Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dear Heart (Story continued)

Dear Dreeka,

I had just wanted to write you. This letter isn’t coming across an ocean or over roads from here or there. Maybe you won’t want to read it as much as a letter that might come from far away. And I didn’t put no date on it the way Mrs. Brown say to do. I know Mr. Kato say to do the date too because Lashawn who my boy who in your class say so, and also he say that Chinaman teacher be real nice so I hope you like him too and are having you a fine year in the fourth grade. About that date, I said maybe I won’t because I maybe will take many days to write this letter and I don’t know on what day I will send it if I do send it at all. Or maybe I will be my own postman and just give it to you in person because otherwise I would have to go to your home and put it in a mailbox, or maybe your father will take that letter and read it to his friends and laugh or come after me with a switch or belt if he don’t think me good for you. So maybe I will borrow me some stamps from Grandmom who knows how many stamps she have and the high price of stamps is not something I want to talk about with her. So this letter is a maybe I will and maybe I won’t send it, but it is for you.

What I had wanted to say was that:

I am not sure how to say it. Because Dreeka, you’re just so…

Mrs. Brown say the dot dot dot (…) means all the things you were gone say that already known. But maybe you don’t know how fine you is? Which don’t seem possible because you have this flash in your eyes when you smile like you know how good you look and that make you glad that folks know, too. Which I do not mean for to say that I don’t like how you smile. Just that when you smile your teeth is white bright pearls and theys a dimple that come out in each cheek that look like somebody wrote them a ( ) with inside the word (perfect) or (jewels fine and cut to shine like sun is caught and multiply-ed all up by powers of ten times ten) or (all things of God that he have made that make him grin and clap his hands cause thing he made right). Which Grandmom would call a ‘blasfemy’ which I guess is like when something is blasted like blown to nothing left and ‘femy’ like female like a way a woman is who ain’t supposed to be, which is wrong in your case because of what I said bout (perfect). But I hope you get the point, and are not confused the way Mrs. Brown gets sometimes when I write, and get too much creative which she says with a smile and also with a sigh.

Because I can’t help if I sound like me. And I can’t help it that you was going with that boy Pipe, but now I hear maybe you ain’t no more, and I know I ain’t no Pipe with his big arms like ladies like. And I am doing me some pushups but my arms do not look Pipe’s with muscle-veins popping all out like his arms is trying get out his skin. Which look like maybe it hurt. But I have done me ten pushups just this morning so you know I am trying be the kind man you like. Because I can’t help it that you so fine I got to write you letters that gone testify, that got to say that Dear Dreeka, Dear Heart like Mrs. Brown say folks write like to somebody they love like they writing direct to the heart that beat in the chest that get to hurting wanting love. Wanting to speak like a heart could speak to a heart (Dear Heart).

Dear Heart, this is a letter from a boy named Ephraim. All I had wanted to say was maybe love. Maybe love is how you make me feel, which is a bird taking sky with feathers fancy bright like arrows into air, all wings and flight and light.

Which is to say, that…


I do not know if I will give you this letter.

Most Sincerely Yours,


Tuesday, April 01, 2014

First Order (New Story Continued)


When the sun go down folks come out. The last orange-pop sunset gone from the sky, and the first street-lamp come crackling on and then the next and the next in a line of soft white halos closer in the further off they is. Felicity still cept for somebody’s beat-down sedan come past with a shake of bass and engine-groan, or the swip-whip turn of a rope from one or two girls still out trying make bedtime another minute away, they chant of who gone get it if they can/ cause we the ladies have the plan, pace fast and hungry with the end of kid time coming on, voices all bounce and echo til finally somebody call to get home or they gone get it and then there suddenly a hush left in they silence and the sound of they feet on gravel getting on.

