LANGUAGE ARTS

“We cannot fight old power in old power terms only. The way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence, at the same time as we are resisting.” — Audre Lorde in an “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich” (1979)

What are the literary works that have defined the educational experiences in the U.S.? Which authors continue to shape the thinking and writing of those entrenched in this country’s educational systems and academic institutions? De-Canon, a newly launched project in Portland started by literary artists and educators Dao Strom and Neil Aitken, is turning a critical eye on popular understanding of this country’s literary canon—bridging the idea of a site-specific “library” with digital resources, visual art, and performative practices, all centered on literary artists of color.  

De-Canon at UNA Gallery

Questions of educational pedagogy have fueled the organizer’s drive to offer an alternative to the hierarchy of western literature. “Courses, and even workshops (practice-oriented workshops), are consciously or unconsciously built around the assumption that there’s only a western canon to have a conversation around,” explains Aitken. Gesturing to his and many of his fellow writers’ shared experience, he notes, “When we sit in an MFA workshop or someone teaches us the craft of writing, the texts that they reference are almost always exclusively white male writers, with a handful of white female writers. And it ignores generations, hundreds of years, even millennia of other aesthetic work that’s out there. And it also ignores contemporary writers of color.”

With aspirations to “create a forum in which many voices contribute to the defining–or un-defining–of the literary canon,” De-Canon was launched with funding from Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s granting program, the Precipice Fund. In addition to a website of literary resources and an archive of dialogue between writers of color, De-Canon is also taking physical shape this August in the form of a pop-up library at UNA Gallery that will host a slew of cultural programming. Library open hours are 12-5 pm Saturdays and Sundays through August 26th.  

According to Aitken, the foundation for De-Canon began to emerge in 2015 after Wordstock, Portland’s major book festival. “Portland’s literary spaces can be very, very white,” notes Aitken, nodding to the lack of local POC writers at the festival that year. Shortly afterward, a group of writers of color began meeting and found that a common theme surfaced.

“In those home-based conversations, this type of a conversation would come up often, about both people sharing their experiences in university programs and writing workshops, and frequently feeling silenced or excluded from a discussion about literature, or being told that their experiences or their stories didn’t fit within what other people were writing about,” says Aitken. “So the question then becomes, well where are those stories? Why are we not exposed to other people who write from a world of experience that’s more in line with ours?”

A deeper dive into the field reveals that there are plenty of writers with other modes of sharing their stories and with a range of lived experiences—more than could ever fit in one syllabus, or even multiple syllabi—and many working on a local level in Portland. The idea of multiplicity emerges as a recurring theme in the organizers’ efforts to put together an entire library. This self-made space for building community is not trying to “replace” the Western canon, but instead, it offers numerous canons for people to interact with and think about on their own terms.

It is important for the organizers not to assume a position of authority in presenting de-canon(s), and this is reflected in the setup of texts within the library. “We’re not dictating ‘this is exclusively for this type of thing; This is exclusively for that’,” shares Aitken. “That part of the exhibit is an invitation to anyone there to move things around, to reform what goes into a box or a canon, and think about it differently. What fits together, what doesn’t fit together, for them?”

Art by Sam Roxas-Chua, featured as part of De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibition at UNA Gallery

While plenty of books can be found in De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibit, Strom explains, “We’re loosely interpreting ‘literary arts’ or ‘literary expression’ as something that can happen not just through words on the page or through books but also through other forms, like oral, or image text, or music, or visual [forms].” As a practitioner of hybrid literary forms herself, Strom also elaborates on the hybrid focus, remarking, “You know, that square with text on the page is not necessarily the only shape that we can receive stories or experience through.”

De-Canon’s inclusion of hybrid forms of literary art also reflects an effort to unlearn or subvert the authority of language, particularly the English language, which Strom describes as a “language of colonization, war, and dominance”—a language that many writers of color use, but that is not always the primary language of their culture. Aitken explains that one’s relationship to a language might differ, “whether they’ve grown up in a household where English is not the only language, or maybe it’s the second or third language, or [maybe] they’ve grown up where English, for multiple generations, has been the language, even though everyone around you assumes that it’s not.”

