Wednesday, April 08, 2009

REVIEW: THE WINTER DIARY by t. kilgore splake

ISBN 978-1-60743-432-0

"The Winter Diary" is the autobiography of t. kilgore splake, perhaps Michigan's most celebrated poet/ photographer/ filmmaker, who's been carving out a significant reputation for himself in the small press, as well as a voice that could belong to no one else poetically, for twenty years or more--ever since, as this book reveals, he put down the .357 Magnum he was planning to use to blow his own brains out after a long and unsatisfying academic career teaching at American colleges, took early retirement and disappeared "up country" (as the song says) to find his true self and fulfil his dreams.

"Diary" tells you how he got to the momento de verdad with the Magnum--that teaching career chasing "the bitch goddess of success", a string of relationships that ended in disappointment, pain, craziness--in a series of flashbacks provoked by present day associations as splake pursues his well-documented days in Calumet drinking coffee at various cafes, flirting with the waitresses, hiking up his beloved cliffs; it delves far back into his childhood and early years to relate how the character was formed which made the grievous errors, but also gave him the vision and the courage to put it all down and reinvent himself as a poet. So it's a picture of the nation too across much of the last century, given that he also supposes about the lives of his parents; but its real value is just as a fabulous story told by a man rich in experience and made wise by love and by too many close encounters with grief and death. splake has always seemed to be running as fast as he can from what he himself has labelled "rat bastard time", but it's his knowledge of time's ravages which gives him his incredible drive and commitment to his poetical vision. "That which does not kill us will make us stronger," as someone else said. If we all knew how soon Death comes we'd fucking hurry up.

At the end of the book splake documents some of the discussions he had with other writers and poets about the form the book should take, whether his customary lower case would be appropriate, whether a formal structure (as opposed to the near stream of consciousness style he adopted--reading it reminded me of talks you might hear on the radio) would have made it more atttractive to a conventional publisher, whether the descriptions of other people lacked depth of characterisation. To me, none of those things really matters. splake is splake. His subject is himself, which it actually is for most poets; it's just that t. is more honest about it. And conventionally structured and edited autobiographies are dull as dishwater anyway. If you have to compromise your vision to be a success in the literary world you might as well be back teaching political science, or striding about a supermarket in a security guard's uniform, or working in a bank. splake is a long-time correspondent of mine so perhaps I'm biased--and BEATNIK doesn't review stuff I don't like anyway--but for all its eccentricities, in fact partly because of its eccentricities, THE WINTER DIARY is a fine work.

People will be assessing and reassessing and arguing about splake's writings long after the rest of us have been forgotten.


Jim Chandler said...

Seeing as how I am the person who made some of those suggestions to splake, I think it's necessary to clear up what is apparently a misconception as to what the motive was for suggesting a more "conventional" presentation. I understand that the word "conventional" is viewed in many areas of the small press as a pejorative, since much of the thrust is to simply oppose conventionality for the sake of doing so. So be it.

My point had nothing whatsoever to do with selling out his principles or integrity for the sake of producing something a mainstream publisher would have interest in. That is never going to happen in several lifetimes, because there is just no market for such writing beyond the SP realm. My idea was to simply make the book readable to the people who would read it. Obviously, you did--and, again obviously, you have much better vision than I do (and I'm sure others) because I can't read it, even with reading glasses.

I make no claim to being an authority on splake's work, however I must say that I have published it for 25 years in various forms, including about 8 books, one being the rather large "Backwater Graybeard Twilight." I think anyone who looks at that book in comparison to "The Winter Diary" will immediately see the difference between the kind of "conventional" formatting I suggest and the amateur hour look of the latter--no justification, spaces between paragraphs, type that is no larger than 8-point at best and perhaps 6-point. Whoever "formatted" (and that's a fucking joke) the latter book was either dumb, blind--or both--and they didn't do splake any favor.

As for the all lower case presentation, that's neither here nor there. I can understand that kind of affectation for poetry, because I used it myself for many years--mainly because I was too lazy to mess with capitalizing, which has nothing to do with wishing to emulate e.e. cummings. If it's some sort of holy grail, then by all means cling to it. But I still believe a work of the nature of TWD would be better served (and more readable) properly punctuated. Course, I labor under the weight of having earned a living writing for much of my life, which doesn't necessarily put me in good stead with many in the small circus (sellout! sellout! sellout!).

As for the auto-biography itself, I read it in rough draft so I know basically what it says. I enjoyed it as I've enjoyed most of splake's work lo this past quarter century; I was publishing his poetry back when few others were.

Just for the hell of it, I took that rough copy, properly formatted it (no chance to case) and it would have taken about 26 more pages to put it into a "conventional" form equal to BGT. Sure, that would have cost a few dollars more, but only a damned fool would say the difference was not worth it.

Finally, I might note that I gave splake suggestions because he asked for them, not because of wishing to impose my will upon him. I've have given him such advise regarding literary productions many times over the years, always at his request. Sometimes he has taken it and sometime not, as was his choice.

Never before, however, have I come across as someone trying to steer him in the wrong direction as I do in the notes of this book. You can rest assured that there will not be an opportunity in the future for this to happen again, for I shall keep my opinions to myself.

Jim Chandler said...

In reality, below is an example of the kind of advice I gave splake beyond that addressed previously, taken straight from the notes returned to him. Is it bad advice? I don't think so, but maybe I'm wrong.

Page 2: “I can recall my dad, emery, giving me a taste of a first malted mile shake at wittenburg’s newsstand that I didn’t care for…”

I realize you mean you didn’t care for the milkshake, but this is written so as to imply you didn’t care for the newsstand. I’d suggest rewriting it like below:

“I can recall my dad, emery, buying me my first malted milkshake at wittenburg’s newsstand. I didn’t care for the taste.”

Another thing, watch your time sequence when relating something about pop culture. At one point you mention listening to “long tall lady in a black dress” by the Hollies at your fifties dances. That song was not released until 1971, so no way you could have heard it back then. Similarly, you said in the sixties you seldom listened to music other than Nash’s “I can see clearly now.” That came out in 1972. Those kinds of errors play hell with your credibility for anyone who knows the difference. Obviously, I did and so will many others.

On states: When mentioning locations, use the name of the state only once. There are scores of mentions of Michigan after every town stated, on and on and on. With Munising or Battle Creek or anywhere else other than large and well-known cities, put “Michigan” after it the first mention and thereafter just use the city name. ALSO, when mentioning large cities, like Chicago, Los Angeles St. Louis, etc., it is not necessary—or even desirable—to add Illinois, California, Missouri, etc. In fact, it’s regarded as amateurish writing to do so.

Anonymous said...

fuk you chadler you don't know shit get a live you motherfucker!

Jim Chandler said...

I'll tell you what--I'll get a "live" if you buy a fucking dictionary. How about that?