Tag Archives: Natalie Merchant

Writing: Uncovering A Surprising And Beautiful Buried Treasure — by Lazarus Barnhill

Decades ago when I was in my early teens, my father and I were driving through the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma — laden with switchbacks, dips and hairpin turns — when we saw a motorcycle come toward us and flash past in the opposite lane. It was ridden by a helmetless Native American whose face was totally expressionless. Sitting behind him, a young woman pressed herself against his back, her eyes closed — whether in ecstasy or fear I did not know. The bike was moving so rapidly I caught only a two or three second glimpse of them. Still the impression, as you can tell, remained with me for a lifetime. My dad was also seized by the vision. I could sense him reflecting on their appearance and disappearance and I heard him mutter, “What about that? An Indian on an Indian.”

That solitary image remained with me in the brooding recesses of my awareness for forty years until it became the central vision, the cathartic scene of a novel that built itself around that impassive visage of the man on the motorcycle. My second published novel, The Medicine People, began in my mind with an imagined picture of that Native American standing silently in a jail cell, his hands around the bars, waiting for a certain person to come and speak with him, knowing the dialogue between them would permanently alter both lives.

That’s my creative process; that’s how stories develop themselves for me: I experience something striking and the retained memory of it marinates and evolves in the depths of my mind. The stories grow, sometimes as with Medicine from the middle simultaneously toward the beginning and end, but sometimes from the end backwards or even, conventionally, from the start to the finish.

Once the basics of the story have germinated and I have a grip on where they are going, the real fun begins. With my first published novel, Lacey Took a Holiday, I was inspired by a Natalie Merchant song that described a cowboy professing love to a drunken saloon girl. She wakes the next morning to discover he has disappeared. From that image, Lacey the character and Lacey the story took root in my thoughts. By the time I started actually writing the book, I knew where the journey was going to take this saloon girl. The actual writing process had more in common with uncovering a surprising and beautiful buried treasure than figuring out how to put the “flesh” of details on the “skeleton” of preconceived story. From that single original image, the story develops and completes itself.

That’s the basis of my little literary world. Writing is exciting and strange — how odd to think that an entire story can coalesce and emerge from the flotsam from my lifetime of disorganized observations and faded memories. And, for me, perhaps the most exciting aspect of writing is the notebook I keep by my bed with the basic images—some with partial outlines and possible characters — for two dozen “treasure chests” I haven’t yet begun to open.  —- Laz Barnhill

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We Have Not Lost Poetry

A few years ago I bought a book called The Devil Never Sleeps authored by Romanian ex-patriot Andrei Codrescu.  I had listened to Codrescu for years on NPR, and I was interested in reading his essays (which, by the way, did not disappoint).  As I read his observations about Romania and Eastern Europe under Soviet control, I was struck by his adoration of and faith in poetry.  It’s no exaggeration to say, from Codrescu’s viewpoint, poetry was the source of hope to those who suffered decades of communist despotism as well as a subversive force undermining the monolithic govern

He made such a compelling argument for the purpose, power and necessity of poetry, I had to stop and ask myself what ever happened to poetry.  I loved poetry as a young person and even continued to write poetry as an adult.  Of course, half of being a poet is relishing the poetry of others—and I couldn’t remember the last time I read a volume of verse.

[So I’m giving in to temptation here; this is a poem I wrote when I was sixteen after moving back to my hometown following an absence of four years; do you have adolescent poems you’re still willing to share?

“All The Animals”

I left something here,
            a childhood memory, a melody,
            a bit of soul chipped from the tenderest part.
I thought it was refound
            but something different,
            something animal,
            was in it’s place.
So it does no go to come home
            to all the animals,
            the souls of my childhood changed
.]

For a while, I had a sad, empty feeling when I thought that I had “lost” poetry.  Moreover, I had the sinking feeling that as a people, our culture had lost poetry as well.  Where was the Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walt Whitman or Robert Frost of this age? 

Then one day I was driving down the road listening to Bruce Springsteen and the “aha moment” burst upon me: I haven’t lost poetry; as a people we have not lost poetry—we just set it to music.  I hereby predict that coming generations will “read” the songs of our greatest songsmiths and judge them more as writers than musicians.  Annie Lennox, Sheryl Crow, John Prine, Jackson Browne, Michael Stipe, Natalie Merchant, as well as hosts of R&B and hip-hop artists will be required reading for our great-grandchildren fifty years hence.

This great realization made me reflect back over the songs I’ve written over the years (yes, acoustic guitar and harmonica; but nothing to brag about).  Some of mine, I’m afraid, will not rise to the level of literature (“Harmless While I’m Sober” comes to mind).  But some others—recent as well as distant—may actually be worth reading in coming ages.  Herewith, a song of unrhymed verses I wrote in the early 70’s while I was a college student.  It is like poetry, sort of.  —Lazarus Barnhill, author of The Medicine People and Lacey Took a Holiday.

“Early in the Sun”

Early in the sun I see those high red clouds
            like contrails of some angels God is sending somewhere.

I think of you for minutes, hoping that you will remember me
            without these chains I have been wearing.

I will not ask you lightly for the things you will feel pressed
            to give from loving, for they are yours.

Ah, but if you understand our loves are shorter than our lives,
            then love me quickly, before they pass.

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