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Now available from Penguin Books: Absentia by William Stobb. Find it in traditional book form on amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. Also available for mobile devices at iTunes bookstore and google books.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hybrid: [transported by word and image]

Coming soon to your Madison, Wisconsin Toyota Prius taxi: "Hybrid: [transported by word and image]"--an exhibit of art by Thomas Ferrella matched with a selection of poems co-edited by Ferrella and Sara Parrell. These panels will be installed in 39 new Green Cab Co. hybrid taxis, so that our fine state's hipsters and legislators will have an opportunity to experience the mind-expanding effects of art & verse as they safely bar-hop around Madison. To what new public and private sector developments will this lead?  Time will tell.

The cab installment begins May 3. On May 2, there's a gallery opportunity to see all the panels (which look like the one embedded here, featuring poems by me and by Paula Sergi, with an image by Thomas Ferrella). May 2nd at Winnebago Studios, 2046 Winnebago Street, Madison, 5 pm.

You can also see all the images on the Facebook page for the exhibit.  Click on the "photos" tab to view the individual panels.  Also, an artist's folio of the collection will be printed and available to purchase.  You can learn more about Ferrella's work at his website.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Pajama Commandments

In 2006, a religious monument was dismantled in a public park in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Found underneath the monument was a tablet containing strictures regarding the public wearing of pajamas.  The date of the tablet has been estimated as far back as 3,000 BCE, but that estimation was articulated by my buddy Jake, who was drunk.  It's more likely that the tablet was stuck under the religious monument when it was erected in 1998--I mean... it's just a Mead spiral bound tablet, so... those don't usually last 5,000 years.  Suck it, Jake.  Anyway, the tablet is now under lock and key inside my saxophone case downstairs behind the old baby crib. It contains the following decrees, many of which may originate in the Epic of Gilgamesh, who was a big all-day-pajamas guy.

The Pajama Commandments

1.  None of directives apply to you if you don't care.  If you flat out just don't care, you can wear pajamas anytime, anywhere.

2.  If you're not working, you may wear pajamas all day.

3.  You're not a loser for wearing pajamas all day.

4.  You might be a loser, but it's not because you wear pajamas all day.  Your flat front charcoal trousers from Gap only mask the fact that you're a loser for a brief period of time.

5.  You can totally wear fleece pajama bottoms anywhere.  Anywhere!  If they have a partially open fly, you probably want to wear some underwear, and unless you're looking for attention down there, you might want to wear underwear of a similar color to the fleece pajama bottoms.

6.  You probably don't want to wear your pajama top openly.  Unless you've got some awesome Incredible Hulk ring-neck, or Underdog jams, you'll want to throw a windbreaker over that baby. Windbreakers match fleece pajama bottoms.

7.  If you're a male, and if you're in a long-term romantic relationship, and your partner finds out that you wore pajamas in public, just chuckle and shake your head, like "I know, I'm such an idiot."  Odds are that your partner is infantilizing you in numerous ways, and if you don't argue about the appropriateness of your pajama-wearing behavior, the event will just get added to the laundry list of your bungled attempts at human adult-hood.  Next time you do it, your partner will barely notice.

8.  If you're female, and in a long-term romantic relationship, you can take on the beleaguered responsible party role.  The only reason you're out in public in your pajamas is that your partner refuses to clean a toilet, wash a dish, fold a pair of knickers, etc.  You've been driven to this.

9.  If you have a teenage daughter, and she finds out you wore pajamas in public, you might consider starting to act slightly insane in other ways--practice a little wild-eyed grin, make soft barking sounds when she thinks you don't know she's there.  Your unpredictability may inspire a kind of wariness that's probably as close to respect as you're going to get for a while.

