Saturday, April 25, 2015


Dear Mercutio,

You know that I have dealt with many sorts of beings, adversaries, friends and relations. I have endured both man and troll, woman and dragon. My resolve and equanimity are as strong as the willow bending in the wind. Yet I am I conquered by distractions, even when I have entered a space where my ego has disappeared to the far side of the world and I am nothing but tendon and breath.

Well, it’s one particular distraction—who seems to have more power than any wizard, politician, supernatural being or scientist that I know.

I consider myself beset with distractions and wonder if this morass is an aspect of aging. Or perhaps aging has made me aware of the legion of distractions. And of what sort are they? The bad distractions? We call them as such, or inconveniences, sometimes if they are severe enough we can call them enemies, although that is always a dangerous label.

Good distractions—we call these hobbies. When I was young I occasionally, and somewhat rarely called them lovers. Often these distractions became the bad sort, but now that I am older I find these distractions do not seek me out.

I am unsure of what will distract me next, but I am sure something will. Mercutio, we all have distractions, but do we have a theory of it yet? I am not discussing the nuts and bolts, the pulleys and ropes of our brains as they perambulate through the mechanics of thought. Scientists are very good at exploring such quantifiable wisdom. I shall not argue with them about it. Some of what they say is actually useful, and would be very lucrative if I owned a pharmaceutical concern.

But what does it mean to be on the inside of it all? What language do we use? Is it precise enough, or, as usual with language, is our lack of attention to its flow—our distraction of and by language itself—the cause the problem?

For example, Attention Deficit. I won’t even add the word that usually follows these two, but I have to stop and wonder at the metaphors, or, more precisely how the abstractions abstract themselves. As though “attention” is anything. What is a deficit, exactly? Could the problems surrounding Attention Deficit be a surfeit of something? Why are the problems surrounding it? Does it even occupy space?

These questions of language, I theorize, affected the first people who finally had time to sit down and think about them. This is because the purposes for activity, such as reaping, gathering, hunting, had been taken care of by someone else. And someone figured out that the accounting tool, which was so good for keeping track of cattle and bushels of wheat could also be used to record thoughts about language. Writing became a distraction. The distrust of language one finds in Laozi and Socrates—just to name two—stems from being in an Occasion for Distraction.

My mind shall spin more of this thread, I am sure, if Bertolt would just leave me alone for a moment! Perhaps I’ll even get back to reviewing Spring Reads.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Some of you may be familiar with Kobayashi Masaki's film Kwaidan: a gothic anthology of tales from Japanese folklore. Some of these stories were collected, and in many ways first introduced to the West by Lafcadio Hearn, a man whose life is as interesting as the tales he collected in Kwaidan: Stories & Studies of Strange Things.

Hearn was a peregrinating spirit; born in Greece of Irish and Greek parents, he lived in Ireland, the United States (including Cincinnati and New Orleans), Martinique, and eventually settled in Meiji Japan and married a local woman. His translations and appropriations (but all writers steal, of course) from Japanese literature and folklore are perhaps the most famous of his works.

Hearn is somewhat obscure in this day and age because the tides of political and academic criticism are always shifting. Considering him in such light is not the point of this post, nor any of these postings. For just a taste of how widely and thinly he has been considered in academic terms, you can peruse this paper by Rie Askew on Hearn's critical history.

I am more interested in the book itself. I had heard some of the tales before, where I cannot even precisely remember. In some ways, like all good ghost stories, the tales have always been alive in our souls and we are just remembering them, not reading them for the first time.

The tale of "Yuki-Onno" for example has had staying power. There is an (all-too) familiar theme of masculine fear of women that runs through the tale, but Yuki-Onno herself is merciful in the end owing to the fool of a man she married being the father of her children. Like many stories wherein a human man takes a spirit wife, there is some small thing he must not do. He of course fails and she leaves.

But it is not for the story that I re-read "Yuki-Onno." The visual images—of the gracile Snow Spirit in white, the vastness of the mountains—appear in a dream of prose. Like the winter snow, she is perilous, misunderstood, and taken for granted. But oh how dreary the world would be without snow.

The collection also contains the terrifying, but lyrical story of Hoichi the Earless: a biwa player and poet whose art is so beautiful it awakens the spirits of the dead to hear how they got that way. How did Hoichi become earless? You'll have to read it. "Jikininki" reminds me much of the flavor of Ugestu Monogatari in that it involves ruins, Zen priests, and cannibal spirits. And speaking of spirits and demons, there are quite a few: detachably-headless Rokuro-Kubis, willow trees that can take human shape, and egg-faced ghosts are just a few you'll meet.

