Poem for 2020

I pull off to pee at the Walt Whitman Wayside on the Jersey Turnpike.
Through the woods from Camden where the poet lived his last,
where he mused and predicted, dictated and preened, 
gazed with dimming eyes out his doorway past the fragrant lilac vines,
lost in memories of war and men torn and ruined in battle,
wistful thoughts of furtive loves, and the epiphany he knew and had somehow wrought into a book.

He saw what we did to each other.  He dreamed what we could be.
He said he would wait for us here.

Along this divided highway, pressed gravel and tar made macadam smooth
at these exit ramps fingering to Philly and Trenton and Asbury Park,
home to superhero athletes, devious politicians, poets with guitars, and all of us who drive.
Stop with me here before the row of drink machines, five bulky rectangles, side-by-side. 
Their clear plastic windows and cans stacked tight:  Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Snapple, Red Bull, and 7-Up.  All shiny, all sugared, all bubbly. 
All promising some subtle rush, a little rapture, that impalpable sustenance available to all with a dollar.

Turn to the double doors, swinging open and shut, and the little glass room they frame.
Funneled through them in then out and on down the turnpike every kind of person. 
Pause with me here by the drink machines, loiter and look, and try to see what he saw. 

That little old lady was a teacher, her son is her driver now, a broker who loves his mom.
That man at the door wears a turban.  Is he a Hindu, a Sikh, a suburban father from Rahway?  He looks at his watch. He nods to us.  His father, the immigrant, always so long in the Men’s Room.

Ah, the Men’s Room, how this would have stirred the old bawd!  The phalanx of identical porcelain urinals, no dividers between them, all down the wall.  The men side by side at their business, none looking left or right, so serious, so private, so mindful to follow that rule. 

The rhythmic flushing, almost a beat, the stench of blended vapors from their voiding, and the jet plane roar of the drying machines.  Eyes askance, fingers at zippers, feet testing the slippery floor. 

And the Women’s Room, never enough stalls, the long line out the door and their mincing needy dance, the fretful glances and nods of commiseration.  I mean, this is the most democratic place, don’t you think?

Are you a casino owner climbing out of your limo in kid gloves? 
Are you a cheerleader off the bus flipping your hair and stretching? 
A trucker en route to Miami?
Do you use a wheelchair? 
Do you identify as he or her or them? 
Do you make this trip every day, or is this your first rubber-necking sojourn along the edge of America, straight off the plane at Newark?
Are you rushing to work, to the game, or are you rushing because that is what you do?

No, wait, hold up, stand back and groove with me.

Admire the wall of fast food joints staffed with counter persons and the workers at the back. 
Where do they live? Where do they park their cars?
I see you chubby fry cook and the splatter burns on your arms. 
I see you sallow-faced manager, flat-footed, spinning in place, dreading another breakdown of the ice machine. 
You children in your winter coats, like bubbles with faces, your tiny hands lost in your mothers’ mittened grips.
We are Southerners headed home where people drawl, we are IT specialists who surf on weekends, we are combat veterans and judges and students with depression diagnoses. We pour water from bottles for our dogs.

All the coming and going, the thousands streaming, no one bumping, no one cursing, cats that herd themselves.
And the same in the parking lot, cars backing, waiting, accelerating out past the gas pumps, past the 18-wheelers lined up on the side, past the scraggly pines and the skittering trash, one empty can rolling with a tuneful clatter across the greasy asphalt as rain begins to fall.  
Yo, Wayside named for our Bard with a Capital-B, you too are the poem he scrawled, and each of us a line.
The hum of our valved hearts, the stink of what dumps from our innards, our greasy lips, the common urgent fatigue.

The Walt Whitman Wayside as America singing whether we know it or not.

He wrote:  You may read the President’s message and read nothing about it there.  I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness, that thing the Founders urged on us, pursuit pursuit pursuit and an asphalt grid to do it on. Never the getting there, not for us, the going is the thing.

He asked, What is it then between us?  Could this wayside offer a clue?  Well, what if you took me up on this?  What if we paused, stepped out of the way, and peered around for one minute? 

Would we see what the poet promised, would we understand what he meant, would we take that moment to marvel, and would that be enough?

Fave Books of 2019

For what it’s worth, here are the ten books I most enjoyed, learned from, dug to the max in the past year.  Only one is new, but they’re all in print if you’re interested.  I’m listing them alphabetically by author’s last name, not ranking them 1-10.

Lynda Barry – How to Draw Comics.  How does a guide to making comics double as a tool for spiritual growth?  Check out this line:  “We might call what we are doing when we use images in this way a form of dreaming.” By the way, Barry doesn’t care if you think you can draw. She prefers students who gave up drawing as children. That’s where the magic lies!

