Posts Tagged ‘Appalachia’

The Joys of a Poet

December 14, 2016

(And His Arrival at this Most Minuscule of Positions)

carl-nelson4

I cross the Ohio everyday.

Of the many experiences I remember of my theater years, the most compelling occurred on stage.  They were small moments, mini-scenes, in which the characters seemed so autonomous that the actors no longer needed to please the audience.  They were little sections of life that didn’t need to sell their plight to the audience; didn’t need the audience’s approval.  No great injustice needed be fought.  Rather, the tables were turned and it was the audience which could either watch or not.

These scenes from my work which have so stuck with me were quiet areas in the midst of the plays’ turbulences where this balance had been achieved… if only to be enjoyed for a short time, the world and theater being what they are.  Looking back, it’s occurred to me that the theater was not my calling as it is not rising conflict which energizes me but balance.  I love playfulness.

Amount and quality of audience are the two measures of a playwright.  If you cannot attract an audience and/or critical stalwarts, then you are not a playwright.  Those are the realities.  But like most practitioners I fudged.  I could attract a smidgeon of an audience, and some of them liked it – so I rationalized and called myself a playwright.  For I did write several plays, and they were produced, and, as unsuccessful people are apt to say, (with each career change), “I learned a lot!”

I would guess one of the reasons artists would yearn for great success – aside from the money and fame and beautiful lovers – is that it gives them a forceful argument when dealing with the complaints of people they have known privately.   For a very successful playwright, the easy reply is that, “Well, you are just a small minority of the many, many who loved it.”  A small time playwright cannot use this defense.  The troublesome person lives right next door.  The hope for audience is partly a defense mechanism.

Also a large audience will grant a artist the opportunity to command better and better opportunities.  For a playwright this would mean access to the best actors, directors, set designers, venues and… even audience.  But it also means restrictions.  The more money, the more pressures to reduce risk and to frequent travelled ground.  The better and more powerful your collaborators, the better they are at stealing the audience for themselves.  A popular actor might want the scene re-written to better showcase them.  A powerful director might insist upon their vision.  A powerful financial source might prefer the politics slanted a bit differently – or removed.  And the venue has a very worried view of what their regulars will endure.  With the acquisition of a large audience, there is always the risk of losing it.  The second guessing becomes as bothersome as pushing a huge rig down the road, squinting ahead, all the while glancing in the mirror at a wandering trailer.

I’d guess the first audience for most of us would be our parents.  And perhaps many of us found theirs as frustrating as I found mine.  Mom and dad would pay attention, but only in their terms; not unlike strangers.  This was a bone of contention between us for many years.  Finally, I gave up.  I no longer shared how I felt or my hopes, and oddly enough, our relationship improved markedly.  Mom and dad were intelligent, generous, caring people once I got over the fact that they didn’t want to know me very well.

Segue to the audience…

Since that time, I have employed this tactic often.  The solution to many an insoluble problem is to ignore it; proceed as if the world were created without that problem.   If acquiring audience seemed an insoluble problem for me, why not eliminate the audience?  For all these reasons – and the fact that I’d pretty much played out my hand as a playwright – poetry looked pretty good to me.

So after I had moved from Seattle to this Appalachian area, I looked around and found a poetry group which looked compatible.  They were close by, met frequently, weren’t attached to any college or university, and most importantly had sympathy for the spirits – albeit pagan, (in their case).  When I first read my poems to the group for their reaction, one of the first individuals to respond asked skeptically:  “Who do you imagine your audience to be?”

They all looked to me.

“I didn’t think poetry had an audience!” I responded.

“You may leave now,” the next laughed.

 

In truth, I had had my fill of trying to acquire and please an audience.  A writer gets tired of playing the whiskey drummer.  Some of my misgivings are revealed in a previous piece I’ve written.

the-audience-is-a-mob

Poets have little audience, generally make no money, and, unless they misbehave, command little attention.  We wander about in the artistic world a little like derelicts or the homeless.  All of which allows us great freedom.  And we catch our audience as we can… perhaps spouting off in a bar – or wherever we find ourselves for that matter, like the local hardware.  People don’t believe they are listening to poetry in so much as they believe they are arguing with a drunk or indulging an eccentric – which is a time honored practice in small, out of the way spots like here in Appalachia – or hope of hope, enjoying a laugh with a clever fellow!

