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Review: “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities,” by Chen Chen

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“Why can’t you see me? Why can’t I stop needing you to see me?” Chen Chen asks in “Nature Poem” in the third portion of his 2017 debut poetry collection. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is both a demand to be seen & an exercise in imagination. His poems range from playfully political to severely surreal. Woven with philosophical undertones, both embracing them & turning them inside out, Chen Chen explores what it means to be human, what it means to be alone in the world, in one’s body, in a room where the quiet outweighs silence.download (7)

Present in the midst of playfulness is a responsibility to his intersecting identities: that of an immigrant, that of a Chinese-American, that of a poet, that of a queer man, that of a descendant of wordsmiths & thinkers. In his poem “Talented Human Beings,” Chen Chen laments the disparity of grief between Asian persons & their American counterparts, recounting how he vowed to only to masturbate to a Japanese porn actor Koh Masaki, although he “felt conflicted, listening to relatives in China/ lament the popularity of Japanese cars. But Chinese porn wasn’t as good.” These concerns return for Chen Chen as a need to not only be seen in death but also in life, combating the ignorance of westerns about the lives of anyone not a next-door neighbor, anyone not white & rich. Chen Chen seeks to stoke both care & anger in the face of these tragedies, mourning how western philosophy “keeps your rage room temperature.”

But Chen Chen too is a sponsor of joy. In so many scenes, Chen Chen explores with childlike wonder how happiness might blossom, as in when he and his boyfriend visit the leaky faucet factory on a date, an image I cannot describe any other way than fun.  Because for all their intellectual and linguistic turns, for all their political & cultural investigations, Chen Chen’s poems are fun, joyful even when tinged with sorrow. He speaks of the strange comfort of losing oneself in a good book & the sad plight of the not-as-famous-as-its-cousin-the-llama guanacos he glimpses in the zoo, and whether Chen Chen is penning an elegy or ode, there are always more ways to be together than to be lonely.

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Chen Chen hopes, through both love and religion, through grief and family, that there might exist still in this world magic. “Believe the facts could be/ at least a little wrong. Please, something. Some/ magic, real as as this ripe life with him.”

You can find the book on Amazon here.

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Review– “Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill”

 

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It is rare for a book of poems to explore well not only historical eras but also the lives of past people, especially those neglected by formal history, and yet Kimberly J. Simms accomplishes this historic excavation in her first collection Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill. Simms weaves South Carolina history of mill workers in the late nineteenth century, both personal and journalistic in detail, and spins their lives into stories. The story of mill workers in the South is often forgotten, blotted out by the shadow of the agricultural South in historical narratives, and yet in this book Simms makes a case for the necessity of these stories through a juxtaposition of elegiac and celebratory poems. These mill women and children gave birth to early labor movements in the South, providing for poor, white women an early entrance into fields of labor not shared by their Northern counterparts until many decades later.

She focuses on the lives of children, with “lungs full of lint/calloused soles black with machine oil,” forced by familial poverty to work in the mills. Despite their hardships, they remain children, curious and searching for glints of innocent joy in the clouds of cotton dust. If one listens to these poems, one might hear flashes of song between the mechanical churn of ginning machines. There remain winks of wonder in the midst of the mundane, the workers at the mill holding fast to kindness and community. Simms writes, “Charity starts with a twang in the heart.”

Her poems, however, do not ignore the cruel aspect of mill life. In focusing on the fictional character of Lindy Lee, a young girl working in the mill, Simms explores how workplace politics, the selfishness of supervisors, the despotic power of mill owners combine to mold a life of misery for individuals with little power. The machinery of not only place but also society work together to strip Lindy Lee of her agency.

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Ultimately, this story is one of survival, not glamorous, but instead a product of a series of steps toward a better life. “I want to dance lint-less,” wishes the speaker of one poem, finding escape in cinema. Whether the speakers of these poems describe flooding in middle Saluda, a familiar problem to contemporary readers, or the drudgery of daily mill work, Simms sings songs in which every life is both lament and fanfare. And the pain of the everyday may be relieved only by the hope of a softer future, a future not coarse as cotton, in which “tomorrow I will take up silk.”

