Issue 6: Live Reading

Thank you to all who attended and to those who read. We had a great time, and appreciate our participating contributors; Thomas Mowle, Marshall Griffith, Lucy Bell, Tom Noonan, Bill Stanley, Scott Lewis, and Bill Gessner. Thank you for your words and your shared experience. These contributors and more can be found in Issue 6: VETERANS, Part I.

For stories from the post-launch celebration at Phantom Canyon, contact the Publisher of La Revista Almagre, Joe Barrera. Our next event will be February 15 up in Denver. Please stay in touch for further details…

GI Forum vets book event

John Lewis: Why Moby Dick?

Because, not to cheek my reader, it’s Great!

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Melville did perhaps the one thing most harmful to a writer, even more so than failing to achieve publication. His first novel was a huge commercial success, followed by several other successes. This set a high bar, but also the wrong one, which Melville through natural talent and vision, veered away from. It wasn’t the success that troubled him, it was the simplicity of storytelling which provided this success. In the long run, he was bound to follow his artistic sensibilities, which proved incompatible to prosperity.

Along came “Moby Dick” or “The Whale” as it was titled in England. Melville had just passed thirty years of age, and whereas the first several novels were adventurous, lushly exotic, and did not place too great a demand on the reader, Moby Dick fell flat. By tackling such an immensely heady and symbolic work, he broke trust with his readers. Following publication, Moby Dick sold poorly and was largely misunderstood or neglected by readers.

But what a story it turned out to be! Melville died much less a literary figure than he had been in his young adulthood — Moby Dick a failure, waiting full rediscovery in the 1920s, thirty years after the author’s passing.

For me, this is the great American novel. It reads almost biblically, in that the story is long, but broken into 150 mostly short chapters. Each chapter is a self-contained masterpiece, and can be read on its own. Like the bible, one can pick it up, randomly open the book, and enjoy these micro-universes on their own merit, tilling the prose for a chance elevation from the daily routine.

The prose drips with metaphor and symbolism. Each sentence is a miracle of craftsmanship; the cadence and rhythm a near breathless prescription of fluidity. And one can extract deep personal meaning from her reading… declaring, “This! This is what the story is about.”

An old trick is to hotbox characters within a trap setting. An ex-boyfriend and girlfriend get stuck on an elevator. The ship’s councillor and her unwilling patient get stuck on a small spacecraft. A competent but motley whaling crew is buttoned up with an insane, vengeance-minded captain with a partial body!

It’s the captain’s body which is important. Moby Dick is a story about many things; a startling avant-garde depiction of racial harmony, an adventure tale, revenge plot, religious commentary, eco-thriller (after all, it is the pursuit of oil), class screed, or even a story suggestive of homoerotic romance.

I find in it the deepest of spiritual matters; it speaks of blasphemy and illustrates the peril of abandoning free-will. Captain Ahab is a mono-maniac, whose sole purpose is to destroy the thing which destroyed him years ago. Ahab was almost killed by the white whale years prior to the telling of Moby Dick. Unbeknownst to the crew, the chartering company, and family back ashore, Ahab has a secret plan to hunt the beast which took his leg. This is a man who has relinquished the gift of free-will, and if the western religious tradition is to be believed, free-will is given him by God.

Ahab, a man of God, has rejected this. He blasphemes his maker by renouncing the most important of all divine bestowals. In his previous encounter with the white whale, Ahab loses his leg. He is made incomplete by the ocean’s carnage. And the ocean is a metaphor so pregnant it will yield itself forever to the service of large literary tales. But, the other physical scar, though often overlooked, is important. Years before the novel takes place, the whale’s daggered tooth cut Ahab along his entire body, producing a scar that twists up his abdomen and chest, and finishes above his face along the eye and forehead. Melville has done us a treat here, symbolically cutting Ahab in half. This is a man who is no longer a man. We all know about the missing leg, the madness in his cabin, the nailing of the doubloon to the mast, but it’s this scar which has rent the captain asunder. In that, he is no longer human according to the author. The looming byproduct is a monster who has forfeited the power of choice. Ahab becomes the supreme animal, transformed into a beast, for he will imperil his crew, his company, to the annihilating goal of vengeance. This is what it looks like for us to surrender the power of choice.

