Review: “this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it” by Keegan Lester

“because love too is like a county fair/ in that it’s at its best in the dark/ next to someone you just met.”- Keegan Lester 

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Keegan Lester’s debut poetry collection this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it, winner of the 2016 Slope Editions Books Prize, possesses a haunted urgency that, as one careens through its poems like a semi navigating mountain roads, suspends one between what we cannot know about being human and what we cling to as gospel. Gospel’s an accurate word for Lester’s verse. He explores language, love, grief, and Lester’s adopted home state of West Virginia.

The collection, however, is not coal-dusted or steeped in stereotype, but instead luminous with the acknowledged humanity of Appalachians. This is summed up neatly toward the book’s end in “You Appalachian Re-appropriating Asshole Poets,” in which Lester writes, “i don’t write about killing deer… my great uncle pitched/ for the yankees. He also killed deer/ he never wrote a single poem.”

There is an impossibility in both capturing the places we have lived, how they must necessarily change in our actions and through the echo of our memories. In the first “half” of the book (although this part accounts for the majority of the book), Lester weaves together disparate poems into a singular “ghost note,” which is like an elegy. Or prayer. Or the scribbled final thoughts of the dying. Or the dead.

In early 2017, I had the opportunity to see Keegan Lester perform his poems. He12046813_10103562183931899_4341441508530092228_n reads with both the New York Poetry Brothel and the Travelin’ Appalachian Revue. I use the word perform because Lester affects the posture of a backwoods preacher. The words travel through him, rather than from him as if transfused through the mother-lode vein of a word mine.

I picked up the book this morning for a long car ride and tore through the book for the third time. Perhaps it took some time to compose proper thoughts on the collection, but there must be a reason I keep returning. This book is itself a return, a home town not yours but nevertheless intimately familiar.

Lester’s collection this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it can be purchased on Amazon or Slope Editions website.

 

“Keegan Lester is an American poet splitting time between New York City and Morgantown, West Virginia. His work is published in or forthcoming from Boston Review, The Atlas Review, Powder Keg, Boaat Journal, The Journal, Phantom Books, CutBank, Reality Beach and Sixth Finch among others and has been featured on NPR, The New School Writing Blog and ColdFront. He is the co-founder and poetry editor for the journal Souvenir Lit. This is his first book.” – Found on Publisher’s Website

 

Technology Is Not Destroying Art, But Improving It

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Two weeks ago, I attended a poetry reading for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. Every evening during Piccolo Spoleto, the audience gathers in the grandiose courtyard of the Dock Street Theatre, and a poet reads for an hour. Cue golf clap.
On Friday night, the poet was an older gentleman with several publications under his belt. He was the founding editor of a prestigious literary magazine and well-respected teacher. During one of his poems, he mentioned the tussle of two lively squirrels—how transcendent a moment for him, to glimpse in this seemingly insignificant happening the exalted impetus for a poem. The poem took place at a college, where the students walked by oblivious to the natural wonders of the world, realities they could not fathom. Like squirrels! And why did the students fail to see the miracle that was the poem-squirrel-God?
They were too busy staring into cell phone screens.
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This revelation earned the poet a chuckle from the crowd. Cue golf clap.
Later, the poet read a piece about sighting seagulls through a coffee shop window, his fellow youthful patrons too absorbed in laptops.
I do not wish to disparage the need to appreciate nature or the beauty of contemplating and relishing moments of self-awareness. But comments like those the poet made compose a false dichotomy: if someone uses technology, they must be dull and uninteresting, unable to engage fully in the world. These young people, the elder generations seem to posit, don’t know how to pay attention. Furthermore, we apparently don’t write poems about real life—which according to the Dock Street Poet included squirrels and seagulls.
It is perhaps unbelievable that the students might do something worthwhile with their technology, their “toys” as the poet disparaged them. Toys? Do you mean the sparkling miracles in our pockets, our portals to unfathomable resources, these infinite encyclopedias detailing the cumulative knowledge of the human species?
The Dock Street Theatre is perhaps a fitting venue for the confrontation of old and new—after serving for several years as tenement housing for poor black Charlestonians, the theatre suffered through a fire and the city rebuilt the building as an architectural testament to Old Charleston. The space is a call-back to the white-washed glory of the Antebellum South, the wealth and class of Charlestonians pre-Civil War.
The condemnation of technology use among Millennials poses an unfair limitation on the personal and intellectual growth of an entire generation of artists. Perhaps the young’ins in the coffee shop were not ignoring seagulls but writing poems. Perhaps weaving the code for algorithms that will employ Artificial Intelligence to write poems in a manner humans cannot yet comprehend. Or perhaps they were plugging away at freelance jobs to complement their insufficient income in an economy the older generations corrupted. Perhaps they are making art.
While there exist cogent arguments for limiting one’s reliance on technology, the blanket bah-hum-bugging of advanced tools of civilization is a lazy criticism. It is an easy laugh. Or perhaps an uneasy laugh, as the realization arises among older people that they are being left behind.
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We have embraced new means of communication, new modes of understanding the world, and the evolution of that relationship between a device and a human will only accelerate. Already we have witnessed a revolution in music production, and poetry too will draw healthily from the available technological resources. These devices—apps on our phones and access to information and social media—become fresh tools in the composition of art. Like a pencil, our cell phones become a new way to access poetry.
Perhaps one of the students is reading a poem on the screen as they walk to class, a poem about two squirrels.

