Monday, March 23, 2009

Mountains Mourn Over Renowned Moonshiner's Death

The distinguished and sometimes notorious moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton died a week ago today in Cocke County, Tennessee, at age 61. Like many descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers, he followed in the tradition of making homemade liquor, building a reputation as being one of the south's top makers of white lightning. He also achieved a cult-hero-outlaw status through various documentaries on the moonshine tradition and through an autobiography entitled Me and My Likker.

But unlike the romantic notions of moonshining as a hardscrabble, yet noble way of survival in the Appalachians, and part of our cultural heritage, it unfortunately is still illegal (Uncle Sam wants his taxes). Already on probation for a July 2007 state charge triggered by a still explosion, and having prior convictions for moonshining and felony assault with a deadly weapon, a raid on Sutton's property last year turned up three 1,000-gallon stills, more than 800 gallons of moonshine, ingredients to make sour mash, and of course guns. Most of the moonshine he kept in a shed and a junk school bus on his property.

This time the sentencing, an 18-month term in federal prison followed by three years on supervised release, was too much for him. His wife found him in his beloved Ford Fairlane parked out in his barn, engine running, apparently dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. No one really knows why, but perhaps he thought prison would be the death of him, and decided to leave this world on his own terms.

This blog post is by no means a proper eulogy for the man whom thousands knew as a gentle soul. Others I'm sure pay a greater tribute and are much more vocal and outraged by his death. I just wanted to light my candle for him as well. To many he was the romantic notion of the moonshiner, like Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard, "never meaning no harm," "making his way the only way he knows how." It is disheartening to me, however, that something couldn't have been done to prevent the loss of such an iconic figure. He will be sorely missed by many, and hopefully never forgotton.

source: J.J. Stambaugh, "Moonshiner 'Popcorn' Sutton May Have Committed Suicide, in, March 16, 2009.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In Imitation of Emily Dickinson -- More Parodies

It is that time again when I begin my poetry unit with my students. To help them overcome their fear or disdain in reading poetry, I have them start by reading Emily Dickinson, perhaps not someone's first choice. We discuss her life as a recluse and her unique style of rhythm, capitalization, and punctuation. Then I have them pick one of her poems to do an imitation/parody. When I explain that a parody is like a "Weird Al" Yankovic song -- in a sense you are imitating the rhythm and rhyme of the poem but coming up with your own words -- they warmed up to the activity. Here are just a few examples of my students' work:

Much Sadness is divinest pain --
To an Emo eye --
Much Pain -- the starkest of Darkness --
'Tis not the Majority --
In this, as all will never prevail --
Ascent to darkness -- and you will be sane --
Demure -- you're straightaway to a painful pathway --
And handled with a pitiful sadness chain.

----- by Thoua Chue and Wa Xiong

Tell a lie, but tell it good.
Success is in successful lies,
not bright for our firm delight.
A truth lies superb surprise,
as thunder to the children's nightmare
with dreams of lies.
The lie must blind gradually
or every man be able to see.

----- by Matt Timmons and Elizabeth Burleson

This is our letter to the class.
We never heard a worse song
than Mr. Hampton's sing-a-long.
For this, we hopefully won't get bashed.

Every week he hands out tests
in his gray little sweater vest.
He tried to sing us Gilligan's Island.
It's pretty sad because we think
he tried his best.

----- by Megan Morehead, Luis Diego, and Alex Wells

I included this last poem to show I'm not above a good-humored joke at my expense. As an illustration of how Emily Dickinson used almost exactly the same tight rhythm and meter in her poetry, I demonstrated how you could almost take any poem of hers and sing it to either the tune of Gilligan's Island or The Yellow Rose of Texas. Try it sometime for yourself. It works!

Monday, March 16, 2009

SAWC Reading in Portsmouth, Ohio

The Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) will be hosting a reading on March 28th at Ye Olde Lantern, located at 601 Second Street in Portsmouth, Ohio.

The reading takes place during the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) conference weekend at Shawnee State University. Ye Olde Lantern is the local place for poetry readings, and is located a short walk from the campus center.

