Posts from — November 2014
The Cloisters/Arrezo Converters
Oil and gold leaf on panel in gold leaf frame | 60 x 64 7/8 x 1 7/8 inches | 2014
Bridging Life and Art
with Mike Foldes, Founder and Managing Editor
Ragazine: Thank you very much for agreeing to this e-interview, and for allowing us to share your unusual and thought-provoking (if not controversial) work with Ragazine readers. Most of the paintings included in your online portfolio are in the style you have developed blending the influences of both classical Japanese Ukiyo-e or wood block print tradition, and Christian iconography. Can you tell us a little about your painting before this style evolved, and what led you to it?
Masami Teraoka: While (Marcel) Duchamp’s conceptual art had been discussed when I was going to Otis Art Institute, I had thought this early on that I wanted to pursue a vision that was totally of anti-trendish LA art scene. While I was absorbing new energy from Pop Art, I said to myself re: content-wise, these inspiring artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and (Roy) Lichtenstein made great sense. Basically what they were saying had been about consumerism culture in US.
Since I always had been fascinated by Ukiyo-e wood block print and it’s beautiful vocabulary coming from Japanese cultural background, what if I use my favorite vocabulary to create my work. I could make comments on Japanese culture and US culture in Ukiyo-e style work. I stayed with the vocabulary until the huge thematic series evolved, the Catholic Church’s historical clergy sex abuse. As I grew out from Ukiyo-e theme work, the next major evolution came with the concept that is all about history of western culture and current social issues. Although the basic approach toward my vision was strongly based on freedom of expression to investigate classical vocabularies and explore how far I can push the boundary of the ignored or totally abandoned vocabulary in the ‘60s, why not explore this path instead of focusing on breaking boundaries of materials and expressions. Classical vocabularies could give you enormous inspiration; perhaps, I thought… in order to tackle Catholic clergy sex abuse, I regrouped my thought about the medium and vocabulary.
There had been another inspiration, sort of a backward way – coming from the close association with Gutai Group in Japan. I used to live within a few blocks away from Jiro Yoshihara, the Gutai leader’s residence in Ashiya city. I often visited his son Michio Yoshihara, my buddy who was a Gutai Group member. We often got together for Mishio’s group jam sessions. I closely watched what Gutai had been doing and what the Gutai’s spirit was all about. This is a good way to start my freedom of expression concept, or vision. Gutai Group’s attitude was whatever you are inspired by, you do it with unconventional materials and take it freely to express in an unconventional approach, to express their feelings. I had lived through my college student time with the close associations, or perhaps closest associations, with them; it was great to learn what was going on in the USA. Gutai Group often had referred to Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis and Anthony Tapies. In fact I had met Sam Francis and Tapies in Ashiya city where he gave a public speech.
In fact one of the most significant and important Gutai Group’s performances, called “Happening,” was held at the Sankei Kaikan Theater in Osaka. I was asked to assist Michio’s concrete music for the happening’s background. In retrospect, I can describe it as John Cage-inspired sound effects for the background audio effect. Recently I was interviewed by Ming Tang who had co-curated a huge Gutai Group show in the Guggenheim. She visited me and I had given her Gutai Group’s catalogs that I had treasured for centuries. While I was growing up, I had such great opportunity to see what Gutai Group had been doing as to their own things, and in the meantime I was nurturing my own vision to evolve.
New Wave Series/Sarah and Dream Octopus
Watercolor on paper | 20-1/16 x 29-7/8 | 1992
Q: Many traditional Japanese works portray waves, and you creatively elaborate on that with your Wave Series and New Wave Series. Do you plan on doing anything influenced by the waves that led to the meltdown at Fukushima?
A: I’m not sure, but the inspiration for the waves theme were inspired by two reasons. I was trying to get used to being in the water. Since I moved to Hawaii, I was inspired to learn to swim. I actually had almost drowned when we had the field trip to Momoshima island. Shortly after that incident, I decided to be an artist. It was more like there were personal reasons that I was ready to teach myself swimming. The wave paintings I created are all about my respect for the friendly Hawaiian ocean.
Although Fukushima tsunami was horrendous, I think natural disasters may not have the same sort of personal complexity that I had been struggling with for ages regarding the fear of drowning. Plus, waves became my helping hand to deal with the AIDS theme painting series. It helped me to balance out the emotional issues. Social implications and historical edges as regard humanity issues always compelled me to paint, and I have wondered about this myself. I tend to be drawn toward humanity (and how people are) caught in complex cultural webs.
Q: What were your paintings/drawings like before your present “style” evolved?
A: My drawings/paintings are as precisely and closely inspired by Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, because they are stunning, fantastic and expressive! Beautifully drawn and articulate. Their vocabulary had a lot to do with the skills of artists who conceive figurative themes in abstract ways. Such transformation inspires me.
Drawings done by Ukiyo-e artists articulated unique narratives. Ukiyo-e artists’ strength is inspired by Kabuki stories. They considered themselves artisans, while depicting Kabuki actors and actresses in the stories is not tied down with rules or technique or theme. They had freedom of expression.
AIDS Series/Geisha in Bath
Watercolor on canvas |108 x 81 inches | 1988
Q: Who or What was the greatest influence on you as a developing artist, other than your father, whom you have said wanted you to do something other than take over the family’s Kimono store?
A: I learned a lot about waves and composition from Katsushika Hokusai. As to figurative drawing, Gototei Kunisada is my favorite artist, since he never went for stylized faces but brought out individual characters and faces. Conceptually, Hieronymus Bosch inspired me at the other end, since his vision is all about humanity. He created a timeless statement.
Burqa Inquisition/Chicken Torture
Oil on canvas | 100 ½ x 77 ½ inches | 2003
Q: Do you believe that art can influence culture, or vice versa? For example, paintings from the time of the Inquisition reflected the times, but did not necessarily change them. Your works frequently comment on the hypocrisy of the times, but are they are a reflection of the times or a force for change?
A: I’m certain art has such powerful realm where no one can deny when it works in poetic form. It reflects time and forcefully presents what we feel, think and face today. Art documents times and influences social attitudes if it is presented in highly evocative way. I hope to present my statement in high aesthetics and powerful visual poetry.
Q: What is your preferred medium? Why?
A: Currently I prefer oil. Oil is good for textual subject matter and watercolor for serene surface.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece or series? What makes it your favorite?
A: Yes. Every series that I created is my favorite one. By far Catholic clergy sex abuse had a lot heavy duty thoughts that involve many layers of social and cultural issues. Having a critical view about thematic issues, composition, drawing and how well it reflects the thematic motif and narratives − that means a lot to me. My favorite ones have abundant and richly profound implications.
The Cloisters/Venus and Pope’s Workout
Oil on panel in gold leaf frame | 119 1∕8 x 122 1∕2 x 2 3∕4 inches | 2005
Q: Why has the Catholic clergy sex abuse story become the biggest series you’ve committed to in the last few decades?
A: When I looked at the Catholic clergy sex abuse issues, I saw the institutionalized, long history… where the Catholic Church’s mysogynistic view, confessors, penitence, indulgence, authoritative prayers versus powerless believers, authority versus individual rights. And among others, the gay marriage, same sex marriage issue and the tendency to a totalitarian approach against individuals, the hypocrisy, (and issues of) celibacy, humanity, healthy sexuality, women’s equality, warped sexuality or prohibited conversations between nuns, the institution’s absolute secrecy versus transparent current culture – are all boiling in the same pot. However I looked at it, the clerical sex abuse became the focus, the core of western culture coming from Vatican history. There had been a lot to do with confession, baptism and all sorts of the church’s institutionalized rituals that have enhanced the institution’s financial mechanism. This is a profoundly amazing place to look into, the confessional room. The dark box or black box holds all of the secrets. And that is the driving force in the institution I wanted to investigate.
Q: You speak of human nature and repression of sexual instincts in the priesthood… Can there be hope for real change?
A: I believe there is hope if the Catholic Church recognizes that confession is the main gear that had a lot to do with misguided behavior. This is the engine that needs to be tuned up to current times, instead of harkening back to the male chauvinistic institutionalized structure.
Venus’ Serpentine Confession
Oil and acrylic on panel in gold-leaf frame | 38 x 44 x 1 ½ inches | 2003
Q: What inspired you to start the initial series you began in the early 1990s, right after your AIDS series?
A: Definitely many questions came up when I watched (President Bill) Clinton’s and Monica Lewinski’s trial. In a “Who was telling us what to do in bed” sort of the way. I was looking at the entire episode, it was such a ridiculous media circus. Then I wanted to know where the basic morality and politics were coming from. Eventually I traced it back to the Vatican.
Q: Why does Catholic iconography dominate your recent triptych paintings?
A: The thematic choice defines it into iconic images I really enjoy. I also feel many great artists are among the Catholic Church’s patrons and beneficiaries of the amazing Medici’s support. The Medici family had patronized great and phenomenal artists in the medieval times. What if we did not have those greats that enriched and contributed to human history in visual terms. In the meantime, the Vatican had erased all of the major documents about Catholic clergy sex cases… Am I correct to say this?
The Last Supper/Eve and The Giant Squid Hunters
Oil and gold leaf on panel in gold leaf frame | 199 x 122-1/2 x 2-3/4 inches | 2012
Q: What do the gold leaf and gold leaf frames mean to you?
A: The gold leaf frames imply the rigid Catholic Church as a formidable institution where individual rights are not respected, but squashed by a powerful institution. The gold leaf frame work addresses the sickening over-the-top symbolic wealth of the Catholic Church. Gold leaf is an uncompromising medium to me to use. But in order to address the serious historical background of the Catholic Church’s history, it became such a big challenge for me to tackle and work with it. Gold leaf is a tough medium. By contrasting concept against the framework of ancient triptychs allowed me to address the current socio-cultural issues more appropriately.
Q: Your answers to our questions are as revealing as your art about your concerns with thematic issues and narratives. Some artists say they cannot talk about their work, that it speaks for itself. What do you say to that?
A: All depends on how you want to see. That is their choice.
I personally feel conceptualizing my vision by verbalizing helps it to evolve into a powerful composition. It helps so much visually. When I get stuck visually, verbalizing becomes a handy tool. In the creative process, especially in a narrative work, I focus on the conceptual aspect focusing constantly on compelling issues as a mantra. I see talking about an art work has dual edges. The positive side may help enhance a viewer’s interpretation, but it can also work against as negative to limit how a viewer would interpret the work.
What viewers may not be able to specifically figure out would be the figures or characters and props that I intentionally choose. Since selecting the props and who I may be depicting have a lot to do with a mixture of personal, general, historical or current social and cultural contexts that have a lot to do with the narrative. There are many layers of congruent concepts that make all the stars in the narrative, and the props, work compellingly. Nothing is accidental in the end.
Q: What do you think about Anime’, and do you have any favored young artists you can identify by name or their work?
A: I’m afraid not. I cannot make much comment on anime content-wise, since I’m not into anime at all. I am much more a devoted Ukiyo-e woodblock print fan, which I have extensively investigated. In my view, Ukiyo-e’s vocabulary means so much as aesthetically profound and exciting. Those texts in Ukiyo-e prints are fascinating, since they depicted Edo people’s mind in beautiful way. What appeals to me about Ukiyo-e drawing is the figurative drawings created by feelings peppered with abstract interpretation and freedom of exaggeration. The figurative drawing and the poetry is so inspiring in aesthetic ways.
Q: Do you anticipate that we will ever see a feature-length film based on the style and content of your art work?
