Welcome to the non-fiction section of the Gloom Cupboard, temporarily edited by yours truly, Alan Garvey. There’s a right grab-bag of writings selected for you, from the lives of ordinary people – take your pick: sobriety is under the microscope for an estimation of its worth, there’s a piece examining attitudes towards breast cancer and those who are enduring its effects, we also have the first published piece by a new author detailing some of the worst things she’s ever seen, heard, and done, and an interview with Australian poet and cartoonist Mark Niehus. Enjoy.
Chasing Honesty – Is Sobriety Overrated? – Lavinia Ludlow
Rehab is all the rage. Intervention’s been on for ten seasons so some sadistic schmuck’s watching and religiously DVRing it.
Okay, it’s me. And when they have weekend marathons, I choose that over an outing with my band mates to Chuck E. Cheese (what does that “E” stand for?), and you have no idea just how much I can pwn on skee-ball.
I wholly admit that it makes me feel better about myself when I watch the fuckups on this show falling from grace in the most self-depreciating of ways. Don’t shake your judgment-passing head at me, I know for a fact that I am not the only one who watches it specifically for this reason. I’m quite certain that the popularity is due to the fact that functional addicts feel a shitload better about themselves when they watch extreme addicts selling sex, stealing from family, slothing on couches, mooching off disability and unemployment, being negligent to babies. Baby negligence, that’s the utmost atrocity, right?
There are some of us though, that levitate right above rock bottom. Though some of us may wake up every morning with a hangover, spend more on CRV tax than charitable donations, maybe we’ve even been arrested one or thrice for things like public intoxication and/or trespassing, on the contrary, we go to work, have a savings account, we visit our parents and drink responsibly and aren’t dicks to our landlords and maybe even some of us own a house and feed the kids on a consistent basis. It’s not the “ideal” American Dream, but the system that we have seems to be working.
Which brings me to my next point: to me, Intervention is unparalleled entertainment (but only during the first forty minutes). I change the channel or fast-forward right before they get into the intervention activities like the confrontation and rehab, anything signifying the show’s manipulating the addict toward a future of sobriety. Like buying a house or getting married, I am whole-heartedly not ready to mow the lawn or buy furnishings or have some guy around all the damn time, in my bed, in my business, splitting chores, living with the pressures to have a kid, for the record, I am years away from wanting/having a kid so step off dickhole, I am not ready to have a fucking kid. I digress, but like all my commitment-phobia toward buying a house and getting married, I am not ready to get sober.
In my defense, when I’m loaded, I don’t stumble into stupid shenanigans like unconscious sex, shanking fights, jail, I never DWI. I’m actually a really sweet and gracious drunk:
“You want me to cover the tab? Sure!”
“You need a ride from West Sacramento, California to Ocean City, Maryland? You got it!”
“I don’t know you, and you haven’t read any of my work or my debut novel alt.punk, but you see that I was published once by an indie press so you want me to read the 800,000 word four part sci-fi saga that you’re pitching to micropresses, you want me to blurb it and commit to writing the first review? Abso-fucking-lutely!”
To break it down, about 40% of the time I am social drinking, and yeah, there’s that saying “you don’t have to drink to have fun.” Bullshit. If I pay for tickets and go to a Sharks’ playoff game, hell yeah I’m going to have a beer in my hand, even if it is for overpriced watered down domestics. Fuck no, am I getting into a mosh pit without first numbing up with well whiskey. Why do you think skee-ball is so damn entertaining? How do you think I can put up with my boyfriend’s Glee addiction? Those DVDs are all over the damn apartment and the show is blasting from either the TV or stereo. That would drive any reasonable person to drink.
The other 60% of my drinking is subject to scrutiny. It’s fucking pathetic to admit, but I write. Song lyrics, shorts, theses for novels just pour out of me. I get my best ideas when I’m toasted, when I don’t know what I’m writing until I wake up and read my scribbles through the debilitating migraine. I keep a tape recorder handy because my penmanship goes to shit (it’s somewhat legible but deciphering it later is like wading through a cesspool for diamonds that may or may not be marketable quality). Yeah, listening to my drunk self is worse than listening to Gary Busey, but those ideas are golden.
