Q&A with Humor Editor Sue D. Gelber

the museum is delighted to announce that contributor Sue D. Gelber has joined our editorial team! She will be serving as editor for our new humor section. In this Q&A, Sue shares about her journey to humor writing along with some tips and resources for submitters. You can also check out her recent work in Issue 18.

How did you come to humor writing, and what pieces or writers have influenced your work?

I was in a workshop in Chicago (shout out to Wesley Writers!) and we started each session sharing pieces inspired by a prompt. One week, I had a goofy piece and someone said, “Send it to The New Yorker!” I did. It was promptly rejected. But the editor encouraged me to submit again. And voila! I got an acceptance a mere nine years later.

As for influences, I took classes with Caitlin Kunkel and Brooke Preston through Second City. They heavily shaped my humor writing and helped me as an editor. Instead of just reading a piece and thinking it’s funny (or not), I try to ask “What’s really going on here? What aspects are helping the piece and what ones are working against it?” 

What are you looking for when reading submissions for the museum? Do you have any Dos and Don’ts for submitters?

The piece needs to fit the aesthetic of the publication. If I get a story about a British tourist in Japan, there needs to be some tie to Americana, no matter how funny it is. 

Always get feedback before submitting. Humor, especially conceptual humor, can be tricky, so you need someone to tell you if the piece is landing or not. You can’t fix something if you don’t know what isn’t working.

As for subject matter, I think it’s fine for pieces to be somewhat topical. However, given the lead time for the museum, things that are evergreen are probably better. 

Most importantly, don’t be mean. There’s enough of that in the world. (Unless you’re skewering someone in a position of power who’s behaving badly. In that case, have at ’em.)

How do you define humor writing? Do you see any common misconceptions about the genre? Does/should it have a purpose? 

We most often think of humor as satire or conceptual humor, but fiction and personal essays fall under humor writing as well. Erma Bombeck was writing humorous personal essays before anyone was using the term. She revealed a truth by poking fun at it, which I think is what good humor pieces do. 

What are some good examples of humor writing from the museum and elsewhere that embody the aesthetic? Do you have any good resources for those new to the genre?

I loved the humor pieces from the museum’s animal-themed issue. “Guidance Counselor’s Notes” was a great use of form and made a completely wacky world seem real. “The New Face of Change” took a humorous and nostalgic look at a specific moment in time. “Resemblance” was a great example of a short story based on a funny premise. 

Beyond the museum, I’m a fan of Julie Vick’s work. She really leans into form (such as “William Carlos Williams Poems for Introverts” and “Chopped Narrates Me Cooking a Summer Side Dish”). I also love Riane Konc (“Tips for Writing a Novel”) and Rebecca Saltzman (“Hamlet Hosts A Father’s Day Bruch”), plus so many others that I can’t list them all here. I suggest aspiring funny people read The Belladonna, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Shouts and Murmurs at The New Yorker, Funny Women atThe Rumpus, and Loose Ends in the New York Times (which has been on fire lately). 

For resources, the Second City Training Center offers online classes, including a series on writing satire for the internet. Also, Elissa Bassist teaches a great humor writing class through Catapult in NYC and it’s also available online, so no excuses, people. 

And for reading, sign up for Hyoom, Alex Baia’s newsletter and read his list of mistakes to avoid. Finally, Scott Dikker’s book How to Write Funny is a classic. Happy reading! 

