Wednesday, March 31, 2010
This is a decidedly dramatic, narrative poem that nevertheless buries it's story. Before getting to some of the poem's myriad subtleties, it would help to identify some of the broad outlines of the narrative. I am taking some liberties here, but this is what I see as the basis of what is going on.
1. We begin with the narrator and at least one companion traveling. They come to a valley, but the closer they get to it the more it becomes clear that it is a precipice with exposed rock stratum.
2.One of the traveler's keeps uttering a pessimistic phrase, apparently having received a great, gaping psychic wound.
3. The first section ends with a sort of religious rite, with altars, horns, flutes, and drums. This seems to be the conclusion of that: "Edge be my birthright." The ritual reveals that we are all always already at the precipice, on the edge of time, on the edge of one culture relative to another, and in our decisions creating an ever changing culture.
4. The next stanza begins halfway down the next page and below a horizontal line, meaning that it has the status of both a stanza and a poem within a poem. Again, they are traveling. Apparently, on a rope bridge beyond a ledge and across a gorge. It creates vertigo. The word "home" becomes relative, and seems to be only the ledge at the other end of the bridge. Is there no "home" in this radical fluidity and dynamism?
5. Next, they are apparently traveling on the ocean and washed up on Lone Shore. Apparently, the coast was supposed to be the place of the utopic city Zar. Instead, it was the apparent site of a massacre: "stripped limbs / catching / late October / light." The stanza also repeats words such as "again" and "rebegan," emphasizing how often such actions occur.
6. The next section is quite difficult to get a hold of. A ta'wil is an explanation or interpretation of the Qar'an. Above the mention of this are the images — champagne, roses, grapes — associated with the image of the altar in section three. Somehow, this interpretation seems to leave the people in the poem bereft and "twinless," twins being important to the spiritual beliefs of the Dogon. It is important to note that in this place there is an image of a book with blank, watery pages.
7. We are back on Lone Coast and beginning to bid the senses goodbye. They hold a hollow head to his ear. Most of the rest of this stanza focuses on how listening through the shell connects him to nature but divides him from people, who for the first time he refers to as "they." They seem to climb a precipice to the land of low branches, which Mackey seems to figure a little more positively than the damp beach. Here, the "book is drawn in flammable ink," and it ends by emphasizing the book of undone. Nonetheless, the dry underbrush scratches the bare skin.
8. This is another poem-within-a-poem. First it says that they now go by "two new names, / Hummed Outer Meat" and "Hollowness." Then it describes a nasty tale rehearsed by the sea shell he is still listening to. It is a meeting described by a lot ob abusive-sounding verbs.
9. It ends with three people separating. Two people run toward Loquat Cove, and the narrator runs by himself away from it. Then an earthquake intervenes, and the "whistling / fissure" seems to cause everyone to stop their running.
My next post will be more interpretive
[I am currently discussing Mackey's book Whatsaid Serif. If for some reason you cannot buy it (and I sincerely hope you do), many of the poems can be found here.].
Allusions / Definitions
>This poem is the first of a group of ten that go under the heading "stra." I am not sure what Mackey is referring to. It could be a simple anagram for "star." It could also be the name for "sîra," what seems to be an Arabic name for a story that is part of a larger saga. Maybe it will come clearer later.
>Ra — Egyptian sun god
>Raz — unsure. Certainly negative relative to the majesty of Ra.
>C'rib — seems to be the proper noun for the blow he suffered to the back of the head.
>Zar — Religious ceremony in the Sudan and Southern Egypt conducted by women and intended to cast out demons.
>Loquat leaves — In China and Japan, special healing qualities are attributed to these
>Profligate — wildly licentious
> Ta'wil— explanation, interpretation, esp. of Qur'an.
>twin / twinless — In Dogon cosmology, according to the anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, twins are important in their creation myth. [See here. After you get to the page, click on the html given about half way down.]
>gremlin — Created in the Royal Air Force during World War II, this is a mischievous folk figure who causes trouble with planes and aeronautics.
Before jumping into a discussion of the poem proper, I want to address the experience of reading it. It can be frustrating.
