ABP- Thank you for taking this interview, Jared. A couple of months ago, Alien Buddha Press had the privilege of publishing your collection of poetry and short fiction, American Fries. In that short time, the book has become one of ABP’s top selling books. What can you tell us about American Fries? What was the process of writing it like?
JM- It’s funny to think about the process of writing American Fries because, in truth, the book is a product of several years of writing. Like a Greatest Hits album, if you will. The oldest pieces, or at least the first drafts of them, go all the way back to 2004 and 2005. A bunch were also written in the last couple of years. The newest piece in the book is the poem “American Fries,” which I actually wrote as I was compiling pieces for the book. I had the title for the collection first, and I thought I should include a poem that shared its name. Instead of being a rushed throwaway, I think it’s one of the best poems I have ever written. But yeah, there was no overall thematic plan for the book, even though the vast majority of the pieces in it relate to some aspect of the American experience. I guess it’s just my personal creative aesthetic coming through.
ABP- You are an english teacher. By the time this interview runs, most public schools in this country will be open. As an educator, how do you feel about the decision to have a school year while new cases of COVID-19 are still popping up all over the country?
JM- I just hope that opening schools hasn’t been such a disaster that by the time this interview posts, schools aren’t already shutting down due to massive COVID-19 outbreaks! I understand why the school issue is so tough for folks. I have a daughter who is going into fourth grade and a two-year-old son who needs daycare. My wife and I are working parents, and we were lucky this spring because even though my wife was still working, I could stay home with them while teaching virtually. That, obviously, won’t be an option this fall. We are making the tough choice to have our daughter keep going with a virtual education and to keep our son out of daycare, even if it means that we’ll struggle to find arrangements to make that work. Honestly, I am frightened when I think about so many schools across the country choosing to reopen, some of them on a regular schedule. The governor of Florida recently compared reopening schools to reopening Home Depot. Clearly, he is ignorant, perhaps willfully so, to the unique challenges that reopening schools presents. Again, I understand why so many parents and kids are eager to get back to school. I love teaching. I miss it, and I hate teaching virtually. There is nothing I’d rather do than have things be back to normal and be in my classroom doing what I love. I just am very apprehensive about doing that in such an unsafe time.
ABP- What do you have planned creatively for the rest of 2020, going into 2021.
JM- Well, first, I plan to keep on writing. I have already written a couple of pieces following the publication of the book, and I have a few cool ideas for short stories that I need to get down on paper. I am not terribly prolific; it’ll probably be a while before I have another book ready for publication. However, I plan to keep on submitting individual pieces to literary journals and magazines. Also, I am excited to keep workshopping with my creative writing students and peers, both in my classroom and through volunteer efforts with our local community writing center.
ABP- Who are some of your biggest influences as a writer? What is your favorite book?
JM- My all-time favorite book is absolutely The Grapes of Wrath. I never get tired of it. Steinbeck was such a brilliant writer and thinker, and that novel is still so incredibly relevant. I still get angry and motivated to fight for change every time I read it. Steinbeck was a stone-cold realist, as were a lot of the Southern Gothic writers from the early-mid 20th century whose works l love beyond words: Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, McCullers, Hurston, Capote, Tennessee Williams, etc. All of them used their voice to speak out against flaws in society, which I think is so important. A lot of my favorite poets did or are doing the same thing: Ginsberg and the entire Beat Generation come to mind quickly. So too do Nikki Giovanni, Kevin Coval, Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, Patricia Smith, Natasha Tretheway, Rudy Francisco, Nate Marshall, Clint Smith, and Luis J. Rodriguez. There is also an incredible Detroit-based poet whose work I love by the name of John Jeffire. He writes about the Rust Belt so well, and I am a sucker for anything Rust Belt. Finally, music is always a huge inspiration. Whether it’s 50s rock and roll, the vulnerability of Hank Williams Sr., the storytelling of Bruce Springsteen, or the honesty of Jason Isbell, I know I can always put on a record whenever I need to feel creative.
ABP- Do you have any other projects that you would like to share with our wordpress readers, or people or organizations that you would like to give a shoutout to?
