my close writing friend antler, a nationally recognized poet who lives in milwaukee, wisconsin nominated me again for pushcart literary honors. antler is one of the most honest and trustworthy artists in my small creative circle. borrowing from the biblical reference, “many are called but few are chosen,” i hope this year we win.
the 2017 issue of “onthebus” published the review of the splake book “backwater graybeard twilight” written by charles p. ries.
t. kilgore splake
Backwater Graybeard Twilight
PO Box 508, Calumet, MI 49913
Thomas Hugh Smith was 44 years old when he wrote his first poem in 1979. Now known as t. kilgore splake, he has become one of the small press icons. His work and name appear everywhere. The self-proclaimed “graybeard dancer” told me, “Early one l979 morning while nursing a modest hangover and drinking a cup of coffee brewed from the coals of the previous night’s campfire, I felt compelled to write my thoughts about the past several days living in the pictured rocks wilderness outback. I collected several additional poems over my summer of camping, and upon returning to Battle Creek after Labor Day, they were published in my first chapbook edition titled pictured rocks poetry.”
Until that day Splake had never written poetry, “I taught political science at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, for twenty-six years. I lectured on the dynamics of a federal system of government and outlined the characteristics and functions of the American political party system. However, outside the world of academia, my job status was at best anonymous. If I was in with a strange group of people and asked what I did for a living, I might as well have replied I was a brain surgeon for the understanding most people have of what is political science. Now, I declare myself a poet, and it still seems I am anonymous to the average individual.”
Backwater Graybeard Twilight is the magnum opus of Splake’s work. It is a comprehensive collection of both his word and photo art. The 150 pages devoted to his writing are dense and word filled; word overflowing, words everywhere; for Splake puts to paper what comes to his mind in what he calls stream of consciousness prose. I asked him about this and he told me, “What initially attracted me to poetry, and later writing stream of consciousness prose, was the absence of necessary writing rules. In a doing contest with the ever elusive damn-dame lady muse, I seize a passion and redline it. I still compose my writing works in long hand, scribbling between the lines of quill econo legal padlets. With the rough long hand drafts, I then key a poem or a story into a word document and turn to the fine-tuning the writing into the best shape possible.”
One of the characteristics of the writing in Backwater Graybeard Twilight is its sheer volume. I often felt like I was drowning in a tidal wave of images and metaphors. This machine gunning of words often left me feeling lost and falling; not an altogether unpleasant experience, but even numinous falling needs nuance and direction lest we shut down the sponge in our head that reads and absorbs. Here is an example from, “homeboy escape”: “small town, womb nurturing captive population of fascists / and losers, hometurf where acting like a man is all important, // a few basking in fleeting, momentary athletic glories, awash / in school colors, cheers, the rest settling for spectator status, small // value for sadness of beating nobody, // small numbers move on town the highway, seeking college / education, others off to a career, some branch of the military service, most quickly back at home, armed and relieved, convenient excuse,” and on it goes for two more pages. Image on image, metaphor after metaphor, with only commas to give my mind a breath.
I asked Splake about this volume of words and whether themes get lost in the word pile. He sort of answered my question, “I believe in a pizza theory of poetry. Imagine being on a date and discussing what kind of a pizza to order. If I might suggest a pizza with anchovies, my feminine acquaintance might reply, “Ugh, I can’t stand those slimy little fish.” Where if she would suggest a pineapple pizza, I would not find pineapple agreeable to my culinary palette. Yet neither anchovies nor pineapple are bad, they simple represent a difference in individual tastes. I think the same analogy holds true for poetry. There are no good or bad poems, and what is good in poetry simply appeals to one’s aesthetic sensibilities. I can, and do not believe that the poems and stories I write will be liked by all those who read them. An anchovy lover will not win over a pineapple devotee.” I can’t argue that all art is loved by someone and finds a home, but does poetry lose its power (brevity) when it becomes overloaded? I think it does, but this does not diminish Splake’s achievement or skill in accomplishing it, it just means his audience will be filled anchovy lovers who welcome his form of word art.
Backwater Graybeard Twilight is broken into titled, Being, NonBeing and Becoming – I was most drawn to Becoming (can I say the pineapple section) where Splake delivers more then a few poems I could read, digest, inhale such as this excerpt from, “the mountain beyond”: “mournful foghorn elegy / chuck spires vanishing / gray dying light / san fran bay / union street hill / below Washington square / bro brautigan / bench shadows / ben franklin statue / brown sipping sack / bard blood a-hummmmmm/inviting Alcatraz gulls / to carry him home / musical wings / through vivaldi’s season / escaping / life’s surface mirror.” Splake’s gift is his facility with image, his challenge maybe mitigating the blinding speed with which he lets these images fall to his paper.