On the one hand, Mackey writes with enough power, authority, and narrative momentum to create a desire for knowing what is going on. On the other hand, he does not provide enough information for figuring this out. So we are left with the sense that something mysterious is happening, but we cannot get to the bottom of it.
No matter how many allusions we track down, no matter how much unusual diction we make clear, we will remain ill at ease.
Obviously, frustrating the reader cannot be the goal of these poems. So we must look elsewhere than traditional notions of how a poem is held together. I will need to formulate this more carefully later, but Mackey seems to be aimed at the reading process itself, at the coming to fruition of a sense, and insight, a togetherness, only to watch it dissipate.
Other poets have done this sort of thing: Ashbery, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejininian and so on. What sets Mackey apart is that he does this in a cross-cultural arena. In a way, he ups the stakes: with him, we are not just learning how to read complex poetry, we are learning how to read each other in our cultural differences, in what Mackey would call the difficult creakiness that attends all communication, both intra- and inter- cultural.
My next post on Mackey will consider #26 more particularly. At a later date, I will consider how he specifically contributes to contemporary poetry.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
clunk and clatter
kick and pop
it's a tick
it's a trick
it's a words gone wild show!
win your tickets
batter and butter
bee bob a dee do
slum dumb and sloo slop
pick a winner
with no criteria
coo coo and zoo
what should you do
no rule no pool
no zule jewel fool
a choice with no reason
pick a packa picka
naked as a nincompoop
oop oop oop
These are lists of quotations from the book that are quite beautiful, I think. I am quoting them in order to share my enthusiasm and to hope the magic rubs off, a little.
Note: At some point I will need to discuss Pavic's use of nonsequitars in paragraphs and even, occasionally, in sentences. His paragraphs are often difficult to digest because they drift through a series of topics, often without transitions, rather than developing one or two carefully defined ones. At times, even his sentences shift topic half way through. I don't yet know what to make of this, but I am noting when it happens and will discuss it later.
Below are some more interesting quotations:
The he yielded and picked one her breasts like a peach. 43
I, who have experience with colors, inks, and letters, recognize each letter by its smell in the damp night, and, lying in my corner, I read by the smells entire pages of the sealed and rolled scrolls that lie somewhere in the attic of the castle. 45
Kyr Avram prefers to read in the cold, clothed only in a shirt, subjecting his body to shivers, and the only part of his reading he considers worth remembering and noting in the book is what penetrates the shivering to reach his attention. 45
One night in Gyüla, Father came across an enormous snowman seated on the latrine. He struck him with the lantern, killed him, and went to dinner. 51
It is only an illusion that our thoughts are in our heads...Our heads and we as a whole are in our thoughts. 61
He was creating the first letters of the Slavic alphabet. he started with rounded letters, but the Slavic language was so wild that the ink could not hold it, and so he made a second alphabet of barred letters and caged the unruly language like a bird. 64
for at the bottom of every dream lies God. 68
Sunday, March 21, 2010
eyes too tired
for attention are
with a red sadness
the maple limb,
from the tree is
rimmed with a
the pock mark,
the excema, the
rimmed with a red
the way to drink
a red sadness
apples and oranges
are not rimmed
with a red sadness,
neither are tulips
this cat, restful, tail
curved and curled
seems rimmed with
no red and no
it seems half asleep
ready and not ready
in the midst and
rimmed with blue
Before the morning of the sideways sun a fish darts and flutters in the watery sky. In the darkness, a fish that looks sound. In the night before the sideways sun fish flit like purple and dart like blue. In the evening before the night of the watery sky, before the morning of the sideways sun, fish could look a sound but not be seen in cloaking dusk. Birds cry against fish. In the afternoon before the night of the watery sky birds inched their songs left, their songs right. In the morning, fish sleep their sound in the curtain of light.
At night there appeared a letter inscribed on each eyelid. If you kept track of them, night after night, they spelled out two-word lines of poetry.
But it was never apparent where one poem ended and the next began. Great scholars were brought in to discuss and decide on where the breaks between poms were. Some argued for temporal breaks based on weeks and months, for instance. Others on thematic development. And still others on the shifting cadences that billowed and slackened; spinning, twisting; up, down, left, and right.
