Jeffrey Hillard visited Dulles Elementary School on February 25, 2016. He spoke with 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders about writing and imagination, and encouraged them to create and share unique stories using a series of writing exercises.
The sport is a never-ending commodity. Soon enough, there will be the NFL draft, free agency signings and fanciful trades and trade rumors, spring football, the NFL draft-Combine in Indianapolis, and for those tightly-wound football aficionados, the NFL summer training camps will rise in the heat of July to stare down the mid-season flux of Major League Baseball. Like it or not.
Love it or hate it, unfortunately or fortunately, the sport of football reigns supreme in this country. However, what most appeals to me is to look inside the culture of a number of sports, and especially football.
I teach a literature course at Mount St. Joseph University called “Sports in Literature.” Given that my university has several hundred athletes in various sports, it should be obvious that the nature of the course drums up some interest.
In central Florida, there’s a region that remains iconoclastic, newsworthy, and at times controversial. Football in this region is god-like. And one of the most fascinating books on football since Friday Night Lights is entitled Muck City.
I count this book of journalism every bit as significant as Friday Night Lights. Muck City is an area in south central Florida whose name originated as a result of its proximity to the Everglades. Muck City has been ground zero for battles with storms and hurricanes. It is a wide land rich in farming. The area has produced vast quantities of sugar cane. It used to be the home of U.S. Sugar Company., Inc. The author, journalist Bryan Mealer, is quick to point out that as you drive into the city of Belle Glade, you see a sign that reads, “Her Soil is Her Fortune.”
It’s an ironic entrance into Belle Glade, which notably occupies one of the most impoverished populations in the U.S. According to Bryan Mealer and his research, Belle Glade city officials estimate that unemployment among its residents has reached a statistical figure of forty to forty-five percent. This is really disheartening.
Mealer fastens a shrewd eye on Glades Central High School as it reflects the transitions affecting the community of Belle Glade. The name of the high school was initially Belle Glade High in 1948. Mealer, who lives in Texas, journeyed to Glades, Florida to check out why this area so excels in producing superior football players and championship teams, and how the school and city have managed to instill a system of winning inside noticeable economic hardships.
This struggle is multi-pronged and takes its shape in the form of gang-related tension, drugs, and a general sense of uncertainty among youth as to what school will even help them accomplish in the future – except get them some sort of athletic scholarship.
Bryan Mealer stayed well over a year to get his story. His searching and research paid off. He was able to re-create a seminal portrait of the embattled yet productive high school and community.
In spite of the poverty level which will make any population desperate, many youth – and many of their families – turn to football as an outlet. Hopefully, for many, it’s a kind of saving grace. The power of this book springs from Mealer’s skill in digging into the stories of several individuals whose lives intersect and who will not be deterred by any sense of failure or being forgotten.
Belle Glade, Florida is a tough and uncompromising place for a young person to grow up. The pressure to win at Glade Central High permeates the book. The high school careers and stories of Jamarious “Mario” Rowley, Jonteria Williams, and Kelvin Benjamin anchor Muck City. Each has his or her own trajectory. What’s unique is how all three survive deep-rooted struggles inherent in living in Belle Glade.
Mario Rowley embodies the spirit and fortitude of an athlete who plays through multiple injuries. He does so in a demonstrative way. His shoulder is a mess; he tells no one. He keeps quiet. Mario rarely complains. He decides early in his senior year that his young leadership will help energize his fellow players to set their goal for a state championship and not veer from it – no matter what.
Muck City captures the depth to which Mario Rowley shelves his own personal needs and sacrifices his body – a torn muscle in his shoulder and a bad leg – to provide the impetus the team needs to advance to the 2010 state championship game against Cocoa High School.
In 2010, current NFL player Kelvin Benjamin, star wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, is inarguably the under-achiever of the Raiders. KB’s fellow teammates are not impressed. He is the best athlete and an undisputed star of the team, yet in spite of his injury, his lack of participation or zeal rubs the guys in a negative way. They admire him, sure; but the team realizes that it’s going to move on without Benjamin. For his part, Benjamin is looking far beyond his senior year of high school in 2010 to NCAA Division I scholarship offers and, possibly, to an NFL career.
