By Robin Healey-Smith
The odds of being struck by literary lightning in any given year are remote. The odds of it happening twice? As chance would have it, though, the good people over at New Issues Poetry & Prose have struck me twice with two recent books.
The writers are poets Chet’la Sebree with her work Mistress and Eman Hassan with her work Raghead. These are their first collections, but given the content and scope of the written material you would never have guessed that these are debuts.
Mistress is arresting. It’s tonally dark and honest, focusing on the struggles of personal and cultural identity.
You see, Sebree weaves together her own personal narrative, that of a 21st-century African-American woman, with that of the historical figure Sally Hemings, an African-American woman enslaved during Antebellum America by Thomas Jefferson.
Sally, as she was called, had a difficult road. Aside from her compulsory relationship to the President, she suffered immense tragedy as a mother: two of her children died in early childhood, while four others grew up enslaved alongside her.
One such poem, “Boy of My Body, January 1790,” visualizes the birth of Sally’s first child and his eventual passing:
A hinge unhinging: a glass
until boy of my body
calls for me: hungering.
Twine: to tie off.
Scissors: to sever.
The lyricism at work here is heartbreaking—there’s a tight control of language happening here that resonates a resounding vibrato on the tip of the tongue; the mark of a formidable writer.
Sebree spent a great deal of time studying the history of Hemings. You needn’t look any further than the historical timeline provided at the back of the book to fully appreciate Sebree’s dedication. Everything from the birth of Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson’s inheritance of her to the birth and death of her children to her travels are chronicled in a comprehensive list that one might easily follow along with whilst sitting down to read this collection. Sebree’s research pays off mightily. Shee is able to use each line to craft persona poems which infuse life back into Sally Hemings. In turn, this has us bearing witness to the renewed and continued presence of Hemings in poetic form.
“Anachronistic Conversations: Sally & Chet’la” is the culmination, in which Chet’la is able to align herself alongside Sally and converse with her:
between love and Stockholm, you’ll find me
Clutching inkwell and shoe buckle.
You didn’t travel your grandmother’s Middle Passage
In linen-lined cabin.
Even as he became purr of his own musculature,
He could have unlaced me.
You are my
sister, my mother, the lover
I don’t want to be, but fear that I am.
The fear in this passage is pervasive for Sebree and Hemings—and the reader. It’s a fear of being made invisible, something less than whole. In response to this fear, Sebree gives priority to Hemings, and by extension herself. Far too often Hemings’s voice was overshadowed by the domineering presence of Thomas Jefferson. “La Negresse” pivots away from the man that was and chooses instead to focus on the woman that might have been:
Worse than doggy-style,
the conflation of animals and deep penetration,
la negresse implies only black women like it
—my ass in turned vibrato—
Or are the only ones willing to admit it.
Mostly, though, I want to know
if that’s how you liked it, Sally,
if Paris made you
in its manner of blackness.
Sebree begins to more closely parallel her own experiences alongside that of Hemings’s and express the male lens of desire and fantasy in which many women, especially women of color, are seen.
“Mistress of Hypermobility” highlights this instance:
Move me from metropolis to small town places
Where people know they know my face,
But no one can pronounce my name.
I’ll speak a mesh lingue romantiche anywhere
someone will try to understand me,
as long as I can admit
I’m always moments away
from falling between continents
With this collection, Hemings and Sebree do not fall between the continents and its cracks and slip into something akin to disremembering. Rather there is a conscious effort by poet and subject in this collection to defiantly claim: We are here. We are seen.
Of its own accord, Raghead by Eman Hassan aligns itself, too, along issues of sexuality, visibility, and being rendered invisible, albeit via a more contemporary lens.
Take for instance one of the later poems, “Transport”—which, for all intents and purposes, starts off somewhat mundanely, delving into the heat and traffic of the Middle East:
Traffic on the road is terrible, but here this is normal.
This can be anywhere in the Middle East, the heat a stampede through
The solar plexus.
Despite this opening lull and the feeling of exhaustion at play within the lines due to traffic and sun, the poem quickly unfolds into the narrator observing men and women being rounded up on the streets, quite literally trafficked into metal trucks, “the kind used to move livestock.”
It is with tangible terror—perhaps at an internal indifference or horror at our own inaction—that we return to those relatively unassuming first lines, this time with the hint of awareness stressed on that all too lulling of words, traffic:
Trafficking on the road is terrible, but here this is normal.
This can be … anywhere in the Middle East.
Eyes peek out of parallel slats
as if peering from an oven.
Tonally, this collection maintains its measure of bleakness throughout and transfigures an otherwise barren and desperate landscape onto the page.
