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T. K. Thorne ventures into crime fiction: An interview about House of Rose.

Where did you come up with the idea for a story about a police-witch in Birmingham, Alabama?

To start with, let’s get something clear: I’m a retired police captain with the Birmingham Police Department, but I’m not a witch, at least not on my good days. Murder, mystery and mayhem weren’t on my list as a reader or writer because they never felt like entertainment; they felt like work. But spice that pot with a bit a magic, and I’m in!

Who knows where book ideas come from? Sometimes you can put your finger on it, but this time, I was just brushing my teeth when three little words popped into my mind, along with a powerful sensation that some kind of story was lurking about. I had no idea what it was, other than the words were spoken to a police woman. So I quickly spit (toothpaste) and rushed to my laptop, where I learned the words were connected to a beautiful young rookie named Rose Brighton who saw something impossible while she was chasing a suspect down a dark alley, a chase that ended with her in the middle of every police officer’s nightmare—she’s shot a man in the back.  

I was intrigued. Why did she do it? How was she going to put her life back together and figure out what really happened and who she really was? The mystery of the three words has turned into three Magic City books—House of Rose, House of Stone and House of Iron. Those, by the way, represent the three elements that are needed to make steel and are uniquely found in proximity in Birmingham, Alabama, the reason the city grew so rapidly and was nicknamed The Magic City.

So this is your first venture into the crime genre?

House of Rose is my first crime fiction foray. My two previous novels are ancient historical fiction structured around the stories of two unnamed biblical women—Noah’s Wife and the wife of Lot in Angels at the Gate. I have written a nonfiction book, Last Chance for Justice, about the behind-the-scenes investigation of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.  Writing that story prepped me for House of Rose by requiring that I call on my experiences and knowledge as a police officer. I’d been out of the field for many years, but the feelings and perspectives of being a law enforcement officer is something you never loose.  It’s possible that writing that story laid the mental groundwork for writing about police work in a novel.

What do you enjoy most about writing process?

I truly love having a strong character who takes the reins and speaks and acts on his/her own. It’s a joyful experience to have figments of my imagination spring to life in a way that feels independent of me. Of course, I know that’s not what is really happening, that I’m in the grove of allowing things to flow from my subconscious, but it is still magic and what drives me to create.

I also enjoy what I call “brain #2,” where the craft of writing comes in, and I can take the raw stuff and shape it into something effective. It gives me satisfaction to use my skills to make the story experience something seamless and engaging for a reader.

Do you consider yourself a southern writer?

Since I was born in Alabama, attended college in Alabama and all three careers were in Alabama, I don’t see how I could be anything else!  I do love to travel and was entranced to visit the locales of my first novels in Turkey and Israel, but House of Rose is set in Birmingham, Alabama, on the Southside, which is where I first became a cop and lived for a decade. It was fun to have my character visit the restaurants and landmarks I know so well. It feels as if I am sharing those places with friends.


How did you become a writer?

Writing, at it’s heart, is story-telling. The first stories I created were for myself to keep the monsters from emerging when the lights went out. Stuffed animals went to bed with me, particularly a beautiful rabbit with long-lashed eyes that shut when you turned her on her back. I named her “Peter” because, at age four, that was the only rabbit name I knew. Peter, I decided, had magical powers that could protect me from the monsters, as did Spot, who was red with white spots and button eyes. The stories I told myself expanded into scenarios and interactions between the stuffed animals and how they fought evil.  Later, I became the neighborhood children’s director for the play-stories we enacted. It was fun—since I assigned the roles, I always got to be the queen! That was the beginning. It’s never stopped. As a police officer, I often day-dreamed about plots and characters as we patrolled deserted night streets. It kept me entertained until the adrenaline-interludes which provided some of the fodder for my stories.


I understand you’re also working on another civil rights book about Birmingham. With that and two ancient historical novels, this new book is a totally different genre for you. Why do you decide to cross genre lines?

Crossing genre lines has always been verboten or at least, not recommended for writers who want to pursue successful careers. That’s why nom de plumes were invented. It was thought (by publishers) that readers would be confused and disappointed if they followed an author thinking they were going to get romance and it turned out a new book was a western or a literary work, like a reader can’t tell the difference! I give readers more credit than that. Why should I assume they are limited in their interests or aren’t willing to try something new, especially in the hands of an author they trust? I personally love being surprised by something fresh, being stretched by new experiences and ideas. Everything is fodder for my mind and when things go into that dark, chaotic space, they come out in my writing. That’s what creativity is—the juxtaposition of the strange and the familiar, the known and unknown, all mixed together in the exploration of what it means to be a human being. In it’s own way, that’s what this new book—House of Rose—does.

Last question—So now that you’ve got me really curious, what were the “three little words” that were a catalyst for this trilogy?


“You’re a hero.”

 T. K. Thorne

T. K. Thorne

T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama.  “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” In her newest novel, HOUSE OF ROSE, murder and mayhem mix with a little magic when a police officer discovers she’s a witch. Both her award-winning debut historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, tell the stories of unknown women in famous biblical tales—the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. Her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, the inside story of the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list. T.K. loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap.  

Alina Stefanescu
Blackberries, the Coosa River, and bags of dry beans: Tina Mozelle Braziel's new poetry collection.
 Tina Mozelle Braziel, winner of the 2017 Philip Levine Poetry Prize

Tina Mozelle Braziel, winner of the 2017 Philip Levine Poetry Prize

Memory is a seductive mistress. Poet Gerald Stern once said: “The obsession to remember is a loyalty to something, isn’t it? It’s often a loyalty to things that in and of themselves might seem insignificant..”

What loyal rememberings do you revisit in your poems? What remembering do you want to revisit but find yourself stymied? Why? Explain.

I return to memories that question the worth or value of something. Sometimes it is as ordinary as the bad beans my mother had culled out of a bag of dry beans. Although my mother said nothing would come of them, I planted them; they sprouted.  My mother took those sprouts as proof of my green thumb. But for me, they cultivated my sense of relativity: beans that would have been bad in the pot became good in the ground. When I write about this memory in “Mama Says Nothing Good,” I suppose that “what is bad is just something good / appearing where it shouldn’t.” While I seriously doubt that is the lesson my mother wanted me to take from that experience, it helped me negotiate other value judgements, particularly those about class.

My fondest memories are of growing up in Clear Springs Marina and Trailer Park on the Coosa River. For me, it was a place of beauty (light shimmering on the water) and abundance (fish frys and blackberry-picking). I am aware that most people associate trailers with trash. But I can’t reconcile my memories with that, so I write back, hoping people will find some value where they hadn’t before, in places or people that are disparaged. If nothing else, I’d like my poems to encourage readers to give themselves a break, a moment to smile into a soft breeze and watch the leaves lift instead of frantically chasing what we call the American Dream which feels more and more like a mandate. Living on the Coosa taught me the value of relaxing and watching the egrets finding their roosts in the branches. My loyalty to that place runs deep, deep enough that I’ve been accused of having a trailer park chip on my shoulder. I have no intention of knocking it off.

I write about my childhood and about building a house by hand with my husband. Maybe remembering home is how I best grasp and find significance now. However, my brain is always replaying memories of random landscapes. It is as if I inhabit a skewed greater romantic lyric. For example, as I practice yoga, I vividly remember an old commute down highway 22 when it was mostly woods and old limestone quarries or I think about headlights sifting through the pines when I was searching for a campground in Red River Gorge. What those reoccurring landscapes mean, I wish I knew.

