Saturday, January 08, 2005

Letters Lost on a Publisher

From As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories


(Letters Lost on a Publisher)

April 2

Ms. Wilbourne,

I was glad receiving Ms. O’Herlihy’s kind and courteous reply, saying that you are now considering my project—or, more accurately, that you will be in touch once you’ve done so.

I figured I would send along a note just the same.

If you will pardon the indelicate analogy, I have always been told that an editor considering a manuscript is much like a dog with his dinner—leave him (her) to it. But since conventional wisdom has never done me any good, and I was always the kind of guy to go swimming after eating a meal, I figured I would discuss what I think we are both hoping will happen—something like nuclear fission, something like Fatima: I have written a book that I hope will be published, and you are looking to accept manuscripts that the press “will do well with” —a wonderfully vague goal that has been the lynchpin of a number of rejection slips.

Having completed a master’s degree in literature last year, my taste in writers has never been more highbrow than Hunter S. Thompson, Flann O’Brien, and a wonderful Canadian author, Terry Griggs.

I try to be an avid reader, and most of the time succeed at this. I am always in bookstores looking for something that will excite and engage. When that book is by a writer whose name I have never heard before, all the better. But when I consider the books that make up the better part of most bookshops, I feel weak and sick and bored. I think this comes about because the editor/publishers are playing market strategists, and the MBAs are playing editor. So that books that passoff ambiguities as art, and trendy cynicism as philosophical insight, are taking space on shelves where books of real soul should be standing.

Speaking about “the one that got away,” the name John Kennedy Toole comes to mind. Toole was an instructor/doctoral candidate in New Orleans in the 1960’s. He wrote a novel called A Confederacy of Dunces, which he sent to every major publisher in the USA. It was rejected every time. In 1969 Toole committed suicide, unpublished, unknown. Understandably heartbroken, his mother found his novel and took it upon herself to have it published. The book was published in 1980. In 1981, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

I have read the novel. Though it was written in the early 1960’s it is not “dated.” For a book born of such a tragic circumstances, it is the funniest novel I have ever read.

I guess the preceding paragraphs are leading to this: over the course of years and many miles, I have tried out the stories in my collection on many ears in numerous pubs and parties and poetry readings. If I were a scientist proposing some new theory as widely tried and tested, I suppose I would do so with an air of confidence that would border on arrogance.

To spare you that I will end this note with eight concrete reasons why you should publish “As My Sparks Fly Upward:”

(1) Best Man
(2) Grudgingly
(3) Hadley
(4) Come Out and Play
(5) Continental Divide
(6) Under the Bridge
(7) As My Sparks Fly Upward
(8) my next book, “The Devil Wouldn’t Kill a Bad Thing.”



April 20

Dear Ms. Wilbourne,

The biography of my days in Dublin would describe afternoons and evenings lost to drinking, dreaming and general misguided wandering. It seems life is devolving into an Otis Redding song, leaving me with no change in my pocket, only the unspendable currency of my own ideas; the calories of my character to sustain me. Leaving me with the length of my shadow, the creak of pub floors beneath my step—leaving me to my pen and paper and blather.

Neither this letter, nor my previous, was written to coax, convince or persuade you toward my work. I am writing to converse—about the politics of poetry, the price of prose; about beer, bologna sandwiches and blowjobs. About real life and real fiction, and how one writer marks a trail toward the light. Toward a sympathetic eye, a willing mind, a soul with some soul in it. Because I am willing to chance casting my pearls before swine (more indelicate analogies!). Because I remember the evening my best friend, Dennis, asked me to be best man at his wedding—only bare weeks after he asked my advice on how to break it off with Mira.

And there was a time I remember reading a friend’s name in a newspaper obituary—which turned out to be an unnerving coincidence. I still dream about the long hours, the lonesome miles, the empty sky of the Continental Divide. I even saw a backpack lying at the side of the road at 5:45 a.m. But I didn’t stop.

I saw Lou Reed live at the Fox Theatre in Detroit in 1992, and was struck by how the evening had more the feeling of a revival meeting, an exorcism of sorts, than a rock concert.