JM- I plan on keeping my eyes open for fun opportunities, such as Alien Buddha Press’ recent Kim Jong Un anthology. I had so much fun contributing to that, and I am hoping for more unexpected projects like that to come up. Another project I am looking forward to is the publication of Young Voices, an international anthology of teenage short fiction that I worked on as a guest editor for Culture Cult Press. It should be released soon. I obviously love Alien Buddha Press, but I love what Jay Chakravarti and Culture Cult Press do as well with their anthologies and magazine to give writers all over the world a voice. Ditto with Jay Miner and Rust Belt Press. And, as a final shoutout, we are so lucky in this state to have a program like InsideOut Literary Arts, which is based in Detroit, that gives creative writing education opportunities to young inner-city students. It’s so important that these kids find their voices. I am a romantic in the sense that I really believe that if given the chance, art and artists can change the world for the better, and that’s why so many folks in power are hell-bent on shutting the arts down. Without the presence of the humanities, we lose what makes us human.
ABP- Thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions, Jared. Can you leave our readers who may be unfamiliar with your work a sample of your writing; a poem or a short story?
JM- I’d choose the short story “Saying Goodbye to Baby Blue.” I feel like it is probably the best creative work I have ever written, and a great closing chapter, so to speak, to the book.
Saying Goodbye to Baby Blue
Glen Roberts, 8/11/06…
Dave “Mr. Buzz” Richmond, 4/4/05…
Rockin’ Robin Summers, 1/29/03…
Damn it, where are the 92s?
Mark then nearly stumbled over a broom that someone forgot to pick up when they were cleaning out the old Baby Blue Cadillac Diner. Or maybe they just left it behind to end up in the pile of rubble. It’s not like it had the value of the old pink and blue vinyl-covered booths or the jukebox that still played the same 45s he remembered as a kid. All of that stuff had been removed, probably to be sold at some auction and eagerly snapped up by some guy who had a dream of starting his own vintage joint, thinking he’d capitalize on the latest retro trend.
That trend hadn’t been enough to save the Baby Blue, which was authentic, built in 1953. It was named after the original owner’s ’52 Cadillac that he always parked in the same parking space every time he came in to work. After the owner died, his son permanently left the car parked in that spot in tribute. It rusted out over time, its paint blemished, and was sold to the scrapyard just before the diner closed. The family tried to keep it open, but their older clientele had passed away and their younger clientele began to frequent the corporate diner in the nearby shopping mall instead. The food at the mall diner was bland and overpriced, but the staff performed a well-choreographed dance on table tops every hour. The Baby Blue just couldn’t compete.
Mark’s grandfather haunted the old diner when he was alive, according to his dad, who told him the same story many times about how Grandpa could eat more chili dogs than anyone else, and that it was too bad no one was keeping score back then so he could prove it. Shortly after Mark was born though, the Baby Blue did start keeping score; to create a much-needed buzz, the restaurant began putting the names of anyone who could eat at least ten dogs in 30 minutes on little hard plastic nameplates and glued them to the wall. The date of the accomplishment was posted as well. Soon, the diner had its own ever-expanding wall of fame. And on October 26th of 1992, Mark’s name joined that wall…
A car suddenly pulled into the parking lot. He almost panicked.
What the hell? It’s almost 3 AM!
The car pulled out though in a few seconds. Apparently, the driver had no intention of investigating a trespasser on the premises. He sighed, relieved.
Mark wasn’t a trespasser though; he worked for the demolition company that was charged with tearing the place down. They were building an Applebee’s on the site. Applebee’s. His dad would be pissed. Any time that a new McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, or Walmart came to town, Mark knew he’d have something to say, and he knew exactly what it would be.
“Smithton is starting to look like every other town on the interstate. All these places do is kill the dreams of folks here who want to start something themselves, something that’s just theirs. Pretty soon, these chains are going to destroy what makes this country great: a dream for everyone. It’s inevitable”
His father had taken Mark to the diner to celebrate all of his childhood accomplishments. He was a humble man, a manufacturing plant worker. It was true that he was pessimistic about many things, but he believed in his son, that he could have the life he never did. Mark wanted to be an astronaut as a child, and his dad told him to aim for the stars over many a chocolate ice cream cone. And when he made the diner’s wall of fame on his 14th birthday, his father beamed with pride, saying it was his first step to the moon. They both laughed at the absurdity of comparing getting a job with NASA to eating hot dogs, but it made Mark hopeful nevertheless.
“Look here, son. Every damn person here ends up in the same line of work, going in every day with their heads down. They either slave away in these factories or end up living another carbon-copy miserable life. It’s no good. Do something that makes you feel alive, not like you are dying.”