The structure of Kwaidan, if I may call it that, reminds me of 21st Century collage. The book is not only a collection of ghost stories, but it veers into insect lore. Hearn provides stories and studies of butterflies, mosquitoes and ants from Chinese and Japanese traditions. For me though, the "strangest thing" in the book is a memory of Wales from Hearn's youth... perhaps. There is a harper, magic, nostalgia and the metaphoric consideration of a friend as a sunflower. It is curious and queer (in many senses of that word).

Be forewarned: not all of Hearn's stories are told with the artistry of some of his contemporaries. I can only imagine what M.R. James, Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood could have done with the raw source material, but for students looking for their own inspiration, I think Hearn is an excellent place to start. From there it is a matter of course to read Japanese authors who stand alongside James, Machen and Blackwood, such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke or the poetry of Sakutarō Hagiwara. And through their work, I can read and hear the influence of these stories in the indescribably haunting work of Tada Chimako.

But Tada is for another time!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Curator of The Hourglass Museum: Kelli Russell Agodon

Cover Art: Hourglass Museum*
A museum can be a collection of art, or items of either natural or human history. The idea of museum naturally lends itself to metaphor which is a poet's most familiar realm, and the very name museum etymologically confirms this metaphor. It is a place for muses. When the muse is one's self, the museum houses one's contradictions, worries, loves and memories.

Kelli Russell Agodon is force in the poetic world of the Pacific Northwest. In addition to her own work (which I'll speak of below) she is also a co-founder and editor of Two Sylvia's Press.

Declaration: You may explore her book, Hourglass Museum in your own way. Read it straight through, or perhaps you are one of those museum visitors who drifts through the galleries, following no set chronological or curated path.

I confess. I am one of them. I wander back and forth like a ferry between particular paintings and dioramas.

It is why I stop at, and reread, poems that explore the spaces a woman makes to be alone, especially when she finds herself in a roomful of strangers, relations, family and friends. I have rarely read a book of poetry wherein the title repeatedly makes itself known throughout the text as the central key: a magnificently sad one, like G minor in which Bach wrote the 25th Goldberg Variation.

Agodon makes me aware of the space, and loss that inhabits my own distances. From "Daringly Balanced: The Life of an Artist."
"Ask the artists, who lean
over balconies if lilacs circle
where they dwell and they may
agree: much of life is about loss."
Lilacs. Lost springs, the loss of Whitman's Lincoln, the evanescence of scent. Much of the poems in Hourglass Museum, itself an ancient trope for loss and time, are about loss. But what is in that space?

Agodon  places a horizon before me in "Distant Horizons: An Abstract." In elegantly compressed lines, the poem itself acts as both a guide to being a poet, and reading poets. The fourth strophe-line tells us: "Poem a form of negotiation for what haunts us." The seventh asks us to "Keep the faith and trust in so far as possible," for horizons always lie beyond that space. The ninth offers a Taoist consolation: "We learn not to break, but bend gently."

I believe this philosophy is best experienced in "La Magie Noire."
Sometimes darkness
is the beauty I am made of—

it's January and I've locked the doors,
I'm refusing to answer the phone.

Sometimes when I'm absent
of Vitamin D, the staircase murmurs:

Sorry, the life you ordered
is temporarily out of stock.

Most winters it's easier to hiberante,
clean the windows
in my mind. Imagination:

taking madness and giving it
a loving home.
There is nothing I can to add in this. The lines and language are spare, straightforward and in need no embellishment of mine for they speak thoughts of winter and night. As the poem unfolds, I learn this is not the night of despair. I seek it out in solitude—the darkness of Hyperborea when crowds and light are killing me—and there I find the expansive promise of the night of Novalis.

Named for the Magritte painting, "La Magie Noire" displays one of Agodon's greatest strengths: ekphrastic verse, or, the art of making poetry from art. The duality of Magritte's blue-&-realistic nude woman appears in the inside and outsides you will find in the full poem. And there is dreaming of clouds, of course.

There are other worlds I will return to in Hourglass Museum. I am aware of their different content, context, and composition. There are conté crayon works, charcoal sketches, oil on linen, and found sculptures of poppies, ladders, household appliances, husbands.

And I must mention at the end of this particular reflection that if you are interested in learning how to make poems from art, and perhaps art from poems, Kelli Russell Agodon is teaching an Ekphrastic Class for Field's End on Bainbridge Island on April 21st. Learn more at the Field's End Calendar. It appears that Ms. Agodon has been called away on some sort of urgent business to the Centre du Pompidou in Paris. I can only make speculative guesses as to what this might but will no doubt involve chestnuts in blossom and holiday tables under the trees. Therefore, she will be unable to conduct the Field's End class on April 21st.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to her newest book Letters From The Emily Dickinson Room, because "I am longing for something I cannot name."