You won the 2017 Philip Levine Prize, a prestigious national award, for your forthcoming collection. Tell me a little bit about this collection--how it came together, the bones, the ligaments, the tender parts.   

Known by Salt puts its muscle into questioning the divisions made by class, gender, and between humankind and nature. I’m a first generation college student. While I love much of what I’ve learned in school, it is also a place where I encountered stereotypes about the working class. At its bone, Known by Salt is my way of saying that I am of that place (trailer parks) and those people (construction workers). I hold an MA and MFA in poetry, but I’ve learned grit, wisdom, and feminism in fast-food joints, forests, building sites, and strip clubs. I want to speak to how much we need and should appreciate those who build our bridges and serve our food.  Known by Salt’s most tender parts are love poems, to my family, to the Coosa River, to poets I adore, to the creatures inhabiting Alabama’s wooded ridges, and to my multi-talented, raised-on-a-farm, novelist husband.

Known by Salt came together as a response to a rejection to a chapbook manuscript in 2014. PorkbellyPress said they liked my voice, but they wanted something more focused. Until then, the ligature between my childhood and my recent house-building seemed strong, but the rejection made me realize that it may take a full-length book to make those ligaments work for a publisher and a reader. In 2015, I re-submitted a focused manuscript of house-building poems to PorkbellyPress. They accepted Rooted by Thirst and published it in 2016. But from the time of that rejection to when Known by Salt was awarded the Philip Levine Prize, I continually revised my book-manuscript, adding and subtracting poems to strengthen the connections between where I come from and who I am. Poet Lauren Slaughter and my husband James Braziel were wonderful first readers of those multiple revisions.

In the poem "I've Learned," you stun the reader with this simile: "Wear a dress so tight I look/ like a can of busted biscuits?" How does a poem start for you? Does it begin with an image or a feeling you want to image? If you had to analogize it, what process does writing a poem most resemble?

I can’t take credit for that simile though I wish I could. For a few years, I took a yoga class in rural Alabama. Another woman in the class happened to mutter that yoga pants made her look like a can of busted biscuits. I was thrilled by the image and knew that I wanted to use it somewhere somehow because it was so vivid, so perfectly visceral.

“I’ve Learned” didn’t start there though. Instead, it was sparked by my great admiration of the many lizards that live around my house and yard. I’m fascinated with their bodies and how they hold themselves with such ease, it doesn’t seem like holding at all. That and I’m flattered by how they look me in the eye, cock their tiny heads, and flare their throats (a courting gesture) as if I’m one hot lizard lady. I liked thinking about them and writing about them, so I had some lines about lizards in my notebooks already. Overhearing the busted biscuits quote helped bring it all together.    

Often writing poems feels like collage making to me. I write in multiple notebooks, so when I’m pulling together the images and language for a poem, I’ll have three or four open on my desk so I can draw an image from one notebook, a phrase from another, an ending from still another, until something like a whole poem comes together. Another, more southern, way of imagining my process is it is as if I’m “fixing my plate” from a random collection of dishes I prepared and plattered earlier.

But to answer your question more specifically, poems typically begin with images for me. I agree with Mark Doty in “Souls on Ice,”  “Our metaphors go on ahead of us. They know before we do.” Like Doty, I see my role as a poet is to attend to the world, its images, and then unfold the meaning found in them. It may be more honest to say that Doty gives me permission or encouragement to try that and to believe that “metaphor [is] the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.”  To me, that is the pleasure: discovering that bit of myself that reaches to lizards and busted biscuits to be made known.  

Tina, I love how much of your world--the daily enchantments, encounters, and sensations--are entering this conversation. It's as if a poem is cracking the sidewalk beneath our feet. A poem or a tree root. On that note, does poetry root you or displace you or something else entirely? How do you relate to your poetry?

Without a doubt writing poetry roots me. It deepens my experience of the world by giving me cause to turn an image or phrase over and over in my mind and on the page. It makes me realize that I, maybe all of us, can’t really get to the bottom of things. We can always go deeper; there is always more mystery. Sometimes I try to re-experience or recreate certain phenomena so I can spend more time with it. For example, walking into a building once, I noticed how I could see both my reflection and what was inside the building in its windows. This double vision intrigued me. I was already fascinated by how glass is a liquid that moves at such a slow rate it seems solid. While writing, I paid closer attention to the wall size windows in my house around dusk. One night after I had spent an hour or so of turning lights on and off and looking at and through my reflection in our windows, my husband asked me what I was doing. That night I not only was able to spend more time with an image, I also realized how much odd behavior I can get away with by saying I’m writing.

Writing poetry elates me as well as rooting me. I feel buoyed by writing. To mix my metaphors just a bit, I relate to writing poetry like a tree, rooting down while reaching up and out at the same time.

Last question, is there something you would never consider writing in poetry? Is there a topic so taboo or off-limits that you can't bring yourself to touch it? What are the boundaries, whether social or ethical, of poetic license for you?

I can’t think of any topics that are too taboo for me right now. I think we can write about anything meaningfully if we come to it with humility and respect. Humility because we don’t and can’t ever know everything about a topic. Respect because we need to honor how everyone and everything is interconnected. That doesn’t mean I avoid using humor or calling out inappropriate actions. Instead, I avoid language that dismisses someone or something no matter what I’m writing about. Unfortunately, American culture is rather hell-bent on setting up hierarchies and creating language of dismissiveness. We inject sneers into even neutral terms to the point they become barbed and hateful. I don’t want to traffic in that. And I don’t want to support treating anyone or anything differently than I would want to be treated.


Tina Mozelle Braziel won the 2017 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for her book Known by Salt (Anhinga Press). She is the author of Rooted by Thirst (Porkbelly Press). Her work also appears in The Cincinnati Review, Southern Humanities Review, Tampa Review, and other journals. She has been awarded a fellowship for the Alabama State Council for the Arts and she served as an artist-in-residence at Hot Springs National Park. She directs the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and she and her husband, novelist James Braziel, live and write in a glass cabin that they are building by hand.  Learn more from Tina Mozelle Braziel’s website or follow her on twitter at @tinamozelle.





Alina Stefanescu
"Shielded", a poem by Clarence Bonner.
 1981 photo of Camp Hill, Alabama sourced from Georgia State University Archives.

1981 photo of Camp Hill, Alabama sourced from Georgia State University Archives.

Shielded

You stumble and slide down the dark roadside bank
Wet, in rubber boots
Heavy turnout gear and helmet deflecting warm rain,
The sparks from the saw,
The flying metal from the hydraulic jaws

You moved here not long ago

Latex gloves shield you from the blood.

You shield the firemen up on the road--
The ones who babysat them,
The godmother to them,
The Fire Chief who drove their school bus
--From their distant stare,
The trickle of blood from a sheared aorta
That killed them despite their seat belt
When they hit the oak
--From their vacant eyes and brain protruding
From the back of an elongated skull.

Did they soil those pants six inches before impact,
Or when their brain stem switched off?

Yes, they are shielded, the ones who knew them.
Yet they haunt, whether you admit it or you don’t,
To yourself or to your brother and sister firemen.

You help the funeral home man lift them out,
Heavier now that the light has left them
And you never forget the sound and the feel
Of a body bag zipper.


