Thursday, November 8, 2018
THE ROAD ITSELF by ARALEE STRANGE
With THREE POEMS by ARALEE STRANGE,
MARK FLANIGAN Engages
THE ROAD ITSELF by Aralee Strange
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2018)
[First published as the book’s Afterword]
We were sitting at the communal table on Timber Dance’s large screened-in back porch, unable to see yet still appreciating the widescreen expanse of greenery that surrounded us, coyotes yipping in the distance while the two of us sipped on Wild Turkey.
“Aralee,” I had just said, “what you really need to do right now is get a book of poems out there.”
There was no immediate response, a fact I initially chalked up to her not being at ease with me telling her what to do.
Aralee chewed her gums as the top half of her body swayed side-to-side in her chair. Then, I continued to sit in silence until she flicked her Nat Sherman and said, kindly but passionately, “Mark, that’s not what I want. My poems are the only things I keep for myself. ‘Course, sometimes I share them, but when I do, it’s only because I want to, because I choose to. Otherwise, my poems are mine.”
It was enough to silence me, about that topic anyway.
Seven months later, I awoke to a few missed calls from unsaved numbers originating from Athens, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, I received the devastating news from our mutual friend, Lisa Mende: Aralee had passed away.
It had been so long since Aralee and I had communicated I was unaware that she wasn’t well again, which says more about me than anyone else, and remains a fact that hasn’t gone unrecognized by yours truly since.
My first response was to drive down to Athens that first week of July for the memorial held in her honor at the reading series she had co-founded there, Athens Word of Mouth. Since 2009, I had made the trip there each December, but this was the first time I was there in just a T-shirt, the large trees lining Lumpkin Street looking bare without their Christmas lights, and our leader no longer present in at least one integral sense of the word. Nonetheless, the experience was heartening.
My second response, then, was to coordinate—with the help of Jay Bolotin, Michelle Red Elk, Jim Palmarini and Ralph La Charity, among many others—“A. Strange Celebration” at the Northside Tavern in Cincinnati, our own memorial that turned out to be much more than that.
For, after the celebration, and at the behest of Kelly O’Donnell at the Weston Art Gallery, I started to put together an archive of what was expressed that night, and if memory serves me correctly, I think it was because of these efforts that I was bequeathed a copy of Aralee’s hard drive by filmmaker and co-founder of Athens Word of Mouth, Matt DeGennaro (a.k.a. “The Bastard”).
It was welcome.
Not long after that, and possibly at least in part in response to Aralee’s passing, once again I quit my job to try to “make it” as a writer.
The first thing I chose to do at this point—with the blessing of “The Bastard” and many of the other denizens of Athens Word of Mouth—was to co-found, along with Jim Palmarini (who had run many a reading with Aralee in the past), a new literary performance series in Aralee’s honor, Word of Mouth Cincinnati.
About this time, I also started to explore in earnest the gift of Aralee’s hard drive. No one was more surprised than me to find two manuscripts of poems on it, both titled The Road Itself, both collated in 2007 (the year she moved to Athens), both identical save for one poem, and both sent to contests to no avail. I don’t even want to know who won the awards for the Emily Dickinson First Book Award and Pavement Saw Contest in 2007. It was that good.
Thus, the second thing I chose to do was to edit Aralee’s existing manuscript. And by that I mean the following:
She started both versions of her manuscript with a poem in “Two Acts,” after the first act of which she explained simply, if not effectively, “Act II is in progress.” She never finished “Fool’s Play,” although her notes made one wish that she had; thus, I cut that poem, inserted one of the handful of poems she had written between 2007 and her death, and added the rest of the latter before the end of her initial manuscript’s last poem, which was “Waiting on Ralph at the Milner Grill.”
Aside from guessing at typos and setting the manuscript up in a more proper format, the most difficult editorial decision I had to grapple with regarded the “Psalm” poems, many of which inspired her feature film, This Train. Judging from the notes on her computer, the entirety of which was tidy, Aralee re-worked her poems up until the last few months of her life. Somewhere before that she had changed the tense of these particular poems from the present to the past tense. I changed them back.
I edited Aralee’s manuscript with more care than I have ever edited my own. Despite that fact (or because it was me doing it), that’s as far as it went: nowhere.
Enter Pauletta Hansel.
Because I have a loud mouth, the one thing I did accomplish was to tell everyone that I know much of what you just read, Pauletta included. Pauletta and I had known each other for quite some time, yet the fact of Word of Mouth Cincinnati brought us more closely together, and therefore the reading series that was started in Aralee’s honor ended up somehow bridging the gap between my computer to a worthy publisher, a fact I will forever be grateful to Pauletta for.
