Monday, December 17, 2007

Sinological Summers

Summer. It was the summer of my life. I never felt more alive to the world as I did then as I persued my course toward Sinology. I lived in the library; read everything there and then some. My professor, Kublin and later C. Lewis fed me with books from their private collections and then I bought, reams and reams—monograph after monograph. Art history, poetry, dynastic government, nomadic steppe culture, Han, T'ang, Sung, Yuan, Ming and Ch'ing, by the pound and by the ton. I had cargos of books arriving from the belly of slow going Chinese vessels. I taught myself Classical Chinese (wen) so I could get my drug first hand. My papers were lauded by my instructors. They were China hands. They taught me all their tricks.

Meanwhile, back at the writing ranch, I spent more time on research and churning out cogent missives on Sung governmental heirarchy and water conservancy projects in 11th Century An-hui. The only dabbling in fiction that was allowed was speculative and in my head. But it was there. I did pen a curious work about a woman scholar who disguised herself as a boy to study with the great Sung stateman Han Lin, sort of a Chinese Yentl. I probably should have crafted it into a libretto and had the heroine sing to her ancestors from a ferry boat in New York harbor. Wasted Branch, or so the story was called, lacked the force of conviction of my The Last Chinese Conservative: K'ang Yu-wei, my treatise on one of China's more brilliant stateman, who in 1912 put the last Emperor, Pu-yi on the throne. King Nan, on the other hand, is still one of my favorites. It concerned the last Emperor of the Chou Dynasty as he waits for his death at the hands of Ch'in Shr Huang-ti, the First Emperor of the Ch'in Dynasty. It was a dialog between the King and his son, a difference of opinion and the poisoning of the son so the father might end the 800 year long dynasty with appropriate dignity and honor. This was a case where a short story begged for play treatment. Perhaps, some day.

The Widow of Master K'ung dabbled in the Chinese wedding rites and how even if the groom is dead, the bridal contract must still be honored. This one lingered for years in many forms until 2006, when as a short 500 word flash story called Ch'i Lin and the Cup, it emerged to win second prize in a flash contest. (Bought my new printer with the proceeds). Ch'i Lin and the Cup is under contract to be published in 2007-2008 in a flash anthology.

I graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor's degree in History and was accepted to their post-graduate school to fulfill my dream of Sinology. I worked at a dizzy pace, ever consuming the subject as it consumed me. I started my master's thesis, The Foundations of the Southern Sung Dynasty: The Reign of the Emperor Kao-tsung (927-960), all from original sources and dynamically stirred by Kublin and company. Even Professor Giles, that bastion of antiquities, guided. I minored in Egyptology just to attend her lectures. I wrote perhaps my best paper in the field under her judicious eye—Pax Sinologica: Rome and Han China, trading partners. I studied hundreds of products traded across the silk roads and by sea between China and Rome. I detailed processes, such as the refinishing of Chinese silk into Roman gauze and how they used mullusks to dye it purple. Such is the stuff that makes the world green all year 'round. Summer afterall never ends . . . until, of course, it does.I achieved my Master's degree and was on the brink. I was accepted on a doctoral track at Columbia University . . . Columbia-fucking-University!! Me, the ninny who couldn't manage enough credits to stay out of Uncle Sam's big show, was going Ivy league. I would be in the shadow of the real China Hands, and as China was closed to western travel, that was all I had in that ripe year of 1974, one of several pivotal forks in the road that all lives manage to muster, when Summer gets too damn hot and Autumn looks a better choice. (Let's all sigh for the sissy) . . . then read on . . .

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Call of History

"Within these halls, the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets." So I wrote in The Jade Owl, a short snippet of an undulating paragraph about the tales that historic artifacts tell. And back in 1971, I first heard the coukoo sing history's sweet tales from the podium. First, as mentioned, from the leader of the Hungarian Revolution, Bel Kiroly and then from Mary Giles, a consummate lecturer on Ancient history, a woman who brought the old Roman threadbares to life. Sumerians glowed and I remember doing a paper on Hathor's mirror that sat on a velvet drape at the Brooklyn Museum. Within these halls, the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets. Yessum. It was history for me. And then there was Professor Hyman Kublin, who specialized in Japanese history. Ah! Japan.. The land of The Mikado (not really), but I was hooked forever . . . well not forever. Until Prof Kublin introduced me to the larger well—CHINA. Her blossoming fathomless sea of rich history, relics, lore, customs and immoveable presence. I couldn't get enough of her . . . never have . . . never will.Destiny knocked, and I cared little for the practicality of making a living as a Sinologist. I was still with that company that kept me fed (and would so 'til this day). I had scant notion of the job market or the glut of Sinophiles (unemployed ones).