We are proud to share this poem by AWC Historian and Board Member Clarence Bonner, who serves as a volunteer firefighter in the small town of Camp Hill. Like many small Alabama towns, the Fire Department runs entirely on grants and donations.

This year, the town of Camp Hill was only able to cover the cost of utilities and insurance for its fire department. If you would like to help sustain or support these men and their families, donations are deeply appreciated. They can be mailed to:

Camp Hill Volunteer Fire Department
PO Box 88
Camp Hill, AL 36850


Learn more about two long-serving Camp Hill firefighters that just retired last month.

Clarence (Dean) Bonner was born and raised in rural Georgia but can claim naturalized citizenship in Tallapoosa County, Alabama and Virginia Beach, Virginia as a retired Coast Guard veteran.

Bonner left the tarpaper shacks of Appalachia for a long military career, rising through the enlisted and officer ranks. Joining the Service in 1981 was his ticket out of a cotton mill that still had a company store when it closed in 2006.  He was a skilled Morse telegrapher and a calming voice during many search and rescue cases. He left a town of 300 souls to travel the world--living in Boston, New Orleans, DC, and even on the island of Guam for a couple of years. He finished his career as an intelligence analyst.

Dean was a weekly columnist for The Dadeville Record before he began work as a freelance writer for Lake Magazine and Lake Martin Living Magazine. His favorite assignment was exploring the Hog Mountain gold mine where his grandfather and great-grandfather worked.

Dean is a skilled Studebaker car mechanic, tube radio repairman, volunteer firefighter, town councilman, and a weekend gold prospector.  His poetry is published in two collections called The Breaking and A Stormy Beginning, by Scars Publications. He was a contributing editor for Lisa Ditchkoff's book The Girl with Caterpillar Eyebrows, about educating herself while she grew up in hiding from her father, an associate of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger.  

Dean’s memoir Seeking Asylum was a nonfiction winner in Alabama’s largest literary competition (AlaLitCom) in 2013, competing against writers nationwide.

His upcoming projects include recording two audio albums of his original humor, finishing a children’s book, and writing a new compilation of short stories.  Dean’s memoir collection I Talk Slower Than I Think, along with several later stories, are under development by Council Tree Productions as a television series with a working title Tar Nation.

Dean serves as a board member (Historian) of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave, the nation’s oldest writers’ organization.  Bonner discovered author Rick Bragg’s books after he completed his own book, but easily identifies with the similar life experiences in Bragg’s work.  His partner in crime Patricia, a multi-talented artist, shares these same interests. Together, they travel and spend time at homes in Alabama and Virginia.

 Clarence in Camp Hill at an earlier time.

Clarence in Camp Hill at an earlier time.

Alina Stefanescu
The 14th Annual My Favorite Poem Reading.
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In partnership with the Birmingham Arts Journal and Reed Books, the ASFA Creative Writing Department will once again host the Birmingham area's My Favorite Poem event. 

My Favorite Poem invites poetry lovers from throughout central Alabama to share their favorite poems and to offer what they love about them. 

A reception, hosted by the parents of ASFA Creative Writing students will follow the reading. This event is free and open to the public.


Friday, September 28th at 7:00 pm
Alabama School of Fine Arts
Creative Writing Auditorium
Birmingham, AL

Rebuilding With Poetry

The Booker T Washington magnet school for the arts in Montgomery burned down last month. They lost much of their campus, the library, and a great deal of expensive Visual Arts and Media Arts equipment/supplies. They’ve been displaced to a dormant elementary school, and they’re trying to salvage this school year as they recover/rebuild for the future.

As a result, this year the My Favorite Poem team invited the BTW-CW students to join them at the annual reading event. Eleven students, three parents, and the chair of the Creative Writing Department, AWC’s very own Foster Dickson, will attend; two of their students will join the group of readers. There will be a Poem-on-Demand donation table in the lobby during the reception.

If you’d like to assist the students and teachers of Booker T Washington, you can donate online to the FAME Foundation for fire-related donations. But most direct way for folks in the Birmingham metro area to show their support – especially for the BTW writers -- is to attend the MFP event at ASFA later this month!

Alina Stefanescu
"What's Old Is New": The Fitzgerald Museum Literary Contest
 Image source: Atlas Obscura

Image source: Atlas Obscura

"What's Old Is New": The Fitzgerald Museum Contest

Every year, the F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum hosts two annual writing competitions: Poetry & Short Story, in an effort to encourage writers of all ages to carry on the literary legacy of Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. 

AWC member and author Foster Dickson, who serves on the board of the Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery,  has been working with Executive Director Sarah Powell to bring the jazz onto the page for the Museum's Literary annual contest.  

2018 is the hundredth anniversary of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald meeting in Montgomery. Rather than being a simple fiction or poetry contest, the Fitzgerald Museum Contest will seek out works that are genre-bending, multimedia, and otherwise unique.
— Foster Dickson

F. Scott and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald were daring and revolutionary in their lives and in their art and writing. Today, one hundred years after the couple first met in Montgomery, Alabama, the Fitzgeralds’ literary and artistic works from the 1920s and 1930s are still regarded as groundbreaking, and The Fitzgerald Museum is seeking to identify and honor the daring and revolutionary young writers and artists of this generation.

Contest Guidelines:

The Fitzgerald Museum’s annual Literary Contest is seeking submissions of short fiction poetry, and multi-genre works, especially those works that break boundaries and defy tradition, that are highly original in style and scope, and that use literary and artistic techniques in innovative ways. Works with traditional forms and styles will be accepted, yet writers are encouraged to send works that utilize innovative forms and techniques. Literary works may include artwork, illustrations, font variations, and other graphic elements, with the caveat that these elements should enhance the work, not simply decorate the page.

Genres: Fiction, Poetry, Multi-Genre Categories

Grades 9–10, Grades 11–12, Undergraduate

Due to issues of compatibility, all works should be submitted electronically as PDFs to ensure that each submission appears as the author intends. PDF files should be named with the author’s first initial [dot] last name [underscore] title. For example, J.Smith_InnovativeStory.pdf. All submissions should be made using the form on the Fitzgerald Museum website. Each student may only enter once.

Submitted literary works will be judged in three separate age categories, so please be clear about that category. Prose submissions should not exceed 3,000 words. Poetry submissions should have 50 lines or fewer. Multi-genre works should not exceed ten pages. The submissions period is open from September 1 until December 1, 2018.

The Literary Contest will be judged by a panel of writers and artists. Award announcements will be made on March 15, 2019. In each age category, a single winner and honorable mentions will be named.

For more information, you can reach out to thefitzgeraldmuseum@gmail.com.

To learn more about the Museum and the role of the McPhillips family in its preservation, visit the  Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Alina Stefanescu
Poet Lana K. Austin's first collection.
 Poet Lana Austin

Poet Lana Austin

We are thrilled for AWC member Lana K. W. Austin, whose first full-length collection, Blood Harmony, officially comes out from Iris Press on September 3rd. I asked Lana about her first collection came together and she said:

I joyfully remember the story of how Blood Harmony's title poem, and really the catalyst for the entire book, came into being because it's a tale of how I was oh-so humbled and also magnificently encouraged at the same time.

I was in the senior honors seminar with Claudia Emerson at Mary Washington and I'd been writing history-centered poems about other people, some that'd even been lucky enough to garner awards and scholarships. I will always love narrative poems, especially if they delve into my home state of Kentucky and its iconic music or raw beauty.

