Murder Ballad Monday: Jimmie Rodgers, “Frankie and Johnny”

One of my favorite panels at this year’s AWP conference featured the novelist Wesley Stace , also known as singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, talking about storytelling in music. Ballads and poems provide essential clues to the mystery in his excellent first novel, the comic melodrama Misfortune, and also feature in his just-released book, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer.

Stace praised the ballad form as a deceptively simple yet profound form that gets right to the crisis point in a character’s history. Though retribution is usually swift and inevitable, there’s rarely any moralizing about the characters’ crimes, an open-endedness that allows us to choose how deeply we identify with the story.

I thought of his analysis when I heard these lines toward the end of the classic murder ballad “Frankie and Johnny,” performed here by Jimmie Rodgers: “This story has no moral, this story has no end, this story just goes to show that there ain’t no good in men.”

K. Silem Mohammad’s “Sonnagrams”

The poet K. Silem Mohammad, who blogs at Lime Tree and is credited/blamed for co-inventing the absurdist experimental poetry movement Flarf, has been writing a series of deliciously nonsensical “Sonnagrams” that are anagrams of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I discovered this project in the latest issue of Fence. Here’s a sample from Boo Journal:

OMG, Dog Pee!

Don’t screw around with darkling yellow finches:
Their feathers harbor deadly poison quills,
There’s bird flu in their tiny talons’ pinches,
And bad saliva dribbles from their bills.

If you escape the Scylla of their antlers,
As well as the Charybdis of their hooves,
You yet must dodge the anti-guy Dismantlers,
That whup the ass of every dude that moves:

We’re talking fifty-five-foot-tall vaginas,
With wicked fangs and terrible disdain
For evil men in both the Carolinas
Who diss their furry magnitude in vain.

Can any bums pump gum at “Champ” le Beau?
De dee, de dee, de dee, de dee, de doe.


[Sonnet 153 (“Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep”)]

Read more at Wag’s Revue and Salt Hill Journal.

Martin Steele: “The Girls in the Tree”

Winning Writers subscriber Martin Steele has kindly permitted me to reprint this piece, which won a Very Highly Commended award in the 2010 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Poetry Contest. (Winning Writers assists with entry handling and promotion for this contest; read the latest winners here.) Born in South Africa and currently a resident of Florida, Martin is a prolific author of poetry and flash fiction characterized by lush imagery and surreal plot twists. “The Girls in the Tree” especially appealed to me because I’m writing a novel-in-progress about a fashion photographer, who would have loved to take part in the scene below.

The Girls in the Tree

The tree that the girls are on is bare because all the bark has been eaten by the elephants.

The crystal orange rays splice the painful hanging branches. Each girl a blushing pink purple petal.
The lithe soft figures blend with the orange and paleness of the earth below.

The watch clicks the minutes on the resting ‘roused sun. The colors whispers secrets onto my eyelids. My canvas tent breathes heavy morning dew. The blended apricot starkness strikes the lens of my camera like an orphaned hyacinth. The proud acacia silhouette kisses the brightening sky. Now at six in the morning the air is an aphrodisiac and my loins stirs to the low sounds of jungle beasts far, far away.

Today I will use all my male skills like a helpful circus trainer, my leica my assistant. Photographing tabloid pieces for fashion shoots is a task as trying as like feeding lions with bare hands.

The girls, the models for the lingerie shoot arrived last night. They will endure 6 hours of patient pain in the acacia tree.
My eye is on the acacia tree I have chosen on this savannah plain gradually maturing to azure. The umbrella shaped top will help with snippets of shade as will the few scant leaves left uneaten. Now as the orange gradually fades to yellow the girls in the branches of the trees smile, squirm, stretch and loll as my shutter heats up from ten hundred frames.

I have chosen this tree with bare bark eaten by elephants.

“What are those girls doing next to the beautiful elephants?”

My elephant returns soon to face his tree. The thick, broad pillar like legs and high grey back reach near to the intersection of bare tree trunk and branches stretching like Lycra. The massive head is beautiful and lotus like ears twist and fan the air. Hooflike nails are not manicured as the girls’ and the grey skin loose and lightly furrowed like chapped hands is tough and reads like a symbol of wisdom. He will never forget this scene ever as he saunters from soft wet grasses.

