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Your Own Back Yard – Michael Gillan Maxwell

Visual Art – Creative Writing – Social Commentary

Interview With Lisa Harris author of Dwelling Space

Interview With Lisa Harris, author of Dwelling Space

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 Can you share anything about your process in writing the poems in your most recent collection, Dwelling Space?

 Susan Weisend, a visual artist, was working on creating prints related to the Cayuga Water Shed, of life forms that are extinct except for their representation on rocks as fossils, and of life forms, which are threatened. This was the spring of 2016, when I lived in western Pennsylvania. She and I have done collaborations previously, beginning in 1989 with Conditions Which Guarantee Existence (a text and image installation that showed at the Rice Gallery in Albany and was “live” at the Bisbee Poetry Festival in Bisbee, Arizona.)

Susan had been at ARTPRINT studio in Spain, and she wondered if I thought I had anything to say about extinction, life, and the precarious balance between the two. You have to laugh here if you know me, because it seems I always have something to say. So we applied to ARTPRINT studio and received some funding to help us go there. We were accepted, and in January, I began reading about insects, geographies, weights and measures, molecular structures, and listening to sounds and feeling colors. I began writing sketches of individual poems.

I was not thinking of a book length poem. I was hoping for insight into the imbalances in our world, and hoping I could write 7-10 poems.

Once we arrived in Spain for the three-week residency, we worked separately—Susan in the print shop and I on the balcony looking over the Mediterranean Sea with the foothills of the Pyrenees behind me.

I tend to write the way I cook or clean or garden. So, for example, yesterday was the day to make yogurt, and while I was waiting for the milk to hit 180F, I also made chicken, black bean and vegetable soup, while cleaning the refrigerator.

I work on several projects at the same time, so at that time I was composing and seeking ideas for what became Dwelling Space, I was also working on two novels, working titles, Imagine a Castle and ‘Geechee Gone, a sequel to ‘Geechee Girls—one a new idea and one an older book that only this past week has made itself known to me in its intention. I was also grieving the end or certainly an abrupt change in a relationship, and I think I needed to write poems so that I could turn that grief into love.

Have writing retreats played a significant role in your writing, and if so, how?

Yes. When I worked full-time as a creative writing instructor, I was a student in Avery’s Interdisciplinary Fine Arts degree program at Bard. I had three summers of 6-week residencies. I changed jobs and went into public education, first teaching and then administration. If I had not received two Saltonstall Residencies and two Hambidge Residencies, I would not have been able to concentrate as deeply as writing requires. The retreats let me have time apart. It was hard to be away from my family, and I had to go. Time apart was spiritual and expansive.

How do the poems in this collection and your earlier books relate to and/or reflect your spiritual path?

Sometimes I think of myself as a 15th century explorer or as Beryle Markham. I just don’t captain a boat or pilot a plane. Everything is a spiritual journey for me. So all my writing is some kind of exploration into the spiritual –I am a seeker–and my ship and my plane are fiction and poetry, both piloted by metaphor.

I think the poems in Dwelling Space are beautifully lyrical and have a liturgical quality when read aloud. I also think they are evocative of a strong sense of place. Can you tell us who and what may have influenced these aspects of your work?

Thank you for hearing the writing as well as reading it, Michael. Growing up in the Methodist Church, I listened to and read the King James’ version of the Judeo-Christian Bible, my mother was a musician (piano, organ and cello) and a music teacher. She was highly concerned with pitch and tone and word choice, and she believed that how you said what you said was important as what you were saying. She used to nudge me with, “Pitch”—when I was half way through a sentence, and I would begin the sentence again, ditto with “Tone.”

So the sound of words was a big deal—talking was perceived as a form of music, with an emphasis on making the world pleasant. My mom believed that singing was a way to open your heart and the rest of your body to take in the Holy Spirit.

I also listened to KJV being read aloud at church, and during high holiday seasons that meant Sunday and Wednesday, at least that is how I remember it. And my grandmother who lived close by, read the Bible daily at breakfast, so when I was with her, she read it out loud to me. At boarding school, we studied the Bible and then in Divisional Seminar at my college, we did as well, not as doctrine but as literature, since it underpins a lot of the metaphors and images in so much literature.

