Workshop, Woodshed

This blog originally appeared in Open Salon, April, 4, 2010

This is about Vitamin Water, the fiction writer Glen Hirshberg, and the poet Gaylord Brewer.

This is about writing. 

This is about the blues and how much I miss Lightnin' Hopkins and Sonny Terry.

This is about how a song that I wrote in five minutes took 35 years to find.

This is about Meacham, a workshop and literary conference in Chattanooga. 

This is about how my father says that when you put poetry and music together on the same stage music wins.

I say everybody wins.

This is about how much I love this.

I could start with Vitamin Water but since Vitamin Water is a scam and a "get" I'd rather start with the true stuff.


Glen is Glen Hirshberg, whose original and frightening collection of short stories, "American Morons"  has as much political as visceral punch and, as only Glen seems to be able to do, combines the much-maligned genre of horror fiction with something more daily and universal.

I've been wondering how Glen does this thing he does, making the unimaginable almost unavoidable, the horrible commonplace.

Maybe we just live in a world of easily imagined horrors that come to fruition on news programs and in the dialogue of the disenfranchised.
Glen knows that it isn't what gets you that scares you, but what might be thinking about getting you. 

 Maybe Glen just knows, that once you have a family, all of the monsters crawl out from under the bed, out from the closet and the dark of the corners, down from the silver spaceships, and up from the depths of the oceans and put on suits and ties and become flesh and blood.

And that's when it gets really scary.

 And that is how my friend Glen writes it.


Gaylord Brewer is a poet.
He's not the usual poet.

He looks more like a career detective or  a wrestling coach.

If I was at a poetry reading and somebody needed a freezer full of deer meat moved up from the basement I would ask Gaylord to help me.
In that way we have become friends.

Where others search the room for people who can help them get published, I search the room for people who can disarm right wing militia members.
I think Gaylord is looking for the same guy.

His poetry is rich with humor balanced with the night terrors of frailty and compromise.

At Meacham this year he read quietly and steadily of a character named "Ghost" a worthy addition to the characters of Meacham's past, the Dead Man and American Crow.

As he read I lost track of the words and found in the cadence a moan that was the sound of my musical childhood, Sonny Terry hollering the beginning of a harmonica solo, letting out the devil before keying the saddest train whistle or the sound of men swinging hammers until they collapsed.

And I thought, "Goddamn, Gaylord's a blues singer!"

I only really write in my head, often while driving, so most of my songs are finished before I first start to play them and refine them. 

I drove home with my ears full of the sound of Ghost and the mostly invisible way we cross through each other's lives.

I spent the entire drive thinking that I had just heard what 35 years of playing the blues sounds like and it was a damn poet who sang it. 

That night I wrote the song "We All Get Gone (Gaylord Brewer's Traveling Blues)"

I recorded it the next night. You can listen to the recording at

 Vitamin Water? 

I'm only a part-time writer. The rest of the time I sell things for a very, very large corporation. 

Because Meacham (they don't call it "the" Meacham) is here where I live, in Chattanooga, and because my father's coat tails stretch all the way from Iowa City, I was invited to teach a songwriting workshop at Meacham. The first workshop I've ever done by myself.

I had handouts. 

I had about a dozen people and I did okay. I told them that the music business was dead and they didn't seem to mind.

I told them that songs should be like haiku. The main idea should never be stated directly.

That's how this broke-ass two-time failure songwriter sees it. 

Then I told them not to be cynical, that humor and and an open heart were more important than rhyme and revision.

Maybe I lied.

Revision is pretty damn important.

Before the workshop began I went to the student bookstore to get a pen.

I was thirsty and the cooler by the door was filled with row upon row of Vitamin Water. 

I was thirsty and they wanted me to buy better water.

I was thirsty for something else. 

I asked the cashier if she knew that Vitamin Water was a tonic, an elixir, a modern scion of the tradition of late night charlatans selling cures on the nuclear powered radio from
across the border in Ciudad Juarez.

I asked he if she knew how much money a man like me made in his every- day-job telling people how very, very much they want something  that they don't need.

I asked her if she knew that Vitamin Water was just the beginning, and everything starts somewhere. 

I told her that I secretly hope nobody ever buys anything ever again.
She barely looked at me, an old man worried about things that don't seem to matter, and gave me back too much change for my Bic pen. 

I drank water from the fountain and it quenched my thirst.

When I gave my workshop I told the students not to get taken.

They all nodded their heads.

This is my blues.  That I can't protect you.

I can't protect anybody.

Not really.

None of us can protect anybody for more than a moment. 

 My friends Glen and Gaylord know this and write the warnings.

I know this but can't make myself believe that it won't be different for me. 

I used to sing the blues.

Now I sell Vitamin Water. 

We All Get Gone (After the Ghost poems by Gaylord Brewer)
 She says I don’t know you like I used to know you
Something’s changing these days
She says I hate to say it
But I liked you better the old way
And I say baby, I’m just fading
Watch me fading away
Cause get it right or wrong
Sooner or later
We all get gone
She says that river is a mighty wide river
It rolls on for miles and miles
For all you know
You won’t be crossing it for a while
And I say baby I’m just traveling
Watch me traveling away
Cause get it right or wrong
Sooner or Later
We all get gone
We all get gone
We all get gone
Sooner or later
Right or wrong
We all get gone
Words and Music by Nathan Bell copyright 2010

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