Michael K. Brantley

Writer of Creative Nonfiction & Fiction

A great day for poetry

I was reminded today how fortunate I am to live in North Carolina, a fertile land for writers. Today was a day to celebrate poets and poetry. My family and I traveled to the R.A. Fountain Store in Fountain, just outside Greenville.

Marty Silverthorne (center) and Alex Albright (right)

The gathering arranged by proprietor Alex Albright and his wife Elizabeth was to honor Marty Silverthorne, a kind and gracious man and a fine poet who has left his mark on the poetry scene over the last 40 years.

Friends and poets read from Marty’s work, as did the immediate past North Carolina Poet Laureate, Shelby Stephenson, and the brand new Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green. These writers and artists make me proud to be a part of the writing scene. They are kind and gracious and share their gifts — something we could certainly use in a world that seems so angry at times today.

My daughter

My daughter, a college freshman creative writing student, got to read one of Marty’s poems, and I was quite proud. I can’t wait to see where her art takes her.

Shelby Stephenson

The great thing about getting out to events like this, even when the weather is at once cold and windy and wet and uncomfortable, is how it lingers and follows the participant home. It gives us a chance to slow down, think about words and writing and language and people and sharing, and getting to do that with family friends, well, what could be better?

Jaki Shelton Green

Every year adds an extra layer of Thanksgiving – or it should

By Michael K. Brantley

(Note: First published in The Nashville Graphic)

No doubt the last quarter is my favorite time of the year.

The majority of my friends are summer people, a smaller number are spring people and a handful are even winter people. But I’m solidly a fall, fourth quarter, nip in the air, turkey on the table, presents under the tree kind of guy.

I’ve always been that way, but for reasons that have changed in each stage of life.

When I was a child, early fall meant the arrival of the Sears Wish Book. It’s hard for kids in the Internet age to understand how important that glossy, inch-and-a-half book was to children everywhere.

It had all the coolest toys, new and old. It had stuff we never saw in stores, in that time before Wal Mart, when K-Mart and Sears — and sometimes even Montgomery Ward or Radio Shack —were THE stores. Tarrytown Mall and Parkwood had plenty to offer, but not on the scale of the Wish Book.

Norman Rockwell

All of those places are now gone, or almost so.

Anyway, I’d dream a big list, so unrealistic, my imagination turned loose. I can’t complain about how Santa treated me, but those lists had to be trimmed significantly. It was fun.

It was at the beginning of my teen years that I bagged my first squirrel hunting with my big brother on Thanksgiving Day. We’d spent many cool quiet evenings sitting in the woods, quietly waiting, without ever getting a shot off.

I can still remember what true quiet sounded like, the wood burning stove from home lighting in the air.

Later, in my late teen years, I gathered my gaggle of nephews, who ranged in age roughly seven to 15 years younger than me, into a giant football game. I offered game coverage of the Bean Bowl in this space for years.

The meal was always a treat, but those games were something. I played quarterback for both teams, as cousin lined up against cousin. The stories that emerged were legendary, if not altogether an accurate historical record.

One year, someone made a trophy out of scrap wood and tin foil. It was amazing how hard that boys competed for it, and how hard we all laughed at the end of the game.

As a newlywed, I was anxious for my new bride to share in the fun, and the huge, amazing meal my sister put on each year. Her gravy, sweet potato biscuits and dressing are the stuff of legend. That too has been chronicled here many times.

Only the intervention of responsible adults prevented me from drinking that gravy out of a glass one year. I’m not ashamed to say I still dream of it every year in late November.

I remember leaving the big meal later in the day and traveling to the mountains of Virginia to visit with my wife’s family. Those days were hectic, but provided true-life holiday post card images that I remember well.

When we had our studio in Nashville, Thanksgiving was a break amongst the busiest time of the year. We were grateful for the support of our business and made countless friends we treasure today, long after those last orders were complete. Those are worth more than any invoice we ever sent.

