Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review of Greg Brownderville's Deep Down in the Delta

Deep Down in the Delta: Folktales and Poems, by Greg Alan Brownderville with paintings by Billy Moore. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2011. $19.95.

I had heard of a book by the Arkansas poet Greg Brownderville – a collection of folk tales from his hometown of Pumpkin Bend and the surrounding Woodruff County (right next door to my own, native Cross County) Arkansas, published by the now defunt Doodlum Brother Press, but it eluded me like the Fouke Monster (the Arkansan version of Bigfoot popularized in the Legend of Boggy Creek movies you may have seen on MST3K). Now, the Butler Center in Little Rock has put out a beautiful revised edition including artwork from folk artist Billy Moore. Brownderville credits not only the residents who shared these stories with him but also folklorists such as the legendary Vance Randolph (author of many collections of folk tales and songs, as well as being a central character in Donald Harington’s Butterfly Weed) and Richard Mercer Dorson for inspiration.

Most of the folk tales are brief. Many are humorous. Several fit in the genre of “rural legend” (as opposed to urban legend) though a handful also come from much older traditions that could be traced back to slavery, for example the “Big John” stories, which are essentially re-imaginings of “trickster” tales like the Anansi the Spider stories with the spider morphed into Big John, a slave who battles wits against Master. Another version of these stories would be the Br’er Rabbit stories from the Uncle Remus collection by Joel Chandler Harris and others. One example of this would be “Why Old Master’s Favorite Slave Was Killed,” which is a dark story about Old Master’s greed. “I don’t want nobody to fool with my treasure. I’m on bury it right here. And you got to be the one to see nobody bothers it,” Master says to John (pg. 75). The way he accomplishes this is by murdering the slave and burying him with the money in order to ‘curse it.” This is a telling commentary on the fruits of slavery and their karmic ramifications.

Many of the rural legend stories involve hauntings or encounters with magical creatures. “A Slip of Paper” tells the story of two girls who go to a fortune teller named Miss Mamie. Mamie tells one girl her future and writes the other’s down on a piece of paper with instructions “not to open it till she got to her destination.” On the way home, they have a wreck and the one girl dies. On the slip of paper was written “No Future” (pg. 20). “Shamefaced” gives hints on how to deal with a “midnight-colored panther: all you got to do is look him dead in his green eyes. He’ll put his paw up over them like they was stolen emeralds.” (pg. 7).

There’s a kind of poetry to many of these stories, and Brownderville has included a few examples of his own poetry inspired by folk tales as well. Brownderville has done a real service, here, chronicling these stories. Not only do they make for simply interesting reading, but they give us a real insight into the culture of rural, Southeast Arkansas. These storytellers are clever and funny, creative and unwilling to let themselves be restrained into a boring, 3-dimensional world. Perhaps there’s no such thing as ghosts. Okay. But isn’t it so much more interesting to, for even a moment, entertain the possibility? These stories entertain the possibility of not only ghosts, but all sorts of other supernatural and even commonplace things that our current overly-advertised world lacks. Also, living in the information age means that we all are inundated by the same information. Brownderville has given us a glimpse into a community that has managed to hold on to some of their own stories. He’s given us hope that things like folktales can survive without being internet memes. For that, we owe him a debt of thanks.

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Because the Stakes Are So Low

I had to block someone on Facebook the other day, not because of political stupid-headedness, or too many pictures of kittens, but because of good, old-fashioned crazy. I won’t go into too many details, because a lot of us have been there (and it wasn’t really that interesting) but he started by attacking a story of mine (actually 3 stories that he wasn’t able to discern were, in fact, separate, even though the separate titles should’ve given that away, and the fact that they were on separate pages, and about totally separate things) and quickly progressed to cursing, namely calling me a “pussy.” Now I love pussies – a pussy gave birth to me – so that isn’t really much of an insult, but the whole thing got me thinking about what was probably my worst encounter with crazy in the form of a failed academic who accused me of being part of a communist conspiracy to keep him out of print. Compared to that, Pussy-Boy just don’t cut it.

