Steven Church: Bad Whistle

Whistling at a bullfight in Spain is rare. The Spanish whistle, like an American “boo,”  is considered mocking and bitter. You don’t whistle unless the matador really has it coming, unless the performance is weak or the bull dies slowly and painfully beneath his clumsy hand.

Whistling in an American coalmine or a gold mine is even worse. It’s a bad omen, a jinx, and a thumb of your nose to centuries of mining superstition. Part of this is because a mine is a dark and dangerous place where sound is not taken for granted, a place where it is important to listen and where one’s work and one’s mortality are intimately connected.

The infamous canary in a coal mine, the one exception to this rule, signaled the presence of dangerous gas by ceasing its song; the old miners knew that a quiet canary was a dead canary. I once worked as a tour guide at a tourist-trap gold mine in Colorado called the Country Boy. A hard-rock mine is much different than a coal mine, though each of them share some similar mythology and superstition.

For my job I wore Carhart coveralls and rubber boots and led tourists one-thousand feet into the side of a mountain. In the portal we kept a stuffed yellow canary in a cage. Hard-rock mines didn’t have poisonous gas like coal mines and didn’t keep canaries, but the bird was part of the show. So I told tourists that if the bird stopped singing we should all get out of the mine as fast as possible. Then we would all stare at the stuffed bird, waiting for it to sing. Then we would laugh.

The truth is, though, whistling in a mine is no laughing matter.

Disney’s Dwarves, all seven of them whistling so jolly and joyfully while they worked, would have been beaten to a pulp, or, at least, banished from the tunnels, ridiculed and ostracized for their insolence. The tunnels of a mine were not the happy jolly homes of charming little people and their fairy tales. The mines were noisy, dangerous places full of ghosts. There was no princess. Some of the old miners would just as soon kill you than work with someone who whistled in the face of luck.

It was important that you listened in a mine, that you could pay attention to the mountain and the men with whom you worked. If a miner became trapped in a cave-in he would hammer and pound on the rocks, not just to dig his way out but also to let the other miners know of his location so they could come for him. A pretty much universal mining legend tells of a man who died in the tunnel, and his spirit, a Tommyknocker, keeps on knocking and tapping to warn others of impending cave-ins. The old miners knew to pay attention to the ghosts. You had to keep your ears open in the mines if you wanted to live.

One’s survival in a mine was a matter of both luck and smarts. To whistle was to chase away the benevolent spirits of the mine, those mysterious entities that protected them from the evil spirits who wished them harm; to whistle was to mess with the whimsical violence of a cave-in, to mock the martyred ghosts and to invite death and destruction upon all those around you. Any man who dared to violate this superstition was quickly silenced and condemned as a fool, if not beaten or shunned by his fellow miners.

Pennsylvania coalmining legend (as well as a NY Times article) tells the story of a foolhardy Welshman named Jack Richards, a chatterbox and clown who mocked the old superstitions that ruled the mine and not only whistled in the tunnel but whistled a jig known as, “Devil Among the Tailors.” With his song, Richards invited the evil spirit to dance with him, a breech of mining etiquette so severe and brazen that it stopped work and silenced the mine completely. The other miners, so discomfited by Richards’ audacity, decided to quit for the day and leave the tunnel. They simply couldn’t tolerate such behavior. They were done.

As they gathered their tools to escape, they heard a sound like a clap of thunder, a rumble, and the mountain above them seemed to heave and groan. Then they heard another clap of thunder and the mountain collapsed; a massive cave-in trapped the eighteen miners and a horse.

The dust and noise settled, the horse calmed down, and the miners gathered themselves.  They turned to find the bastard who had brought this upon them. So intense was their belief that Richards’s whistling had caused the cave-in, the other miners set out after him, intending to brain him with a pickaxe, or at least give him a sound beating. They called out his name in the dark, their anger fueling their search, and eventually they found him. Buried. Dead. Killed by the falling rock, the only victim of a potentially catastrophic collapse. His noise had cursed him, killed him, and, if you believe the legends, Jack Richards’s ghost still haunts those coal-dark caverns beneath the surface, tap-tapping his warning to generations of new miners, telling them: You never ever whistle while you work.

