Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In Search of Basho: the introduction

Basho and Brautigan
Before I get too heavily into the particulars of this project and where I was at the onset and where I am now, I should begin with the two events which lead up to it.
The first event happened nearly ten years ago, when I was first introduced to Richard Brautigan. I tend to mention Brautigan often and for no particular reason other than my fascination with both his work and his life.  I suppose the real fascination with his work is only due to the place I was in my life when I was introduced to him.
Brautigan is an obscure writer. His work is not anything so widespread or revolutionary to add to the greater progress of American Letters. Truth be known, he's special, but not an overtly clever writer. He wrote ten novels, ten collections of poetry and one collection of short stories. He began in the late 1950s and in the early 1980s he died at his own hand.
As far as we go, Brautigan and me, I was introduced to him one morning in Idaho Springs, Colorado in January of 2003.
I don't remember much of 2003, or the years on either end of it, to be truthful. I was in my early thirties then. I tended bar for a living and indulged in a party lifestyle which was a steady stream of grappa and four course meals and women and marijuana. I would like to say that my life had been clean and chaste and that I've spent my time on Earth in a pious way, but that's just not true.
On that particular morning, I had been holed up for some days with friends drinking Spanish brandy and an attitude that life was about to change. My friend, Carrie, pulling sleep from her eyes donned her glasses, lit a cigarette and said, “You have to hear this.” She read a “chapter” from Trout Fishing in America called “Sea Sea Rider.” It was riveting. I became instantly hooked. About a year and a half later while enjoying the quiet of Gavdos Island in the Greek archipelago with my soon to be married ex-wife, I read the last of Brautigan's novels. In that year and a half, I read everything I could find and that means everything save for the all but vanished poetry collections. I still get the appeal that I had on that first Idaho Springs morning hazy with Spanish brandy hangover and lazy from the ennui of life.
Brautigan still holds a special place in my mind and in my imagination. As a writer, I don't aspire to his style, but I do aspire to his number of published work.
Moving forward a few years, the second inspiration of this project hit me in a similar way. Again, it was a January morning, January of 2007. Again I was holed up with friends. This time, however, I was in Plainfield, Vermont. It was very different in that I was sober and I was engaged in my graduate schools studies. It was different because I had lost the malaise of the previous years and I was doing something positive and growth worthy.
Rebecca Brown introduced me to Matsuo Basho, the Japanese poet whose name and work is the very inspiration for this project.
We credit Basho with the haibun: a short prose passage followed up with a haiku. His work, juxtaposed with that of Brautigan is a funny if not absurd proposition. But that's life.
As I completed Sand and Asbestos, the serialized novel for the Sophia Ballou site, I felt tired. I thought that I should branch out from my normal habits and my normal medium. Suddenly, and I mean in one instant, I thought I might like to try writing the haibun. As I considered it, I came to no real destination. Destination is a proper thought since so much of Basho's work has travel involved.
One afternoon in early March 2011, my partner, my lover, my accomplice in this thing called life, Janice and I went to a coffeehouse in northeast Portland to visit with friends. The visit was fun, I suppose, but what took me was the view out the window. There were two young people panhandling on the corner. Their actions and motions lead me to understand what their lives must be like: homeless, alone; drug fueled, scary; uncertain, sordid and unsavory. I watched the young woman and from her my Darcy was born. Darcy was where In Search of Basho would go. I loved Darcy from the onset, and the woman outside on the street is who I thank.
I found the In Search of Basho piece though to write and nearly impossible to pursue. The piece took months to write. What about it? Well, I don't like to set my goals low. As the story of Darcy and her search came to an end, I decided that I wanted to form it into a chapbook. From the notion of the chapbook, I just had to push the envelope even more.
I set my goal to ten such pieces. The number is fitting because of Brautigan who had published ten poetry collections. Like Brautigan, I have written ten novels. The endeavor to write these ten smaller chapbook manuscripts like Brautigan's poetry became a slight obsession. As I said in the Introduction to Cocktails and Consequences, I'm not bragging, I'm Brautiganing.
So ten chapbooks it was.
Ten became fifteen.
Fifteen became twenty.
And now, one year after the first pen strokes of In Search of Basho, I have assembled twenty-five such chapbooks.
But, it took months to write this first one. Then, they became easier to write.  It's a testament of practice, habit and discipline as a writer. Coming from the position of a novelist where I think and act in terms of 50,000 words (250 pages), the chapbook is a different discipline and aesthetic.
I'm proud of these chapbooks.  I'm excited about the products as much as I was gleeful about the process.  And In Search of Basho is where it all began. I hope that should Basho and Brautigan read these, they both would enjoy them and hold a certain level of pride for their inspiration.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Ballard for the Good Times