A soda can fell from the Ambassador Bridge late, very late, one night as I drove home from a friend’s house. I wasn’t crazy enough to get out of the car.

And I had a few final nights with friends before embarking on this fiasco to Dublin.

And staring down the barrel of my empty pint glass, I remember Hadley. She wasn’t deaf and she didn’t write poetry but she ignited something rare and ravenous in me—something seismic and aching that set to drilling through my solar plexus. Something no poetry can say and no liquor can allay.

And with the confidence of credibility, I wrote these stories. And with confidence in my spiritual credentials I submit them to you. But all in all in all—in all my remembrance, in all my bewilderment, I am ultimately consumed by one thought, one fear, embodied in a sentence in a letter I wrote to a friend a few months back: “It sometimes seems that all I share with great men is selfdoubt.”

But in my days and in my nights and in my writing, I am one thing more.

Very serious.


April 27

Ms. Wilbourne,

Another achingly clear evening, and I look to the mellow purple horizon and think of “Hadley.” I have known her by different names: Hanna, Briana, Caitlin. As the weights and pulleys, the scales and measures of this life work their daily magic of vanishing another day, the Hadleys of our lives appear and vanish, though her memory only grows more vivid.

In the Afterword of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig writes about how the ancient Greeks believed that the future figuratively approaches humanity from behind, and the past recedes before us. An apt image. So, I have kept my eye on the spark of light that was Hadley in my life, see her even tonight. Watching as she hurries toward the horizon.

Mark Twain wrote two stories titled, “Extracts From Adam’s Diary,” and “Extracts From Eve’s Diary,” not long after the death of his wife. The stories are not satirical, but humorous and imaginative and exquisitely touching. Adam is portrayed as a gruff, linear, Alpha male. Eve is lovely and pretty and patient. At first Adam doesn’t understand who/what Eve is, finding her more a nuisance than anything else. But he is slowly won over. By the end of the story they have fallen in love, been banished from the Garden, and gone on to live a long life together. And when the dark day of Eve’s death comes, Adam buries her and leaves a flat stone marking her grave. On that stone he wrote: “Wherever Eve was, there was Eden.”

That’s Hadley.

I miss her, and still dream of her. Somewhere inside of me is written: “Wherever Hadley was, there was Eden.”


April 29

Ms. Wilbourne,

The day after Christmas, 1992, I went out with my friend, Owen Huckley, and got wildly, roundly, thoroughly shitfaced drunk.

Owen and I had gone to a nightclub, arriving early to have some dinner, and settle down to devouring pitchers of beer before the crowds and music took the place over. By eight o’clock, I was metaphysically and philosophically ratarsed. Returning from the toilet, I ran into old friends and acquaintances near the bar. We exchanged slurring Christmas greetings, and each time I was offered a shot: kamikazes, B52s, zombies, tequila. And I accepted. Every time. Then returned to the table where Owen and I reminisced about past adventures.

At one point, while pausing at the bar on my way back from the toilet, a couple of old schoolmates bought me a shot of tequila and a B52. In a fit of caveman bravado, I took a shot in each hand, and threw them back simultaneously, to the general cringing and warnings of bystanders and onlookers.

By ten p.m. I was clinically pissed. And not thinking straight. Coming back from the toilets, yet again, I bypassed the doorway leading to where Owen sat, and went looking for my younger brother who was also there that night. I wanted him to take me home: I’d had enough. And with timing so bad as to be described as exquisite, I passed the club’s entrance at the precise moment a pack of impatient clubgoers tried to force their way past the doormen (off duty cops in full regalia, sans pistols). The commotion startled me—

—suddenly a hand grabbed the front of my shirt, and in a Twilight Zone blur, I was thrust out the club’s door, flung to the pavement out the front. I landed face down, scraping my hands, and breaking my glasses.

Stunned and drunk and cold, I got up to explain the mistake. The off duty cop spun me around and slammed me to the pavement again.

So the odyssey began.