My five year old daughter has recently learned to whistle. Sort of. She can make the whistling noise but she can’t use it to then produce anything resembling music. I’d rejoice if she could muster, “Devil Among the Tailors,” or anything more than a kind of airy chirping noise reminiscent of an asthmatic canary. She tries. And I love her for this. I love her sweet indomitable spirit, love her total lack of self-consciousness. Like all children, her reality is a beautifully and frustrating solipsistic one where every noise she makes sounds amazing and worthy of audience appreciation. But part of me wants to tell her about Jack Richards and explain that some whistling is bad whistling, that in some contexts her whistle could summon the fickle and apocalyptic power of our planet, not to mention the annoyed barking of her father. But I don’t tell her these stories. Instead I try to say that she is getting better, stronger, and that soon she’ll be whistling like a bird. I really want to tell her what I know, what I’ve always known, that someday she’ll bring the house down with her song.


Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record and Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, AGNI, and Passages North; and his piece, “Auscultation” was chosen by Edwidge Danticat for inclusion in the Best American Essays, 2011. He is a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.  His latest book, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, blends essay, memoir, and fictional passages as it describes the effect the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After–a depiction of the effects of nuclear war with the Soviet Union–had on him, his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas (where the movie was filmed), and a whole generation of Americans who grew up scared.

S.Church headshot

Julie Marie Wade: Poems

Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir, Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, Small Fires; Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, and the forthcoming Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Press, 2013), winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize. Wade is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami.




I remember when all I wanted was to fuck:   the urge curdling every cultivated propriety.

I had not so much as sniffed a woman, never tippled in the terrible, tender places her clothes concealed: damp armpits sprouting with hairs, ankle-bones, shoulder-bones                  bewitching.

And the grease of the thighs at the point where they come together—delta of heat, of fragrant fire.

When she said yes, a soft almost inaudible permission; when she lay back & spread herself to the place I should enter, it was Satan himself offering to Christ the temple—whole world in exchange for a prayer.

If you will only bow down & worship me.

I felt the Serpent himself attending: tongue piercing groin, dust filling belly, that hunger that is like no other seizing hold of my (once-iron) will.

In that moment, my eyes opened to the darkest of pleasures, which turned to the deepest of pains. How she was silent, how complicit /unflinching—how bold in the face of her sin.

A woman is a grave, my father warned me.

I walk dead before God & men.

* * *

Picture 2

* * *


Artist: Yves Tanguy
1927, 92 X 65 cm, Oil on Canvas
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Perhaps it is war-time, & Riding Hood has been besieged by birds.
I cannot promise you anything but doves.
Like those scattering the walkways in Honolulu.
Or gold pelicans skirting the long Orlando highway.

A lightning-bolt strikes under your cursor.
Smoke from a chimney that hasn’t felt fire in years.
What to make of the inquiry now, the insinuation?
A kettle teeming with kippers & other assorted fish.

Slow gradient of gray, ascending.
The unkempt woman ragged in the wind.
Pastiche is just a softer word for paranoia.
The Wolf acquires another county seat.

John McNally: After the Workshop

A Deleted Chapter

The only public reading of my fiction I ever gave was at my undergraduate university.  I was a senior and had been invited by the creative writing faculty to pair up with the new fiction writer-in-residence, a recent MFA grad from SUNY-Buffalo named Colin Granville, whose first book had just been released by the experimental publisher Fiction Collective.   What they say about the fear of public speaking being worse than the fear of death is true: From the moment I accepted the invitation, I had hoped something dramatic and unexpected might happen, like a car running over me, or one of the many bars I drank in to implode, crushing me like an insect.  But I wasn’t so lucky.  On the day of the reading, I looked through all my clothes, mostly old T-shirts full of holes, and pulled out a sky-blue sweater my mother had given me before I’d left for college, the only item of clothing I owned that could even remotely be called “dressy.”  The sweater was too tight – I’d gained over forty pounds in four years from an unremitting diet of hot dogs and beer – and the fabric was a kind of synthetic that made my skin feel as though it were crawling with fire ants.   Before the reading, I sat with my buddy in his LTD and quickly chugged three lukewarm cans of Milwaukee’s Best.

