Some artists are lone wolfs because of prickly personalities or hyper-competitiveness.
Despite having moved to Charleston four years ago, Bryan Penberthy was relatively unknown in the circle of poets here, but not because of any artsy renegade nature.
"I knew that Charleston had a thriving arts scene," Penberthy says. "But to be honest I'd never been somewhere that had one, so I didn't really know how to get involved. "
If the scene among Charleston poets is a family, it's Sister Sledge — a supportive group of (mostly) women who've had a rash of books of late.
State poet laureate Marjory Wentworth (author of Noticing Eden, 2003) threw a baby shower for Carol Ann Davis (full book coming out this year). Susan Meyers (Keep and Give Away, 2006) organized a reception in July to celebrate Linda Annas Ferguson's full book Bird Missing from One Shoulder.
Members of this supportive sorority were more than eager to welcome Penberthy to the full book club — celebrating the publication of his Lucktown at East Bay Meeting House last week.
(Just to show how under-the-radar he's been: The fact that poet Ellie Davis hosts poetry readings at East Bay Meeting House had little to do with why Penberthy chose it. He just used to write there on Sunday afternoons and called the owner up out of the blue.)
And, typical of a 30-year-old guy, he was unfamiliar with the more social and promotional side of things.
"I just write poems," he says. "I didn't really know how to throw a reception. I just showed up and was like, 'I guess we should put some bottles of wine out, maybe some cookies.'"
A full book with an actual spine (as opposed to the somewhat more common poetry chapbook) is a huge moment for a poet; Wentworth compares it to getting married. So in that sense, Penberthy was a little bit like a Columbia debutante, determined to have a book published before he turned 30.
He has placed more than 45 poems in literary magazines, and had a couple near misses with his manuscript until it won the 2006 poetry book prize of the National Poetry Review, two weeks before his 30th birthday.
Penberthy grew up in the Midwest, attending Kansas State for undergrad. After he got his MFA at Purdue, he wanted to isolate himself from the academic scene. He followed his girlfriend to Charleston and worked nights at the Citadel library, which he agreed has a terrific Wes Anderson feel to it, "but lacking some of the cool stuff. No (Mark Mothersbaugh's) 'Sparkplug Minuet.'"
Of the 37 poems in Lucktown, 24 are about different, fictional towns, each with a dominating state of experience. There's "expatriatetown" and "elegytown," "endtown," "doubttown," "quiettown," "pooltown," and "sleeptown."
These aren't potshots at real places, nor are they abstract fables.
For instance, while allowing there could be a political reading of "tigertown," Penberthy says, "For me, it had to have a literal tiger, not just an allegory. We lose something key if we just say it's allegorical and fun, an imaginative world that doesn't play for real stakes ... We need the hard edges to stay in there."
The big cat holds something of a "yin and yang" status in this town, the poet says.
"Sometimes it will brush up against a woman and bless her fertile, other times it will snatch a baby out of its crib."
The town is befuddled, not knowing what to do with this outside force. Penberthy is likewise a little befuddled at how to handle his success. (Okay, it's a bit of a stretch for a segue.)
He's headed on a mini book tour, giving readings in California, Kansas, and D.C. And someone recently started a Wikipedia entry about him.
"That was weird to see. I think it's really sweet. I haven't really gotten used to people finding me out of nowhere and e-mailing."
He's settling into Charleston, working in public relations for the Girl Scouts of Carolina Lowcountry, and hopes to get to know more local poets now that he has the book monkey off his back.
"I'm sort of the opposite of the competitive and bitter poet who thinks if someone else got a book that means I can't get mine. It's exactly what I want my life to be about — being around creative people doing great things."
Stay here long and the close calls will turn you into glass.
Half the people in town will die weird: freak storms, tempers,
bad decisions; but always one person staggering
back from the wreck, wide-eyed, to tell what happened. It is
always chance; the bus slides off the road, twenty-three kids
drown, the driver walks away. A hospital snatches
lightning from seven miles out, a hundred burn, but
a candy-striper breaks a window, tosses herself
into the three-story air, lands alive. This one guy,
Mike, famous in town for his escapes, now operates
as an oracle, predicting malady and harm.
By high-school, he’d perfected his art of avoiding
girls, close friends, extra-curricular activities.
Above his door, there’s a small sign that reads Survival
is the worst thing that can happen. His biggest error,
he tells everyone, was asking for a pet one year.
That Christmas, his parents bought him a German Shepherd
puppy that he named Sally. A few years later, she
went rabid and bit her way through a screen door, killing
his mother and turning her shivering grin his way
into the room and tackled the thing, stabbing at it
with a screwdriver, struggling while it bit and bit
and bit everything flesh. The house stunk death. Only Mike
survived. He says that his craft is easy: look for chance,
for possibility; if found, eliminate it
swiftly. You can’t have luck without disaster, he says.
Good fortune is merely a condition, but luck is
months of skin grafts, arms that don’t grow back, anything close
enough to kill you that doesn’t. And then you’re just a
story, and everyone’s talking about how lucky
you were. Later on, at a crowded bar (they all are),
people drink themselves into arguments over who
among them is the luckiest of all. The police
chief who had half his face taken off by a shotgun
suicide attempt, who’s since found Jesus? The store clerk,
Janet, thrown from a crash that killed her husband and kids
because she wasn’t belted in? Mrs. Flannigan,
fourth-grade teacher and candlemaker, who just found out
that she isn’t pregnant, isn’t diseased from her rape?
In the restroom, graffiti uncoils on the walls
near the toilets and urinals: Luck Is Just A Glass
Of Wine / You’ve Pissed Away. Lucky numbers?: 9-1-1.
Luck You. It fills every available surface; luck
as a woman, as a twine-wrapped package, as a stroke
of lightning. Mike doesn’t agree with any of them.
Luck is a wide-jawed dog, he says before his clients
walk back into the world: sometimes scary, and sometimes
carrying the very thing you wanted her to fetch.