He does have that lucrative NFL career now. But, in 2010, the “rise” of Kelvin Benjamin was depicted in a less appealing light. To his credit, today with the Panthers, KB is considered a hard worker, a generous teammate. At Glade Central in 2010, a very different KB ran the field.
My favorite student profiled is Jonteria Williams. She is an indefatigable student and cheerleader whose personal goals are anything but lofty. They’re straightforward and rather unique, actually, to Glade Central High School in 2010. Jonteria Williams wants to graduate with honors, pursue scholarship offers, and fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. One goal is to continue to help others.
Jonteria is as an asset to the student body and the cheerleading squad. She cares that her mother, Teresa Williams, is taken care of in the short term. Teresa is a strong and pivotal character in Jonteria’s life, and she won’t let her daughter deter far from her bright goals. Jonteria also mends a relationship with her father who, at this time, has been in prison a good portion of her schooling. There’s a scene involving Jonteria and her father on Senior Night that heightens even more the book’s emotional impact.
Muck City captures far more than football.
It’s a minor classic in the way it analyzes socio-economic factors in an impoverished region that influence athletics at the high school level. Except Bryan Mealer uses one football season of one, major high school football team in one community to isolate the relationships and monumental conflicts that stem from these rugged socio-economic factors.
You cheer for these Glade Central players, the cheerleaders, the coaches, the school, and the families, while simultaneously raising your reader’s eyebrows at the sometimes harrowing heartbreak that accompanies their journeys.
Jeffrey Hillard celebrates Black History Month by profiling some of his favorite African-American authors, including the Library Foundation’s first Writer-In-Residence Kathy Y. Wilson, Edward P. Jones, Colleen J. McElroy, and Christopher Gilbert. Hillard discusses these authors’ contributions to literature and culture, while breaking down their writing style and creativity. You’ll also get to hear some of their work as Hillard reads excerpts from their writing. Share your thoughts about this podcast in the blog comments below. Check back regularly for future “Inside the Writer’s Head” podcasts.
WARNING: Podcast contains some explicit language during the book excerpt reading.
Jeffrey Hillard and Trace Conger talk about the process of writing and Conger’s latest book, Scar Tissue. His award-winning debut novel, The Shadow Broker, published in 2014, introduced the world to “the heavily caffeinated and less-than-ethical Mr. Finn, a disgraced PI who walks the fine line between investigator and criminal.” Learn how Conger approaches the writing process and hear him read an excerpt from his newest book. Share your thoughts about this podcast in the blog comments below. Check back regularly for future “Inside the Writer’s Head” podcasts.
WARNING: Podcast contains some explicit language during book excerpt reading.
What goes into creating a poem?
By their very nature, poems spin such a diverse range of being that it is nearly impossible to pin down an exacting way of creating one.
Poems materialize in such myriad flavors that one writer’s approach to writing poetry usually differs radically from the next writer’s approach.
Still, I think it’s crucial for a writer (in any genre) to learn from other writers. Sharing methodology, styles, and inspiration can steer a writer toward a happy new direction or affirm what he or she is trying to write.
Nothing is improbable if a writer is listening and taking notes.
In this first installment of a new series, “Anatomy of a Poem,” I’m going to briefly break down considerations I gave to writing a new poem, “Sky with an ‘X’ in It.” It’s a January 2016 poem. And it has a special place in my recent work. You’ll see why.
I know I’ll intentionally leave some things out, although I hope to cover essentials. Near the end, you can read the whole poem.
Recently, I experienced the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. Number five. The years since my family sat beside him in an intensive care unit on New Year’s Eve 2010 are starting to blur. New Year’s has never been quite the same. My mother, sister, and I, bouncing between my father’s room and a waiting room, watched the galas on a mounted TV, no hoopla on our end.
