I’m not a very good friend. I never have been. High school, college, even my MFA, where the slogan usually goes something like “you’ll meet those few special people whom you’ll share your writing with for years to follow,” have all come and gone and I haven’t really kept up with anyone I made any kind of a connection with.
It’s not that I’m antisocial, unable to empathize with others, or some kind of total introvert. Sure, I rarely went to any of the MFA parties, and when I did, I usually left early. I didn’t attend nearly as many of the student, faculty, or guest readings that precede most of these parties as I should have either, and I joined in on even less of the post-workshop chitchat that usually went down at whatever bar. But I wasn’t holed up in my room by my lonesome trying to complete a crown of sonnets on Charles Bronson or muttering something about the duende to myself for hours on end either. I was out and about with real people, people who were in the very MFA program I was in, we just weren’t doing a lot of the things everyone else was doing or expected to take part in.
I fell in with a smaller group of “like-minded” individuals within the already small group that was my MFA cohort, like I’m sure most everyone else in my year and in the years before and after had done as well. You find a few people that make sense to you, whose work or criticism you admire or are excited about, who comfort or challenge you in some essential way, who are just the right amount of weird or blah, who like Russian Constructivism, Bone Thugs & Harmony, the Yankees, or kittens just as much as you do, and you build some kind of relationship from there. These are supposed to be “those few special people.” And it’s true, these people (our group) were those people for me at the time. What we rallied around was mostly political but also aesthetic: social justice, cultural/ethnic studies, authenticity and what all these things meant or how they played out in our own writing and the writing of others, as well as the larger system that was the MFA program itself. You could even call what we had some kind of a faction. Not that things were really all that combative, but there was a definite ideological rift, and it showed in places like workshop, and it probably accounted for our more general absence when it came to things like an MFA picnic or Christmas party. Where other smaller groups could easily assimilate back into The Program, we were less likely to do so. You would think that a tighter, more closed social configuration like this would make for stronger, longer lasting ties, but that wasn’t really the case, at least not for me. Don’t get me wrong. These were all what I’d call good people for the most part, some of the best people I’ve been fortunate enough to know, and they’ve had a lasting impact on the way I think about writing and the world, I just haven’t shared as much as a “what’s up” with most of them in years.
If I’m honest with myself, this all most likely has something to do with my own standoffishness. I’ve always maintained some level of final remove even with those people I’ve been closest too. I’d be more than happy to talk to you about things like literature, art, current events, music, movies, baseball, etc. I’ll even talk to you about your more personal problems and share some of my own. It’s not that I’m reluctant to really, truly get to know people. I don’t shy away from those difficult or vulnerable discussions/moments that can lead to rich and genuine friendships, it’s just that I’m pretty constantly prepared for any and every friendship to ultimately end.
Maybe it’s because I’ve moved around a lot (3 high schools, a transfer in undergrad). Maybe it’s just a general trust issue or a fear of attachment. Maybe it has something to do with the kinds of things that 20-somethings have come to value: spontaneity, flexibility, movement. Whatever the case may be, I’ve come to cultivate a propensity for the kind of transience that has allowed me to float in and out of people’s lives with relative ease.
My latest move has brought me 1,750 miles to Austin, TX. The kind of transience I mention above has certainly played a part in this decision, but it has also been challenged by it. I could say that I hit the open road for Austin because it seemed like something new and interesting to do, and it was, and that did appeal to me, but ultimately, I’m here because of a girl, a girl who I told myself I was ready to start a meaningful and committed relationship with. I guess I’m prepared for this relationship to end too, but I really don’t want it to, and I would probably be a big mess in a way that I haven’t been in a very long time if it did. Sure, this is all kind of scary, but it’s something I’m willing to embrace because I know that the possible success of this relationship is worth the risk of its failure.
