly) that it trivialized the Holocaust and that only something like “Shoah” can even begin to “capture” such a thing to people who weren’t there. I’ve recommended your book to him. Do you think he’ll like it? In the interest of full disclosure, most of the fiction he reads these days (begrudgingly at that) is mine, so you have that working for you.

CO: I have not seen Shoah.  I have not seen Life is Beautiful.  In fact, I haven’t read any works about the Holocaust other than one book of short fiction: This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski.  I read that in 1992, ten years before undertaking No Heroes.

No Heroes was never designed to be about the Holocaust, per se.  It was about my family, my in-laws, the grandparents of my sons.  I was interested in it because Arthur, my father-in-law and a Holocaust survivor, had absolutely no interest in returning to Poland where he grew up.  And he didn’t really understand my own obsessive interest in Rowan County.

The biggest attraction I had to the story of Arthur and Irene was that it was a phenomenal love story.  They met and fell in love as teenagers, lost all their family, and assumed the other was dead in the Camps.  Irene had saved a boy’s life and after the war, he asked how he could return the favor.  Irene told him to go find her husband.  And that boy did just that.

Arthur is 91 and Irene is 86.  They are still together.

DE: You have commented that you are now more interested “in revealing the world” to yourself and getting to know yourself.” You said, in fact, “Who the heck is Chris Offutt?” Can you tell us?

CO: Father.  Writer.  Husband.  Kentuckian.  Recluse.

DE: You wrote Episode 7 (Season 1) of “True Blood.” What’s surreal is that I was asked to send some interview questions for you a few hours after I finished Disc 3 of Season 1 (which ends with Ep 7). You apparently wrote into a forum and said the following: “Hey man. I wrote Episode 7 of True Blood. Then quit the weird world of Hollywood. A cool learning experience, but not the place for me. I suppose going out there is another thing we Kentuckians do when we leave the hills.”

Hmm, in your “Indiebound” interview you said: “I no longer feel compelled to identify myself as strictly as a Kentuckian . . . I’m now able to shed that stuff.” In light of your forum post about being a Kentuckian, do you think you can shed that identification tag in your mind or will you fall back into it as a sort of “shorthand” when dealing with people who don’t really know you?

CO: No, I can never ever shed my identity as a Kentuckian.  What I was trying to get across in that interview was this: for many, many years, I saw myself exclusively as a Kentuckian.  Wherever I went I introduced myself by saying: “I’m Chris Offutt, I’m from Kentucky.”

The travel, the experiences I had, the people I met – all that was a deep influence over me.  Over time, that influence begat a kind of newer, more expansive sense of identity.  I no longer had to limit myself by geography and childhood.

Still, I’m a Kentuckian through-and-through.  But you must recognize that even that label is vague.  The great Commonwealth of Kentucky has several distinct regions.  I am a proud Eastern Kentuckian.

DE: In that Episode 7, I thought the “AIDS” burger scene was classic. Up until that point, Lafayette felt a bit hollow to me as a character but that scene really opened him up and revealed some great layers. When those three assholes asked for someone other than him to make their hamburgers (so they wouldn’t get AIDS), he comes out blasting, so to speak. Can you talk a bit about that scene?

CO: If I remember correctly, Alan Ball wrote that for an earlier episode.  The scene is both a comment on racial discrimination as well as sexual discrimination.  What Lafayette says about gay people being involved in the lives of Americans is the same kind of thing that is often said about African-Americans.  Gay, black, Kentuckian, Jewish – we are all people with families, personal struggles, secret wishes, sorrow, loss and love.

It’s possible that in editing, the AIDS burger scene got cut into Episode 7.  But I didn’t write it.

Mainly what’s important to me in Episode 7 is a scene where my teenage son has a brief appearance, being menaced by a female vampire.  And of course burning down the house at the end of the episode.  Really cool.

DE: I understand you also wrote Episode 10 of “True Blood” (haven’t watched it yet, thanks Netlflix for taking your time). Any plans to write more episodes for the show or is Hollywood too weird? Have you watched “Justified”, the new F/X show set in Eastern Kentucky? I saw the first episode and was quite impressed. I’m a huge fan of Walton Goggins (“Shane” from “The Shield”) and Timothy Olyphant (Bullock from “Deadwood”).

