Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"The Girl in the Halo" BAD MONKEY Curtis Smith

BAD MONKEY is a collection of images and emotion. Each theme settles itself in a reader's subconscious, requiring one to ask questions of one's own impulses and prejudices. Curtis Smith requires a great commitment from his reader, and no story better exemplifies this commitment than the first, "The Girl in the Halo."

A summary of "The Girl in the Halo" is a difficult one to offer. The tale is a kind of test. To give you the plot is to infect your own reaction to Smith's images. As the story begins, Smith creates an image of a house, and a life, falling in on itself. Dangling wires and a rickety foundation are as perilous as the protagonist's future. The reader at once pities this boy, and Smith takes advantage of that pity to test our prejudices. As much as we may pity this boy with the world against him, you cannot help but judge him in the end.

Is a boy who cannot bring himself to end the life of his late father's cancerous dog capable of committing a heinous murder? This same boy who cares for his invalid mother and struggles to keep a home together as best as a boy can. What does that say about the reader to suspect him of such a crime? What does that say of the boy to harbor such dark impulses?

Smith's destitute protagonist is juxtaposed with a heartbreaking image on the late news. A young girl is missing and as the broadcaster beseeches the small town for any information, images of her purity and privilege flash on the screen. Throughout the story circumstantial evidence collides with a reader's judgement to cast suspicion on the boy, this boy we once pitied. Now we notice his dilapidated truck, his tattered sneakers, his condemnable house, his crazy mother, and we use the superficial to condemn him.

The second person narrator only serves to inject the reader further. I felt guilty at the conclusion. I've thought often of what my own suspicion says about my Self. Curtis Smith has gotten in my head. He may even be judging me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I do not remember the first time I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say, "I Have a Dream..." I confess every time I hear it, it rings with the resonance and song of a poem. Dr. King's passion and determination and belief possess the rhythm and cadence, transforming his words from a speech to an oration.

I do remember the first time I read "Letter from Birmingham Jail": Salem College, Main Hall, English Wing, 3rd Floor, Creative Nonfiction with Professor Penelope Niven, (though I, and my peers, should have memorized it verbatim by the time we left middle school). Written in response to a letter written by eight white clergyman to a newspaper, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is, in my humble opinion, the manifesto of the Civil Rights Movement. Read it. If you read nothing else this year, please read it and share it with your children, your neighbors. Not only is it a perfect persuasive essay, it is a testimony to Dr. King's personal dedication and humility and devotion to his faith. It is timeless, for "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." It is transcendent, because truth, real, honest, rare truth, knows no bounds.

To read "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in its entirety please follow the title link. It can also be found in the anthology, BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS OF THE CENTURY, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I feel as if I'm gossiping. LAST ONE HOME is so richly character driven, it seems in offering a summary I'm prattling in the churchyard. Gone down the mountain... left in the middle of the night, don't you know, with the furniture given to 'em... Cabin's front door left wide open to the weather and the raccoons. Don't that beat all? And her daddy gave them all that land... left behind their family... but Pink's never been satisfied, always looking for a deal when he shoulda been farming. And poor Amanda... her daddy liked to tore Pink's hide when he found her gone. That girl won't do in a big city like Asheville. She won't.
Admittedly, my colloquialisms are more Eastern North Carolina, but you get the point. I know this family. I have known them all their lives. LAST ONE HOME follows the last generation of the King family. Pinkney and Amanda King, beckoned by progress and tempted by ambition, brave their own way beyond the comforts of tradition and duty. Pink seeks to make a new family, and Amanda is the beneficial martyr.
I'm not quite certain whether success finds Pink or Pink keeps stumbling into success. I don't know much about life insurance, and I don't think Pink does either, but he quickly finds a fortune and gains stature in a growing city. Amanda holds him to the old ways. Amanda's reluctance over social progress is most evident as her precocious child, Hallie, grows into a smart, independent, decisive woman, duly suited to inherit the responsibilities of her father's company. Which is more than one can say for their rambling , oft-drunk, slow-witted first son Frederick. His mother's sense of entitlement for him, coupled with her desire to see her daughter in a traditional role as wife and mother, threatens to rip the family apart.
Even setting is molded into a character. No town is better suited to represent the blessings and burdens of progress than Asheville. We watch as Asheville is manipulated by the ambitions of wealthy outsiders. Crafts of necessity become a tourist's leisure. Mountainsides are blasted apart to give way to picturesque views. Local tradesmen struggle with an economy that seems always two steps ahead.
Mr. Ehle is a master of imagery and metaphor. Pink's namesake and younger son is himself a promise of the future once loyalty and refinement merge, representing potential and virtue. Furthermore, I don't think I have ever read a truer description of family as Amanda muses on the ability to measure love by a length of fabric.
There is no glamour in this story. Not in the primitive mountaintop community left behind, not in the busy marketplace or the bustling square of Asheville. Pink and Amanda break ground with as many hardships as their frontier predecessors. Perhaps that is the greatest triumph of this last installment in Ehle's seven book series--the Kings come full circle. For though the sacrifice is less physical as in THE LAND BREAKERS, the first book, the spiritual crises in LAST ONE HOME offer the reader several breathless moments of truth on themes of spirituality and family. Epiphanies don't come lightly.
John Ehle, in colloquial eloquence, has given us not so much a novel but an allegory, a tale for all time, a fable for an almost lost culture.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dear Santa,

