This Sunday, July 10, I’ll be playing a solo show at Stillwater Pub in Birmingham. Tym and Brent will join me for at least one set of acoustic Ghost Herd numbers. There may be other special guests. I’ll start playing around 9:30 or 10a nd play until they shut us down. Come on out!
Some of you know that I was recently appointed managing editor of the Birmingham Free Press, but many of you don’t know what the BFP is. It began as the brainchild of Stephen Smith, Lee Waits, and Brent Stauffer in 1998. At that time, it existed only as a web site, featuring local news items, humor, and political commentary. They began printing a broadsheet version of BFP in 2003, but for various reasons, they stopped after a few issues. Meanwhile, Stephen has been keeping the web site up, and there have been vague plans for the last year or so to start printing a broadsheet again.
That’s where I come in. The broadsheet is imminent, and the guys needed someone with drive and experience to make it happen. It’s happening in early August.
I’ll be writing more about this later, and I’ll also be re-posting any editorials I write for BFP on this blog. In the meantime, we are seeking more writers. We need people to write about various issues–politics, sports, bigfoot, etc. We can’t pay anything, but we would sure appreciate all the help we can get.
If you want more information about writing for the Birmingham Free Press, contact me, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tonight and tomorrow, Desert Island Supply Company (DISCO) presents “Woodlawn Stories,” a community storytelling event performed by students of Woodlawn High School.
DISCO is a non-profit creative writing program based on the model of 826 Valencia in San Francisco. The organization provides tutoring, workshops, poetry slams, and other free creative writing outlets for kids in Birmingham schools. I volunteer through DISCO to tutor at Woodlawn High School a few times a week, I also help them out with other programs whenever I have time. This one is especially ambitious and interesting.
For several months last year, DISCO volunteers collected and recorded stories of Woodlawn residents past and present. The stories were then developed into a script to be performed by Woodlawn High School students. I’ll be there for both performances. Come down.
Location: Woodlawn High School, 5620 1st Avenue North, Birmingham
Times: Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 4pm
Cost: Free and open to the public
It has come to my attention that I haven’t updated this blog in more than a month. So here’s a quick run-down. I haven’t been writing much here because I’ve been writing a lot elsewhere.
First off, Steel Toe Review is getting better all the time, publishing new work every day or two. And we are hosting our first short story contest with a $100 prize. You can see the details on the home page of the STR site. This is a themed contest. I have long had this idea that Birmingham/Red Mountain is sort of like a spaceship that landed 120 years ago in the middle of Alabama. This probably has a lot to do with my fascination with Sun Ra, but also I think Birmingham just makes a lot more sense when you think about it that way. So I’d been thinking about writing a story like this but I never got around to it. So now, here’s $100 incentive for other people to write it for me. Exciting, no?
Secondly, I’ve been writing new songs, performing, and recording. This coming Friday (March 11), my band is playing a show at the DanielDay Gallery/DreamMecca Studio in Lakeview. Our sister band Results of Adults are opening for us. There is a $10 donation at the door, which I know sounds a little steep. BUT it’s BYOB, so you will save lots of money by bringing your own beer.
A friend from out of town came to visit, and I decided I’d take her to the Civil Rights Museum because it was her first time visiting Birmingham. And it happened to be Martin Luther King Day, so there was free admission. However, this also meant that there was a two-hour wait to get into the museum. We stood in the line anyway for a while and watched the parade go by, led by Bishop Calvin Woods singing “We Shall Overcome” through a megaphone. This would have been a powerful image, had it not been immediately followed by a high school marching band doing Solid Gold dance moves down the middle of the street.
We stood there and watched as the parade culminated at the 16th Street Baptist Church across the street, the church that served as a war room for the civil rights foot soldiers in Birmingham, the church that was bombed by the KKK in 1963, killing four young black girls, the church where Dr. King and Reverend Shuttlesworth inspired the people from the pulpit. As the parade wound to a close, the line to go into the museum barely moved, so we decided maybe it would make more sense to just come back the next day when it wouldn’t be as crowded, even though it would no longer be free to get in.
My friend then felt drawn toward the church and asked if we could just go in there. I said it looked like we could, but I didn’t know if there would be anything to see. It’s just a church, I said. She said, “Yeah, but it’s THE church.” So, mainly out of blind curiosity, we followed a crowd inside and up the stairs to the balcony. Before we could see anything, we could hear that a service was starting and we agreed that if we went in, we’d be committed to staying in there a while.