And so, it seems, I’ve finally put down a few roots. I’ve got a steady job. I’ve lived with my girlfriend for well over a year. All her friends are now mostly my friends by proxy. I get along with them all relatively well because they’re all thoughtful, interesting people. A lot of us in this group are writers, or at the very least, voracious readers. We can still talk about writing without sounding too defeated or disillusioned about the whole business of publishing, self-promotion, etc. There’s still an enthusiasm about what people are reading or working on, which is something I need a regular dose of. My girlfriend’s a writer too. We do a good job of pushing each other for whatever it is that we want to accomplish with our work. Things are what normal people might call healthy or stable, and I like that. Normal people have some pretty solid advice to offer sometimes. When they’re not too busy painting their living room a fresh shade of sherwood tan, watching Diet Pepsi Presents America Something America, or buying golden retrievers, they will usually share some of this advice with you, and maybe you should listen. Not only am I regularly surprised with how regularly happy I am (just like a regular guy), I’m also getting more things done with my writing than I have in a long time, without that element of chaos, edge, or indeterminacy in my life that I had once thought somehow essential to my work.
Austin itself is a great place to set up shop as a writer. There are a lot of long-standing writers’ communities here that have a lot to offer. On any given day, there’s likely to be some kind of literary event at any number of bookstores, coffee shops, or bars. UT and the Michener Center consistently put together a schedule of top-notch talent for their reading series. The number of venues and programs that offer a space for writers to connect with other writers in some way reads like what I imagine an embarrassingly wealthy person’s grocery list would read like (assuming the obscenely rich do, in fact, buy groceries). There’s Neo-Soul Lounge, Fun Party, Malvern Books, Resistencia, Austin Poetry Society, BookWoman, MACC, Writebloody, The Texas Book Festival, Book People, and much, much more.
Groups like Austin Poetry Society offer workshops and craft sessions to help you keep up on your game. If you’re in the mood for some slam, try Neo-Soul Lounge. Would you like to buy a recent release from an indie press like Black Ocean, Fence, Caketrain, Bloof Books, or Alice James without having to do so online? How about spending more money than your budget will allow you to spend on too many other amazing books you’ve found along the way while searching for said original books? Well, a place like Malvern Books with its huge selection of new fiction and poetry has you covered. Would you like to check out a local lit journal/press? Of course there’s Bat City, but there’s also Raw Paw, fields, A Strange Object, and The Austin Review, among others. A lot of these journals do more than just publish great writing. They help foster the very lit scene here in Austin that they depend on to thrive through various events and initiatives. Other Austin mainstays like Resistencia and Neo-Soul Lounge do much of the same. Through a real involvement in the community and with a strong emphasis on education, political awareness, and creative expression, groups like these keep the power of language alive and well in this city.
It’s hard not to come off like a used-car salesman talking about all this, but I get sincerely excited just thinking about the numerous literary outlets in Austin. It’s not a matter of finding somewhere to stay plugged into, it’s a matter of what you need or where you’re needed the most. With so many options when it comes to getting your literary fix, you run the risk or not knowing how to ration or where to place all your energies and investments. That’s maybe something I haven’t quite figured out for myself just yet, but that’s fine. I think I’ll be sticking around Austin long enough to figure it all out.
– JIM REDMOND
Jim Redmond is a Michigan man, who now lives in Austin, TX. He continues to curate a monthly blog series on literary communities for Drunken Boat. Some of his writing can be found or is forthcoming in PANK, ReDIVIDer, RHINO, Columbia Poetry Review, and Word Riot, among others. His chapbook, Shirts or Skins, won one of Heavy Feather Review’s chapbook prizes a while ago.
This post is the first in a series from Drunken Boat‘s 2014 Pushcart Prize nominees.
It took me all summer to write “How To Hear Music.” The first year of my MFA program was behind me, and after a year of furious writing I was exhausted. I had no new ideas, no new stories to tell. I was living in Berlin.
Every day my boyfriend and I would choose a new cafe to write in — I was diligent, and disciplined, and hopeful. I believed that if I kept writing, if I just sat down to write something, anything, every day, something would come of it. And after 3 months of daily free associating, just a few weeks before I was to return to California, something did.The earliest version of the story was a set of instructions along the lines of “how to be stereotypically black.” It was a list of the rules that I had absorbed over the years, whether or not I had chosen to follow them or not. They were racial imperatives from a time in my life when I, like the kids I went to middle school and high school with, understood Blackness as something monolithic, a clearly defined, unchangeable thing.
