Courtney Eldridge


This issue of BLIP Magazine begins and ends with two playlists, cre­at­ed by two of my favorite DJs. First, the one and only Delphine Blue, a DJ who has saved my life many last nights over the years, since I first stum­bled upon her radio show, “Shocking Blue,” back in, oh, 1997, short­ly after I’d moved to Alphabet City with big dreams of becom­ing a writer. As they say, In dreams begin respon­si­bil­i­ties and ruined cred­it rat­ings, but still, for me, it was noth­ing shy of an epiphany, ran­dom­ly tun­ing the dial—manually, yes—stopping cold, hear­ing Marianne Faithful on the radio.

But it wasn’t just music; it was her sto­ry­telling, that music and sto­ry go hand-in-hand; they’re one and the same on Delphine’s show. I can think of maybe three or four times in ten years that Delphine didn’t have half a dozen sto­ries and twice as many anec­dotes to share, nev­er fail­ing to remind me of the raw pow­er of radio that I’d all but for­got­ten by the late 1990s, that imme­di­ate and inti­mate con­nec­tion between a lis­ten­er and disc jock­ey. Really, it was love at first lis­ten, and from the moment I heard her play­ing “Broken English,” I tuned in to Delphine Blue every Friday morn­ing from ten to noon on WBAI, 99.5 FM.

For years, try­ing to write and make ends meet, I jug­gled two, three jobs at a time, but I always sched­uled my work around Delphine’s show. If I had to run errands, I took my Walkman, may it rest in peace, and I avoid­ed neigh­bor­hoods where BAI’s recep­tion was weak, down­town. So hooked, you’d have thought it was the O.J. tri­al, the way I was glued to the court­room dra­ma, that time Delphine’s lit­tle Cocker Spaniel got attacked by a Pit bull, and half-jok­ing­ly, call­ing friends to share updates, I start­ed refer­ring to “Shocking Blue” as my sto­ries, like those diehard grannies and their radio pro­grams of yes­ter­year. Because even at my most des­ti­tute, when I was lit­er­al­ly pen­ni­less, hav­ing raid­ed the pen­ny jar and every last pock­et I owned, for two hours of every week, lis­ten­ing to “Shocking Blue,” I want­ed for noth­ing, and I was home, sweet home.

And speak­ing of home­com­ings. At the end of this issue, you’ll find anoth­er playlist by Matthew Levin, who start­ed DJ’ing his own radio show this year, the dubi­ous­ly titled and D.C.-based, “Uncle Matt’s Two-Hour Shower”, but grew up in L.A., in the mid­dle of The Decline of Western Civilization. Talk about a punk child­hood, Black Flag played at his Bar Mitvah—no, not real­ly, but it’d make a great sto­ry, and close enough, any­how. I mean, how much more punk rock can you get than inter­view­ing your mom, live, on the air? Not much, if your mom hap­pens to be Sheree Rose, anoth­er con­trib­u­tor to this issue who I’ll men­tion short­ly, and who took her nine-year-old son to see DEVO for the first time in 1978.

So, yes, we have music to begin, music to end, and music in between. Not punk, its pre­de­ces­sor, jazz: writer David Ryan, the for­mer drum­mer of the band The Lemonheads, shares a playlist along with his musi­cal com­ing-of-age essay, “Thirteen,” illus­trat­ed with Ryan’s ear­li­est drum­ming tran­scrip­tions, which were, as David says, “obser­va­tion, in slow motion, of a human being’s refu­ta­tion of the con­cept of a metronome in life. It was the curve of fic­tion’s ten­sions and releas­es com­pared to the ris­ing and fall of math on a bal­ance sheet.”

The rea­son I chose these musi­cal begin­ning, mid­dle and ends for a lit­er­ary quar­ter­ly is because I didn’t come to writ­ing through lit­er­a­ture; I came through music, by way of great vinyl, not great books. Growing up, when I was a kid, we didn’t have any books or art to speak of in our house. In fact, we didn’t much of have any­thing to our names, except for one hell of a record col­lec­tion, crate after crate, stuffed full of albums, which, with the help of pais­ley Indian-tapes­try-cov­ered foam mats, dou­bled as couch­es and chairs. I’m not exag­ger­at­ing when I say music was reli­gion in our house, that I was reared under the one true faith of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll! I was taught to say my bed­time prayers to the gods of elec­tric guitar—Hendrix, Richards, Page, Zappa, Santana, Vaughn, Townshend—they were our sus­te­nance, our dai­ly bread. We showed our devo­tion by mak­ing cross-coun­try pil­grim­ages to see The Band, and just about every band that played in the 1970s, our tire tracks—the last year it was man­u­fac­tured entire­ly in Germany, 1974, a vin­tage year for the Capri—crisscrossing the United States like a God’s Eye.

I loved it, too—I vivid­ly remem­ber lov­ing con­certs for many rea­sons, not the least of which was because I always had the best seat in the house, on top of my dad’s shoul­ders. That’s a child’s par­adise, a man’s shoul­ders, and who can’t remem­ber that feel­ing, wish­ing you could stay up there for­ev­er? That said, believe me when I say I have been to Purgatory and back, and let me tell you, it bares strik­ing resem­blance to a three-day Allman Brothers con­cert. Maybe it was only six hours, but Christ Almighty, I still can’t believe I made it out of there alive. Anyhow.

On qui­et week­ends, our home away from home was this out­fit called Peaches (“It’s Peachy”) Records and Tapes—what a post-psy­che­del­ic crap­shoot that was, nev­er know­ing if they’d have King Crimson, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, “White Rabbit,” “White Bird,” or “Free Bird” cued up. But soon as we walked through the door, my dad would grab one of their emp­ty wood­en crates, and we’d pick a nice sec­tion, before Dad’d stand the box on its side, length­wise, and hoist me up by my armpits, so I could peer into the bins, like all the young dudes. Honestly, I thought I blend­ed right in—I’m the daugh­ter of a dude—I know the rules, the dude code. Please, I hail from a long line of dudes, okay.

Seriously, until my thir­teenth birth­day, I spent every sum­mer in a small town in south­east Iowa, liv­ing with my grand­par­ents and my mother’s sev­en broth­ers and sis­ters and cousins and all their boyfriends and girl­friends and the rest of the town. It was like Mayberry in my eyes, a place lit up by fire­flies and a Tasty Freeze and week­end-long soft­ball tournies, a town where peo­ple sat on rock­ing chairs on their front porch­es, husk­ing corn and wav­ing when you walked by, and our whole fam­i­ly went to church on week­ends, giv­en that atten­dance was manda­to­ry. My grand­fa­ther was also my god­fa­ther, and I was his pride and joy, wear­ing my best dress and my hair roller-curled by my aunt Monica, all dolled up for my date with God at ten of five, so excit­ed to be the first to arrive at that brick oven of a Catholic church for Saturday night mass, yay! How that man beamed, as I squeezed his hand, tak­ing our seats, while all I cared about was a front-row view of red­head­ed altar boy Sean Sipe, wear­ing that long white gown. Hot.

