Album Review: Margaret by Jason Webley and Friends
Written by: Katie Cantwell

Margaret by Jason Webley and Friends

The story starts on December 12th, 1907 in Everett, Washington.

Margaret Rucker was born on December 12th, 1907 to a wealthy family and grew up in Everett, Washington. She would later attend the University of Washington, then marry a military officer, Justus Armstrong, and move to California. She would be caught in a car crash that made the newspaper, have two sons, see her husband decorated by the military, and later witness his death. Throughout, she wrote poignant, beautiful poetry. She died on June 18th, 1959.

The story starts on an unspecified date, somewhere around ten years before 2003, in a garbage bin in San Francisco, California.

A man known as Chicken John Rinaldi was relieving his van of some garbage in a dumpster at a deserted construction site in the early hours of the morning. Crouching out of the wind in the bottom of the dumpster to light a cigarette, he found a scrapbook, hand made by an unknown author, containing pictures and poems and newspaper clippings about the life of a woman named Margaret Rucker.

The story starts December 12th, 2014 in Everett, Washington.

Chicken John Rinaldi told a friend of his, an Everett native, Jason Webley, about the scrap book, and Webley connected the woman in the scrap book to the Rucker family who helped found Everett, and whose thirty foot pyramid of a mausoleum was a bit of a local landmark. He started a Kickstarter campaign to make a project called Margaret. The plan was to make an album of songs written by him and other musicians who had all become fascinated by the story of Margaret Rucker, both her life and how her story had surfaced. Margaret surpassed its funding goal and was released on December 12th, 2014, her birthday, as a full album and book of all the evidence of her life that they could find. It contains scans of all her poems that they have been able to recover (regrettably, only four), and the story of Margaret Rucker and Margaret, as told by Rinaldi and Webley.

a4063648369_2The book itself is small and beautiful. The pictures, like Margaret’s poems, speak for themselves. We see Margaret leap in faded sepia photos from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, (pregnant and recovering from the car crash in a hospital, healthy and smiling with her two sons and husband, looking away from the camera and sitting in the front seat of a new car, glancing away accidentally in a group photo at a restaurant, sitting jauntily on the arm of a deck chair) and glean the details of her life from small scraps of newspaper.

The album contains fifteen songs, written by artists who were either inspired by the story of her life, or who found ways to put her poetry to music. Personally, I have never liked when musicians put poetry to music, I’m always dissatisfied with the end result: the pulse doesn’t fit somehow, or the key doesn’t match the tone that the poem takes in my mind. Margaret, however, does not disappoint in this respect; the poetry is brilliantly interpreted, and they make an emotional synergy when they are sung. The album straddles the line between new and old. While most of the songs are performed on traditional instruments, strings, pianos, there is more than one accordion on the album, none of the songs feel very traditional. Jason Webley’s own take on her poem, Two Deaths, My Love Left Me In April, performed with only an accordion and Webley’s characteristic, haunting singing, sounds more otherworldly and heartbreaking. Zac Pennington’s, Possession Sound, begins as an orchestra warming up and then pushes the suspense of that sound to its musical limits.

photo-originalThe story of Margaret Rucker is made up of fragments amidst gaping holes in her life’s story, sewn together over 15 songs and 88 pages. We don’t know how she met her husband, Justus, or why he would later kill himself in front of her. We don’t know what she did after his death, or what happened to the rest of her poetry. We don’t know what it was like for her to grow up in the shadow of the massive mausoleum her family spent years and a small fortune building. Her story is characterized by an absence of information (not for lack of looking: Webley’s and Rinaldi’s extensive research produced limited results), and this fragmentary nature of her story, perhaps, makes it all the more sadly beautiful. In that way, Margaret is every story we never got to hear the end of and all the questions to which we’ll never have answers. It is Margaret’s story, but it is also the story of everyone who collaborated, and the story of how stories can seemingly end only to . . . not end at all.

Margaret is an imperative read/listen for anyone who loves stories, for anyone who has ever thought about the wonder and brevity of our lives. The woman, the book, the album, cannot be distilled into a one-sentence summary. Margaret is full of voices, not only her voice, but the voices of the people in her life that echoed in her poetry, the voices of the people who found her, the people who brought her voice back, and the people who have listened. If there is one single thing one can take away from the story of Margaret, and the story of Margaret, it is the title to Chicken John’s testimony on finding a story at the bottom of a garbage bin: there’s no such thing as garbage.

For More Information

 

Careers In Writing: An Interview with Catherine Dmuchovsky
Written by: Katya Cummins

I am very pleased to continue our new profile series, Careers in Writing, with advice from Catherine Dmuchovsky.