Poets talk among themselves swapping words and a cleverly turned phrase in a verbal one-ups-man-ship.  And now and then when the urge to flock comes upon the poet community, they hold readings.  The grudges are dropped, the qualms muffled and a general comity of fellow feeling along the lines of “We are all in this together” and “I will listen to you if you will listen to me,” contains the aggregate of assembled oddballs.  Aside from this, poets send out their little missives to journals and odd sorts of publications as if spreading sparks in hopes of starting a fire.  This is the off-the-main-road-poet’s life, aesthetic nobodies chipping flints over damp wood and hoping for a conflagration.

As far as rewards, there is the quiet joy – something like that of a stamp collector – of having trapped a bit of life in verbal amber.  I’m reminded of the New Yorker joke showing the painter in his studio sitting to admire his painting on a Friday’s night with a coke and a theater pail heaped with popcorn.  Only the artist fully grasps the ins and outs and the subtleties of life captured in a well done work.  His lack of audience allows him unfettered freedom.  And his inability to market successfully frees up his schedule.  Find a bit of work or arrangement to pay the rent, add a few understanding spirits to voice admiration from time to time, and you have a satisfied fellow.  Or, at least someone satisfied enough to continue working…

A good poem doesn’t need an audience to be alive.  It’s alive all by itself.  It’s the audience which needs the poem to feel alive.  And that is because a good poem has balance.  And we rest in its achievement.  Not everybody of course, but there are people out there who delight in a little heaven here on earth.

So, to the number of audience an artist needs?  Just enough to keep him working, I’d say, and find him a little rent.

No more than fifty to a room at any time.  Anymore and it’s just the sound of hands clapping from somewhere out beyond the circle of light; the circle of trust…  but quixotically, always with the possibility of many more, if only to make the writing of the poem like purchasing a lottery ticket.  We keep talking and writing, hoping for that conflagration.

If you would like to read more of Carl Nelson, visit:  http://www.magicbeanbooks.co/home.html

Pulling People From Their Cars

November 13, 2016

riot

Pulling People From Their Cars

My barber, who is working with me on our latest strategy to rule my aging hair, was worried following Trumps victory.   “They pulled a fellow from his car and beat him up just because he said he’d voted for Trump!  What kind of people do that?”

I get my hair cut in this little shop about a block from home, which takes up the street side of a small frame building, about the size of a one car frame garage.  It used to be a bank, then a doctor’s office back in the60s.  The barber, who is a skinny woman with ratted hair was about as frizzed as her do.  “Don’t worry,” I reassured her.  “We are two hundred miles of thick forest from people like that.”

 

I used to live in the Seattle area.  And whereas I didn’t live around people who did things like that, I did live and work around a majority of apologists for people who did things like that.  In Seattle, they were against Hate

Well, out here, embedded with the Trumps, we are not so much… against hate.  We  just know it’s a nasty emotion and best let out only under extreme circumstances.

 

The problem probably is, that in Seattle, nice a place as it was (and still is, I suppose), having failed to do enough hating in timely fashion – there is just an enormous amount of it piling up.  So that currently, there is racism to hate, Islamophobes to hate, hate-filled bigots to hate, privileged people to hate (but who should actually be hating themselves – if they would just do their share), misogynists and homophobes and transexualophobes and corporate shills, and tools, and then self-interested people in general, plus all those people who don’t care about the planet.  I really can’t recite the whole list here.  Suffice to say, the people who seem to need hating comprise, what I would guess from polls to be, about half the United States!

But it wasn’t just what crawled across the evening news which made living in Seattle a trial over time.  They didn’t just stop at the normal things that need hating from time to time.  Nearly everything a person did or said made for politics in the big city.  And if you found yourself ‘on the wrong side of history’, the crosshairs moved to you, and you needed hating also.

