Whisky Wind-down, 29: Form

[Note: If you’re new, catch up at the 2017 Whisky Wind-down Primer.] 

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Books on poetic form rest on a table next to a filled Glencairn glass and a bottle of whisky, all in front of a bookcase holding academic tomes.

Today’s dram: Atlanta Spirit Works, Ameireaganach, Huddled Mashes No. 1

Today’s tasting notes: I learned of Atlanta Spirit Works when a friend brought their single malt rye to a party last year. I’ve since had the opportunity to try several of their other offerings, including this one, which was released about a month ago.

Although Atlanta Spirit Works is young, the company uses ancient techniques, including classic Scottish-style double copper pot distillation. From there they often deviate from tradition, or switch traditions. This bottling, for example, was aged on new charred American oak. So, basically what you’ve got here is a whisky that’s Scottish by distillation style finished with an American aging method. (I’m not getting into the grain bill; suffice to say it’s mostly classic malt varieties for a Scotch-style whisky.)

The result is a warm whisky with a bit of bite, smooth enough to be pleasing but stout enough (at 92 proof) to encourage sipping. It finishes clean, with an aroma of honey over fresh bread.

Today’s thoughts: At university, I knew a guy who could not write free verse poetry. He was killer at any form of sonnet, loved classics like anaphora and terza rima, and became almost physically aroused by villanelles.

But he had an aversion to free verse that I can only describe as writer’s agoraphobia — all that open space on the page terrified him.

And so he wrote around it by building form into formless assignments.

The technical term for that is a nonce form. Created for the occasion. Not a recognized form, maybe not even one you would ever come back to. Or possibly a variation on a recognized form.

Sometimes nonce forms stick and become something. Shakespearean sonnets, for example, began as nonce variations on the English sonnet. Sure, now that’s a classic form onto itself, but when he penned the first one, Bill’s peers probably thought him a wee bit pretentious.

Trouble is, we had several assignments that were meant to be written as true free verse, not nonce. They should be formless and flowing exercises of pure language, unconstrained by stanza patterns, line lengths, or syllable emphasis.

After my classmate turned in a couple of “free verse” assignments that actually contained fairly noticeable patterns, the professor called him out and threatened to fail him the next time he incorporated so much as a whiff of pattern in his work.

We were pretty sure the guy was cooked, but the next week he turned up with a proper free verse poem. You’ll forgive me if I don’t recall the specifics after two decades, but it was thirty or so lines of varying length, beautiful language, not a trace of form.

Praise and an A for him.

After class, when just a few of us were left, slow to file out, he confessed: There’d been a hidden form. It was subtle, but there was a pattern to the opening and closing words of each line.

Upon hearing this, I wasn’t disappointed. Rather, impressed. He’d found a way to be comfortable enough to make the words flow.

Today’s relevant numbers: Two down, 28 to go.

Today’s toast: Here’s to old what’s-his-name, whose pattern I forget; to someday meet again, in rhythm quite legit.

2017 Whisky Wind-down, 30: Wrecked

[Note: If you’re new, catch up at the 2017 Whisky Wind-down Primer.] 

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A bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan lies on its side, apparently empty, its cork a filled whisky glass nearby. These items are arranged near a keyboard and a computer monitor. On the monitor is writing about whisky.

Today’s dram: Ardbeg, Corryvreckan

Today’s tasting notes: This is cask-strength, big Islay whisky at its finest, and it’s where I left off last year.

I am tempted, by both laziness and a love of my own words, to just repeat the description I wrote last year, but that would be a disservice to you, me, and this cask-strength 57.1 ABV monster.

Really, calling it a monster is another sort of disservice. A kraken is a monster. A corryvreckan is a swirling whirlpool about which a kraken might feel a trifle anxious.

As an anxious person whose sigil is squid, I find this whisky delightfully appropriate.

Much like its namesake, the whisky is a complex swirl. Sometimes I get straight campfire in the aroma, followed by a woodsy burning on the palate. Other times, it’s brine in my nose and saltwater burn on my throat. I can’t say it’s the same thing every time I try it. It’s shifty, spiraling on my palate and in my mind, and that’s why I keep coming back to it.

I know my perception is influenced by the name and legend, but isn’t that part of the point? If labeling and legend don’t matter, just buy a bottle of Fermented Grain and call it a day.

I remember my first dram of this one, taken in the kitchen of an old friend. I’d gifted him the bottle, which he immediately opened and poured, and we were both blown away. I’d bought it on reputation alone, and we were both expecting … something. What we got was a punch in the mouth, but one that left us refreshed and searching.