Sobriety isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I wrote alt.punk on a combination of narcotics and alcohol. I queried drunk too. I did get clean and sober to edit and get it to print, but immediately after I turned in the final, I fell off the wagon to write my newest manuscript titled Single Stroke Seven (which by the way has just been signed to Casperian Books), and have been hammered nearly every day since giving it that “aged wine” charm. It’s productive artistry, and I guess a secret of mine is you will always know when I’m sober, I get very focused, quiet. I produce nothing new. I become boring. Ordinary. I am my most anal when sober. I think about reality, the ownership of my ass. Lots of things own my ass. My bank. My job. The addiction. Parental damnation. My obsession with taste-good tunes. If only someone got hold of my iTunes “top 25 played.” The horror. And of course, there is the matter of self-hate. That’s a big one. Can’t be a true addict without that.
But it wouldn’t be a well-rounded article without “cons” of my thesis. Yes, I do recognize that I may have in an ever so slight issue on my hands. Sometimes the only thing that keeps me from getting lit in the dead of night is a drive-thru bar, and if securing Vicodin was just as easy as scoring crack rocks, I’d trip through life on a never-ending binge. I occasionally do stupid shit like sit through an entire season of Glee, even finding myself engaged and asking my boyfriend “who’s that girl? Did he used to go out with her? Why is that teacher always beating the shit out of the kids?” When I’m drunk, I sloppily and unintentionally click things on Facebook such as I “like” Sarah Palin and I “maybe” going to my high school reunion.
That’s when my close friends start giving me the lectures. “What’s it going to take? Homelessness? Losing teeth? Getting knocked up? Going (completely) broke? The day you screw with your 401k? Turn thirty? Are featured on Intervention?”
Of course I don’t ever want to be homeless (officially) or turn thirty or become a feature on Intervention. But I only have artistic visions when I’m loaded. At what point must I give up my own identity and culture, in this case, my writing and music for the straight-as-an-arrow path of redemption? If I did go sober, I would lose my artistic side, my friends, probably my job.
Truth is, I am far from being ready to give up my comfort zones, my art, all inherent pieces of my existence, and I’m much less inclined to give up the blissful recreation that I get out of Intervention every Monday night and the occasional Saturday marathon.
So here’s what I’ll commit to at the end of this column: I’ll never drink till I black out (pass out is different), I’ll never do anything too illegal, and I’ll commit to “being there” for my friends who are sober or sobering up, and I’ll support them through relapses and “moments of weakness” with one hand clutching the bottle and the other ready to speed-dial the Intervention producers, whichever kind of support they request.
‘Because the Mistakes Were Already Made for Me’ – Emma Lee
My mother was a 1980’s self-righteous teenage drug addict with a “space case” mother and a father who found the lord and bought a Harley with the money from his worshippers. I do not blame my mother for snorting lines on the backs of toilets at Churchill High School, or stealing tombstones from the University of Oregon Masonic Cemetery and planting them in front of Lenny’s Nosh Bar on campus. She tells me that was the worst thing she ever did. The last time she did meth, she had a gun pointed to her face and the man said, “Gimme the fucking money or I’ll fucking blow a fucking hole through your fucking head”. My mother’s boyfriend, Bill, was also an ex-meth-head divorcee with three “ungrateful, shithead children”. The last time he did meth was when he met my mother. I believe him since he gained forty pounds and is missing most of his molars.
Bill was an alternative high school graduate pothead stuck up in the pits of Fairbanks, Alaska with hobbies of passing out drunk in the snow with his dick out, mid-urination, and stealing bud from his dozing parents. With nothing else to do but drugs and enabling car crashes, he wound up beating the shit out of a drunk man at a bar, permanently turning him into a vegetable. It was a quick jaunt to the local prison, but was not a quick stay. That was the worst thing he ever did, he told Emma.