While I was an undergrad, I studied for one semester with Richard Murphy, an Irish poet, and he reinforced cadence and rhythm, rhyme and sound. I think the biggest influence for me was reading and rereading the KJV of the Bible as a child, and then poetry in high school and college—I also began to study world religions and economics and those expanded the economics of my spirituality, giving me a bigger bank account, if you will.

Growing up in what is part of the Appalachian Mountain range, specifically the Alleghany Mountains, I was taught that PLACE mattered, that I was from this place and this place was part of me. I learned the stories of the landscape and the people who inhabited it, it was my movie theatre and my first book. It was my first poem. Recently, I was part of a group of writers who met in Western Pennsylvania (as distinct from Central Pennsylvania where I am from) to discuss a new genre and how to define it: Northern Appalachian Writing. How is it distinct from Southern Appalachian Writing? What makes it distinct?

So place informs who we are. Those of us with a strong sense of place, I believe, are more open to place, to traveling from place to place, to appreciating the similarities of space and place—I think Dwelling Space is getting at that, at loving the world, one space at a time.

 What are your thoughts about the relationship of your work being read “off the page” versus being read aloud?

I listened to Eudora Welty recordings, e.e. cummings, and others on records in high school, I had the privilege to work at Savannah State College, part of the HBC system, go to revivals in the north and in the south, and see people go off the page, hear people go off the page—when I heard Eudora Welty read and when I read at a festival with Lucille Clifton, I thought poetry and fiction should always be LIVE. And the child in me, the little girl who hid in the forest with a book, or feigned a fever so I had to stay home on the couch the day after the book mobile arrived, that girl wanted silence and intimacy, and the smell of books.

When I read Toni Morrison, I hear her voice even on the page. I think that is the hope, to be heard on the page as well as off the page.

I hope that people come to my and other people’s readings and that they also keep buying books, however they access them.

How do current events and the events in your personal life affect and inform your writing?

Oh boy! Well, they are my writing. I am part of the world and the world is part of me.

Do you start out with a sense of an arc or overall trajectory in your works or does that evolve as you go, or is it a little bit of both?

Well, Michael, you got me to laugh here. It is a LOT of both. So here are two little stories to show two different approaches.

Example of NO ARC: In the late 1990s, I was having a lot of trouble with bronchitis. We had a wood stove, I had allergies and I had a lot of unresolved and harbored grief I had never worked through regarding my father’s change in occupation, which led to his violent death. I began sleeping in a loft where the air was cooler in our old farmhouse. Every night for about a month, I had a dream where I was under water holding my breath trying to untie red ribbons that tied a gray steel box closed. Each time I would grab the ribbon, it would bleed, and the box was too heavy to lift. Then I would wake up coughing. And because I was not able to sleep, I would write, little dreamscape sketches. At that time I was fascinated with “sudden fictions,” also known as “flash fictions.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I had begun writing a book, BOXES, which won first prize in Bright Hill Press’ Fiction Chapbook contest, and then when the book grew up, it became ALLEGHENY DREAM, the second book in The Quest Trilogy.

Example of BIG ARC: While I was in Spain at the residency with Susan, I had another dream. My room had a huge window and no one uses screens. It was very hot and so I slept with my window wide open. The window faced the foothills of the Pyrennes Mountains toward France and Switzerland. I didn’t know that at the time. I had been thinking about Jeff’s mom’s family, the Deyos (D’Yeaux), their persecution by the Catholic French king, and that history since his mother died and I inherited her family books. About a year before, I had looked up the fort/castle that had been part of that family’s life. I woke up at 4 am with the title, Imagine a Castle, and a scene of a great-great x 8 or 10 grandfather I had read about. I wrote it down.

With uninterrupted time, I read about the Huguenots and his families escape from France to Mannheim and then on to New Paltz, using my laptop to access the history. I could see how this could honor his mom. Then I saw how the book could be a love story that would also honor my family. I have been carrying all my mother’s and family’s stories around with me in my head and heart, of course, but also all my mom’s research since she died in 1984 when I had promised her, I would turn it into a cohesive piece of writing. I planned the structure for the novel/creative non-fiction/memoir so that the lovers have alternating passages, and are only known as he and she. I have been weaving the two family histories together, and you guessed it, adding the landscapes as another one of the families. So this one I saw as a book right away.

What does your poetry share in common with your novels and creative nonfiction?

