Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Stuff I Write: The Truth Comes Out When The Spirit Comes In — On Being American, On Being Irish

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Here’s an essay I wrote about being an American and being Irish. It first ran a few St. Patty’s Days back in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Thanks, Post-Gazette!

***

For one year, when I was a broke and itinerant flight attendant, I lived in a house with six Irish accountants. The house was in Forest Hills, Queens, a few subway stops from Manhattan. Having six housemates meant we could almost afford the rent. Having housemates who were accountants meant that everything from the cost of toilet paper to the heating bill was divvied up.

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My housemates called the heating bill the “oil delivery fee.” They used words like gorgeous and brilliant when describing a plate of overcooked spaghetti. They believed, really believed, Guinness is good for you.

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These housemates – five men and one woman – were Irish citizens. They found work and housing through an underground network that specialized in exporting Irish accountants. Before this, I’d thought Ireland’s chief exports were beer, The Pogues, blood sausage, and jokes about priests and donkeys. My housemates liked jokes, but hated blood sausage. They had many Irish friends in the city – all of them accountants, all of them living with other Irish accountants, all of them able to do long division and recite Yeats drunk.

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A confession: I’d always thought of myself as Irish. And so I was happy to pay $600 a month to sleep on a futon on the floor and be among my own people. I’d been adopted by my Italian/Polish parents when I was a year old, and I knew a little about my ancestry. I clung to the Irish side of my lost past. I wore green on St. Patty’s day. I wore a Claddagh ring. I was proud of my Irish eyes. They curled into commas when I laughed. I read Yeats and Joyce and knew all the words to “Danny Boy.” Being Irish made me feel special, particularly during my teenage years. My parents didn’t understand me. How could they?

And now, all these years later, in Queens, with authentic Irish folk, I thought I would learn who I really was.

“My birth name’s Phelan,” I told my housemate Sinead. Sinead was lovely – blue-green eyes, dark hair, a laugh that could crack plates. We became good friends right away, which meant we told each other the truth.

“You’re not really Irish, you know,” Sinead said and patted my hand. “Americans put on green t-shirts and tennis shoes and say they’re Irish and it’s just not true. Irish people are Irish. Americans are American.”

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“She’s right,” Brian, one of the other housemates, said. He’d overheard us from the kitchen, where he’d been frying ground meat. My housemates had dinner together at 7 p.m. every night. They took turns cooking. I never saw any of them make anything other than Spaghetti Bolognese. The recipe didn’t vary, no matter the chef — three jars of Prego, two pounds of ground meat, two pounds of spaghetti, one loaf of Wonder bread. When I wasn’t flying and it was my turn to cook, I’d try to mix things up – Chicken Romano, tacos, fajitas. But mostly, when I cooked, my housemates would nibble politely, and the next night we’d be back to Bolognese.

bolognese

“Americans always want to be something they’re not,” Brian said. He poked his head out of the kitchen and pointed a wooden spoon our way. “That’s how you get shamrock knickers. You get ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish.’ You get, lord help us, green beer. It’s desecration, I tell you. Who does that to perfectly fine beer? It’s not right. To be Irish is to be Irish, and that’s the end of it.”

Brian was from Dublin. Sinead was from Galway. All but one of the housemates was from the south of Ireland, which meant they shared the same politics and generalized about Americans the way I generalized about the Irish.

One night, after Sinead had downed a few pints and had a fight with Paul the bartender at Yer Man’s pub, I was driving her home. I don’t know why, but Sinead decided to flip off a group of kids on Metropolitan Avenue. She rolled down her window, yelled “Ho there,” and stuck her middle finger out. The kids yelled back. One of them turned around, dropped his pants and mooned us.

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Sinead was shocked.

“A finger,” she said, “does not equal an ass. A finger equals a finger. I will never understand you people. Never.”

And there was so much I didn’t understand back.

Take our housemate, Tony, for instance.  Tony was from Belfast. This was a problem, since the housemates carried the troubles from their homeland with them. Sinead’s fight with Paul the bartender was over something political I didn’t grasp. Whatever it was made Sinead, a usually soft-spoken woman, shout. Sinead’s grandfather, I knew, had been a driver for Michael Collins, the founder of the I.R.A. Sinead’s family was deeply Catholic. I had no idea where Paul the bartender was from, exactly, or what his religious beliefs were. It would never have occurred to me to ask. Paul had an Irish accent. He worked at an Irish pub. Drunk women took off their bras and donated them to the collection that dangled like tongues over Paul’s head.