Emma was a neo-hippie teenage chubster, growing up in politically correct Eugene complaining of zits, but never deciding to wash her face. In third grade she started gaining weight, and after her grandmother told her she was fat, decided to find solace in Cheetos and pointing out how simpleminded her skinnier, twin sister was when report cards came. After her father died, she got used to taking advantage of friends generosity and used it to get Kozy Shack pudding and pity from her teachers. When her sister came out of the closet, she didn’t talk to her for two days. Emma was a liar. In a high school writing class, she decided to share her parent’s most confidential secrets and broadcast them to her classmates. Now she feels even.
‘Pink Ribbons’ – Suzanne Maria Cully
My friend is dying from Breast Cancer. I grew up with her. I had the disease too, but all I lost was my sense of well-being. And my job. Not her– she’s on her way out.
There are petal-pink ribbons in every store and prominently displayed on everything from canned beans to high-end makeup and clothes, touting “Find A CURE!” I asked several salespeople to give me some items with the ribbons attached, so that I could give them to my friend, an actual person, who was suffering from the disease. I said that she’d really love the stuff. It would boost her spirits.
“No can do,” they’d say.
“Oh that’s right, you need to SELL these items. “
“Yes. We just follow the rules.”
I have been watching my young/old friend as her world has gone from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, to just Albuquerque, to just the local stores, to no more stores, to her bed and bathroom, and, now to her bed only. The disease has managed to shrink her world to only that which she can perceive with her head on her pillow. Very soon that will be gone.
But wait—don’t 85% of the women who get breast cancer survive to 10 years? That’s what I was told. My own statistics are a 35% chance of recurrence over the next 6 to 7 years. And since my odds of getting it in the first place were zero, I think 35% is a little too high for comfort.
Nonetheless, my prognosis is good.
The truth is I love my life now. It is peaceful, and easy, and relatively stress-free. I have a beautiful view from my apartment that looks over cottonwood trees to the west, where I get a front-row-center view of some of the most outstanding sunsets in the country. I am home now, about 2500 miles away from Washington DC, where I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. From this vantage point I can see the trials of my cancer treatment led me to a better life, in a better place. But there was one episode during that period of my life which stands out. It was the unexpected loss of my job. It remains one of the more stressful events during a very difficult time for me.
When I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, I was working for an Agency at the Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia. The Agency is one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the United States and I was thrilled to be there. The programs are mostly top secret. In fact no one is allowed in the building without an escort, and even those who have clearances are not allowed on a few of the floors. It is an exciting place to work.
I worked for the Director– a Presidential appointee. Our team’s mandate was to codify the rules by which all efforts of the Agency were to be governed. I was hired as the Task Manager of the small group. We were employed by a business that contracted to several Departments within the Federal Government, and I had the highest ranking position at any of the contract sites nationwide. It was important that I, and the team, perform well, because we were the most visible in the company. The company liked to tout us as the gold standard for their business. I was proud of that.
A very limited number of people that I worked with actually understood the process that we followed to complete our tasks. For this reason my immediate supervisor created a method for detailing our efforts to show how effective we were at getting things done. She created a report that portrayed us with icons. She placed the icons next to tasks in order to visually represent the progress we made, or didn’t make, month by month. There was the sunflower (a co-worker from Kansas), the shaggy dog, (me, because I loved my dogs), and the lotus flower, (she practiced yoga every day). Our titles in front of our spacious offices were “Senior Policy Analyst.” My title also included the words “Task Manager.”
At the top of the report, each of us had an impressive tally of accomplishments. Work was getting done, and we were an effective team. Then, at around the middle of May, the shaggy dog disappeared from the report. When the dog finally showed up again two months later, its tasks were new ones, and listed as “in progress.” Credit for the shaggy dog’s previous work went to the lotus.
During those two months that I was gone I’d had surgery to remove the tumor, and completed my chemo therapy. When I came back to work I wore a wig for a while, until I could no longer stand the headaches that it gave me. Then I wore scarves that matched my suits, and I looked ridiculous.
I remained on the job throughout the period of radiation treatment. I went to a hospital basement every day at noon, for 35 days. I’d return to the office in time to start back to work at one pm. My lunch was only one half hour long. I felt guilty about the extra 15 minutes a day it took for me to do my treatments. I’d close my door and stare out the window. I was unable to sustain any type of concentration, or even to tolerate the noise from the conversations in the office next door.
“Why do they have to speak so loud and so FAST!”
