“Which path are you going to take,” asked the wolf,
“the path of needles or the path of pins?”
No. 15: Michael Hurley
Q. “Uses for Birds 1” features cameos by Pablo Picasso and Colin Powell. Imagine these two co-chairing the panel of a fairy-tale summit. Their topic of discussion is…
Modern Fairy Tales and Contemporary Myth. It’s a bit dry, really, but someone dusted each table with glitter to make the summit more festive. Powell falls deeply into a fairy tale he has written himself. He meant only to mention it anecdotally, but he can’t help it. He abandons his notecards, and goes on about the farm silos with robots inside, the robots filled with fire, the men behind the curtains, the need of a hero to appear in the desert and bring peace to the locals; how peace will bloom out of a long red road. The crowd groans; you can hear them shuffle. They’ve heard this one before. Someone coughs. They’d come to hear Picasso, but Picasso is playing with glitter. He makes a small pile with his palm and presses it with his thumb. He holds it up to the light and examines it from different angles. When it’s his turn to speak, he is startled by the crowd.
Q. Was it your intention to blend war, disaster and urban legend from the poem’s inception, or did the creative process lead you there?
The process definitely led me there. I started writing this in 2010, during the BP oil spill (or Deepwater Horizon oil spill, depending on who you blame). This was when all the 24-hour news channels had that one high-res underwater shot of oil just spewing into the ocean, constantly, every day for 87 days. It was a live feed. I was waiting tables in New Orleans at the time, so it was close-by. And in the dining room of the restaurant, three different news stations on three different televisions would all have that gusher showing, with the little stock-scrolls at the bottom telling us the latest failed attempt to plug it and how many millions of gallons it was spewing. It was a dismal thing to watch. It got me thinking about how we use things. And what it means to “use” things. This led me to birds, war, disaster, urban legend, art, media, etc. And eventually, somehow, the Wizard of Oz.
Q. “Rumors spilled about a Munchkin/ hanging himself onscreen just as the Tinman is oiled back to life…The rumor built itself toward something truth-like over time.” What’s your favorite true story that allegedly happened to a friend of a friend.
These things always fascinate me. They move through people the way jokes do; word-of-mouth, sort of grassroots, small regional variations with the same punchlines. I think every town has the hot-dog girl and the place you park and turn your headlights off and there’ll be handprints on your back windows from the orphans that burned there last century. The boys that disappeared in the creek. Satanists and hate groups in the woods, that one tree in the cemetery, or how when the gate hangs open the ghosts can roam free. My favorite is probably the clown doll one; you know, babysitter calls the parents that are out to dinner saying “Where did you guys get this huge clown doll from?” And the father says, “We don’t have a huge clown doll.” And the mother’s voice in the background says “Oh my god, the boys just told me today that a clown has been watching them while they sleep.” Ghastly.
Interview conducted by Fairy Tale Review Poetry Editor Jon Riccio.
Michael Hurley’s poem “Uses for Birds 1” appears in The Emerald Issue of Fairy Tale Review.
“Uses for Birds 1”
In New Orleans,
when oil leeched its way onto the Gulf shore thirty, then forty days after the spill,
they named it Earl.
In Nawlins they steal the R’s from other words and place them where they please.
Every TV screen for thirteen weeks showed long-billed birds’ beaks turned black,
struggling to breathe. Their bodies congealed in heaving masses.
And all the restaurant jokes about toothbrushes.
Because tourists are insensitive.
Which comes with the territory. Which is almost a pun.
In Guernica, Pablo saw tragedy as something that could be seen all at once.
Which is nice.
Then, 24-hour news. In the oil painting, there is a bird in quiet agony.
His terror is the least of our attention. We know the bull with human eyes
and the horse with legs like television static. Our bird fades blackly
into the background. Torn by something. Writhing over a table.
I’ll show you, but you still have to look.
“On February 5, 2003, a large blue curtain was used to cover up a tapestry copy of
Picasso’s Guernica hanging at the entrance to the security council room, so that it
would not be visible in the background when Colin Powell and John Negroponte
gave a press conference at the United Nations justifying why the United States of
America must go to war with Iraq.”
Sometimes tact is a four-letter word.
They said it was covered because, as a backdrop, it was simply “too wild.”
Also: the horse’s ass just above Powell’s face.
If you’ve got to deliver bad news, it helps to be good-looking.
At least they gave us credit; we would have connected the dots
or had someone connect them for us. A lot can happen in the background.
Maybe too much. (Oil comes from the ocean now.)
When the Wizard of Oz released to video, rumors spilled about a Munchkin
hanging himself onscreen just as the Tinman is oiled back to life.
Many claimed even to know the small man, to grieve his loss.
On the large screens in theatres it was obvious:
a large bird, a crane, spreading vast wings, making itself known.
MGM thought Munchkinland would be the kind of place with exotic birds,
and so rented peacocks, cranes, and turkeys from the Los Angeles Zoo
and released them onset. “Let them go free,” someone must have said.
The rumor built itself toward something truth-like over time.
Maybe Munchkinland seems too happy.
Maybe we crave this sort of thing.