Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Balloon Pop Outlaw Black

Patricia Lockwood's poetry collection Balloon Pop Outlaw Black from Octopus Books feels like the most unified anthology of poems I've read in awhile. It's a collection in the true sense of the word.

Inside this book cartoons are words. And words are objects -- personified and three-dimensional. The first third of the collection is about the word "popeye," as you may be able to tell from Lisa Hanawalt's amazing cover art. And a recurring theme is the physicality of words themselves.


From "The Church of the Open Crayon Box"

Fat geese fly in any letter you like but you need
red meat for once, and write a splayed-hide word
like "Deerslayer," and take hold of the ending
                                          and drag it home,                                            


From "The Father of the Fictional Alphabet"

The letters must be forged--the father of the fictional alphabet
wears protective glasses, and holds flat and round sounds
in the roaring fire and uses a seashell for flux, and then drops
each letter in a bowl of cool water, and they steam in the shape
              of themselves, and the father of the fictional alphabet
rivets them to the machine: on all sides, in brass letters, it says:

              and it belches black smoke and itself,
and white mice run in wheels inside it, a clearie marble
rolls down a track, and here is a slot for quarters where
you buy a chgnk chgnk sound. The letters have whirligigs
in them, the letters release hundreds of helicopters, the letters
have snakes that slip between stones, the letters grow parrot-
head flowers, and the letters are bodies settled with blackflies.

I'm absolutely in love with the poem "Good Climbing Trees Grow Us", which I couldn't pick just part of to share. So do yourself a favor and buy the book, or check it out in issue 11 of MAKE.

But here are some other passages I loved:

From "When We Move Away From Here, You'll See a Clean Square of Paper Where His Picture Hung"

After supper, he sits on the porch with a
long black shotgun and waits for a
buffalo to wander into view. He uses
every part of the buffalo--he uses them
down to their eye whites, he uses the
very lines that make them up.

He walks to the city to be counted in
the census. A wind gets itself up and
ruffles him relentlessly, but miniature
monuments hold him down.

His paper is usually stacked neatly,
especially when still in original trees.

Lives where? In voices: hills and valleys. Lives
all in the alphabet as if it were a rowhouse.
Lives at the peak of the tallest chalk hill.

Or lives: nowhere at all. He wanders the desert,
written on old skins, moaning,
"Where is home, where is home?" And
waits for a tent peg to be driven
through his skull.

From "The Cartoon's Mother Builds a House in Hammerspace"

She moves as smoothly as the moment of a mousetrap, and
when her cartoon needs a mousetrap she gives one to him.

Even the act of extending an arm toward him produces a trombone.

And as she watches herself extend an arm, a collapsible
spyglass leaps out of her eye.

When she tiptoes across the lawn, so does a small green rose bush.

When a wrecking ball swings out of nowhere, she is riding it;
she makes a round cutout in the enemy's house and then
rides the cutout home.

Imagine her body as a barrel of gunpowder, uncorked,
spilling black along the ground behind it.

When she spreads her arms and sinks down, she brings a
detonator into the world.

87 pages
3,529 / 20,000 page goal

Monday, March 4, 2013

Guest Post: Review of 'Burning the Furniture'

My good friend Dusty from the blog Dusty On Movies was kind enough to share his review of Dan Smith's memoir Burning the Furniture with me. So put down Justin Bieber's latest book and read about someone who's had actual human experiences.

Everyone has an interesting life story. If you really get to know someone you'll find they have a fascinating history regardless of class or race. Not everyone, however, is fit to write a memoir. A good memoir requires a writer with both talent and courage. "Burning The Furniture" shows that Dan Smith has both in spades.

Dan has been writing and editing various local newspapers and journals for a long time. Currently he's the editor for Valley Business FRONT Magazine and offers some personal thoughts and opinions on his blog. He's also responsible for putting together the annual Roanoke Regional Writer's Conference, which sold out this year. My interest in local writing and journalism steered me towards Dan's writing, especially his blog where we could argue and debate all sorts of things.