A: Definitely. I foresee it coming since the narratives that I have created are all about social and cultural issues that we are concerned about today. My work has reflected those thoughts in that particular time of the history I had lived. In historical context, my work has an abundance of philosophical implications regarding humanity, individual rights, oppression, totalitarian views and bringing out and asserting how important it is to have freedom of speech. Moreover, what art can do to help people to understand who we are – and the most important values (we) may want to have. These aspects will be, perhaps, needed to be examined in an historical sense.
The Cloisters/Birth of Venus
Oil on canvas in gold-leaf frame | 90 x 94 inches | 2002-2005
Q: You grew up in Hiroshima prefecture. You were a boy during WWII. How much of that do you remember and how much of that early experience influenced you to become the artist you are today?
A: I used to draw airplanes a lot. After the war a GI gave me a Coca-Cola. I had treasured the tin can, since it was so beautiful. I loved the way it looked and I made a fantastic pencil drawing. I wish I had kept it. Although it was lost, unfortunately. I still have a great American airplane drawing I did when I was 12 years old. In retrospect, perhaps this already might have set me going for Pop Art.
When my sister and I were just about going out to our school, we saw the two suns. One from the east and one from the west. They are exactly identical sizes and brightness. It turned out that day was the day the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima city. I was 9 years old.
Q: How do you start a painting? Do you do study drawings or sketches before you paint? From Ukiyo-e watercolor and Renaissance style oil painting?
A: For my watercolor painting, I have to make so many study drawings and sketches. The drawing and the composition have to be finished and set to go before I start the watercolor. Whereas with oil, the process of painting is reversed. This is one of the reasons why I had switched over to oil painting. It was a big challenge mentally and physically.
I can start from a blank canvas or panel without any sketches. Then I continue to tweak the initial composition. While it is easily, perhaps, overlooked between the two entirely different vocabularies, there is the obvious undercurrent thematically that is so consistent about my work. There is a lot to do with sexuality, health of individual rights, equality and environmental concerns.
McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan/Geisha and Tattooed Woman
Watercolor on paper | 14 ¼ x 21 ½ inches | 1975
Q: What made you evolve your Ukiyo-e painting style into Renaissance style painting? Their vocabularies seem vastly different from each other. Could you elaborate on that?
A: Largely the two vocabularies have reflected where I had been and am now. Plus, the thematic issues demanded a certain medium. For instance, I felt I could really use oil to address Catholic clergy sex abuse since the subject is textually a complex theme. Watercolor could fall short to bring out the richness of thematic concerns. Concept defines form and vocabulary, in my view.
While I was still learning about American life and culture, I felt my statement had been focused on my Japanese cultural background. Then later on I had realized I had lived in the States longer than in Japan. The experiences I had in America, I felt, my work should reflect. What should I say about USA as a statment in my work? When I was realizing the personal evolution sensing inside, it was getting close to the end of the 1980s. I asked myself what are the most compelling social and historical issues? After I did the personal research summarizing my early shunga series, AIDS, Clinton and Monica Lewinski’s scandal, I realized the most compelling related issue had turned out to be the Catholic clergy sex abuse. I felt it would be a large enough, and profound enough, theme.
Q: Have you done any other form of work in earlier days?
A: I have worked with sculpture such as stone carving, clay figures, resin sculptures in the ‘60s, and also I was really into abstract painting. As a matter of fact, I have loved the way Mondrian abstracted his Dutch landscape into New York Boogie Woogie abstract painting. I was so inspired. When I was a college student in Japan I painted seriously in the Mondrian style painting. I bet he must have loved jazz, imagining from his apartment that the New York streets looked like his paintings. Grids of the street, with exciting jazz. This is just my guess.
Q: What makes an artist significant in historical context?
A: In my view a great artist created art work that is identical with who she or he was. If an artist could articulate what is all about the person, history recognize them. However you looked at him or her, the artist’s being has been expressed in the consistent way – showing who they are. Very consistent about themselves. You know what they are all about. When an artist lacks this, the artist would drift away from history.
Adam and Eve/Web Site 2000
Oil and watercolor on canvas |83 1∕2 x 152 5∕8 inches | 1997-2004
Q: A common thread in your work is sexuality. Where does that come from? Why is it so?
A: I always wondered about this myself. Basically what had become controversial in society has a lot to do with sexuality. It seems we cannot get away from sexuality, since we were born from mothers. Adam and Eve started western history with such warped view about the genders. What if someone comes up with series that the artist presents a reversed view. Eve is a good woman in the reversed order? Adam is somewhat put into Eve’s position instead.
Q: How was the most recent show at the MAC/McKinney Avenue Contemporary received in Dallas, Texas?
A: It was of the fantastic reception! Since showing my large triptych pieces in one huge gallery was more than the dream I was hoping for. I had six large triptychs, each about 10 feet x 10 feet, and one medium Gothic triptych piece. People responded so enthusiastically. They were excited and inspired by the exhibition. Plus, a Pussy Riot member showed up at the opening, since I had been talking about Pussy Riot lately. Actually one of my friends in Dallas had dressed up like a Pussy Riot and showed up. Cheers! There was also the beautiful ballerina among the opening crowd.
Q: Are you preparing the next show now? And where are they going to be exhibited?
A: My solo show opens at the Honolulu Museum in May 2015 for a few months. Then another solo show opens at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco October 2015.
Q: What can you say about the new work? Do you already have a vision of what it will be?
A: I do. I’m writing a Kabuki narrative for the new work. I will feature Geisha Momotaro, Pope Francis and Pussy Riot and Putin. The story should reflect current global socio-political issues.
Q: What are you working on?
A: I’m still working on the new triptych paintings, and also several triptychs in progress that had been in the incubation period for more than a few years. Perhaps several years. Soon they will hatch! Fingers crossed!!!!!
Lacquer on resin/1966-1970/
Size: 3-3/4 x 29-15/16 x 5-1/8 in. (9.5 x 76 x 13 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco
Q: Your scope of work from 1966-2014… it’s a vast work expressed in different media and conceptual visions, but what ties it together? What do you feel is consistent about your work?
A: Working with sexual and erotic subject matter, empowered women predominate in the narratives. My triptychs focus on equal rights, gay rights, gender issues and health issues, and examine environmental and cultural issues that are pitted against authoritative institutions and power hungry people.
Q: Are you religious person?
A: I am not, but more like I lean toward art power as my guidence for life. Poetry and visual richness in arts are the ones that I value the most.
Q: Thank you, Masami Teraoka.
Catharine Clark Gallery
248 Utah St, San Francisco, CA 94103
Samuel Freeman Gallery
About the interviewer:
Michael Foldes is the founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
November 9, 2014 Comments Off on Masami Teraoka/Artist-Interview
One More Time
I’m writing this as I return from New York City, amid beautiful autumn weather that lends even more splendor to one of the world’s grand venues. The New York Yankees and the New York Giants have both won their home games, so in a sports’ sense the City has been abuzz with that energy. And at the same time the City hosted large peace and environmental demonstrations so the tens of thousands who attended the gatherings are adding another, albeit different ingredient to the “buzz.” But probably the most noteworthy piece of the buzz is being fueled by the fact that we have just this evening begun the bombings in the Middle East as a response to the current ISIS threat. Although this is not directly within the City limits, it’s not difficult to imagine that (especially happening only several weeks post the 9/11 remembrance), the events are having a particular effect on the City’s spirit.
Being a native “New Yorker” I’m finding myself in the swirl of these emotions. This is especially so, as much of my work centers on issues tied to our on-going social, political and economic concerns, concerns that oftentimes seem too much to internalize. And amidst all this, I can’t help but recall the sentiments I relayed in a piece that was written over a decade ago. It was done with an eye towards our Middle East conflicts as they began back then, and I think its essence remains as it was. So please take a read. And importantly, while doing so, I hope you have a moment to consider how we might better hold those who are in positions of influence more accountable for that influence – not for the “left” or “right” of the policies they may endorse, but for what they are doing for US.
Go Get’em Boys**
You know, I grew up in an era that fostered suspicion about the military. I mean a day couldn’t go by in the 1960s without some journalist or TV news-reader raising a question as to what the Pentagon planners were plotting next. If it wasn’t Vietnam, then it was our military being used to quell riots in our own city streets, or being used to promote another coup in another Third World country. Then there was our untrustworthy and suspect political process for which the military was the might. And there were questions about the legal and educational systems and overall inequality, and these, too, tilted what the military seemed to be defending. On top of all this, very few individuals that I knew perceived military duty as something of substance. Rather, it was seen as something to be avoided if at all possible. (I myself was lucky in that my draft lottery number never got reached.)
Yet young men and women, most from poorer, less educated environments, found themselves fitting into uniforms that spoke to things like pride, honor and tradition. Hell, many of them died with that as part of their eulogy-despite the distrust and dislike that surrounded their efforts. As has been well documented it was a difficult time for both them and us.
It wasn’t until some twenty years later that I began to visit these sentiments again. It happened that I was offered a faculty position with a major university’s European, Middle East and Asian divisions, all of which were tied to a program that offered post-secondary opportunities to those who were in the military or who contracted with the U.S. in support of our overseas interests. With this position came the opportunity to get a very close look at the military, from its day-to-day routines, to its war objectives, to what its presence meant in the world. And this added a new dimension to what I had years before concluded.
In traveling amid the power that they (and simultaneously our citizenship) represent, I’ve come to see our military in a more complex way. Over the past years I’ve watched them at their work, with their families and among themselves. I’ve talked with them, from privates to generals, about their society, about war and about peace. Suffice it to say they are an interesting group, far from being dull, ignorant or blind to what they do. Most of them recognize their efforts in terms of our country’s economic interests – that is, that “making the world safe for democracy” is more of a political euphemism than anything else. And in this sense they are at the tip of our American dilemma: who are we and what are we doing in the world? Surely, like most of the American public, they can’t completely grasp the depth of the dilemma. Nonetheless they have a mission tied to it and they must stay focused accordingly, which means staying disciplined and ready in times of peace, and brave and strong in times of war. Obviously none of this is easy.
No doubt, war is stupid. And I am not a fan of it in any way. But it seems to be an outgrowth of the stupid part of human nature − nothing less than history has shown us that. In the name of God and man alike peace has not prevailed. Consequently the complexities of establishing and defending a system, any system for that matter, seem always at hand. And the need for the military goes on, “the stronger the better” remaining the call. It’s a paradox that is part of us – it shouldn’t be, but it is. So it goes for our military.
Thus, especially in these times, as I see the flag wave, or hear the songs sung, or as the jets fly over our pastimes, I feel it for “our boys.” Yet I’m scared for them as well. This is as much for the danger they face and the mandate they’ve been given, as it is for the nagging feeling that we lack an understanding about our issues at home, issues so closely tied to those dangers and their mandate. And I’m scared because the flag waving and song singing and jet flying should symbolize what was missing in our Vietnam effort, but I fear they don’t. In other words, the country may finally be in support of its military but, for the most part, it really doesn’t have a solid sense of itself or the problems it is facing. And unlike the 1960s no movement is addressing the related concerns of things linked to the ideals of democracy and the practicalities of capitalism. It seems it’s a twist on the situation from years ago, yet ironically the outcome could well be the same. Just as it was back then our troops’ thoughts and actions as they return may be sadly misunderstood.
Again, it’s a difficult time, for them and for us. I wish we knew more about our policies and practices, but we don’t. I hope the circumstances change, but I worry that they won’t. Nevertheless, in the midst of our serious struggles, I’ll say “God bless, good luck, and go get’em boys.”