My father died January 12, 2011. He was 79-years old and many things: industrial engineer at Procter and Gamble (30 years), former journalist, teacher of hearing impaired (20-plus years), church vocalist (many years), multi-instrument-playing musician (all his life), and political official in the village of Lockland.
My friend, Cincinnati Enquirer reporter and book author, Mark Curnutte, wrote a gorgeous tribute to my father, in which he quoted me: “’He was the most active man I’ve ever known,’ Hillard said. ‘He loved the [retiree-oriented] job of driving [cars]. It kept him on the road and seeing things.’”
“Seeing things” – my father seeing things – struck me when I was just a few lines into my poem. I saw something the day after his funeral. This was the bare-bones impetus for my getting into “Sky with an ‘X’ in It.” My remembering an unexpected and strangely magnificent ‘X’ in the blue cloudless sky helped provide a few initial lines to get the poem going. I wrote hurriedly in my palm-size notebook.
I began it more from the unforgettable image of two criss-crossing contrails in the sky than from the raw notion of my father’s death. The aspect of a strangely appearing “cross” moved me. My imagination let loose. Contrails forming an ‘X’ – right stuff for my poem. My father was very spiritual. I remember how long I stared at those contrails and thought about his absence.
Here are five considerations I embraced and tried to flesh out during my drafts:
- I wanted to convey a sense of my father’s absence without sentimentalizing that reality. To “speak” for some sense of absence and nostalgia, I put the poem’s speaker in one place on an extremely cold January day, with not one other individual was around. I used the presence of a dog, a long-vacant, huge factory, a lone flag, and the reality of losing my father in a hospital room to conjure some level of loss. The day after the funeral accented absence. Too, there’s an absence relative to the speaker’s emotional isolation. In drafting, I began to see how I could manipulate a theme of absence, among a few other subtle themes.
- The more lines I wrote, the more I could see a tercet (three-line stanza) structure take shape. I felt my images would be more pronounced in tercets – in short stanzas. Crafting a poem in a particular structure is very subjective. Gradually, I went with my instinct: tercets.
- By using three-line stanzas, I better managed the poem “down the page,” as the late major poet Stanley Kunitz used to say. How a poem “moves down the page” is important. What matters here is the growing emphasis on openness in the poem: big, vast blue sky, one solitary person in a park and its quietness, except for the echoing highway traffic in the distance, extended vacancy of long-gone factories nearby – a ghostly presence near the lone flag.
- Creating sound was key. I began to see decent sound emerge with clauses or phrases like, “Bare spots on the dog’s head…” and “ice settles into crevices….” Each tercet carries some kind of sound or slight wordplay.
- It was important for me to convey how memory molded the speaker’s experience at this time by the flag, as he watched the sky. It is his contemplating the ‘X’ that illuminates other details and how he processes his father’s passing.
Only in my attention to taking a good deal of time writing the poem did these things come into play. The more I wrote, the more I saw. A poem doesn’t happen quickly for me. I ponder possibilities and come up with incremental distinctions.
Here’s the poem in its entirety:
Sky with an ‘X’ in It
Cold January easing into an even colder grip,
it releases me for a moment under
the town’s American flag. Half-mast, bruised stars
flapping in honor of your community service, I see
where dirt from highway traffic has encrusted
the stripes. The whole of it, so alone in winter
in this little corner park. The day after your funeral
ice settles into crevices. Every footprint
plants its own name on icy grass. A wandering
dog coming toward me licks gutter water.
Bare spot on the dog’s head, an absence
of fur. Closer, I pet it, and I think how
your absence from me now, the gone-ness of your
breathing even into a ventilator, is your
flesh more like a large brittle plate
I fumbled, watched it fall and break. I can only
recall shards of you, your whole gone-ness
taken by ground, stolen by sky. This cross, hanging.
I can’t reconcile the clatter of billiard balls
in the pool hall where you hid from church, at fifteen,
until your mother appeared and tugged you by the ear
down the sidewalk. I can reconcile the clatter
of grandma’s black, old lady’s shoes as she
walked to me, held me, elbows pressed into my cheeks.
