Growing Feet Through Devotion: “The Gospel of Darwin”

As I keep noting, the spring of 2009 was overall pretty productive, although with few exceptions, the quality of the work was indicative of someone who hadn’t written creatively in eighteen years, and the torrent became a trickle as the months progressed. March saw a cascade, yes, God, yes. April flowed, yes, but less so. But May? I wrote only two poems in May. I had a lot of work at Orange Coast College, wrapping up the semester.

I thought the summer would immediately see a return to productivity, since I hadn’t been given a summer class to teach and would have plenty of time to focus on writing. But I blew my interview with the unintelligible man from the Employment Development Department, ensuring I would receive no unemployment checks. And I struggled to find any places that were even accepting job applications, further suggesting this would be a lean, lean summer for Raquel and me. And after a quick, early spate of acceptances from a journal specializing in filth, I spent several months receiving no positive responses to the vast amount of work I submitted in March. I was a broke, broken loser. I shut down. I went into cocoon mode, spending nothing, thinking nothing, doing nothing, producing nothing. I embraced June gloom. The first three weeks of July were similarly desolate, professionally and personally.

Something happened. Maybe I just needed time to lick my wounds and recoup my sense of self-worth. Maybe it was just an extended creative refractory period. Maybe I really was in a cocoon, preparing for an artistic metamorphosis. Whatever the case — and yes, this sounds cheesy — I started to dream again. I once again started to daydream about random bits and pieces of fluff. So there my idle thoughts and I dawdled in the shower on July 21, wasting water and soaping our chubby little flanks, when we thought about an alligator that had been flushed down the toilet. Or maybe a crocodile. A crocodile abandoned by his original caretakers, as Moses had been sent adrift on the Nile. And if the reptile is Jewish, then Noah must be an amphibian. No! Adam and Eve, the first two ex-fish to crawl up onto the land! Something, something, something is here; keep it straight in the head while drying off. Get to the computer!

There was a new ease and playfulness to writing this new poem. The basic structure fell into place: amphibious Adam and Eve, reptilian Moses, avian Jesus, mammalian Mohammed, future creatures and religions. Having established that, I could fart around and have fun with the piece. There was far less of the clenched, desperate energy and portentous pretentiousness — Guh! Guh! Empty and contort the guts! Must squeeze out Art! — that frequently marked and marred my March poetry.

It still wasn’t perfect. I think the easy flow of energy tapered off just before the final section, or maybe I hadn’t thought it through enough. I do tend to struggle with endings. I mean, I think the ideas I wound up with are good; the execution just strikes me as a bit stilted. What do you think?

But what’s to be the final revelation? Kerchieved roaches teeming

within Frigidaire cathedrals or nanotech pathogens waging jihad

in the pleural cavities of fathers, sons, and sacred goats? What else

will emerge to ape hominid genuflection in the Aesopian mirror?

Perhaps all flesh will fade to dust, leaving all holy mountains to the

automatic bagel-slicer, the cross-cut saw, the robot bomb-sniffer

and mp3 hymn-player. And with a set of 10 new commandments,

“Resistance is futile” and “Kill John Connor,” shiny new fables will come.

I mean, I have a binary “pun” in the second to last line (making that stanza tough to recite). I had to stretch a bit to get that one. But then, I dunno. Reading it now, I like it better than when I originally came up with it.

Some nice bits of positive blowback occurred after writing “The Gospel of Darwin.” It rekindled the fire I had in March and part of April; I wrote ten more poems over the next three weeks, each pretty solid given my capabilities then, each marked by the same newly unclenched energy. I became inspired to submit more work to more journals. And finally, the acceptances started coming in from my spate of March submissions; given the funk I’d been in during the first half of summer, their timing was appreciated.