10.  It may not be acceptable to wear sexy pajamas in public.  If you're going to do it, though, you'll want to wear some obvious make-up or jewelry so that people know that you're trying to be weirdly trashily sexy on your errand run to Home Depot.  If you live in Las Vegas or Rio or somewhere, you can probably wear sexy pajamas.  I mean, like I said, do whatever you want. This is not a rule.  Be yourself.  Why shouldn't you slut it up a little bit.  More people than you realize have imagined you in your sexy pajamas. Why not just give them something real to look at?  I think you should do it, and if there's a God, my guess is he or she thinks so too.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Great Ball of Fire

Traditional causes of human suffering are invited to a charity mixer.  All proceeds from the inaugural "Great Ball of Fire" will support the global erosion of empathy, friendliness, and plain old consideration. Join special guests Poverty, Cancer, and Fear for a night of misery and dancing hosted by Ryan Seacrest. All donations of a sob, scream, or self-destructive impulse at the door will be rewarded with a ticket good for one free beverage from our corporate sponsor, Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Door prizes include scary goalie masks and gangrene. In an interview, celebrity spokesperson Kelly Ripa captured the spirit of total impending doom: “when you think of just how awful any one of these causes of suffering can be on its own, it’s truly frightening to think of them all grinding under a disco ball to ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths.” Special discounted tickets are available for Ignorance, Selfishness, and Prejudice. Just show valid ID at the door. 

The event will be held in the Westbury incinerator on Long Island, at midnight, February 12th, 2014. Doors will klink shut behind the last miserable cuss to enter, and as the room gets hotter, causes of suffering are encouraged to ignore the pain and concentrate on Morrissey’s voice—just slowly sway into the bright, bright heat until all is finally forgiven. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Voices in the Dark: Night Vale and a Small Town Radio Memoir

There are so many things to love about "Welcome to Night Vale," the very original podcast created and co-written by Joseph Fink along with Jeffrey Cranor, and voiced by Cecil Baldwin. If you're not familiar with it, each episode takes the form of a community radio broadcast from the fictional desert town of Night Vale.  News, local announcements, traffic, and "weather," emanating from a town where existence is multi-dimensional, metaphysical, metaphorical and deeply, delightfully, quirkily spooky. Now 40 episodes and almost two years in, Night Vale remains fresh and original, featuring regular developments surrounding the mysterious dog park, which must neither be entered nor even acknowledged to exist, the glow cloud that has become a member of Night Vale's city council, the man in the tan jacket with the deerskin suitcase full of trained flies, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your house.

For me, the show's quick-witted conceptual originality inspires and feeds my imaginative life. Examples abound, but here's one, from episode 16, "That Phone Call," in which Night Vale Community Radio host Cecil Baldwin announces renovations to the Night Vale library:

"The City Council has announced several improvements for the public library....  An entrance is being constructed at the front of the building, so we will no longer have to enter by waking up between two shelves in a dizzy haze, unsure of how we got there, and then wandering around, trapped, until we wake with a start in our own beds, covered with sweat, and with a few books we checked out on our nightstand.  Drinking fountains are being installed in the lobby, as well as dunking chambers, and a state-of-the-art fainting pool.  Librarian repellent dispensers are being placed throughout the building.  Remember, if approached by a librarian, keep still.  Do not run away.  Try to make yourself bigger than the librarian."

On a moment-by-moment basis, "Welcome to Night Vale" illustrates some of the transformative principles of surrealism that keep imagination alive.  The idea of dunking chambers and fainting pools as standard library features, or of librarians as wild animals dangerous as bears, brings to mind Lautreamont's famous formulation, "as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." Art should surprise and keep our perceptive faculties nimble and responsive, so that we can act in the world with original minds, beyond the restrictions of commercial culture or petty competitiveness that often drive shallow and destructive behaviors.

In my small hometown in central Minnesota, there's a small AM radio station--5,000 watts during the day, powered down to 38 watts after sundown, so that its nighttime broadcast range doesn't even reach the edge of the county. I don't want to name the station, because the story I'm going to tell involves some real people, with real lives--people who're out there trying to live down their pasts. And my facts aren't really facts: I've tried to research the story but can't find anything on it, so I'm stuck with the rumors that I remember hearing 25 years ago.