 

~~~

Sue D. Gelber is a New Englander turned Chicagoan now living in Colorado where she writes fiction, humor, and grocery lists. Her work has appeared in several publications including The New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, The Belladonna, The Chicago Tribune, and Weekly Humorist. You can track her down at suedgelber.com or follow her on Twitter at @suegelber.

Emma Guzman Reviews Sarah Potenza’s Road To Rome

Sarah Potenza’s 2019 release Road To Rome offers a formidable artillery of empowering blues and R & B anthems. With help from her husband Ian Crossman (lead guitar, co-writer), as well as friend Justin Wiseman (co-writer), Potenza’s follow-up to 2016’s Monster is a 10-track tour de force. Garnering well-deserved praise from publications such as Rolling Stone, Pop Dust, Billboard, and Glide Magazine, Road To Rome is intense and inspiring, with a vital feminist message: pick yourself right back up when you’re down, be your own person, and own your confidence.

Right away, Potenza asserts her identity as a strong and determined woman. The record kicks off with “I Work For Me,” an ode to the independent spirit. “I don’t need your job I got my own,” she proclaims as she belts out lines about finding success and self-worth in a male-dominated field. This theme continues with “Who Do I Think I Am,” which thunders with pride and faith in the power of writing. She boasts, “things change real fast when a small pen makes a big flash.” It’s the perfect song for anyone who is on the road to self-empowerment, but especially for women who have long been underrepresented in the music industry. The subtle organ and funky beat supply this song with a magnetic quirkiness that makes you want to play it on repeat.

Potenza’s tender ballads show a balance between her raw, emotional talent and her strength and gusto as a performer. Among these softer songs on Road To Rome is “Earthquake,” an emotionally-charged apology song. Her stunning vocals maintain their strength even in this moment of regret. “Worthy” is yet another gorgeous showcase of Potenza’s vocal prowess. “It’s been so hard to feel worthy,” she admits–a feeling that is easy to relate to and hard to say out loud. Road To Rome is the story of a woman who has come far in life’s journey, and these ballads offer the proof that she will keep going.

The album concludes with the title track, “Road To Rome,” which brings out Potenza’s Americana songwriting roots. The line, “fear is a liar and I’ve been a fool,” could bring a broken woman to tears, and simultaneously inspire her to wipe those tears away and shine. The progression of the song (Could you describe it, something like: beginning as it does with a major chord before walking bass notes to the minor. I know this example isn’t good, but you get the idea) feels like starting at the bottom, and climbing to the mountaintop. “Road To Rome” is a triumphant finish to an honest, uplifting album, and Sarah Potenza once again shows that she is a force to be reckoned with in the contemporary Americana scene.

 

Connect with the museum of americana at AWP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the museum of americana invites you to connect with our editors at AWP this year! They’re not as scary as this bear. I promise.

You can catch up with us:

Wednesday, March 27th, 5:00–7:00 PM
Sustainable Print: A Celebration of Independent Lit
Featuring poetry and prose from Tahoma Literary Review, Ruminate Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Juked. Join editor Ann Beman offsite at Cup and Bar.

Thursday, March 28th, 9:00–10:00 AM and 12:30–2:30 PM
Chat with editor Ann Beman at the book fair: Tahoma Literary Review booth #5011.

Thursday, March 28th, 12:00–1:00 PM
Chat with editor Lauren Alwan at the book fair: WTAW booth #8096.

Friday, March 29th, 10:30 AM–1:00 PM and 3:00–4:00 PM
Chat with editor Ann Beman at the book fair: Tahoma Literary Review booth #5011.

Friday, March 29th, 5:00–7:00 PM
Tahoma Literary Review, Solstice, Talking Writing, and Pangyrus
Join editor Ann Beman offsite for complimentary antipasto and gourmet bites at The Paramount Hotel

Friday, March 29th, 6:00–7:30 PM
WTAW Press and Friends
Featuring: Anita Felicelli, Jimin Han, Louise Marburg, Angela Mitchell, Barbara Roether, Sarah Stone, Naomi J. Williams, and Olga Zilberbourg. Join editor Lauren Alwan offsite at the Portland Northwest Hostel Cafe.

Friday, March 29th, 7:30–10:00 PM
Red Hen Press Reading and Party
Featuring: Francesca Bell, Matty Layne Glasgow, Dorianne Laux, Joshua Mensch, and Maggie Smith. Join editor Ann Beman offsite at Cider Riot

Saturday, March 30th, 11:00 AM–12:00 PM
Chat with editor Ann Beman at the book fair: Tahoma Literary Review booth #5011.

Saturday, March 30th, 12:00–1:00 PM
Chat with editor Lauren Alwan at the book fair: WTAW booth #8096.

 

Grant Clauser’s Reckless Constellations — Review and Interview by Contributor Karen Weyant

As soon as I started Grant Clauser’s latest collection of poems, Reckless Constellations, I thought to myself, Wow, I know this place.

This place is a landscape filled with beer-can littered woods, second-hand stores, and haunted back roads. But it’s also a place populated by snipe hunters, little boys who find themselves in engaging in both harmless mischief and more serious trouble, and women, some who kill snakes and even one who is gutsy enough to grab an electric fence with her hands.

This is a place I know well – and that is because Clauser lifts stories from life in rural Pennsylvania, a world that I explore in my own poetry.

Reckless Constellations intertwines memory and story and explores how past narratives can and do influence our present lives. Many of the poems, especially at the start of the book, are poetic narratives of a rough and tumble childhood. For instance, in one of my favorite poems, “Stealing Clay from the Crayola Factory” the narrator and a friend sneak into a factory to snatch “blocks of clay/dropped from a chute all day/and melted into boulders/from red to gray.” The boys later go home to build “volcanos/filled with baking soda and vinegar.” Then, they sit back to watch “the eruptions over and over/until the whole little town/was swallowed in our ash.”