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Paul often gave me wooden nickels to use for free drinks. He was kind and funny and called me “Love.”

Back at the house, I’d seen the fury Sinead had directed at Paul. It bubbled up whenever Tony was in the room. Tony was built like an eraser – stubby, with a square head and buzz-cut hair. His room was in the basement, next to the washer and dryer. The basement was concrete. Tony’s bed was a worn-down couch. Tony didn’t talk much. At dinner, he sat at the end of the table, head down. He ate fast, and usually got stuck with the dishes.

One day, because I wanted to understand, I asked a question. I’m not sure exactly how I phrased it, but I wanted to know the state of things between Ireland’s north and south. I knew the little I’d learned from history books and Brad Pitt movies, but I wanted to know the more personal side of things. How it affected people. My housemates, for instance.

What happened next  – Tony lowered his head even more. The other housemates said some things. Brian said, “Isn’t that right, Tony? Isn’t it?” And Tony didn’t say anything. Until he did. I don’t remember what he said because it seemed like nothing, really. Maybe he agreed with Brian. Maybe he said he was finished. What was happening at that table was beyond me, though I’d set it off. Sinead said “That’s enough,” and Tony went trudging off to the basement. I wouldn’t see him for days.

I had a late flight that night, a Vegas red-eye. When I came home, Tony’s face was bruised. One eye was leaky and swollen shut.

When I asked what happened, he said, “I don’t know what you mean.” Then he stumbled back down to the basement.

Later Sinead would say the boys had a fight. They’d been drinking. They’d locked Tony in the basement. There was no bathroom down there, so after several hours, Tony used the washer. Later, when they unlocked the door and found what Tony had done, they beat him.

“That’s the beginning and end of it,” Sinead said. “Let it be.”

It had been my fault. I felt terrible. I’d like to say something here about privilege, and ignorance, what it does to people, but what it comes down to is my privilege, my ignorance, what it did to Tony and what it didn’t do to me.

Years later, I’d visit Sinead in Ireland. We’d travel around the country and Sinead would give me a gift, a drink coaster with the Phelan family crest on it.

“Phelan means little wolf in Gaelic,” she’d say and pat my hand.

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The coaster was made out of cork. The crest had a deer head on top, a diamond pattern on the shield. I thought I should feel something profound, holding this link to my past, but I didn’t.

Once, back in New York, Sinead and I had our palms read by a woman in the EastVillage. The palm reader’s studio was all done up in red velvet. She wore bangles and gauze. She told Sinead, “You long for home.” She told me, “There are lines we’re born with, and lines we make for ourselves.” The first line, the one I was born with, was so faint I had to scrunch my palm to see it. Then she charged me $50, cash.

I stayed in Ireland for two weeks.  Everywhere we’d go, we’d play a game Sinead invented called “Spot the American.” Sometimes it was easy – green t-shirt, tennis shoes, bag full of postcards. One thing I noticed — Americans take up a lot of space. We sprawl. We come from a big country, where we’re not used to holding anything, even our arms and legs, in. Our body language is open, as if we can absorb the whole world.

By the time we got to Belfast, that sad and troubled place, I’d order our drinks and food because Sinead was worried about her accent. Our game was trickier. We played until finally, in one pub, the only American to spot was me.

 

Stuff I Think About Stuff I Write: Family Legacies, Green Glitter, Shamrock G-Strings, and Ways to Be An American on St. Patty’s Day

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Well, it’s St. Patty’s Day.

St. Patrick seemed like an all right guy. I mean, the whole snakes-get-out-of-Ireland-and-don’t-come-back thing.

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Not that there was probably any truth to that, but still.  Now if he could just do something about stink bugs.

Anyway, on this day, people say everyone’s Irish.

I don’t know about that, either.

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“I’m Irish,” my daughter said this morning when she insisted on me dressing her in three layers of green. I had to get her up 15 minutes early to be sure her nails were glittered and painted green and her hair was done up in a green-bedazzled do.

Today, especially, my daughter talks about her other family, the one overseas. It’s a romantic notion and my daughter is beautiful and kind and if ever there were smiling Irish eyes worthy of song, she has them.

Still.

“You’re American,” my husband and I say.

We want her to understand that, to feel the pride of that.

“Poopers,” she says.

She’s probably right, as usual.

The things is, the Irish part of my daughter, the one she likes to cling to, is complicated, and in many ways as much an illusion as that thing with St. Pat and the snakes. I was adopted, which means my sense of my own personal history lasts about as long as a gumball. My husband’s father’s parents came from Ireland, sure, but neither I nor my daughter ever knew them.

