All posts by South 85 Journal

The Beast and the Muse

Brit Graham

Complacency, she’s a tricky beast. She sneaks. She is like the speckled frog plopped into the dark teakettle set to boil. She lies and she waits, she lulls you into an uncertain sense of security. She makes you feel good. She is my enemy to productivity. We don’t realize how comfortable we become sitting on our overstuffed purple couches, fuzzy Jack-Skellington-socked feet propped up on our lime green ottomans with cinnamon spiced tea in our favorite chipped mugs. We hardly feel her quadrupled-jointed fingers hooking themselves around our writing and jerking us left and then down.

I cannot say what, precisely, untethers me from my coma-like stupor. It always seems to accompany travel, like an errant stowaway tucked into the tiniest corner of luggage. There is no other perspective like the type belonging to open sky, cities crippled in her wake. Displacement. The sort shakes the mind’s closet, rattles those dust-riddled thoughts loose.

You see, the muse, she gets bored, tired of the same old hat. She needs to go on a walk-about every now and again. No matter how much I read, or have that feeling in the pit of my gut about something brewing, something maturing, something is going on writing wise that which my conscious is not privy. And then she has to run amok for a few days before she parts those white filmy curtains and says, look here.

It’s like those burbling basaltic hot spots in the pacific. They move, flit along a course, for the most part we are unable to see. A path of destruction, a path of new life. There is always a burst of written work whenever the scenery shifts slantwise. It pours out, not always glistening, not always clear. But the root of something fresh is always buried beneath. The best thing of all, is the consistent change. The ever shifting place, that stays rooted just where it has always been.

My creative thesis consisted of so much nautical imagery, that I started to believe I was destined for the coast. This was the result of a two month stint of South Floridian living. Currently I reside in the landlocked state of South Dakota, where it’s negative ten before the wind chill, the streets are littered with ice and what are attempting to be slush piles, are in fact not slush piles because they’ve not been given the opportunity to slush thoroughly. I fell in love with her in the summer. South Dakota has more lakes and sloughs than one would anticipate, and the sky should be considered a celestial body itself. The stars breed in the sky like rabbits out here, overhead so thick it looks more like salt and pepper than a black abyss pinpricked with careless constellations and light.

More and more I find myself writing in attempts to unearth answers, to widen my perception of a thing deemed impossible to decipher. Scrawling it out on a napkin at the local Irish pub, or etching it along lined pages tucked in the coffee shop across the street, writing enables me to flush out every angle, every shadowed nook and cranny, and it brings about the gift of reflection and time. It slows down the thought process enough so that one can fully observe the layered surroundings, the issues at hand, the people connected to it all. To put it simply, it seems as if suddenly and inconsequentially there is so much to write about.

Living as a hermit in South Dakota, partly due to the cold, mostly due to the gray permeating even one’s good socks, it’s easy to lose a self in one’s self. It’s easy to forget about the rest of the world. And with no less than a cattle prod-like insistence shoving me out my 70s orange door I’ve come to beautiful south Florida. A witness to its glory of crumbling asphalt bleached and cracked gray, and the aged blood-tinged rust that seems to underlie ever metal thing in the area. And I have found a solution to my problem, and perhaps I’ve identified a problem for you, and unearthed just one possible solution.

 

Photo of poet Brit GrahamFor now Brit Graham traverses the tundra that is South Dakota, while tripping over things while stargazing in the all too brief summer months. She is the crux of an ongoing love affair between the Pacific and Atlantic. She managed to pry an MFA in Poetry from the grasp of Converse College. You can read her poetry things in publications like Devilfish Review, The Night Owl, RealSouth Magazine, and The OWL.

