Saturday, August 27, 2011

Some thoughts and some very good news

The month is almost over, and me with two posts. What can I say? A lot has been on my mind.

Tonight I went to see Andrea Gibson perform at Mills. I missed her when she came through College Park on the Salt Lines tour, so this was my first time seeing her. She spit her poetry on the stage on the campus green, with students camped out on the lawn. Andrea is worth the hype. Powerful. Chilling. Warm and positive. Reminded me why I got interested in spoken word in the first place. Her delivery is very reserved, so the listener can focus on her wordcraft. She not only performed her poems, but explained a bit of the thought process behind them, and how she's rewritten some as time goes by to reflect her changing politics. What I found cool is that, well, Mills gave her the rock star treatment. Advertisements everywhere, what I can only assume was a nice honorarium culled from my $50000, a large and receptive crowd. This is good and bad, as Andrea herself pointed out: she feels that people who disagree with her views should be listening to her poetry, and she inevitably finds herself reading to the echo chamber most of the time. But anyway, to see Mills pull out all the stops for a poet was super.

There was also something cool and unifying about seeing so many of my fellow students in one place together. As a 27-year-old black man, I sometimes feel alienated in a space designed for and populated almost entirely by middle to upper-class white women, most of whom I never interact with. The stratospheric tuition also adds to the feeling that this is just a place I go to get a piece of paper. I feel far more distanced here than in my previous college endeavors, College Park (where I connected with other people through our art) and Pitt (where we all loved alcohol). It was nice to just groove with my fellow students to this artist who we all enjoy. However fleeting those moments are, they're good for the spirit.

So is Andrea's work. Positivity is something I've had in low supply lately, and there's a stream in her work about the beauty of life. Can't sweat the small stuff.

My work on The Motley and Plume Players has stalled. Mostly because outside word drama has been on my mind so much. Instead of sitting down and typing, I find myself picking up bits and pieces every day. A phrase here, a word there. All of which I hope to explode onto the page, whenever I sit down and start typing. Checking out of the writing process usually means that now's a good time to shake up the narrative, blow something up or kill off a character. Anyways, I'm working on the crucial middle portion of the story, in which the characters go on a romantic vacation.

I've decided that Motley & Plume will be my thesis. It was originally going to be another project, but in order to get this novel in shape I absolutely NEED my thesis director Micheline Marcom to go at it with the red pen. Micheline is an incredible writer and teacher and everybody wants her for their director. I know how lucky I am.

Still time to donate to the Motley & Plume Kickstarter: Oh my god we're so close!

Now is as good a time to mention...I GOT NOMINATED FOR THE 2010 CARL BRANDON AWARD! Both of them! To paraphrase the message they sent:

"The Jack Daniels Sessions EP by Elwin Cotman, published by Six Gallery Press, has been nominated for the 2010 CBS Parallax Award (for an outstanding speculative fiction work by a self-identified writer of color) and the 2010 CBS Kindred Award (for an outstanding speculative fiction work dealing with race, ethnicity, and culture). Carl Brandon Society awards include a $1000 cash prize. The awards will be announced by the end of 2011."

Yay! Carl Brandon is a prestigious organization dedicated to supporting and promoting speculative writers of color. These awards have been bestowed upon some of the greats. If I win, I'd be standing with Walter Mosley and Nnedi Okorafor, among others.This nomination makes me feel content, and proud. Not just for me, but Dan, Nathan and Rachel, who also worked so hard on this spectacular book. Here's the CBS page:

I was contacted recently by Diesel Books to come and pick up my consignment copies. I sold two of four. So I spend an hour waiting for the predictably late Oakland public transit, ride over there, grab some money and the two books. This is the first time I've had to reclaim unsold merchandise. As I handle most consignments myself, I'm sure it won't be the last. Simply knowing I sold two books is pretty amazing. It's interesting to me, knowing I got nominated for this major award and still having to personally pick up unsold merch. A very weird, cool place to be in. Anyways, hey two people who bought my book! I appreciate you!

More updates soon. I promise. But don't hold me to it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Chapter 59: In Which I Get Autobiographical

Reason #250 why I love Prince: he has respect for his catalog. I don't mean this in the sense that he spends half his time pulling his songs off Youtube. I'm talking live performance. The last time I saw him in concert was damn near ten years ago on the Musicology tour. All the songs were awesome, but there were three he absolutely killed, stretching them way beyond their album lengths with improv and additional bits. They were "The Question of You," "Sometimes it Snows in April" and "Take Me With U." In order, a three-minute track off his most reviled album, a non-single off the soundtrack to one of his movies,  and the lowest-placing single off Purple Rain. He KILLED these songs. Did 'em to death. It's very cool that, after so much time, he sees the worth in his more obscure work.

Another artist that thinks this way is Korn, who I also love. While they don't have the energy as a live act that they once did, being in their 40s and all, they make up for it by not going up there and playing a bunch of singles, but revisiting and re-imagining their obscure work. They retire songs from their setlists and bring others back. Green Day is one of the greatest live acts I've ever seen, but I wish their shows weren't so single-tastic.

I've been publishing writing since 2005. My goal is to still be reading early work like "Prodigal Child" or "Sacred Duty" at events when I'm 40. Hell, I may dust them off sooner than that.

Leaving Washington DC

The lowest point in my life in recent memory was the autumn and winter of 2008. I had just returned to Washington DC from a productive summer in Pittsburgh working for the Carnegie Library. It was also a socially great time for me, as I got to hang with my family in Pittsburgh. I've never been close with my blood relatives, extended or nuclear, but there are people I consider my family by more than blood. Ties of love and trust. Many of them live in my hometown. So I returned to three realities.

1) I had no money to finish grad school at the University of Maryland.

2) I could not find gainful employment.

3) I was a politically active person in the most oppressive city in the country.

Dropping out of College Park was one of the first things. I was enrolled in Maud Casey's workshop and was really excited to take it. The girl who was my counselor was pretty much useless. We had several conversations about financial aid in which she acted annoyed I was even there and told me every time there was nothing out there for me. At all. But I had a talk with Maud that really put things in perspective for me. Grad school was not the end-all, be-all. I could always return to College Park if I had the funds later on. So I left Maryland, a school I had grown to love with a community where I felt welcome.

My B.A. in English got me no work, even after I'd already taught middle school for a year and a half. I took a job as an ESL teacher. I sucked at it. My one student told me straight up that her English was getting worse. There was some other part-timey thing I did, none of which earned me a dime.

I am a person whose politics are left of center. Prior to moving back to DC I peacefully protested the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities. I returned to a city where being an activist feels like banging your head on a wall, for obvious reasons. I also returned to a city where I had few allies. The local "radical" scene had a lot I objected to. It was predominantly white and suburban, and a lot of people seemed more dedicated to making spaces where they could feel comfortable and unchallenged than in working toward any kind of social change, or even in getting to know their neighbors. There was a ton of white privilege being exercised and the whole scene was alienating, the kind of experience that makes people join APOC (a group which, by the way, I hate). Just an overall clique-y, high school atmosphere. It wasn't everybody. There are lots of DC folks involved in organized resistance who I have love for. The ones who weren't about shit know who they are. After coming from a city of blue-collar anarchists working to reclaim space and build their alternative, hanging out with a bunch of Capture the Flag-playing scene punks, well, sucked. I was lonely, miserable, broke and drunk, and the few cool things that happened during this time (such as really developing my reading style, and meetng WENDY PINI) meant little to me at the time.

Which brings me too...the Coldsnap Legal benefit.

I'm writing about it because I was just thinking about it today. As someone who wasn't arrested at the RNC, I thought it paramount to do something for those who were. That same year I had visited Barcelona and was wowed by the meals served at the local squats. Once a week or so, squats would cook up a giant meal. You could just show up, drop a few Euros and enjoy the company of intelligent people from around the world. This way, certain squats were able to stay afloat and self-sufficient for DECADES. It occurred to me that if you do an event where there is food, real food, people will show up and they will pay money.

So I decided to plan a multi-course fancy dress dinner as a benefit for the legal collective in the Twin Cities. My favorite part of planning was the company. I got to work with friends old and new. One was an high school friend of mine who had just moved back to the city and his girlfriend. Another was a fellow I had met in DC, an absolutely lovely guy named Mike who is one of my favorite people. Another was this young student at Corcoran who I met through doing the benefit, who has since become a great friend. Then there was an older punk who helped us the night of and a younger punk who made some ice cream. It was a melding of people from different stages in my life helping out on this one project.

The benefit, which took place at St. Steven's church, went awesomely. The food was delicious, we made a nice chunk of change for Coldsnap Legal. The cello player even came through! What felt most touching was seeing all the people who showed up. So many friends who I met during my time in DC attended. Never did I feel more connected with them than when I saw them all in the same room, simply enjoying each other's company.

I moved from DC to San Francisco a month later. The city simply had nothing for me anymore. I don't think I could have asked for a better goodbye to DC than that night. I also got to do a final feature at TerPoets, the College Park open mic that was so important for me as a writer, and that was my goodbye to the University of Maryland. That stage of my life got some pretty solid fucking bookends.

And that's what I remember, now that some time has passed. The alienation and depression are afterthoughts. The lost friendships are dead and buried. The pain passes but the happiness lingers.

Life is defined by its struggles. Moments of happiness are by nature fleeting reprieves from the troubles of the day, and the best a human being can hope for are extended periods of contentment. Still, ultimately, we are our memories. Hurt fades. Love survives. I love my friends from DC. I love the moments we shared. Those moments survive. They live.

That's the truth. And I just wanted to say that.