“The Gospel of Darwin” first appeared in Watershed Volume 33 (Fall 2009). A revised version of the first section of “The Gospel of Darwin” appeared in Oyez Review Volume 37 (Spring 2010). It should have appeared first in Oyez Review. Someone from that journal called me on the phone October 16, 2009, after I dropped off Raquel at work in the morning; it’s the only time I’ve been telephoned about an acceptance, by the way. Oyez Review wanted the first section of the poem, after I made a few revisions. Fair enough. Then a month later, on November 19, Watershed contacted me to say that they would be publishing “The Gospel of Darwin” and “The Appointment.” I said they could only have the latter poem; they said it was a fait accompli, that the galleys, including both poems, were already at the printer. Not cool. The faculty advisor responded to my unhappiness by writing, “I apologize for this error, and we will print an errata sheet to be included in every issue distributed.  Our print run is only 250 copies, most distributed locally, so I hope the damage is minimal.” I received my contributor’s copy, which did include the errata insert, so I guess things turned out as best they could.

Counting a Chicken Before It Has Hatched

One. One chicken. Maybe.

In the middle of discussing writing me a letter of recommendation for when I apply to MFA programs. my friend Alexandra Mattraw mentioned that she wants to convert her apartment in San Francisco occasionally into a salon, a place for writers and other artists to perform their pieces and for the audience members, presumably, to discuss the same. She asked if I’d like to be a featured reader in the spring or late winter of next year.

Her request thrilled me. Her event would mark my first featured reading. I’ve been going to a lot of events, hopefully paying my dues and demonstrating my worth to the local poetic community. I’ve been submitting poems. I’ve been sending my manuscripts out to publishers now and then. Overall, considering how old I am and how many years I spent not creating, not engaging, I’m now trying like hell to catch up and keep up. So it’s nice to get a little love in return.

Notes on a Hump Day Reading – Gatsby Books – 21 September 2011

Wednesday night slightly echoed yet redeemed Tuesday night’s disappointment. Once again, I didn’t get a chance to read any of my own poems. Class got out on the east side of Orange at 5:50 PM. The Hump Day Reading at Gatsby Books in Long Beach started at 7. The service at Taco Mesa, where I stopped on the way, was slow; I should have hit some fast-food drive-through rather than entering a restaurant with the bare-bones decor but none of the efficiency of a neighborhood taqueria. The traffic was sticky in spots. By the time I arrived at the bookstore at 7:03, all of the fifteen open-reader spaces had already been filled. On the other hand, I got to see some friendly faces: Daniel Romo, Eric Morago, Murray Thomas, and Tom Thomas. With the exception of Murray, I also got to hear them read their work. And the feature, David Hernandez, was very, very good. I’m glad I was encouraged by a couple of people to come here, although I feel somewhat guilty for cheating on Ben and Steve. Then again, if they liked it, then they should have put a ring on it…

Bank-Heavy Press popped up throughout the evening. None of its owners could make it to Gatsby Books, but both Eric Morago and Kevin Lee read poems from BHP’s most recent anthology, Orangutan, which Kevin held up as an example of the power of print and of independent local presses.

Digression, somewhat: Okay, so a professor at Orange Coast College hooked me up with a tutor to work with my students for one of my classes. I thought I was just going to get a kid who had happened to earn an A in freshman composition. Instead I got the much more capable Katie Prow, who recently received her MFA from CSULB. Aside from knowing how to help my students, Katie apparently knows everybody. She’s good friends with Kolleen Higgins, my office buddy from a few semesters ago. She was featured with Eric Morago at The Ugly Mug last January. She’s friends with David Hernandez and his wife Lisa Glatt. I’ll probably find out next week that she was my wife Raquel’s childhood pen pal.

Notes on a Smiley Face Reading – The Neighborhood Cup – 20 September 2011

I’m bummed. There was nothing. In the middle of my forty-three-mile round trip to Aliso Viejo, while hanging out at its library, staring at the empty courtyard between the library and The Neighborhood Cup, I logged into a library computer and checked, which predicted a Smiley Face reading tonight. I checked host Jennifer Donnell‘s Facebook page and her blog, for notices regarding canceling tonight’s reading. I found nothing. I hope Jen and her family have not been taken captive by deranged bikers. I hope she is not being haunted by the ghost of the original creator of Ziggy.