The rest of the night comes to me only in a riverrun collage of scattered moments: A couple of girls commandeered me, promising warmth, and led me to another club; through which I wandered, bewildered and blind (my broken glasses shoved in my pants pocket), feeling the growing pangs of The Fear. Somehow, I managed to get a bottle of beer from the bar.

Meantime, Owen was at our table wondering where I had gone off. After fifteen minutes he went looking for me. Finding me nowhere, his drunken judgment told him to walk back to my house. And though I have only Owen’s description with which to create a mental picture of what happened, I can see it clearly in my mind as though I had been there:

He walks back to my house, knocks on the front door. My father answers, surprised to see Owen back from the club so early. Just as my father is about to ask where I am, Owen slurs, “Is Matt here?”

As I attempted to exit the second nightclub, Owen and my father took the car out looking for me. They searched for more than two hours.

Somehow, I found my way out of the second nightclub and came across a friend of my brother’s outside of the first club. The smiling young Samaritan blessedly/charitably wrapped his jacket around my shivering form. And as I tried explaining the stupid mistake that ignited the whole mess, Owen and my dad and brother suddenly burst out of nowhere, grabbing hold of me, shoving me into my father’s car.

The following afternoon I woke with a monstrous hangover, dimly aware through my haze of nausea and growing shame that it was the day of my parents’ annual postChristmas party, attended by a wide circle of friends and family.

And attended by Briana. Significant only for the fact that we had spent the previous three months apart on the “outs.” Four years we had been together and she had gone away to college with little more than a hug and a goodbye. I had done my best to be cavalier about the whole thing, but ended up sulking my way through the semester, drinking and jogging and writing. I figured we were finished, and felt sick about it.

But Christmas brought Briana home. I saw her a couple of times, went to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve as “friends.” And as I crept through the day of my parents’ party, sick and shaken and pale, I briefly saw Briana, vaguely remember saying hello to her; preoccupied with my hangover and jangled pride.

Following one of my many trips to our upper floor bathroom to dry heave, I was met on the stairs by Briana. She stepped past me, and stood on the stair above me. She looked at me. She’d heard about the previous night.

“Your mother’s so angry with you,” she sighed. Then she hugged me. When we let go she placed her hands on my quivering shoulders and said, “Why do you do this to yourself?”

I shook my head. I didn’t know.

That evening, when the guests had left, I retreated to the basement. As I lay on the couch, nauseated and exhausted, my hands scraped and aching, Briana came down the stairs. She knelt by the couch, and looked at me. I closed my eyes, and turned my face away.

She gently massaged my hand.

“Darling,” I moaned, “I think I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying, sweetie,” she said, and kissed my hand. “You’re just tired.”

May 1

Ms. Wilbourne,

If I wrote to you about the band on which I based the band in “Under the Bridge,” you would not believe it. They called themselves Sawney Beane, after a 10th century Scottish cannibal, who’d had sexual congress with his sister which brought about a dozen, or two, offspring, all of whom shared Sawney’s preferences in sexual partners and cuisine. When all was said and done, the brood numbered forty, or so, and over the course of a decade they devoured one thousand human beings. When finally hauled out of the cave where they lived—obscured by the sea at high tide—the entire lot was lynched. Even the infants.

So, my friend Sean and his brother Finn, formed a band and took the name Sawney Beane. The band lived in a rundown house on Prince Road. The most prominent feature inside the house was a six foot long fibreglass hammerhead shark, named Fiona. I will never forget driving over to The House one May afternoon. As I cruised down Peter Street a police car pulled out from a side street, and I followed it all the way to Prince Road. As the cop car rounded the corner at Prince Road and pulled in front of The House, I looked up and could not believe my eyes. For hanging from a length of rope from the roof of the front porch, was Fiona, like some misplaced trophy from a Hemingway novel. And the band and about forty beer drinking merrymakers crowded the front porch and yard. The band had their instruments out, seemingly ready to play.