Bishop Woods was in the middle of giving his opening remarks when we sat down. There were a surprising number of empty seats. However, throughout the service people were coming and going constantly. And at the height of the celebration, there were only a few seats vacant, but a large number of people were standing in the back anyway as if it were a full house.
Next, Reverend Luther Williams gave an opening prayer, which was more of an improvised song than what I’m used to calling a ‘prayer,’ complete with backing of the house organist (who was amazing, by the way). As the invocation became more and more impassioned, multitudes of Amens and other interjections whooped out from the pews. I asked my friend if she’d ever seen anything like this before. She said she had not.
Bishop Woods came back and said a few more words about the historical events being commemorated, from the perspective of a man who was there and participated in those events. Then he introduced the Movement Choir. I think that’s when I started crying, and the tears kept streaming through much of the next two hours. I did manage to capture about 30 seconds of video on my phone.
One reason I was so moved was that I realized this is a group of people who do not take for granted their freedom, that do not take for granted the gift of being alive. These are not people who lie in bed for 16 hours agonizing over how meaningless their lives are like I often do. They don’t have time for that shit, and they make it meaningful. I was just overwhelmed by the passion for life that I was witnessing, from the speakers, from the choir, and from the audience.
Speaker after speaker made rousing, inspiring, animated, and colorful presentations, often moved by the spirit to burst out in song. The people in the pews danced, sang, clapped, and shouted out exultation. I’m not going to recap everything that happened. There was just too much. I’ve been to the Civil Rights Museum. It’s great. It’s moving. But this was the real thing–not a museum–a real civil rights rally featuring seasoned warriors of that movement. And that didn’t capture half of what was so incredible about it.
As we were leaving, my friend and I marveled at everything we had just witnessed and how we almost missed it completely, and at the fact that we could even just go in there and see it so casually. My friend said, “That’s the first time church has ever actually worked on me. Ever. It made me want to be a better person.” I felt that same way exactly.
My novel, Zen Mississippi, takes place (largely) in a fictional town called Lyonness near the Alabama/Mississippi state line. I based this town on some of the rural communities I used to drive through when I was living in Columbus, MS, particularly those along US Highway 82 in Pickens County, Alabama. I had a friend and bandmate at that time who was from Ethelsville, in that county. Ethelsville is actually much smaller than what I imagine Lyonness to be, but its location and topography is very much what I had in mind when I was writing the book (except on the MS side of the line instead of the AL side). I always had a fascination with that whole area. There is something odd and mystical about it.
Seven or eight years ago, when I was living in New York and the book was “in process,” some friends of mine introduced me to their new roommate, Daniel, and they told me he was from Alabama. I asked him where in Alabama he was from, and he was quite surprised that I had actually heard of Ethelsville and knew where it was, and that I actually knew someone else who was from Ethelsville. As I mentioned in a previous post, this town has a population of about 80 people.
So years went by, and I frequently saw Daniel at parties and around town. In a coincidence that is only mildly related to this story, I had a neighbor in my building that also knew Daniel because they’d gone to the Alabama State Math & Science high school in Mobile together (tangentially related weirdness: when I met THAT guy, it was not in my building but at a show, and we discovered by casually talking that we were not only both originally from Alabama but also lived in the same building).
Then I moved back to Alabama a few months ago, and I sent Daniel a note saying we should hang out when he comes home to visit. He replied that I should come to his family’s New Years Eve party because it’s a big blowout. This was during the summer. By December, I almost entirely forgot about this invitation.
A few weeks ago, through mutual friends in Birmingham, I met a dude named Charlie. We have been around each other a few times but haven’t talked much. We have a lot of friends in common. I started hearing things about a New Year’s Eve party at Charlie’s parents’ farm, but I didn’t think I knew Charlie well enough to invite myself. But then I saw the event listing on Facebook, and I noticed this party was in Ethelsville. Then I noticed Charlie and Daniel were both listed as hosts and that they had the same last name. With some digging, I confirmed that they were brothers, and I realized I had actually already been invited to this party months ago.
But the strings of coincidences don’t actually even end there, though this next part doesn’t really have to do with the New Year’s Eve party so much.
During the time when I was living in Mississippi, attending MUW, I had a few poems published in the college literary magazine. I got a fan letter from a girl who was then in high school, and I wrote her back. And then I never heard from her again, until one day she noticed that I posted a comment on Daniel’s facebook wall. This is an excerpt from an actual conversation I had with her.
