The following bit of Nashville fiction samples lines from songs recorded by the Cumberland Collective March 3-5 at Blackbird Studios and written, variously, by Jason Eskridge, Clay Evans, Mike Willis, Connor Rand and other cowriting members. For more on the session, stay tuned. And you can find the crew on Facebook here.
He was a professional loiterer, a master in the art of keeping all his love to himself whose place was adjacent to speeding traffic atop one of just a few in-city walk- and motorways over a mighty river, the Cumberland. His front porch looked down on the mammoth Marathon diesel tanks in a tank farm just off the Colonial Pipeline and, farther east and north along the roadway, the downtown truck stop where the world passed through the little-big burg, Nashville, “Guitar Town” the highway haulers called it, “Music City” in the minds of most.
He called it home, if he called it at all.
“I’m OK with the way that I am,” he said to himself and anyone who would listen, but among the latter he could count only a very few, mostly Nashville cops who occasionally harassed him into moving down along the river banks and out of the wind, out of the way of the maybe two pedestrians who might actually find their way to his abode – Guitar Town was a car town, after all.
He was not exactly OK with the way that he was, if he really thought about it. He was running behind of too much, and, not afraid of changing, he would make something out of nothing. A sign, with which he would broadcast. He set about building it with wood of his city, of his river, planks he found washed up on the grounds of the tank farm, old nails not exactly pilfered from same, black paint for the base of the boards, white for the letters. A man named Denton who called himself Peterbilt after the truck manufacturer whose primary assembly factory stood tall in the Texas town that shared his name, and whose Nashville plant had seen more glorious times, found him that morning painting the giant collections of boards. Peterbilt walked due west/south, headed downtown, and after stopping to hear our hero’s story said he ought write the one about the alligator who became friends with the bassett hound because she decided a few things on her own, the alligator. Like there was usually no need to stop and think this thing through, life, there was too much hurt to go around, too many bassett hounds being eaten by alligators.
The two beasts, predator and prey, a songplugger promising a cut on a Kenny Chesney record for $200 and the streetcorner cat that paid him, would come together and prove that even nature could produce elegant harmonies from disparate parts, pull up a chair and sit on down, plenty love to go around. “This is Nashville,” as if “we need it,” Peterbilt said and walked on.
“He’s wearing tight women’s jeans,” the sign painter said to himself, watching Pete roll his way away. “I’ll never understand it.” But maybe he did.
He painted. He would face his sign in the direction of the truckers, where if it actually caught their eye it might have its biggest impact, sending little ripples down major U.S. highways and away from here. Only then might the folks behind the sign, the way Peterbilt went, bother to take a cruise from downtown and parts west across the river to the east side to see it. “This man can’t be trusted,” he said, though Peterbilt had a point, didn’t he. Just as out west, up north, maybe down south right here in Tennessee, a sign, his shingle, his face to the world, the thing needed a story to make your sister want to clap her hands, make you stand up and shot, scream out loud … Patience, he said, whole lot of patience — maybe his message — and went on painting.
The signboard was near 20 by 20, buttressed against March winds by appropriately-positioned four-by-fours comprising a sturdy four-post support system but just wobbly enough to lend working around it a feeling as if the wheels are coming off a little bit — the sign painter put everything he had into the last brushstroke on the bottom left edge and the board rocked.
Wind blew the paint dry and trash in from the east before it swirled at the bulkhead of downtown around the courthouse and candy wrappers and dry tax returns scattered by the two-year-old flood flew back the way it came. He sat. He missed Peterbilt, everybody needs pals. “He’ll be back,” he said.
Days passed. He dissembled the structure four different times after he’d painted his initial message for the truckers — ultimately a missive, the men were too busy, his patience seeping further out of him time after time he got the thing back up and some goon cruising downtown from East Nashville called in a tip, a cruiser stormed the other way with its lights loud and cutting the night….
But he had it back up when he needed it. “Pull up a chair and sit on down,” he said when Pete came on back down the bridge like he’d never left, though he’d traded in his ladies’ jeans for black chinos and an Affliction t-shirt. He picked up right where he left off. “Everywhere I turn, man, it seems like everyone is telling me what I should be,” he said. “No use keeping your heart all to yourself, though. Couldn’t look myself in the eye if I kept that up.”
“We might be kindred spirits, my man,” said the sign painter.