A whole new level of thankfulness I couldn’t imagine came along with the birth of our children. Each stage has brought something new, and this year, our oldest will return from college, to the house we’re still trying to adjust to being a little less full.

It’s a new channel marker to navigate for a time.

I also remember those first holidays after losing loved ones. Some after long-lived, full lives that bring on warm smiles. Others, who left way too soon and wish I could draw on their wisdom one more time, or hear them laugh again.

When I was younger, I never thought about stages or how life changes. I never thought Thanksgiving would change, or that the faces would change, or that the times would change, or that time itself could move so fast.

Only collecting a few years adds that.

The first Thanksgiving after my transplant was certainly a big one. I’ve always considered myself grateful, but I learned that year that I had no idea.

People complain sometimes about getting older, or slower, but there are gifts that come with age. One is learning what is truly valuable. Another is wrapping arms around family, and time, and squeezing all you can out of it.

I plan on doing that again next week, and I hope you will do the same.

One thing all of us undeniably have is plenty of blessings to give thanks over.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for your support!

I just wanted to say Thanks to everyone who has read Memory Cards and left a review on Amazon or Goodreads. There are 188 reviews on Amazon and over 350 on Goodreads, and I’m grateful for all the comments. Those things do help writers, and I feel like it was a boost to my forthcoming 2019 book when it was proposed.

Hopefully, I’ll have a release date later in the year, but it looks like Galvanized will be out in the second half of 2019. There are other projects in the works to follow.

You can get “Memory Cards” locally at The Nashville Graphic, my website (or just see me in person), the NC Wesleyan bookstore, or Amazon. It is also available on Amazon in e-book form.

Again, your support has meant a lot.

Let’s Talk About It – The Great Gatsby

I’m excited to participate in the North Carolina Humanities Council “Let’s Talk About It” program on Tuesday, September, 25 at the Cumberland County Public Library in Fayetteville, NC. I’ll be presenting on and moderating a discussion on “The Great Gatsby” as part of the “Myth Making in Popular Fiction” series.

If you’re in the Fayetteville area, come on out. It should be fun and it is free, of course. Opening pitch is 6pm.

http://www.nchumanities.org/programs/ltai/myth-making-popular-fiction

The Book Wagon

It is usually there from April to October, on Saturdays when it doesn’t rain. I don’t know its official name, but we call it the Book Wagon. It is a fire engine red, wooden cart, about the size of a horse trailer, with fold up sides and a door on each end. And it is full of cheap books.

The Friends of the Library in Carteret County park this contraption in the First Citizens Bank parking lot at the corner of Turner and Front streets. The volunteer in charge raises the sides, opens the doors, pulls out a folding chair and an old metal cashbox and waits for people like my wife and me — and our three children — to stare intently at an array of hard backs, soft covers, anthologies, pulp, children’s books and oddities of all sorts. Hard covers are $1 and paperbacks are 50 cents; children’s books cost a quarter. Inventory comes from library discards and cast offs from private collections, books to be sent again out into the wild, from the captivity of a home shelf.

Long before we had kids, my wife and I would make a point of visiting the Book Wagon in Beaufort-by-the-Sea, a little village near Morehead City, not far from Cape Lookout on the North Carolina coast. Rarely did we leave without a small grocery bag filled with good things to read. Even before they could read, the children had a fascination and desire to shop the shelves. Our daughter, Holly, always asked not if we’re going to look for shells or go fishing, but if I think the Book Wagon will be open.

wagon

The Book Wagon/Photo by Carteret Co. Friends of the Library

I’ve had my share of great finds over the years: Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, two N.C. Senate journals from 1911 and 1913, and plenty of W.E.B. Griffin’s serials. My wife has collected everything from pulp novels to local history. Everyone else’s lists are just as eclectic, because you never know what you might want until you see it. For a reader, it is a buffet for the mind. Just a block over are the touristy trappings — a wide waterfront boardwalk, boutique shops, and expensive seafood restaurants. Down Front Street, sailboats and yachts crowd Taylor’s Creek, a narrow strip of water separating the mainland from a small barrier island. During the summer, it is not hard to catch a glimpse of the famous wild ponies.