Or so I believe.

I love this story, because at each opportunity to discuss it with a fellow traveler, I find that it means something else entirely. We have the same list of ingredients, the same simple plot — captain leads crew to destruction in pursuit of vengeance — that it continues to astound me, and contemporary audiences, with the diverse fruit of meaningful experience.

John Lewis
Artist/Editor
The Almagre Review

Joe Barrera: Christmas in South Texas

Growing up in south Texas in the 50’s we used to get Christmas presents on three different days. First there was the feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who gave gifts to poor people, is the original gift-giver whose name has morphed from the Dutch Sinter Klaas into Santa Claus. Because of him people in Europe give and receive gifts. A remnant Spanish custom survived in our small town and the children got gifts on December 6. I remember getting oranges and apples in my stocking, but never the proverbial lump of coal that the  bad kids were supposed to get. For many of the older Mexican people Dec. 6 embodied the spirit of the season, whereas Christmas was the American celebration. All the Christmas customs, the gift-giving, the decorations, etc. were absent. We didn’t have a Christmas tree, for instance, until sometime in the late 50’s. My mother found a dried branch  from the huge pecan tree in the yard. She brought it inside the house, painted it white and hung Christmas lights on it. That was the first Christmas tree I remember. It looked beautiful. Gradually, Christmas presents began to appear under the tree. By the early 60’s most of the old customs had died out and the new Christmas had taken over.

Nativity

The real celebration of “Christ’s Mass” was at church. “Misa de Gallo,” midnight mass on Christmas Eve was the important occasion and even the little kids would attend. The highlight was the procession of the children to the empty manger, to lay down the image of Baby Jesus. After mass everyone would go home and eat tamales and drink the powerful cinnamon-laced Mexican chocolate. That stuff could keep you up all night but of course that was not allowed for the children. The men had gone deer hunting and brought back plenty of venison. The women had spent hours in the kitchen marinating the meat and putting it into the corn dough wrapped in corn husks and then steaming the tamales in huge pots. There is nothing more delicious than venison tamales. For days afterward we would be eating tamales. At Christmas women ruled the house. I remember my mother and her “comadres,” which literally means “co-mothers,” making untold dozens of tamales and enjoying their sisterhood time. I sneaked in just to listen to them talk, but men were not allowed in the kitchen.

The twelve days of Christmas, December.25-January 6, had real meaning in those times. There was the joy of Christmas, but mixed with sadness, as all earthly experience must be. We remembered the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28, when all the men and boys named Inocente were honored. I often wondered how so many not-so innocent types could have that name. And how could Herod have killed so many babies? There was New Year’s Day, sacred to God the Father, who seldom gets any credit, but because of him sacred to all who bear his name, Manuel. After that there was Epiphany, on January 6, holy to all those named Epifanio. On Epiphany the Magi come bearing rich gifts. It is the Day of the Three Kings, el Dia de los Reyes Magos, the day of the Wise Men. This is also the name-day of all those named “Reyes.” In the old way of looking at things your name-day is much more significant than your birthday. The saint or sacred feast whose name you bear is your protector, a type of totem beloved in the Indo-Hispano culture.

If there was a true joyous day for all, this was it. Jan. 6 definitely eclipsed Christmas for gift-giving. Baltazar, Melchor, and Gaspar had brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. We emulated them and brought our own gifts. We gave gifts to friends and family.  But in a holy time it’s the King you must honor and how can you give the King any gifts? He already has everything, owns everything. He doesn’t need your poor gift. The Irish nuns at the parish school told us so. They said that on his birthday it is the King who gives gifts. During this season we should ask the King for a favor. There is always life, but also death, and the Irish, like the Mexicans, are ever aware of death. The grace we should request, the sisters said, was for the dead–the release of dear loved ones from Purgatory. Release of captives, that was the true spirit of Christmas and Epiphany. More purified sinners are released from Purgatory at Christmas than on All Soul’s Day.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Mike Callicrate: Regenerative Food Practices