Why do I even stare at the sky and look foolish,
If not to wait for two contrails in a perfect ‘X’
to break apart like two nails soldered and framed?
The bridge to you is like this flagpole
that abruptly ends thirty feet off the ground.
As if I’m lucky to see loose threads in the already
slightly faded flag. Hiss of cars on the highway
below the overpass. Sky takes in the ‘X’
and it lingers, not ever hiding, though fragile.
And soon the white cross: It scatters.
I follow. Twisting clouds drift beyond
the vacant factory, so many bricks and broken windows.
I think of you as expansive as any new
blue appearing: unending lake of blue
holding you now, and me lost, staring at sky.
There should be another name for glory.
But one far less bright.
Jeffrey Hillard’s Note: The following is an interview with local award-winning novelist, Trace Conger, whose “A Mr. Finn Novel” series of crime fiction deliver a whopping combination of local settings and hard-boiled, noir-oriented action. Conger’s blend of the tragi-comic is exceedingly shrewd and totally memorable, leaving readers with that earnest desire to follow Finn Harding through future novels. Conger’s first novel, The Shadow Broker, published in 2014, received the Shamus Award for Best Independent P.I. Novel at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention . His second Mr. Finn novel, Scar Tissue, has just been released. The interviewer, Anna Drees, is currently a student at Mount St. Joseph University.
Anna Drees: Your first novel, The Shadow Broker, is full of irony. The protagonist, Mr. Finn Harding, might be confronted curiously with the option or impetus to harm a man either in light of the dangerous and frequently-subversive work he’s in or in self-defense, and then when he gets a call from the elementary school that is daughter is sick, Finn rushes to get her and takes her home and tends and takes care of her. A major character, Little Freddie, tortures people, yet he is a man of faith and wants to support youths by purchasing a bag from the school. How do they reconcile or separate out these two seemingly contradictory parts of their personality? Do they have some certain of “code” that they live by?
Trace Conger: This reconciliation is a big theme throughout the novel. What will we compromise ourselves for? Both men feel as though anyone who comes in contact with them (i.e. Banks in the underground room) is because of their own actions, so neither feels too guilty about it. Little Freddie mentions in the book that “these people get what’s coming to them.” Neither could really reconcile hurting innocent people, but in their minds, the people they are sent to kill aren’t innocent. They are waist-deep in the criminal world, so they see it as just “thinning out the herd.” I wouldn’t say they have a “code” they live by (such as Dexter would), but they (especially Freddie) don’t really see themselves as bad people, because they feel justified in what they’re doing. Little Freddie is already in this world and Finn is slowly being brought into it. That’s why he struggles with it at first, but is able to compartmentalize it throughout the novel.
Anna Drees: I felt like the book hinted that Mr. Finn’s father, Albert, has some sort of skill set that might be associated with the mob – or mob tactics. For example, he knew that someone was tailing him and drove around down town to lose him and Albert had $20,000 hidden under his cabin in Maine. Did Albert ever play a part in the mob?
Trace Conger: Great catch on Albert. He is one of my favorite characters to write. Yes, I intentionally left his past ambiguous, but wanted readers to know there was more to him than meets the eye. Even Finn isn’t aware of the extent of his past. Albert plays a big part in the second novel, Scar Tissue. We learn where he got that cash under his boathouse, why he has it, why he was living in a nursing home, and why Albert is a bit more “experienced” than he lets on.
Anna Drees: Mr. Finn is incredibly good at finding people who do not want to be found. This is basically the foundation for the whole series, you’ve said. Little Freddie tells Mr. Finn how his wife and daughter were raped and killed and the people that did it still send him postcards about how his wife and daughter screamed. I was curious as to why Little Freddie didn’t hire Mr. Finn to find the people involved in his wife and daughters murder.
Trace Conger: After Little Freddie kills Bishop in The Shadow Broker, he up and disappears. What is not evident in this first book (intentionally) is that Little Freddie has gone out west himself to find the people responsible for the death of his family. As to the reason why he didn’t hire Finn, I think it’s because he takes things very personally and this is something he wants to handle himself (it won’t turn out well for those involved). I’m working on the third book in the series now, and plan to write a novella (a shorter book) that follows Little Freddie out west to find those responsible for his family’s death.
