Tone by Kristine Langley Mahler and Kevin Mahler

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Kristine Langley Mahler's creative nonfiction received the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review and has appeared/is forthcoming in The Rumpus, New Delta Review, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, Storm Cellar, and elsewhere.

 

Kevin Mahler holds degrees from The University of Iowa and Michigan State University. He lives in Nebraska.

Word Music: A Discussion with Brian Turner and Benjamin Boone By Optimism One

By Optimism One

The definitions of music and poetry are similar enough to trouble distinction. In fact, descriptions of poetry often, if not always, include allusions to its musical qualities—its rhythms, its repetitions, its tone, its accents—all words that could also describe a song. And the formal study of poetry, even in our modern privileging of free verse, still includes at least some discussion of prosody, “the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry.” Those musical qualities might explain why poetry is often better heard than read, just like the average person would prefer hearing a song rather than reading its notes from a sheet.

Given the common ground between the two art forms, it is no surprise, then, that creatives throughout history have combined music with poetry, poetry with music. And that pursuit continues today, whether it is at your local open mic, the Lincoln Center in New York City, or on record. Two recent examples of the latter can be found on The Interplanetary Acoustic Team’s 11 11 (Me, Smiling), conceived of and directed by poet Brian Turner, who uses the written and spoken artifacts of the poet Ilyse Kusnetz, also his late wife; and on The Poetry of Jazz, a collaboration between saxophonist Benjamin Boone and the late poet Philip Levine.

Both albums deserve deep and repeated listening, but before doing so, readers, writers, and musicians alike can find great inspiration from hearing Brian Turner and Benjamin Boone discuss their respective projects.

OO: To start, will each of you talk about your relationships with the writers whose words grace your albums and why you wanted to make these records?

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Brian: After my wife, the poet Ilyse Kusnetz, passed away from cancer, I’ve tried to discover ways to continue to ... 

... collaborate with her. I recognize the natural impulse to memorialize—and that drive exists within me, too—but I’m hoping for something more than that. My intention with this album is to create art that is in response to her work and in conversation with her. At the very root of it all—I want to keep falling in love with her. And I want to share this work so that others might fall in love with her, too.

Ben: The similarity between Brian and me is that neither of our collaborators is with us any longer to share in these releases. But besides that, I think my experience is the inverse of Brian’s. While he knew Ilyse intimately and was her soulmate, I only knew Philip three or four years, and our conversations revolved mostly around jazz. I met Phil when I was asked to do a fundraising concert where he would be reading. I called Phil and asked if he wanted to collaborate, rather than do separate sets. Of course, I knew about Philip Levine even before I moved to Fresno. My writer friend Danny Foltz-Gray first introduced his work to me in 2000. I had asked him whether I should consider applying to California State University Fresno, and he said, “Fresno? My absolute favorite living poet teaches there, Philip Levine! If they have retained Philip Levine all this time, it must be a great place.”

So I checked out Phil’s work and there was an immediacy to it that resonated with me. I love that his poems speak of the working class, of toil and drudgery, genocide, race relations, and what work truly is. All as relevant today as ever. And the poems were understandable, at least on some level, to non-poets like me. I also fell in love with the musicality of his voice. My dissertation dealt with a musical analysis of speech, and I could certainly hear music in Phil’s recitations. They were more like performances. ...

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... So we did the concert and then decided to see what a recording would sound like. That experiment was a success, so over the next three years – almost right until his death – we recorded twenty-nine of his poems with music.

OO: In terms of similarities between The Poetry of Jazz and 11 11 (Me, Smiling), on the simplest level, we hear music and the words of a poet. But in many ways, these are very different projects. Benjamin, you’re working with Philip Levine’s completed poems while playing in a traditional, albeit expansive, jazz format. And Brian, you’re sometimes working with Ilyse Kusnetz’s completed poems but also bits and pieces of her words from a variety of contexts while using a wider variety of instrumentation. Will each of you tell us about the freedoms and challenges of your chosen approaches?

Ben: Well, you are right, Op. I knew from the moment we began the collaboration that Jazz would be the main musical style. I’m a classical composer and a jazz saxophonist, and Phil had gone to school in Detroit with jazz greats Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams, Bess Bonier, Tommy Flanagan, and Barry Harris. One of his teachers was Harold McGee, who played with Charlie Parker among many others. He was a true jazz lover who understood and appreciated jazz on a deep level, so jazz records, musicians, and concerts were what we talked about. It was our common thread. So I knew a jazz quartet would be the core ensemble. But within that restriction was freedom to alter the sound world and the style for each track to form an appropriate setting for each poem. I didn’t feel restricted at all. The challenges were all compositional – how to amplify the meaning of the poem with music or how to sustain an emotion for a really long time – not stylistic. I am a huge fan of composer Igor Stravinsky, and he supposedly said, “In music, freedom is found within the bounds of restriction.” I think the tracks on this disc demonstrate this quite nicely.

Brian: In the long shadow of September, deep in the waves of grief, I tried to find and preserve every image and sound file of Ilyse that I could find. I rummaged through closets and boxes, old drawers that hadn’t been opened for years. I reached out to friends and family to gather more. I remember sitting in a window seat and viewing America from 30,000 feet, and the earliest idea for this album came to me…. Years back, Ilyse wrote a poem called “Before I Am Downloaded into a Most Excellent Robot Body” for her first collection, Small Hours. As part of her larger work, she’d continued to write poems in this vein, but she wasn’t able to complete that specific project (which we often referred to as ‘robot’ poems).

I decided to listen to Ilyse over the wide arc of recordings (from poetry readings, radio appearances, interviews she conducted as a journalist, and more) in order to isolate her poems and conversations connected to one basic neighborhood of ideas: cybernetics/robotics/uploading of human consciousness/the cosmos. Although it sounds like a full-on Sci-Fi thing, I needed to listen beyond the circuitry and technology of it all because—and this isn’t overstating it—Ilyse’s words trace a spiritual journey into the great mystery facing us all. That’s the very core of this album. 

The primary challenge was to create a sonic landscape for her words to navigate and explore.

OO: Aside from your primary collaborators, Ilyse and Philip, can you tell us about those who contributed to your respective projects and why you chose them?

Brian: The core of the band includes Benjamin Kramer, who is a jazz bassist and the engineer on this project. Kramer’s contributions and creativity are evident in every note on the album, and his keyboard playing also added sunlight where it was needed. Jared Silvia (aka Pressurewave) created modular synth parts that gave us a certain ‘feel’ for the album. I love that Jared often creates music by starting with a signal, splitting and amplifying it before applying parameters to affect the waveform, pitch and timing—to create electronic music that’s hand-crafted directly from Jared’s imagination. He’s become a kind of mentor to me in the field of electronic music. Sunil Yapa brought in guitars and pedals with such heart to the playing, such gorgeous sonic textures, that collaborating with him must be recognized as a gift from the universe.