But Claudia wanted more. 

"What about your history," she asked? 

I'd shied away from any "confessional" I-centered poems at that point, but as I started searching for my biological family and remembering my years in foster care singing with my half brother, I knew those memories were undoubtedly linked to the more narrative, biographical pieces on which I'd been focusing before. 

I stood humbled before Claudia then, cognizant of the fact that I'd been doing a very superficial surveying of the landscape of my home and my own life. 

She, however, saw it as a moment of epiphany, she with her eager and agile mind always seeking out new information, new visions of the old world. 

She encouraged me onward, which culminated in "Blood Harmony" the poem….which became the fulcrum of my MFA thesis at GMU and which, ten years later, has now become Blood Harmony the book. 

I'll never forget when I first brought that poem to Claudia and, honest to goodness, her face lit up. "You've found your voice!" Her expression and her words ignited me that day and they have every day since.

Here is a sample poem, "Blood Harmony," that first appeared in Columbia Journal in 2016 alongside two other poems from the new book.  

Blood Harmony

A single larynx halved,
             that’s how I perceived it

when I sang with my half
            brother--same mother, 

long gone. She is
            where it came from, 

our ability to blend,
             unique notes in a chord,

but still one voice. His tenor
             a ginger effervescence, 

and my aubergine alto
             painting what felt like

caverns-deep undertones
           in heavier hues,

our voices fused. Even
          in measures when one grew

more dominant on lead
           and the other receded, 

growing hybrid harmony, 
           a hymn shifting, 

we were rivulets divined
         from a vast river.

Creek, brook or stream--
          water from the same source.

Blood_Harmoy_front_cover[5].jpg

 

Advanced praise

"An ecclesiastical thread runs through this fine book, in that everything has its season, and everything—including joy and grief—goes together. Austin’s poems achieve through their own high and lonesome registers what we expect from the best blues or hillbilly music: the human experience in this weary world is affirmed, even dignified. I am glad these refreshing, bone- and blood-deep poems are in the world."

--Maurice Manning, author of One Man’s Dark, The Common Man, and Bucolics

Blood Harmony introduces a lively new voice to Appalachian poetry. Lana K. W. Austin celebrates the bonds of memory and blood in poems of both harmony and drama, remembering the blood spilled in the coalfields, and the struggles of families with loyalty and courage. The poems pay tribute to the place and soul of the region, the music of blending voices, adolescent desire, and the exuberance of motherhood, the enduring legacy of Jean Ritchie and Bill Monroe, and the mountains where the music was born.

—Robert Morgan,author of Dark Energy, Gap Creek, and Chasing the North Star

The great circle is unbroken in Lana Austin’s first full-length collection, Blood Harmony. The arc of mothering and hard unmothering, Kentucky floods and wanton drink, the luthier one with the carved grain and sorrowed ballads. In poems birthed from paradox, Austin’s fierce coupling of alto and effervescence infuses and uplifts family and community portraits and tributes to the high lonesome of her upbringing—Jean Ritchie, Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris. Her own unshakable voice prevails amid the downbeat of wounded genealogy, love’s aching counterpoint and antidote to loss. So put your hands on the radio still warm and faintly glowing, scoot closer to hear Austin’s “damned salvation of sound.” The circle thrums as it bends toward that stubbornly joyful noise, the chord so deep and alive within us.

—Linda Parsons,author of Mother Land and This Shaky Earth

Walt Whitman once advised young poets to “Be outrageous! Be outrageous! But not too damned outrageous.” Lana Austin’s Blood Harmony has exactly that balance of old and new, of the immediate and the distant, of challenge and embrace. Her Kentucky landscape shows as familiar as a family heirloom and the music of her poems is as clear as a harpsichord in a meadow. This first collection reminds us how the soul is always seeking, in its dream of place, the final character of one’s identity, one’s home. The Gospel says abide and these poems are enactments with bold, electric, convincing authority. Lana Austin’s is a new country music worthy of a great readership. Let it be.

—Dave Smith,author of Little Boats, Unsalvaged, The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems,
and Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry

Attentive to history, place, pitch and character, the poems of Lana Austin’s Blood Harmony find bonds in music that dovetail with chords in family and community. Her lovely and passionate verses interweave precise knowledge of traditional mountain and CW music with marvelous invention which renders a mandolin “an amulet of sound” and describes listeners to Emmylou Harris as “embered… into incandescence.” These poems are handmade and heart-carved with a luthier’s canny expertise. Anyone wishing to go, as her opening poem invites, “In Search of the Wild Dulcimer,” need look no farther than this collection where kindred sounds blend beyond description. In thrall to depths of the spirit, her poems are also sweetly free. Blood Harmony will make you sigh and sob, clap and stomp.

—R. T. Smith, recipient of the 2014 Weinstein Prize in Poetry and author of Outlaw Style

 

About the Poet

Lana K. W. Austin’s poems and short stories have recently been featured in Mid-American Review, Sou’wester, The Chariton Review, Columbia Journal, Zone 3, Appalachian Heritage, The Pinch, The New Guard, Switchback, Bloodroot, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and others. Austin has been a finalist and semi-finalist in numerous competitions, including the James Wright Poetry Award, the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award, the Zone 3 Book Award, the American Short Fiction Award, and the Machigonne Fiction Award. Born and raised in rural Kentucky, Austin studied creative writing at both Hollins University and the University of Mary Washington as an undergraduate and has an MFA from George Mason University (2008). Her first full-length poetry collection, Blood Harmony, is from Iris Press (2018) and her chapbook, In Search of the Wild Dulcimer, is from Finishing Line Press (2016). Austin has lived in England, Italy, and Washington, DC, but currently resides in Alabama, where she is an adjunct instructor in the English department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Also a journalist, Austin has written for numerous newspapers and magazines. For more information, visit her website

Alina Stefanescu
Rather than flunking college English: An interview with author Mike Burrell.
 Photo credit:  Gulf Coast News Today

Photo credit: Gulf Coast News Today

Alina Stefanescu talks to Mike Burrell about first novels, Elvis, blasphemy, and other sordid stuff.

Since I promised myself not to ask questions about beards in this interview, I'm going to go straight for the jugular. How did you, Mike Burrell, become a writer?

I suspect a therapist could delve into my brain and find some kind of mama issue lurking there.

My mother only had a sixth-grade education, but she was an inveterate reader. She read Hemingway and Faulkner. She read trashy romance magazines and true crime stories. She read Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters. She read comic books and the backs of cereal boxes.  While I’ve developed a little more of a reading filter than she had, there’s no doubt that I caught the reading bug from her. Long before I could call myself a creative writer, I was a shameless imitator of what I had read. In that sense my mother was my main inspiration to write. 

I was twenty or so before I attempted to write any kind of story. For one thing, I thought being a writer was much too lofty a goal for someone like me to pursue. Wasn’t writing for guys with white beards and three names? For another thing, my first year of college demonstrated how poorly prepared I was to write anything even if I had wanted to.  I took English 101 twice and was in the middle of flunking 102 when the instructor gave the class an assignment to write a short story. Every writer out there knows that nothing can make you feel more inadequate than hours of staring at a blank page. Several nights of doing that convinced me that  I had no business trying to write a story or even being in college for that matter.