What kind of car did you drive?  Is it environmentally correct.  What kind of house do you live in? (Too large?  Too many windows?   Energy wasting?  Long commute?  Far from public transportation?  Near locally grown food source?  Diverse community?  Can you have chickens?  Poorly situated to capture passive solar?  Can you recycle, mulch, compost, on and on…)  What kind of work do you do?  (Are you ‘giving back’ by working for a non-profit, or a charity in order to make the world a better place… or are you in this life just for yourself?)  Are you raising more children that the planet can support?    Are you raising your children to be free of racial prejudice, sexual assumptions, the accepted mental shibboleths such as American Exceptionalism?  Are you allowing your children to go about unsupervised and possible at danger?  Are you teaching them to drink responsibly?  Are you fat and undisciplined?  Are your children fat?  Are any of your friends overweight?  What are they doing about it?   Does your cooking display a sound knowledge of the world’s diverse cultures?  Have you ever eaten fast food, and if you ever enjoyed it, what is wrong with you?  Do you have any idea what is in a hot dog?  (Don’t even get them started on the high fructose corn syrups which make up the catsup you dribble across it, or the white bread bun completely devoid of nutritional content altogether – even when ‘enriched’.)

Most of these things, by themselves, are reasonable concerns.  So are the Ten Commandments.  But at least in the Bible, there were only ten.  (Which, with the New Covenant, became pared down to just two.)  In Seattle the extent of the new commandments knows no limit.  Virtually everything a person does is commented dissected and commented upon in the public sphere.  Picture a person rising, beginning the day, working, spending time with the family then eating and sleeping – and then picture the ongoing political commentary which accompanies his/her every minute describing how each action affects the moral compass of the community as a whole.  It’s no joke that when the most progressive of this caball extend the moral commentary to its rightful conclusion – their conclusion is that humans are a moral blight upon the earth and need exterminating.  Conservatives would probably agree that we are all born into sin.  But the Progressive leading edge think that as a species, we should be eradicated like a cockroach.

And this is where the Seattle culture as a whole has fallen short.  And you have to wonder if they are really on the right side of history, as they insist upon staying alive – an obviously bigoted stance.  Their rational, I’d suppose, is that they need to live in order to cull the population of the unenlightened others.  Then they’ll kill themselves.  They promise.

 

To a God fearing culture, it’s old news that we are born into sin.  No surprise there.  Nevertheless, God appears to want us here and expects us to do our best.

Belpre May 2015

So in a God fearing culture such as it is here, embedded with the Trumps, we accept our shortcomings.  Sundays we go to church.  Other days we work to support ourselves.  And otherwise we amuse ourselves as we see fit.  We race gas-guzzling cars.  We hunt.  We shoot guns.  We run around the woods.  We fish.  We eat squirrel, deer, catfish…  We play football.  We love sports.  We fight the elements.  We drive whatever damn vehicle we want.  We dress as we want.  We live in whatever kind of house we want.  We drive as far as we want.  We cloth ourselves as we want.  And we say what we want.  The best estimate we can have of our neighbors is that they are “decent people”.  But, as a whole, we’re all sinners.  I’m afraid that’s the generally accepted community condition.

What is decent?   Well, it has very little to do with either how they’ve voted, the car they drive, whether they’ve worried about sustainable agriculture or global warming, whether or not they’ve ever tried humus and pita bread, whether their home is built to capture passive solar, whether they support LQBJTUVWXYZ rights, more whether they work- than for whom they work, and not even much about whether they attend church regularly, or are overweight.  You live around someone.  You get to know them.  And you know.  …you just know, more or less.

And so far this decency has kept us from pulling people from their cars and beating them for voting incorrectly.  It’s something to consider.

