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The clouds were high and scudding but dark.—Charles White

I read A Shelter of Others in late spring.  As a bibliophile, I appreciate the feel of a book.  I read plenty of them electronically, but there are books I must own, and I knew Shelter would be one.  Why? Read Lambs of Men, and you’ll see how White writes in lyrical prose that makes me wish he’d publish (more) poetry.  Fiddleback did a beauty of a book — its size is perfect for holding in your hand, and the cover is smooth, not glossy.  It simply feels good to touch.

I’ve had to let Shelter sit with me before writing about it, because it is the type of story that needs time to simmer.  After reading it, I immediately thought of a question I’d ask Charles, if I were to see him (note: friend disclaimer).  However, after mulling awhile, I’ve realized that my question is no longer a burning one, and may very well be moot.

As a poet, I read quite a fair amount of fiction and creative non-fiction, so I can speak to the fact that the voice Charles commandeers is one that is unique and eloquent.  I’ve seen comparisons of his work to Ron Rash and Harry Crews, and while writers such as those have most likely influenced Charles, he has developed a voice that stands firmly beside such talents.  Each sentence he writes paints a landscape — both psychological (one of the more prominent landscapes in Shelter), and physical.  It’s as if the storm in the narrative becomes a metaphor for the internal tornadoes we all suffer through.  How do we, flawed humans that we are, survive such?  Through shelter. The shelter of others.  The shelter of others whom we love(d), we’ve hurt, we’ve left, we’ve cared for.  The story in this book is one of connectedness and disconnectedness.  Characters come and go in one another’s lives, yet some connections remain even when the physicality is gone.  Shelter is a study of the complexity of human nature and relationship, written in elegant prose.

So what was that question I thought of initially posing to Charles?  Would there be another book, another one that gives more backstory to the characters in Shelter?  Yet as I sat with the story, it is no longer important to me that I know more about Mason and Lavada or Dennis, or Sam, or any other character in the novel, because the narrative of this lyrical novel holds enough for me to know that I already do know their backstories, as they reside in me, too.  All I want now from White are additional stories, and please, some poetry!


anything goesWhen I first started writing poetry seriously, I often discarded subject matter too quickly because I felt (incorrectly) that everything I wrote about had to be philosophically meaty or an elevated thought.  And while we often do find, after peeling a poem’s layers away, that there are elevated thoughts or philosophical points, we should never discard subject matter simply because it seems base or profane.  In fact, many strong poems have been written about or inspired by subject matter that would surprise you.  Take, for example, Stephen Dunn’s poem “The Kiss,” which was inspired by the following typo: “She pressed her lips to mind.”  What a wonderful epigraph with which to begin a poem!  On the other hand, Maxine Kumin found something as smelly and as mundane as horse manure to inspire “The Excrement Poem,” which, after a close reading, shows the beauty and uniqueness of the human experience, right down to our waste.

From Sunday, July 27 – Friday, Aug 1, 2014, I will be teaching a course “Anything Goes!” at the John C. Campbell Folk School.  Not only will we read Stephen Dunn, Maxine Kumin, Rodney Jones, and Sharon Olds (just to name a few), we will create our own poems, silencing our internal editors as to what can lead us to generating strong poems.  In between classes, we will interact with students who are painting, singing, weaving, and blacksmithing, just to name a few of the many crafts that are practiced at the Folk School.  If you are new to writing or at the intermediate level, please consider joining me and other folk school students to write in the lovely Appalachians of western North Carolina.  I promise that you will generate new work, and that you will also laugh at some point (not to mention eat well!)

Find more information on the Folk School, or sign up here.

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Emily wrote, “Publication — is the auction / of the Mind of Man …” and called it a “foul” thing. And I must admit it is hard for me to “promote” my own book. But I don’t really think about it that way, in a “marketing” way. Instead, I like to think of it as a way of sharing how I see the world, how I interact with it. That’s not foul, and no one makes much money publishing poetry, so if that’s the motivation for a poet, s/he may need to find a different genre or profession.
 

Today I spent time in my garden, not planting, but moving. It’s too early to plant where I live. I have planted this early in the past and gotten bitten (think frost) for doing such. So to tame my great urge to sow, I simply moved things around. I recall what was choking on one another last year, how the day lilies were too close to my butterfly bushes, so I moved them. And all of those of volunteer pansies that have sprouted in the gravel drive —  they have been moved to clay pots by the front steps. I even found an earthworm today and held him in my hand. This communion with nature made me terribly happy.
 

