Sunday, August 5, 2012
Archie’s Psalm by Christopher D. Burns
Archie’s Psalm is a glimpse into the life of a latchkey kid who is encountering situations that force him to learn about the changing world around him. A coming of age story with a carefully crafted narrative and subplot, Archie’s Psalm shows the transitioning world of a neighborhood in Memphis, TN ten years after Dr. King’s death. Through the setting, vivid character descriptions and moving storytelling a hot and humid southern neighborhood comes to life. Through the use of dialect and song the shifting tone and sound of the south reminds the reader of Zora Neale Hurstons’ novels. A work of literature that is artistic, powerful and important. A book that could become as relevant as Ann Petry’s The Street.
He told stories to pass the time. A simple man, never loud. Carried extra quarters in his pockets, about ten patch made pockets on dingy coveralls, a soft white shirt beneath the faded denim straps over his shoulders. The only look on his face I remember was like the quiet warmness after a summer rain. His half smile marked with crescent moons at the corners of his mouth and lines like folds in brown blankets at the corner of his eyes. His skin soft with bristled hair, even on his hands hair grew. He carried a walking stick sometimes, and walked through the streets each morning and each afternoon. Maybe to see what we was doing, us latchkey kids, us thugs. But we wadn’t so bad, just bored, and he knew that.
He told stories to pass the time, stories of uprisings, niggers, Tom’s, fools, white folks, but mostly it was stories about the neighborhood that stuck to me.
Me and the guys ran all over the streets bothering and startling the old folks. He just stood when we would ride by, looking at us act up. He never did nothing to us unless he found us being too mannish. Folks used to say he carried bricks, a small piece of brick in each overall pocket. He caught Lil Tony trying to scare Ms. Phillips once. He saw him and from what Tony said,
“I was ridin right, ridin, Buck, I wasn’t even messin wit Ms. P. I ain’t lyin.”
“What’d he do, what’d he do?” I kept asking. Tony’s toughskins were scuffed pretty bad on purple knee patches. His palms was dirty with little scrapes on chubby hands. His jaws shook when he got excited.
“I ain’t lyin Buck, I ain’t-”
“Tony, what’d he do?”
“He threw one at me.”
“No he didn’t.”
“Yeah he did.”
“Did it hit you? Did it hurt?”
“You ask stupid questions Buck.”
“You the one that’s stupid. You know how Old Man Fishstick act when he see Ms. P.”
“That’s why you got hit,” I laughed.
“Didn’t exactly get hit though, I just saw him raise his hand. So I jumped off my bike. He walked up an-”
“An he laughed at you an walked away, didn’t he? Don’t lie.”
“Yep, he jus laughed an walked off.”
“An he lef you sumthin?”
‘Pretty Ms. P,’ was what he called her. Old Man Fishstick was what we used to call him. He always talked with Ms. P, but not much to many other folks. I even noticed him take out his folded red kerchief with the white designs on it to wipe his brow, before she would see him. He’d pull off his old blue hat and pull at the tufts of gray hair matted to the sides of his head. He’d even walk a little bit slower with longer strides. Such long strides I think would’ve been hard with a pocket full of bricks. I had found out that their wadn’t no bricks a long time before any body else. What it was, was quarters in small, cloth brown bags. But I didn’t tell nobody seein as he only had em every once in a while. Anyways, I asked him why he always fixed up himself, when he see Ms. Pat.
“Ya know what a peacock is?”
“Find out why peacocks look like they do, an then ask me why, an I’ll tell ya.”
Still don’t know why peacocks look like they do, but I’m trying to get the answer.
Christopher D. Burns, MFA
In 1997, Chris went on to attend San Diego State University where he earned a BA in English and a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. While attending San Diego State University, Chris wrote Stages: a handbook on men and relationships, 100 Black and White Questions (co-authored by Kevin Pendleton) and Archie’s Psalm (which later became his Masters thesis).
After graduating with his MFA degree from San Diego State, Chris returned to his childhood home of Memphis and worked for two years as an instructor of English at Historically Black College, LeMoyne-Owen College. He resigned to teach high school English, complete research on building writing skills, and to focus more on the CB Publishing website www.cbpublish.com, Center Court Basketball www.centercourtbasketball.com, a sports and fitness website, and his footwear company ARCH www.arch-usa.com.
Get to Know Chris:
Chris Burns, you became a writer for what reason? I was inspired to start writing my freshman year of college. I was playing college basketball and working as a teacher’s assistant. One of the teacher’s at the school was a poet and invited us all to her poetry reading from her chapbook. When I got home, I sat down and started writing. I always told stories and I was a bit of a class clown in high school, so the writer was always there, but I guess I needed a push. I began writing poetry and one of the poems felt like a story so I kept writing and it became A Man’s State of Mind, my first book. I guess to answer the question quickly, I became a writer because I had these stories in my head and I just needed to get them out. Unfortunately it has taken me 17 years to begin working on my career.
Archie’s Psalm. That is an interesting title, where did it come from and what is it about?The title came from the original draft of the book. I attended San Diego State University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. During the fiction workshops I began submitting chapters to my classmates and the story didn’t really have a title. Like my first book the story began as a poem. I was going to get my MFA in Poetry so it was only natural that most of my stories began in this way. The chapters I was submitting were not labeled chapters. I was using verses from the Book of Psalms in the Bible to kind of inspire each section. My idea was to make the final chapter begin with a verse from Psalms. When I submitted the book as my thesis it was written this way. However, I had a serious Jean Toomer influence and the narrative felt disjointed. I cut a lot of the book and removed the references to Psalms, but kept the title.