This critical lens on the English language is coupled with an impetus to move away from the tropes and narratives it perpetuates—a societal consciousness of categorization. For Strom, this includes tropes in Asian American “ethnic” literature, such as “food and family, immigrant stories that herald triumph of the spirit or redemptive themes, assimilation narratives…the unacknowledged expectation of gratitude that is wanted of the immigrant tale, which silently reinforces white savior/America as land of rescue complexes.”

“I think that all of us are trying to write beyond that,” Strom continues, “if you speak to any writer of color, most of them are reaching beyond particular tropes.”

But even as the organizers work to move away from tropes, they find themselves having to confront categories as a way to deepen and grow their understanding of the intersecting, overlapping, and expanding canons within the project. Aitken describes “the tension between the project goals of being very flexible with terms and definitions…and then the very practical side of bookkeeping, of trying to track what we’ve actually ordered, and whether or not we’re representing genres, representing different populations of people. It’s like they run at odds with each other, and yet they’re both necessary.”

Strom follows this with her own insightful interpretation of this organizing work. “I guess it develops empathy between people, like to be able to admit that you don’t know something, so you can open yourself up to listening, which, especially right now, seems like a practice to try to engage in,” she says. “And I think it’s hard because then, yes, things aren’t definite…you come in contact with your own discomfort.”

In terms of De-Canon’s aspirations into 2018, both organizers dream of a space where De-Canon can be housed permanently, something well overdue as a local cultural resource. However, for now, the act of coming together to create spaces for the POC literary community in Portland and, as Strom puts it, “a context for the work that we’re doing”—this is vital, and it includes an investment of work in the virtual world as well. “If we profile Portland as part of the website, we were thinking that could be something that could happen in other places,” she continues.

“We don’t have the power to change everything that happens out there,” muses Aitken, “but what we do have is the power to call attention to different things that we see.” This includes a host of literary artists of color in Portland, many of whom are highlighted by De-Canon in their programming at UNA Gallery this month.  

For more unlearning and de-canonization, please see the numerous resources and full schedule of remaining events on De-Canon’s website—the next event, De-Canon {Music+Poetry}, is August 19th; the Unlearning Podcast by Béalleka, one of De-Canon’s presenters; and Strom’s upcoming performance with Samiya Bashir, in collaboration with Shayla Lawson, as part of Time-Based Arts Festival. To take a deeper dive, join Physical Education for Reading Group August 26th, 3-5 pm at UNA Gallery (remember to do your reading beforehand!).

Cascadia Composers reviews: Lights, poetry, music

Concerts seek meaning beyond music through complementary art forms

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

One of the oldest questions in music — right after “what the hell is music, anyways?” — is how music expresses meaning. We normally think of meaning as a semantic thing, something that can be explained in words and symbols. We can, of course, regard music as a kind of language…but when we think of meaning in music we normally go outside the music itself to something more overtly linguistic. Usually that means lyrics, libretti, and programmatic music based on poems or stories. We also tend to think of musical meaning as being something non- or extra-auditory — paintings, religious iconography, or the physical appearances of performers, conductors, and composers. In the past few months, Cascadia Composers has put on two concerts dealing with these strategies for meaning-making in music: one visual, one linguistic.

Visual Meaning: Desire for the Sacred

January’s Desire for the Sacred concert, hosted at Lewis & Clark College’s sylvan Agnes Flanagan Chapel, was as much light show as concert: performers on several compositions played up in the organ loft while the audience sat enveloped in the colored lights projected all over the chapel’s gorgeous modernist wooden ceiling and its Casavant organ, the world’s only circular pipe organ, its pipes suspended from the chapel’s ceiling in a dense spiral.

The organ in Agnes Flanagan Chapel.

