It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Chris Thiem, a.k.a. Birdman and Funk Lord of Blue Earth County, is my former high school English teacher, long-time friend, and a long-time good, horrible, pagan, hippie, bad, socialist, positive influence on me. He was born in 1950, raised in Mankato, graduated from the University of Montana in Humanities, and returned to Mankato to teach. Except for annual summer drifting throughout the West, he has been steeped in Catholic education ever since. Now Chris Thiem, who once ran (before his knees ran out on him) a 1:51 800 meters, tells it like it is for the Proust Questionnaire:

What is your present state of mind?

That of a man who has escaped.

What is your idea of happiness?

Time to work on my journal, receiving mail, and going birding.

Who are your favorite fictional characters?

Sal Paradise, Queequeg, and Francis Crawford of Lymond.

Who are your favorite people in history?

Artists, explorers, and naturalists.

Your favorite artist?

Joseph Cornell.

Your favorite musician?

Bob Dylan.

The quality you most admire in a man?

Saying the unexpected.

The quality you most admire in a woman?

Compassion and cooking.

What do you most value in your friends?

Spontaneity and a willingness to go on meaningless quests.

Your favorite way to spend time?

Wandering, reading, answering the mail, and drinking coffee.

Your most marked characteristic?

Daydreaming and indolence.

What is your principle defect?

Lack of ambition.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Conservative Christians.

Where would you like to live?

Near the sea.

What is your favorite color?

Faded blue.

Your favorite flower?

The Trillium.

What is your favorite bird?

Out of the 1100 birds on my life list you expect me to choose ONE?! They are all miracles, right down to the starlings with their weird inter-galactic voices!

Who are your favorite prose writers?

Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Shakespeare.

Your favorite poets?

Keats, Dylan, and Jack Gilbert.

What are your favorite names?

The names of women.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?

The ability to fly.

How would you like to die?

As a sacrificial offering.

Who/what do you want to come back as in your next life?

A Wandering Albatross.

What is your motto?

Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.

You Have Given Me the Light

Across the decades, dozens of interviewers have tried to get a grasp on the source of Bob Dylan’s far-out creativity, his lyrics, music, poetry, and his art. The guy is at once tender, topical, absurd, romantic, and profound. Everyone wants to know what his influences are, who he reads, who he talks to, listens to, and who he admires. Whether or not he’s always walking around out of his mind with inspiration.

In her 1978 Rock Express interview with Dylan, Karen Hughes, still looking for a satisfying clue to explain his breadth and depth, asks him, “Do you find that most things come from within?” and Dylan, in one of his usual wandering-shaman moods, simply replies, “Most things come from taking chances.”

Dylan’s philosophy comes up now and then at our Open Voices writing group. We admire writers who take chances with their work. We admire how they explore a difficult subject, try a new vantage point, a new style or genre.

I recently saw my old friend Bart Sutter at the Laurel Poetry Collective Reading, giving his hearty applause to every poet standing at the microphone. He would agree that Dylan takes a lot more chances than the average bloke, but Bart has flung himself into many a new territory with his own writing. He’s an essayist, poet, short-story writer, and playwright. He is the only author to win a Minnesota Book Award in three separate categories.

Wait a minute here.

Some of us mere mortals may not be ready to take the chances Bart or Dylan do. Not this red-hot minute anyway. Shoot, most of the members in my writing group won’t even take a chance and sit in a different chair when we meet. They gotta sit in the same spot month after month. I like murder mysteries and poetry, but I can’t even fathom where I chucked the car keys last night never mind suddenly conjuring up the inspiration to write Bovine Hoof Trimming for Dummies or something, and I certainly don’t hear myself saying, whoa. I feel a screenplay coming on.

As writers, however, I do think we are always taking the chance–regardless of where we are with our writing–that readers will not dismiss our words but be moved by them, and that we’ll reveal a truth or two as Bart does in his poem,

ROCHESTER

My senior year we did Jane Eyre.
Rita Johannsen was Jane,
And I was Rochester.

The way the story goes
I’ve got this crazy wife,
And I keep her locked away
In a distant wing of the house
Because I’m rich as hell.
In the end she burns the house
And burns herself, as well.
That’s how I get to be blind
And marry the governess.

Of all the lines I memorized
I only remember one.
It’s at the end, I’m blind,
And I turn to Jane and say:
“You have given me the light.”
Blackout. Pause.
Thunderous applause.

When I think about it now, I feel
Rochester was cheated, kind of
Castrated, you know? I mean
At first he’s sort of ornery
And makes these sharp remarks,
But in the end he’s whipped
And tied up with his governess.