Catherine Dmuchovsky is the director of marketing services for a U.S.-based global company. She is the author of a number of notes scattered around her house, and she is working on turning them into a work of fiction. She graduated from McNeese State University with an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

NICHE: How did you get started on your particular career path?  In effect, can you tell us a little bit about the years after the MFA? A lot of graduates have told me that they  feel uprooted from the literary community. Was that the case with you, and did this feeling in any way influence your choices?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I did not lay nice wide, flat paving stones for my career path. It’s more like I picked up random rocks (some of them very pointy) and quickly kicked some dirt around them so I could put one foot in front of the other.

After the MFA, I did temp work for a couple months before getting a job as a writer/editor at a magazine for insurance agents. This was not a path that I had envisioned for myself. I had no dreams of learning about the federal flood insurance program as I wrote my thesis at McNeese. However, I needed a job and this was a good one, and I learned about how to produce a monthly magazine., how to meet deadlines, how to separate my own style from what the publication needed. I later worked at another magazine owned by the same publisher, but was laid off after a while there. That was when I got a job at a university, first as an advisor in its graduate school and later in the communications department of its law school. I’ve been back in the corporate world since leaving the university, now in a marketing role at a global company. My goal has always been to earn my living writing, if possible.

After my teaching experience at McNeese, I knew I didn’t want to continue with it. I enjoyed it a lot, but I didn’t love it in the way that great teachers do (and I suspect I was barely mediocre), and I respect and value the profession too much to half-ass it. That decision is probably the most significant in separating me from the literary community. It’s not one’s day-to-day life anymore. So yes, I felt–and still feel–uprooted from the literary community. A kind of self-imposed but necessary exile. At first I didn’t notice it as much because I was focused on supporting myself and wondering how the fuck I was going to do that, and building my life, but the feeling is always there. It takes more effort now to connect in a meaningful way to the writing world, both the one inside of myself and the one outside.

NICHE: How does editing in academe differ from corporate editing? (That is, what kind of corporate and academic editing have you had experience with?)

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: In my mind there is no difference. Good writing is good writing, and good editing is good editing–always and everywhere. What can change are the purpose of a piece and its audience. Those factors influence the kind of choices you make while you’re working on something and how “creative” you can be. And depending on the industry, in corporate writing there can be compliance issues you have to be aware of, some things you legally can’t say.

In my own experience, I’ve written and/or edited long and short articles, brochures, video scripts, web copy, proposals, newsletters, and even people’s emails. And on and on. Grammar and style decisions are mostly driven by Associated Press guidelines in corporate communications (with some variations, of course), and I use CMS and Strunk and White as reinforcements as well.

NICHE: What are some of the particular pleasures or challenges associated with your job?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I like collaborating with other creative people, and I like the international component of my job–it’s something new in my career. It’s cool knowing that ads I wrote are now being used in South Africa, or working on a high-pressure project with people in our Australia office. I also enjoy writing scripts, which is not often, but seeing the CEO (once or twice) and other people speak my words–and having the audience respond how I intended–is gratifying.

So many challenges, so many…. One of the biggest is time. There’s never enough of it to complete a project the way I’d like because the workload is pretty unrelenting. And I’m not a fan of the stress this causes (nor of the repeated, tiny comma-sized blows to my perfectionism). My mind starts to turn in tighter and tighter circles and won’t stretch like it should.

Managing people is another challenge–or, more specifically, doing it well is a challenge. As with teaching, the decisions I make can have a direct impact on another person’s life.

NICHE: Have you noticed any new style and grammar trends in the last five years? 

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I’ve noticed that now people use “around” when they should use “about”–as in, “there’s been a lot of conversation around strategy.” Stupid. Just stupid. I always picture a bunch of people standing around in a circle, hands in their pockets, staring at a lump of of something with the word “strategy” on it, or whatever it is they’re talking about. “Yup, that’s strategy. See it, Bob? That’s strategy right there.”

NICHE: What were some of the trials that you’ve experienced? A friend of mine, who is in the early stages of an editing job now, is actually interested in how the quintessentially “dreamy” writers have gone through disillusionment about careers in writing [publishing] and come through the other side to build strong careers for themselves. How does one managed to balance the dream with the reality?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Embrace the disillusionment! It’s fun. Seriously, though, what are you really losing? Just an idea, a fiction of what you thought an experience would be like, one with no more value than what you choose to give it. If you’re paying attention, you gain knowledge and judgment in return (whether you use that knowledge to make different choices for yourself is another topic). And as writers, we of all people should be prepared for this–we should not be surprised. The passage from innocence to experience is a popular theme in the canon, after all. We’ve devoted years of study to the human experience, and yet it’s a total shock when it happens to us.

I don’t believe anymore in the false dichotomy between the “dreamy” artist/writer and other people. It’s cliché and it strikes me as ego-driven. Everybody has to learn about their own profession, and get better at it, through trial and error. You can’t avoid that process or go around it. Your dream may take a beating or go dormant for a while, but that is OK.