My chap is titled Splitting the Soil, as the soil, nature, and land all are part of the themes that run through it. Also, the sensuality of the relationship between myself and the land is present. I was blessed to have three poet/mentors give me a blurb, and I want to share Kay Byer’s words. Kay is known all over, but she is certainly a prominent figure in my writing life and in the region in which I live. She was the poet laureate of NC when I went to my first NCWN annual meeting, and she pushed me and grilled me in that workshop over a decade ago, long before I enrolled in grad school. She, too, loves the land with a fervor I share.
 

“Royston has claimed her place as a poet, a place rich with memory, family, and voices rising up from the woods and trails of the natural world. Royston can craft poems using traditional form, or she can unwind skeins of free verse as skillfully as any young poet writing today. She listens, she observes, she remembers, and out of that poetic attentiveness she creates poems that ring true to the ear and remain in the imagination, shining like creek water in the afternoon sun.” –Kathryn Stripling Byer, author of Wildwood Flower and Descent

If you’d like a copy of Splitting the Soil, email me or check visit Finishing Line Press.  In the meantime, be outside.

 

PHON01FL

Are you a phone-a-phobe?  If not, maybe you know one or love one. I am a phone-a-phobe. I despise speaking on the phone and rarely do something as absurd as answer it.  I’ve put years into trying to understand my phone-a-phobia, and what follows is a mix of the why, along with how to cope.  Also, if you  care about a phone-a-phobe (a friend or love who never, ever seems to answer your calls), you, too, will learn something.

Genesis: My phone-a-phobia began in my youth. You see, there was this man, let’s call him The Bishop (I imagined as a child that he wore a pointed hat of some kind….and he sat at a big desk Somewhere Important and Far Away), and he would take all the preachers and their families and put them on a chess board and move them around the northern part of the state. Then he would call my parents, the most powerful people I knew as a child (hell, they still are) and tell them whether we would move or stay in town in which we lived. This was The Phone Call we all dreaded and endured for many years. (It’s quite possible that this was also the beginning of my anti-authority outlook in life, but I digress).  I believe it is here that the aversion to a ringing phone began.

Surely there were good phone calls but I cannot seem to recall them – I do recall, though, the one I yearned for the most: the one from my middle school love.  What was the name of your heartbreaker crush? Mine was Tony B.  Poor Tony B was even more of an introvert than I was, yet how I longed for his call!  Alas, I was too young to know that neither of us would have a word to say to one another and that breathing over the phone would be, well, anticlimactic. I think these silent and painful phone calls were the cause of my first-ever panic attack. The sweaty receiver in my hand, the nausea bubbling, my head dizzy and wobbling. We managed to listen to The Scorpions “Tainted Love” on one call – probably the most conversant moment we had on the line. Bless you Tony B., wherever you are.

From the trauma of the middle school crush call, I came away with a very inaccurate belief: that I must be the one to carry the conversation – what pressure! Turn to the nearest introvert and tell her you’d like her to do an impromptu speech.  Watch her turn very pale, then run away.  This tainted belief hung with me for years, and I struggled through many conversations, always with a list of possible topics at my side to keep things going.  But it almost killed me, so much so that when I actually answered calls it was with a grimace, rolling eyes, and a deep breaths. Who was calling now?  And why? What would I say?  In short, I have come to this conclusion: if there’s not a specific reason for a call, such as your house is on fire, your dog just ripped open my trash in my front yard, or your child is waiting for you in subzero weather at the school, the phone should not be used.  I have also learned this about the phone: extroverts can smell out introverts.  They lurk.  They long for your ear like a vampire for a throat. Beware; you may fall into one of the following categories:

Target of the aggressive caller. The aggressive caller wants to hear your voice, at least this is what s/he says. But what the aggressive caller really wants is your ear and your mumbled affirmations or condolences. Your uh huh; umm; no way?; Really?; OMG!;  I’m so sorry; I’m so happy for you; He actually said that?; It cost how much?;  He had what enlarged?.  The aggressive caller is like your son, who cannot yet summarize the two hour movie he has just seen and instead tells you, in intricate detail, every possible moment he recalls from the 120 minutes he has just experienced. The aggressive caller likely either loves you, likes you, or wishes to go to bed with you.

