Review of Scraped Knees by Kristine Brown – Michael Rush

Michael Rush has written quite a thorough review of my collection of poems and flash stories. I give Mr. Rush and Forage Poetry great thanks for their time in receiving my work and sharing the goodness others create. Forage just released their last issue. Please give them a visit and peruse the entire archive. The showcase is truly something.

Additionally, if you’re interested in purchasing a signed copy of Scraped Knees, feel free to let me know. Again, thanks for your support. Happy Monday.

++++It would be easy to label Scraped Knees as a collection on growing up. It would be easy to see its poetry and prose about someone finding their voice, then connect it to your own upbringing and drift back into personal moments of discovering the world. Yet for me Scraped Knees is much more; it is a book of contrasts. A collection of poetry and prose which can speak from the perspective of the young, but do it with a more mature voice. Wonder is mixed with rationality and realism. Expectation mingles with disappointment. We experience some lighter moments, but there is a weight to carry with us both before and after that lightness.

++++Anemic Disappointment would be an example of that weight as the speaker’s uncoordinated efforts are further highlighted by her Mother’s reminder of her own athletic exploits. Yet it’s not the rebukes or even the…

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Starlit Speculation – This is Charlie Zero

Introduced to Björk and Tori Amos at the age of eleven, and remembering echoes of of a swarming crowd as Shirley Manson stated, “I’m only happy when it rains,” I’m difficult to unnerve through words, medical terminology, and images I hope will prompt more than just some kind of lucid, false, epileptic seizure.

Perhaps the challenge in impressing me lies in my affinity for the experimental, cracked into three large shards. Charlie Zero’s This Robot Dreams Inside a Plastic Soul stirred my intrigue as the sun prods an amusement park worker to wriggle in his four-legged, alpaca wool suit. I snuggled into the blankets covering my macintosh red futon, took a minute or so between pieces, and thought, “Damn, Charlie. I’d imagine LSD does come to a halt, but I’m not quite ready.” For the record, I’ve never tried LSD.

Charlie’s writing reminds me of wind chimes that clang out of nowhere in the summer heat, doorbell melodies that warn me I’m entering the home of a prolifically artful eccentric. I don’t know what to expect, conversing with a local historian about “tarot-cards & playgirl magazines” I’ve never taken more than a glimpse at, or a “virtual console” commanding fine-tuning by those long departed. The allusions run unbridled, as read in “Witchcraft Acidhead 23.” Grammatical devices, the marriage of the supernatural Ouija with universal Apple products, and an image of Edgar Allen Poe stuffing the macabre into his DDT heart, It seems anything and anyone stands around to grab the microphone, announcing standard grievances, pointing out that CNN should be taken with a grain of salt, that institutionalization confines more than young girls admitted out of parents’ concerns that they may be too hormonal. Charlie Zero assembles dismantlement to encourage us to question what’s heard and said, while navigating local alleys, gathering others interested in communal innovation while acknowledging the stagnancy that sets our minds on fire.

Charlie toys with form and language like people I see on the Travel Channel acquainting themselves with flower arrangements. Nothing’s quite symmetrical, yet the juxtaposing hues encapsulate readers in a curious glow. “I didn’t know this was a medical term! What could it possibly mean? Would I hear it at my next doctor’s appointment?” These are questions I asked myself as I breathed in the smoke trailed by thirty-five poems.

Now, back to the three large shards. This Robot Dreams Inside a Plastic Soul invites you to do your own research, opening dictionaries, finding encyclopedias at your nearest discount bookstore which directly pertain to Twentieth Century pop culture, and beyond. The collection offers more than trance, illustrates complexities more intricate than tangled arms and legs in an urban club scene. In Charlie’s synthesis of the bright, historical, and contemporary, we read what it means to be eclectic. Lines such as “Arachnid gods/ registered virtuoso/ T-minus 1” sends us jolting, neck hairs raising as if our fingers almost pricked the shine of an open lamp socket. Again, I emphasize eccentricity, but not as a term describing a human. The poetry collection, though fierce in its delivery, does not settle itself centrally. See Charlie’s work as an ever spinning globe, continental tenants shouting insults they’ll one day take back, digging their fingers into the clay on which they stand, giving Pangaea one more chance.