Anna Drees: Most people have a moral compass that would not have them do the stuff that Mr. Finn does. Even though on the surface it is the money that motivates him, what is it internally that drives him to involve himself in these situations?
Trace Conger: Finn Harding is a very flawed character. He’s struggling to make ends meet and he desperately wants to be with his family. The revocation of his PI license and his split with his ex-wife Brooke have made this impossible. Finn does have a moral compass in the book, but it’s tested because of these circumstances. His moral compass plays a big part in the third book, The Prison Guard’s Son, in which he’s hired to find and dispatch someone in the witness protection program.
Anna Drees: The Shadow Broker repeatedly alludes to the fact that Mr. Finn possesses a skill to do what no one else can. Mr. Finn even says that he is like “deaths GPS.” I know he is a former private investigator, but how did he develop and recognize this ability? What pushed him in this vain?
Trace Conger: Finn developed this skill set through his former life as a PI. Most of what PIs do depends on their problem solving skills. He has to think of ways to locate people who are trying to cover their tracks, so it’s really just his experience with prior cases. I always try to figure out real ways to do this. I hate when writers use some device, say, like a hacker finding all the info out of thin air. Finn has to really work for it. He has to really work at finding information.
Anna Drees: In reading a novel, when we start with the age of a character as an adult, so much of what happened to that character in his or her childhood affects who he or she will become. Was there something in Finn Harding’s childhood or past that impacted him in such a strong way to compel him to work in these dangerous situations and associate with people that have the potential to turn on him and kill him? What makes him such a risk taker? It has to be more than the money.
Trace Conger: There isn’t a specific experience that has led Finn down this path; it’s more him biting off more than he can chew with the Bishop case. He never intended to kill anyone, but after being drawn into the case, he rationalizes the actions as appropriate. Most of that is being driven by his desire for money, but more so what money represents, which is the opportunity to get back his family. He rationalizes that if he can just make a few dollars more (by taking these cases) he’ll have the means to get “back on track” and support this family in a legitimate way. What some readers might not pick up is that by the end of the book Finn has made $0. He has to pay Dunbar off at the end of the book and what he’s left with is a tarnished soul and absolutely nothing to show for it. This is intentional, and what I tried to do was show that after risking his life, and his family’s life, he has gained nothing.
Anna Drees: Crime/suspense novels are my favorite type of books. What led or inspired you to write such a dark yet funny and family-oriented book?
Trace Conger: I love dark fiction, crime, suspense and horror all included. That’s what I read as a kid (nothing too dark, but age appropriate fiction) and have always loved it. I’m thrilled that my daughter reads the Goosebumps books for the same reason. As for the humor, I think there is humor in everything, even death. Not slapstick, but it’s how we deal with things. That’s why you’ll see people laughing at a funeral. There is humor in most of my work, some more subtle than others. As for the family aspect, that’s where I am in life at the moment. I’m married and have a four and a seven year old. When I think of what scares me, it’s something happening to any of them. That’s why that theme is such a big part of the novel. Harm coming to his family scares the heck out of Finn and motivates him to do what he does.
Anna Drees: Francis Ford Coppola said in an interview that when he fleshed out Vito Corleone for the screenplay of “Godfather I,” he studied several famous mobsters. He then said that Vito was an amalgam of several, drawing out specific traits to form who Vito would become. Who was your inspiration for the protagonist, Mr. Finn and what was your process?
Trace Conger: Finn is based loosely on a real person. Years ago I met a retired Private Investigator who, at a point when he was down on his luck financially, accepted an illegal job for the money. He never told me what the job was (but I know it wasn’t too bad), but he said he felt horrible for doing it, and after getting paid a good sum for the case he went back to legitimate work and never looked back. He knew that if he got caught, he’d lose his license. Luckily for him, he didn’t get caught. But I always wondered, what if he did get caught? And that’s where Finn came from.