Every one, and everything, exhausted me. At the end of the day, I’d go home and fall on the sofa and sleep. But it was never enough. Sleep couldn’t alleviate this exhaustion.
There was a new Program Manager for the contract working on-site. He was a former Marine drill sergeant. He once told me that the thing he missed the most about being a Marine was that his soldiers would follow him to their death at his command. No arguing and no excuses.
He’d scream encouragement at the staff. He marched instead of walked. His wife was submissive.
After I had two more hospitalizations for complications from my cancer treatment, the screaming-Sergeant decided that the title “Task Manager” would be taken off my door, and placed on the lotus’. He said he had to be able to count on the Task Manager.
The report with the icons was trotted out anew, and it showed the shaggy dog stuck on “in progress,” on fewer and fewer tasks. It was true. I couldn’t think clearly enough to do my job. It required the best I had, and the chemo had reduced that by half. I was not aware of the poor job I was doing. They kept giving my projects to other people. I didn’t know why. I WAS working on them. Creating drafts, just like always, and vetting them with the experts, just like always.
“I had a cyst taken out of my breast and went back to work right away” said one of the secretaries. “It was no big deal.”
You’re right. It was no big deal. Because it wasn’t MALIGNANT!
People, would talk to me and stare at my breasts. Or, groups of people standing at the coffee machine in the kitchen would stop talking when I entered.
There were also the weekly pep talks from the screaming-Sergeant.
“I REALLY WANT YOU TO KNOW I CARE ABOUT YOU! I’VE HAD MY SHARE OF HARDSHIPS! I HAD TO CRAWL THROUGH DEAD BODIES AND SHOOT PEOPLE IN THE CHEST! DID I TELL YOU THAT MY MOTHER HAS BREAST CANCER???”
At least twelve times.
I got to hear the cancer story in everyone’s lives—even when I clearly didn’t want to. Their families, neighbor’s, former employee’s, friend’s, friend of friend’s, neighbor’s cousin’s wife’s friends, etc. After hearing about how most of them had DIED, the people telling me would end the story with a big smile, and say, “You’re lucky! You should feel GOOD about YOUR cancer because you are going to be FINE.”
Or my favorite plea by well-meaning people for an attitude adjustment on my part, was the “we’re-all-going-to-die-someday-anyway-and-heck-you-could-walk-outside-and-get-hit-by-a-bus!” argument.
I had become the poster child for how NOT to do breast cancer. There are two rules that I didn’t follow, but should have:
Rule No. 1. Do not tell anyone you work with that you have it—except for those on a need-to-know basis.
Rule No. 2. Repeat Rule No. 1.
Toward the end of my employment I received an email which informed me that on Friday I had a 4:30 meeting in the screaming- Sergeant’s office. Late Friday afternoon meetings with the program manager are always a little stressful. You know you are going to hear something bad (and really loud); something you will ostensibly need the weekend to think over. Or to cool-off over.
And so it was. I wouldn’t sign the letter of reprimand. Instead I pointed out all of the mistakes he’d made in writing it. He’d used bad grammar, his spelling was atrocious, and the syntax!
“What do you mean when you say this? Explain what that means! How can you say that I missed a deadline that hasn’t even come up yet, hmmmmm? “
But I did spend the weekend thinking about it. I spoke to friends and family members who were lawyers, and human resource professionals. I took notes on what they said. I researched the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I was prepared.
On Monday morning I was back in the screaming-Sergeant’s office. He was prepared too. He had lotus re-write the letter of reprimand over the weekend. I signed it. Then I threatened them, and the company, subtly and politely, with a lawsuit. They were going to have to pay me some cash if they wanted me to go. And they did.
I asked the Sarge what his mother would think about what he was doing. I threatened to call her and tell her what her boy had just done.
For once, he was quiet.
As I left that building for the last time my tired, puffy, hairless tail was wagging. I felt relieved.
Breast cancer ribbons should not be petal pink. They should be royal-purple.
Mark Niehus, poet and cartoonist, in interview with Benjamin Adams.