I've been good, so far, for the most part. Okay, I've tried very hard to be as well behaved as can possibly be expected. At least, no one can call me out for being a Scrooge this year. Not one time have I said, "I hate Christmas." I certainly have not said it out loud. I know I have a week to go, but the tree is up, the Toys for Tots box is ready, and cookie dough awaits. My intention was to make a list of great gift ideas for the book-lovers in our lives, but I hope you'll forgive this somewhat selfish, slightly Scroogey blog. I'm tired of shopping and what's more, I'm tired of shopping for other people. When I walk into a bookstore or peruse the Press53 website, I have to admit, I'm thinking of no one but myself. So here's my Christmas list (or Hanukkah requests, or Kwanzaa wishes, or Solstice solicitations):

1. THE ROAD TO DEVOTION by Cameron Kent

Mr. Kent, for those of you who haven't read WHEN THE RAVENS DIE, is a great storyteller. I'm incredibly excited about his new book. Pre-Civil war Winston, morality disputes, a strong female protagonist engaged in romance with a French merchant, --it all sounds so unscrupulous and torrid and brave. I could definitely see myself holed up for a day or two at the mercy of this story.

I LOVE to read, but anyone who knows me knows I love a big glass of red wine almost as much. Or white wine. And if we're going to have a glass we might as well bring the bottle. I've spent more than may fair share of time with fermentation tanks, certainly more than my fair share of time with winemakers. They are the stuff of great poetry. One can get lost quite easily in musings and metaphors when it comes to the journey from grape to glass. Joseph Mills, as author of a guide to North Carolina wineries, has a personal relationship with the industry I can sympathize with. I'm anxious to read what this poet can do with such prolific inspiration. Perhaps it can be packaged with a case of my favorite selections of wine--you know I love a theme...

3. LAST ONE HOME by John Ehle

Okay, this one is already on my bedside table, so I guess what I am asking for is TIME to read it. I have a crush on John Ehle. I'm kind of glad he doesn't do book signings very often, because I'd be torn between wanting to meet one of the greatest living American wordsmiths and my embarrassing blush as I desperately avoid looking him directly in the eye. I haven't picked up LAST ONE HOME yet because I know, not only will I get completely lost in it, neglecting my children, but his books haunt my thoughts. I find myself thinking of THE LAND BREAKERS all the time and I read that, had to be, two years ago! I've been trying to screw the courage to write a blog on MOVE OVER, MOUNTAIN since I started this little venture, but I'm too intimidated.