Belpre Ohio1

For books by Carl Nelson go to:  http://www.magicbeanbooks.co/home.html

Embedded with the Deplorables

October 28, 2016

belpre-trump1

I wished my cousin in LA a happy birthday on Facebook the other day.  He thanked me and asked how life was in a “battleground state”.  I told him it was pretty quiet, pleasant actually.  For the most part it’s just people going to work and coming home.  It’s very hard to get people around here to riot!

belpe-trump3

There are kids playing between the parked cars and riding their bicycles, and one who practices his trombone on the front porch.  When a crowd or four gather, they may entertain a grievance for a while.  But it’s usually just long enough to politely disengage so as to couple up with another bunch and discuss high school sports, or job stability.  Now and then the women will chatter about irresponsible behavior, and both sexes can get going about the high school coaching staff.  But mostly it’s about meeting someone or other’s niece who is related to someone else or other and discussing exactly which portion of the various clans they represent.  When they do discuss the federal government, it’s usually with a pained expression.

belpre-trump2

To read more by Carl Nelson, visit:  www.magicbeanbooks.co

Our Current Home

June 29, 2016

Belpre May 2015

I like this place better than my wife does.

“That’s true.”  She frowned one day.  “There’s a reason I left.”

The people here look different and think different.

“Yeah.  And that’s because they are ignorant as hell and stubborn as mules.”

My wife is a salesperson, which in the world of commerce is something like a missionary.  So, now and then, she gets tossed into the native’s supper pot and stirred along with the peas and carrots, and it makes her grumpy.

But I’m a writer.  And I’m living where stories have flourished unmolested among generations of hill sheltered Irish, Scotch and German immigrants.  Life still flourishes in little clannish pockets of rustic growth scattered throughout these hills and hollers like so many petri dishes which have been left open to the air along the culture lab countertops.  There’s nothing quite like it in the Seattle metropolitan area from where I came.

It is said by the author, John Alexander Williams, in “Appalachia / A History”, that historians who have tried to identify this territory as a single entity concluded “instead that it is a territory only of the mind, an id’ee des savants, a place that has been invented, not discovered, an “alternative America” projected onto the mountains and mountain people by reformers whose real purpose is to critique or change things in the nation at large.”  Progressives break their picks on this place – file for exhaustion under a Federal Program, I’d suppose – and move away.  So that in many ways, (including to ‘my’ way of thinking), it’s bliss.  “Almost heaven.”

The brick buildings and infrastructure crumble.   When driving through a town hereabouts and  you see a large sign declaring their place in history, you can pretty well bet that is because there is nothing much going on currently.   Heritage is big, partly because although there was much happening then, there is not much happening now – and partly because so many of the people are related.  We’re talking family, here.

The State of West Virginia has lost population.  The coal mines are shuttering.  Oil prices have dropped.  For some reason, I have yet to plumb, their greatest pride in historical photos is of record floods.  You’ll see old photo after old photo, in the larger of the small towns, of ancestors poling around in boats down main street past the hotel and the mercantile.

We live just across the river from Parkersburg, West Virginia.  A lot of what once gave our town character and hometown beauty was bulldozed when the automobile bridge went through.   (The railroad bridge dates back to the Civil War.)  But to enjoy this place – and many others like it – you need to pan for the small pockets of gold.  For example, a lovely riverside residence sits behind a curved drive, in back of an empty row of store fronts along the treeless main strip which boasts a Hardee’s.  Another hidden mansion sits down a dead end street behind a sign designating it as a historical structure.  A yard sized graveyard hosts “Mrs. Armstrong and 3 children / Killed by Indians / in 1795.”  It’s surrounded by a non-descript, waist high hurricane fence with a gate on a low rent residential block.  Down the way is a house trailer perched high on the Ohio riverbank with a small garden trailing off below it, rowed with corn.  Also buried inside is “Israel Stone Jr. / March 24,1778 / April25, 1791 / Drowned in the Ohio River”.  You’ll find a lot of this puttering around on a bicycle.

The new construction and well maintained real estate appear to be hospitals, rest homes, mortuaries, government facilities and chemical plants up and down the river.  Billboards advertising “our nationally ranked cardiac surgery center” and personal injury lawyers are frequent sights.  It’s oddly easy to find a church and very hard to find a tavern, though the counties crawl with alcoholics and opium deaths are currently epidemic.   You can drive along a road in West Virginia which will gradually peter away into something like a pot-holed driveway, and then continue on to find the road improved and yourself in another small town.  The towns are so small and unremarkable that most of the rural folks identify themselves by the county they come from.