I asked Jim Chandler, whose Thunder Sandwich Publishing published Backwater Graybeard Twilight what drew him to Splake’s work and he told me “I believe Splake is unique because his style is unlike that of anyone I’m familiar with. I suspect that most people who have read any Splake could pick his work out of poems by 10 (or 20 or 100) poets by reading a line or two. I know I can. The talent obviously speaks for itself, since one doesn’t bother to interview untalented people. Splake is the most dedicated writer I know; perhaps driven is a better word. He sets goals and he doesn’t rest until he achieves them. “
Indeed, he is a Type-A poet if ever there was one; a volcano of productivity. In an interview conducted by Peter Magliocco of ART:MAG Splake describes himself as a proverbial over-achiever who TRIES HARDER and I would agree. I asked him if, as he nears his 70th birthday, if he has enough time to get it all done and he told me, “ NO! I do not have enough time in the working day to bring my attention to all of the works that I currently have in progress. What I call “rat bastard time” has truly become my primary adversary. I often hear some of the truly geezer gents at the evergreen café sigh over their coffee mornings and whisper “what am I going to do today.” I feel, how sad I cannot allocate a couple of their unused hours, and possess twenty-six for a day’s lit-laborings. It is obvious they would not miss them.”
Splake has published over 70 chap books of poetry and if that weren’t enough, he is also an excellent photographer. Backwater Graybeard Twilight has over forty pages of his photos, and these are exceptional. His subjects are common and clear. They are lit on the page and easy to assimilate. I asked him if he had to choose poetry or photography, what would it be? In characteristic Splake fashion he didn’t exactly answer my question, but rather the associations my question prompted in his mind, “At present I am moving away from writing poetry and short stories and into the field of movie making. However, note, I am not abandoning poetry, but incorporating a poetry on human “being” into the camera footage that I work with. To date I have produced three DVD movie-length productions: “Splake poetry on location i,” “Splake poetry on location ii,” and the most recent film creation “Splake: the cliffs.” In regards to my filming perspectives, I have been greatly influenced by the work of Jim Jarmusch, and particularly his early movie “Permanent Vacation.” I have also learned a great deal of cinematography from the works of Richard Linklater. His experimental movie which is part of the criterion film package for the movie “Slacker,” has had a strong effect on my movie making attitudes.” Can you hear a man sprinting toward his art? I can.
In less then 20 years Splake has created a lifetime body of work. I asked him about his legacy, “If I flatter myself, I think that t. kilgore splake writings and photographs “might” still be remembered l0 days to a possible full two weeks after I pass on to that “quiet darkness of nothing.” However, I still continue to post my work and daily correspondence to Marcus C. Robyns, archivist for Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. I do entertain the remote possibility that I possess an Upper Peninsula artistic consciousness and regional identity. So, maybe some future NMU literature or writing students will study the works of Splake. I would like that.”
Jim Chandler is right. Here is a unique voice, talent and personality. Splake is a small press original. While anchovies are not for everyone, even a pineapple lover like me can see the glory in an anchovy. I strongly encourage you to add Backwater Graybeard Twilight to your library.
Review By: Charles P. Ries
Note: “onthebus” editor jack grapes included a short note in the edition saying “thanks for all your poetry and prose all these years, and, fighting the good fight along the wide road.”
calumet art center
the wooden benches i donated to the art center are currently gathering dust in the dark corners of the art center building. however, the benches have metal tags honoring my mother and father, margaret and emery smith. in addition, there are benches with tags for my children, ted, mike, casey – plus – one for another daughter robin lynn.
splake is also identified on separate rosters – one for keweenaw artists – the other as a calumet art center supporter.
finally the wheelchair ramp to provide easier access to the art center is finished. in the coming new year the art center board of directors with submit a proposal for an elevated lift-chair for getting to the art center’s second floor. such an addition would provide greater access to the splake writing room and library in the center.
attached is a photograph for those who watched the splake dvd “green stones.” note: hiking into the remote mining site without snowshoes was a pretty demanding challenge.
since the last addition to the splake computer site i have had poems published in several small literary magazines. there were five poems in recent “bear creek haiku” editions. “brevities” published seven splake poems in the november issue. “lilliput review # 197″ had two splake poems, and i am extremely thankful for editor don wentworth getting me extra copies in time to mail with my christmas cards.
“bear creek haiku”
maybe after passing
becoming invisible ghost
floating on strange ethers
flitting here and there
like quiet hummingbird
visiting old friends
places once forgotten
dream of escape
lost in yooper blizzard
riding greyhound ghost
orizaba café breakfast
chatting with jack
jazz singer scatting
seeking new pain
lost love blues
roots to higher branches
struggling for light
artist’s life breathing
lake superior tides
eternal ebbing and flowing
leaving haunted ghosts
slow painful steps
touching tasting reality
almost close enough
nature should let him in
emerging from trees
end of the trail
looking over cliffs
shining cloud falls
wilderness valley far below
calm watery pools
graybeard almost home
after celebrating the christmas holiday i am eagerly looking forward to the brave new ’17 and days counting.
i have chapbook projects progressing with scot young, editor of“rusty truck press,” dustin pickering, editor of “transcendent zero press,” and gordon purkis, of “shoe music press.” next week another manuscript collection of splake poems will go to gage press in downstate battle creek.
also, in the new year i have ink and space promised in editor bob penick’s new literary journal “ristau,” and chris helvey’s publication “trajectory.
“ the drums keep poundin’ a rhythm in the brain”