I knew Blackness only looked like that, and that Blackness would always sound like this. I knew what Blackness ate, and what it didn’t eat. I knew what car Blackness drove, I knew where it lived. I knew what Blackness named its kids. I was acutely, at times painfully aware of the many ways I fell short of these standards, a feeling which sometimes made me defensive, but which mostly filled me with shame. “How To Hear Music” is my most autobiographical story, and it was painful and difficult and cathartic to write.
I often use my fiction to explore alternate realities, alternate versions of myself. Alternate decisions, and alternate outcomes. I sometimes say that my characters are encouraged to act out their worst impulses with no fear of the consequences, and this story is no different. Whereas I only laughed at my would-be combatants — black girls who (I now know) looked at me and simply didn’t understand what they saw — this character fights, giving physical expression to the memory of my angst. Whereas I chose to remain unapologetically myself, the only black girl on the soccer team or at the punk rock show, this character changes, this character assimilates, this character gains something (a connection to her community that I still struggle to build), even if she loses a part of herself in the process. If this story is my own alternate history, I wonder which one of us made the better choice.
When the story was published and I posted it on Facebook, a lot of people who are not black shared their stories. Many of my friends and acquaintances recalled feeling similarly alienated — for being the only Jewish kid, or the wrong kind of Latina. For some reason this surprised me. I had been afraid to post the story — it was the first time I felt that I was exposing a very private part of myself to a whole lot of people via my fiction. It actually didn’t occur to me that other people had felt how I felt, or that a variety of people would see themselves in the character.
To borrow from Toni Morrison: I wrote this story because I wanted to read it. Before a character like Lionel in Dear White People, before the music and short shorts of Donald Glover, before the rad audacity of Willow Smith, I never saw myself in movies, or on TV, I never read about myself in books, or heard my own thoughts on identity set to music.
And so this story, of all my stories, is the most true. And this story, especially, is for all the black weirdos.
BIO: A. Nicole Kelly is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and the co-founder of Summer Commune, a diverse temporary intentional community happening somewhere in North America. She has been published by Matador Network and Yr An Adult, and her fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, ZYZZYVA, and Carolina Quarterly.
If you’re reading this, thanks for checking out the last vintage post of 2014! It’s been a lot of fun, so to conclude a year’s worth of posts we have a great interactive work on themes of change and passing time, entitled “Thirty Days of Rain.” Travis Alber’s piece consists of 30 different animated haiku, each one a part of the narrator’s story of leaving San Francisco. It appeared previously in DB 9, Winter 2007-2008.
“Echos of birthdays
& my Friends
All dance through this room”
Travis Alber works as an independent digital artist in New York City. On top of that, she is also a co-founder and president of a social reading service, ReadSocial, that allows groups to enjoy reading books together. She has worked in web design, advertising, online training and education, and has consulted for several publishing entities. To see her latest and greatest, visit her website at ThisIsTravis.com
The 2015 AWP Conference in Minneapolis is just around the corner, and Drunken Boat always looks forward to participating in this important annual gathering. Mark your calendars! Drunken Boat will be hosting an off-site AWP reading at Honey (205 E. Hennepin Ave.) on April 9th.
• Drunken Boat: Laura McCullough, Alvin Pang, L.S. Klatt, Diana Thow
• Ahsahta Press: Kathleen Jesme, David Bartone, Stephanie Strickland
• Les Figues: Chris Tysh, Melissa Buzzeo, Sawako Nakayasu
• Ugly Duckling Presse: Phil Cordelli, Lilly Brown, Michael Ruby
Thanks to Baltazar Chavez for being the audio engineer during the event.
Welcome to another lovely Throwback Thursday. Today’s vintage selection is a short poem by Jessy Randall that appeared way back in DB 6, Spring 2004. While it may have to do with pregnancy, “The Feeling of the Baby” is about much more than that– give it a look and you’ll discover some very interesting food for thought.
no gender except in German.
Even in German it is a das, an es –
not female or male, not yet.”
Jessy Randall is a very active writer of both poetry and fiction and has published nearly ten chapbooks and one young adult novel. She works as the curator of Special Collections at Colorado College and enjoys giving readings and leading workshops whenever the opportunity arises. See what work she’s published recently on her webpage.