Stalking the “Warrior’s Path” with Author Casey Clabough

Interview by Eric Wallace

In early 2007, associate professor and official overseer of Lynchburg College’s department of graduate studies in English, Casey Clabough, made what he has categorized as a bizarre and high risk gamble. Fascinated—perhaps even obsessed!—with the migration of his ancestors (a troupe of hardy Germanic pioneers who, swearing off the domesticity of Virginia’s tidewater region, cut out for the Smoky Mountains in the late 1700s), Clabough decided to follow in their footsteps, to seek out—if there was such a thing to be found—the “spiritual resonances” of their 500-plus-mile trek through the ancient, mythic hills of Appalachia.

What follows is a discussion inspired by The Warrior’s Path, the hybridized travelogue x memoir x historical exegesis Clabough penned about that adventure.

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So, being from the same town—Appomattox, VA—I have to ask if a) if you were born and raised there, and b) what was it about place that led to your staying? Having roamed around a bit myself, I can’t help but wonder did you find it bizarre growing up in the rural south? How do you feel about that rural, small-town world now?

I entered the world in Richmond, VA but my family moved to Appomattox when I was very young and I grew up there, which is largely what my recent memoir, SCHOOLED, is about. My mother was a research scientist—one of the few women in the field then—at MCV, but she wanted me raised away from there. Incidentally, I think my best piece of prose writing to date—“The Skeleton Woman”—is about she and I. However, the dominant cultural influence in my family came from my father’s people, who had lived in the Smoky Mountains for nearly two centuries. They were displaced to a Virginia farm when the park was created and so I grew up surrounded by Appalachian culture in piedmont Virginia, close to the Blue Ridge but still piedmont southern. To sum up, the country South of Appomattox didn’t seem alien to most of what my Smokies kin talked about, although there were some major differences.  Obviously, I have a farm now in Appomattox, but the mountains still call to me and I’ve spent a lot of time in them—I feel most at home among mountains. As far as belonging, I don’t think I really belong anywhere, so I try to make the best of wherever I happen to find myself. I’m one of those people who doesn’t romanticize places since life remains life wherever one goes.

In an interview with Oxford American, you described yourself as an obscure writer whose work would probably be more-or-less forgotten after you died. In that same segment, you stated you had something of an epiphany that led you to accepting/adapting this mentality. Could you elaborate?

Well, I don’t know that there’s anything very profound about it, although I do know writers who maintain that is their position but still network and operate their asses off at conferences and residencies [laughs]. I think the body of someone’s work tells the truth of the matter. Take my scholarly books, for example. I would have written them all about big, dominant canonical writers and used the theoretical flavors of the day if I had wanted to try to become a big-shot scholar. Right now I’m working on the October essay for the Hollins Critic. It’s entitled “The Best Appalachian Writer You Likely Never Heard Tell Of.” So, yes, I’m attracted to good writers who just do or did their thing. I’ve also found they’re the most useful writers to talk to since it’s all about the writing and topics like literary politics and gossip never seem to come up.

As a guy making a living in academia, how do you navigate that differential between scholar and artist? Is there any distinction for you between those two?

I think it harkens back to the last question. I am what I am and do what I do. In terms of myself, I don’t think about genre divisions or that there’s even a schism between teaching and writing—to me it’s all the same. But it does seem to surprise some people when I suddenly generate a biography or a novel or a creative writing textbook or a book of poems in another language. It’s like they’re thinking, “Wait, you’re supposed to be just a critic. Get back over there” [Laughs]. I mean, I’m not even just a writer; I have many other interests, passions, and avenues of expression, If various people choose to take the writings of Casey Clabough and the person behind that particular name as the same thing, then that’s their problem.

You’re a rather prolific writer. How do you move from the realms of inchoate idea, conceptualization, work-in-progress, to realized manuscript? What does that process look like for you?

At this point in my career it’s pretty much defined by the next publishing deadline: that’s the project I need to work on. I have to be very organized, too, due to my current lifestyle. I mean, winter doesn’t wait for your woodpile to get large enough; spring doesn’t wait on the plow; etc. And then there’s the academic schedule in which I love interacting with the students, but find many other time-consuming aspects distasteful or even pointless. But going back to your question, I guess my process is a big chaotic mess (notes scribbled in a meeting, some snatches of typing here and there) that I then have to organize. So I would say organization and discipline are key. I am proud of the fact that, in so far as I can recall, I’ve never missed a deadline.