Notes on The Valley Poets Reading Series – Village Book Shop – 17 September 2011

I get the posse/entourage thing now. John Brantingham builds communities.

I first saw John in July, featured at Gatsby Books in Long Beach, where I read a couple of poems, one of many open readers. Then I saw him featured at Tebot Bach in Huntington Beach, where I read a couple of poems, one of many open readers. After the second reading, he sent me a message on Facebook, saying it was good to see me and that he regretted not having a chance to talk. That, of course, seemed like utter horseshit. Why should he remember me? I just read a couple of poems, one of many open readers. But it felt nice.

I finally talked to the guy face to face on September 9 at Exhibit [A]. And yeah, huh, he seemed to know who I was. Weird. Still, nice guy.

He invited me to a reading, this reading, in Glendora. Where the hell is Glendora? Glendora is a small community nestled in foothills near the San Gabriel Mountains, on the way to Oregon. Glendora is where Glinda the Good Witch is from; it is, effectively, halfway between Kansas and Oz. But I’ve never been halfway to Kansas, except in a Biblical sense, so I figured I’d go. I tried to grab Martin. Martin was sick. I tried to entice the Bank-Heavy Press crew. They had to wash their collective hair. Fine. I went stag.

There on the sidewalk was John, along with Tom Thomas and with Elder Zamora, a usual Brantingham posse member. There in Village Book Shop were the features: Tina Yang, LeeAnne McIlroy, and Michael Torres. There on the table was the open-reading sign-up sheet. I thought I had gotten to the venue early, but I was all the way down at #11.

All of the open readers went first. No break, no money collection, just sustained bursts of poetry. It was pretty cool. I read “The Shambler,” “Driving Back to the Halfway House,” and “A Promise,” prompting some positive response although I read too fast. Overall, lots of talent, people I hadn’t heard read before, including the features. Tina Yang was dashing, poignant, and soulful. LeeAnne McIlroy proved that feminism could embrace humor and grace. Michael Torres, when not introducing the world to J. Bizzle, embodied the kind of sharp eyes and heart that will know when to step in and ask your kid, “Hey, you hungry?” while you’re still lying hungover on the couch, reeling from the divorce.

So here’s the thing. After the reading was over, John said there would be a party at his house and that Ann had the directions. We all helped put the chairs away. We all stayed and hung out and talked, until it was time to visit Chez Brantingham. We went there, Fun was had. Holy shit, I met a lot of people, people who appreciated what I brought to the table. Very, very cool. This is not the longest paragraph. This is not the least important paragraph.

I get the posse/entourage thing now. John Brantingham builds communities.

Notes on Two Idiots Peddling Poetry – The Ugly Mug – 14 September 2011

Everything came up popcorn and penises.

I got to The Ugly Mug at about 6:15 PM, having found a parking space right outside its door, for a change. I waited for the end of the Amazonian Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at 7 PM. I sat in my new favorite seat in the corner, by the far window. And I waited. And I waited. And I waited.

By 7:52, only three other people had shown up, including the feature, Leigh White. I thought there might be a repeat of the previous night’s scarce turnout, since last night also held Eric Morago‘s SHOUT reading at Half Off Books in Whittier and the advent of the Three Horsemen of the Apostrophe (Brendan Constantine, Daniel McGinn, and Paul Suntup) at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. But eventually, people started trickling in, including our hosts, the Two Idiots Peddling Poetry, Ben Trigg and Steve Ramirez. Also there were Jaimes Palacio, G. Murray Thomas, and that funny-rhyming-poem dude (Peter Lewis? Is that right?). The big kids got together, chatted, and gossiped, killing a little more time. Doot-de-doot-de-doo.