In early December 2015, two local poets, Susan F. Glassmeyer and Bucky Ignatius, inaugurated a new poetry reading series in Cincinnati at the Pendleton Arts Center, in the Pendleton district of Over-the-Rhine, three or four blocks from the vivacious Horseshoe Casino.
Given the fact that there’s a passionate poetry scene in Cincinnati, and one that involves an array of eclectic voices, we as writers – and certainly us poets – should never feel as if reading venues for creative writers will dry up anytime soon. I don’t think this has ever been a reality. As long as I’ve been reading my own work out loud the past three decades, I’ve always encountered opportunities for writers to work out their writing in some public mode.
So, in 2016, let the written and spoken words be elevated even more. Let 2016 be the year that brings writers not only more success and an abundance of quality drafts, but let it inspire writers to take advantage of reading opportunities – and in this case, poets, especially.
Built in 1909, the Pendleton Arts Center is a vastly roomy eight-floor building whose historical relevance is striking. In those first few decades of the 1900s, the building was used by the Krohn-Fecheimer Shoe Company and later morphed into the main warehouse for Shillito’s department store. The building at 1310 Pendleton Street was bought by The Verdin Company in 1991 and transformed into studio and exhibit space for regional artists of all disciplines.
The unfolding of this new poetry series is yet another innovative component to illuminate the artistic activity at the PAC. The facility already showcases the enormously popular Final Friday series for visual artists.
It’s a perfect place for poetry readings. It’s a perfect place for poets to do part of the work a writer who cares about his or her craft should want to do. Read aloud in public, as challenging as that may seem.
My late friend, mentor, collaborator for 22 years, and former professor, Dallas Wiebe, always reiterated to me: “The true test of your [creative writing] is if it can hold up in public – in your reading the work aloud. Test it out.” Dallas should have known: an American original as a fiction writer, he read locally and around the country for over 50 years. Dallas was responsible for advancing the public reading venues in this city for nearly forty years, starting in Mt. Adams, in the mid-1960s. As a young writer, I’d taken my queue from him and realized the advantage of sharing my work aloud in public.
Other writer-friends of mine have also shared in this creed and have done so liberally, with real expectation to either facilitate readings or expose their writing to an audience. This city bustles with literary activity and always has. The PAC is such a refreshing venue because it opens a door for poets to read in that eastern part of Over-the-Rhine, minutes north of the Cincinnati’s central business district and just south of Mount Auburn.
It’s with this rush of excitement that I see the PAC Poetry Reading Series as another potentially vital venue for poetry in our region. The locale is dynamic. The hub of art emanating from the PAC itself is impressive, and the old, fabulously remodeled building, on this occasion of the first reading in December, complemented the creative spirit spilling from Bucky’s and Susan’s poems. Their reading arrangements, clever and lively, supplied the beautiful energy that made the launch-night a success.
The local presence of these two poets has been a mainstay for many years. Both are vital core and constant contributors to the poetry scene and especially to The Greater Cincinnati Writers League, a splendid writers’ group dedicated to the craft of poetry. The GCWL co-sponsors the Pendleton Arts Center readings, as well as our library’s Poetry in the Garden Series each April. The GCWL, which meets monthly, has empowered many poets, allowing them to improve their craft especially upon receiving critiques and feedback from a revolving door of monthly poet-critics who are well-published poets and teachers. Once a month, a different critic provides input into each member’s submitted poem.
Susan Glassmeyer, in her two chapbooks, Body Matters (Pudding House Chapbook Series) and Cook’s Luck (Finishing Line Press), displays an exquisite sense of wonderment. It is often so easy to say that a poet has great range, because, as Pablo Neruda so adamantly preached, every last thing one confronts is a potential poem in the making. This is radical but true. Or it should be. The subject matter in both Glassmeyer’s and Ignatius’ poems is far-ranging, yet such an orientation in these poets’ hands shows the patience with which they’ve cultivated their poems, the disciplined way they’ve honed their craft. No matter that there are three small yet powerful books between them.
