My previous post about poet Stevie Smith got me thinking about one of the other prized volumes in my poetry collection: Vachel Lindsay’s Collected Poems. Discovered by chance while browsing the poetry section of a used bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee [note: used bookstores in academic towns are the best places to find fantastic yet forgotten books of poetry], it was the first (and only) time I’d ever encountered the volume, and I bought it immediately.
One of the first things I noticed about the book (other than its wonderful illustrations) was its dedication page:
“this book is dedicated to Sara Teasdale, poet”
For those who don’t know, Sara Teasdale was a poet with whom Vachel was romantically involved and very much in love. A man whose means were as modest as his self-image, Vachel was far too worried about his ability (or inability, rather) to provide for Sara, and over much hand-wringing managed to convince himself that no matter how much she might also love him, he just wasn’t good enough for her. So she, of course, ended up marrying a wealthy businessman with whom she was ultimately unhappy. (Ain’t life grand?)
For lack of a better term, Vachel was an “interesting” dude. Handsome, brilliant, and too artistic for med school (he dropped out to pursue his calling as an artist/poet), he was a romantic at heart as well as a bit of a politico. Nicknamed “The Prairie Troubadour” for the impassioned poetry readings he delivered as he travelled the midwest, he was known as a nationalistic progressive, which seems something of an anachronism now (believe it or not, there was a time when patriotic people could both love their country and want to change it without having to be labeled a Communist). Never to be mistaken for a cynic, Vachel was an extremely sincere man who stood for his convictions and among those convictions was fighting for equality, especially among racial and socio-economic divides, as evidenced in both his writing and his life (he was an early mentor of Langston Hughes).
Vachel also believed strongly in the musical roots of poetry, most of his verse carrying an undeniable musical rhythm within its meter. I’ve often wondered what he would’ve thought of the last forty years or so of musicians who fancy themselves poets, particularly the more progressive songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, et al.
Like Stevie Smith, Vachel was also a draftsman (and a talented one, at that), and his art is scattered throughout his Collected Poems. And like Stevie, he, too, suffered from depression. But Vachel didn’t handle his depression nearly as well as Stevie did. On December 5, 1931, he killed himself by drinking a bottle of Lysol. I can remember reading about Vachel’s suicide when I was a child, and that image haunted me then just as much as it haunts me now– I cannot imagine a more particularly terrible or horrific way to go. [note: two years after Vachel’s suicide, Sara Teasdale would kill herself by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills]
I’ll finish this post with one of Vachel’s poems. It’s not his best poem, but it’s one I have always enjoyed for shallow and superficial reasons. Though Vachel was from Springfield, Illinois, the woman he loved was from St. Louis, Missouri, and I’ve always identified with this poem as a writer from Springfield, Missouri.
My brother called me the other day while I was in the shower and thus unable to answer my phone, leaving me a message stating that he had some “shitty news” and asking me to call him back. I envisioned a dozen different doomsday scenarios for what he had to report, but when I spoke with him, none of those fears were realized. Rather, in typical fashion, the bad news was something completely unexpected– straight out of left field (but isn’t that always the case?). His news was that an old family friend had died, and he wanted to tell me over the phone before the information would inevitably (and impersonally) reach me through the grapevine via text or e-mail. I’m thankful that he did, because when a family member dies, that’s a loss you need to be able to share with someone on a much more intimate level. And Jane (or “Aunt Jane” as we called her) was family, goddammit.
Jane Hoogestraat (pronounced “Hogue-eh-straht”) was a poet and an English professor at Missouri State University. My father was on the search committee that originally hired her at MSU, and she would later become a close friend of both my parents (particularly my mother). Looking back, I’m proud to say that my brother and I had the privilege of spending some (but not enough) time in her company. Aunt Jane was one of the handful of genuine and truly decent human beings in this world with a heart almost as big as she was. She was a giant of a woman at over six feet tall, but that tall frame belied her soft-spoken and sincere personality. If you were to look up the word “staid” in the dictionary, it could easily read “see also: Jane Hoogestraat.”
