Sunday, August 31, 2008

Happy Labor Day? Not in Appalachia

(or anywhere else, really).

CHARLESTON -- The portion of Appalachian states living in poverty last year increased by 114,000 people to 13.3 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released Tuesday.

But it's all going swimmingly, isn't it? That's what the man tells us, and that's what we know. Unless, of course, you pay attention.

I'm such an unpredictable seat-of-my-pants voter I should be shot. I read everything I can on the candidates, always have, and like a dog eating catshit, I eventually get sick of it all and vote my unreliable instincts. This year, after voting for George I in '88 (please forgive my youthful indiscretion) and after those straight Libertarian tickets I voted until 2004, when the doo-doo hit the fan and I voted Kerry, I will be voting the Obama ticket. There are no real candidates for me out there. I'm settling. I think a lot of us must feel that way. Where is the pro-gun, pro-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-fucking-around-in-other-countries, stay-out-of-my-bedroom, small-community-minded candidate? Maybe I just don't pay enough attention, or look in the right places. It's been known to happen.

Anyway. We're all working for a living in our own way. I hope that whatever work you do goes well for you today and tomorrow. In the meantime, sit tight here and wait for a Dennis Mahagin poem later on today or tomorrow, and the Tomato Girl review I promised last week sometime this week. Sorry I didn't get a lot done these last few days, as the family and I drove eight hours across MA and NY and back to show off our new daughter. Not fun. I'm pale by nature, and my window-hanging arm is red like a spanked ass, and I'm sort of sun-sick. In my off moments, though, I'm reading Matt Wray's Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness.

Don't you wish you were me?

Don't answer that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cotton Season by Jim Parks

William Pierce, Jr., grasped his hip with both hands and tugged with all his strength against the action of the auger that had caught his leg and was pulling his body to bloody pieces.

Red Smith locked eyes with him over the stub of an unlit cigar. Pierce screamed without a sound against the deafening roar of the machinery. He knew that Smith had left the grating off the top of the horizontal floor shaft meant to cover the auger.

After Pierce's right leg was reduced to a bloody pulp up to the pelvis, Smith turned off the main power switch. All the machines shut down slowly. The vacuum hose that sucked raw cotton out of the wagons and into the gin was the last to stop, with a diminishing moan. In the sudden quiet of that moment, on cue, he smiled at Pierce, speaking around the stub of unlit cigar.

"You look real stupid like that, Mr. Pierce."

Pierce thrashed the air with his fists and howled again. Blood spattered Smith's white dress shirt and the gold pen and pencil set clipped in his breast pocket.

"I tried to tell you about rushing a man in his work." Indeed, he had warned Pierce earlier that morning. Pierce had reminded him that it was 1934, there was a lingering depression, and that he was lucky to have a job.

"I know you right, Mr. Pierce," Red had intoned, then spat tobacco juice at his feet. "You sho’ nuff right." Red knew what year it was. He had spent eight long years in the cotton fields of the Texas Department of Corrections planting, hoeing and picking cotton, running to the patch and running back to the house in the evenings. He’d seen men go mad after riding the Coke box in their bare feet, made to stand on the necks of glass soft drink bottles in wooden cases all night because of some imagined or perhaps real but slight offense against a boss or a building tender.

He had received a crooked trial in a kangaroo court for something not only he didn’t do but no one did because it, because the offense, in fact, never happened.

Burglary of a building.

What building? It wasn’t specified.

When? Where?

The jurors didn’t care.

He was just another drifter, a two-bit sharecropper with a barefoot family.

He’d seen men beaten with trace chains on their bare backs who went on to die of infections of the untreated wounds, seen them kept in the hole, fed piss and punk for days until they were unable to perform their work in the fields.

He had seen men lashed with the bat, a piece of industrial grade leather belting attached to a wooden handle, for being the last to reach the field or the last to reach the "house" in the evenings after running to and from. A few well-placed elbows and knees took care of any man that was targeted to become a boss’s boy or a building tender’s bitch. Broken ribs and strained knees or pulled hamstrings made a man last, put him in the unenviable position of being lashed to the bars of a cell door hand and foot, whipped until he screamed for mercy, and subsequently broken through sexual torture.