I’ve always been so fond of the fluctuating tone and form in Glassmeyer’s poems. Take the satire in “Caution, Submerged Pilings I,” one of the 23 short prose poems in Cook’s Luck. The poem is a whimsical look at two married characters, Jolene and Ronnie. After an outdoor-work experience, there’s this: “…He [Ronnie] stops at the lighthouse end of the beach parking lot to reattach the unhinged roof of the dog-poop-bag dispenser which looks somewhat like a scout-made birdhouse.” Glassmeyer is very keen on juxtapositions, as in the more contemplative poem, “The Mountain”: “…Now, a poster of it [photograph] hangs above your couch captivating the baby lying beneath it. In a surprise milky stupor he gazes unblinking into its face as if hypnotized by the eye of a giant….”
And Glassmeyer has a sense of apt timing for creating metaphor. Her short-lined gripping poem “I Tell You,” in Body Matters, is rich with fresh metaphors, such as: “…How two geese would spin out/of the opal sun opening my spine,/curling my head up to the sky/in an arc I took for granted.”
In Bucky Ignatius’ superb new chapbook, 50 Under 50 (Finishing Line Press), short poems surge forth to capture slice-of-life moments that reflect his ever-sharp poetic eye. In a four, five, or eight-line poem, Ignatius is exceptional in the way his lyricism casts a glow on the smallest details. Unexpectedly small yet human details like laundry, a hammock, a garden, a feather – summoning life into each of these meditations and giving us the chance to see how priceless often-fleeting things are.
On December 8, 2015, I was thrilled to listen to Susan Glassmeyer and Bucky Ignatius read. It was the appropriate way to wind up a vigorous writing year. Sure, the PAC ended the old year this way, but better yet, the reading signaled the launch of new poems to come in this facility in New Year 2016.
The looming winter months are upon us. Here we go into the winter wonderland. Let me propose something different.
I say we take a reader’s ride south where it’s warmer, and evade the cold – at least imaginatively-speaking – and celebrate the 30th anniversary of a classic book of fiction filled with island heat, the dazzling and desperate exploits of men, women, and youth who navigate or manipulate their ways out of neck-deep drama and survive by any means necessary.
Let’s take a literary excursion to the Caribbean.
I’m happy to hitch you to my writerly boat and head south to consider the milestone set in March, 1985 by one book of short stories. It also helped catapult writer Bob Shacochis into an even more in-demand career, as if the budding wunderkind in 1985 wasn’t getting enough early and deserving attention.
Easy in the Islands, his first book, became a new map for American short fiction.
It also won the American Book Award for First Work of Fiction in November, 1985. That distinct American Book Award program was renamed The National Book Award in 1987 as part of The National Book Foundation, while the award for First Work of Fiction was dropped. The Caribbean, for Shacochis, evolved into a goldmine for short stories partly as a result his work as an agricultural journalist in the Peace Corps from 1975-1976.
Before we leave 2015, let’s celebrate this anniversary. Shacochis’ stories in Easy in the Islands set the bar high with the delivery of a new kind of maximal short story, one that transcended the popularized, truncated and minimalist stories of Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish, Ann Beattie, and even a modernist like Ernest Hemingway. The so-called minimalists ingeniously cut their own stylistic path, and their work invited throngs of readers to take a renewed interest in both reading the short story and writing one. This was roughly the 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s. Minimalism had been fashionable and cutting edge, especially in the hands of best-seller Ray Carver.
With Easy in the Islands, Shacochis’ prose is lush yet attractively vibrant. One of his teachers at the legendary Iowa Writer’s Workshop (University of Iowa) was the great Southern fiction writer, Barry Hannah, and Hannah’s own stories are imbued with full-bodied prose, a no-holds-barred approach to storytelling. Even in Shacochis’ own uncluttered language, one sweeping sentence can establish a small world. Take this depiction in “The Pelican”: “The air was clear and sweetened, unpenetrated by weekday noise, until he crossed the block that separated the government houses from the shanties of the ghetto and then the city smelled like rotting fruit and kerosene, urine and garlic, and the sun burned with a cruel intensity.”