The Strange Pleasure of Destroying Paperbacks

It was a pleasure to burn.
The first line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 lingered above my head, a dust cloud of self-conscious parody, as I ripped a paperback Debbie Macomber romance in half. I dropped the halves of the destroyed book into a plastic tub and reached for another. Like a papery slurp, a satisfying sound, the tearing.
Six months ago, I was still working at a used bookstore in North Charleston, where we exchanged used books for store credit. Part of the job entailed pricing these books. We referred to laminated charts on the wall and adhered the correct stickers to the covers’ lower right corners. At first, I struggled to apply the sticker correctly, the small rectangle slanting askew when I punched the book with a price-sticker gun. If the books were in poor condition, if their spines were too bent, covers too worn, or pages ripped, we destroyed the books.
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When I first began working the job, the task inspired goosebumps. Seemed a sacrilege, maybe a crime. To destroy a book. The book as an object had long been a holy thing—I refused to throw away or donate books, my bookshelves double-stacked and overstuffed.
I tried to do it gently, the stitching in the book’s spine popping like muscled sinew, and this seemed like a too-slow torture. After a week, two weeks, I performed the role with glee. Sometimes I clutched both covers in two hands and tore the book completely in half, its innards fluttering into the plastic tub graveyard. We hardly ever gave this treatment to new or rare books, anything that could still be sold. But for a redundant romance novella, a Christmas one-off murder mystery, or a copy of Twilight (of which we had dozens, hundreds maybe), for these books came the tearing. This process made sense too because we often had too many books on our shelves and each day we performed the minor Sisyphean task of pricing and shelving new books. Hundreds arrived each day.
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It was difficult too not to feel an inkling of envy. How did these brainless books sell so well? How did they even get published? I waited until I had worked at the bookstore for three months before letting on that I too was a new author and I had a fresh book out. I was minted a real writer. I had waited because I was aware at how egotistical it sounded to announce so soon after meeting someone, “Oh, I’ve published a book.” Especially to English majors struggling to publish their own work.  But in the months after the first book’s release, I began feeling less and less like a real writer.
I had just returned, upon starting the job, from the biggest book festival I had ever attended in Decatur, Georgia, where I met several famous authors and gave a short reading and talk about my own book. I maybe sold two books that weekend and sat down to speak with my publisher about my failure to actually market the book. It came out the Spring of my senior year of college, and soon after I graduated, I dived into the messy world of food and beverage. The high of being a newly-minted real writer didn’t last long.
So of course I harbored some small meanness toward the plot-less romance novels, the bestsellers crammed with butchered sentences, and pop fiction flying off the shelves. My only revenge to maim the physical objects, proof of human hubris undone. How could anyone expect to create anything meaningful, write anything lasting, if one day it might end up bruised and un-sellable if one day I might be tearing it in half, partially mourning and partially celebrating the book’s demise?
I applied for the job at the bookstore to learn how the business, the real day-to-day 13047849_638515372962394_4552141268791718011_obusiness, of books happened. I learned that bookstore employees suggest books only because they love them. I learned that the business of selling books had more to do with practicality than any lofty ideal of selling literature.
But I knew also that it was a magical moment, when a customer approached the register with a book I loved. One I might gush about, enthusiasm spilling between us. The books were cheap too. Most were less than three dollars. And for that amount, I might send someone home with a small miracle.
[You can find copies of Derek Berry’s first novel Heathens and Liars on Lickskillet County on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and PRA Publishing].

A Year Ago, I Published A Novel About White Supremacists, I Never Imagined What Is Happening Now

    The flag blocks the view for other drivers, an obstruction to traffic. The truck too seems too large for Charleston’s streets. They are heading downtown to join the Confederate Day of Flagging. A few weeks ago, the South Carolina Secessionist Party organized a “flagging” of Charleston during the Southeastern Wildlife Expo and parked this same truck atop a garage overlooking Marion Square. The flag drew the ire of local activists, and by the day’s end, the city of Charleston had released a statement disallowing flags or banners of any kind in parking garages. But groups like these were not stupid, not as stupid or clueless as I once believed. Before they drew attention for their stunt at Marion Square, they had spent the past few years posting men on the corner of Battery Park in south Charleston, and there they took turns carrying the flag. I used to work downtown in a restaurant and would see them every Saturday morning when parking my car along the Battery. They were still here, still dedicated to their cause. Years ago, when writing my first book, I interviewed several people like this. I wanted to know why people still fetishized the Confederate flag, while disavowing their connections to white supremacy.

