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Geese

hawk

Hawk pen and ink by Todd

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2014)

“Bird flying high, you know how I feel.” Anthony Newley

Every day this week, walking to town, working in the garden, sitting on a bench overlooking Big River Bay, the honking of zealous geese caused me to look up and search the sky until I found the lines of honkers, visible to my naked eyes only because there were dozens of the mighty birds in large formations winging southward.

Yesterday I counted one V composed of seventy birds, though there may have been a few more or less—a distant consortium moving swiftly in the sun-drenched sky. Among the largest birds we’ll ever see in California, these geese were flying so high they appeared to be the size of tiny gnats, and their great altitude suggested they intended to travel many miles beyond Mendocino before coming down to earth.

“Remember the music, the food, the dope, the cheap gas and junk cars, friendship, love, moonlight, firelight, cold water, geese, wine, poetry, liberty, happiness, when we were still too far from the end to see it turn to history.” Quinton Duval

In 1969, a few months after dropping out of college and shortly before turning twenty, I drove around America and Canada in a school-bus-yellow 1962 GMC panel truck with my pal Dick Mead. We had no set itinerary and chose our roads because we liked the names of towns those roads went to or because there were mountains and rivers on the map that called to us. We were not seasoned travelers when we embarked, and we were perhaps in too much of a hurry, being young and unaware of the illusory nature of time and space, but all in all it was a good way for me to learn how not to be in school.

One day in August, on the eastern side of the Cascades north of Walla Walla, we found ourselves on a narrow two-lane road so little used that we drove for two hours at forty-miles-per-hour without seeing another car or person—only a few badly battered farm houses standing along our way. In that treeless land, dry and dusty cattle land (though we saw no cattle) the road curved around the bases of round-topped hills we found impossible to gauge the size of, an impossibility that made us feel disoriented and verging on crazy.

Finally I said to Dick, “Let’s hike to the top of one of these hills and see what we can see.”

So we parked at the bottom of a likely hill and stepped out of our truck into a fabulous silence that was only occasionally broken by a gust of wind or a cawing crow. And though the top of the hill seemed quite close—I guessed we would be on top in fifteen minutes—we decided to carry full canteens, chunks of cheese, chocolate bars and bananas, and we were glad we did. The slope of that hill turned out to be incredibly steep and it took us an hour of hard scrambling to reach the top—the views in every direction showing us endless ranks of treeless hills marching away to the horizons.

Had we not been so young and unaware of the illusory nature of time and space, we might have camped there until our water ran out, imbibing the strange otherness of that promontory in a sea of hills—not another human being within a hundred miles of us. Instead, we stayed up there for an hour or so, gobbling our food, drinking our precious water, playing Frisbee in a fickle wind, and gazing down at the wisp of a highway beside which stood our school-bus-yellow panel truck that appeared to be the size of a very small gnat.

“Thank you for the sea, for what the river discovers at its end, what waits for all of us to come calling.” Quinton Duval

There is something deeply reassuring to me about those high-flying wild geese winging swiftly southward at the beginning of another November in Mendocino. They and their predecessors have been heading south to warmer climes for millions of years, and when I hear their honking and see their undulating formations in the sky, the longevity of the life cycle of their species resonates in my bones and I am filled with hope for the continuance of life on our unique and bountiful earth.

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Arthur Conan Doyle

There is a clump of plant life I pass every day on my way down to the village, a tangle of ivy and blackberry brambles engulfing an eight-foot-long fragment of old fence that stands ten feet from the edge of Little Lake Road—a favorite roost for dozens of little birds, seed-eaters most of them. Every time I walk by that green clump on my way to the village, several little birds, often dozens of them, finches and sparrows and chickadees, come flying from near and far to perch on the extremities of the clump and chatter at me—and I chatter back. When I have passed by, the little birds fly away and resume whatever they were doing before I walked by.

Now here is a curious thing. When I pass the clump on the homeward leg of my journey (I walk on the same side of the road going and returning) the little birds do not come to greet me. However, if I ascend fifty yards beyond the clump and then turn around and head back toward the village, the birds will come speeding to the clump and give me what for.

I wonder what I am to those little birds. And why do they only take notice of me when I’m heading west and downhill? A most pleasing puzzlement.

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Poets and Artists

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.

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Q

Our dear friend Quinton Duval died last week at the age of sixty-one, and the world lost a most generous soul and a marvelous poet. Q, as we called him, was a quiet person and a quiet poet, thus he was little known outside of Sacramento. I regret that I could not afford to publish an elegant volume of the collected poems of Quinton Duval while Q was still alive, but it’s at the top of my list of Things I’ll Do If I Ever Strike It Rich.

There is a funny story by Mark Twain entitled Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven in which a Twain-like explorer hitches a ride on Haley’s Comet to heaven and reports on what he finds there. At the height of Stormfield’s visit, excitement ensues as word spreads that the greatest writer of all time has just died and will soon be arriving at the pearly gates. Indeed, so paramount is this writer that luminaries such as Shakespeare and Homer, not seen among the common angels for hundreds of years, descend from their places on high to greet this unsurpassed genius.

Captain Stormfield, a cultured man, wonders who among the most famous writers on earth has died; but the incomparable genius turns out to be an unknown young fellow who only managed to write a poem or two before he was tarred and feathered and murdered by an ignorant mob who found him intolerably odd.

Quinton’s death reminds me of this story, not because I think Q was the greatest poet who ever lived, but because he was, in my estimation, deserving of a much larger audience than he was able to achieve through the careful crafting of his beautiful poems.

You have undoubtedly heard of Poetry Slams. They are all the rage these days among pseudo-educators and extremely extroverted wannabe poets. Slams are poetry competitions (a deeply repugnant idea) in which so-called poets try to upstage and beat their opponents by outrageous dress, comportment, choreography, and vocal pyrotechnics. The poems themselves are largely irrelevant to the proceedings, though the more shocking and nasty and shoutable the lines, the better the chances the so-called poet has of winning the contest. Yuck. If you are a lover of poetry, a lover of the words themselves, a lover of the tender truth of a good poem, do not attend a poetry slam. When teenagers slam, the experience is merely pathetic. When older folks undertake such travesties, it is repulsive.

I think of Q’s poems as diamonds in the sludge of our American-Idolized culture, everything become a contest, a special effect, a showy narcissistic puff of nothing, and I want to stop people on the street and say, “Turn off your cell phones and listen to this. A poem by the late great much missed Quinton Duval.”

Dinner Music

The things in this dish have each been touched

by your fingers. The dough has marks in it

where you shaped it out round and white

and rising slowly. I remember all this

as I begin to eat. It is exciting

in the light given off by the oil lamp

on the table. I smell the kerosene,

your perfume, and the scent of the food you made.

I am touched by the wonder of it all. I mean

your hands are in my mouth even as I eat

what you have made, like other things you make.

After dinner your lips open quietly to the dark

passage down inside you. What is all this,

this odd food we give away? We eat each other’s

love and feel amazed and full.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com