Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sorry it's been over a week since the last post. Strange things have been happening and I haven't been able to get to a computer with Internet. But I'm very excited about the next few weeks. We've got some great poetry and short stories coming up. Bill Blackolive, James Nowland and Christopher Robin to name a few, plus other non-ULA writers.

It's about time to wind down our FILF coverage. This week's report comes from Edna Million. Edna's one of the best young writers around and it's a pleasure to have her on here. Check out some more of her writing at her website,

Edna Million and FILF

I first found out about the Underground Literary Alliance because of my stint on the Perpetual Motion Roadshow in September of 2003. Now, the Perpetual Motion Roadshow is in no way affiliated with the ULA, but there are many ULA writers who have toured with the Roadshow. One of my tourmates was Fred Wright (aka Wred Fright), and he was already part of the ULA way back then. I guess he told them about me, and must have had nice things to say, because soon after I got back from the tour, I received a letter from Karl Wenclas, asking if I'd like to join the ranks of the ULA. He warned me of things - that the ULA makes some enemies because they are very upfront about their opinions of the mainstream literary world. I joined up, anyway. Maybe it comes from my punk rock background, but I've always thought that if a group like that is pissing people off, they must be doing SOMETHING right.

Like I said, going on the Perpetual Motion Roadshow got me connected to the ULA. Part of the reason I was attracted to the Roadshow in the first place was the description of it as "a traveling carnival of words." That's why, when Jim Munro asked us to come up with our own taglines for the tour, I pegged myself as "Jessica Disobedience, the bizarre and freakish zinester from Chicago." There was a carnival element to the Roadshow, and so it only makes sense that there would be a bit of that in the ULA, as well; that all three things would turn out to be connected, and everything would come full circle.

When Fred asked me to participate in the F Independent Literary Festival in Cleveland, I immediately made sure my schedule was clear for the weekend of July 7. It had been a long, long time since I'd done a reading, and I felt the need to get my words back out into the world, again. I wrote a lot in 2005, but didn't do much of anything with the writing, just let it sit and collect dust on my desk, or take up space on my computer's hard drive. The time had come to throw my words out amongst people again, to stop babying them, to let them fend for themselves. I was also looking forward to seeing Fred, again - he became almost like a big brother to me, when we were on tour with the Roadshow, and I hadn't seen him since then - and I was looking forward to meeting people I'd been communicating with over the past few years, such as Pat King.

I couldn't make it to Cleveland for the first day of the festival, on Thursday the sixth. Cleveland is a long drive straight from Milwaukee, so Sam (who joined me as my travel companion and official photographer) and I crashed in Chicago on Thursday night, and after a properly greasy diner breakfast on Friday morning, headed off toward Cleveland. (Slowing down along the way, of course, to give the finger to the Museum of Science and Industry, which was closed to the public that day because Dubya decided he wanted to spend his birthday there. "It makes sense," I said, "he needs to learn about things like how the human body works and how airplanes are operated.")

We arrived at bela dubby, the cafe where the Friday night event was being held, about 45 minutes after it started. I thought we were going to arrive fifteen minutes EARLY, but when we crossed the border into Ohio, I remembered that I had to flip my clock ahead one hour. Whoops. It turned out okay, although I missed Pat's reading that night, which I was bummed about. When we got there, Eric "Jellyboy" Broomfield was halfway through his reading. I didn't know who he was prior to that night, had never heard of him (ssshhh, don't tell him that!), but was immediately intrigued. His story, which I didn't catch all of, had something to do with getting kicked out of a show for being a clown. And there was a banner behind him, with a painting of himself on it, one half of his face with a leering clownface painted on, holding a cane; the other half, with no make-up, but grinning and holding a drill. Yes, definitely intriguing.

Crazy Carl Robinson was next; I'd met him years before, he was the opening act for our Roadshow stop in Cleveland, and I was curious as to what he'd pull out of his sleeve. He did a one-card tarot reading for everyone in the audience. Each person drew a card, and then he interpreted them. I drew the Queen of Pentacles, which in his interpretation means that I am a strong woman, but a touch melancholy. I think that's fairly apt.

During the intermission, Sam and I went outside to smoke. We met Fred's wife, Claudine, and she hugged us and told us how glad she was we were going to be staying at her house. The three of us smoked cigarettes and talked about tattoos and the New York Dolls, and then Frank Walsh came galloping outside and set off firecrackers in the middle of the road. I was a bit jittery - out-of-it from driving all day, nervous about my performance, and also feeling odd because everyone else there had been drinking beer all evening, and I was still completely sober. But as I watched Frank jumping up and down, laughing madly, as smoke and sparks poured down the streets of Lakewood, past the bowling alley with the flickering fuchsia sign, as smoke curled up toward the steelblue sky; and as I watched everyone who was still inside talking and drinking coffee and beer; and saw Pat lean up against the brick wall of the building and light his cigarette with a match, I knew it was going to be a good weekend.

Jack McGuane was next, the poet laureate of Lakewood, Ohio. He's not a ULA member, but he is a wonderful poet - his poems are about simple moments of everyday life, with a touch of oldman romantic cynicism. His speaking voice is gruff and commanding. He was a welcome addition to the troupe.