    We’re not racists, they said, we just don’t like how things are going.

    And how are things going? I had asked in my initial interviews.

    The answers were often the same. The president was black. Mexicans were taking all the jobs. Muslims were infiltrating the US government, and they were always planning an attack. No, not New York. Here, and here! In Jackson, Orangeburg, Sparturnburg. They would blow up the water tower, the local factory, the beach boardwalk.

    I pressed these people, didn’t they think these views were racist?

    No, not racist, not them. They were, in their words, only pragmetists.

    I wonder if I spoke with the same people today if they would bother brushing off that title of “racist,” or more suitably “white supremacist.” I wonder if the Confederate flaggers, their trucks too big for Charleston roads, their stars-and-stripes banners blocking traffic, fluttering in the breeze as the truck presses forward, a mechanical roar escaping its hood, if they identified as “white supremacists?”

    When the hate crimes began, which are– maybe we agree– more heinous than the Confederate flagging, we asked ourselves, “But where did these people come from?” Were they not living in the woods somewhere, toothless hicks? How did they move from white-sheets meeting to Facebook groups? How did they gain such prominence and why have we been sitting around waiting for it to just stop, as if it will “just stop?”

    The problem, I think, is we fundamentally misunderstand what white supremacists look like, who they are, and how they are radicalized. In fact, I published a book in February 2016 that absolutely mischaracterized white supremacists, and one year later, after re-reading the book I wrote in high school, I am rethinking how to approach this concept.

But in writing about these people at all, had I somehow given them a platform? Does the desire to “understand” what makes them tick normalize their beliefs? Writing a novel, after all, is almost always an act in empathy. In order to write about these characters, I had to empathize. I had to think hard about what they cared about and how that motivated them. I assumed they cared most about family, that misplaced fear of immigrants and other races somehow fueled these people? Of course, these are underlying motives, but in construing them thus, I painted them as passive actors in a system they could not control rather than humans with agency and choices. White supremacy, especially the organizational variety, is not an ideology ones falls into. It is a choice, is it not? Or at the very least, conscious decisions play a crucial role in the person’s construction of the self.

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    In early 2016, we were still arguing about Hillary Clinton accepting $675K to speak at Goldman Sachs; progressives named Bernie Sanders’ candidacy as a “dangerous moment,” fearing the rise of social-democratic programs like free college tuition and universal healthcare. These were simpler times, when Donald Trump’s presidential campaign amounted to an amusing circus-like sideshow and white supremacists were visible only on society’s fringes. In fact, Ted Cruz had just beaten out Trump at the Iowa caucus, and liberals everywhere were scoffing at the absolutely bombastic notion that someone as unqualified and self-centered as Trump might ascend to the presidency. This was the world as-is when the book came out, and even then I still spoke– in lectures, readings, and Q&A’s– about how to construe white supremacy.

The reality, of course, is that the project of white supremacy permeates every aspect of our lives: public schools punish young African American students in a manner that funnels them into the prison-industrial system, job markets still favor white employees despite what affirmative-action naysayers might suggest, and the beauty and art industries continue to uphold whiteness as a standard. I was, of course, aware of the greater spectre of white supremacy, but I had been writing about a more visible and visceral racism– not the kind that is systematic and pervasive, but rather the human-embodied variety. In my first book, white supremacists wore white hoods; they feared the rise of immigrants; they manufactured and distributed meth from their trailer park homes; they committed hate crimes. This brand of racism I viewed as marginal, a vestige of Jim Crow era Confederate-loving Southerners still lurking in the backwoods. But I was wrong, because they were not some peripheral population. They were America.

In order to better understand how the visibility and saturation of white supremacy groups have evolved in the past few years, allow me to explain some details about my book, why I wrote it, and how I understood racism at the time of its writing.

In Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, published by PRA Publishing in 2016, a corporate lawyer and his son move to the mid-sized town of Lickskillet, so that the lawyer might defend a man accused of lynching the black ex-mayor. The novel is a satire about race, southern tradition, and backwoods upbringing, featuring a broad cast of characters who include drug-addled idiot savants, half-black soccer players, a trailer park genius, an ultra-rich sadist, a self-conscious granddaughter of a rock music mogul, and a boy who pretends to be someone new in each city he visits.