The light show was run by Nicholas Yandell, whose music began each half of the concert. In the opening Dilate; Elucidate, slowly evolving pastels emulated the holy glow of the rising sun and reflected the yearning arpeggiations and pedal notes of the Pacific Northwest’s resident organ god, Dan Miller. After intermission, Yandell’s Hymn of Daybreak resurrected the solar theme, this time with Cheryl Young at the manuals and the sweet longing of Kurt Heichelheim’s distant horn imbuing the chapel with numinous charms.

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Miss Anthology teaches the power of comics

Fueled by a Precipice Fund grant, Miss Anthology puts storytelling in the hands of diverse teens

By HANNAH KRAFCIK

Sequential art has a magical quality that is difficult to describe. The most beloved American comics seem to pique the imagination in particular way, with a perfect mix of narrative and imagery that keeps the comic book reader coming back and the graphic novella lover hungry for more. But for Melanie Stevens, one of the founders of the Miss Anthology project, there is far more potency to sequential art-making than meets the eye.

Stevens is originally from Atlanta, and she’s currently finishing her MFA in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. This winter, she and her collaborators Emily Lewis and Mack Carlisle were awarded a grant via Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund to kick off Miss Anthology, a project that will enable racially and economically diverse female and genderqueer youth, ages 13-18, to create their own stories through sequential art (aka comics). Miss Anthology will offer a series of comic-making workshops, followed by the publication of an anthology of graphic work this fall.

I sat down with Stevens in early March to discuss Miss Anthology. She has a background in graphic novels and comics, a field she turned to when she could not afford art supplies and did not have access to an art studio space. The DIY nature of comics offered her a way to make narrative work and share it online, avoiding a slew of gatekeepers.

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Beyond the Sea, awash in La Mer

How a French popular song from the 1940s engulfed an American boy of the 1960s and has stayed with him through thick and thin

By STEPHEN RUTLEDGE

Once when I was challenged to name my Top Ten Favorite Songs, I expressed to my friend a desire to be able to erase from my memory all of my favorite songs so that I might have the experience of hearing them again for the first time. It seemed to me that if I listened to a favorite song too often, I might run the risk of wearing it out. I was afraid that eventually it wouldn’t move me in quite the same way. I would still want, maybe even need, to hear it, but the emotional intensity simply wouldn’t be as high. With every listen, I might be searching for that magic and it would be gone.

Now I know that this is not true with the great songs. They are the ones that sound new every time.

As an only child of two working parents, after school, except when I was off to rehearsals or music lessons, I had the house to myself until 6 p.m. I felt free to help myself to the parents’ hi-fi and LP collection, and as I got older, to their liquor cabinet too. They actually paired well, booze and music.

Broadway musicals, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, these were the artists that informed my musical tastes. I simply loved filling the silence of our house with these recordings. I sang along. In fact, I learned to sing while attempting to reproduce their sounds.

Bobby Darin’s album That’s All was released in 1959 when I was five years old. After the Original Broadway Cast album of My Fair Lady, it was my favorite LP during my pre-Beatles grade school years. That’s All opens with Darin’s famous version of “Mack The Knife.”

But the second track always stopped me dead and filled me with a wistfulness that I could barely grasp as a kid. That song was titled “Beyond The Sea,” and although it was a swingin’ tune, it somehow broke my young heart, which was a brand new sensation. It frightened me as well. I loved it.

Nostalgia, like chest pain, is often a sign of deeper problems. I know this, and tried to remind myself of that recently as I flew to the place of my childhood. I was studying the landform patterns of Eastern Washington from 28,000 feet and they seemed so familiar to me. I know this land. I recognized and even acknowledged a place where water was scarce. So, why did I flee Spokane the afternoon of my graduation from high school, bound for a port city? I chose Boston because it was so far away, and for Boston Bay with salty air and ships.

In the early 1970s, I lived in an apartment with sliding glass doors that opened to white sand and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I could see Catalina Island on a clear day, and there were not that many clear days in 1970s Los Angeles.

I left LA for Manhattan, where I lived eight blocks from the Hudson River. I would sit at the Chelsea piers to look at the shimmery, silvery surface and smell the water and cruise the guys. I would ride the Staten Island ferry, standing at the bow and singing “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”

In Seattle, circa 1981 to 2001, I lived in a bungalow that was just four blocks from Lake Union and the Shipping Canal. Again, I could smell the salt water and I loved the mournful sound of the foghorns and the toots from the tugs.

In 2001, my husband and I had a collective nervous breakdown and up and moved to Portland. At first I was wary. Where was my water? But, standing naked on a beach at Sauvie Island and watching these huge cargo ships make their way up the mighty Columbia, I realized that it feels very much like having an ocean.

In the early 1990s, the parents sweetly gave me a cassette they had made, a mix-tape of songs that I had embraced in my earliest childhood. One of those songs was “Beyond The Sea.” My mother reminded me that as a six-year-old, I would sing it for company, accompanied by a little dance during the bridge.

The song’s first incarnation was as “La Mer,” and it was written by French composer/ lyricist/ singer/ showman Charles Trenet in 1945 for another French singer. In 1946, Trenet recorded his own version. It became an unexpected international hit, and has since become a chanson classic and a jazz standard.

Trenet claimed that he wrote the lyrics as a poem when he was 16 years old, but it was many years before he came up with a melody for it. In 1943, the tune came to him while traveling by train as he was gazing out of the window at the Mediterranean Sea. He jotted it down on piece of paper and in the afternoon he worked out the details with his pianist. That evening they performed it in front of an audience and nobody seemed to care.

But, over the years the song became very popular throughout the world with plenty of prominent artists recording their own versions. Besides the original in French, the song was also recorded in several other languages with the English version titled “Beyond The Sea” being particularly popular and becoming a signature song for Darin. In 1966 there were already over 100 different recordings of “La Mer.” When Trenet left this world in 2001, there were more than 4,000 different recordings of it with over 100 million copies sold.

The English lyrics are not a translation, by the way. They describe a wistful look at lovers who are separated. The French version is literally about the sea.

In 2001, The Oregonian’s music critic, David Stabler, did a wonderful piece on funeral music. In closing, he requested readers to send him their five choices for songs to be played at their own memorial. My submission was published the next Friday, as I suspected that it might, and of the five, three were songs about the sea, and all five were songs about water: Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had A Boat,” “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads, “Shiver Me Timbers” From Tom Waits, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters Of March” (“Águas de Março” in Portuguese) and, of course, “La Mer.”

My invitation was to write about a song that terrifies and inspires. But, I am not really afraid of things. Being afraid is not my shtick. I am not scared of spiders or snakes, or heights or tight spaces, or death or speaking in public (obviously).

Charles Trenet, chanteur.

In October 2013, I was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was immediately hospitalized. I wasn’t afraid, not even when 36 hours later it was explained to me that I would be undergoing brain surgery the next day.

That next day, I was prepped for surgery. A surgical nurse shaved my head and the attending physician drew a map on my skull using marking pens. I was wheeled into the O/R and introduced to the team including the anesthesiologist. Then we all waited. And waited. And waited. The scheduled time came and went and the anesthesiologist made the call that if the neurosurgeon was not in place in five minutes they were going to scrub my launch. I told jokes to keep everyone’s mood light. At the last moment, the hopelessly handsome surgeon breezily made his entrance. He leaned down and in my ear he whispered: “I usually choose the music that is played while I work, but because you held down the fort before I got here, today you get to choose. What song would you like us to play as I open up your skull?”

I requested “Beyond The Sea.” Without missing a beat he asked: “The original French or an American cover version?” … it seemed that he had all of them on his iPad. So … there was the very real chance that the very last thing I was ever going to hear was Charles Trenet singing “La Mer.” As I counted backwards from 100 as the Propofol was administered, I reached 97 and then I felt all at sea.