After mass, in lieu of sit­ting on my dad’s shoul­ders at con­certs all night, I camped out in my grandfather’s lap at the din­ing room table, stretch­ing my hands over the rose bou­quets of my Great-Grandma Margaret’s ivory lace table­cloth, the mor­tal coils of crotch­et her great­est com­fort next to the rosary, warm­ing up for a big pok­er night, sure to sweep. Always a packed house, too, Friday and Saturday nights, and with­in an hour of guests arriv­ing, the cloth would be removed, as the fes­tiv­i­ties got underway.

Hard to say what was more dement­ed, the esca­la­tions of tall tales or the pok­er bets those men placed, goad­ing each oth­er, throw­ing down their chips: all in, and every man for him­self. In the wee hours, that kitchen table was an unapolo­getic male sanc­tu­ary, and like every sanc­tu­ary, it had strict rules, spo­ken and unspo­ken. As for old boys clubs, well, my grand­pa taught me it’s all in how you look at it, because there are far worse fates than being born with­out a penis. Nah, no use cry­ing about it, child, best just learn the rules, the bet­ter to know how to break them.

Well, then. Here’s a Catholic con­fes­sion for you if there ever was. My grand­pa dropped out of high school at fif­teen to help sup­port his wid­owed moth­er and sev­en sib­lings, then went on to have eight chil­dren of his own and a grand­daugh­ter by the age of forty-one—me, yes. In many ways, he’d had so many chil­dren so young, and had been work­ing so many jobs for so long, I was his first­born, his favorite, and he dot­ed, spoiled me rot­ten. I was grant­ed spe­cial priv­i­lege, and his own house rules didn’t apply to me—which all my aunts and uncles made me pay for, every time the man left for work.

And for thir­ty-five years, he did every­thing in his pow­er to keep his secret safe, the fact that he worked two jobs, at the USPS, as a mail­man, Monday through Friday, and as a jan­i­tor on week­ends and nights, to make sure every one of his kids had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to go to col­lege, and all the while, for all those years, he lived in fear that one day, his edu­cat­ed chil­dren would think him an igno­rant man, illit­er­ate. What breaks my heart is that he died more than twen­ty years ago, before I ever had a chance to tell him how wise he was, born know­ing lessons that no book can teach. Because my grand­fa­ther didn’t raise me as a girl: he raised me as his daugh­ter. Vive la dif­fer­ence, and ¡Viva la Revolución!

But god, he loved a sto­ry like no one’s busi­ness. Storytelling was cur­ren­cy in his house, and in that sense, we were obscene­ly rich, and that din­ing room drew ador­ing crowds. To think of all those salty old men of the earth, armed with clean hand­ker­chiefs and dirty mouths, smok­ing, drink­ing, trash talk­ing like they were Larry fuckin’ Bird. Oh, my word, no more than four years old, and as the men gath­ered, stand­ing room only, that mid­night table was one down­right sexy place to be, and I want­ed in. Deal me in, boys! Then and there, I learned the first rule of the oral tra­di­tion: you want in; watch and lis­ten. Just lis­ten, qui­et­ly. So I did. Fly on the wall; child in the lap.

I come from work­ing-class, through and through, and what that edu­ca­tion taught me is that a man’s hands can tell you his whole life sto­ry, with­out even check­ing his palm. So there I was, stand­ing on a Peaches crate, and I could sep­a­rate the men from the boys in a finger—oh, not even—in a sin­gle fin­ger­nail. Because the devout, a true vinyl afi­ciona­do always over­grew the pinkie nail of their dom­i­nant hand, and used it like a box cut­ter, slic­ing the plas­tic sleeves off new vinyl, hot but­ter for the Hot Tuna. Take those lif­ers work­ing behind the counter, for example.

But some of these guys, man, they’d look down their noses at me, try­ing to hur­ry me up, poach­ing on my prime G‑H or P‑Q-R ter­ri­to­ry. So I’d take one look at their hand, right, left, right, and see for myself, clear as day: ten clipped nails: Poser. Disgusted, I’d lock my jaw, dig in my heels, and look back up, giv­ing them the ol’ lit­tle mis­sy snake eye: Stand down, civilian.

When I’d find a few new album cov­ers I liked—particularly fond to the 70’s sur­re­al­ism of Hipgnosis’s artwork—I’d hug them like a life pre­serv­er, jump down, and crawl under­neath the maze of record bins with my scores—best forts I ever had, too. That’s how I’d spend my time, lis­ten­ing to music, look­ing at album cov­ers and mak­ing up sto­ries about the pic­tures in front of me. Whenever I got tired, need­ed a break, I’d crawl out, saunter over to the front counter and browse, back when phar­ma-musi­col­o­gy retail­ers pro­vid­ed one-stop shop­ping: gui­tar picks, gui­tar strings, rolling papers, Ozium, incense, vials of oils, patchouli, vanil­la, musk, pipe clean­ers, pipe screens, an array of wood­en and met­al pipes, and, nat­u­ral­ly, big-tick­et items: tro­phy dis­plays of hand-blown glass bongs.

Standing four feet tall in my mom’s heels, there were bongs taller than I was, and I loved look­ing at all the swirling, speck­led hand-blown glass. Whenever I’d find some­thing spe­cial, like noth­ing we had, I’d go grab my dad. Course, I’d have to tug at his hand with all my weight to tear him away and pull him to the reg­is­ter. Then, peer­ing up, into my father’s blood-shot eyes, I’d lay it on him, full-court press: Isn’t it pret­ty? I’d say. Look: look at this one: we need it, Dad. Those were the days, alright, because in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona über alles of 1977, there was no such thing as too many bongs. In oth­er words, I reeled that man in, hook, line and sinker, sucker.

What can I tell you? I grew up in head shops and the back seat of a 1968 Galaxie 500 with a 351-cubic-inch Cleveland V8 and beefed-up per­for­mance sus­pen­sion. And long as I live I will nev­er for­get the first time I laid eyes on that bitch of bur­den. Now, keep in mind that in those last cou­ple years of the sev­en­ties, we moved around quite a bit, whichev­er way those desert winds blew. The econ­o­my was in the toi­let, much like today, and my par­ents had to take work, wher­ev­er they could find it.

Of course the beau­ty of hav­ing no earth­ly pos­ses­sions was that we could pack up our whole house, be on our way in a mat­ter of hours, easy; spend a few months here, a few months there, and back again. There were ben­e­fits to not being tied down, absolute­ly, but on the oth­er hand, I was born with a size­able mate­ri­al­is­tic bone. Or I was just your aver­age kid, enam­ored with the new­ness of things rather than their sub­stance, either way, it’s 1979, dawn of the Reagan Era, so imag­ine my excite­ment the day my dad announced that we were get­ting a new car. That’s right, Dad said we were get­ting a new car, his exact words, and it was, well, it was this lit­tle girl’s dream come true. Oh, it got bet­ter, though—if new car wasn’t sequin-spark­ly enough, man pulled a rab­bit from the hat, speak­ing the mag­ic words, Just the two of us. Dad said we’d take our new car for a dri­ve, after school, just the two of us. (Sorry, Mom.)