**This piece was included in a chapter of my previous book, “Criminal to Critic-Reflections Amid The American Experiment,” Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. I would like to also reference another piece from that chapter, one written by a talented and weary teenager I met while in the Middle East. It certainly speaks for itself.
by Laila Yafi
In the starlight, a tear drop shines
Revealing love’s true divine
A lone child, sitting in the dark
All is gone, no more spark.
A ray of moonlight falls upon him
He clings to her empty dress
Wishing it could be full again
Filled with her warmth and life.
His mother’s spirit remains so strong
Yet their eyes shall never meet again
The haunt of loss has already set
A memory permanently etched.
Caught in silence, cemented in grief
The boy searches to find relief
But in life’s war she is gone forever
The cord of love so quickly severed.
Be brave young soldier.
About the author:
Jim Palombo is the politics editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
November 8, 2014 Comments Off on Jim Palombo/Politics
After The Three Fates (Working Title)
Seward Johnson, Aluminum and Foam, 2011
Double, double toil and trouble . . .
—Shakespeare, Macbeth IV-I
Three Fates or Hags or Witches, call them all;
They boil a cauldron filled with feet and brains,
A fenny snake, its venom’s pow’r forestalled,
And hollowed eyes and toes from lives well drained.
Who are these Fates, and why are they portrayed?
What do they think as throngs walk by their site?
And why were kings and nobles so dismayed
While little children giggle with delight?
And why am I so sad to light on them?
Why fear, why yearn for times I spent in class
When time stretched wide, my studies mattered then;
I’m trapped by years like vapor that has passed.
So boil and bubble, Fates, my pot awaits—
But hark, my ending do not annotate.
Slick: A Love Story
Chicken soup, the holiday’s here, right?
That’s what Slick the Plumber would say
twice a year as he lay prone on my kitchen
floor, cleaned out the clog in the disposal—
peels of parsnips, onions, leeks, carrots,
turnips, fibrous stems of fresh dill.
Slick, name that stuck to him like Elmer’s Glue
well into his octogenarian years, when getting
down to view the cavern of vegetable carnage
became a challenge. Arthritic knees belied the lank
teen who’d evaded the police as he slithered away
like a greased pig when mischief marked his
reputation, his full head of jet hair the only
flash as he fled through the streets of town.
This oversized scamp-turned-man never married
and as he aged, he cared for his ailing sister in a
home near the church where he attended daily Mass.
He’d appear minutes after a frantic call—Slick,
the disposal, hurry, guests on the way—lower
his old balding self, flashlight in hand, to install
wider pipes under the sink, sometimes to mount
a ladder in search of the source along the garage
wall where pipes rebelled at the touch of his wrench,
spewed slop on this wet warrior—unfazed, dedicated.
A gentle man—Slick who visited whenever puppies
were born to watch them suckle, quiver in their
sleep, tears in his eyes at life’s miracle. Chivalrous
Slick who took a shovel, lifted the dead bunny
from the driveway, reverently placed it in a bag-
turned-coffin, its last rites tendered by his soft hand.
Quasi mayor Slick who held court nightly in our
town’s diner, sat with his back to the counter near
the door, greeted familiar faces, made new friends,
his gap-toothed smile a radiance.
When Slick died, the church that may have
hidden the teen hooligan, the church where
he prayed every morning before helping
housewives of New Jersey clear their paths,
that church was filled to the apse with a host
of dedicated admirers who miss him still.
for my Nana
As we planned our trip to Prague, we said we
would take a train to Plauen, the Saxon town
where you lived, birthed seven children, my
mother the youngest. Your dark photo, arm on
your husband’s shoulder, bears the address
Banhafstrasse 19, next to the hotel we’d booked.
The town clerk’s email: be sure to visit the lace
museum. I still own the lace my grandfather
tatted in this town. I drape it on my shoulders,
try to gather his scent, to sense his fingers work
the loops. Once in Prague we knew the trip was
too long, too many transfers, a driver too costly.
Someday we’ll go to Berlin, we told each other,
from there we’ll take a direct train, we have time,
we have time.
On my fourth anniversary my mother gave me
your gold carved bracelet with dulled red and
green stones, give it to your youngest daughter
on her fourth anniversary, she said, my mother
gave it to me when your father and I were married
four years. Carry on the tradition, tell your daughter
to do the same. (I did.) My younger daughter birthed
sons. Where will the bracelet go?
On Fridays at sundown, I kindle candles on your
silver candlesticks, 1862 etched in the base. Did
candles burn in your Plauen home? Were they
your own mother’s? My mother never told me
her name, but I do know that you were born
Augusta Gold, somewhere in Austria.
and full hearts,
You may have called Gin when you died playing
cards with my sister the year before I was born.
Perhaps you put down the Queen of Hearts before
your own heart stopped.
Plauen, my mother’s birthplace, your home, her history.
Do we have time?
About the poet:
Gail Fishman Gerwin, a Paterson, NJ, native, graduated from Goucher College and received her MA in fiction and playwriting from NYU’s Gallatin School. She owns inedit, a Morristown, NJ, freelance writing and editing firm. Her memoir Sugar and Sand was a finalist for the 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her second collection Dear Kinfolk, (www.chayacairnpress.com) earned a 2013 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. Her poems, reviews, fiction, features, and essays appear in print and online. Gail, associate poetry editor of Tiferet, facilitates poetry-writing workshops.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Gail Gerwin/Poetry
Your freshly minted kindergartner says,
the fire bell rings and we line-up, and because
you know drills are in place to be ready,
you also know what came before.
Like that turn-of-the-century school,
all heavy-wooden rafters and clapboard,
the children climbing the walls
as flames shook their red fists at the sky:
the worst tragedy of its kind, they said.
Welcome to the age of preparedness.
So you pick your boy up from his school
of concrete, ever on lockdown behind
chain-link where the mothers cling,
unable to pass through. Welcome
to a new school made by guns trained
on little kids. In the morning students
gather in the center of a blacktop slab
and sit in groups, then they file into
the barracks. A few small signs —
a tetherball and four-square markings —
tell you this not a prison, though you know
the edifice is about what is kept out
instead of in. Welcome to the new way
we learn. Still, as you detangle your fingers
from the fence, your boy lost in the fray,
you can’t help think how easy it would be
to prop a rifle in the hard crux of a steel
diamond and aim at children squirming
in their uniforms. How you cannot ever
really be safe from random madness.
Welcome to the way you think now.
An Oral History of Bodie, California
The mind of the body is optimistic,
even as the pioneer shovels dirt
into the hole, the never ceasing gust
gritting her mouth and eyes, her stillborn
tamped down in the hills pocked
with mines once ribboned in gold.
Even as she thinks to lay down and die,
every morning she rises and wipes
the night’s windswept-in silt from the stove,
puts on the kettle, and goes on. In autumn
the draft blasts down the chimney
and scatters sparks across the floorboards,
a blackbird sings if you want to call it song,
and her doctor makes another house call,
but she endures beyond the mill’s machinery
grinding to a halt, the pastor leaving
on the only coach, and winter’s short supply
of firewood long enough to birth,
or so he was told, the last boy born
in that moribund town.
Babies in the News
Today’s paper reports a woman rolled
her ten-month-old onto the subway platform,
then left on the northbound train.
She would have struggled down
those stairs from the street. I’ve asked
strangers to take the foot-end of my son’s
stroller as we hefted his weight
down into the darkness, those arterial
transit ways of the metropolis, never meant
for mothers with babies in prams. How she
must have thought to be done with
her daughter’s hungry mouth, those
ever-grasping hands, no doubt
dimpled at the knuckles, still full-cheeked
in her infancy. And just a news report
ago, a father left his son in the oven
of his car, the Atlanta sun baking, baking,
baking. So we mourn and move on
to the next abandonment. And in other news,
I bled again this month, the ticking slowed
to a near stop, time dripping into the bucket
of my own infertility, no more babies for me,
so this news is personal, this news that breaks
hearts, this news again about who has,
has not, or God forbid, didn’t want.
About the poet:
Sonia Greenfield is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer who was born in Peekskill, New York, and now calls Los Angeles home where she lives with her husband, son, and feral dog. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of publications including The Massachusetts Review, The Antioch Review, Rattle, and the 2010 Best American Poetry, and her chapbook, Circus Gravitas, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her latest pieces of fiction can be found in PANK online, and her latest essays can be found on Role Reboot. She teaches writing at USC.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Sonia Greenfield/Poetry
Street scene in New York City
The World As I See It
on the streets of New York City
with Chuck Haupt, Photography/Layout Editor
Gene Lowinger’s career began as a musician, transitioned to author, and then photographer whose work captures the faces of NYC, out on the streets….
* * *
Q: You had quite a career as a musician, fiddling with Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. How did you develop your passion for photography?
A: In the 1980s I began to SCUBA dive and loved the underwater colors and shapes, so I bought a Nikonos V camera and strobe. The Nikonos 35mm lens was also good for land photography, so I photographed the exotic locations to which I traveled to do my diving. After developing a bad case of pneumonia with residual lung problems, I had to discontinue my diving. But I’d already been bitten by the photography bug. I took a few courses at the New School in NYC, including b/w darkroom. I had some inspiring teachers.
Q: How did you happen to concentrate on being a documentary street shooter over other styles of photography?
A: My darkroom teacher, Mario Cabrera, was a stringer for Associated Press and he talked a lot to me about photojournalism. His teacher, Ben Fernandez, who was the head of the photo department at New School, was a documentary photographer. Between the two of them they got me interested in documenting life and times. I did other types of photography also − landscape, nature, macro, etc., but it was documentary/photojournalism that really gave me goosebumps.
Gene Lowinger / Streets Scenes from the streets of NYC
All photos © Gene Lowinger. Used with permission.
Q: The tone of your black & white photographs is very rich. Why do you like it over color?
A: I originally shot color slide film – especially Kodachrome. But I really enjoyed the darkroom process of b/w (except for developing the film itself, which I really hated). Making the manipulations and seeing the prints come alive in the developer was very exciting. I try to create images that tell a story. When someone looks at my image I want them to see the story, not the pretty colors of the clothes or the scenery. With b/w I have much more control over how the viewer’s eye moves through the image. And I like the abstraction of using just tones of gray, black, and white for my work. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate others who work in color. B/W is just the way I see when I shoot.
Q: How do you decide who to photograph while on the street? Ever get confronted by a person after you photograph them? If so, how do you handle it?
A: I don’t think about it. When I’m out walking around I let my intuition take over. All the thinking is done beforehand. I have in the back of my mind the kinds of situations and/or subjects I want to shoot. I look for people with interesting expressions or interesting juxtapositions with their environment. I try to catch interactions between two people. I’m usually pretty close to my subjects and I use wide to ultra-wide lenses – 35mm equivalents of 15mm, 21mm, 24mm, and 35mm. Rarely longer than that unless I’m doing a portrait or a performance. I’ve been confronted, but not often since I’m very unobtrusive (sneaky). When a person becomes confrontational I just keep walking. If they follow me I go into a store and they never follow. Sometimes when people have asked why I’m taking photos, I tell them I’m working for the FBI or NSA. That gets a chuckle and breaks the ice, then I can have a pleasant conversation with them. I give them my card which has my website and blogsite on it.
Q: What cameras do you shoot with? How do they help with your style of photography?