We like all those things too. But only after we’ve been to the Book Wagon, treasures in hand, ready for that first rainy day that keeps us inside.

 

Taking a timeout for baseball

I’m well aware that most people who like sports are all into the NCAA Basketball Tournament right now. I’m following from a distance, but I am quite excited about baseball season opening on March 29.

On my Facebook page, I’ve been featuring my person Top 15 Players of all time. The rules are that the players have to have played during my lifetime, I had to have seen them on TV, and they couldn’t be users of Perfomance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). These players are my favorites, not necessarily a countdown of the greatest.

The great thing about lists like these is the room to disagree. Feel free to comment if you like or don’t like what I’m laying down here. I’ll spare you chocies 12-15, but they are on my Facebook page if you want to see.

The first one here is #11, Greg Maddux.

The stats by themselves are crazy for Maddux: 355 wins, 3,371 strikeouts, 3.16 ERA (during the PED Era), 4 Cy Young Awards, 4 ERA titles, a World Series and 8 All-Star teams. I think a lot of fans don’t realize he won 18 Gold Gloves in 23 years.

He did all that with a fastball that was said could only break 89-90 mph on a good day. Maddux was smart and tenacious and competitive, and it was fun to watch him pitch. He wasn’t nicknamed “Bulldog” for nothing. Those Braves teams of the late 90s were great and it is amazing they only got one World Series, especially considering how many Hall of Famers they had.

The Braves have been my NL team almost as long as I’ve been a Red Sox fan. I loved it when Maddux came over and it didn’t seem right after he left. For most of my lifetime, the Durham Bulls were affiliated with the Braves, and it almost seems illegal around this part of NC to not be at least a sympathizer of Atlanta.

Meet the Writers, Episode #6: Shuly Cawood is Going Places

My first featured author of 2018 is Shuly Cawood, whose memoir came out in late 2017. Shuly has North Carolina ties, and her book is one of the first titles out from Platypus Press. We went five questions and a bonus:

How did your book come about?

Shuly Cawood

When I was 29, on a June Sunday morning in a hotel in Cincinnati, I said goodbye to my college friends at the end of my bridal shower weekend. I was standing in the lobby, and as each of my friends left to drive away and back to their own lives, I made my way to a payphone to call my fiancé—my own future life. That’s when I felt a panic wash over me. The feeling didn’t leave me for a couple of hours, but I chose to ignore it the entire time that it stained my mood and thoughts. It took me many years—and a wedding and a divorce—to understand what my body had been trying to tell me that I dismissed. (Back then, I was good at dismissing.) My memoir doesn’t really begin there, but that’s one of the first things I wrote down. Eventually, the memoir became much bigger than that part of my life, and it forced me to explore what I believed about love, destiny, fear, and faith and how those things had informed the many choices I made and shaped who I am today.

How long have you been writing and publishing and what brought you to it?

My father, a writer himself, introduced the idea of writing stories to me and my sister when we were very young. He would cut up pieces of blank paper into little squares and staple them together so we could write and draw our own “books.” That kept us busy for hours, probably to his great relief, although we often took over his home office desk for this task. In junior high, I became more intent on writing, and I cranked out short stories on my father’s blue Selectric typewriter. They were awful stories, but I still wish I had kept one or two. In high school, I published my poems for the first time in the school’s literary magazine and later in other journals, back when there was no Internet, no Submittable, and you had to use Writer’s Market to figure out where in the world to send things with your stack of SASEs. Then a gap of many years followed when I didn’t try to publish anything, but I never stopped writing. Writing is how I sorted out the world. Often I wouldn’t know how I felt about something until I let down my guard on the page and wrote it down. Sometimes that was the only place I allowed myself that kind of honesty.

