“Isn’t it just
so awesome, Chandler?
Topanga said hi to me!”

We’re both named after

“Why do I talk to you anyway?
Whitsett will love this story!”

The phone
stays belligerently still
as I remember
saying nothing.

The well she stands behind
is called Love.

Her job
is to scream
each time a fool gets close,
a brutal, wicked scream
that scatters birds.

The wise,
she makes no noise.
They pass on their way,

carrying water.

The Temptation of Fame: Art and Motivation

…or, why writers, like bands, are better before they’re discovered.

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.” Virginia Woolf

I write because I like the world — as it is — and want to see it, up-close.  I can’t find the world in many people’s books (by and large). The real world seems like a faded copy of a copy in a lot of stories; even the grit is unreal, much too thoughtful to do any damage. I read many stories, everything from University of Iowa grads to porn-pervs, and am largely left with an elevated sense of distance. So much of what “writers” do places their talent front-and-center; what might have otherwise been a quick trip to the park becomes an exposition of (boring) botanical expertise. Why do they have to mention the names of trees —  every tree?  Is that a requirement — authors must wear long, drapy scarves, not know how to say hello in a coffee shop, and know the names of trees? 

What I want is a story I can walk around in, where characters are actually people who have jobs other than “writer,” “teacher,” “bookstore clerk,” or “student”  — and don’t know the difference between beech and magnolia trees. 

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Hey, bro!
I did her!
With sunglasses on!

— Memorial Acclamation

Go do it, then,
whatever it is that you do —
sex someone, buy that ring — 
film it, even, make
a record of your elementary courage
and then social your accomplishment
to your kind.
After all, you have the keys — 
(Secret gesture.
Secret gesture.
Secret gesture!)
— and I should want to be

If you’re going to do it, hijo,
choose a field where 
you will get caught
and shot
and then I’ll know you’re real.
Let your body stand erect 
as rifles are raised by priests and soldiers;
stand before their righteous hate, alone,
knowing you die for your desire.
Then I’ll follow.

In your childlike voice: 
“It was just a little fun!”
“Why do you have to be so serious?”

Mi pequeñito, you have a thousand ways 
to explain your survival — 
as his blood sings from Spain,
intones a truth known only to me:

Divinity is a dead body,
sinking and stinking,
unliked and unfriended,
shot by justice,
abhorred by Church,
buried nowhere but my heart.

Cristo amó.
Cristo murió.
Cristo murió.

Located here.

For my dad


I get practicality from him,
and height.
I can stay up until 2am,
get up at 6, and push through the day.
Smart friends call this “resilience”;
I just call it a day.
Up or down, it’s still got to be lived.
Might as well do it awake.

I can’t fix cars like him, and I don’t
have grease under my fingernails
and my hands are not rough like his.
But I don’t trust mechanics with
clean, soft hands, and at least I don’t
drive around ignoring strange noises.
Both are him,
and I’ve never said that before.

There is not one person on this planet
confused about the way he feels –
personally or about life.
He likes what he likes and who,
doesn’t have much time for niceties.
He is himself, and when he leaves
he’s going to take nothing but himself,
and he’ll be just fine with that.

I don’t know where I got the letters;
he doesn’t trust books, or writing.
But it seems, as long as I have them all,
I might as well do something useful.

Here:  he did his best by me.
I guess that’s all I need to say.

Sappho talks to Love

“Prayer to Aphrodite”

On your dazzling throne, Aphrodite,
sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you:  do not crush me 
with grief

but come to me now — as once
you heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your 
father’s house

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came.  Handsome sparrows
brought you swiftly to
the dark earth,

their wings whipping the middle sky.
Happy with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, Sappho, why have
you called me?

What does your made heart desire?
Whom shall I make love you,
who is turning her back
on you?

Let her run away, soon she’ll chase you;
refuse your gifts, soon she’ll give them.
She will love you, though

Then come to me now and free me 
from fearful agony.  Labor
for my mad heart, and be 
my ally.

Greek Lyric Poetry
(Tranlated by Willis Barnstone)

I often wonder: if governments and churches have their way, and our lovely planet is destroyed once and for all; if every human was destroyed, except for maybe two who could read and probably voted for Hillary Clinton; if all that was left was a pile of rubble, stacks of stones upon which were inscribed curiously translatable fragments of our letters and poems: what would those two readers think? What would they make of our thoughts, fragmented in piles? Would they find them beautiful, meaningful, intelligent, perhaps feeling? Or would our words betray the smallness of the age and its people?