Still, China dominated all, including my writing. Suddenly hundreds of story possibilities came my way. So what did I do? I took a western-style tale and bent it a la Chinese. But it was an important tale. It was called Vagrant Hollow and it was my first mature novel. It concerned a Sung dynasty student and bureaucrat; and the death of his teacher. A murder mystery in 12th Century China. Why not? It was frought with action, obsession and a twist ending (so twisty, it defied logic). Most important, it gave birth to my oldest fictional companion, Li K'ai-men (the scholar-official), whose story it tells. Little did I know then that Li and his ilk (his descendant Little Cricket figures important in later work), would burst through several works for the next twenty five years. I also scrawled a few Chinese themed short stories, one of which Laughing Dog reflected my skills as a Sinologist. It was sort of the Papago Wedding of the Chinese set. It also figured large in the scheme of my writing forming (with Li K'ai-men) the basis for my play (1999) Fishing With Birds and the first sections of my novel (2002) Nan-ya. Yes, these were fecund times. I was also writing papers, the real work of the historian. I had made my commitment to it. I would walk in the wake of Marco Polo. I would do it, because . . . because the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets. I would tell the world. Finally, a reason for living.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Cowboys and Indians

A world of choice. When I was discharged from the service, the world beckoned me to choose a path. Opera. Preacher. Worker. Professional Student??? Well, I needed to work and got my original job back (no sweat, they had to hold it for me under law). And although I still sang in church and directed th ocassional a teen stage show, Opera (much to my parent's chagrin) was becoming a hobby. I began building a collection of hundreds of Operas and was gaining expertise as an opera-goer and listener. I returned to Brooklyn College, but didn't quite know what to major in. English mayhap? That would be logical for a writer, but I didn't view myself as a writer. That was now a hobby also.Life became a hobby. Fun, fun, fun. I continued scrawling poetry and got a few published including Catherine and The Twin Towers, a now eerie tribute to the World Trade Center (across the street from where I worked). I learned Italian (in case I still wanted to sing). I learned German (because I never did when I lived there). I read local histories, especially about Coney Island (because I had a subway trip and needed to fill in an empty commute). It was from this indecision that I wrote two seminal works. One was a romance about a sideshow performer who falls in love with his lady colleague. It was seminal in that the young hero of the work soon became one of my idee fixee charaters, a thin, wiry, bright eyed lad, who loved life and defied the odds. The work was a novella called Green Folly. It went from play to novella (as was my penchant) and (in part) still survives in a long hand draft.

The other work is more important, because it was a full length novel inspired by Brooklyn history and my own Native American blood. I am quarter blood Cherokee. This work, Nioche, was the torrid history of pre-Dutch Brooklyn when the Nioche tribe held the land during the invasion of the Maspeth tribe. It was about war and love and attempts at peace. It was sort of my Pearl Fishers. It had colorful, but authentic characters like Littafulchee and Enitachopco. The fact that these were Cherokee (that is Muskegon) as opposed to Algonquin, made no matter to me. There was even subtext gay character, a berdache who ends his seperation anxiety by walking into the sea. It had an old woman Gandalfian character—Littafulchee, a pattern for later such characters including the Old Grandmother in The Jade Owl. It was also the first time I used the name Wewoka as a character name. It would be used in my Cherokee poetry cycle Come Wewoka.

Nioche was pretty good, in fact the nearest I came to producing a coherent novel. It caused me to recognize I had a decision to make in my life. Then entered Professor Bela Kiroly, hero of the Hungarian revolution and his class on Military History and history stole my heart and soul, perhaps forever.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who gives a Rat's Bone

Castles in my mind; that's what it was. It was a new realm building my soul from the ground up—that was Germany and Italy and Austria and Denmark and . . . all the places I found during my European soujourn in service to Uncle Sam. That dear relative dumped me in the middle of downtown Frankfurt am Main with a piece of paper with a single word on it—Grafenwoehr. And although I supposed it was a place, it took me three trains and a good deal of angst (not knowing the language) to get me to this place in the middle of nowhere in Northern Bavaria (Bayern). That initial journey I captured in my (in progress) novel) The Road to Grafenwoehr, a work that I set aside to write The Jade Owl, The Third Peregrination and The Dragon's Pool. Someday I'll return to it, now that my style has met its challenge.I spent over a year as the Battery clerk (no radios for me. I type, remember). It was a cush, if not snowbound existance; and when the snows melted, I went everywhere from Rome to Copenhagen to Muenchen and even over the border to Czechoslovakia (which was invaded while I was there. Ironic if I had actually landed in a war zone after all).

