The launch of PRISM 54.3 is just around the corner! We’ve got a sneak peek at the winning piece of our 2015 Creative Non-Fiction Contest, “Ghostly Transmissions from John D. Rockefeller” by Danny Jacobs, as chosen by our CNF Contest judge, Russell Wangersky. Danny Jacobs’ poems have been published in a variety of journals across Canada, including Arc, Grain, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, The Antigonish Review, Event, Riddle Fence, Hazlitt, and Partisan. His essays and reviews have appeared in Vallum, Maisonneuve, Partisan, and Hamilton Arts and Letters. His first book, Songs That Remind Us of Factories (Nightwood, 2013), was shortlisted for the 2014 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry. A chapbook, Loid, came out with Frog Hollow Press in early 2016. Danny lives with his wife in Riverview, NB and works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac.
Read an excerpt from “Ghostly Transmission from John D. Rockefeller,” followed by an interview with Prose Editor Christopher Evans below.
In January’s 7 a.m. dark, the West Main Esso glowed like an insomniac’s TV. We came in from Riverview off the causeway, slingshotted from the traffic circle, from our bedroom community, our warm suburban beds. It stood at the end of the line before Wheeler Blvd., Moncton’s commercial terminus, a stretch of muffler shops and car dealerships, an Econo Lodge, a pub called The Salty Sea Dog. It sat between an Ultramar and a McDonald’s, where the greasy sponge of an Egg McMuffin sopped up the beer I slammed at the night before’s field party, Colt 45 through a hoodie drawstringed sphincter-taut to block mosquitos thick above standing water.
A Chinese takeout behind us: a bungalow of cracked white brick once called KING’S. When I started at the pumps in tenth grade, KING’S was ING’S, the roof’s neon sign on the fritz. During my two-year tenure as gas attendant, as cashier, as stock boy, the letters kept going one by one until only G’S flashed us awake in winter.
I was hired with a handful of pals, the boss the father of a school chum, my dad’s golf buddy. We were middleclass kids without resumes, walk-ins with connections getting our two crisp shirts, the first shirts I’d tuck in. You’ll get a nametag next week.
We came from a long line of teenaged pump jockeys—a proud heritage of postwar Brylcreemed boys from newly built suburbs, jumping from car to car lickety-split, captains of the modish sodium-lit forecourt. Ten bucks Premium. Can you check my levels? No drip lines in our squeegee work. Start from the bottom and curve with each pass. Leave no streak.
We worked alongside full-timers that came and went, some there years before us, some sacked quickly for theft, for attitude: our wayward Team Tiger.
Now our Full Serve is gone, the outer island’s glassed-in cash booth removed. Full Serve is a rare bird, the purview of rural outliers with dated pumps that ding their little bells, ring up their analog numbers like old slot machines. In the cultural consciousness, the gas attendant’s now the gap-toothed guy in mechanic’s jumper from the backwoods horror flick warning the road-tripping kids to git out, git out while they still can.
Were we the last ones? Post-millennials in their hover cars will never say Fill ‘er up.
KING’S was ING’S and then G’S and now G’S is gone too, its alarm-clock red stuttering no more.
While the narrative of “Ghostly Transmissions from John D. Rockefeller” takes shape through fragmented snapshots, there still shines through a nostalgic tone, which suggests to me a fondness for your Esso days. What do you miss most about that time in your life?
As I mention in the piece, I worked with a lot of friends from high school, so it was fun, mostly. We goofed off. Inside jokes and all that. Titter at the boss, the regulars. There’s a certain prelapsarian quality to my high school memories—no bills, no job stress, no major responsibilities. My cash paycheques spent on whatever I wanted. So I miss that. Of course, you look back and realize you were a privileged jerk, and you shake your head. But I was lucky to have a first job I didn’t hate. Not that I want to go back; my adolescence was protracted enough.
In your first book, the poetry collection Songs That Remind Us of Factories, you also touch on work environments, notably call centres, which are also mentioned in “Ghostly Transmissions.” What is it about low-paying, entry-level jobs that interest you? How does generally artless employment engage you artistically?
By artless, I take it you mean lacking in artistic value, or artistry? It’s all relative, of course. I love reading prose and poetry that takes a supposedly banal subject and digs at it and shapes it until it’s changed into something fascinating, or at least demanding of your attention for a few minutes. That’s the challenge, and something writers have been doing forever.
The call centre stuff and the Esso piece stemmed from different impulses. Call centres strike me as such strange, postmodern non-spaces—paperless, sterile; and yet they have their own lingo and culture—the acronyms, the protocol, the scripts. I wanted to explore that culture and mine that jargon. I have a more positive connection to my gas station days and I wanted a sense of affection and wistfulness to come through in “Ghostly Transmissions.” It’s a more personal work than the call centre poems.
How did you approach the writing of “Ghostly Transmissions?” Does your process for writing non-fiction differ from that of poetry? Do you see the two forms as connected?
For years I wanted to write about my time at Esso, about the experience of being a teenager at the turn of the millennium. Whenever my buddies and I get together, we reminiscence: Remember that guy that always asked if his truck was too big for the car wash, even though he took it through the car wash every week without any problems? So many great snippets. I started jotting things down— memories, images. Little sketches and anecdotes. The fragmentary structure came out as I worked scenes from messy notebook scrawl. There was a lot of chiselling and culling, but it was a lot of fun to write.
My initial reaction to the poetry/prose thing is that there isn’t much difference—in either case, I’m trying to find the right word and put it in the right place. That being said, my poems are often formal efforts, and when one isn’t working it’s frequently because I’ve boxed myself in, formally or sonically— some internal rule of the poem starts to work against its own construction. I felt I had more wiggle room with “Ghostly Transmissions”; I wasn’t consciously counting beats or syllables, say. I was still going for a certain compression and economy, a rhythmic tautness, but I could let out more of the line.
You have a new chapbook, Loid, out now from Frog Hollow Press. What can you tell us about it?
Loid is a selection of poems from a full-length manuscript I’m working on. One of its concerns is suburbia and suburban development, something I touched on in my first book. For example, there’s a section in Loid called “Codex Suburbia” that contains poems about a snow blower, a weed whacker, a shovel; it’s what I’ve called elsewhere a bestiary of the mini barn.
Christopher Evans lives in Vancouver, BC, where he is the Prose Editor for PRISM international. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in The Canary Press, Joyland, Feathertale, Riddle Fence, and other fine publications in Canada, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, the UK, and the USA.