“Upstate” was first published by Writing Raw
by Christopher Allen
When I was 10, my piano instructor—a dour stickperson named Eva Jo Alpress, who told me I was going to be a concert pianist one day—quit. She “discharged” me in a long, painstakingly written letter that outlined my mother’s shortcomings and mine. I wish I still had the letter. What a gem. While almost all of it is lost, one phrase does resonate down through the decades: “Your son is an arrogant opinionated juvenile.” We had a good laugh at that. Eva Jo certainly had a knack for unwittingly hitting nails on heads. She thought she was telling me what a little dickhead I was, but she was actually telling me that I was a person with something to say.
The reason Eva Jo discharged me: I wanted to trade études for ABBA. I wanted to play keyboards in a band. It was 1974. I wanted to shake my groove thang. I can still see my teacher’s eyes when I pulled out the sheet music to “Take a Chance on Me.” Horror? Disdain? That moment when you’re not sure if you need to sneeze or vomit? We got the letter the next day. There would be no Good Will Hunting end to the story.
I have to give Eva Jo credit, though, for spotting the truth in this situation. The keyboard part of “Take a Chance on Me” is really easy, especially for a ten-year-old apparently destined for Carnegie Hall. Without the band and a few Swedes “Take a Chance on Me” was boring.
I’m telling you this not only because it’s a fun story, but also because it’s one of a hundred formative experiences that have led me to where I am today: sitting in my office in Munich, writing about writing, wondering who I am. Who knows what moments are more important than others? I was going to be a musician when I was ten. That’s important. I was a little dickhead. That’s also important. In many ways I’m still that little dickhead.
But before all that, I was going to be an oceanographer. I was fascinated by the thought of living on the ocean floor in a never-ending labyrinthine sprawl of modular, pressurized compartments. I expanded my underwater city every day in my third-grade class. I’m sure the drawings were absolute crap. I can’t draw, not even a stickman. Point is, I was obsessed by the idea of slipping myself into a little world—or maybe I just needed to escape to where it was quiet, maybe it was a Jungian thing. I don’t know. I hate the water now, haven’t been swimming in decades. We also drew the flags of the world, which I was much better at.
At university I studied music until the end of my sophomore year when, in the hospital with mononucleosis, I missed my juries and all my finals. I also missed several weeks of my first professional singing gig in a gospel quartet—a ridiculous summer. When I got back on my feet I didn’t want to study music anymore, so I changed majors to music business. All the cool kids were there I guess or maybe just all the kids who understood the worthlessness of a music degree. Maybe both. And, yes, you’ve just noticed that I skipped my entire adolescence. I knew I wouldn’t get away with it. I was hoping you’d ignore the leap, maybe accept the gap, like the lost years of Christ. I find it hard to talk or write about that time. How about we leave it at this: from 1976 to 1982 I spent most of my time hating myself for being gay, praying to be delivered from being gay, and ending up being abused by the minister of music at my church—book forthcoming.
But did those years of depression, suicidal feelings, and fear that someone could figure out who I really was lead me to write? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’ve tried to write that novel several times, and it’s just not happening yet. Sometimes I think all this writing is just practice, that I’m groping around in the dark for the voice that will finally tell my story the right way, that all these stories aren’t me but maybe a way towards me.
At the beginning of the nineties, a very close friend of mine was killed in a plane crash. His death changed my life and my priorities. I moved to Los Angeles to get away from Nashville and the music industry. He’d been a keyboard player for an A-list country singer, and I was a studio singer. Everyone I knew was in the music industry, and it was just too sad. When I later returned to Nashville, I’d decided to become a writer; and because I wasn’t sure what that meant I enrolled in a master’s program to learn everything I didn’t know about literature—because by then I’d figured out that having an opinion about everything was a sure sign that I knew almost nothing. Realizing how little I knew was a giant leap towards understanding myself.
In graduate school, while I was reading everything Henry James wrote, I wrote a screenplay partly about my friend’s death, a poignant road-trip movie in the vein of This-Will-Never-Be-Publishable. Also while in graduate school, I published my first short story, “Air-Conditioned Souls,” which one of my professors said “made no sense.” I also published my first two (and last two) poems: “The End All” and “last night I dreamed we dreamed a poem.”
Then I moved to Germany and spent the following ten years trying to write and rewrite that screenplay. Then I wrote and rewrote a novel manuscript: “The Sure-Shot Rabbit Association.” And then I wrote another one: “What You Don’t Know.” And another: “Three-Handed Bridge.” And another: “Conversations with S. Teri O’Type.” And another: “The Lambent Light,” finally trying to tackle my own story. And a screenplay manuscript: “Almost Ophelia.” Except for Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, an experimental and episodic work of linked flash fiction that I self-published in 2012, I’ve pretty much walked away from all of these manuscripts. They terrify me because they are not perfect. They are all massive derelict buildings.
At some point in the middle of all these construction sites I joined an online writing workshop called Urbis. What an intense time of learning that was. I remember getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to read and write reviews. That workshop forced me to think about my writing objectively. It taught me to write economically, to write competitively (in a good way), and not to settle for a boring phrase. Lots of stories that I workshopped in Urbis ended up published. Urbis gave me the push I needed towards becoming a writer.