*Hourglass Museum is published by White Pine Press. Pick it up at your local independent bookstore or order online.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ugetsu Monogatari

There are certain books that seem to be part of our destinies. I am deeply suspicious of any cosmic plan that has all intricacies so carefully laid out, so rather than claiming Akinari Ueda's Ugetsu Monogatari is part of my destiny, I prefer to anthropomorphize the book and accept that the book and I are traveling on the same path for a while. Perhaps we will even go on the same pilgrimage together and share a private bath somewhere (I find books are often much less problematic in terms of bathing partners, and in Japan I must be careful of my choice in sentōs owing to my tattoos.)

The translated title is Tales of Moonlight and Rain. If this already sounds dreamlike, you are on your way to the right sort of mood for reading it. The silvery light of the moon and the refractory, veiling power of rain together allow for the mind to see shapes and ghosts. Or does the mind shape the ghosts? In the West, there is always a drive to explain and figure things out. What is beyond it all? In the Tales of Moonlight and Rain, the numinous appears on earth, but its chief mission is not always to deceive, but to reveal, to show and to instruct.

One blurb  describes the collection as being a compendium of gothic tales. What does that mean? Gothic, in this particular sense indicates narratives of expressionistic, often dark, moods. Interestingly, while Akinari was compiling these stories, Horace Walpole had already published the Castle of Otranto. Does this indicate some sort of a Zeitgeist?

I lay the book down and think: no it does not. Akinari wrote during a time of great stability in Edo Japan whereas Europe in the Gothic heyday teetered towards chaos.  Yet careful readers will note some eerie similarities between the styles.

The stories themselves seem simple, but are evocative of something greater, a Beyond if you will. The Beyond manifests itself in different ways. Readers familiar with H. P. Lovecraft, know the Beyond is usually insane, slimy and involves ganglia-driven pseudopods. But in Akinari's work the Beyond comes in familiar form, eventually revealing an unfamiliar place. "The Reed Choked House" is an example, wherein a boor of a husband returns to find his beloved and given-up-for-dead wife are waiting for him, perhaps...

Stories like the "Chrysanthemum Vow" are fascinating studies of homosexual love from beyond the grave, yet told with an understandable restraint that allows for miles of dark sky and speculation. Akinari's storytelling does not careen into the lurid. It slyly darkens, like the night sky deepens from evening.

There is a great deal of travel to desolation in this book and perhaps this is where the tales seem so harmonic with Western Gothic fiction. There are numerous ruins. Insane monks inhabit old temples such as that of Daichūji in "The Blue Hood." Mount Kōya provides the setting for a phantasmagoric party in "The Owl of the Three Jewels." In "Shiramine" the monk and poet Saigyō enters into a night long Buddhist dialectic with a supernatural being, (something I myself have had firsthand experience with).

Behind the mystery and the settings, there is a strong didactic current that runs through the book. I won't ruin it by going into detail here, but Akinari skillfully blends both Chinese and Japanese philosophy to suit his needs, but never at the expense of the story.

The most recent version I picked up is an English translation by Anthony H. Chambers, put out by the University of Columbia Press. The book is scholarly enough, but you can jump right into the stories themselves and read them through before going over the copious notes that fill out the background. It may be a little difficult to find, but you can always order it through your local bookstore. I purchased mine through Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.

I am looking forward to reading through Chamber's scholarship, but at some point but I will enjoy the stories again. Perhaps in some deserted place, where only the empty buildings, the wind, and the moonlight remember the stories. And then they'll speak a little.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Spring Reads

The APRIL festival may be over for 2015, but it is still April. Old Tom Eliot famously shackled this month with cruelty, and strangely therefore, poetry, for this is National Poetry Writing Month. Or NaPoWriMo as it is commonly known.

Last year I dove into this whole-heartedly and the result was a series of sonnets that after some substantial revision, and a lot of illustration, became Small Events. Perhaps it is my contrarian nature, but I am shelving the writing of my own poetry for a time being. I have too long ignored the Percheron of my work which is prose, albeit with a poetic bent. So there are some stories I am working on along with a few essays.

However, during the APRIL festival, I wrote a few reviews of poets I rather like, and so I decided that I will apply this to some prose that I am reading for inspiration. Do not worry, though. There are plenty of poets I know and love and will be examining a few of them during the Spring as well.

But until then, go out and find a good book for yourself.

So far...

Ugetsu Monogatari. Weird Tales from 18th Century Japan.

Hourglass Museum: Kelli Russell Agodon curates an ekphrastic visit.

Kwaidan: Lacifado Hearn's collection of Strange Things

Sunday, March 29, 2015

After the APRIL Festival

The swag and books are all packed, Hugo House is once again quiet, and I've retreated to solitude and a hot tub with a glass of Côtes du Rhône. The APRIL Book Fair wrapped up a wonderful week of literature in Seattle.

