how do I get back now?

The long street in the dark, the branches hanging down low over the pavement, the lights and their yellow pools, the neighbor’s dog barking in her deep, slow voice, the other neighbor’s dog answering, the call going out, relayed across fences and through hedges, alert, alert. Danger, Will Robinson. Remember when Brazil’s National Museum burned? We didn’t see it, of course, but felt the heat, despite the distance, the oceans, the entire continent. We cried together in the living room for all that was lost. Notre Dame burned today. Something else tomorrow. There was an opossum on the porch earlier, digging its nose down into the recycling bin. I watched it for a while through the kitchen window. It seemed neither bothered nor curious about the barking next door, and went about its business licking out the empty tomato cans. I came out onto the porch later, but it was gone. It lives down underneath the porch. Now that the dog is dead, we have all sorts of animals in the yard. We had to build a fence around the gardens. Your mother designed them, and I helped build them. There’s nothing else happening here tonight.

When I’m out there, I’m never sure how to get back. I’m not sure how to get back now. I’m not sure I want to get back. I can go out to the tunnels or follow the trail down through the marsh and across the bog and down toward the industrial park and wander around in the Urban Forestry Center, but then I’m gone too far and coming back is a math problem that can’t be solved. When you’re deep in the Urban Forestry Center at night, you can see the MacDonald’s arches glowing across Route One. You can smell the coffee roasting at Port City Roasters. You can hear the crackling of the power lines and the ringing of the buoys out in the bay and airplanes coming down at the airfield. You can walk to the edge, and it’s like you haven’t gone anywhere at all.Down in the tunnels, I make my way to the iron door that’s welded closed. You can tell someone has been trying to get in. Someone has been hammering on the door with a rock or pipe. When I’m down there, I never see anyone. Someone has scratched an eye into the door. You can hear something coming from the other side, water maybe, or roots growing, or animals burrowing. The tunnels are broad enough for me to stand arms spread wide. Someone has spray painted in giant letters: Welcome to the Jungle, You’re gonna die. There’s one branch of the tunnels that I won’t go down. It splits from the main tunnel. It’s too dark for me, darker than the dark I’m already in. I leave it be. Once I sat down across from the other tunnel and turned off my light and just listened and I couldn’t hear anything. It was so dark that there wasn’t any sound.

I can go down through the bulkhead and into the cellar and get lost around the back of the furnace. Or crawl into the old coal stove someone pushed off to the side. I know the way through the fieldstones and the sand. I know the path beyond it all, but it’s different going out than it is coming in. The light is bright under the coal dust. There is a path in the sand that leads to a door with a name carved into the wood. I can see the name and the grooves made by the knife. I can trace the letters and slip in between the curlicues and lines. This is all alone. This is not here. I can’t get there. I can’t go. Once I’m down into the light, I can’t see anything. Once I’m gone, I’m gone. The only way to get back is to keep on going. Then I’ve got to go down into the rock, way down below the sewers, way down below the skin and scars. I’ve got to get down to where the bones are teeth are thick. It’s one layer after another no matter how far I dig. I’ve been down there, and I’ve been back, but it’s not something I can do now. It’s not something I want to do twice. Still, here I am. There I go. I’m not looking. I’m outside the door and down inside the teeth all at once. I can’t let it happen again, but I can’t stop it either. I can’t see any other way home.

These are the things I can see: our street; the trees across the street in Mitch’s yard; four gourds hanging in each tree; Mitch holding one of the fallen gourds, looking into the hole he drilled to see if there are any birds, or eggs; I can see the bridge; I can see the highway, barely a car going north or south; the remnants of a poster that said Welcome Home Joey; the American flag caught in the wind over at the Alternative School; the softball field that always has puddles; the fencing around the fish-stick factory; the coils of wire down by the power lines; the Great Bog and its trails; the train tracks down near the industrial park where I fell while walking a few years ago and scraped up my legs and side. I can see the hills past the Walmart and then I’m basically to the water. I’m almost there. I’m down near the marshes. I’m crawling through the rushes. The water is splotchy with oil. The birds are quiet in the trees along the edges. I’m down low. The wind is above me, cattails rustling. I’m down by the ranger station. I’m down on Cable Road. There’s no one awake. I’m past the ice cream place and the place that sells sunscreen and t-shirts to tourists. The path is thick with beach roses. The sun is just breaking the line. The terns and gulls coo and preen near the tideline. A sandpiper calls to me, drawing me away from its nest. He dashes past, hopping over the rocks, looking back, chittering once again. I say: I’m not here for your eggs, little one. The sand is cool. Rows of seaweed tell me where the tide has been. I’m down in the water. I’m up to my ankles. I’m up to my knees, my hips, my chest. I’m down in it now. The ocean is very still. I can see all of this. I can see all the way home.