“Can I get an Amen? You have seen the light. Me, I live my life like a truck on the highway, mostly, but everybody changes.”
Am I hearing real words? the sign painter asked himself, slow to accept his own intuition about the one man with whom he’d had a real conversation since it all began, the sign.
Pete moved from behind the sign around front to where he could see what it said. “‘I am out here,’” he quoted. “Nah, man. That ain’t the way your mama brought you up to be. You’re going about it all wrong.”
Or was he just feeling the smoke blow? The sign painter leaned toward the former, leaned into the conversation with renewed vigor.
“You can’t just declare it, you know. My buddy Jason’s got this chili bar, man, this restaurant,” Pete said. “Like he says, you’ve gotta give them something they can chew on, some meat, man, though he makes a godawful-good veggie chili, too.”
So, the sign painter asked, “What would you have me say?”
“First thing I’d do is turn this sign around, brother,” he said. He squatted and got his biceps and parts of his shoulders under the front middle and lifted – the sign’s supports barely got a foot off the ground before the wind carried it and him forward, the sign painter rushing around to the other side to stop the forward progress and help get the monstrosity back on its feet.
“Dang,” Pete said. “I guess what goes around has its way of making its way back around to me.”
“Might write that on the sign.” But the sign painter was no victim, he was of this place, no antagonist any more than the truckers stopping for a night or Pete here might be.
“Nah,” Pete echoed. “How about this,” hands high, marking out the words laterally as he spoke, “‘A tumbleweed never puts roots down.’”
“Sounds like one for the truckers,” he said.
“Nah nah,” Pete said. “They already know it — they know you’re ‘out here,’ too, and they probably really don’t care. They don’t need to be reminded about tumbleweeds, man, and neither do they, really” – he pointed east into the neighborhoods – “though they might actually listen. Then he turned his pointer back around into the nest of skyscrapers: “They’re the ones that need it.”
So Pete and the sign painter turned his sign around and blacked over the old legend before replacing it. By the end, the winds died down and cold set in, a light late-winter snow dusting the legend’s edges just so. Pete wrapped one of the sign painters’ putrid blankets around his shoulders to wait for the aftermath. The two found an extra old chair down by the river and brought it back up to the bridge. They sat, and waited for the people to come.
Longtime THE2NDHAND contributor Patrick Somerville (author of Trouble, The Cradle, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, a couple of T2H broadsheets — 24 and 32 – and, most recently, This Bright River) was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today telling the story (and more) of the bizarre and hilarious and sad and terrifying consequences of his latest book’s panning in the New York Times. If you’ve missed his “Thank You for Killing My Novel” essay, published on July 5 at Salon, go read it.
Then tune in to his segment on Talk of the Nation that aired this afternoon. It’s well worth it.
After reading the thrashing the Times gave River, Somerville couldn’t help but notice that the critic had misread a character’s identity in the first few pages of the book, and which in some senses colored her entire reading of it. At once, after the book review had been out for a couple days, Somerville logged into an email address he’d created for the character she’d misidentified (and which he’d been encouraging readers to email questions to, etc., having gotten just one) to find an email from a Times editor seeking to clarify the mistake, which a Times reader had pointed out to him. (How’s that for after-the-fact fact-checking, eh?) In any case, definitely check out the Salon piece, which details some of the email conversation that ensued, with Somerville writing in the voice of his character with the Times editor to the point that the two developed a “ghost friendship,” the subject of the NPR segment.
And hey, I don’t believe the Times. Pick up Somerville’s new one — though I haven’t read it myself yet, I’m certain, from everything I know about him and his past work, that you won’t regret it.
You can find three rather long-ish shorts of Somerville’s (some of my faves among work we’ve published) — among them the exclusive-to-the-book “The Tale of the Time I Accidentally Fell in Love With a Girl Across the Bay” — in our 2011 All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10 10th anniversary collection.
Join me at the smallest, oldest, dirtiest and yet definitely most kick-ass bar in East Nashville this Thursday for the 3rd edition of the Poetry Sucks reading series. Organized by fellow East Nashvillian Chet Weise, this edition of the series will feature a host of characters from the neighborhood. I’ll be reading some new stuff (if only I can get through that sermon in the finale) and, more importantly, also featured will be all the fine folks noted on the flyer pictured here. Click through it for more from the artist, Rachel Briggs. Of particular note for connections to T2H is past Pitchfork Battalion teamer John Minichillo, whose novel The Snow Whale from Atticus we saw on some of those indies’ best-of lists for the year just past.