Now it’s lines of houses with doors shut and lights back behind curtains, tvs flickering shows in beams of shine and flash out the thick warm dark, and in the new hush the steel-string sob of them cicadas loud and louder as if they can’t be alone no more and stay quiet, as if they got to find someone to share they troubles with or they gone bust open. And people is just the same, for this the hour when doors start opening with a hinge-groan and grown folks start getting to porches in pairs and twos or threes, some out the same house and others gone elsewhere, next-door neighbors reaching hands over fences. Men have shed they day clothes for undershirts, and others changing, having washed theyselves clean; some women have prettied theyselves up a little, they hair tightened up or pulled back, they faces sharp focus with new eyeliner or lipgloss and some smell-good flower-fresh perfume and maybe some new red shoes with heels that make them sway as they step through the dust to get to where the action is. Bodies in shadow standing straight or shifting side to side, the babble of low voices to start, and then a voice teasing or poking at with a joke offered up and then rooster crows of laughter and the way even the man who being made fun of joins in when the night easy and young. Me out the porch watching it all, wishing I was grown and could go join them.

“Ephraim Ellington, get your black butt to bed or I gone wear you out,” Grandmom voice call from the doorway, and I wait a moment and step out the step where I can look up and sure enough the moon a yellow quarter been cut right down the middle and folded over itself, all half there and half gone and I can’t remember if it growing or shrinking and I hear steps inside and know Grandmom coming to the door and I got to go.

“Coming!” I say. And since that buy me ten seconds I stand there looking at the moon wondering whether if you up there looking down, what happening on the dark ball below is like cicadas in the night, far-off small and full of sorrow.

Lashawn meet me out the gates when school done. It a day of storms kept down, a far-off rumble of thunder but nothing come out the sky but threats and bruised cloud bellies all gray-black and blue and coming on. Kids is walking off with a hop to they step, not waiting out the streets to see what kind of game gone come on or who gone have it out with who cause this weather have a look of danger coming on, like rain gone fall and winds gone blow and folks is gone get changed up in the wet afterward. I like this feel of look out, lightning gone strike, this will do can be who know what gone come. Things change cause they have to, and it the stay the sameness I don’t like. I get bored in the keep on keeping on.
Lashawn have a look to his mouth, a little turn at the edge, that say he full of something to tell. So I don’t give him a chance.

“Silence be the rule of the day,” I say before he can open his mouth to start in. “Today we shall speak no more from this moment on.”

Lashawn look at me, his lips mouthing words he want to say all outrage and overflow, and I almost laugh aloud at how much he want to speak. This a game we play called First Order which I had started after Reverend Wilson preached him a big sermon bout Book of Genesis and on the first day God made this and that and so on, bout how the rules was put down by him who spoketh first. Any time they ain’t already a rule in play the first to name one gets to make a new world, at least for a while, or the one who ain’t following gets a free lick. Shawn looking at me like he taking this insult hard, and then he narrow his eyes and pull off his pack and get out a pad and pencil. Letter of the law is followed, so I shake my head as he start scribbling on and wait for him to get done. He have a lot to say so he keep me waiting longer than I want, trying write even though the wind whip a little and pull he pages from his fingers and there a growl of thunder and even a far flash which mean the storm close and closing. I nod my head and start on toward Grandmom house and Lashawn throw up his arms cause he ain’t done and then start after still writing on his pad. Boy must be writing a book, he so into all he have to say. Which nice and all but nobody need to stand out in the storm for being too dumb to find a roof.

I almost to Grandmom house and the wind going both ways without a stop when I hear the slap of feet and then a tug on my arm and Lashawn there holding out his pad and shaking it at me. I take it and set it in the crook of my arm and keep on just to get the boy to dance and sure enough he do, stepping out in front of me so I can’t keep on and pointing at the pad like maybe I do not know he written a whole book just for me, and I grin and then put on a look of confusion and then surprise to find that pad there and he look like he actually getting angry and so I keep walking and start reading what he wrote in his handwriting neat and then shaky where he been walking, the pages flipping this way and that in the wind:

"My dumbass friend who make stupid rules, I’m trying to tell you something you need to know. But maybe I’ll just write nothing because you such an idiot maybe you don’t even know who your friends is. See how you like that. Fine. Keep walking. Well, then. Guess you don’t need to know nothing bout Dreeka or Pipe. How Pipe got beat down or how he told Dreeka he don’t want to go with her no more. Guess you wouldn’t want to know about that at all. And since you made some stupid game I guess I’m not going to tell you nothing."