Today’s thoughts: Here’s where I tell you the plan that didn’t come to fruition.

Last year, I had this bottle set aside for the conclusion of 2016 Whisky Wind-down. My intent was to take it with me to an annual New Year’s Eve party hosted by some lovely friends of mine, at which I would share it, wax philosophic about it, and generally commiserate with like-minded folk over the wretched year ending and the one to dread ahead.

I would have written the post, published it, then perhaps added updates as the night wore on and the year wound down.

Alas, I got sick instead. A few days shy of the end of the year, actually. And it wore down my enthusiasm for writing, as well as my capacity for fully experiencing whisky.

I didn’t miss any posts, but I still feel those last few were not what I wanted them to be. Granted, little of my published work is ever what I wanted it to be. There’s a disconnect between thoughts, writing, and publication that I shall never put together to my satisfaction. Frankly, I don’t know how any writer does. I don’t know if the ones who seem to are just the rare breed, or liars. I do know I once spent half an hour in the leasing office of my college apartment complex because I got writer’s block when the office manager asked me to write down my reason for not renewing my lease.

That’s … not really uncommon for me. The feeling, if not the outcome. Deadlines are good, if only because something will (usually) get done, but deadlines are horrible because whatever gets down will (usually) not be as good as it could have been.

Nothing ever is. Struggle, struggle, struggle.

And here, where there are no deadlines except my own, and I am the most lenient deadline-giver that ever there was … things don’t always get done.

What have I been doing all year, instead of writing?

Well, to be accurate, instead of publishing? I’ve written. My drafts folder rivals the size of the published folder.

But nothing’s ever good enough.

Let me explain, by going back to the bottle.

I’ve been nursing this one all year. In and of itself, that’s not unusual. I tend to keep whiskies around forever, pulling a dram now and then as the mood strikes, but acquiring new bottles at a far greater pace than emptying old ones.

But I’ve been at this one lately, reminding myself what it represents, why I’m compelled by it. I’ve been caught in a corryvreckan for over a year, treading water, going with the flow.

I want to find the optimism with which I pretended to face this year, the hope with which I believed I could still proceed, the faith in certain people …

But, no.

I stopped writing for a reason.

Reasons.

Beyond any particular personal failings (or illusions of such), I did not think a string of words mattered, anymore.

At some point, if you do not have common ground with people who are important to you … what?

Don’t misunderstand. I am as close as ever to almost everyone I care about. I have, even, to my own surprise, formed a few new friendships and found formidable firmness in some others already extant.

But.

I let some go. Others, I keep only beneath a modest shroud of shared pretense.

To be perfectly frank, I stopped writing here because some of the things I was compelled to write about threatened to pull that shroud right off.

Right.

Off.

But it’s a year later, and the world rolls on, and I’m still aboard, and growing bored, and, well, shit, what is a writer who does not write?

Today’s overwrought symbolism: Obvious, isn’t it?

Today’s pithy summation: Writers’s block is all in your head. Too bad you live in your head.

Today’s toast: To being back at the keyboard.

2017 Whisky Wind-down: Primer

If you follow my writing here on even a semi-regular basis, you’ll have noticed, well, “semi-regular basis” is about as good as it gets. There are, shall we say, “gaps” in my publishing schedule, assuming I have a publishing schedule, which, of course, I do not.

And yet, last December, I posted daily for an entire month.

I owe that rare publication streak to whisky and friends. In the course of friendly conversation, I and several “booze enthusiasts” of my acquaintance noted the growing prevalence of alcohol-based advent calendars. Not only were they suddenly everywhere, there were seemingly collections curated for every palate and budget. It occurred to me that it would be fun to use one of these as a daily jumping-off point for writing.

Advent was starting by the time I had that realization. However, while I am overall pretty bad at planning ahead (and shopping), I am aces at keeping whisky on-hand.

I daily profiled (to the limit of my amateur-but-improving abilities) one whisky from my collection, with accompanying anecdotes and other ramblings each somehow thematically related to the selected dram.

It wasn’t advent, exactly.

That term has a particular meaning in liturgy relating to Christmas; since what I really wanted was to say goodbye to a shit year, the exercise instead became a countdown to the end.

I’m not going to rehash my loathing for 2016. I’m not even going to (yet) get into my feelings about 2017.

What I am going to do is get my ass back to the keyboard. I’ve been away longer than I meant to be. Now the whisky is calling me back.