The interior of the house defied description. Full of broken furniture, the floor covered with the foam chip carnage of a tornopen couch cushion; instruments and gear strewn about among the vast scattering of pornography, beer bottle caps, scratched and ruined CDs; as well as a host of items stolen from the Catholic secondary school we all attended. There was a faculty notice board with the hallowed names of the 1971 administration. There was a shallow silver goblet with ornate handles which we used in a sort of ritual of our own. When the Brethren of the Church of the Holy Spook gathered at the House (the usual band of drunks), the goblet would be filled with Scotch and we would kneel, in turn, while the others gathered around, raising their hands in benediction, saying The Prayer:

In the name of the beers
In the name of the whiskeys
In the name of the skills
And in the name of the problems,

Then we would slam back the Scotch.

The walls were strewn with graffiti and posters—the band’s sense of irony was exponential: posters of Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson’s Thriller album cover, an old Beatles poster, and a poster of Cyndi Lauper, arm raised in rebellion. And some unnamed vandal had circled the dark stubble visible under her arm, with a marker.

When Sean met me in Dublin for Bloom’s Day, 1995, we had gone on a four day tear that culminated in him swimming across the Liffey near the Tara Street Bridge.

Shane MacGowan was the official patron saint of The House on Prince Road. In late July 1995 I went to Detroit to see him in concert with a couple of friends. And knowing that Sean felt about MacGowan the same way I feel about Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, I wore my Sawney Beane Tshirt to the show. After a dozen beers I made my way along the lefthand side of the upper tier of the very small venue, took off my shirt to reveal my bestial form. I balled the shirt up, and hurled it at the stage, aiming for MacGowan’s head. But the aerodynamics of the balledup shirt were miscalculated—it sailed past MacGowan and struck the neck of the bass player’s guitar. The show stopped for about three seconds. MacGowan reached for the shirt when a roadie raced onstage and retrieved it.

Another night a drunken Battle Royale erupted in the unlit living room. At one point, I climbed onto the back of the couch, steadying myself with a hand on the ceiling. At what seemed an advantageous moment, I dove from my mount, intending to tackle the entire drunken mob. However, the couch was not pushed against the wall, and no one sat on it to counterbalance the thrust of my leap. So, the couch tipped entirely backwards, and I fell facefirst into the grungy carpeting, missing the mob. The sound of my impact was like a bomb detonating. It left me with sore ribs, ruptured pride, and a lovely embarrassing cut on the bridge of my nose where my glasses frame cut me.

The fellas were evicted and The House was sold. And I am sure the new owners are wakened in the night by the ghostly noise of massive drunken congalines, wrestling matches and other assorted madness. My friends and I have scattered to far corners spreading The Word about the righteousness of debauchery and the sanctity of bad craziness.

It was a good time.

I miss Fiona.


May 4

Ms. Wilbourne,

The first rock ’n’ roll concert I ever saw was Bob Dylan when he toured with Tom Petty, in 1986. I was fifteen. My parents took my good friend named Neil McFarlane and I. Many an evening I spent with Neil swimming in his pool. After swimming we sat on lounging chairs looking at the stars arching above in a clear, late spring sky (there didn’t seem to be a single tree in the new subdivision where Neil lived—giving us an immense, unobscured view). More than a few evenings Neil sat back, and said, “What the hell’s all that?” Meaning, the Cosmos, I guess. “It’s ridiculous.”

And I suppose it was.

And it was under that sky full of stars that Neil and I (and my goodhearted folks) sat on the grungy hill at Pine Knob, watching Bob Dylan play a fulllength acoustic version of “A Hard Rain’s AGonna Fall.” And under those same stars Neil and I played basketball: on the driveway at my house, at the playground near his house. The games were often cut short because Neil had sore knees. The pain flared and that would be it. Growing pains.

I sit here, listening to Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and I can’t put my finger on why or when Neil and I began to drift. But we did, and soon enough he was just another face in the high school hallways. No falling out. Just the casual drift that happens with people.

There came an afternoon fully two years later, as I sat in my twelfth grade English class. An announcement came over the P.A. asking that prayers be offered for Neil McFarlane who had been diagnosed with cancer that morning. It was in his knees, and worked its way into the bone marrow.

And Goddamn me, I thought a hundred times a day to visit him and talked myself out of it every time.

