Category Archives: Controversy
Created this video at the Water Front Park before a Monday Night Open Mic. Enjoy.
On the morn of another Thirsty Thursday, students roll out of bed early—on average, ten minutes before class—to traipse across the Novembered campus en route to the nearest Starbucks. The wind pushes through the streets like a gaggle of British tourists, slapping students’ faces, rippling every Fraternity flag, and snatching piles of leaves into cyclical whirlwinds. The perfume of reefer, estrogen, and dead fish wafted against the historical buildings, which when campus tour guides spoke of them used almost visible quotation marks—”Historical Buildings.” At 11, the students still stand in a winding line out the door of Starbuck’s and down Calhoun, as girls file out the other end clutching Gingerbread Lattes, Caramel Brulee Lattes, Peppermint Mocha Lattes, Pumpkin Spice lattes, and occasionally an iced coffee.
Somewhere on the corner of campus, a man grills hotdogs. Somewhere beyond him, a hung-over professor packs his notes into a leather attaché case and sprints through the wind-scarred streets to class on the third floor of Maybank—where his students are absent, mired in a stuffy Starbuck’s across the road.
His older sister’s friend lays on her back, stretched against the white plastic slats of a poolside chair in the glaring light of the sun. July afternoons have cooked her tan, her long legs shiny and satin-soft, even her feet perfect and brown and pretty. She wears her hair down, un-wet because she never dipped her head beneath the pool’s lukewarm water. Instead, she allows the water to cling to her in tantalizing droplets.
The boy swims around the pool, bobbing his head up from the surface of the pool and back down again. He wears goggles that mask his entire face, even his nose because he has not yet learned to properly hold his breath. When he pops up from the water, he peeks at his sister’s friend through the fogged glass of the goggles, then returns to his aquatic exploration. He wears blue swim shorts with cartoon sharks, which he thinks make him look childish. For the past thirty minutes, he has wanted to climb out of the pool and jump from the diving board to impress his older sister’s friend. But each time she stands and stretches cat-like, her bikini bottoms caught in her crack and revealing the tanned buns he has seen only in videos he watches at 2 am while his parents sleep.
Meanwhile, the girl looks up from a book she is reading for school. She holds it aloft in front of her face, mumbling the words with chapped lips and adjusting her bikini bottoms which unfortunately ride up her ass every time she moves. She contemplates buying a new pair she saw yesterday while shopping online. From behind her amber-tinted glasses, she can see the bloated old man in the pool staring at her. He does not seem to harbor any shame in viewing her body, his eyes glazing over her legs and her breasts. She does not think her breasts look as good in her bikini top as her friend’s, whose little brother looks like a frog dipping in and out of the water. For a moment, she wants the old man to watch her, but she does not.
She reads a book she must read before school starts back, and though she secretly adores the story, she does not tell her friends because they absolutely hate reading.
The man floating on an inflatable ring is a poet, 67-years-old, and gay. With his shirt off, he believes he looks like a Goodyear blimp. He can already feel the sunrays blistering his skin, caressing it with singes that will broil the white into a sickly red. Across the pool from where he floats, he watches two teenage girls—they must be only seventeen. Whenever they look back at their books—they are reading the same novel—he peeks at the girl on the left and shudders. She reminds him of his dead sister. The man wants to cry but he thinks it might be inappropriate. Somewhere behind him, a thirteen-year-old boy bursts through the water, spins around quickly, then descends back underwater. His sister had been driving home drunk one night from a party—this was when the poet had been attending college in another state. He did not hear about her accident until three days later when their foster parents called.
The boy wonders what it might feel like to drown. To test himself, he swims to the bottom of the pool and sits cross-legged on the floor, pinching his thumb and forefingers together like a Buddhist monk—or rather, what he conceptualizes as a Buddhist monk. He attempts to hold his breath for as long as possible, but he cannot. He cannot think about anything other than his friend’s sister if you don’t count the chicken fingers he ate for lunch—they came with honey mustard dipping sauce. He uncrosses his legs and pumps his legs hard, kicking off of the bottom and rocketing to the surface. His splash licks at the old man’s feet, who brushes the droplets of water off his toes, and the boy gasps for breath, then goes under again.