As the book evolved, I brought in new elements. I have a bad habit, even now, of weaving new narratives into already existing ones– a tendency I adopted from the post-modernist forms of fiction I read throughout my late youth. I began writing the book when I was sixteen years old, after a few years writing manuscripts set in exotic locations. I wanted to write about the South, with a capital ‘S,’ and because I had met the sons and daughters of white supremacists in my high school years, these characters became an integral part of the book’s plot. In the book, the group is named The Knights of Southern Heritage, and their main creed is to preserve the family-oriented, Christian values of the American South.

Family-oriented. Christian. Traditional. Alone, these words might seem innocuous, but they are the subtle signifiers of white supremacy. By promising to uphold family values, white supremacist groups do not mean to preserve families and contribute to education policies and fund agencies aiding single mothers; no, they mean they stand against LGBT rights. The phrase “Christian rights” too seems positive, but these groups are not seeking religious freedom for themselves but rather religious suppression for others. “Religious freedom” for these groups means the liberty to impose their religious will on others who might not share their beliefs. Harkening back to “traditional” values too is a vague precept– what is meant by traditional? Perhaps the nostalgic good-heartedness found in Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show? Sadly, no. Traditional here is coded to mean “white” or “controlled by whites.” By evoking seemingly empty phrases, white supremacist groups may fly under the radar; they may defend their actions as justifiable by cloaking them in euphemistic language.

I made a lot of mistakes in writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, and the biggest mistake was painting white supremacists as marginalized people. They were poor, white, desperate. By the book’s end, I made a point of [spoiler] revealing that it had been a member of the elite rich who had murdered the black mayor, not the racist hick who had been first accused. What point had I hoped to make? That just because a man was racist, he might not be guilty of a hate crime? Sure, that’s fine, but it misses a bigger point, one I outlined earlier– white supremacy does not rely just on the individual actions of racist people, but rather the collective passivity of an entire white community.

I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County in 2010, and it was not published until 2016. In the time between writing the book and its publication, police and citizen brutality against black Americans had become a national talking point. Trayvon Martin had been murdered for walking through the wrong neighborhood. Eric Garner had been choked to death for selling cigarettes. In the year leading up to its publication, I lived in Germany; back home in Charleston, a police officer shot Walter Scott in the back and then planted a taser on his boy. A white supremacist, fueled by an online community, walked into a the Emmanuel AME Church one block from where I had lived and took nine lives. And all this time my ideas about white supremacy, about what constituted racism and its prevalence, shifted dramatically.

Because when I tell people today my book references a lynching, no one bats an eye. It is the opposite of shocking; it is expected. In fact, I was tremendously worried talking about the book because it inadvertently exploited black death in a way I had never before considered. In writing what was essentially a satire, I had resurrected the ghost of black trauma, the ghost of black death, the ghost in a white sheet. Not only does white supremacy operate as a systematic oppressive force in American society today, it operates also as a proactive force.

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Last week, gravestones at an upstate New York Jewish cemetery were vandalized (likely by white supremacist groups). Two days ago in Kansas, an Indian man was shot dead by a white man who believed him to be Iranian. Today in South Carolina, another Indian man was shot outside of his home. Hate crimes have been steadily on the rise since November, and while it is popular to link this rise with Trump’s presidency, the acceleration of hate crimes has been ongoing before Trump came onto the scene. What his rhetoric enabled, however, is the normalization of hate.

The Internet– that wonderful utopia and dystopia– is a source well for much of this hate. Log on to any news article related to race-related crimes or immigration, and you will see the outpouring of hateful rhetoric. What language before belonged only in the mouths of white supremacists– condemnation of migrants as inherent criminals, arguments blaming the black community for the terror facing it, blanket-statements concerning Muslim members of the country as universally linked to terrorist organizations. Recall the comments made concerning protesters blocking highways, calls to run them over. People who we might have viewed before as perfectly normal are now calling for the state-sanctioned murder of those who protest the status quo.

Furthermore, white supremacy has evolved, has worn new masks. Consider, for example, the vitriolic spewing of Milo Yiannopoulos or the neo-Nazi rhetoric of Richard Spencer; these men affix a modern varnish to a stale ideology. White supremacists are not simply handing out pamphlets in neighborhoods any more; they are making memes on the Internet. They are organizing via social media, using the same tools used by those who coordinated the Arab Spring. They are both grassroots and high-tech; they are not just hicks. They are web-savvy and able to spin their own narrative into one about free speech, not about the actual ideas they are trying to spread.

The level of intellectual hoop-jumping one must initiate is mind-blowing: even liberals are defending white supremacists in the vein of “protecting free speech,” when that really means “paying them money and giving them a platform to disseminate their racist notions.”