So my first round of thanks goes out to the APRIL organizers, Tara Atkinson, Kenny Coble and Willie Fitzgerald along with countless other volunteers and the staff at Hugo House.

A logistical and moral thank you to Troy Kehm-Goins, my Sardine Comrade, driver and encouraging presence. If you didn't get a chance to pick one of his beautiful chapbooks, go to Troy's Worktable Publishing. (And if you live in the South Sound, bookmark the site to see where they will be available for purchase!)

And a very special thanks to all of you who stopped by the Hagengard Studio table, bought material, or just said hello to my tireless editor and illustrator, David Mecklenburg. Connecting with you all is what it is "all about."

If you didn't get a chance to come by, or come buy, I suppose, remember that my memoir The Nightingale's Stone is available at Elliott Bay Books, Third Place Books, Eagle Harbor Books, The Nearsighted Narwhal and King's Books!

Small Events can be found at Elliott Bay Books and Eagle Harbor. So keep the APRIL love and spirit alive by dropping by these independent bookstores.

I should add that work on getting our new book The Shadow Well is underway. The copy-editor is working at fixing unruly orthography and style issues and David is busy illustrating it. This is a longer book about memory, food, magic, music, and love of course. It covers events occurring after my return to Hagen when I was engaged as a secretary to Lady Trudi von Hippe. Look for more news later in the year.

Until then, I'm off to soak.

May small events of beauty overcome you.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Fist Full of Literature

"For a Few Books More"
On Tuesday, March 24th, the Authors, Publishers & Readers of Independent Literature Festival kicks off in Seattle. As I have said before, Seattle is a second home to me and I look forward all year to this celebration of grass-roots writing-&-organizing. A labor of love does not come close to describing the work that the staff, writers, publishers and volunteers put into this event which celebrates not only the written word, but the personal connection one can only find celebrating independent literature together.

I hope to catch Shya Scanlon, Emily Kendal Frey, Sarah Galvin, and a presentation from Tessa Hulls at the opening night party at Barboza, which starts at 7:30.

On Wednesday at Vermillion, Poetry Northwest will be curating the work of a number of poets including my good friend and fellow-sufferer-for-words Kristen Steenbeeke. What could follow that, but a feat of necromancy by Rebecca Brown at the Sorrento Hotel.

Thursday the feast of words continues again at Vermillion with the launch of the redoubtable Ross McMeekin & Co.'s Spartan, featuring work by Ann Teplick, Donna Miscolta, Erik Evenson, Jenny Hayes and Q. Lindsey Barrett. And later Wendy Xu, whose You Are Not Dead floored me, will be reading at an RSVP disclosed location.

Friday night, A Poet, A Playwright, A Novelist, and A Drag Queen will be entertaining (and schmoozing, no doubt) the audience in this fourth-annual story-telling competition.

Saturday, you can start off with brunch at the legendary Elliott Bay Books and later at Hugo House you can celebrate a Twin Peaks themed evening with the release of Shya Scanlon's new book The Guild of St. Cooper. Your Young Body will be providing the Lynchean electronica that goes with pie and coffee, though doubtless other beverages will be for sale at the bar.

And it all ends with an ecstasy of books on Sunday, March 29th. Nearly sixty small presses and publishers will be there including the one I am associated with: Hagengard Studio. We will be offering The Nightingale's Stone, Small Events, along with a few other surprises and artwork. Fans of Les Sardines will find vintage copies of Les SarZine.  Many wonderful presses that will be there: more than I can possibly list, so don't miss this chance to meet the editors and publishers in person. The question is always not where to start but where can one possibly stop?

It was this way at the first APRIL festival, where a few members of Les Sardines read at the open mic and sold some of our first "cans" of short work. I am truly happy to see festival's continued growth. Tara Atkinson and Willie Fitzgerald started it all back in 2012 and continue to helm the festival so it has never lost the personal touch that makes the festival a true pleasure.

Many others have noted this year that it is the last APRIL Book fair that will be at the Original Hugo House space. What will that mean for next year? I, for one, am not worried terribly about that because as already evidenced from the wide range of venues for this year that APRIL will do just fine. As the literary community of Seattle continues to grow and support itself, APRIL will no doubt be a cornerstone of events celebrating the written and spoken word.

For a full listing of events, go to the APRIL Calendar

For listings and profiles of authors, go the APRIL Blog

For a listing of the presses who will be at the Book Fair.

Follow APRIL on Facebook, watch for @APRILfestSea's Twitter feed and... oh I'm sure I'm missing something else. But do come out. The small events of beauty will be beyond count.