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything.  I read whatever Bryson writes, but this is his best one, I think.  Each chapter a compact, reader-friendly history of scientific discovery (with head-shaking anecdotes about the wacky discoverers themselves), ranging from the macro marvels of astronomy to the micro level guesses of atomic physics.

Ted Hughes – Poetry in the Making.  Like Barry’s book, a primer on imagining differently, in the great English poet Hughes’ case, in order to build poems.  The book was intended as a tool for middle school teachers, but its appreciation of the rigor, attentiveness, humor, and compassion that goes into writing a poem offers lessons for us all.

Mark Hyman – 10-Day Detox Diet:  The Blood Sugar Solution.  Ironic that I write this while slamming one of my wife Chris’ yummy Christmas cookies, but I do so having lost fifteen pounds by following the guidelines in this sensible guide to healthy eating.  The book’s also a convincing screed against the sugar industry that we now know has sucked most of us into a deadly addiction.  The other books on this list expanded my horizons.  This one shrank my waistband.

Gerda Lerner – A Death of One’s Own. Hard to blurb this book, which has touched and shaken me more than anything else read this year. Gifted by a friend who is facing her own deadly cancer, this is a deeply felt day-by-day testament to the tumor-driven dying of the author’s husband. I think it’s a capital-G Great book, singing love, marriage, worry, wonder, and yes, the certainty awaiting us all.

J.R. Moehringer – Sutton.  The author of a poignant memoir The Tender Bar and that ace biography of Andre Agassi, Open (both well worth reading) brings a noir sensibility and hard-boiled style to this fictionalized biography of the world’s most famous bank robber Willie Sutton. Mr. Scorsese, please, make a film of it!

Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye.  A tremor in the Force this year with her death, sending me to this debut novel I’d missed.  Amazing that right at the start it was all there – her pitch-perfect plainsong, her spiraling dives into complex psychology, her ability to frame explosive critiques of our screwed up world in the troubles of a single family.  In 2020, I’m planning to take them all in order, one by one.

Michele Obama – Becoming.  I bought this for Chris for her birthday last year, in audio book form as read by the author, and we’ve shared it among friends ever since.  We all know that voice: succinct, loving, sharp-eyed, decent, and self-aware.  I’m not a huge fan of listening to books, but this one you have to hear.

Walker Percy – The Last Gentleman & The Second Coming.  One of the unsung pleasures of living in your 7th decade is that of re-reading.  These two novels published decades apart concern the same spacey protagonist, an everyman adrift in the pretty illusion that we call life.  As a youngster, the first spoke to me more.  (Hard for youngsters to care much about the worries of the old, I guess.)  But now, reading them together, Percy’s wily tracing of the way one’s rubbery soul resists its own lessons across a lifetime turned the two novels into one instructive (and even funny) meditation.

Esme Weijun Wang – The Collected Schizophrenias.  Most of us have seen the damage an unbalanced mind can do; Wang shares her own story, that of a brilliant student reduced to hiding in a closet beset by monsters, living always in the shadow of lurking psychosis.  She shares what she has learned about mental illness, too, and it’s clear we don’t know much.  We have labels, we have categories, we have brain-modulating medications, but also people everywhere hiding in closets beset by monsters.

Colson Whitehead – The Intuitionist.  Whitehead’s big book this year was Nickel Boys, but I found his first at Goodwill and thought I might start there.  An audacious mash-up of Ellison and Delillo, this young man straight out of Harvard weaves a sustained metaphor about racism and social striving into a detective story involving elevator inspectors.  After this, in 2020 (just like with Morrison), I’m planning to read straight through Whitehead’s oeuvre.  I mean, wow.

Oops!  That’s twelve (thirteen if you count the two Percy’s separately).  So, sue me.  Please also note that I have not mentioned the wonderful books by my friends that came out this year, having written about them in previous posts.  What have you enjoyed reading in 2019? Please share in a comment if you will. And happy holiday reading to all!

Indy Book Gifting – 2019

2019 is the year I came out of the closet as a writer of fiction.  Published a novel The Coal Tower (https://amzn.to/2DvSTcZ), which I’d labored over at dawn for nearly ten years, and then a collection of a dozen short stories Last Rites (https://amzn.to/2DBvdE4), most of which I’d written in just the past year. Then came the hard part, promoting the books.  I tried some of the approaches learned at the James River Writers Conference, sending copies out to reviewers, relentlessly begging for readers on social media and then begging them again to post reviews on the books’ Amazon pages. Braced myself to ask local book stores to stock them (most were kind enough to agree, and two – Book People (https://www.bookpeoplerichmond.com/) here in Richmond and New Dominion (https://ndbookshop.com/) in Charlottesville – even held beautifully organized and well-advertised book launches, events I’ll never forget). As my friend author Katy Munger had warned me, I also began to obsessively check the KDP website where Amazon’s publishing arm lists current sales.  I entered a couple first novel contests, and was gratified when The Coal Tower got short-listed for the Faulkner Society’s award.  My friend Rosemary Rawlins, also an indy author, included my novel for discussion at her book club in Nags Head, and I’m looking forward to sitting in for that.  My cousin Ronnie even wrote and performed a blues tune summary of the novel’s plot!

Getting the news out was exciting, but also a lot of work, and now that I’ve seen what other indy authors do, how promoting a book can be a full-time job in itself, I’m a little flummoxed.  For one thing, it feels somehow unseemly to tug at the sleeves of my friends and followers on social media.  For another, I’d prefer to spend my few free minutes working up a poem or a new story instead of shamelessly hawking my already published books.  Writer friends shake their heads and agree.  It’s tough, dude. Then comes the pep talk about being the best champion for your own hard-won achievement, about the books deserving wide readership, about building something called a “street team” (friends who will talk up your books and share them far and wide).  Right here let me say thank you to all of you who have acquired and read my books, who have reached out with supportive words, who have shared the books with others, and said kind things about them online. You’ve made this all more fun and more meaningful than I’d have imagined at the start of the year.

As a reader, one benefit to reading indy authors, especially if you have met them at a book launch or know them from work or church or as an old friend, is that you can ask them out for coffee, you can talk about the story that touched you, they’ll even sign your book!  (I’ve cold-emailed poets and received immediate replies of thanks.)  You become a sort of partner in the effort, giving back inspiration and interest, and it helps.

All that said, I’m a happy street team warrior for a few friends who are also on the indy author path.  Asking you to consider their new books for your holiday gifting.  All of them are available on Amazon, as mine are, or you can ask your local bookstore to order them:

Katy Munger, well-known mystery novelist .  Her new one in the Casey Jones detective series is Fire and Rain (https://amzn.to/2P5f1jP).  Here’s a typically witty interview you may enjoy:  https://tonygentry.com/2019/01/04/katy-munger-by-the-book/.

Rosemary Rawlins, author of the memoir Learning by Accident, has just published a deeply moving historical novel about one family’s travails during the Cambodian civil war, All My Silent Years (https://amzn.to/2qTaIA4).  Here’s my recent interview with her, discussing the books’ gestation:  https://tonygentry.com/2019/11/09/rosemary-rawlins-discusses-her-debut-novel-all-my-silent-years/.

Finally, I interviewed my VCU colleague Jim Cotter, about his tale of international intrigue The Bridge Over the Bering Strait (https://amzn.to/2Ldoog1) here:  https://tonygentry.com/2017/06/18/an-interview-with-james-cotter-60-something-debut-novelist/.

So, these are my indy author recommendations for now.  Hope you’ll seek them out, read and enjoy, share and join their street teams.  If you’d like to continue this conversation, or if you’re an indy author, or want to be (heaven forbid), add a comment here and let’s chat.  Happy holiday shopping!  And happy reading (and writing) in 2020!

The Year I Came Out (as a creative writer, in pictures)

November 2018 – Visited author friend Katy Munger and her daughter Zuzu in Durham, where over a bottle of champagne, she showed me how to typeset my debut novel The Coal Tower using a software called Vellum.
The book cover my son Stephen designed, using a snapshot I’d taken years ago, when the sculpture atop the coal tower in Charlottesville still wore a dress.
The magic of seeing your book in a store – thank you to Chop Suey in Carytown!
Collected a dozen short stories for the collection Last Rites, and my friend for life Karen Bowles graciously agreed to let me use one of her paintings for the cover!
I’ll always be grateful to David at Book People in Richmond for hosting my first ever book reading and signing.
And to Julia and her team at New Dominion Book Shop in Charlottesville for hosting this book launch, right in the town where my novel is set, and on the same week when its events occur!

In October, excited to learn that The Coal Tower was short-listed for Faulkner Society prize!

Productive year for pomes, too. Thanks to Sow’s Ear Poetry Review for publishing this one, to Deep South for another, and to Poetry Society of Virginia for two poems that placed in their annual competition, to Central Virginia Bards anthology, where two were printed, to Mad Swirl, which printed three more, and to Bottom Shelf Whiskey for another. Mad Swirl and Bottom Shelf Whiskey also published short stories I wrote this year.
Another shout-out to the Mad Swirl collective, which also published a series of my photographs, along with the poems and the short story. They even set up a webpage for my stuff on their site!
Finally, full circle, visited my friend Rosemary in Nags Head to pay Katy’s favor forward, helping Rosemary use Vellum to typeset her debut novel, which is a heart-felt and beautifully told story of courage in the face of unspeakable suffering.

As you might imagine, feeling gratitude for all the support, sharing, and hugs that have made this year so much fun. Thank you to everyone who helped get these words out in the world, to those of you who read and talked up my work, and especially to my family, who have tiptoed around the house for years, while this typing got done. For 2020, all I can say is: Write On!