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Taking writing students to the Museum of Art at the University of New Hampshire

(I take my students each semester. Look closely, I say, and then write. Do not analyze. Do not label what you write. Just see what happens. I write with them. Most of the time, I find myself writing fiction. Today, I did not.)

I.

Shrouded figures at the well.

Pipes exit the wall,

disappear into the ground.

Only the general’s foot remains

 

his face long forgotten,

nails pounded into his coffin

a floating prison

one man pondering his gun.

 

The bent man balances

on his toes in the pit.

Another sorts stone into

red and black bags.

 

The couple in t-shirts bearing

their own curious faces.

Her skin is a sheet of tin

shimmering in the moonlight

 

near a dim horizon

where the pink edge of sky

meets a sunken, drooping fence,

a moon-bent telephone pole,

 

and a row of black-barked trees,

my mother’s molecules dissolve

and the sky barges into night.

Only the bright barn awaits.

 

II.

His mother looks at currents.

He watches the stars

while the water roils

down near the scrap pile

 

down near the tugboats

down near the salt

down near the throne

where he guards the ladder

 

down near the scrap pile

down near the salt pile

two shrouded figures

discuss the water.

 

III.

Why is he making us look at art?

Why are we looking at art?

Why are we looking?

Why is there art?

 

All art is temporary.

How long will this ladder/chair

be a ladder/chair?

A hundred years?

 

Will it reach toward nothing

until infinity unkinks?

How long will its rungs lead

into a silent sky?

 

Or the book under the glass?

Or the cow in the painting?

Or the unpainted barn wall?

The words are ephemeral,

 

gone as soon as the poet concludes,

but the paintings and sculptures

radiating an impermanent joy,

what do we make of them?

Light

img_3879I’ve been sitting in the dark, waiting, waiting beneath the window with the cracked pane in the lower left square, flies on the windowsill dead from the cold. Isn’t it funny how you can walk out of a room on a cold morning and then the sun hits the window just a bit and warms the glass and then there are full grown flies just crawling everywhere. Minny says they are hiding in the hollow where the sash weights hang, just waiting for the warm air, but Mr. Capshaw says it’s eggs hatching. Anyway you won’t ever see it because it only happens when there’s no one watching. Mr. Capshaw says that if you look at something, it changes the way that something acts. Isn’t that strange? I thought it was strange as heck. I can’t remember how he said it exactly, I mean his exact words were all scientific. He said that observation affects the observed. Minny shook her head. We sit at that front desk, the one with the broken eye-wash sink with tape over the faucet. She looked at her pencil and it didn’t move and she said to Mr. Capshaw, I just looked at my pencil and it didn’t do anything different. Mr. Capshaw said, How you do you know it didn’t? Minny looked up at him and shook her head. Later, in Mrs. Simmons classroom, she stood over by the globe and spun it around but I didn’t know what she was looking for. I’ve been up in the attic waiting for someone to turn on the lights. There are the boxes from before we moved, still taped shut: Barry’s books, Barry’s clothes, Barry’s knick-knacks. A box of spices. Plates. Towels. Linens. All of the stuff we never opened up. I stared at the flies for a time. I stared out the crack in the window, first I closed my left eye. Then the right. With my left eye, I could see the big tree at the end of the driveway. With my right, I could see the dirt patch where I imagine Barry’s car parked. I almost can’t remember the car now. It had that long sloping back window. I could lay across the back of the seat when we were driving and close my eyes and it was like we was flying. Then when I look with both eyes, I could only see the crack in the glass. Then I started looking at the light. I started thinking that if I looked at it long enough, I could make it turn on. Please, I keep saying in my head, please, please, please.

At Galveston

I’m standing on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Snay’s house. I’ve just finished cutting her grass. My shirt is soaked in sweat. I’m waiting for my mother to come pick me up. Her car should be coming down Fisher Street any minute. This is years before my dad dies so she still has that shitty green Ford wagon that burns oil and smokes for ten minutes every time she starts it. Later, with the insurance money, she buys a Pacer that she keeps until she dies and leaves it to my sister who drives it for two more years before it burns up on the highway while she’s driving to Lawrence to buy cocaine and when the police get there they arrest her for driving under the influence, her third strike, and she spends four years in state prison where she reads Audre Lourde and comes out clean and clear and with the help of a social worker goes right into college, gets a degree in Women’s Studies and then a job teaching underprivileged kids in a poor school district in Houston where she meets her partner Lucy. They’re finally able to marry in 2015 and I go down to Houston for the wedding and find out that my old friend Paul lives just a little way out, in Galveston, and he wants me to come over and sit on his deck that looks out over the Gulf and when I’m sitting there I’m reminded for some reason of the time my mother dropped me off at soccer practice and wanted to kiss me goodbye and I said, Mom, please, not in front of my friends. I got out of the Pacer and she sat there in the parking lot for a few minutes and then drove away. I start crying right there with the water lapping below the deck and Paul says, It’s the Gulf, man, she’s so pretty at this time of day, it’s not the first time she’s made somebody cry. Then my mother is driving down Fisher and the exhaust haze fills up the street behind her and all the rest is way far in the future and none of us suspects what’s coming.