My failed academic sent me a “review” of one of the Best New Poetry Anthologies. This was back when I was editing Ghoti Magazine (anyone remember that?). The “review” was structured pretty much like this: “Look at this poem: (quoted lines) Doesn’t that suck? Now look at this poem: (quoted lines) Doesn’t that suck too?” It wasn’t so much a review as a rant, which would be fine, but it wasn’t a very good rant. Now, I’ll be very specific: when I rejected it, I stated that I agreed completely that the anthology probably isn’t very good, because they don’t tend to be. (This is something everyone knows but few will admit.) But the review wasn’t very good either. Why would I publish a poorly written review whose thesis was that the poetry in an anthology was poorly written? Let’s try a little harder. WHY do these poems suck, asked I? I also pointed out that if he were willing to revise it, I’d be happy to run it. (To be honest, I would’ve been THRILLED to run it if it were an actual review with evidence to support his thesis…) He responded by saying I was afraid of offending the editor because he might not publish me some day (completely ignoring everything I’d said. See the beginnings of Crazy?) This is laughable because, as I told the guy, the editor of this BNP Anthology wouldn’t give a rat’s ass what I say or think about his book. He has NO IDEA WHO I AM, and he sure as hell didn’t read Ghoti, I was pretty confident. The odds of me being in one of these anthologies is right up there with me winning the lottery (which I don’t play). Perhaps I’m being jaded, but it’s how I felt. Again, I pointed out that I agreed with his thesis in the essay and clarified the changes I was asking for. He wrote back accusing me of being an academic (I teach high school, whereas he taught at a college). Furthermore, he labeled me as part of a communist conspiracy to keep him out of print, which, I have to say, was a new one. He claimed to have sent this essay to over a hundred journals and all had rejected it. Well, says I, that should tell you something about the quality of the writing, eh?

The totality of our correspondence consisted of three emails and responses. After he jumped the shark with the whole communist thing, I backed out, because I began to suspect that he might possibly be batshit insane. Later, I discovered a new “essay” on his website (one that was very well known-to and hated-by editors of other journals, I found out) that credited me with actually taking him somewhat seriously and communicating with him from within the web of my communist academic regime. He also wrote a poem decrying me along the same lines. I was actually pretty darned flattered. It was the second poem someone had written to trash me – the first being from another person whose work I’d rejected repeatedly (one of those guys who sent work in every week until I finally told him not to send anything else until he’d read a bunch of contemporary poetry and written a bunch more). He referenced e.e. cummings for some reason I’ve yet to fathom. That’s all I really remember about it.

I’d been trashed before, of course. One of the first reviews I got for my first collection trashed it (because of the reviewer’s bias, cries little old me!). (When I say “trashed” I mean “shit all over.” Plenty of really strong reviews of my work have pointed out some flaw or shortcoming or whatever. That’s totally fair. It actually shows a well-rounded review. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the “This sucks because I don’t like it!” guys who have no idea what a review even is, much less how to write one.) I’ve had hecklers at poetry readings, or just really bad audiences. Someone once trashed a review I wrote of another book by claiming I was part of a feminist conspiracy, neglecting, of course, the fact that I’m male. (What is it with these conspiracies? Am I the only person not actively involved in some secret movement to achieve some sort of nefarious agenda? I’m feeling a little left out, here.)