I have adopted a coping mechanism this holiday season. Whenever I'm feeling stressed, whenever the spirit starts to get the better of me, I sing "Deck the Halls with boughs of holly! Fa la la la la! La la la la!" It totally works! I can't wait to witness its effects when my mother-in-law visits! The other day I was volunteering in my daughter's class, helping the kids finish snowman hand print ornaments. When I left the teacher asked, "Why are all the children singing Deck the Halls?" I had to smile.

From me and mine to you and yours, Merry Merry Christmas--or Many Happy Returns of the Holiday Season or Bah Humbug (for those of you who work retail)! I'll see you as soon as the effects of New Year's Eve wear away!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"We Gather Together...."

I don't like to toot my horn (humph, who am I kidding?), but I was in fact a charter member of the Winston-Salem Girls' Chorus. Some Fall between 1986 and 1989 (those were the start of some hazy years), 5 pre-teen girls and I attempted to harmonize under what must have been the infinite patience of a long-forgotten director. Our first, and I think our last, public performance took place on the eve of Thanksgiving at Meadowbrook Acres, a local convalescent center for the elderly and infirm. As we raised our meager voices in song, the only members of the audience smiling were those who had enough foresight to turn off their hearing aids.

Despite this, Thanksgiving is and has always been my favorite holiday. Before we creep close to bankruptcy, before we pop an extra Xanax to prepare for the encroaching relatives, before the sugar high and over-stimulated children must be reminded "Santa's watching you!" we gather together to ask a blessing and remember why we go to all the trouble in the first place.

Have a stuffed and blessed Thanksgiving, and let me be the first to wish one and all "Bah Humbug!"

PS-- The current Winston-Salem Children's Chorus is a very successful and highly praised ensemble. We all have to start somewhere.

Friday, November 13, 2009

An Interview with Linda Annas Ferguson, Poet

Recently nominated by Wild Goose Poetry Review for the 2010 Pushcart Prize for her poem "I Wanted to Hear Her Howl," Linda Annas Ferguson could not be more approachable. Her poetry is honest and perceptive. What a great person (and poet) with whom to jump off the Interview Cliff.

I'm always interested to learn of a poet's process. Do you have certain rituals you follow before you write, like Tibetan singing bowls and 15 minutes of meditation? Do you proceed through your day with a notebook in your pocket, sometimes squatting in the middle of the grocery aisle when inspiration hits you between the seafood display and the chilled white wine?

I don’t own anything as exotic as singing bowls, but I seemed to have developed an intimate relationship with a chair. My writing process is to curl my feet up in it with a fleece blanket. It’s tucked in the corner of a room where I have cultivated a quiet, private place. I use it for writing, reading and meditation, so it feels like somewhat of a sacred space. Even when I get to the editing stage and use the computer, I still go back and forth to my chair. This is the closest I come to a ritual, although I sometimes play music or light candles. In stark contrast, I also begin poems in noisy restaurants or on a park bench, wherever the inspiration strikes, but I usually like to retreat to my chair to finish them.
I definitely have to keep a small pad close at hand. There is one in my purse, one by the bed, and one in the car. I often write tidbits on the margins of the newspaper or on a napkin half-way through lunch. I have a mini-flashlight on my key ring, so I can jot a note during plays and movies. I scribble in the dark at 3:00 a.m. while still half dreaming. It’s often a challenge to read what I wrote the next morning. Being locked away without pen and paper would be the worst torture I could think of for a writer.

You use a lot of different themes in DIRT SANDWICH, religion and family in particular. Is there a particular subject that inspires you more than others?

My work seems to reflect where I am at any particular moment in life. I needed to write the family poems after losing my parents and two brothers to death. The newer poems are still discovering how impermanent we are in this brief life. I also like to muse over our shared imperfections. Humans, like treasured creations of art, become more beautiful and interesting because of their cracks and scratches.

Since I reviewed "How to Forgive," could you expand on your notion of forgiveness as a circular process and the poem's use of punctuation to alter word choice?