And that’s true of all who contributed to this project. I didn’t even realize that Stephen Leathley, one of my friends I’ve known for years in Orlando, played guitar, but once I discovered that and asked him to add some parts I was knocked off my feet by how incredible he is on the guitar. One of Ilyse’s favorite bands, The Parkington Sisters, joined us on the last song, too, singing backing vocals and adding acoustic guitars and a harmonium part. (Ilyse would be thrilled to hear herself performing together with The Parkington Sisters.) Friends of mine in Sweden, a band called Hello Ocean, added layered backing vocals with incredibly subtle and complex harmonies, along with piano and synth parts on a couple of songs. Sarah Cossaboon and Cameron Dezen Hammon added wonderful vocal parts to a song each. ...

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... Arlo Cherry even added the sound of his heartbeat while still in his mother’s womb.

On one of the songs, I asked many of Ilyse’s closest friends and loved ones to record themselves saying “one” and “zero.” I then worked with Benjamin Kramer to create a kind of binary chorus—spreading their voices out across the audio spectrum and anchoring it into the rhythmic patterns of the song.

There is much more to talk about, of course, but the main point of this is to express how many great souls have kindly joined in to collaborate and create something of beauty, something in search of the profound and the sublime, and all of it in conversation with Ilyse.

Ben: Well, this question piggie-backs on the last one, because I used several guest musicians to help each track sound unique and add to the core sound of Phil with a jazz quartet. For example, I brought in a second pianist, Craig von Berg, for specific tracks because I think he plays the piano as an orchestra, doing things like adding crazy piano sounds to “A Dozen Dawn Songs Plus One.” I ended up using three bass players, two drummers, and two pianists, all in an effort to make the sound of each track unique. I also added German violinist Stefan Poetzch to both  “Dawn Songs” and “Our Valley.” In “By the Water of the Llobregat,” I used only solo piano and wrote out every note. Singer Karen Marguth added vocalizations to “Gin” and “Music of Time.” My sons, Atticus and Asher Boone, joined me to form the backup “horn section” on “I Remember Clifford,” and Max Hembd added harmony parts on several tracks.

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I also decided to have some jazz superstars replace me on four tracks about jazz greats Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and ...

... Clifford Brown. I recall listening to what I thought was the final version of “I Remember Clifford” about trumpet legend Clifford Brown. I thought, “It’s just wrong for me, a saxophonist, to be taking the lead on this track.” So my producer extraordinaire Donald Brown got famed New York trumpeter Tom Harrell, who was deeply influenced by Brown, to do it. That logic extended to Chris Potter, who gets the big sound of Sonny Rollins, replacing my playing on “The Unknowable” about Rollins’ hiatus from the public eye. Greg Osby, who sounds like what Charlie Parker would have sounded like had he lived longer, replaced me on “Call It Music,” a poem that recounts a story related to Levine by his teacher, Harold McGee, the trumpeter at the famed Dial recording session of “Lover Man,” where Parker was intoxicated. And lastly, Branford Marsalis, who I knew through a connection with the New Century Saxophone Quartet’s Steve Pollock, recorded “Soloing,” in which Levine compares his aging mother’s isolated existence to a Coltrane solo.

It was tempting to have them play on more than one track, but that would have defeated my primary reason for having them on these particular tracks. Donald Brown and Mike Marciano, the primary mixer, helped create unique sounds for each track in the mixing process too. All these folks chimed in with ideas and helped shape what you hear on the disc. On Volume II, you will be able to hear more of our freely improvised playing, and you can hear the synergy between the band and Phil even more.

OO: What records that combine music and poetry—or even more mainstream records—inspired you or at least resonated in the back of your minds while writing and recording these albums?

Brian: Some of the influences might include The Flaming Lips (especially Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots), David Byrne (The Forest), along with, perhaps, Philip Glass, Thievery Corporation, Radiohead, Rjd2, Iron and Wine, Andrew Bird, Damien Jurado, Beck, Ali Farke Toure, Pink Floyd. Maybe some Belle and Sebastian. Maybe some Richard Buckner. A lifelong love for The Beatles must be evident, too.

Here’s an example, diving into a song: Part of the modular synth line near the beginning of “Goodbye Earth, Goodbye Solar System” reminded me of Bowie, and that spurred me to add an acoustic guitar to try to get a chunky pick strum in the middle of the song—to get a sound along the lines of “The Bewley Brothers” (from Hunky Dory). I’m playing a nylon string acoustic there, and Rose Parkington (of The Parkington Sisters) doubled the part with a steel string.

Thematically, Ziggy Stardust surely played in the background of my thoughts, as it’s a foundational album for me, though it wasn’t an overt presence in the thought-process behind the album.

Jared Silvia has some Rodelius influences, along with many artists from the earliest days of electronic music and the rise of the synthesizer. I didn’t learn of Rodelius until after the album was completed, but as I began to experiment with creating modular synth parts myself, I picked up a 4 CD boxed set of music—Popular Electronics: Early Dutch Electronic Music from Philips Research Laboratories (1956-1963). I especially enjoyed Tom Dissevelt’s work, and there’s a musical nod to his work hidden in one of the songs.

When I was younger, I wasted many years nurturing a prejudice against synthesizers. I’ve definitely evolved away from that stance!

Listening to the work that Benjamin Boone has done with Phil Levine will surely influence my own thinking as I lean into the next album with Ilyse, too. The Poetry of Jazz is a kind of masterclass in collaboration.

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Ben: When I first knew I would be collaborating with Phil, I did investigate several recordings of poets with musicians. ...

... But frankly, the lessons I learned from many of them is what I did not want to do, rather than serve as model for what I wanted to do. To my musical ear, the music was all too often reacting to surface-level action of the poems – doing “word painting.” In others it sounded to me more like a books on tape – the music was only an underscore to the reading. That is okay, and I know many people like many of these collaborations, but it’s not interesting for me as a composer or a performer. Instead my inspiration musically was from the jazz canon.

OO: What were the guiding questions or themes you had when you began these projects?