Jane was an intelligent, quiet, and kind woman. While she may have battled a handful of personal demons (namely depression), she refused to allow her dark thoughts to cloud her eternal optimism. She believed in the goodness of others, often in spite of any meanness she may have been shown. She was a hard luck woman and was no stranger to experiencing hardship or being mistreated by those she put her faith and trust in, but that just seems to be par for the course when it comes to people with good hearts– the nicest folks are oftentimes the ones who are taken advantage of or trodden on the most. Life has a funny way of dealing the worst cards to those who have the best intentions, but Jane always chose to play the bad hands she was dealt rather than fold, and she did so with the same brand of optimism exhibited by Candide or Job. And she deserved better.
I have many fond memories of Aunt Jane. My favorite memory comes from the Christmas she chose to spend with me and my mother in Fayetteville, and how happy she was when we accompanied her to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to see the Christmas service. Jane had fully expected to attend the service alone, but we weren’t about to let that happen, and I know that it meant the world to her to have us there. During that same visit, Jane also played a small role as matchmaker in reuniting me with the woman I would eventually marry, and that is something for which I will always be grateful.
And I’ll never forget the time she asked me and my brother to house sit for her. “Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told us, and when we opened her fridge, it was stocked full of nothing but hummus and black beans– foodstuffs we would only ingest if we were literally starving to death (I believe we ate a lot of Hardee’s that week). That same week we witnessed Helga (one of her morbidly obese cats) nonchalantly watch a mouse run along the baseboard of the living room without batting so much as an eye. We were incredulous, and we let Helga know it. “You call yourself a cat?!?” we yelled, but the incredibly fat Helga just stared up at us, then glanced back at the mouse, and promptly laid her head back down.
I loved Jane’s house– it was an older home just down the street from the house I grew up in, so it always held an extra sense of familiarity to it. It was your typical English professor’s dwelling: small and modest with a couple of cats, close to campus, lots of books, and very little else in the way of material possessions with a few exceptions. Jane was particularly fond of her original set of turquoise FiestaWare, which we shared a meal or two on, and she was even more proud of her collection of black depression glass. My mother simply couldn’t understand Jane’s fascination with that ugly glass (“It’s hideous,” she would say. “I mean, it’s fucking BLACK!”). But my brother and I understood, because when you held that black glass up to a bright light, you could see the deep purple sheen shine through at its thinnest and most fragile parts, and I think that’s why Jane loved it so much. I believe Jane was one of those folks who appreciated the little bits of beauty hidden amongst the ugliness of the world, and I think that appreciation came by her honestly, as it’s a theme that shines through with the same subtle loveliness in her writing.
I’m one of a handful of human beings left who believes there are few things more important in this world than poetry, and I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Jane’s work. I’ve always enjoyed Jane’s poetry despite the fact that it runs contrary to the style of poems I’m typically drawn to. I’m a sucker for gritty poems about the human experience, full of passion and raw emotion, with the kind of profound volta that either punches you in the stomach or leaves you clutching your heart. Jane’s work is far more understated and pastoral– lots of topographical references and glimpses of nature with plenty of descriptive lines about flora and fauna, but almost always with the profound and human turn that transforms a poem into a poem. Her words are well-chosen and her lines are often eloquent and beautiful. You can get a glimpse of her work (as well as listen to her read one of her poems) by checking out this brief write-up PBS did on her by clicking here.
Jane was a strange and marvelous lady who carried herself with a special kind of stoicism. I didn’t know just how special that stoicism was until her death, when I learned that she had been quietly continuing to battle the cancer that most of us thought was in remission. She had many of us fooled as to the severity of her condition, and I myself had no idea how sick she was. She endured a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in her last year, and yet she didn’t see any point in complaining about it– she preferred to keep that information to herself, and I’m not sure that anybody had any clue as to the extent of what she was going through. She shouldn’t have had to shoulder that like she did, but that’s just the kind of person Aunt Jane was. And she deserved better.