This Robot Dreams Inside A Plastic Soul ignites fury, anxiety, and hope in the midst of a changing society that in retrospect, may not have changed so drastically should we consider human faltering. Nonetheless, it is a thoughtful read, pushing us to wonder what we truly think about the world and people who cross our path as we walk, confined by our Ziplock exteriors.

Charlie Zero’s collection of poems remains available in paperback, through Paypal. Do follow his adventures in writing at his blog, filled with starlit speculation.

Simply Extraordinary – Misfortune and Strife in Steven Baird’s Ordinary Handsome

ordinaryhandsomeiiI first read Ordinary Handsome a little more than a year ago. Admittedly, I felt quite overwhelmed upon finishing the book, giving it a second, third, and fourth read. Not only did the book leave me breathing deeply, scouting for the aroma of old black tea, the imprisoning honesty of spilled liquor, salty dried blood staining dusty fabric, and the freshness of limes that serve disturbingly more than just a culinary purpose. Steven Baird’s novel demanded my full attention, and even though I was absolutely absorbed each time I read it in around five hours, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. His writing is exquisite, the subject matter is temporally relevant, and there are characters to both pity and loathe. Ordinary Handsome, in its grit and precision, tells of extraordinary misfortune and strife.

Baird illustrates the backdrop poetically. As we walk through the streets of Handsome, Oklahoma, it’s accepted that this is a town from someone’s childhood, or a town only heard of through family storytelling. The gravel scrapes beneath our feet, sweat rolls down our foreheads as we watch farmers toil to barely last the year, and we catch ourselves gagging, perhaps flinching, as we pass the bar owned by Henry Wasson, a simple man with a precocious son and memories that both comfort and haunt. In narrating the hardships of the townspeople, Wasson’s dilemmas, and the impact of his deeds on those around him, Baird clearly deliberates, word by word. While he abandons quotation marks, it is simple to discern who says what, and what was committed by whom. Perhaps Baird does this to further accentuate the bareness of an impoverished, dying town. Perhaps Baird does this to call for our attention, to read and re-read. The story, though structurally fragmented, comes together. But one has to watch for every reed to weave that compact basket.

Most impressive are the contrasts presented throughout the story. A bar packed with regulars and full glasses that actually faces financial collapse. The hint of a bra spotted on a young girl during a date years ago, a young man eventually choosing a bra that the girl will wear in her coffin. A boy who toys with grapes “like a kitten,” though his actions and father are far from innocent. The undeniable presence of families, however incomplete. While women make brief appearances throughout the story, there lacks a maternal element. Ultimately, we witness the struggles, codependency, and eventual severance of ties between fathers and their lone sons. Especially striking is the presence of a mathematics museum in a town that seems to forsake intellectuality. We have a father who manages a bar, who can’t comprehend the meaning of integers, and a son who seeks comfort in numbers and their certainty. While Handsome, Oklahoma appears dry, rusted, and cyclically unambitious, horrific crimes transpire. The darkness of such deeds is inarguable, though the consequences that follow are so numerous that the thought of what only could happen drives a man to madness.

Ordinary Handsome is more than an account of poverty, alcoholism, and damage rooted in human imperfection. It is a psychological thriller, a coming-of-age story, a dramatic read that one could adapt to an accessible play or film. Read it in the rain, twilight, or heat. Read it several times if the story perplexes you. Steven Baird has crafted more than a lush narrative, but moreover, a warning of the harm we all could inflict under desperation’s duress.

Ordinary Handsome is available on Amazon, via Kindle.

Thank You For Submitting Your Work To Us – Taking Rejection In Stride

You know, I check my email on my phone. Not a good idea when the workplace is already fraught with upset and conflicts unmediated. A year ago, I’d slowly walk, bumping into cursing cyclists and turning away from police officers as I properly waited to cross the street. It wasn’t until November last year when I cried for the first time in over three years (not because of the emails), but I took these rejections so personally. Hobart. The New Yorker. The New York Times (Modern Love, specifically). Tin House. I submitted to Tin House every chance I got, and I also applied for their summer workshop. And I was not accepted. I could write my way to scholarships to mitigate loans, and a personal statement, plus other things in 2013 got me into professional school I’m still conflicted about attending (the doctor says I’m still not well, and need more time to recover. July 27th brings several appointments). And these schools, to say the least, were spoken of like these white whales mottled with typeface.