You’ve written outside NonFiction, is there a genre you prefer? Why or why not?

I have no preference and love them all for different reasons: poetry comes easiest since I have the most experience in that genre; fiction is the most challenging, but it affords me the most freedom; and creative nonfiction/memoir lets me tell a story and puzzle over it to find the deeper meaning in my own life.

What is your next project, or what project is on your list to get done in the next 5 years or so?

I’ve just finished a novella, and I’m working on a short story collection that I keep thinking is done, but then the characters furiously wave their arms in the air to get my attention, to tell me they have more to say. 

What writers inspire you?

I get inspired by individual pieces rather than by writers. Some of my greatest loves are Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” Mary Oliver’s poems, “Thirst” and “The Singular and Cheerful Life,” and Edith Wharton’s short story, “Roman Fever.”

BONUS: The most interesting place (and why) you’ve lived is …

This has to be Torreón, Mexico. I cover some of the stories from that time in my life in my memoir, but what I don’t really talk about in the book is my teaching experience, and how the culture and the country allowed me to see the United States (and therefore myself) in contrast. Families in Torreón live together much longer—at least back then and in a city of that size, if you were unmarried, you lived with your family until you did marry, regardless of whether you were male or female. There was also an innocence among my students that sometimes frustrated me but made me appreciate that they were able to remain younger, in some ways, for a greater length of time. While in Mexico, I learned more than a second language: I learned about the shape of families, and how women navigated power in their relationships, and ultimately that helped teach me how to navigate power in mine.

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of the memoirThe Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press, 2017), which is an examination of loss and leaving and the search for meaning in the memories that remain. Tracing a path through rural Ohio, the American south and small towns of Mexico, her stories breathe life into a marriage and its dissolution; find a voice that fears mortality then faces it; explore faith in the face of these losses; and ultimately reveal the power of love and letting go. Shuly has an MFA in fiction and creative nonfiction from Queens University, and her writing has been published in places such as The Rumpus, Zone 3, Fiction Southeast, Cider Press Review, Maine Review, and The Louisville Review. You can read more about her work at www.shulycawood.com.

New book announced!

I’m excited to let you know that last week I signed a contract for my next book with the University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books.

It’s about a NC farmer who served in the Confederate and Union armies, escaped capture once, was on the front at Gettysburg, and was involved in a bizarre murder. It also covers the state’s complicated Civil War involvement. The working title is “Galvanized: The Unlikely Odyssey of a Reluctant Carolina Confederate.”

The first half of 2019 is the expected publication date. Thanks to all who read “Memory Cards” and have been asking about the “next one.”

I’ll be posting more details soon.

Meet the Writers, Episode #5: Tom Conlan and his ‘Journey’

The next writer in the series is Thomas Ford Conlan, whose debut book, “My Journey Begins Where the Road Ends,” a memoir about growing up, the U.S. Coast Guard, and grape farming, among many other things. It is a quick, easy, enjoyable read. Tom took some time to answer a few questions for me. Enjoy.

How did your book come around or take shape?

‘Journey’ has been the journey of a lifetime. When I was young, I thought I might make my mark writing songs. But I became caught up in the performing part. People should listen because the writing is good – not clink drinks and laugh. Good songs are poetry – Dylan’s Nobel is proof of that, though Academic writers complained.

Anyway – as you see in my book, I became a sailor. But I never left writing behind. Throughout my varied careers, I always set words aside knowing I would return to them someday. Finally the pull became too strong. I could no longer make excuses. I had to write the words down. So I retired to write full time, and seven years and an MFA later, I published my first epic song – in the form of ‘Journey.’

 

A great deal of the book is about your service in the Coast Guard, and some of the time might surprise people. What do you think about people’s perception of this branch of service, and what compelled you to write?