CO: I left True Blood after Season 1.  I was offered a job on Weeds, Season 5, and wrote and produced for them.  Recently we just completed shooting a pilot I wrote called Tough Trade.  It’s set in Nashville.  We’re editing now, doing color-correction, sound effects, and music.  I’m writing more episodes for it.

And yes, Hollywood continues to be weird.  I do like the ocean, all the old, cool cars that are still around, and eating cheap, good ethnic food.

DE: I know you’re a huge fan of Flannery O’Connor. Any favorite short story of hers in particular? Mine remains “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” God, that ending.

CO: No favorite story.  She’s the greatest writer of short stories set in the South.  She’s a huge influence on my own writing.

DE: You’ve said you like writing about a woman because then you don’t feel like you have to represent your gender. I always think of George and Jerry trying to write how Elaine talked on the “Seinfeld” show within a show … they just couldn’t imagine what she’d say. I often feel that way about my women characters – they are simplistic, bordering on one-dimensional. Your comment makes me think I should try writing some stories from a woman’s pov. While you don’t have to represent your gender when writing about women, do you feel like women may challenge your representations of them? Do you have to push aside those concerns?

CO: You can probably guess my response – I never saw Seinfeld.  Where I grew up we only got one channel, WSAZ from Huntington, West Virginia.  It was an NBC affiliate.  We had a tiny black and white set with an antennae clamped to a post outside.  The reception was usually bad.  If it rained, we got no reception.

By 1974, I was utterly bored by television, so I quit watching it.  I didn’t return until 2005, when I was offered work in Hollywood.  Television had changed quite a bit.

When I write about women characters, I just figure I’m a woman and what would I do.  Same way I write about children, elderly people, or people from cities.  All the characters are some variation of me, just in disguise.

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Since my early 20s I have admired Woody Allen’s integrity and ambition as an American artist–especially one largely self-taught and working in a popular medium. That his ambition has evidently lessened in later years (no longer do his pictures attempt greatness–Allen now seems content to simply make movies, no matter their quality) has not affected my regard.

Most of these quotes are taken from Eric Lax’s excellent biography, Woody Allen, although others are gathered from that most obvious of sources, IMDB. Consider this a portrait of an artist in his own words:

“The vision of the audience is never as deep as the vision of the artist involved. They are always willing to settle for less than you want for yourself.”

“Almost all of my work is autobiographical—exaggerated but true. I’m not social. I don’t get an enormous input from the rest of the world. I wish I could get out but I can’t.”

“[My ambition] would be to make a film that when I finish I can say ‘This picture ranks with Bunuel’s best and Bergman’s and Kurosawa’s.’ That would give me a nice inner feeling of warmth. So far, I haven’t even come close. I think I’ve made some decent movies and a larger number of okay movies, but I’ve never made a great movie” while elsewhere he said, “I realize that is aiming high, but I think it’s not a very satisfying accomplishment for me to aim at a more modest goal and achieve it.”

“If they said to me tomorrow, “We’re pulling the plug and we’re not giving you any more money to make films,” that would not bother me in the slightest. I mean, I’m happy to write for the theatre. And if they wouldn’t back any of my plays, I’m happy to sit home and write prose. But as long as there are people willing to put up the vast sums of money needed to make films, I should take advantage of it. Because there will come a time when they won’t.”

“I can see it in the dailies when something’s wrong. But I don’t always know exactly what I’m doing. I just know when it’s not right. So I’ll say to an actress with a question about her character, ‘Just do what you’re doing at the moment.’”

“In the United States things have changed a lot, and it’s hard to make good small films now. There was a time in the 1950s when I wanted to be a playwright, because until that time movies, which mostly came out of Hollywood, were stupid and not interesting. Then we started to get wonderful European films, and American films started to grow up a little bit, and the industry became more fun to work in than the theatre. I loved it. But now it’s taken a turn in the other direction and studios are back in command and are not that interested in pictures that make only a little bit of money. When I was younger, every week we’d get a Federico Fellini an Ingmar Bergman or a Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, but now you almost never get any of that. Filmmakers like myself have a hard time. The avaricious studios couldn’t care less about good films – if they get a good film they’re twice as happy, but money-making films are their goal. They only want these $100-million pictures that make $500 million. That’s why I’m happy to work in London, because I’m right back in the same kind of liberal creative attitude that I’m used to.”

“I’m going to try before my life is over to rise to the occasion and make one or two [films] that would be considered great by any standards.”