The night before the assignment was due, I had completely given up and sat with my roommates, drinking beer and listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. After the third or fourth playing of the album, somewhere between “Tombstone Blues” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry,” I had a vision of a homeless guy watching a wealthy old lady emerge from a Cadillac.  Now, the lady actually shopped at the A&P where I worked, and the homeless guy used to come in to sell us his empty soda bottles. So Dylan didn’t paint them for me completely, he just put them together for me somehow. My buddies laughed at me when I said Dylan was a muse. But I can’t help but notice he just won the Nobel Prize for literature. With Bob Dylan’s help, I stayed up all night writing a story about the homeless guy struggling to retrieve a ring  the lady accidently dropped down a sewer grate.   

After grading all of our papers, the instructor stalked angrily into the classroom. She fairly well dog-cussed the class for not trying. She said everyone got an F on the assignment except one person who earned an A+. While slumped down in my seat, accepting my failure as a college student, she picked up a stack of paper and began to read. I could see visions of being drafted into the army and slogging around a swamp in Viet Nam. If I lived through Viet Nam, I figured I could probably come back and get a job in a sock mill or continue working at the A&P.  When my attention drifted back to the instructor’s voice, I thought the words she spoke sounded awfully familiar. My god! I thought. She’s reading my f***ing story.

Over the years, I suppressed the urge to write because I had been hungry in my life, and I had no desire to be a starving artist or a starving anything else. After ensuring there was little chance of me doing without food through early failure, I took Carolynne Scott’s fiction writing class at UAB. Carolynne encouraged me while I wrote some really bad short stories. Next, I wrote a couple of really sucky novels. I got a few stories published before writing a novella for a thesis in an MFA program. Then I revised the hell out of that novella and turned it into The Land of Grace.

 

I love knowing that what started as a novella wound its way into a novel. Of course, I have to ask about influence and inspiration. Which five writers do you list when someone (like me) asks for favorites? What do you learn from them? What do you covet or admire in their work?

These are the writers I reread when honing craft. I can’t give you just five, so I’ll sneak a couple more in by grouping them according to the tools I most want to borrow. 

  1. Francine Prose and Richard Yates—Great practitioners of the free and indirect style of close third-person narration. In Prose’s Blue Angel and Yate’s Revolutionary Road, a reader is always viewing the world through the eyes of the point-of-view character while moving unnoticed in and out of the character’s voice.
  2. George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle only)—Dialogue. Realistic dialogue. Dialogue that develops character. Sadly, in his subsequent books, he leaned on dialogue way too much, substituting it for narrative and leaving his characters to communicate with each other through ponderous shaggy-dog stories. But if I only had only one book in me, hell I’d settle for The Friends of Eddie Coyle in a second. 
  3. Graham Greene—Plotting. He’s the master of the plot. He wrote with the movies in mind even the literary masterpieces like The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American
  4. Raymond Chandler—The most elegant sentences written by an American (Well, actually he was born in England). Never mind that The Big Sleep really didn’t make a lot of sense—it’s an American classic. 
  5. John Kennedy Toole, Joseph Heller and Stanley Elkin—Humor, satire, and in the case of Elkin, an amazing, jazz-like style of prose that cannot be duplicated on this planet.

What do you love most about Alabama? Conversely, what do you find most challenging about being a resident of this state?

I’ll answer this in reverse order. I find it challenging to stay around and watch my state continually come down on the wrong side of history on everything—the civil rights struggle, marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, health care, immigration and on and on. Our schools lag behind most of the country, and it’s a shame that we refuse to adequately support them.   

With all of my complaints, I love Alabama because it’s my home. I can tell it’s my home because sometimes when I’m standing on a familiar piece of dirt, a pleasant childhood memory will pass in front of my eyes behind a whiff of honeysuckle or an autumn breeze rustling through the dry leaves.  And no matter where I go, how long I stay, or whatever good time I’ve had while I’m gone, I’m always flooded with that sweet coming-home feeling every time I return. 

My neighbors may not see the world as I do. They probably think I belong to some kind of liberal cult, and, I’m sure, they’ve never voted for any of the candidates I’ve supported in any election that’s ever been held. But I still like them because I’ve lived around them and people like them all my life. I know there’s a lot more to them than the crap they regurgitate from Fox News. And I suspect they like me. I imagine when I’m not looking, they shake their heads and say, “Ol’ Mike’s got some weird ways of looking at stuff, but he’s a pretty good ol’ boy.” 

 

Over the years, I suppressed the urge to write because I had been hungry in my life, and I had no desire to be a starving artist or a starving anything else. After ensuring there was little chance of me doing without food through early failure, I took Carolynne Scott’s fiction writing class at UAB.
— Mike Burrell

 Your debut novel about Elvis touches so many southern spaces, though some readers might find it irreverent. How does irreverence serve as a literary technique in your fiction (if it does)? And how did you tackle research while writing a fiction novel about the King?

Irreverence is in the eye of the reader.  A blogger recently refused to review my book because, she said, it was blasphemous. That assessment left me with an image of her quietly reading a couple of chapters and suddenly throwing it down as if she’d been holding a big chunk of glowing brimstone.

Being irreverent wasn’t a consideration in writing the book.  I began with these questions:  What would an Elvis worshiping cult look like? Who would be the most susceptible to its charms? How would a cult like that have originated? And what would it ultimately evolve into? 

Of course, I visited Graceland and Elvis’s Tupelo birthplace for perspective. The remaining research for the book consisted, for the most part, of some pretty easy and pleasurable reading. Peter Guralnick’s definitive Elvis bios, The Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love are both riveting. Elaine Dundy’s Elvis and Gladys not only describes the singer’s extremely close relationship with his mother, it also traces the history of his mother’s family. 

There may be some benign, positive and beneficial cults out there. But I didn’t look for any of those because a nice cult wouldn’t make for much of a story. I concentrated particularly on cults like The Branch Dividians, The Children of God and The People’s Temple. Cults of this kind have some common characteristics. They have a charismatic leader and a need to isolate their followers from the outside world. They teach that outsiders are the enemy, and they exercise control through fear of physical violence and fear of excommunication.

I also needed to know something about brainwashing techniques. For this I went back to the kidnapping of Patty Hurst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). I always found it fascinating that one day she’s Patty Hurst, heir to more money than I can even count, and a few weeks later she’s Tania, sporting a snappy little beret and waving an automatic rifle around a branch of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. If we are to believe the psychiatrists and other experts that her attorney, F. Lee Bailey, put on the stand at her trial, she was isolated in a closet and infantilized.  Her life was constantly threatened, and she was forced to depend on her captors for her welfare, comfort, her very survival. The resulting behavior is called the Stockholm Syndrome, in which the victim comes to sympathize with and even love her captors. 

That was essentially my research.  Then my imagination kicked in.   I imagined that the ultimate Elvis cult would have its own property–remote, isolated and designed in the likeness of Graceland with Elvis’s birthplace tossed in. It would be populated by cult members playing characters from The King’s life. Now, that by itself is a pretty absurd set-up. Add to that my answer to the question of who would be the most susceptible—an Elvis impersonator. Elvis tribute artists (known in the trade as ETAs) are as serious as a heart attack in the practice of their craft. Their fans take them seriously, too. But most people look at a guy who goes around looking like Elvis 24/7, making his living or extra income squeezing into a gaudy jumpsuit and performing Elvis’s clichéd Las Vegas act, and they see a clown. So I didn’t have to do much digging to mine some humor from that combination. In fact, it was pretty hard at times to restrain the humor because the more seriously the characters play their roles, the more absurd they appear.