The discussion continues today, even as the woman has become older than old, and the first generation of scholars has mostly died and been replaced by a second.
She herself has never spoken about the words on her eyelids. Except to say, "I don't see what the fuss is about. If the words on my eyes were magnets on the refrigerator nobody would be talking."
Could it be that the significance is in an accoutrement of the eye offering the poem rather than only reading it?
These are lists of quotations from the book that are quite beautiful, I think. I am quoting them in order to share my enthusiasm and to hope the magic rubs off, a little.
"During his long life he and a monk from another monastery played chess without a board or pieces." 190
"He took off his uniform in a hotel and for the first time saw his scars in a copper mirror. They smelled of bird-droppings." 191
"For, as they caressed the rocks, slipped through their crevices, and skirted their tops, the winds always played a different tune, until the marble and the masons disappeared forever, washed away by the rains, whipped by the glances of passersby, and licked by the tongues of rams and bulls." 199
"Contemporaries say that Mutsaf Beg Sablak could not keep food down and that, like a turtledove, he ate and secreted simultaneously." 200
Because the book does not have to be read in strict order, these quotations jump back to early in the book now.
"At night she wore a letter inscribed on each eyelid...each letter kills as soon as it is read. They were written by blind men, and the ladies-in-waiting shut their eyes when they attended to the princess in the morning, before her bath. Thus, she was protected from her enemies while she slept." 21
"Every morning she would create a hitherto unseen image of her own face." 21
"'Khazar face' referred to ... starting each day as someone else, with a completely new and unfamiliar face, so that even the closest of kin were at pains to recognize each other." 22
"Family inheritances are meted out according to the color of one's beard." 26
"Years passed like turtles." 27
"He has a broad chest the size of a cage for large birds or a small beast, and is often the target of murderers, for there is a popular poem saying that his bones are made of gold." 28
"I saw him stand beneath a tree, his saber drawn, waiting for the wind to blow; as the first fruit dropped, he slashed it with his saber in mid-air." 30
"A look that fells birds" 31
Friday, March 19, 2010
"It is impossible to tell what the 1691 Daubmannus edition of The Khazar Dictionary looked like, since the only remaining exemplars, the poisoned and the silver (companion) copies, were both destroyed, each in it own part of the world." (8)
"Only fragments of the Daubmannus edition have reached us, just as sleep leaves a dusting of sand in the eye." (9)
"The hierarchy of death is, in fact, the only thing that makes possible a system of contacts between the various levels of reality in an otherwise vast space where deaths endlessly repeat themselves like echoes within echoes." 127
"He left behind his lute of white tortoiseshell, which that very same day began walking, turned back into an animal, and swam off into the Black Sea." 128
"After that, they never really abandoned Islam, although they went on to convert to Christianity and then to Judaism." (135)
"They are so resourceful they have oysters growing on trees." (144)
"The river that flows through the Khazar Empire has two names, because in the same riverbed half of its course runs from east to west and the other half from west to east." 144
"He was fond of saying that this revelation had come to him once when a fly was drowning in his eye as he watched a fish, and thus the fish fed on the fly." (154)
"He had a horse so swift that its ears flew like birds, even when it stood in place." (156)
"hot bread which has the dark face of your father and the navel of your mother." (159)
"He would string and tune his lute by the stars." (161)
"If all human dreams could be assembled together, they would form a huge man, a human being the size of a continent." (165)
"she with the dappled eyes that changed color in the cold like flowers" (161)
"She traveled thousands of miles to die in your dream" (163)
"In dream hunting the words of the Khazar dictionary are like a lion's tracks in the sand to the ordinary hunter." (165)
"He was a feminine key with a hole in its shaft, looking for a masculine lock with a bolt in its keyhole." (170)
"She suffered from an unusual disease: her left hand was faster than her right. She claimed her left hand was so fast that it would die before she did." (173)
"Darkness was falling in reddish flakes." (177)
"His deaths tore him into such shreds that nothing was left of him except this story." (181)
After a short introduction, it takes the form of three "books" — Christian, Islam, and Jewish. Each loosely pertains to a time when the Khazars worshiped that particular Abrahamic faith. Pavic informs us that there is no need to read the books in order. You could start with the Jewish and end with the Christian, or even jump around a lot more than that. In addition, Pavic has provided an index so that readers can trace characters and events as they appear in the various books.