Never is this more on display than in the poem “Guns & Lemon Trees,” a poetic account of a Kuwaiti admiral and his soldiers inspecting the residence of Hassan’s father for weapons and any other contraband after the family has just spent the night digging tunnels to hide those materials in the sewers:
I remember my heart thudding
In my chest at our narrow margin of days,
the way I clenched my fists
to hide dirt still under my nails, the way
I struggled to unclench fists,
how I struggled to still my fists, I remember
the admiral’s heavy lips whistling the all-clear,
not finding any guns, telling my father
how lucky you are to have daughters with gardening skills
instead of sons, who might have gotten you killed.
Tension dominates this collection of poetry by Hassan, to be sure, but it is more than tensions that make it a compelling read.
The title poem, like much of this book, pulls from personal experiences while also capturing moments in contemporary history and empowering the female Middle Eastern subject (rather than relying on a given global narrative of “invisibility”):
… I used to don
my father’s headgear, preen in his bedroom mirror
(mmm, how handsome!),
my pulse pounding in Bedouin drumbeat fashion,
afraid to wrinkle its starched goodness
or be found in its gauzy tabernacle, admiring
halo-like, delicate when left
It’s a striking parallel, to be sure, given that much of the book is dedicated to taking a closer look at the already complex boundaries in being a citizen caught between cultures—American and Kuwaiti. This tense dynamic of heritage spills out within the same poem, when the narrator happens to get caught by her father:
No matter my precaution, my father finally caught a show
of my shenanigans, zeal of his pleasure
at my make-believe surreal as he taught me to fold
the cloth, tease its front
into a dent, under an anchoring rope of gahfiyya.
He dressed me up in a dishdasha
And we went for a ride. He let me drive the whole stretch
of Gulf Road, agreeing my name
for the night was Ibrahim el-Majnoon…
…and crazy we were, with my eyeliner’d uni-brow
And him, still loud and lively, pretending I was the son
he didn’t have.
Despite it all, despite the placement and the subversion of those made invisible, despite the incredible propensity for cruelty displayed within this collection, Hassan stands resilient in her poetry, in her sense of place and heritage.
One of the later poems in the collection, “Without an Iota,” captures this to great effect. In the poem, a squirrel is described in intricate detail when his home is destroyed in the dead of winter:
The last time I saw him months later
(and this time really the last), he was stretched out
on a branch beside his trashed home, without
an iota of self-pity, the debris of his labor not withstanding
the brutal charnel of a Midwest winter. There he was,
proud body catching rare winter sun, unruffled
in the knowledge that neither he nor the rubble of his sanctuary
would last the season.
Hassan stands proudly, without self-pity. In her voice, there exists a focus, an intentionality to showcase the other and have them be seen. Time and time again, truth is what spills out onto the page.
The works of Sebree and Hassan extend beyond self and the language of isolation. These poets strive to reach the communal, to touch something more than the literary self. Lightning is like that; it can light up the darkest night and be seen for miles all around.
By Alexandra Murphy
In his nonfiction chapbook Ghost/Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Being Haunted (Ricochet, 2020), Dennis James Sweeney draws tender parallels between our homes and our bodies, both of which are susceptible to the kind of empty spaces that attract ghosts. You may know these ghosts by other names—illness, anxiety, repression. Ghosts inhabit us, haunt us, prevent us from healing until we become the ghosts in our own homes.
At its most stripped down, Ghost/Home is an account of Sweeney’s battle with Crohn’s disease. The book is divided into three parts, with each consecutive part offering more vulnerability as it moves deeper into Sweeney’s journey of discovery, comprehension, grief, and eventual acceptance.
In the first part, “Getting to Know Your Ghost,” Sweeney discovers that ghosts are more than “a pale girl with wet long hair” waiting for him on his childhood bed. They are the things we cannot make sense of, the things that consume us and keep us from loving others, and, more importantly, from loving ourselves. But how does one become inhabited by a ghost? And what does it look like? Sweeney cleverly pairs his compelling prose with simple diagrams to answer these questions. He describes what it feels like to be haunted:
I could feel the ghost trying to convince me that I was it and sometimes I felt I was, to the extent that a ghost cannot heal but rather lives on a wound.
The second part, “Between Ghost and Home,” is where Sweeney draws the connection between our bodies and our homes after he visits his parents’ new house. It is a house that has all the familiar objects of the house he once lived in as a child, yet it isn’t the same—just like his own body before and after his Crohn’s diagnosis. This section includes intimate interviews with his parents and a reading of Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier, whose protagonist, Virginia, also experiences an uncanny homecoming. Even more interesting than the parallels Sweeney draws between himself and Virginia is the way in which he presents them; split columns run parallel down the page allowing for simultaneous narratives.
Sweeney’s experiences, interviews, and reading of The Chandelier lead him to a terrifying yet appealing consideration:
But what if we do not have to give our ghosts up?
Sweeney explores this thought in the final part, “What Is Left Out Is the Haunting.” In this section, he redefines what it means to be haunted as he takes us through honest and revealing recollections of loss, embarrassment, and acceptance.