We’re talk­ing Christmas in October, and on the blessed day Dad was bring­ing our new car home, I thanked baby Jesus for the gifts we were about to receive, return­ing to our apart­ment, pant­i­ng and sweaty, hav­ing run the whole way home from school, almost trip­ping and falling a dozen times, as my back­pack sloshed, throw­ing me from side to side. This was when we were liv­ing in a low-rent hood of Albuquerque, and it wasn’t the projects, but it was due east of ghet­to, this waste­land of spir­it-break­ing, non-descript, iden­ti­cal two-sto­ry, one-win­dow cement-block apart­ment buildings—Mom and I got lost all the time, when we first moved in.

Anyhow, I got home, expect­ing our new car to be parked right under our door­way, but it wasn’t there. Actually, there weren’t any cars; the lot was prac­ti­cal­ly empty—I didn’t know what was going on, look­ing around. So I opened our door, call­ing my dad, and he comes walk­ing out, smil­ing this big old smile, all puffed up and proud, like a new father, and he says, Did ‘ya see it, Court? What do you think? I nod­ded no, no—by that point, I’m so excit­ed for a ride in our new car, just the two of us, I about wet my daisy-print elas­tic cot­ton pants—and Dad said, Baby, it’s right out front, how could you miss it? I didn’t under­stand, so I stepped back out­side and leaned over the rail, look­ing down at the u‑shaped lot, framed on three sides by rec­tan­gu­lar apart­ments and the city’s storm drains to the north, past the ten-foot chain-link fence, and all I saw was this mangy mus­cle car, gross.

Took me a sec­ond, but then I real­ized what he was up to. Well, of course! Like father, like daugh­ter, like father, Dad was about to tell me to cov­er my eyes, before he slipped off, and then he’d pull up, honk the horn, and there it’d be, all shiny and new car, and maybe there’d be a big red bow on the hood … And then, slow­ly, very slow­ly, the gears in my lit­tle head start­ed turn­ing, putting it all togeth­er: Dad said our new car was in the park­ing lot, and there was only one car in the lot, and for some rea­son, he was smil­ing at that fug­ly thing. Because, in my eyes, thing looked like it had had an acid bath, the paint job was so worn and grainy, like a super 8 film on four wheels, and see­ing it, parked there, when I first got home, all I could think was, Guess it’s true what they say about life not being fair. Because here we are, get­ting a new car, and those poor people–wow, that’s so sad, because I wouldn’t be caught dead in that car … Then it hit me, right between the eyes: we were those poor peo­ple I was feel­ing sor­ry for.

At that moment, on the spot, I chris­tened her Old Red. In all seri­ous­ness, I named the car Old Red, in hon­or of Old Yeller, because I want­ed to put that car, my dad and myself out of our mis­ery. Lower lip trem­bling, star­ing down at the wilde­beest parked beneath our front door, I was dev­as­tat­ed. In fact, I ran to my room, threw myself on my bed, or the mat on the floor, what­ev­er, and start­ed sob­bing these heav­ing, incon­solable sobs. Because all I want­ed, all I ever want­ed was to be respectable. I had a fight­ing chance too—I could’ve been a con­tender, and this is what he does to me, my own father? I mean it was hard enough being the only white girl, the lone jue­ta in an ele­men­tary of a thou­sand kids, my old man went and pulled a fast one, bring­ing home that cho­lo mag­net. No joke, we couldn’t pull out of that park­ing lot with­out some ese or band of vatos try­ing to pick a fight, right before my eyes, too, they’d shove my dad’s shoul­der with a mere cock of the chin, and tell you what, my dad­dy loved to rumble.

Well. Fortunately or unfor­tu­nate­ly, Old Red’s back seat was deep­er than our bath­tub, so I’d just lie flat on my back, for fear of being seen by any­one from school, or any­one at all, peri­od. I guess it was bet­ter than walk­ing, and at least we could get around town. Sometimes, if we had a lit­tle scratch, as a spe­cial treat, we would go see a Saturday mat­inée, the three of us. Our favorite was Cheech & Chong—we nev­er missed a Cheech & Chong flick—and Monty Python, of course. I have to say, I remem­ber the first time I heard the line, No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!, and I nod­ded, no, wrong. Me: I do: I expect the Spanish Inquisition every time my dad opens the door and tells me to hop in, at risk of being deflow­ered by the errant springs in the back seat, that tor­tur­ous dou­ble-fold­ed hair shirt of the old man’s very own gov­ern­ment issue U.S. Army blan­ket as my only pro­tec­tion, Lord have mercy.

Funny, though, the per­ver­sions of time. Because now, all these years lat­er, I remem­ber that damn car so lov­ing­ly, longingly—oh, what I’d give to be reunit­ed, just like old times—Dad and me, just the two of us, tak­ing Old Red out for a ride on a desert­ed New Mexico high­way at sun­set, see what that baby can do. Because that car didn’t purr, she growled, men­ac­ing women and chil­dren at inter­sec­tions across the great south­west. To this day, I can still hear that rabid engine roar, and when I think of child­hood, the best of my child­hood, I remem­ber my blonde hair fly­ing, head out the win­dow, two-hand-surf­ing the hun­dred-mile-an-hour winds of the American desert. No, my fam­i­ly, we didn’t have books, we didn’t have a dol­lar to our name most days, but we had a fast car, loud music, and we were free.

All of which brings me to anoth­er con­trib­u­tor, a gen­tle­man named Jon Patrick, who’s shared a pho­to essay, a brief visu­al his­to­ry of his two-year-old blog, The Selvedge Yard. And what is The Selvedge Yard, you ask? Well, porn, main­ly. That’s right, it’s good old-fash­ioned porn, the way God intend­ed, offer­ing up a lit­tle some­thing-some­thing for every­body. What, you got cars, bikes, motor­cy­cles, movie stars, cen­ter­folds, style icons, tex­tile design, punk rock—it’s BMX one day; Jean Cocteau the next. Really, aside from its open embrace of car­nal desires and divine inspi­ra­tions, alike, you can’t pin it down. Even bet­ter, it’s such a rush that you don’t want to, and in that sense, it’s a true ride.

Posting at break­neck speed, TSY’s one of the only blogs I read, due in no small part to the fact that Patrick flies the flag: Non-Profit Organization. In oth­er words, you won’t find any post-pubes­cent girls bend­ing for­ward, spread­ing their ass­es for the camera—or, if there are, at least the images are from Patrick’s per­son­al col­lec­tion, not bankrolled by bank­rupt American Apparel adver­tis­ing dol­lars. In all seri­ous­ness, what I admire about TSY is its craft, the ded­i­ca­tion and the dis­ci­pline of show­ing up, day in, day out, with hands on the key­board and sleeves rolled, recit­ing the poet­ry of para­levers, of rene­gades and speed demons and truth seekers.

At the cross­roads of auto-erot­i­ca and Americana, The Selvedge Yard is a cel­e­bra­tion of that great­est of American tales: the open road. Which is one of many threads of this issue; sto­ries about our cars and high­ways and the selves with whom we play hide and seek in our rearview mir­rors. On that note, I want to men­tion anoth­er con­trib­u­tor, William R. Gilliland. A true man of dis­tinc­tion, Gilliland was a Texas born-and-bred rare book deal­er who died last August, at the age of eighty-three. A few days after he died, I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take a peek at his life’s work, sev­er­al box­es that were so loaded down, so heavy, I had to use two hands to pull them across the floor. Boxes filled entire­ly with first editions—only two of dozens of such boxes—worth a small for­tune in mon­e­tary terms; a large for­tune in lit­er­ary ones. I’d say a good half of those first edi­tions were signed by the authors, and some vol­umes had elab­o­rate book sleeves designed with hand­made papers, the likes of har­le­quin prints and flo­ral designs, gen­uine works of art.