Red had seen it all, but he wasn’t broken, not by a long shot. He had family and that family had paid hard cash to keep him in the good graces of the crooked authorities. They paid to keep him in a job as a ginner in the civilian work force where the warden rented him out.

It had turned Red into a hostile, cynical piece of work. He was taciturn, dour and by turns downright hateful to all but his family. It was all he had, that sense of belonging to a family and fathering his own.

He was now living under the terms of parole, a system that placed him in the true state of feudal villainy, a man unable to leave the county without permission or to seek employment anywhere except where he had been assigned to work—for Pierce, the local cotton king.

But Red had also had the sense to make the best of his situation. His little girl Dotty was smart. It showed way before she went to kindergarten. By that time, she was reading him items from the paper, explaining the funnies, and adding up the family grocery bill based on the prices listed in the sale papers.

The Smiths knew they had a very special little person living in their family, someone that came along while her daddy was away and whose spirit had kept him alive through his darkest days while he waited for his Sunday afternoon visits with Mrs. Smith.

His problems with Pierce started after Dotty had been called to the high school office one morning the week before, told that she was the valedictorian of her graduating class, and given the morning off to go tell her mom and dad. She had practically run the mile and a half home to tell them.

They called everyone they could think of to crow the news. Ran down to the store to call long distance and local. Now their girl could compete for the scholarships that would lead to a university education, a good job—in short, a way out of the grinding poverty of the depression and the attendant rural politics of mere survival that poverty dictated.

She would be more free than they had ever hoped to be.

Then she went back to class after the lunch period and the world turned upside down.

She was called to the office and told that there had been a mistake. She wasn’t the class valedictorian, after all. Another student had beaten her record by a half a grade point.

She cried. She pleaded with the principal and the school superintendent to let her check the figures.

They refused her.

Then who had gotten the higher grades and displaced her from her spot?

The daughter of school board President William Pierce, Jr., owner of the cotton gin, the bonded warehouse, and the seed mill.

He had wheeled up to the school in his Cadillac to pick up his girl and get the good news.

And so, the next morning when a wealthy farmer came to the gin to complain that Red had told him to blow it out his ass when he demanded that his cotton wagons be unloaded first, Pierce came firing out of his office in his white shirt and wing-tip shoes, striding across the gin floor that he, in fact, owned, without looking where he was putting his feet.

That auger ate him alive.

"What happened, Mr. Red?" A colored man asked in the sudden quiet, strolling over with the arthritic gait of one that has grown old far before his time.

"I don’t know, Clarence. I purely don’t know." Red lighted a fresh cigar and sat down to wait for whatever would come next. He sucked at one of his front teeth and spit.

Then he whistled a tuneless tune.

Jim Parks is a Texan, a newsman, a truck driver, commercial fisherman, deckhand and a dreamer. Keep him away from the firewater and don't mess with his food or his woman.

Monday, August 25, 2008

To Which I Can Only Say "No Shit?"

Study: Mental Illness More Common In Appalachia.

Of particular interest, I find, from page 18 of this mammoth report:

Barriers to the use of treatment services include social stigma for those who seek care, lack of
transportation, non-recognition of the root causes of substance use behaviors, multi-generational
patterns of substance abuse behaviors, and erosion of the power of family and community networks to assist in personal coping skills.

OK then. They needed a bunch of social scientists and a paid study to tell them this? Have they been paying attention for, oh, the last sixty years or so? Jesus Christmas.

You can go straight to the horse's mouth here.

I've got stories coming up probably later tonight. Sit tight.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What's Coming Around the Ding-Dang

There are a number of people stopping by today to read yesterday's post, by the way. Hi. No one's saying much, though. If you were—ahem—interested in this sort of subject matter, as you seem to be, what kinds of discussions would you like to see here?