Last month I met up with South Australian writer Mark Niehus at a cafe in the Adelaide Central Market to chat about creative influences and the meaning of art, making poetry more accessible, and the motivation needed to get your writing out there.
Mark sits across from me, a self-made poet whose work mixes stream of consciousness, beat generation style with strong imagery and an important sense of place. His first book of poems appeared in 2008, titled How Do You Want the Fire to Leave You? Since then, he has been involved in several exhibitions and was a featured author on Australian Reader in October of 2010. Mark has continued to write steadily, producing several zines worth of material since his book, along with visual art in the form of cartoon illustrations and poetry postcards. This element of his work reflects a background in photography and web design, an area in which he was ‘quite career oriented at the time.’
‘I was climbing that ladder. Went to London and got my dream job and was earning good money, but I think it was probably a good place to burn out. It was a strange environment, working in an advertising agency within the design section,’ Mark says. ‘It’s a strange world. People just want to make a lot of money. I understand that. But it wasn’t really for me.’ After about three years, Mark came back home and freelanced. ‘But I had a mortgage so it was a lot of pressure, it was totally up to me to get the work, to pay the bills.’ Living in the city, Mark would come to the Central Market to write as he still does. ‘There’d be phone calls from clients, perfect interjections, just painful. Every time the phone rang I’d get this sickly feeling inside myself and I just couldn’t do it any longer.’
So he did what any good poet would: sold his house, published a book and then went travelling for a year. ‘The launch party for How Do You Want the Fire to Leave You? was basically my farewell party,’ he says. ‘ Just had to get that out into the world before I left.’
Since his return from that trip, Mark has worked shifts in a post office, set hours which allow him to focus much more extensively on writing and the creative process generally. Good poetry, he says, should be written for oneself first and foremost. ‘If you succeed in writing something for yourself that impresses you – when I say impress, it makes you feel good, like you’ve accomplished something, it gives you a high and you feel if someone else had written it you’d really like it – that makes a good poem from a writer’s perspective. Everything that happens after that, any ideas people have about it, that’s their choice.’
More broadly, he says poems that endure are all about relating the human experience, giving readers a sense of identification that makes them feel less alone in the world. ‘All good art should do that to a degree, I think.’ But first people must be willing to engage with the work, something Mark is very aware of. ‘I’ve started thinking about different ways to present writing because people don’t want to pick up a book and read it, really, especially with poetry. I mean, poetry is the hardest thing to try and get someone to be open to as an experience that might be enjoyable. There’s so many stigmas attached to it: over intellectualised, romantic, sentimental, all those words.’
Notoriously low sales figures for poetry across the board would seem to prove that point. But Mark thinks it’s more a matter of people being primarily visual communicators, who may just need an extra lure to get them connected with poetry both on and off the page. ‘That’s the language people operate on mainly I think, so I’m working on visual ways, at the moment. But I’m all over the place. Sometimes I’m working on spoken word music, sometimes an exhibition idea and then just writing here at the Market.’
One of those exhibitions was Intent, which saw Mark’s entire long poem ‘20-1-07’ displayed within the old Queen’s Theatre on a single page stretching from an old typewriter sitting on a desk to a space in the ceiling, alongside works by ten other artists including photography, painting, sculpture and sound. The same poem and set-up was later featured in Big, a Format Collective exhibition at the same venue.
Given the importance of varied mediums in Mark’s work, I ask if there’s a difference between more visual, immediate poetry and other more academic, or intellectualised work. ‘I think the academic world is still a big part of poetry and writing in general. There’s definitely the two camps. You can look back in history and there’s the academic world and the art, rock, punk world, and the two are very separate, and the channels that people take in those two perspectives are very different.’
But underlying whatever subjective or stylistic differences your writing contains, he says, there have to be ideas. ‘If the ideas aren’t there, or if there is no real point, or purpose, or feeling, it doesn’t matter how it’s written, it’s just going to be an empty experience.’
As for getting words on paper, Mark usually writes at the Market before work, and says it’s not something he has to motivate himself to do. ‘Generally I feel a bit of an urgency to leave home at a certain time, it’s like a body clock goes off. Not everyday, but most days.’ He also thinks social interaction is a key influence for stimulating ideas. ‘If you’re around certain types of people they can really aid that process.’