Ben: I decided early on that if I were to do this, my self-imposed challenge would be to find a way music could enhance the central meaning of each poem and have the music be an equal partner in communicating that emotion. The listener must experience the words in a different way than if it were a reading. One of my thoughts was that music can give the listener time to contemplate what they have heard – time for it sink beneath the surface – time for the listener to feel on a deeper level what is being expressed. This is especially true in poems like “By the Waters of the Llobregat” about genocide (listen to the long sustains in the piano), or “What Work Is” (which compels us to think of lost opportunities with loved ones), or “A Dozen Dawn Songs Plus One” (aid in digesting the horrid existence of workers). If the music doesn’t enhance the poem and give it added value in some real way, and serve as an equal partner, then to me it’s not artistically interesting – at least for the duration of an entire CD.    

Another guiding question for me was, “What can I learn from Phil Levine?” I love interdisciplinary collaborations and always grow from them, and there I was living only two miles from a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. So I wanted to learn and grow from making art with Phil. And indeed I learned a great deal about truth-telling, emotional honesty, flow, pacing, and mostly being confident in myself as an artist.

The famous opera composer Jake Heggie says that successful collaborations stem from the stakeholders consciously drawing from the same emotional well. Phil and I didn’t discuss this but we both have a true love of music, a respect for jazz and of the emotional worlds it creates, and a love of the music of words, and so we drew on that throughout the process.

Brian: I love your guiding question, Ben! “What can I learn from Phil Levine?” I was guided by the same question, albeit with a different poet: “What can I learn from Ilyse Kusnetz?”

I think the most obvious choice made, from the very beginning, was not to include drums on the album. The storyline of the album takes place in the cosmos, in space, and I think of space as a cold and digital landscape—while drums are rooted in the earth. We do cheat throughout the album, but hopefully in unusual ways that remain true to this initial rule to exclude drums. Jared crafted electronic drum-like sounds in the first song, but that’s also the song that welcomes the listener in and then slips into the digital world.

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In the final song, we’re given the album’s title in a poem recited by Ilyse. ...

... The binary code she mentions thus became my overall structural guide. There are 11 songs on the album, and the last song is 11 minutes, 11 seconds, and 11 milliseconds long.

OO: What did you discover in the process of making these records that surprised you?

Brian: I was surprised to discover similarities between painting and songwriting. Many of the songs on the album, for example, began as layered modular synth drone pads. Layer by layer, we built the songs up in the studio, and some of the songs shifted and changed over time. It’s reminiscent of a painter priming a canvas, with that initial treatment serving, in some ways, as the early oxygen or atmosphere of the visual field that will only fully appear after several more layers are added.

Similarly, I’ve learned how to erase parts of a song and then build it back up again, as a sketch artist might do, working from circles and cones until the fully-inhabited image emerges, clear and defined.

Ben: Well, firstly, I discovered even deeper meanings to Phil’s poems. They are like Baroque music – the deeper you look, the more you find. I discovered ways music can interact with poetry to enhance the poetry. Like Brian, I had to throw away lots of music I really liked in the best interest of the poem. But mostly, I discovered, and this is directly from my interactions with Phil, a level of self-confidence that had been lacking.

Phil taught me so much, not only about poetry and how to be a creative artist, but perhaps more importantly to tamp down my inner anxiety and insecurity and believe in myself and my creativity. This gave me the courage to ask top musicians in the world to collaborate on the project and to really push this CD.

OO: Since you’ve both also written and recorded albums that were not collaborations with poets, how would you compare those experiences with the writing and recording of these new albums?

Brian: I have a very limited experience in this process, nothing along the lines of the wonderful range and catalog of music that Ben has created and composed, but this current project is definitely different from work I’ve done before.

In previous projects I’ve been a part of, I mostly participated in riff-based, music-driven songs, with the words overlaid upon the music. The process for this album was so different. And I think that’s crucial. No matter the medium, we often need to create new inroads into the work before us. This forces us to abandon the ‘moves’ or ‘go-to’ approaches that have become part of our process. It might not work out, but I’ve found this process allows me to meditate, musically, in ways I couldn’t otherwise do. If we change the process, it should change the music that rises out of that process. It reminds me of Robert Frost: “No surprise in the writer; no surprise in the reader.” By approaching the art in this new way (for me), I create a dynamic that contains a greater chance of providing surprise (for the musicians involved and, hopefully, for those who listen to the music).

Ben: Well, what Brian says is so true. If you give yourself a unique creative challenge, then you have to think in new ways to make that work, and hopefully that makes the end result fresh to both you and the audience. So though I’ve written for opera, orchestras, jazz singers, music theater, classical instrumentalists, and jazz groups, this was a unique and special project. I think it is fresh. I had to think very hard about leaving space for the words to be heard, and how to keep energy going in a different way. How is this for a challenge?: Write music that allows people to process genocide, or the horror and violence of race relations. You have to think in new ways.

OO: How do you think the writing and recording of these new albums will influence your future writing and recording that does not combine music with poetry?

Brian: We’re already at work on the next album, and it appears that we’re continuing to ‘treat the canvas’ with layered drone patches first. We’re creating the acoustic space, the atmosphere, so that Ilyse can walk out into it—with her voice leading us further in.

To answer the question, though, the idea of creating an atmosphere is now central to my thinking about studio-based music projects. It’s about space, which is not synonymous with a void. Space has vibrancy, frequencies, layers. When the guitar and the human breath fall into silence at the end of the song, for example, there’s often a kind of sound-field that isn’t silence. Ambience. I’m curious about the properties involved in this, and its connections to mood and meaning.

At a deeper level, one lesson rings clear in the making of this album. Music must rise from love. Every decision in the creation of music and art must be connected to this initial source. Otherwise, we risk skimming the surface of experience.

Ben: Great question and one that I probably won’t be able to answer until I look back in five years and have a clearer perspective. But I suppose I am even more aware of the underlying intent behind a song, sort of like what Brian is talking about when he spoke of creating a positive space – a space full of potential -- and also what he said about the music coming from a deep emotional place.

Right now, I am in Ghana, immersing myself in the world of complicated polyrhythms, which is a huge challenge to me. What they can do blows my mind. How they think of music and perceive beat is so different than how I do. I can’t see beyond that right now!

OO: Since you are both connected with Fresno, which has such a rich literary history and which is such a unique place that is represented in its literature, in what ways does place—the location where you created or recorded these compositions or even the locations addressed in the words—factor into each of these albums?

Brian: I can’t remember which radio station did this (KVPR?), but there used to be a late-night show that encouraged listeners to call in and speak or sing along with soundscape recordings in real time. I clearly remember hanging out at my best friend Brian Voight’s home, early 1980s, and reciting fragments of verse over the phone with my voice, slightly delayed, layering in over the music. I simply made up things on the spot. It was revelatory. I hadn’t heard recordings of Kenneth Rexroth or Gil Scott-Heron yet, but I was hooked already. That’s one of the seeds that led to the making of this album, and it’s one of my favorite artistic memories of living in the Valley. That DJ made it possible for me to begin thinking that my voice—the voice of a kid who lived a remote and often isolated life situated between orange groves and cattle rangeland in Madera county, with the bright lights of megacities and distant countries still decades away—that my own voice might join in the construction of meaning and beauty ...