One of my first jobs was working early Sunday morning shifts as on-air host and board op at the station--it was Christian rock starting at 6 am, leading up to Minnesota Vikings or Minnesota Twins games, depending on the season.  I worked there from age 17 on and off until I was out of college--coming home to cover vacations and fill in on holidays throughout the year. I loved the alone-ness of working there. The offices were on the top floor of an old downtown building--the studios at the end of a long narrow hallway leading from an old theater that had been modified into office cubicles for the sales and management staff. When I worked, I was almost always alone in the place, and there was a lot of downtime between spinning records and ripping news of the UPI wire for the top of the hour break. I loved the mental spaciousness of the time I spent in there. I was young and I don't think I understood myself very clearly--I don't think I knew then that I was a person who valued alone-ness.  Working at the station helped me discover an introspective side of myself that might have stayed buried in the busy-ness of young adult social life.

I have some specific memories of the place, like bringing my saxophone to play along with records up in the studio, being visited late one night by a girlfriend, and doing some early writing up there, trying to capture some sense of the perfect loneliness of working the sign-off shift at a tiny radio station in a small town: most of the time, by midnight when we played Sinatra's "Lords Prayer" and went off the air for the night, I figured exactly no one was listening. In fact, I remember opening the mic and, softly, singing along with old blue eyes, imagining my voice drifting over the snowy empty fields of rural Morrison County.  Sadly, I remember working the Sunday morning shift after my friends and I had learned of a classmate's suicide. The station's news manager met me at the door at 5:45 a.m. to make sure that a) I was okay to work and b) I wouldn't say anything about the event outside of the brief script she'd written for the morning newscasts.

One image stays with me in particular. One haunted event.

The owner of the radio group was a small, kind of dwarfish looking man--a notable citizen of the town, and a really good guy. He had a son who was in his late twenties or early thirties and who was a little adrift in his life. He was working for his dad in a nepotistic managerial capacity, and had a bit of a reputation as a partier in town. No big thing, but at the time I found the stories a little intimidating--I was pretty naive and a little scared of the adult world, I think. Anyway, soon after I began working there, a terrible thing happened. The owner's son failed to attach his boat trailer correctly to his hitch and, pulling the boat home from a day at the lake, the boat and trailer came unattached, crossed the center-line of the highway, and hit an oncoming car head-on, killing at least one passenger in that vehicle--I never knew who the victim or victims were; these were stories I heard in snippets of conversations that my parents and co-workers tried to keep from me. From what I understood, the owner's son ended up serving prison time, although I think the sentence was pled down to something like negligent manslaughter.

During my years working there, the owner's son was in jail, I think. I never saw him, anyway, and a bit of a shadow hung over the station, but I didn't feel it too often.  I was fairly oblivious to all of these events, and busy with the typical concerns of an 18-22 year old. During winter break of my senior year of college, I agreed to cover some shifts for regular djs who wanted vacation, including the Christmas Eve night shift. I didn't mind. I needed the money, and my family would do Christmas the next day. Knowing that it might be one of my last times in the station, I decided to do some exploring around the building.  I was curious about the mysteries of the old theater, where the offices were, at the opposite end of the hallway from the studios. So, I put on a long song, probably "Riders on the Storm," by The Doors, and headed down the front hall, around the reception desk, and back through the offices. It was dark back there, but there was enough ambient light through the windows that I could navigate. Past the cubicles, there was a solid, wooden door and I could see, in the dark, a faint light underneath it. I quietly turned the knob, pushed the door open, and stepped through into the back of an old auditorium space. I had heard that the historic theater still existed back there, but I'd never seen it. I stood at the back of a small theater: it probably seated around 100 people, but the stage was elegant--black, polished wood framed by high, red velvet curtains, and the auditorium seats were plush, upholstered in a deep red that matched the curtains.

On stage, a brass floor lamp with a white shade had been pulled just past the curtains into stage left, an extension cord trailing away from it. It was the source of the faint light I'd seen under the door. Next to the lamp sat a weight bench set up for bench presses, with a heavily loaded bar. Before I had time to puzzle much about it, the station owner's son stepped out from behind the curtain, shirt off in the lamp glow. I hadn't seen him in a few years, and he was much thicker then I'd remembered--he'd always been tall, probably around 6 foot 4, but he had bulked up in prison, I guessed. Standing there shirtless in the lamplight, he took a long drink out of a plastic squeeze bottle, then sat down, laid back under the bar, and started pumping out bench press reps, exhaling as the bar went up and pulling in air as it came down. He hadn't seen me or heard me, and I snuck back out the door and tiptoed back to the studio in plenty of time to catch the thunder in the fade at the end of "Riders on the Storm."