A: At first I used a Nikon D700. But when Fuji came out with the X-Pro1 I jumped on it. I love the optical viewfinder. The size of the camera and lenses make it easy to carry around for long street walks and they don’t draw attention like the big ‘howitzer’ Canons (get it?) and Nikons. I also like the Fuji X-T1 very much. It’s smaller than the X-Pro1, but doesn’t have the optical viewfinder. The amazing quality of the EVF makes up for that. And I especially like that everything I need to change or control on the fly is available to me on the top of the camera with analog dials. I can see in an instant how the camera is set and make changes if I need to. No menus to scroll through. I shoot with zooms and prime lenses, depending on my mood and the particular situation. The Fuji 10-24mm zoom is a wonderful lens that allows for great flexibility on the crowded streets of NYC. But it’s a relatively large lens, so sometimes I take my 14, 23, and 35mm lenses with me. But I don’t obsess about equipment. Learning to work with what I have to get what I want is more important.
Gene Lowinger / The Jewish Diaspora, NYC
All photos © Gene Lowinger. Used with permission.
Q: You spend a lot of time on the Lower East Side documenting the Jewish neighborhood. What do you hope to become of this project?
A: I began that project over 20 years ago as a self-exploration. I’ve expanded the scope of the project now to cover areas of Brooklyn, upstate New York, and New Jersey. I’ve had several shows of the work as it developed, and eventually I will try to get a book put together.
Q: Which photographers have and still do inspire you?
A: The two at the top of my list are W. Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand. I’ve been looking at their work for many years and every time I revisit them I see something new. It’s like playing a great piece of music by Bach. I’ve studied his solo works for violin for over 50 years and every time I practice one of the pieces I see and hear new things in it. Beyond those two photographers, I really like Robert Frank, Walker Evans, all the FSA photographers, the New York Photo League. More modern photographers such as Tim Hetherington, Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich of the Bang Bang club.
Q: What more can we expect to see from your photography in the future?
A: The Lower East Side project has a ways to go yet. It’s expanded into much more than I originally thought, so there’s quite a bit of work to do with it. I hope to start traveling, especially to Israel, next year. It’s an oasis of development and growth in a part of the world that always seems to be falling apart and in conflict. I’ll probably always stay with b/w, but maybe experiment a bit with color.
See more from Gene Lowinger at:
About the interviewer:
Chuck Haupt is Photography/Layout Editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
This interview was conducted via email in October 2014.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Gene Lowinger / Photographer
What We Always Did but More
By Mitch James
We’ve been waiting for the world to end now for seven months, three days, and twelve hours. We know how we’ll go. Our life now is preparing for it, yet I don’t even look up to see it anymore.
Most of us saw it on sunrise the first day. Those who missed it saw it during sunrise the second day. By the third day, it hung there at all hours, a red dot beside the sun.
On the first day I was taking Haley to school. She said, “Daddy, what’s wrong with the sun?”
I said, “What do you mean, honey? What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s all blurry,” she laughed. “Silly sun.”
I came to a stop light and peered at my daughter in the rearview mirror. She stared out of her window. I followed her gaze. The dot was but the size of a marble then, cadmium red diluting to transparent orange as it bled into the halo of the sun, a ruptured vessel in the yoke of an egg, spread on a canvas of phthalo blue. Within twenty four hours, dozens of artist all over the world painted their rendition of that sky. Brendan Monroe’s Fin Du Monde sold for 1.3 billion dollars, far outselling Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players, the most expensive painting to date.
I took my daughter to school despite the sky. Kids and parents alike stared high, parents with hands on their hips or in their pockets or over the brow of their forehead to block the sun, the kids asking mommy, mommy, daddy, daddy, needing answers. The bell rang, and the teachers blew their whistles. The school yard cleared and was still except where blades of grass tried to stand tall inside a single boot print.
After that, everything was news. Nobody knew exactly what was happening. Scientists postulated. The Russians and Americans agreed that Apophis was a planet missed by telescopes due to its ovular orbit, one that brought it from beneath our solar system and around the back of the sun. That was the end of Russian and American agreement until just weeks ago. The Americans suspected the sudden climate change over the last thirty years was actually a result of the gravitational effects of Apophis entering our solar system. The Russians disagreed. One week after the appearance of Apophis, there was an international conference in Hawaii debating whether or not global warming and climate change were results of the planet or of mankind or of some combination of both. The answers to such questions, they said, could affect the lives of generations to come.
Their second disagreement concerned the likelihood of impact. During the first few weeks of Apophis’ appearance, American scientists argued that impact was inevitable and that, for humans, it would be a global killer. Russian scientists believed the planet would miss earth by a mere 973 miles, showering our planet in an onslaught of tail debris that would be catastrophic but not world ending. Then the Americans argued that if Apophis came that close it would reverse our gravitational pull, flipping earth upside down within half a day, sending the oceans in mile high waves across every continent. The Russians agreed. Then cognitive scientists suggested that such a large disruption in electromagnetic energy would scramble the circuits of our own brains, very likely wiping them clean, leaving most of us vegetables at best. People began moving inland, and the wealthy built large, tall structures with interior rooms made purely of lead.
Two months later, as Apophis grew bigger in the sky than the sun, both the Russians and Americans agreed impact was inevitable and that it would kill us all.
While all of this happened, those of us in the country or small towns did what we always did but more. I worked and picked my daughter up from school every day and made certain I had her at her mother’s house on time every weekend. I helped the neighbors hand dig the start of their underground storage shelter. Though they got their name on the wait list within the first week of Apophis’ appearance, if took nearly three months before they could rent a back hoe from State Supply. We had most everything dug by the time we got the machine. The Kellys put lead walls and a series of sump pump systems in their shelter. The pumps drained into the valley. Gerry was certain those pumps, which he rigged to be both solar and gas powered, could drain enough water to keep the place livable even in Noah’s flood. We chuckled about that and started to dig the hole for my bunker but had to return the back hoe. By then the waiting list was at 36 months.
In the country and small towns, we mostly helped each other, stocking up goods, sharing meat and vegetables, canning and pickling and providing manual labor. We went to work, tended our families, and came home and prepared not to die.
In the past seven months scientist have predicted the impact date three separate times, but there’s been no impact. The night before the first predicted impact, I took Haley to her mother’s. It was the first time the three of us had been together in a room in four years. We had dinner and played Go Fish. Carol and I held hands on the couch while Haley slept across our laps. We watched the sky and the clocks but then decided to put the clocks face down and close our eyes and listen to the world end. I woke up at sunrise just as Haley was getting up to pee. It was a Wednesday, so I told Carol I’d bring Haley back that weekend, and we left. On the second impact date, I brought Haley to Carol’s again, but this time we sat at different ends of the couch and watched the clocks while Haley colored. It was a Monday afternoon. Two hours after the time of estimated impact, Haley and I decided to leave. The third predicted impact was on a Saturday afternoon. I dropped Haley off at Carol’s that morning and picked her up that Sunday evening.
We used to pray many times every day. We used to watch it in the sky all of the time, until it got bigger than the sun. It’s been months since I’ve really sat down and looked at it like I used to. I’ve heard the sunsets are beautiful, a red disc and an orange disc beside each other, their colors bleeding together on the horizon, but I haven’t seen a single one. I can’t bring myself to do it. Scientists agree that there will be something left of earth but not of humans, like we were never here. Everything we’ve ever thought about the universe will be erased. The understanding, shape, color, and smell of every single thing, gone. If something comes after us, it will have to start all over again. I don’t want to see that in a sunset, so I don’t pray or look at sunsets. I work and take care of my daughter and help my neighbors prepare to survive.
About the author:
Mitch James was born and raised in Central Illinois, where he received a BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Eastern Illinois University. He received a Masters in Literature from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and has had fiction and poetry published in Decomp, Underground Voices, Kill Author, Digital Americana and Blue Earth Review among others. Mitch is a doctoral candidate (ABD) in the Composition and TESOL program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he’s both an instructor in the English Department and Assistant Coordinator of the English Writing Portfolio Placement Program. Mitch’s latest scholarly article, “Tragedy, Plot, Fiction: A Study of Sameness and How You May Have Been Duped,” was recently published in New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Mitch James/Fiction
To the Student Who Asked Why He Earned A “C” on an Essay about Love
Because love has its own grammar,
its own sentences,
some that run-on too long,
others just fragments.
It uses a language
not always appropriate
or too informal,
and often lacks clarity.
Love is punctuated all wrong,
changes tenses abruptly,
on the first person,
can be redundant,
full of unnecessary repetition.
Every word is compounded.
Every phrase, transitional.
Love doesn’t always know the difference
between lie and lay,
its introductions sometimes
lack a well-developed thesis,
its claims go unfounded,
its ad-hominem attacks
call in question
With a style that’s inconsistent,
a voice either too critical
or too passive,
love is a rough draft
in constant need of revision,
rarely gives any sense
or reveals the lingering
possibilities of a topic
that always expects high praise,
and more often than not
fails to be anything
I was ten when my mother left me
at the grocery store.
It must have only been a couple hours.
I didn’t take it personally,
spent the time looking for a coin
so I could call her
on the payphone.
Now, thirty years later,
it’s she who feels left somewhere,
when she asks me
to pick her up from my sister’s house,
where she’s lived
the past five years.
“I want to go home,” she tells me.
“But you are,” I insist,
knowing she means back to that place
before old age and dementia
and the death of her husband.
“I am?” she says. “I thought I lived
It’s not likely she’d remember
ever leaving me at the grocery store,
or how when she finally realized it
she called the manager in a panic,
asking if he’d seen a little lost boy
roaming down the aisles,
his mother went.
This Is Just to Say
I have eaten
that were in
I am delirious
and so cold
Clint Margrave is the author of The Early Death of Men, a collection of poems published by NYQ Books. His work has also appeared in The New York Quarterly, Rattle, Cimarron Review, Verse Daily, Nerve Cowboy, and Ambit (UK), among others. In 2015, his second full-length collection of poems, Salute the Wreckage, is due out from NYQ Books. He lives in Long Beach, CA.
November 6, 2014 1 Comment
Tobacco Road , Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel
My Life: Writing, Not Reading …
This previously unpublished interview with the late literary lion Erskine Caldwell by Charles Hayes took place in 1986, about a year before Caldwell died. It is one in a series of interviews with artists, writers and musicians that Hayes undertook in the ’80s exploring the creative process and various hurdles the subjects had to overcome along the way to becoming established in their respective fields.
By Charles Hayes
Place: Paradise Hills, Arizona
Date: September 24, 1986
This interview was conducted with Erskine Caldwell whose novel, Tobacco Road, was turned into the 1941 movie, also called Tobacco Road.
Our conversation took place at Caldwell’s gated community home in Scottsdale, Arizona, outside of which was neither a Bentley nor Mercedes (which I saw in the neighborhood). Caldwell’s wife guided me through the gates in an old Chevy. We spoke while he labored to breathe through plastic tubes connected to a portable oxygen cannister. Caldwell had about half a lung left and knew he was not long for this world. He reflected on having had only a minor education, learning to write by way of experience, and the obstacles he had to face as a writer, including times when he had to eat rat trap cheese. At the time of my visit, Caldwell was on his fourth wife, the very hospitable and helpful Virginia Caldwell. One of his previous wives was the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. This interview is one of the last interviews he gave. He would die a year and a half later, in April 1987.
EC: Will you state your premise, again, so I will know what we are talking about? You’re doing what? Researching a book?
CH: I am doing research for a book.
EC: This is ah, a thesis or … ?
CH: … a book…
EC: Did you attend the University of New Mexico?