I finished writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County when I was eighteen years old, and little changed after that draft. Some scenes changed, of course, while I worked with the publishing company’s editor, and even more changed on a sentence-level. But after 2012, very little content in the book changed. It is a portrait almost of a young white psyche, blind to the vicious and infectious strain of hate spreading through the United States. And white supremacy is not a splinter ideology worthy of satire; it is a growing political reality worthy of extreme consternation.  

In 2016, no longer were white supremacists hiding in the “backwoods” or living in trailers. In 2017, this is even more true. In fact, they are living in The White House.

 

How to Forgive Yourself [For Not Writing]

Arrives around midnight, an itch on the inside of the skull. A nag– a voice of a friend or professor, perhaps editor if you’re lucky. “You should be writing.”

So you drag your sorry corpse from the sheets and sit before a blank screen, fingers poised. Wait, you need to drink something, not anything too caffeinated. You still must work tomorrow, the “real work,” whatever that means; you feel less as if you’re producing anything there than spinning your wheels, making enough money to rent an apartment where you may write. Where you may store the books you buy and never read, neglected friends forlorn on the shelf. But of course it is past midnight, and the story or the novel or the poem remains unfinished. An aching empty, a white space suggesting brilliance but yielding nothing.

David Foster Wallace once said, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in…it’s actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” (Wallace interview here)

You worry about what it really is. Just words, your words even. A sad attempt at magic. You keep pulling rabbits from the hat, but they come out limp, dead. You envy the authors who make these tricks appear so easy, how they talk of their work as something natural. In their wizard presence, you’re a squib. But Ira Glass said something very similar about this terrible self-expectation.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass

This sort of thinking lends me hope. When I was a younger, I was too stupid to question the validity of my work: of course I was a writer, destined to be a writer. I wrote a novel every year since the age of eleven, and while writing each manuscript, I never doubted it would be published. Now that I have my first novel published and some poems in journals, I am immobilized by the fear of not being good enough. My expectations for myself have drastically changed because I have the ability to perceive the gap between where I am and where I wish to be.

Sometimes the excuses come easy. I worked five months as a busboy in a fine dining restaurant following college graduation. I worked more than forty hours a week, often returning home exhausted. I would sit at the bottom of the shower, rubbing lotion on my calloused feet at one in the morning after working sixteen hour shifts, then wake up early again for another double. While I imagined this fast-pace life might have conjured stories, I became bloated with self-doubt. I didn’t write. I began and halted a few pieces. I gave up all summer revising my second novel, its direction unknown, the genre flip-flopping between magic realism and literary drama. I spent my days off in the library, typing at a school computer. I wrote first drafts for six or seven different stories over the summer, but still I could not forgive myself for not pushing myself further. After all, I had only become a busboy to create free time to write, to produce a schedule that would give me mornings to myself. And yet I found myself so often sleeping in, shirking all responsibilities.

When I quit being a busboy and began instead working at a used bookstore, I still didn’t use the free time wisely. Unlike in a typical job or even while at college, there were no concrete deadlines dangling over my head. It feels awful to be unable to recapture the productivity I embodied as a teenager or while I was in university; but I am learning too to forgive myself.

I am reading again. Mostly short stories. Returning to stories that shocked or changed me, stories that dug under my skin and remained with me. I sought out novels that had done the same. I have been spending entire afternoons on the Edge of America at Folly Beach, reading poems aloud to the Morris Island Lighthouse. I have spent entire days discovering discographies of jazz musicians to whom I’ve never before listened. I am unwrapping the world, and I can’t get it all down. Not all at once.

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But I’m still trying. I have found a good new direction for revising my second novel and needed time away from it to figure out what to do. I am piecing together a poetry collection, which my publisher is currently reviewing. And I’m writing. Not always something I consider good or brilliant. I close my eyes and conjure something incredible in my head that never translates to the page. But I forgive myself for what I could not do, for what I could not write when I could not write. I forgive myself for waking late and sitting too long before blank pages before going to wash the dishes. Because it comes in the middle of the night.

I climb out of bed, something bouncing in the back of my skull. Insistent. An idea. A notion of where to take the story next. I sit down, and I write.

Review for Street Performer Playing a Broken Violin

At first, I found his rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In” endearing, until I heard the same rendition, scratched out-of-tune against the violin’s abused strings, for the sixth time. He stands on the corner of Wentworth and King, battered case lying at his feet. I, of course, have witnessed street performances from around the world—the immigrant’s trumpet bellows in a walking tunnel in Tuebingen, the one-arm man’s accordion finesse in the city square of Krakow, the instrument-less lament of a Cuban opera singer at Havana’s rum-washed Malecon—and the man in Charleston, SC is not up to snuff.His repertoire is obviously lacking: he shifts between Charlie Brown and other pop standards before reverting back inevitably to “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

Although performing these songs on a broken violin seemed at first avant garde, a stab to establish an atonal surprise for the passerby listeners– the venue itself being remarkably fresh, music that takes place away from the hallowed concert hall. But I conclude that the man simply does not know how to tune his violin nor does he care that the instrument is missing its A-string.

