Sunday, October 2, 2011

sketches from pittsburgh

I haven't updated this blog in ages. These are sketches from a recent trip to Pittsburgh, along with some recent(ish) artsies and, because it was playing in the car, a song by Rufus Wainwright:


The factory is solid blue. Clouds rolls like butter from the smoke stacks. The windows are fogged yellow. I can't see inside, but imagine the factory full of cartoon rabbits. The rabbits have pink eyes. They are not human-rabbits. They are rabbit-rabbits.

"Industry makes this city beautiful," says the writer at the artist collective across from the factory. The writer is published. His book is called Black Holes, but is mostly about deer; still, people think black holes are the main problem because they're always sucking up things, namely deer. Deer are disappearing at an alarming rate. Soon they will be extinct.

What people don't say is that most deer walk willingly into the black holes. They know the deer do this, but pretend they don't because they can't imagine why a beautiful animal with long legs and brown eyes would want to disappear.

The black holes are not in outer space. They are in the banks of the Allegheny River. The black holes are steel pipes. Before walking into a pipe, a deer will look back at the person watching them, who is always you.

Every deer looks back.


I'm drawing ghost dogs again.
I haven't drawn them in ages. I thought I had forgotten them, but no, there's a lolling tongue, the sound of panting.
White, Steamboat Willy eyes.
Long shadows.
No legs.

I was 8 years old when I saw Old Yeller die. In fourth grade, I read about two coon hounds whose intestines were torn out by a mountain lion. The boy they belonged to--who belonged to them--buried the dogs together. A red fern grew between their graves.

Where I'm from, there's a lot of space. There are a million malls and radio towers and computers. I'm connected to everything, especially my dead dog.

No, really, I am. There's an underground wire connecting me to to Shrimpy, the border collie that bit off my dad's thumb. My dad was upset because he couldn't play his 1954 Martin Guitar thumbless . He said Shrimpy had rabies, so we took him to the vet. The vet said "put him to sleep."
This means kill.

After killing Shrimpy, we buried him under the holly tree in our backyard. The earth was webbed with little white roots. One of the roots caught me by the wrist. It buried itself in the vein where, if I concentrate, I can feel my pulse.

I feel Shrimpy's pulse too, if the rain is hard enough. If the trees are bare enough. If my guitar isn't tuned.

The ghost dog on my paper has a speech bubble. The bubble says "woof."


In the tree where hipsters tie their bikes, a sparrow puffs his chest, shakes water from his wings, then looks me in the eye as if to say "Well, haven't you gone soft with your open-back dress and peppermint tea?"

Rain falls with the specific random of pointillism, rippling dots under the heels of Hepburnian women passing quickly under their umbrellas. The cafe is a warm, well-lit place.

I miss the anonymity of the city. The man at the other table has long curling lashes that scan paper where, with long curling hands, he sketches cats. The cats have long curling tails.

Sometimes the man looks at me. Sometimes I look back.
When i leave the cafe, I will never see him again.

Thank God!


Driving back, we stop to let a train pass. It's almost morning. Flashing lights outline the freight, piles of dirt barely visible over the box cars.

The dirt is coal. Coal is dirt that used to be trees. When the trees died, they were buried under tar and dinosaurs and woolly mammoths. The pressure from the tar and dead animals turned the trees to dirt.

One day, a human accidentally set the dirt on fire. The dirt burned and burned. The human used the dirt to heat his house and cook his deer. Later, humans used the dirt to generate electricity. They dug past the tar and dead animals and pulled up the trees that weren't yet coal to get to the trees that were coal.

Graffiti covers the train, red and orange ghosts with electric blue outlines. Written on the caboose is a wobbly sentence:

This isn't fun anymore


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A story in less than 500 words: "How did these Olives Get Like This?"

The hot tub had 242 jets. Tame, lazy whirlpools churned water blue as the cover on my dad’s Jimmy Buffet record. Jacob’s dad--tan, gold chains reflecting in his glass funnel, something I later learned was a grail for $8 drinks—nodded vaguely from his bubbling throne as we went inside.

Air conditioning swooshed my hair. My house didn’t have air conditioning.

“This is my dad’s big screen,” Jacob pressed one button on a hundred-button remote. We watched Angry Beavers as his mom talked to the dog in the kitchen.

“Who’s a good Rascal? Do you want a treat? Does Rascal want a treat? Jacob,” his mom stuck her cotton-candy head into the living room. “Ask your friend if she wants to meet Rascal.”

I smelled the dog before I saw him, cartoon stink waves with alternating squiggles of Toilet and Bologna. His mom carried a wriggling dreadlock into the living room and--- with the smile of someone showing off a particularly new, particularly profound piece of art---plopped it between us.