From those box­es I’ve cho­sen a ran­dom assort­ment of bits and pieces, lit­er­ary ephemera, if you will, that I find fas­ci­nat­ing. Like the loose slips of paper on which Gilliland wrote dates and esti­mat­ed val­ues, in pen­cil, ver­i­fied by ads clipped from the Times, falling on the ground, or a first edi­tion of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, for exam­ple, one of thou­sands of books that Gilliland col­lect­ed over six­ty years. History’s enam­ored with its famous writ­ers, pub­lish­ers and edi­tors, but what about all the rest who also ded­i­cate their lives to books? Literature’s unsung heroes: the read­ers, col­lec­tors, and lovers, all?

Really, I only know William R. Gilliland through his archive, a glimpse of which appears in this issue, and sto­ries told, but what I can tell you about Gilliland, Senior, is that, in addi­tion to being a bril­liant book­worm, he was pres­i­dent of the Dallas Jazz Society and a Beatnik at heart. As a mat­ter of fact, in one of their last con­ver­sa­tions, speak­ing from his deathbed at Baylor Hospital, Bill quotes his father as say­ing, “I love chick writ­ers.” Classic. A con­nois­seur, Gilliland had plen­ty of his own sto­ries to share, hav­ing met many famous artists, writ­ers, film­mak­ers and musi­cians over the years—Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, Dennis Hopper, and Miles Davis, to name a few cool cats. I saved a sto­ry about Gilliland and his new bride for the pho­to essay, but it brought to mind a line from con­trib­u­tor Kevin Spaide’s neu­rot­ic and narcotic’ly read­able short sto­ry “Wake,” “The future sat in the back seat.”

So let’s talk writ­ers. For the record, I didn’t approach any writ­ers I know or know of to con­tribute to this issue, because I want­ed to dis­cov­er new work, new voic­es and visions. But still, when I began read­ing sub­mis­sions for this issue, a few peo­ple wrote to ask what I was look­ing for, what’s this “The Shock of the Then” busi­ness all about, right? (Aside from being a play on the Robert Hughes’s BBC series The Shock of the New, a hun­dred-year his­to­ry of mod­ern art, that I found extreme­ly inspir­ing once upon a time. And grant­ed a bit of poet­ic license, giv­en that “The Shock of the Old” doesn’t sound very shock­ing, now does it?) And although I under­stood their ques­tion, I had no idea how to answer with­out sound­ing glib. Because no mat­ter what the theme, I have to believe every edi­tor is look­ing for the same thing: great writ­ing. That is, words that break your heart, blow your mind, pierce your eardrums, and make your spir­it take flight, in no par­tic­u­lar order.

And like any love affair, you nev­er know when or where or how it’ll happen—sometimes it sneaks up and taps you on the shoul­der, and some­times it gets right in your face and shakes you by both arms. Some sto­ries accel­er­at­ed from zero to six­ty in a sen­tence, as in the case of “Safe,” Alicia Gifford’s short sto­ry. For me, “Safe” was the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of being flagged in a car, pulling over to ask what’s the mat­ter, rolling down the win­dow, lean­ing across the seat, and first thing this sto­ry says is, “’I’m horny,’ Rob whis­pers.” Naturally, what could I pos­si­bly say, except, Get in. Matter of fact, I jumped out, and we switched seats, then and there.

Talk about joy rides, the twists and turns and bumps in the inroads of every one of these fic­tions, nev­er know­ing what’s around the bend—not once did I have a clue where any of these sto­ries would lead. Even “Safe”—you think you know where “’I’m horny”’ is going to end, think again. And fair warn­ing, because there are some deranged tales in this issue—damaged goods, indeed—and I mean that as high praise. Seriously, I lost count the num­ber of times in the past few weeks that I heard Peter Fonda’s voice in my head, “We want to be free! We want to be free to do what we want to do! We want to be free to ride!” Wild Angels, yes, and there’s plen­ty of reaper mad­ness in this issue, as well. All I can say is, Death be not proud or so god­damn fun­ny as Daniel Crocker, “The Big Cross,” (“’I fol­low God’s law,’ he said. ‘Would you like a drink?’”), or the grave­side pol­i­tics and bat­tling bat­tle axes of W.F. Lantry’s “Lacrymosa,” to the hilar­i­ous, mor­bid and pre­cise sto­ry­telling of Erik Smetana’s “Morning Rush” and Andrew Roe’s “This Is What It’s Like.” Mighty and dread­ful, indeed, and I’m still laughing.

And there’s more—oh, there’s so much more. Like Douglas Silver’s trans-American tale, “You are not Megellan” (“Have you felt her calves? You can’t fake that, yo.”) My word, read­ing that sto­ry for the first time, sec­ond time, third time, I lit­er­al­ly held my hand to the screen: Stop, stop! Don’t stop, yo! I am so pleased to say that satire is alive and well and com­plete­ly dement­ed in the hands of all these authors, from the delir­i­um and fren­zy of Nicholas Ripatrazone’s “Gulps,” to that psy­chosis bet­ter known as lit­er­ary ambi­tion, diag­nosed in David Laskowski’s “Anatomy of a Lost Cause,” to the dead­ly con­sump­tion of “(I ATE)” and writer Mel Bosworth’s killer line, “’0 69’ wasn’t in their lex­i­con of dirty.”

Moving right along, if a ral­ly of high-speed death trips and gen­der trans­gres­sions isn’t enough, how about sex? Because this issue’s got sex on the brain, all right, and a few oth­er places, as well. Let’s be clear: this is not erot­i­ca, folks, no, no, no, this is the good, the bad, and the thigh-clench­ing­ly ugly sex. Take, for exam­ple, “The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, Relatives and Gin,” in which Rae Bryant writes, “She named the penis Waldo.” Then there’s Shelagh Power-Chopra’s “The Dumb Waiter,” which looks, feels, smells and gropes like a per­vy uncle, albeit kiss­ing cousins. Ugh, what can I pos­si­bly say except that I love chick writ­ers, too, Mr. Gilliland. Last, but not least, hon­est and fear­less, poignant and piti­less, Kimberly Ford’s “Summer Without Parents,” which tells exact­ly what it is to be a liv­ing, breath­ing, lust­ing-for-life American teenage girl. Oh, to be fif­teen again, lan­guish­ing in those lazy, hazy days of August, with nowhere to go and noth­ing to do, but lath­er up in Hawaiian Tropic and Trojan talc. (Sorry, Dad.)

Two steps for­ward, three back. Here’s a ques­tion I’ve been asked many times, over the years, and a ques­tion I imag­ine most every writer must field: When did you know? How and when did you know you want­ed to be a writer? I can tell you when, or at least how I became a writer—maybe not in my hands, but in my ears, but still. Here’s the moment: it’s January 1985, and I’m four­teen years old.

