Editor’s Letter

A Monk and a Mountain: Notes on Flycatcher's Beginning

Welcome to the first issue of Flycatcher, a project that has been in the making for the past six months and in the dreaming much longer than that. I am glad you are here, a part of this journal through reading and conversation, just as I am grateful for everyone who made Flycatcher possible—our contributors, our editors, and everyone who made a way to turn this dream into reality.

I am speaking mostly of the family members, significant others, and good friends of writers and artists and editors alike: Thank you for putting up with us, for encouraging us, for believing in us. And though such acknowledgments are normally relegated to the end of things, I would here like to express my gratitude to my wife and best friend, Deana Martin, without whom Flycatcher would never have happened—not theoretically, not practically. Not only did she urge me forward when the vision for Flycatcher came, she did much more than her fair share of taking care of our two young children—usually after working all day herself—so that I could find the necessary time to work on this issue. Deana, you have my unending love and appreciation. And I am sure that all of our editors would say the same of the loved ones and friends in their lives who made it possible for them to pursue this and other literary projects. I give my deepest thanks to you all.

* * * * *

Though the roots of this venture go back a long way—back to my first reading of Walden eight years ago, back years before that to the first time I heard the haunting, prophetic voice of Martin Luther King and began to associate his spirit with Atlanta, and back even before that to a love and longing for nature and place that I inherited from my maternal grandfather as a child—the inclination to start a literary journal about place, nativity, and imagination came to me over the summer while taking a graduate course on Thomas Merton, the great Kentucky monk, writer, and social activist who worked in the middle of the last century, dying in 1968 while on a pilgrimage to Asia. This course, taken at Kennesaw State University, was taught by Merton scholar David King (whose poetry you will find in this issue), and it is a course I will remember as long as I live. I entered this class already having familiarity with and admiration for Thomas Merton, and over the summer, that familiarity and admiration only grew.

Two particular things, I think, led to the idea for Flycatcher as it relates to Merton and the course I took on him. The first, and most general, was the connection I made between Merton’s time and my own. Merton was an advocate for peace and social justice; he spoke eloquently and passionately against nuclear proliferation, institutional racism, religious intolerance, war, and all other sorts of violence, whether violence to the body or spirit or both. And though the cast of characters and the settings are somewhat different now, in my time and place, I realized that such things still abound, and that one way of dealing with these things—of “fighting” them, if you will, though I resist the combative language already well employed by oppressors—is through writing and creating art.

When this country is engaged in war, no matter how justified or unjustified such war might seem, that has killed an untold number of children, of innocent civilians, of fine men and women, it is the responsibility of artists to break the silence. That same responsibility remains present when coal corporations desecrate ancient mountains and poison watersheds. It is present when certain states, mostly Southern ones, incarcerate and kill people—particularly young black men—at alarming rates (and any rates for such things are alarming). The responsibility is present when nuclear plants leak toxic waste into rivers, and when companies profit off destruction and sickness, and when cities such as Atlanta become bastions for child sex-trafficking. It is present anywhere human worth and dignity, and the worth and dignity of the world, is trivialized and degraded.

While reading and rereading Merton over the summer, it occurred to me that the source of many of these things, and many others not named here, is a sense of disconnection and alienation from ourselves, from each other, and from our places; I therefore thought to start a literary journal that might, through its writing and art, in however small a way, help connect us back to ourselves and to each other and to our places, as Merton’s writing and art—and much of the writing and art of his time—once did, and in fact still continues to do.

But I did not think that one could just up and start a literary magazine. I thought one needed official permission from someone more literary, more experienced, more institutionally connected, more established than oneself; I thought one needed a lot of money; I thought one needed a place to work other than the corner of a tiny living room on his wife’s laptop computer. It turns out I was wrong, and I realized I was wrong during the Merton course, when I learned that Merton, seemingly out of the blue, started his own little magazine called Monks Pond in the spring of 1968 that did not require much money or any official endorsements.

At the time, the monastery where Merton lived and worked was sustaining itself financially by making cheese, and it acquired a small printing press mainly to print cheese ads, but also to print liturgical materials. In a letter to one Jonathan Williams, Merton wrote that he thought the press ought to “put out something besides cheese ads for heavens sake”; to Wendell Berry, Merton wrote, “I don’t think a monastic press should be confined to cheese and liturgy.” And so, using that press, he started the literary conversation that he called Monks Pond, for which he had no expectations other than to run four or five good issues and let it go. The fourth issue, and the last, came out at the end of 1968, just before Merton’s death.

