NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.126 | November 28, 2007
John Bennett: Murmurs and Shards by Norbert Blei
It’s almost a square-shaped chapbook, unusual in size, about 7 by 8 inches (plus or minus) stuffed in my small library of stacked wooden crates (floor to ceiling) here in this old chicken coop where I work. The chaps are packed tightly in rows, folded stapled bindings sans titles. Some I almost know by color, by sight…covers faded, tattered. This is a working writer’s library-at-hand of good friends (mostly never met), good words, good work. A personal collection of special, small press books I have a history with and keep near. Touchstones of a sort. Probably no one within miles and miles of this place ever heard of any of these books and writers. A reminder that the literary world, the literary life belongs to these writers too. The un-Oprahed, unlisted, un-academically acclaimed. “Authentic” is a word that comes to mind.
I pull the chaps out of the crates for almost any reason and at almost any time of year. Spring, summer, fall especially, when I can sit on the bench outside the coop, take a break, sip a cup of coffee (once upon a time, smoke a pipe) and just dwell in the quiet of the woods, the knowledge of lake water within walking distance, and the words, images, ideas, memories of a writer and his work—often an old, small press friend I may have lost track of through the years.
The faded gray cover of John Bennett’s chapbook, ANARCHISTIC MURMURS from a High Mountain Valley, alas has seen better days. I handle it like an old sea scroll. The flimsy cover has finally separated from the staple binding. The corners are bent, There’s a slight tear on both front and back. The fuchsia-colored mountain range (wrap-around cover image) however, still speaks as loud and in unison with the title. On the bottom of the back cover one finds: VAGABOND CHAPBOOK #1 $1.00 Inside the front cover I discover the chap was published in 1975. It goes back to then. Anarchy, mountains, valleys, murmurs and more. The pages are pure pulp, turning brown, fading fast. The words, though, still highly readable. The miracle of mimeograph printing (the high-tech of those, our times). Everyman his own printer. Small press printing at its affordable best—which Bennett practiced with a passion. A book pleasurable enough to sift through at any time. Murmuring still:
THE WAY LIFE GOES
Take this for the truth: the ground is wet and the leaves are green and the man next door drives a big truck. The cup on the desk you used to drink beer out of once in a land called Germany (when you were young and foolish) now holds dust, spiders and the stubs of your pencils. But don’t panic. Just take a deep breath and try to realize that this is the way life goes.
I remember when I first read that. l always liked it. Begin with a line “Take this for the truth” and who knows where it will take you—writer or reader. I have memorable mugs all over my own desk and windowsills, filled with dust, spiders, moths, marbles, mouse turds, colored pencils, paint brushes, broken pipes, pencil stubs, dead flowers, dry ballpoint pens… this is the way life goes…
FORGET ABOUT THE HARVEST
The trick is not to let anything begin to take shape. The moment it takes shape or even gives an indication of taking shape, rip it apart. Rip it out by the roots in your head and run the plow through one more time. Even if you’re out there on the plow day and night, under the sun and under the moon, keep at it. Forget about the harvest. There will be no harvest. Just keep your plow going. Back and forth, back and forth for the rest of your days. There is no sense in figuring any of it out, because there is nothing to be figured out. What you figure out you make up, and that’s where all the trouble starts.
A good murmur for a writer to lend heart to, repeatedly.
There’s a temptation to print everything by Bennett within reach of me. Acquainting the reader with yet another mostly unknown, unheralded underground writer of note. Back to the 60’s…back to the time he edited his own movin’ little mag, VAGABOND. Back to the 70’s, when he printed a number of his stories (“Zabrinski’s Finest Hour,” “The Night of the Great Butcher,” among them) in Curt Johnson’s ‘big’ little/literary mag, december. The late 80’s into the 90’s I lose track…Both a lot going on and nothing going on. For many of us still working the sidelines, a sort of fog seemed to seep in, everybody disappeared or disappearing to some degree, some pulling back; some settling into the onslaught of age and health; some maybe a little lost, fed up, wandering through unfinished works and thoughts of what might-have-been but wasn’t, never will be. None of us know the other’s whole story, true or false. But most everyone continued the journey, struggled with the world one way or another. Bennett, at last count, has some 38 books to his name, yet damn few know his name—outside the small press world.
It started for Bennett with murmurs (ANARCHISTIC MURMURS)…and now, in these our contemporary times, I can say with authority and (the sound of my own two hands clapping): he’s still around. Never really left. A little older, angrier, wiser. A little more worse for wear, physically—if I read the dark health reports clearly between his lines. He’s still at his outpost—Ellensburg, WA. And it’s just harder an harder to find writers like him these days of everybody reading-the-same-book-some celebrity-tells-you-to read while the real writers out there, men and women of integrity, are continually ignored, dismissed, made invisible.
As I see it, taking the long view, Bennett’s now turned his old heart “Murmurs” into these brilliant “Shards” which he calls them. Shards that keep surfacing from somewhere deep within a lifetime of work, reading, writing, observation. These philosophical, poetic sharp shards, which he keeps picking and polishing and publishing…laying them down one at a time on the internet—for those who can find them, those willing to take the time to read the real stuff.