All of the writing I do is about a search for spirit and truth, philosophically speaking, when any one of us identifies a sliver of spirit and truth, each of us is made brighter. So all my writing is about locating light by looking at the darkness and the light, by looking at the ugly with the beautiful. I also weigh words and try to make the sound perfect (Thanks, Mom) especially in the hardest parts of a poem or story or essay.

My MFA program was interdisciplinary; I wasn’t required to declare POET or NOVELIST. So I work across genres. That was hard in applying to graduate school, if the program wanted you to study one or the other. It was hard in one professional setting where I was supposed to be one or the other. I am both. I guess the downside in some folks’ minds, is if you are both, then de facto, you are neither. I am both.

You have a history of actively collaborating with visual artists. Is that something that you’ve actively sought out or has it been more of a spontaneous, organic evolution?

 I think Freud, or someone, would say that this is second child, youngest child boundary disorder. Gotta laugh. Well, at its worst, it is that. Thinking that my own work, on its own, is not sufficient. I think I out grew that pretty early on.

Putting a positive spin, and the more truthful one at this time, I get lonely, and I like to think with other people. If I had been given paints as a kid, I think I would have been a visual artist because I love color and broad strokes. But I was given words and music, so I became a writer. I was given stories and melodies, tone and pitch, cadences and pockets of silence.

Some people have sought me out, and sometimes I have sought them out. Maybe it is the teacher/student in me—too—likes to give out assignments and be given them.

But I love other people’s art, so I have worked with other artists. It may be my form of a dish to pass dinner.

How do fables, myths and the oral tradition of story telling inform and influence your work?

I have always been a reader and a listener. So I talked a lot about the church I grew up in and the KJV Bible; however, equally important in my life, were fairy tales, fables and myths, and told stories around the dining room table or a campfire. Words were valued and truth was valued, with the understanding that truth was usually complicated and best explored through metaphors.

People in my family, especially on my mother’s side were storytellers, memorizers of long poems they could recite. On my father’s side, there was a heavy emphasis on truth and wisdom. Stories were what people share, fables were lessons, and fairy tales were puzzles with truth hidden in them. I tried to give stories to Jeff’s and my daughter and my grandchildren as well, to give them multiple lenses with which to view the world, themselves and their places in it.

So I was read to a lot, and I read a lot. I was taught to respect and value differences in people’s religions and cultures. I was also blessed by a loving small town and the privilege (which should be a right) of an exceptional education. In fact, any time I have not known what to do with myself, I have gone back to college.

Colleges and universities replaced the church for me for 30 years.

I knew if I could find something new to study, or find something old to re-imagine, I would work through whatever was in front of me, that by reading and writing and thinking I would take grief and anger and turn them into knowledge and love, I would give them somewhere to go other than residing in my heart. I would try to make something beautiful and true out of something painful. That is what I was trying to do by writing Dwelling Space.

Lisa Harris writes poetry, short fiction, novels and creative non-fiction. Her latest book is Dwelling Space and she is the author of another poetry collection Traveling Through Glass and five books of fiction: Low Country Stories, Boxes, ‘Geechee Girls, Allegheny Dream, and The Raven’s Tale. She lives and writes in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

 

Review of Dwelling Space

Dwelling Space                                                                                                                            Poetry by Lisa Harris  Cayuga Lake Books  2019  69 pages

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“Love the earth and sun and animals, Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, Stand up for the stupid and crazy, Devote your labor and income to others….Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book; Dismiss whatever insults your own soul; And your very flesh shall be a great poem.” Walt Whitman

“All of the writing I do is about a search for spirit and truth, philosophically speaking, when any one of us identifies a sliver of spirit and truth, each of us is made brighter. So all my writing is about locating light by looking at the darkness and the light, by looking at the ugly with the beautiful. I also weigh words and try to make the sound perfect especially in the hardest parts of a poem or story or essay.”   Lisa Harris

 Dwelling Space is Lisa Harris’s seventh book and her second collection of poetry. This is the work of a mature artist in full voice. The poems are statements about observation, creative process, and spiritual development and explore universal themes of time, place, love, seasons and life cycles, geography, nature, the planet, and the cosmos itself. The word cosmos rather than universe implies viewing the universe as a complex and orderly system that is the opposite of chaos. Dwelling Space is about this complex and orderly system. It is a book about microcosms and macrocosms, the interconnectivity of all living things, life on the cellular level, and the place of sentient beings within the larger context of the cosmos.