The piece of fiction I decided to read was the story I eventually used to get into Iowa, the one about the optometrist with the failing eyesight who mistakenly shows up at a gathering of Optimists.  What I have since learned, having attended hundreds of fiction readings by writers both good and bad, is that it doesn’t take much to entertain an audience at a literary event.  A few funny lines of dialogue, a linear narrative, a nice turn of phrase every now and again, a moment of recognition by the narrator and, in turn, the audience – and you pretty much have everyone eating out of your hand.  In other words, the bar is low.  Very low.

I didn’t know that back then, of course.  I stood nervously behind the podium, needing to piss from the three beers I’d slammed and feeling the need to rip off my sweater and run screaming to the nearest shower as I read my short story to an audience that, unbeknownst to me, I was winning over sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.  The student reader was normally the warm-up act for the professor, and yet, by the close of my story, the audience rose to their feet and applauded.  A professor who didn’t particularly like me – she had even accused me of plagiarizing my William Blake paper, incredulous that I could possibly have written it – was wiping away tears between her clapping.  A girl I had known from several of my classes but, out of a crippling shyness, had never spoken to approached me afterward to ask what my plans were for later that night.  Within twenty minutes, I had achieved a kind of fame that an hour earlier I could only have dreamed of, and I was so flush with exhilaration that, as I sat listening to Colin Granville’s story about a man who thinks he’s a monkey who thinks he’s a man reading Darwin, I thought for certain I was coming down with the flu.  I sat off to the side on an old, stained couch, where the student readers always sat, and tried to concentrate on Granville’s story but couldn’t follow it.  It wasn’t funny; the story jumped back and forth in time; the reader couldn’t see anything because so little of it had been dramatized; and no character came to a larger understanding of him- or herself.  At the end of his story, if it could even have been called a story, the audience offered up a polite applause.  Afterward, as a crowd gathered around to tell me what specifically they had loved about my story or to tell me that they’d had no idea that I could write as well I did, Colin Granville and I made eye-contact across the room.  He raised his eyebrows up at me, as if to say, You won this time, but don’t think it’s always going to play out this way!  I smiled in return, but he simply turned away, toward his girlfriend, the only person who had joined him after the reading.  By semester’s end, after he and his girlfriend had broken up, Colin could be found sitting in local bars, sporting a long beard, sipping port wine and smoking, to the other patrons’ chagrin, Virginia Slims.  Later, after I was living in Iowa City and attending the Workshop, I learned that I was the last student at my alma mater ever to read with another faculty member, for fear that such an event might repeat itself.  When I typed Granville’s name into GOOGLE, all I found were used copies of his only book for sale, along with a few scathing reviews calling him “the next John Barth wannabe.” I may have felt a twinge of satisfaction, but now, twelve years later, I shivered at the thought of our reading, as one might shiver opening a casket only to find one’s own self lying inside, unfinished manuscript clutched in one’s stiff fingers, no one waiting in line to view the corpse.


John McNally is the author of three novels: After the Workshop, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card; and two story collections, Troublemakers and Ghosts of Chicago.  He is also author of two nonfiction books: The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction, both published the University of Iowa Press. He has edited, coedited, or guest edited seven anthologies. John’s work has appeared in over a hundred publications, including the Washington Post, The Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, and Virginia Quarterly Review. As a screenwriter, he has a script in development with the producer of Winter’s Bone. He’s an Associate Professor of English at Wake Forest University and on the Core Faculty of Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program.