I’m sure the guy on Facebook thinks it’s unfair that I’ve gotten the success I’ve had (such that it is) while he’s toiling in only slightly less obscurity. Maybe the work I posted was from a journal that had rejected him. Something like that is, I’m sure, why he sought me out to shit on my work. I’ve encountered people like that since my earliest college workshops, who tried to claim that I somehow cheated my way to talent. I remember in my first college workshop, a guy came in saying he’d Dogpiled (remember that, in the days before Google?) a line of mine because he didn’t believe I could’ve written it because it was too good. His own work was full of clichés (for some reason, I remember his best poem as being about his dog and ending with the phrase “…don’t darken our doorway”). But I didn’t cry about it. I just quietly wrote poems whose achievement he’d never be able to approach. Sorry if that sounds cocky, but it’s the simple truth. I’ve worked my ass off for over a decade to achieve the level of slightly better obscurity I’ve managed. I didn’t take potshots at other writers; I got busy and wrote and researched and sent work out and built up momentum and took advantage of every opportunity I could scrape up. If I wanted to “take on” a writer, I found out what journals published him or her, and I worked until I was published by the same journals. It might take years, and I might not ever get in, but I tried. I still do. That’s how you pay your dues, as a writer; not by whining about the big, evil world that doesn’t understand your genius, but by writing. Because the reality is no one gives a shit. I’ve got a solid decade-plus of publishing under my belt, and still no one has heard of me. Oh well. Actually, I take that back. Pussy-Boy has heard of me. And the crazy academic. And the e.e. cummings guy. That’s three, and it’s only taken me a decade. Hell, I’m moving up.

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review of Dave K.'s Stone a Pig

Stone a Pig, stories by Dave K. Baltimore: Banners of Death Press, 2012.

The danger with themed story collections, especially ones with an unusual theme or approach, is that the strangeness might be a gimmick that hides a lack of talent, readability, what-have-you. This is not the case with Dave K.’s collection. These stories have a steampunk/neo-Victorian feel, but what truly stands out is how well-written they are. Dave K.’s prose is a pleasure to read. I was thrilled to settle down with this book by a natural storyteller who simply knows how to write. I savored each story like dessert. Dave K.’s characters are well-drawn, his settings are compelling and vivid; I could continue to praise all the things he does well, but the bottom line is that Dave K. knows what he’s doing. I wish, when I edited a literary journal, he’d sent me any of these stories. I’d have snatched them up right away.

The collection opens with “How To Adopt a Cat,” which introduces the reader to the world of the book. The neo-Victorian elements abound; the main character has recently been released from a sanitarium into a gray, polluted world. He’s afraid of the faceless crowd; he’s afraid of the comfortless world, but he finds comfort in the titular cat. In each story, K. fleshes out the world subtly, revealing a wasted, industrialized city in which the rich live in high-rise buildings far above the smog which envelopes the poor below. “To the Moon” fleshes out the steampunk elements by focusing on some of the technological aspects of this society. As the stories progress, K. gives us mutated, barren people trying to survive in a harsh – both physically and psychically – environment. In general, K. focuses on the poor, the laborers, and it’s apparent that these are the characters with which his loyalties lie. Even though the world of the stories is somewhat strange, it’s very, very familiar in that K. seems to be commenting on certain current problems, namely class disparity, pollution, and questions of business ethics. Honestly, at times I found myself wondering if K. was revising the past or predicting the future.

The title story follows “Officer Pickett,” a beat cop. Pickett is a moral character surrounded by cops who steal from citizens and citizens at odds with a world-shift. His beat includes an old university, whose students have long since left and been replaced with factory workers of various ethnicities. The most reviled seem to be the Chinese who work in a ‘ro-bot’ factory because they represent the greatest disparity between the less and less educated other citizens. This is a community that once thrived and has fallen into decline, in terms of opportunity but also in terms of morality. Though this story could easily become some sort of noir redundancy, K. never even dangles his toes into the waters of cliché.

What makes K.’s stories so readable, aside from his outstanding writing, is his attention to his characters. He cares about them; this shines through. There’s a vulnerability to them that makes them instantly accessible. K. is invested in these characters, and it shows. I’ve heard K. read a couple times at open mics, so I knew that he could write, but I was honestly blown away by how good his writing is. I can’t wait to read more.

  Here's an interview with K. regarding the book, which he self-published as part of his MFA program.  