But my gratitude to her doesn’t stop there. Pauletta also articulated what I had already thought but wouldn’t allow myself to express about my initial version of Aralee’s manuscript, which closely adhered to her original one; namely, that it wasn’t as impactful as it could be.
This freed me up, at least to some degree, to begin serving the manuscript, instead of Aralee’s version of it in 2007.
The final product is still closely aligned in many ways to her version. It’s hard to describe, but maybe this will do: much of the order of Aralee’s initial manuscript remains intact, as far as most of the poems that were next to each other still remain side-by-side, yet certain “sections” of poems have been moved around, said sections in Aralee’s version being implied yet palpable to me.
There are even more heresies to detail.
For instance, two poems were cut (“some were born savvy” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poetry Workshop”) in favor of two others. The first poem added in their stead, “Her Rage,” seemed a natural fit considering the current climate, while the second poem deserves its own paragraph.
Aralee had two versions of “there is no revelation meditating on the ginkgo” in her papers, neither of which—it was clear to me—had been settled. Liking both for different reasons, I spliced the section cut out of the earlier version and inserted it into the newer version, this section being the one that gives a glimpse into Aralee as a young woman. That section’s inclusion seems integral to me because it illustrates in a way most of the remainder of the manuscript does not that Aralee’s ultimate agency wasn’t something born fully formed, but something that she earned throughout time.
There is another poem that we would have like to have included, but could not. Aralee wrote “didn’t take long” upon the death of the songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who she thought enough about to both eulogize and include his lyrics within her eulogy. Alas, despite much effort, we failed to secure permission to include them, and the poem would have suffered as a result without their inclusion.
Good thing Aralee was widely published—in print and online—in her lifetime. Finding it shouldn’t take long either.
Ultimately, though, the efforts behind this book will be judged by how well its dynamism matches the vitality of its author. That’s why the cover art, the internal artwork that was inspired directly by Aralee, the online audio/video component of Aralee performing her own work, and the many readings that will accompany this book’s release are indispensable. We made every attempt to reinforce what this book already is: a living, breathing thing.
Would Aralee have liked it? I will never know, but I can guess.
Just like I can only guess about the book’s title, which is never directly referenced within its pages.
Why The Road Itself?
Perhaps because the poems in it stand opposite the railroad of This Train, Aralee’s feature film that was anything but something that was just hers, film by its very nature being a much more collaborative pursuit?
Ah hell, enough with the questions.
It’s just a simple road, companera. No one owns it, not really; anyone’s free to use it; and it probably exists just the same regardless of whether anyone chooses to do so or not, although I must say it is much livelier with you here.
I, for one, can’t wait to stroll down it my own damn self as a mere pedestrian, while surely drinking in its majesty, mystery and essential nature, the totality of which—however improbably, certainly tragically—is somehow more pertinent now than when Aralee actually constructed it.
The road may be long, but it’s rarely long enough, no matter the size of the dog. But this road, this road was built to last. Its author made certain of that.
THREE POEMS BY ARALEE STRANGE
If anybody can save this world she’s a woman
and is she pissed
pre-fabricated domesticated deformed and suppressed
underdressed depressed obsessed with herself
seduced made ashamed and treacherous
She will raise her voice in hallelujah
she will raise her eyes and equal to
she will raise her fists if she needs to
she will know how.
And she will ask:
How if we waste the children who will lead us
shall we endure?
Why must they atone for the sins of the fathers
who sacrifice to their false gods all life
for the sake of pride and poor judgment
for who owns what
who own nothing
who know nothing
who would have us murder and destroy
them and how many of us
to save face
to prove whose god is great
who owns the night
whose mighty fist is biggest?
And she will say:
Let my will be done
for a change
my ways my means
my benevolence my praise
shorn corn the fox is fat
tomato ripe from the stem
citronella dance the flame the moth
the meat cooks
the hawk circles twice
the wine is bad
the wind the leaves shudder within is warm
the storm come and gone
my days here are numbered
red ball rolls over clover
my good dog
my dogged road
my last words
the wine is bad
Poem for Bob
If I said I saw you dressed in a long coat
mingling with other angels dressed similarly
on the mezzanine of the public library
who would believe me?
If I said it was proof you got your heavenly due
eternity among books
am I nuts or was it a dream
something I saw in a movie?
Is this what they mean by blind faith?
I have rattled your bones.
I know where your earthly remains lie
and whose hearts broke when you died
and took off flying straight to glory.
I tried to pray.
I tried to say goodbye.
I groped rock bottom and mortal
found no way to accept your disappearing.
I stare at the picture of you again
and our friend Arthur reading there
in the cold white light of Christmas past
the last page of a book poetry no doubt
but that was then and you are not and
what took you and why is not the point.
How can life comprehend oblivion?
But if I said that was you transfixed in ethereal
spirit free amongst flocking celestials
floating happily ever after for all time
pure cloud across a blue sky
I’d be right wouldn’t I?
Aralee Strange, a poet and playwright, was born on December 5, 1943, in Macon, Georgia, from where at a young age she moved to Birmingham, Alabama. After living and working in Atlanta, Georgia, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York City, New York, Aralee then settled for more than twenty years in Cincinnati, Ohio. In March 2007, she moved to Athens, Georgia, and lived there until her passing on June 15, 2013.
Strange’s body of work includes Etta Stone: A Film for Radio (1990), which she wrote, produced and edited at WGUC in Cincinnati and which was aired nationally on National Public Radio stations; dr. pain on main (1991), a play based on her series of poems by the same name, commissioned and produced by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; The Chronicles of Plague (1992), a play commissioned and produced by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati; An Evening at the Sad Cafe (1995), directed scenes from her screenplay This Train, performed at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati and at the Carnegie Arts Center, Covington, Kentucky; and This Train (1996-2001), a feature film she wrote, directed and edited.
Throughout her lifetime, Strange also pioneered multiple open poetry readings and read regularly at regional venues. Among the many awards and fellowships she received were The MacDowell Colony, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the City of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund, and the Ohio Arts Council.
The last reading series Strange founded was Athens Word of Mouth, in Athens, Georgia; it began in 2009 and continues to this day, which serves as one example of how her influence continues to be felt by those who knew her and her work. In addition to the many hundreds of poems published on the Athens Word of Mouth website, a volume of verse culled from its many performers, Word of Mouth: an anthology of performing poets (Bellemeade Books) was published in 2015.
At heart, the core of Strange’s legacy as a poet is equal parts inspiration and inclusion, which goes a long way in explaining the effect of her passing away had on so many varied artists, and why the publication of her manuscript is both essential and widely-anticipated.
Shortly after her death in 2013, celebrations of her and her work were held in both Athens, Georgia and in Cincinnati, Ohio. Between the two cities, over a hundred writers, actors, poets, visual artists and musicians gave new breath to Strange’s words, played audio of her reading her work, wrote poems for and about her, and displayed artwork that was inspired by her.
A sister reading series to Athens Word of Mouth, Word of Mouth Cincinnati, was founded in Strange’s honor in January 2014, and also continues to this day. It is described as “an intentional arc of both past and future utterance, inspired by our most revered (and missed) voice with a nod to her Athens, Georgia compatriots.”
Due perhaps to her highly-visual writing style and being a filmmaker, Aralee inspired many visual artists as well, a fact highlighted to great effect in the online journal Aeqai in February 2015 when they featured “Words and Images for a Better World: Aralee Strange (1943-2013), Literary Artist and Her Visual Art Friends,” a series of her poems, each accompanied by visual art that was inspired directly by her words.
In April 2016, Strange’s film This Train—the backbone of which was many of the poems in this manuscript—was central to a successful program at the Aronoff Center for the Arts titled “Present Tense Imperfect: Two Evenings of Spoken Word, Film, and Music.”
All of which are just a handful of examples meant to illustrate the extent of Aralee’s continued presence in multiple artistic communities that span varied disciplines.
Although Aralee may have moved on, her voice continues to resonate and will continue to as long as there is need for someone to champion the underdog, the underserved, and the unappreciated with a take-no prisoner attitude combined with a gentleness of spirit.
Or, as Aralee Strange spells it out in these pages, “teeth in the real/saying grace.”
Mark Flanigan (Cincinnati, OH) is a poet, performer, columnist, fiction writer and a screenwriter. After an 11 year run, his “Exiled” column is now archived at semantikon.com and citybeat.com, while a compilation, Exiled on Main Street: Dispatches, Diatribes, Stories and More from the Urban Core is forthcoming.
Previously, his volume of poetry, Journeyman’s Lament, appeared in the Aurore Press publication, Versus, and his free e-book, Minute Poems, is available online from Three Fools Press. In January 2014, Flanigan co-founded an open/feature reading, Word of Mouth Cincinnati, and in November 2015 his poem “The Bell Ringer’s Song” won the grand prize in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s One City, One Symphony Poetry Contest.
Most recently, Flanigan was the editor and wrote the afterword for Aralee Strange’s posthumous poetry collection, The Road Itself (Dos Madres Press).
Posted by EILEEN at 10:59 AM