You’ve said that in hopes of making it a more sellable thing, your publishers wanted you to commercialize The Warrior’s Path. Can you talk a bit about the line between making something more widely available and compromising the integrity of the work itself?

That may be an unanswerable question, since there are writers who can cut loose with what they take to be all their artistic chaos and the end result is perfect for a trade publisher. In other words, their product just happens to naturally resemble whatever is “hot” or considered good literary work at a given point in time. Other writers deliberately, even cynically, “chase the monster,” as it’s called, with the aid of their agent, editor, and writer friends. In the grand scheme of things, though, when you read literary history, you come across all kinds of now-canonical writers who published with small presses or even not at all. And then there are the names next to Pulitzer prizes that no one reads or even recognizes anymore. Here’s an example: Some writers I know consider Moby Dick the greatest American novel ever written, but if you read the initial reviews of that book you’ll find them quite mixed. And then consider Melville’s career: It was one long, slow downward slide. The early novels—not Moby Dick—sold best and then down went his sales until no publisher would have him. Not a coffin to be found in that whirlpool [Laughs].

The whole road-hiking trip that comprised / led to your writing The Warrior’s Path seemed, to me, an insane idea. How did you arrive at wanting to do that book?

It coalesced gradually. As I child I spent long hours alone in the woods and I also had a love of maps. One day, while looking at a county topography map, I discovered the same large creek that ran through my farm was also the small creek that I played in at a friend’s house some ten miles distant. So naturally I decided to follow the creek to my friend, but also discovered a great many things along the way. When I finally got to his house people kind of freaked out. Did your mom drop you off? How did you get here without a car or a road? I still have an image in my head of my buddy’s panicked mom running to the phone [Laughs].

Anyway, with that book, I already knew I had the physical ability to accomplish the goal, barring an accident—and I did underestimate the danger. And then there were the spiritual and intellectual catalysts: Following in my ancestors’ footsteps and comparing what I saw to 1700s accounts of the same places. So many people followed that route, I thought it would might be appealing to others to know something about it, then and now.

Was writing The Warrior’s Path in any way cathartic for you? Do you think making the journey changed you in anyway? Has it (the trip, those reflections and thoughts) stuck with you? Do you ever think about it now, in the present? I think what I’m wanting to know is if this was just an open/close art/scholarly project or one of those I’m-driven-to-and-have-to-do-this kind of somethings that really fundamentally alters who/what you are as a human-being.

I think the answer to those first two questions is in the affirmative and then negative for the next two. For one thing, I’ve kept on writing and thus lived in different worlds, real and imagined, as vividly as when I wrote about the summer I hiked Athowominee. And then there’s the ever-present world of the real: I had a serious bout with illness a few years ago that nearly killed me. So I had to get self-recalibrated, so to speak. And then various things, good and bad, many of us go through. Anyway, no, I don’t think about that book very much, though I have been working on a sequel of sorts: It follows the life of one of my Smoky Mountain relatives—a great uncle. He interacted with bootleggers and the Overhill Cherokee, fought in World War I, and lost his land to the park. He lost the world as he knew it and, I also believe, himself. That happens to people, you know.

On top of all the other engagements and responsibilities you maintain, you live on, and run, a farm. Why?

Farming, at least to this point, has been synonymous with being. I cursed it as a child when my father would wake me before light from downstairs with lines of Smoky Mountain spang and I’d have to get up to do chores before school. At one point I swore it off in all earnestness. But then I found in college and graduate school that I really missed it. I think different people have their different connections. I’ve had urban-based house guests who have been so genuinely disturbed by the lack of sound and artificial light on my farm that they couldn’t sleep. One might argue their connection to their environment is equally strong and formative, even though it is much more shaped by human influence. I mean, my city instincts are terrible: I get lost easily, move at the wrong times in lines, etc. So I don’t know.