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Interview with Artist Endia Bumgarner

Endia Bumgarner is an Arkansan artist currently living in Little Rock but originally from my home town. I grew up friends with two of her brothers but lost touch until a couple years ago, when her work started drawing attention at exhibitions in Little Rock.  

Me: How long have you been painting?        

Endia: I have been painting and working on art as a mode of visual communication since my high school freshman year….so about 14 years.

Me: What inspired you to start?

Endia: The pleasure that I get from the process of creating art and the sensation of being whole that I get when I am working.

Me: Tell me a little about the process…..How do you get started with a work of art?

Endia: I think about ‘a work of art’ in terms of an exhibition-a thematically connected body of work. An idea will slowly start to grow in my head. I will contemplate what the body of work can say as a whole as well as individually, and then begin working on individual pieces. I begin by stretching and preparing my paint surface. Then I draw my image. Next I will mix up batches of paint and finally I start to paint.

Me: How do you know if it is finished?

Endia: I never have a sense of completion with any work I do. I arrive at a point where the overall visual aesthetic of the piece doesn’t demand that something needs to be done. I also get second opinions from my art colleague’s, friends, and family.

Me: Do you ever come back to a seemingly completed piece and change it?

Endia: Sure. Pushing the limits is one way you grow. I have had great success with pieces that I kept working on and arrived at beautiful results. I have also had epic fails and wished I had stopped….days ago. Lol. As a general rule, I walk away if it is working. I can always start another canvas and revisit the same idea in a different way if I feel drawn to particular idea or image.

Me: What draws you to art?

Endia: Color, shape, texture, conceptual implications, technical application, tenacity, creativity, cultural history that it records

Me: What do you get from it?

Endia: I never feel more alive than when I am immersed in art. My soul vibrates, my blood rushes, my mind races, my breathing is easy, and my understanding of the world around me is obtainable. I feel like a puzzle that is all put together when I am around art. Without art, I feel like somebody stole the corner pieces to the puzzle that is me…..and lost a few of the inside pieces. I am me with art.

Endia: What is your favorite piece you’ve done?

Me: As I said earlier, I don’t consider ‘pieces’….. I consider exhibitions. I am a beginning artist and have only created two thematically connected exhibitions at this point in my art career. One exhibition was “I wanna be a big dog, too…..” hosted in my home town of Wynne, Arkansas. It was a collection of 14 large scale colorful dog paintings and 1 large scale colorful kitten. My second exhibition is “Celebrating Color” my master thesis exhibition due to be shown at UALR in Little Rock, Arkansas within the year. It is a collection of large scale colorful expressive faces. My favorite would be the dog show.

Me: Why is it your favorite?

Endia: I learned a lot from this exhibition. It was my first attempt at large scale painting. It was the first time that I focused and controlled my skills in an attempt to have an extended visual conversation with my audience. I was pleased with the paintings and the exhibition. I was able to observe areas that I needed to work on and prepare myself for my next show. I love opportunities that educate me on how to improve my performance.

Me: Why dogs?

Endia: First, I love dogs. When you love your subject, it translates into your work.

Second, it made me laugh. I was practicing for my graduate show and found several layers of humor tied to my subjective choice. In our culture we refer to some people as ‘big dogs’ which is a way of stating that they are an important figure. As a graduate student, I desired to create a body of work that set me in the ranks of professional artists (a.k.a big dogs). Then there is the fact that my paintings are indeed ‘big’ and of ‘dogs’. Then there was the fact that as a master candidate, I was seriously proposing that colorful dog and cat paintings were the basis for a fine art showing. My studies actually gave validity to the subjective choice. In the course of art history, dogs have often been included in paintings as objects of loyalty, strength, and masculinity. Cats, on the other hand, have occasionally been used to illustrate feminity, weakness, and promiscuous inclinations. I simply couldn’t resist playing with the gender implications of my subject in this painted exhibition of 14 dogs and 1 kitten. The the little pussycat will never be a big dog……it’s going to be a cat when it grows up. I like to think that the lesson of having realistic expectations in somewhere in this exhibit as well as the lesson of never quit dreaming. Not sure that it translated in the exhibition for the viewer, but it was in my thoughts at the time of creation.

