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Wednesday Wonder Cabinet
December 1, 2009 - 9:56pm

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Ever wonder how to handle an aggressive student in a writing workshop, who just happens to be a notorious serial killer? Poet Mike Madonick relates his experience involving the I-5 Killer, sheep, farm boys, and James Dickey.

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In the wake of the successful GEO strike at the University of Illinois and a previous failure in Toronto, professor Feisal Mohamed blogs on the moral imperative of tenure-stream faculty:

[W]hen we who enjoy the (relatively) ambrosial air of the tenure stream urge those with insecure futures to fight, we are contributing to a climate of exploitation, not remedying it. The Toronto lesson is that a graduate employee union can be extremely vulnerable when exposed to an unethical administration. If faculty respond aright to the inspiring efforts of the GEO, it will be by strengthening their own organizations so that they can play a leading role in making higher education affordable once more, in assuring that neoliberal principles do not govern curricular decision-making, and in reversing the downsizing of the highest paid group of teaching professionals—who, at the end of the day, are not paid so very much….

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Poet B.H. Fairchild explains “Why I Write” over at Poems Out Loud, a blog from W.W. Norton. I learned of this post from my acquaintance Rory, who has a vested interest in being a writer who grew up in a place where “boys did not grow up to write poems.”

(Sandra Beasley, friend of The Education of Oronte Churm, also has a recent post at Poems Out Loud, on “Life Outside the Poets and Writers ‘Top 50 MFA Programs.’”)

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My brief nonfiction book will be in the publisher’s warehouse next week, I’m told. It tells the 200-year history (well, 300 million years, if you want to go all the way back) of my hometown, which served as setting for my novel, and looks at the context for decades of violence in (and national media attention on) this small but once-vibrant all-American city. It also includes some 80 archival photos I found in several archives.

I was going to call the book Herrin, By God: The Brief History of a Radical Midwestern City, for this anecdote I relate in my introduction:

My mom loved to tell the story of how my Aunt Ruby once drove the wrong way up a highway in St. Louis, Missouri. When oncoming cars swerved and honked in an attempt to save her life, Ruby leaned out her window, shook her fist at them, and bellowed, “I’m from Herrin, by God!”
That was in the 1950s, but strong feelings on her hometown, before and since, are not unusual. In October 1924, at the height of the Prohibition war raging in Herrin, Illinois, Charles Lamb, twenty, and Edgar Hamby, twenty-five, were arrested in Cincinnati for carrying pistols.
“We’re from Herrin, and we’re not ashamed of it,” one said in court. “It might have a black eye with the rest of the world, but it is home, sweet home and God’s country to us.”
“Do you walk around in Herrin with murderous-looking revolvers strapped to your waist?” the judge asked.
“No sir. Herrin is a peaceful little town.”
The judge wasn’t impressed, and when they couldn’t pay the $100 fine, he sent them to jail.
Herrin was, for nearly a century, alternately touted for its industry and pilloried for its crimes. When both subsided, the city was largely ignored again by the rest of the country. For those from there, it’s always been a place for hard work, accomplishment, struggle, and a strong sense of community—everyday life in America.

I also had an excellent image picked out for the front cover: A collapsed building in downtown Herrin in the 1920s, its second floor slid down into the street, after bootleggers had bombed a Klansman and his wife out of their beds in the middle of the night. A crowd is gathered to peer at what secrets of history have spilled out. (Photo courtesy French Studios, Ltd., by way of the Herrin City Library.)

Because marketing departments play leading roles in publishing these days, including design, both title and cover photo were nixed. The marketing manager wanted the title to be simply Herrin: A Brief History. But after several rounds of negotiation, I (and my project manager) won Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. (We had to fight hard for that infamous.) The cover picture will be of happy shoppers in the ‘40s.

In any case, the nonfiction narrative and the novel together will make a great unboxed set, so be sure to buy copies of both books for all your Aunt Rubys this holiday season!

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The writer Jeff Biggers kindly included my novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, in a roundup of inspiring books of 2009 that he compiled for The Huffington Post. Check out the others on the list, which are on timely and important topics of energy and the environment.

 

 

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