Other poems follow these children to their teenage years. For example, in “Slasher” the narrator details watching a horror movie with a troubled young woman, while in the title poem, “Reckless Constellations” a group gathers around a fire pit to listen to a friend, Dod, as he “spilled his whiskey lies.”

Yet, while many poems are from the past, the present is not absent from this book. Clauser includes odes to ordinary items including old brown boots, mutts and Scrapple. He also includes elegies that mourn people including the poem, “Fishing with Ghosts” where two characters are walking by a creek, saddened by the fact that “the salamanders we caught as kids are gone” by also by memories of the dead that are “standing in the doorway.”

At first glance, Clauser’s book may be seen as a writer’s nostalgic view of rural life. But it’s not. There is an undercurrent of despair and violence in much of the work. But more importantly, it’s a collection filled with an unsentimental determination to find both peace and happiness, even if both are tucked away in grassy lots, old rust cars, and cow pastures.

~  ~  ~

Interview with Grant Clauser, author of Reckless Constellations.  

This is your fourth collection of poetry. Could you talk a little bit about your personal history with poetry? Does Reckless Constellations have any similarities or differences to your past works? Explain.

I started liking and writing poetry when I was in middle school and first encountered Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” for an English class assignment, then I got serious about poetry in college. My first book didn’t come out until I was in my early 40s, so there’s was a lot of time in between in which I hope I was working to get it right. Interestingly, the timeline in Reckless Constellations begins at about the time poetry began for me, in my early teen years, so now I’m thinking I wish I had including a poem about that, something about reading Poe in my woods.

This book is similar in tone and style to my other books. One section follows a group of recurring characters based on people I grew up around when I was a teenager. That was sort of a preservation act. I wanted to make sure that time period and the things we did and feelings we had would be preserved in some way. Even if no one else connects to them or cares…I cared, and so that project was important to me. I think everyone tends to create a personal mythology about their past, the events that formed them, and I just wrote mine down. Much of the rest of the book tells stories about family or events and places close to me, but I hope it’s the approach to language, how the poems work, that appeals to readers.

Reckless Constellations is very much rooted in place. What is this place? Could you talk about the importance of place in your poems?

A lot of it is very much a Pennsylvania book. Except for two years in Ohio as a grad student, I’ve lived all my life in Pennsylvania, so the people and landscapes fill my writing. Some of it is suburban, where people plant gardens and try to keep the wondering deer away from the tomatoes, and some of it is the formerly industrial towns like Catasauqua, where my grandparents are from, and some of it is the hills and creeks where I fish and hike or camp. The place that defines you, where you grew up or where you associate yourself with, that’s part of your backstory, so it informs most things about you, so that’s why place is such a strong part of my writing. Also landscapes and environments can be metaphorical, so I use them as devices. Each of us is a product of the people and places we inhabit, so I spend a lot of time in my poems thinking about how that happens and how to use it.

As a poet myself, I am always interested in how poets arrange their collections. Could you describe your process in arranging your poems in this collection?

I always try to break up my books into sections that have some thematic or story link. In this book, as I said above, the first section deals with a group of kids, from about twelve years old through high school. It’s actually about specific real people—each person, Dod, for instance, is a combination of five or six people I know, as are Shelly and Jim. Some of the situations have been changed, conflated or exaggerated so as to better serve the poems. The next section deals with the present, people and places I know now. The final section is a little more random, but pulls together other people’s stories—things I heard about on the news, a few fishing poems, along with some things I just invented. I think of each section as a little chapbook of poems, something that can be digested in one sitting.

You include many odes in this collection. Odes, by their barest definitions, are poems of praise or celebrations. Your odes often celebrate “mundane” objects and indeed, every time I read one of your odes, I was reminded a bit of Gary Soto’s “Ode to the Yard Sale.” Could you talk a little bit about why you write odes and why they are important in this collection?

I love the ode as a concept and how it’s changed over time. Originally it was a celebration of a hero or leader or someone like that, but contemporary poets have used the ode to elevate anything. I especially like Kevin Young’s food odes in Dear Darkness, which was what got me to write my Scrapple ode. The ode is a great exercise in how to make one subject transcend itself into something else. Thomas Lux does it with “Ode to Scars.” Rita Dove does it with “Ode to My Right Knee.” I taught a little two-day seminar on odes once, and that was lots of fun. In a way, this book, specifically the first section, is an ode to a group of people and a time period. I think of the ode as a form that is defined not by its structure or shape, but by its function, much like an elegy, in the same way that a home is not a home because it’s square or two-storied, but because of what happens inside it.