The smell intensified. I started breathing through my mouth.

“This is Rascal,” explained Jacob.

The dreadlock sneezed. I put my hand on what I thought was a head but was probably an anus.

Jacob glowed. “Do you have a dog?”

“Cat.” I moved my hand away. Paws gummed my thighs. With all the curiosity and determination of a once-a-year aunt, the dreadlock launched a harrowing invasion of my personal space. A cold nose smeared my skin as—horror of horrors! —a tongue slithered from a wet orifice and painted my face with slugs.

Before leaving home, my mom told me to “behave, because they’re not like the people on our block.” She hand washed my Lion King sippy cup before putting it on a rack to dry. “They’re not our people.”

I didn’t know who Our People were, or if I was even one of them, just that it was very hard to behave, was in fact impossible, with slugs staining my face. I slapped the dog.

Jacob’s mom made a sound like a balloon filling very quickly. Jacob stared at me in a combination of horror and what I imagined was admiration for a display of violence usually reserved for loud, grown-up movies that played in other rooms.

Slugs dribbled from my chin.

“I'm calling your mother” His mom’s voice was soft, evil.

I ran.

The door didn't slam, rather chimed behind me. Everything smelled like shitty bologna. Gasping for breath, I dunked my head in the hot tub.

242 jets bubbled dully. The water was hotter than I expected, but I stayed under, eyes squinting as I compressed myself to a single drop, tiny, invisible.

When I surfaced my head was steaming. Jacob’s dad tapped his glass funnel:

“How did these olives get like this?"

Friday, August 26, 2011

After the witch sucked out my bones, I traveled all over looking for branches to replace them.

Sometimes I traveled with other people. Often I traveled alone.
I had been traveling alone for a while
when I came across a cow (a "cow" is a female elephant)
crying. Her eyes were dry, the tears--great, fat drops
the size of sparrows--falling instead

from her ears. Her ears were not elephant ears;

rather, elephant-shaped
human ears. While deaf to the paw falls
of lions, they were finely tuned

to heartbreak. When I was a kid, or more of one, I wondered
why elephant tears were so special. Watching the cow wipe her ear
with her trunk, balancing a tear like a penny wobbling
tails-down, I saw that the tear was special

not because of it's extraordinary way of falling
from her ear, but because of its ordinary way
of falling at music from a passing car, soft, fleeting---

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Poem: El Cambio

El Cambio

Viva Gitano, you say, Living Gypsy, and the taste

of Turkish coffee has never been so strong, cups boiling

as our fledgling necks stretch

over the edge. Pájarita, the roof will always be hot.

Beneath our spitting tongues streetlights hum

with dog throats, out-of tune instruments barking

birds that burst rainbow sand, a city where everything

is music. Somewhere, a bottle breaks,

and the lawn chair acrobats roll

their smokesweatsalt into papers so thin they could be dying

leaves. The only tree in our concrete

hookah camp is a browning hand, over-ripe thumbs uncurling

like the fist of God. Rumi sang about a religion

my parents didn’t belong to, and I swallowed

his magic lanterns until fireflies

rattled my wrists, bones blooming not with seasonal

bulbs but with a single banana tree whose undying

leaves were never smoked. A yellow page swooshed

me to the rooftop, attic stairs rotting to New England

mulch, a front porch. Ivy League graffiti scrawled

Change; I memorized which way was East.

Dog throats sing without mouths, walking

flutes puffing musicartphilosophies that rise

over the rooftops, a grape leaf unfolding. You give

me a piece of paper: El Cambio:

As I wrote this sentence, someone threw a chair

into the street.


look out the window and listen to this song:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

black horses

I painted a horse skeleton on a slice of tree.
Spiders poured out of the wood. I hate spiders but love horses so I sucked in my skin and slopped on the Burnt Sienna.

The oil paints were skinny and wet. I suggest acrylics.

I'm designing tattoos for friends while postponing my own. I want the bone of my left forearm tattooed on my...left forearm.

The image means a lot to me, but the absolute Thingyness of it comes from Thoreau's Walden:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life..."

bone sketch. Photo by Shelby Ursu

I want to wake up and see my marrow. I want to remember that I'm dying.

Another bone sketch. Photo by Shelby Ursu.

Supporting this Thingyness are lyrics from The Antler's song "Two":

There was glass in my feet and raining down from the ceiling
it opened up the scars that had just finished healing
it tore apart the canyon running down your femur
(i thought that it was beautiful, it made me a believer)

The song is from Hospice, a record I still write about because the time of my life when I listened to it never ended; I changed, but the feeling was folded into my marrow. Communicating this experience has been the main objective of my creative work, and will be for a long time.