The Khazars existed as a nomadic tribe of the southern Caucasus who came to their greatest power in the 6th and 7 centuries CE. However, the novel focuses on the scholarship on the Khazars that was written in the 17th century. It was at that time that the original dictionary was written. However, through various happenstance — from one copy being poisoned to another that was used for fire, the dictionary only survived in scraps. That's what we have today: scraps written in the 17th century in various languages about a people who lived a thousand years before.
Obviously, Pavic is asking us to move into the realm of representation. He is eliminating the origin, the historical Khazar people, and even much of the representation of them, the dictionary. What's left are signs, many decontextualized. This does sound like standard post-modernism.
But it doesn't stop there. For me Pavic is more than the play of signs and representations. After all, there is a dark side to the stories here. And a randomness. In one, for instance, "dream hunters" pursue a certain precursor. "If we follow our angel precursor when he is ascending the heavenly ladder, we approach God Himself, and if we have the misfortune to follow him when he falls, we move away from God, but we can know neither one nor the other." Then, in the next paragraph, he says that it "is a matter of technique."
Pavic has moved us into a field where he takes back what he gives, refuses to assert how much of our most important efforts can be attributed to luck or technique, and goes on his merry way. This is a book of magic. But underneath the surface, always, it is a horror novel. Is it stretching it to say that Pavic wrote this book as Yugoslavia was disintegrating, and the political events had an impact? I don't know. Writers living in political upheaval are as likely to use writing to escape from such horrors as to explore them, however obliquely.
What is certain is that we can just imagine Milorad Pavic's twinkling, mischievous eyes throughout our reading of this book. But I also imagine them to be rimmed with a red sadness.
We already are and never will become fully what we are.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
1. Before we get to Kenmore, you're created an amazing press with BlazeVox.
How many books do you put out in a year? What is your guiding philosophy? Do
your books stay in print? What else should we know about BlazeVox?
Our mission, after ten years is still very hard to pin down. We represent
neither a group of writers nor one mode of writing. We enjoy innovative
works of literature in whatever format that it chooses to find itself. We
wish to promote new style, emerging voices and provide an outlet for these
artists to express their artistic visions. This sounds good, and in turn we
will try to live up to these standards and will do whatever is humanly
BlazeVOX Books has published over 190 volumes, mostly poetry, and will
publish approximately 50 to 75 more each year during 2010 and 2011. Our
latest book authors include Anne Waldman with illustrations by George
Scheenman, Ted Greenwald, Celia Gilbert, Raymond Federman and Craig
Paulenich. A detailed list of all of our titles is located in our online
Also just out is the latest issue of BlazeVOX2k9 and online journal of
voice. But wait, there¹s more; our Wilde Reading Room has 75 ebooks
available for free download. As you can see, BlazeVOX [books] presents some
of the most original voices writing today. Check out our new catalog here:
Outlets of publications:
Coming into our tenth year BlazeVOX 2kX Spring 2010 will be out on May 1,
2009. We publish about 50 writers from around the world in each issue. We
publish in HTML and PDF and enhanced PDF, Podcasts, and now including movies
of original performances.
Online Free Ebook Library: Wilde Reading Room
Each issue of BlazeVOX had an update to our ebook section. Named for Oscar
Wilde, our Wilde Reading room is one of our most popular section on our
site. Each of our titles have around 6 to 7 thousand unique downloads on
each of our titles. This is astounding when most of our POD books sell
rather infrequently on Amazon.com or through SPD. It seems that people do
want full-length collections of contemporary writers but are reluctant to
purchase a book. This is wonderful for us, as it costs next to nothing to
make an ebook. We use the same method to produce an ebook as we do to make a
POD book, only we do not have use the materials to make the thing so it this
is an area we plan to focus in on in the future.