By then, we’d set­tled down. My par­ents got reg­u­lar jobs; my mom bought nice things for our house; we were even able to afford a new car—a new new car, the kind from a deal­er not a deal­er. Reagan was in his sec­ond term, and storms were brew­ing, inside and out, as that chron­ic blood poi­son­ing bet­ter known as ado­les­cence took pos­ses­sion of my mind and body. Seemingly overnight, I despised every­thing about those two oth­er­wise excep­tion­al peo­ple I had once called my mom and dad, before I quit speak­ing to them. Swear, I prac­ti­cal­ly pinched my nose, if one of them walked into the room, and espe­cial­ly incensed by their music: like ohmy­god, clas­sic rock is, like, so uncool. I was a full-blown teenag­er, and like every teenag­er, I was look­ing for some­thing, hav­ing no idea what I was look­ing for.

By mid-January, the hol­i­day sea­son babysit­ting mon­ey was burn­ing a hole in my pock­et, so I took my wad of ones and fives and sad­dled up to the counter of All That Jazz, my home­town record store, and this cas­sette tape caught my eye in their new releas­es sec­tion. The title was New Day Rising, by some band with an unpro­nounce­able name that I’d nev­er heard of. I still don’t know what it was, whether it was those two dogs, the ocean, the sun­set, but for what­ev­er rea­son, the par­ty hats on those umlauts got me all hot and both­ered under the col­lar: sold.

Paid top dol­lar and ran home to give it a lis­ten. An hour lat­er, hav­ing no idea what to expect—and vivid­ly remem­ber being far more inter­est­ed in pos­ing on my bed in my under­wear, lying on my back, bare butt but­tressed against the wall, feet in the air, inspect­ing my nail pol­ish, when I clasped my Walkman and I pushed play. A few sec­onds lat­er, the son­ic boom of the title track, “New Day Rising,” ric­o­cheted through my bed­room, strip­ping the pink pol­ish right off my toes. I mean, I, I near­ly blacked out, expe­ri­enc­ing the G‑forces of that elec­tric gui­tar, and at long last, I was home. In my bed­room, all alone, I was home again, but for the first time. That was my musi­cal com­ing of age, that was my first three-chord kiss, and as true a begin­ning of ado­les­cence as any.

There’s no way—there’s just no way I would be a writer today if I hadn’t dis­cov­ered that par­tic­u­lar strain of mid-eight­ies American punk embod­ied by the Minnesota trio bet­ter known as Hüsker Dü. Never heard any­thing like it, nev­er seen any­thing like it—after all, these weren’t the hyper-styl­ized London punks mak­ing night­ly news, charg­ing tourists to have their pic­tures tak­en. No, the most singer Bob Mould got dressed up was the occa­sion­al Borg head­band; bassist Greg Norton looked like a road­ie for the Village People; and Grant Hart, Lord help me, I tried with all my hay­wire teenage might to muster a sex­u­al fix­a­tion, a spark, even, like maybe if I squint­ed … ? No. Fortunately or unfor­tu­nate­ly, those two-and-a-half gay men were a fortress, impen­e­tra­ble to a four­teen-year-old girl’s insa­tiable desire to crush and be crushed—oh, Hüsker Dü shut me down. But, at the same time, they turned me on like noth­ing I had ever known or felt.

After that, I got my hands on every­thing I could lis­ten to and read about the band. A few babysit­ting gigs lat­er, I dis­cov­ered their cov­er of The Byrds’s Eight Miles Hightakes some real cojones grandes to cov­er The Byrds, and those düdes did, and to this day, it’s the most fero­cious cov­er I have ever heard. That one cov­er taught me an invalu­able les­son, that no one cre­ates in a vac­u­um, that in this life, you’ve got to use what you have, use what you know, and make it new by mak­ing it your own—beg, bor­row and steal, by hook or crook, but most of all, don’t just do it, you got to own it. Coincidentally, as I soon learned, Hüsker Dü formed in Saint Paul, Minnesota, home­town of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

With that, one band trig­gered a punk rock domi­no effect, fol­lowed by Sonic Youth, The Slits, The Ramones, The Stooges, The Minutemen, Minor Threat, The Birthday Party, and X, of course. These bands intro­duced me to oth­er bands, and equal­ly impor­tant­ly, to artists and writ­ers, pho­tog­ra­phy, paint­ing, poet­ry and fic­tion. They put me on my path, and they threw things at me, right and left, some of which I was ready for, some of which I wasn’t. What mat­ters is that they all trust­ed me to find my way and decide for myself. That’s what led me, ulti­mate­ly, to dis­cov­er the likes of Joan Didion, Robert Walser, Donald Barthelme, James Salter, Stanley Elkins, Grace Paley, Lydia Davis, Thomas Bernhard, Jane Bowles, Henry Green, Paula Fox, the heavy­weights, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Proust (Proooooooost). Each and every one trig­gered explo­sions in my brain, that canon fire of synaps­es, hold­ing their words in my hand.

And, of course, one of the musi­cians that has most inspired me, the 2010 National Book Award-win­ning author, Patricia Lee Smith, sec­ond only to my child­hood idol Janis Joplin. Over the course of the next three years, Patti Smith would intro­duce me to more artists, more writ­ers, from Rimbaud to Ginsburg—maybe that’s not such a stretch, but still—more than any class I had or would ever take in school. All those times in my late teens, ear­ly twen­ties, when I felt afraid, on my own, unable to get any of my friends to go to a show with me, and want­ed to turn back, go home, soon as I walked through the door, I thought of her. And then stood my ground, know­ing I wasn’t alone.

Not to be gra­tu­itous, but then again, why stop now? Honestly, I just nev­er got it. I mean, come on, half the rea­son—at least half the rea­son teenage boys get out of bed in the morn­ing is in the hope that, in a world of infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties, this could be the day of days that he actu­al­ly gets laid. Then you’d see so many of those same boys giv­ing girls such shit at shows, dis­re­spect­ing us in our own homes. I know, because I saw it, I expe­ri­enced the dou­ble stan­dards of punk rock, first-hand and ass-grab, how often the punk scene treat­ed women like sec­ond-class cit­i­zens of the repub­lic. Some shows, you’d get phys­i­cal­ly assault­ed sim­ply stand­ing in a cor­ner, try­ing to watch a band, offer some sup­port. No two ways about it: it was rough, it was sex­ist, it was hope­less­ly hyp­o­crit­i­cal, but the thing is, there was nowhere else I want­ed to be. So I kept going back.

Which brings me to anoth­er con­trib­u­tor, the quin­tes­sen­tial Riot Grrrl, Ms. Sheree Rose. A woman, who, as a thir­teen-year-old girl, grow­ing up in the LA sub­urbs in the 1950s, heard a song on the radio one day, a melody that would for­ev­er change her life, and which she described to me in a way that I under­stood all too well: “When I heard that singer, I didn’t know if he was black or white—I didn’t care—I was just crazy for his music!” It was 1954, and the singer in ques­tion was none oth­er than Elvis Presley. When she couldn’t con­vince any of her friends to join her, because no one knew who he was, that thir­teen-year-old girl took a trol­ley car all the way across Los Angeles, alone, to see Presley per­form for the first time at the Shrine Auditorium.

