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.

 

Photo on Foter.com

A Normal Interview With Justin Hocking

By Rusty Birdwell

Justin Hocking 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.

 Justin Hocking on surfing, the White Death, Melville's ghost, and his new memoir,  The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld  which was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers selection, and of which he says, "I took my cues from  Moby-Dick —a sprawling, polyphonic, multivalent work that blends the personal with the political and the metaphysical."

Justin Hocking on surfing, the White Death, Melville's ghost, and his new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld which was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers selection, and of which he says, "I took my cues from Moby-Dick—a sprawling, polyphonic, multivalent work that blends the personal with the political and the metaphysical."

Rusty Birdwell: How did you decide on the book’s structure? The titled sections range from one paragraph to several pages (one of my favorite sections being 'Samsara')—how do the short and long sections, and white space, serve the book?

Justin Hocking: Wonderworld revolves largely around my longtime preoccupation with the life of Herman Melville and his novel Moby-Dick. Writing about a classic work definitely involved some risks, and one thing I wanted to avoid was any sort of literary ventriloquism. On the other hand, I did allow myself to draw inspiration from what I found in Moby-Dick's unconventional structure, which is that all things are admissible within the bounds of a single work: short sections, long sections, fiction and nonfiction, stagecraft, slapstick humor, reportage, meditations, environmental writing, literary criticism, etc. This freed me up to digress and meander and experiment with form. I organized one of the longer, crux sections, "The City Swell," as a series of surf reports. Within the shorter sections, I was striving for a kind of economy and compression of language that we find in work by poet-memoirists like Nick Flynn. Flynn and others allow for white space and gaps in their poetry and nonfiction, in a way that trusts the reader to make their own connections, without leaning too heavily on conventional, linear narrative. Most poetry collections rely on a slow accretion of resonant images, themes and language, and that was definitely part of the effect I was hoping for in the memoir.

RB: The best books strive toward the universal and the personal; this book steps seamlessly between the two. In some ways this could occur without the larger tale of the American spirit’s dark journey. Why was it so important for you to include the political, industrial, American-spirit landscape in the book?

JH: In the narrative I took some deep dives into my own messy emotional territory, but I also tried to repeatedly bust out of the traditional memoir format. I needed to get the reader (and myself) out of my head quite a bit, to hopefully avoid the sense of claustrophobia that can sometimes plague a memoir or any first person narrative. So I did quite a lot of outward expansion and weaving in news of the wider world, in hope of rendering the deeply personal material more balanced and bearable for the reader. I also wanted to risk some of the grand, sweeping historical/political/philosophical gestures that Melville did, especially since much of the story took place at the height of the war in Iraq. I got fascinated, for instance, with the history of surfing, and how it ties in with the history of American colonialism in Hawaii and elsewhere. And the more I read Moby-Dick, the more I began noticing parallels between the historic whaling industry (which was all about whale oil), and our contemporary petroleum industry. Another chapter deals with the environmental repercussions of the this industry, specifically a massive oil spill that took place in North Brooklyn in the mid 20th Century. It was a much larger, more insidious spill than the Exxon Valdez disaster, but most people have never heard about it, even though it happened in a city populated by eight million or more people. These are all important issues to me, and again, I took my cues from Moby-Dick—a sprawling, polyphonic, multivalent work that blends the personal with the political and the metaphysical.

RB: Melville eventually becomes a physically present character, following you around, sort of torturing you or communing with you in your own dark period. From the first hint of his almost-presence on page 61 to his finding you in bed or in a bathroom stall, how did this come about in the book?

JH: I'm a big fan of literary writers who delve into the surreal—George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Borges all come to mind. I wanted to see if I could pull it off in nonfiction, as a way to lend some narrative immediacy to this sense I had, while in New York, of feeling both haunted and inspired by Melville. It was another somewhat risky move that I worried might come off as maudlin. There were a couple moments, though, where I utilized Melville's specter as a kind of stand-in or body double for some of my darkest emotions, in a way that I hope actually helped me avoid melodrama.

RB: Could you talk a bit about the L train becoming sentient and somewhat omniscient? It tells a random woman on the subway a lot about you, about some pretty deep moments of internal turmoil for you. It’s the train that really introduces us to you starting to lose your shit. Did this have something to do with the book needing narrative distance at that point?

JH: It was absolutely about narrative distance. Revealing my struggles with anxiety and phobias wasn't easy; the shift from first to third person allowed me, as the writer, a little distance and perspective. I also hoped it would give the reader some respectful breathing room while I explicated my personal problems. Utilizing the L Train voice was also another way to experiment with the surreal, and to channel some of the of chaos and noise and weird allure of New York City life.

RB: You give us plenty of examples of other writers and artists who have suffered the White Death. This is the form of obsession the book uses as a lens for all sorts of ailments of spirit and addiction. Do you consider the White Death beneficial if it runs its course without killing the carrier?

JH: During my research, I was surprised to discover how many other writers and artists struggle with bouts of the White Death, which I define as an all-consuming obsession with Moby-Dick. The visual artist Frank Stella spent twelve years creating fifteen hundred abstract paintings and sculptures, each inspired by Moby-Dick; he claims the obsession nearly destroyed him. More recently, illustrator Matt Kish made one drawing a day, every day, for all 552 pages of his version of Moby-Dick. The writer Sena Jeter Naslund grew obsessed with Moby-Dick at age thirteen; she later wrote the 666 page novel Ahab's Wife. So yes, I think the White Death is more of a creative catalyst than a disease. Probably my favorite example is the playwright Tony Kushner, who claims Moby-Dick as the single most important influence on his work, and that he learned from Melville that it's better to risk total catastrophe than to play it safe as an artist.