The emotional sponge. Once on a trip to New Orleans this woman with lovely red hair blowing in the wind on Jackson Square read my fortune. Not for free, of course, but she told me something, actually more than one thing, that was very accurate. She said Scorpios, my sign mind you, are like emotional sponges. We absorb every emotion in a room. And, I would like to add, also in a voice.  Unless I put up my steel wall when I talk to you, all your emotions will leak out and onto me. The desires, the regrets, the joys, the sadness. These emotions are carried in your voice (til Tuesday, voices carry….) and I soak them up. If I’m not armed, if I’m tired, if I’m my usual empathic self, it’s just too much. It’s overstimulation.

So, phone-a-phobes and those who love them, here are coping strategies:

For the phone-a-phobe: Do phones still ring?  I don’t know. That’s because two decades ago I married an introvert and the first thing we did was to turn off the ringer.  So turn off your ringer! My children have never heard a phone ring.  However, the following side-affect will occur at the office, in the homes of others, and those who stand in line in the grocery with their cells on: ringing phones will be like electric shocks. Put your finger in the nearest electrical outlet and you will experience what a phone-a-phobe feels upon hearing a phone ring. It’s imperative to silence all phones. Vibrating phones are one of the greatest gifts of technology  to the introverted phone-a-phobe who must answer a call.

For the person who loves a phone-a-phobe: The first and greatest gift for a phone-a-phobe is texting. Yes!  These are what phones are supposed to do!  Alexander Bell and his contemporaries were just very confused. Phones are meant for texting. Scenario:  I’m in new town meeting my introverted phone-a-phobe friend. Not surprisingly, I’m lost.  Do I call my introverted friend?  Hell no.  I text.  So to all those of you who love someone or like someone or want to go to bed with someone who is a phone-a-phobe:  send a text. (It’s limited to 160 characters, but that’s okay.  Brevity rocks).

trinity  I know it’s not officially spring yet, but she was present this last Sunday.  Because the weather was warm and I could not sit on the couch (with all its dog hair) anymore, I spent the day outside.  I dug around in my herb garden — saw that the chives are three-fourths out of the ground, and that the oregano is poking through the dead weeds I’d yet to tug out.  I was more than happy to pull out the spring onions (they are stubborn), and to remove the dead rosemary (I’m okay, thanks).  Next I walked down to the pond, and wandered/wondered in the woods.  Weather like yesterday is holy in its perfection, and when I looked up to the sky I happened to do so around these three trees (technically there are four, but that’s not the point).  The point is this:  I thought of the Trinity.  Even though the Trinity is often thought of as mainly masculine, I found it in the feminine — exactly where I need to find it, to balance out the imbalances.  Isn’t she beautiful?

small batch photoLeigh Anne Hornfeldt and Teneice Durrant, eds.  Small Batch.  Two of Cups Press.

Growing up in Georgia, I tasted whiskey about the time I entered college.  The most popular two consumed were Jim Beam and Jack Daniels.  It wasn’t until I made my home in Louisville, KY, for a few weeks each year, that I was introduced to whiskey that, well, I found to be a bit more to my taste.  In fact, there is a bottle of Bulleit under my Christmas tree right now….And, as I read the preface to the anthology  Small Batch that is dedicated to bourbon, I learned that the production of bourbon is not unlike the production of poetry.  There are rules, but even so, we end up with a myriad of offerings.

Leigh Anne Hornfeldt and Teneice Durrant edited Small Batch, a collection that includes a few poets with whom I was familiar yet  introduced me to many more.  What I admire the most about the collection is that it mirrors the wide gamut of emotions we associate with bourbon:  silliness, contemplation, depression, escape, pleasure.  In five sections, ranging from “drawing confessions” to “this want travels,” the poems are arranged thematically, each with a flavor of its own, making the reader want more — not only of poetry, but also of that dark amber liquid.

Some of the best advice comes from Frank X. Walker’s “Don’t Marry Before You Liquor,” which addresses not only the larger theme of race, but also the need to sow one’s oats before settling down, as the father tells his son, “…but when you ready to settle down / you marry a good bourbon — from Kentucky.”  This advice is only after the persona has been bailed out of jail after spending a night of dancing “with moonshine from eastern kentucky.”