[Based on true events that happened today. A conversation.]
He nodded at me. “Sure, used to be a cop. Dad was a cop. All my friends were too.” His legs were skinny, the muscles shrunk from disuse. He wore a beard hastily shaved, and I couldn’t guess his age, though he was older than most professors. For the past hour, we had been talking about his involvement in the War on Drugs as a police officer.
“What was that like? I mean, what did you feel about what you did?”
“It was great, don’t get me wrong. Worked Interstate 95 right out of Camden, Georgia. What you have to understand is, the drug trade runs through there. My daddy—he was a sheriff. One time he stopped a car and got three million dollars for the department.”
“Because it was drug money. Bought cars, uniforms, everything. For Camden officers, the War on Drugs is the best thing that ever happened. It gave us purpose, not to mention funding we’d never had before. Don’t look at me this way. It’s cocaine—we dealt mostly with cocaine.”
I never caught his name, but we had been speaking for an hour about his life; he sat in a motorized wheelchair eating just the chicken from a Chick-fil-a sandwich. “Cocaine?” I asked, shifting my books from my lap. “I didn’t realize rural Georgia had a coke problem.”
“Sure, they don’t. The local cops—they just bust people for marijuana, but me—cocaine.” I wanted to ask him if he had been injured in the line of duty, but that would be rude. “See, you understand, cocaine comes out of Miami. You can get Coke there with 90% purity, maybe a kilo for $25,000. So you drive up through Georgia on the way to New York, where coke is maybe 30% pure. So you cut that coke into three piles, mix it with meth, Adderall, sugar, what have you—you can imagine these drug runners made a shit ton of money.”
“Sure, sure. And you think that’s okay? I mean, I don’t condone anyone taking cocaine, but what about the War on Drugs. Don’t you think the money is misspent?”
“Federally? Sure. But in my department, it was the one thing still funding us. Pull over three cars a year—they may have a couple million each in them. Used to work with my father, and with one bust, he could afford patrol cars for the entire force. I’d say it’s worth it. I mean, I agree with you about marijauna. That should be legal, even though I’d never try it.”
“Even in your condition.”
“Well, you could get addicted.”
“Addicted to marijuana?”
“Sure. You see, now that’s it’s legal in some states, the THC levels are higher. So kids start smoking sooner, they develop physical addictions. You’ve heard about this?”
“Yeah, actually. They keep making more and more potent weed, until it has become dangerous.” I nodded, then looked at his legs. “So, what happened?” I gestured broadly at the chair.
He shrugged. “Car accident. Gotta tell you, only about three weeks after the accident, the seat belt was recalled. What do you expect? Korean company.”
“Uh-huh. Well, that’s shitty. I’m sorry.”
“Well, we went to court, reached a settlement. They gave me millions of dollars but—I mean, what the hell is that? Just throw money at me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paralyzed from the waist down. Doesn’t change the fact I’m in a chair. Mind getting my smokes?”
Rifling through the bag on the side, I found a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I handed him the cigarettes and helped him light it, then sat back down. “That’s rough. Corporations—well, you know.”
“I mean, the same thing is with marijuana. Even when I was a cop, I didn’t think having it illegal was wrong, but hell—now? Now that it’s becoming legal, it’s becoming dangerous. Not that I care that people smoke it—long as they don’t drive.”
“Of course. Just like drinking.”
He nodded, and before rolling away to class, he added, “You want to get them going south.”
“The cocaine dealers?”
“Sure. You get ‘em going south, you get millions of dollars, but going north, who cares? You bust them and all you can confiscate is piles of cocaine. What’s the use in that?”
Nobody likes to be put into categories, most of all writers. But categories—or in the world of books, genres—are very helpful for marketing and selling a book. When querying publishing firms and literary agents, one must identify their genre, which helps the editors and agents decide whether the project will fall into their areas of interest. But recently, I’ve had an extremely difficult time placing my novel in a genre, which should be a good thing because agents seek works that cross several genres, except it seriously curtails one’s ability to market himself.
I could easily make up my own genre: Southern comedy transgressive? Meta-cultural southern teen exploration? Young adult, but not that young, but maybe still in their twenties who like funny but also serious writing?