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... just like anyone else on planet Earth. It’s a powerful conviction that’s grown to saturate my DNA as an artist.

Ben: I think the clearest example on this project is the poem “Our Valley.” My challenge was to somehow create the sense of expansiveness, space, and searing heat Phil describes so well. I’ve lived in Fresno eighteen years now and know exactly what he was trying to show. I also intimately know the music of the jazz greats he mentions, so I was able to channel those sounds, and have been in factories, and have worked construction, washed dishes, dug ditches, and other hard-labor jobs, so I think I was better able to channel those feelings into the music. At its core, this is a Fresno CD. It was born from a fundraiser for Fresno Filmworks; it was championed by KFSR, local art critic Donald Munro, former Fresnan Sasha Khokha, and Valley Public Radio’s Joe Moore; it was supported by Fresno State and the Dean’s Council of the College of Arts and Humanities; and it was recorded at Maximus Media in Fresno. Also, almost everyone on the CD lives or lived in Fresno. Phil and I performed there for local audiences at the Rogue Festival, and a huge focus group of Fresno musicians and poets critiqued the project all along the way and helped shape it. Fresno knows hard work, and hard work was put into the project by the people of Fresno. It is in every track.

OO: Because the sounds of words matter so much, particularly for poets, in what ways did the notes and sounds you chose to play represent the words in conversation with the actual words?

Ben: I mentioned before that I hear speech as music and that my dissertation analyzed speech as music, so this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I did not transcribe Phil’s recitations into music for this project, but I could tell that Phil, because he was a musician at heart, altered his tempo, dynamics, timbre, and pitch contour to match the music of the band. And the musicians instinctively did the same. You can clearly hear this on all tracks, but especially on the track “Gin.” Compositionally, on all the tracks, I used the tempo I thought appropriate and gave Phil clear directions on when to start, when to pause and for how long, and places he should listen for musical cues. If you want to blow your mind, read about the psychological phenomenon of rhythmic synchrony. I think our tracks demonstrate this phenomenon quite well. We were in total sync in the studio, so we imitated each other naturally.

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I did literally and consciously use Phil’s speech as a musical instrument in my orchestral composition, “Waterless Music,” ...

... that I wrote shortly after Phil died, and is dedicated to his memory. From the recordings made for The Poetry of Jazz, I took excerpts, grouped them by topic, and put them together to form a narrative about water, life, and the environment. Here is a link to that video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQ4KUSQYvSk. In this piece, you can hear Phil’s voice used literally like an instrument.

Brian: Early on, engineer and bassist Benjamin Kramer and I realized that Ilyse’s voice, in terms of the album’s narrative, would require a digital, cybernetic quality to it. That choice is completely connected to content. And so we experimented, shifting between different sound aesthetics, most often opting for a slightly grainy, static-filled, transmission-like quality that echoed work Jared and I were doing in some of the modular synths used in the songs, for example.

That said, Kramer mentioned something during the recording of the very first song that stuck with me and became one of the signature approaches we used throughout the album. He said that he liked the merging of digital music with non-synth instruments, which brought a kind of warmth into the song overall. I made that approach our ethos from that point on. Again, this decision was based on the storyline within the text/language for the album—the merging of the human into a digital life.

OO: Why is it important for these types of art—music and poetry, combined or separate—to continue pushing the boundaries of traditional forms?

Brian: The collaboration between music and poetry is an ancient one, of course, and it’s deeply rooted in the human experience of sound and meaning. I wasn’t composing with an audience in mind, at least not at the beginning. And so, my thoughts early on were nearly all focused on collaborating with Ilyse and figuring out ways to nurture that collaboration.

Ben: Steven Johnson, in his book How We Got to Now, discusses the conditions necessary for life to have evolved and for good ideas to take root. One is that ideas need to clash. A proper environment needs to be created where elements rub against each other. This is how I view interdisciplinary collaboration. It is fertile territory. So I am in no way trying to be a radical and push any real boundaries, or even thinking about whether the forms I am creating are new or not. These are just natural outgrowths of thinking of the artistic creation. One of the reasons I am in Ghana is so my perspectives and biases and preconceptions can rub up against another culture so I can become more self-aware, more empathic, and grow.

I mentioned before that I am in a group now with xylophonists who think of music in a completely different way than I do, and I love it. My head hurts as I try and play what they play, and I am better for it. I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “A mind expanded can never retract to its original dimensions.” Well, interdisciplinary collaboration expands my mind and I hope it never retracts. As for influencing the art form, it would be cool to me if more folks did interdisciplinary work. In fact, several poetry and jazz projects have been released recently. Steven Johnson, the historian, would say this is how ideas happen; many people get the same basic idea at once. Go figure.

OO: Can you tell us more about how you plan to explore the connections between music and poetry in the future?

Ben: There are fifteen tracks I recorded with Phil that are not on The Poetry of Jazz, and these, as well as three instrumental versions of these tunes, will be released on a Volume II.

For another poetry-music project, I’ve recorded with Fresno State colleague and US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, as well as Marisol Baca, Lee Herrick, and Dustin Prestridge. That was an amazing experience, and we will release that on CD, tentatively titled The Poets Are Gathering, at some point. Congolese poet Fiston Mujila Fiston, now in Austria, heard The Poetry of Jazz, and we are hoping to collaborate at some point. I love doing these type of projects, and I hope there will be many more.

Brian: I can’t wait to hear Volume II! The music that Ben has created with Phil is a great gift to us all. I studied poetry with Phil at Fresno State, and I remember him asking for my headphones to hear what I was playing on a Walkman (far too loud, I’m sure) and Phil immediately pulled the loud rock away from his ears and reminded me that hearing was crucial to a poet’s craft. The relationship between poetry and music was so clearly evident, just as Ben says. Levine was born into the age of jazz and matured as an artist at the same time that jazz developed and matured as an art form—and so this collaboration between Boone and Levine has a kind of magic to it that’s steeped in a lifetime of deep appreciation and love for these two art forms.

Herrera? Baca? Herrick? And more? Amazing. Can’t wait to hear it all.

As I mentioned, the next album is under way, and I’ve gone back to repeat the process of listening to Ilyse. I’ve brought in a new instrument for myself (a Resonant Garden from Folktek), and I’m sure Ben and Jared and the rest of us will add a variety of instruments to the album before it’s complete. My job is to bring in Ilyse’s words and story now that we have drone pads in place. I’ve already recorded two harpists in an Irish chapel, along with another frequent collaborator—opera singer Sarah Cossaboon.