RB: Much of the book deals with obsession and addiction—from emotional need and drug addiction to American’s continuing petroleum binge—are these in some way, necessary first steps in a Nekyian journey?

JH: I first encountered the term "Nekyia" in a book called Melville's Moby-Dick: An American Nekyia by the Jungian analyst and critic Edward Edinger. Edinger defines the Nekyia as a kind of "night sea journey" through despair and meaninglessness that we all embark on during our development as individuals and a society; he interprets Moby-Dick as a quintessentially American version of the Nekyia. The word Nekyia derives from the eleventh book of The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus descends to the underworld to commune with the dead. These archetypal voyages often begin with a literal or metaphorical descent, and the potent darkness we encounter there is often a necessary first step in the circuitous journey back home.

RB: Overall the book seems to beg us to see dark times as first passages toward journeys that involve revelation and self-awareness. Reaching something good also seems to come out of a sense of community—deliverance through interdependence (not codependence) seems like a big theme of the book as well. Is this the best track for the deepest problems in the realms of both the personal and the social?

JH: When thinking about or discussing Moby-Dick, most people focus on the narrative of Ahab's revenge against the White Whale. That's certainly a huge part of the story, but it brings up the question of ownership. To whom does the story really belong? In my opinion, the narrative of Moby-Dick belongs principally to the narrator, Ishmael. And his is a story not of revenge, but of interconnection and survival. So I'm much more interested in the book as a survival story. Not just our survival as individuals, but also survival in a larger sense, as we continue to encounter massive, late Holocene extinction of species. And especially as we enter this new, Anthropocene era, where the entire planet's survival will require that we challenge the notions of humankind's disconnection from and dominion over the natural world.

RB: Surfing definitely brought you closer to Melville’s understanding of the ocean—can you talk a little about the process, about how surfing changed your understanding of the ocean and of your internal self?

JH: I grew up in Colorado and California, so the lack of true open space in New York was definitely a shock to the system. The one true open space I found was the coast, at spots like Rockaway Beach, in Queens. As I grew increasingly disillusioned with city life, I gravitated toward Rockaway. Surfing became my solace during an otherwise difficult time. The combination of salt water and physical exertion leaves you feeling scoured out and completely at ease in the world. Melville literally spent years at sea, whereas I only dipped my toes in, so to speak. So I don't think I came anywhere close to his level of understanding of how the ocean can connect us with a sense of primal universality. Melville wasn't a starry-eyed Transcendentalist, though; he was keenly aware of nature's tremendous dark side. As things got more emotionally precarious for me, I started taking some unnecessary risks in the ocean, and eventually had my own modest yet terrifying experience of what Melville called the "sledgehammering seas."

RB: Any trepidation about calling the book a memoir? In recent years memoirs have gotten a bad rap. Does this categorization worry you at all?

JH: Not really, because all my favorite works in recent years are memoirs: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Lit by Mary Karr, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, just to name a few. These books all push hard against the traditional boundaries of memoir. They take big formal and emotional risks. I challenge anyone to read Another Bullshit Night or Chronology of Water and then try to tell me there's something inherently "wrong" or "bad" about the genre. Memoir has gotten a bad rap because every time some asshole like James Frey fabricates an entire narrative, people use it as an excuse to bash the genre as "failed journalism." But memoir is not journalism. To me, it's one of the most elastic and dynamic literary forms out there, especially when handled by writers who stretch its limits and expand our notions of what it can accomplish, both as an art form and as a vessel for deep communion between writers and readers.


Justin Hocking’s memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was published by Graywolf Press in early 2014 and was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Hocking is a recipient of the Willamette Writers' 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in publishing, writing, and teaching. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Orion Magazine, Portland Review, The Portland Noir Anthology, Poets and Writers Magazine, Swap/Concessions, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.

The White Death By Justin Hocking

Justin Hocking 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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In the posthumous afterword to the poet Charles Olson’s book Call Me Ishmael, the writer Merton Sealts describes visiting Olson in his tiny Greenwich Village office, where Olson was holed up, surrounded by old, heavily annotated copies of Moby-Dick, while finishing his doctoral dissertation on Melville. Sealts offered him a draft of one of his own essays on Melville. Olson—a great bear of a man—sat reading it, smoking his pipe, nodding in approval.

“Well,” Olson said, “I see … that … THE WHITE DEATH … has descended … upon YOU … too.”

THE WHITE DEATH. Noun—1. Simo Hayha, a Finnish sniper in the Winter War, nicknamed “White Death” by the Soviet Army. 2. A slang term used to describe incurable diseases such as Tuberculosis or AIDS. 3. Great White Shark (vernacular) 4. An all-consuming obsession with the novel Moby-Dick and the life of Herman Melville.

I contracted my own White Death back in graduate school, when I was first assigned Moby-Dick, and had to wake up at five or six a.m. to swim its immense dark waters.

In a typically droll essay, David Sedaris details how he had to force himself to get through Moby-Dick by not taking a bath until he finished. I loved Moby-Dick from the beginning, but I can sympathize with Sedaris. Melville’s language is often brilliant, pulse quickening, Shakespearean—the deeper midnight of the insatiable maw. His intensity and worldly wisdom are apparent, but so is his insecurity about his own lack of secondary education, a fact of his upbringing that he often tries to cloak with vainglorious prose or the overuse of alliteration: mingling their mumblings with his own mastications. You sometimes feel embarrassed for him, the way you do for historical interpreters or people in costume at a Renaissance fair. Or, like many Moby-Dick readers, you simply give up on him about halfway through, exasperated by long-winded tangents about the minutiae of whaling.

Not one to easily give up, though, I made it through Moby-Dick.

It’s a book about constant movement—about the relentless pursuit of passions—all things to which I can seriously relate.