Ghost/Home is successfully ambitious in its themes and structure, using a patchwork of diagrams, interviews, readings of Clarice Lispector, and photographs that are held together by the delicate mercy of Sweeney’s beautiful prose. Regardless of what you believe, Sweeney’s intimate journey with Crohn’s disease is an insightful lesson on living alongside our biggest insecurities—our own ghosts—whatever they may be.
Check out our Witness Staffer Pet Parade!
In celebration of National Poetry month, we wanted to take some time to highlight the work of Heather Lang-Cassera, our Clark County, Nevada Poet Laureate.
During the first week of social distancing, Heather took her pinhole camera to the once-populated areas of Downtown Las Vegas and captured the stillness and quiet that we’ve now come to recognize in this time of isolation. She develops her photographs in her home studio and gave us permission to reprint them here alongside her recent poem, “without.” The poem, like the photographs, beautifully explores themes of emptiness, absence, and longing.
We have included the audio version of the poem as well, for your listening pleasure:
I have never known loss
I took words and placed them on my tongue,
a quiet catapult for what
I cannot say.
I think of your wrists,
but as city swans in pairs
dark with moonlight.
And your ribcage,
Here, I wait
with ceramic bowl, clean & grey as shadow,
between two hands
so that I might feel
the something that is in emptiness.
What are we
but trees without hills are no less
for their loneliness.
And these promises, rearranged—
a wing unbroken, a softness
Heather Lang-Cassera is the Clark County, Nevada Poet Laureate. Her poems have been published in Diode, The Normal School, North American Review, Paper Darts, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. She serves as world literature editor for The Literary Review, faculty advisor for 300 Days of Sun, and editor-in-chief for Tolsun Books. At Nevada State College, Heather teaches Introduction to Creative Writing, Modern American Poetry, and more. www.heatherlang.cassera.net
Are you a poet finding creative ways to work through the COVID-19 crisis? We want to hear from you! Send stories about your inspiration and/or process to our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org. You are welcome to include recent work you would like to share in our highlights. Stay safe, write on.
by Ana Lorenza Jimenez
Something unspoken lingers here in this unusual book, a beautiful unspoken truth. The book explores the mystery of a compelling dislocation. Such is the Nevada landscape, and such is Sandstone and Silver: An Anthology of Nevada Poets (Zeitgeist Press). This anthology, edited by Clark County Poet Laureate Heather Lang-Cassera, sums up what it is to be a Nevadan. The subjects here range from the specific terrain of the Las Vegas desert to what it feels like to love as an elderly couple. This book surpasses the limits of the Silver State and illuminates the human condition. At the same time, Sandstone and Silver is pure Nevada.
There is universal longing for home in this book. At the same time, there is an acknowledgement that this home, Nevada, has an alien feeling around it. Jennifer Battisti articulates the odd feeling of her city in her poem “Worship”:
There were DJs with marshmallow heads, / artificial wave machines, anarchist lava lamps. Even the wordless / moon could not distract us.
She owns that feeling; desert simulacra is ours and we are fully consumed by it. Just as Ms. AyeVee speaks of “The Great Spirit . . . Ancestors. / Old Friends” who “Guide me home.” These lines wonderfully convey the sentiment that we, as humans, long to be carried by the wind to our real home.
Yet home is not always a place of peace, as Tara Phillips expresses in her poem “Twenty Miles from Sin City.” The poem speaks of a struggle: “Bouts of energy, glycogen depletion, / dribbles of sweat crease my eyebrows.” The poem ends with the speaker finding herself at home through this struggle: “my serenity centers me to believe / ‘I am home.’”
Struggle transforms into pain for the speaker of AJ Moyer’s poem, “In the Year of the Spaceman.” There is humor in his words, “My whole life is a spacesuit she farted in / and I can’t take off the helmet.” Yet at the same time a deep underlying pain. It is the pain that only plagues human beings in those tricky instances called relationships, a space where we want to feel at home yet rarely do.
The poems of Sandstone and Silver do not dwell on longing and pain, however. Rather, there is a call to action among these poems. Gilda Graham, in her poem, “Blue Bird,” declares that given the choice: “You must . . . / Soar through the clouds.” For Graham, home isn’t a place where you live, it’s the space of making choices. These choices are inspired by our circumstances and our own capacities.
Frank Johnson describes these capacities beautifully in these words: “There is wind in your palms / an ocean in those fronds / crashing / whispering God.” Home is where we find ourselves and what we find in ourselves.
Sandstone and Silver is home; Nevada, made human. Read it and feel it.