Getting accepted by a literary magazine is hard. Peer-reviewed journals are a challenge too, especially when you have just a Bachelor’s degree. But with blind submissions, there awaits a niche should you assemble something cogent that warrants further research. The difference is subjectivity. Ambiguity. A kind of neon secrecy emanating from the hookah coals illuminating the cool kids at your favorite Saturday hangout spot. “Like me, like me,” you scratchily moan, waving your journal splattered with lilies. All of them smile, crookedly, as if they were eating Grandma’s cheesecake made with stale graham crackers.

“We appreciate hearing from you again, and we appreciated the opportunity to read your work. However, this isn’t for us.”

“While the subject matter is temporally relevant and indeed a societal malady, it was hard to feel for any of the characters. We felt there were too many characters.”

“This read is very interesting, but I’m not exactly sure how our subscribers will take it.”

“It runs a bit long. Cut out the bits inessential to the story, and bring the message home.”

“We have given your story careful consideration. And we have decided to pass.”

“Though I hope this doesn’t discourage you from submitting to us in the future, your story will not be published in our journal.”

I frequently read through the stories featured in these pages of style and prestige. Some pieces are delightful, and others leave me indifferent. But without an MFA, am I qualified to say such things? Am I in a position to say that from literary magazine to literary magazine, there’s so many differences and similarities that it’s just to time-consuming to conform your piece to the speculated feel of each publication you submit to? There is such a thing as constructive criticism, and it ought to be heeded. But sacrificing one’s voice, the emotional truth of sensitive topics, is a shameful concession to make when striving for that perfect portfolio.

Some time ago, I mentioned writing a short story that I thought was my best piece of prose. It approaches 1,600 words. Nothing long, but sentimentally, it meant a lot to me. In tenth grade, I took a course in creative writing. Of course, we wrote quite a lot. Flash assignments due daily, two poetry books each semester that we treated as self-published chapbooks, and a piece of short fiction every two weeks. The teacher read it all. The teacher was also brutally honest.

After submitting to over thirty different literary journals, my story found a home at In-Flight Literary Magazine. I’ve read each issue from the beginning. The writers are passionate, the pieces diverse, and I would say the quality yields elegance in its honest minimalism. The first draft of “Relent” was finished when I was fifteen. I wanted to write a story based on my on-and-off issues with self-loathing and a boy whose admirations I didn’t reciprocate. Over time, I tweaked the story, adding features reminiscent of every boy I was ever close to, romantically or platonically. Most of the rejection letters were mimeographed, and anyone I consulted with for feedback could only say, “Well, honey, it’s lovely.” After some debating about whether AGNI, The New Yorker, Carve, Hobart, and other glossy magazines determined my worth as a writer and most irrationally, a “worthy” human being, I came to these conclusions:

1. I had never been published in any literary magazine. Ever. My biography was very standard. College graduate. Humanities geek. Works multiple jobs thanks to a batty attention span.

2. Aside from the white whales, I wasn’t giving other publications any consideration. I was somewhat emulating my old boss. The best dermatologist I ever had went to medical school in Galveston, Texas. The worst dermatologist I ever had graduated from Johns Hopkins. My old boss insinuated that I simply wasn’t worth Bad Dermatologist’s prime expertise.

3. I wasn’t being myself. I was writing in a way to impress, but it was just excessively rehearsed. Again, I remind myself of subjectivity. I now like to write how I talk. It’s kind of difficult to follow along, but I like to tell stories from odd angles. I often begin with settings and situations we usually find mundane. I try to be funny. Sometimes, the reader laughs. Sometimes, there’s no reaction. I’ve tried folding a crane out of pinewood. It comes out stoic and choppy.

4. I was placing so much goddamn prestige on “getting published” that at one point in time, writing just wasn’t fun anymore. I ran out of ideas and shied away from abstraction. I wanted people to like me, even if this entailed boredom and the installation of French vocabulary I truthfully can’t pronounce.