POD Book Catalog:
We have been making print on demand books since 2004. Since then we have
published 200 titles and have plans to continue on for a great long while. A
book is the primary object of the writer. A painter can take her painting
and place it in any venue she sees fit and her goal is accomplished. But an
author without a tangible means of publication is stifled. Even with the
appeal, popularity and cost of the ebook, a writer still wants to have a
book in hand, if only to show Mom, hey I have done something. We have found
a small bit of success in our business model. Books do not sell well, so we
cannot rely on one title to make a splash. Instead we publish many titles of
very deserving authors to make things even out. With this kind of model we
are able to be more accommodating to writers who may not be able to publish
their works in other venues.
2. I am intrigued by the subtitle of Kenmore, "Poem Unlimited." What's the
story behind it?
The phrase comes from Hamlet, in scene two when the actors are coming into
Elsinore. This is part of the description of the works that they can
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
LORD POLONIUS, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Act 2, Scene 2
I loved the idea of this as a work and I tried to accomplish a poem without
limits. The whole of the Kenmore project takes place in four volumes of
works. This is not what I thought would happen when I started. I thought
this would be an epic poem with memories and photos and whatnots of found
items to capture the conscious of a community. Over years I gathered up
materials and this slowly became untenable as one volume as a poem cannot
contain all these items into one, but slowly these ideas fell into separate
entities and so became several items. I published the first volume as it is
a traditional book. Volume two is a photopoem book of Kenmore, NY. It is
five years of photos looking at a wonderful village through springtime, a
devastating October ice storm and the destruction and rebuilding of the
elementary school I attended, Jane Addams. The third is craft elements and
very anti computer. Comprising hand written memories, scraps, found objects
to create a moving experiment of scrapbook and hysterical diary. Taking the
idea of non-computer generated memories in a one sitting purge of ideas;
this becomes a moving portrait of a town through touch.
The fourth volume is a mirror image of the first volume. Set in one-word
poems this is the ghost image of the first book, and the setting of private
memories using street names as titles with one-word as the poem. This
evocative display of one-word poems takes the reader on a side street of
what a poem should be and what a single word can provoke and provide. The
one-word poem depends on two elements to work. In this case the title is the
street title and it corresponds to a memory. There is also the element of
mirroring to the first volume the published book. So Tremaine Ave. Volume
One will has a direct connection to the Tremaine Ave. in Volume Four
3. The book is organized around events that happen in two tales, one about
Gwion and the Wisdom Potion and the other from The Book of Enoch. What is
your personal relationship to tales and, perhaps, fairy tales? I know that
you have written some children's books.
I do write for children, it's very fun and it comes more naturally to me
than say, detective fiction. I think all of my work has some element of the
fairy tale in them, for better or worse. I am intrigued by the small stories
we tell one another and how they turn and develop into other stories. In one
sense, we are nothing more than the stories we tell each other. And in this
I wanted to understand who I was by delving into the base stories that make
up a formulation of myself by the texts that moved me. I choose core ideas
such as religion and the hero-myth. The ballad of Taliesin and the Mabinogi
is a root story of the King Arthur legend and the book of Enoch is still
used today in many forms of Christianity.
Both stories are myths about great poets and so making the poet into a
lively hero, taking him from life to death to rebirth then in the second
half have the poet hero ascend to heaven as receives a tour, of sorts. So
the blending of the two make for a unique story perfect for poetry.
4. Could you tell us a little about The Book of Enoch? about Taliesin? You
have biblical and old welsh references here.
Taliesin was a master poet of the 6th century and is believed to be the
court poet to three Celtic British kings. He became the basis for the
literary figure Merlin the wizard. I chose to use the myth about his
becoming the poet. He ate a magic fish, which was meant for another. There
is an ensuing wizard battle in which he looses by being eaten. However,
instead of dying he becomes a child in the womb of the witch he was
The second half is based on the Book of Enoch, the man who walked with god.
This is an apocryphal apocalyptic text from the Old Testament of the Bible.
This backbone of a story tells of how the angles fell from heaven when they
fell in love with human women. They marries them and had children who were
giants. God kills the children and buries the bones and sends all 200 devils
into hell. Enoch gets to witness this from God's vantage point. From there
Enoch is guide through the heavens by several angles.
5. You tend to write long lines. Is that typical of your work? What do you
see as the long lines' contribution to this work?