Sandstone and Silver, $14
Zeitgeist Press, 2020
Click for purchase link
By Alyse Burnside
I read Ryan Sallans’ book Transforming Manhood in bursts during my first semester of graduate school. Each night, settling into his book felt like the treat I’d given myself for reading Foucault, planning an English 101 lesson about how to write a thesis statement, or simply walking around the Las Vegas desert feeling utterly alone. Finding a particular kind of comfort in someone else’s transformation is not unfamiliar to me. As a young queer from the Midwest, I often spent all day waiting to get home so I could read my clandestine queer books under the covers. I read Stone Butch Blues with the hunger some kids read Tiger Beat!, and Dykes to Watch Out For with the sort of admiration and desire some relied on Marvel comics to fulfill.
All this to say, I’m well read in the (white) queer bildungsroman. The stories of my queer elders are shaped by pain, isolation, loss, and above all, being denied the ability to dream of a limitless future. Before attending grad school, I worked as an advisor for a high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance in Minneapolis. I was a decade older than my students, but a world away from them when it came to their experiences as queer high schoolers. While I was too afraid to come out to anyone until I was through with high school, they were openly, and unapologetically queer. While I was just learning to feel comfortable changing in my gym’s locker room, they were navigating polyamorous relationships.
As things progress for the queer people in this country, there is a need for a new type of story. One that does not ignore the struggles queer people still face, but simultaneously allows for queer futurism. Narratives that dare to imagine what lies beyond survival – these give me hope, and Transforming Manhood was one such narrative for me. Sallans’ memoir moves beyond the transformation story and shows us what lies on the other side of struggle.
I had the honor of chatting with Ryan Sallans, and what follows is our conversation:
Alyse Burnside: Hi Ryan! Thank you for talking to me. I wanted to first tell you why I chose to interview you.
This past fall I moved to Las Vegas from Minneapolis where I had a really supportive queer community. I’m queer and since moving to Vegas I’ve really been feeling the loss of my community. I’m slowly building my queer community here, and this experience has me realizing just how important community is to me. So when your publicist emailed Witness about book reviews, I was excited by the possibility of talking to you about your activism and Transforming Manhood. While I’m not trans, there was so much in your book that resonated with me. A sometimes fraught relationship to my body, the fear of rejection, the navigating of my identity in straight spaces.
Ryan Sallans: I am hearing so many people tell me “’I am not trans’ but I connected with so much of what you had to say”—which is the whole point of storytelling and the power of nonfiction. It is interesting because when I was receiving my MA in Creative Writing, I only wrote fiction; I couldn’t imagine writing about my life. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything BUT nonfiction.
AB: I remember my fiction teacher having a conversation with me about my work. It was basically an intervention, he was like: “There’s this genre called creative nonfiction, and it’s actually what you are doing but calling fiction.”
This is a good segue into one of the questions I had for you. I want to talk about vulnerability. This book is very personal! What do you think is possible through honesty?
RS: Oh man, this book literally nearly killed me. As we sent it to the printers I had a physical and mental breakdown. My body completely collapsed and I lost a dramatic amount of weight in a week. This experience let me know I wrote a damn good book because I put my heart and soul out there and addressed topics that need to be addressed.
My life’s work is in inclusion and diversity, which for me means, having authentic relationships with people, meeting them where they are at, and giving them time to grow and change. Some forms of activism seeking to be inclusive are actually doing the exact opposite because these forms are focused on language, labels, judgement and shame. This is not the way to build relationships or help people who are uncomfortable with a topic; it actually just reinforces the discomfort and defensiveness.
I felt I needed to write a book about it, because sitting with a book you get a longer journey and get to see a person’s intention/soul. But I was scared to death to actually get it into readers’ hands because of the fury that can rise quickly with social media platforms, opinions, and soundbites. I am happy to say, all I am receiving is praise and thank you’s. Vulnerability helps bring down the defensive shield and open up people’s hearts to the same emotions/connections.
AB: I used to work as a Gender Sexuality Alliance Advisor for High Schoolers in St. Paul, Minnesota,, and one of the struggles I found in that role is that even though I was only eight or nine years older than some of my students, their experiences were so different. In particular, my trans students. I often felt like I was ill equipped to advocate for them because they were navigating something very different than me. And, some of my students were so nonchalant about their queerness. I had one student tell me that it wasn’t a big deal at all for them to come out. I feel like the queer experience is really evolving quickly.
What do you think is the most important issues facing Gen Z queers?
RS: That is one of the reasons I loved Chapter 1—it is so healing to have spaces where older LGBTQ folks can spend time with LGBTQ youth, one: to help them feel heard, but two: to help provide them with guidance. The queer experience is evolving, but the human experience will always be the same. Deep down we all experience fear, happiness, anxiety, uncertainty, etc. We need to keep generations connected because while the world looks different, the emotional experiences and developmental processes will remain the same. Finding meaning in life and a sense of purpose. Gen Z is in this beautiful place where they are the first generation to grow up with us talking about gender and sexual orientation openly and more positively. (Obviously we have a lot of work still to do). This open space allows them to explore their sexuality and try on different labels. What can be frustrating for these youth is that older generations do not take them seriously, or try to shut them down, so I think they are in the position to move us to the next wave of essentially feminism. We are now shifting from focusing on men and women and opening it up to freeing gender and orientation. This is going to be amazing to watch, but it is important that older generations are there for guidance, assistance, and perspective.