5. I was an isolationist. In college, I only took one English course (advanced composition and rhetoric). The rest concerned psychology and the cult of Mao Zedong. I took all this time to scribble, and while free-writing facilitates the articulation of opinions and unspoken grievances lodged in the back of my mind, I didn’t know the basics, or what makes books like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Confederacy of Dunces captivating across the decades. I read more, I asked more. From strangers, mostly. And I began to express myself better.

I am not saying I’m averted to submitting to Tin House, Hobart, and other fantastic venues where I’ve found some of my favorite stories (along with some of the most khaki-cloaked dull). But there’s much room for improvement, and there’s little reason to leave the journal shut. If not for anyone else, writing for the self is therapeutic. It’s enlightening. And possibly preventative, depending on your personal demons.

Don’t let a rejection letter, from a publisher or agent, ever get you down. Those seventy-five words or so do little to nothing to validate your passion, sincerity, and dedication to your craft. Keep building, keep thinking, find glitter in the dirt. And of course, cling tight to your truth. Didn’t Fran Drescher have some kind of oddity? Did she seek to change it? Perhaps, for those aspiring to write, the ultimate goal is acceptance. Acceptance within yourself, and perseverance to shake off mass denial until that manuscript finds its home.

Sweet and Conscientious – Poetic RITUals by Ritu Bhathal

51OZQmeTjcL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_“…there is something for most situations.”

Oh, is that right?

If we respect convention, my age warrants questions, about the longterm boyfriend I do not have, the left ring finger pale as eggshells, and what I would do upon receiving a call from the daycare director after baby’s first brawl. In the barest sense, during these conversations, I answer with “Not yet.” Motherhood is foreign to me, but projects in my planner beg for attention. My obligations are limited, and as of late, my deepest conversations consist of “goo-goo”s and “coo-coo”s with none other than my two cats, George Batman Michael and Tabby.

Ritu Bhathal has a cat. Children, a husband, a profession commanding compassion and patience. She maintains a blog, But I Smile Anyway. Here, we find authenticity. In the giddy, frazzling, and sometimes tear-worthy moments of a life we have encountered sometime before. The bus monitor, teacher, neighbor next door. A woman I would like to meet on my sidewalk, share conversations with, and look up to as a model of bustling positivity.

I mention again my aversion to self-help books. Often times, I fail to relate to the sources of frustration discussed, sources that have brewed others’ anxieties and inner tensions that I grapple with daily. I sense some condescension, a reminder of “I’m twenty years older than you.” However, filled with the cries, sighs, groans, and laughter of a busy life I have yet to experience, Poetic RITUals does not condescend in the slightest. Rather, Bhathal’s book comforts.

A child learning to blow bubblegum. A working woman keeping a home. A dash of redolent romance sweet like hazelnut creamer. Contemporary issues such as prejudice, and some self-deprecating humor. The ways men perplex, and the ruddy grace by which they captivate girls in their hopeful youth. The author’s pieces, thoughtfully constructed in their rhyme and concise sincerity. Some bits remind me of well-written sitcoms from the ’90s that some of us can re-enact, word by word. There are sections of sentimentality, verses that left me thinking of the magic experienced each time I journey with Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina. Undoubtedly, Bhathal’s collection is diverse, playful, enticing in its humor and emotion, and most admiringly, real. Girls in their twenties yet to wed may surely delight in her warmth and wisdom, verses appropriate for morning reading before the drive to work. It would not be farfetched to predict that grandfathers will smile, leafing through musings about chocolate cake, the restlessness of young children, and a matter-of-fact, personalized rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Rarely do I come across books about family life written without the drippings of sappy vanilla that leave our tummies and thoughts aching from overcompensation. Bhathal loves her children, her husband, her cat, her life, and daily sights. But the love is composed, neither preachy or theatrical. Self-aggrandizement, child worship, and Instagram shots of couples smiling too widely have no place in RITUals. But know that at a point, perhaps two, three, or more, one may be left smiling upon completion of this work. Through rain’s residual mud puddles, the teasing of daylight saving time, the loss of those we cherish and squabbles between people with whom we live, Bhathal encourages us to seize the moment. To reflect, learn, and smile any which way life takes us.