All of the open readers went first, as there weren’t too many of us. Last week, an open reader had read two very wienercentric poems, one about Charlie Sheen’s penis (okay as expected) and one about Kevin Bacon’s (which was clever and awesome), a fact Ben mentioned. In doing so, without intending to, he may have provided an ongoing theme for the night. Penises abounded, albeit not as centrally as in last week’s poems. I read “Genesis” (penis-free), “What Lyda Wants” (one possibly edible penis), and “Leaving New Eden” (many phalloid vegetables). Another guy implied penises. I think someone else mentioned penises. Leigh White evoked penises in some of her work.

Ah, right. Leigh White. Leigh White was either fetchingly witty or wittily fetching. I enjoyed her poems quite a lot. And she has that acerbic, intellectually sexy mojo working for her. Yes, indeed. She gave some of us bags of incredibly-sweet kettle corn some vendor had left at her day job. Peter got one for making her laugh. Murray got one for being Murray. I wanted one for also making her laugh, but instead got one for knowing Wonder Woman’s secret identity. After the show, I told her I was glad I came to see her instead of going elsewhere, and shook her hand. She was nice.

How else was I not a social misfit last night? I shook Jaimes’ hand. I talked to Murray and shook his hand. I made a joke and received an approving comment from Ben. Peter complimented me on my work. Two other audience members complimented me on my poetry, one before the show and one after. It was a pretty cool gathering. Not huge, but cool. I like not running away right after the show.

Iterating the Waterfowl: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Duck Joke”

Officially, there was an eighteen-year hiatus between those last wan short stories I wrote for Carolyn Balducci as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and those first few tentative emails that became self-help lessons that became poems in March 2009, When Everything Changed. In truth, here and there over the years — a few months before my 2003 divorce, a few months after my 2007 career switch — I wrote a few things, poetic squibs briefly reddening my t-shirt. Most of them were foggily conceived and horribly misshapen at birth. But one of them, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a  Duck Joke,” originally subtitled “Notes on the Creative Process” in case the theme of the piece didn’t sufficiently communicate itself, found its way into the hearts of America. And by “America,” I mean “me.” And by “hearts,” I mean “HubPages profile.”

Actually, a number of pieces, misshapen or not, found their way into my HubPages profile. HubPages, man: “Write! Publish! Advertising revenue! Click, click! Magical second income! Somehow!” I didn’t do it for the money, which was non-existent. I knew nothing about blogs. I knew nothing about poetry. I knew nothing about getting published. I think I just Googled the phrase “help make them read me mommy” and HubPages popped up. I thought, well, this will be my little online archive; probably only two or three million people will ever see what I post here and want to appoint me their cult leader. I put everything I had onto that profile: poems, short stories, grad-school essays, clever class handouts, whatever. It’s probably a good thing that everything I posted now counts as “previously published” and will thus never soil the submission managers of actual journals. Boy, I loaded a lot of crap onto HubPages.

Still, I did like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Duck Joke.” I remember being in my honeymoon phase with HubPages, posting everything I had and wishing I had more. I remember I was still driving Raquel to work every day and then hanging out at the Lee’s Sandwiches across the street from UC Irvine. Usually, I graded essays. Sometimes, I tried to do some writing, however that was supposed to work. One morning, May 9, 2008, something actually came out. Bloop-bloop. Joke pastiche with a Wallace-Stevens-inspired name. It made me happy. It was the best thing I wrote that whole year, not that that says much.

So what am I supposed to do with the poem/list now? I got rid of the HubPages account after it started to annoy me, after I started getting published in actual places. I can’t try to get the piece published in a journal because it already appeared online and, frankly, I think I have better stuff to offer these days, anyway. Maybe I’ll stick it in a chapbook. Yeah. When the gates to Propaganda Press reopen in October, I’ll send a manuscript to the publisher and see what she thinks.

Notes on a Reading – Barnes & Noble – 13 September 2011

Having left the men’s room at Barnes & Noble, wishing someone had refilled the paper-towel dispenser so my hands wouldn’t be dripping wet, I ran into Eric Morago and gave him a damp handshake. OK, cool, so Eric was here. That was a good sign. Maybe other people would show up, too.