The second album will chart a lyric journey to distant moons and planets. The Interplanetary Acoustic Team is set to explore the flora and fauna of these different planets, sending the album back to us as a kind of musical lens through which we might experience Ilyse’s ongoing discoveries and experiences.


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The Interplanetary Acoustic Teams’s 11 11 (Me, Smiling) will be available on July 13, 2018: https://interplanetaryacousticteam.com/payload.

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The Poetry of Jazz, featuring Benjamin Boone and Philip Levine, can be found at https://www.benjaminboone.net/product/the-poetry-of-jazz/.


Brian Turner is a poet, essayist, and musician living in Orlando, Florida. He recently edited an anthology called The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers for W.W. Norton & Company (2018). He is the founding director of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. 

Benjamin Boone is a saxophonist, composer, and theorist who has taught at California State University, Fresno since 2000. He is currently serving as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to the University of Ghana. Volume II of The Poetry of Jazz with Philip Levine will be released in January 2019 on Origin Records. 

Optimism One’s essays have been published by The Normal School and In Fact Books, among others. He earned his MFA from Sierra Nevada College and teaches writing full-time at Modesto Junior College in California. He’s currently working on a memoir called Goodbye, Suicide.

A Normal Interview with Angela Morales

By Tara Williams

Angela Morales will join us in the summer of 2018 for The Normal School’s Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, July 16-29, on the Fresno State campus.

 In her award-winning collection of memoir essays  The Girls in My Town , Angela Morales navigates coming of age in Los Angeles as part of a Mexican-American family. In this interview, the journey continues, from the wild moors of England to life in Los Angeles as a writer, mother, wife, and English professor.

In her award-winning collection of memoir essays The Girls in My Town, Angela Morales navigates coming of age in Los Angeles as part of a Mexican-American family. In this interview, the journey continues, from the wild moors of England to life in Los Angeles as a writer, mother, wife, and English professor.

Tara Williams:  If I were your fairy godmother, and I gave you a credit card with no limit that was good for one weekend only, with the conditions being you could go anywhere and do anything for that weekend with two other writers of your choice (past or present, living or dead), where would you go, and who would you take with you? 

Angela Morales:  Where to begin…?  First, I’d narrow down my choices to spending time with dead writers as opposed to living writers because, A. I’d want to take advantage of the magic, and B. My list of living writers is too long. 

That said, I’m taking my credit card and heading to Yorkshire to the home of Charlotte Brontë. She and I will embark on an all-day walk across the moors, and maybe Anne and Emily would join us? After the chilly walk, we’d cozy up by the fire and eat scones with jam, and the sisters would reveal to me all their storytelling secrets.

 

TW: Okay, I have to ask: why the Brontës? And I have to qualify that by confessing my expectations of romance were hopelessly distorted by reading the Brontës in my adolescence. Recently I watched a new movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights and found myself thinking, Oh my God, Heathcliff was a sociopath! That explains so much! 

AM: Why the Brontës? Well, I have always admired Charlotte Brontë because she wrote her novels in the first person, with a narrator’s voice that I’m almost positive was her own voice, with novels that are very much autobiographical. Her voice is clear, steady, and stubborn. She is realistic and very no-nonsense, but quietly passionate, and I feel that, in this way, we are kindred spirits.

 

TW: Your credit card isn’t maxed out yet.

AM: Then I’d take the train back to London and find a good happy hour in some pub and buy drinks for Chinua Achebe, Herman Melville, George Orwell, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, the Romantic Poets, E.B. White, John Muir, Chris Hitchens, and Flannery O’Connor. Oh wait… I’m only allowed two writers, so I’ll have to stick with the Brontës, I suppose, even though, technically that’s three.

 

TW: As your fairy godmother, I say if you go to the pub with the Brontës, you’re still technically in compliance with the conditions. And if let me know the name of the London pub where you'll be, I could kind of happen by…

AM: Any English pub will do… the smaller the better, anywhere for a nice brown ale and a baked potato.

 

TW: I noticed River Teeth, in their write-up for your Literary Nonfiction Prize award, described your “escape” from your parents’ appliance store, wording that also appears on the back-cover copy of the book itself, and it occurs to me to wonder if you feel you have “escaped” the influences of your earlier life. What does writing about your childhood do to the way you remember it?

AM: I’m pretty sure that I will never escape the influences of my early life, nor do I want to escape or deny or forget about those influences, even the painful ones.  I’ve always felt that writing about childhood helps me to understand it better and to make order out of chaos. Maybe I’m a bit of a control freak, but I like to take the pieces of my life, or the memories, and tell the stories in a way that’s as true to memory and fact as possible, but to paint the picture of those stories in a way that finds the beauty and the meaning within them. When I write about a childhood memory, I feel like I’ve dragged it out of a burning house, cleaned off the ashes, dressed it up in its best outfit, and pushed it back out into the world, hoping that someone else will love it as much as I do.

 

TW: That’s a powerful image. Is there anything you can’t or won’t write about?

AM: If an idea or story appears to me and if it feels important, I hope I would be brave enough not to banish it or suppress it, no matter how embarrassing or personal. Thus far, I haven’t come across any topics that make me feel like I’ve hit that brick wall. In nonfiction, however, writers must always consider the ethics of writing about other people and how those people are portrayed. I think if your intentions are pure (meaning, that you don’t aim to destroy anybody) you can write about living people with respect and goodwill, even if it’s a difficult topic.

 

TW: In the intro to your book The Girls in My Town, you mention your essays growing from recollected images, such as that of your grandmother dying, which you elaborate on in “Nine Days of Ruth.” It reminded me so much of being with my own grandmother, as a mother myself, during her last days, reading aloud to her from her favorite Psalms. Do you have any further thoughts on the role of faith in parenting, in making sense of life and death?

AM: I am not a religious person, though I find much meaning and comfort in being in the wilderness and living in the world. It’s been very important for me to make sure that my children experience solitude and a kind of “nothingness” when they must “unplug” and sit in the deserts of Death Valley or maybe play on a deserted beach on the Channel Islands for days at time. I believe in God, but I think God is everywhere and that the best I can do for my children is to help them to be more mindful of the world around them. As seagulls are squawking overhead and all around us, we might find a dead seagull and notice how the seagull’s body is being eaten by flies and how the ocean waves are pulling it back to the sea. If my children can contemplate that fact of life and death right before their eyes, I think that reality is more valuable than anything I might say to them. Now that my children are a little older, we can talk about how life is really one big mystery and all we can do is search for meaningful ways to understand it.