Lastly, dogs serve as a defense. I have often used art as a defensive element in my life and found myself defending my paintings in graduate school. Big guard dogs seemed like a logical subject choice at the time with all things considered.

Me: Do you find teaching inspires your work or hurts it……?

Endia: I intentionally separate the two. As an artist, I prefer to be as free from outside influence as possible….including patrons, studies, teachings, etc. I find the more input I have, the more overwhelmed I become. I am aware of the power of influence that you have as an instructor and try to only influence technical skills.

Me: Do you consider yourself an “Arkansas Artist” or a Southern Artist” or….?

Endia: I consider myself an artist. However, I inevitably carry various labels such as white, female, southern, Arkansas, American, middle age, colorist, two-dimensional, modern, non-traditional, introvert, Libra, etc. I wish labels didn’t apply, but they do. A little bit of everything you are can be gleaned from your work. Labels are descriptive adjectives of who we are.

Me: Whose work do you admire?

Endia: So many…..

Wayne Thiebaud for his color and singular subject studies

Claes Oldenburg for his humor and scale

Alexander Calder for his humor, tenacity, and proficiency

John Singer Sargent for his amazing brushstroke

Modern Contemporary: Sandi Sells-conceptual ideas and skills, Catherine Rodgers-color use, Jim Johnson- proficiency of nice work, Greg Lahti- a brushstroke that dances, my students- too many to name but all of them dedicated to the perpetuation of art, kids artwork-no creative boundaries or rules to follow, zoo animals that paint- if critters can be taught to make art so can you

Me: Where can I find your work?

Endia: I have a web page and also a Facebook fan page where I keep updates of any upcoming events. I will be showing at the Arkansas Arts Center’s annual Museum school sale in November and the Arkansas State Fair in October.

Me: What are you working on now?

Endia: Contributing to the course of art history……..

Monday, September 03, 2012

Writing Update

We're back to school, and summer has officially been shot in the head, leaving nothing but a smoldering corpse and stains on the carpet. And humidity. I had some plans/hopes for the summer, writing-wise, and in most ways I've done well.

Plan 1: I wanted to write two novels. Maybe that sounds crazy. I didn't do it; I wrote one novel. Of course, I had a specific project in mind, but instead I wrote a totally new one. But it was fun, so who cares. I do hope to knock out the other project soon. The one I finished is a supernatural thingee about revenge from beyond the grave. But not in a cheezy way. Also, it has dragons. The one I didn't finish, well, I barely even started on it. I've been kicking it around for several months and made some progress on the planning end, but not much on the finishing end.

On the upside, I did pull out an idea I had a couple years ago for a middle-grade fiction story about baseball cards and polish that off. I was asked to contribute to an anthology on Dad-writers. Here's hoping they like it.

Plan 2: I've been working on this story series for about a year. I hoped to finish it over the summer. I made a lot of progress. I'm on (I think) the final story. It's a post-apocalyptic/race war series. I've been sending some of them out. It's a little tricky because they tend to be longer -- one of my goals was to write 'long stories' of more than 5000 words. Here's hoping someone picks a few of them up.

So, even though I didn't completely finish the one series, I actually started and completed another series. These are shorter, funnier, more off the cuff stories. Several have already come out on Fried Chicken & Coffee's website. I packaged them up and sent them off as a collection. So here's hoping there, too.

I also just started working on a stageplay I've been sitting on for a long time -- ever since we moved into our current house. The husband of the woman who lived here before us committed suicide in the master bathroom, and yet the woman stayed here for another 5 years or so. I've published a series of poems about this called "The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom". No idea how it's going to turn out. So far, it seems pretty straight-forward.

So in the next week or two I plan to finish the play, finish the story-series, and get going on the novel. That will wrap it up for my summer plans. Somewhere in there, I'd like to write some poetry.