“I can’t imagine that the business should be run any other way than that the director has complete control of his films. My situation may be unique, but that doesn’t speak well for the business — it shouldn’t be unique, because the director is the one who has the vision and he’s the one who should put that vision onto film.”

“There are two things that bother me about [the Academy Awards] …. They’re political and bought and negotiated for—although many worthy people have deservedly won—and the whole concept of awards is silly. I cannot abide by the judgment of other people, because if you accept it when they say you deserve an award, then you have to accept it when they say you don’t. Also, it’s hard not to get a slightly skewed feeling about the Academy Awards because apart from the ads and the campaigning and the studio loyalties, it’s a popularity contest really, because if the picture is not seen well or didn’t do very well its chances are hurt….”

“Hollywood for the most part aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s conceived in venality, it’s motivated by pandering to the public, by making a lot of money.”

“How can you have any positive feelings, or how can the whole thing [the Academy Awards] have any credibility? I find it hard to accept so much of what they extol and what they ignore.”

“Of course, I would love everybody to see my films. But I don’t care enough ever to do anything about it. I would never change a word or make a movie that I thought they would like. I really don’t care if they come or not. If they don’t want to come, then they don’t; if they do come, then great. Do I want to do what I do uncompromisingly, and would I love it if a big audience came?Yes, that would be very nice. I’ve never done anything to attract an audience, though I always get accused of it over the years.”

“Retire and do what? I’d be doing the same thing as I do now: sitting at home writing a play, then characters, jokes and situations would come to me. So I don’t know what else I would do with my time.”

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As decided by me.

Cactus Jack’s: South of the border cantina theme featuring cowboy hat wearing, polka playing cacti musicians that occasionally screech, “Look out for the thorny surprise!” Though the cacti have German accents, they always make me think of Amy’s parents on Futurama. You rack up points by throwing fruit at them, presumably because you are a rowdy Texan.  The fruit have faces. And feelings, man.

Embryon: Luckily, this is an early “widebody” game, which means user reviewers can hide inside technical discussions about game play. If they ever refer to the art, it’s only to say that it’s “great.”  No one seems to want to address what’s going on inside that amniotic sac. I used the art for a baby shower invite.

Funhouse: Rudy is a giant heckling dummy head who taunts you out of your humanity, until pretty soon you are shooting for his teeth and eyes. He nicknames players, which makes it all the more personal and hurtful. We tested this game at a very noisy show in Dallas, and we were pretty sure Rudy called me “Bitch,” and my husband “Fucko.”  Later we learned he was probably calling us “Slick” and “Bucko.”

Xenon: This game is considered “sexy” in the pin community.  Notice that you have T and A, but not on the same body. In fact the A is planted firmly between the Ts. Check out th dewy overbite and those back-pill eyes. What’s that, you say those dilated pupils mean she’s aroused? By whom, her tiny little jumpsuit friend? Is that gonna work out?

Bad Cats: Cats are tearing up the house! There’s a lady with a broom to smack the cats! A spinning seafood table mystery wheel!!!! And all the cats look psychotic.

I’ll do a top 5 culturally-uncomfortable pinball list one of these days.

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It’s easy to discard the photographs Shelby Lee Adams has collected for the past thirty years in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.  Some would say they are little more than the flat, black and white, unruly children of a man who held out the worst of his people for a judgmental world to see in order to gain profit and recognition.  Others defend Adams, saying his approach is pure, even if his subjects are staged and not the most presentable (whatever that word might mean in this context) examples of his neighbors.  I hold membership to neither of these schools of thought, but it does force me to realize something about his neighbors, who are very much my neighbors also.

As a former newspaper editor in the county, in fact, the town in which Adams grew up, I look at his subjects not only with the interest an Eastern Kentuckian might bring to such examination, but also an insight beneficial to understanding Adams’ approach.

Hazard, Kentucky – the modest Perry County town where Adams was raised and the town where I worked as managing editor of the Hazard Herald – is a place where suspicion beats steadily through the thick blood of kinfolk and friend alike.  You are met with this instantly if you spend any amount of time asking questions or trying to wrangle an opinion from anyone who might live there.  And if they agree to talk, answer questions, or, say, pose for a picture, they change before your very eyes.  They stand a little straighter, they talk differently, they never take their eyes off you.  The relaxed demeanor of mountain people that each person from this area genuinely possesses without effort or notice will be stuffed beneath their hat as soon as you pull out a notebook, a pen or a camera.  You lose them and every unique quality each one gives off naturally without otherwise being aware it even exists.  The subtle speech patterns, broken and beautiful, become hurriedly polished and as out of place on their tongue as patches of hair.  That which replaces it is a blend of Midwestern dialect possibly mimicked from the trained anchor on the evening newscast, or, more likely, from a cousin or uncle who visits two or three times a year from Michigan or Indiana.  They become guarded and suspect the worse, arms crossed and as stiff as wood, and that’s if they agree to take part at all.  And it doesn’t matter at all if you’re a local, as is the case with Adams.  In many cases, this can make the task at hand that much more challenging.