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Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill is available on October 21st and can be pre-ordered here….

http://www.kimberlysimms.com/p/books.html

And you can check out the publisher’s site here…

https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/lindy-lee-songs-on-mill-hill-by-kimberly-simms/

Kimberly Simms is a travelling poet. Will she be visiting your city on her tour? Find out here…

http://www.kimberlysimms.com/p/events.html

 

 

Poet Voice

There’s a voice in my head when I read poems, and she speaks like a rust-wreck gassed up on moonshine. But you can only say something meaningful in the poem if you speak like you’re reciting the side effects of a questionable medicine at the end of a 2am infomercial, only slower. There’s a brick caught in your throat, and the poet sometimes speaks around it, certain to en-nun-see-eight each word. The brick is twined with a message scrawled on a bar napkin, reads, what I’m saying right now is very important.  

The poet is a not a hypnotist, only sounds like it. Perhaps in speaking with the voice, a voice that does not seem to ever belong in anyone’s human mouth, the poet

seeks

authority. The poet talks

in his sleep

to suggest

these words are merely

dream, an imprint

of what sentences

may not say until broken

into

lines.

The Magic of Open Mic Poetry, pt. 2: How We Got Started

19388376_10207397593777879_2251431963726536251_o.jpgI adore open mics & view them as religious experiences. Sometimes, I tell people I’m “going to church” when I’m going to a poetry show. I began attending open mics and poetry slams when I was sixteen years old, but a few years later, after I began living in Charleston and attending college there, I joined forces with another poet to start our very own open mic. These days, we have a robust following and access to a variety of unique venues; often our crowds surpass one-hundred-twenty bodies, and the events have only grown more successful.

In fact, the Charleston Poets team, in conjunction with many other literary groups, are organizing Charleston first ever poetry festival called Free Verse, which will take place in October 12th-17th. But we didn’t become kick-ass organizers overnight. freeverselogo.jpgWe had to first leap through hoops of fire, bound across rivers populated with vicious crocodiles, and climb the Aggro Crag (Aye, Nickelodeon references up in here).

348s.jpgIn November 2013, I arrived at King Dusko in Charleston, SC with palms sweat-slick and voice hoarse from practicing a new poem. My co-host and I arrived an hour early to an empty bar. The venue was bizarre—a large space populated with plush sofas and splintered kitchen chairs, walls decorated in local art works and scribbles of Sharpie graffiti. A small television sat near the entrance, a Nintendo 64 resting at its base. I asked the bartender whether or not they had a microphone, and she laughed. She told me she wasn’t aware there would be an poetry event that evening. My co-host was a years older than me, but still young. I was just nineteen. We hardly knew each other, but would grow to be close friends after we embarked on a new adventure—starting our own poetry open mic series.

10168230_764257590275204_5382170599314782496_nIt is difficult to conjure the details of the early days of The Unspoken Word. It sprung from our heads, like Athena, in the courtyard of a nearby coffee shop. The first few events were strange and under-attended: ten people crammed into the back of King Dusko, sharing work scribbled onto napkins and the backs of class notes. Meanwhile, patrons at the bar loudly discussed sports & break-ups & religion.

Starting our own poetry open mic series was tough. We spent the first month finding a venue, rejected again and again from different bars or cafes. Several had hosted poetry series in the past and viewed them as inherently unprofitable. Who wanted to hang out in a coffee house courtyard while a couple of poetic weirdos recited long untranslatable Latin verse? But we were aiming to bring a new spin to the open mic– we wanted the open mic to be a party, a “happening,” an event that could bridge gaps between strangers.

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We also struggled with building a stable audience. Each week brought a fresh crop of faces– while at one event, an array of punk accapella pieces, the next month a series of slam poet performances. We did not necessarily possesses a steady voice as an organization, which prompted our poetry series to morph, adapt. We became an open space for what poets might want to bring. The secret, then, to creating a consistent audience is to invest both in the poets and the spectators. Some open mic hosts ignore the poets who come speak on their microphone, merely names on the list, but a good host should take time outside of events to get to know the poets who read. This engenders a real community and commitment to the poets’ growth, meaning as the open mic series becomes more established, so too do the poets grow more confident.