I became obsessed with a book about obsession.

Searching for critical work on Melville, a couple of grad school friends and I ventured down to the fiction and literary criticism sections in the basement of the Colorado State University library. The library was flooded during a torrential rainstorm the previous year, copies of my favorites like The Odyssey and To The Lighthouse and The Shipping News tossed around and taking on muddy water, little paper vessels foundering in a storm. Though all the drowned books had been restored via irradiation, the basement still had a faint, mineral smell of floodwater.

After browsing a few stodgy critical anthologies, I discovered a title called Melville’s Moby-Dick: An American Nekyia by a Jungian analyst named Edward F. Edinger. I’ve always been fascinated by Carl Jung’s theories—with the fact that he accepted and honored spiritual experience whereas Freud denied it. In An American Nekyia, Edinger proposes the very Jungian interpretation that all the characters in Moby- Dick comprise one unified entity, that each individual crewmember is actually a different splintered archetype within the psyche of the main character—a spiritual seeker named Ishmael.

As proof, Edinger quotes from passages like the following:

They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of contrasting things—oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp—yet all these ran into each other in one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness…

The word Nekyia derives from the title of the eleventh book of The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus descends into the underworld to commune with the dead. According to Edinger, Moby-Dick is the quintessential American Nekyia—a metaphorical “night sea journey” through despair and meaninglessness, symbolizing the dark passages that we all embark on during our development as individuals and as a society. In Jungian theory, most spiritual journeys begin with a kind of universal descent into the underworld, where we come face-to-face with our own darkness, weaknesses, and fears—our shadow. Moby-Dick can be read as Ishmael’s confrontation with his own dark side, in the form of Ahab, just as most of us wrestle daily with our own dark moods and impulses, and our country reckons with its imperialistic shadow side. The clash turns bloody and violent, and Ahab’s resentful pursuit of the white whale brings down the entire ship. Only Ishmael is reborn through the wreckage; having assimilated his own shadow after this deep psychic battle, he floats upward through a spiraling whirlpool. In Jungian terms, this circular current is a mandala, an ancient symbol of wholeness and individuation.

I liked this spin on Melville’s tale—especially because a more literal analysis of Moby-Dick tends toward the melodramatic and purely tragic. The Jungian interpretation allows for darkness and shadows and tragedy, but ultimately points toward the light.

This is where it began: my own White Death, a syndrome characterized by obsessive thoughts about Moby-Dick and Herman Melville, the collecting of old volumes of the novel and the schlepping around of one or more of these volumes at almost all times, and constant talk of Moby-Dick—its brilliance and relevance to contemporary life—to anyone who’ll listen.

These early symptoms are mild compared to what manifests as the disease progresses.

{The White Dead}

Philip Weiss, contributing writer for The New York Times and confirmed Melvillian, who, in his 1996 Times article, describes how after reading Melville’s exalted letters to Hawthorne, he found himself in a sort of Melvillian dream; who, in the same article, states I had lost my own mind to Melville.

Laurie Anderson, who claims Moby-Dick is the strangest book she ever read; who hails Melville as a master of the jump cut; who spent the 1990’s creating a two-hour performance-art opera entitled Songs and Stories from Moby Dick.

Elizabeth Schultz, who admits to being obsessed with the novel; who wrote the meticulously researched Unpainted to the Last: Moby Dick and Twentieth Century American Art, a work that documents the hundreds of American visual artists who’ve attempted to paint what Melville believed could not be painted.

Junot Diaz, who quotes liberally from Moby-Dick in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; whose own literary voice mixes an ecstatic, wild style vernacular with highbrow sensibilities that can be described as Melvillian; who, in a 2012 interview with Bill Moyers, said, I had grown up in a place called Lemon Terrace, New Jersey, where the guy down the street was Uruguayan, the woman across the street was Korean, the person around the corner was Egyptian. There were Dominicans. There were African-Americans. There were white folks. And I felt like we were growing up in a tiny little Pequod . . . and when I was reading Moby-Dick, I was like, “Man, this guy really has his finger on the pulse of the America that I came up in.

David Foster Wallace, whose father read him Moby-Dick as a bedtime story; who counted Moby-Dick as one of his favorite works; who, while struggling with his own mental illness in college, wrote three essays about The Castaway section.

Jocko Weyland, who spent years writing his memoir The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World; who struggled with piecing together so many disparate personal memories, history, interviews, sketches; who was then directed to Moby-Dick, where he found the answer.

Jackson Pollock, who, according to Elizabeth Schultz, spent years in Jungian analysis, where its emphasis upon primitive archetype, myth, and symbol, prompted his interest in Moby-Dick; who executed several paintings based on the novel; who, according to Ellen Landau, may have been able to associate Ahab’s search for the great white whale with what Jung called the Nekyia, or night sea journey; who himself spoke of the American chiaroscuro which dominated Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe; who hoped to replicate this contrasting light and dark in his own work.

Sena Jeter Naslund, who grew fascinated with the book at age thirteen; who, decades later, spent more than five years researching, writing, and revising the stunning, 666 page novel Ahab’s Wife.

Damion Searls, who, after learning of Orion Press’s recent abridgement of Moby-Dick into a Compact Edition for the overly busy or impatient reader, decided to trace every item excised by Orion’s anonymous editor, down to the last semicolon, and publish this 400 page demi-book called ; or the Whale in a special edition of the Review of Contemporary Fiction; who did this to preserve and celebrate the original novel’s digression, texture, and weirdness.

Tony Kushner, who became obsessed with Moby-Dick in grad school; who claims the novel is the single most important influence on his work, including the second act of Angels in America; who is quoted in the New York Times as saying One falls in love with him, and I certainly have, completely, as most of the other Melville freaks have; who learned from Melville that it’s better to risk total catastrophe than to play it safe as an artist.