CH: I’m going through that (grad school) now.
EC: So, what is your theme?
CH: I want to be able to present materials that writers and artists like yourself, whose works have to do with hardships that they’ve gone through, as a way to tell us something about the creative life or creating thinking, you see?
EC: What is the title?
(His wife enters the room, “Your son, Jay, is on the phone.”
CH: that’s okay.
Mrs. C: It will be one minute.
CH: That’s fine – I’m used to it.
EC: What is your title?
CH: Pearl in the Mud
EC: What kind of people are you talking to?
CH: Besides yourself, Lucas Foss the conductor, Edward Albee the playwright, Louise Bourgeois, the sculptor, and others… Some are not famous.
EC: That can be the best kind because when people get famous they think they know everything!
CH: Yes, I would like to talk a little about this issue.
CH: If you get tired, we can stop, I have about 15 questions. Let’s see, personally I was impressed by the resolve with which you moved through your hindrances. When young, before American Earth, before Tobacco Road came out and you said various things in your autobiography, Call it Experience, such as “For 10 or 12 hours a day I wrote always with a dogged determination regardless of hardship.’ That was when you were in, ah, Maine. And…you said: “I was to break down the resistance of Scribner’s,” the publisher. I’m wondering about that, it seems you had this resolve to get there.
EC: Well, its hard to describe [trembling, feeble tone\ in a way because, ah, you see I was handicapped early in life…. I did not have an education, went to high school for two years, and that as a total of, ah, three years and before (that) lower school. Then I went to different colleges. I went to a small college in South Carolina, which I didn’t like: Erskine College. So, I got out … and made it to the University of Virginia, which I did like. After that, I was able to go to the University of Pennsylvania summer school, which also gave me a big life, but my personal education came out of the University of Virginia even though I never graduated. But, I achieved what I wanted to get, all right, as if I had to struggle against the tide, against the odds, because I didn’t have … what might have carried me to higher levels… higher intellectual levels, and so forth.
So, I was not at all capable of higher intellectual life. My life consisted of how life, the life on the bottom, the life of the people who were poor because when we were growing up, we were surrounded by people in poverty, and so I had no great ambition to be anything but a chronicler, a conveyer of other peoples’ lives by interpreting their existence to my eyes, the way I saw it, not as … anybody else would see their lives, necessarily, but as their lives revealed to me that basic struggle of human existence, spiritual, educational, medical…all kinds of things.
People who were poor were also in poor health. You can’t have good medical attention if you’re out of money to pay the doctor, so if you had bad health you had a poor empty stomach, you had no great future… So, of course, the panacea for all this … came out of the evangelical religion that was imposed on them. (Not imposed, but) they grasped it because it was the only feasible thing they could get hold on.
CH: Did you feel for those people empathetically at a young age?
EC: Well, you see, I knew them so well because I lived among them, as I was writing in this autobiography over here (points to a large pile of paper on his desk). I used to drive an auto for a country doctor for several summers, for several doctors, so I would be exposed to the mysterious diseases nobody else knew about. But the doctor knew what they were and he could do nothing. I became exposed to those (cough) lives and (cough) yet get into which they were living, so that, ah, influenced me to be sympathetic (hard cough). So my life was in among those people, and not among the elite, not among intellectuals, not about and among the educated, no. It was just among the people that were out in the field, the mills…. That is the only thing I knew.
CH: When you started to write, you started on the newspaper, didn’t you? You started at 18, or so?
EC: Yea, well, I go into that in my autobiography. I started there. I learned it by working as a volunteer, a weekly newspaper, type by hand, all kinds of things like that. Writing social notes, obits, then I graduated up to sports writer, writing about baseball and the small town in which I lived in Georgia; so that’s how I started in newspaper journalism. When I left college the last time, I got a job on the Atlantic Journal, and that’s where I really got started in writing because whatever I wrote, he threw it into the waste basket; so I learned everything I write is not going to be good.
Right, so you know you have got to do it yourself, because you can’t trust other people to help you…
CLH: I remember you did a story during those times, about a guy on skid row, it was “Blue Monday,” and, he, your editor, threw it away. Can you recall any images you had of success or fame before Scribner’s started accepting your work? Did you have images of that? What was it going to be about?
EC: No … No, because I had no great, ah … ego about the whole thing. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just did it, and trust to the future. I had no ambition to be “a writer!” or “novelist!” or anything. The idea was to do what I could do whatever it was, so I gradually gravitated from non-fiction … from newspaper journalist to fiction, because that’s what I wanted – to interpret what I saw through my filter system. And so to me nothing else matters – except just my reaction. Whatever they were, true or false, I had to do it the way it appealed to me, so that’s why I wrote as I did – and wrote 50 books… on that basis, and wrote just what appealed to me. Not what might appeal to a publisher or reader. I care nothing about the reader or publisher, only secondarily. First it has to be appealing to me and so it has to be filtered through my filter. And I don’t want to take advice from an editor….
CH: What did all this do to you? You know, Tobacco Road starts becoming a big hit on Broadway after a while and a lot of stories come out and you are in the papers, you are … what we call Famous. What did that do to you, the Erskine Caldwell who was private, maybe introverted, or whatever? What was the power of that on you? Did that cause a conflict? Public versus personal, who you really are?
FC: Hah! (laughs) You see, I was nobody. I wasn’t anything (chuckles). I was just another scribbler, another writer. I had no conception of myself as being anything other than the next guy. Um, because to me a writer had no great standing… where I was living. As I was growing up, he wasn’t anything to bank on, and he wasn’t anything to raise and he was nobody to look up to. I suppose in certain circles eminence comes from great popularity, or from great fame. But to me that simply didn’t appeal to me. I just wanted to be myself, I had to do it my way.
CH: Well, what happened when certain people early on started to align you with Henry James and Balzac … ‘This guy is up there.” What does that do to your ego and so forth?
EC: Well, you hear in college classes, you hear all these names of people who are said to be famous. Sir Walter Scott, Henry James… It meant nothing to me. I didn’t read ‘em. I didn’t read other peoples’ books. I wanted to do my own books. Ah, I didn’t want to be influenced… I didn’t want to waste my time… Sure I it would have helped me, it would have educated me, ah, but my life, ahh, is spinning away… I couldn’t sit and read a book. I had to write a book! Ah, that was my life. Writing, not reading.
I didn’t know what fame meant! It was so far removed from my existence that it was Nonexistent. In my time, it was several writers I heard about… Well, I was not interested… They could invent kingdoms way up there, out of reach. And, of course make it interesting I supposed, but it didn’t interest me. … As time went on, what I tried to do was to read one book by some master, whomever appealed to me, and one book by a young contemporary… I read a few books, maybe two a year. So, I would read one book by Hemingway, one book by Truit Edison, one by Theodore Dreiser. But they didn’t influence me because they were doing their things and I was doing my things.
CH: Next question, Criticism. Was it Call it Experience in which you talk about early criticism, the first book that Scribner’s published – American Earth?
EC: American Earth?
CH: That’s right…and there was a lot of negative criticism and a lot of negative criticism toward Tobacco Road. In a certain part of the book, you said you had a realization that you no longer had to satisfy the critical establishment. Where one time you began to think there had to be a formula for your books to sell, but then you realized that you don’t have to do that, you’re writing for you and to other people. Now, my questions is, “With that realization, was there a change in your life? When you had that realization… (was it) a kind of therapy? You know, a breakthrough?”
EC: well, you see (cough) when criticism came, I was not interested in it. I probably would have benefited from it, but I always had a theory: there are always two opposing forces in criticism…One is praise and one is damnation. To me they cancel out each other. So, I was not interested in either. Ah…to me, when someone panned (a work), I could accept it. If I read it – I didn’t always read it, didn’t know about it, I guess, but ah… if somebody praised it, I usually didn’t accept praise. Ah, I disbelieved it. Because to me there might be… some element there…some trickery. I don’t know, somebody might think he could achieve success by… praising something. Well, to me that’s false. I couldn’t accept any of that, no more than I could the praise, the condemnation. I guess… outside all that criticism, any book, current or other I’ve done, because once I approve or once I finish or set out a book… that’s the end of it. I don’t care what’s going to happen to it. If it has a good sale, fine…. If it has a poor sale, fine. I accept that. So I don’t expect anything. I don’t accept praise and I don’t accept condemnation. I… I just live above it.
CH: So, do you think that has been basically one of your saving graces, the things that allowed you to have or find buoyancy, where others fell? They identified themselves as a god. In popular music, someone like Elvis is an example. He became a myth, a famous person.
EC: Well yes! You see, the trouble with many young writers is that they get into a corner… they get backed into a corner and the first thing they know they belong to a coterie! A crowd. A self-admiration society. And so they only surround themselves with people who can appreciate them. Outsiders go away! An inner circle… Inner circle, where a lot of writers get into that troublesome thing… that they think they have to associate only with their own kind. I don’t associate with writers. Writers are dull people. I must rather associate with the store clerk. Or bank clerk, or garbage man, or anybody who has a better outlook. A writer is self-centered. He’s so self-satisfied with himself and life, he knows everything, so you can’t tell him anything, so why associate with him?
CH: It sounds like being brought up in your family, you know, a father who was the minister… and the kind of humble surroundings… It sounds like you were helped by your upbringing to prevent this sort of illusion?
EC: Uh huh…!
CH: That can destroy people. The next curiosity I have is to do with nostalgia.
EC: With what?
CH: Do you ever feel you live in a fairly comfortable existence? Do you feel…a desire for those days when you were eating rattrap cheese and bread, and you know, starving in Maine? And Georgia, and New York? Do you feel like you’re missing something from then?
EC: Well, you put it this way… you see, you can FEED on that past! And… you know the pangs of hunger. And, so you say to yourself, “I know what it feels like to be hungry; I used to be hungry a lot. Well, you’ve already experienced that. You know the feeling, so you don’t have any desire to go back and relive that. Not because you feel you have achieved anything or that you’re rich enough or that you don’t have to endure poverty again. It’s just that right now, I have no great ambition to be extravagant. I have a certain level of living, a standard of living – so that suits me. So, I’m not going out to try to make a lot of money … or anything in order to raise the level of my automobiles … So, I don’t have to have a Rolls Royce, I’d feel embarrassed. Ah, I can imagine that, that a lot of people would want one and use it if they had it, but I don’t want one. If it were a gift, I would trade it in for a Chevy.
CH: You have one there (ha ha!)
EC: Ha! Yea. (pause) or a Ford!
CH: Didn’t you say this feeling that you have also happened when you were in that Hotel and the guy ran it who was the writer, and you had to get out of place because it was so swank and you were eating cheese on the floor…. Was this the same feeling of “What in the hell am I doing in THIS place?”
CH: Was that present at the time?
EC: Yeah… I guess so. I used to go back and recreate those things. I’m 83. I’ve lived…. And a lot has happened. And a lot of things have been forgotten. You ask do I want to go back and relive my days of poverty. No. For the same reason that I’ve already done it. Done it in the same way you don’t want to repeat yourself in a book; you don’t want to write the same book twice. You want to but you have different visions; so, I don’t know how to explain my existence now… it’s nothing great. Ah, a lot of people think I’m living on the edge of poverty right here…. Ah, but I don’t consider that. I don’t even consider what the degree is, as to me that’s immaterial. As long as I’m satisfied with what I’m doing. What’s now is revising these galley sheets. After that, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But, ah, right now that’s the only thing that interests me.
CH: Uh, huh…ok!