Often, when spending too much time with bourbon, we can get rather silly.  This leads me to the poem that made me laugh out loud — Briana Gervat’s “Bourbon Style Green Eggs and Ham.” The title alone lets you know the parody that occurs in this dialogue of a poem. It opens, “Do you like Maker’s Mark?  / Would you drink it in the dark?”  The allusions and word play are delightful, and the pessimistic speaker finally comes around at the end, “I can taste the vanilla, the nutmeg and the cinnamon. / Oh bourbon, bourbon, where have you been?!?”

While there’s plenty of light-hearted poems in the collection, there’s also the more serious.  Melissa Stein’s “Want Me”  is a highly imagistic poem that is lovely in its language  and images, such as “…Panther’s broad tongue / soothing hunt-bruised paws.  Eyelids of ribbonsnakes. / Taut skin of a lavender creme brûlée.”  Stein’s poem draws me back again and again, as each image is full of sensory details that make me dizzy.  In a similar imagistic vein is Richard Newman’s “Wild Turkey in January.”  As opposed to the drink itself, a picture is painted of that ugly bird, with such surprising descriptions as “snood draped over your beak like a spent condom, you fly from hate to fear to lust at a rustle / of feathers, leaves, your head a porn-king’s cock…”

When we overindulge in our love of that amber liquid, we end up with a hangover, and Gary Leising’s “A Hangover the Size of Andrew Hudgins” is a prose poem that’s a paean to Andrew Hudgins and the South, “a little bit of you from deeper below the Bible belt that bounced around the world…”, where the speaker considers “taking a match to your Hudgins hangover, hoping the pain and throb of your ache will burst…”

Like Leising’s poem, I’m often partial to poems with a narrative, and Marianne Worthington’s “Fatigue” has such with the story of a man who “fights off poodles and Chihuahuas / with sharp teeth, snotty kids, cranky housewives whose laundry / has piled up like haystacks.”  The reader leaves this poem knowing both the drudgery and hard work of a man who battles the effects of a stroke while repairing “broken dryers and washers.”  What’s left at the end of the day for relief?  a “B.C Powder with a shot / of Old Crow,” allowing him to take a much needed rest after a rote day.

Finally, in a collection full of poems that revolve around place (a LOT of bourbon is made in Kentucky), I cannot help but mention “Ode to Bourbon: A Writer’s Distillery” with the epigraph “for Spalding” by Parneshia Jones.  I don’t know Parneshia, but I share her experience of driving from one part of the South to another to study the craft of poetry at Spalding, while finding community with  a little bourbon thrown in, all of which is summed up well in her final lines, “pen and pulse writing circles around me, / distilling a third eye and aged soul.”

Thanks goes to Hornfeldt and Durrant, who’ve put together a lovely collection of poems dedicated to something it’s easy to enjoy: bourbon.  Reading this while sipping Bulleit is a great way to enjoy the holiday!

Image I’m pleased to share that my first book of poems (a chapbook), is now available from Finishing Line Press.  Years ago, I had a press lined up to print my book, but things didn’t work out.  At the time, I was crushed.  But in the end, it was a good thing, as this collection is much more world-worthy, meaning the poems are those that not only mean a lot to me, but have been vetted by others (editors) who also found them worthy of sharing.  

It’s not a comfortable thing for me to promote my own work, but I know in the past more than one person has shared with me that a poem resonated with her/him.  And that, to me, is a success.  Being about 90% existentialist, if my words can make one person feel less lonely, less anxious, less “nauseated” in this existence, then I feel I’ve done something good in this world.  The poems in this little collection (a chapbook is usually less than 30 poems), range from nature/gardening, sensuality, birth, pure silliness, to my own found sanctuary. Whether you are a poet or not, I think you’ll find something of interest, and certainly something accessible. 

I make it a habit to line my bookshelves with books (fiction, CNF, poetry) of others.  Finishing Line Press does a lovely job, and several of my Spalding friends, GA poets, and many others have a home here on my own little library in the mountains of north Georgia.  I encourage you to give a book to someone this season — whether it’s mine or not — but share what moves you.  It makes the world a better and less lonely place.

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