In Soviet Russia, bone sketches you! Photo by Shelby Ursu.

As usual, what's stopping me from getting a tattoo is the damns people give. Tattoos are the new statement T-shirts. I'm afraid of seeming fescious.

Then there's the generation of people I see only on Christmas and Easter, the ones whose parents brought home Slinkeys and who were already in graduate school when Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire. I love these people dearly. That said, getting a tattoo for them can mean only two things: (1) A pledge to the Black Panthers, the KKK, or the U.S. Navy, or (2) A way of upsetting your poor grandmother.

I don't know if I'll get the tattoo. I'll decide tomorrow, or the next week, or two years from now. As long as my furniture is ugly and my music is good I don't mind waiting. I quoted this song earlier, but in the words of a fictional Bob Dylan, "A poem is a naked person; a song is something that walks."

Two by The Antlers (Excuse the background babble, but the live version really is the more beautiful) :

Friday, July 15, 2011

"That's not writing. That's typing."

I still write about hospital bands chafing your skinny trees, the forest in your marrow, a winter--oh my god it's winter for a year----the song plays as I steal your ipod cable, an exercise in futility because, my dear, they all look alike.

Every house is the same, every headlight; every poem is a cat in the window licking the milk, I mean words, I mean agonized butterflies from her paws. "I will now talk about kittens" is the name of a post-structural poem, but I will not talk about it now.

I will now talk about New York.

The city is imaginary: 47,000 more dollars would have gotten me into art school, but no one pities the bourgeois. I knew I couldn't afford it--not in real life--but the city was always imaginary.

I live in an imaginary skull. The skull is wired to white, imaginary hands typing imaginary words for imaginary critics. Their reviews:


"The word bourgeois genrefies."

"That's not writing. That's typing."

To the first: undoubtably.

To the second: maybe, but I had to type "bugwise" into the Google search bar before knowing how to spell the word.

As for Mr. Capote, the high-pitched lisp from the last row: Your prose is tucked in the mustard tweed of your Imaginary City. Looking over my shoulder, Breakfast at Tiffanys is an overcoat scribble on the side of the road. I walk into the desert, and every book rewrites itself in my voice.

We all write about deserts. Negative space intrigues us. Beauty is two bell curves almost kissing. Statistics sing haikus from skinny trees---

Here I want circularity. Here insert your hands, two hospital bands corseting bone forests; but, like an extra i-pod cable, this falling apart has no explanation, only a cold wind in summer, I mean hot winter, I mean song--

Saturday, June 25, 2011

In Which Noting is Solved and I Keep Writing

"You were going crazy and calling it genius - I was going to ruin and calling it anything that came to hand."

-F. Scott Fitzgerald to Zelda

I worry about white noise, particularly in my manuscript. I worry that my faith in myself is a false construction and that my revelations are as meaningless as the communist conspiracies of a schizophrenic.
I worry that I offended someone with the word "schizophrenic."
I worry that I worry too much.

I'm striving for perfection in my own right, and that's hard, not because it makes me alone, but because my perfection is my worst critic. She's a nazi bitch who hates the word "nazi" because nazis are cliche. On good days she compares me to J.D. Salinger at age 8. On bad days, a fat Sylvia Plath.

My story's perfect. My story doesn't worry me. What worries me is the way I'm telling it. As much as I read and am jealous of writers in The New Yorker, there's an emotional distance in their sprawling prose that I don't want to imitate. Yes, their work is brilliant. Yes, it is literary--and therein lies the trap.

How do you do a story justice without distancing your reader? How do you dissect your heart without arousing "Heart? What heart? Do writers have hearts?"

no heart here, yo.

I'm dissecting as honestly as possible, using the right word over the word that will send readers to the dictionary (like Papa said, big words don't mean big emotions). But is that enough? Isn't a book---by its very nature---pretentious?

my jar of words

Alright, then, suppose I change the medium. Suppose I make a movie (read: not a "film").

Movies are less pretentious. You don't even have to know how to read. All you do is open your eyes and ears--though, these days, even that seems like too much to ask ( you can't enjoy Casablanca from the screen of an iPhone)

I'll leave the movies to the beautiful and the pocket-sized.

Besides, I don't trust actors.