EC: And… I do have this new cancer. So, that’s something to think about. I’ve had it twice. Now I have this inoperable cancer, which cannot Be operated on! You have to take the chemo.
EC: Injections (cough) So… I don’t know how long its going to last. That’s an interesting thing. I look forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow. Or the next day!
CH: How does that affect your creative life, how does that affect time… things getting shorter, and how does that affect your creativity? It must put you on the ledge between life and the hereafter… How does that affect you?
EC: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think about that enough, I suppose I don’t know how to feel ‘bout it, because, ah, as you know I was raised a Presbyterian….
EC: And the Presbyterian is not too much worried about what’s gonna happen, because its going to happen anyway; so it doesn’t bother me what my troubles are – I know I am going to have troubles, so whatever they are, it’s something I have to lived with. And, I’m prepared to do it. Whatever it is. Because I don’t expect to live beyond another two or three years, anyway.
I set myself as a goal – 85! And my wife wants to raise it to 86 because she wants to be 70 years old before I die. You think she’ll make it?
CH: You might surprise yourself, too.
[Mrs. C (in doorway) I think you might! Its time for your water!)
EC: (to his wife) You will bring me that check to sign?
Mrs. C: All right, I will. Would you like some coffee or tea?
CH: Tea would be nice.
Mrs. C: Or cookies?
CH: Just a little bit of caffeine would be nice.
Mrs. C: Just plain old tea or fancy tea?
CH: That’s all I drink is plain old tea.
Mrs. C: I have every one, from blackberry to sassafras.
CH: O… blackberry…
CH: Well no one knows when they are going, I could go before you and I’m 37.
EC: 37? You are about half way!
CH: About half way, huh? However long my life is, I just want to be able to do it fully, and I think you’re a model in a way… because you live fully. You’ve written, you’ve done what you wanted, you know, and I respect that.
What would you say is the most trying phase as you look back … What do you think … what was the most trying phase, if you can talk about it. The one that had the most obstacles, where you almost gave up. If you can use that term?
EC: Well, you see, these obstacles I consider to be helpful! For example, as I keep saying, I was undereducated even though my mother did teach me almost everything I know (coughs), but I never memorized the definitions of words, that kind of thing, so when it came time to write ‘em out, I couldn’t spell ‘em, and so what I looked for was a word of two syllables, and to me that simplified matters. It helped; it was helpful to me because as I grew older, I found that the best writing is simple writing. Not the most intellectual or educated, or whatnot. Because if you’re going to know what the meanings are, even though I don’t know myself… Even though I look it up in the dictionary, I really don’t know what I’m doing! So, I like to look for a word, the origin of a word whether Greek, Latin, French, or wherever it came from, ah, to see the root. So, for me, that gives the basic meaning of the word that can be simplified. So you don’t have to put a lot of syllables on it. Man is man. Woman is woman. And so on.
CH: How did you deal with the problem of labeling? There are many people out there labeling artists…. You have been labeled everything, more than anybody…. From a communist to somebody who writes burlesque…to a naïve writer that Malcolm Cowley called you, to a surrealist, to ah – O God, everything. How do you deal with this sort of thing, you know, the public image; how the public perceives you? Has that ever been a problem?
EC: Well, I don’t, because you see, that’s part of what I consider criticism.
CH: All right.
EC: I don’t take to criticism. So, I don’t care that the public advises, or thinks… I’m gonna do it my way! So, I’m not much impressed by other peoples’ advice. So I’m not impressed by other people. Sure people have great reputations. Malcolm Cowley has a fine reputation as a critic. Ah, he could not influence me! Not by any means, I wouldn’t consider… followin’ his advice ‘bout picking out certain themes to write about; that would not interest me, but I want to do it may way. I want to pick the theme, not what he thinks is good.
CH: He’s supported you more than a lot of people.
CH: Where does he live, Malcolm?
EC: In Connecticut, like a little of writers. I used to live there myself.
CH: Some people have commented that you have been denied some of the major prizes… like the Pulitzer. They felt that Hemingway and Faulkner got these, that you didn’t. And your reponse was “I don’t really care.” Once I’m gone, it doesn’t matter.” My question is: does it matter? Let’s assume there’s life after death and you can look back, what would you like us to know as far as Erskine Caldwell goes?
EC: Well, I think… ah, some time ago I had some question like that, and I think what I said was, to give an example of what happened at one time. I had a letter from a reader. I don’t know what story they had written about… It was a woman reader who said, “I likevery much…your story about so and so…” (she gave me the name of the character) “because it revealed to me something about my uncle that I had never been able to fathom myself. When I read your interpretation of so and so’s life, that was my uncle!’ And, that was the application that this story had for the woman; it revealed for her something she otherwise would not have found herself if she had to read my interpretation of somebody else’s life. So, that’s about the only answer I can give to that kind of question.
CH: Back to your late 20s, early 30s when you were in the phase of writing The American Earth and you had already done The Bastard then Tobacco Road… and it ends up being a work that – through your own imagination, reflecting, being a mirror for the rough social conditions and economic conditions for a lot of people with whom you were brought up – the sharecropper, etc. My question is: Is there ever more than just mirroring? Can writing therapize and deal with that? Or, is there always a residual feeling of suffering? Because, I’m assuming here that the imagination in ways amplifies, especially when you see so much and you can’t get it out of your writing. Or, is your writing a form of therapy?
EC: Well, it is a result of observing. Result of having to do something yourself, because I always think that how could you write about and describe a human being if you never had seen one? It would be so fanciful. Ah, are you going to make it realistic if you never saw a human? If you were the only being there was, and you couldn’t see yourself, of course, but if you tried to write about someone else, it would be difficult.
[Virginia Caldwell stands in doorway]
EC: What do you have there, Virginia?
CH: Can I help you?
VC: [Brings in tray of cups and cookies]
CH: Are you feeling tired?
EC: We have been at it for about …
CH: For about an hour. I’ve got about three more questions.
VC: (talks with EC about signing checks)
It’s so automatic to write a check and sign it. And that’s an attractive New Mexico style color!
CH: Oh, that’s a Sear and Roebuck! Its incredible what I found for $12.
EC: Oh, Sears has turned out to be quite the store… they have fashion shows.
CH: I didn’t know that, but they upped their quality and their prices, too. They even got new managers in Chicago.
VC: You make him behave will you, Charles?
VC: He wanted to get rid of his oxygen …
CH: Staying on the topic of imagination a moment – there was the psychologist, Carl Jung, who found that going into oneself and confronting imaginary figures can be a tremendous teaching. And, when I read your comments on imagination and characters as they develop and speak, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much difference. They have independence, in a way, they are not just your ego, but there is something else about them. And, I’m just wondering if they have been “teachers”… not only Ty Ty (and Geeter, but are they “mentors”? That may be a hard question.
EC: Well, imagination is a writer’s best friend. If you could not imagine (then) all you’re going to end up with is an encyclopedia of facts everybody already knows; what you’re doing, you’re repeating the facts… you have to go beyond that, you have to interpret those facts in a different way. Ah, I couldn’t by any means…delineate or explain what imagination is, how you get it, and how you use it. I don’t know. I just do what I do. I think most writers do who are imaginative in that sense because imagination is a free flowing thing. I think that’s what they meant when they called it “stream of consciousness” because its unmediated thought; things that come to mind without being urged, without trying to recall because it has to go beyond anything that’s happened… Just like fiction has to be something that has never existed ‘till it is written. Ah, fiction means exactly what it says. It’s fictitious – nothing that exists ‘till you write…. And, that’s fiction; that is something that now exists because you’ve written it. But it never existed before.
So, Imagination is the same thing, it has to derive out of nothing, more or less… Derive… make it realistic… not a dream… it’s not like dreams because dreams are very elusive, they are deceptive. If you try to go back and justify existence of some dream you had, to verify it, you’re gonna find flaws, you’re gonna find great flaws in it that could never have existed. It’s just a dream world. It means exactly what it says, it simply does not exist. Imagination is different, it is [the] free flowing result of, ah, human existence. You apply what has already happened to what might happen. – now, that’s imagination! And, not what has happened. Fiction has got to be something that has never existed. So, your imagination has got to be unique, and should not be denied a writer, that is his best stock-in-trade. If he doesn’t have imagination, what’s he going to do? He might know how to spell… Know how to make paragraphs, but what’s the meaning? That’s the important thing.
CH: Do you see a different …obstacles (today) that were different from when you look at your 30s or 40s…obstacles that were different from then or similar to ones you were or are (still) hitting in your mature years, you’re 60s through 80s? Do certain obstacles stay with you, or do they change?
EC: Well, obstacles always exist in some form. Because they conform to, ah, your current existence, current life and so forth, because… I’m trying to think of an example – of what existed then and what does not exist now; but, for example, Welfare. In my days, there was no such thing as welfare. Now, everybody knows what welfare is and has ambition to go on welfare or something of this sort. In my early life, which is, say, 70 years ago, no such thing as welfare existed, and you had it or you didn’t have it. If you are going to beg… well, go out on the street and beg..
But you wouldn’t do that now, you go to welfare, so it’s a change of existence, a change of style. The obstacles then and now, always differ, no matter what the subject or matter is, it’s going to be different Now, everybody … a lot of people … could not exist or would not exist without credit, borrowing money, credit cards, mortgages… In the old days, it was a feat to be debt-free – if you could manage it. So you tried to own your house, you didn’t want a mortgage…. You didn’t want to have to pay on it. You just wanted to live in it. So, the present generation, the people in their 20s and 30s, they want credit. Well, more power to them… but I wouldn’t want it.
CH: We’re forced to. I’m finding myself forced to. I want to keep away from that kind of thing, but I had to have a Sears credit card to get this car at the Phoenix Airport!
CH: They would not let me pay cash.
EC: That’s right!
CH: I had to have a card, so you are forced to go into hock…. To me, its terrifying because it’s all in computers and people can know about you and it is getting to be a mess. Talking about writers today, I remember one thing I had read, something you commented about, how it’s hard to be a writer today because everything has to be done quickly! The publishers want you do things quick! You have to read quick, and so forth. How do you feel, what would you do, if you were not born in 1903, but 1949? How would you handle this “future shock” that everyone is quick, everyone has to be instant! You can’t reflect anymore.
EC: Well, of course, you can swim with all the blows you get. You learn to do that. You learn to live with your circumstances. It all depends on the era in which you live, because life ten years from now is going to be nothing like it is now. Whether I could cope with it ten years from now, I don’t know (coughs). If I knew 40 years ago what life was going to be like today, I probably would have had a convulsion!
CH: What do you say are the main things in an aspiring artist’s character that are needed to deal with the insanities of today?
EC: Ah, of course that’s where the writer comes in! he should imagine at least what is going to transpire next year. Maybe not ten years from now, but that’s why a writer’s imagination has an opportunity to exert itself If he can foresee tomorrow or the next day or year, Ah, that’s imagination, where the imagination of a writer goes to work. I wouldn’t want to write a novel of the future; I could not envision that far ahead. I could try to write about maybe what is happening today, and it could be of course about, maybe what is happening, and it could be a dated novel, and it would be written in 1986 and so forth and so that would be a 1986 vision, but at least you could apply your imagination to some extent, and sort of foresee… what the architecture of a town is going to look like in years from now. Things like that. You can use your imagination to that extent, but beyond that, I don’t think I could cope with the world tomorrow.