Sappho is fragmented. The woman who was once famously described by Plato as the 10th Muse, whose works were, as far as I’ve learned, considered required material for those who wished to consider themselves educated — she was fragmented. Somewhere in the eleventh century, she was destroyed by a church seemingly at the height of its power. The faithful were promised indulgences for destroying Sappho’s words, get-out-of-hell-free tickets for those courageous enough to burn them.

It evidently worked. The poem copied above is, to my knowledge, one of her few surviving works, most of which are extant only because they were copied by scholars in lands the church had little control over. I wonder, still, what was lost — and wonder if my namesake, Pope Gregory VIII, mightn’t be one of the clerics Dante would later condemn to hell in The Divine Comedy. In my humble opinion, he should be.

But like so many beautiful voices, the fragments still testify. They speak — of beauty, love, lust, human desire. They speak in a way that brings me to my better self. Over years and years of teaching, I would pass out this poem with other fragments and ask students: why do you think Sappho was burned? Classic answers work, and are probably effective. There’s the feminist angle, and it is powerful: the Church’s actions are yet another example of silencing women. There’s also the sexual issue (students really tended to center here): Sappho was from Lesbos, and seems to have a rather fluid notion of sexual attraction; therefore, the Church sought the destruction of anything that might lead readers into what was once called “the unconscionable perversion of the Greeks.”

True. Solid. And real. Nothing to discount here. But I’ve been thinking that there might have been another reason for her burning. Sappho was into women, and men, and sex in general; she was honored even though she did not have the genitals required for honor in, well, nearly every culture. But underneath these rational reasons to account for the destruction, I’ve come to think there might be another, more irrational, shadowy explanation of the church’s action: it was terrified by Sappho’s relationship to the divine. To spirit. To inspiration itself.

We’ve been taught to live on our knees. To honor the gods as above us. We imagine divinity as somehow parental, a relationship in which a child is subordinate to those who came before. We exist as an act of grace, and as such have no right to expect anything. Inspiration in this model doesn’t come to us when we call; it comes to us when it chooses, when we need instruction, when deemed necessary for our edification.

That’s not Sappho. Sappho’s relationship with Aphrodite is not as child to parent (though the goddess is honored with golden description). If anything, Sappho is more like a sister to Aphrodite — and perhaps even more than a sister. Notice it is the goddess who comes to Sappho, who leaves her house when Sappho calls. She doesn’t have to; she wants to. She becomes, effectively, Sappho’s servant — her loving, caring servant, asking her what she wants. Wow.

And then she goes further: she says, look, I’ll do this for you…but it won’t produce what you want. AND THEN LEAVES THE DECISION TO SAPPHO! Wow! No pat on the head, no refusal “in the interest of good judgement,” but instead “I trust you.”

A god who trusts us. A Muse who rushes when we call. Who lets us be the guide. And, probably importantly, doesn’t need to work through institutions (that have a penchant towards destruction). Sappho imagines — or knows — god as personal. Giving. Trusting. A servant-god. That vision is what the Church tried to destroy.

Makes you wonder what they replaced it with.

Oh, yeah. We don’t have to imagine. But, if I may, we do have to remember.

BackAlley Jack

Learning from the best. A new story.

“Our future’s so bright we gotta wear shades.”

Every graduation speech, ever

Everyone tells stories in high school, about what they do and who they get with.   The baseball team at Van Nuys High School, 13000 Oxnard Street, Van Nuys, California, was a great source of these stories.  Whether they were true or not — that didn’t matter. They kept our minds from imploding under the weight of Curricular Standards of Achievement. 

It was 1985, and we were all just waiting to get out into the world, any world. And when that seemed impossible, or would take too long, we took matters into our own hands.  It’s called in Educational Literature “The Creative Relationship to Boredom.”

Where would we be without boredom?  Probably still eating raw meat.

There was Toby “the Bat” Bauer, slugger, blond, a man-child who would eventually go bald and who, it seemed, could inspire quite a few of the teachers.

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