I continued with the short stories and gained something new—a reader. One of the sergeant's wives, Mrs. Rogoff liked my stories From the Wasserturm (was very critical of them as well), but encouraged me to continue. The poetry went apace and dotted the short story anthology. My love life sweltered as I found the gay core of the corps, along with heart-break (I even changed my religion for one guy, ingrate!).Several important works (juvenalia still) emerged. First a romantic gothic novel, Franconian Sunset, which capture local color, the towns and farms and the military, trysts, Romeo and Juliet, murder and mayhem, court martials, separation and tragedy. Mrs. Rogoff never saw it. It was so over the top it embarassed me. But I was learning to extrapolate from the life around me and make fiction. Even better (and still tenable) was Private Love, which is the first time I wrote homoerotically, although I must confess I rewrote it heterosexually and finally ditched it.
Private Love is the chaplain's assistant, who goes to Nuernburg (actually Fuerth) to projectionist school and falls in love (first love) with the teacher, Sergeant Burns. Since I was sent to projectionist school and had such a tryst, it was autobiographical. More the reason to ditch it. Mrs. Rogoff would never see this one. However Private Love returned in my 2001 novel (and play) Turning Idolator. I have also recycled the idea (now that I am sufficiently away from it) as an episode in my fantasy Belmondus.

The most important work I wrote started as a poem called The Porta Regina. It was inspired by a trip to Regensburg, an ancient Roman city and the site of Mad Emperor (Gay as well) Ludwig's shrine to heroism, Valhalla. The poem depicted Roman soldiers standing sentry at the Porta Regina (The Queen's Gate) in the ancient city, and their very human activities therein. It is still in my poetry anthology Catherine and Other Poems. The novel that emerged was a fantasy work, called Ratisbona (the ancient name for Regensburg). Here the ancient Roman setting, the modern one with visiting American soldiers, the Valhalla gallery and the medieval town of Regensburg (complete with torture chamber) intermingle. It was quite lovely actually, if it were not for the poor structure of the whole thing. It was however an important trend, because I was filtering history, something that led me to history's halls after my army stint. A final note on my European duty: it lingers with me still. I returned to Europe with my family a few years later. Germany embraced me, but I fell in love with Italy as any opera lover would. The Road to Grafenwoehr is centered around a fateful trip from Germany to Italy and loosely based on my experiences. And it is not surprising that portions of The Dragon's Pool will be set in the Tuscan Hills, quite far afield from The Jade Owl Serie's penchant for oriental settings. Europe touched me and I touched her. My only regret is never getting to the UK, something that will be rectified before I join the Roman legions on the towers of Ratisbona again.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Poetry in Motion

Suddenly, I was alive to new experiences. I was fit and thin (had ribs and could actually see my feet). I was training in luxorious barracks at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, and although I now learned about diodes and hocumapokems, the company was fine. The cadre asked us to "fall in" and no one called me anything but Private Patterson. Despite this, loneliness set in. I didn't miss the Special Training Unit, but I did miss the people. I thought about them and formulated them as characters in my head. I knew they would be discharged and float through the rest of their lives with the stigma branded on their foreheads, like Cain or Jean Valjean.

Short stories began to brew. The story about an African American chef, who was drafted and interred in the Special Training Unit. How he jammed his lovely hands in the window damaging those precious tools that he used to carve ice at the Hotel Americana. I think of him often and beyond in the story, "Melted Dreams." I drafted at least twelve short stories in my journal, each with a military setting; each about a yearning to be home; each fretting over the possibilities of being sent off to the War. I recycled titles over these works until the titles became useless. They were always stuffed back in my duffelbag. Many would never be finished, while others were shaped when I went overseas.

My poetry did excel. I discovered I could sit anywhere at anytime with any theme and a pen, and pump out a poem. Whether this was W. S. Gilbert's doing or all those libretti back in the cave days, I couldn't tell, but if I had any inherent gifts, it was for poetry. I loved the interior of words, how they flowed and related to one another, danced if you will to the rythm of my heartbeat. In those top bunked nights in the open barracks with sixty other men, my pen wafted meter; piles of poetry with nifty titles. I still have most of these. Many went home in letters. Some married themselves to the short stories. A thin group passed muster years later when I was gathering my first two poetry anthologies together, the works The Awakening and Catherine and Other Poems. The one shortfall of both my poetry and stories was my reluctance to be true to myself. Whenever the opportunity vered toward overt celebration of gay folk, I transmuted it to subtext. I was driving myself into the closet. My poetry would not breathe free until I stepped out of that closet and declared myself proudly to the world. That did not happen until 1990 at the ripe old gay age of 42.

When my family came to my graduation, I had more than one secret. I was on orders for Viet-nam and didn't have the heart to tell my folks. We enjoyed each others company (to them I was a different person—a thin one), but I didn't have the courage to tell them that I was off to war. Then a miracle happened, one of many in my short, poetic life. Some computer ran numbers for a request for radio repairman for Europe and my orders were changed. I was now destined for GERMANY.
Just think of the stories the world has been denied because I missed the smell of napalm in the morning. But I was about to get one magnificent dose of the Old World. When worlds collide they make for interesting ripples in the paradyne. So armed with a sheet of paper with an APO number (I didn't even know where in Germany I was going), I headed to Ft. Dix, NJ (a few days AWOL to visit the folks) and then off across the pond to see what there was to see. Although I physically returned a year and half later, I never really came home, man of the world that I had become . . . devoured entire by a simple postal address in the woodland bosum of Franconia.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Marching through Georgia

Life and reality can withhold its precious lessons to a writer. In fact, when this happens, a writer fades to a scrawler and an author never emerges. I was fortunate. Although my creative arc burned low during my early military career, life withheld not its abrupt lessons. Into my sheltered, fragile existance rushed a world of harsh realities—discipline, torture, pain, fear and loneliness. If ever there was a place to seek plot, it was in the US Army.

When I say I didn't write, I lie. I wrote volumes—letters home, all of which were archived by my parents and grandparents. I have them all in a big box in the cellar. (The letters, not my parents). For the most part they are cries for help, whimpers of growing pains and a mush of bad grammar and spelling. Still, they come from the gut instead of the mind. My mind went on a hiatus. It was during this period that I learned how the US dealt with gay men that somehow were caught in the draft's fishing nets. I was a hulking 280 pounds, weak and effete. I was unable to hack the basic training and that labelled me faggot. (The nice gay term was not much used then). So, I was packed off to Ft. Gordon, Georgia's Special Training Unit, where I was pressed harder than Jane Eyre in the Midlands. (In fact I was once marched around in the rain until I developed pneumonia, a life long gift in my country's service). I was exercised, abused, starved and pelted with every epithet in the slang lexicon. All this to apply the solution, to force me to cave in and accept a Section 8 discharge, which would have branded me for life and preclude employment, career and anything of value in this land of the Free. I was thrown together with my fellow suspected homosexuals and harrassed. The object of the game was that "birds of a feather . . . " would eventually fall and partake of court martial punishable acts. It was a horrible time, one that stayed with me for years. Lessons I never forgot. People that never went away; meanies, bullies, kind hearts, the suffering and sufferers; and that hateful, pre-Don't ask, don't tell solution. So brandished was I that even then I knew I would TELL!! And so I did in 2002—first in a play and then in a novel, American Gulag, the history of that place and my final realization that I was not a bad person because of the way I was, but a person who could survive.

Survive I did. I exited that place, not on a Section 8, but by passing the training. I lost 120 pounds in six weeks and was a svelt 160 pounds (and in the hospital with rubella). I refused to cave and wanted to serve my country. There was a war on in Vietnam, and although that prospect scared me, I would have welcomed it over the torture of the Special Training Unit. I was free of it, finished my basic training and headed further south to train as a radio repairman, a great target for any Viet-cong sniper. The people I met have always stayed with me, in my heart and in my book. As my writing mind developed, the stew that life chocks full of experience tossed a mirapoix in my kettle. The short story ideas grew and the poetry was better and I headed for Ft. Benning, Georgia with a sense of accomplishment and extreme loneliness.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Homespun Boy

I'm a Brooklyn boy, city born and city breed and although I've trotted the world since my early days, I guess I will always have that racheting slippage called tenement tenacity. I landed my first job, with my first employer (office boy in a bottle cap factory), and I was a real traveller. Every day I trotted to New Yawk City with the bank statements. I rode the rails, errand after errand, like Kerouac. At night, I went to Brooklyn College. I was singing less, eating more and drifting into that no-man's-land called finding oneself. Ah, but you thought I had found myself. A Great Singer. Well, of course—but that took work and I was the laziest son-of-a-bitch to my acquaintance.Laziness is fattening and I plumped up some (more than some—a lot). I also wrote less and less, except in my mind. I did start scrawling poetry and jotted out scenarios for stories, mostly ones that exuded homespun; tales of subway cars and bowery bums and ministers coralling their urban flocks and Coney Island (loved Coney Island). There was more than a modicum of O. Henry flowing now. But it was lazy writing. And the poetry was lame. And still I ate and ate, and then quit my job. I stopped going to choir practice and when employed again (as a clerk at the company I still work for after 42 years), I was late often, dressed like a slob and called in sick a lot.