Me: What a small world this is. So you know Daniel. And I know Daniel because he lived with some friends of mine in New York. AND he went to high school in Mobile with one of my neighbors. And I am obsessed with Pickens County.
Her: Daniel and I went to high school together. It was because of his status comment that I saw you. Oh, and your ex-wife is my best friend’s sister.
The fan girl, unfortunately, could not make it to the party this year, but you can see that this whole weird thing simply deepened the intrigue that led me to attend. And then, almost as an afterthought, this also all ties back to my ex-wife Doris who hardly even talks to me anymore (for good reason, but that’s another long story).
AND to bring it all back around, my college friend who was from Ethelsville was one of the very few people who actually attended my wedding, and in fact, now that I think about it, he was likely the person to first introduce me to Doris.
Diagram below for those who have trouble following this:
Today was my last day tutoring at Woodlawn High School for the semester. I really only got three sessions in because the program started only this month, I was going twice a week, and one week it was canceled due to testing. Next semester I hope to be able to commit to more days. I’m only barely starting to break the ice with these kids. But today I made some noticeable progress with them.
I have four students, a girl and three boys, all tenth graders. Even though I was told what to expect, it’s kind of shocking how poor their basic spelling and grammar skills are in general. Between the handwriting and the spelling, I can’t even read what they write a lot of the time, and I have to have them read it aloud to me (I’ve also caught them more than once “reading” something they hadn’t actually written down). But three of them seem to have a genuine interest in bettering their situations and improving their chances of one day going to college. The fourth one, one of the boys, is kind of a trouble maker and so far hasn’t written a single word. We’ll call this one Bradley. On the day of our second session, I found him hiding between stacks in the library trying to avoid me. Then he “accidentally” threw his pen in the trash along with a piece of paper (on which he had written nothing but his name), and he refused to go through the trash can and retrieve it.
I’m trying to get them to focus on a simple expository essay about how to do a task. One boy is writing about how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Another is writing about how to cook an egg. The girl is writing about cleaning her room. I’m trying to get them to add more details each week, to describe even the most obvious steps in the process, explain the importance of the task. Have an introduction and a conclusion.
Bradley spends each session either bothering the girl sitting next to him (I will not have them sitting next to each other next semester) and claiming he can’t think of anything he knows how to do.
Me: You don’t have to do any chores at home?
Bradley: No, I got people to do that.
Me: Do you know how to cook anything, make anything, fix anything?
Me: Is there a video game you are good at?
Bradley: I don’t play games.
Me: Do you dress yourself everyday?
Bradley: My mama does that for me.
Me: Now I know you’re just being goofy. Think of something.
I tried to get them to ask and answer questions like why you would make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (because your mom isn’t home, the ingredients are in the house, it’s easy to do, and you are hungry). And the steps involved are more than just (1) get the bread (2) get the peanut butter and jelly (3) eat the sandwich. You have to open the peanut butter, spread it on the bread with a knife, etc. I said to explain it as if you are explaining it to someone from outer space who has no idea why or how this is done.
It’s hard to get them to recognize these concepts, but today I outlined it all on a dry erase board. I really felt like a teacher for the first time, and they all copied down what I wrote, even Bradley.
Technically, I should go there again on Thursday, but the kids already told me not to bother. All their classes are having end of the semester parties. They will be there, but they won’t be there. So I said fine, I’ll see them all in January.
Despite the difficulties, this feels very much like the sort of thing I’m meant to be doing right now. I’ll get more involved in the program in 2011.
Thursday night, I’m playing a set at Parkside Cafe (4036 5th Ave South) at 9 pm. I’m opening for an alt bluegrass band from Athens, GA called Packway Handle. I haven’t heard them yet, but numerous people have told me they are very good.
In additional music news, I’m having the first rehearsal with my new band this afternoon. I have Brent Stauffer on bass, Adam Guthrie on lead guitar, and Scotty Hamilton on drums, all very talented musicians that I’ve known for many years. We still don’t have a name.
I’m beginning to accept submissions for my latest project, a literary arts web magazine called Steel Toe Review. We are accepting fiction, plays, poetry, audio, and video. Basically anything interesting. Preference is given to people who live in or are connected to the Birmingham area in some way, but work from anyone anywhere will be considered if it is of high quality and fits our aesthetic model.
For the first issue, I’m mainly interested in work that has a new take on conventions associated with traditional Southern writing and art. However, submissions need not be limited to Southern themes. I hope to have the first issue out in November.