Early events included Ode to Hip Hop, Confessions Night, and Rhymes and Lovers. In March 2013, we held their first Holy City Slam at the College of Charleston Stern Center Ballroom.

We noticed something different about their poetry events. These were no polite events, 10954536_925279484173013_1441027269615286283_nat which stifled voices mumbled poetry from behind pages. The poetry was loud and energetic, striking at something alive, pulsing. The hosts encouraged a loose environment, in which shouting out encouragements and snapping one’s fingers were encouraged. We sought to create a democratic space for poetry where readers were confident to share their work—inspiring the motto Leave No Word Unspoken. Here, in this crowded, noisy room full of tipsy artists, poetry became something entirely new—fun!

After seven months,my co-founder AJ Johnson left for Atlanta, GA to pursue his career, 1394475_10200979056822040_461340561_nand Unspoken Word regular Matthew Foley stepped into a leadership role. Foley had been hosting an open mic in West Ashley’s Avondale neighborhood called Poetry Night @ 827. Marcus Amaker, longtime poet-graphic-designer-beat-maker-musician-extraordinaire became more and more involved, collaborating with Unspoken via Charleston Poets. In summer 2014, Unspoken Word regulars and poets from around the city collaborated for the Word Perfect Poetry Show at the Charleston Music Hall.

In 2015, King Dusko closed, prompting The Unspoken Word to move to a new venue. It found two new homes in Elliotborough MiniBar and Pure Theater, where it held open mics and poetry slams respectively. Throughout 2016, The Unspoken Word expanded to various other venues such as Harold’s Cabin and Eclectic Café. Local poets began also to take part in Typewriter Poetry sessions on Saturday mornings at the Charleston Farmer’s Market. Today, the Unspoken Word operates primarily out of Eclectic Café & Vinyl on Spring Street.

Each second Friday of the month, we return because we have built something lasting. We have developed not only a poetry open mic but a true community of wordsmiths who hope, in coming together to speak on the mic, will spin out of our words something new and transcendent, a sort of monthly church at which we can worship.

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The Magic of Open Mic Poetry: Why We Should Support Open Mics, Even When We’ve “Outgrown” Them

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

Go ahead, light a candle. Take the shot of tequila. Or espresso. Strap on the gladiator heels. Slip a notebook into your purse or tote or pocket. Get nervous, maybe, heart-sweaty. Sneak into the restroom and practice in front of the mirror. Rehearse standing still, holding your hands by your side so they will not dance with abandon. Go out and meet the others. Dap and pound and hug and shake hands and kiss cheeks. Greet the poets, the temporary saints of whatever cafe or church or dive bar where you will worship. When there remain spaces to sit, sit. If not, remain standing. Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. This is no place for golf claps or appreciative murmuring, but rather the noise that bodies only ever make in celebration or orgasm.

This is an open mic poetry night in Charleston, South Carolina.

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

There is something holy about sharing oneself on stage. Whether we share our trauma or our joy, our stories or our songs, our blessings or our forgiveness, poetry becomes a burden we share. Every second Friday of the month, I travel back to Charleston, SC to attend Poetry Night at Eclectic Café. Half of those weeks, I take on hosting duties, by now a reflexive role. Step onto stage, start telling a few jokes. Introduce the poets, get out of the way. Sometimes planning open mic nights becomes stressful, especially the search for suitable featured poets who perform in the midpoint of the evening a thirty to forty minute set. Poets, young and old, arrive before seven o’clock, and they—some with extreme trepidation—sign their names onto The List.

What is routine is also in a way a ritual. Although I no longer attend any church or religious institution, I attend open mics with a serious devotion. Sometimes I even jokingly refer to the stage as the pulpit. The poets & musicians, the monologue-practitioners & amateur comedians, they bring with them a special kind of magic that transforms every room into a sanctuary.