I've told you I'll be doing fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, reviews, and also general blog ephemera. Next week I'll have a review of Jayne Pupek's Tomato Girl, and in the weeks after a discussion of rednecks as portrayed by Hollywood and the media, in which we will have much to say of Deliverance and Kalifornia and Patrick Swayze and Billy Bob Thornton, and even the website (warning—NSFW—warning) Dixie Sluts, a site that inspired events in the novel I'm finishing (and yes, that's the last you'll see of me pimping my own stuff here; I have another site for that).

I'll update and publish a longish reading list I used for a honors course I taught several years ago that I called, in a bald attempt to get people to sign up, 'White Trash Literature.' I taught two sections of it eventually, as advanced composition courses. We read a deal of criticism and fiction, and watched films, in the process of analyzing how the world thinks of 'white trash' and what it believes it can deduce about you, just by the way you talk or the location of your birth or the fact that, heavens forfend, when you get excited, you may indeed lose your educated TV announcer voice and become. . . interesting to listen to. I'm not going to promise you all the posts will be pretty. I'd like to get some semi-scholarly material up here, too. At least semi-scholarly. It's nice to get off a rant once in a while, but some balance is good, so I can convince myself I'm considering every side of an argument. If you're interested in guesting here, hit me up. I have some stories to read later, too, when I'm not hacking up a lung. Thanks to everyone who's sent them to me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Old-Time Religion by Beverly A. Jackson

(originally appeared in Dead Mule)

She loves him as only a Christian woman
can love a man; crucifies him with love,
bears witness to love, kills him with devotion.
She is called Jude. She sings
Jesus Loves Me with a power that
promises He'd darn-sight better.

Her husband leaves at midnight.
She turns in her bed, naked & warm,
to hear him at the gate. Outside,
snow thick as white oleo lies
in slabs under moonlight. His cat crawls
from under the truck & ducks inside
for warmth as he slips out to icy air.

“Jason” she cries. His blue eyes flash
fox-like as he bolts, with her in pursuit.
His foot pumps the gas & the old engine
turns over. Doors locked, he shifts into gear.
Across the snow she runs, breasts bobbing,
legs sprinting, moonlit hair flying behind.

His shoe presses the pedal. She leaps
on the running board. Her ravaged face
presses against his window, a gargoyle’s
mask of furious despair. Her mouth makes
"Jasons" in the air; wide toothy soundless
"O"s against the frosty glass. With arms
embracing steel, her body hugs the cab.

When he picks up speed, she screams,
lets go, falls back into the snow,
chest heaving at the moon, & lies waiting
for the cold to melt her rage.
Her sobs assault the quiet, country night,
curses pitch like arrows after a truck
long out of sight & sound. She knows
she's seen the last of it and him.

In the crisp light of morning, freshly bathed,
and smiling with resolve, she takes his cat
to the pound & goes to church.

Beverly A. Jackson lives in the mountains of Asheville where she writes and paints. Her work appears in many online literary venues and in print. Her blog is at and her art can be seen at

Approaching the Rural Theme

Sven Birkerts, in one of his many books or essays—every one is worth your while, by the way; I've read them many times in some cases—makes a case that we haven't really seen a representative literary novel (I'd expand this to other genres too) of the electronic age in the way we might have been able to pick one or two out from past eras, that images and sounds and bits of information whiz by us at such breakneck speed no one's been able to overcome the sheer mass and amplitude to make sense of it all. Which resonates for me, I have to say. It's why realism—let's argue about what that means later, shall we?— is the dominant literary mode in the marketplace for both poetry and fiction. Combine that with publishers who don't see value in experimentation, and you get a publishing landscape dominated by historical fictions and Carvereseque stories with lots of craft and little heart, memoirs and memoirish fiction, tiny domestic drama poems, small moments of insight, etc, or, even more annoyingly, the one-trick pony high-concept novel or poem. You can find critics and other people all over the web complaining about it. I'm not going to bother to link.