I suspect that answering those questions I started with, especially the third one—how would it have originated—created the alleged irreverence in that blogger’s mind. I figured my cult needed an authoritative text with myths and rules for living. I came up with the Book of Gladys, a fictional book that is essentially a copycat version of the New Testament, with Elvis as the savior and written by his beloved mother. To those people who insist on being offended by this, I can only point out that if you take a close look at actual religious cults you’ll find that most of them model themselves on interpretations of the Bible or other religious texts. You’ll also find that some of the underlying beliefs of those cults are a hell of a lot wackier than the divinity of Elvis.

 

Thank you so much for sharing your time and imagination with us, Mike. One last question: who should buy The Land of Grace?

Well, if you can get into a wild roller coaster ride through the land of an insane Elvis worshiping cult that takes a few neck-jerking turns that you won’t see coming, you should definitely buy it.  


Mike Burrell's most recent short story is available to read online in the current issue of Still: The Journal.  You can purchase a copy of Mike's novel, The Land of Grace, from Alabama's own Livingston Press. And you should. 

Kirkus Reviews calls it: "An intoxicating tale that’s simultaneously gaudy and exquisite."

Mike Burrell on Mike Burrell

"In 1956, at eleven years old, I was one of the world’s first Elvis impersonators. I was a miserable failure at it. The pompadour didn’t work, and I couldn’t sing, so I wound up looking like a nerdy little kid with greasy hair who kept curling his lip as if he had an over-sized booger hung up in his nose. My only performance, a leg-shaking lip-sync of “Hound Dog” at a school assembly, was a big hit, but not for the desired reason. Instead of squealing girls, I was met with uproarious laughter. Kids laughed and called me Hound Dog till I traded in my droopy pomp for a buzz cut and left my Elvis impersonating career on a barber shop floor. But Elvis had made a life-long impression on me. And that impression, along with an eerie encounter with an Elvis cult in my later life (see my blog) were the inspirations for The Land of Grace.

I have earned my living as a farm laborer, a grocery clerk, a military intelligence analyst, a revenue examiner/manager, and a lawyer. I am a native of DeKalb County, Alabama and a graduate of Valley Head High School and Jacksonville State University. I earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. My short fiction has appeared in: Still: The JournalSouthern Humanities ReviewThe MacGuffin; and the Livingston Press anthology, Climbing Mt. Cheaha: Emerging Alabama Writers. I live with Debra, the love of my life, in Birmingham, Alabama."

Alina Stefanescu
Alabama State Poetry Society Fall Conference is open for registration!
ASPS Fall Conference Program.png

$35      member registration with catered lunch

$45.     non-member registration with catered lunch

$25.      member registration without catered lunch (bringing your own lunch)

Members and non-members can register for the conference online at the ASPS website. ASPS contest winners and poetry book of the year will be announced. 

Friday night events are free and open to the public. Attendees can bring friends and family to all non-workshop events. For additional information, email the ASPS President at rainscented@gmail.com.

ASPS Poetry Contests are open to members and non-members (with specification). Just download the rules above and get started. Deadline is September 18, 2018.

Alina Stefanescu
Charlotte Pence reviews "Let Us Imagine Her Name" by Sue Brannan Walker.

Let Us Imagine Her Name by Sue Brannan Walker

Reviewed by Charlotte Pence, Director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at University of South Alabama

“On a dirt road in Tuscaloosa, red and rutted, a girl turned woman, turned crone, wants a name—not the surname of the father who could not, would not marry the mother, for he already had a wife, this carpenter-papa named William, who said it was best to dispense with the child and hand her off like a sack of new potatoes.”

So begins an early chapter from Let Us Imagine Her Name, a new book by former Alabama poet laureate Sue Brannan Walker. This work is a lyrical, evocative exploration of identity by a writer who wonders about her birth parents.

Walker cultivates a history through invention, imagination, and investigation by entering into imagined conversations with other female figures such as Abigail Adams, Greta Garbo, Esther from Toomer’s Cane, Xue Xinran, Margaret Mead, and, of course, Olive Oyl.  To help situate readers, Walker writes of the book’s unique approach early in the collection: “Often she asked herself who she might be if she could be anyone, if she might give herself a name, and so this account is her own invention, a memoir in the form of an abecedarian—an alphabetical listing—whereby the writer makes determinations about who she might be.”

Unlike those of the Victorian era, few poets today fully use the weight of the direct address in poetry, that pronominal “you,” perhaps because of a nagging sense that we aren’t really talking to anyone. But Let Us Imagine Her Name gains so much of its energy through this direct address, allowing readers to eavesdrop among the great women.

As an adopted child, Sue Walker wondered about her history—which is another way to say she wonders about her present. Part memoir, part poetry, and part something else that I refuse to name as anything other than inspired, this book seeks to articulate how a person comes to build the self.  The authorial “I” in this collection tries on different personas in an attempt at wholeness.

Not only does the book explore personal identity, but also lyrical forms—which one could say is identity in the genre of poetry. One of the many things I love about this book is its gutsiness to play, be it through 43-word titles, a mish-mash of Fanny Farmer recipes and cooking advice, conversations with quotes from Jean Toomer’s Cane, and much more.

Ultimately, the book’s playfulness leads to authority and power, such as the power of naming. “The first step to wisdom… is getting things by their right names,” E.O. Wilson wrote. And yet the act of naming is a process that is never completed, for as we all know, life continuously changes—as have those objects we attempt to define by their names.  While investigating identity, Walker is aware of the elusiveness of such a search with her epigraph from Derrida that states “Give me a name? But why? I don’t know exactly; maybe to lose my own.”

This collection doesn’t attempt to find ‘the whole truth,’ which Walker describes as “green as unmowed grass.” The truth in this book comes as it often does: in fragments that don’t always join but sometimes do, like a jigsaw puzzle made from ten puzzles all thrown into one box. Sue Brannan Walker’s book embraces the fact that we are more than what anyone can see or articulate. The search for self is often as close as one will come to finding any answers.


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Charlotte Pence's first book of poems, Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), received an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews. She is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. In August of 2017, she moved to Mobile to become the director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at University of South Alabama.

 

Alina Stefanescu
Author Amos Jasper Wright IV's magic, tragic fiction.

In this week's AWC member feature, Alina Stefanescu talks to author Amos Jasper Wright IV about Birmingham, fiction, maps, music, irony, and southern culture on the skids. All italics are Alina's and the rest is straight from Amos himself. Enjoy.

Anyone from Alabama inherits the omnipresent culture of the Bible Belt, so Christianity was syncretized in my mind with this early exposure to Native American culture.
— Amos Jasper Wright IV

Hi Amos. I understand you hail from Birmingham. Tell me about your time in the Magic City. Do you have any favorite places, whether pubs, cafes, or swimming holes? From a distance, what is most salient in your memories and affections?