How then is a person supposed to approach such subjects with objectivity?  As Adams said during an interview for the documentary made about his life and work, The True Meaning of Pictures, there can be no objectivity because, as he said, “these people are not objects.”  Many argue as to whether or not Adams is a documentarian (taking snapshots of what he observes as an outsider) or an artist who places each stroke, each pose, exactly where he intends.  The argument, although interesting, matters in no way I can immediately figure.  I don’t believe Adams feels he has any choice but to stage, at least to some extent, certain photographs, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Each image Adams has captured during his summer trips to Perry County has unabashedly has this staged look – a boy gripping a fighting rooster and glaring seriously at the photographer; a proud father, chest stuck out, holding his child firmly in his arms beneath a makeshift canopy constructed from a discarded satellite dish, smiling into the camera lens; another of two young girls standing side by side on a front porch flanked by the rolling and soft curves of the Appalachian Mountains, hands braced confidently against boney hips, their faces strict and hard, nearly, but not quite, masking the playful mischief at the corners of their mouths, just behind the eyes.

Adams says he has an agreement with the subjects of his photographs in that he offers them family photographs freely and then asks them to pose for some for his own work, which they quickly agree to do.  I read about this to a certain extent and spent a great deal of time looking at his photographs before actually getting the chance to watch the documentary, The True Meaning of Pictures, by filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal.  The documentary gave me a great deal more insight on Adams’ motivation, but, like any good snapshot of life, really only led me to more questions, particularly about Adams’ relationship with the three families he has photographed over the years.

The Perry County native seems to have an honest affection for these family members.  Most memorably Selina Childers, the mentally challenged, full of life and laughter daughter of the Childers family.  Selina seems to honestly enjoy Adams’ company and likewise, Adams’ seems to be caring and considerate without pretension in dealing with her and her family.  However, there are points to be made for any or all of Adams’ pictures as far as interpretation is concerned.

When you know the backstory with these families and Adams’ close ties to them, his pictures take on a different quality; you can see that humanity there between the hard lines of a face or the dropped eyes of what appears to be a saddened child.  But those backstories may not be found in the pictures alone, no matter how hard Adams tries to bring that across, which is, I believe, part of what he has been trying to do for three decades.  Instead, the New York or Los Angeles or Urban-wherever critics brings to the table, no matter their best effort, generations of stereotypes that have the potential to simply blast from the photograph and into the very forefront of their collective minds.

It’s unfortunate.  Baichwal’s documentary cannot run on a big screen television in the art gallery where Adams most recent show is being considered, picked over, smiled at or frowned upon or taken seriously.  The art collector or enthusiast will not have the story behind the photograph unless they can see through the stereotypes and truly see and understand what Adams is trying to show them.  Because make no mistake about it, the most pure form of humanity is there, and it’s there because of subjectivity rather than objectivity.  It’s present and recognizable because these are photographs taken of friends by someone considered a friend.  There is a trust there that has developed for Adams over the course of thirty years that is valuable to everyone involved.  Without this trust and respect, Adams would have nothing to show the world.  As it is, he has taken the people in his area who many feel should be hidden away from the public eye and said to hell with stereotypes all together.  Stereotypes should not dictate whether these decent people are photographed or not.  He has said to us, in no uncertain terms, judge people for who they are, not as how the world has narrow-mindedly invented them.

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The Ever Popular Glee!

I have a filthy secret. My boyfriend adores Glee. I say we balance each other out because I like monster trucks, contact hockey, and Nitro Circus. So I gave Glee a shot the other night and after two episodes, here is my take on it in a one-hundred word flash: high school kids that abuse classic songs and chart pop to act out adolescent melodrama, where elaborate costumes and props and background music appear out of nowhere despite the fact their conflict is based on budget cuts and 98% of the time there is no audience, everybody has a pre-set dance routine and pre-assigned melody/harmony/backup in randomly inspired sets, and to up the unrealistic nature, there’s a representative of every protected class in the club plus cheerleaders and jocks, everybody dates everybody at least once, and a school bell rings every two to five minutes denoting a scene change.