But Birkerts makes the point: what's next? who's going to write that book, that poem, that collection, the one that encompasses life as we know it, something to which you could attach a roadside sign, or, more likely, a pop-up window. This is especially true for us, for you'uns, for anyone who writes rural-based material or the kind of thing that might get tagged as 'regional' in the library. Most people who buy books live in or near cities on either coast, with obvious usually-near-universities exceptions. And the vast effluvia of largely rural folks in the middle and flanks of the country, what publishers and politicians call the fly-over zones, don't buy books. So we, as writers, have to find ways to keep our regional instincts, as well as pay homage to the fast-disappearing rural ways in which we grew up, and make that all relevant to a more-urban-by-the-minute population that buys books, and a rural population that would rather do something outside the house or watch TV, or surf the web or whatever—you get the point by now. Who's going to do that? Where is the great (small-m) modernist or Postmodernist (maybe contemporary is the better word? Less loaded anyway.) rural novel or poem? The concepts don't even seem to work together. It's easy for interlectuals like us to sneer at the astonishing success of a book like Cold Mountain a few years ago. I was a bookstore manager then, and I resisted the book for ages even though Larry Brown and Rick Bass porked off in the blurbs, normally a sure sign I'd like the thing. I resisted, and I resisted, and I caved finally, and I fell completely in love. No surprise, maybe. But why that book? Why did it get so popular, and who bought it, as its sales say it obviously cut through the normal book-buying demographic (women age 35-40 and over, generally) and spread.

The negative first: yes, it's mostly an exercise in nostalgia: a novel with all the trappings of a time and place many people, in their dirty-greedy-lustful-acquisitional little still-fluttering hearts, would like to go back to, a time in which men were men and women were women, they could overcome hardships, and people did what they had to to survive, and love could (almost) conquer all. And that's why it was successful: it said for people what they didn't think they needed said about love and war; it comforted them, building an idealish world that somewhat resembles the 'real'; it had (let's not forget this) a carefully orchestrated and expensive stealth PR campaign; it had the backing of Sessalee Hensley at B&N. Enough to make me sneer, yeah, dismiss it as unworthy of my time and attention, yeah—but I loved it, and talked it up in my store, and we sold tons, and I was happy about it. I even liked the movie, for all its faults, and maybe because of them.

I had grown up around people like the old lady who helps Inman in the middle of the woods, curing his wounds and feeding him, people who lived out in the sticks and never came to town, the odd single man who'll help out a family for no reward, and even the randy preacher: my family's minister had left his own wife for a parishioner just a few years before, something that might have been a scandal years ago but barely caused a blip, those days, only fifteen or so years go.

Tower Hill near Daggett was my Cold Mountain, a place where my dad had grown up hunting, and where I could find arrowheads in the plowed fields, where my uncles told stories about the dogs running off in the middle of the night when they caught a scent other than the coon they were supposed to be chasing, and where we sometimes came to draw water from the spring on the sidehill people had been using for years, since our drinking water was iron-filled and rotten, and would separate if you left it sit for a few moments. My family had been in the area for a hundred years, and in some cases, had farms just up the road. It's my place, in a way that it'll never be for the fucking flatlanders who've moved in there now and built nice houses where trailers and clapboard-walled shacks used to be. Improvement my ass. I am moved to righteous anger just to think about it even though I live 300 miles away now. . . and that's why the book was successful. It keys to the things that make people most righteous if you try to take them away: love, land, food, shelter. It's a great book, I think, for all its faults. It hits me. But it is nostalgic, and maybe dangerously so.

That time is gone, and the one we live in is dominated by large corporations who rape the land, force people out, build stripmalls and bypasses, and children leave the places in which they've grown up for greener (dollar signs, baby) pastures, and what we think and do is increasingly dictated to us by the corporatized media. No wonder we should want something to read that reminds us not of better times, but of any other time but this one. I want to see the poem or story or essay that deals with that. Modern contexts, rural settings. There's your challenge. Take it up or not.