The skin is hairless and his slender tail is like a tuft of hair on a rabbit’s bottom.

The skin of the girls is pink and tight and soft imaging against purple panties and pink peignoirs. The faces are alive with the passion of posing. As the elephant lifts his trunk to the umbrella topped tree he recognizes a faint sweet fragrance. and will soon emit a trumpet noise when blowing through his nostrils. The girls sigh to Mozart and Chopin as the music is dreamed into their ears.

The sky has almost lost its orangeness. My elephant looks up to the nest of girls enhancing the form of branch shapes, stretches his trunk as in a goodbye salute then ambles off to loneliness and no home in particular.

My shooting is over. The girls are assisted down from the now lonely acacia.

There are smiles and excitement in the red of their cheeks and the silent sighs of their blushes. The bare skins tighten on their model figures as the hazy elephant shadow and his loose grey skin hushes Westwards.

The photos are eye piercing. I am excited.

“Mixing model beauty with African beast is a step in a young life’s excitement. There is even blood on the Polaroid.”

Everything is now packed away. The girls are dressed in jeans and sweaters and bright shirts. The pink foundation wear shows through the garment transparency.

“The last thing left is the beauty of women.”

Literature Is a Lifeline, Prisoners Say

Readers of this blog have enjoyed the poetry and cultural commentary of my prison pen pal “Conway”, whose distinctive artwork graces my chapbook covers. Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my correspondence with another incarcerated writer, “Jon”, a young man who’s on death row in California for an alleged homicide during a robbery. Jon’s pencil drawings of angels, flowers and holiday scenes are good enough for a Hallmark card. He writes fantasy and sci-fi fiction and devotional poetry.

I’ve been trying to send him a copy of Freddy Fonseca’s anthology This Enduring Gift: A Flowering of Fairfield Poetry, which prison officials keep bouncing back because of some undisclosed postal violation. Meanwhile, Freddy emailed me this article from the Boston Globe: “Escape route: The surprising potential of a prison library“, by Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. Steinberg attests to the power of the prison library as a community space where inmates learn to become citizens:

…The problem with the public discussion about libraries in prison is that it’s the wrong discussion. For over a century now, the debate has centered on reading — on which books should, or more often should not, be included on the prison library’s shelves; which books are “harmful” or “helpful”; whether reading is a privilege or a right. In 1867, Wines argued that a book like “Robinson Crusoe” — at the time, the only secular novel permitted in prison — served the cause of criminal rehabilitation. Others fervently disagreed.

But the issue of reading is only one dimension of the question, and not necessarily the salient one. The crucial point of a prison library may not be its book catalog: The point is that it is a library.

The library is a shared public space, a hub, where people spend significant portions of their time, often daily. It is a place inmates work and, in some important ways, live. It is more purposeful and educational than a recreational yard, less formal than a classroom. The prison library gives inmates an organic way to connect to the world, to each other, to themselves as citizens. It’s a small democratic institution set deep within a prison, one they can choose to join.

This is no small matter. The vast majority of prison inmates will eventually be released back into the free world, back into the community. What happens to them once they are out is the critical piece of the corrections puzzle. It doesn’t take an expert to know that a person who lands in prison, a person often already on the margins of society, will grow further isolated from the norms and routines of society while in prison. And yet, at the very same time, and in this very same building, many inmates — often for the first time in their lives — are also quietly becoming enmeshed in an important social institution….

…One of our regular visitors was a twentysomething woman whose 3-year-old daughter was living with a relative during her prison sentence. I’d first lured this inmate to the library by screening new release movie features. After a while, she was in the library at every opportunity, reading books and magazines and watching movies. She was, in other words, an average prison library visitor: a person who had stumbled in, almost by accident, but who ended up quietly but routinely making use of the library’s resources.

When her sentence was drawing to a close, she told me that she was going to miss using the prison library. I replied with the good news: Libraries also exist outside of prison! The idea seemed to surprise her (which surprised me). In her experience, a library, as an institution, was something one encountered in prison. She’d never set foot in a library in the free world.