The problem is, if the agent doesn’t recognize the genre, then she or he cannot place it right? I tried literary, but that
can’t just say that: you need a better phrase.
brand is too broad. While my project has literary elements, it certainly could be explained more descriptively. I tried young adult, but this generally means the books is marketed for teens ages 12-15. My novel is marketed toward older teens and 20-somethings. It, like many New Adult novels, tracks the growth and development of young adults whose identities are forming, who are seriously changing.
So maybe your book is a noir space opera western with thriller-paced plotting, literary aesthetic, and occult elements? Well, you need a better way to say that, a shorter way.
As I’ve been e-mailing literary agents, literary magazines, and publishers, this question has plagued me constantly. Finally I found an age-group description “New Adult” with which to market the novel THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY. “New Adult” bridges the gap between the safe and young group of Young Adult (YA) readers and Adult fiction. But because my books deals with characters in between, I think this genre (a relatively new invention of words) is fitting.
Querying agents has so far not worked out, but I am still sending many, many emails all over the country (and the world!) to publish this novel, as well as poems and short stories.
Have you had trouble labeling a piece of work? What genre did you settle on?
[A poem about a specific event in Cuba, though severely exaggerated. It had an interesting impact and summed up much of what I learned while I was in the country. I'll post a live reading of it when I debut it at an open mic, which should be some time next week.]
On my final night in Cuba, while strolling home
from the Malecon, drunker than Hemingway
and more nostalgic than Buzz Aldrin during a full moon,
a boy spat on my shoes and screamed,
“Screw you, dirty American. You ruin everything!”
That is the edited version of his comment,
bleary-eyed and angry as he was.
My entire life I had grown up being called names:
Spazz, geek, twitch, space cadet, nerd, stupid face,
weirdo, pothead, loser, Southern boy, and usless.
But nothing hurt my pride more than
being called, a “dirty American.”
Which in Latin America is a strange insult:
they too are America, not just the United States,
which the US citizens tend to forget.
Without breaking a sweat, I turned about face
and stood in the place before him and said,
“Look, don’t you realize—don’t you see?
I love you!”
We stared each of us for a moment, tense,
and I said, “Look, man, we’ve got a war going on,
and we’re losing. Love is losing.
We’re being drowned in a sea of apathy
while our violence is anything but holy.
But we need to return to the sacred, to the human,
to the soul and to our passions.
We’re facing giants of oppression
and if we don’t learn our lesson, we’ll be done for.
So you and me, we gotta stick together.
We have to rally on the side same,
and what’s the point of shouting at each other on the street
when you’re little brother doesn’t have anything to eat?
Why would you want to fight like this
when you don’t own a toilet where you can take a piss?
So, I’m here for you, and I’ll always be here for you,
so don’t you dare talk to me that way.
I know, I know, you can only get drunk and forget your life
only because today was a good day.
But what about tomorrow?
When will we fight for tomorrow?
When will we wield our imaginations like swords?
I’ll charge into the battlefield mounted on a unicorn
There’s no time to squabble and there’s no time to mourn.
Because it’s bigger than us.”
I realized as he nodded his head
He didn’t understand a damned word I said
But he understood my voice and with what passion I spoke
and I guess he figured I was an alright bloke
He shook my hand and I went on my way
and we got drunker, because today had been a good day.
Sometimes, words won’t do, and sometimes
we fail ourselves—that’s evolutionary
But if we live and we love,
that act is revolutionary.
We’re all hungry for something more
And not just enough jumbo-sized pizza
Or calorie-rich milkshake from McDonald’s
Or another side of cheese-and-bacon fries.
But instead for the light at the end of the tunnel
That was foreclosed in the recession,
for the fingertips that brush our hair back
When we fall asleep in the passenger’s seat,
and for the words no one ever says
That could disrupt the void of silence
Fill the aching pit our stomachs reveal
When we realize we want something else, something more.
They say the whole country’s obese,
So the question is:
For what are we so desperately starving?
General Bates let us sleep in a tent with Jaime, though we used our own blankets. The summer air clung so fiercely to our skin, though, I could not keep covered. Instead, I lay shirtless against the ground, studying the seams along the interior of our shelter.