 

TW: It looks as if you have so many events coming up in 2018! You’ll be with us here in Fresno for CSU Summer Arts, you’ll be with River Teeth in June, you have a steady schedule of readings and appearances. How does that busy schedule affect your writing? How do you keep it all balanced?

AM: I’m so excited and honored to participate in all these upcoming events! I’ve felt so grateful for all the positive feedback I’ve gotten on my book over the past year, and I’m still trying figure out how to schedule my life so that I have time to write. I teach full-time at a community college, so I’ve learned, over the past decade, if I want to make time to write, I must claim that writing time, no matter what. I’m trying to think of writing time the way you’d think of exercise—it’s an hour or two that you must take to be a healthier person, whether that means getting up before dawn or staying up into the witching hours. My husband, Patrick, my accomplice, has helped me to sneak away to the library or get back to my office late at night. Last month, I was lucky enough to visit Yaddo, an artists’ colony in upstate New York, for an entire month. I got a ton of work done while I was there, and Patrick made sure that the kids got fed and the dogs got walked. So many people are helping me to keep writing, and for this, I’m so lucky. So far, so good.

 


Angela Morales, a graduate of the University of Iowa's nonfiction writing program, is the author of The Girls in My Town, a collection of personal essays. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays 2013, Harvard ReviewThe Southern Review, The Southwest ReviewThe Los Angeles Review, Arts and Letters, The Baltimore Review, The Pinch, Hobart, River Teeth, Under the Sun, and Puerto del Sol, and The Indianola Review. She is the winner of the River Teeth Book Prize, 2014, and has received fellowships from Yaddo and MacDowell Colony.  Currently she teaches composition and creative writing at Glendale Community College and is working on her second collection of essays. She lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband Patrick and their two children, Mira and Leo.

Tara Williams is an MFA candidate in Fresno State’s Creative Writing Fiction program. She has previously published interviews with Bich Minh Nguyen, Leonard Peltier, Julia Butterfly, and former WIBF world champion boxer Lucia Rijker.

 

A Normal Interview with Dinty W. Moore

Dinty W. Moore demonstrates brevity at its best. He will soon join The Normal School for our Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute on July 16-29, on the campus of Fresno State. Moore will lead workshops, participate in panel discussions, and meet one-on-one with students. Apply now; scholarships and course credit available.

  In a normal interview,  Dinty W. Moore  discusses teaching, seedlings, and the drama of attempting to prevail in difficult writing projects.

In a normal interview, Dinty W. Moore discusses teaching, seedlings, and the drama of attempting to prevail in difficult writing projects.

Bonita Hele: You’re a busy writer, speaking frequently at workshops and conferences. How do you find your work at conferences and seminars informs your writing?

Dinty W. Moore: I learn a lot from teaching, both in my regular Ohio University faculty position and teaching around the country at various weekend and week-long workshops. Teaching forces you – if you do it right – to articulate what you believe makes for successful writing, and to seek out practical, craft solutions to common narrative concerns. It keeps my mind alert, I think, or hope.

  

BH: This July, you will be participating in the CSU Summer Arts program, for The Normal School’s Creative Nonfiction Workshop. Are we allowed a sneak preview of topics or themes you’ll be covering? More broadly, do you have a similar approach to workshops you teach, or do you revise your material each time?

DWM: My plan for my workshop is to help participants generate new work, growing out of a series of brief writing based on prompts I will bring along. (I revise the prompts regularly, so we’ll see what new ideas July brings.)

I like to think of the work produced in a generative workshop as seedlings – little sprouting things that the writer takes home and nurtures, discovering eventually whether one or the other will grow into a 1,000-word essay, a 4,000-word essay, or something longer. But the seedlings are there, for whenever the writer finds the time to dive back into the work.

 

BH: The online nonfiction journal Brevity has been around for roughly 20 years now. How have you found its shape transforming or reforming over that time?

DWM: Brevity began as a home for conventional narrative nonfiction of a very brief nature, but over the years it has expanded – thanks to the submissions that come in – to include lyric essays, experimental essays, ruminative (Montaigne-ish) essays, literary journalistic works, and work that is hard to define but stunning. Of course, we have transformed into something much larger than I ever anticipated as well, with thousands of regular readers spread across the globe. We’ve published work from writers living in India, Egypt, Ireland, Spain, Dubai, Malaysia, and Japan. I find all of it – the reach, the success, the level of work – to be staggeringly wonderful.

 

BH: In an interview with Jenny Patton, you remarked on your fascination with the short form. What is the shortest piece you read that still worked, that drew you in as a reader? Is there such a thing as “too short” in the brief art form?

DWM: I’m going to duck the first question.  There are too many examples of “super short” flash and new ones pop up every day.  But no, I don’t think there is a too short limit. Or if there is, someone will prove it wrong.

 

BH: I’ve read that between first draft and final publication, your essays go through 40 revisions on average. Do you find that as you have developed the writing craft, you don’t revise as much or as deeply as in earlier writings? I guess another way to put it is, is it easier for you to assay these days, or is it as much a journey now as it has ever been?

DWM: No, I still revise almost as much as I did before. Sometimes I may revise even more, because I’ve set my sights higher. I’m one of those writers who works out what he is trying to say in the process of writing and revising, and refining, and rewording, and redefining, and finding new question to ask somewhere in the middle of the revision process.

 

BH: What excites you most about your current writing project? Is there anything that frustrates you or that you’re finding an inordinate challenge?

DWM: My current writing project is kicking me in the butt right now. Nothing excites me about it but the prospect that someday the tide will turn and I’ll get the better of the project instead of the project having the better of me.

 


Dinty W. Moore is author of The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir; the memoir Between Panic & Desire; and many other books. He has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Arts & Letters, The Normal School, and elsewhere.

Dinty has won many awards for his writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He edits Brevity, an online journal of flash nonfiction, and lives in Athens, Ohio, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions. 

 

Nonfiction writer Bonita Jewel Hele, a freelance editor for nearly ten years, spends weekday mornings encouraging elementary students to love literature, afternoons as a Graduate Assistant with the Fresno State MFA program, and evenings reading stories to her three children. 

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, or How I Learned to Love My Paranasal Sinuses By Dinty W. Moore

Dinty W. Moore will join us Summer 2018 for The Normal School's Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, July 16-29, on the campus of Fresno State University, where he will lead workshops, participate in panel discussions, and meet one-on-one with students. Apply now. Scholarships and course credit available.