*

Portland writer and actor Stephen Rutledge writes the daily Born This Day column on World of Wonder’s WOW Report. He wrote this piece in November 2016 for SONGBOOK PDX, a gathering of writers speaking on “the music that terrified and inspired them.” As an actor, Rutledge has appeared in 150 full stage productions, seven feature films, over 50 commercials, and dozens of voice-overs.

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A Road Dog barks his tale

Portland filmmaker Kelley Baker and his chocolate lab hit the road for some American adventure. Oh: and a book that spills the beans.

“Our story starts in the Garden of Eden,” Kelley Baker begins. “Not that one. The one in Lucas, Kansas.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.

 “The wind blows ferociously across the Kansas prairie, because it’s … Kansas.

 “I’m standing next to a too-skinny woman dressed in black who reminds me of a meth addict. With teeth. Dinsmoor’s lying in front of us. He’s seen better days.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor is a mummy.”

Baker calls himself The Angry Filmmaker, and there is some truth to the assertion, although “renegade” might be a more accurate if less marketable word. Now, with the release of Road Dog, his comic and exasperated and slightly profane tale of traveling America’s highways and back routes, he could even make it The Renegade Raconteur.

Curling up with a good book.

A fixture on the Portland film scene for decades, Baker’s juggled a mainstream career – sound designer on six Gus Van Sant movies and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, writer/producer/director of several successful documentaries for TV – with a fiercely independent career of making ultra-low-budget features, often peddling them himself on long road trips to colleges, film festivals, and specialty video stores. Then there’s the one he’s still reeling in, the feature-length documentary on the novelist and radical activist Kay Boyle, a three-decade project that is tantalizingly close to completion but still a few thousand dollars short of the finish line. I wrote about his quest three and a half years ago in Angry and obsessed: the Baker/Boyle story.

That’s almost, though not quite, how long it’s been since we’d sat down to talk. Until recently, when he came out with Road Dog, and I figured it was time to catch up. Kelley’s one of those people you like to catch up with now and again, if you can figure out where he is and how long he’ll be there. Road Dog is a sort of working-man’s riff on Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s tale of traveling into the soul of America on an epic road trip with his dog. Baker’s book recounts his adventures over several years of long road trips in the company of a 120-pound chocolate lab named Moses, who may not lead him to the promised land but is a good and faithful companion and a co-conspirator in many stories.

The book is episodic, as rambling as the endless country roads Kelley and Moses travel, and very funny. Baker writes pretty much the way he talks, which is with a natural plainspoken rhythm that incorporates wry humor, sharp satiric jabs, fascinating side trips that eventually loop around to the point, and a streetwise moralism that does not suffer fools gladly but appreciates their contributions to the telling of a tale.

Baker

Road Dog covers several national tours that Baker and Moses undertook, usually twice a year, from North to South to East to West in a tripped-up minivan. It covers, usually, hundreds of miles a day, broken up by “incidents” with Texas and Idaho and Iowa state troopers and snooty film professors who’ve never made a film. It drops in on nights of drinking and swapping stories with lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center beside Hank Williams’ grave, and meetings with friendly bikers and pickup drivers and helpful long-haul truckers. It is dotted with Motel 6es and Walmart parking lots (“a series of campgrounds with stores attached that stretch across the United States”) and adventures with a giant Jesus in the Ozarks and an antiseptic Prayer Tower in Tulsa. It tells of being outed as a Yankee in a Memphis bar, and meeting kindred souls from Austin to the nation’s capital, and white-knuckle drives through blinding storms, and traveling with his daughter, Fiona, who adapts adroitly to life on the road. Through it all, Baker encounters an America shaped by and yet also somehow engaging deeply beyond the headlines of a divided nation. And Moses doggedly makes his mark at rest stops and tree stumps across the country, winning friends and stealing hearts along the way.