With that, lastgreypoet.com proudly presents “2016 Whisky Wind-down 2: 2017 Whisky Wind-down, The Quickening Boogaloo for More Money.”

Or “2017 Whisky Wind-down,” if you’re into brevity.

Later today, maybe, I’ll get started.

Writing, I mean. The whisky is already open.

Obviously.

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Note: If you missed last year’s adventure, you can catch up by hitting the 2016 Whisky Wind-down category tag. If that seems like too much reading, you can get the basics in last year’s primer or just skip to the end. If you are unfamiliar with whisky (or need a refresher) there is also this post on terminology.

 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 1: Strong Finish


Today’s dram: Ardbeg, Corryvreckan

Today’s tasting notes: Before I can describe the experience of drinking this, I need to tell you how I found it.

I owe my love of Scotch whisky to reading and friendship.

Principally, it’s due to one of my oldest, dearest friends. We’ve known each other about three-quarters of our lives, and over the course of that time we’ve been influencing one another in various ways, the most consistent of which is reading recommendations.

Several years ago, he recommended to me Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Among other vices, the protagonist drinks Scotch whisky, with Laphroaig a favorite.

The writing made it sound good, so my friend picked up a bottle and has been collecting ever since. Whenever I visit his home, he brings out whichever bottle(s) he’s recently acquired and we enjoy a dram or two while catching up.

Lately, it’s been the same when he’s visited me. I was slow to pick up an enjoyment of Scotch whisky, but with time I’ve come to love it, and I take great joy in finding something before my friend does.

Thus, when he recently hit a milestone birthday, I turned to an author I was pretty sure he had not gotten around to yet, Joe Abercrombie. He writes grimdark fantasy, so Scotch whisky doesn’t appear in his fiction. But oh, does he go on about Scotch whisky on his blog.

I was pretty sure my friend would not be prepared for Abercrombie’s Whisky Deathmatch winner, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, and I was proven correct when I gave him the bottle.

Then he opened it, and we realized no one can be prepared for Ardbeg Corryvreckan.

This is cask-strength, big Islay whisky at its finest, with complexity galore added in.

At 57.1 ABV, it threatens to sear itself into your senses just on aroma. Fight through that. Inhale deeply. Find yourself in a peat bog on fire. Seek the ocean nearby. Promise of safety. Sip. Crashing. Waves overhead. Timbers around you. Someone screams. Darkness. Across from you, a hag in plaid smiles a broken-toothed smile and shakes her head at your foolishness. She gestures at the glasses laid out on her table. You toast. You drink. You wake. Gasping.

Today’s thoughts: A few months later, I thought, Shit, I need a bottle of that for myself.

It has been sitting, quietly, lurking at the back of the Scotch whisky shelf, waiting.

I’m still a bit under the weather, with diminished senses, but fuck it; I’m ending Whisky Wind-down the way I wanted.

The tasting passage above is half-memory, half bowled-over-just-now.

Wow.

Just, wow.

The Corryvreckan, if you are unfamiliar, refers to a sea passage off the northern coast of Scotland. It is famous for a persistent whirlpool, which is the subject of myths, legends, and lost souls.

There are but hours left in the year as I sit and sip and ponder, staring into that swirly abyss.

“The year went by fast.”

“The year can’t end soon enough.”

“2016, you monster!”

All true. All false.

All depends on your perspective.

I fancy no one ever said it better than Dickens, writing the intro to A Tale of Two Cities — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ” — but I imagine even that wily old wordsmith would look around at 2016, then quietly strike through half of that famous opening. The hopeful-sounding half, obviously.

And yet … can’t we, in every age, look at those words and think they apply? Are we not always lurching from the spring of hope to the winter of despair? Did not half (or, er, just shy of half) of American voters actually want an evil tangerine in the Oval Office?

I look around, and beyond the doom, I see a swirly mix of all that is wrong and right with the world. For every dark bastard, I see a hopeful naif. For every disillusioned Baby Boomer, a determined millennial.

I see the growing ranks of those who would, through active malice or indifferent selfishness, drag us to the dark depths.

Yet I see still more struggling against these currents to stay in the light.

Today’s solemn conclusion: What matters when a clock strikes midnight?

Today’s toast: To passing the time: May you do so with a suitable dram, in the company of friends.

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 12: Procrastination 


Today’s dram: Laphroaig, 18-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: Strong, deep breath of the sea. Somewhere a fire is burning. Sit here and remember with me, the things we loved in days gone by. 