She left prison, and the library, excited to give it a try. And, she said, she would do for her daughter what had never been done for her: She would bring the child to the public library every week. Just as a prison ID card, stamped with her mug shot, symbolized her civic isolation, I like to think of her public library card as a powerful token of membership back in society. After hundreds of hours logged in the prison’s library, the thought of using a public library now seemed not only plausible to her, but second nature. After her time in prison it was the thought of not using a library that troubled her.

People tend to see a prison as a monolithic institution, a place solely dedicated to locking criminals up. But many inmates experience prison in a more dynamic way, as a clash between institutions. And what I experienced every day was that, in the collision between the institution of prison and the institution-within-the-institution, the library, something constructive and potentially long-lasting was being formed.

Prison libraries aren’t miracle factories. The day-to-day was often far from inspiring. Glossy magazines and mindless movies were, for many, the main attraction. Pimp memoirs were among the most frequently requested books. And yet, even an inmate motivated by nothing more than a desire to watch “The Incredible Hulk” in the back room of the library was much more likely to come across something educational — a book, a program, a mentor — once he entered the library space. Just as important, this inmate was becoming a loyal patron of the library, something he could carry with him to the outside world, and perhaps pass on to his children.

I mailed Jon a printout of this article, and his reply in his Jan. 31 letter was so eloquent that I am sharing it below, unedited (spelling and all):

“Litrature of all sorts is probibly the most important thing an incarcerated person can get their hands upon. When a person is in a cell, they’ve plenty of time to think and to reflect. Reading does a number of things for people, for me, concidering all the various materials I’ve read, including classic novels, fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, psychology, numerology, spanish, history, and spiritual, although spiritual, the bible changes lives, my own included.

“The classic litrature is where my ‘self’ education begain in here. Reading these books gave room for self reflection, and also caused me to love reading. Reading can turn some of the most negative of people into patriots, and highly educated (self educated) members of society. I’ve seen it.

“I myself was a very terrible and lost soul when I came into jail. Yet over the years, and throughout books, such as Les Miserabes, A tale of two citys, Frankenstien, the call of the wild, white fang, the phantom of the opera, the three musketeers (and all Dumas’ other books), even Sherlock Holmes, to kill a mockingbird, just to name a few. Throughout books like these, I’ve learned of virtues, such as humor, honer, artistry, and even in many case what is right and what is wrong. Yet most of all I’ve learned of redemption.

“If books such as Hugo and Dickens wrote were readily available, I believe, no, I know that many criminals with reflection from reading would rehabilitate. For anyone to say that a prison library is of doubtful influence, I would say they are ignorant. The problem is a limited library. I truly know that if more state and county prison and jail finances were spent giving inmates access to literature, there would be less repeat offenders.”

Moved by Jon’s message? Donate to Books to Prisoners today.

AWP Report (Part 1): Black and White and Read All Over

This is the first in a series of posts about the highlights of my trip to the AWP writers’ conference in Washington, DC this month.

Race relations proved to be a recurring theme in several events I attended, addressed by writers whose strategies ranged from confrontation to elegy to satire. The juxtaposition of these diverse and occasionally discordant approaches continues to make me ponder how we can speak about race in ways that are both skillful and honest, and the reasons we avoid doing so.

Avoiding speaking about race, of course, is a privilege mainly possessed by white people. I have the option, which I usually exercise, to follow the old adage that “It is better to say nothing and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.” So I am stating up-front that everything I say after this paragraph is unavoidably somewhat tainted by the defensiveness and lack of knowledge that are my heritage as a white American.

Okay, now on to blaming other people…

I am going to venture to say that one factor in white people’s avoidance of race talk is the feeling that we’ll be condemned for speaking out of our experience of whiteness, even if we’re doing so in order to identify and transcend areas of prejudice. We can’t move beyond our racism-influenced misconceptions until we bring them to light and ask for a critique of their deficiencies. However, if the mere act of disclosing those views exposes us to condemnation, the dialogue ends before it began.