“You’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. Just disappointed. I just– what are we going to do?”
Ethan shuffled. “We can give them the seeds, the medicine. Some of it. We don’t need it, and then we can go back to our island. We can just–”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“About what?” He breathed heavy beside me, and in my side-vision, his chest rose and fell rapidly.
“About needing to register. What were you running away from?”
“I– if I were living like that, where they accounted for everything you did? You don’t know how nice you have it out there in the marsh. You’ve never lived in a city, not like they’re like now. We’re all rats, scrambling on top of each other for some sunlight. And men patrol the streets and beat you if you say anything to them. That’s what passes as police.”
“That’s why you left?”
“I left because I had heard about something else, something simple. I thought maybe if I stole that boat, rowed out to sea, I’d find something better. And I did.”
I resettled against the ground, soothed by the crescendos and decrescendos of Jaime’s snoring. “There have never been simpler times. Never civilized either. It’s always been difficult: existence. Whether you’re stuffed in a polluted city, mired in poverty, or stuck out on an island, rooting through the ground for a vegetable to eat, something to kill and clean. No life is simple, and it never has been that way.”
When morning came, I tracked down General Bates and showed him half of our supplies. If Jaime might return us to our island, I told him, he could have our supplies. Some of the stronger medicines and the seeds too. Hemp seeds and corn, though I kept the majority of the rice seeds– I could plant rise in the marsh, harvest every year. I kept a lot of the allergy medicine as well and a pocketful of pain-killers. The general took the rest gleefully, shuffling from the tent to wake up Jaime.
Jaime waddled crankily from his tent. “You want me back on the road again?”
“Sure, sure. Take these two back where you found them. Or wherever they might want to go.”
“Do you have a boat?” I asked. “We could also really use a boat.”
The general shook his head. “We need all of our boats. Now, get out of here before I take the rest of the stuff you hid from me.”
Once loaded back into Jaime’s truck, we sped down the road, crisscrossing through empty highways and abandoned interstates. He allowed me this time to sit in the cab, leaning against the window, my forehead pressed flat.
“Still torn up, thinking you was going to be a rich man?”
I ground my teeth, watching the pine trees as they vanished behind us, the truck picking up speed. “Rich? No, maybe not. Maybe so. Not so sure I ever believed that plan could have worked– I should realize the world has changed. It also changes, even when you’re not a part of it, and it keeps churning on. All that time away, you don’t realize what happens, what happens to everybody else, the whole world. Places disappear, and people do too. Entire societies collapse, and new ones rise. Back when I was a boy, we never thought we’d live like this, constantly at war. Sometimes, it’s not just land that gets submerged, but the past and your perception of the present. If you think you know what’s going on, pretty soon the water’s up to your neck, and you don’t know anything anymore.”
He nodded along politely.
As the hours passed, I scanned the trees for our boat, a way to get us home. I prayed to encounter none of the soldiers Jaime described, a barricade along the highway. Looking back through the window, I could see Ethan wiggling his head in the wind– only the second time he’d ridden in an automobile, so he told me. And then I kept watching the road, dreaming of my island and my home and my marsh and that little boat, about paddling back out to Charleston and exploring the city lost. I didn’t belong in the land of the living, but instead at the bottom of the sea, in that city of ghosts.
The truck woke me, its trembling motor roaring in my sleep. Again, the underwater dreams, those lucid moments beneath the surface of consciousness, drowning in the ceaseless churn of a storm. Then I could make out above the hollow crash of waves a burping, mechanical clatter that unglued me from sleep and sent me bolting upright, staring into white-bright headlights.
“What the hell’s goin’ on here? Why you sleeping by the road?” A man stared back at us, his lips puckered at a peculiar angle and his eyebrow cocked. His skin was black as the soil, his clothes tattered. He stood beside a shuddering, rusted truck.
I clawed my throat for words, but none came. Ethan spoke: “Is that a truck? You driving a truck?”
The man reached into his cab, turning off the motor and flipping off his headlights, leaving us into the dim illumination of early morning. “It’s my truck. Personal business. None of your concern. Who y’all fighting for? Soldiers?”