This was a pretty pathetic monologue in which nothing was solved. The only resolution is one I knew from the onset: I need to keep writing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Coyote and the Giant: a retelling in rainbows (short story)

This original story is based on the Navajo legend Coyote and The Giant, and is illustrated by my paintings :)


Old Woman cradles a Styrofoam cup. "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere," says Coyote. "I'm wandering."
People and animals churn around them in black currents, clumps of Geese and Young Women laughing with loud, unsympathetic mouths. Coyote flattens his ears. They might as well be blind. "The city is a whirlpool--all roads lead in." He licks his paw and tastes poison.

Across the street Fox smiles from behind a booth of knock-off purses. Her smile broadens as she pretends not to see Snake eyeing her diamond bag like a fat mouse. Which it might be, thinks Coyote, knowing Fox.

"Snake is always looking for something to eat," says Old Woman. "But what happens when there is nothing left? What will he eat then?"
"Himself," says Coyote.

Old Woman slumps against the steel door. In winter the steel is very cold. Coyote steals what blankets he can from the Young Women and Geese, but it is never enough. There is no sun in the City.

A feather--small and black as poison-- falls on Coyote's nose. He follows the Ravens circling above with hungry eyes and does not see Dog walking his Man. The Man barks at Old Woman. Her hand shakes. Coins chim-chammer on the pavement.
"Can't you get a muzzle for that thing?" Coyote calls after Dog.
"Sorry," says Dog. "He's an aggressive breed."
Ravens drop like stones. "Ours, ours, it's all ours!" Their voices boil.
"Stay away!" snarls Coyote. "These are not your coins. Why don't you steal from the Young Women or Geese? They have more than enough."
"We are Geese," say the Ravens. "We can't steal from our own."
"You are not Geese," says Coyote. "You have no tribe but your own greed."
"We are Geese, we are Geese!" Wheeling at Coyote's teeth, they fly and are lost in the mountains, or sky scrapers. Once Coyote could tell the difference between the two, but now the only one who knows for sure is Old Woman.


Coyote noses the coins into the cup. "They're no better than Snake."
"Coyote," says Old Woman. "You have done me a great favor. They say you are a trickster and a thief, but I know your eyes are clear. As a reward for helping me, I am going to tell you a secret about the city."

Coyote's ears swivel. Coins bore him, but secrets are special. He likes to feel secrets beating against his heart like fireflies. When he closes his eyes he can see them glowing. "What's the secret?"

"There is a road that leads out of the City. It is a secret road. Follow the road and you will come to a Giant." Old Woman straightens her back. "It is the Giant that is making us blind," she says. "The Giant has a black poison inside of him. Because the Giant is so big, every time his heart beats, a stream bursts from the ground. The streams flow into the city. It is because of the black poison in the streams that the people and animals are going blind."

"I will kill the Giant," says Coyote. "Then there will be no poison, and no blindness. Where's the road?"

Old Woman stands up and breathes on the door. The door swings open as if pushed by a strong blowing wind. "This way."

Coyote steps through the doorway. He hears the Ravens cawing behind but does not look back. You can't see where you're going if you look back.


There is no sign of the City, or of Old Woman. The door disappeared at the brush of his tail. Floating in the sky is a very large, very round coin. The coin makes the road glow.

Moon, thinks Coyote.

The sand shines like Snake's eyes. Coyote crunches the desert between his paws. The grains break his skin but he does not care. The City made his paws soft. Now they will be hard again.

The desert is flat except for one mountain at the end of the road. Coyote's eyes burn; he looks up and sees his heart, secrets spilling across the sky and pulsing with a whiteness different from the blind whiteness of the City. With the secrets the air is colder, the blood on his paws more red. He can taste the red by looking at it. It tastes like knives.

"Grruff." Coyote trips. He was thinking about secrets and did not see the bone on the road. "What's this?" he says. "A bone? I will take it and use it like a knife against the Giant."

When Coyote reaches the mountain, the desert is very quiet. He listens for a Raven or a barking Man but hears only his heartbeat. Or is it the sky? Panting around the bone in his mouth, he walks into the mountain.

He had been walking for a little while when he hears Old Woman's voice.
"What are you doing with that bone?"


Coyote puts down the bone. "I'll use the bone to kill the Giant," he says. "I followed the road like you told me. Now I'll find the giant and kill him."

"You are already inside of him." Old Woman's eyes shine like moons. "He must have tricked you into thinking his mouth was a tunnel. Now that you are inside you cannot get back out."

Lying around her are people and animals. Their eyes glaze with rainbow blackness. Geese bend over Young Women with mouths half-open, necks twisting around each other and around other animals. Coyote recognizes Fox and Snake. Snake has his own tail in his mouth and is sitting very still.

"What's wrong with them?" says Coyote.

"You have been gone a long time," says Old Woman.