Poetic RITUals, in its gentle honesty, is now available on Amazon, through Kindle or paperback. 

Grey Cloud, Adored

You are not a boyfriend, though I’m confident that no one should surpass you in the ranks of cuteness and agility. While the toilet’s ceramics remain dustless and compact, you protest every morning, pawing underneath a closed door, announcing your hurt feelings. Though you’ve been here for less than ten days, you’ve already pushed me out of bed. The daiquiri futon is yours, but only as you wish. The same applies to leaps and twists before my alarm clock rings. You journey when you want to, and only when you want to. However, the “where” confines itself to the corners of our efficiency.

For now, we make with what we have. A plaid wool blanket over bistro table packaging, a box from the Post Office wedged between pillows the size of you. You wriggle, emulating ergonomic comforts, but you also test for breast cancer with little sensitivity. Of course, I’d be wearing a work blouse, laying in bed and reaching for conversational profundities in the film Pretty Woman. You seem to tolerate it more than Jim Gaffigan’s impression of humans as self-cleaning animals. You’re a masseuse who presses like metal on cows. The shrewd, but concerned nurse who wanders the halls of adolescent mental wards, scolding the children for giggling, but not with qualified annoyance. After all, they are children, and I am a people-fearer with thoughts best quantified by the gallon of milk you wish you could relish every day. I hear you retreat when I lock the door, and I see you dance half past five. You’re a clock of numbers with rotating typeface, ticking consistently as moods shift.

You are not an adopted child. Perhaps that is my role. Or maybe I’m just that girl with the damp spiral on which you sit while exorcising your own tangled demons. I’ve lost track of all my unruly split-ends, so I suppose I can somewhat sympathize. I’ve noticed you enjoy simple things. Flat surfaces, and five-foot descents. If it weren’t for you, my latest ugly Christmas sweater would have hung limp in one of my three closets. Naturally, your favorite neighbors the bathroom, and daily, I see you opening it, straining yourself to play a tuneless accordion to enjoy its creaky song every single time.

I assume you feel I’m a lot of work, though you’re too polite to say so. A week ago, you lowered yourself into the sink when I called for you. I’m unsure as to whether this relates to my giving you canned salmon that same morning, or the paper bowl of unfinished Lucky Charms wobbling on the nearby stovetop. I caught you rolling your eyes as I circled my thumbs through your skin. Then you meekly growled when I dialed for the pet E.R. I told them you were lethargic, that I didn’t really know you, that I just wanted to give you a preventative bath so mosquitoes could feast unrivaled.

***

“You’ve never had a cat, yes?” The veterinary technician didn’t try not to laugh.

“No, this is my first. He used to be a friend’s, and I’ve always liked him, so I took him home, and he’s nice. Needy, but docile.” This was probably your fifth night at my apartment, and I hardly knew anything of you.

“So, you’re not exactly sure what makes for typical behavior.”

“No, I don’t really know. Oh my God, he’s purring.” You closed your eyes and I held your face, counting the seconds between each blink.

“Oh?” There was coughing at the line’s other end.

“I mean, is it normal?”

“What’s normal?”

“The purring! He’s not even fighting me. He’s hardly moving. Oh my God, he’s a little ball and I’m pouring more water and he won’t even fight.”

“Well, not all of them do.” She realized my panic was serious. I’ve admired cats from afar, but I never had the privilege of having one lick my salty fingers.

“What?”

“Every cat’s different. Not all of them hate baths. Some are even lethargic by nature.”

“So he’s not having a seizure.” I declared, rather than asked for reassurance.

“Again, it depends on the cat.” My ears burned scarlet as I sensed the vet tech smirk from the northwest side of town. “Look, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Finish the bath and keep a good eye on her. If she still seems slow tomorrow morning, walk her in and we’ll take a look.”

“Will do.” I nodded, chin pushing buttons I fought not to touch while running my hand through your Dawn-soaked ruffles.

“Oh, and one more thing.” This amused operator ignored the flatness of a clumsily dialed “7.”

“Yes?”

“Don’t use Hartz flea drops. That results in seizures.”