Maybe it’s because I was adopted. Maybe it’s because my idea of family and loyalty and personal history can be loaded into a very small and precious box. But the truth is, I want my children to love the identities they were born into, which means I want them to hold on to who they really are, not an idea of roots that have no real hold in their lives.

I know. My daughter’s right. I’m ruining the party. And today is all about the party — the green beer, shamrock G-strings, the green face paint that will cling to eyebrows for weeks, the cars parked crooked for miles at the AOH, all those broken bottles strewn on streets everywhere.

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“Teach me some Irish,” my daughter said this morning.

I know a couple words — not from family, but from friends and from working for the airlines and flying in and out of Shannon for years.

I teach her “craic.”

Fun.

I teach her “slainte.”

Health.

I teach her “firinne.”

Truth.

I say the words like they’re that universal language — wishes.

Which of  course they are.

Stuff I Like: Hosho McCreesh’s “A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst,” Margaritas, Taco Recipes, Bukowski, Bar Stories, and The Grace of Something Well Done

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2014 at 1:21 am

So my friend, Hosho McCreesh, is celebrating his swell poetry collection, “A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst” (Available from Artistically Declined Press) this month by doing a whistle-stop blog tour.

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He was kind enough to stop by here to answer some questions about his book, the state of poetry, his first love (painting or poetry), what makes for a good boat drink, and just what’s in Los Tacos de Hosho.

hosho book cover

“A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst” is a sweeping collection that is, on the surface, about booze and bars and drinking a lot, something the speakers in Hosho’s poems know something about. But what’s beneath the surface is what counts. The people in these sly, funny, often heartbreaking poems know that a bar is never just a bar, a drink is never just a drink. These are poems about being human, the heartbreak and joy and horror of all that. McCreesh – like Joseph Mitchell (see McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon), John Fante (Brotherhood of the Grape), and of course Charles Bukowski – knows that the truth comes up when illusions of control come down.

And get this:  as part of his blog tour, Hosho’s giving away a DrunkSkull Survival Kit ($50 worth of fabulous prizes!).

The Kit will include:
-a copy of the book
-a recycled wine-bottle glass with the DrunkSkull logo on it
-a jar of Fiery Gardens Artisan Jams & Jellies,
-a DrunkSkull fridge magnet,
-some stickers
-temporary tattoos
-a coaster
-a patch

Seriously. Look:

hosho skull kit

Go here to enter.

And now, Hosho…

***

LJ: The great West Coast poet Gerald Locklin likes to say if poetry were easy, every guy in the bar would be Bukowski. What do you think about that?

H: I absolutely agree. Poetry. Writing. Living period. To do anything with style and with grace there must be a unique combination of talent, approach, zeitgeist, and even then you have to sit down and do the work. And while everyone in the bar might have a story to tell, and might even be interesting, and have a unique approach to life…not every person sitting can write anymore than they could all remember trivia, shoot pool, or juggle. And even if they worked at it, it wouldn’t necessarily all come together for them. And even if they did have it once, it might not stay. And so it goes. If we’re serious about how we’re spending our time, if we’re using our lives to chase our dreams, then we do the best we can as we follow our hearts — writing what we’re moved to write, and hopefully someone somewhere gets what we were after. Lots of poetry is written. Lots of people call themselves poets or writers or painters or musicians. That’s great. I think there is real value in devoting our time to artistic pursuits. But do the work. Sacrifice for it. Finish that novel. And when you’re done, do all you can to get it in front of people. That’s the best we can do.

LJ: Your poems are beautiful narrative straight-talks at a time when a lot of other American poets are going the other way. Why? Who are your influences and what do you love about them?

H: I am not really sure why I write what I write. I suppose it’s to stay true to the experience of my waking life. These days I don’t think much about if or how my work is different from other work out there, mainly because it’s not productive in the long run.

LJ: It seems every day some critic proclaims American poetry dead. That prediction usually comes with some commentary that American poets tend to be obscure, to emphasize language-for-the-sake-of-language, or to navel-gaze at the expense of readers. What makes poetry come alive for you? What do you think poetry has to say to a general American audience today? In short, does poetry matter anymore – why or why not?

H: It’s always impossible to know why we are where we are when it comes to American poetry. I think the same people that proclaim poetry is dead are the ones who insist Bukowski wasn’t much of a poet. I think it’s true that, to the average American — poetry is almost always useless. Until they need words to express something they can’t express themselves — say at a funeral or a wedding. Then they Google “poetic shit to say” or some variation of that.