So what is there to like about this place?  Well, we have warm summer days punctuated by thunderstorms.  If you close your eyes summer times, what with the birds talking and the breeze blowing, it reminds me of Mexico.  Quiet stretches of forest full of broad leafs abound.  We have excellent produce.  People talk sports and hunting instead of politics.  The houses have porches which people use.  It rains enough, you needn’t water.  And although we’re a large percentage Caucasian, the minorities get along peaceably.  If you just turn off the national TV, you’re not going to hear a conversation about race, though each seems to stick with its own, as seems natural.

Our neighborhood is quite safe.  No intimidation.  No break-ins.  No burglar bars.  Neighbors wave and nod.   Which is kind of puzzling, since there was a crack house a block and a half north of us, a hooker who lived just up the street, and a trailer court of a half dozen older boxes a block kiddy corner in the opposite direction, and pickup trucks driven by grizzled  guys (and gals) rumble past.   The hooker was the undoing of my contractor.  And I think she got some of my money, too.  But otherwise, kids are respectful and walk past or ride by on bikes and play in the street.  I can’t say I understand it.  In the big city you had to buy your way out of these problems by moving to a development in the suburbs.  Here, it is very heterogeneous.  Lovely old mansions sit a half block from a trailer court.  A tumbledown is right next door to a nice foursquare.    Along the Ohio stately homes are recessed back of lawns sloping down towards the river, with here and there a small bungalow, or a cottage surrounded in junk with a blue-tarped roof.  Churches abound.  It seems every clan which has a member with a bent for religion starts another.  On a short drive to get the ‘best biscuits and gravy’ about thirty miles to the  south, we averaged one church per mile, and I can’t recall seeing a tavern.  In the small town of Carnation, outside of Seattle near where we once lived, there were three bars within a block’s radius.

Our son is busy with innumerable activities, very few of which involve a lot of money as there aren’t many attractions to spend it on.  He attends all the sports events, does pickup basketball,  organizes camping and pontoon boat excursions, goes mudding, cave exploring,  stays up late with his friends around bonfires and is the go-to school photographer.  And he has a steady girlfriend.

The teachers at his school are excellent.  Which puzzled me until my wife suggested that teaching is one of the better jobs to have around here.  The trades and service professions tend to fill up with individuals who in the larger metropolises would have graduated to more lucrative professions.  Families go back generations.  And you have to be careful who you squabble with as there are all sorts of filial ramifications.

So.  About being “ignorant as hell”.  Well, that’s the glass half empty.  The glass half full is that they are well schooled in experience – going back centuries.  And “stubborn as mules”.  Again, that’s the glass half empty.  The glass half full is that what has worked is honored, and they are a profound bulwark against the next incursion by those smarty pants, who are so finely educated that they know better even before their tuition has been fully paid, and are off preaching to “change the world”  with a vision offered from the moral high ground of their immaculate lives .   These damnable progressives, who constantly devalue our traditions… while carping, carping, carping about what a mess the modern world is – a world more and more of their making…  well, don’t get me started.

Like I say, those sorts either move away, or break their pick and go back to where they came from.  And it’s real restful.

Essays by Carl Nelson

February 11, 2016

Trail of Money

The Money Comes in Big Wads, or Not at All

 