You climbed onto the counter as I ended the call. I wondered what I said to leave an impression that you were ever a “she.” Hardly dry, you speckled our sofa, spreading your legs and chewing on the down around your crotch. I had reason enough to rename you George Michael. You had, and will have, countless reasons to dash for shelter when I come home. Endearingly, you’re shameless. I’m the neurotic one, moving about like a laser beam, but not quite so awesome.

***

You are a patient roommate, emerging from your bed box every morning with a warbling roar that demands a lion’s mane. I’m skeptical of the fact that you’re seven years old, but I’m sure you think to yourself that I’m five as milk spots my blazers when I finish my Fruit Loops. Every morning, you scratch. Not so much on the sofa, but on that ugly Christmas sweater. Finally, it’s serving its purpose, a coarse piece of parchment for your sarcastic poetry.

Arriving a week after I moved in, you’re actually more than a roommate. A crisis line without static, as long as I leave birthday parties with barbecue instead of balloons. Unlike the childhood goldfish, and despite your affinity for the cool and wet, you’re grappling with complex things. Ambivalence, fear, apprehension. But you don’t seem to dislike me. At least your claws haven’t said so.

*Like his roommate, George Batman Michael dabbles in creative writing. Follow him on Instagram for daily updates and experiments in free verse.

Construction in Expression – Holding Pattern/Joyride

“… it’s easier to get ahead over the corpses of those who disrespect you than it is to ride their coattails.”

I’ve recently found myself interested in compiling quotes. Oftentimes, they are silly, nonsensical, and essentially, fodder to save whatever tiny notebook I have on my nightstand that’s about to hit the trashcan. Lately, I’ve been scribbling down words of an angry Mel Gibson. As some of you know, I have what the socially prudent would call a fiery temperament. Aside from verbal assaults and racial slurs dismissed in a discussion on alcohol, Mel has some pretty interesting things to say. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he professes to “murder inanimate objects.” The ability is so impressive that we should watch him “choke a toaster in the morning.”

It’s all quite amusing, but are the rants constructive? If I were to compile a book titled Quotes of Mel Gibson, would it be anything more than a list you find in your supermarket’s Cosmopolitan that details sixty-nine ways to please your man with a chocolate eclair? I highly doubt it.

Recently, I was privileged with reading and assembling over sixty poems from J. Walter Falconer’s blog, Holding Pattern/Joyride. Some pieces are worthy of an aching chest, others read like battle scenes from fantasy novels I’m too intimidated to open, but all the poems saturate, ideal for any weather and worthy of multiple re-reads. I’ve found myself doing this quite a bit, visiting the blog, admiring the precision in Falconer’s stanzas, and more so, reminding myself that my issues, both internal and interpersonal, aren’t unsolvable and can certainly be articulated in less than abstract ways.

I’ll reiterate that Holding Pattern/Joyride is more than a poetry blog. It’s a collection of writing that likely appeals to an ample span of readers. Students, nature lovers, hunters, enthusiasts of health, medicine, and psychological complexities. And let’s not forget those angsty people like myself who need a bit of a grounding. My obstacles aren’t necessarily insurmountable, and the grievances and ambivalences I clumsily attempt to juggle aren’t exactly sixteen-pound bowling balls.

If time allows, I highly recommend you read the blog from first entry to the most recent. Holding Pattern/Joyride is more than a glimpse into the happenings of a poet. Here, we have a cancer survivor embarking on patient advocacy, a friend with advice regarding relationships gone sour, the cool guy at the coffee shop who gives me the gritty details of what it’s like to be in grad school, and how working in a lab isn’t to be glamorized. There’s a poignant bit about the kind impartiality of animals we hold dear. As someone who frequently finds solace in the company of other friend’s cats as I save for my own, I can only smile at the declaration of “No prejudice here, no sir,” followed by an entry on therapy animals.

Indeed, not everything’s permanent, and the idea of the world constantly fleeting makes me pretty anxious. Self-identity is often muddled, and still, at twenty-five, my coping skills need work. Falconer’s blog reminds me of this, but not so patronizingly. It’s kind of like a self-help book, but better. A compilation of tips, poetic, detailed, and structured with a purpose that directs me away from the sinkhole angst can sometimes lead us to, including recorded arguments we’ll likely soon regret.