The Coast Guard is an admirable, humanitarian service. In the perennial Washington fight for tax dollars, leaders find it necessary to blow their own horn too often. The ‘Black Fleet’ that I served in was really an outshoot of the U.S. Lighthouse Service that merged with the USCG in the early twentieth century. We are the real sailors of the bunch – the best ship handlers, the most knowledgeable navigators, not the showy types that are more often seen in recruiting ads.

I enjoyed my years of service – when at sea. The camaraderie through life and death situations cannot be measured – but gave me a good story to tell. Like all of government, however, the administrative side was wasteful and far too political.

 

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel, tentatively titled ‘Gentle Spirits.’ I continue to write poetry, and hope to publish a collection someday. Sometimes the demand of marketing ‘Journey’ takes my mind away from the writing, and I struggle to find the words.

 

Where and when is your favorite place and time to write? Do you have a favorite space?

I am fortunate to have a farm that I built  from a hayfield in the highlands of Northern Michigan. I am addicted to quiet. I have a study where I can look out the window and see birds and other critters, trees turning in the fall, and no other houses.

I sit to write every morning, and my best work comes if I have avoided the morning news and other distractions. Unlike the popular theory amongst academic writers – I do wait for divine inspiration. When it comes, I know the work is good.

 

What makes a good story?

The telling of the tale. We all have good stories inside us, especially those of us who have experienced a lifetime of ups and downs. But some special folks have a knack for writing where the reader becomes part of the story, becomes invested. I think leaving things out for the reader to discover on their own is part of it, but not all. Humor, I think, is important. Self-deprecating is my favorite. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves, and the vulnerable, human condition.

BONUS: If you could only have one, blackberry wine or blackberry pie?

Pie. I just put up this year’s grapes yesterday – gonna be a good batch of Grape wine this year – Harvest Moon Noir.

But you made me hungry. There’s a good country market a few miles down the road with fresh baked pies. I’m off.

 

Tom Conlan lives, writes, and tends his grape vines at Blackcreek Farm in the highlands of Northern Michigan. He has captained a Coast Guard Cutter, sailed the world’s lakes and oceans, and now searches for the elusive brook trout in backwater streams.  Tom’s work has appeared in print in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Issue #12, in the print Anthology, Puppy Love, in Tulip Tree Review, in the anthology, “The Water Holds No Scars,” and in Qu Literary Review. His work was chosen as a finalist for the Annie Dillard Prize in the Bellingham Review. Tom attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and a Master of Science from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California.

 

The Lost Chapter – For a limited time only!

When I was compiling Memory Cards, one chapter was pulled for revision and somehow never made it back into the final draft. I’m posting it here for my readers for a short time, as I do plan to use it in a future book project. A form of this chapter was published in The Magnolia Review. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Memory Cards

            I studied the musky, fresh soil I’d turned out of the hole. I’d dug deep enough with the shovel, pulled out the roots of the previous failed effort, and paused to think. The sun was setting low over the high fields and the pond across the road, the end of another long hot day, the air filled with mosquitos. It would be dark soon, but I was determined to get this weeping willow sapling off to a good start. It didn’t look like much, but over the course of my lifetime, during which I planned not to stray far from the old family farm, I knew one day it would be spectacular. Three times as tall as me, the green, stringy branches would arch over and bend, perhaps around the time I might do the same.

We’d mark time and memories together, although I knew even as I carefully removed the nursery pot from the fragile roots, placed the tree into the hole and slowly broke up clods of coffee colored loam, it would outlast me.

I must have looked puzzled with my task. In this particular spot of the yard, not long removed from a rotation of tobacco, corn, soybeans and cotton, I’d had trouble getting anything to grow. Just 10 feet away, blueberries and peaches flourished, as did a flowering cherry tree. But this spot was different. Hurricane Fran took out a promising red delicious apple tree, Hurricane Floyd swept away a honey sweet pear. The last occupant of the space had been a flowering shrub with red and white flowers, one given to us by my parents in sympathy. I don’t recall its name.