Then Frank read his politically conscious soundpoems, including one about the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, and I think maybe I'm not intellectual enough to get the full meaning of his work, but I did enjoy listening to them. The way that, even when the words didn't make sense to me, the sounds still did.

And then it was my turn, and I was nervous, but I channeled that energy into the stories, and I think it worked. The first story I read was a story about kids smoking angeldust-and-marijuana joints dipped in embalming fluid and returning from their flights with the memories of dead people. I heard gasps during the story, and one guy clasped his hand to his chest and said "Oh, Jesus." Later, a woman named April told me that when Sam took a picture of me during the performance, she thought the camera flash was lightning, that I had somehow brought lightning into the room. I believe that is one of the best compliments I've ever gotten - to hear that I cast a sort of spell over the audience. My second story was a short one, not quite as intense as the first, but a favorite of mine - a tale of the end of the heyday of the American Traveling Circus, and the carnival barkers being being forced to live in a secluded retirement community. That cast a spell, too, at least on Jellyboy. After the evening's performances were over, he bowed to me and told me my stories were perfect, and then he said: "We're not dead, you know." I wasn't sure what he meant, but then he proceeded to swallow a sword and then snap a mousetrap on his tongue, and I figured it out. That was the moment things came full circle, the whole connection between the circus and the ULA and the Perpetual Motion Roadshow. Have I ever told you that I don't believe in coincidence?

Fred was the finale of Friday night's events. He read from his rock'n'roll novel, "The Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus," which I became quite familiar with when we toured together - and it is still, to this day, one of the funniest stories I have ever read. The kind of thing that you should not read on public transportation, because you will laugh out loud, and everyone will turn to stare at you.

It was discovered that Sam and I weren't the only ones staying at Fred and Claudine's place. Frank and Pat and Jelly had stayed at another house the night before, but got kicked out because I guess a concerned parent in the neighborhood didn't like Jelly waving his sword around in front of the children. So they were to be staying at Fred's for the rest of the weekend. Sam and I went to get a quick bite to eat, while everyone else went to buy beer and wine, and then we all met back at the house for an afterparty of sorts. Time for me to end my sobriety. April even joined us; the more the merrier.

It was a wonderful night. It's not often I get to sit around a big table with a bunch of writers and artists, everyone drinking wine or beer, talking about Life, Art, Music. And then Jelly accosted me in the kitchen and we talked about Circus, and he said to me: "Would you like to learn the human blockhead trick?"

"Why, of course," I replied.

"First, I have to teach you the Carny Code."

He told me the Code, which I can not repeat here under penalty of death (!), and besides a true showman doesn't reveal her secrets to just anyone, but I nearly wept tears of joy as he told me the Code, and then as he taught me how to stick a nail into my nose, because by teaching me these things, he was saying that I was worthy of the knowledge. And with that knowledge, I transformed from simply a carnival/circus aficionado, to a real live Carny. (The trick was a success, by the way - soon, everyone was snapping photographs of the two of us with nails up our noses.)
And then there was more drinking and talking, and those off us who do those sorts of things stepped out to the backyard to share cigarettes and other smokeable treats. April told me I was like "The Debbie Harry of poetry" (which was a nice thing to hear, but I'd like to think of myself as more akin to, say, Patti Smith, or at least Joan Jett!); and then she told me I was brave to work with the guys from the ULA. I wasn't quite sure what that meant. "You mean, cos the ULA has lots of enemies?" I asked.

"No," she said, "these guys are just so. . .strange."

I laughed, and responded: "Most of my favorite people are strange. I'm pretty strange, myself."

Saturday morning, we all woke up and sat around the dining room table once again, listening to The Replacements while eating waffles and drinking coffee. I love waking up in houses full of people.

Sam and I had to part ways from the rest of the crew for a few hours. We had to drive into Cleveland so I could make photocopies, and we wanted to make a stop at a comic store. Our tattoo artist here in Milwaukee requested we bring him a present from Cleveland, something "Howard the Duck" related. (You know - "Cleve-land. That WOULD be the name of this planet.") When we returned, there was a cookout going on. Along with those of us who had stayed at Claudine and Fred's the night before, Crazy Carl was there, and Adam Hardin, and Elias from "Bad Touch" zine, and members of a couple of the bands that were going to be playing that night - Kill the Hippies and The Dad of Rock. And there was plenty of beer and salad and hot dogs or veggie burgers for everyone.

About an hour before we were supposed to be at Pat's In the Flats, there was a mad scramble for the bathroom. Jelly took up a lot of time in there, putting his clownface on. Seeing that made me miss clowning; I told him how I have clown training, did some clowning when I was a preteen/young teenager, how I've even performed at the Clown Museum in Delavan, Wisconsin. (That's the great thing about Wisconsin - you can say whatever you want about how much it sucks, but there certainly is a lot of circus history here.) I told him that I'd like to get back into clowning, but I'd have to come up with a new clown persona, because the one I had when I was younger was named Pumpkin, and was much too sweet for the kind of thing I'm going for, now. "Well, you should come up with a new one," he said. "Yes," I said, "I think I will."