Forgiveness was, and still is, an internal growth process for me. At the same time I was struggling with it, I received an invitation to write new poems about the theme of “forgiveness.” I felt humbled and truly unqualified, since I was still working on it myself. It took lots of writing until I came to realize that it wasn’t about the other person I was trying to forgive, but what I was supposed to learn from it all.
If you mean by full circle that it all comes back to you, I think it does. I had to ask myself, “Am I totally innocent of ever needing forgiveness myself in all the choices of my life?” Most of the time, the person we are trying to forgive has already justified everything in his own mind. We are the only one who is miserable, because we can’t forget about feeling “wronged.” The best treatment for me was to send him love in my thoughts. It has a way of changing your perspective.
In the poem, “How to Forgive,” the punctuation was not totally deliberate from the beginning. It began to reveal itself as I worked on line breaks. I like how poetry makes the work feel effortless now and then. In this case, I can’t say I deliberately planned this or that. I was fascinated at how the poem unfolded as well.

Speaking of word choice, several of your poems like "Tower of Babel" and "Genesis" and "The First Word" bring to mind the aesthetic process of word choice. Do you get lost or caught up in words? I guess what I'm asking is do you find, when you write, that the rhythm follows the word or the word fits the rhythm? There's a fluidity where the two elements meet and I'm wondering what means more to you as a poet.

In the early stages of the poem, I try to let the rhythm and word choices flow naturally without a great deal of intention. I am however very conscious of words and rhythm when I am editing. To answer your question about the rhythm following the word or the word fitting the rhythm, I don’t know if there is a separation. As you said, “there is fluidity where the two elements meet.” For me, there is a synergy in poetry that makes words and rhythm end up in each other’s pocket.

I love your title poem. Is Sheila admitting defeat or attempting one last rite towards redemption and reprieve?

In the title poem, as in most poetry, I find it intriguing to discover what different readers take away from the same poem. Some see defeat, some desperation, some courage, some hope. Once I have released the poem through publication, it doesn’t seem to belong to me anymore.
Most often, I don’t approach the poem with intention. I would rather it be what it wants to be, as complex (or as simple) in meaning as we are as individuals. This poem sees life as “a glass half full,” as well as “upside down in a cherry tree.” We are all that at different times and at the same time. Perhaps we identify with this poem because most of us feel defeated and desperate at times. We are all looking for consolation from something beyond us.

What do you learn from poetry, from the process of writing it?

Wow! What a good question. I learn every day from reading other’s poetry. That is probably one of the reasons I want to write. If I thought just one of my poems could offer an inkling of what I have gained from reading other’s work, it would have all been worth the effort.
When I first began writing, it was a cathartic process in some ways, but also energizing and liberating. We all probably learn something different in the writing process. If you ask me a different day, I might tell you something new, but what I learn most is that I am never through learning. I can read words written two hundred or two thousand years ago and maybe one day will pass them along to my grandchildren. Language is an amazing living thing.

Read Linda Annas Ferguson's impressive accolades and pick up a copy of DIRT SANDWICH on her page at, and check out her website at

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I didn't get a damn thing done today. I picked up THE CRAZY GARDEN sometime between getting the baby down for a nap and my intent to fix a turkey sandwich. Wound up skipping lunch and never put down the book. What an engrossing story. Only a great writer could take something as maddening as a family jaunt through the tourist traps of Vienna and make it compelling and true.

The characters are typically American, at once complex and archetypal. Every member of the family seems reined into orbit around the mother like trained horses. Poor 16 year old Sophy! To be so miserable that strangers seek out schemes to help you escape your self-obsessed, schedule controlling mother. There is a comic relief to her mother's hyperbolic manipulation, her ignorant mispronunciations and her misplaced elitism. I love the way Sophy's father's passive resignation forewarns us to Sophy's own withering at the hands of her mother's disregard.

Great line: "She had always, rather confusedly, associated truth with freedom...More and more, truth felt like a set of walls around her, pressing in close." E.A. Bagby offers a truthful story, as a young woman discovers her own conflicted desires and the complexities of her place in this world. The hardest lesson we learn may very well be that truth has consequence. It's not a simple central theme, and Bagby does Sophy justice by it.