In Grub Street’s very first SPOTLIGHT, we are pleased to feature recently published work of Towson University favorite, Ben Warner. Professor Warner received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and his MFA from Cornell University, where his fondest memories include victories with “The Brett Favres,” the MFA basketball team.
He writes for the same reasons he takes a walk on a nice day--“It feels really good, and if I don’t do it, I feel like I’m wasting something." Professor Warner currently teaches Writing Fiction and Advanced Writing Fiction at Towson University.
1. You are the editor of a poetry journal for the homeless community of Maryland. Please tell us more.
I'm the editor of Voices and Visions, which is a poetry magazine that comes out of the class I teach called "Writing Your Story." It's an expressive writing course held at Community Visions, a resource center for the homeless in Silver Spring. The students are homeless, and they're disenfranchised in many ways, but one of the most startling [things] is the way they have been cut off from self-expression. For those students, putting a pen to paper and simply free-writing can be an act of joy and revelation.
2. How did Voices & Visions come about? What’s production like?
The magazine itself I make in my basement with a saddle stapler and a bone folder. My wife helps me. It's cheap and easy, but comes out looking pretty nice, I think. I was taught the technique by Christophe Casamassima, who is a Towson poet and advocate of all things literary. The idea was to take these little life-sketches and poems that students were jotting down in class, and formalize them between two covers. We've just started selling them at a local cafe and [a] used bookstore--and we have our first poetry reading on the horizon.
3. How else do you contribute to Community Visions?
Besides teaching there, I work the window giving out toothpaste and combs and ziplock bags and so forth. It's nice; when one of my students comes to the window, we can exchange a [little] wink in knowing that we've shared an hour-long space in the day, reserved for quiet and creativity. For many of my students, that quiet is incredibly valuable. It's a quiet room, but also a quiet head-space. Being homeless, even in a rich county like Montgomery, is an awfully turbulent experience, and to inhabit the calm of a writing exercise has been described to me as "a break from the world."
4. What is it like when you encounter breakthrough moments with those students who initially struggle with self-expression?
I get the impression that the writers feel a real sense of pride. Even if it's fleeting, it's important when many are depressed [about] living on the streets. We've put out five editions so far, and each time I hand them out, I'm greeted with the list of people who will be on the receiving end: "... my mother, my daughter, my pastor," etc.
5. If you had to define the experience with a word...
I'd say, from both sides of the desk, it's "enlightening."
Mourning by Ben Warner
Mom says a real friend is someone who doesn’t knock you down, but I say it’s anything that doesn’t. Don’t look to a source for any of this. I understand about the world of inanimate objects. A sock monkey is a friend of mine. I understand the term age appropriate. Mom tells me that it’s understanding the limits of my mind that keeps me in the basement. I tell her to turn off the light already, and I reattach the thumbtack to the corner of the sheet that keeps the light from coming through the ground-level window. I push the thumbtack back into the wood. At night I take it out. In the darkness, I like to look out at the grass. I like to see the leaves that pile against the side of the house and rot. But in the day I want it gray. My sock monkey lives in shadow. He’s a little shadow monkey who I love. I’ll describe his mouth. It’s a straight tender line. His mouth is like my mouth when Mom is downstairs telling me about the limits of my brain. This is what it means to show friendship: it’s a hard line. This is what it means to love and hate: a body, or anything that skitters away. It’s my gray world in daytime, like Mom says, my almost-coffin.
I used to play the glockenspiel, which is like a xylophone, but you’re wrong if you think it’s a toy. Germans play them, but not only Germans. They’re open to the public, I guess. I was what you’d call a natural. But as Mom says—and here I agree—I’m not a natural atopen to the public. How many solitary successes have I had? It was my musical ability that put me going somewhere. You’ve got to have the spark. That’s a jazzy term.
Mom was supportive at first. This was when I was her upstairs-son. I practiced on songs like Lionel Hampton’s “Go, Go, Re-go,” and on other pieces like Van Halen’s “Get off the Train, There’s a Lady with a Gun.”
When you get comfortable with a thing, you feel like breaking out. This was before the upstairs was called the upstairs like it’s called the upstairs today. This was when the future tense was used in terms of joy. If there’s no basement, there’s no upstairs-downstairs family. There’s just family. Like if there’s no utensil on the draining board, there’s no threat of laceration. This should be obvious to everyone.
I gave a little concert once. Mom and the sock monkey were there. Dad was gone, even then. Mom said he wouldn’t knock her down, not when he was gone. She said Never again. I said Bullshit. She said Stop. At my concert I played “Little Tennessee Blues” by Blind Boy Fuller, which surprised my audience but which I’d been practicing in the basement. Even then there was a basement—okay—but it was a different kind of thing.
Something happened when I played Blind Boy Fuller’s “Little Tennessee Blues.” It came out a much sadder version of the same exact song. Understand that I threw myself into this. Understand that I would not back down. The glockenspiel is an instrument that amplifies perspective. It’s an instrument played by a people of great industry and feeling. Mom says Industry is an important word because it points to an essential concept in terms of me. She said this not then at my concert, but yesterday, having flicked on the lights. At the concert she stood up and cried, which I understood because the song, itself, was emotional, and I condoned it even though I don’t condone some of her other weaknesses.
What I like to do now is think about the future. It will be open space, and when Mom is gone, I’ll get the house, unless she wills it to the Christians.
Let’s forget the concert. Let’s say that I’m retired. That I am not violent, and my upstairs is a lighthouse. My downstairs is the stink-earth. I have company here, and anyway, who’s counting? If it’s true what they say, we all will be forgiven.
Original work published by Burrow Press Review.
Reprinted with permission.