Overall, three out of five stars.

“Banging at the Gates of American Literature”: I’m an Idiot, But Please Take Me Seriously

On Monday I wrote an essay about writing and acted as if I knew what I was doing. I don’t. But I wrote a book. That’s the good news. I wrote a book, but I’m not sure that necessarily means I know anything about writing books. Maybe ask me after the sixth book comes out. Maybe ask me in ten years, and I’ll have adopted a more seraphic ability to disperse writerly wisdom. Until then, I’m an idiot. I’m a very serious idiot who takes writing very seriously, if not many other things in life.

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Imagine I’m the proverbial monkey at the typewriter, and I’ve written enough that something I’ve written is rather good. Perhaps this is an accident, perhaps not. If you do anything for long enough, you get good at it. That’s old wisdom, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I would not know. I’m an idiot who got really lucky.

This afternoon (morning in my mind) I sat in my fiction writing professor’s office and listened to his criticisms of a new story I gave over to him. Too long, he said– he compared the plot to a dog escaping the yard and running into traffic. Keep the dog in the yard, he advised. And then he asked me to cut the story (over 8,000 words) almost in half (he is allowing me only 5,000 words). I nod, I nod. I am in this moment terribly inadequate at expressing what I want to say about the story. Or mention what the story’s about.

On paper, I can write sentences clean as a disinterred dinosaur bone. But I open my mouth, and the slugs of incomprehensible babble spill forth.

What I mean to say is this: I am a writer, but that does not necessarily mean I’m someone worth listening to. I’ve got a few stories to tell, and I hope you think they’re good. God, please like me. Please, just give me a chance.

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People keep asking, “Hey Derek, how do you feel now that the book is coming out?”

“It’s terrifying,” I tell them.

Of course I’m excited, practically electric with anticipation. But also I am struck with the terror that other people will finally read my work. And no, I cannot take back and book and rewrite it. I cannot, as I did this morning the office of my fiction writing professor, get back the story with comments. It’s done, cement, finito.

But no worries. I am proud of what I’ve produced. I’ve put several years of thought into the book. It reminds me of this idea I’ve been playing with lately. Whenever I speak to creative people, particularly those educated in universities, they tend to look upon “normal people” as boring. As robots pressing on and on, shackled by their pointless labor. These people are un-human, incapable of the higher thought available to those set free by the creative spirit. And that, to me, is such a stupid thought. So I claim not to be an intellectual, not to be interesting at the sake of others. I am an idiot. Just like you. We’re in this together, this trying to be better, this learning to be human. Our communal idiocy in the pursuit of meaning gives our lives meaning.

I think we too often dismiss the possibility that the inner lives of strangers are as fascinating and multi-faceted as our own. Often, I fall into the trap when writing of assuming that readers won’t get it. But I get it, and I’m an idiot! So please take me seriously. The plea falls from my mouth, limp and strange, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Richard Brautigan once wrote a story called ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ about three idiots attempting to write a shoddy novel. The last lines remain with me because they remind artists of the silly truth. And the silly truth is that no one cares what we do. I don’t mean that as a criticism, necessarily. I mean that the writer, the artist, the sculptor, he or she must care very deeply for the art he or she makes. Brautigan’s story ends like this…

 

“Howdi ther Rins said Maybell blushed like a flower flouar while we were all sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.”

 

And that’s what I’m doing, who I am. Another idiot, drunk on words and muse-juice, “pounding at the gates of American literature.”

Unsettling the Narrative of “The South”

“In the South everybody’s got a story, a long, elaborate, rambling, subordinate-clause-filled, bullsh–it-laced, possibly even entirely made-up story.”

—Diane Roberts, quoted in book review by Jay Watson in The Southern Register, Fall 2009

“Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?”

—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”

—Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South,” St. Petersburg Times, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Welcome

Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river on a raft. After Jim and Huck narrowly escaping slave-catchers, the raft runs up against a sturdy steamship, which cast Jim and Huck into the wild river. Somewhere northeast in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor sweeps through her front lawn and directs a flock of peacocks. Vibrantly colored, their feathers fan out like graceful spokes. South of her peacock sanctuary, a barn burns in Yoknapatawpha County. The history of southern writing is one of strange stories populated by ghosts and off-kilter characters. When one sets out to write a novel one considers “southern,” as I did when I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, the writer hopes to unsettle the narrative of the south.