The audience just loved it,
The way that he was tamed.
I get so mad to think of it
That I’ve thought up
This version of my own
In which, I call it Rochester,
What happens is Jane Eyre
Dies of influenza. Rochester
Is forced to learn to love his ugly wife,
And they’re unhappy ever after

Because women think we’re dumb.
They think we can’t feel anything.

They think that we can’t see
The sneaky way they run things.
But I can see, and I
Don’t hesitate to lie. Say
Some woman lights my cigarette?
I’ll use that line, I’ll tell her:
“You have given me the light.”
She laughs but half believes it,
And half is good enough.

Or say she wonders how she looks,
And I see grey and wrinkles
And feel for both of us.
You think I tell her that?
I tell her: “You
Just look terrific.”

They like to think we’re blind.
That audience believed I was
When I was Rochester,
But I was just pretending,
And they were in the dark,
Applauding and applauding.

This was years ago,
But I can close my eyes
And still see everything:
My parents, sitting separately,
The faces of my friends.
I’m Rochester,
And Rochester sees everything:
Rita’s mouth and teeth,
Delicious little ears,
And how the silver sweat runs
Trickling down her neck.

***

Bart will be reading from his new poetry collection, The Reindeer Camps Friday, June 1st, 7pm at the Loft.

Quote of the Hour

“When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”

― Maya Angelou

Poem of the Hour

GRAVY

by Raymond Carver

No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”

Quote of the Hour

“If I could come back again in a different life, a different time and all, you know what? I’d like to come back as a knight. You were pretty safe wearing all that armor. It was all right being a knight until gunpowder and muskets and pistols came along.”

–Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Poem of the Hour

Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)

By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Constantly risking absurdity
                                             and death
            whenever he performs
                                        above the heads
                                                            of his audience
   the poet like an acrobat
                                 climbs on rime
                                          to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                               to the other side of day
    performing entrechats
                               and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                               and all without mistaking
                     any thing
                               for what it may not be

 

       For he’s the super realist
                                     who must perforce perceive
                   taut truth
                                 before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
                                  toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                     with gravity
                                                to start her death-defying leap

 

      And he
             a little charleychaplin man
                                           who may or may not catch
               her fair eternal form
                                     spreadeagled in the empty air
                  of existence

Twin Cities Book Festival Fun for Everyone

Especially for me as a volunteer. Last month I blogged about the Literary Punch Card and how MN book publishers, The Loft, and booksellers were doing their part to keep our literary community thriving, and I also mentioned the importance of everyone contributing as best we can, in any way we can.

I volunteered to work at the Information Desk at the 11th annual Book Festival hosted by Rain Taxi Review of Books, which took place at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College this past Saturday. Other than the occasional yo-yo hailing down on my head from the kids’ section upstairs, it was a lot of fun. I mean, what’s not to like about a place full of books and book lovers:

The all-day, free-admission book fair featured authors, booksellers, magazines, publishers, librarians, prizes,  author panels, readings, presentations, writer opportunities, and of course, books, books, and more books.

Eric Lorberer,  the festival director and Scott Parker, the volunteer coordinator worked with nonstop enthusiasm and were so busy all day they were nothing but blurs, otherwise I would have taken their pictures, too.

Hi ya, David!

At the Information Desk all I had to do was answer people’s questions and point them in the direction they wanted to go. I enjoyed meeting readers and writers, authors, and seeing friends. It was fun being a part of something so vibrant, so important. I loved every minute of it. I hope others will consider volunteering their time at the book festival next year. It’s easy to sign up. Just go to the Rain Taxi website and under the Twin Cities Book Festival section, click on the word volunteer.

To thank me for my time, I got a wonderful gift bag filled with books, magazines, coupons, a museum pass, and stationery. Many thanks to the other volunteers for making the day great, and especially to Mr. Parker and Mr. Lorberer for all that you do.

Asides:

to the gentleman who left his writing journal by me after rearranging his backpack: I did not look in or read any part of your journal. I swear.

to the guy who lost half his bike light: no, it was never turned in. Hope you made it safely home in the dark.

to Paul Metsa: the answer is, sometimes.

to the woman looking for the diabetes expo: hope you found it

and to the security guard whose knees I took out with the flatbed book cart during cleanup: again, so sorry! those things were really hard to steer.

Quote of the Hour

“Crows are bored. They suffer from being too intelligent for their station in life. Respectable evolutionary success is simply not, for these brainy and complex birds, enough. They are dissatisfied with the narrow goals and horizons of that tired old Darwinian struggle. On the lookout for a new challenge. Keep that in mind next time you run into a crow. Look the bird in the eye. Consider its frustrations. Try to say something stimulating.”

–David Quammen, Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature