DANIEL CROCKER – Like a Fish

[The following sentences are words from the wickedest wit to come out of Warsaw, IN since Ambrose Bierce: Steve Henn]

Near the end of the summer of 2005 my buddy Oren Wagner and I drove 4 hours into Michigan to ask Nathan Graziano to submit work to the new small press literary magazine, Fight These Bastards, that we were starting with the outstanding poet Don Winter. The drive was not memorable. It was hot. I may have been in the habit of smoking at the time. I probably griped about my wife (at the time).  Graziano was doing a reading at a Barnes and Noble in, I think, Ann Arbor, with his good buddy, Daniel Crocker. Despite reading to an audience of mostly blue-haired old ladies and one black guy wearing headphones who made crappy abstract art with markers, raising his head to look about like a cornered rodent and clap over the reluctant applause of the bluehairs, only to return to his pointless doodling and whatever he was listening to, Graziano delivered. I had already read some of his work and I expected it to be so.

Crocker tried a few poems, then said, “I probably shouldn’t, but . . .” and proceeded to read, with passion, a short story about the family dog’s beautiful balls. The story didn’t impress me much, but, looking back, giving the finger to so many Grandmas, many of whom might’ve bought a book for a grandson claiming to be working on some writing while he actually sold pot from his parents’ basement, took courage. That gesture was ballsier than the short story – which was all dog balls.  I’m sure Crocker would’ve taken care to pander to his audience more effectively if he was sitting on 17 poems about doilies and prunes.

Graziano sent poems, some of which found their way into FTB, and a story that we published as well. It was about a 20something guy who goes to the doctor to have genital warts removed. There are doctor and patient, in the examining room, freezing off the warts, a solidarity-inducing experience in which those “little bastards” implicitly stand in for whatever outside forces might be conspiring to keep both men down.  It was funny and moving. Really. That story was a winner.

Crocker sent in a story, too. The one about dog testes. After not very much deliberation, Oren, Don and I decided dog testicles were inferior literary material to a minor human sexually transmitted affliction. We ended up publishing Graziano in more than one issue, over our 8-issue, 3-and-a-half year run. As far as I can recollect, Crocker never sent in any other work after dogballs was rejected. Which is a shame, because his book of poems, Like a Fish, really kicks ass, and you should buy it and read it.

FTB is a ghost now. We were always proud of the quality of work we published, but it never quite made the splash on the small press landscape we were hoping for, regardless of any claim it has as part of “Indiana underground art history” (the words of Andrew Morris, ladies and gentlemen).  Editing a small magazine can be a pretty thankless task, when you hear so much from shitty writers questioning your editorial tastes, or trumping up their own “talent” without the work to back up their claims.  But like the poems we did publish in FTB, Crocker’s poems in Like a Fish deserve to be read. Even if one poem is entitled “Never Got That Dog Fixed.”

I am contrite. That’s what I’m getting at. I’m contrite to the point that Graziano’s blurb on the back of Crocker’s book, presenting Crocker as “a hidden gem in American letters,” contains, to me, only the faintest touch of overstatement.  Like a Fish contains poems that Don Winter would’ve included under the umbrella of what he called “Press of the Real.” Crocker will not get the recognition he deserves for such a fine book. He doesn’t have a prominent teaching position (although he’s taught at the college level, as far as I know he currently substitute teaches in his hometown), he’s not solidly middle class, he’s not middle of the road in any way. He’s a working class southerner who dares to write about lived experience, whose language is often not lyrical, whose subject matter cuts closer to the bone than the academically vetted McPoems of the workshop culture. His poems read like lost aphorisms pronounced by a regular at the bar to a barkeep half listening to her usual patron, half wondering what the night will bring when work is done. If you’ve got the image in your head of the white working class male obsessed with football, unattainable sex, and mundane obsessions that are neither lively nor creative, read Crocker’s poems. There are no sports in them. Sex, sometimes mentioned elliptically, is with real people, or expressed in Skeletor’s homoerotic desire for He-man. His obsessions give voice to the everyman but present an insightful, creative everyman – one who claims, as one section is entitled “Everything is falling apart but the McRib.”

I am not going to exhaustively deconstruct Crocker’s poems. Well, maybe at some point, but not here. But I do want to point out what he does especially well. There are two types of poems that hit the mark best in the book. The first is the poem that makes use of pop cultural material. “He-man, You Smarmy Bastard,” as I’ve mentioned, reveals Skeletor’s longing for He-man’s body and for inclusion into the brotherhood of Castle Grayskull. “Sestina McRib” is concerned with eating a leftover McDonald’s sandwich, imagining it taken from the rib of Ronald as the rib was taken from Adam. “What Spider Man Dreams of” is a list poem confessing, among other unrealized deliberate faux pas, the superhero’s desire to drop “one, just one, old lady.” Oscar the Grouch begins with this quote from Dave Chappelle: “Bitch, I live in a fuckin’ trashcan.”  The unreserved use of expletive in the last example is deliberate and necessary. Crocker is writing in the language we use, not in the language we’d hope to use if we were given a teleprompter and a cadre of speechwriters.