Two interesting cliches emerge when I discuss The South (as a concept and place) with writers who did not grow up here. The first is the romantic view of The South borne of Antebellum dream: plantations lush with magnolia trees drip with beauty and Spanish moss. Somewhere down the road, a simple man plays a simple song on a homemade banjo as he sits on the front porch of a wooden shack he built with his own two hands. This version of The South is a quiet and wondrous place in which the potholes of the racist and violent past have been paved over. Sometimes southerners too conjure this vision of The South, though not everyone is self-deluded about the flaws of this place. Flaws flood unbidden the second popular fantasy of the non-southerner’s South: in this South, every person is a toothless hillbilly carrying sawed-off shotguns, driving too-big trucks, and fulfilling redneck cliches. In the second cliche of the South, houses fall into disrepair, tractors stampede through downtown, and cow-tipping offers the pinnacle of entertainment for any bored teenager.

Neither of these visions of The South prove true, which is why those who do not live in The South tend not to write about it. To them, it is a boring landscape of stereotypes. But read Faulkner. Read O’Connor. Read Toni Morrison. Read Twain. Read Pat Conroy. You will learn The South is a stranger landscape than it seems, a place that demands to be both criticized and celebrated.

When I set out to write Lickskillet, I wanted to write a “southern” story but rather than rely on the southern tropes of the past, I sought to draw from my own life. I grew up in the suburbs. Mundane hatred outweighed intentional racism. The neighborhood Bi-Lo parking lot offered a sanctuary for chainsmokers. The woods brimmed with promise of bonfire parties that never quite materialized. We lived lives informed mainly by imagination. Although violence became a footnote in personal and family history, rarely did these events occur in the light of day. Instead, everything is hidden.

Perhaps for this reason I chose to set my first novel in a fictional town, in which the dirty aspects of the town’s history could be contextualized as unreal. I don’t wish to tread on too many toes, though maybe that’s an unwise anxiety. One runs the risk, when writing anything incepted by personal experience and observation, of revealing too much. These days I live in Charleston, SC, a city made well-known in recent months due to the racist and horrendous actions that have taken place here. And this, I think, is an important consideration: in the same city as horror may appear, so may hope. So may love and family persist. Secrets litter Charleston like cigarette butts: the Starbucks across the road from College of Charleston was once the place where the gallows stood, the school library is built atop a graveyard of free blacks, and the charming downtown Market is referred to often as the Old Slave Market. Here the present interacts brutally with the past. Ghosts linger on every street corner.

In the second chapter of Lickskillet, a character named Aron King recounts a well-known local ghost story and laments that younger kids no longer carry on the tradition of sneaking into the so-called haunted house. According to lore, a rich Yankee recluse locked his mad wife in the attack until she eventually plotted his death– the details of where the authorities found his decapitated head, however, have been muddled by multiple re-tellings. In this geographical space, stories determine identity as strongly as do personality traits. Each character is haunted by the history of the space they inhabit. During this particular chapter, Aron develops a sense that the ghosts of his hometown have become irrelevant. Even the glorified past, often gilded in southern literature, is now falling apart; quite literally, the house is crumbling. Each time Aron and his friend Blaine return to the house and climb to the attic, their ritual smoking spot, the floorboards threaten to buckle. Always, disaster and darkness resides just off-stage.

Lickskillet

If I were to attempt to describe Lickskillet in terms of genre, I would say Gothic Southern meets Young Adult Tragicomedy. I want an element of strangeness to rule the page and illuminate the lives of characters as they navigate their blooming lives. Each character is a teenager, young and eager to escape the dull town of Lickskillet, and yet they are still connected to the town’s irreparably southern past. One finds this strangeness in specificity: the peanuts floating in the Coke bottle, the kaolin sprayed on truck tires, the pop and sizzle of chicken frying, and the peculiar existence of characters who seem to belong nowhere else but here.

By here, I mean of course The South. The real South, a pulsing and writhing and alive culture. Southern stories carry a burden of unreality, the truth unfolding like some impossible origami. No human stands far from madness. No floor does not threaten to buckle. Illusions waver under the weight of old age. Haunted houses don’t stay standing; they burn down. Traditions do not remain constant; they slip and alter and grow anew. In these vulnerable moments, one may observe the center of strangeness to southern living.

I hope I have balanced the celebration and critique of The South, that I have struck some vein of truth in the stories that weave through Lickskillet. The place comes alive in my mind each time I revisit the novel, the town itself as significant a character as any of the people who live there.

Paid for by New Citizen Welcome Committee

I want my stories to hurt like a sweet tea toothache. Remember, they demand of the reader. Taste the blood-soaked dirt. Stick your face in it. And then sit on a porch at night in South Carolina and whistle in tune to crickets.

The Body Is Where We Live: On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms

The following essay was written as part of a larger art exhibit curated by Roberto Jones called “The Contemporary Form,” which explored androgyny as a contemporary social and artistic concept. I provided the following essay as a plea to explore gendered expressions as not simply a political or artistic curiosity but rather a survival mechanism.