The character of Dod appears in many poems in this collection. Could you talk about why this character is so important in this collection?

Dod is both real and invented. He’s a Frankenstein patchwork of several people I grew up around. A lot of poems in that section of the book are sort of like museum displays or dioramas in which I wanted to capture not only a moment in time, but a representation of the time and the motivations surrounding it—and for that I needed to tell stories. People are stories, so finding the right people, the ones that mattered, was part of the process of this book. But I didn’t want to reveal too much, especially since I still know a few of the people involved. So I invented (or enhanced) people, and drew a little from several real individuals. For instance, the event in the poem “Nazareth Road” happened, though not in exactly the same way (I was actually a lot younger), and not to the same person who appears in “Lucky” or “Trigger Warning.” Also, I hoped that using recurring characters throughout the poems would make let the reader get more involved in the poems as a group.

Obviously, you are busy promoting this book, but do you have any other current projects? Explain.

I’m actually not writing as much lately as I had been. With The Magician’s Handbook and Reckless Constellations coming out so close to each other I haven’t felt the same need to write at the same high pace that I’d been doing the past couple of years. However, I’m really happy with the work that has been coming. I had thought about putting together a chapbook, but I think I’ll just let those poems sit for a while longer. One of the reasons is I feel an obligation to the publishers and to the books to promote them a lot—which means a lot of readings, and I think after this year I’m going to need a break from that. People are going to get tired of me tweeting about events, and I’m going to get tired of driving to places. I really love doing readings, but it’s work too.

For a while it was important to me to product a certain amount every week or every month, but I’ve become less obsessed with that. I’m spending more time reading now, making sure I’m caught up with as much of everything as I can. I’d like to do some essay writing, probably focused on some of the workshop themes I’ve done, so I need to carve out a little time for that. I’m also interested in flash fiction—I’ve done a few pieces, but I need to spend more time learning about that mode. Also, there’s fishing. Every year, I tell myself I’m going to spend more time fishing, and it somehow never happens.

AWP18 Museum Meetup

Museum meetup bannerJoin members of the museum of americana’s editorial staff, along with contributors, and friends old and new, for a midday meetup at AWP18 in Tampa! Have a beer, share news, learn about the review, or just stop by and say hey. We’d love to see you!

meetup map (1)

 

Day: Friday, March 9

Time: 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm

Where: Lounge at the Bookfair,

Tampa Convention Center

Contributor Cal Freeman Interviews Charlie Rauh

Viriditas, the debut solo album from NYC-based composer Charlie Rauh, is a series of short guitar pieces exploring the modalities of simple melodic phrases.  Contributor Cal Freeman takes the opportunity to interview him about the release and ask some questions about his musical influences and his multi-faceted musical life.
 
Tell us a bit about the unique recording process for this album.

I recorded the album in a single 45 minute session with engineer Andrea Friggi at Le Feuil, a beautiful farmhouse in southern France owned by my good friend and brilliant composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart.  We decided to only use overhead mics about 8 feet up and quite far from the guitar amplifier to capture the sound of the room, which was very important in capturing the spacious atmosphere I was after. I played each song a couple times and performed the improvised pieces, then Andrea and I put the track order together.  It was quick, but not rushed.  Rather it was a moment in time captured with sound, that’s what I wanted above all else.  These songs were never meant to be perfectly captured after 10 takes in a recording studio, none of the music I write is.

How would you classify your guitar playing?

I consider myself a folk musician, I see my music as an intersection of lullabies and hymns.  I don’t write words, but I hope to tell stories and create music with staying power like those types of songs have.  With my playing I try to be concise, curious, and driven by intent. I hope to offer music that engages listeners and extends an invitation to wonder.

Who are some of your musical influences, specifically in terms of your guitar playing? 

My guitar playing is heavily influenced by The Innocence Mission (My favorite band) I love their lyrics, and their use of simplicity to invoke power.  As far as specific guitarists that inspire me I take much influence from Mary Halvorson, Molly Tuttle, and Susan Alcorn.  They are all heroes of mine for their fearlessness and character driven approaches to making music – be it composing or improvising.

Your official launch for this album was at Rockwood Music Hall.  Can you tell us about the release party and what you’ve been doing subsequently to promote and perform the record?

The release party was absolutely fantastic! The club was packed and it felt so amazing to play the entire record live for such a supportive audience.  I couldn’t be happier with how the record continues to be received internationally, and am grateful to be on a label as wonderful as Destiny Records.  Since the September release I have been playing regular club dates in NYC, working with my label on keeping press coming in, and organizing tour dates in Europe for the Spring.  I am also in touch with festival organizers in Europe as well as the States about summer engagements.  It’s looking like it will be a busy year!

In addition to doing solo work, you also collaborate with other musicians.  Can you discuss some of those collaborations and how your guitar playing changes when you are playing in a group versus playing solo?

Yes, I play as a studio musician and sideman for some really wonderful artists in addition to my own music.  I’ve tried to build a career around adapting my playing to a number of genres while maintaining a personal consistency of sorts.  For instance I play with electro-pop artist Ess See, Iranian songwriter Sepideh, Americana artist Deb Cher, and Finnish indie artist Peppina to name a few.  Many would find it odd that I play guitar with all of these different artists, but in reality it comes down to intention.  My playing changes only in that I dial into the intention of the artist I am supporting, and bring myself into that intention.  I suppose a simple way to put the difference between playing as a sideman and playing solo is this :  as a sideman, I am investing in someone else’s intention and bringing everything I can to that intention with hopes of magnifying it.  As a soloist, I am just expressing my own intention through my experiences and emotions.

Your music has been featured at Museum of Americana before with Cornelius Eady Trio, a band that features poet and lyricist Cornelius Eady.  What is it like to accompany a poet and what special concerns emerge for you as a composer when moving away from instrumental work?

I’ve been playing with Cornelius for over five years now, in several constellations.  Currently I play with his trio (Cornelius, Lisa Liu, and myself).  I can’t say enough about him, his poetry, his music.  Accompanying him is absolutely inspirational, Cornelius really knows how to write a song – and of course a poem.  When he brings a new song to rehearsal my main concern is not to ruin it.  I love the demos he sends out so much that I just try to keep that purity and simplicity there when we start working on arrangements.  I am very lyrically oriented, and consider the words in music the most important element (when they are there). So my hope is to live into what Cornelius is saying and play accordingly.
 
 
Charlie Rauh performs “Wind in the East” from Viriditas. 


 
Order Viriditas here.
 
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NYC based guitarist/composer Charlie Rauh has been invited to be resident composer by such organizations as The Rauschenberg Foundation, The Klaustrid Foundation, The Chen Dance Center, and The International Studios at Denkalschmeide Hofgen. His work as a soloist has been supported by grants from Meet The Composer, The Untitled Artist Group, and The Fractured Atlas Group.

His chamber EP, Innocent Speller, was released by Composers Concordance Records/ Naxos in 2015 – as described on Gapplegrate Guitar and Bass Blog : “There is an introspective element that sets the music apart, with spacious sound-staging focusing on the crystalline guitar sound. The atmospheric mood sustains us throughout. There is beauty here, great beauty.”

Touring extensively in Europe as well as the States, Rauh continues to accumulate inspiration from the folk music of the places he visits. In early 2017, he signed with Destiny Records to release Viriditas : his first proper solo record. Recorded in one 45 minute session within a 14th century barn in southern France, the brief and spare collection of solo guitar folk lullabies immediately captured the imagination of the press : “These quiet tunes dust off a few neglected shelves of the human soul, and from them pull down vials filled with brightness.”(All About Jazz), “Rauh is a true virtuoso and as such expresses a musicality that transcends the exceptional technique, which he surely has, putting it at the service of intimate, moving and dreamy music, in which every single note played by his guitar shows an innovative and contemporary vision. Highly recommended, one of 2017’s best records” (Neuguitars.com).

As a support musician, Rauh works with a variety of artists across several genres both as a touring sideman and a studio musician and arranger. Recording projects include work with Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, Magnetic Fields producer Charles Newman, and Sparklehorse contributor Alan Weatherhead. Live performances include artists such as Rolling Stones vocalist Bernard Fowler, Iranian pop innovator Sepideh, and Finnish indie artist Peppina.

Announcing our Pushcart Nominations

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations to the following contributors for their excellent contributions this year. We believe in your work deeply, and we wish you luck in the judging process.

Prose

An American Shopping Cart — Nonfiction by Jennifer Fliss

Two Flash Fictions by Christopher Merkner 

Poetry

I’ve never been good at directions or stars — Poetry by Marlin M. Jenkins

Ferry Boat Line, Bolivar — Poetry by Lorena Parker Matejowsky

Eureka Road by Ellen Stone

Ellen Stone on the Farmall Model H Tractor

 
bikeI was fourteen when Ty put me on the H.  All winter, I had helped him with chores, cleaning out stalls, setting up the milking, feeding cows hay, silage.  Summer, my brother was in the fields.  I had never thought about joining him. But when they showed me the Farmall tractor and I sat up on it, it felt good under my legs, bigger than a riding lawn mower, squat, wide. A seat like the curve of the iron water bowls the cows drank from in the barn. Red paint that was so baked in sun, it looked faded, friendly. The tractor’s height, short like me.