When we got to Pat's, I was already feeling good. The nervousness I'd had the night before was all gone. I was psyched to perform, and, well, I'd taken a Xanax before we left Fred's house. The edges of everything blurred a little. Don't get me wrong, I was still fully functional at this point, just giddy, and the quality of light looked softer than normal.

Pat's In the Flats is a great place, a dive bar/rock club in the industrial part of Cleveland. It's been around in some form or other since the 1930s. Back then, men who worked in the factories would go there to get their lunch. And, since its conversion to a rock club (sometime in the '70s, I believe, but don't quote me on this), a lot of kickass bands have played there. Sam got us whiskey&Cokes, and I scuttled into the dingy bathroom to do a costume change from the jeans & t-shirt I'd been wearing all day to a skirt and strapless top. I also put on bright red lipstick, and when I was putting on mascara, I got the impulse to darken my eyebrows. I've had this thing, lately, with darkening my eyebrows for the purposes of photographs and performances. When I make facial expressions, my eyebrows are a large part of that, so I think that if my eyebrows are exaggerated, it shows up better. When I emerged from the bathroom, Frank said: "You like great! You're like a. . .cheerleader of the apocalypse!" Now, that is a description of myself I would use for publicity.
While others were busy setting up the sound system, I sat and assembled copies of my zines. I had a moment of realizing how god damn lucky I am. Because of the zines I've done over the years - zines which I've lost money on, and which many people have considered a fool's errand from the beginning - because of my zines, I have met so many amazing people. (Not to mention all the action they've gotten me. Ha!)

Show time drew closer, and I grew giddier, the adrenaline and Xanax now mixed with whiskey.

"Man," I said, "I feel lame. I don't have any props. Just my stories."

"I don't have any props, either," Pat said.

"Let's think of it this way," I said, "our stories are good enough that they can stand on their own. We don't NEED props."

The show was terrific. Fred did an excellent job of pairing up bands with writers; it was one of those magical nights were everything just clicks, and you feel like you're creating something much, much bigger than yourself. Particular standouts for me? Crazy Carl with Kill the Hippies - they rocked out punked-up versions of old spirituals. And Jellyboy the Clown with The Dad of Rock. Jelly chased Frank (in disguise as the Evil Professor something-or-other) around the stage, Frank set something on fire, there was sword-swallowing, and I even got to be Jelly's lovely assistant for the mousetrap trick.

My set went so well. The stories and poems I shared that night were about love - my romantic, twisted, tragic take on love. Humphry Clinker played music as I spun my words into the smoky bar air. I felt like a Beat poet, the way the music flowed with the words and then, before I knew it, my words went with the rhythm of the music. (S. told me, later, that he talked with Pat - not Pat King, but Pat the owner of the club - and she said I was her favorite of the night.) Between my stories, Humphry Clinker played their songs, and they fucking rocked. They deserve big kisses for helping my tales come to life.
At one point during my set, I looked out at the crowd, and it all seemed so right - Derek DePrator, rocknroll guitarist, in drag. Punks and clowns and poets. The best minds of my generation, and other generations, indeed - all with a touch of madness, but not destroyed by it. "Angelheaded hipsters," and those "expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull," and those who "danced on broken wineglasses barefoot." Allen Ginsberg woulda been proud.

Pat King's set with Tripolar Faction came after mine; and that went wonderfully, too. I love Pat's stories - dark, and intelligent without being at all pretentious.
And I kept drinking, chugging whiskey; by the time we were all leaving, I was thoroughly fucked up. On the car ride to Fred's, with the moonlight streaming blue and cold through the windows and making all of us shine, someone requested that I sing a Tom Waits song. I belted out "Cold Water," followed by other Tom songs, and then I recited a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem. Well, I did warn them - once you get me started, I don't stop.

Back at the house, the drinks continued to flow. There's a lot I don't remember of that night. From what I do remember, it seems I was still in performance mode - I scared the shit out of Jelly by shoving a kitchen knife down my throat. I did yoga in the driveway; and Jelly and I danced on broken wineglasses barefoot. There are other things I remember, but I'd rather not get into them, here. (Ahem.) I drank too much wine, and the last thing I remember is puking in the front yard with Jelly holding my hair back; then he and Pat carrying me into the house. See, these are the kind of folks that are in the ULA - not only are they great writers, they're good people. They open their homes to strangers, and they'll take care of you if you get sick from drinking too much.

When I woke up the next morning, my neck and face were covered in lipstick and clown make-up. There were bits of gravel embedded in my shoulder, and a pack of cigarettes in my underwear.

After a couple more hours of hanging out and coffee-drinking, everyone had to be on their way. There were hugs, and promises to keep in touch. I hate saying goodbye. It seems, sometimes, that I've spent most of my life making new friends while on the road, and then having to say goodbye to them.

But since my return home, I have received an invite from the Philadelphia faction. I'm going out there in August, to be part of Carnivolution, and to do a reading at a gallery.

Final conclusion? Cleveland does, in fact, rock. And so does the ULA.

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