The Body Is Where We Live:

On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms

A Short Essay

By Derek Berry

 

Gendered language is the sarcophagus but not the corpse within. You can

claw your way out of the coffin, sure, but how to escape the body? You live there,

every experience, every moment, every love, every thought filtered through the

reality of existing in that corporeal being, one you cannot escape except through

sleep or orgasm or suicide. Even dead, you cannot escape the tongues of

others—those who will name you boy or girl when you only ever named yourself

God or fairy or Leelah Acorn.  The catch, that skin stretches around our

bones, a flesh-prison. A strange virtual reality video game, in which we sit rattling in

the consoles of our skulls, controlling human-shaped vehicles. In these vehicles, we

collide and crash and zip and brake—we live our entire lives within bodies. We do

not even understand what it means to live beyond the body, whether death be a

coda or refrain. So we have these: we own bodies, though several own the language

that describe our bodies. How can we own a name that does not belong to us, one

our tongues have never learned to properly speak? How can we own a body so

inscribed with meaning we did not choose, a library of misinterpretations that

mangle bones, that fertilize graves, and that trap us with organs, with body hair,

with blood. We do not properly understand the physical effects of gender, that these

transgressions do not only happen in discourse or in the classroom or in some

theory-ruled vacuum but rather on the body, in the body, to the body. Always the

body is the final secret exhumed, the final consideration behind the name on the

headstone or taste of the dirt. This is a cemetery we continue to dig.

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The Process of Writing Fiction Is Actually Just Describing Tiny Moments and Then Some More Tiny Moments

After a first draft, written in a fever of creative spirit, I begin to finally ask myself what the story is actually about. From writing, I learn what I actually intend to write about. Because of this, the final draft of a story appears very little like the first draft. Now and then, a singular phrase or description will remain, a simple description or inspired aphorism. I record everything that happens in a matter-of-a-fact way, first with the entire story and then scene by scene.

If Character A steps through the door, Character B must first open the door. Will Character B gesture or embrace Character A? What does this say about their relationship? Will Character B walk inside, or will Character A lead them further into the house? Will Character A offer a drink, a snack? What kind of niceties would be exchanged and how would they interact, given their personalities? Where would Character B sit? On the sofa, chair, on the floor maybe? Would Character B sit at all? Would they look at Character A as they talked or at the floor? Would they study the new environment? If I’m writing from Character A’s POV, should I describe the room? Or should I…

On goes the process. I ask myself every inane question possible, sketch out each movement and gesture in a massive narrative architecture. On one hand, I wish for the story to flow smoothly, to make sense. Most of the “work” of writing involves writing small moments. Someone blows their nose. Someone places their thumb in a book to keep their place. Someone unlocks a bike from a street post. Someone cracks their knuckles. Each movement translates an emotion, the vocabulary of theatrical gestures offering context to lines of dialogue. Each movement is calculated and makes anatomical sense, at least to the best of my abilities. I recall a particular critique from a fiction writing professor about a story I wrote, which involved a window. Several times in the story, an elderly and yet stalwart woman climbs in and out of a window, and throughout the story, the window changes heights. At times, she struggles to enter the window and later on she leaps out the window and lands below without any trouble. Because I had not paid enough attention to little moments, I created a tiny seam in the narrative, a warp in the vision. The tenuous dream film reel projected on the reader’s skull tweaks out, and the audience is temporarily thrown into darkness. And when that happens, the film or story is partly ruined. One remembers that one is consuming a story rather than living inside the story.

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That’s half the story, the technical step-by-step process it takes to compose a scene. During the first draft comes a different sort of work, the creative part of the writing. The writer must also create new worlds, even if the places technically exist in real life (I don’t actually write fantasy). Because the reader must live within the dream. And often dreams have moments of absolute presence, of epiphany. And in the creative frenzy of the first draft, often these moments arrive.

Between the gestures and the conversation, the step-here and step-there, the said and the sighed, come moments of un-reality. Only within the context of a complete dream, a stable narrative architecture, may these moments appear as something other than trite, but rather something perfectly human.

I spend a lot of time searching for a particular moment– an ethereal moment that transcends the literal and the literary, something that lifts the reader into the air. Like when you’re on a rollercoaster at the top of the hill, and you’re not sure you’re then until you plummet. Like that. I want to capture moments of brilliant presence, when the character has become human and the words on a dead tree have become vision. The moment’s hanging there, waiting to crumble, but right now this moment is perfect, a floating light above a lake. Maybe something no one’s ever seen before.

But it’s recognizable. We become comfortable in the world the writer builds, a living hallucination that derives from looking at marks of ink on paper. And here, in these human moments, we live.