08 2012 02

Denise Duhamel: Blowout

Poems from BLOWOUT, University of Pittsburgh Press (2013)


In fourth grade, the fattest boy in class wrote me a love letter
that read, Welcome to this new school.
You are very pretty. I want to be your boyfriend. I didn’t like his plaid shirt
or his big melon head, so I crumpled up the note and ignored him.
Soon though I realized how hard it was to be the new girl
when the other girls had sleepovers to which I wasn’t invited
and the other boys were mean and spit in the water fountain.
A few weeks later I wrote back, Sorry it’s taken me so long to answer. 
OK. I’ll be your girlfriend. He walked me home, showing me the shortcut
through the woods, the “umbrella graveyard” where kids abandoned
anything they were too ashamed to carry—out-of-date
lunchboxes, shirts and coats no longer in style. Umbrellas
which, he explained, were uncool, no matter what.
Sometimes a girl would change shoes on the path,
leaving the ugly ones she had to wear at home hanging
from their laces on a branch. The fat boy huffed and puffed
up the tiniest inclines. I did too—it was fall
and that’s when my asthma flared up. One time my nose started to bleed
and, because I didn’t have any tissues, the fat boy gave me
his science worksheet, then a big maple leaf, to catch the blood.
So what if he couldn’t dance? That was love.

* * *


It’s a long story, but basically
I’m stuck in Lincoln, NE and need to get to Omaha
to catch my flight back to Fort Lauderdale.
The person who is supposed to pick me up
has overslept. When he doesn’t answer his cell phone,
I call the local cab company that can’t let its cars
leave Lincoln because of some law that takes
the person answering too long to explain. The next hotel shuttle
departs an hour from now and I will miss my flight
if I wait for it. The woman behind the desk says,
There’s one more option—a car service—but it’ll cost you.
I negotiate a price—$200 for an hour’s ride—and run
to the nearest ATM. I’m expecting a town car,
but a driver arrives in a pickup truck. I climb in
and the usual chitchat begins except I keep pressing him—
will I make my plane? You sure will, he says,
I used to drive this route all the time. Why was I in Omaha?
To give a lecture, I say.
A lecture about what? the driver asks.
I confess that I’m a poet.
Oh, so you read last night.  You must be Denise.
My ex-wife was there.  She’s a poet, too.
He describes her to me: long gray hair, red sweater.
She had the first question at the Q&A. What about Ted Kooser? he says.
Do you like his work? Yes! The driver’s favorite book of his:
Weather Central. We talk Nebraska poets: Hilda Raz, Weldon Kees.
The benefits of living here: cheap rent, good air.
His favorite writer of all time? Arthur Miller.
It’s a long shot, I say, but do you know Meghan Daum? 
Before I tell him she writes prose,
his grin fills the rearview mirror.
Know her? he beams. You’re looking at the love interest!
I ask, You mean from The Quality of Life Report
He confirms he’s indeed that guy. But aren’t you
supposed to be a carpenter? That’s what you are in her book.
He says Meghan has since talked him into taking work
on the side as a driver since he brought her back and forth
to the airport so many times. Besides, that’s a novel, he explains.
He assures me he’s only seventy percent as bad
as she made him out to be and tells me,
scene by scene, his version of the story.
But, hey, no hard feelings—he says he understands
why Meghan had to make him out to be a little bit of a jerk.
No conflict, no story, right? As long as he came across
as a sexy guy in the book, what the heck. I mean,
the ex in your poems probably isn’t as terrible
as he is on the page, he says, sliding into
the passenger drop off zone and hoisting my bag
to the curb. I wonder if he’s trying to tell me his ex-wife, the poet,
has written about him too. I’ll stay married two more years,
before my ex becomes the villain in my villanelle.
Run, the love interest says. You’re going to make it.
He checks the extra crumpled bills I put in his hand.
And his tip to me: Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.

* * *


As I unscrew the dead
60-watt bulb and shake
your bodies from the glass globe
into the trash, I feel
huge, like God
or science. As I screw in
the new sun, I blink,
descend, fold up
the stepladder. It’s time
to paint on new lips
and drive out
into the risky neon mist.