At various points you’ve talked about trying to help students, sometimes to your detriment. You wrote a book about teaching, and I was wondering if you might share a couple of stories, horrific and successful alike?

Well, I guess I’d say read SCHOOLED if you’re interested in that dynamic. I will say I don’t help people in the academic arena as much as I used to since it is so easy for a helpful intention to get misinterpreted or intentionally twisted by malicious people into something bad. So these days I prefer more community-based forms of help, whether it’s doing a free workshop at a library or using the chainsaw to help people clean up after a storm. I do still read lots of manuscripts folks send me, both those of friends and people I don’t know.

I’m sort of into tracing literary heritage. Could you name me a list of, say, your top-ten most beloved books and authors? The game-changers in both your literary world, and your life.

How about this instead: My forthcoming Hollins Critic essay is about a writer named Naton Leslie. I think everyone should read his book of short stories, Marconi’s Dream. It won the George Garrett Fiction Prize after being rejected by nearly a hundred publishers. It’s out of print now and no one ever bothered to review it. It’s a good book.

About the Author

caseyhimself-2Casey Clabough is the author of the novel Confederado, the travel memoir The Warrior’s Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route, the memoir SCHOOLED: Life Lessons of a Professor, a biography of legendary southern writer George Garrett, five scholarly books on southern and Appalachian literature, an edited collection of women’s Civil War writing, and a creative writing textbook. His work has appeared in over a hundred anthologies and magazines, including Creative Nonfiction, the Sewanee Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Fall 2012 issue of South85 Journal. Clabough’s awards include the Bangladesh International Literary Award, an artist’s fellowship from the Brazilian Government, and several U.S.-based fellowships. He lives on a farm in Appomattox County, Virginia and teaches at Lynchburg College.

About the Interviewer

Eric-WallaceEric J. Wallace is a freelance writer based out of Staunton, Virginia. His work has been featured in The Atlantic Monthly, All About Beer Magazine, Canoe & Kayak, Post Road Literary Journal, and he is a regular contributor to Blue Ridge Outdoors. For more info., select publication history, newsletters, and inquiries, visit www.ericjwallace.com.

Photo Credits: Annie Laura, 621studios.com.

The Healer

Clinton Crockett Peters

As I watched Robin Hemley get healed on the Filipino island of Siquijor, I was surrounded by three dozen writers, part of the 2011 Iowa Overseas Writers Workshop, most with their notebooks out; only eight or so were with me in the bamboo room, raised above a chicken coop. The rest were outside the thatched hut, wilting in the tropical balm but jotting away.

The writers were scribbling thoughtfully, probably the same details Robin noted later: how the healer made a cross with coconut oil on the back of her patient’s neck. How the healer was 87-years-old, barefoot with rough, taunt skin and cropped hair. How she blew bubbles through a straw into a glass and circled Robin on her knees (and awkwardly passed his crotch). The once-clear water in the glass changed to a chummy red and then a dark green. The healer paused, still on her knees, took out two bits of jagged material, and handed them to Robin. These were scales from his attacker, the healer informed.

The healer was all purpose, whatever ailed you. A cultural immersion project for most of us, but Robin was on a mission. He intended to remove a curse given to him in New Delhi by a beggar holding a basket of baby cobras. The lady held the snakes out to Robin (to his face as he recalled), and seemed to be expecting money. He meant to supply, but in going for his wallet, his wife called to him that their taxi was waiting. So he left, but before he could, the woman pointed at him and yelled obscenities that made the crowd in the market turn and stare and quiver. He assumed he’d been cursed.

It’s good for a writer to be cursed. “Imagine how good my life will be if I get rid of it?” he said. “Think of the story.”