The H’s controls were simple.  “Because it’s old,” my brother said.  I didn’t care. They taught me in the small field behind the cemetery – how to begin at the hedgerow, and drive in large rectangle swaths. I wore my pink bikini, learned how to hug the edge of the hay field, making windrows with the rake dragging behind.  Little hills of fresh cut grass lying on the shorn ground, waves like the blue Appalachians in the distance.  I was so high above the field, it seemed I could see all the way over Browntown Mountain, down to the river.  When the H swooped down on the back ridge, my heart sank and rose again, just like the Ferris wheel at the Fireman’s Carnival at the end of summer.

The cut Timothy and alfalfa smelled like the haymow where I had wanted to live since I was little – but alive, green, moving.  The smell permeated me, my skin a thin barrier. The cut grasses almost simmered as they settled.  I belonged to the hay field, where I could most feel everything, the lone person with the grasshoppers, swallows, woodchucks, mice and cottontails. No human or house in sight. I rippled in the summer heat, humming through me.  I sang above the butternut, oak, the locust, a drifting raptor easy between song sparrows.

The H carried me. No matter what, the field. The field, my family. My mother, in her stillness. My father, silent in his work. My siblings, strewn to the breezes, sunk in the ravines. The enormous heat of the hayfield stuck me to the seat of the H, and I commenced in the haze of my body. My body, the solid ground.  My body, the wellspring.  My body, the open sky.
 
~ ~ ~

StonepicEllen Stone teaches at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her poetry collection, The Solid Living World, won the 2013 Michigan Writers Cooperative Press chapbook contest. Ellen’s poems have appeared recently in Blast Furnace, Dunes Review, Gravel, Melancholy Hyperbole, Neat, in the anthology, Uncommon Core, published by Red Beard Press, and are forthcoming in Passages North.

Contributor Cal Freeman on Doop and the Inside Outlaws’

 
The Corridor

Doop and the Inside Outlaws

“Back in the summer of ’49, old Everett Belcher was runnin’ shine from the hills of Kentucky to the mills of Great Lakes Steel.”  So begins the title track from Doop and the Inside Outlaws’ 2009 record, Everett Belcher.  Many Americana songwriters arrogate working class themes and write about working class people in the abstract.  In these versions the characters are often pat, over-simplified corporate country stereotypes.  Not so in Don Duprie’s songs.  Doop has come about as close as you can to actually living out the songs he writes, or as he’s fond of saying, “I ain’t living for this stuff, I’m dying for it.”

Born and raised in River Rouge, MI, home of US Steel and Zug Island, a manmade industrial island in the middle of the Detroit River, Doop writes songs that navigate that riparian territory where empathy and fatalism meet.  To understand Doop’s songs, you have to understand Downriver, that cluster of working class suburbs south of Detroit, an area settled predominantly by white southerners coming north up I-75, “The Hillbilly Highway,” as Steve Earle would have it, in search of UAW wages and middle class existences, workdays unhindered by cave-ins, dungeon darkness, and the terrifying eventuality of black lung disease.  People like the character Everett Belcher, who also happens to be Doop’s maternal grandfather.  It is the place poet Philip Levine writes about in “Rain Downriver”: “In this state, which is not madness, / but Michigan, here in the suburbs / of the City of God, rain brings back / the gasoline we blew in the face / of creation and sulfur which will not / soften iron or even yellow rice.”

Doop’s story is well-known around Detroit.  In 2010, he was laid off from the River Rouge Fire Department and began putting all his time and energy into his music and his small business, Dangerously Delicious Pies Baked in Detroit, a small kitchen in the back of the Comet Bar serving sweet and savory pies to patrons.  At that point he had already recorded his debut record, Blood River, an homage to and lament for his hometown, and Everett Belcher, a slightly more anthemic treatment of the working class themes introduced on Blood River.  Both albums were cut at Jim Diamond’s Ghetto Recorders.  Diamond and his erstwhile studio are famous first and foremost for the first two White Stripes records, engineered and produced by Diamond at Ghetto.  Blood River earned Doop a music row publishing deal, and several music critics, especially in Detroit but also nationally, took notice.

Given that he was writing pieces like “Blood River,” “Everett Belcher,” “MFNJOB,” and “What Am I Supposed To Do?” in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the financial crash of 2008, given that Detroiters have long been bellwethers for the health of the American economy, and given that his best working class anthems are as well-wrought as anything Springsteen has done (this may sound hyperbolic, but I don’t think many can listen to these songs and not be struck by the empathic intelligence behind them), it isn’t surprising that Detroiters, especially Downriver folks, take pride in the fact that Doop is writing songs about their lives.  Southeastern Michigan is our place in the world, and Don Duprie is giving voice to our concerns in ways that politicians and news media cannot.

What a place like River Rouge, MI can teach you is that death descends daily on fumes from Severstal Steel and the Marathon Oil refinery, that the west wind secretes it one sallow cloud-dollop at a time, that what is here today, be it a job or a life, might not be tomorrow.  It makes it more difficult to other others’ hardships; it makes it that much more imperative to listen to the peoples’ stories before they themselves are gone.  One of Doop’s favorite things to say when prompted to discuss the role empathy plays in his writing is, “I’m just a reporter, man.  These people thank me for writing about them, but I’m the one who should be thanking them.  Just listen to the stories people tell you and write them down.  That’s all a song is.  It’s easy.”