The reading will start at 7pm and be a combination of poetry/prose and music. Though I'm not sure of the lineup yet, I anticipate a large group to read and play, seeing that many people will be there already for the ASA conference, and that we have the place reserved until 11pm. I myself plan to attend, and am looking forward to not just reading some poetry but seeing the sights along the Ohio River town. I might even drive a little further north and visit the serpent mound outside of Peebles. Houston (my wife) gave me the "all-clear" to launch on this adventure, provided I change all poop diapers and wash the dishes between now and then!

Update Tues. March 24th -- The SAWC lineup for Ye Olde Lantern is as follows, and in no particular order whatsoever:

Hilda Downer
Don Boklage
Mike Henson
Dana Wildsmith
Sherry Stanforth
Jim Webb
Frankie Finley
Pauletta Hansel
Eddy Pendarvis
and me, of course!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Bee Swarm

The air was quiet in the back porch sun,
save for what I though was a breeze
drifting down from the treetops where I sat.
So soft at first, I didn’t notice that
the whisper was not whistling branches,
not the rasp of twig on limb,
but a droning buzz drawing closer.
Something zipped past my ear,
catching my lazy eyes in the direction
of an approaching swarm of honey bees.
I bolted from the concrete steps,
spun and wove around like a drunken boxer,
swatting the air hastily as if stung.

This roiling fist of wings, enveloping,
swirled instead around a center,
an atomic nucleus, as the queen
herded her hive to a larger nest.
Around the eaves of my house they clung,
rolled in the air like cloud vapors, rose
faster than I could run around to
the front yard to watch them continue,
down the driveway, across the road,
neighbors wondering what I was chasing.
Barefoot and panting for breath, I watched
the glistening coil disappear into the woods.
I longed to sprout cellophane wings,
to follow her secret pheromone trail
where a hollow tree or rock crevice
waited for her and her horde.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Brad Pitt to play a Nazi-Scalping Hillbilly in New Tarantino Film

Quentin Tarantino is known for exploring the B-movie genre, movies he says he enjoyed watching as a kid. For Kill Bill, it was the Japanese Samurai movies. In Grindhouse, a double feature including the two films Planet Terror and Death Proof, he explored the 70's exploitation film. Coming out August 21, 2009, Brad Pitt will be playing the part of Aldo Raine, who Tarantino describes as, "not your Warner Bros. 1950s WWII hero, this is a hillbilly straight from the mountains of Tennessee," in a new Tarantino movie called Inglourious Basterds. The story takes place in WWII France, where Brad Pitt's character leads a rogue band of men who torture and wreak havoc on all Germans, filling a mandated quota of 100 Nazi scalps per man.

Of course, I am always skeptical of films that pander to the crazed, violent hillbilly stereotypes. It's a typical villain format whenever a script writer or producer wants to fill the part of an evil, sadistic, demented, and somewhat ignorant antagonist. Just give him a hick accent and a greasy ball cap to wear and, voila, you got your bad guy. There are your heavy-handed hillbilly villains like in the movie Deliverance or more modern films like The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn, but then there are the more subtle hillbilly villains. For instance, notice how Randall Flagg in the miniseries of Steven King's The Stand has a Travis-Tritt-style mullet and blue-jean jacket. Or how about Zorg in the Sci-Fi movie 5th Element, who has this otherwise ambiguous Southern hick accent. Heck, even Billy Bob Thornton, who has been called the Hillbilly Orson Welles (in a respectable sense), plays a demented mechanic in the movie U-Turn.

Though this isn't the first time that Tarantino dipped into the Southern/Hillbilly inkwell, from my recollection this is the first time a hillbilly character has taken center stage. From the
Quentin Tarantino Archives, Aldo Raine's opening monologue is posted, "… I sure as hell, didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half Sicily, and then jump out of a fuckin' air-o-plane, to teach the Nazi’s lessons in humanity.” Knowing what a method actor Brad Pitt is, I'm at least interested in seeing how he pulls off this Sergeant York-turned-sadist character, and how believable vs. laughable this character is. You can watch the movie trailer for Inglourious Basterds and draw your own conclusions. Perhaps Tarantino is exploring the "hixploitation" genre in this film.

If you are cheap like me, though, you'll wait until it comes out on DVD and rent it.