I don't know where the owner's son is now--I tried to find anything about him online but couldn't. The station still operates, though its studios & offices have moved to a new building near the tower at the edge of town. That old theater building is now an architect's office.

I'll just never forget that image--Christmas Eve night, just out of jail, lifting weights under a lamp on the old stage.  The quietness of it.  The darkness.  The sense that there were very real worlds out there that I didn't understand, worlds from which I'd been protected through my youth. The sense that my grace period was coming to an end.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

              Spoon River Poetry Review
              Editors' Prize winner

A Moment for Authentic Shine

This is the greatest moment of your life,
said the voice both familiar and distant, like a childhood
friend become spokesperson for a cleaning product—
which caused the many hats to turn in many directions
and one robed arm to extend.
And what after all had been passing?
The sounds birds made often seemed more cogent
than the swirl of argument, a cyclone in a sandbox. 
So much management we ought to have degrees
was a type of joke made at outmoded parties.
Still with shades and declarations
echoes of heroic solos translated out of urgent decades
while almost unnoticed, pensive tunes accumulate in the mix
like thunder clouds on these warmer days.  Regardless,
the names come unpinned, stars die, a closetful of semi-
recognizable jackets and hats be-speaks
the by-gone, and yet the baffling rekindling of romance
may justify the maintenance of a hairstyle.
A certain heart medication—no, I was afraid to say
a certain heart, beating in the chest of a certain girl.
To say heart in that trite way, and girl when by now she’s fifty,
and real when the elapsing of all things into void
has been made abundantly clear.  But I knew her
and she seemed real, and at thirty still childlike—
a trait adorable in women, rather of concern in men
say the conservatives but look who’s ogling  
the ballplayers around the pool table.
Any slogan invites rebuttal, and a spin into personal views
often doubles futile conversation.  One might live
consuming nothing but packaged goods and still
in that moment of late afternoon crash—
over-heated, nauseated by persistent sexual memory,
blinded by sun, buffeted by wind—unfairly rely
on that prideful sense of authenticity
so prized in our time that it could be said to float,
invisible of course, above a century’s worth of steaming wrecks—
cloud of elemental and reckless
identity unwarranted, silver-lined illusion of nobility—
until geographies choke in the torrent,
shrines assembled from knick-knacks manufactured
by prisoner children dissolve
and in our true magical forest, blossoms
wreathed by small creatures that worked
in tandem with our spirits become
as we become atmosphere.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


Since 2004, men have been growing mustaches during the month of November to raise awareness about prostate cancer.  This is a good idea in certain obvious ways--people should think about prostate cancer.  Men should get exams after the age of 40--I think that's the recommendation. But it's a bad idea in one clear way: it's gross.  When you see a man sporting an especially bushy Mo-vember stache, you can't help but see, for a brief, horrible moment, his whole facial apparatus as a metaphor for the traditional prostate access point.  You know what I'm saying.  For a month every year, a whole world full of smiling face-anus assemblages.

Here's what I propose: let's switch it up.  Let's make August prostate awareness month, sponsored by Speedo.  At the beach, mowing the lawn, walking the poodle in the heat of the afternoon, men can wear Speedos for prostate awareness.  We can even sell special Speedos with a word across the butt, like... I dunno... "prostate."  

November can continue to be Mo-vember, with the whole mustache bit, but instead of being prostate awareness month we'll make it... what?  Mo-na Lisa Awareness Month?  People can reflect on the value of both the original Mona Lisa and Duchamp's famous alteration of the picture.

Or maybe Mo-vember could be Mo-use Awareness Month, since the mustaches tend to look like small rodents on the lip, and mice tend not to get the overall attention they deserve.