RS: I think a challenge is that, developmentally, Gen Z is using labels to try to understand self, but then in turn are applying labels to other people. This is harmful and creates those moments where people write each other off because of what they physically see or assume. Things like referring to people as “Cis, het, old, white guy, etc” is not helping build bridges or understanding. It is labeling and judging.
AB: Yes, even as a lesbian I’ve never felt so old, boring, monogamous, out of touch. While I see that this can be polarizing, I also understand the urge toward self-protection. Because Gen Z is still young, I sort of feel it is my task as a millenial to try and bridge the gap in some ways.
RS: Yes—absolutely. We will all figure this out as we navigate the healthy and unhealthy approaches to change.
AB: I’ve been reading a lot about queer futurism and potentiality lately. Have you read or heard of the book Cruising Utopia? I’ve just started reading it, but the title really summarizes it. It’s imagining the potential of a queer future. One in which there is flourishing rather than resistance. I see your work as future focused. I think a lot of books center on the transformation narrative, but Transforming Manhood to me feels like it’s pushing further than just transition. What do you think of this?
RS: I have been on the forefront of this current wave of LGBTQ rights and development. Just as an example, I had one of only a few websites about personal transitions on the web in 2005; think about what it looks like today! So I am in a place where I can write about themes that go beyond a transition or coming out (my first book Second Son did that). My third book, which I am starting to jot down little things [for], will focus on Self (not about being trans) and what happened in my life when I found my center of balance while moving further into middle age.
I think “futurism” is also what comes with age. I am a Gen Xr, like the middle child. I can look at older generations and think about what their lives looked like and everything they had, and continue to go through and then ask them for guidance when I start experiencing what they have in the past as developmentally they were in my age range. I can also look to the generations below me and take pause to give them space to express what they are going through while also listening to what they are truly feeling, and then having a conversation with them. I think futurism in a way is a representation of maturity, patience, open hearts and vulnerability. I am always trying to seek ways to describe the emotionality behind the language. We can connect through the emotions but interpret the language very differently.
AB: Hmmm, I like that. It sounds so…doable, allowing space for those who need it and connecting through common experiences/emotions. I wonder why it is actually so difficult sometimes. Are you willing to talk about book three?
RS: Honestly, so much of this is so freaking simple, but we just muck it up because being vulnerable, being centered, and talking about what we are really feeling is terrifying and confusing. So we apply language, talking points, policies, remind people to use “I statements”. I remember when I used to be a health educator (I am still a health educator but do it through being a speaker/storyteller) I hated it when they made us use curriculums or train-the-trainer materials. It never felt authentic. It never felt like it actually gave people tangible information that they could digest. So, I just quit using them and instead got in front of people, read the room, and then opened up so that they felt comfortable with the topic and asking questions. Twenty years later, I am still doing it and it works.
So, book three is going to be about this. Getting back to our center, finding our sense of self, and forming relationships through being authentic humans who are allowed to be vulnerable and unscripted. I literally just started writing yesterday, and as you know, what you think a book will be when beginning versus what it actually becomes are two different things. However, I am excited by this journey and what stories I will tell.
I think what excites me the most is that last year I turned forty and released this book that contained all of my fears and uncertainties. Writing about them, taking five years to spend time with the chapters has allowed me to enter into a new plane for the first time in my life where I am not living in fear, but instead I am living life with curiosity and confidence in self.
AB: Since we are talking about fear and difficult subjects, could we talk briefly about a subject you write candidly about? I found myself really thinking a lot about the relationship with queerness and eating disorders.
I think eating disorders are really common in the queer community because so much pressure is put on the body, even if you are cisgendered. I think that we don’t talk so much about that aspect of queerness, and I found that part of your book to be a place where I really connected.
RS: Since I’ve been sick, I spend a great deal of time thinking about eating disorders and how we can help people heal. This past year I’ve dived even deeper into this both through therapy and also through reiki. Last week I had a reiki session and it so happened she picked up on my desire to understand the deeper roots of my own ED and my desire to heal. While her hands were over my solar plexus (where we store sense of self) she mentioned that something happened to me around 18 months to 2 years of age with both my parents. 18 months to 2 years of age is when children start to see gender and have a sense of their own gender. My sense of self was invalidated at that time by my parents and it continued to be stifled as I aged. My healer also said my eating disorder wasn’t about control, but about acceptance and love. I think for many queer people, we do not feel like we can speak our truths, we then question our sense of self because other people are not accepting or loving of us. Our eating disorders are a way for us to escape from what we truly feel inside. There is something deeper here that I am on the brink of being able to speak to, I can’t wait for when that happens.