Today’s thoughts: This one is a bit late, especially considering I had basically all day to get it done. 

Well, not all day.  

I had presents to wrap, shopping to finish, dishes to catch up, probably other tasks that are slipping my mind … 

So, I slept in. 

I thought I might just have a quick lunch and then get going, but Sappho looked at me pitifully, so I sat on the couch and let her flop with me a bit. 

Then she reminded me the remake western The Magnificent Seven just dropped for streaming rental today, and she really likes westerns and The Empress of Whisky (who does not) is away hiking, so …

Yeah. 

Decent flick. It ain’t Seven Samurai, but then, what is?

Then an unusual thing happened, the sort of thing that I suppose happens a lot but I never notice because I am away at work — a crew came by to pressure-wash our building. The water made weird sounds out there, and the sounds made Sappho anxious, so I stayed on the couch to console her, and I decided to read a bit …

Next thing I knew, The Empress of Whisky was home with dinner. 

Not only had I accomplished nothing on my personal to-do list, I also had yet to even pick today’s whisky. 

The topic, however, basically writes itself. 

I have long had the great ability to put off ’til tomorrow what cannot be accomplished today. 

“And what can be put off ’til tomorrow might just as easily be put off ’til day after tomorrow as well.”

I forget who said that, but I remember it was Douglas Adams who said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

I love being on holiday when the only deadline I have is a self-imposed one to daily drink a dram and then write about it. 

I realize how incredibly fortunate a position that is to be in. Moreso, I realize how, when I’m not on holiday I mostly work by a set of generous white-collar deadlines that would be the envy of most workers the world over. 

So being unhappy that I cannot meet my own deadlines is an admittedly advantaged position in which to find myself.

Doesn’t make it any easier. But I do acknowledge it. 

Today’s deeply morbid thought on tomorrow: A good friend of mine — the same who gave me the Laphroaig 18 — once said to me, as I was lamenting my lack of progress, feeling like I was spending too much time on trivial pursuits, “Someday this will all be dust and no one will be here to remember or care; so, in the long run, idle chit-chat is about as useful as anything short of building an empire.”

Today’s toast: To the reader: I’ll have something for you tomorrow. Probably. 

Administrivia: Eating the Elephant

[Administrivia posts exist to tell you what I think about what I write. Writing about writing, I guess. Not necessarily boring, but not necessarily essential reading, either — unless you care about things like how and why I run lastgreypoet.com, in which case you should click on the administrivia content label and make sure you’re all caught up.]

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If you aren’t familiar, the old saw goes: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

That isn’t a metaphor, and this isn’t a political post. (Not today, anyway. Later.)

This is a list, for me and you. A list of objectives and things that are on my mind as I emerge from a long funk and get back to work. A list of obstacles and my plans to overcome them.

1. It’s lastgreypoet, not lastgreypundit. While I certainly reserve the right to write in any fashion on any topic, I need to remember that my forte is less analysis/longform/serious and more musing/essayish/whimsical. The motto “wit, whimsy, and ruminations” will remain.

2. You’ve probably heard “the perfect is the enemy of the good” or maybe “don’t make it perfect, make deadline.” It doesn’t have to be perfect. (Huh. I should have put this one at the top of the list, now I think of it. Look at me, not revising!) I have always struggled with this. I will continue to struggle with this. I will cringe when I realize how much better something might have been … but I will let that go and move on to the next set of words.

3. I struggle with depression/anxiety. Maybe I’ll talk about that some time. Just keep it in mind if I disappear unexpectedly for a time.

4. Quotations. I used to always use them atop my newspaper columns, even though an editor friend called ’em a crutch and distraction from my words. Eh. Blame Joel Rosenberg. I learned the technique reading his fantasy novels. Or blame Robert Aspirin, for the same reason, only he did it earlier. (He also had a habit of making quotations up for comedic effect. And he punned like a villain.) I’d gotten out of the habit when I started lastgreypoet.com, but I dusted off the technique the other day for “My Dog Died” because it felt right. Going forward, I’ll let those feelings be my guide.

5. On a similar note: Fuck form. It may not have shown, but I spent an awful lot of time worrying over uniformity of length/appearance/pattern/tone across pieces. Even when I “loosened up” it came in the form of structural patterning (Wordless Wednesday/Caturday/Sports Sunday). I’m done with all that. I’ll write each piece the way it needs to be written, then I’ll be off to the next one.

