Saturday, September 28, 2013

Story Genesis--The Revelation of John

Sometimes, the key to a story is finding the proper format for it. That was certainly the case with "The Revelation of John."

Four of the stories that went into Jack Daniels Sessions and Hard Times Blues were started in 2007-2008, during my graduate studies at the University of Maryland. At the time, I was reading a lot about Jim Crow, and had ideas for a number of segregation-era stories. I would publish them all together in a book called Elwin Cotman's Most Depressing Book Ever. I was thinking about how fantasy could be applied to my political interests, and also reading Charles de Lint. As de Lint culls from different mythologies, I wanted to do the same. The Bible seemed ripe for some riffing.

I don't know how it hit me to combine the Flood with the Book of Revelations. As a Bible reader, I've always found the New Testament pretty boring, with the exception of Revelations (aka the founding text of all things metal). I wanted to explore the idea of apocalypse. I wanted to speak to this infuriating oppression that happened around the Flood. It seemed appropriate to look at the Old South through Christian mythology, as it is so important to black culture. I first learned about the flood from references made during Hurricane Katrina (though never made in the corporate media). After all, 1927 was the first time the levees broke. The subject took hold of me and, King James Bible at my side, I wrote "The Revelation of John" as a prose piece with Biblical language.

It got excoriated at workshop. The prose was hyperbolic and purple. The line between fantasy and reality was confusing. I'd long ago learned not to catch feelings over what people say in workshops. Whatever critique you feel lacks merit, you disregard. I agreed that it looked strange as a straight piece of prose. The best advice came from the professor, which was to make the apocalypse more localized, more Mississippi. I worked on it a little longer before putting it on the shelf.

Flash forward to 2011. I was doing the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab, and wanted to work on an experimental piece for the anthology. So I dusted off "Revelation." The performance aspects of the story were developed while studying under Brenda Wong Aoki. I saw where I could rework it in order to make it richer.

I read Rising Tide, which has a plethora of info about the sociopolitical climate in the Delta leading up to the Flood, and of the abuse toward black people that took place during and afterward. Everybody should read it. The Flood of 1927 was a major event in US history, especially regarding the Northern Migration. After the savagery visited on them, it made perfect sense for black people to be like "fuck y'all niggas, I'm outta here" and move to Chicago.

I learned more about Mississippi folklore and worked that into the piece. More importantly, I gained a better understanding of the Book of Revelations. It's a screed. A political work, written by a political prisoner. The symbols of lambs and dragons are jabs at Rome, using the then-new concept of Christian eschatology. Pretty much everything in there is representative of something else. I worked symbolism into "Revelation of John." I included more historical elements. After four years, it was almost like writing an entirely new piece.

"Revelation of John" did not go into the IWL anthology. As documented in a previous blog entry, I could not find a space in which to type the story when I was on 2011 tour, and ended up submitting "Pulp" instead. But I performed "Revelation" for the IWL shindig at the end of the workshop. I found myself in the strange situation of having a piece that worked better as performance than prose.

Last semester at Mills. Last MFA workshop. I submitted "Revelation," only this time it was formatted like the Bible. Well, not exactly. The language of the Bible can get really repetitive ("And...", "And...", "And...") which doesn't fit my style. So I used it as a jumping-off point to write a sort of prose poem. "Revelation" was my return to poetry.

The response from this latest workshop: "So, all the biblical references. I don't get it. Maybe you should include footnotes."

I wonder if John of Patmos had the same problem. And if he just told people to Google it.

The biblical formatting was a relatively late element in the story's evolution, but one that changed it completely, and for the better. Now I'm thinking of other old pieces that might find their way if I change them to another genre. Using the Bible format was inspired by a Bible as Lit course I took at Mills, where I was reminded that much of the book is poetry. The Song of Songs and the Psalms, for example, are straight verse.

So I got inspiration from workshops and lit classes. I did most of my research at Mills, and wrote most of the story at Mills. Could it be that all of this schooling has actually helped my writing? Naaah. Probably not.

What I thought might be an inaccessible story got a lot of positive reactions when I was on tour. I'm glad, as it's subject matter I feel people should know about. "The Revelation of  John" is probably, pound for pound, the densest story I've ever written. No footnotes included.

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