THE ONE TRUE REALITY
The artist strives to recreate his reality minute by minute, that’s the consensus of a school of thinkers who make it their business to stay on top of things. This is news to the artists who are too busy doing it to think about it.
The thinkers are disturbed by what they perceive as this nonchalance on the part of artists and their anarchistic tendency to jack reality around on a whim. They spend a lot of time establishing schools for the artists to be trained in, in order to enhance their understanding of their proper place in the order of things. The thinkers see themselves as guardians of The One True Reality, and the artists who fall in line are awarded with titles and recognition and generous creation grants; their art is then exhibited, their music played, and their books published. Artists who rebel against the thinkers are labeled irrelevant, and measures are taken to prevent their deviant creations from coming off the blocks.
I probably shouldn’t be saying this out in the open, because once the guardians of The One True Reality get wind of it, they’ll put their enormous Uniformity Machine in gear and set up a whole new network of screening schools, but I’ll say it anyway: I think the driving force in true artists goes deeper than an urge to create new realities for themselves; I don’t think they’re realities at all, I think they’re maneuvers and ploys, attempts to suck up and transform the misnomered One True Reality and its Uniformity Machine into a booming world of trumpets and drum rolls, undulations of undiminishing ecstasy and rapture, bright blended color, ceaseless motion that flows so harmoniously it appears to stand still.
I think true artists are the angels at the core of things, and they’re out to get us.
ANCESTORS & PROGENY
Limited derangement. Hobnobbed estrangement. Ancestral echoes rumbling through my blood like thunder. Who are these people? What have they left me to deal with what I have no choice but to deal with?
I was born disassociated and there’s nothing left to hang on to. Bring on your elections, your church-going multitudes, your wise investments and your slaughter-house wars. I walk through it all as if it were mist.
It’s no better with progeny. I’m a glitch in an eternal continuum. I’ll make do with small moments of kindness and soft fingers that now-and-then brush my cheek.
SOMETIMES IT ALL COMES TOGETHER AT ONCE AND HOLDING HANDS LIKE A GANGLY BUNCH OF SKELETONS, DANCES AROUND THE MAY POLE…
Driving along yesterday between window jobs I got a cell call from a good friend who years ago I used to drink with. I almost wrote party with, but we didn’t party, we drank, and then we went crazy. People keep waiting for me to do the romantic thing and die young in a car crash or from a drug overdose or from a bullet through the crown of my skull as I shimmied down a drain pipe from the second story window of another man’s wife, but I kept on keeping on and got older and people lost interest.
My friend had concern in his voice. “You doing okay?” he asked
“Fine,” I said. “How about you?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I was just wondering about you.”
I figured it was the Shards. I get that concern from a number of close friends, some I’ve had to take off the list they get so upset.
I think most of what’s wrong with the world comes from people spending too much time with each other. Spend enough time alone (and I may be talking more time than you can possibly imagine) and a you that has nothing to do with the you that hangs out with people (in churches, at dances, in sports arenas, the Cub Scouts, the army, marching bands, the bars, your living room) begins to surface. I’ve been spending large amounts of time alone since I was a small child, and that’s the me who writes Shards,
This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to having both of me in the same place at the same time, not that that’s a good thing.
If you meet a writer who is exactly like what he writes, he’s an imposter.
I asked John for a little bio to include in this piece. I asked him to talk about the Shards. Like many a writer who had reached a certain stage in life—he was through with bio. No thanks. There’s enough truth and bullshit out there. Go figure. Let the work speak for itself. And, like many a writer who’s always a work in progress, it’s impossible to talk about the work without revealing the writer behind it.
“I think they [the Shards] came to me. With the wisdom of hindsight, I see now that the seed for Shards was there from early on, and this seed got planted and broke ground back in the mid-60s when I broke free of the desire to be published in big-name magazines, the day I sat down with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a pen and a legal pad and in one afternoon smashed out the story “The Night of the Great Butcher”. When I’d finished that first draft, I knew with a deep certainty that I had written something true and for the first time in my own voice. Butcher was my first published story, in Curt Johnson’s, December; Curt’s acceptance letter (I didn’t know him from Adam at the time) consisted of: Goddam! The story that makes the issue always comes in at the last minute!
“There was an outpouring of stories after that, lots of poems and a novel or two, but over time I began to experience a sense of being “hemmed in”. The next significant breakthrough came when I took a road trip around America in 1982 and kept a journal that turned into Tripping in America. As with the story “The Night of the Great Butcher”, Tripping unleashed a torrential outpouring, and in two years I wrote non-stop in the same vein as Tripping (writing anchored in actual experience with wild spins into fantasy and conjecture). Included in this outpouring were the books Flying to Cambodia and Crime of the Century, the trilogy Survival Song, and numerous shorter works of 10, 20 and 30 pages, including The White Paper Series. What it all had in common was a “theme” that motivated the writing.