This Mid-Ohio river valley town is a hard place to turn a buck.  As a salesperson you don’t have to make many phone calls to figure this out.  As I work my way down the Chamber of Commerce lists of local businesses I follow a lot of hardscrabble efforts and read a lot of unique business names.  I call and get a busy signal, a number disconnected, or a voicemail from six months previous.  Lots of pre-recorded voicemails predominate as the owner themselves are missing while out presumably massaging some other prospects themselves.  It often seems the selling around here involves a lot of sniffing of each other’s skat.  In short in this area, as in a lot of the rust belt and increasingly more coastal areas of the country, the hunting is getting scarce.  In these business pages you can certainly see people trying  …everything.  Pet salons, beauty salons, pawn shops, barber shops, chemical cigarettes, lawn services, clean-up services, insurance services, financial services, tax assistance…  Even the professionals such as accountants and lawyers are having to jog pretty fast just to get by, and they seem to go out of business nearly as fast as anyone else.  In my mind the local employment solutions remind me of when as children we tried to catch a bird or a squirrel with a box held up by a stick with a string attached to it with some yummy bait inside.  We used to wait a long time and rarely had any luck.  So also with fishing with string and a safety pin.

Most of the small business around here has been run out by the franchises.  The dime stores, the cafes, the hardware and clothing stores have been replaced by the Wal Marts, MacDonalds and Home Depots.  They take the money here, but their purchasing is done elsewhere.  The mines and oil companies pull the resources out, pay some pretty good blue collar wages, but they purchase elsewhere and take the money elsewhere also.  The chemical plants up and down the river are not as thriving as once, but they still pay some pretty good blue collar wages – but here again purchase and use the money elsewhere.  The government brings in some money in terms of schools and federal services.  There is a bit of farming and logging.  The industries with the most profitable looking presence around here are the hospitals, funeral homes, and tort law.  Just driving around you get the impression that the common activity is to die.  The most common posted historical photo is of some devastating flood.

Oddly there are some very good teachers and individual contractors around, as these seem to be relatively good paying jobs which allow some to the best people to remain in the area.  The majority of the service jobs remaining, however, barely afford a life.  And if you are a youngster trying to break into an occupation around here, there is not much job mobility and few openings.  Maybe every twenty years something will come along to rock the economy and a few job holders are lured from the safety of their sure employment into something else to create a vacancy.  Otherwise the suppliers and customers are as attached and committed to one another as an embryo to its placenta.

But, here, more and more it doesn’t appear as if we are alone out here in the woods of Appalachia.  Even in the metropolitan area of Seattle, where I once called home, and all around our nation people are talking about the hollowing out of the middle class.  At the dealership where we once worked in Seattle they demanded an extreme work ethic.  You could work extremely hard and earn quite a bit more money that we needed.  We could have also worked just a normal week taken home $150,000/year, gone to see all of our child’s games and made it home for dinner by 6 every evening.  Except that the latter was not an option.  The company needed $500,000/year from that territory.  Otherwise they’d get someone else.

I see this all around the United States.  The big game like an elephant, a whale or a rhino are still around.  And if you are equipped to hunt them, you will have more food than you can possibly need.  But most the deer, rabbits, squirrels, possum, fish, etc. are gone.  Normal people with normal skills need not apply.  You have been replaced by better software and robots.

Then, just the other day, this caught my eye.  It was an article written for “The Seattle Globalist” by Sahid Maxad, an immigrant who, after twenty years repatriated to Somalia.  Sahid writes:

“But I was also getting away from a mostly stagnant and unfulfilling life in Seattle — White Center to be specific.

I was tired of working dead end jobs just to pay the bills. I felt trapped in a vicious cycle, where I always ended up at the same starting point, with no end in sight. I felt as if I was living a real life version of the movie Groundhog Day.”

What Sahid found in Somalia was a very poor country, and yet one with “many continuous years of improved safety and infrastructure development.”  And the time seemed to be right.  “More and more people are choosing to take their savings and invest in startup businesses and NGOs in Somalia to help rebuild the nation on a grassroots level.”

“Returning diaspora members are positioning themselves for success beyond their wildest imaginations — especially compared to their prospects in the States. I’ve seen people come here with a modest amount of savings and leverage it into entire hotel chains and various other lucrative entrepreneurial enterprises.”

In other words, the game hunting is good there in Somalia for the burgeoning middle class.

I wonder if we might not see more and more of your own middle class heading for the poorer regions of the world in the coming years also, as they search out a better life.

Advertising Flattened

 


%d bloggers like this: