The term local legend has a negative connotation to it, a “could have been a contender” flavor that does not fit writer John Brantingham. His work in poetry, fiction and art is not dissimilar to his public work in the classroom, heading up workshops or at the gallery that he runs with his wife, noted artist, Ann Brantingham. There are doors on hinges at that gallery, and may you be so lucky in your life to meet two artists in your community that are always opening doors for others and welcoming them in like the Brantinghams. John Brantingham’s new book on Bamboo Dart, “Life, Orange to Pear” is a character study of time. What it does to families, the dynamics that time uses to bend and change the arc of one generation coming into its own after the stewardship of flawed adults. The idiosyncratic ways our families have shaped each of us, all here on display in “Life, Orange to Pear”. Bamboo Dart Press is thrilled to be issuing this as the second book on our imprint. The following conversation with John took place at the beginning of November. The book is available direct from us at Bamboo Dart http://www.bamboodartpress.com via the myriad of finer book stores and distributors now. Check out the trailer below featuring John reading from the book coupled with illustrations by his wife Ann.
There is an interesting divide in your work as both a poet and writer between the natural world and that of steel and glass. The tenderness in even some of the most hardened characters in your stories strikes me as the closest to that duality.
Certainly in “Life, Orange to Pear” the father walks both of these lines with his daughter. These are some of the ideas that interest me the most. There are a series of interesting false dilemmas that most people set up for themselves. I go to the term false dilemma first because I teach critical thinking and the false dilemma is one of the fallacies that I talk about a lot, but we do this naturally. One of them is that we think the world of people and nature are two different things. I find that kind of fascinating, and it makes people think that nature is foreign to them, and when they venture into a national park or purely wild space they think it is a place of danger, and it is to some degree, but no more so than an urban environment. All those wild elements of the forest exist in the city and all the wild elements of the city exist outside of it and all the truth and beauty does too. All of that lives inside of us as well. As we are both wild and urban, we are good and evil too. It’s important to understand this. I am a confirmed pacifist because I know that just below the surface is a good deal of violence that I am certainly capable of. I want to keep that down. It is part of who I am, and I don’t want it to be. That’s why it’s important to write my characters, especially those like this one who is so similar to me, with a clear vision of those parts of him that are failings. It’s important for us to see ourselves as we are.
Your other new work, “Inland Empire Afternoon” is a character study of the region of Southern California that we both live in whose flavor and mapping is spread out over forty characters, a cut-up among well defined characters instead of ideas. Did that concept come into play prior to writing this piece or in the midst of it?
I’m a huge fan of Richard Linklater, and what I did there was try to do what he did for the city of Austin in Slackers, where he bounced for five minutes from character to character building up a vision of the city and a particular group of people who lived there. It was a critical look at that urban space, but it was also a kind of love letter to it. I have lived most of my life in or around the Inland Empire and I’ve really begun to see why it is a beautiful place. It’s one of those spaces that’s ill-defined in the American conscious. Angelinos often see it as a kind ugly step-brother, but that’s just provincialism. There is beauty in all places occupied by people because there is beauty in people. I wanted to draw that out.
In your teaching (both in the classroom and in workshops) you use prompts and I have seen your ability to be lightning fast in crystalizing an idea for a writer. Did childhood role play (Dungeons & Dragons) serve as an early introduction to this technique for you?
Yes, and what I love about Dungeons and Dragons when it is played well is that it is all about bizarre improvisation. In that moment it becomes surreal and fun. Some people like to play it in a constrained way that follows strict rules and it becomes almost like a slow motion video game. If you take out the improvisation and the surreality, if you stick to slow moving rules, then it replicates reality, and there is a kind of safety and tedium to that. Like improv, it is often funny, but like improv, it doesn’t need to be. But if you take that improv element out of it, it just becomes as restrictive as reality. In my classes, which are almost never funny, I want to have that kind of movement. They need to because the people before me are different than any group of students have ever been. They have their own desires and needs, and I need to pivot to meet those needs. Creative spaces, in classrooms, writing rooms, or gaming rooms are sacred, and they need to be approached in that way.
What was the seed of the original concept that drove you and your wife Ann to start your California Imagism Gallery? Besides the obvious, what are your hopes in the years ahead for this space?
Ann and I have been talking about this a lot lately. What has marked so much of this time in the world is a kind of festering cynicism. Our goal is to move away from that. People are angry now. People often act in evil ways, but if you look through the veneer of that anger, you can perhaps find kindness and potential in all people. The motto of our gallery is “Be Kind Humans.” I told someone that, and she immediately equated kindness with weakness. My goal is to move beyond that simplistic conception of kindness, which again is a false dilemma. Those two things are not synonymous. Those two things do not even exist on the same spectrum, but we have been told again and again that they are. I disagree. That is the goal of the gallery, and I hope that it makes money, but I won’t be bothered if it doesn’t. I will be bothered if it is not a voice in a growing revolution for compassion and complexity of thought. We will host readings and artists. We will be a part of conversation and salons. We will move toward that place of humanity.
You more recent forays into flash fiction are a nice bridge between your short stories and poems. Do you find some poems morphing into fiction or the more economical flash fiction?
I think it does that to some degree, but I generally am in a flash fiction mood or a poetry mood. They are different things in my mind although they help to develop each other. In flash, I am trying to understand a character and his/her/their moment of epiphany. In my poetry, I am having the epiphany. It is autobiographical while the flash is fictional.
Recorded over a three day weekend in July of 2019, “Arches & Pathways” finds The Folk Implosion’s John Davis and Refrigerator’s Dennis Callaci reuniting following their “Room For Space” LP from twenty five years back. That first record was improvised and recorded in one afternoon live to a one track. The new record has the luxury of being recorded over three days by engineer Steve Folta in the Callaci living room. The improvised collection features brand new songs written and recorded over those three days by the two of them building upon a live take of piano and drums, or dueling guitars and layering the new baby with overdubs immediately afterward to capture all that was in the room at the time. Expertly mixed by Scott Solter, it is a modern day minimal psych score whose guts are pushed into the skin of songs. Songs of minimal expanse, and you can quote us on that I tell the under assistant west coast promotion man.
The record is available as a 160 gram standard black vinyl edition w/ a download card & lyric sheet or download via Revolver and at your finer independent record stores on November 20th. A strictly limited edition of 100 on swirled orange vinyl includes all of the above as well as a unique signed and numbered poem by John Davis as well as one by Dennis Callaci, and a download card for the 200 poems that Davis and Callaci wrote that are married to this project (a hundred apiece by each of them). Preorder it at Grapefruit https://grapefruitrecordclub.com/products/archespathways. Check out the first track they recorded that Friday and the first song on side 1 “An Alley Opened It’s Mouth and Roared”.
…and here are two of the two hundred poems:
The Home Shopping Network
Caught me again
I, like a thief, bright red handed
Wanting to want
Like a stimulus check
That never arrives,
Except as a promise
You told me in a taxicab –
But I only heard the bolts
Of the bridge that the axles were rattling
I saw the sun, right through the windows,
But only a dozen of the things
That it moistened, like a wave,
One that crawls across a beach,
You told me you saw five of your words
Crawl right out of my left ear
After you blew them in
To my right one
There they are, on the window,
Madison Square Garden Bowl Lounge (D. Callaci)
I know all of the places you been to before
I been there myself
Their shitty sound guy with the bowler hat on
And the rayon vest
It didn’t work
It wasn’t sci-fi
It was no-fi
I couldn’t get in
In past the $15 bouncer
And the two-toned hair polizi
And the dog haired collars
James Brolin vacuous Merv Griffinned couch yawn
It all seemed OK until the dawn
Until I awoke
Cum in my coke
Blood on my pillow
And I awoke
And there were all these lesions on me
Begging to be released from my malnourished body
Can we please?
Can we leave?
Can we please?
Can we leave?
Them velvet ropes spun with human hair
That soy sauce made of blood
The dude in the cowboy hat that stands behind you with arms folded as you play
What did he say?
What did he say after the show?
That he couldn’t understand a word
That he couldn’t make out a thing
Madison Square Garden Bowl Lounge
I never found a place to hide in you
You were too skinny
There was no fat for me to tuck myself into
So instead we did drugs all night
Mama drugs that we were told not to do
We tried to fuck, but only soft on soft blues
Emanating from our room
Over the PA
To the crowd assembled to hiss and boo
Fuck, and I tried to love you
Fuck, after I had tried so hard to love you
yeah, but you did it all wrong
at the wrong time
in the wrong venues
you got it all wrong
everywhere you went to
Don Everly opines in some op ed
I’ll never attempt to love anyone again
Peyote buttons. Bread infused with chia seeds and wheat germ. Home jail tattoos of your annoying parrot. That is what has occupied so much of our Covid-19 lockdown time. In the curious case of Jeff Fuccillo and Allen Callaci, they spent those early halcyon days of the lockdown finding odd places in their homes to record and pass files to one another as they pieced together a set of covers from the 1980’s. The Shrimper/Union Pole co-release sees the fellas turn songs by Pavement, Quarterflash, Crowded House, Prince and others inside out. You may know Fuccillo as the head honcho of Union Pole, a member of The Irving Klaw Trio or for that collaborative record he did with John Fahey. Allen’s work outside of his band Refrigerator has included collaborations with Adam Lipman, Falcon Eddy and a forthcoming team up for a song with Shrimper stalwarts Goosewind.
The cover art features a spectacular drawing of our two lads being led out of the wasteland by Tina Turner as drawn by Allen Callaci. A more fitting cover for these times, I can’t properly imagine. Check out the video for their version of “We Don’t Need Another Hero” below. The cassette is available November 7th from Revolver, Grapefruit and Midheaven. Links are at the top of the page to order upon release date.
If you have not read any work by Meg Pokrass, take two minutes and read one of her flash fiction 2 page stories, or maybe the two poems that I have stapled to the end of the interview below. Her nimbleness as an editor in choosing what to leave out and what to delve into is an art. I often find myself rereading her pieces after the first pass and looking at them like magic tricks. How did she get the house to levitate? Make the rings pass through Mt. Rushmore? Land a helicopter on the head of a needle?
“The Loss Detector” is written in her economical style, but is an expansive piece in her canon at fifty pages. The arc of time passing in the story is dreamlike as characters come and go, some just falling away one day as do relations in our own lives.. Will they be back? Where exactly did they go?
I am thrilled to be working with Mark Givens in our pursuit of issuing top drawer works of this nature on our new imprint Bamboo Dart Press. Prouder still to come out of the gate with a bang of a story that haunts me months after reading it. Meg’s “The Loss Detector” is out now via Bamboo Dart Press direct bamboodartpress.com and everywhere on October 22nd. This work strikes me as an epic song that feels like it is 9 minutes long, when in fact it times in at 3:30.
The unquiet mind of mine was thrilled as expectations and cliches were substituted with a realism, unmoved by the possibility of easily dialing up the grandeur or drama in this moving piece. I shit you not, dear reader as I have invested money that I didn’t have in order to put out records for over thirty years that hit at a truth that needed to be taken from the ghostly to the physical, this book does the same for that want. The high of discovery, nothing beats that.
Meg is founding editor of the beloved flash fiction magazine New Flash Fiction Review, founded in 2014. Below is an interview I conducted with Meg a few weeks back.
I see your talent in the arena of editing as your great unsung weapon in relation to your writing. Do you spend much time editing your work, is it second nature to you? It seems to me like such an incredibly unique part of your style, the unsaid.
Thank you so much Dennis. Yes, I’m an obsessive editor but that’s because my stories need it. They’re never right after just one or two drafts. My first drafts can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to write, but the editing part can (unfortunately) take months and sometimes years to perfect. I’m one of those writers that really has to put a story away and come back to it with new eyes and new eyes and… new eyes.
When editing, is sequencing the flow of pieces important to you or does the stand alone nature of them not require that kind of attention?
The sequencing for a flash novella is quite a fascinating and completely different skillset to writing stories, closer to making a playlist or what I imagine to be true when putting together a record album. It’s like how songs are changed by what comes before and after each one. In this way, the feeling about chapters and their emotional impact are changed by where they are situated and for me, experimentation is the name of the game. I wrote an essay on the craft of sequencing in the anthology My Very End of the Universe, Five Novellas in Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press, 2014). It was reprinted and you can read it here in full at Talking Writing.
If you look at the order of the songs on a great album, it’s clear how the impact of a particular song is changed by the song that has come before it or that follows. This is, for me, why records are so addictive. It’s the order of songs and the emotional narrative created by juxtaposition. What that takes us through and how each one changes because of the other. I love how you never quite know exactly how you’re going to feel, no matter how many times you hear a great album, because of that contrast, and how we, as listeners, come to it new at different times in our lives.
As a reader, there is to me a musicality in many of your poems and fiction, does that hold true for you as the writer of these?
I’m a music addict. I can’t write without it. I can’t ride a bike or take walks without music either. I’m afraid I live inside music, perhaps that’s an okay thing. As far as playing an instrument, I never learned one. That is so unfortunate. I can sing (a bit).
Moments of “The Loss Detector” read as memoir, to clarify, memoir for the possible reader. Some of your descriptions of older Southern California hit me right through the sternum.
The similarities between this novella and my own life are clear. I grew up in Santa Barbara, a very long time ago, when it was a very different place (and time). I grew up with a single, working mother and one of my sisters was a film actress. The novella is based on my life, however loosely. The character “Josh”, however, is completely fictional, drawn from my imagination. The funny part is that “Josh” somehow feels more real to me than anyone else in the novella. This was one of the really interesting aspects of writing this piece, how I came to care about this imaginary person so much. The California connection is what drew me to want to work with Bamboo Dart press. I feel that the novella belongs with a California publisher.
I will let Meg Pokrass close with two poems of hers. I sincerely look forward to you reading her work, if you haven’t already, and moving through the next five decades with her.
Extra Terrestrial (originally published in Gone Lawn)
There are no signs of extra-terrestrial life: Only two itchy dogs in the garden. One dog carries a blanket, lies down on it. Ma is sure she saw a spaceship float down into the neglected orchard after martinis last night. I’m on security patrol. My branch of the oak will be comfortable to sit with a pomegranate and an orange. Carrying them in my pockets up to the lookout, scouting for aliens in the leaves. We’ll move as the rent increases, but for now; sour wood sorrel invades our grass, fleas terrorize the dogs, Ma stays in, and I imagine this house belonging to creatures who know what to do about life on Earth.
AMERICA (originally published in RATTLE)
I drive a hummer in America
because it is mighty.
A mighty woman in
a mountainous car.
Nobody can faze me or tousle
my spirit in that impossible thing.
Dreams are primitive pests,
laughable and like stick figure
insects. I swat them away
while reciting the names of African countries.
I imagine speeding over land lumps
with my very best friend,
the two of us laughing about
childish things. I am a child
in America. Later, the phone rings,
it is a telemarketer, the kitchen
is a mess, she has a solution to something.
There are marks up and down my body,
welts like little dead kisses.
Friends think I am sad,
but they don’t know about my plans.
They have never lived in my house,
with that husband, or that friend,
or felt that breeze,
the one that keeps me awake.
Nima Kazerouni is a busy guy. Besides being in So Many Wizards (first Shrimper appearance on the double CD “Smooth Sounds” six years back), he is also in the bands Nectarines and Crown Plaza. What is striking to me about Kazerouni and the projects he is involved in is his unique style of singing, his twist of a phrase and his lack in this day and age of adding digital whip cream all over everything. I ordered the pancakes, sure, but I am an adult. Please don’t blueberry smiley face, coat them in powdered sugar nor chemical lick the back of their faces as you prepare my plate. I ordered three, face down. I am going to pour this gin on them, so save your syrup for Sufjan Stevens or what’s her name. Hey, nothing against them, nothing against them at all, I am only just saying I ain’t into confectioner sugar.
Nima’s latest song is one of them home recordings with him alone at the board. Those are the kind of final exams I love. You get to see every aspect of the artist in plain sight, wholly, in that light. They are writing the script, casting the actors, directing the movie, scoring the piece. The kid just supple wristed my high score on Defender with this song, it is a bruiser. Nima is at work on a full length release due in the new year on Shrimper. The Pancakes you ask? well I hop, I Denny’s, I drilled a hole in my coffee cup with my car keys as a trick on this here waiter for an endless refill. I had time. That waiter, he hated me. He checked on my coffee after forty minutes, asked if I was interested in buying the restaurant, then disappeared again. I was unsurprised when it became another boarded up building in a bored old world. This tape by Nima, it will fit in your one hot little hand in the sweaty little city that we reside in come 2021.
I have seventh heavened myself to death knowing that flash fiction trailblazer Meg Pokrass jumped on board to be the first train out of the station for Bamboo Dart Press, a new publishing arm that Mark Givens and I have partnered on. Pokrass’ book “The Loss Detector” is out this Friday. You can pick up the book this Friday direct from Bamboo Dart or at brick and mortar shops as well as large distributors/online portals Revolver USA, Grapefruit, Ingram, Amazon, Mid Heaven et al starting October 22nd. The trailer below features script from the book and images of the author over a bed of music by Callaci.
Have I ever read a piece on the ten best guitarists that grew like redwoods out of the underground post 1988? No? No, I don’t think so. Sure, you’ll see bleeds from the seventies here, but I am talking penultimate sounds, releases, carbon dating. 1988 forward. Now, having blown the preamble to bits, allow me to write the abbreviated version. Michael Morley, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Ira Kaplan,Jandek, John Davis and David Lester – those are them. They play the guitar like John Bonham plays the drums. Sometimes brash back beat meaty, and at other times sliding around the dials of a voice or bass or drums or a piano, barely there, but fully present. I listen to everything that the six of them do, or I thought I did until May of this year. I found something that was lost to me this past Spring in the thick of the thick. Like a fifty hidden in a Zadie Smith book, I couldn’t believe my luck to have stumbled upon it. Horde of Two.
David Lester, known for his work in Mecca Normal and his work as an illustrator is my kind of guitar hero. If you know his style in either field, you recognize it immediately. Horde of Two is a duo with Lester on the guitar and Wendy Atkinson on the bass. Is that a bass? Is that a cello? Is that an airplane? Their debut has that Mike Watt & Kira Roessler magic of improvisational swing even during quiet passages. There, at the root of their more tempered and ethereal surveying of the landscape prior to the build, it swings there too. The instrumental record “Guitar and Bass Actions” weather maps me in, gets me lost in the terrain. I am simply a passenger on this train. My book is back flapped on my lap, as I can’t stop looking out my wing of the railroad car noting that we are moving from an arid alluvial band to some kind of tundra sun beam glare of blinding light. Prince, he had a few good lyrics, and what he said to me about this record near thirty five years ago is still full on correct today. Prince said “This is not music, this is a trip.”
Lester & Atkinson, as Horde of Two, are at work on a follow up record which will only be available in the air. But wait! They have agreed to allow me to put out a cassette version of the new record when it is out this spring, a better spring than this past one I am forecasting. See, I begged, and then on my knees I pleaded. I said to David and Wendy “I am headed to Taos with a sandwich bag suitcase and a wallet. I have no phone, just my trusty old Walkman. Would you allow me to make a cassette of your second release available to other fellow travelers like me that are still on the path of divorcing themselves from this material world but still in need of a physical fix?” When they nodded in agreement I bought my ticket right there and then. I am salivating in wait. You really need to hear their first release in the meantime. Live with it for awhile. It is an independently minded little beast. Don’t be surprised, if like me, it redecorates the entirety of your surroundings. You, in a spell, mesmerized at how well garland, pine needles. broken bell jars and ice cubes can redefine space.
I can’t hand out nor hang candy from the trees for trick or treat this year. Instead, I have made a mix tape with an answer song to every track on the new Mountain Goats record. I have dubbed 200 copies of it over the last week. It is odd, because nearly the entirety of the call back tape is that record by the silver fox, Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors”. The tape begins with the 1973 cover by Tom Jones of the title track, but the rest is all Charlie, Charlie and his wife and the song his teenage kid wrote for the record. Tom Jones, all that bravado couldn’t mask the insecurities of the narrator in the title cut, the hurt under the brag. It serves as a touchstone to many of the songs on the new record, including my favorite, “Get Famous” which could have been written by the same cat, except this time he is pissed and shellacking that bouquet of rose reds with poison. I left hand mention this to John Darnielle as I prep a box of his Nurse With Wound and early Human League records that have resided in my garage for a decade to take a trip home to him. “That Song, “Get Famous” is really is one of the meanest songs I’ve ever written. The narrator is a guy who is not used to actually saying “fuck you.” He says this in reference to me mentioning that the voice in the song sounds like the voice of one that has seldom cussed. Fuck. I was right. Right again to an answer that doesn’t matter much.
The walls of Sun & Muscle Shoals studios where the record was recorded seem to have lent a laconic slow bake to the tunes on the new record. Pudding skin on top of skin growing over the soft, vulnerable innards which are still fully in tact and waiting for you to dig into. I have taken to digesting the record slowly, falling in love with it over the end of the summer as I pace the floorboards with the headphones on, trying not to wake up my wife or kid. Time was a cassette with 4 songs would be slapped in my hands every other week with new tunes that were freshly recorded on that boombox heard on the cassette of John’s released this past spring, but this one rings truer to the arena of those discoveries than that cassette did.
Trick or treat. I am ordering a bunch of them large candy bars, and am going to hand deliver 100’s of them on each doorstep in my neighborhood on Halloween along with the white shell dubbed tape. Something small and sweet that is a way for me to tell my neighbors that I love them, anonymously even if they have a ring camera on me. I will be dressed up in my same old clothes, but they won’t recognize me for I will be in an ecstatic state of peace, having digested and ridding myself of a near year of our misery. I miss you my dear friends, my arms length compatriots, you sweet old stranger that I talk to twice a year but think of more than you would know. We have all been residing behind closed doors for so long without a ring at the door, that we have forgotten what that chime sounds like when it sings. May I leave this sweetness at the foot of your threshold, far enough away so it isn’t trampled on, but close enough that the racoons and rats don’t wander it away? I am slowly getting into knives, slow enough that no one is going to get hurt. I will use them only for opening up other worlds, Okay? Other worlds that have been here, before me, in wait.
Back in the days of yore, say June 20th of this year, before there was a Shrimper website, Franklin Bruno released a new digital EP with his band The Human Hearts. The first full length Human Hearts record made it’s debut on Shrimper in 2012, and playing on a theme is something Bruno loves to do as noted by the next 2016 Human Hearts release, and now, as a send off to our morbidly obsolete president, we have his 2020 entry. As we doze and awaken to the same ashen sky with only our shadows cluing us in that time has passed in our absence, it has become difficult to tell when anything truly comes out anymore, if those records I ordered and received a few months back still belong to me or have in fact dissolved into a sea of other records, mimicking and finally becoming the jackets and pressings of records I had owned previously. Another record by Bill Callahan, Feeway Bill, Bill Withers, Bill to Spill, Bill Direen & The Billders, Bill at Will, Bill To Power, Chico DeBillDeBarge etc. I get lost as they morph and lose their shape melting into one another.
Having written that, I can say that the aluminum burns that are eating away at my carpeting thanks in large part to my addiction to physical goods, in this case my freshly burned CDR of this Human Hearts EP is worth the damage it inflicted on my place as its freshly minted backside and sharpied face dripped from the library to the kitchen. It appears to be a trail of something resembling mercury, rolling on the floorboards when my weight tips the scale of the house. So I tiptoe and hop quick to keep from disturbing it. I need to hold onto these tiles, all of them. They have all of the elements of Franklin’s and the bands strengths, these tracks. The inventive language, diminished G flat to A major, the unexpected ballad neighboring a block of hooky reels, they are here in spades, clubs, diamonds and, ahem, hearts. What a wonderful treat to be listening to new songs by one of my favorite songwriters as he and I make fun of one another via VHS cassette swaps in the mail (SLP mode kills me with all the sexy extra panty lines it piles on me).
There are physical reissues due from the Bruno/Shrimper vault, possibly before the new year. Whet your whistle now, but be cautious of not over doing it. Dry whistles in NM+ shape go for big bucks on the Oculus imaginary aquarium feeding sites. Virtue reality, I enjoy being back with your honest John kind.