Robin, one time director of the Iowa MFA program in nonfiction, author of eleven books, Guggenheimed, is not exactly without success. This story was one he planned to sell to Lapham’s Quarterly, one of those Barnes & Nobles glossies that had already accepted his pitch.

It would be hard for me to match Robin’s ability to render this healing. But imagine thirty writers in the same room or standing just outside in the mud and grass with the local men and children singing karaoke next door, these writers with their notebooks out like good students noting every detail. That sounded like a curse if I’ve ever heard one. I put my notebook away: who needed three dozen reports about the same incident?

But, and here’s the crux, even if all thirty did publish Pulitzer-prize stories, essays, poems and plays about Robin’s curse, that wouldn’t reflect or detract the notes I took and the story I kept for later.

Far from the rigors of the Russian ballet, or the meat-grinding nature of pro-sports, writers are not gladiators. We are not the adrenaline-saturated, bloody thirsty cohorts of New Rome’s underwear ad-generating spectacle. Thirty writers do not enter a dome expecting only one to leave.

Sure, there are contests and limited funding; getting aboard this Overseas Workshop was competitive. But we’re a breed engineered, thankfully, to distrust trophies.

What signals our profession, calling, broken hearts to bleed on pages is that, if we battle at all, we wage war with the self. I can tell this anecdote because it’s mine, but only if I’m tenacious enough to overcome my self-distrust. The lie was that there could be only one story, one poem, one essay. But countless great works of literature are poised on the cusp of one person falling for another.

I was going to get healed after Robin. But, instead, after Robin’s curse was removed I gave up my seat to another writer who scribbled away as the Healer’s bubbles turned the water brown.

I knew I could get healed the next day (we were on the island for three), and I did. The story of my healing, surrounded by staring children and curious chickens beneath the floorboards where I dropped my pen seems less interesting, more of a classic neocolonialist escapade than the irony and bizarre nature of three dozen writers scrawling notes about a story that was and wasn’t theirs. In other words, writing is not about originality, but piecing together the fragments of memory and observation, about reconstituting reality with the salt of imagination. The world we write about, and, indeed, what we write is never just our own.

 

Clinton Crockett PetersA native Texan, Clinton Crockett Peters has an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa. He is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of North Texas and has work published or forthcoming in Shenandoah, Green Mountains Review, Upstreet, Waxwing, The Rumpus, American Literary Review, Los Angeles Review, and Denton Record Chronicle. He has worked as a wilderness guide, an English teacher in Japan, and a radio DJ.

#SocLlit: A Twitter Collaborative Poetry Project

Donald C. Welch III

I began my project @SocialLit by writing poems that were exactly 140 characters to make the argument that Twitter functions as a new medium for literature and necessitates unique poetic forms. As a medium, I envisioned Twitter being a space for writers to collaborate seamlessly and create pieces together regardless of where they are physically located. This turned out to be the most difficult part of the project. But rather than try and generate interaction, I kept writing poems and replying to the occasional person who’d tweet to @SocialLit. It became evident to me that while I kept purporting this vision of collaborative writing, I never actually laid out any guidelines for what exactly I meant. I was tentative about defining anything, because I wanted the work to happen organically, but the truth is: nothing can grow if you don’t do some tilling first. So I decided to launch the experiment #SocLlit to test out writing a collaborative poem on Twitter and to provide an example as to how it might be done.

Before beginning the hashtag on December 28th I sent out Facebook messages and emails and posted Facebook statuses asking for support in this project and explaining what I had in mind. American art often idealizes the rugged individual, stubbornly creating something all on their own, but I haven’t found this to be the case. It took my friend Bobby Crawford (@BodaddyCrawfish) to write a response to my initial @SocialLit tweet for the hashtag to really open. #SocLlit never would have been possible without the seventeen people willing to participate, let alone the countless others who shared, retweeted, and promoted the project. People interacted in unexpected ways, like my friend Allison Truj (@AllisonTruj) who basically functioned as co-facilitator by retweeting or favoriting every piece written and keeping the hashtag active throughout the course of the day. I consider #SocLlit a huge success, for the simple reason that people did, in fact, write and work together towards making a single piece of poetry.