For those of you who aren’t famil­iar with her or her work, let me tell you about Sheree Rose: she is the very embod­i­ment of tra­di­tion­al American val­ues. She is an activist, an artist, an aca­d­e­m­ic, a lib­er­tine, dom­i­na­trix, wife, wid­ow, and a Jewish mom. As I men­tioned, Matt Levin, her son, has been work­ing on a film script about that punk-rock child­hood Rose gave him, and in addi­tion to inter­view­ing Rose as part of his radio show for this issue, the two worked togeth­er, edit­ing her pho­to essay. That hand­ful of pic­tures, culled from thou­sands of pho­tos still unearthed, tell the sto­ry of how a girl born into a con­ser­v­a­tive Jewish fam­i­ly in the Los Angeles sub­urbs in the 1940s went on to become the first crowned punk queen of East LA, not to men­tion a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, film­mak­er and per­for­mance artist, who, hav­ing been mar­ried and divorced, moth­er of two, met the great love of her life, Bob Flanagan, at the age of thir­ty-nine. Now in her six­ties, Rose is receiv­ing atten­tion long over­due for her role as the equal part­ner and col­lab­o­ra­tor of “super­masochist” Flanagan, who died in 1996.

Talk about hit­ting a moment in time, I wouldn’t say that she was there when it hap­pened, because, like all pio­neers, she was so ahead of her times, there wasn’t there yet, when Sheree Rose showed up on the scene. Seriously, it’s 2011, and NPR’s still try­ing to get their lib­er­al-mind­ed heads around the fact that a woman can hold both a Master’s degrees and a whip, and Rose was out there, doing exact­ly that, more than thir­ty years ago. I am hon­ored Sheree opened her arms and her archives to me, and I’m not eas­i­ly shocked, trust me, but I’m still try­ing to pick up my jaw, hav­ing seen what she has to share. Talk about American History X, oh, the sto­ries that woman can tell about tour­ing with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, just for starters, and I’m going to stay on her case to write that book until the fat lady shat­ters every glass in the cup­board, hit­ting that wicked B‑flat, from Ella’s mouth to God’s ears.

Speaking of famous women, on December 28, 2010, the sixth anniver­sary of Susan Sontag’s death, we filed an essay writ­ten by Sontag’s per­son­al assis­tant and copy edi­tor, Karla Eoff, about Sontag, renowned for her bril­liance, beau­ty and pri­va­cy, equal­ly. Karla was my copy edi­tor, as well, and she was noth­ing less than a god­send to this first-time nov­el­ist, who, along with my edi­tor Adrienne Brodeur, ful­filled that dream every writer has of work­ing with edi­tors who like to get their hands dirty in red pen and prose. In any case, when I approached Karla last fall, ask­ing if she would write a short piece about Sontag, she hes­i­tat­ed, con­cerned about invad­ing that well-guard­ed per­son­al life, about tar­nish­ing Sontag’s mem­o­ry in any way. We talked about it, and I assured her that I don’t want to invade anyone’s pri­va­cy, I want to hon­or Sontag’s work, to know just a lit­tle more of the life that went into that life­time of words. Karla respond­ed with an essay that is sen­si­tive, dis­creet, lov­ing, a can­did portrait—not only of Sontag, but one of the most inti­mate rela­tion­ships, collaboration.

I want­ed a pic­ture of Sontag that had nev­er been seen, because I couldn’t think of a bet­ter intro­duc­tion to a group of my favorite young artists: Tara Violet Niami, Elijah Majeski, Valerie Chiang, Mike Bailey-Gates, Laurence Martel-Olivier and Dale Rothenberg, who are all teenage pho­tog­ra­phers. The fact is that quar­ter­lies need new blood, so I approached each of them, ask­ing if they’d shoot a cov­er of a lit­er­ary clas­sic, to approach the assign­ment as though shoot­ing a new book cov­er, give a clas­sic a new and per­son­al spin. (I was def­i­nite­ly curi­ous what they’d choose, and ear­ly on, Laurence wrote to dis­cuss the nov­els that she was con­sid­er­ing, and she said, Lolita, is that clas­sic enough? I said, Laurence, it doesn’t get much more clas­sic than that.) These young artists defy every­thing you hear about kids today, name­ly that teenagers don’t read, because I can assure you they do, and far more than I read at their age. Which is anoth­er rea­son why I want­ed to intro­duce Sontag to these artists, and on a per­son­al note to each of you, young pho­tog­ra­phers, I urge you to go out and get a copy of her book, On Photography, and read it as soon as possible.

That said, please keep in mind that the first time I picked it up, the book scared me, and I put it away. Because it brought out a stut­ter in my nerves, think­ing, I don’t belong, this isn’t my place, I can’t under­stand this … At var­i­ous points in the past three months, a few contributors—younger and older—expressed con­cern that they didn’t belong here, in this issue, uncer­tain for what­ev­er rea­son, and I have one thing to say: mi casa es su casa, and this is exact­ly where you belong. And if and when you pick up her book, my young friends, remem­ber that Sontag wrote On Photography for you. Yes, it’s going to chal­lenge you, and you will have to go back and read and reread, many times, as any great work demands and right­ful­ly deserves—and you deserve, as well. Because, see, you are now part of Susan Sontag’s lega­cy, you car­ry the torch, and that gives me such hope.

I under­stood those anx­i­eties, the fear of not belong­ing, just as I under­stood Karla Eoff’s con­cerns, on a per­son­al lev­el. Karla’s hes­i­ta­tion struck a chord, many chords; the pro­tec­tion­ism that is part and par­cel of love, those we love. So I’ll say it now, at long last. My grand­fa­ther was open­ly sus­pi­cious of his third child, third daugh­ter, Jo Ellen, chris­tened in the church, Josephine Helen, who I’ve always called my aunt Jellen, the brains of our fam­i­ly, con­stant­ly hol­ing up in a cor­ner, with her nose in a book, and he didn’t like it one bit. The sto­ry goes that one Saturday after­noon, in her ear­ly teens, my grand­pa called to her, ask­ing her to come out­side, come out and play with all the oth­er kids, but when she didn’t answer, didn’t hear, he went so far as to storm upstairs, pound on her bed­room door, throw it open and order the girl down­stairs, ban­ish­ing her from her paper­back, her rever­ie, her pri­vate world, shout­ing that she wasn’t right in the head, stop being so god­damn anti­so­cial. Jellen didn’t tell me that, of course, until two years after he died, and she had long since for­giv­en him for the ter­ri­fied father’s last refuge, shame. But you see the prob­lem: the man was just try­ing to hold on to his lit­tle girl.

I under­stand that bet­ter than you’d think, because I fol­lowed suit. I loved my grand­fa­ther like no tomor­row, but then tomor­row came. After days in the ICU, he died of stroke a few days before my six­teenth birth­day; he was fifty-sev­en. Three years lat­er, I still couldn’t let go, so grief became my secu­ri­ty blan­ket, my cold com­fort; one con­stant. Anger, too. There I was, hav­ing talked my way into art school, at The Talking Heads’ alma mater, no less, sur­round­ed by the likes of wealth I’d nev­er imag­ined in my wildest dreams. True sto­ry, first day of the fall semes­ter, my sopho­more year, head­ing up the hill, a Rolls Royce pulled over, and a black-capped chauf­feur pro­ceed­ed to get out and ask me direc­tions to the fresh­man dorms. So I told him where to go—I sent them down­town, which was a lit­tle dicey back then. Oops, my po’ bad.