My blood race when I see Dreeka’s name, and the lightning flash and the boom of thunder and then the first fat wet drops on my cheeks is the rush of wanting to know the whole story. And now Lashawn grinning cause he know who have the power now and he start running toward Grandmom house that just up the road and I after him with that stupid pad in the way in my hand trying catch him and trying get out the rain and trying not to say nothing now that all I want to do is shout out loud, Speak! Cept I was the one who made the law that afflict me that I can’t take back. Which is probably how the Lord felt when he made hisself the sun or moon or earth and all the world of stray dogs and elephants and loud folks praying him up all the time, wishing he could start over, and stuck with what is. Wrong from the beginning, til the end of time. Or at least til Lashawn forget the rule, and it time for a whole new order.

Mrs. Brown teaching us to letter-write, which is when you write down all kind notes for somebody far off to read and then you give it to a man in uniform who drives it over to where all ever it need to go. Which nice, but it don’t really make sense when some things is so off. I raise my hand, and Mrs. Brown narrow her brow like she do when she know I gone ask a question she ain’t sure she want to answer.

“So what if a letter have to go cross the river?” I ask before she even really called on me. “And the bridge all closed down cause the waters have rose up? Or what if they a big ship like out the crossing over by Rosewood into Arkansas and the bridge split itself up and so that Mail car can’t get hisself across?”

Mrs. Brown let my talking almost out of turn slide cause she was gone call on me anyway, but she have her head turned to one side like she trying to figure out which place to take on my question.
“Or what if you gone send a letter over the sea?” I ask. “Do the letters get on boats or do the mailmen have them some flying licenses? And do they get paid more if they got to fly? And what if they flying somebody a letter and you had just wrote a letter to your best friend three houses down and that Mailman take the letter with him on his jetplane to Egypt or Africa and so he don’t deliver it and you do not get the message and the message say, ‘The girl you in love with is waiting for you at the movie store,’ but you didn’t get it in time and so don’t go, or what if the message say, ‘I’m sorry I was a bad friend,’ and you don’t get it and then you still mad at your friend and so he need your help and you don’t help and then he die and then you never get over the guilt?”

“They have cars, and boats, and trains, and planes,” Mrs. Brown says. “Which other people drive and fly, not the postman for a single area.” She pause, and give a little smile as if she deciding how much answer to give. “As for the rest, Ephraim, sometimes, letters are slow. Messages don’t arrive on time or get delivered to the right person, even if they’re right next door. That’s why it’s important to be patient, and forgiving. To learn to wait.”

I got more questions, but I know I already pushing the bounds of what Mrs. Brown call ‘the stay focused’, which mean only the here and now, which is always what I asking bout but not necessarily in the ways a teacher want. So I let her answer stand as she go back to the dates addresses Dear Sir or Mrs. and Yours Sincerely Warm Regards that make sure you writing a proper letter. I paying attention to every word cause I have me some letters I need to write.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hope in What Work We Do

My essay, Hope in What Work We Do, just went live over at The Goodmen Project:

As I stood at the dim bar examining the dance floor, prepared to be bored, I thought I recognized a Philipino girl with her hair pulled back with clips, and then thought the same of a black girl with her hair in tight, braided rows. And then I saw the two tall young black men with them, six-foot two or three or four, with their baggy pants and backward ball-caps, standing tall and confident with their arms crossed, the sort of young men who might get the Richard Sherman treatment at first glance for their swaggering, brazen otherness, for the way they took up space and occupied it with crossed arms. I recognized these young men, too—or at least, was pretty sure I’d taught them.