CH: There’s one thing that came to mind as I was driving over here, following your wife here. It has to do with relationships. … about how relationships, marriage, and so on, impact a writer’s compulsiveness, and I wonder how you have dealt with that, if it’s been a problem at all? You know, the kind of intimacy, and so forth. How has that affected you, taken you from writing? Has that threatened you? And how did you deal with that?
CH: With a woman, male – female.
CH: Say you are related to someone like Margaret Bourke White, who is very energetic and so on, what does that do to you?
EC: Yea, yeah! Ah, it all depends on your nature. Some people can, some men can get along without women… to various degrees, of course. But to me it is natural to be affiliated with the female. To some extent, I can understand out here – there are two birds, me and female, they fly together…. I can appreciate that, so for me it is just as natural for those birds to be mated as it is for a male and female to be mated. My… difficulty in life is that I’ve been married four times. That’s not a very helpful… kind of life I suppose to some people. But, it happened to be my life and I lived it that way. I think I couldn’t see it any other way because now, looking back, there are a lot of people I wouldn’t want to be married to, that I had known earlier, then I would not even be intimate with. But, looking back and remembering the circumstances of other people, I say: “Well, I’m glad I’m not married to that woman!” But, I can say, “I am glad I am married as I am today!”
CH: You do have a wonderful wife. I had a college professor in Florida, a poet who said in class one day, “One of the great things about getting older is that you can look back with joy at all the people you didn’t marry!”
Let me put it this way: Okay, assuming that I don’t know what your personal philosophy is about the afterlife… But assuming for a moment that one exists… and the possibility of coming back into life again…. What would you become…a writer, again? Or, would you eliminate that?
EC: Well of course, hindsight is a very ticklish kind of thing to deal with because you could always approve of what you did wrong in the past. Ah, I would rather come back as a writer rather than as a lawyer or anything else. Although there are some of the glamorous professions, like movie actor, all kinds of things, but to me the way I feel about myself, I wouldn’t want to be anything else the second time or third time! I’d have to be what I am.
CH: Would you still type in a cold room in Maine with not enough wood? Would you still eat rat cheese in a depression? Would you still accept the rejections …
EC: Well, you see, those things, when you look back… seem like hardships, but while you are doing them you are so busy living, you don’t consider what they are. Sure, I was cold at night, very cold. But, at the same time, I considered it part of living life itself. So, it was something I didn’t regret, or didn’t disapprove of, didn’t dislike. It was a hardship, sure…
CH: Do you feel that those hardships added to your life as you sit here at eighty three? Do you feel that those were important for your character in terms of who you are?
EC: Well, they give you a lot of stamina! You, you get engrained with stamina. Ah, of course, I could not visualize a life of ease in which you have no hardship. I would not know how to exist because I would be living in a false atmosphere in which you have no troubles – ah, if you had no money troubles, no health troubles, no this, that, and the other … you have to have hardships in order to be impressed with life. Especially as a writer – if he’s not impressed with living, well, what’s he going to write about? So, I don’t say that every writer should go to Greenwich Village and live in a coldwater flat and be emaciated down to 98 pounds – NO! I don’t think that’s necessary. But, if that’s what befalls you, well, you’ll want to do it if you are a dedicated writer.
CH: What do you feel “failure” and what do you feel “success” are?
CH: Success versus failure?
EC: Okay, well, I don’t think that success is necessarily fame. Ah, success might be recognition. Ah, but that recognition his not something that is as important as the fact that you wouldn’t be satisfied without it. It’s something that you think you may have worked for and earned. Ah, and if money comes with it, that’s secondary; that’s not the main point. And if you have recognition, not fame, but if you have recognition, if somebody says: “Well, he’s a pretty good writer!” he’s written some pretty good books!” to me, that’s the ultimate praise that any writer could or should expect…. Now, failure … we are talking about writers’ failure. Its someone, to me, who thinks he has talent or for some reason has… mesmerized himself to the point that he thinks he should be successful. But, not having the talent and the ability, but somebody who keeps on in the face of failure, ah, to the end, and ends up a derelict, to me that’s failure. Now, he might resort to other means of making a living, by writing porno books or something, to exist. To me that is not a successful failure, that’s a premeditated failure. Ah, to do something like that in order to try to be successful, because if you change your philosophy… if you change your ideals… in order to achieve something underhanded, something fraudulent, to me – that is not something successful. It’s a failure.
CH: I think that one of the best comments I’ve gotten on this subject! Seems like you have thought about it. Well, I’m through, if there is anything you can think that we didn’t cover?
EC: Ha ha! Well, I don’t know of anything else I can say, and I don’t know if anything I said was really important. So, it’s whatever you make of it. Because I’m not a great mind. I’m not a great thinker. I’m not a great philosopher. I’m just an ordinary guy.
About the interviewer:
Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.
Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico. Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know.
Previous contributions to Ragazine include interviews with the late John Cage and the very-much-alive Dorothea Rockburne.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Erskine Caldwell Interview
Breakfast with Blanche
We are breakfasting with the usual trio: Blanche, Sludge and Ted. Susan is my “Significant Other”, or more practically, SO. The SO and I motored down to Key West from St. Pete, early Saturday morning, Christmas week. On Sunday, we are joined by our traditional Christmas week breakfast club, comprised of Susan and myself, and Ted, Blanche and Sludge, all three of whom are birds, and all of whom show up for the festivities every year. We are celebrating the Holidays together for the third straight year. Sludge, the newest member of our club, is back for year number two. There’s a diverse spread, with something for everyone; we have leftover yellowtail snapper from yesterday’s lunch at the Hogfish Bar and Grill on Stock Island, fresh Tangerine Juice from Yellow Bank Groves in Largo, and a perfect Comice pear, sliced at its peak of flavor and aroma, which lasts for approximately one hour before it declines. I have a croissant from the French bakery on Duvall, and Cuban coffee from Cuban Coffee Queen, down on the docks. The SO is having a slice of gluten-free bread she brought from St. Pete. Blanche, Sludge and Ted are dining on crumbs scattered on the balcony floor, as per usual. We are all merry, and enjoying the Christmas decorations on the boats below us in the marina.
I should introduce the honored guests. Ted is Canadian, in Key West for his annual vacation. He is a warbler by trade, roughly the size of a standard cosmetic cotton ball, and interprets my morning whistle toward the coconut palms in front of the balcony as his personal invitation to join the breakfast club each morning. Blanche and Sludge are local Key West pigeons of good families. Blanche has celebrated Christmas with us for at least three years, perhaps four. She’s beautifully distinctive. Of her eight toenails, three are white, as are most of her feathers, and three of her toenails are jet black. Her eyes have black pupils, surrounded by cadmium yellow irises, and ringed by a clear, bright orange. There are a few random, red/brown feathers on her lower back. She and Ted arrive a few seconds after I whistle for them, and Sludge, Blanche’s second-year SO, arrives seconds later. Sludge is unlovely by my standards, but he’s Blanche’s Prince Charming. He’s the same color as dirty, big-city sidewalk snow, beady-eyed and grimy. Ted, on the other hand is always immaculately attired, dapper, with a gray-green/yellow back, and dark bars on his thumbnail-sized, buff-colored breast. If I haven’t whistled him in, he chips from the coconut palm to remind me that he has arrived, and is awaiting invitation. As soon as I do whistle, he flits over to the railing, and looks down to verify that his breakfast has been served. Usually, he cocks his head, and regards me with baffled interest: what kind of huge, ugly and deformed bird am I?
I can whistle, at least, and I have spilled crumbs for him. He shrugs, and drops to the tiled floor with his tablemates, Blanche and Sludge. They ignore each other, and eat with speed and gusto, as is their way. Ted is always the first to excuse himself, and returns to the nearby palms to hunt for bugs, I suspect for the kids’ breakfasts.
Susan has walked to the French bakery for my morning croissant, and stopped at the Cuban Coffee Queen to bring back a café au lait for herself, and a double colada for me. I’ve set the patio table, warmed the leftover snapper fillets and poured the juice. Her brought-from-home gluten-free bread was in the toaster, ready to go down. On her return, I’d shake out the crumbs in the pastry bag onto the balcony for our three guests, all of whom arrive promptly, bringing appetites. When Ted leaves, he’s usually gone for a while, but Blanche and Sludge are fairly likely to follow us into the timeshare living room, and perch on the lampshade, like Poe’s raven. We shoo them out, but they’ll walk right back inside, unless we close the door, or seat ourselves on the balcony to keep them company. In the latter scenario, they settle down on the tile, near us, and wait for more food, very patiently.
From the balcony, we watch some of the semi-tame tarpon cruise slowly through the open water in the marina below, looking for a hand-out of left-over bait from the fishermen tied up to the dock or filleting fish at the cleaning tables nearby. The roving Key West cats, all named, snooze in the sun, or sit impatiently under the fish tables. Each of them seem to know that they will be fed their scraps in turn, and there are no arguments between them as slivers of raw fish are distributed to them by the fish cleaners, ministering to the faithful.
There is a sharp-shinned hawk perched on the mast of one of the larger boats in the marina, also looking for dining opportunities. He looks at, then ignores the breakfast club guests. Ted is too small to bother eating, and Blanche and Sludge too large to consider, when there are right-sized mourning doves in abundant supply nearby. After surveying the options in our immediate vicinity, the hawk flaps aloft, and then soars away, seeking breakfast elsewhere.
After breakfast, we close the doors to the balcony, and go for a stroll down Duvall Street. It’s sunny and mid-seventies: the people we pass on the sidewalks are cheerful, and as glad to be there as we are, but Key West offers plenty of traps for the unwary. A week there suffices for us. Two weeks is a bit too long, at least for me. There are bars on almost every corner, it seems, and plenty of folks who appear to have stayed in Key West just a little too long for their own good, hovering in the shadows. Early walks take you past ragged people sorting through the trash cans along the street, periodically extracting a half-eaten sandwich or an unemptied cup. Homeless people congregate in the out-of-the-way spots, here and there, and ask for spare change, smokes or your take-home bag. I suspect that Paradise isn’t all that far from hell, if either actually exist, and Key West might just be that spot, if it does.
About the author:
Bill Dixon is a contributing columnist to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on From the Edge/Bill Dixon
Neil Carver’s series, “Omni-Phantasmic”, features underwater nudes as they portray the submersion of a conscious mind in the cloudy waters of the subconscious. Carver explains that the series is a visual voyage of metamorphosis into the subconscious waters of the mind: “The ultimate metaphysical quest into the undercurrent of consciousness.”
As he says in a foreword to the series: What you can perceive and process is an extremely finite portion of what you receive from the physical environment. And to truly grasp the vexing questions of your inner facilities, you must open yourself to a flood of unrestricted information. So one must dive into the cloudy placid waters of the subconscious world to uncover a linkage between the conscious and the subconscious mind. Once the excavation is started; the illumination of the self imposed restrains of values, ideas, and moral codes will dissolve. When the subconscious floods pass society’s imprisonment; starting a process of uncontaminated awareness; a penetrating understanding will unfold!
Neil Carver quickly became mesmerized by the creative process as a young boy. Beginning as an abstract painter and figurative sculptor, his motivation grew from an interest in chroma and psychophysical effects of these stimuli acting upon his five known senses. His creations are the exploration of his inner faculties in the pursuit of knowledge expressing “original thoughts”. Photography, he says, holds all the intrinsic values of all the other arts, but differs in the fact that it’s the foundation of existence.
“Nothing can exist without the photon and every aspect is controlled by it’s usage.”
