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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.

For the Love of Kesha

If you’ve heard me perform spoken word poetry set, you probably know I’m infatuated with The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Ke$ha. In “Ode to Ke$ha,” I wrote, “Who are you Ke$ha/ child of Los Angeles, food-stamp-subsister/ and perfect SAT student? Is this/ glitzed mask anything more than/ quiet genius, a woman’s willingness/ to speak in a world that tells her she cannot?”

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Kesha Rose, while masquerading as a pop artist, curates through her musical repertoire a series of thought-provoking social critiques and self-love anthems. The predecessor to artists such as Carly Rae Jepsen and the spiritual successor of artists like Avril Lavigne, Kesha translates trite emotionalism into a more transcendent message, whether that be about love, break up’s, oral sex, or the predatory tactics of paparazzi.  

Kesha Rose’s genius manifests when she reverses the paradigm of the male gaze in pop music. While Top 40 hits typically frame women as willing sex objects, subjects of desire designed to appease the sexual appetites of men, Kesha’s music– particularly her song “Disco Stick”– evokes similar images of men submitting sexually to women. She disguises an intelligent critique of pop music misogyny in a crass package. But the subversion of patriarchal pop music is just one of Kesha’s specialties. In “We Are Who We Are,” she affirms her support for LGBT rights and queer individualism, doubling down in 2016 during the contentious 2016 Presidential election.  

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Freshly-dubbed Kesha Rose has returned this week with a new song and accompanying music video “Praying,” a first glimpse into her upcoming album Rainbow. “Praying,” Kesha’s first solo release in four years, explores loss of faith and the tumultuous relationship with a former friend– who one suspects to be Kesha’s former producer and abuser Dr. Luke. The song is either a condemnation of Dr. Luke’s actions (in a recent court case, Kesha alleged that Dr. Luke sexually abused her and subsequently manipulated her creative control to prevent her from releasing music) or forgiveness. Perhaps a mixture of both.

I was H Y P E when I saw Kesha had released not only a soulful banger but also an absurd-yet-poignant music video. Dr. Luke abused Kesha to the point that she claimed she almost lost her life because it. Artistically and personally constrained by past drama, Kesha could not release solo music for more than four years. But y’all.

Kesha’s back, y’all. Kesha’s back.

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I believe Kesha Rose has long been underappreciated and maligned by media acolytes of the twenty-first century. They have misconstrued Kesha Rose as crass and banal, while her catalogue actually boasts a buffet of that good good.

And with her newest album Rainbow, I hope Kesha Rose gets the love she deserves.

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.

Neo Nazi Rally

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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.