Frank Stella, who spent twelve years creating over 1,500 abstract sculptures, collages, murals, paintings, engravings, and prints, each titled after Moby-Dick chapters; who claims that this obsession nearly destroyed him; who felt abstraction was the most effective way of representing the novel, that it mirrors Melville’s drive to express the raw, ineffable powers of nature.

Salman Rushdie, who claims Melville as a literary parent in his polyglot family tree; whose novel The Enchantress of Florence features a seafaring main character and a maximalist narrative style reminiscent of Moby-Dick.

Orson Welles, who played Father Mapple in John Huston’s black-and-white film version of Moby-Dick; who wrote and directed a play called Moby-Dick Rehearsed that was performed in London in 1955; who apparently made a film version of the play that is now lost; who later made another twenty-two minute film in which he enacts scenes from the production, playing all the parts himself—Ishmael and Ahab—while footage of rippling water projects on his face and the wall behind him.

Andrew Delbanco, who wrote the definitive biography Melville: His World and Work; who claims that Moby-Dick was not a book for a particular moment. It is a book for the ages; that Melville experienced the great city as every true New Yorker has always experienced it—with a combustible combination of love and hate; that Moby-Dick is the story of a young man’s rebirth.

Gilbert Wilson, who, during the mid-20th century created over three hundred paintings and drawings related to Moby-Dick; who became obsessed with the idea that the White Whale was a potent symbol for the destructive power of the nuclear bomb; who tried and failed to stage an opera called The White Whale, which he hoped would promote world peace.

Barry Lopez, who read the book three times before college, while living in New York City; who cites Moby-Dick as one of the main inspirations in his drive to render in writing both the light and dark aspects of the natural world.

Richard Serra, who grew up near the shipyards in San Francisco’s Ocean Beach neighborhood; whose monolithic steel sculptures are influenced by the process of shipbuilding; who made a famous piece entitled Call Me Ishmael; who said Moby-Dick has become America’s central epic poem. We are all influenced by it.

Dan Beachy-Quick, who created A Whaler’s Dictionary, a collection of essays about Moby-Dick, where he writes, What follows is the result of the mad task I found within myself after more than a decade spent reading the same novel. I meant not to exhaust Moby-Dick of meaning, but to exhaust myself of the meaning I found in it.

John Updike, who was a lifelong admirer of Melville’s novels and stories; who, in a 1982 New Yorker article, explained that despite Melville’s failure as a novelist and a life filled with personal tragedy, he never quit writing, not until his death.

Hershel Parker, who apparently wakes up in the middle of the night to pour over Melville’s personal letters; who wrote the seminal two-volume work Herman Melville: A Biography, each volume weighing in at 941 pages.

Elizabeth Renker, who cried as she read from Moby-Dick at her own wedding; who loves Melville’s work but not necessarily Melville the man; who writes openly of his alleged misogyny, alcoholism, and domestic abuse of his wife.

Adrian Villar Rojas, who created a nearly life-size, impaled white whale from unfired clay at a Moby Dick–themed art show at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco.

David Dowling, who documents his participation in a twenty-four-hour marathon Moby-Dick reading in his book Chasing the White Whale; who writes, If we are up to the challenge of endurance that the novel poses, especially as it is read in the marathon format, great rewards not only of survival but also of exultation are in order.

Nathaniel Philbrick, who in his book Why Read Moby-Dick? states that This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this general stoicism in the face of such a short, ridiculous and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick; that it’s the one book that deserves to be called our American Bible.

David Shields, who in Reality Hunger writes The Novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps; who prizes Moby-Dick as a prototypical anti-novel; who, in How Literature Saved My Life, lists Moby-Dick as one of fifty works he swears by.

Matt Kish, who, on August 5, 2009, began making one drawing a day, every day, for all 552 pages of his version of Moby-Dick; whose work was later published in a book entitled Moby-Dick in Pictures.

Margaret Guroff, who created a copiously annotated, online version called Power Moby-Dick.

Nick Flynn, who loosely based the structure of his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City on Moby-Dick; who writes in the final chapter, We know [Ahab] lost his leg, and that that loss became a story, and the story became the obsession that in the end defined, and ended his life. We have to be careful of the stories we tell about ourselves.

Hart Crane, who wrote the poem “At Melville’s Tomb;” who ended his poem with the line The Fabulous shadow only the sea keeps; who later drowned himself in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

This is an excerpt from his memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld.


Justin Hocking’s memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was published by Graywolf Press in early 2014 and was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Hocking is a recipient of the Willamette Writers' 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in publishing, writing, and teaching. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Orion Magazine, Portland Review, The Portland Noir Anthology, Poets and Writers Magazine, Swap/Concessions, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.

"The White Death" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 7, Issue One

 

Photo on Foter.com

 

 

Communication Breakdowns By Elena Passarello

Elena Passarello 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 she 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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By Elena Passarello

Well, what I'm not is a rock star and uh, you know, some people think I am. —Howard Dean

In order to energize the town hall meetings, rallies, and fundraisers that stretch a contemporary presidential bid to well over a year in length, American politicians have become increasingly reliant on the campaign rock ditty. Nearly all recent races for Chief Executive have employed rousing soundtracks with lots of power chords and blunt drumming, all used to motivate their voter bases in a fist-pumping, BIC-in-the-air sort of way. John Kerry chose Van Halen's “Right Now.” Al Gore opted for Bachman Turner Overdrive. George W. Bush played a Tom Petty song for a bit of his reelection campaign and Michelle Bachman used Petty's “American Girl” for a few months, but both quit their songs after Petty threatened litigation. And poor John McCain was first discouraged from using an ABBA song, and then outright denied the right to tunes by John Mellencamp, Boston, Van Halen, Jackson Browne, and Heart before commissioning a Top 40 country star to write the totally awesome “Raisin' McCain.”