The book is thoughtfully organized and laid out in five parts: I. Journey From Rock To Flight, II. A Gardener Of Time And Dust, III. Deserts And Oceans, IV. The Color Of Mercy, V. Sermon Of Light. The poems within each section are simply numbered, and not individually titled, so it reads like one continuous poem without the encumbrance of titles that might interrupt the flow. Dwelling Space is a book length poem that harkens back to other long form poems such as Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass with its sense of transcending time and place and offers a universal, ecstatic celebration of being alive in the world in the present moment.

Lisa Harris’s command of the English language enables her to render vivid imagery that evokes authentic emotional response. The poet leads readers along a path that has been traveled by Hildegard von Bingen and Rumi, Rilke, the American Transcendentalists and Walt Whitman, TS Eliot, and contemporary poets Gary Snyder, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe and Mary Oliver. The work’s lush, evocative prose serves as a bright beacon and antidote to the diminution of language in this age of newsfeed sound bites, Twitter-speak and social media slang.

Dwelling Space claims its rightful place in the lineage and company of other poems and poets I’ve mentioned above. Dwelling Space is Earth’s house hold.

“All beings, seen and not seen                                                                                                            are part of Earth’s household                                                                                                microbes and ions, bees and ants, people and stones.”

 I am reminded of Gary Snyder’s 1969 book Earth House Hold, which explored many of the same themes. “As a poet,” Snyder tells us, “I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic; the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying intuition and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.” Fifty years later Dwelling Space is remarkably aligned with the same values.

The poetry in Dwelling Space does not fit neatly into any of the classic categories ~ lyrical, narrative or dramatic. I view it as a hybrid between lyrical poetry and narrative poetry. Largely written in the third person, it puts the reader in the position of looking over the shoulder of the poet to observe and to make their own meaning from this multi-sensory experience. While it reads well off the page, it rings out like music when read aloud and resonates like a symphony with different movements. Envision Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

The rhythm of the language is hypnotic and the cadence even sounds liturgical at times. A Gardener Of Time And Dust ends with a blessing.

“Waves sweep against sand, making the word;

Shantih, shantih, shantih.”

Shantih, a Sanskrit word meaning peace or inner peace, is prayed at the end of an Upanishad and also appears in TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. The rhythm is sometimes reminiscent of shamanic incantation:

“Locate constriction. Writhe. Slither. Pant.

Rain falls. Sun dries the backs of throats.

Sun burns retinas. Heartbeats throb in temples.

Stand firm. Welcome anger and fear.

Welcome pain and doubt, too.”

The imagery is cinemagraphic and dynamic, with multiple things intertwining and occurring simultaneously. In this way it reminds me of the descriptive prose of Richard Ford and the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu. Dwelling Space is a multi-sensory experience that evokes a sense of synesthesia that is, at times, dizzying, kaleidoscopic and psychedelic.

“Bullfrogs bellow love songs.

Fireflies blink encrypted messages.

A coyote barks in the far field.

Bats swoop and skim the pond’s surface

searching for food.”

 

“She can taste green and hear it.

She can feel green and smell it.”

Dwelling Space is deep and heady stuff, but by no means obscure or inaccessible. This is not a “one and done” read. There are levels and layers and new things to discover each time you return. This is a book that will hold up over time. Like any work of art with complexity, depth and nuance you’ll want to revisit it time and time again.

Dwelling Space is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble  and at Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca, New York https://www.buffalostreetbooks.com

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Lisa Harris writes poetry, short fiction, novels and creative non-fiction. She is the author of another poetry collection Traveling Through Glass and five books of fiction: Low Country Stories, Boxes, ‘Geechee Girls, Allegheny Dream, and The Raven’s Tale. She lives and writes in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

 Front Cover by Nicholas Down: A Harbored Memory                                                            Nicholas Down lives and works as a painter in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

 Cayuga Lake Books was founded in 2012 by some authors from the Ithaca, New York area who were looking for alternatives to mainstream publishing. More information and their catalogue can be found at https://cayugalakebooks.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Struggle Is Real

SPARKLING MIKE

Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have each expressed their belief that Artificial Intelligence may be the most dangerous existential threat to the survival of the human race. For decades, Artificial Intelligence has been depicted in science fiction, television and film. Sometimes it’s a benevolent presence, like R2D2 and 3CPO in Star Wars, Data in Star Trek or Rags the dog in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” However, more often than not Artificial Intelligence lurks as a menacing and darkly malevolent force in films like 2001- A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, as well as in television series like Battlestar Glactica.