Things are very bad. Very—very bad. Unemployment is high, bankruptcy, crime and failure are high too. People are losing their homes, their jobs, themselves. Treachery is also high. If things are very—very bad, then we know to be very—very afraid. Iran and North Korea are striking forward for nuclear weapons. Terrorists are waiting on every corner. The end of days, as we're lead to believe, is scheduled on a calender. It is more than likely that Judgment Day is in the works too. On top of global warming we have free radicals and cancer to worry about, plus unfavorable legislation in congress. In short, we're all fixin' to die and in the most horrific way.
Yet, I wonder, have we not been in this death process already? Has not the lead up to this moment been, in fact, a slow long-winded beginning demise?

We're stricken with drought over the past several years. Yes, droughts in the fields and on Wall Street. Foreclosure rates and economic slumps are the walls of the modern day rut, right? This is the impression I get when I read the newspapers, or when I see news broadcasts. It's like we're outside the palace walls in the immensity of hell, and this hell is the new Dust Bowl.

Yes, the new Dust Bowl.

Coming up in the 1970s as I did, we learned about the dust bowl in school, in history class. Our current affairs: the bludgeoning human population as a staggering 4 billion, mixed with the drought in California; bent over the hostages in Iran, inflation and the notion that the earth was actually cooling with the development of the next ice age within our lifetimes. Current events.

For some reason, I took solace in our classroom discussion of the dust bowl. You see, the dust bowl of the great depression of the 1930s was bad, bad indeed, but somehow not as bad as our current (1970s) problems. And somehow the problems of the 1970s seem fairly easily tackled next to the problems of today.

Primo Levi in his novel The Monkey's Wrench hit this piece of human nature: “How obstinate is the optical illusion that always makes out neighbor's troubles look less severe and his job more lovable!” Well, in this model, why do the problems of our past, individually or collectively, seem simpler than the problems at hand?

And furthermore, who thinks about the dust bowl anymore?

A couple of my favorite books, and there are many more, of the 1930s: John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and James Hilton's Lost Horizon. Why would they be favorites? Well, they're both anthems of bad times. Steinbeck takes on the dust bowl; fruit pickers, Okies, power struggles and poverty. It's a 1937 account of a really bad time. It's real. It's the story of so many more than just the Joad clan. It's alarm, it's pain, it's sweet, it's Steinbeck.
On the other side of the pond, four years prior in 1933, Englishman James Hilton delighted readers of the entire English speaking world with Lost Horizon. This novel gives us, and more especially the readers of the 1930s, an account of adventure and the possibility of ever-lasting life in Shanghai-La. It's not exactly fantasy, but in 1933, the year it hit the shelves and the best seller list, the book provided readers with a pleasurable escape. Now, some 80 years later, only one of these books endured. Perhaps we like the conflict of the bad times, the ones we ought to remember. Perhaps it is something more tragic indeed, something I like to suggest: yesterday's problems just don't seem so bad compare to those of today.

I digress.

We were discussing current thought, governments and civilization. We were talking of the middle east. We were talking high unemployment, rising food costs and environmental concerns here at home. We were singing the ballads for the good times.

At the onset of this new Dust Bowl, who are our literary heroes? Who are the writers that come 2092 will give future readers insight and rest and leave of future current problems? Who?

Cruising the best seller lists I see espionage and adolescent vampires. It's odd stuff. TV has gone reality and reality has mimicked TV. The cellular has gone far beyond phones, it has gone to thought. We need it, whatever it is, as long as it's 140 characters or less. And still outside individual tunnel vision, our world has an ever-increasing population, our country has an ever-increasing problem with debt and poverty both economically and intellectually. We are slowly racing for the new Dust Bowl, and from it, hopefully new thoughts and views and ideas will sprout from the dust blown, sun caked dirt of our current thoughts. And when thought arrives, so will rain and perhaps we'll bloom. Yet in the meantime, it's the approach of the end, and awaiting, eagerly, awaiting the Dust Bowl.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Focal of Carnal Carthage & the Green Hills of Antioch