6. Which brings me to movement. Like a shark, not a clam. Actually, no. Squid. My totem. Swift movers, but also capable of lying around if needed. Adaptable. Comfortable in the depths. Ready to fuck you up with ink when the situation calls for it.

7. You don’t have to be a liberal to like it here, but I’m not going to go out of my way running after some false sense of balance to try to please everyone who comes in the door. Related to that, it’s not exactly coincidental that I went back to the keyboard in the wee hours of the morning America voted to go back to “being great again.” In absolute candor, just between us, if you’d asked me Monday how I’d have reacted to that election outcome, I’d have told you to expect to find me in my cave, with writing the last thing on my mind. Life’s funny, though. Turns out, my anxiety is kind of a pushover, so long as I’m pushing with adequate rage. As noted above, that doesn’t mean it’s all going to be political. If you need an example, look no further than my November 11 post, “Remember, Remember …” Those are words I’ve wanted, needed, to get on a page for a very long time. This was the year.

Remember, Remember …

Everyday is everything.

If today isn’t a holiday where you live, it might very well be in someone else’s part of the world. And even if it isn’t a proper, the-banks-are-closed, light-some-fireworks occasion, you can bet there are still a dozen smaller observances, in honor of cats, or tacos, or a type of cancer.

It’s always someone’s birthday, and someone always dies.

Here in the States, November 11 is Veterans Day. Since 1954, anyway. Prior to that, it was Armistice Day, which was kinda like Veterans Day but with a name like that, veterans of wars other than WWI felt left out. Prior to 1918 and the formal end of the War to End All Wars, November 11 was, I guess, just a nice early autumn day.

On November 11, 1991, this date ceased to be anything for me but heartache.

My mother’s mother’s brother — great-uncle to me — was a month past sixty when he died that day, at home, alone in the house he had lived in most of his life. He had been my babysitter, my daycare, and my after-school watcher, a grandfather in all but name to a boy who had none.

He was my moral pole star, though I don’t recall realizing that before he died.

Certainly I loved him. He was the relative I said I’d go live with when my parents or my little sister got on my last nerve and I threatened to run away. He was who I was excited to talk to about my day at school, or my newest action figure, or my plans for this year’s Halloween costume.

If I had wanted to grow up, he probably would have been who I wanted to grow up to be.

Everyone loves and everyone loses people they love, and any day can be a sad day when the pain wells up and the memories comfort you but also make you just a little angry because the world is cruel and the only fair thing about life is that it ends for everyone.

Any day can be a dark day, but I can’t avoid November 11.

I had stayed home sick that day in 1991, and I remember standing at the bathroom sink that evening, a wet washcloth growing cold in my hand, when my parents told me about the call from a concerned neighbor, and asked me to watch my little sister while they went to make sure everything was okay.

I knew then what they weren’t telling me, and the funeral followed three days later.

I can no longer distinctly remember 1992 or 1993. They blur together. I was home sick from school on one of them, and I walked through the day in a fog on the other, and on both I visited the cemetery in the evening and spent time at his grave.

By 1994, I was two hours away at college, the day fell on a Friday, and I drove home after my last class, in time to reach the cemetery by dusk because it mattered very much to me that I be there, that I see the cold gravel six feet over his bones, that I whisper a few words, as though the dead have ears.

I drove back that night, having not stopped to see my living family, or even tell them I had been there.

Through the rest of college, I responsibly kept to my school commitments and made no further pilgrimages, instead making it my habit that day to decline dinner or game night invitations, to be alone, to walk a wooded trail, to sit and listen at nature, to ponder the dead.

Over the years that followed, I sometimes walked alone in woods or through a cemetery near where I lived at the time, I visited his grave the brief years I lived back home, I never left my bed the years I got sick, and I loved my wife for leaving me to myself every November 11 of our marriage.

Once I assembled a desk, just to occupy my mind with a simple task.

Last year, I cooked a meal he used to make, following his techniques as best I remembered, down to cooking in cast iron and brewing teeth-achingly sweet tea to wash it down. I have since learned this is a custom on the Day of the Dead, and that unintended similarity is pleasing.

This year I write.

For the first time, I am able to put twenty-five years of mourning into perspective, by putting it into words, then putting those words into the world.

Every year is different, except every year I wonder whether this is the last time I will feel this.

A hundred people die every minute of every day. I can find no statistics on how many leave echoes, or how long those echoes persist, or whether it is my particular madness that every year I make myself listen for the echoes of November 11, 1991.

Quiet, now; I am concentrating.