In 2009 I started editing at the daily litzine Metazen and became the managing editor there. Sadly, Metazen came to an end in 2014. In the same year I joined the team at SmokeLong Quarterly. The journal is a big part of my life. When I love a thing, I love it big.
I feel all grown up now, but I still need to disappear into my little worlds. I still feed on sarcasm. I still need music. And I still feel incomplete. So I suppose my Planet Write is some amorphous gas planet or maybe some inchoate hunk of volcanic chaos—very much a work in progress. And that’s fine. I just love being at the party.
by Gloria Mindock
At age nine. I was writing music and lyrics. I loved to sing and was constantly writing small songs. When I was twelve, I performed in a school play and was hooked on theatre and acting and continued until age forty, when I retired from the stage.
While growing up, there were so many books in the house. My mother painted and art books were a big part of my life. She recited the poetry of Robert Burns and Robert Frost which drove me crazy. Only years later did I appreciate their poetry. My dad was a school teacher so between them, I learned to appreciate the arts. My sister Kellis plays the piano, my brother-in-law plays the clarinet and other instruments and my nephew plays the violin. I have a very inspiring and artistic family.
In high school, I discovered Keats and Shelley and feel this was a turning point in my life. In college, I would go to the library and read poetry for hours. One of my favorite poems during that time was “The Buried Life” by Matthew Arnold.
Fast forward to the early 1980’s. For years, I had been performing, acting, and singing in cafes, bars, and at a few universities my original music and lyrics. I also sang the music of other musicians whose songs were so poetic, Joni Mitchell being one of them. I loved singing so much! In 1982, I lived in Iowa City for two years. I met so many wonderful writers at the Iowa Writers Workshop. At this time, I was writing experimental plays and performing performance art.
Iowa City is where I co-founded a theatre with my ex-husband. When making the move to Somerville in 1984, our theatre got a name. Theatre S & S. Press. We became a non-profit theatre and a magazine was founded which I edited called the Boston Literary Review/BluR. The theatre and magazine ceased in 1994.
Around this time, I discovered Eastern European poetry, literature, and translations. I started writing poetry and was influenced by this writing. I felt like I was home. Still today, that is the writing that makes me tick, want to write, and makes me feel alive when I read it. I can’t get enough of it. All my singing, acting, writing text for the theatre led me to poetry and to writing.
In 2005, I realized how much I missed publishing so founded Červená Barva Press. I have published writers from all over the world and met so many wonderful poets and fiction writers. I get excited when I publish writing that I love. All this motivates me to write. Reading many translations, which are easier to find now, stimulates me. There is nothing like a good book.
Bill, my partner, is an amazing artist and he listens to my new work all the time. It helps to read it out loud and hear it. I know by the sound and rhythm of it if it needs to be edited or not.
A few years ago, I started to write flash fiction. I wrote some very strange things which was fun. I am currently working on three more manuscripts called, “I Wish Francisco Franco Would Love Me (poetry),” “Screaming for Paul (a memoir of my teeny bopper years and all the bands I met),” and one that is untitled. I guess you could say the writing bug hit me at an early age.
You told me I was a light in
a dark world.
Hanging onto these words,
Everyday, there is slaughter, murder,
horrific things, done to a body…
things that make me sick.
Day after day, death happens…
despite the sun coming out to
show the blue of the sky.
Beauty and ugliness in battle—
Light and dark in battle—
Each day, a tug of war and each day,
each side wins somewhere in the world.
You told me I was light in a dark world.
Why did you do this?
Do you know something I don’t?
Am I an angel alone weeping
with words coming out of my mouth
that no one listens to?
From Whiteness of Bone
|Chico Senior High newspaper staff.
Lynn is second from the left, seated.
In the midst of being in big trouble at my newspaper internship for accidentally deleting the entire issue of the weekly during production, I was accepted to graduate school. At 20, I moved East to earn my MFA. More jobs. Hat shop worker. Postcard saleslady. Frank Conroy shredded my prose, then once gave me a friendly ride to class in his old station wagon. I wrote at odd hours and went alone into dark places in my head and wandered out again a little bit stranger and worse for wear each time. I worked at papers, and one sent me to St. Louis to interview U.S. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov, simply because I was the closest thing to a poetry editor they had. I won a prize at the university. It felt almost as good as the one from fifth grade.
The writing bug bit me while I was in the army in Germany. I’d write family and friends about all my experiences: castles with paintings where the eyes seemed to follow you around the room, shooting cannons, the pretty frauleins, and rough toilet paper on the trains. Everyone looked forward to my letters.
What I wrote was wonderfully awful then, and what I write is wonderfully awful now. But, for some reason, I keep at it, and it becomes less awful. I’ve tried to quit a few times to no avail. Poetry makes life present. When I’m writing poems, I’m at my best. The rest of the time? I’m alright.
That is why we are here.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is an award-winning freelance editor, writer, and lecturer at the University of Colorado. He is also acquisitions editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books, founder and editor of PoemoftheWeek.org, founder of the Colorado Writers’ Workshop, founder and editor of The Floodgate Poetry Series, and editor of two anthologies. His first book of poems, Ghost Gear, was a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize, the Colorado Book Award, and the INDIEFAB. and learn more at AndrewMK.com