Here’s a clip: Singing in the Rain

Where did they get all those fancy costumes? There is no audience so all the money dumped into this production was for what? My high school music director would go on a killing spree if anybody ever flooded the school auditorium.

Here’s another clip: Somebody to Love

How did they get from the classroom to the auditorium in Matrix speed? Where did they get that baby powder? Who’s running the lights and sound system? I wonder how much of their sophisticated productions take place in their heads?

No doubt these kids can sing, and I mean really sing, but they’re just so good at everything, dancing, singing, delivery of their dark-humored and witty jokes. Did I mention the cheer leading coach beats up students and throws stuff around?

I’m not bashing Glee, from what I’ve seen in a few episodes, it’s more put together than a lot of stuff on prime time TV, more specifically, prime time Fox, I’m merely stimulating discussion. Your take?

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underground library logoSo, those who’ve been tuned into my slew of projects and so forth over the years know about my crowning failure. It was called Underground Library. It was located at UndergroundLibrary.info. It was documented at HTMLGIANT. It had a blog at UndergroundLibrary.org, which I’m soon to forward to this new one.

A quick WHOIS search revealed that one Michele McDannold is behind this thing. And I’m going to do everything I can to support her, because what killed my beloved UL was a lack of support. We wrote up a user manual. We did a lot of things. The thing died because no one seemed to give a fuck. Or people were spiteful because I happened to own the thing. People can be petty. The thing had such great potential.

But there’s no need to look into the past. I’m really glad to have the whole notion off my mind; someone else is handling it. I can now focus on d//w without thinking, each time I go there, about the one that got away.

Let’s not repeat history. This is exactly the sort of thing that centers and grounds a movement; that helps it learn from its mistakes; that builds a better future for it. It bothers me a lot that you are rolling your eyes. It bothers me more that you’d have a magazine publish you, but wouldn’t do a fucking thing for it beyond that. Everything after “I,” in statements counter to that, is probably an excuse.

Sorry if I sound angry. I kind of am. At myself, for letting the domain go. It looks like she started this thing up right after ours died. What a beautiful internet!

The Literary Underground Wiki is located here.

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William Elliott Whitmore has stories to tell. Or, well, to sing, I should say.

He’s 31 years old but sings like he’s maybe 70 or 75 years old. And I mean that in the best of ways. In the truck exhaust and gruff Tom Waits way. In the cracked voice of a wise sage way. In the kinetic Joe Cocker way.

But singer/songwriter William Elliott Whitmore does more than just sing. With a four-string banjo or an acoustic guitar this Iowa born and bred man hardly beyond his 20s has found that “solid gold bar” Fitzgerald said all writers must find, that theme they will return to again and again, no matter what the story or setting or song or painting for that matter.

Elliott’s solid gold bar is the land, his land, the farms of Iowa where he was raised. And the people on those farms. History, tradition, hardship, perseverance. These things are important to Whitmore, and it shows through his music and his lifestyle.

On stage he rarely, if ever, can be found wearing anything other than a fedora, a button-up shirt rolled to the elbows to reveal countless tattooing along his arms, plain slacks and a pair of worn patent leather wingtips. When not touring or in the studio at his ANTI- label he is tending to the family horse farm, the same farm his folks before him tended.

Farm life, the land, and its people, informs his albums. It is from this distinct voice found early in his life Whitmore draws an energy many of his fans cannot exactly put into words. He has been known to open for a variety of punk bands, members of which are some of his closest friends, though he works exclusively in either alternative country, folk, or blues. Often he is said to open for these bands and leave a crowd of rowdy and ready to get jacked out of shape folks stunned into the sort of silent murmur found only in churches and libraries. Audiences, say friends from many of these bands, are just stunned. Reverence isn’t quite the right word, maybe. But it’s close.

He has opened for acts such as The Pogues and Murder By Death, as well as a host of others. But he also tours and has written and recorded several albums of his own. If Harry Smith’s collection of folk music brought us the first wave of folk enthusiasts, surely Whitmore is on the front lines of opening the door to a new voice in the neglected art of deep roots folk and blues.

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