DOWN TO EARTH: The Planet to Plate Podcast

The current economic model is failing; harming both the farmer and the consumer. Mike Callicrate argues powerfully for a new way of thinking about our agriculture. He advocates humane animal husbandry and “regenerative” farming practices that complete a full food cycle. This is good for the farmer, the consumer, and the animal. He also lays out the destructive practices of giant corporations consolidating their market share, and how they are corrupting our ability to purchase good, clean, honest food.

In this excellent interview with Mary-Charlotte on the Down to Earth (Planet to Plate Podcast), Mike Callicrate revisits and expands upon topics from his conversation with The Almagre Review, in Issue 2: “Leadership.”

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Mike Callicrate: Rural Advocate. People Advocate. Animal Advocate

Book Chat: Blood on the Tracks

Colorado author, Barbara Nickless, delivers the audience intensity and literary satisfaction in her debut novel, Blood on the Tracks. Intensity: applied deftly, like a clock set to screws tightening meticulously and relentlessly. Literary: with the designer’s eye for beautiful language to animate the hearts and motives of characters.

I must make a confession before jumping into Ms. Nickless’ novel. Crime-Thriller fiction is something I typically avoid. I believe novels ought to draw a reader through on the quality of its prose. To marry prose with “whodunnit” incentive and the Rube-goldbergian trickeration of opening three new questions for every one answered, strikes me as relying on clever tricks as opposed to quality writing. But, perhaps that’s a little too stuffy and self-righteous. Better I get over myself.

Good news: with Blood on the Tracks, we take pleasure in both. Denver railroad police officer, Agent Sydney Parnell, is an Iraq war veteran who is thrown into solving a sadistic murder. Ms. Nickless does not care for a squeamish audience, and…she makes everything personal.

It’s easy to forget that the whole novel takes place over a few days. The fact that it does, argues eloquently on behalf of Ms. Nickless’ handling of prose. She is a brilliant storyteller. And her main character, Sydney Parnell, is fiercely interesting and refreshing.

The murdered victim is family, and through family, Agent Parnell is pulled inevitably into her past, both to her childhood and her Iraq combat experience. It is the kind of story that must invite ghosts…and a self-medication of alcohol and drugs.

For me, this is a bright take on the female hero, where quite often, we are given a main character who despite the blows of combat, always seems to be a bit impervious or never fully imperiled. Something extraordinary and invisible, magical, seems to be granted by the author that will remove the female hero from danger. But that is not the case with Blood on the Tracks. Our character is quite broken…and quite strong. She feels the hammer of her pain swing from the inside and the outside.

Agent Parnell doesn’t have that authorial Deus ex machina excuse. I’m so impressed by Ms. Nickless’ handling of her. Our hero meets the “boys,” (good and bad), on their level—exchanging bullets, fists, kicks, quips, barbs—and gets her ass-kicking in while also taking a few. Her body, throughout the novel, is a chronicle of every encounter, and the author remembers this as she tells her tale. We feel the bruises as they add up. And we root—Hard!—for Agent Parnell. Especially so, as the gruesome murder invites the prospect of neo-Nazis.

But, it’s not that simple. It would be nice, and clean, to stick it to the Nazis…and we do get the satisfaction of killing a few! Ms. Nickless, however, keeps her story screwed to the mud and snow through Agent Parnell’s family ties and the haunting damage from Iraq. It really turns out, that a crime of this nature, involves all three.

The book ends where it should; Agent Parnell catches up to her killer, but we’re left with those three big questions the author can’t answer until the following novel. Which leads me to my next point.

The second book in the series, Dead Stop, comes out October 3rd. That’s next Tuesday for those, like me, who can’t count. Now is the perfect time to catch up and read Blood on the Tracks. It won’t take long…I promise. Go on, pick it up. After three pages, put it down! I dare you.