AB: That’s really interesting. I like the perspective that EDs can be about acceptance and love more so than about control. That gives me a lot to think about. I only have one more question for you. What art/literature/person/movement etc. is inspiring you most right now?
RS: Things that are inspiring me most right now are—listening to the musician Jose Gonzalez, learning the craft of raising, shaping and moving bonsai trees, not watching TV and not being on social media, but instead, spending time with people or spending time alone where I can then get lost in my thoughts. I guess, I am moving into a transformational movement where I am staying centered and finding music, people, hobbies that keep me there. It is amazing!
I cannot stress enough the importance of getting offline. It keeps us constantly outside of ourselves and what is surrounding us.
AB: I love that! I hope to raise a bonsai someday, I can’t keep my easy plants alive though. Thank you again for chatting with me. Your work inspires me and I can’t wait for the debut of your next book.
Ryan Sallans is a renowned transgender speaker and author specializing in health care, campus inclusion and workplace issues impacting the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) community. Since 2005, Ryan has been inspiring individuals around the world through the programming that he offers. His work as a speaker is rooted in storytelling and branches out to interlace personal stories with research and data focused on creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ individuals, employees and patients. He is hosted as a keynote speaker across the country for conferences and diversity and inclusion events highlighting finding similarities through our differences. Ryan also serves as the Lead Subject Matter Expert and script writer for e-learning courses used around the nation to train healthcare professionals and staff seeking continuing education around serving the LGBTQ community. These courses are now part of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Healthcare Equality Index (HEI).
Ryan’s memoir Second Son: Transitioning Toward My Destiny, Love and Life is one of a few books detailing the life and transition of a transgender man. Second Son has been noted as required reading in Mary Karr’s 2015 New York Times Bestselling book The Art of Memoir.
By James Earp
Walt Disney was what used to be referred to as a “walk-around manager.” Old timers often spoke about the vague disquiet that arose upon settling in at their animation tables first thing in the morning to find little squeans of cigarette ash on random surfaces (desks, credenzas, file cabinets)—an unmistakable sign that the boss had swung by afterhours to look over your recent output. His ability to manage the intimidating stable of talent he had assembled was key to Disney’s achievement.
The Life and Times of Ward Kimball: Maverick of Disney Animation (University Press of Mississippi), Todd James Pierce’s new biography of the animator, railroad enthusiast, and jazz trombonist, is the first in a projected series of extensive, self-contained biographies of each of the “nine old men” (Les, Marc, Ollie, Milt, Ward, Eric, John, Frank, and Wolfgang), the core group of artists who, under the supervision of their complex, restless boss, laid the foundations for what would become the most formidable entertainment behemoth of the 21st century.
A professor of literature at Cal Poly and boasting a hefty catalogue of publications in his own right, Pierce has set himself a daunting task even for someone practiced in Disneyana studies. Here’s hoping he gets whatever grants and sabbaticals he’ll need to complete it; the professional and personal interplay among this cast of vivid, formidably skilled and preternaturally talented, inveterately interesting characters at that point in American History is a tantalizing prospect. The whole shebang, woven together through nine volumes, could add a new dimension to our understanding of the tumultuous dawn and maturation of the Disney organization, and a unique perspective on the nexus of commerce and national identity through four of the country’s most transformative decades.
In straightforward, objective prose, Pierce reconstructs the emergent America in which Kimball was born, grew up, and, through unsurpassed mastery of his pencil yoked to a delicate balance of subservience and friendship, ascended to a position of influence with one of the 20th century’s most powerful influencers. While he documents Kimball’s life and times panoramically, Pierce shows keen appreciation of Kimball’s very complex art, generally focusing on the development of creative solutions to technical and aesthetic problems. Pierce’s book also presents a finely drawn, lucid account of the inner workings of the Disney organization—its complex hierarchy, its stew of comradery, rivalry, friendships, antagonisms, alliances, exhilaration, malcontent, and the incessant, pervasive internecine warfare within its walls—all of it agreeably devoid of pixie dust.
However effectively these men worked as a unit, they remained individuals, each in his own way brilliant, supremely talented, imaginative, insecure, whimsical, cranky, egotistic, inquisitive, all of them inveterately hard-working—and Ward Kimball was as individual as they got.
Bruce and Mary Kimball of Minneapolis were struggling when Ward was born in 1914, a struggle that continued with the arrivals of Ward’s sister and a younger brother. Bruce’s dreams of becoming an attorney or inventor had withered by the time Ward made his appearance, and after an eclectic series of jobs (manager of an indoor swimming pool, donut maker) he had become an itinerate Midwestern territory salesman for the National Cash Register Company. Prosperity remained elusive, and one nine-below-zero morning in Parsons, Kansas, Bruce declared his intention to move the family to California. There, Ward’s natural talents, encouraged early on by his family, found fertile ground for cultivation in Southern California schools, culminating in his enrollment in the Santa Barbara School for the Arts.