Doop began writing “What Am I Supposed To Do?” while he was still working for the fire department.  One night they got a call to come out to Zug Island because a man was having a heart attack, but when they got there, it quickly became clear that it was a panic attack and not a heart attack.  As Doop was taking his vitals and trying to talk him down, the man, a late middle-aged steel worker who had just been let go from the mill, kept repeating the question, “What am I supposed to do?  This is all that I’ve ever known, so tell me what am I supposed to do?”  Doop stored the line away, but he says it wasn’t until he lost his own job that he was able to complete the song, to really feel something proximal to the dread that panic-stricken man was feeling that night.

On the title track of Blood River, he sings, “I walk across his kind every day, behind the restaurant or in an alleyway.  I try and help him out the best I can, but times are tough and sometimes I push away his hand, and all he wants to do is get him some dinner.  Instead I drown him, I drown him here in Blood River.”  This song, written early on in Doop’s musical trajectory, constitutes a microcosm of his whole approach to lyric writing: the question underpinning many of his lyrics about the amount of actual good this empathy can do, the question that often steers his darker songs toward the fatalistic end of the dialectic.  The album is an auspicious debut, and in it we hear Duprie skillfully navigating influences of Springsteen, Mellencamp, Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, while pointedly evoking his unique place in the world, possessing the humility to quietly step out of the way and let the spectral, anachronistic voices of Downriver, Michigan merge with his own.

Humility is key to Doop’s approach to songs, life, and friendship.  In an age where much of our cultural understanding of authorship, this especially being true of the narratives we consume about songwriters, celebrates the genius of the individual, Doop’s always viewed songwriting as a collaborative exercise, one whose process far exceeds the scope of those isolated moments when one sits down with a notebook and guitar.  Much of this is borne out of a reverence for the craft and tradition of American songwriting, but it also betrays a sophisticated understanding of textuality, which explains why when he seriously started making music, he branded his project “The Inside Outlaws Songwriter Collective.”

The concept for The Inside Outlaws came about in 2004.  The story goes that Doop was getting off work at the firehouse to go meet his friend Ryan VanOver (stage name “Ty Stone”), steel worker and fellow Detroit-Downriver songwriter, at the Cee ‘Em Bar in Lincoln Park.  This was at the height of the Rick Rubin curated Johnny Cash revival, and Doop and Ty were lamenting the fact that a bunch of Cash-inspired kids were running around with acoustic guitars writing bad corporate country knock-offs and calling themselves outlaws.  Doop’s idea was to parody this trend by starting a songwriting collective called “The Inside Outlaws” and write real working class ballads that went beyond the pat and trite renderings of rich kids who had likely never stepped foot inside a dive bar, let alone fired a Colt pistol.

If Cee ‘Em in Lincoln Park seems like an inconspicuous place for the birth of a musical movement that would go on to produce publishing deals, record contracts, arena tours (for Ty Stone), a Kresge Arts Fellowship (for Doop), and several Detroit Music Awards, one must keep in mind that Lincoln Park has always been a hotbed of musical activity.  It is home to the MC5, and it is also where figures like Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, and Mitch Ryder cut their teeth playing bars, VFW Halls, and high school auditoriums.  In addition to Doop and Ty, The Inside Outlaws would include Alison Lewis, Pat V, Katie Grace, and Matt Dmits.  It is significant that at the cusp of the Americana craze such a project was dreamed up by a firefighter and a steel worker in an area that was once synonymous with American manufacturing.

Although in 2004 the rest of the country hadn’t yet experienced recession and subsequent economic collapse, in Southeastern Michigan the writing was on the wall, and this group of artists was elegizing a way of life that seemed to be slipping away from them.  In just a few short years Doop and Ty would find themselves laid off from their respective jobs.  I said earlier that the people here are the bellwether of American economic health.  Doop, growing up the son of an industrial worker in River Rouge, understood this intuitively.  But he says it wasn’t until he heard Ty Stone sing his song, “Line of Blood,” that he realized he could write directly about the people and places he’d grown up around.  “Line of Blood” is a rocker with heavy, distorted, palm-muted electric guitar work reminiscent of Tom Morello’s playing, thus aesthetically very different from Doop’s music, but the lyrical content is what was epiphanic for Doop when he first heard Ty sing it at The Magic Bag in Ferndale, MI in 2003: “Well it was said on the day of my birth the ghost of a dead man walked the earth, and my mama don’t love me none.  She hates everything my daddy done.  He got killed on a steel mill line, just like his daddy in a black coal mine.”  “Line of Blood” was featured on the Boondock Saints II soundtrack.  Doop says after he heard it he thought to himself, “Wow!  You can write about that shit?”

“That changed everything for me, man,” he adds.

I first met Don Duprie at St. Andrew’s Hall in 2010, shortly after he was laid off from the firehouse.  I was there for a Drive By Truckers show, and Don had set up a songwriter showcase to take place after the show in the basement of the venue, a smaller stage called The Shelter.  I had come to see The Truckers but was not all that enthusiastic about the record they were promoting that tour, The Big To Do, and I was looking forward to hearing The Inside Outlaws’ sets.