My wife Kristi and I had talked about planting a weeping willow for years, and now I’d finally gotten around to it, an attempt to grant a wish just after we’d had another slip away. We’d suffered our second miscarriage just a few days after we’d seen the heartbeat on a black and white screen in the doctor’s office. The hurt still burned inside like that late spring sun. I finished the job, put the shovel away, and went inside, satisfied with my memorial.

  • • •

 

  • • •

It took nearly three and a half years to finally close the studio, and then only because we found someone who wanted to rent our 101-year-old building smack-dab in the center of the county seat.

I sold some of my equipment to other photographers, things like backgrounds and studio lights and props. Some things I could not part with, particularly the things that had become part of me and things I knew would never have the priority to be replaced, things I’d carried that I’d regret letting go the minute they walked out the door tucked under someone else’s arm. There was my Canon 5D camera, a relic by digital standards, but still clicking along and a host of lenses, free of dings or scratches. These tools were the best, well-made and cared for as any craftsman or artist protects the instruments that allow him to tell the story only he can tell. My tools went home with me.

Unfortunately, many other items did too, including unsold frames, albums, and nearly two decades worth of customer files. These files were filled with negatives from the first eight years and DVDs from the last nine years.

After all these boxes and awkward sized items took over our home, I started grabbing one box a week with the intention of methodically finding a place for everything.

I always said that people think when they see baby smiles they are looking at mouths and teeth, but really they are looking at eyes. Eyes are always true to the heart, and that goes not just for little ones but adults. Body language is a close second.

  • • •

Rubbing against this impact was the change going on with me, and the constant, nagging feeling of I just don’t want to deal with this anymore. I had become cynical and unsatisfied, questioned my purpose, even the value of what I was doing. Art on demand was what people wanted, not something beautifully crafted and designed to last. I was tired of crawling around on the floor, chasing babies, stopping time for one moment, the one that should be enlarged to a 24×30 and placed on the gallery wall of a McMansion, only to see the parent balk when it was time to place the order.

I probably gave a dozen answers about why I closed the shop, and all of them were true, even though none of them were true. That’s because my reasons changed. I changed. The photography, from both an artistic and business perspective, didn’t grow with me.

Some people spend lifetimes in newspapers, public relations or running their own business. Most self-employed people don’t voluntarily shut themselves down to go try something new, jump into the unknown clutching a family a five.

But then again, I’d never really done anything anyone expected me to. I was bored and underpaid, and I figured I could change at least one of those.

  • • •

The weeping willow did not make it. I watered it each day, but slowly the green turned to brown, the soft, pliable branches into brittle brown sticks that resembled the fingers of a rudimentary Halloween witch. Grass mostly filled the area in, and soon there was no evidence the ground had been encroached on. I vowed to give up.

But I didn’t. When our sons, who came along two and four years later, got old enough to ramble around the yard, they wanted to take pine saplings they’d gotten from the Smokey the Bear booth at the State Fair and plant them somewhere special. That seemed like a good idea, since pines in our area will grow in anything, whether it be a hole in a brick, rich loam or red-orange clay. The pines failed, too.

A friend and client gave me one of the cypress trees he had been transplanting and having success with in the county, a variety he had brought back from around the Pamlico Sound, where he owns a vacation home. He was very specific on the location, the soil type, how much sunlight and how much shade was needed. It was as if this tree was made to go in my yard, it was a place the tree could be good and different.

I once again armed myself with the shovel and a small trowel, and even brought along a measuring tape to get the depth and width just right. I used the large pot as a guide, remixed the soil in the bottom of the hole to make sure the roots could spread out. I watered meticulously and it seemed at last there might be something going on, the best fit I’d been able to find. Then one day, while I was gone, the fellow who used to cut our grass wasn’t watching where he was going and loped the tree down about an inch from the ground. It couldn’t recover.

Nothing would grow in this space, nothing was quite the right fit, no matter what we tried. That bit of ground looks and seems very much like all that is around it, but it still waits to receive what is just right, what will live and grow.

 

 

 

 

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