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Until just a few weeks ago, here is everything I knew about my sinuses:

1. They are inside my head.

2. They are usually clogged with horrible mucus.

3. The horrible mucus leaks out of my nostrils.

4. Sinuses are disgusting, and the less time spent thinking about them the better.

• • •

Or so I thought.

It turns out that modern medicine is mind-blowing, and I mean that in a thoroughly positive way. I might have meant it otherwise had my doctor’s hand somehow slipped during surgery, but that’s getting well ahead of the story.

For now, here’s what you need to know:

After fifty years of inadequate breathing, decades of pulsing discomfort, a general sense of “I hate my sinuses, why do I even have them,” I was informed by modern medicine, in the form of a young, slender, oddly confident ENT specialist, that my problem was not my sinuses per se, but sinus polyps—grape-sized blobs of I-don’t-know-and-I-didn’t-ask.

These grape-sized blobs of I-don’t-know-and-I-didn’t-ask are what kept my sinuses from filling with air. They also kept them from flushing out all the horrible mucus. Thus: infection, pain, poor breathing, infection, gunk, embarrassment, infection, more pain, a box of Kleenex on every flat surface of my home, burning, swelling, infection, pain. Repeat cycle once each month.

Then modern medicine suggested: “We can clear those out.”

"How?” I asked.

“Well, we go up through the nostrils . . .” the doctor said.

“The nostrils, you say?”

“Yes,” the young physician answered, and then he offered a sentence that contained the word “scraping,” and I removed myself from all conscious comprehension for about ten seconds, until he said, “Of course, we wouldn’t want to scrape too much, because the bone separating your sinuses from your brain is very thin.”

As I said: Potentially mind-blowing.

It was at that juncture that I stopped listening for about thirty seconds, until the doctor added, “So we should probably schedule this up in Columbus, just to be on the safe side.”

I remember wondering why the thin layer of bone separating my sinuses from my brain would be less likely to perforate catastrophically in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, about eighty miles upstream from the small college town where my sinuses usually clog themselves. But it didn’t take long before the doctor said, “Imaging.”

“Oh,” I nodded, trying to look respectful and informed. “Who’s Imogene?”

• • •

So, here are six actual facts I didn’t know about my sinuses before Doctor Gallant (not his real name, but it should be) entered the picture:

1. There are not two but four sinus cavities in the skull—one on either side of the nose, but also one above each eye, behind the eyebrow.

2. Scientists can’t agree why these openings exist.

3. One theory is that they decrease the weight of the skull, making it easier to hold up our heads all day.

4. Another theory is that they act as shock absorbers, decreasing injury when the head hits something harder than a pillow.

5. The goop we all despise exists for good reason: to capture viruses, bacteria, and other airborne particles before they reach our lungs.

6. When we are sick, mucus production can increase to two liters a day. Think two-liter Pepsi bottle, and then get entirely grossed out.

• • •

There was, it turns out, no Imogene.

Dr. Gallant scheduled me in early August for Computer-Assisted Endoscopic Sinus Surgery. This involved the insertion of a very thin, fiber-optic scope into my nose and the use of micro instruments (aka “scrapers”) to remove the little grape-sized blobs of I-didn’t-ask. Of course, if the doctor was going to wander around with tiny X-ACTO knives, it would be good for him to see where he was scraping. The hospital in Columbus, it turns out, had imaging technology.

First, though, I had to get medically cleared for the operation. Because I am in advanced middle age, I have many doctors; we humans accumulate them like barnacles attached to an aging frigate. None of my many doctors, of course, could figure out how to share information with any of my other many doctors, including doctors whose offices are one floor apart in the same medical complex. “I can just walk it down,” I would say, but they had protocols, and costly computer systems that couldn’t talk to one another, or do anything really, except billing.

The billing always worked.

Nonetheless, August rolled around, and I presented myself at the Outpatient Surgery Center, located just a few blocks from the enormous university teaching hospital, and all was well, except at the last minute I mentioned that I’d recently been diagnosed with sleep apnea, a Greek word that allows doctors to bill you at two-hundred-times the rate they might if we just called it snoring.

My procedure was delayed while the medical team endeavored to learn my sleep apnea score, which somehow had never found its way into any of my voluminous medical records.

“I believe I scored well,” I said, which didn’t satisfy the anesthesiologist’s curiosity at all.

Sixteen computers in sixteen different medical offices spread across most of southern Ohio refused to speak to one another for a good bit of the morning, until the resourceful anesthesiologist finally just picked up his cell phone and dialed.

The last voice I heard before succumbing to the happy gas was the masked cell-phone user reacting to the score he was given:

“Holy cow!”

• • •

I assume the doctor has wonderful memories of touring the folds and caverns behind my facial bones, but since Gallant and his team kept me sedated and oblivious, my only way of describing what occurred is to watch similar procedures on YouTube, where, it turns out, hundreds of doctors have recorded thousands of excruciating hours of footage revealing just about any medical technique you might want to watch. It is creepy, to be honest, because the doctors in these videos talk animatedly at the camera for most of the operation, and I keep wanting to shout, “Oh my God, focus on the patient, focus on the patient!”

The online videos of Computer-Assisted Endoscopic Sinus Surgery using image guidance aren’t pretty, believe me. The flexible tube inserted through the nostril contains both a light source and a camera, and the inner walls, gooey corners, and grape-sized I-don’t-know-whats are revealed on a TV monitor. The videos look like outtakes from a movie entitled Journey to the Center of an Astonishingly Gross Earth, or perhaps extremely poor-quality porn, shot way too close up.

• • •

I awoke from my procedure feeling quite chipper. Until Dr. Gallant and the anesthesiologist informed me I would not be heading home as planned, but staying the night in a local hospital. My “holy cow!” sleep apnea score, they concluded, combined with the amount of anesthesia it took to knock me out for surgery, risked that unpleasant moment where my airwaves would briefly shut off breathing, and my reflexes would just roll over and say, “Oh don’t wake us now, we’re having such a nice dream.”

In other words, I would asphyxiate.

The medical chaps, as they loved to say over and over again, decided to “exercise a little extra caution.”

This did not sit well with me. I wanted to recover at home, as “outpatient” surgery suggested, both because of sentimental reasons, but also because I had planned my “at home” outpatient recovery in exquisite detail, a sort of one-man New Year’s Eve celebration featuring cold beer, junk television, nose bandages, and pain killers. What could go wrong?

I wasn’t going to find out because I wasn’t going home, which was bad enough. Worse yet was when the hospital reported having no open rooms.

The real problem was that I felt absolutely fine. Anesthesia has the odd effect of energizing me immediately after awakening, rather than leaving me drowsy, but given my “post-op” status, I was stuck with two choices—either lie on my back and complain, or sit up just a little, sip water, and complain.