"This is the City?" Coyote looks away from Dog and his Man. Dog has the Man's arm in his mouth. "Where is the steel?"

The old woman points at the colored blackness of a Raven's eye. "In rainbows."

"The City is the Giant," says Coyote. "You said the road led outside the City but you lied. All roads lead to the City."

"Coyote," says Old Woman. "I told you my secret because of your clear eyes. Look around you. You are in the belly of a giant. You have at your feet a bone and a City full of people and animals who are starving because they cannot chew poison. What will you do?"

"I know what to do," says Coyote. "The Giant's blood is poison but his fat is healthy and will make them strong." He picks up the bone and stabs the tunnel wall.


The tunnel--belly, thinks Coyote, I'm in the Giant's belly--rumbles. A screaming shakes the softly glowing darkness. Fat oozes through the hole in the wall, first as a trickle, then as a steady stream. Coyote feeds the fat to the people and animals. Their eyes blink clear. "Where are we?"

"You are in a City that is also a Giant," says Coyote. "Eat the fat, but do not touch the blood; it is black and full of rainbows that will make you blind." He looks into their eyes and remembers the desert. "I 'm going to find the heart of the Giant and stab it so that it will stop pumping poison. The pain will make the Giant open his mouth. When you see his mouth open, run out and do not look back. You can't see where you're going if you look back." Coyote picks up the bone and runs deeps into the tunnel.

The walls thump. There's no light, no secrets to guide him, only the chalky taste of bone and the screaming of the Giant.


The heart is a steel horse bending to kiss the ground. With every giant breath, poison bursts from the horse's mouth. Like vomit, thinks Coyote. The horse is vomiting.

Coyote grips the bone in his jaws and leaps at the horse's throat. The bone sinks into the steel. Poison sprays in Coyote's face. The poison smells like fire, black rainbows matting his fur into dreadlocks that stick and burn.

The screaming becomes louder until there is no mountain or Giant or sky outside the giant, just a scream with Coyote inside, body swinging from bone with eyes wide open.


People and animals whisper in the desert. "Where is he? Where is Coyote?"
"Be quiet," says Old Woman. "He is on a long journey but will be here soon."
"Is he dead?" says a Child. Old Woman does not know what to say. There weren't any Children before.

They stare into the sky and tell secrets. The mountain is gone, sand-swallowed, and the desert is again flat. "What's that?" The Child points. A light bobs on the horizon .
Old Woman squints. "I told you he was coming."

Secrets fall from Coyote's paws, stepping stones that flare before dropping in the sand. The Child picks them up. "Yum."

Coyote leaps to the ground. The bone is heavy in his mouth. He digs a hole in the sand, drops the bone in the hole, and covering it with the displaced sand says "The poison is gone. The bone is ours to eat."

Antlers spring from the sand. A giant elk skeleton crawls from the bone, marrow flowering vines that sprout antler trees thick as mountains. People and animals grow from the mountains, and a city grows from the animals and people.

Lights wink like secrets as Coyote licks his paws. Yes, he thinks. That is a mountain, and those are the sky scrapers. He walks back into the desert. I can see the difference.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Voice

"i could have been a famous singer
if i had someone else's voice---
but failure's
sounded better."

-Conor Oberst, Road to Joy

I saw Bright Eyes live, cried and sucked out the marrow.

Conor Oberst is a barbed-wire swan. His voice is raw, irreplicable. Seeing him live, I swayed in a sea of skinny jean wallflowers. Some guy had a joint. Some guy had beer. Some guy had a Kurt Vonnegut tattoo:

"Everything was Beautiful. Nothing Hurt."

"A Romantic Enters the World"
Richard Stine

I've listened to Road to Joy a thousand times--under my blankets, running on a treadmill, outside watching birds fight and make love-- but i didn't understand it until hearing it rib-ripped from Conor:

i could have been a famous singer if i had someone else's voice
but failure's always sounded better

Imagine telling Conor Oberst to elongate his vowels. I'd just as soon tell Jack Kerouac to use a comma. Splice Hemingway's prose with adjectives. Straighten Van Gogh's brush strokes. Un-gay David Sedaris.

A Reading from the Book of Salinger:

“An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's.

For me, this means submitting to magazines without worrying that I might not be selected for the next Norton Anthology. There's a confidence that comes from knowing you've poured your blood, sweat, and semen (or whatever) into your work. Anyone seeing your empty husk will respect you.

Some may express their respect in the form of a very sincere rejection letter.

This is okay.

Fuck them.

If you died a little writing it, it's perfect. If you died a lot---you're mostly dead.
Suck out the marrow, but always leave some for another poem.
No one else has your voice.