There is a combination of writing styles in this book. Long lines help with
the narrative functions in this poem. I think this helps to tell the story
and move it along. The more abstract ideas are woven into shorter poems and
using shorter lines. There are also differing uses of tone for each part.
The first is lively and has a verve to the story telling, while the second
part becomes tedious in it's use of the religious / biblical language.
6. If we can speak of the religion and tales loosely as myths, would you
agree that the book mythologizes the present and offers contemporary
examples of the myths?
Yes indeed. I took both of these as myth, being careful with the Book of
Enoch, as it is still in use today with certain branches of Christianity,
especially in Ethiopia. This story does take place in the present time and
is a new vision for the originals. Both sections are from myths that are
quite still popular today, so in a sense it is going back to the roots to
find something fresh.
7. What about Kenmore, the contemporary city, is worthy of myth?
Well no of course not :-) It is no different than any other suburban area
and part of the reason for the myth. After Olsen and William Carlos Williams
how can one address place in poetry? I am not suggesting that this is on par
with their work, but it was the only way I could find to adequately admire
the place I grew up and lived in at the time of writing the pieces. I
dreamed many fine dreams walking those streets and those dreams all had a
foot in one or both of these myths. So it was tremendous fun to put all
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
1. Congratulations on winning the award for "Motown Burning." Could you tell us a bit about it? The book actually won two awards. The first was the Mount Arrowsmith Novel Competition when it was still in manuscript format. The second was the Independent Publishing Awards Gold Medal for Regional Fiction. The second award was cool because Dave Eggers won a gold medal in the same competition in a different category, so to be in the vicinity of someone like that, even if it’s just out in the parking lot, is kind of a rush.
2. Could you tell us a little about yourself -- family, work, interests, history with writing?
Me? I turn 48 this year and I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m about. I was born and raised in Detroit, and later I grew up working in my parents’ bar in Ohio. They were regular blue collar people, no college education, working very long hours every day. I was actually the first person in my family to earn a college education, whatever that’s worth. But I didn’t go to college right away after high school because I was a competitive wrestler and had a chance to train overseas for a year. In fact, wrestling has been a large part of my life, and I just gave up full-time coaching a few years ago after my second spinal surgery. I didn’t really understand writing until I got to college, and one great teacher, Albert Glover, lit the fuse. We studied Philip Levine, and that was it for me, I was hooked. Levine described Detroit and its decay and pride and fierceness and I got it, probably the only kid in that class of upper-crust budding yuppies who understood what the hell this poet guy was talking about. I said to myself, If this is poetry, I think I can do it, or at least try. Beginning as a very bad poet, I’ve branched off into decent poetry, short stories, a play, and two novels. On a personal note, I was married right after my sophomore year in college, and my son and daughter are both grown and out of the house now. Life is moving very rapidly.
3. How would you describe this book to someone who has not read it, but needs enough information to follow our interview? Why did you entitle it Motown Burning?
In a basic sense, it’s a love story. Aram Pehlivanian, A.P., the protagonist, is a high school drop-out working at his uncle’s bar. One night at local concert, he meets Katie, and they are crazy about each other. It’s a classic match of opposites: the inner city street punk and the prim, proper suburban girl. Their relationship is complicated when A.P. gets into trouble during the 1967 Detroit Riots, and he is given an ultimatum: go to jail or go to Vietnam. He chooses to go to Vietnam, which a lot of kids in the same situation did back in the day, and that’s where the title comes from. While he’s over in Vietnam, he learns that Katie is pregnant. So literally the city of Detroit is burning from the riot, a true historical event, but A.P., who is nicknamed Motown in Vietnam, is also burning to get back home to be with Katie and his child.
4. What sort of research did you conduct for this book? Did you interview people? If so, what effect did it have on your writing?