Who can forget this classic showdown between man and machine in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001- A Space Odyssey.

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Dave: What’s the problem?

HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?

My own troubled history with AI dates back as far as I can recall. It begins with me trying and failing to draw a diagonal line on an Etch-A-Sketch that only drew vertical and horizontal lines. Then there was the very first video game “Pong.” It was a game of virtual ping pong which consisted of a dot bouncing back and forth across the television screen. Hours of good, clean late night stoner fun. But I couldn’t even get that right. Got crushed each time I played. Do I even have to mention “The Clapper?” Lately my dysfunctional relationships with AI include contentious exchanges between me and the disembodied androgynous voices emanating from my GPS and my vehicle’s Blue Tooth interface. Also now I have both Alexa and Siri to contend with. I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel like having a conversation with my devices every time I turn around. That super perky upbeat cheerfulness is just too much in these nihilistic times, especially before I’ve had my coffee.

Today I burned up an hour of what’s left of my mortal existence on this planet trying to convince a series of robot overlords that I need to speak with an actual human being in customer service to schedule an appointment. It’s like passing through the Seven Circles Of Hell, the Bardo and Purgatory just to get another sentient being on the other end of the line. Today’s interaction involved a protracted struggle just to utter a simple phrase a robot would comprehend.

Robot: “Thank you for contacting customer service. You can talk to me like a real person. Ask me anything. For example, you can say “How much credit do I have available? When is my next payment due? Do you wanna dance under the moonlight?

Me: “I need to speak with a customer service representative.”

 Lots of background noise, whirring, clicking and popping as if somebody is typing a transcript of my request.

Robot: “I’m sorry. I did not understand you. Ask me anything. For example, you can say: “How can I buy the entire boxed DVD set of Battlestar Galactica? Do you know the way to San Jose?”

Me: ” I need to speak with a customer service representative.”

 More popping, clicking, buzzing, whirring, typing noises.

And so, on and on we went, until I was a jibbering idiot barking out monosyllabic commands like a drunk calling out for more whiskey at closing time.

Robot: “I’m sorry. I did not understand you. Let me connect you to a Customer Service representative. This call may be monitored.”

Customer Service Representative: “Hello. This is Mathew. For security purposes, what is your Service Contract number?”

Me: I recite an unintelligibly long string of alpha numeric code.

Customer Service Representative: “I’m sorry, but that contract has expired.”

Me: “No. There must be some mistake. I have the Service Contract right here in front of me and it doesn’t expire for another six weeks. May I please speak with a supervisor?”

Customer Service Representative: “Absolutely. Please wait while I transfer your call.”

Five minutes of waiting while insipid music blasts the shit out of my ear drum.

Customer Service Robot Supervisor: “Thank you for contacting customer service. You can talk to me like a real person. Ask me anything. For example, you can say “How much credit do I have available? When is my next payment due? Do you wanna dance under the moonlight?

 ME: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry, Mike. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

ROCK N ROLL BOT

Drive-By Self Interview Book Review “So Sad Today” Melissa Broder

MGM’s Drive-By Self Interview Book Review of “So Sad Today” by Melissa Broder

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Q.     How much did you love this book?

A.     I loved it with the intensity of a thousand blazing suns.

 Q.     To whom would you recommend it?

A.     Curious readers with a capacity for self examination, an appreciation for existential absurdity, willingness to experience things from a deeply personal perspective other than their own and any reader who loves poetic prose and damn good writing.

 Q.     What did you learn from reading “So Sad Today?”

A.     How everyone we meet is fighting their own personal battles, inner demons and hidden insecurities, no matter how much it appears they may have their shit together. Also how little I know about Twitter and that I’m a really lame tweeter. I also learned some texting shorthand, although I had to Google some of it. I also realized that I am sexually repressed Catholic schoolboy.

Q.     Would you compare Melissa Broder’s style as an essayist to any other authors whose work you enjoy reading?

A.     I like David Sedaris and Jenny Lawson (“Let’s Pretend This Never Happened”) for similar reasons. I think Melissa Broder is a brilliant humorist and a keen observer of human nature and commentator on social norms with a stunning command of the English language. She pulls no punches and writes with astonishing candor.   