And then the girl with her hair in rows saw me, and smiled, and pointed me out to the group, and the Philipino girl, whose name I couldn’t quite remember, was skipping up and embracing me, asking me how I was doing and did I remember her from freshman year, and all I could recall was that she’d been raised by her maternal grandmother, who had told her to find a better life or else fail trying, which she’d written about in her identity essay; that, and how she, and all of them in this group, had been in a particularly rowdy class, a class of performers and clowns and outspoken, silly, loud, enthusiastic kids who had been particularly difficult and particularly fun in the late afternoon in spring years ago, at least three years ago, or hell, was it four? And by then the two young men made it over, towering over me, holding out their broad hands, which enveloped mine, and one of them, whose hair was braided and hung about his face, who I remembered had been the second in his family to take my class, an African immigrant family out of North Portland, a kid who’d written about how basketball had saved his life, whose older sister had written about how she feared for her brother, who was always getting in with the wrong crowd, seized my hand and took me by the arm and then the shoulder and said, “You were a great teacher. Thank you.”

Friday, October 04, 2013

The Game of Waiting

For years and years, I've preached process to my literary friends. I've listened to their fears and doubts about the long odds inherent in the pursuit of lyric and literary art, and affirmed them (since I share them). And I've insisted that considering the intersection of art and commerce is the wrong obsession, that all that matters is the work of making meaning which is an end unto itself. I've said, and meant, that the integrity of art lies purely in the purity of pursuit, that what matters is not publications or awards or pay, but in the doing which is its own reward, to have reached and to have honed and to have made as much as beautiful and significant as one can. I have meant what I said. But I find that faith being tested, now, by success I should be happy with: after all these years, I have an agent, and two complete manuscripts, a memoir of teaching in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta and a novel-in-stories in the voices of Delta children, many of those stories new (written in the inspired flurry of the last year, the most productive by far of my writing life). I thought I would be happy to arrive, but instead I find myself, in this suddenly dark wet fall, in a state of panic and arrest.

That philosophy of process held up through what is eight years now of submissions to literary magazines and journals and newspapers-- held up through the years of rejection it often takes to place even an excellent story or essay out of slush, held up as fellowships and opportunities and lovers passed me by, as friends left and peers seemed to soar and I struggled on ground. I have a two-sided sheet where I scribbled my record of submissions, one side of which is in the photo below (the second side), an amazing visual record now of what persistence means. Things settled out in that process-- I ascended from slush with regularity, have published between four and eight pieces a year of literary fiction and nonfiction since 2008 in some of the country's finest venues, have won fellowships that formerly passed me by, have hewed to process and kept a stiff upper lip when disappointment ensued. I queried a 125 agents with parts of the two finished manuscripts that were enjambed and called a novel, kept on through two years of rejection until I realized each book had to live as its own expression. I realized that being published in literary magazines matters little, even good publications-- and just as I accepted how little it meant to be in The Sun or Gulf Coast or The Oxford-American or a Norton anthology, an agent came to me saying they'd read me in Creative Nonfiction and wanted to read the manuscript the piece had come from, and I sent it on expecting it to come to nothing and days later a phone call came from New York and suddenly I was revising the memoir, being told to withdraw stories I had out because we were going to take a run at the big magazines that only consider agented fiction, being prepared to go to editors.

Now, I'm waiting for my agent is going to tell me what he thinks of the newest revision of the memoir and strategize about where to send the four unpublished dialect stories, and I am a wreck. I have been psychologically dependent on production, on process, and there was a safety to that state of career-- I just did the work. Now, I have two finished (or near-finished) projects, and nothing to work on and no submissions to make and nothing boiling forth and I feel hollowed and crazy. This morning at the coffee shop, the fellow behind the counter said I seemed jittery. It's worse than that, really-- I feel sick with dread, shaken by the impending stakes, by verdicts with real consequences to come. Exactly how I used to feel before a big wrestling tournament; exactly why I grew to hate competition even as I loved the sport. And right now I feel similarly about writing: I miss the doing, the reaching for meaning, and can't bear to face the failure that may come.