Though he called it a “magazine,” it seems clear enough that Merton thought of Monks Pond as more of a literary conversation. This conversation included now well-known writers and artists like Wendell Berry, Jack Kerouac, Hayden Carruth, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and Czezlaw Milosz, among others, to writers and artists then emerging and unknown. Likewise, we hope that Flycatcher will be a catalyst for conversation, one that gives space to and honors writers and artists that are known inspirations and those unknown writers who only need a platform to be inspirations themselves. And though we hope for a run exceeding four issues, we have no formal program and will carry on only in grace.

One more word back to the monastery printing press and the cheese ads, as this is another important connection to Flycatcher, particularly to its online presence: Unlike Merton, I have no free access to a printing press. I could only access one with money, and I have no money—or not enough to start a print publication, I should say, out of respect to the many people who actually have no money. But I do have access to the internet, which is in many ways becoming a literary commons—a commons that has yet to be fully realized.

I have my problems with the internet, of course, and there is some hypocrisy, perhaps, to my use of it. As I type now, I’m using electricity probably derived from mountaintop removal coal mining and generated from a plant spewing out carcinogens. And I don’t think the internet can ever be a true community, in the full sense of the word. As Janisse Ray has rightly said, you can’t hug through the internet. But the internet is here. It is an opportunity, and it should be used for more than just running “cheese ads”—if I may use that as a metaphor—much of this metaphorical “cheese” being significantly worse and in some cases much more terrifying than the actual monastery cheese that Merton poked fun at, and that was probably quite good.

Insomuch as the internet can connect people to each other, and help people understand each other, and enrich lives through writing and art, it is good, and there are many online literary magazines enacting that goodness—magazines like Loose Change, Still, New Southerner, Killing the Buddha, and Precipitate. These online magazines, along with many, many, others, are another major inspiration behind Flycatcher, right up there with Monks Pond, and they are all doing good work.

* * * * *

The title of this inaugural issue is Where Nothing Dies Long, a phrase borrowed (and slightly adapted) from “Burial Ground,” Brenda Rose’s beautiful poem published herein. We decided on this title for many reasons.

Flycatcher emerges from Kennesaw, a town in the suburbs north of Atlanta, Georgia. Once known as Big Shanty, Kennesaw was renamed after Kennesaw Mountain following the Civil War—and the name of that mountain, in turn, is an Anglicized form of the Cherokee Gahneesah (phonetic), which means “burial ground.” Flycatcher arises, then, from a place of the dead.

The death here has often been literal. In 1864, the mountainsides and meadows of Kennesaw were the scene of one of the major battles of the Atlanta Campaign of the Civil War, where over 5,000 soldiers were killed. And other literal deaths, significant to the area, have both preceded and followed that battle. In 1915 in Marietta, Georgia, for example, just on the other side of the mountain from Kennesaw, Leo Frank was lynched. And Kennesaw was a thoroughfare for the Trail of Tears, and thus a harbinger of cultural death. 

I have lived in the Kennesaw area for over fifteen years now; this place is my home, and I am invested in it. I want to know it, to belong to it, and, if I can, to partake in its healing and allow it to heal me in turn. But to belong to such a place, to believe that such a place can heal and that I can heal along with it, are difficult things. This is the hub of suburban homogenization, for one. Creativity and imagination—much less nativity—do not come easily here. This is, of course, not to say that creativity and imagination and nativity do not exist here—certainly they do—but in all my years here, I have encountered what I can now only name as a negative energy that hovers about this place, this land of the dead, and that brings with it a sense of apathy and decay, the kind of decay that doesn’t enrich anything. It is significant, for example, that the first things people typically associate with Kennesaw in the conversations I’ve had about this place are not the local university or any haven for the arts, nor the natural grace of the mountain itself that persists despite the sprawl, but the presence of a shop in the middle of downtown draped with Confederate flags and plastered with signs featuring racist slogans and jokes (tolerated as “eccentricities”), and the fact that every Kennesaw citizen must, by law, own a gun. This is Kennesaw, Gahneesah, Burial Ground, Place of the Dead.  