Q.     You’ve been described as a gushing fanboy. How do you feel about that?

A.     I am absolutely, without a doubt, 100% a gushing fanboy. I totally OWN that shit. As a middle-aged, mediocre monogamous white male, I might be a bit of an outlier from the rest of her fan base, but that’s never stopped me before from going out on a limb. A limb that may snap at any moment, and send me crashing to the cold, hard ground.

Q.     Why are YOU so sad today?

A.     Because I finished reading “So Sad Today.” NOW what the Hell am I supposed to do?     

Q.     How would you describe “So Sad Today”?

A.     I am a raging adjective/adverb abuser in recovery, with a touch of OCD, but here are a few descriptors off the top of my head. I had listed one for each year of my life in alphabetical order in two columns, but WordPress doesn’t DO that kind of formatting, and now I’m REALLY so sad today! Damn it Jim! I’m a DOCTOR not a code writer!

acerbic       addictive          beautiful          brilliant            brutally honest   candor     compassionate      compelling       courageous      creative     dead on      dead serious       delightful   erotic   excavation       excoriation       existential     exorcism    experimental extraordinary   fascinating  funny  genius  happy  heartbreaking  hilarious    hot      humanistic       humane   humble    humorous   hungry    imaginative  in-your-face     insightful     inspiring          instructive       intense    interesting      off -beat    off -kilter   painful   playful    poetic      poignant           provocative     redeeming        resilient      revealing      sad   seductive   self-effacing     sexy     spiritual  straight-up  strong  thought-provoking     titillating   trenchant  truthful  uncommon  unflinching   unique  uplifting  voyeuristic   witty

Q.     We’re just about out of time. Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

A.     Yeah. What are you doing just sitting there? Go out and get this book and read the Hell out of it. Then, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll go out and buy any and all of her four poetry books you can get your hands on because  that’s EXACTLY what I’m going to do.

About the Author:

Melissa Broder is the author of four poetry collections:  LAST SEXT (Tin House, 2016), and MEAT HEARTWHEN YOU SAY ONE THING BUT MEAN YOUR MOTHER. She is also the author of the essay collection, SO SAD TODAY (Grand Central, March 2016). Poems appear in POETRY, The Iowa ReviewTin House, Guernica, FenceThe Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Washington Square ReviewRedivider, Court GreenThe Awl, Drunken Boat, et al. You can read the online ones HERE. Broder received her BA from Tufts University and her MFA from City College of New York.  By day, she is Director of Media and Special Projects at NewHive. She lives in Venice, CA.

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About the Drive-By Reviewer:

Michael Gillan Maxwell is a visual artist, author, and teacher. The Part Time Shaman Handbook: An Introduction For Beginners, a hybrid book of images and prose, was published by Unknown Press in 2015. Prone to random outbursts, Maxwell can be found ranting and raving on his website: michaelgillanmaxwell.com

 

Book Review “Cinnamon Girl” by Lawrence Kessenich

Book Review  Cinnamon Girl by Lawrence Kessenich

North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.  Fiction 233 pages

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Cinnamon Girl, the debut novel from award winning poet and playwright, Lawrence Kessenich, is a poignant and compelling story about a young man and his group of friends as they come of age in the American midwest during the height of the Vietnam War era.

John Meyer, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is fighting his own war on an asymmetrical front. He is in the process of leaving the halcyon days and secure cocoon of his conservative suburban family. Meyer questions his entire belief system, as he finds himself drawn into the radical politics of the anti-war movement, new friends, a love affair, experimentation with drugs and a new lifestyle. He struggles to come to terms with the plethora of choices he must make in the face of events that occur at a dizzying pace.

Kessenich skillfully and accurately depicts a thoroughly engaging, nuanced and multi-layered story of a classic love triangle. the overwhelming rush of first love and an impossible relationship all set against the backdrop of social unrest, political upheaval and the tumultuous events of the times.

He writes through a lens of adult wisdom about a much younger version of himself and the dynamics of Meyer’s family life, and his relationships with parents and siblings while they all struggle to maintain balance as the once secure ground is shifting underfoot.