We often endearingly referred to the Magic City as the Tragic City, and though the city's image is evolving out of the shadow of its previous stigma it will probably always be more tragic than magic for me, though I acknowledge this may have more to do with my perceptions and experiences of the city than anything else. Nevertheless, there's enough magic there to motivate me to write about the city, even today. I'm often disoriented visiting the city now - the skyline is taller and there are investments where there used to be either vacant lots or abandoned properties. There were few condos then, and UAB's campus primarily served commuters as it struggled through the inchoate phases of developing an identity. The transit terminal still had its copper dome. Friends got robbed at gunpoint. Nobody cared about the Birmingham Barons before Regions Field was built by Railroad Park, though we went to the throwback games at Rickwood Field. The glory days of Legion Field were long past when the Crimson Tide played in town, though we went to soccer matches and some downright sad UAB Blazers games there on free tickets. People moving to the city now may find it incredible that Avondale was recently a ghost town, though layered beneath my memory there are those who remember Avondale and 41st Street before its cycle of decline. When I walked by the abandoned Pizitz Building, since repurposed as a food hall and apartments, I thought about my grandmother's memories of shopping there when it was still a department store. I am still processing my time in Birmingham, but the most salient and affective in my memory is the series of lifelong friendships I formed while living in Birmingham. We lived in cheap ratty apartments in Southside and Highland Park and threw house parties several nights a week. I've never found that type of friendship anywhere else. In the narrative we shared, Birmingham and Alabama were places to leave, if you had the means to do so - not everyone does. We congratulated ourselves as pioneers of the first wave of re-urbanization centered around the Phoenix Building where we briefly lived before moving to cities like Seattle, Austin, New York City and Boston. I had pretensions to the visual arts then, and we rented studio space at the corner of 18th Street and 2nd Avenue South, which is now the Railroad Square development. The transformation of this district and elsewhere has been startling and surreal, mostly observed from the sidelines, as Railroad Park was still in the planning stages when I lived there, though I am sure the residents of neighborhoods like Avondale are more startled than I could ever be. We rented the entire second floor of the Railroad Square building when Railroad Park was just an empty lot by the railroad tracks, made Gordon Matta Clark-esque sculptures and paintings, hosted art openings and threw parties on the rooftop. I sometimes feel that I've missed out on the redevelopment of Birmingham, but the world is much bigger than your hometown and maybe the city needed the energy of people from outside of Alabama or natives who did not share this tragic vision of the city. There was also something paradoxically exhilarating and morbid about making art and throwing parties amidst all this urban decay.

In many ways, Birmingham was preserved like taxidermy by neglect because it did not experience the influx of redevelopment capital that wrought Sherman's Second March to the Sea upon Atlanta. Birmingham then was an apocalyptic, windblown aftermath in my imagination. Downtown has since developed the closest thing to an urban renaissance the state has ever seen, but many of the city's neighborhoods are still living this vision. Birmingham is now facing acute equity issues - when has it not? - related to the spatial distribution of the benefits of reinvestment. Anyway, I'm preaching now.

 The map of Magic City that Amos made especially for this interview.

The map of Magic City that Amos made especially for this interview.

Many nights we crawled into the Leer Tower (you didn't have to break in - the building was already occupied by transients) right across the street from the headquarters of the Birmingham Police Department, took photos of the devastation, and climbed the stairs to the roof for the panoramic view of Jones Valley. Those types of experiences were probably the provenance of the vision of Birmingham as this tragic city desolated by suburbanization and white supremacy. We took the MAX transit buses all over the city, into neighborhoods like Woodlawn, Norwood, Ensley, Smithfield. Before the craft beer economy really boomed we often drove over to Atlanta, stocked up on beer and then smuggled forties and high gravity beers across the Alabama-Georgia state line. I blame the state legislature that till the age of about twenty-something the best beer I'd ever had was swill. Only in Birmingham would beer revitalize a dying town. Before Railroad Park the only greenspace in the city was Kelly Ingram Park and Linn Park. I went there on my lunch break and talked to bums or wandered around the Birmingham Museum of Art. Then the good ole boys down in Montgomery, in their infinite wisdom, updated the beer laws and released this untapped boozy potential - it was like the end of Prohibition. Economic development advocates will call this progress; others may call it the "whitening" of the city, but I'll refrain from jeremiads. Most of the bars we frequented, with the exceptions of The Garage, The Nick, and The J. Clyde are now gone. Most nights ended in debauchery and blackouts at the Upside Down Plaza, an underground bar like the last circle in Dante's Inferno. Secondhand smoke and bloody broken mirrors on the bathroom floor. Our less rowdy evenings centered around Bailey's Irish Pub, which was behind Dave's in Five Points and was gutted after I left. Bottletree closed sometime after I moved away. A blur of house parties throughout Southside, Highland Park and the few people then living in lofts downtown. After the Upside Down Plaza kicked us out we got drunk food at Al's Deli and Grill on 10th Avenue South. We unwittingly contributed to the ruination of Gip's Place. To swim, we dipped in cold water quarries in Tarrant or used Google Earth to find pools in the backyards and secret courtyards of apartment buildings whose fences we could jump. Niki's West out on Finley is still a place I try to meat-and-three whenever I'm in town. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Jim Reed Books, which was then on the second floor of a building on 20th Street, since razed for a mixed-use building. I can't thank Jim Reed enough for the oasis this bookstore represented - many of the books which influenced me were purchased from that bookstore. From the Phoenix Building we were around the corner from the 4th Avenue North Historic District. Bare Hands Art Gallery on 21st Street used to host a festival for Dia de los Muertos that everyone anticipated all year and where I first learned of the work of Civil Rights photographer Spider Martin. "Making it" in the Birmingham art scene meant having a show there.

I worked at the downtown branch of the Birmingham Public Library, which introduced me to another aspect of the city, and after work took epic walks, usually with libations, and rambled about the quiet, empty city for hours, debating and arguing, talking with the strangers we encountered on the streets and planning our escape. Birmingham was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: after 5 pm, when all the commuters went home, the personality of the city totally changed - it got weird. Growing up, Birmingham was not a place most white people spoke fondly of - it was a place to work and then escape as quickly as possible to the homogenized safety of the Over-the-Mountain bedroom communities. More tragic than magic. Sloss Furnaces and the legacy of the city's industrial history loom large in my memory. Trips to the Civil Rights Institute left me daunted with the terrifying impression that something historically was very wrong with the city, sick even, but the vague malaise of the city stultified attempts to articulate the nightmare that was police dogs and fire hoses. Leaving gave me some perspective on that nightmare. I go home now and Birmingham, a city to which I owe much, no longer feels like my city, and maybe it never was.

 

I love hearing your stories about Birmingham--it brings the terrain to life. Some of the spaces and names are so familiar, including Jim Reed, who did his time in service of AWC and the literary community. To narrow everything down now, what is your favorite place in Alabama and why?

In a state with so many places of personal importance and interest, it is difficult to choose one, but I would vote for the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma because it symbolizes so many of the themes that resonate with me  and was a literal battleground between the forces of reaction and those who dreamed of a more perfect republic, and though the bridge doesn’t figure prominently in the current short story collection, it is a place I have returned to many times in unpublished fiction.  

And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States . . . ev- ery person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb . . . What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States. Birmingham is not a dying city; it is dead.
— Charles Morgan, addressing the Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club, on the day subsequent to the Birmingham Church bombing that killed four girls.

I couldn't resist adding the epigraph from your forthcoming fiction collection above--the words of Charles Morgan in the context of the historical present-- a brave and poignant introduction to your stories, an earnest engagement with the past that many authors prefer to ignore. Writing from inside the southern space where history plays such a powerful role in politics, we are beholden to the past. 