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

The venue itself is beautiful—these days we perform at Eclectic Café, a café-restaurant-vinyl store-performance space-hybrid. But the venue has changed countless times throughout the years, and yet the spirit remains the same.

It has always surprised me to hear poets discuss poetry that engages the world as if there exists any other kind of poetry. Some poets scoff at the notion that poetry might be anything other than esoteric, that it might consider politics, culture, race, class, and local issues, and yet these too are worthy of our attention. Perhaps more-so than flowers and the belly-button-gazing self. Open mic poetry typically speaks to the world directly.

But there persists a staunch elitism, especially among academic poets, concerning open mics. They claim that open mic nights inevitably procure mediocre and uncomplicated poetry, and that listening to “bad” poetry is a waste of their time. And yes, after hosting poetry shows for four years, I have certainly listened to my fair share of poorly-written verse, but the point of poetry is not to create some unassailable and unsurmountable

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

body of work. There’s a sense in the broader poetry world that open mics exist only for amateurs, that a professional poet’s words must be read in hallowed halls, in libraries.

Poetry, when read out loud, demands our attention. It demands we take seriously what the poet has to say. Of course there exists beautiful poetry that exists for its own sake—to be beautiful, to be transcendent. But poetry too is a tool of communication. Although I rapaciously consume new books of poetry every month, I understand the majority of the reading public does not actually read poetry.

 

Let me repeat that—the majority of the public that reads generally do not invest time in reading poetry. Which is, I know, a detriment—reading and considering poetry leads one to leave a more rich life. But how should we expect average people to engage with poetry when we keep it in a high tower, when we publish it in obscure literary magazines. Even the most well-respected literary journals do not reach the ears of what one might term “the average person.”

Instead, we must bring poetry to the people. Open mics are the public spaces through

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Cred: Marlanda Dekine

which we share our love for poetry. Perhaps the first-time poet will read a poem you find dull or poorly written, but then is it not in your interest—in the interest of capital-P Poetry—to invest in that person? To encourage that person to continue writing and write then something transcendent and challenging?

Open Mics become venues to vent frustration, to celebrate triumphs, to express rage, to critique social practices, to build community. Every time someone unloads their worries into a microphone, we must share that burden. That story becomes not only something insular but something that may exist outside of the person, carried on the shoulders of dozens of strangers. Because here’s a hard and strange truth.

Four years ago, I started The Unspoken Word with a fellow poet at an odd dive bar called King Dusko. I have since attended hundreds of poetry shows throughout the country and even some around the world. Of course seeing your favorite poet read can be a sublime experience, but so too might be watching an amateur poet. A fifteen year old trembling at the microphone, holding in her hands a crumpled sheet of notebook paper, and on that paper is a poem. A poem that might tonight change your life or change your mind or change for a moment your perspective.

In this way, poetry allows us not only to emphasize with our fellow Earthlings but grasp their shoulders afterward, to commune with poets in your city. To say thank you.

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.

“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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Just Write the Story: On the Anxiety of Creation

Often, I will begin writing a short story or a poem with a burst of inspired gusto, believing the idea that I’m transcribing to paper to be not only significant but transcendent. The writing comes easy, the sentences clean and pretty.

But when I return days later to continue the work, I grow sick with worry. No longer do the sentences appear organized. I have stacked them atop one another in a sloppy hysteria. I am confronted with what might be a bad story, a waste of time. I am suddenly paralyzed, unable to continue writing in fear that what I produce might be an embarrassment. Finally, everyone will know I’ve been a fraud all along, a stupid scribbler who got lucky once or twice with choice words. Or maybe before there lived some muse in my head who telegrammed better ideas from some far off place. The magic place where good ideas come from. But now I am left alone with my limp, insipid creativity. A dull pencil, my brain. Incapable of writing anything worthy of reading.

But then comes sense, clear as plastic packaging that clogs the Pacific Ocean. 

Write the story. Just write the damn story.

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Better to have written something terrible, a soup of bland words, than have written nothing at all. Better to construct some ugly statue that may be chiseled fine later on than give up on the marble block entirely. Get over yourself, Derek. You’re not writing for Heaven. You’re writing for Earth. Just finish the story.