NICHE: What do would graduates, who want to pursue your line of work, need to be aware of?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: As a good communicator, you have skills that are becoming increasingly hard to find (believe me–I’ve seen the shitty résumés), so you have more options than you think. Also, you won’t always be the smartest person in the room, so read, read, read and keep learning.

NICHE: Have marketing strategies evolved due to social media, and if so how? How have companies had to accommodate? It might seem like an obvious statement, but there seems to be more variables involved than people think. Otherwise, all advertisements would catch on, authors and companies wouldn’t have to hire their own publicists,and every single video on youtube would go viral, right? It is also well accepted that someone could have written the best book in the world but if the book is not marketed properly then the book will likely never be known or receive the attention it deserves. What advice do you have for those seeking to market themselves or their work?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Yes, marketing has changed since social media has become more popular and widely used. Companies have to communicate their message in more and different formats than before; they have to reach consumers where they live, which is of course on their phones, on all of the various channels (facebook, twitter, instagram, blah blah). The air of making-it-up-as-you-go-along is thicker in the social media sphere because companies are really just following a nanosecond behind what consumers are doing–it’s like watching a school of fish flash in the water. (Although clever marketers have designed the desire to have the devices that foster this connectivity to everything, all the time.) The process of marketing hasn’t really changed, though. New ideas and messages are simply produced in greater quantities and failing and/or disappearing faster than was possible in traditional formats.

As to the second part of that question, about marketing oneself, I don’t know that I can offer much advice here, certainly nothing you couldn’t find in Poets & Writers. I’ve been out of the game for a while. But I think the scenario you describe will always exist–any number of authors will write great books and never get recognized, and that’s not something that marketing can solve. It’s tempting to chase after the experience of someone who got a book contract because of her blog, which she started while working on her novel (you get the idea). But that’s luck, not a realistic plan. (And if you constantly humble-brag on your social media outlets, people will start to hate you.) It’s also worth considering what kind of recognition you’re after. If it were me, I would still leave the marketing to the publisher.

Advice for managing others: The qualities that make someone a decent human being also make that person a good manager–honesty, kindness, integrity. Follow through on what you say you’re going to do, ask your employees how you can help them, and never, ever micromanage. Seriously. Never. Managing people can be an odd mix of the intimate and the corporate. You learn things about your employees’ personal lives that you probably wouldn’t if you were just their coworker, so of course you must also be discreet. And don’t feel you have to put on a different “boss” personality in order to be effective, which can happen if you’re insecure about leading someone else or if you’re new to managing people. Just be honest and admit you’re learning as you go. But you also have to learn how to have difficult conversations, and in those instances it’s better to be direct without being harsh, and to be specific about the problem. And be prepared for it to feel uncomfortable. Because it does.

NICHE: Is there anything else you want our readership to know?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Your readers probably know more than I do.

Guest Blog Post: “When Writers Paint” by Jean Kim
Written by: Niche Lit Magazine

When Writers Paint by Jean Kim

The intersection between visual and written forms of artistic expression is a fascinating space to explore. It is particularly interesting when writers become painters or vice versa. Painting and visual art has an immediacy of impact on the viewer, is in some ways more brazen and controlling of the viewer’s imagination than writing, which relies heavily on a collaboration with the reader’s internal musings. Not to say that writing cannot be striking and driven in its own right; an author’s point of view is never in question, just the mental filter through which it comes alive in the reader, so writing feels slightly more oblique and indirect than visual art. Both writing and painting can leave the viewer/reader befuddled and feeling left outside instead of embraced, especially in this era of abstraction and conceptual art. But when the viewer/reader tries to look at both modalities proffered by one person, the author’s intentions might come into better focus.

For the writer who paints, their visual expression can be an intriguing foray into what they are trying to achieve with their words. It isn’t as surprising perhaps to see poets who paint, given that poetry relies more on abstraction and aesthetic mood. The British Romantic artist, William Blake, made the most of both worlds with his illustrated mystical poetry. His images are blazing, grandiose, hyper-spiritual, with sharp contrasts of dark and light and a mixture of religious and fantasy figures. His poems are also musical, expressive, and can also reach a similar fever pitch of feeling as with “A War Song to Englishmen”:

[su_quote]Prepare, prepare the iron helm of war, Bring forth the lots, cast in the spacious orb; Th’ Angel of Fate turns them with mighty hands, And casts them out upon the darken’d earth! Prepare, prepare![/su_quote]

He was one of the few artists who maximized his commitment to both genres, and in doing so achieved a precursor of cinematic dynamism in his work, by having language dance alongside vibrant illustrations. He understood the power of synesthesia, of multiple senses being engaged simultaneously for different reverberations of meaning and effect. Fiery words allied with fiery visions pushed Romantic art to another level.