Any safe dialogue depends on meeting people where they are. Since racial inequality is a structural problem that shapes every individual’s consciousness whether they want it to or not, I feel that the full force of your justified anger should not be leveled at the white individual who happens to be in front of you, who didn’t choose this situation either.

I wish there was a word other than “racist” that could express the distinction between intentional animus toward nonwhites, and attitudes formed by white privilege that we have the intention to correct but need help achieving the insight. Something like the difference between homophobia and heterosexism. I am pretty sure I’ve never been homophobic, but until I started writing about gay characters and became involved in activism, I was blind to many ways in which my cultural upbringing assumed the normalness of heterosexuality and erased alternative identities. With respect to transpeople, I probably have a little bit of both. I didn’t know any transpeople until a couple of years ago, and so I believed most of the media stereotypes and didn’t take offense at the sensationalized and mocking way they were portrayed. My intentions are in the process of correcting my gut reactions. I think it’s been crucial that folks in the trans community have been really patient with me and welcomed my efforts to educate myself as an ally.

So what does this have to do with AWP?

Each night of the conference, several famous authors were scheduled to give readings. On Friday, we went to the poetry reading by Claudia Rankine and Charles Wright. This was a weird pairing in itself, as Rankine is a passionate, political, experimental African-American writer, and Wright turned out to be a genial old Southern white fellow who read meandering Buddhist poems about nature and death.

Instead of poetry, though, Rankine read an essay, or maybe more of a speech, condemning the racism she found in the Tony Hoagland poem “The Change“. She then read Hoagland’s response to her initial complaint to him, and her reaction to that response.

Regardless of its merits, and it did have some, the format of this absentee dialogue made me uncomfortable. It felt like our audience of several hundred people was being enlisted in an attack on someone who was not there to respond. Rankine’s anger, which drew its force and righteousness from the collective history of racial oppression, was being brought to bear almost entirely on an individual.

To quote another cliche, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It’s important, when doing justice work, not to get tunnel vision–seeing the person in front of you only as the representative of the one area in which she is more privileged than you. Your audience might include trauma survivors and people who were triangulated into family conflicts. I came for a poetry reading, not to hear Mommy tell me why I should hate Daddy.

That said, I agree with Rankine that Hoagland’s poem has real problems. In it, the white narrator (presumably male, presumably middle-aged because he’s old enough to remember a time before integrated tennis) reports feeling discomfort and resentment while he watches a black American tennis player (obviously based on Venus Williams) soundly defeat a white European. With resigned, self-mocking humor, he concludes that we’ve entered a new era where his “tribe” can no longer expect to be on top. He knows he should feel good about this but a more primal part of him really doesn’t.

Rankine focused her objections on the racial stereotypes in his description of “Vondella Aphrodite”, the aggressive “big black girl” with “complicated hair” and “Zulu bangles”. She was also, I think, generally offended by the idea that someone in Hoagland’s/the narrator’s position of white privilege would dare to feel sorry for himself, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way.  She mocked the naivete of thinking that white privilege was a thing of the past, just because a black athlete won a tournament.

I think Hoagland’s poem stands or falls based on whether there’s a separation between author and narrator. That is, is he reporting these views or also advocating them? Rankine insisted on assuming the latter, despite Hoagland’s denial in his letter to her. Because of her strong feelings, she deprived us of a more valuable discussion about poetic craft and authorial intent.

Option one: This is a persona poem about feelings the typical white Americans might have but not wish to admit. By writing the poem, Hoagland is showing that he knows more than the narrator. He’s exaggerating their distorted thinking, to the point of humorous absurdity, so that we as readers can learn something about American race relations that’s obscured by white liberal platitudes–and even have a painful shock of recognition as we admit to these feelings ourselves. (In his letter to Rankine, Hoagland implied that this was his intent.)

Option two: Hoagland shares the narrator’s feelings, and is appointing himself the mouthpiece of other white people who have the same views. In this 2005 article from the Brandeis University student newspaper, interviewing him after a reading of “The Change”, Hoagland picks option two:

…His most controversial poem, “The Change,” was written around the time when Venus Williams first appeared in tennis matches.

