Thursday, September 23, 2010

Alex Taylor: Maddened Ghost—The Late Barry Hannah as Mentor

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alex Taylor, author of The Name of the Nearest River (Sarabande Books), writes about the influence of his teacher, Barry Hannah.

Let me begin by saying we were never friends, though I would have preferred it. I am grateful we were not enemies. Long is the legend of his madness, his unrepentant anger at those either willingly wronging happiness out of life or those who were simply too dull to be anything other than crude motes of the air. It would have been a bitter and raw battle, as a few wives and girlfriends and hapless poets can attest.

So I was neither friend nor enemy to the late Barry Hannah. I was simply his student. So I remain. He continues to guide me into the heat of life, cursing or howling in disgust when I opt for ease and comfort over nail-driven pain and outright agonizing love. You sit in the chair long enough, what you want is a fist in the teeth. What you demand is a blade to the throat. What else is there to keep us in the realm of the riotous prophet? All writers must cultivate vision, must quest through their own desert places for the glowing waters promised us during our time in bondage.

In bondage to what?

The stink of too much money, too little life. The slow waiting. The tedious, thumb-pulling dawdle. Big chains and bad medicine this, and more than a few honest men get the heart felled right out of them by the broad ax of such slavery. You learn freedom comes when the nerves burn white-hot-electric, when your sinuses bleed. You dose up on the drug of it, The Truth, and get giddy from the bald hurt.

He rarely spoke to me. I recall him drawling out "I want to take you fishing," and giving me a hug once. We never tossed hook or line together, a deep personal regret of mine. But you were either in the circle of Hannah’s love or burned in the lake of his hatred, and I somehow drifted into the limbo of his indifference.

It’s nothing terrible. Barry’s ability to lift the heart of the struggling fiction writer was worth every barb, insult, or misguided misreading of a story. I’d leave his classes desiring war. I wanted to run the bomb-cratered dirt, gun for the trenches, and cabob the Hun with my bayonet, leave the world of the sad complacent soaking up the soil at my feet. He spoke as if literature mattered. As if it was of deep and lasting importance. Strange gris-gris this, especially in the digital era of flash, flicker, nothingness. But there was Barry, aged and come back from Hell, snickering and jolly, mad and blunt-tongued, hoisting the flag of The Word above a field of tattered pennants and smoking corpses, rallying the living to the fight, the final push, the big roar.