Amanda Bales says of her contribution:
My friend Brooke and I met while studying for our MFA degrees in Fairbanks, Alaska.We both come from small communities where people tend to pursue practical occupations, places where our creative selves were viewed askance. Since returning to Oklahoma, I’ve been reflecting on the people who encouraged me creatively, people who set me on the path that lead to Fairbanks and writing and friends like Brooke.
Bio: Amanda Bales received her MFA from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Her work has previously appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Bateau, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the seat of the Cherokee Nation.
So, Oklahoma. Writing about it. Being from it.
Ajem: The Origins of This Writer (if you will)
I loved reading from the time I could do so, but considered the creation of books something that only belonged to well-bred, wealthy people who lived somewhere vaguely north and east of my dry, red prairie.
Then I went (luckily) to college and my Comp I instructor was a gregarious and charismatic young writer who loved language in a way I had never seen anyone love anything other than football.
I remember one lesson in particular, probably because I know I have not, now several years older than he was at the time, produced a lesson half so powerful for my own students.
It was a card trick, maybe even a simple one. I might remember this incorrectly, but it seemed that he named a card, then he asked the class to choose different piles of cards until he held a single card, which was, of course, the card he had told us would be left. He used this trick as an illustration of the deception of free will and self-determinism. We were given so many choices, but only the choices he allowed. He was maybe Red. I think I remember reading Marx for the first time that year.
Other things I remember….he made a class dominated by evangelical Christians discuss the cultural obsession with female virginity….he said “fuck” once or twice….we read excerpts from The Things They Carried and The Lonely Good Company of Books and The Banking Concept of Education….it was the semester I ended a relationship with an older man who wanted me to quit school so I might marry him and “be a minister’s wife.” I think I walked away from this life because Gwyn handed me Beckett and told me to learn French so I could read him in both languages. The fact that someone thought me capable of such a thing was astonighing. Don’t get me wrong, I had a bag full of academic honors and scholarships, but I also had a great many people telling me a woman’s first obligation was to marry and procreate, that intelligence was something I should not trust, that curiosity, particularly female curiosity, was the downfall of all mankind. And yet, for whatever reason, among this cacophony, Mr. Gwynn’s voice became the only one that mattered.
And now I’ll skip ahead, because what happens in-between—relationships good and bad, jobs good and bad, friends made and abandoned—only somewhat matters. Let’s skip 10 years. I’m in Alaska. We’ve known each other for a while. I already had my Summer of the Sad Man Hotel (your Bluegrass Summer). Grady was on his way? A few months old? Time has never been something I’ve handled well. I do know I was in my loft working on a novel, the loft you stayed in for a few days when you first found-out about Grady and then I said something, I don’t know what, and I think you thought I was asking you to leave….anyway, we’ve hashed this out before and all I can ever say is I’m sorry.
On a break from writing, I made some tea and opened a copy of Poets & Writers and saw the name Aaron Gwyn. He had, unknown to me, published a story collection, Dog on the Cross, and would publish a novel, The World Beneath, in a few months.
I would have done what we all do now when curious about people from our past—I would have Googled him. I would have deep-Googled him (he he…dirty). I would have found myself on page 25 reading his high school graduation announcement.
But I had no internet access, so instead I hunted whatever remnants I could find, old journal entries, books he had suggested, essays I’d written for his class. In a box where I keep old notes and letters (yes, yours are there) and other comforts, I found his recommendation letter. It is brief, and describes a girl I no longer am, or will ever be again, but the approval still meant something, and continues to mean something still.
In the following days I returned to the job I hated the relationship that continued to fracture despite, perhaps, both our best efforts to keep it whole. I also ordered the collection and the novel.
You remember that winter. My last winter. January stretched -40 for 2 weeks. At one point, I think it hit -60. Though the light began to return, a thick scum of ice fog took this from us. At the end of each work day I would wipe the grime from my windshield and rinse the filth from my balaclava. It reminded me of Dust Bowl tales.
The day the temperature broke, one of those false-hope days where the temperature seemed warm at -25, I made plans to shower at Katy’s house, but fire engines and police cars and other official-looking vehicles I did not recognize blocked the road. The official -looking people faced The Junk Man’s house. Do you remember that house? The one that couldn’t be seen save the smoke stack, for all the bits and scraps and things piled in front of it? In summers The Junk Man chained his dog atop the hull of an old car and the dog would spend most of his time barking at the people in the McMansions across the street and I loved this man and his dog and that the people in the McMansions could do nothing to remove him or his collection.
I pulled to the side of the road and waited for an official-looking person to wave me through. I saw two men carry what I thought was a body bag, but then dismissed as such, since I had never seen a real body bag, just those in movies and TV crime shows, and in real life I thought they were probably yellow, or were no longer even bags, but some sort of soft-sided boxes. Had you been there, you could have told me it was real.
The road did not clear. I did not shower. That night Katy called to tell me what she had seen on the news and I learned that body bags are still black bags and that one had carried The Junk Man from his collection after his house caught on fire and no one could navigate a way to save him. Fighting a fire in -25 is difficult enough, I guess.
I don’t know why this was the death that struck me. They were common enough up there, especially in the Spring, when snow melt revealed people thought missing; the river coughed-up bodies trapped since October; a banjo player with five children drove his truck out onto the Tannana and pulled the trigger on a life he thought would never feel good again. It is not an easy place in which to stay alive.
And yet, The Junk Man had died. And there I was. There I was writing. Writing everyday. Writing so I could leave the dark and the cold and the ever-present failed relationship. I was trying to write an escape. It was not good work.
And then The Junk Man Died. I stopped writing. It was good that I stopped. The Junk Man had died, burned to death in his remnant fortress. Plans bent on elsewhere for the sake of elsewhere began to reveal themselves as the self-indulgent, privileged wining of a woman who had not recognized a real body bag.
The World Beneath arrived that week. I picked-up Dog on the Cross, which I had read, but had not een able to devote the care and attention deserved because of the background panicked hum of my brain. I think you understand what I mean. I will stop trying to explain.
I wanted to read the stories again. before the novel, understand the genesis and evolution of this author. And also, I admit I wanted to imagine some of these stories being formed in Stillwater, maybe the mornings before he taught my class. It was compelling to think that I had been there then.
The author photo revealed that a tough-looking man had formed from a person I remembered as almost delicate. His prose takes this same strident, masculine form, sparse in a way that brings the good pain. Lee K. Abbot describes it as “fetchingly spare.” This is probably as good as it can be said.
In the structure of these stories I find the same sleight of hand Gwyn displayed in that card trick he performed to gape-mouthed college freshmen, one that leaves the reader feeling grateful, rather than made-the-fool.
His ear for the dialect refuses to skate into hickish exaggeration. This is no hillbilly freakshow Larry-the-Cable-Guy-posed for the tourists.
He tackles religion, masculinity, racism, inequality….He writes of Oklahoma with a love that cleaves—in both senses of the word.
It is the way I want to write of this place. It is, probably, the way we all wish to be loved.
The internet tells me that teaches at UNC Charlotte. I wrote him an email after reading The World Beneath. He did not write back. This is okay.
He is the first author fromOklahomawho ever meant anything to me. What he meant, and continues to mean, is really far too expansive to relate, except maybe to say that when I think of how to write about this place, he is my beginning.
And what of your origins, m’dear? What drove you to poetry from your tiny PA town?
I hope you and Grady are well. I look forward to his first school fight, probably over a Star Trek reference.
All My Best,