Sonnet Suggested by Willy Vlautin

I’m usually not very articulate about my own work, and part of the benefit of this Project’s aim to largely present other people’s poetry is that I can better express my experiences with others’ work than my own. This may be why I am envious of those who can speak effectively about their own art.

More than a dozen years ago I was reading an interview with a novelist Willy Vlautin who also wrote songs and performed with an Americana/Indie rock band called Richmond Fontaine. In explaining his art this is what Vlautin had to say:

It’s sort of a gamble, one’s life. Where will you fall, what are your weaknesses, will they kill you? If you’re hurting, will people help you or take advantage of you? Will the people you love, love you when you need them to? The mistakes you make, they could ruin you, set you off on a bad run. Hell, I think about all that all the time. Nothing makes me sadder than someone hurting and then being done wrong or worse by someone who’s aware of that.”

As you might imagine, Vlautin was not writing cheerful stuff,* but the observation about the human condition, its fears, and the dangers of how others can react to failings in ways deserved and undeserved seemed honest. Humankind differs somewhat on what constitutes crimes and failings, and the hierarchy (lowerarchy?) of such acts and outcomes, but we seem constitutionally subject to the reaction that the bad or unlucky person deserves their fate — or here’s the odd intensifier — deserves more and more bad outcomes, stacked on in order to prove or instruct them in how bad their choice or fate was.**

It seems to me that Vlautin takes this internally as well, or at least wants us to consider that. That’s something I resonate with myself. The fear, much less the result, of failing someone I care about is nearly disabling for me. I fear this enough that I will the not do things for others, little things, things others find routine, because I fear doing them badly.

Reading Vlautin’s interview answer soon caused me to write this sonnet all those years ago, combining Vlautin’s thoughts with my own on these matters, the result merging sins of omission with sins of commission, confronting the fears of both as honestly as I could.

Just as with the last piece here, I found that sonnet among the thousands of song-sheets I went through late this summer from my studio space. Unlike the last one, I think Dave and I attempted to perform this poem as a song years back to little success. After finding the song-sheet, I did a revision of the words and changed the music a little bit. This afternoon I had just over an hour in my studio space to record it. I focused on simple accompaniment, just acoustic guitar to maximize my chances of getting a completed performance, and that worked well enough that you can hear it below. Because the piece’s outlook is stark, the spare music may help reflect that.

Willy Vlautin

There are direct quotes from Vlautin in my sonnet, also some subtle changes to his phrases, and then too my own interpolations.

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A player gadget is below for many of you, but some ways of viewing this blog will suppress that, so I also offer this highlighted link which will open a new tab to play it.

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*In another interview he says he had pictures of John Steinbeck and the Jam on his childhood bedroom wall. His brother bought him his first guitar and told Willy to “Write about what hurts and haunts you. That’s pretty much what I’ve done ever since. Along the way, I somehow forgot to write about the girls and the parties.”

**Perhaps a small part of the choice to pull this piece out of the pile today has to do with the bizarre news that a couple of governors have decided that some folks suffering from poverty, fear, and abuse should be secretly trundled off in busses to other states in the course of increasing their suffering or insecurity — and with the further aim of using their arrival to instruct other governors or mayors to do what, I’m not sure. Articles indicate that one beef the two governors have with the other jurisdictions is that they aren’t making others already there from similar situations in these other states more fearful and uncomfortable. Am I to infer the theory here is that making folks more uncomfortable, less secure, and more confused will improve their luck and the wisdom of their choices? Or that the other governors or mayors will by this action understand that the two “put’em in busses and dump them outstate” governors are demonstrating their better administrative acumen?

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