“I will, Dad.”
“Good. You’ll make it to the moon, and then Mars, and then they’ll name a star after you. It’ll be your star; no one else’s.”
A couple of years later, his father died. Work accident. When Mark heard, he felt like his heart had stopped. He told his mother he was okay, but she knew better. To comfort him, she suggested they go out for ice cream, as it would have been what his father would have wanted, but Mark refused and locked himself in his room.
The next day, he emerged with the most stoic expression his mother had ever seen, and Mark told her that he was going out to look for a job. Over the years, he worked several: mowing lawns, tree removal, pest control, etc. He gave up on going to space and spent what little money his dad was able to save to send him to college on alcohol and vocational school. There, he took contracting classes, and eventually started working for the demolition company. He figured that if things were meant to be destroyed, he might as well be the one to do the deed.
Mark never went back to the diner, until now, hours before it would be gone forever. When he heard the building was to be torn down, he smiled. He had tried to block any thoughts of his father from his mind for years. He hadn’t even been able to visit his father’s grave. Mark figured this, maybe, would finally bring him closure. It was time to stop running away. The night before the demolition, though, he felt something slowly rise in his chest, like the reflux he used to experience after eating too many chili dogs.
Chili dogs. One thing led to another, and soon his mind turned to his memories at the Baby Blue with his father.
Mark thought he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. He heard his voice:
“Dream son, dream big.”
He shook his head. Must be the indigestion. As he went into the bathroom to take an antacid, he looked at the sky through an open window. It was filled with stars. Mark turned around and saw his face in the mirror. He had aged so much in the last few years; how had he not noticed? Suddenly, he felt something he had never felt before: disappointment in himself. His eyes dropped to the floor.
Who am I? What am I? Mark paused for a moment before the answer came to his mind.
I am… nothing.
Then he thought of his nameplate on the diner wall. An idea came to mind. He had the keys to the diner, and he knew that no security alarm would be set. What would be the point? He felt ridiculous as he put on his work boots, but it didn’t matter. He had lost everything else, he decided. Who cares about dignity? His stomach was burning, or maybe it was his heart: he had to have his nameplate. Not just for him, but for his father. He grabbed his flashlight and walked out the door.
The streets were dark. Mark pulled his car around into an alley and crept quietly towards the diner’s back door. Upon entering, he walked into the area that was once the diner’s kitchen. He had never been in there, but he knew it as though he had worked in that kitchen his whole life. That’s how strong the smell of grease was that used to emerge from it into the dining area, permeating the whole place. Now, it just smelled of dust. His heart sank for a second, but Mark kept his focus. There were so many nameplates on that wall, thousands, and he could not for the life of him recall where his was.
Man, this is going to take a while.
Occasionally, he’d get sidetracked by a memory or a noise or that car that pulled into the parking lot at 3 AM, but he remained cool for the most part. Using his flashlight, he searched every row and column of nameplates. Common dates were generally kept together, but the organization still seemed sporadic. At times, he felt like a boy, seeing familiar sites within the diner: that big scratch on the floor, that picture of a fat man with a bib who looked so pleased that he was about to devour a big hamburger like he’d seen served to so many folks he sat beside over the years. As the clock kept ticking though and his efforts continued to be fruitless, his joints started to ache and he felt wrinkles forming on his forehead. He became more and more desperate. Sweat trickled down his forehead as he found the 96s, the 95s, and the 94s…
It has to be here. God, it has to be.
Then, the dates stopped. Mark figured he must have missed something, so he quickly retraced his steps, reviewing the nameplates again, hoping beyond hope that somehow, certainly, his story, his place on the wall remained. But it was not to be. Eventually, he realized that the diner must have decided to remove all nameplates before 1994 to make room for newer memories. Memories that soon would also be forgotten.
Tears welled in Mark’s eyes. He needed a breath of fresh air; it was hotter than hell in there. There was a window near where he used to sit. He walked over, opened the window, and took a deep breath. He decided to look up at the night sky; he wanted to see the stars. Instead, there was nothing but darkness. Cloud cover had set in.
Mark fell to his knees as his reality was apparent: a couple of hours later, he’d have to go to work, like so many others, with his head down. He felt 80 years old as he walked out of the Baby Blue, this time forever.