The thing was, tonight was also the time for the going-away party at {open} for Mindy Nettifee, who had been a potent force on the Southern California poetry scene for about fifteen years but was now moving to Portland, Oregon. The thing was, tonight was also the kickoff for the Last Nerve, A High Tea Poetry Brawl tour with Rachel McKibbens, another potent force. The thing was, Mindy’s mom was going to make chocolate-chip cookies. The thing was, the event cost five dollars, I didn’t/don’t have five dollars, and I know neither Mindy nor Rachel. So here at Barnes & Noble I was, and there at {open} was everyone else I know from various readings, except for Eric Morago.

We couldn’t even find G. Murray Thomas, our inimitable host, for a few minutes. But eventually he appeared, we moved a table and set up the chairs, and we waited for others to arrive. Mary, a regular, a very nice older Catholic lady whose poems tend to rhyme and discuss her cats, showed up. A little later, Sharon, a newcomer with much to say about the oil companies’ role in her parents’ death and ill health, respectively, showed up. A little later still, another regular, an older man with a New York accent and a conservative political agenda, showed up. That was it.

We didn’t bother with the podium. Murray took a seat among us as we took turns reading poems in that small, intimate cluster. Murray read some good poems, both his own and from Broetry. Other people’s poems concerned cats, family issues, and conservative political positions. I myself read “Untitled,” “The Dry Seekers,” and “Organic Chemistry.” I don’t think anyone knew what the hell I was talking about. Somewhere in there, Eric excused himself to go to {open}.

The cluster broke up entirely before eight PM. It had been less than an hour since it began.

As of this moment, writing this, I assume the energy at Mindy’s affair is still running high and going strong.

I wish I had five dollars.

Notes on After the Carnival – Exhibit [A] Gallery – 09 September 2011

Tonight was pretty cool.

I’ve struggled to get to and stay at an After the Carnival reading at Exhibit [A] Gallery for a few months. I go, I get there, but…

First of all, I always end up running late. Even when I leave home plenty early, I get lost, take a wrong turn, and arrive a little tardy. Then I freak out that the reading has already started happening and everyone will glare at me when I walk in.

Second and most of all, I simply get scared. I came to Exhibit [A] Gallery back in June when Michael “No Relation to John” Buckley was reading. I learned he was reading fiction, not poetry. (So what, right? But at the time, I was trying to force myself to leave the house to go to poetry readings, so I got persnickety about the distinction.) And I didn’t know anyone in the gallery to say hi to. And I didn’t have money to donate or to buy books, so I felt weird drinking the free wine. So I just looked at the paintings and wandered outside and back inside for a half-hour. Nothing was starting. Strangers were still mingling. I just drove home. In July, I returned for Jade Hidle, whom I know slightly from work, and some other readers. I didn’t even make it inside.

Tonight, however, I saw on Facebook that the Bank-Heavy Press publishing trio would attend. I kinda know them. I saw that John Brantingham would attend. I kinda know him. And one of the featured readers was Kevin Lee, whose face I’ve been curious about learning to recognize ever since he got in the habit of rejecting my poems and manuscripts. It was time to cowboy up. I didn’t even mind that there was no open reading.

Once again, I got there a few minutes late. But I saw Cory de Silva of Bank Heavy Press, a friendly sort, so I said hi. I talked to him. Then I met Zack Nelson Lopiccolo and Karie McNeley, the other two-thirds of Bank Heavy, and talked to them. It helped that they’re all my students’ age; it made me feel a little more comfortable, for some reason. Then Murray Thomas showed up, a good sign. Everyone hung out and hung out and hung out some more. I met Jeff Epley and Rick Lupert, the other two features. Soon it was 8 PM, an hour after the official starting time. Obviously, my previous qualms about tardiness were extremely unfounded.