It was probably the numerous blog visits that led to list "Burning The Furniture" in my suggested reading. Everyone knows that Amazon and Google keep close watch over where we visit so they can pester us with ads more accurately. In this case they did a good job. I bought the memoir for $3.99 in Kindle format and let Dan know about the purchase. He was happy to hear I was reading it, but shocked to find out it was now an ebook since he hadn't been notified of its conversion.

Prejudice is so easily formed. I had all sorts of notions about Dan's background and upbringing with zero facts supporting them. It turns out that his story was much deeper than I could have ever expected.

Dan's story starts out with poverty. He had seven siblings, an alcoholic father who died when Dan was 13, and a mother who suffered from depression and agoraphobia. His mother often couldn't pay rent and was always ready to move as eviction drew near. Growing up as a carny would probably have required less moving.
I was particularly moved by Dan's account of taking his black friends to a public swimming pool. At that time and place it was simply unheard of. When they arrived the local swimmers assaulted Dan and his friends with rocks. Dan was appalled. His friends weren't surprised. He found a sheriff by the side of the road and reported the incident. He got this response:

“Let me tell you boys something,” he said as level serious as he could get. “We don’t take to white people and niggers mixing here in McDowell County and we don’t take to niggers swimming in our water. You’uns is lucky you didn’t get killed back there and if you stay around here much longer or even think about coming back, that just might happen. Now you nigger-lovin’ trash just git on out of here.”

And Dan's reaction:

I don’t remember ever before or after being as angry as I was at that moment. My face felt hot and my body shook with rage. I glared at that tall, thin, red-haired trooper with the Smoky the Bear hat, knowing that if I lost my temper we would all suffer a lot more than we had. Coot reached over and put his hand on my arm. I slammed the gearshift lever into drive and threw gravel behind us as we sped away. “Goddammit!” I screamed. “What kind of country is this? Who the hell are these people?” I pounded on the steering wheel, even as I floored the accelerator.

For sure, things have gotten better since then. Still, I find myself reacting this way far too often in today's society.

As the story continues, Dan's courage reveals itself even more. The mistakes of childhood can easily be recalled then brushed off as a youthful indiscretion. To write about your struggles in adulthood takes a lot more gumption. Dan attacks his struggles head on: alcoholism, failed marriages, fatherhood regrets, lost jobs. He leaves no stone unturned. This also becomes a source of inspiration because he sobered up, has a career, and has a good relationship with his kids and grand kids. Everyone faces adversity and makes mistakes, but not everyone has the character to face that adversity and learn from their mistakes. Even fewer have the ability to write about it eloquently. Dan Smith is one of those few.

Memoirs are mostly successful based on the name value of their authors and not their inherent quality. Personally, I'd rather read a great memoir from a local author than some ghost-written fluff piece from a celebrity. I'm sure Arnold Schwarzenegger's memoirs will always outsell Dan Smith's, and that's a damn shame. "Burning The Furniture" is short, but satisfying. You won't regret investing your time in this one.

Cookbook Margin: Boeuf Démodé

Alternate titles:

Vegetable Margin
Virtual Margarine
It's My Blog and I Can Cook if I Want To

I have a pretty decent cookbook collection. It's not huge, but that's only because I've resolved to actually cook from the ones I own instead of succumbing to the temptation of buying more. And how tempting they are. I'm a sucker for heavy hardcovers; 300+ glossy pages of food porn, full of hard-to-pronounce dishes with obscure ingredients you're embarrassed to ask about in the grocery store ("excuse me, I totally know what a kumquat is, but...where are they and what do they look like?").

So if I'm going to cook my way through my cookbooks (so I can then buy more, a continuous loop of samsara), I may as well blog about it. Cookbooks are books too! And finding good ones can be a challenge. You never know how a recipe is going to turn out until after you've paid $30 for the ingredients and dirtied an entire sink full of dishes.