For Mark, the most important of those people is friend and fellow writer Lachlan Pierce. Creative-poetic emails between the two have just begun featuring on Mark’s website. ‘We have this excellent relationship of exchange that’s been going for years. I think it’s really good to have — for a writer particularly, because it’s a bit of a solitary experience — if they can develop relationships with people they can share their writing with, without concern of judgement, and are gonna get applauded for taking a risk rather than knocked down; that kind of relationship can influence you more than anything else.’
When it comes to process, he’s not the kind of poet who spends long hours composing a single piece of work. ‘They usually come out in a solid block,’ Mark says. ‘Like dog food.’ He accompanies this image with the wobbling, sucking noise of jellied meat escaping from an upside down can. Mark laughs when I suggest the work should be considered gourmet dog food, at least. ‘Yeah definitely. There might be a slight bit of editing but I think the form already exists, inside you. This sounds a bit mystical and shit, but if you’re true to the flow and the rhythm that you’re feeling when you’re writing it, and you don’t hesitate or block that, the form’s there, and as soon as you try and change it, it loses whatever was there.’
This on-the-run approach to poetry often leads to a large output, but also to suggestions that such writing is too easy, that a perceived lack of craft equates to a lack of value or depth. Poets like Charles Bukowksi and the Beats have faced similar criticism for more than fifty years. But Mark has a response: ‘The craft, I think — if you do it for long enough — in so-called non-crafted poetry, is actually in the moment of output. If you practice that enough, the craft is in there, it’s happening at the same time, it’s not retrospectively. There’s a lot of considerations as you’re doing it, but it’s all happening very fast.’
It’s this process of internal editing that can sometimes be overlooked, I suggest. Mark agrees, highlighting another visual arts parallel. ‘It’s like the abstract expressionists in the fifties. People look at a Pollock and they go, I could do that. But there’s a lot going on there, a lot had to happen for that to occur, a lot of thought. So yeah, maybe it’s just a misunderstanding about what’s involved.’
Not surprisingly, Mark lists some of his biggest well-known influences as Beat writers like Jack Kerouac. ‘For his poetry more than his prose, although at times they could be the same. He said each paragraph should be a poem.’ Citing ‘October in the Railroad Earth’ as one of his favourite poems, Mark’s admiration for Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style is already clear. ‘He’s definitely a romantic. Sometimes too romantic. But you can’t judge him too harshly for that. The long flowing sentences, pushing the idea right through, further than you would normally, so you can end up relating or drawing parallels more than you thought you could with an idea or a sentence, and I like that.’
The hardest part of writing, for Mark, is setting aside time to submit, submit, submit. It’s something most emerging writers can probably identify with. ‘You have to be diligent. Because if you want to do it and make an educated submission, you have to read the publication, see what their stuff is like, see if you can liken it to something you’ve written, try and pick their taste, choose the right pieces. It’s a minefield.’
But up-and-coming writers take heart, because you’re not alone. ‘So much energy goes into creating the stuff, and I don’t have any motivation problems there. I really enjoy it, it’s never laboursome to write, or come up with a creative idea, it’s addictive if anything. But all those other things, the business end of things,’ Mark pauses, ‘I’m sure most artists struggle with it, some more than me I’m sure. It just depends on what’s important to you, if you really want to get it out there, and that’s probably more and more important to me as I go along.’
Mark has plenty of ideas for getting his work out there. Recently he’s been writing poems on antique pianola scrolls, using the punched holes as starting points for each sentence, typing them up on a manual typewriter and offering the framed copies for sale through online artists marketplace Etsy, along with his book and postcards featuring the semi-autobiographical character, Guff.
He’s also proposing a local version of the American initiative Poem Store, in which writers set up manual typewriters in public locations based on the idea of your subject, your price. Much like the river-poet scene in Richard Linklater’s cult film Before Sunrise, which involves writing made-to-order poems for passers-by, for whatever people feel they’re worth. ‘It’s all on nice paper on a manual typewriter, it’s a nice object to take away. And I’m writing a proposal to try and get venues to do that. I’m hoping here on the Market’s stage where the buskers play.’