Most of the faculty at Santa Barbara held Hollywood, in contempt as collaborative and therefore antithetical to the aims and purposes of a serious artist—an easy opinion to hold from a secure faculty chair. Their thinking was nonetheless in line with that of Kimball, who still entertained ambitions of becoming a fine artist. The purist position was at length undermined, however, by Kimball’s observations during his tenure as leader of a children’s band that assembled for weekly gatherings of the Mickey Mouse club at the Fox Arlington Theatre, where songs were sung and animated cartoons were screened. Watching pictures like The Three Little Pigs and Father Noah’s Ark, enthralled, while yet holding tenuously to dreams of membership in the New York art establishment (probably as a painter of landscapes) Kimball began to perceive artistic ambitions at work in the cartoons (animal movement studies, interesting palette combinations in the service of narrative mood, other effective absorptions of technology) that seemed to have escaped his art school professors.
Out of school at the bottom of the depression, back home and wearying of side-eye from his father, Kimball happened on a Disney recruitment ad in Popular Mechanics calling for “trained male artists.” Desperate, he took his portfolio, uninvited, to the Hyperion Street studio; lucky, he was hired when he implored a secretary to have someone look at it, and that someone at hand turned out to be Walt.
Starting in 1934 at the bottom-rung position of in-betweener, Kimball weathered the ferocious attrition rate among new hires owing to a myriad of hazards—the trial-by-fire sniping of ambitious colleagues; jealous, inconsistently competent supervisors; low wages, and the high standards of Disney and his most trusted lieutenants— until he graduated to assistant, then full animator. His first star turn was in Woodland Café (1937, an extravagant Cotton Club sendup with bugs), wherein he caricatured Cab Calloway as a jive band-leading grasshopper. He rapidly moved up to work Snow White (1937, Dwarfs), Pinocchio (1940, J. Cricket, whom Kimball is on record as having hated animating (“All those ovals!”), Dumbo (1941, Dumbo, Timothy, the wonderful if problematic crows), Fantasia (1940, Bacchus, Jacchus), and Cinderella (1950, mice Jaq and Gus; Lucifer the cat). Along the way, Kimball’s lofty artistic ambitions fell victim to the tremendous amount of fun he found himself having with his work. He also discovered that animation offered ever more available outlets for a sense of humor whose liveliness verged on the Promethean.
The broad comedy perfected and liberally if deftly applied in the shorts had been relatively soft-pedaled in the features, but that changed during the upheavals of the early and mid-40’s. The domestic box office under-performance of Pinocchio and Fantasia (the European market for which was decimated by impending war) simultaneous with the traumatic animator’s strike of 1941 obliterated much of the comparative good will inside the animation division. As global conflict loomed, the United States War Department came calling with strong ideas about what a fine communications tool animation of such a high caliber could be, and surely Mr. Disney as a loyal American would be only too glad to place his staff and facilities at the service of armed forces education and morale, et cetera (Victory Through Air Power and others).
These turns of fortune obliged Disney to adopt a stopgap roster of omnibus features consisting of what were essentially loosely packaged shorts (Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time) or live-action features enveloping a limited amount of animation (Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart). Compared to the meticulously planned, lavishly produced and technically innovative features of the thirties and early 1940’s, the new projects were cheaply produced on shortened production schedules (a result of lessons learned during the production of Dumbo, the studio’s first solid box-office success since Snow White), and the visual burden was shifted to the character animators. Kimball and his colleagues responded by delivering character work of unprecedented sophistication and virtuosity, but this approach brought with it new liabilities. Now Kimball’s disposition for extreme, antic comedy was given free rein, and the headlong rush from gag to gag became a company-wide aesthetic unto itself. More and more, narrative tended to be lost in beautifully executed but flailing stretches of slapstick choreography. This maelstrom of movement continued apace for the next ten years, securely ensconced by the time feature production resumed, with Peter Pan (1953; Kimball animated Captain Hook, among other Neverlanders) a case in point.