Some writers have noted that the 2016 election affected their fictional voices. For example, one conversation I keep wandering into laments the loss of irony as a technique or tone. The rise of the alt-right and reality television strain the use of irony in the context of a postmodern presidency. Have you noted any changes in your voice or fictional style since the election? Why or why not?

After the election, I immediately began drafting a “Trump novel,” which I am sure we will see many of in the coming years - I certainly am not the only one who did this. It was conceived as a dystopian political novel in which certain seemingly inconsequential details were altered, but details with momentous consequences when extrapolated out. Anyway, working on this novel at the same time that we were being daily Steve-Bannoned  with randomized ambushes of spectacle events and political theater contrived for maximum whiplash was simply too overwhelming, and I realized the project could benefit from a few years of retrospection to process it all. I managed 30,000 words or so on this “Trump novel” before shelving it. I may never finish it, but at least it was cathartic. At the same time, this project accentuated the need for more direct political action, as writing a novel, even one of dissent, feels a little like  “fiddling while Rome burns,” so to speak. But writers have produced enduring works through times even more tumultuous and disheartening than ours, so the political novel is likely here to stay.

As for irony and tone, I haven’t noticed any dramatic changes in my fictional style, as I’ve always been engaged with social and political issues, even before seriously committing to  writing, though the two novels I have drafted since the election possess an urgency about issues such as environmental catastrophe and race that might be new to me. I think irony and sarcasm are too deeply embedded in my style and voice to be totally suppressed by the shenanigans of the Electoral College - irony and humor have long been defense or coping mechanisms. However, the tone of one of the aforesaid two novels is more earnest, elegiac, lyrical and reflective than anything I’ve attempted before, though whether this is attributable to the current political climate or my maturation as a writer is probably unknowable or moot.


For an off-hand experiment, can you list three of your favorite short stories and pair them with a favorite song and musician? You can explain or not explain. You can quote lyrics or stick to the links.

Although I’ve recently been reading the stories of John Cheever and Clarice Lispector, I offer the couplings below without annotation:

  1. Samuel Beckett’s “The Lost Ones”/”Texts For Nothing” paired with XXXtentacion’s “Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares

  2. David Foster Wallace’s “Good Ole Neon” from the story collection Oblivion paired with Chuuwee’s “Lootkemia

  3. Barry Hannah’s “Allons, Mes Enfants” from Bats Out of Hell paired with Pardison Fontaine’s ‘Hooporeerap


I adore Clarice Lispector--she opened so many doors of permission for me as a fiction writer. Are there any superstitions or folkways in Alabama that spark (or have sparked) your literary attention? How does Southern life enter your writing?

I still contemplate  “non-southern” writing, as I hope to one day write about themes or subjects which are not quintessentially “Southern” (the “Trump novel” was an attempt at that), though who knows if that will ever come to fruition, but in a way Southern life is my writing, as much as I may sometimes balk at that. Being a “southern writer” is both a blessing and a curse, as you inherit a rich legacy and tradition of  archetypes, consciousness, images, metaphors, landscapes, weather, and tropes in which to work, but the curse is that you are compelled to work in the long shadow of this storied tradition which can feel stultifying, and then you get branded as a “southern” regional writer for the sake of book marketing. Who wants to write in the shadow of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor? In that sense, the rich tradition becomes baggage. I lived outside the South long enough to put the South in some perspective, insofar as that is possible.

My grandfather was an archaeologist, so I grew up being exposed to native myths, iconography and symbolism, as well as the myriad artefacts he collected and archived. Because of the materiality of these cultural artefacts, the Creeks for example seemed as tangible and real  as the Methodists or Southern Baptists down the street. Anyone from Alabama inherits the omnipresent culture of the Bible Belt, so Christianity was syncretized in my mind with this early exposure to Native American culture. Even if you grow up in a nominally secular family it would still be a task to escape the influence of the Bible Belt; even the southern atheists I’ve known who resist it become as evangelical and zealous about atheism as the religious fanatics they were spurning. Reliance on this storehouse of hybridized imagery  isn’t even conscious. We had our own miracles: men walked on water, harrowed hell and returned from the dead. Then there were the family stories and folkways, of Methodist circuit rider preachers and the wartime exploits of my grandfather who was a career pilot in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam - aircraft appear frequently in some of my unpublished work. An uncle who set fire to a field just to see the fire trucks come. My grandmother heard George Washington Carver speak in Camp Hill, Alabama. A house divided by the madness of Alabama and Auburn football loyalties.

The greater context for these familial folkways is the historical memory of the state at large, which did not always affect me directly, but which my family was very aware of as history: the failed Bonapartist experiment of the Vine and Olive Colony down in Marengo County; the Wetumpka impact crater, where a meteorite blasted the earth; the slave ship Clotilde’s illegal voyage from the slave coast of Africa to Mobile; the photo-journalistic forays  of Walker Evans and James Agee in Hale County; the stories about the early industrial tycoons who founded Birmingham; the Tuskegee Airmen; the Free State of Winston; the quilts of Gee’s Bend; the Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign; the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and so on. As a society, we are probably more deracinated than ever, so these folkways have a way of grounding one in the specificity of a place.  

Thank you so much to Amos for taking the time to share his thoughts with us. You can purchase a copy of his forthcoming fiction collection, Nobody Knows How It Got This Good, from Alabama's very own Livingston Press. And you should


Amos Jasper Wright IV is native to the dirt of Birmingham, Alabama, but has called Alabama, Massachusetts and Louisiana home. He holds a master's degree in English and creative writing from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and a master's degree in urban planning from Tufts University, but he does not condone educational signaling.His fiction and poems have appeared in Arcadia, Birmingham Arts Journal, Clarion, Fieldstone Review, Folio, Grain Magazine, Gravel, The Hollins Critic, Interim, New Ohio Review, New Orleans Review, Off the Coast, Pale Horse Review, Roanoke Review, Salamander, Tacenda Literary Magazine, Union Station Magazine, Yes, Poetry and Zouch. He is currently working on several novels titled Petrochemical Nocturne, King Cockfight, The Dead Mule Rides Again, In the Basement of the Anthropocene, and When A Good Thing Lasts Too Long. Today he lives and works in New Orleans. His author website can be found at www.amosjasperwright.com

To sample Amos' writing, read "Aubade," a poem published in Gravel magazine. Or wander through his website to find more.

If you want to know what the American South has become today and how much the people who live here have given up of their souls and money to fix a past that can’t be fixed, then read Amos Jasper Wright’s debut book, Nobody Knows How It Got This Good. Wright’s characters are truth tellers, and every day they create maps to get them through the city of Birmingham, Alabama with its dangerous steam plant and high rise banks, luxury car dealerships and dilapidated buildings. Eventually the maps lead out of town to the last suppers of violent men, an oil spill in the Gulf, and the coal trade in Columbia so the lights in Alabama can be kept on. But no matter how far they get, they come back looking for signs of change. In the title story, a block party in a parking lot marks the opening of a new superstore in an abandoned mall, and a friend says, ‘Nobody knows how it got this good.’ These stories, told with great care, haunt and bite with revelation.
— James Braziel, author of 'Birmingham, 35 Miles' and 'Snakeskin Road'
Alina Stefanescu