I actually began researching just by going back through my memories of that time period. I was a little kid in ’67 and remember the tanks and army men in the streets. That was quite a sight for a kid. My family was living in Dearborn at the time, and the mayor, Orville Hubbard, called in the National Guard and ordered them to shoot on sight anyone crossing the border into the city. I also talked quite a bit with my parents about this when I was younger before they passed away, and it’s funny but people from Detroit in that era can tell you exactly where they were when the riots broke out, kind of like people today know the exact moment and place they were when they learned of 9/11 and the towers being hit. It’s indelible, there forever, and it’s never going to leave. I also talked to a number of Vietnam vets to get a sense of what it was like, the fear, the nerves, the futility. I also recalled some of the sergeants and officers I worked with when I was in ROTC in college. I eventually got kicked out of the army at my officer’s basic course in Fort Bragg after I flunked the physical because of a knee injury I got wrestling, but I remember those people and the stories they told. That’s probably what fuels me most as a writer; I’m a real listening junkie.
5. Please tell us a little about the Detroit riots, and why you wanted to work them into your book. Why do you think they have received so little attention in the national mythos?
The ’67 Detroit Riots were one of the most significant events to take place in this country’s history, certainly its history in the 1960s, and yet there’s basically nothing on it out there in movies, books, plays, and the like. It’s bullshit. After my book was out I picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex because I had heard that it mentioned the riots, but the book bored me in the early going and I never even got to the Detroit parts. That probably makes me sound lunk-headed and probably isn’t very fair to the book, but so be it, I get impatient with stories that don’t move at a certain clip. If you want to understand the United States in the 1960s, though, and all the tensions that were fomenting there, you just have to look at Detroit to see what it was all about. The social, racial, political, and artistic conflicts plaguing America at the time blew up in Detroit. The brief mythology is that two black Vietnam vets returned home and their neighbors were going to throw them a party a local blind pig, an unlicensed after-hours club. Well, the cops, who were notorious for cruising around the city in their Big-4 units abusing minority citizens, showed up but they weren’t prepared for such a huge crowd on hand. And the crowd said, That’s it, we’re not taking it anymore, fuck you, and the place erupted. The next four days were total chaos; Baghdad today has nothing on Detroit in July of ’67. The 82nd Airborne Division and the National Guard had to be called in, tanks, troop carriers, out and out warfare in the streets. The official death toll was 43, but they were finding bodies long after the riot was officially over and some bodies were never found. I talked with one woman who was a nurse and she said that her hospital alone had at least that many people brought in who died. But officials wanted to downplay everything, like they had the whole ordeal in hand, the iron fist bringing order. The old-timers say the death total was closer to 200, and over 7,000 people were arrested. Fourteen square miles of the city burned down. No city in America has experienced this, and yet where are the stories? To this day several neighborhoods have never recovered. Which is why I shake my head when the government is giving out millions to the silk-suited executive assholes of these companies they ran into the ground, like that is helping America. There are real people in real neighborhoods who could use a small fraction of that money to make their city livable and safe. I better stop there because I’m starting to get pissed off.
6. This book keeps switching the first person point of view among characters, in the manner of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." For instance, Opie narrates the first 10 or so pages, Saint the next 25, and so on. Why did you choose this point of view?
You know, the story is born in a riot, so I wanted there to be a sense of chaos, of confusion, in the narrative. In several cases, the different characters’ accounts overlap but their perspectives are very different. In one way or another, A.P. is in every chapter, sometimes just in passing. Like any traumatic event, though, it can seem to make no sense when you’re in the middle of it trying to survive, but afterwards, when you have the safe distance to reflect, you can say to yourself, Oh, so this is where it started, and that’s why this person did that, and that’s what happened off in the corner that I was unaware of. So much of what happens in the book centers around the riot and the war in Vietnam, so it didn’t make sense to me to tell the story in traditional narrative. There had to be some confusion, frustration, dislocation. Structurally, though, the story is as old as it gets, following The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Iliad begins in medias res and we’re already on the shores of Troy; Motown Burning begins with A.P. already in Vietnam. A.P. is a Motor City Odysseus, and Katie is his Penelope. The story is based upon a journey and a return, and someone who likes to find parallels can find several others. But I didn’t want the book to be a mere retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey with names and settings changed. If readers get that layer of meaning, fine, but it shouldn’t carry the entire story. At least they should like the chapter epigraphs, which are from Detroit music of the time, The Temptations, the MC5, Iggy Pop, Dinah Washington, Bob Seger. It don’t get no better than that.