When I saw Neil at our twelfth grade prom, May of 1989, he was on crutches. I went to his table and said hello, introducing him to Briana. And it was likely my imagination, but I’m sure that I saw something in Neil’s eyes that told me he understood why I had not stopped by for a visit—and that it was all right. Whether it was there, or not, Neil was dead two months later.

He died on July twentyfirst. I celebrated my eighteenth birthday the following day. A day after that, I set out on the driving holiday depicted in my story “Continental Divide” with Owen Huckley. I took my guilt along with me, and all my worthless excuses why I hadn’t visited Neil.

Three days later Owen and I pulled into Banff, Alberta. One night we sat on the balcony drinking beer. At one point, I had torn down the curtains worn them like a cape, declaring myself MATTMAN. Then we raised our drinks to Neil McFarlane, and broke into a braying, tonedeaf rendition of the Rolling Stones’, “Ruby Tuesday.” And it was likely the beer and the sunset and the long drive just (halfway) completed that me thinking such strange thoughts: I got to imagining Neil in heaven, standing on an observation deck, looking out at the starvast cosmos, saying to Aristotle or Galileo or Newton (maybe even God Himself), “What the hell’s that all about? It’s ridiculous.”

I still drink beer, and I still listen to Bob Dylan. And I’m apt to watch a sunset and wonder about things far and near, gone and done. Sometimes when I look at the stars, I hear Neil old exclamation, “What the hell’s all that? It’s ridiculous.”


May 11

Ms. Wilbourne,

When I dizzy with calculating the equation of my life, and get the chills, and feel the pangs of doubt and dread and fear—getting scared that I might be standing on the wrong side of a dream, when I might have recycled all my wishing one too many times. When I get to worrying that I have no emotional fixed address—I tell myself a true story about myself.

The time Peter Sirr, director of the Irish Writers’ Centre recommended me to Barra O’Sheaghan as a temporary instructor at the Academy of English Studies. After a brief interview with Barra, I was hired for two weeks. Among my duties as substitute instructor was the midafternoon tutorial with Las Chicas: two beautiful Spanish girls in their early twenties, smiling and shy—strong vocabularies hiding behind pronounced accents.

I was to teach them Conversational English. Basically, sit and converse with them for sixty minutes. After meeting the girls, and becoming immediately infatuated with them, I told Barra I had been practicing for that assignment for years at bars.

Within days, the girls’ good looks became secondary to the ideas they expressed about art and politic. The sound of their voices, the raising of eyebrows, their graceful gestures of the hand. They laughed at my jokes, my stories of burning dinner, spilling a pint of beer on my electric heater.

My two weeks as substitute instructor were over all too quickly. By the time my affection for Las Chicas flowered, I was left only to say goodbye to them.

But there had to be one last word, gesture.

Our final class was almost finished when I told the girls it was my last day. As I searched their lovely faces for a reaction, I took a book from my bag: a volume of Pablo Neruda’s poetry.

I handed the book to the girls. Two poems were marked. The English translation was on all of the right hand pages, mirrored on every left hand page by the original Spanish.

“Please,” I said. “Read the poems to me in Spanish.”

The girls frowned, not understanding. They knew I only spoke English.

Then I said, “I want to hear it in Neruda’s language.”

The girls read, in turn, the poems that had months ago awakened me to the virtuosity of language—volcanic, romantic—even after being sifted through translation. Las Chicas, heirs to such poetry. The words rolled off their tongues like surf over stones: liquid and sensual and elemental.

And with the eventual, inevitable closing of the book came their gazes. Unreadable at first. Eyes wide, seeming to know something, seeming to search my face. After a moment I could name what I saw in their expressions:

Recognition: Reading those poems to me in a language I did not understand revealed everything to those two lovelies that I could never say myself.

I remembered that afternoon in a poem I titled "Las Chicas":

I bought this volume
of Pablo Neruda’s poetry
Knowing nothing of the man
& certainly never considering
I might one day hand it to you
& ask that you read passages to me
in the original Spanish, from pages
opposite the translation that
baffled & awakened me, hearing
the music of all that eluded me
strummed beautifully by your tongue.

I miss those girls, and miss that part of me who handed them that book.


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