“I knew something important had happened, though no one knew it yet,” Hoagland said. He expressed contempt for what he described as the rugged and base way that an African-American came out on top of a white competitor. Hoagland said very few publishers had been willing to associate themselves with this politically incorrect work, but he feels that it is important to always be honest, and likes his poems to upset people.

“I was giving a voice to America’s dirty secret,” said Hoagland. “I like to shock some people.”

In my opinion, “The Change” is not a very good poem because you can’t tell whether he is critiquing or endorsing racism. Since the subject of the poem is race relations, this is a pretty big flaw.

I’m not all that interested in whether Hoagland is personally a racist. More pertinent to me, and the rest of the writers in the audience, is the craft question: how do we honestly portray stereotyped thinking without perpetuating it? How can we surround these painful subjects with an atmosphere of compassion and understanding, so that everyone can speak from the place of their truth and yet be open to change?

On Saturday night, Nick Demske jumped into this arena with two big white feet. Demske is a new addition to the Fence Books community of gutsy experimental poets who make sculptures both monstrous and humorous out of the ever-expanding junkpile of popular culture. Poets like Demske embrace and amplify the degradation of our common language in order to triumph over it by nonetheless achieving a distinctive voice, while remaining honest about how quickly that voice will be assimilated and obliterated by the bit-stream.

Or so I’d like to believe, because the risk that mimicry will overtake critique is the same as in Hoagland’s poetry, though Demske’s work is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the older poet’s lack of self-consciousness.

I first discovered Demske through his Otis Henry poems, which satirically apply the braggadocio of gangsta rap to the persona of the poet. The character of Otis Henry is just barely saved from ridiculousness by the tinge of aggression in these tall tales. He’s not just a nerdy poet pretending to be ghetto. He might actually fuck you up, and you might even enjoy it, because through him, you become part of the legend.

At the Fence reading on Saturday, held at The Big Hunt bar in Dupont Circle, Demske read some work from his manuscript-in-progress, Starfucker, which he said was inspired by the famous gangsta rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a/k/a Big Baby Jesus. Some poems from this book are available online at Sawbuck Poems and Weird Deer , but I haven’t been able to find the one he read that night, which included the repeated shout-out “Niggaz!”

Now, black rappers often use the N-word the same way some gays will use “queer” within their own group, or teen girls will greet each other with “What’s up, bitches?” — as a form of group bonding that also gives the finger to the outside world that would shame them for their identity. Obviously, it’s more problematic when a white poet uses the word, and Demske knows this. To me, he seems to be asserting that gangsta-rap language has crossed over into white culture so much that it has become part of his heritage too, and that this is all the more reason to bring it into the realm of artistic dialogue and critique. Is the popularity of gangsta rap among white middle-American teens a step toward multicultural harmony, or a cover for a new kind of offensive stereotyping, or both?  Unlike Hoagland’s narrator in “The Change”, Demske’s not taking the token success of African-Americans in entertainment as proof that we no longer need to worry about racism.

I’m still not sure whether Demske always stays on the right side of the line he’s walking. Merely putting an offensive phrase up-front in a difficult poem doesn’t by itself guarantee that readers will think about it, instead of absorbing the shock value and reading on. When he says in “As Far Away”, a poem from his self-titled collection from Fence, “The Holocaust never happened. Better luck next time,” for whose benefit is he tossing those explosive words around? Based on the context, I trust that he has a humane point to make, maybe something about the muting of human anguish and anger by the data overload that constantly surrounds us. “When you’re finished recording, please hang up and try again,” says the mechanical voice in this poem, unmoved by the most shocking thing he can say to it.

If we’re not offended by this poem, does that mean we’re also dulled and mechanized, no longer fully human? How long can this strategy work to recall us to ourselves, before we become further desensitized?

On Demske’s blog this week, he’s posted an open letter from Claudia Rankine, who’s inviting the poetry community to discuss how we write or don’t write about race. Her questions are excellent and difficult. Let the dialogue continue!

Here are some more reactions to Rankine’s presentation from around the poetry blogosphere:
J’s Theater
Whose Shoes Are These Anyway?
Nothing to Say & Saying It (John Gallaher’s blog; comments section is especially interesting)
Joseph Patrick Wood

My Story “Same Love Same Rights” at Newport Review

My flash fiction piece “Same Love Same Rights” is now online in Issue #6 of Newport Review. It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at my fascination with a certain type of gay male subculture.