I’ll leave you with one of Jane’s poems, as I think it wraps up this remembrance beautifully. “Near Red Lodge, Montana” is a poem not just representative of Jane’s poetic voice (with her fondness for the pastoral and her acute attention to detail), but also emblematic of her soul and how she always chose to acknowledge hope in the presence of despair. Oddly enough, it’s the final poem from her last publication, Border States, which won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. I regret (infinitely more so, now) that I wasn’t able to attend her last poetry reading, but my brother was there and he told me she received a standing ovation. And she deserved it.
Near Red Lodge, Montana
Are even the field stones charred, the rugged sienna clay
on the road, the white rocks along the creek bed,
are they darkened like snow in a late urban winter?
Can a part of the past be torched, just like that,
by a lightning strike that has you hanging up the phone
on a year, a summer, on the green fields leading in?
Here’s how it happened. Days earlier, near East Rosebud,
in isolated country behind Shepard Mountain
a lightning fork caught a tree, a patch of needles,
smoldered for days in its remoteness, then started
back drafting and blew, a fire that funneled the ravines,
jumped the smaller creeks, took out the grassy plains.
The sweet grasses lost in that fire, alfalfa, short grass,
buffalo, the trees, juniper, lodge pole, spruce, willow,
become only some residual sifting down from time to time,
ash of memory, dust of trivia, the unlabeled pictures
of the year … to whom was this year lost? Fire crews
will tell you they train to recognize what they can’t save.
And here’s how it comes back, when it does, new growth
from scorched earth. The fireweed spreads its roots,
then paintbrush or crocus. Spring snow cover melts away
over the first juniper seedlings, a start of mountain ash.
Lichen returns to a blackened trunk, spreads to the fragile base
of a lodgepole pine that has needed fire to seed.
Far from human fear or desire, the water rinses a little soot
from the edges of a still-charred rock, the kind a hiker
might pluck, polish like a talisman to carry home and hand
over, shyly, stupid and late, another one for your collection,
maybe for those rock gardens you’ve been designing,
dreaming of, from a little part of the world you used to know.
My brother Cole is in The New Yorker. The. New. Fucking. Yorker.
Françoise Mouly, the magazine’s art editor (and wife of my hero, art spiegelman), called my brother up to ask permission to run some excerpts from his new book, Black Rat, which is hot off the presses from Koyama Press. You can see the online feature here:
I had the privilege of reading the galleys for Black Rat a while back, and I told Cole then that not only did I think it was the best thing he’s ever done– it was arguably the best “graphic novel” (who are we kidding here– it’s “comics”) I’d ever read. To borrow a line from The New Yorker’s own snobbish television commercial, “it’s the best comic in the world… maybe the best comic that ever was.” And I meant it, too. It checks off all the boxes in everything I’m looking for in comics/comix/commix: it’s beautiful, irreverent, clever, intelligent, avant garde, absurdist, interesting, low-brow, high-brow, existential, heartfelt, human, honest, and just goddamn good.
In a graphic novel market dominated by simple and mediocre middle school narratives or trite and narcissistic autobiographical masturbatory fodder, Black Rat manages to transcend the garbage and detritus that is representative of the current state of comics publishing to bring something unique to the table that is at once both new and old school. I honestly can’t remember the last time I enjoyed reading a comic so much– it’s been that long. This is what comics should be. This is art, goddammit.
I’m real proud of you, bro. Real proud.
In an earlier post I wrote about “going back to the beginning,” as Inigo Montoya once did, in the hopes of rediscovering who in the hell I am and also figuring out who I’m supposed to be. Well, I did exactly that this week when I bought myself a late birthday present: a forty-year-old typewriter. Not just any typewriter, mind you– one that’s a spitting image of my dad’s old IBM Selectric, the same model I learned to type on as a kid and that my brother and I affectionately referred to as “Ol’ Blue.” This is some real return to the womb shit right here, folks.