Top Ten Reasons You Should Take My “Where’s the Camera” class this summer at the Literacy Institutes at the University of New Hampshire. 

1. Because we are going to talk about films and photos and how perspective changes when the camera angle changes. We are going to look at specific techniques and talk about how those angles and perspectives are vital in written work as well.

2. And then we are going to forget everything technical and just write. You can’t analyze and create at the same time. So we’ll have the creative class equivalent of a “mullet” haircut: business in the front, party in the back.

3. One word: Chinatown. Think you know point of view? Wait till we talk about how the director uses perspective and point of view for Jack Nicholson’s iconic character.

4. Several words: shorts stories and poems! Yes, we’ll read stories and poems that center around the world of film. We’ll examine how we as a culture are film-literate in surprising ways. We’ll discuss how being film-literate is not always a good thing for readers. We’ll talk about why “When I read this it felt very cinematic” is often a code for “The story moves in a way that is familiar to me, but somewhat unsatisfying as a piece of writing.”

5. We will discuss our film literacy narratives—and how the points-of-view in those narratives shape how we see narratives of all kinds.

6. We’ll talk about how point-of-view can lead to discussions of all sorts of “perspectives” writers can assume when writing. This will be an excellent source of potential subject matter for writing classes of all kinds. If you can find out the best position for the camera in your story, essay, critical analysis, research paper, opinion piece, poem—then you’ll be confronting one of the most important choices a writer can make.

7. We will laugh a lot. Actually, I should rephrase that: I will laugh a lot. Whether or not you laugh is up to you. But I’m terribly funny.

8. Because of community! We’ll become a very short-lived intentional community of educators, writers, and film-viewers. Who doesn’t need more community?

9. Because art. Because art. Because art. We’ll talk about art! We all need more art in our lives. Come talk about why perspective and point-of-view is important to art.

10. Because if you come to my class, the cosmos will align in unforeseen ways and you just might win the lottery. Yes, the big money lottery. The Powerball, even. You’ll be rich and powerful beyond your wildest dreams. I’m not allowed to promise you a big cash windfall if you come to my class, but I “promise you” that if you come to my class, you will become fabulously wealthy.

– Note: the views on lotto winnings are solely the views of the author. The University of New Hampshire and the Literacy Institutes neither endorse nor support such obvious nonsense. Still, they hope you will come take this class. Rumor has it that George Clooney will make a personal appearance.

– Note: George Clooney and his representatives would like to take this moment to state that Mr. Clooney is a terribly busy and handsome man and that he probably won’t be traveling to New Hampshire to make any personal appearances. He hopes that you’ll take time out of your busy schedules, however, to see his summer sci-fi epic, Tomorrowland.

More on #writing and #agents (#amwriting #ohwriting)

About fifteen years ago, the super agent Nat Sobel saw my first published story in Black Warrior Review and contacted me. The novel I had to show him at the time (because most agents aren’t interested in short story collections) was my first attempt, and not very good. He told me it was too slow and too artsy. I figured that was just my lot as a writer of fiction. I took my writing far too seriously.

Cut to fifteen years later. I queried Mr. Sobel again. I finally figured out how to write something I think a lot of people might be interested in reading–my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. It is neither slow nor artsy. It is solid, exciting, page turning, commercial fiction. He agreed to look at the first fifty pages. It turns out that his very nice and capable assistant Aida Wright was the one who read the pages. After nearly thirty days, she got back to me. It seems that for their purposes, I’d swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Far from being too artsy or slow, I moved things along too quickly (I disagree, of course) and too much happens (wrong again…just the right amount happens). Slow down, seemed to be her recommendation. Agents can drive you crazy.

I worked very hard to make this story “right” on the page. It is not too slow. You get to know the characters as they move through the story. I’m not giving up on the traditional path from agent to publisher–not quite yet–but I have begun thinking of other ways to get my work into the hands of people who like good adventure stories, people who like their stories with a good dose of undead. I may decide to offer the story on Amazon as a Kindle download. Maybe for free. Maybe for .99 cents. Andy Weir’s excellent realistic sci-fi novel The Martian went that route. He sold so many copies (35,000 at .99 cents each, in three months) that the publisher same calling. Now it’s a more traditional best-seller.

I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen to my novel, but it’s worth a shot. Anyone up for a good, exciting, scary read?