I had already heard a few songs by Doop and the Inside Outlaws’ through my friend Nick Mansfield.  Mansfield is a fireman on Zug Island and knew Doop through the bars and pool halls frequented by industrial workers in Rouge and Southwest Detroit.  I shook Doop’s hand and said, “You’re a great songwriter.”  We stood in the lobby of St. Andrew’s Hall as Patterson Hood shouted over the noise, “And goddamn Reagan’s in the Whitehouse and nobody gives a damn.”

Doop seemed embarrassed by the praise.  He nodded toward the stage.  “You know who’s a great writer?  That guy right there.”

We chatted for a few minutes about The Truckers, specifically Jason Isbell’s departure from the band.  I told him that while I loved Hood and Cooley, I thought Isbell had been the band’s best writer.

“He’s great, man, but nobody can do what Patterson does.”  For him it was a measure of scope and risk, not pure poetry.

It was far from my first show at The Shelter, and I’ve seen a few memorable ones there: The Geraldine Fibbers in 1994, the punk band Avail during the July 1997 tornado outbreak in Detroit, but this show changed my life.  It’s a woeful cliché, I know, but seeing Don Duprie and Alison Lewis sing songs that they had written about neighborhoods I’d lived in and bars I’d frequented left me feeling much like Doop must have felt that night he heard Ty Stone sing “Line of Blood.”

“Wow!  You can write about this shit?”
 
Posterity’s Dark Prizes

The Comet Bar where Doop opened his first pie shop was the de facto home for Detroit’s hardcore scene before Doop began hosting songwriter nights there in the winter of 2010.  His new record, The Corridor, one of the last projects to come out of Jim Diamond’s now-defunct Ghetto Recorders, is very much a story of that place and the people who worked and drank there.  This album is Doop’s most cohesive given its strong narrative arc and its tragic dimensions; it plays like a novel in ten songs.   Where Doop’s previous records are gritty, yet somewhat redemptive, The Corridor is achingly real, using character studies to examine social issues ranging from gentrification and its accompanying displacement, to prostitution and incarceration.  A few years after Doop opened his shop, The Comet was bought up by Mike Ilitch’s Olympia Development to make way for the new Detroit Red Wings arena.

The Corridor is eponymous with the neighborhood in central Detroit where The Comet was located.  Corridors are long dark features of urban architecture that often leave one feeling trapped, “living on the edge of disaster where the beast has become the master” (“The Edge of Disaster”).  A chance-medley is when a stray bullet finds an unintended victim.  “God bless us all and our little war” (“The Corridor”).  A war is a large scale military conflict; a little war is a daily existential struggle; any war is a class war.

The title track is narrated from the point of view of a sex worker navigating the treacherous terrain of The South Cass.  The female speaker of the song says, “I see Danny at the end of the bar.  He’s down there talking with the regulars.  Now Danny’s always been good to me.  It kind of helps me with my sanity.”  There aren’t many songwriters who would have the guts to step outside of themselves like that and narrate from the point of view of someone from a completely different life circumstance, let alone gender.  There are many such moments on this album, though, that give the music a penetrating bleakness.

I don’t know enough about marketing and contemporary musical tastes to predict what this novel-in-songs, The Corridor, will do commercially, nor does the question interest me very much as I listen to it while making the trek over the pocked and potholed asphalt of Schaefer Road, past Ford’s Rouge Plant and The Marathon Oil Refinery, into River Rouge where the road name becomes Coolidge and the air quality regularly ranks among the worst for municipalities in Michigan to grab drinks at Mr. K’s Bar and pick Don Duprie’s brain about songwriting.  Going here seems a bit mythical, perhaps the Michigan equivalent of rolling into Asbury Park to hang with The Boss.  The razor wire fence surrounding Great Lakes Steel takes on a dull glint in the gas light, and the cirrus clouds with the chemicals at night get tinted a sallow-green, cirrhotic hue.

Doop, Alison Lewis, and I shoot pool and play the jukebox at K’s for an hour or so before cashing out.  The plan is to head back to Doop’s place to drink beer and have him help me with a song that has been giving me trouble, but first Doop wants to show us something.  It is winter, a snowless night, the air dry and frigid.  He drives his Ford transit van down a dark street labeled, “No outlet.”  He points toward the Marathon refinery and the glowing ore mills on Zug with his tattooed fingers and says, “See, lots of folks look at nature and swim in lakes and climb mountains and shit and say it’s beautiful.  I consider this stuff beautiful, man.  This is my idea of beauty.”

I look out and have to admit that I don’t quite see it.  An outmoded factory, an oil refinery that is surely depositing ungodly amounts of mercury into the Trenton Channel which rushes into Lake Erie, a fragile ecosystem subject to toxic algal blooms and resultant no-swim advisories up and down its coast.  In recent years philosophers like Timothy Morton and Slavoj Zizek have suggested that at the end of history the goal of the radical ecologist must be to admire the aesthetics of the damage and find the beauty there.  As this irredeemable century trudges on that ought to be the goal of the great songwriter as well: to look at what’s left over and recognize its precarious worth.
 
 

 
 

 
 
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Cal Freeman is a poet and songwriter from Dearborn, MI.

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