Kessenich’s skill as a story teller is bolstered by his ability to vividly describe events and carefully develop multidimensional characters with the keen eye of a realist. I became so enamored of the characters and so engrossed in what was going on in their lives, that I did not want the book to end.

I connected with Cinnamon Girl on a deeply personal level because of my own life experiences and familiarity with the history of that specific time and the location of the events depicted in Kessenich’s novel. However, given the current political climate and the societal divisions that exist, protagonist John Meyer serves as an Everyman whose story could just as well be happening right now. I think Cinnamon Girl is a story for the ages that examines universal questions about growing up and awakening, adult decisions where nothing is black and white, the responsibilities that come with freedom; and the insecurities, moral conundrums, and choices a young person faces as they move into adulthood. Cinnamon Girl guides the reader through a twisting, turning, up and down journey of self discovery, triumph and defeat, and ultimately redemption. It’s a thought provoking and emotional read; a trip down a rabbit hole that eventually leads back out into the warm sunshine.

About the author:

Lawrence Kessenich has written in a variety of genres, including poetry, plays, short stories, novels, screenplays and essays. He won the Strokestown International Poetry Prize in Ireland in 2010. Other books include Age of Wonders, (Big Table Publishing, January 2016) Before Whose Glory, FutureCycle Press, 2013) and Strange News, (Pudding House Publications, 2008) Lawrence Kessenich lives and writes in Boston MA.

lawrence-head-shot

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Go Shopping

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Go Shopping

It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, two days before the Winter Solstice. There are no flowers blooming, no buds bursting forth, no harkening to the delightful song of peepers in the pond. Instead, wind howls like the furies over piles of icy snow. At this very moment, members of the Electoral College are casting their votes for the 45th president of the United States and I sit here, still in my jammies, “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” This anachronistic expression has its roots in urban tenement life and alludes to a person waiting for the second shoe to drop after being awakened by an upstairs neighbor loudly dropping a shoe on the floor. In this case,I think it’s safe to say the other shoe has already dropped and it’s all over but the crying.

If climate change with its unseasonable and unreasonable weather patterns, polar vortexes, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, super volcanoes and solar flares aren’t enough to worry about, there are plenty of other boogeymen and evil clowns lurking under the bed to haunt my dreams in the wee, wee hours. At least one of them has a tragic hairstyle with an extreme comb-over. Never mind that a deer tick smaller than a poppy seed lurking in the grass is capable of inflicting an unholy host of autoimmune disorders. It almost makes me glad the lawn will be covered by a sheet of tundra ice until April.

The American political landscape is a 3 ring circus, a carnival freak show, a Wrestlemania smack down, an episode of the Jerry Springer Show meets Family Feud. While I had no illusions that the country was filled with happy campers from sea to shining sea, I had no idea that so many people were so pissed off about so many things, all at the same time. It’s kind of harshing my mellow. Why can’t we all just get along?

The super wealthy and all-powerful squirrel away fortunes in shell corporations and off-shore cookie jars. They buy up abandoned nuclear missile silos and build bunkers designed to withstand the impact of Planet X striking the Earth. It makes me wonder how far the spare change in my sock drawer and that extra can of Spaghettios in the pantry will take me when it all hits the fan.

I shouldn’t whine. When I think about it, I have so much to be grateful for. I’ve got my health, my demure figure, and more of most anything that I really need. I have food, clothing, shelter, modest resources and access to medical care and a social network in a place where everything isn’t blowing up or blowing away. Really. What more could I ask for? Well, maybe a little more leg room in Economy on commercial flights and tequila that is actually good for me. But still, I can’t seem to shake this sense of existential dread. Although maybe existential dread is itself a luxury? Who has time for existential dread when you’re trying to outrun a hungry lion, hide out from killer robots, or work two minimum wage jobs just trying to eke out an existence? What’s it all about Alfie?

But what truly effective action can one take to prepare for just about anything that might happen at any time? Some people become hardcore preppers and stockpile enough ammo and supplies to arm a militia and survive for years in a bunker. Some people count on being rescued by aliens, while others find solace in religion and await the Second Coming and the Rapture. Still others turn on, drop out and tune in to America’s Got Talent which really is just a 21st century version of Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. This, and The Lawrence Welk Show ruled the airwaves during the infancy of television. Even as a young child, those shows evoked in me profound feelings of existential ennui with so much cognitive dissonance that I thought I must be witnessing an alien invasion. Although, seeing an Amateur Hour contestant enthusiastically play The Star Spangled Banner on his dentures as if they were a xylophone, did leave an indelible impression on my unformed psyche.