Later on today I'll hopefully post the first piece of work to ever appear on Fried Chicken and Coffee. Come back then. I'm going out to drag my kids through the woods in Saugus right now.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Have Some Chicken And Joe!

Night Train is my main baby, let's keep that straight. However much it's 'my' journal, I feel constrained, by dint of the stories and poems we've published in the past, and our status as a non-profit combined with our incorporation as a quasi-educational institution, to a reasonable facsimile of what people expect to see. Else, why should they come back? And make no mistake, folks do come back to see what we do, and that's great. I appreciate their attention. I crave it, in fact. But there's always something else.

The great dirty or not so-dirty secret of my past, is that I grew up in the northernmost portion of the Appalachian Regional Commission designated 'Appalachian' area, north-central Pennsylvania. The stereotype, or more properly, the archetype, of the Appalachian region centers around the Kentucky/West Virginia portions of the ARC's designated area, but the economic difficulties and many of the same issues and similarities continued into that Bradford/Tioga county area in Pennsylvania, where I spent the first 24 years of my life. I played in cricks where all the rocks shone orange with runoff, where no fish lived, though the coal industry was dead by the time I was old enough to know what it had been and how it had caused the damage, and the lumber industry gone too, fifty or seventy-five years before. What was left to me and my friends was simply growing up and finding a way out, via the armed forces, via college, via just shitting and getting, if you could, the 'brain-drain' typical of rural Appalachia. You stay and become part of the scenery, or you never go back. Case in point, my father's family has lived, with three or four exceptions, in the same three-county area for 230 years.

We all know the stories, or we can look them up if we get the urge. Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands, revenuers, snakehandlers, the Hatfields and McCoys, feuding in general, moonshine, bluegrass, gospel, hard men, loose women, church women, coon dogs , coon huntin' and the folks who love them, or the NASCAR set, NRA set, however you choose to name them. I didn't see all of this, of course, being both Northern (pronounced Appalachia with a long second 'a' until I found out better, much later perhaps than I should have). and more well off than many in the parts of Appalachia below the Mason-Dixon. But what I found, in this literature of rural Appalachia and the rural south (and other places to be sure) was a sense that I had found something to mine, something that could be mine alone, something that felt exactly right to write about. And that's what I want this blogazine to be about.

I want to publish stories, poems, and essays about the rural life I lived for 24 years and still think of as my primary world and motivation. I still, nearly twenty years later, feel out of place in my chosen milieu, as a working-class kid who now teaches in private colleges and edits and writes. I don't have to explain that to anybody who's made the move themselves, but trust me, it's a bitch, and you never recover from it and the subsequent questioning of self and career that inevitably accompanies the process.

I'll have some official guidelines up soon, but suffice it to say that you can send your shit to rusty DOT barnes AT gmail DOT com. What I like I'll publish here as I get it. It'll even--gasp--be edited, possibly. You retain all rights to your work if published, of course, and as payment I will send you a book of my choosing from my personal library. It may be a little worn from reading, but I promise it won't be crap. All I ask in return--and I know it's a lot to ask for not much--is that you let me keep your story/poem/essay/interview on the blog in perpetuity. You can sell the thing to someone else the same day you sell it to me, I don't give a shit. What I want is to find good stuff and give it exposure. So previously published pieces, especially those appearing in print-only journals first, are fine by me.

I want to say something else, too. I don't plan on being super-polite here, or apologetic for my views. What I say here is just me, bs'ing with you all, discussing work, doing interviews, etc. and I don't expect much crosstalk between here and my official governmentally approved and sanctioned gig at the Train. OK?

If you'd like me to link to you and you have relevant content, hit me up via email, and I'll begin a list. I have interviews planned, art, poems, all kinds of neat and nasty stuff. As a final treat, I'll leave you with the work of the band that inspired this blogazine's title.

If your work has affinities with any of the writers I've listed in my profile, by all means, give me a shot.