First up is a dish from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table, which I bought over 2 years ago after reading about it at Bookslut. I made the very first recipe, for gougères, which turned out beautifully. The cookbook itself is gorgeous, with big glossy pictures that make you feel like you're in the kitchen of a French country villa, and not in your shitty apartment surrounded by empty Lean Cuisine containers. Every recipe is described in detail, with extra info about the dish's background in French cuisine, which is really interesting. You can tell Greenspan has thorough knowledge of every dish, and feel like you can trust her completely. But even so, I didn't break open the cookbook again until yesterday.

Emily Dickinson wrote "Tell all the truth but tell it slant," which I'd like to revise to "Cook the recipe, but cook it slant." I don't think I've ever followed a recipe 100% as written. I always change things around, which can occasionally cause kitchen catastrophes. But it's how my mom cooks and how my grandmother cooked, and they're the best ones I've ever known. So every recipe I share will be my version of it. Then I highly recommend you check out the original recipes from the books themselves.

Boeuf Démodé 
my version of Boeuf à la Mode from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan

  • 2 lbs chuck, round or rump roast, cubed into 1 inch pieces
  • 1/2 large white onion, cut into large slices
  • 1 carrot, cut into chunks
  • 2 celery stalks, cut into chunks (save the leaves)
  • A bouquet garni -- 2 thyme sprigs, 2 parsley sprigs, and the leaves from the celery stalks, tied together with string, or in a piece of dampened cheesecloth
  • 1 750-ml bottle of red wine
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 anchovies, drained, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Be prepared: The beef must be marinated overnight, and will require a Dutch oven or covered casserole dish.

Put the beef into a tupperware container, bowl, or sturdy ziploc bag that can hold it, the vegetables, and the wine. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss in the onion, carrot, celery, and bouquet garni and1 tbsp of the olive oil. Pour in the wine until the contents is covered (save yourself a glassful of the wine if possible -- you're done for the night). Cover the container or seal the bag and put in fridge to marinate overnight.

The next day, strain the container over a bowl, reserving the liquid. Remove the beef from the vegetables and place on paper towels. Set aside vegetables and bouquet garni. Pour the liquid into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the beef broth and bring back to a boil, then remove from heat.

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Have the Dutch oven or casserole with a cover at the ready.

Pat the beef dry using paper towels. Put a skillet over medium-high heat and pour in the last tbsp of olive oil. Working with a few pieces at a time, sear the cubes of beef on all sides, just enough to brown them and form a light crust. Transfer the beef to the Dutch oven.

Return the skillet to medium heat and toss in the drained vegetables. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are softened and browned, about 10-15 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to the Dutch oven.

Once again put the skillet over medium heat. Pour in 1/2 cup of the wine-broth mixture and stir in the anchovies and tomato paste. Cook, stirring, until the anchovies break up and "melt," a matter of minutes. Pour in the rest of the wine-broth mixture and stir to blend, then toss in the reserved bouquet garni. Pour the contents into the Dutch oven.

Put the Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and when the liquid comes to a boil, cover the pot tightly with a piece of aluminum foil and the lid. Slide the beef into the oven and cook undisturbed for 1 hour.

Pull the pot out of the oven, and remove the lid and foil. Using a large spoon or ladle, remove approximately 1 cup of the broth and put into a medium bowl. Gradually add the flour, while whisking vigorously. Continue whisking until there are no clumps. Season to taste with salt and black pepper, and pour back into the pot. Taste the sauce again, and repeat the process if needed, adding more flour if too thin or salt and pepper if bland. Return the pot to the oven for another 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven and serve immediately, or store for a day or two covered in the fridge, which will only enhance the flavor.

Behold! The only cute bowl I own.

Feeling completely guilty for making such a carnivorous recipe, I also decided to make one from the cookbook Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World; I'm sure completely bewildering the guy bagging my groceries. It was supposed to be Vegan Coconut-Chai Cake, a version of Vegan Chai Latte Cupcakes with Vegan Buttercream Frosting from the book. It turned out horrifically, which I'm not sure is more attributable to the changes I made (pretty much just using a different kind of tea and making cake instead of cupcakes), or the fact that "Vegan" and "Buttercream" should never ever appear side-by-side in a sentence.

But it's okay. Now I'll be able to trade it in for a shiny new cookbook I can drool over.