To me, classic rock choices say that, along with the increased volume of appearances in a contemporary political bid, there must also be an uptick in aural volume—a post-baby boom expectation of our candidates to take their shtick up to eleven. We expect sonic vigor from someone who promises change. We expect Reveille and bombast. We expect jock jams.

And, judging from the vocals in many of these songs, we may also expect a fair amount of yelling. Mellencamp, Sammy Hagar, and Bruce Springsteen (the Boss's songs have been used in the past six elections) are all examples of the vocal style that permeated post-Woodstock rock in the 1970's and 80's—an odd mix of acrobatic crooning and the harsher yells of old blues. Even PBS can explain how such loud and dangerous singing juices us, and how it has done so in bulk for a half-century. We thrill to Springsteen and his laryngeal brethren because their performances wrestle down a product of the body meant to remain unbridled: the uncontrollable scream.

Screamed rock melodies work the outskirts of the voice, bringing an outré sound to an artful place. In classic rock, the ability to hold tight to a beastly scream—to best it despite our biology— is to have unwarranted control over the tones we traditionally reserve for involuntary rage or horrible behavior. This is what made screams the voice of swampy double entendre, of Stagger Lee, of bong hits, of “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.” So it is somewhat surprising that we've also allowed rock screams into the dictatorial hype-church surrounding Your Next President.

Let us not forget, too, that the most celebrated rock screams came from bodies that belong to the same subgeneration as our recent front-runners (and their most moneyed supporters). Sammy Hagar was born the same year as Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. Rick Perry is seven months older than Tom Petty. Had he attended Cleveland's St. John Cantius High, Bon Scott would have marched with a class of '64 that included Dennis Kucinich. As young men and women, these musicians and politicians must have, in some way, shared a distant context of noisy vocal expression, whether or not they ever scored tickets to a Captain Beefheart show. Whether they like it or not, these men and women are all members of a sort of Screaming Baby Boom.

Plus, in a world of flag pins and $100-a-plate dinners, a hot, ham-fisted rock scream provides a service. The screams of Springsteen, Daltrey, and Scott are aural palate cleansers—blunt sorbets to cut through a two-hour bout of heavy rhetoric. This is because no candidate's words can rile a Carbondale gym like the canned scream of a rock god, especially if the candidate of the hour lacks verbal dynamism (paging Gore, Kerry, Huntsman). Though humans are significantly less-attuned to sound than other animals are, we still experience multipronged arousal in the presence of loud noises, especially the noises of our own species. I'm talking about that shot of norepinephrine that drips all over the cerebral cortex, heightening the senses in the presence of a human scream. Elsewhere in the body, it sends a jolt of adrenaline to quicken the heart and tense major muscles, prepping them for a sprint across the veld away from danger. This hardwiring is what allows dank rock vocalise to connect political agendas with heightened sensory experiences, with socks in the trousers, and, of course, with cool.

What's more, a rock scream that once topped the charts is familiar to us. It might even come off as weirdly trustable to a broad chunk of the voting public. A killer scream from a 70's rock god could sound like a venerable statesman's endorsement of a new and unproven candidate. And in this way, these rock screams serve as a badass Cyrano: by-proxy pleas from the stuffed shirt who skipped Altamont to attend the Alameda County Policeman's Ball. Crank The Stooges in a Muskegon rally, and Iggy himself will tell the crowd that this candidate, along with wanting to exact campaign finance reform, also wants to be our dog.

All these associations, however, must work the crowd subliminally or at least at an absolutely crucial remove. No matter how much Hendrix you add to your Town Hall playlist, a candidate and his or her handlers cannot allow a scream to come from the Town Hall stage. Mike Huckabee can play Skynyrd on bass and Bill Clinton can wow Arsenio with his “Heartbreak Hotel” sax skills, but neither man should ever consider opening his mouth to offer a take on the perfect scream in “Won't Get Fooled Again.” Those candidates who dare to take their voices into rock-marked territory face a gauntlet of scrutiny. The most memorable example of this is, of course, Howard Dean.

Aside from the scores of classic rock standards piped into its debates and rallies, 2004 was a fairly low-decibel race. Many noted Kerry's Como-like delivery and droning parallel structures, and Edwards's entire shtick was essentially his honey twang, which he kept at a grinning, almost breathy distance from the listener. Al Sharpton was the only true vocalist of the stable of Dems, though his oratory skills snagged fewer and fewer sound bites as his campaign waned. Only two loud moments made big headlines: Democratic Senator Zell Miller's rabid invective at the Republican National Convention and Howard Dean's rant to a thousand of his own “Deaniac” volunteers on the evening of January 19.

Howard Brush Dean III was born in 1948, the exact same year as Vincent Damon Furnier (who would become Alice Cooper), Stephen Victor Tallarico (soon to be Steven Tyler), John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne, and the greatest of all rock screamers, Robert Anthony Plant. Dean's own multiplatinum recording came in the fifty-sixth year of these five men, long after Plant had defected to bluegrass, Cooper had opened a sports bar, and Osbourne was a reality TV dad. By 2004, only Tyler still screamed in public, with the help of several corrective surgeries and a nearly operatic level of vocal instruction.

Maybe a Dean scream would have been celebrated had he made it as a younger man, in the style of the rest of the 1948 quintet. Maybe he should have done it shirtless and hopped-up on 'ludes in a Capitol recording studio. Perhaps listeners might have embraced his scream in the Iowa Veterans Memorial Stadium after he bit the head off a bat, like Ozzy did in 1982. In fact, Dean's scream did ring just five miles from Iowa Veterans Memorial, but it came two decades later than Ozzy, in a universe with its own specific sonic laws: the laws of caucus night, the laws of a third-place finish behind Kerry and Edwards, and the laws of netting just eighteen percent of the party vote.