We’ve spent so much time teaching classics, and doing so by simply saying “this is poetry…go forth and appreciate it” that all but the most determined readers have said, “no thanks.” I do think a lot of poetry is written that is self-loving, self-important, self-involved pap, language for the sake of language — and that certainly doesn’t help. The only upshot is that I’ll often hear people describe something (besides poetry) as “poetry” — and they always use the term in a way that, to my mind, speaks to what it is in poetry that we need. It’s that’s the style, beauty, and grace of something well done. If anything, poetry at least still has that!

I can’t say I blame most readers — who don’t care about poetry, because the poetry they’ve been exposed to says nothing to them. If we accept more as poetry, them maybe the value of poetry will grow. Maybe not. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Poets will write poetry. And maybe it’ll be read — maybe it won’t. But that’s no reason not to write it.

LJ: Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you write? If so, who is it? Who do you want to read your poems and why?

H: My ideal reader would be a curious reader — the kind that re-reads, and tries to study how a thing is written. But short of that, I want readers who have known and felt the things I write about — and, when they read the work, feel like I’ve told the truth. Christopher Cunningham and I used to say how we wanted our writing to “save one guy.” I think what we came to find was that we were the guys being saved…so it’s all gravy after that.

LJ:  Favorite poem/quote/inspirational magnet on your fridge or above your workspace?

Some Bukowski, a Saroyan quote, a Plato quote, this by Hubert Selby, Jr.:

A list of indignities

Birth

Death

This by Henry Miller:

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

henry miller

And the imaginary movie poster for the film HELLBENT ON REVENGE…a movie my buddy & I want to write about how New Edition reunited to take down Bin Laden.

LJ: How do you know a poem-moment when you see it? In other words, what makes you take out your notebook? What is it that draws your attention in the world?

If I remember it long enough to get it down, that’s usually the indication I need. If I see something, and it just stays with me — I think about it a bit, and then whatever it means to me starts to come together. Some times I’ll think about a line or subject or poem for years before I actually get it to work. If I remember it, I’ll write about it eventually.

LJ: Favorite boat drink. Go:

First and foremost — the definition of boat drinks. Jimmy Buffet aside, I think of “boat drinks” as the kind of thing you’d make special accommodations for, picking up extra ingredients not normally on hand, etc.

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So, if I’m shooting the works, and trying to really make a special cocktail — it’s either a Bloody Mary, a Tom Collins, or maybe an Old Fashioned. If a margarita is considered a boat drink — then it’s a margarita…though, try as we may, we’ve been unable to reproduce the terrific house margaritas (rocks, salt) from Casa de Benavidez. If you ever find yourself in ABQ, do yourself a favor and get yourself a carafe. You’ll thank me.

LJ: There’s the stereotype of writers and alcohol, of course. What do you think about that?

I think it’s fantastic. I think we suffer through some bad writing from drunks who can’t actually write because of it…but it’s hard to blame the booze. Writing can go wrong so many ways. In a crazy kind of way, I enjoy misconceptions about writing and writers. If we were ONLY drunks, we’d never get anything written. And if we only sat around trying to write, we’d have precious little to say.

LJ: Let’s talk artistic temperaments. You’re also a great visual artist. How does your visual art inform your poems and vice versa? If you had to choose between your art-loves, which would you choose and why?

Ugh — how to choose? These days, the pure enjoyment of creation I get from writing is hard to top. I don’t paint enough to keep the blades sharp, and, as a result, I think I struggle a little more to get the work done. If I was retired, and had equal time to devote to each, I couldn’t pick. Right now, writing has the edge because I can take my work with me, and do it on my lunch hour. Here’s a painting I like very much, though:

hosho painting

LJ:  Speaking of choosing between loves, can you talk a little about how you balance your writing/art lives with your family life? How do you navigate between the writer’s/artist’s need to be alone to work and the beautiful, necessary, insistent, imposing, everyday pull of the world?

There is absolutely no balance. Life wins, life takes all it can — and takes as much as it wants. Which is fine. Kids are only kids for a short time.  Work takes 40hrs a week; Sitting in fucking traffic takes another 5 or so. Cooking something, eating, grabbing a beer with friends, catching the occasional game — there’s never enough time for anything…not life and not art.

And so it shall remain until culturally we value art — writing, painting, music, etc — as something more than an ugly commodity. I don’t see America suddenly caring about art more than it does right now…in fact, it seems we care less and less as time goes by.