There were some small blips, such as people tweeting #soclit instead of #SocLlit. This was an oversight on my part, as the two Ls are difficult to read together. If I noticed people tweeting from #soclit though, I simply @tweeted them with #SocLlit so that the conversation would appear in the thread. I chose #SocLlit because #sociallit, corresponding to my project’s handle, is currently taken by a new Stanford class and since twitterspeak is an integral part of the project, I wanted to use Social Literature in twitterspeak. The capital L at the end of “social” represents the phonetic spelling of the word and the “literature” portion stands alone as lit. In the future I’ll pick a clearer hashtag, but for this experiment I was just excited to find one that fit the project title and that no one else had used. I also think that further research into the nitty-gritty aspects of Twitter will be beneficial for future efforts, learning about Twitter’s search algorithms and how exactly private and public accounts interacting affects the visibility of tweets will help smooth out the process.

Initially I imagined the collaborative writing being done through @tweets, where one long series could be read as a conversation on Twitter, but it was soon made apparent to me that this wouldn’t be the best way to approach it. @Tweets are visible to fewer overall Twitter users than hashtags. Additionally, most of the tweets were directed at my accounts rather than at other people using the hashtag, causing more leg work on my end to try to connect users. The Twitter handles, once they started including multiple people, became unwieldy, limiting the number of characters a user could write.

The future of this project will use hashtags like titles or themes, so that every individual can contribute to the poem itself simply by using the hashtag. The organizing method of Twitter, placing more popular tweets in a hashtag first, can become a strength in this format allowing for the creation of a poem that is fluid, always shifting depending on which tweets are favorited and retweeted by viewers, truly giving readers control over the interpretation of a text. In #SocLlit I already saw this happening on a small scale and I would like to further investigate how it affects the direction of the poems overall, as what I initially thought would be linear turned out to be more of a treelike progression. This hashtag use will also open up an opportunity for creating micro poems within the greater poem of the hashtag. While @tweets were an unsuccessful tool for unifying numerous people, if a user reading through finds another writer whose work they admire, then @tweets can be used to contribute to the poem on a personal level, as if the two users are creating the subtext of the piece by exploring portions that are particularly evocative to them. I would also like to use the hashtags as part of a larger digital narrative, maybe linking them across different platforms, since hashtags can be used synonymously on Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter.

The fact that #SocLlit was a success invites the possibility for a global poem. The people who participated crisscrossed North America, tweeting from Calgary, Alberta to Phoenix, Arizona and Portland, Oregon to Boston, Massachusetts. As a project, @SocialLit is about uniting people through poetry and while the first collaborative effort stayed on this continent, I hope future poems will one day connect people all over the world. I want people to write together so that we can better understand each other. There’s a willingness to discuss the ways our world is shrinking because of technology and the problems that arise from it, but people often neglect to address the potential solutions there as well: maybe the disjointed nature of twitterspeak will help us discover commonalities in disparate languages, maybe social media sites like Twitter can offer different cultures a candid glimpse into each other’s daily lives, maybe a few people writing together on the internet from warring countries can end a violent conflict. For now, the immediate hope is that people will start trying out #SocLlit on their own, coming up with hashtags and writing together, and in doing so continue the ancient practice of using poetry as means of connecting to one another.

 

DCW3 HeadshotDonald C. Welch III currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, but started writing in Mooresville, NC. His project @SocialLit explores new forms of poetry and collaborative writing derived from Social Media. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Haiku Journal, War, Literature & the Arts, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Emerson Review, among other journals. South85 Journal published his poem, “Finding Myself in a Wendy’s in Clyde, North Carolina,” in its Fall / Winter 2014 issue.  His collection of children’s poetry Who Gave These Flamingos Those Tuxedos? was published by Wilde Press.