Writing the stories in Easy in the Islands, Shacochis was acknowledging a fictional and stylistic depth created by Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain. He understands how these writers invented a muscular prose that casts a hypnotic effect on readers, while cutting deeply into characters’ decisions and consequences. Shacochis created his own blend of passionate prose that elevated, more than any American fiction writer at the time, Caribbean atmosphere, culture, tastes, smells, and the headstrong lives of characters.
By the second page of the story, “Dead Reckoning,” both the female narrator and her flighty partner, Davis, become crystal clear and chilling examples of Shacochis’ flourish: “His name was Davis and he was, whenever he came into the place, filthy. His jeans were caked with epoxy, his T-shirt looked like a painter’s palette. He wore tennis shoes that could have been chewed on by a shark and he had the worst fingernails I’ve seen on anybody. They were smashed and black and jagged, with enough dirt beneath them to occupy a geologist.”
His prose can suddenly become mellow, impressionistic, as in the story, “Hot Day on the Gold Coast”: “I glide across dark clumps of turtle grass and out over fields of sand bright blue with refraction…Beyond the reef, fishing boats swing and jerk like white kites against their anchors.”
That’s right. I’d say there is a fearlessness in the way he renders his prose. After reading Easy in the Islands, you know the Caribbean far, far better than you ever imagined you could. Shacochis’ voice seduces, and you’re beyond imagining. You’re living in the place.
Easy in the Islands impressed writers such as myself, in 1985, with its originality. It added a heightened lyricism in the American short story. The book took on a singular region in a small part of the world and gave it unforgettable dimension. John Irving took notice of it: he wrote a striking introduction to Shacochis’ January 1986 Esquire Magazine and Virginia story, “Where Pelham Fell.”
More than James Michener’s novel Caribbean, Easy in the Islands more intimately explored experiences you’d regard as a constant in that setting: sailing, fishing, the steamy night life, shantytown-living, island-hopping. There is chaotic romance in the collection, ripe with seductive trysts and flings. Each story is invested with Shacochis’ poet’s eye. When I first read it in 1985, the prose sizzled, pushing me to live imaginatively with characters’ wanderlust and their regional patois.
Although there were U.S.-centered stories in his second collection, The Next New World, some Caribbean flavor carried over, and most especially so into his first novel, Swimming in the Volcano (1993). His award-winning, long-form journalism engaged us to see the Caribbean of Haiti. Shacochis wrote feverishly in The Immaculate Invasion about the 1994 uprising against Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the U.S. intervention in that country.
In August, 2013, I interviewed Bob for Warhol’s Interview Magazine, a piece which preceded other print interviews during the promotional blitz for his second novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. He addresses the aim of the novel and a few concerns as a fiction writer thirty years after Easy in the Islands. Even before The Woman Who Lost Her Soul was awarded Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, I believed it had Pulitzer potential. The novel’s scope, spanning 50 years and four countries, is a purely Shacochis-concocted epic, a story that he rode, drafted, and re-drafted for ten years while he was similarly busy with life, teaching, and other writing projects. The novel won The Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction in 2014.
Although good distance exists between Shacochis’ works – especially the novels – it’s only a mirage. He’s always been writing. Something. War journalism, travel pieces, op-eds, essays, lectures, acceptance speeches, and the new uncharted territory of a third novel. He’s a writer’s writer – a tremendous teacher and mentor to his many students over the years at the Bennington Writing Seminars (M.F.A. Program for Writers) and Florida State University. You also learn by reading him.
In 1985, I learned a lot as a student soon-to-move-on from the Graduate Creative Writing Program at CU-Boulder. I learned from reading a young Bob Shacochis how a writer’s brutally honest engagement in context and writing moving sentences can lead stories to stay in one’s mind a very long time. Even thirty years.
Easy in the Islands: happy 30th anniversary. You remain in the top echelon of “best books of short stories” published in the last 50 years. Happy sailing, Bob, into the next novel. We’re waiting on the shore for it to pull up, safe and sound.