Road Dog even includes a glossary, which is largely an excuse for Baker to make epigrammatic pronouncements of a jaundiced and entertaining nature. (On the Winchester Mystery House: “This place is a tribute to one of the craziest people in America. But she was incredibly wealthy so she was just considered eccentric.” On PBS affiliates: “a loose network of television stations that have no problem overpaying for films by people like Ken Burns and yet wants most other filmmakers to give them their work for free. Especially if you’re local.”)

Oh, and about the Garden of Eden. S.P. Dinsmoor’s wife is there, too. Buried under several tons of concrete. You could look it up.

Nathaniel Mackey: Black breath matters

African American poet, essayist and academic Nathaniel Mackey gave us an extended consideration of breath—in poetry, music and black life

Gregg Popovich, the best and most innovative coach in professional basketball, responded physically to the election of Donald Trump. It made him “sick to my stomach,” he told NBA beat reporters before the Spurs played on Friday.

He wasn’t alone. The election took a physical toll, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, sometimes attacking the gastrointestinal apparatus and sometimes the nervous system. Or maybe your windpipe became scratchy and your chest constricted with the enormous weight of the political events, compressing your lung and interfering with your respiration.

Maybe you couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said it 11 times, face down on the sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as a New York City policeman applied a chokehold to his neck. Then he passed out, and neither the gathered squad of policemen nor the EMTs who responded to the call attempted to revive him. The cause of his death, according to the medical examiner: “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner couldn’t breathe.

Poet/academic/music writer Nathaniel Mackey mentioned Eric Garner several times at Reed College this week, both in his poetry reading Thursday night and his lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Friday, a talk that linked the advanced jazz explorations of black jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s—Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell—to experimental poetry at the same time, to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, among others. Maybe the common theme of lecture and poems was simply that Black breath matters, a phrase Mackey used.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

The common language the poets and musicians of the ’50s shared, the common physical link, involved breath. Ginsberg famously organized “Howl” with the idea of breath: “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit,” he said. “My breath is long—that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” As Mackey pointed out, it doesn’t quite work out the way in practice, neither with Ginsberg nor with Olson, here in his 1950 essay, “Projective Verse.”

“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Breath is funny. I can control my breath to a certain extent. I can huff and puff until I make myself light-headed, for example, or slow my respiratory process to a level barely perceptible. But then, most of the time, I am breathing without thinking about it at all, autonomically, firing up under stress and damping down during rest. I like the effort to connect creation (in Olson and Ginsberg’s case, poetry) to breath, both to acknowledge its importance and to employ it consciously. I do have to say that it seems…abstract. Idealized. Theorized. Both Olson and Ginsberg would have hated that characterization, because they were so interested in linking mind and body, maybe even to argue the primacy of body.

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Places of enchantment, page to stage

How I watched my novel "The Enchanted" become a play in Edinburgh, and what the theater has taught me as a writer

By RENE DENFELD

A few weeks ago I was sitting front row at a stage in Edinburgh, Scotland. The lights were dimmed.

I was remembering a day several years before.

It had been a bright spring day, and I remembered walking out of the death row prison where I work, trying to save men from execution. My car keys were in my hand, rustling. I felt the fetid air lift off my skin.

I had passed under the high, stained gothic walls, the guards at the towers with guns resting idly on me. I could hear the prison doors slamming.

And I heard a soft voice, speaking clearly.

“This is an enchanted place,” he said.

I had known right away that this was not an inmate I had met. But he was there, on the dungeon of death row, waiting for me in a cell like the others I knew, and he would tell me a story.

So started the journey into my first novel.

Rene Denfeld in Edinburgh with a puppet from the group Pharmacy's stage adaptation of her novel "The Enchanted."

Rene Denfeld in Edinburgh with a puppet from the group Pharmacy’s stage adaptation of her novel “The Enchanted.”

I went home that night and the poetry began. I wrote and wrote. Over time the narrator became so real I could see him. He would perch next to me in his prison smock, his feet bare, his toenails and fingernails curled into talons from not being allowed scissors or sharp items of any kind. His hair was grey around a caved, toothless face. He looked at me with longing.

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