Except. Except that the act of saying how I feel even in an inappropriate venue like a blog, is itself an affirmation and clarification. Friends, cut me some slack if I'm all over the place in the next weeks and months; writer friends, wish me the best as I wish all of you the best. If the submissions sheet must take more ink (I have always intended to retire it when I finally publish a book), so be it. I will persist, write more. I just hope that verdict is swift, so I can get back to the joy of the writing itself.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Place to Stand

Earlier this morning, I was intrigued by Solmaz Sharif’s post at the Kenyon Review blog, where she interrogated questions of what made an American poet of the 20th Century ‘great’ and floated the work of Gwendolyn Brooks as being especially important. How often ‘greatness’ in anything, be it art or literature or music, is the province of white men, while 'ethnic' literature and ‘women’s writing’ are consigned to separate shelves, separate anthologies, considered in isolation, relegated to the status of the necessarily minor ‘other’. Sharif noted that question of greatness is not particularly interesting; of more interest is the question of importance, which is to say, who and what we talk about when we allude to a poet being ‘20th century’ and ‘American.’ She draws attention to writers of color who address injustice, and asks whether their subject or art is most significant, questioning how many ‘ethnic’ poets are culled from anthologies as the years progress, even as the past remains, well, white. She notes the danger of erasure.

Brooks herself considers such questions obliquely in two poems, one called "Of Robert Frost," and the other beside it in her Selected Poems, titled "Langston Hughes." Frost she reserves rote and reserved praise for, saying, "He is splendid. With a place to stand." But of Hughes she notes, he "grips his right of twisting free," and is "helmsman, hatchet, headlight."

Greatness? I don't know the metrics by which to measure. But give me Hughes and Brooks for their quality of lyric that exceeds efforts to define it, that sort of music we require most of all. Hughes in “Daybreak in Alabama,” when the speaker says that one day he’s going to be a composer, and write him some music that contains the world whole, the swamp and mist and fields and heavens:

And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I’m gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers

This poem, though written in dialect, is not only a ‘black literature,’ meant to speak only to the ‘black experience’—the speaker would write the whole damn world, and accept nothing less. So much contemporary poetry (and fiction, and essay, for that matter) is merely gestural, a bank of flat mirrors reflecting dull imitation; the emphasis on ‘writing what you know’ and ‘writing to the pain’ has become obsessive, limitation leading to writing of limited force and limited implications. Hughes’s speaker would make music to encompass the world whole—and he would sing it like he means it.

The poet Carl Swart says the difference between such an art and lesser work is like the distinction between actually praying and reciting catechism. I suppose that is why Frost at his more trite is so objectionable—poetry (and writing in general, lyric or narrative) ought to try to say something of significance, to risk with heart and ambition, not pander the familiar promenade. And when we consider it, we ought not to segregate and relegate by race or subject. We need to fight to ensure there’s equal space for all to stand.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Most Important Six Weeks

So, friends, much has been happening lately.

There's this little lyric elegy, published by the lovely folks at Sunday Salon.

And then there's what's happened over the summer. A lot is going on. I now have an agent. I have nearly finished two books-- the memoir, and a novel-in-stories, both about the Mississippi Delta and the kids there, though from vastly different perspectives and in different modes of variation. And after a break from my life, eight weeks in Portland during which I wrote three long new stories and climbed myself lean and mean and enjoyed the diversity of the city and all its opportunities, I now have six weeks until the start of teaching to revise both books until they are ready for editors. It is exhilarating, and crazy-making-- an entire decade of my writing career hangs in the balance. But I am up to the challenge.

I hope.