We've all seen the Dean clip, shot from the vantage of the news cameras behind the crowd of West Des Moines's Val Air Ballroom. Shortly after “Baba O'Riley” (in which Roger Daltrey screams, “THEY'RE ALL WASTED!”) rattles the PA, Dean takes the stage. He crosses past a line of key Iowa campaigners who stand shoulder-to-shoulder: a makeshift backdrop of awkward white people. He shakes hands and hugs a few members of the backdrop, offers one dude a very enthusiastic, very high five. He hands his jacket to Iowa senator Tom Harkin and speedily cuffs his shirtsleeves, and then he takes a deceptively measured breath.

“Wow,” he croaks, gently waving his open palm over the audience like a pontiff. “I was about to say, I'm sure there's some disappointed people here, but you know something? You know something? If you woulda told us a year ago that we were gonna come in third in Iowa, we woulda given anything for that.”

Dean's larynx, like most modern candidates', was surely unaccustomed to the poisons of nonstop campaigning: contaminated motorcades, overheated Sheratons, bitter Iowa air, and exponentially more hours spent speaking than sleeping. Thus, his tones are noticeably belabored in these first sentences. But just as he seems uninterested in admitting his unexpected caucus defeat, he also refuses to accommodate his wounded cords with lowered intensity. There's a new push in his voice when he continues: “And you know something? You know something?” A crescendo of yells comes from the crowd.

Here he begins an oft-repeated list of states in the union with upcoming primaries, rising a bit in pitch and fervor with each one: “Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico!”

Hundreds of supporters in front of and behind him are yelling his name, perhaps even screaming a bit. Some people interviewed after the fact remember yelling “More!” but those prompts are not audible in the clip. We do hear the stomping of the carpet and a dozen random cheers. We see various hands, some of them applauding, some holding glass bottles like torches.

Dean's hands count down the states, first on his right thumb, then on the whole hand, then with his arms swinging in rhythm with the names of the final three: “And we're going to California and Texas and New York . . . and we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan!”

He playfully tosses the microphone back and forth from each hand. It's a unidirectional mic, meaning its reservoir is designed to trap his voice and not much else for the clearest possible broadcast. That mic ignores the crowd and shoots Dean's roll of state names straight to the cameras in the back. By now, Dean's voice is hard and low and wet in his throat, a loud growl matched by pointed brows, bared teeth, and a squint. His use of the simple future tense, combined with this grimace and rasp, makes Dean seem like a pro wrestler clad in Brooks Brothers, talking ringside smack. What's more, though the distance from which the clip was filmed makes it difficult to confirm, his diaphragm appears to contract with sharp, forceful breaths after naming each of the last three states. This extra air allows even more juice for his Hulk Hogan tones.

He gulps air once more before the “and” of his final phrase: “and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House!” Here is a rise into a question-mark pitch for the last word, then a fist lifted just behind his head. He holds a pose here, like a Maneki Neko Luck Cat, or a slot machine before a pull. Then Dean pauses. He doesn't inhale. He might even begin an exhale on that pause, stopping the more righteous circle of breath and limiting his respiratory power, which could explain why the final sound of his monologue gets away from him. From there, with his lungs, lips, and larynx in their most politically incorrect positions, Dean makes the sound we care most about, the hostile mutation of a “Yeah!” cheer that many blame for the death of his election hopes.

It is a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note down two full octaves to a flat, guttural trough, as long as a slide down sixteen keys of a baby grand. It is the sound of a Muppet, or a baby in tantrum, or a bike horn half-squeezed. Or, rather, it is all three sounds at different milliseconds, smooshed. It meets his unbuttoned collar and the sloshing bottles and the fibers in that long mic cord and the tone of the Val Air HVAC to make a unique recorded moment—an electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing.

Two-and-a-half years after caucus night, the scream still a rogue part of our various lexica, Comedian Dave Chappelle christened it the delicious and onomatopoetic “BYAH!” in a comedy skit. This name has welded itself to the clip and, in some respects, to the man, ever since.

Though the website was created sixteen months after Dean withdrew, YouTube is now hundreds of “BYAH!” strong, and these hundreds of videos have collectively accumulated millions of hits and hundreds of thousands of comments. There, nearly a decade after Dean's loud night in West Des Moines, we can access the “BYAH!” both as the mic recorded it and from the more forgiving perspective of an amateur cameraman in the center of the crowd. At that sonic spot, Dean's scream is barely audible among the thousand screaming voices.

A little YouTube window-shopping reveals that we can hear a quarter-speed “BYAH!” forward and backward on a ten-minute loop. We can watch stills of howling moose, fighting zebras, dramatic prairie dogs, and Edvard Munch's screamer with multiple “BYAH!” as their underscores. We can see a bald infant mime a spot-on “BYAH!” We can learn a club dance to Soulja Boy's “Superman” that mixes Chappelle's 2006 “BYAH!” and Dean's 2004 arm gestures. We can pit the '04 “Dean Scream” against the '08 “Hillary Cackle.” We hook in “Apache” or the bass line in “Boogie Oogie Oogie” —is ripe for sampling.