When someone asks me now why this is the title and what it’s about, I can still say that it is about songs. Psalms are songs. Archie is one of the main characters in the book. He is an older man, kind of like the neighborhood sage. The book is built around Archie’s interaction with the main character Buck. Buck is a young boy on the verge of becoming a teen. Old Man Archie often sits on his porch and sings the blues while playing his guitar. Throughout the story Archie tells Buck stories that often parallel with what is happening in the text. His stories usually begin with a song.
The book is about the multiple layers that exist in families. It is about those hidden stories that every family has. Archie’s Psalm is also about the point when boys become men physically and how they learn to interact with girls and all of the problems that the world throws at them. The book is a commentary on a lot of different things and it will be interesting if people finish it and realize all of the things that have taken place.
Explain to us your writing style, how do you differ from whats current? My writing style varies. I play around a lot with character sketches and dialect. I don’t use a formula. I just make sure I am writing as much as possible. I do have a lot of influences and those influences come through at times. My favorite writer is Ralph Ellison, followed closely by Toni Cade Bambara and Zora Neale Hurston. There are random elements of Invisible Man in every book I’ve written. In my first novel, A Man’s State of Mind, I play around with setting and I never really tell you where the story is taking place; which allows the story to have the feeling that it could be happening right down the street from you. In my second book Stages: A Handbook on Men & Relationships, there is a comedic tone that is playful but hides a serious subplot. I got that from Zora. In Archie’s Psalm I also use a bit of Zora’s technique in using a shifting dialect. In Archie’s Psalm the exposition is written in standard English, but the dialogue is written in the voices I heard in my head from my childhood. Those voices always code switched. My mom would sound completely different talking with friends than she did on the phone with bill collectors.
I think how my work differs is that after 17 years of writing and just putting books out there without any promotion is that I haven’t had to write in a particular style because one of my books caught on. What I’ve noticed is that many writers stick with what gets them a livelihood, or what is going to make sure they stay popular. A person who writes urban fiction, sticks with that. A person who writes relationship books sticks with that. My work differs because I can’t tell you one novel that is written like Archie’s Psalm. No one is really writing and giving a voice to Black boys. Most stories are written for women because they read more than men. I write my books for readers and I write what is familiar because I want it to ring true. Archie’s Psalm is different because it finally gives voice to the boy that was, raised in the single parent household, raised in the neighborhood that was changing from the close knit Civil rights based black community to the neighborhoods on the verge of Reaganomics, crack and gangs. As simple as the story seems, it touches on a lot of the issues that affect our neighborhoods right now and it does all of this in the form of a coming of age story.
Your best work thus far, what do you think that is and why? My best work oddly enough is a work that I haven’t even mentioned and it is not readily available. It Often Deprives Me of My Sleep is a collection of short stories, poems, essays and a conversation with the muse, that I wrote for about 15 years. For the sake of this interview though I guess I will say Archie’s Psalm is the most important… scratch that. All of the books are important.
When I was in grad school I had a professor who told me to write for me. He told me that I shouldn’t worry about my race or background and that I should simply write. I could never get past that. Everything I write in some way has a point. Everything I write means something and attempts to cut you and leave a scar. I need my books to live and breathe. I want each book to give you a character that when you are finished you want that character to keep living.
If I did have to choose one of the books that people can actually buy and answer the question, what is my best work… it would have to be Archie’s Psalm. I know the book is hard to read and is not what is the norm, but I think the payoff for finishing the book and then discussing it will create an experience.
Tell us about your next line of work, what can reader’s expect from you? The great thing about never promoting my work is that everything is new and there are multiple titles for people to choose from. If you want something that will reach in and pull at every emotion, you can read A Man’s State of Mind. If you want to laugh and learn how to read men, Stages: A Handbook on Men and Relationships. If you want to get into something that reminds you of classic literature with a contemporary setting, read Archie’s Psalm. If you want to read about business I have a Kindle download named One Hour to Wealth that gives you the guidelines I used to launch my own sneaker company. I have in my computer right now a book that I am co-authoring titled Winter in Hip-Hop, a nonfiction book that deals with Blacks in the post civil rights era. I also have a work of fiction that is about a preacher who murders a gangbanger. There are other projects I’m working on as well, but who knows if any of this other stuff will ever see the light of day? If you want to keep up with what’s happening with me you can definitely read the blog on www.cbpublish.com. I even do a Hi Lites section on cool places to visit in Memphis. I also write a fitness blog at www.centercourtbasketball.com that works in conjunction with my sneaker company on www.arch-usa.com. I like staying busy and I try to write in some form everyday.
How are you managing to write and then tell the world you have these great books you want them to read? I am not. That is why I don’t have a writing career. I have never taken my own advice about working on a dream in regard to my writing. This will be the first year that I have actively worked on promoting my books. I did do a little bit of promoting when I hosted an Open Mic, but not really. What I hope now is that people will see your interview and take a chance on my books. If they do, that would be great.
A book that can compare to Archie’s Psalm is? I think the closest relatives to Archie’s Psalm are The Street by Ann Petry and actually a short story: The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara. As many books as I have read I find it hard to make a direct comparison. I guess another title would be Stephen King’s The Body (the movie Stand By Me was based on this short story). I like the fact that I’m actually promoting this over my other books. I think it would be easy for me to push Stages or A Man’s State of Mind, those books kind of fall into the contemporary market. However I feel that people are ready to change gears.