I just finished a novel by a more longtime and frequent T2Her, Floridian (former Flint, Michigander) Paul A. Toth, that I’ve been just floored by, given by the general lack of ink it’s gotten, far as I can tell (though I do see where USA Today of all places named it one of the best indies of 2011). The book, Airplane Novel, is a joyous read, the best of the 9/11 books — experimental in all the good ways (metafictional w/o being goofy, polyphonic via a quixotic omniscience to the narration but with a strong singular narrative consciousness in the end). And, ultimately, its humanity is its most important part.
It’s not an exactly simple task Toth has pulled off, given that the book is told from the point of view of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, a building — and one that, it is acknowledged quite early on by the narrator itself (or “himself,” given that the South Tower prefers to call itself “Cary Grant,” and the North Tower “Gary Cooper”), no longer exists in any physical sense, but of course. But even in death, the tower filters the consciousnesses that made its history, those of the humans — “spider monkeys,” from its perspective — having populated its floors, having operated the Radio Row shops uprooted by the its construction, having created the information that soars through its fiberoptics and still flits in jagged form through its own post-mortem version of consciousness (which Toth expertly re-creates in the end of the book, after the “big event,” the “you know what”…).
I won’t go farther into specifics here, but I’ll say that I think I can definitely recommend it as one of the three or four best books of 2011 (with particular segments of DFW’s The Pale King as well as Mickey Hess’ great Nostalgia Echo — more about that one later, as we’re publishing an excerpt in the next minisheet). In any case, I can’t recommend a book any more highly. Go pick up a copy — available in print and as an eBook (the Kindle edition is available for just $2.99).
Toth also had a fair amount of work in a special section of All Hands On, our 10th anniversary book out in the fall. You can order it here.
Fine stuff to share today, a performance from my Philly reading a couple weeks back, touring with the All Hands On book, with Ryan Eckes, Pete Richter and Mickey Hess — all fine and dandy humans with ever capable pens, typing fingers and brains, it’s certain.
Joining Hess and Richter for a Nerves of Steel-worthy performance of Hess’ classic short “The Novelist & the Rapper” (I know it’s been years since I first read it, and Hess reminds me that I made some suggestions on an early draft related to an appearance of headdresses) was a gent who performs under the name Traum Diggs, otherwise known as Dave, doing something behind Richter and Hess’ Q&A he hadn’t done since 1987 — namely, beatboxing, a full marathon-quantity of it too (the story’s a solid 10+ min. affair). Enjoy the vid below, and thanks to all who participated in and came out to the Brickbat reading. Great times, all around. (Oh a-and download Diggs’ new “Black Champion” EP here.)
And speaking of Nerves of Steel, our Chicago performance series resumes Tuesday at Hungry Brain. Details via this link.
Just prior to my trip to Chicago last month (hey folks in NY, MASS, PENN, we’re headed your way Nov. 17-19) I got an email from Mairead Case and Erin Teegarden looking for volunteers for an “oblique strategies” zine project that involved the use of the eponymous deck of cards made by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt that offer randomized techniques toward solving various dilemmas. In the project Case and Teegarden described, writers were asked to pick an original piece to revisit, using the “oblique strategy” on an assigned card toward a redraft / rewrite of the piece.
Case and Teegarden made zines featuring eight pieces written in such a fashion, one of them mine, on the occasion of the Chicago Calling Arts Festival, a multi-arts fest celebrating collaboration and culture. The “oh bleek strategy!” I worked from was “Retrace Your Steps.” Given that I was preparing for the Chicago events at the time, our Stupidist Manifestos were high in my mind. So, here’s the retracing of my manifesto, followed by the original. Enjoy:
STRATEGY: RETRACE YOUR STEPS
Would that it were not a cable news catchphrase: Lean Forward
-17. There is we. It exists.
-16. The little girl and I play for keeps, a movie is broadcast on a pile of woodchips, another girl dares the little girl to do what she herself just did. No, I say, shuddering.
0. I speak much and often in the first-person plural about things that have nothing to do with anyone but myself. Is it about me? It is. More than likely, anyway.
1. Wanting send-off, intertextuality, life to imitate art and vice versa.
15. There was a reading in a cellar for books. I had returned briefly. I had been gone a long time. I was not yet a father, though what would be a daughter was a reality in the womb of the woman accompanying me to the reading, who by this time knew it. I tried to smoke cigarettes as far away from her as I could get. It wasn’t far enough.