Here’s the opener:

Do you think people love the truth? Do you think the truth builds houses? The man with the gray mustache was eating Gorgonzola cheese on toast points while he told the young woman about his travels in Africa, Cambodia and Vietnam.

–People are more alike than they are different, he said. They all want to talk to us, even though we are American. We are only a small part of their bad history. The young woman looked for something on the table that would not fall apart when she bit into it. Not the stuffed tomatoes, not the crab cakes. A plain piece of cheese?

–They were digging tunnels to undermine the French, long before we showed up, he said. Dusk was falling outside the picture window screened by ferns.

–Be sure to tour the garden before you go, said a short wrinkled woman in a tie-dyed gown. Frank and George are so proud of their garden.

–And this is my wife, said the man with the gray mustache. The young woman complimented the wife’s dress, which was purple with starbursts like the red-hearted coleus leaves along the cobbled path to the house. Great, she thought, the only two straight couples at this party and we’re talking to each other.

Miss Deeds Goes to Washington

We’re home from another inspiring, overwhelming AWP writers’ conference in Washington, DC, with the usual crate full of small press books and literary journals that we discovered at their bookfair. I’ll be reviewing some of our finds in future posts. Currently, I’m reading Nick Demske’s self-titled collection of deranged sonnets from Fence Books, and Dorothy Allred Solomon’s In My Father’s House: A Memoir of Polygamy, first released in the 1980s and republished by Texas Tech University Press.

After a 15-hour drive through Snowmageddon, we rewarded ourselves with a day of sightseeing Wednesday before the conference began. We were privileged to catch the groundbreaking GLBT portraiture exhibit “Hide/Seek ” at the National Portrait Gallery, closing this week. Even without the censored Wojnarowicz video, there was much to provoke a fresh look at American cultural history. Various pieces moved me to sadness and anger at the devastation of the AIDS crisis, and admiration for how creatively these artists deployed abstraction, coded symbolism, and experimental techniques to hide the truth of their lives in plain sight.

I was surprised by my feelings of connection with Felix Gonzales-Torres’ “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, a pile of candies in multicolored wrappers. The placard said the installation starts out at a weight of 175 lbs., which was his late partner Ross Laycock’s weight before AIDS. Viewers are invited to take away a candy and consume it as an act of communion with Ross. Like the AIDS patient’s body, the pile gradually shrinks, but is then replenished, symbolizing the cycle of life and death. (You can see the image and read about it on the gallery’s website.)

What kind of art is this? Without the placard, it’s just a pile of candy. Perhaps it’s better understood as an interactive text, or a collaborative work of performance art, rather than our standard expectation of a visual art object that speaks for itself. The interactive nature of the work, I think, is the key to why I found it so moving. It challenges the whole notion of the uninvolved spectator as a proper or pure stance. We are complicit in this artwork. By taking the candy, we’re taking responsibility for our role as bystanders while people die of AIDS, but maybe we’re also receiving forgiveness and restored relationship through this bodily connection.

In other gay news, Adam and I took part in GetEqual’s protest of the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning. It’s a little-known fact that this annual event, attended by the president and other top U.S. politicians, was created and sponsored by The Family, a secretive elite network of Christian conservatives bent on political takeover. (Yes, I know it sounds like a Dan Brown novel, but it’s all too real–just not as photogenic as Paul Bettany whipping himself.)

Members of The Family have been actively stirring up religious bigotry against gays in Africa, including the infamous Ugandan legislation that would impose the death penalty for homosexuality. Last month, David Kato, one of the most prominent gay activists in that country, was murdered in a probable hate crime. Our protest honored his memory. About 30 of us sang “We Shall Overcome” and handed out flyers detailing the link between the prayer breakfast, The Family, and genocide against gays.

Read coverage of the event at Metro Weekly and see a short video of the protest. Around 23 seconds into the film, you can see Adam holding the rainbow flag (he’s wearing the red ski jacket and black boots) and me next to him (black beret and coat).