And to live an artistic life is to be at the very least misunderstood and, in the worst case, actually reviled as a do-nothing lay-about. We haven’t bothered to teach ourselves why art matters, and — not understanding art — it’s generally ignored. Of course, lots of bad art hasn’t helped. But bad art is infinitely better than good business…as a way to utterly waste our lives.

The truth is, we write when we can — accomplish things when we do…and it’s nothing short of a miracle. And the average joe thinks that, because we aren’t paid for the work, it has no value. Then again, the average joe thinks reality TV is compelling.

LJ: Describe your writing space.

H: I tend to write on my lunch hour, and after work…grab what time I can on weekends. The space is whatever quiet spot I can grab…often the back of my car at lunch. On weekends, and after work I like to unwind and tinker on the computer while in bed. I have a terrific writing room in my house. But as I don’t really live at my house, it sits there, filled with all my books, and assorted little messes.

hosho writing space

LJ: Where’s your favorite reading spot? (Mine’s the bathtub. I was very excited to learn that there’s actually a national Read-in-the-Tub day.)

H: Bed; the backseat of the car; the bathroom; occasionally the tub. It’s hard for me to find a good spot outside — the New Mexico sun is punishing. I used to take a train to work and I loved reading and writing on it. I saw Amtrak might offer occasional seats on trains to writers — that is an amazing idea. Kudos to them if they actually do it. May all American industry take note!

LJ: What are you reading now?

H: Just finished Tony O’Neill’s Sick City; I’ve got John Sayles’ Dillinger in Hollywood half done next to the bed; Studs Terkel’s Working at work for motivation on long, hard days. Re-reading On the Road.

LJ:  What’s on your to-read list?

H: Dave Newman’s Two Small Birds; Willy Vlautin’s The Free and Becky Schumejda’s Waiting Tables at the Dead End Diner are probably next. And have felt like reading Bukowski’s Hollywood again. And there’s always a few small press folks with new stuff out — so I grab that up as time/money allows. In terms of my big boy reading, this year I’m gonna try to really tackle Analyzing Prose and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

LJ:  What’s on your to-drink list?

H: Dear god…all of it? I named the hardback copies after all the things I usually drink. But drinks are, to me, a seasonal thing: Summer drinks, winter drinks, fall drinks, etc. — so it’s always changing. Then, too, I get caught in eras or periods where I want the same thing over and over. Been on a horsekick-of-a-local-brew lately called Luna de Los Muertos Stout by Tractor Brewing Co. — 9.2%, I’m telling you, it gets it done! I’m loopy after a couple…which is saying something! But my lifelong sentimental favorites are Guinness, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Jameson, tequila, gin, and/or vodka drinks.

LJ: Since we’ve (and your poems) talked a lot about drinking, it makes sense we should eat something. Favorite recipe?

H: It would have to be a taco I invented — Los Tacos de Hosho:

A flash-grilled soft corn tortilla stuffed with carne adovada (usually pork in a red chile sauce); smothered with my aunt’s chile con queso; fresh chopped white onion; + a squirt of Sriarcha. They are very bad for you, and worth every damn bit of it! Take a couple with some Spanish rice and your favorite Mexican beer, and that’s one fine meal! But making it anywhere but New Mexico is probably tough sledding — as you just won’t find all the necessary ingredients. Guess you, Dave, and the kiddos will have to make your way to NM someday, and I’ll make you some.

LJ: Best bit of advice anyone’s ever given you about writing or living or both.

H: During some of the harder years, a good friend of mine used to say “Everything’s gonna be fine…even if it’s not.” Life makes it hard to remember the sage-like advice we’ve amassed throughout our lives…but this has been a steady and constant refrain for me…and it’s always helped. And always will.

I also find tremendous comfort in the idea that someday the sun will devour everything we humans have done — save the Gold Record and few pieces of junk we’ve shot out into the void. It reminds me how small my problems are, and how useless toil is…how important happiness, day to day, becomes, how important it is to live and dream and love and not worry so goddamned much.

Didion says “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” So to hell with any story that has us suffering needlessly. Let’s tell ourselves the best and most impossibly happy stories instead. That is a much more serene and euphoric enjoyable lie.

Hosho McCreesh is currently writing and painting in the gypsum and caliche badlands of the American Southwest. He has work appearing widely in print, audio, and online. Books available from Alternating Current, Artistically Declined Press, Bottle of Smoke Press, Mary Celeste Press, sunnyoutside, and Orange Alert Press.

 

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