See more of the series at www.omni-phantasmic.com
November 6, 2014 Comments Off on Photo Editor Choice/Nov-Dec 2014
Two Book Reviews
by Mary Kane
Reviewed by Miriam O’Neal
Author: Mary Kane
Published By: One Bird Book
ISBN-10: 149 4838427
Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com
Door, Mary Kane’s first full-length volume of poems, has the fullness of a mature writer. This is a poet who has practiced her craft extensively and with intensity. The door of the title poem turns out to be the broad expanse of a man’s back. Other doors turn out to be memories, windows, spaces between trees, death, ideas…. Each contains a threshold and a frame. Each invites entry or exit; from unconsciousness to consciousness, from the past to the future, from grief to acceptance, from the real to the surreal.
Over the course of the first 5 poems of Door we move from,
- the ‘black door’ of a man’s back ‘opening/ to a church where the flat/hat of a single congregant/ accommodates despair
- to the ‘black coat’ in a series of photographs, which reminds the speaker of an early time when ‘Doctors and clergymen’ visited people in their homes.
- to ‘several varieties of morning light, all of them useful for reflection….’, in the daytime memory of a dream of an extramarital affair,
- to a woman named Mary Ann, who exists in a painting by that name, but whom the speaker invites you to imagine as yourself.
- to lemons in a daughter’s drawing that elicit layers of awareness of grief, desire, the loss of innocence, and more.
Real and imagined characters, artists, writers, and family members enter and leave the rooms of these poems, the action often takes place in a kitchen, on a sidewalk, in a dream, and other places. One wonderful characteristic of the poems in Door, is that Kane manages to persuade you to suspend your disbelief early on by providing familiar and ordinary details through which to view the worlds these poems inhabit.
Each poem operates as a report or a musing. We read the odd details of dreams or memories; the propositions she presents begin to reveal our own unconsciousness to us. I do not mean she preaches to us; she discusses matters with us. In “The Listener” we meet Joe, who
…cups one hand
behind his ear and crouches
in a scraped out space beneath a sidewalk, in hiding
in the dark nine-tenths of who I am….
It’s difficult to say how many times I have read this particular poem, but every time I read it I am amazed by its ability to clarify the particular reality of an acknowledged hidden self who understands what we are about. We each have a ‘Joe’ within, a ‘listener,’ that hidden part of ourselves with whom we long to merge; we “long to sit at dinner// with [our] entirety….”, even though until this moment we haven’t had a name for that self or for that longing.
A lot of what opens the door for the reader of these poems is Kane’s ability to remove us from the predictable immediately. Her titles and opening lines set up expectations of a one kind only to displace us by way of curious images or ideas. You might imagine you know what to expect from a poem whose title is, “Better Than Catholicism,” but you would be mistaken.
A man walks up Main Street
with a cardboard box on his head
and decides he likes it
better than Catholicism
but not so much
as a cigarette at a bar.
It’s important to say that Kane never reaches for the polemical. If she’s writing about religion, she’s not claiming it’s rightness or wrongness, she’s writing about the longing that one’s connection to a religion may or may not fulfill. That theme of longing is echoed in “Love Poem #279”, whose opening lines tell us “A poet is someone who is stupid/ enough to keep scratching….”, and with the closing lines of “Love Poem — Egret”,
which closes with,
…. I used to be
made of bird too, my fast
heart, my voice hidden
in foliage, my ready flight.
That sense of past life is one way that the poems address the presence of absence.
Absences create spaces. Spaces are to be entered.
Kane’s poems startle me into awareness again and again. There is the line from “A Fine Red New of Capillaries In The Shape Of A Human Head” where the speaker claims, “If you bring forth what is in you, that’s the Gospel of Thomas.” Thomas was the apostle who doubted that Christ has risen, so was invited to place his fingers in the wound in Christ’s side as proof that this was Christ. As such, this single line provides a quick insight or an afternoon of contemplation. What is the place of doubt in the human psyche?
There is also an intense awareness of how we inhabit the physical world as in the poem “Measure” where,
In the first winter
two sisters skate at night, lying on their backs
on the ice afterward, their ears and fingers
cold, the creak and moan of thick ice
widening the night….
Like a painter who knows her brushes, Kane has captured the experience of night skating precisely with a few strokes, including the sound of ice refreezing in the dark, which makes the night feel deeper, broader, and more mysterious.
If you review the table of contents of Door, it might seem that she sometimes goes too far with her titles. There are 7 poems whose titles are 9 or more words long, and 1 exceeds 20 words. These are juxtaposed with the single word titles like ‘Door” and “Measure,” “Parnate” and “Evidence.” I mention the titles only because they are, all of them, the kinds of titles, whether brief or extensive, that take on the work of doors themselves, framing the spaces of the poems, insuring that when you enter, you know how you got there, especially because where you end up can be so unexpected.
One of the remarkable characteristics of Kane’s work is her capacity for an undercurrent of droll humor. Imaginary characters like Eleanor, Ellen, a woman sitting on clouds or in a tree, and 3 women having tea, arrive with strange news or casseroles, or a photo of a window and a field; a poem shows up with mud on its trousers. The reader feels she knows the cast from somewhere else. Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Woolf, Whitman, Dickinson, Cezanne, Kitaj, Degas, and others show up to referee, infer, or illuminate situations. Yet there is not a single presence that feels self-conscious. They inhabit the poems as naturally as the birds— herons, orioles, egrets, the shadow of a hawk.
A common practice of reviewers is to examine a collection of poems for its arc. I won’t claim to have found one in Door. What I find is a wandering, as in the aboriginal ‘walk about’, which is defined by some as a rite of passage of adolescence, but is also related to the practice of leaving ordinary/daily life without notice when a ceremony must be attended to. The poems lead the reader on and on, from room to room, world to world, vision to vision. The first and title poem “Door” ends with the line “I only have to change/ utterly to enter.” The final poem “There Will Be A Woman Written In As A Wren,” suggests the transformation has occurred when one last character is introduced, “…there’ll be a young boy tossing a baseball in the air, higher and higher, always catching it in his glove….”. His easiness with ball and glove, in spite of ever growing distance between the two suggests a way of living with it all— with longing, with absence, with wonder, with grief: stand still, wait, receive, release. Repeat.
Door, by Mary Kane (ISBN 13: 978-149483423)
One Bird Book
35 Brush Hill Circle
Hatchville, MA 02536
About the Reviewer:
Miriam O’Neal has published poems and/or reviews in AGNI, Marlboro Review, Louisiana Literature, Birmingham Review, and The Guidebook, as well as elsewhere. Her translation of Italian poet, Alda Merini earned her a Beginning Translator’s Fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in 2007. Her manuscript, We Start WithWhat We’re Given is currently looking for a home.
From These Roots
by Audrie Clifford
Reviewed by Eileen Dandashi
Title: From These Roots
Author: Audrie Clifford
Published By: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
(March 4, 2014)
Audrie’s books are so unique. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. She tells us that some are purely fiction, some are memoirs and others are a combination. She’s got stories in her, this feisty-tell-it-how-it-is-80-year-old, who puts just enough fictional material in a factual setting that you have to read it.
Her story about her mother and grandmother was researched through family and her own memory. It is her mother’s story, but it’s hers and well as her brother and sisters. The absolutely clever way she begins the book keeps you reading, after all, doesn’t everyone want to find out what the dead have to say?
I’ve been dead a good long while now. I didn’t mean to scare you by saying that, but I didn’t want you to think that I was alive and that you could communicate with me.
I died in 1939, which was a considerable time ago, but you know how folks say that as long as there is anyone who remembers you, you’re really not gone? Well, it’s true. There are only two granddaughters left who have the vaguest memory of me, and those two girls are getting old, so I won’t be around much longer, I guess. I’ll just be fading into that blur of ancestors that we all have, and I don’t know if there are individual spirits among them. Guess I’ll be finding out pretty soon.
I liked the book for the story itself, the relationships been daughter and mothers. I was touched by the purely unselfish acts that women did for each other. It also described life as it used to be. I am not as old as Audrie, but I know life was simpler in the 1950s. But in the early 1900s when Florence, lived, there was very little of what we’ve come to expect today. Yep, outhouses were the norm in lots of the United States since much of it was rural. People did their own canning of summer harvests to tie them over through the hard months of winter. Poverty during the depression years was the new norm. Cars were a rarity. Doctors may know what you have, but have nothing to make it go away. And if they know what something is, there were no pills to pop, just herbs and natural ways to get over something. Addy, one of Emma’s children, had the Cuban itch. What is the Cuban itch you ask? The doctor had such a novel way to get rid of it! Hey, you gotta’ read the book, I can’t tell! People had to rely on themselves whenever they could, but also found help was available from the graciousness of others who had a little more than they did. Life was simple, yet difficult.
Women have always had to be strong. They were survivors. They still are. Our environment and challenges have changed, but the struggle continues. I’d like to think that our genes have been conditioned by our ancestors dealing with adversity. Women have always been thus challenged. We shall overcome and be stronger for it.
Audrie writes from her heart in a very entertaining way. I really have enjoyed all her books to date. I hope that you’ll choose to read one. Below are the covers of her books with purchase links from Amazon. Below that are links to my previous reviews of her three other books.
Book Jacket Blurb: Most of us don’t live in exactly the same style as our parents. It is the nature of the child to break away and to see a life more in keeping with their own inclinations. From These Roots tells the stories of Florence, a woman of the early 20th century and her daughter, Emma. Both women faced the challenges of poverty and heartbreak and yet, neither woman let circumstances define her.
As women of the modern age, we are inclined to give ourselves credit for our strength and courage in overcoming obstacles, never wondering where those qualities came from.
Perhaps the best thing to inherit from your ancestors is neither money nor beauty. It is the ability to cope with adversity.
A warm, but unsparing look at the events that occur in many of our lifetimes. Florence tells the tales of her own life and that of one of her daughters. They were both good women, but while Florence accepted betrayal and heartbreak in a docile manner as was proper at the turn of the twentieth century, Emma was more inclined to fight back or to get even. Their strength and endurance, along with that of other mothers has been left as a legacy to the women of today. “Great story about the joys and sorrows all families face during a lifetime.”
Another Damn Newcomer https://eileendandashi.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=852&action=edit
A bit of information about Audrie Clifford:
My first book was factual, my second and third books were fiction, From These Roots is both.
I always knew that I wanted to tell my mother’s story because I found it to be almost unbelievable. What I needed to put it in an acceptable format was someone to tell the story from an all-seeing point of view. My mother’s mother seemed to be a perfect solution. The only problem was that I hadn’t known my grandmother. She died when I was only five-years old, after seeing her one time.
Family history, however, gave me some of the known facts of her life and she became “Florence” in my book. All I had to do was write the story to conform to the known facts.
My mother’s story (“Emma” in the book) was written to be as true to her reality as I could make it. She really, truly did intend to commit murder, and admitted it quite casually to me. She really, truly did deliver another woman’s baby in the desert.
Most women don’t have those kinds of stories, so that’s why I felt hers should be told.
The book I’m currently working on was decided on as a bit of challenge to me. This is a story of an ordinary life as told by a nine-year old.
About Eileen Dandashi:
“I am a lover of books, both reading and writing. My mission is to encourage people to see the treasures that lie between the pages. I enjoy conversing with authors, fellow bloggers who have anything to do with books and have a particular thrill seeing writers newly published. I am a past teacher of music, English as a secondary language, and French. I have traveled and lived in much of the Middle East, Arab speaking countries and would like to share my experiences and knowledge through the printed word.”
November 5, 2014 Comments Off on BOOKS/Reviews