19. I read the rest of Shklovsky, including his 1920s Soviet military expansion notes; his biographical sketch of Mayakovsky, that pompous ass, on honeymoon on Greek beaches and cafes; his third factory. I read Bolano and well remembered conceptions of movementeering, of schools of aesthetic thought that above all else held themselves in somewhat satirical regard during moments of high philosophical import. Friends laughed, drunk with it all. I laughed with them.
20. A picture in a box in someone’s closet of three humans, two men and a woman as young and perhaps drunk as they look, one of the men with his mouth wide open as if an ape high as a kite. This picture is the essence. This picture distills the day of its taking – stars in high regard, beer patios, drive-by shootings.
24. Surrounded by dumb, loud music, surrounded by bodies, sweat, someone proffers a name. “Listen: ‘Stupidism.’” “I like it.” “No, listen: ‘Stupidism.’ You don’t get it.” “I like it.”
33. There was another reading. I used the first-person plural to make myself sound as if I had a core of humans at my back who were ready to tear down the walls with me just to get to her. I didn’t think it worked, then, but it did.
38. There is no we.
39. We were not at the airport – or on the avenue in Brooklyn running parallel to the East River, Greenpoint, where I last saw her — when she gave me the book, a full-edition photocopy of the book, rather. It held stupid lessons in stupid art, in stupid love, some of the lessons all the more true for their stupidity. “We are in the business of the creation of new things.” That’s one, if extrapolated. “Routine we transform into anecdotes.” Another. “Insults aimed at us can always be jotted down.” The ultimate.
56. I drank a measly quite hefty pint of whisky at a party. It all ended well, after the brief headache.
THE STUPIDIST MANIFESTO
We are the lesser primates among humanity — we require digital extensions with pens — but we wear the label proudly, hopefully, forcefully. Apes unite!
We live in a time of intelligence. Everything — from bombs and insurance policies to mood medications and the interfaces that guide our communications devices, which is to say nothing of the communications devices themselves, to the multiplicity of the choices available to us (make it the smart choice, goes a commercial local to someplace in the anonymous American wilds, for a particular brand of soap) — yes, everything, is smart. Everything, except for ourselves, and by extension our literature. Where we might achieve success, ever defined by money and happiness, our literature can only be a good read, a page-turner, a titillating memoir of a CEO come from the brink of financial ruin to a truer self-understanding. Malarky, we say, a word with a rich history that we well know. And this: if we are being excluded from the panoply of intelligence amassing in veritable constellations, or massive, very real military ranks, around us, what can we be but stupid?
It sounds like an insult, but let us embrace it. Philosophs and litterateurs the eons over have played games of definition, after all. Let us be stupid like the fox, that trickster of folklore, stupid like the fools of Shakespeare, like the Invisible Man of the modern American canon, he who once warned us to beware of those who talk of the spiral of history, for they are preparing a boomerang. We hold our steel helmets at the ready. The messengers of the new intelligence amass at the gates to the halls of the literature. The Stupidists meet them, remanufactured typewriters and pens stolen from office garbage bins our weaponry, cast-off printouts from PowerPoint presentations our ammunition. We fill the empty backs of the prints with exquisite stupidity. We need not loaves and fishes — we feed the armada with words.
The Stupidist needs not the comfort of home, she draws sustenance from the road, the experience of the new. And when in Rome, when immersed in the culture of the humans, the apes lives on the rooftops, ever roving, well above the umbrella. The Stupidist is a litterateur for the unsuspecting. We are in the business of the creation of new things.
A quick mind-control experiment, here, if you could.
1. Read H.P. Albarelli Jr.’s June “Strange Story of Sally Hartman” at the Truthout site, about a purported case of a U.S. government employee turned CIA MKULTRA guinea pig. The piece ends with a rather ominous anonymous bit of quoting from an intelligence source about the world post-9/11, about the potential need for a “miracle” of mass mental influence to reprogram terrorists and their sympathizers worldwide. . .
2. Now read THE2NDHAND contributor Doug Milam’s excellent “Future History of How It Is,” published in 2003 at the T2H site as the Iraq War really got off the ground and American civic pride was, at least in my neighborhood, at one of its major low points.
3. Post your thoughts about the connections between one and two in the comments here. Who’s controlling whom?