The bandy of Dean's scream are a flat F in the high register—the same lofty pitch Robert Plant finds at minute 2:09 and 2:11 of “Communication Breakdown.” This song, one of Zeppelin's dozen laments to coy mistresses and the blue balls they elicit, features Plant's F during the wordless outro; it is the “WHOA” in his “uh-WHOA-oh!” This is the highest and loudest pitch of the song, and it rises above his established falsetto, above the thrumming rhythm section, above the guitar and the teasing call of the background voices, to ride like a war whoop straight out of the track. Plant's F, as pitch-perfect as any rock scream needs to be, finishes with a drop down to a solid high D, then defiantly repeats—a double backflip of sex and longing that nails its ten-point landing, twice.

In the context of the song, it proves one of two things: either that Plant's character leaves “Communication Breakdown” even more determined to get into the pants of his woman, or that he has actually been driven “insane” by this broken-down communication and now is running away, screaming, to go jump off a levee or something. There is a contradiction between Plant's lament—that he can't communicate with the woman he wants—and the two-by-four of bedroom logic bursting from that F-note. That contradiction between the lyric and the sound his body makes is one of the sexiest parts of the song.

Dean's F is wobbly and much less sustained than any of Plant's recorded high notes, and it sounds as if it tickles his false vocal cords, which would make it a more legitimate scream than a part of any sung melody could be. But the “BYAH!” and “Communication Breakdown” Fs are still somehow sonic kin, for a few weird reasons. Both carry a compelling tension within them: these are not the glittery, sky-written Fs of a lyric soprano. The strained energy of these Fs excites and annoys the ear, like a child's spastic Christmas morning cries buzzing the calmer adults around the tree.

What's more, these are not the unplanned yells of men unexpectedly pinned by tractors, or chased by cheetahs, or watching the Hindenburg explode. We know Dean and Plant have worked themselves into their particular frenzies, and that both “uh-WHOA-oh!” and “BYAH!” are conscious decisions to dig deep, to go big, and to make highly emotional sounds for a rapt group.

Finally, both bright sounds push away any surrounding noises, assuring that no other tones can blend into them, and this makes the screams stick out in our consciousness. Obviously, microphones emphasize this, but even when mashed up into the alternate Internet landscapes mentioned before, the pitch and timbre of Dean's “BYAH!” stand alone, like a sharp lead vocal in a thrash metal mix. Like so many of Plant's noises, Dean's Val Air F is a lone-wolf note that both pops and begs for travel.

These are the elements that made Dick Bennett of the American Research Group note, in the days that followed the “BYAH!” that “that thing has legs.” We can't experience culture- jammed oddities—be they euphonious, silly, or both—just once. We find ourselves reaching out to see if the rest of the world also finds them odd. As with a two-headed calf or third nipple, there is a kind of glee in collecting a leggy note and then revisiting it. That second listen somehow grants us ownership, license to open the curio cabinet again and again, just to see if the pull of the sound is still there—and if it is still just as weird. We laugh selfishly to find out that it remains in our power. Each reappropriated Dean clip we visit pushes his voice further into our imaginations, light years away from that ballroom, which was the only space in which the “BYAH” ever had a chance of making sense.

But here is where Dean and Plant differ: one man's sound was added to an arsenal of awesome rock alarums, while the other man's scream became a dangerous metonym for his entire voice, then body, then self. Those 600- plus replays didn't just kill the 2004 Dean campaign; for a little while they erased Dean the man. Though his approval rating was already slipping over the course of caucus week, by the time he left Iowa to head for New Hampshire, it had dropped over twenty percent, which many blame on the “BYAH!”

In the week between the scream and the New Hampshire primary, voices from both sides of the aisle marked the sound as a death knell. According to Pat Buchanan, “Dean's Iowa defeat was a real setback to him, but his postgame commentary was a disaster. That tape will be on every national talk show, and I don't think it's survivable.” After a tour of several New Hampshire campaign events, Democratic strategist James Carville concurred that “it hurt him,” and Leon Panetta explained, “When the country sees that kind of reaction, it makes them nervous because they're looking at a potential president of the United States.” TIME called the “bizarre performance” a chance to hear “the sound of a candidate imploding,” while Dick Meyer said that, to many, it unveiled the true voice of Dean as “a hothead, a bully, a chesty, argumentative, inflated, pushy guy you wouldn't want in your poker game.” This, says David Bauder of the Associated Press, “turned the former Democratic presidential front-runner into a punch line and arguably hastened his campaign's free fall.”

This is not to say that the “BYAH” only spoke to us as a wild meme. Many think that it led listeners to a practical judgment: something about Dean did not compute. Right before the New Hampshire primary, Byron York of the National Review said Dean's “redfaced, shouting, teeth-baring, air-punching demeanor” indicated some serious character flaws. A New Hampshire pollster-blogger agreed, noting that the scream “kind of crystallize[d] people's fears about Dean—the electability and temperament issues.” And after Dean garnered only a quarter of the New Hampshire turnout, David Letterman quipped that voters, in a bit of Sarah Palin reverse-prophecy, “didn't want a president with the personality of a hockey dad.”

Both CNN and CBS released statements admitting to overplaying the “BYAH!” and even those that did not formally apologize confessed to amping the hype. Their excuse was that the scream was newsworthy; it exposed a hotheaded emotional center that Dean had spent months trying to mask. That exposure multiplied because, to quote an ABC News Senior Vice President, “the amount of attention it was receiving necessitated more attention.” They then cited Dean's earlier trail gaffes and smatterings of colorful language as just cause. We were informed that all of America was—all of us were—nervous. We sensed what a few writers called Dean's hidden “mad How” disease, his secret short fuse. The TV buzz told us that the yell contradicted what a candidate's persona should be and insisted that we were shocked to see such a display of unbridled anger.

But perhaps we should give our ears more credit than they did.