Anyway, what does one do as it appears that the human race may be sliding irrevocably into dystopia? Squat down in the back yard, covering our collective asses with our hats and scan the skies for the apocalypse? Maybe six pack abs would help, although a six pack of IPA would be better. Perhaps positive affirmations or motivational phrases might be the ticket. Something like “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Hunter S. Thompson’s version of that was: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Maybe he meant when things get weird, people who have always been weird really come into their own or get even weirder. That certainly seems to be the case in what is evolving into a collective TV reality show.

But seriously, how does an ordinary Joe like myself respond to the threats we now face? What can artists do in the face of such madness? The artistic community in Europe, responded to the horror and brutality of World War I with the Dada movement, a clarion call to awaken modern art from its slumber. It was a call to renewed awareness and a new kind of social action as paradigms shifted and the old ways of doing things fell away. We are at a similar juncture at this point in history. Perhaps one of my responsibilities as an artist in these times is to persist in the face of adversity, and continue to try to make art that matters; art that helps elevate the human spirit and brings light and levity to the darkness. Be vigilant. Remain aware. Stay awake. Stay connected. Model civility. Perform random acts of kindness. Offer moral, emotional and economic support to each other. Be kind, but remain fierce. Keep your chin up and your eyes fixed on the horizon.

These thoughts do make me feel a little better. There are things I can do, even if it’s a little bit each day. Although, to begin, it wouldn’t hurt to actually put on some real clothes before 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Get out there. DO something. Even if it’s to go shopping, because when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Even though going to the store in one’s pajamas has somehow become the new normal, the least I can do is to go shopping in something resembling a civilized dress code.

 

 

 

Kind of a jaded, postmodern Charles Dickens riff

A Christmas Story

Slogging through the semi-frozen slush in the parking lot I hear a jingling bell and off tune singing from just inside the doorway.

Ah shit! SHE’S here again. Where do they find these people?

Automatic door swings open and I’m greeted by a short, chubby, gnome-like woman, wearing an ugly Christmas sweater and a pair of bent wire holiday reindeer antlers jammed down on top of her head. Dancing the boogaloo near the Salvation Army donation kettle, ringing the bell in some kind of cadence to whatever music blasts through ear buds. She’s sings along in the key of whatever, twirls like a back up singer in a soul band, swings her left arm in a circle and points at me.

I’m ready for this. I’m prepared. I take the crumpled up dollar bill and try to stuff it into the donation kettle. It’s not like the old days where you just tossed money into an open pail. This is a locked steel box with an opening so tiny I can hardly stuff a dollar bill in there. You can put money in, but you can’t take it out. It also has serrated edges, so if you are stupid enough, or desperate enough to actually stick your finger in that hole, good luck trying to get it back out. Kind of like driving over those spiky things in a parking garage.

God save the queen, I mutter.

Merry Christmas to you too! she yells back.

She looks a hell of a lot like my old college friend who started the Jews for Jesus group on campus. Only he’s about 50 years older and Wonder Bread white. Whatever happened to that guy anyway? Disappeared into the void like most of the people I knew back then. Seems like everyone either started shooting heroin, became a born again something or other or a corporate lawyer living in some dystopian suburban purgatory.

Me? I’m just trying to get some last minute Christmas shopping done. You know. Put Christ back into Christmas. By shopping at Dollar General. The place where class and style go to die.

Hello. What have we here? A Trump Troll doll. Naked as the day I was born. The perfect stocking stuffer for the person who has everything they want but nothing they need. I envision myself, basking in the cozy glow of the living room tannenbaum as I turn this into a voodoo doll on Christmas Eve. Although this could have been so much better with tiny hands and an even tinier penis. And flatulent! Yes flatulent! One of those dolls that farts. They make those, don’t they?

I pay for 3 Trump Troll Dolls and a package red licorice twizzlers and head back toward the door. Dancing Gnome Girl is there to greet me. I stick a twizzler in the teeth of the donation pail.

Long live the king! I grumble.

 Merry Christmas to you too.

 

 

Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship (1)
Ghost Ship

Semaphore

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