Hopefully everyone in life makes a quest at some point. I prefer to suggest this sort of quest to someone very young. The allure of the open road, or as the case with Henry David Thoreau in his essay, “Walking,” the avoidance of roads. Perhaps the open country, if that exists in our modern world, would make an ideal quest setting. Over hills and dales, right? But at the core, it's the quest that's important. When I suggest this quest for youth, I think it's best suited to those still unsullied by time and experience. Yes, in our youth, we may be more open, or open minded, simply because age has not taught us to behave otherwise. With the quest, many aspects of the journey happen before the quest has been sought, developed or delivered.
Taking a sort of quest as an older person may be tricky, as age has taught us what to expect. Age has taught us that there ought to be a reason for such endeavors, or at the very least, a lesson to be learned.

I believe every writer must, at some point, must take on this quest for the sake of development. Every writer's quest is as varied as every writer. Take Sal/Jack in On the Road, whose quest is from east to west and back again. The hero never seems to reach the ultimate enlightenment, perhaps small glimpses into it in the mountains of Mexico or the all night theaters of Detroit. Nonetheless, it's a quest.
The hero quest is everywhere. It's in Homer's Odysseus, who travels far and wide, only to come home again and find his fateful wife, respectful son and the knowledge of who his true friends are. And by contrast, Etgar Keret's novella “Kneller's Happy Campers,” we see a similar quest. In this story, two suicides in the next world search for what they both lacked in life, love. The case with these two characters is that given their bizarre and surreal circumstances of existing in a sort of limbo for suicides, what else do they really have but the quest?
Yet, it remains that the motion of physical travel, as suggested by Henry David Thoreau in “Walking” or by Jack Kerouac in On the Road is just a superficial aspect to the quest. Yes, it's true that the force and influence of a change of scenery of the opportunity of chance meetings help to shape the landscape of the quest. However, so much of the quest, the writer's quest specifically, happens within.
An example of the former: years ago at the end of my quest, I spent the last evening of my New Orleans residence with a woman named Marion. We two shared a scar battered table at Rue de la Course. Later, we ate raw steaks in a neighborhood restaurant. We promised to write letters. I left within hours of saying goodbye to her, which was just hours before we met. 24 hours later in Wichita, Kansas, I dreamed of home: two friends I had not seen in years and white worms in a gas tank. Symbolism? Probably not. It was a dream after an event, and it came at the end of several years of searching.
This leads to the latter point: things happen internally, even if influenced by the external.
At the onset of my adventure, I left years of Denver, Colorado. I had graduated from college, and I decided to return to my native California. A return to my place of birth. The silence of the journey there lead to other thoughts indeed. Arriving at the silence of oneself is not an easy thing to do, it's not always a pleasant endeavor. And further still, it is not easy to listen to the silence. Often, the dialogue or the outward conversation enjoyed with others, tends to turn inside when alone.
For me, going back to California as a grown man was dangerous. I knew it was towns and people I had not seen in twenty years, and to think I was such a young man! The ensuing silence stacked one memory on top of another. I floated on memories of my family: their collective history, their immigrant story, their lives in mighty-mighty California. I had not been part of them in years, and in fact, I had not heard from them, nor thought much about them. The balance of my thoughts were mine, and mine alone. The deserts of northern Utah and Nevada brought around my recollections of the Middle East. My part in the invasion of Iraq is nothing of note. But in the spring of 1998, I wanted to order my thoughts, I had not dealt with the happenings of my war experience some seven years prior. I had thought about it, yes, in the interim of returning from the war, back to the states and the onset of my quest. In those interceding years I had, quite accidentally, chained myself to an institution of higher learning. Suddenly, alone in those deserts of the western United States on my way to my birthplace and a silence outside mixed with with turmoil within, I wanted to make sense of it.
How can one reconcile years of life in such a short period of time? This is the nature of the quest I proposed.
Go out in the world. Go out unafraid. Let your body follow the rhythm of the day, flow with the cadence of the seasons. Let it all go. Hold tight to your passport. Eat raw steaks. Stay up late and smoke too many cigarettes. Make love to deities. Write poetry. Live. Allow the quest to follow and trust in it. Return to the scene of the crime, or the place of your birth. Purge. Quest, and what follows may be Carnal Carthage & the Green Hills of Antioch.