Clearing my throat, I stood up, pushing the blankets off of me and limping toward him. He was a massive man, though old, wearing a broad plaid shirt and jeans caked with mud. “We’re– we’re headed to Atlanta.”
“Alright, so what? You’re gonna walk there? Where are y’all from?”
“We live not so far away. On an island.”
He nodded. “How long?”
I looked to Ethan. “I’ve been there, well, about eight years now.”
“Then you don’t know– it’s illegal to live out here now. Radiation zone, they’re calling it.”
“I– I haven’t seen any radiation.”
“You can’t see radiation.”
“But I never felt it or nothing. I mean, there are fish. Birds and snakes.”
The man snorted. “Best not tell them that, they’ll come root you out of your island. It’s been illegal for more than three years ago.”
Slowly, the gears of mathematics churned in my brain: how long had Ethan lived with me?
“You never told me that,” I said, turning to him.
He shrugged. “What do you think I was running away from? They wanted to register everyone, otherwise you’re not considered a citizen, don’t got no rights.”
I thought about this for a moment. “You said there was some sort of soldiers?”
“Couple, running around these parts.” He shrugged. “The Continental Army, sweeping through pretty often.”
“Another rebellion going on?”
He nodded. “I’m running guns to an encampment fifty miles up the coast. Stole some canisters of gas, so we have a few trucks making trips through roads where the army left alone.”
“We need a ride, if you can spare it.”
He gestured to the bed of his truck, where a pile of black guns lay. “You can ride back there. Got any way to repay me?” I rifled through the bag and tossed him a bottle of Oxycodone. He checked the label, then watched me, startled. “This stuff real?”
“Pretty real. Can we get a ride?” He nodded to his truck, and we gathered our blankets, stuffing them into a bag and hopping aboard.
Five hours we bounced against his back windshield, metal guns sliding across the bed beneath us. Guns made me nervous, though the smugglers carried guns for protection; men would kill each other with these weapons, to claim sovereignty over land that was being slowly covered by the ocean. Their military encampment looked like a small village of pop-up campers and trailers shipwrecked on concrete blocks. The man driving us, his name Jaime, stepped out of the truck and approached a tent big enough for a circus show. A moment later, a stocky man with iron-gray buzzed hair stepped out, wearing shredded Army greens and old combat boots.
“You the stragglers he found on the road?”
“We’re on the way to Atlanta,” I explained.
“You don’t want to be traveling the roads. There’s a war going on.”
“But there’s always a war going on. Isn’t there someone to buy what we have to sell?”
“Sell? With what? What do you want? Food? Guns?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling incredibly naked in front of the men filing out of the tank. “Money.”
“What’s the use of money? Jaime says you live in a swamp.”
“‘Spose that’s true.”
“You live in a swamp, and you don’t know what’s happening.”
“It doesn’t matter, damn it. I just– I just–”
Another man spoke up. “He said you gave him medicine. What do you have?”
“I– I don’t have anything. Nothing I can give away for free, I mean.”
The Army guy grinned, knuckling the toe of his boot into the dirt. “You can’t just come into a rebel camp, say you got medicine, and not share it. Why would you want to go to Atlanta? That’s dangerous.”
“I have things to sell– more medicine. We’ve been living on an island, but we wanted– we thought–”
“No one to sell it to.” He paused. “I’m Bates, by the way. General Bates, if it please you. Commanding officer of this outfit for the Free States.”
I began to grow frustrated. I didn’t care about their petty rebellions and lurches for power, their killing and bombing and gassing. Once I sold the seeds and medicine, I could buy a new boat, return to my island. Get as far away from this disaster as possible.
“Alright, General Bates. Just point us in the right direction; we’ll be on our way.” I began to back away from the truck, eyeing Ethan, clutching the duffel bag tight to my chest. “Which way to Atlanta?”
“Told you, you don’t want to go near Atlanta, less you want to die. Whole place is devastated. That’s why we moved out to the coast, the Continental’s have closed in on us. And Atlanta– that was blown apart a year ago. Nothing left but radiation and a black hole in the ground.”
My grip on the bag loosened as his words sunk in– the war. Because of the war, there would be no one to shell out millions for seeds. We wouldn’t sell a thing, and everything we’d hoped for had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb twelve months before we began searching.