That is not to say that the poems aren’t carefully revised. You can’t reach the clarity and flow and stripped-to-essentials feel of so many of these poems without cutting out the unnecessary. This achievement is especially noticeable in the poems that don’t take pop culture as inspiration, but rather Crocker’s background and experience. The two pinnacles of this other type of poem are “Where We Come From (ver. 2.0)” and “Ashley’s Poem,” for Crocker’s daughter. The first is an inspired treatment of Crocker’s hometown: Leadwood, Missouri. I wrote my own where-I-come-from poem a few years ago to break a long writing drought. The poem, which took Ginsberg’s Howl as a model, purported to catalogue the experiences of my generation of Warsaw kids-turned-adults. I think every good poet has some kind of where-I-come from poem in them – some mishmash of the psychology and geography and ideology of the place or places that formed their identity. Crocker’s is as powerful as any. The poem about his daughter denotes both his love for her, distress at his own mortality, and a benediction for a baby boy who was in the hospital when she was born, who would never have a father hold him, like Ashley’s mother never had a father to hold her. Over the course of the book we learn Crocker is no orthodox saint – he has his faults and his demons.  But when he claims in “Cathedral: The Poem” that “it knocks me on my ass, the beauty / I’ve missed,” I believe he’s capable of both the guilt and failure the statement implies, as well as the transcendent ability to find the beauty in simple, real, flawed, lived experience.

Get a copy of Like a Fish here

Steve Henn

February 12th, 2012

DYLAN ETTINGER & MELISSA CHA – Wintermute

The German philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno was once described to me as a bitter man, who sat alone in his room and denounced the world around him. For example, Adorno claimed that the Protest-Songs of the 60’s were unbearable, because they turned the horror of Vietnam into a consumable product.  For Adorno, protest songs also turned very complex issues into very simple ones and in so doing, they prevented the public from seeing truth. Adorno is a guy who probably would have gotten the shit kicked out of him at the Time Out Inn in Warsaw.

But in watching the new music video for Dylan Ettinger’s song “Wintermute” I couldn’t help but imagine Adorno’s battered and bloody body on the floor of the men’s bathroom there at the Time Out. Ettinger’s song, as well as the accompanying music video, is a very complex beast that doesn’t let itself be easily consumed. Like most of Ettinger’s oeuvre, you have to sit down and mentally tangle with it before you can start to appreciate it.

“Wintermute” is the first single off of Ettinger’s forthcoming album Lifetime of Romance on Not Not Fun Records and signifies an important shift in the Warsaw, Indiana native’s musical development. All of you avid General Thad readers will remember that Ettinger’s Lion of Judah/Baptism Single pushed Ettinger into much more of a pop direction with more concrete pop structures and melodies (See GT article). With “Wintermute” we see Ettinger continuing further into this direction. He has chosen to place his vocals and lyrics in a much more prominent position than ever before. Even the content of the lyrics follows more of a pop template with love becoming a central theme. This stands in stark contrast to his earlier works, which were dominated by cyber-punk metropolises and “baptisms in blood”. But Ettinger’s transition to more pop-based content does not mean that his work is now simpler.

“Wintermute” is in actuality a very complex piece. We hear in the opening seconds of “Wintermute” Ettinger as he takes apart synth sounds and finally drops them on a beat. Ettinger mutilates his yearning voice with reverberation, almost to the point of indecipherability. These aspects reveal, very interestingly, that Ettinger tries to musically destroy that which he had musically created. He tries to recreate a lost love, but also tries to destroy that love. In the final product, we are left with a song that is neither entirely created, because it has been partially destroyed, but also we are left with a song that has not been fully destroyed because it was indeed created.

The complexity of “Wintermute” continues further, when one looks at the alarm sound that unnervingly beeps out-of-tempo in the left speaker. The alarm beeps while the rest of the song seems to continue on, blind to the existence of this alarm. The sound forces the listener to understand the song in a very complex way. In order to tap one’s foot to the beat, one has to ignore the odd-tempoed alarm in the left ear, but by ignoring this one is not listening to the entire composition. Ettinger creates tension through this musical frustration. He therefore has not only produced a rather complex piece, but one that forces the listener to hear that complexity. The intricacies and the paradoxes of “Wintermute” cannot be ignored, and if they are, the listener fails to hear the “true” song in its entirety.

Even in the music video (wonderfully directed by San Francisco native Melissa Cha), frames are stopped, deconstructed and reconstructed again. A woman’s beautiful dance moves are taken apart frame-by-frame and male and female clothes disappear. Starting at 4:09 Cha does a great job editing the video to challenge the viewer’s focus. At this point, the viewer’s eyes are constantly being directed towards the left side and the right side of the picture as the video cuts between a black background with a white focus-point and a white background with a black focus-point. This constant, jarred style of video does a good job of interpreting the complexity inherent in Ettinger’s style of songwriting. There is no good or bad, no right or wrong, but instead there is only a complex constellation of both, and all shades in between. “Wintermute” comes at us all once: it is quick like our ADD-digital age; it is complicated like the PTSD-ravaged souls of American vets; its figures and style are beautiful like a crumbling barn on old 30.

As much as Dylan Ettinger’s work doesn’t want to be confined to the limits of Kosciusko county, the fact that the connection to Kosciusko county exists, makes the complexity that much greater. “Wintermute” is a song that was not created for the rural cornfields of Northern Indiana, but rather it is a song that materializes the angst of being a counter-culture kid working on a factory line or a skateboarding stoner, who traded in his days at Bogg’s Industrial Park for nights behind the kitchen doors of Mad Anthony’s. “Wintermute” delves into the issues informing our complex loves, complex lives and complex homes.

Now that you’ve made it to the end of this whole thing, I’ve got one bit of advice for you. Don’t go repeating this Adorno-style paradoxical analysis at the Time Out Inn in Warsaw, Indiana. Keep it to yourself. If you do wind up talking, don’t come blaming me if you wake up in a sowbarn somewhere out by Beaver Dam with nothing but a six-pack of warm beer and fifty cents to make a phone call.

Check out Dylan Ettinger’s Bandcamp and Twitter. Melissa Cha can be found at her website.

Andrew Morris

Feb 5, 2012