The fucker weighs about forty pounds (it sure as shit ain’t no Macbook Air) but this Marlin Blue beast is a thing of absolute beauty. Looks aren’t everything, though– it’s what’s on the inside that counts, by gawd, and I will slap my hand on the Bible and testify that this is perhaps the single greatest piece of machinery ever made by man– it’s the very pinnacle of mechanical perfection. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore, and with good reason: technology has rendered these dinosaurs beyond obsolete. I mean, who in their right mind would actually want to use one of these things? Nobody. But what about those of us who aren’t in their right minds? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you unequivocally that I wanted this big-ass IBM typewriter like a fat kid wants ice cream.
The trend among the hipster literati for the last few years has been the procurement of manual typewriters in the hopes of magically transforming themselves into respectable authors. The motives behind this practice are mostly bullshit– I’d reckon they’re roughly 20% pragmatism, 30% poseur, and 50% faux-nostalgia. Some have gone so far as to purchase behemoth typewriters the size of cash registers simply because that’s what their favorite author used a century ago. It’s so strange to me to think about the lengths that some folks will go to in the hopes of emulating their heroes. I mean, I like to drink Wild Turkey, but I don’t necessarily drink it because Hunter S. Thompson drank it– I drink it because it tastes good, it’s 101 proof, and it gets me really drunk.
Given, many writers used portable typewriters back in the day, but “portable” in 1938 means something a whole helluva lot different than it does in 2015. You can bet your ass that if Ernest Hemingway had access to even a halfway-decent laptop, he would’ve chucked his Underwood Portable into the garbage. Freeing up fifteen pounds in his luggage would have meant he could have packed more shotgun shells for wherever the hell he was headed.
Seriously, though, the hipsters are indeed on to something with the proliferation of old-school typing devices, as I discovered first hand after the purchase of my typewriter, and that is preaching the gospel of “distraction-free writing.” When it comes to long-form writing, it pays to be unplugged. I have the hardest time staying on track when I’m trying to write because I keep dicking around on the internet every five minutes. I don’t think I have Attention Deficit Disorder, but I do seem to display the symptoms every time I try to write something for an extended period of time. It’s akin to wearing an uncomfortable shirt–you just find yourself restless far too often, and you can’t get a damn thing done because of it. Well guess what? There’s no checking your e-mail or playing Words With Friends on your typewriter–it’s just you and your actual words.
But this isn’t the biggest benefit I have reaped from my “new” typewriter. When it comes to writing, I am my own worst enemy. I consider myself a better editor than I am a writer, and if I’m trying to write a long-form piece (especially a narrative) I find myself editing and re-composing the words I’ve just written over and over again to the point where I eventually come to the conclusion that what I’ve written “fucking sucks,” and in a fit of despair I will quit writing altogether. Well, a typewriter obviously doesn’t afford you the same editorial freedoms found on a computer screen– you’re stuck with whatever words you commit to the sheet of paper sitting in front of you. And while this might sound like a detriment, in my case it’s been a godsend as it has allowed me to just write. It’s almost like a weight has been lifted in my writing process– I am suddenly unburdened because I’m unable to re-read or edit until the page is completed. I’ve written more in the last few days than I have in the last long while, in part because of this improvement in my writing process, but also because I had forgotten what it was like to type on such a machine. Manual typewriters are an absolute bitch to type on because you have to hammer the damn keys to get them to strike, and the keys
can WILL get jammed if you go too fast. Not so with Ol’ Blue– I type upwards of 120 words-per-minute (wpm), and the IBM Selectric can cover 150 wpm with ease. I cannot begin to describe the joy I feel when I first fire it up and hear that distinctive electric hum come alive, or the tactile pleasure I get out of typing the living hell out of this old machine and the feedback it delivers as I watch it keep up with me. It may be mechanical, but it really does feel magical– I reckon those hipsters might be right after all.