However, most famous writers who paint have kept it as a quiet side pursuit or switched gears from one craft to another. At age 20, Sylvia Plath almost decided upon an art career but went into writing instead. A set of her early drawings was released by her daughter and exhibited in London in 2011. The drawings are remarkably benign in subject matter, cutesy even, like a pair of heels, farm animals, or a citronnade stand in the park. Yet I see something of her future self in the precision of the lines, the crisp characterization of figures with an economy of purpose. She continued to paint throughout her life (Ted Hughes reportedly encouraged her because the activity seemed to calm her). Some of her later art shows a jazziness, like Mad Men fashion ads meet Picasso, with bright chaotic colors and geometric, neo-cubist lines. They are a bit unsettling, because of their fragmented, kaleidoscopic, acid nature, but also reassuring in their calculated freedom, their cataloguing different patterns, colors into an expressionist crazy quilt. She still seemed to be at play, as opposed to her poetry, where her dark muse was in full wrathful force.

Mark Strand, a poet who also initially began with a painting career (getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Yale), had returned to his first love of late. In a September 2013 New Yorker post by Rachel Arons, he is interviewed about an exhibit of new collages on display at a Chelsea gallery. They are described as “playful” as well; again a freedom or escape from the pressures of “trying to make verbal sense” in writing. “It is as if I were in kindergarten again.” The collages are highly abstract, filmy patches of colored paper crudely pasted against each other, and indeed, somewhat childlike in execution. The colors vary from those of bright tropical fruits to placid pastels to muted grays; the stone-like roughness of the shapes let the colors converse with each other on their own terms. The mood is all. He says visual art for him is an active “escape from making meaning…language does not intrude” and he is on “vacation”. This return to primal expression is fascinating, given the poised precision of his poetry. His writing has in common the emphasis on mood, the careful placement of seemingly plain words in artful alliance, not unlike the movements of an interior designer, where the overall composition and harmony matter as much if not more than the individual pieces on display. For example, this short 2002 poem, “The Coming of Light”:

[su_quote]Even this late it happens: the coming of love, the coming of light. You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves, Stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows, Sending up warm bouquets of air. Even this late the bones of the body shine And tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.[/su_quote]

But with Strand’s collages, the mood is more bluntly achieved, through color and shape alone, on an innocent, pre-verbal level. Perhaps at this late stage of life, he feels that the essence is enough. The striving for linguistic precision obfuscates his pure love of expressio.

Annie Dillard, another master “word painter” who mainly worked in prose (albeit beautifully styled), has also taken up painting, after declaring herself retired from writing in 2007, and exhibited and sold some of her works in small galleries. (The proceeds go to charity.) Her works are reportedly all small-scale (less than 16 inch canvases) and mainly portraits and landscapes (given her obsession with nature), with simple subjects like roads, flowers, fences, hillsides. Like her language, there is a charismatic poise to her choice of colors and figures, but also a certain lightness and softness that isn’t as evident in her diamond-hard prose. Take this excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

[su_quote]”The air bites my nose like pepper…The rutted clay is frozen tonight in shards; its scarps loom in the slanting light like pressure ridges in ice under aurora. The light from the moon is awesome…not the luster of noonday it gives, but the luster of elf-light, utterly lambent and utterly dreamed.”[/su_quote]

Her obsession with gradations of light and imagery are evident in her subject matter and gorgeously precise. With her paintings, there is the same admiration of light and vision and beauty, but, as with Plath, now there is a certain freedom that comes from attempting a new line of expression unburdened by expectation—a feeling of innocent pleasure and peace. It is freedom from the perfectionist genius that sometimes drives writing, especially prose, because on some level language is constrained by rules of grammar, vocabulary, coherence–rules that can arguably bend a lot more with painting and still produce its intended effect (masters of realism notwithstanding).

I encourage readers to look up these curious cross-genre novelties, for what new angles and insights they shine upon the writer’s artistic goals and method of expression. They can stimulate new admiration for what both modalities can accomplish, and how they can inform each other. Perhaps as writers we also need to remind ourselves of that mode of innocent curiosity and exploration that can be discovered when switching “teams” into the nonverbal, visual art zone. We can discover that evocation of our childhood sensibilities, when curiosity for its own sake and playful creation captured something pure and truthful in ourselves and our lives, and that was all we needed to succeed in our mission as artists. Perhaps we ought to put less pressure on ourselves and let our creativity flow without the burden of perfection. It may still be beautiful enough.

About the Author

Jean Kim is a physician and writer who currently works and lives in the DC Metro area. She will be receiving her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing at Johns Hopkins and has also been a nonfiction fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center of CUNY. She is a blogger on Psychology Today and has work published or forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Daily Beast, Bethesda Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, Storyscape Journal, Star 82 Review, and more. Her website is jeankimmd.blogspot.com.