I want Flycatcher to be an antidote to all that, because a place of the dead does not necessarily have to be a dead zone; death is not necessarily the absence of vitality. Death, in the healthy minded view, gives way to life. If there is death, there is also the possibility of resurrection, rebirth, and rejuvenation. I recall the wonderful lines of Whitman: “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if ever there was it led forward to life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, / And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.”

As I gathered and reviewed material for this first issue, it fascinated me how much good work was coming in—even without my mentioning the significance of Gahneesah in the creation of Flycatcher—about the themes I’ve mentioned here: death, decay, burial, resurrection, rebirth, and so on. And so the title, Where Nothing Dies Long, emerged from Brenda’s poem. I could go through every piece of work gathered here and connect it to these themes, and to Gahneesah, in some way. You will see the connections, for example, in the epigraphs from Sharanya Manivannan’s fiction contribution and one of Rosemary Royston’s poems. And I hope that you will make many connections of your own.

* * * * *

But Gahneesah, of course, is everywhere, just as the ability to “practice resurrection,” as Wendell Berry puts it, is everywhere. Though I drafted the bulk of this letter from the very core and summit of the Place of the Dead—on an outcropping on the highest point of Kennesaw Mountain, looking northward at smokestacks, complexes, mini-mansions, munitions and chemical plants, railroads, interstates, strip malls and strip mines, all of it tapering off into the gray haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains rising like humpback whales over the sprawl—I knew that there are places beyond Kennesaw, beyond the Blue Ridge, beyond the jagged skyline of Atlanta over my shoulder to the south, that also bear our burdens, some dying or dead under the weight of them.

As I sat there on that rock, chickadees chattering in the wind-tangled oaks, I thought of my children—my two-year-old son and four-month-old daughter. I thought of them for a number reasons, one being that that day, December 28, is the day of the commemoration of the massacre of the innocents, one of the worst and most overlooked aspects of the Christmas story and the Christmas season (here in Gahneesah, Christmas revolves around Town Center Mall).

Innocents are still massacred today in many ways, and not just by swords. And so I thought of my children, of how I love them, of how I am thankful, joyful, that they live in the tender care of their mother and me, and that they do not have to fend for themselves on a city street, or along any of the world’s spoil banks, or in a sweatshop, or in a war zone. But I also thought of how I am obligated, in the abundance of my blessings, to speak for those children, and for all people, who suffer for our disconnection from each other and from the world. My ability to belong to a place depends on their ability to belong to a place, to be nourished and upheld by a place, and the same is true for my children.

Though the traditional account of the massacre of the innocents comes from the Gospel of Matthew, there is also a more legendary account from the apocryphal Gospel of James:

And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth [mother of John the Baptist], having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, said: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her.

In my most indigenous dreams, this mountain—Kennesaw, Burial Ground, Place of the Dead, paved and dotted with replica cannons—opens, unfolding layers of gneiss, and it receives me, and my wife, and our children, offering us refuge in a cavernous wound until the mad kings and murderers pass by, or forget that we are there, and we rise like resurrection ferns upon logs and boulders where fence lizards dwell like hermits.

In my most indigenous dreams we rise and know that we are all, that all is us, that the massacre of innocents anywhere, of innocence anywhere, is a massacre in our own hearts and that in rising from decay we must rise in others just the same.

In my most indigenous dreams we belong here in this place where there is death but where nothing dies for long.

In my most indigenous dreams, words matter, and they rise with us, too.

* * * * *

In the middle of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander—a book that surveys the Nazi death camps, the Cold War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the murder of three children at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the burgeoning cult of technological “progress,” the American suicide epidemic, the perils of religious fanaticism, among other things—Thomas Merton writes a single sentence, a single paragraph, from his hermitage in the Kentucky hills: “Flycatchers, shaking their wings after the rain.”

Here in this issue, Where Nothing Dies Long, flycatcher wings still shake after the rain, evincing the beauty in the world that abides when all the madness and hurt passes, and that indeed abides among the madness and the hurt, protected by a mountain. The feathers gathered here still shake whether to seek refuge and keep dry, or in praise of nothing more than being, of belonging.

Flycatchers, shaking their wings after the rain. As Thomas Rain Crowe writes in this issue,

May it continue,

Christopher Martin
Editor-in-Chief, Flycatcher
Kennesaw, Georgia
December 31, 2011

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