The features were all good. All thoughtful, all funny, all witty. I did have a favorite, but that’s nobody’s business. I do wish I could have heard them better over the fan and the traffic. I do wish there had been a microphone. But my world survived, essentially unshattered, nonetheless. Charming hostess Sarah Miller charmed as she hosted, as is apparently her wont. Evan Patrick Kelly, who oversees the space, hung in back and basked in the glory of his excellent photographs. (I liked them, anyway.)

There was a little bit of drama after the event, during Mingling Session #2, prior to Mingling Session #3 at a local bar. I was talking with John Brantingham and with Thomas R. Thomas of Tebot Bach. A young girl came in off the street, trying to sell tubes of what? Pixie Stix? Drain cleaner? Meth? Sarah soon shooed her out. Almost immediately, the girl’s mother/candy-pimp came in to confront Sarah for “being rude” to her daughter. Sarah said she hadn’t been rude. The mother/candy-pimp thus repeatedly called Sarah a bitch. Calling someone a bitch, I believe, particularly in that context, does unequivocally qualify as rude. The rude woman’s words definitely bothered Sarah. I was perversely gratified to watch and hear Evan chase the woman out while saying, “Get the fuck out of my gallery.”

I’m happy that I talked to people mostly like a normal person tonight. And then I added the new conversational partners as Facebook friends when I got home. My web of acquaintanceship grows ever mightier: please refer to my poem “Brown Dwarf” for further details of the master plan. (Oh wait, it’s still unpublished. You’ll have to wait for the Ann Arbor Review to come out.)

Notes on Two Idiots Peddling Poetry – The Ugly Mug – 07 September 2011

Brendan. Fucking. Constantine. I don’t even want to write this post because being able to listen to him, as I did yesterday at The Ugly Mug through the fine graces of Two Idiots Peddling Poetry, leaves me feeling lumpy and prosaic. While I’m lamely farting out this little blog, this petty vanity diary, he’s masterfully whipping up an emulsion of quicksilver, heart’s blood, and crackerjack juice. Damn, can that man not only write and read poetry, but work a room. It’s no wonder so many good people lined up to buy his books at the break that he had to go out to his car to get more copies. He was an amazing feature. I mean, he’s a local guy, and everyone knows him, and he’s been around the scene for about seventeen years, and familiarity’s supposed to breed contempt, but he still buttered the crispy toast of many last night.

It was a hot night, not just because of Constantine. I got there too early again, as will probably be the case all semester, and sat in the far main-room corner by the neon sign and the window, as I did a couple of weeks ago. The single air conditioner in The Ugly Mug is way back in the side room with the folding chairs, and I even charted where the thermocline ran as I walked to the bathroom and back, but I still chose to sit in the sweltering section, slowly melting through the night. On the brighter side, this positioned me to more easily talk to John Perry and James Kelly, two other early birds. We discussed heat, financing college, teaching, Nevada, and the trickiness of dealing with adolescents.

Oh, gosh, who else was there that I recognized? Jaimes Palacio got there, but too late to catch my set, which is too bad, since I did read good poems and do generally enjoy his responsiveness as an audience member. The young editors from Bank-Heavy Press were there to listen and read, and I chatted with one of them, Cory De Silva, at the break. Good guy. Phil the cool cop was there with some friends. I wanted to say hi to him after the show, since I always like his work and since his second piece last night was especially powerful, but I chickened out like a punk, walking past him on the sidewalk with my head down. Damn it. Overall, I need to get much better at approaching and greeting people instead of always waiting for them to approach me. I need to give verbal credit where it’s due as well as sometimes receiving it.

I tried to pick pieces that wouldn’t suck too hard next to Constantine’s poetry. I read “Progress,” “Avoidance,” and “Protagonist,” three newer, unpublished, pretty solid poems. They went over well enough, though I still need to sculpt my delivery for greater effect. And thus concludes Middle-Aged Emo Diary Entry #A65/Krakatoa.