For starters, voters don't necessarily consider fired-up noises to be non-presidential. A 2007 CBS News poll found that 57 percent of Americans would elect a president with a reputed temper. Political journalist John Dickerson notes that Nixon's, Johnson's, and Kennedy's White House tapes are all full of ranting and profanities, which historians treasure in hindsight, even though few invectives were ever uttered in earshot of the nation. What's more, in 2010, reporters and commentators balked at Obama's even-toned response to the BP oil spill, saying the president wasn't acting angry enough to satisfy the American people. So, apparently, the commanders of our armed forces are all but expected to have a war cry within them. Maybe not a fifth-octave F war cry, but some loud, angry noise.

Dickerson adds that presidents are especially allowed to erupt in public before they take office, especially at the beginning of primary season. This was the case with Reagan's 1980 outburst in New Hampshire (“I AM PAYING FOR THIS MICROPHONE, MISTER GREEN!”) and Clinton's heated 1992 speech in a New York supper club (“I have treated you and all of the other people who have interrupted my rallies with a hell of a lot more respect than you have treated me, and it's time you started thinking about THAT!”). Both these yells garnered applause from their audiences and spurred only minor backlashes.

Further, though we never got the chance to see him hide his rage in office, John McCain ran two entire campaigns on a loud and angry line. The 2000 and 2008 McCains were slow-burn brutes whose frustration with Washington's bullshit were jackhammered into his furrowed brow. McCain went on Saturday Night Live and parodied his trademark anger in skits about Barbra Streisand and Tim Russert, to the delight of the late-night audience. So if the “BYAH!” told us Dean was angry about his surprise loss in Iowa, or that his fight back to first place would be fueled by rage, there is precedent that this should not bother us. History suggests Dean wouldn't be completely counted out just for sounding fierce.

But let us not forget that Dean took that stage in West Des Moines to give a small concession. He was up there to admit that, yes, a week before, he was slated for an easy caucus win, and yes, for over six months he had been the front runner for the Democratic party, but now he was in third place. Yes, the day before he made a few stops in Iowa to venues in which the campaign staff outnumbered the constituents. And sure, twenty-four hours before the Val Air Ballroom, writer Walter Shapiro had already compared him to “an aging rock star reduced to reprising his greatest hits in smaller and smaller clubs.” And he had to admit that he'd spent at least $45 million dollars, nearly half of which came from tiny online pledges, to get to these Iowa clubs. And yes, a half million people had rallied behind this man with no national political experience, 3,500 of them quitting their jobs or leaving school to knock on doors in key caucus cities. And he had to own up to the fact that his gaffes, paired with his antiwar, repeal-the-taxcuts stances, trumped all that human sweat. Collectively, they made him appear so easy to defeat that the National Review put his face on their cover with the headline “Please Nominate This Man.”

He was too vulnerable, and as he rolled up his sleeves and hugged Tom Harkin, maybe that fact was finally heavy in his gut, lungs, and throat. Maybe that scream was part of the acknowledgment that even Dean had seen the buttons— “dated Dean, married Kerry” —in Des Moines, Mason City, Ottumwa, and Cedar Falls. Dean himself told Diane Sawyer, “I say things that I probably ought not to say, but I lead with my heart, and that's what I was doing right there, leading with my heart.” Maybe this little piece of his heart jumped into his lungs, past the trachea, and out the bared slot of his mouth, only to contradict the rally cry he'd spoken immediately before it. This, I think, is what we heard.

This is not to say that we heard the contradiction between his triumphant monologue and the conciliatory “BYAH!” and then voted him out for being dishonest. America understands that a president can't always tell the whole truth, and studies show that, as long as they aren't lying about voluptuous interns or campaign spies, we're cool with it. According to a 2010 CNN poll, seventy-four percent of Americans think George Washington probably lied to his constituency, and over two thirds of the country think even Lincoln lied (albeit for the good of his country's citizens). Besides, what good coach wouldn't be forgiven for an exaggerated speech, maybe even a little “Eye of the Tiger,” after losing the first game of a big season?

Maybe what we heard in the sound is that it was over, that Dean's body had admitted defeat before his brain did. The “BYAH!” let us know that that was it, and we should now just go home and get on our computers or something. Dean's will or reason could fight it, but the parts of him that made the “BYAH!” are louder than will or reason—and older than microphones, or Hardball, or oxford shirts, or health care, or even Tom Harkin. They are older than speech. They are at least as old as the practice of yelling to a drum beat.

On January 19, we heard Dean's body tell us that we were not going to go to California or Connecticut or Georgia or Maryland or Massachusetts or Ohio or Rhode Island or Minnesota or to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. Instead, we heard that we were going to board a plane to Portsmouth and land in a frozen hangar filled with 500 Yankee Deaniacs who were just like us. Someone was going to find the perfect jock jam for that New Hampshire predawn—it ended up being Tom Petty's “Won't Back Down”—but the 56-year-old body that took the stage, grooving a little to Tom Petty's measured, middle-aged baritone, was not going to scream out of the track like a rock star.

We could hear that, in four weeks—before Super Tuesday, even—we would see him stop moving. And that two months from then, he would endorse John Kerry, then campaign to chair the Democratic National Committee. And that in seven years, he would still be on our televisions, but we would only be able to see his head and shoulders, his wild arms and body cut out of the frame like Elvis's were on Sullivan. His tie would be knotted, and he would glare at us head on, surrounded by tweets and text boxes and stock tickers. He would join the machine that shamed him, now talking politics and YouTube clips on a cable news show. And that the show would be called Squawk Box.


Elena Passarello is the author of Let Me Clear My Throat. Her essays have appeared in Sonora Review, BETTER, and Passages North, Creative Nonfiction, Slate, Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, as well as the music writing anthology Pop When the World Falls Apart. She is an MFA graduate of the University of Iowa, an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University, and the first female winner of the Stella! Shout Out screaming contest in New Orleans.