Another mostly unwelcome newfangle was an ill-conceived overreliance on the narrative crutch of voiceovers, performed with varying degrees of patronization and arch vocalization that sent any hint of subtext scampering for the undergrowth. Dinah Shore is pleasant enough in the “Bongo” half of Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Nelson Eddy isn’t bad in his double duty as narrator and singing voice of “Willie, the Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” an odd, affecting little fable comprising one episode of Make Mine Music, in 1946 (Willie the Whale’s Pagliacci has to be seen to be believed, the climax of whose featured aria obliges the entire Metropolitan Opera audience to deploy umbrellas), and one of Kimball’s more idiosyncratic outings. Eddy and Shore are exceptions, though. Sterling Holloway, a delightful character actor whose familiar voice was apparently developed via a diet supplemented with talcum powder, renders what should be an entirely enchanting “Peter and the Wolf” (also Make Mine Music) all but unwatchable by way of a labored, bust-you-on-the-nose, listen-and-watch-while-I-tell-you-what-you’re-seeing script. True, Prokofiev provided narration for his composition, but we are left to wonder why no one considered that the shouldering of visualization duties by the studio might require paring down the Prokofiev script, rather than egregiously padding it. Worse is Bing Crosby, buh-buh-buh-booing with surpassing inappropriateness over “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad 1949), though he mercifully shuts up for Kimball’s suspenseful, hilarious pursuit of Ichabod Crane by the Headless Horseman.
Kimball’s sensibilities are at their most untethered in the “Pecos Bill” segment of Melody Time (1948), which exemplifies both the heights and depths of the Disney aesthetic during this period. It relies heavily on voice narration provided by Roy Rogers, relegating the characters to pantomime (not that that’s a bad thing). This opens kinetic possibilities Kimball exploits brilliantly but, for all its precisely focused wit and energy, simply isn’t very funny. This shortcoming is compensated somewhat by the rambunctious beauty of its movement. Besides the exploits of the ur-cowpoke, the segment opens with a prologue, “Blue Shadows on the Trail,” sung by Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers—an affectionate, altogether charming ‘toon dream of the desert at night that by itself mitigates the more cloying aspects of Melody Time.
Walt’s interest in animation flagged (though it, of course, never died) following the strikes and commandeering of the 40’s, and the old enthusiasm was redirected to the development of amusement parks. This too was at least in part to Kimball’s influence. Once his livelihood seemed established, Kimball had accoutered his back yard in San Gabriel with a full-sized, painstakingly restored and fully operational steam locomotive, run on 500 feet of track laid across three scrubby acres. Kimball had infected both Ollie Johnson and Disney with the train bug, and as the contagion spread, model railroads had gradually become a feature of the animation facility, followed by trains of various configurations routed to service as a prominent feature of the park.
With a new vision of the films and soon, television as a synchronous component of marketing for Disneyland, the features were no longer priorities (though windfalls such as the True-Life Adventures happened along from time to time), but there was still enough work that Kimball and the other members of the nine were kept busy, even if absent the prestige of the earlier films. Most of the nine made the transition to television with varying degrees of satisfaction, but Kimball found ample acreage to cultivate new, ever more exotic produce. Confronting the unpleasant specter of “limited animation” arising from some of the new facilities arising from the ashes left by the strike, he produced and directed an imaginative documentary on music, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953), winning, coincidentally, the Academy Award for animated short that year, and with which Walt was so taken that he told Kimball not to do anything like it again. The tide of limitation was inexorable, though, and ultimately even Walt was forced, if not to embrace the new style, then at least to tolerate it. Kimball managed a few more excursions along limited lines; the last of these, It’s Tough to be a Bird, (1969), won another Oscar.
He did a lot of work as well on Disneyland, the weekly electronic brochure for the park airing Sunday nights on ABC, most of it in the form of freewheeling documentaries now usually categorized under the heading “infotainment.” They’re mostly enjoyable, and a few of them are downright startling. Werner Von Braun was persuaded to appear, explaining salient aspects of what was then known about space travel for a couple of installments of the “space trilogy,” light, larky reportage on nascent American efforts toward space exploration. The last of these, “Mars and Beyond” includes a brief segment speculating on alien life, exhibiting “what-if” specimens of mixed-media animated Martian fauna. Some of these are as coldly creepy as anything that has slithered across the screen since Alien. Kimball also has the distinction of having made the only animated film independently produced by a member of the nine. Escalation is a savage, phallic take down of Lyndon Johnson and his adventure in Vietnam. Walt, laid to rest two years previous, would not have approved.
The ability to attract talented artists, cultivate their impressive stores of raw talent (talent invariably attended by an at minimum proportionate ego), then to train them to a company culture and inspire loyalty—often underpaying them, sometimes egregiously, while simultaneously denying them any royalties to work whose durability was to prove as extraordinary as it is inarguable—is an ability which in Walter Elias Disney surpassed just about everybody since Charlemagne.
Kimball survived and for the most part thrived during a lifelong career in the Disney organization despite marked tendencies toward iconoclasm and overt egalitarian sympathies. Walt Disney wasn’t blind to these characteristics; indeed it was his clarity of vision that protected Kimball, whose expertise was so unquestionable that his boss tolerated his idiosyncrasies in a shop about which Walt had a habit of bragging that he himself could not have held a job.
Bravo, Dr. Pierce. Well done! Only eight more to go. Get cracking.
The Life and Times of Ward Kimball: Maverick of Disney Animation
By Todd James Pierce
University Press of Mississippi