Really, what the hell was I doing, sur­round­ed by eighteen‑, nine­teen-year-old kids who arranged all their class­es on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so that they could take four-day week­ends in Ibiza every week­end? And some­how, some way, I land­ed in a his­toric-preser­va­tion house on Congdon Street, next-door neigh­bors to European roy­al­ty, a bona fide prince who had the audac­i­ty to park a Harley he couldn’t even ride in the mid­dle of the side­walk, so that park­ing tick­ets col­lect­ed like fall leaves, fifty bucks a pop. Me, my food bud­get was forty bucks a month, and I had to look at that sight every day: obscene. We knew bik­ers, fam­i­ly friends who raised me to revere motor­cy­cles, and nev­er in my life have I want­ed to take a tita­ni­um bat and beat the shit out of a bike so badly.

It became a dai­ly rit­u­al, stand­ing in that tall win­dow on the third floor, the liv­ing room bathed in one of Providence’s spec­tac­u­lar pink-orange sun­sets, star­ing down at that dirty hog and that for­tune in tick­ets, and I’d hold up both fin­gers in a two-gun salute. Nursing such a grudge, I was prac­ti­cal­ly club­foot, walk­ing home every day, car­ry­ing a chip the size of a cin­der block. Quite an edu­ca­tion, though, my first run-ins with semi­otics. Which, frankly, I found elit­ist, pre­ten­tious and obnox­ious, in no par­tic­u­lar order, and worst of all, it had noth­ing, not a damn thing to do with what I most loved about sto­ry­telling: the human voice. Trained by men and women—mostly men, true, but still—sitting around the din­ing table, my Grandpa’s breath smelled of Marlboro Reds, Calverts and 7UP. Allowed to take as many sips of my grandpa’s drink—tasted pret­ty awful, but if Grandpa liked it, I liked it—as I want­ed, just as soon as my grand­moth­er went to bed, I’d be qui­et and lis­ten as sto­ries were told and retold, argued, adorned, elab­o­rat­ed, exag­ger­at­ed: this is the oral tra­di­tion. This is my tra­di­tion, and I intend to hon­or it with a daughter’s devotion.

It’s tak­en me all these years to admit this about him, keep­ing his secret a secret of my own. As painful as it is to share his dark­est fears, because I want to pro­tect him, to safe­guard his mem­o­ry, and I still feel so torn, yes, even now, although I’ve long since come to real­ize that you nev­er do a man any favors by pro­tect­ing him from the truth, least of all his own. That’s why, at least part­ly why, I used to kick and scream, forced to read those writ­ers for class—Barthes, Lancan, Guttierez, all that Semiotext(e) busi­ness, for­get it—because the­o­ry felt dis­loy­al, and on a fam­i­ly-first cru­sade of my own mak­ing, I chose illit­er­a­cy over dis­loy­al­ty. In will­ful igno­rance, I pledged eter­nal devo­tion, speak­ing to a man six feet under, but lodged in my heart, telling him: I won’t let go. I’ll nev­er let go of your hand. 

Phenomenal, how a sim­ple book can feel like such a betray­al that the blood boils, and the fear that’s per­me­at­ing this coun­try, uproot­ing and under­min­ing the courage and con­vic­tion of our found­ing fathers and moth­ers, here and now, I know it inti­mate­ly. The fear of not hav­ing food on the table, come Thursday night, before pay­day. Or how you’re going to clothe and feed your kids, keep a roof over their heads, keep the house warm and the car run­ning, and you can’t even go see a doc­tor if you get sick. I know that bit­ter­ness and resent­ment and rage, mis­guid­ed, but so utter­ly human, because I come from it. Which is exact­ly why I refuse to accept it. We must choose for ourselves—choose or lose our­selves. And it’s tak­en me years and years to untie those knots, and yeah, I got here through great vinyl, but it was great books, great writ­ers that taught me there’s no bet­ter way to hold on to my fam­i­ly, to keep my grandfather’s spir­it alive than with ten fin­gers and a keyboard.

That’s large­ly what got me so worked up, read­ing the inter­view by a writer who inspires me even more today than the first time I read him, author and musi­cian Rick Moody, who, almost fif­teen years ago, gave me the best of advice I’ve ever received about writ­ing: Be hon­est, he said. Rick con­duct­ed an inter­view with Gang of Four’s orig­i­nal bassist, the mul­ti-tal­ent­ed mas­ter­mind and fierce­ly artic­u­late Dave Allen. I received the tran­script of their inter­view on a Saturday morn­ing in November, tucked between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and after I fin­ished read­ing it, my hands were shak­ing, expe­ri­enc­ing thoughts that are so alive on the page, so unique, elec­tric, and so much like his music. When you see Allen’s mind at work, that indomitable bass line makes per­fect sense. It’s brainy, to say the least, and wad­ing into those murky punk/­post-punk/Marxist waters, Allen cuts to the heart of the mat­ter, the sim­ple, irrefutable truth: “How one’s life is lived makes the difference.”

After all, what’s more DIY than ART? I’m seri­ous, you do it your­self; you do it again; you do it again and again and again, until you scale wall after wall of your own prej­u­dices and mis­giv­ings, and then, final­ly, you stop think­ing, and your hands move through the air. Whether the instru­ment is a key­board, fret or spray can, what artist isn’t a punk at heart? When I began to under­stand that, get my head around that truth, the chip on my shoul­der light­ened con­sid­er­ably. It took the bet­ter part of a decade, but, final­ly, I quit telling myself I couldn’t under­stand, couldn’t get it, and step by step, page by page, I read all those writ­ers, called a truce. Nevertheless, please excuse my French, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about Derrida, and I’m at peace with that.

Which leads me to the draw­ings of one of my favorite visu­al artists, a Philly born-and-bred work­ing-class kid who also found him­self a punk rock­er in art school, and who, bless his heart, has nev­er let go of the rage that burns bright in art. Whenever I look at one of Buckwalter’s draw­ings, I can’t help think­ing of pop music and the sheer hor­rors that can be embod­ied in a pop song dit­ty, how dia­bol­i­cal pop tru­ly is at its core. Like, say, The Beatles’s, “A Day In the Life,” and in this series, inspired by the bands and lyrics that set him on his own way, Buckwalter flex­es the mus­cle mem­o­ries of ado­les­cence, the fury, indig­na­tion, and love, because, “There is no grace in love.”

Maybe, maybe not, but speak­ing of furies, film crit­ic Chuck Stephens. Irascible, irrev­er­ent, incor­ri­gi­ble, after twen­ty years in the trench­es, Chuck remains one of the pre­cious few crit­ics we have who could care less about cor­po­rate, news­pa­per and/or mag­a­zine pol­i­tics and inter­ests. Which is why, for the bet­ter part of the last twen­ty years, he’s been get­ting him­self black­list­ed from crit­ics’ screen­ings by major stu­dios for speak­ing his mind in no uncer­tain terms. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, his fly open, and know­ing ful­ly well that the pen is might­i­er than the sword, Chuck’s slayed count­less giants, behe­moths and block­busters. Really, I can’t tell you the num­ber of times I smelled blood on his first sen­tence; the Irish cho­rus in my brain chant­i­ng, Fight! Fight! Fight! The good fight, free­dom of expres­sion, of speak­ing one’s mind, how­ev­er deranged that mind may be.