Three hours of this, until finally I was cleared for a room in the hospital six blocks away, and then—yes, only then—a nurse informs me that an ambulance has been called, and that will take “. . . about three more hours.”

“Your case is not urgent,” she added.

What I said in response may not have been polite, and I hereby apologize to anyone anywhere who has ever worked in the medical care profession.

About this point, I went to work trying to convince the nursing staff that I easily enough could walk the six blocks to the hospital. Or I could drive, if they lent me a car. Or one of them could drive me, and I’d buy ice cream on the way.

Miraculously, and to the boundless relief of the nurses, my ambulance arrived a full hour and-a-half early, and I was quickly strapped in, attached to four thousand wires, monitoring every inch of my body except perhaps my nose, where I believe the surgery had been performed. And then, finally, I was driven the three-minutes’ distance from the surgery center to the medical center, at about twenty miles per hour, no lights, no siren.

At one point, concerned that her patient might be disoriented by this wild ride, the med tech in the back asked me the name of the current president.

“Sarah Palin,” I answered, hoping to exhibit the fine nuance of my post-operative intellectual irony.

“Ha!” she answered with no hint of humor. “Don’t we wish.”

• • •

Faster than one can say Affordable Care Act, I was whisked into my room, on the hospital’s fifth floor. The man in the bed across from me was glad for company, because he had quite the story to tell, one I heard about eight times in the next four hours.

Mr. Deeter was from Akron, and his job, he told me, was to service giant transformers, the ones you see along the roadside surrounded by ten-foot cyclone fencing with signs reading: “High Voltage! Do Not Enter!”

Mr. Deeter regularly ignored those signs—it was, in fact, his job to do so. That morning he had been pulling oil from the engine of one of these powerful transformers, “with a syringe,” he shouted across the two beds, “the way a nurse takes blood”—when his bare arm touched something it should not have touched, and 81,000 volts of electricity coursed through his body.

“I let out a yelp,” he told me. “And BAM! Next thing I knew I was knocked back up against the fence.”

He stopped for a moment, studied my face. What he saw was an expression that best translates as, “And you lived?”

Mr. Deeter seemed to be rounding sixty or so, with a short, military haircut, the fit physique of a man who works outside with tools, and a deep, no-nonsense voice. He was proud of his ability to survive the massive burst of voltage, or maybe he was still in shock. Either way, he repeated his story to everyone who entered the room. 

“Couldn’t feel my arm at first, so I looked down, and, yup, it was still attached.” He would pause here for effect. “Then I went back to work, siphoning out the oil. I noticed this burn on my elbow, and thought, ‘Oh nuts! I guess I should call this one in.’ But I didn’t.”

Turned out Mr. Deeter had two small, round burns: one on his elbow, just an inch or so from where his safety gloves ended, and one on his chest, where the voltage apparently surged back out of his body.

He didn’t call to report the accident until a co-worker showed up, and said, “Deeter, you don’t look so good.”

“He was right. I called it in. Now I’m here.”

He didn’t look like a man shot through with electricity. He looked fine, as fine as I felt. He also looked trapped, like he’d rather be anywhere, even back servicing generators, than in that hospital room.

I knew exactly how he felt.

• • •

Scientists, as I said earlier, can’t agree on why we have sinuses.

The make-our-heads-lighter-so-we-can-holdthem-erect notion has its staunch advocates, as does the shock-absorber-in-the-skull idea, but, hands-down, my favorite theory posits that we—you, me, Mr. Deeter, and Sarah Palin alike—are descended from aquatic apes.

The theory goes like this: a group of prehistoric primates, cleverer than most, noticed that river banks and sea shores produced much better food than did arid grasslands, so they descended from their treetops and acquired waterfront property.

Over time, through the exquisite magic of evolution, these apes evolved an upright stance, allowing them to stand in the water and freeing up their hands to crack shellfish. Eventually they also lost their body hair, developing instead a thick layer of subcutaneous fat (to keep warm in the water). They learned to swim.

And this, if you believe Peter Rhys Evans, a British expert on head-and-neck physiology, also explains our sinus cavities.

Compared to other primates, humans have particularly large openings in the skull, Rhys Evans notes. “It makes no sense until we consider the evolutionary perspective. Then it becomes clear: our sinuses acted as buoyancy aids that helped keep our heads above water.”

He adds further evidence: unlike our ape cousins, humans have an unusually strong diving reflex, a unique nose shape that shields our nostrils when we dive below the surface, and partial webbing between our fingers and toes.

Not all scientists agree, because if they did, how could they write hundreds of scholarly articles arguing over every detail—but a good many do agree. And who doesn’t like a spirited squabble over how primeval monkeys transformed themselves over time into twenty-first-century hipsters wearing skinny jeans and taking selfies?

Turns out, it all started at the oyster bar.

• • •

Why exactly do human beings have unique tongue prints?

Why do we have that vertical groove on the surface of our upper lip?

What’s the meaning of goosebumps?

What purpose does the uvula serve, and why does it sound so dirty?

If Mr. Deeter could absorb thousands of volts of electricity through his arm and shoot it back out of his chest, sustaining little more than a few surface burns, and then go back to work for thirty minutes before deciding to call his supervisor, why can’t monkeys evolve large open spaces in their skulls to keep their heads above water as they float down the lazy river, popping tasty minnows into their hungry mouths?

I’m talking about the glorious mystery of the body here, which might sound like a pickup line, but I don’t mean it that way.

Goosebumps, by the way, occur when tiny muscles around the base of each hair tense, pulling the hair more erect. Back when we were apes, our fur would stand on end, to make us look larger, scarier, more powerful. Now, we just look silly.

Our bodies, even our sinuses, are simply miraculous. I’ve progressed from hating my goopy head cavities to being damned proud of them.

They exist for a reason.

A good reason.

They exist because somehow, somewhere in time, an ape looked around and thought, “Man, you know what I could go for right now? Shrimp cocktail.”


Dinty W. Moore lives in Athens, Ohio, the funkadelicious, hillbilly-hippie Appalachian epicenter of the locally-grown, locally-consumed, goats-are-for-cheese, paw-paws-are-for-eatin’, artisanal-salsa, our-farmers-market-rocks-the-hills sub-culture, where he grows his own heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions, and teaches a crop of brilliant undergraduate and stunningly talented graduate students as director of Ohio University’s BA, MA, and PhD in Creative Writing program. He has been published in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne ReaderCrazyhorse, and Okey-Panky, among numerous other venues. He has authored several books, including Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Life, Love, and Cannibals and The Story Cure: A Book Doctor's Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir.

 

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