“And then the bottom fell out for me big time, and I wrote nothing for two years. When I finally brought the typewriter (remember typewriters?) down off the shelf, I found myself writing journalism, much of it for the local paper and one piece, Dead Dylan in the Summer of Love that got published in The Clinton Street Quarterly and won me the Darrell Bob Houston Award, sponsored by the Seattle Weekly. The journalism was like a fighter who’s been out of the ring for a long time working out in the gym to get back in shape.
“Then, in the mid-90s, I took a trip to Belize, and something happened, I don’t know what, but after I got back I woke up one morning with the words The Ghost of Tokyo Rose going around in my head, I sat down at the typewriter and began to write. I thought I was writing a book, and I wrote several hundred furious pages in a week before I realized that what I was doing was taking dictation. There were voices in my head and they were completely unfettered and said whatever they damn well pleased.
“For the past fifteen years I’ve been a stenographer. The Shards come out without premeditation or warning. I don’t think about them before I write them, and I don’t think about them afterward. I’m not trying to create a “body of work”. I don’t have an eye on the future, on making it, on being accepted. I just write them down as they come with a ballpoint on legal pads and transfer them onto my computer afterwards. It’s a wonderful feeling. I think it is the feeling that should always accompany an act of creation.
“The Shards have found their way into a number of chapbook collections and every now and then someone like yourself expresses an interest in gathering some of them together and presenting them to a nebulous audience. I’m all for it. But how they get “out there” to begin with is through my e-mail address list, a hundred or so intrepid souls upon whom Shards rain down out of cyber space almost daily. Shards are right at home in this cyber-space, lightning-fast world. Who woulda thunk it. Me, the King of the Mimeo Revolution (according to Booklist), zinging around through cyberspace like a gooney bird.”
To join John’s mailing list of intrepid ‘shard’ souls, contact him at daslebenatfairpointdotnet and to read more about him, purchase his work, etc. check this website here…
For an encore, here’s a recent Shard to sum-up the John Bennett story— so far.
I served my country. Fought the good fight. Valor and “Can do, sir! Yes sir! No excuse, sir!”
Lock and load and open fire. No child left behind, draft the lot of them.
So now I qualify for V.A. medical. Last time in my doctor apologized for not catching my aneurysms a year earlier. I told him not to sweat it, he has enough on his mind, and anyhow, how is he supposed to detect an aneurysm from a man’s blood pressure and pulse rate in an annual check up? Hell, nine times out of ten they miss them with CAT scans.
I like my V.A. doctor. He’s a P.A., actually, a Physician’s Assistant. He was special forces, dropped out, went to med school. He’s a young wired black belt who reads books. When I went in for my initiation into the system five years ago he was passing by as the in-take nurse weighed me in, and he picked up on my plucky, flirtatious banter. “I’ll take him,” he said, and snatched my file out of the nurse’s hand. The place was crawling with WWII and Korean vets who were overweight, disillusioned and sporting serious alcohol problems. I was a breath of fresh air. We spent most of the first session talking books.
Today I filled out a ten-page “how are we doing” questionnaire from the V.A. I gave everything to do with cleanliness, courtesy and quality care an excellent, but then the questions began shifting, and suddenly it was all about me. They began digging around to see if I had a drug problem. And if I was mentally disturbed. I sat back, lit a cigarette, and pondered whether to go on or toss the whole thing in the round file. Out of curiosity, I went on.
I haven’t had a drink in 22 years, and my drug problem amounts to cigarettes and coffee. Where it got interesting is when I got to the questions around depression and anxiety. It made me think of ten years earlier when things were so bad I sat the entire day for days on end staring out the window over a cup of cold coffee. Sleep was impossible except in snatches, and I dropped forty pounds in two weeks. It finally got so bad I went to a counselor.
She was a foxy little thing, the counselor, and right off the bat she put me on Zoloft. She told me I was at the patriarchal stage of life and should assume that role, then I’d feel better. She referred to the books I’ve written as articles. I lasted four weekly meetings with her, and then one morning I found myself on a ridge at sunrise, dancing like a dervish and finally crying out, “They’re stealing my fire!”
After that I began exercising like a demon, forced myself to write and to play music, and got downright Spartan in all aspects of my life. Eventually, the blackness lifted.
If I’d answered truthfully every question on that questionnaire that probed for depression and anxiety, I’d have been batting 1000 and they probably would have hauled me in for observation. So I toned down my answers to make me look like a run-of-the-mill vet mired in melancholy.
When I told the counselor I’d flushed the Zoloft down the toilet, she told me I was in danger of spontaneous suicide.
“Is there any other kind?” I said.
She said it wasn’t a laughing matter.
I said, “Well maybe you’ll find this funny—I’m flushing you down the toilet, too.”
She sat up straight and her eyes went cold. In slow, measured tones she said: “I can have you committed, you know.”
“You don’t want to open that can of worms,” I said, and walked out.
I’d rather be a gored matador lying face down in the hot sand than turn myself over to these soul crushers.
A murmur is invisible, sounding some continual question.
A shard has some history, an ancient piece of a greater whole waiting to be discovered beneath the surface of things.
Transformation. Propagation through time, destruction.
A smoothening of the edges.
A sharpening of our story.