It’s hard for me to get my head around the fact that Chuck’s had enough, and it took some real con­vinc­ing, some plead­ing, cer­tain­ly, but Chuck came out of retire­ment for this issue—for me, an old friend, and for one of his idols, Bruce Baillie, one of the great­est film­mak­ers the United States has ever pro­duced. If you don’t know who Bruce Baillie is, you should, you must, and Chuck has done all the work for you. Because when Chuck Stephens gets behind some­one, he gives his full sup­port, no holds barred, and there’s no one you’d rather have in your cor­ner, as you will see clear­ly in his love poem to Baillie, which begins with a quote from the film­mak­er, “I want to dis­cov­er true American themes, the images that lay clos­est to the hearts of our citizens.”

By chance, six weeks ago, on December 1, the night we closed BLIP’s sub­mis­sion win­dow, I was tired, bleary-eyed, didn’t want to read any­thing more, not anoth­er word, and I was just about to call it a night when I received one last sub­mis­sion. The rea­son I remem­ber the date is because it was World AIDS Day, as well as the fifty-fifth anniver­sary of the day a seam­stress in Montgomery, Alabama changed the course of his­to­ry by refus­ing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. And on December 1, 2010, the board of our most ven­er­a­ble American insti­tu­tion, The Smithsonian, bowed down to pres­sure from con­ser­v­a­tive groups and reli­gious activists, who, I might add, don’t sup­port the arts in the best of times, what­ev­er times those are, and removed David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhib­it, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” For shame, Mr. Wayne Clough.

In any case, the night of December 1, I received a short sto­ry called “The Gay Bomb,” based on a ter­ri­fy­ing true sto­ry of a plan cooked up by some team of Dr. Strangelovers at the Pentagon to design pheromone bombs in order to con­vert our sworn ene­mies to homosexuality—if we can’t beat ‘em, bone ‘em, appar­ent­ly. Really, peo­ple, how American can we get? Suffice to say, author James Russel sets his sights on our indus­tri­al mil­i­tary com­plex, armed with one of the most lethal weapons known to humankind: humor.

On that note, in the first inter­view he has ever con­duct­ed, writer Greg Pierce spoke with his long­time friend and men­tor, Edmund White. You know I don’t read inter­views with writ­ers much, because, frankly, too often, in my opin­ion, they’re stripped of a writer’s per­son­al tics, slang and imper­fec­tions, gram­mat­i­cal and oth­er­wise, and I nev­er under­stand that, ster­il­iz­ing the words of those who devote them­selves to writ­ing about that messy state we call the human con­di­tion. I just don’t relate to those con­ver­sa­tions; they don’t often ring true to any expe­ri­ence I have had or actu­al­ly care to know about oth­er writ­ers. I mean, real­ly, amongst our less­er qual­i­ties, writ­ers are pet­ty, neu­rot­ic, jeal­ous, vin­dic­tive, cov­etous and lust­ful. Well, lust­ful could go either way, and cer­tain­ly does in the hands of our man of let­ters, Edmund White.

In his con­ver­sa­tion with Pierce, the author is dis­arm­ing­ly open, frank, fun­ny, insight­ful, and oh so won­der­ful­ly randy. It’s one of the most gen­uine, real-to-writer’s‑life inter­views I have ever read, and as White says, “I read some­times state­ments like in The Paris Review inter­views where writ­ers will say, I write for myself, I nev­er think of the pub­lic, and I find that a com­plete head-scratch­er because to me the whole thing is to touch some­body, manip­u­late some­body, move them towards some­thing, make them think some­thing is going to hap­pen and then give them some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent.” Indeed, sir. Now, as for your own head-scratch­ing com­ment that, “Women … real­ly don’t like cocks and balls in writ­ing,” you think so? Well, the future might be sit­ting in the back seat, but I very much look for­ward to dis­cussing this obser­va­tion with you, in detail, over drinks, the next time I’m in town, Mr. White.

Looking back, now, I just wish I’d been giv­en an inter­view like that to read when I was in school—might’ve sat up and paid atten­tion for once. You know I had an English teacher in high school, and the one thing I always remem­ber about her class is how she always used to say, God bless the poets, for they shall inher­it the Earth. Just so, round­ing out this issue, are four death-defy­ing poets, each of who per­form the high wire, step-by-step, word-by-word. Heart-stop­ping, I held my breath, watch­ing the bal­anc­ing act of Bill Yarrow, who took me down with him, when he fell from grace: “Ghosts hold me to votes I dis­avow.” Followed by Erin Bealmear, who spares no one, least of all her­self, with her speed­ball of vain­glo­ri­ous and plain­spo­ken poet­ry, cut­ting itself off at the knees: “Trust me. It’s all a bunch of crap.” And then, sweet and sly Michael Snediker, with his inno­cent and ruth­less obser­va­tion that, “some­times, her poems just break off when they least under­stand them­selves,” dar­ing to undress Emily Dickinson, and the rest of us with her.

To any­one who mis­tak­en­ly thinks of poet­ry as soft and cud­dly, warm and fuzzy—watch it, you’re liable to get your ass kicked. Because these poets fight fire with fire, rag­ing against the very machine of writ­ten lan­guage with bru­tal hon­esty; they always get the last word, and in those final words, you real­ize that you haven’t read the poem so much as it’s read you. To that end, from “Refilling Shells for Skeet Practice,” the most time­ly verse of John McKernan:

If I traced letters
In the pow­der below
Would it bear the sound of my name
Which part of myself Brain or Heart
Would I care­ful­ly aim at?

For what it’s worth, hüsker dü means do you remem­ber? And I do—I remem­ber, and I’ve nev­er for­got­ten where I come from. Literature is noth­ing if not a protest song, and I am indebt­ed to Frederick Barthelme and to Rie Fortenberry, the very def­i­n­i­tion of a class act. They have been my cham­pi­ons and two of the first to pub­lish my writ­ing in print. They were, as I’ve said before, the heart and spleen of The Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi for more than twen­ty-five years. No, I have nev­er tak­en a writ­ing class, I don’t have a col­lege degree, and in the past year, I’ve nev­er been so grate­ful for find­ing my own way home, hav­ing wit­nessed indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing stoop so low. And I have one thing to say to those who allowed polit­i­cal aspi­ra­tions and per­son­al ego trips to trump the greater good of cre­ative writ­ing, of sto­ry­telling and nar­ra­tive in its infi­nite forms, which is, in the immor­tal words of the win­ner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature, Samuel Beckett: SUCK IT.

Well, I don’t about you, but I feel much bet­ter now. With that, dear friends, please join me in rais­ing a glass with one hand and a fist with the oth­er. Here’s to mak­ing art, not war, and not war on art, and, with­out fur­ther ado, let us toast the bril­liant con­trib­u­tors of this, the January 2011 issue of BLIP Magazine, “The Shock of the Then.”

Thank you, one and all.
Courtney Eldridge