Almagre Artist/Editor,
John Lewis

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Why We Write: 1

The question reminds me of Nabokov, who having written Lolita, experienced the relentless question, “Why did you write that book,” or, “What is it about?” Of course, audiences and critics had their own ideas.

Nabokov tired of other people telling him what the story was about–explaining that he wrote Lolita simply to “participate in the ecstatic.” When we discuss relationships between a creative work and an individual, we describe the relationship in many ways: perhaps joy, or offense, a profoundly spiritual feeling…or simply fun! Maybe a creative work goes unregistered. Ah! The unrequited…

But for those who are creative…painters, sculptors, musicians, writers! We understand Nabokov’s words–Ecstasy, experienced during the act of creation. Over the years, I can’t recall a Creative at work who wore the face of serenity. Rather, to me, it always looks like an expression of concentration sourced through meaning. One is precisely where they ought to be during the act.

Christopher Hitchens once advised an audience about this very notion. According to him, a writer writes not because he wants to, but because he has to. For writers, this is obvious. There is something inside us, and it must come out. To hold it inside is to take a vow of celibacy. Writers who don’t write, (painters who don’t paint, musicians who won’t play, etc.), are living a celibate lifestyle.

Back to Nabokov. Anyone who has spent time involved in artistic creation knows the feeling. Ecstasy. I find over the years that writing becomes no less arduous. In fact, it seems to become harder. Words are more carefully chosen, phrases more measured, plotting instincts subjected to increased scrutiny.

But the magic happens. With the blessing of the “muse,” we roll into another region of the mind. The turbid, whirling mass behind the wall of conscious and conscientious manners, of deliberate and logical thinking, becomes accessible. It’s quite extraordinary. Powerful. And, it is the bringer of fervent artistic creation along with its accompanying devils: doubt, fear, self-abuse. We must deal with these in the aftermath. In the tempest, however, is the ecstasy Nabokov refers to where what had seemed impossible becomes more than that…it becomes inevitable. The universe of a novel or painting or album pulls together of its own volition, because the mass and inertia is too large for one person to do it deliberately. But somehow it happens–the universe briefly organizes, the impossible has become inevitable–and only because the artist has become the medium for that volition.

Afterwards…we beg off for awhile, collect ourselves, and begin again the process of inviting the muse.

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Uro-bureaus

Why We Read: 2

Being a project dedicated to growing Colorado literature, we ask ourselves this question at the Almagre quite a bit. Why build a journal, paper no less, and expect others to read it?

For us, the easy answer is this: pick up a copy of Issue 3, open it, fan the pages, breathe in the spine’s scent. Take it, sit with it, create a silent space. Then…explore the poems within, the stories, the essays, the art. We know that the Authors and Artists in Issue 3 will give any reader their money back many times over…restored in full with ideas, new perspectives, as-yet-learned words, and renewed optimism in the power of imagination.

But that is self-serving. And it’s really about more than our journal. It’s about participation in all that’s going on. Literature promises truth; and that is even when it distorts history, or kneads it, bends it, warps it, or is about hypocrites and thieves and liars; or deals with gouging, skullduggery, banditry, or lowlifes. Literature promises truth, because it triangulates around it, shines a flashlight one way, then another, producing a changing shadow that can provide deeper understanding. The point is, literature begs us to know that any given subject requires curiosity and examination from multiple angles. This curiosity should never end.

We’ve entered an age of alternative facts…and that is a worrying thing. In certain venues, we prefer it one way—facts as facts—a thing which doesn’t build on alternatives but on additions. With literature (fiction and nonfiction), we are faced with an honest proposition: “Here is my side of the story,” or, “Here is a side of the story.” By taking the time to do this, we acknowledge that a gain in understanding is a journey. A matter of course. For those who believe they have reached a destination, we feel pity.

To read is to fend ignorance, acquire knowledge and wisdom, to join the polity as those who would prevent a world of alternative facts. For many of us, it is the way forward.

With Profound Gratitude to all our Readers,

Editor & Artist, John Lewis