7. From my reading, I think the difference between your point of view and Faulkner's is that you do not write in stream of consciousness. Usually, the characters seem to be narrating something in the past that they have already processed. Am I right? Does this square with your sense of how the book unfolds?
Absolutely. A.P. is the only character who speaks in stream of consciousness; outwardly, he is inarticulate and would never be able to express himself verbally at such length, so it was necessary to get in his head a bit. He’s not a talker, but a lot is going on in his thoughts and he feels very deeply. With the other characters, I wanted to create a kind of confessional tone, like this was their chance to tell someone what happened to them, to set the record straight and explain how they saw matters, like they were talking to a journalist.
8. I was really impressed with how adroitly you had various characters approach the same incidents in the book. The one that sticks out the most for me is when you have this skinny kid show up during the riot. Only later do we learn that it was the main character whom we have already gotten to know. What do such techniques show us about point of view, perspective, attention? (Here, I am asking you to offer some thoughts on what your book can offer readers in terms of enriching their experiences.)
I’ve always been amused by the statement, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” It’s also interesting how much the world today knows of Jesus Christ, yet very little appears about him in Roman records; he simply didn’t matter very much to them, barely a blip on the radar. So much of what we think and believe today is based upon point of view, much of it often manipulated or based on outright lies. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone? In the chapters dealing with the riot, the narrative voices are from a cop, a Black Panther sniper, a National Guardsman, and a citizen who loses a child (this was actually based on the death of Tonia Blanding, the youngest casualty in the ’67 Riots). In the Vietnam chapters, we hear from various soldiers in A.P.’s unit but also a Vietnamese soldier. History as a story is hardly fair, but I at least wanted to try to be fair in telling this particular tale.
9. Does A.P. die in the end? Does the disconnect between he and Katie -- Katie can't figure out how to hug him and he falls into his own hands, not hers -- signify the impossibility of bridging the differences in their experiences?
These are great questions because 90% of the comments I get about the book focus on the end. A.P. doesn’t die, but he is definitely broken, both in body and spirit at the end. I wanted to show that he has come to the realization that he cannot face the world in the same way he always has. Whenever something got in his path, he responded physically with violence out of pure instinct. It was how he was raised. Now, however, he cannot even physically stand up. This is devastating to him, and he must try to figure out who he is and how he can get about in the world. Katie is there waiting for him, and she isn’t sure how to approach him, to touch him in a way that won’t cause him any more pain. This is where I needed to leave the characters—no easy closure, no happily ever after. So many of the Vietnam vets I talked to expressed that sense of alienation and uneasiness when they returned home, and many still struggle with knowing their place in the world after what they experienced. A.P. is home and Katie is there to greet him, but he is a new man, tragically reborn, and he must face the world in a new way he does not understand or necessarily embrace. That split second with his hands covering his face will be the last he has before he must see the new world and his new self within it. I wanted that sense of uncertainty because that is what the characters are challenged with.
10. Tell us about the journal and press that you are starting up. What other projects do you have going on now?
I was approached by a fellow Detroit writer, Rhoda Stamell, about starting an on-line magazine, as if I don’t have enough to do, and Renaissance City was born (www.rencity.net). I wanted something that was sharp but straightforward and unpretentious, something that would be more than just poems on a blank flat screen. So we do have stories and poems, but several of the pieces are film clips of the authors reading, which I think is new and vibrant. We’ve also got art and music in the form of live performances I’ve taped and sound files I’ve been sent. My hope is to have more input and submissions from more artists in the future, but the start has been fun and we had one hell of a launch party! The press I started is Motown Rising, and I began by publishing my daughter Lea’s memoir, Lady Hazardous. It’s about her struggles with drug addiction, and for me it was a challenge to edit the book but also to confront what she says, because so much of it is personal to our family, and not always very flattering. It was draining. The book is solid, though, and it’s built on truth, so we’ll see where it goes.
Friday, March 5, 2010
First prize winners in both genres will receive $250 (each) plus publication of their entries in Issue 12. The winning works of 5 runners-up in each genre will also be published in Issue 12.
All winning entries will be published in a print anthology called “Knock Our Hats Off: A Little Book of Curious Delights.” Each winner will receive a copy of this deluxe collector’s item.
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