As for school—I attended, listened and dozed and munched potato chips. I took less than the required number of credits. My God, thinking back on it, this would have made a good novel, about a slovenly adolescent, who aimlessly crumbles into a life of irresponsibility and sloth. There had to be a comeuppance.It will come as no surprise that the only thing of worth that I penned during this time was a short story called Catherine. It was about an old bag lady in Sheepshead Bay, who had a wealthy son, who abandonned her. In the end, as she dies, the son comes to her tenement to be reconciled. It was the stuff of O. Henry in spades, BUT the characterization of the old woman as she dragged herself across the wharves and picked rags from the refuse was touching and well wrought. I was learning to feel in my writing. It's a shame I couldn't muster enough interest to actually finish anything else. Catherine later became a poem, and was published in an anthology. It stands as the bastion piece of my second Poetry collection Catherine and other Poems.

Well, fortunately for me, my laziness met its match. Because I hadn't taken enough credits, I lost my student deferment from the draft in 1966 (that happened in October). On November 11, 1966, my fat ass was inducted into the United States Army and I was set for the greater lessons in life. To wit . . .

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Over the Falls

I came to Voltaire through Leonard Bernstein's Candide, a failed operetta that has since become a cult opera. What fascinated me about the work was its movement. It didn't matter to me that it was a treatise on pessimism. What caught me was it moved from place to place (real places) and juxtaposed characters improbably like a jig-saw puzzle. I was also moved by the wonderful promise the end of the work gave, when Candide and Cunegonde settle down to make their garden grow. Of course a work like this would appeal to a writer who sang like me. I was seventeen, had sung the lead roles in many Gilbert & Sullivan operas—solos in High School chorus. I had even sang as back-up to Robert Preston at the NAACP convention. My success as a singer was assured. There was no reason why my typewriter couldn't click out one last liberetto—the one that would finally be produced with me in the lead role.

Thus came Adrift in Eternity. As a libretto, it sucked . . . but as a play, it suited better. Here's how it flowed. A teenager (of course) looses his way in Prospect Park after being chased by some bullies. He comes to the bear pit, jumps over the rail and hides in the cave. When he comes out, the world has changed. (Sort of a wildlife Wardrobe a la Narnia). He wanders from town to town in this strange world that is vaguely familiar. It was a bit like Candide Meets the Wizard of Oz somewhere East of Wonderland. There were Amazons and half-men Half-cows, there were two headed gypsies and a slave caravan. He manages to free the slaves and escapes across an ocean with the lovely Roxamunda. (His name is Clint). He falls in love and saves her again, this time from blood sucking eels, before they find themselves on a river (the Mississippi, mayhap—hells bells Jim). In the end, they both go over a waterfall and are reborn in Gardena, IL, and in due time meet each other and fall in love for real (sigh)—and make babies.

Now I have learned since that such extrapolations are more important in the execution than the synopsis. Many of the world's masterpieces are silly when boiled to syllogistic form, but shine under the author's quill. Unfortunately, those skills were not in my quiver at the time and this Peer Gyntish play became a novel, the most exciting novel never finished. Still, I think of Adrift In Eternity as a milestone in my thinking, because it was so ambitious and never completed, it did put me off novel writing for some time. The world may have rejoiced. I turned to poetry for a long stretch, and the world still rejoices in that. But in the sinews of this fantasy lay deep truth and vision. The fact that I couldn't express them then, didn't mean they were absent from my mind (Absent-mindedness?). Certain themes recurred. Bullies. Well, Gay kids know about bullies. Water symbolism for redemption. Incarceration. Freedom. This strand still serves me well in such current works as The Third Peregrination and American Gulag; and most especially, the combination of the journey with the fantastical. How different are men with cow-heads from singing Redstarts? Or from such future creations, such as the multi-armed destroyer, Po-huai in The Third Peregrination and irradiated velociraptors in The Dragon's Pool. And then there is Belmundus (work in progress), a place where protean beings rule an underclass of the conquered. That world is accessed by a young actor, who gets there through a house in a Jewish cemetary—a house that shifts like a ship into the fabled Belmundus. How is that different? Well, I'm different now, and (modesty prevents me from saying it rocks, but it ain't chopped liver).

Adrift was never short on the bizarre. It was just short on the appropriate craft to deliver the goods. It made me aware of my short-comings, but never afraid to press the envelope of my imagination. BTW, I finally read Candide—last year. I wasn't impressed. I wonder what Voltaire would think of me (in a solid translation, of course).

Next up is my love affair with my home town, on the eve of being drafted into Uncle Sam's service.