Jason Sanford: Another Stereotype Or Another Victim Of My Bias?
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/26/01
Jason’s website: http://www.jasonsanford.com/, Story South, poems]   

  Some of you may know how dicey it can be trusting 3rd person accounts of things. Well, recently I’ve been misfortuned enough to learn to trust not even 1st person accounts. I relate this merely because the following information on local writer Jason Sanford has come from the proverbial ‘equine labia’. Well, that’s not exactly true- it was not his labia, but an odd manila envelope’s contents.  Nonetheless, Sanford- or ‘Sanford’- is solely responsible for its accuracy. After revealing said contents I will comment on his work. If, however, it turns out that Mr. ‘Sanford’ is wanted in multiple states for multiple suspected nefarious deeds, then all I can plead guilty to is being duped yet again. I try not to disseminate mis- or disinformation. Again- I have not verified this information in any way! Caveat emptor- or any other apt synonymous Latinate term!
  Jason Sanford is a native Alabaman. If that were not bad enough he was stuck there for nearly a quarter century. He lived in a town called Wetumpka- & has set alot of his short stories there. He & a sibling were purportedly under the aegis of a cotton farming Dixie colonel named ‘Colonel’. Quoth Sanford: ‘Ain’t it quaint?’ He also claims pride in having been weaned in a trailer. Much else happened in said trailer- none of it of any import to a non-Southerner. At 13, young Sanford was terrorized into accepting Christianity by a libidinous preacher he has not the guts to name. He declares that he gives thanks that my above-sketched literary duping has taught him to lie often & lie well when talking of others; so well that any semblance to the real world is lost. He also claims pride in being a pivotal member of an Alabama State Bible Bowl Championship team- yet he not-quite-ruefully admits to that team’s cheating to win. A series of failures followed- Sanford would not specify details, but among the places he became persona non grata were (chronologically): Auburn University, Disney World, the state of Florida, Auburn- this time the town, & several gigantic holes where he attempted a career in archaeology. More failure dogged him. After an unsuccessful stint as an editor of the Tuskegee News the state of Alabama had had enough of him. In fact, a special session of the Alabama State Legislature convened & vowed to re-secede from the Union unless Sanford accepted permanent banishment from the state. He agreed to this, save for a # of provisos- these being allowed re-entry to visit dying relatives; poach an occasional catfish when his belly just got that yearning feeling; if he ever became rich & famous so that the state could re-embrace him as a Native Son; & to once a year go home to ogle (& occasionally grope) his father’s felt-lined Faith Hill calendar. Hmmm....
  The Peace Corps beckoned. Sanford hoped for a plush gig in some glamorous locale such as Uzbekistan, Baffin Island, or Bedford-Stuyvesant. Instead, he wound up an embittered man in Thailand teaching English to 4 year old Nike employees. The Peace Corps hoped that a white man from Dixie would be perfect to teach foreigners how to be servile to their oppressors. Instead, Sanford rebelled & led a unionizing effort. Apparently, basketball legend Michael Jordan had to be called away from a massage in a Washington, D.C. house of ill-repute to quell the matter. So eager to catch a glimpse of their bought & paid for symbol of oppression were the aborning kindergarteners that they turned on Sanford & drove him into the mountains of Laos. Months later, he returned to the U.S. Somehow he had met a woman who could put up with his failures. Whether they met in Thailand or in the jungles of Laos is a mystery Sanford deems worthy of guarding. Knowing a good thing when she saw 1, Sanford’s soon-to-be-bride thought it best to saddle her man with a child. Several years on the hoof found Sanford in Minnesota- trying his best to advance his burgeoning writing career.
  This is where I 1st encountered him last year: he was a low-paid apparatchik in the power-intense literary halls of S.A.S.E.: The Write Place. He eagerly accepted a place on a panel of disgruntled poets for a Poetry Forum I had organized with, among others, noted local artistic & literary failures Art Durkee & Laura Winton. That I shown above them all that night irked Sanford to such a degree that his behavior at work reached unacceptable levels. He was summarily dismissed from his post. They even revoked his plunger! In retaliation Sanford vowed to pester the good members of my Uptown Poetry Group until he was accepted as a ‘regular’. This happened. We have yet to be rid of him. Other than this travesty of a life, Sanford took pains to relate his successes: as a lifeguard at Disney World he rescued a fellow employee who faked an accident to get on worker’s comp, & within a month’s time, while interviewing for the Tuskegee News, 3 of his interviewees died shortly afterward. Sanford’s pride in these ‘accomplishments’ is odd- to say the least! Pages of other writing credits were sent, but nothing of any real interest- mostly stuff related to Boy Scouts, codfish, & fairies. When queried, by me, that because 2 of the 3 of these things could be interpreted as anti-homosexual, was the term codfish another homophobic slur?, Sanford retorted something about Krispy Kremes- some native game, perhaps? So, there it is. Another hatchet job on a poor deluded artist with dreams of success. But, now it gets really scary [I warn you with weaknesses of any sort]- on to the man’s work.
  [Return to solemnity] Jason has stated that he is primarily a fictionist. He uses poetry as an outlet. His feeling is that by brushing up in verse he improves his prose- be that fiction or essays. I will comment in overview on several of the stories Jason has on his website, & also a bit on some of the poems Jason has brought to the UPG, & subsequently let me post on Cosmoetica. 1 of the odd things he relates is that fiction mags & websites almost never re-publish ‘printed’ works- be they online or paper. This has led to the odd circumstance that Jason only posts previously published work on his site- for fear that an appearance on his website would bar his work from appearance in other venues. This is symptomatic of the arts world- there is less concern for quality of a work, than for being the ‘1st’ to publish some tale or name author’s piece. But any comments of mine on this ridiculousness would be superfluous at this point.
  On to 4 brief summaries & comments of 3 posted tales, & 1 not. The 1st is Cold Pelts. It’s a contemporary Wetumpka tale of family secrets. The 3 main characters are a teenager- Jeremiah; his temporarily prison furloughed murderer father Elijah; & his preacher uncle- brother Jed- Elijah’s brother. The milieu is Elijah’s weekend furlough & the family secret related to Elijah’s murder of his wife years earlier. Jeremiah has always had mixed feelings since he knows the truth of the tale- & his father’s & uncle’s involvement. Sanford nicely abrupts the story’s pacing with intercalary sections related to rules on trapping beavers. Although the reader learns the truth of this family, that is not really the point of the story. The ‘truth’ merely engrosses the reader to question assumptions made about family, human interactions, & a number of other things I could detail if I allowed myself a greater length. But then you’d know the tale. If nothing else, read it for the last 2 paragraphs- he manages to invoke both Mark Twain & Arthur C. Clarke- not bad!
  Tale 2 is Links, & is set in the very recent past of Wetumpka, as it involves a teenage love triangle whose exposition is revealed via ‘emails’. Barbara is pregnant. Either the father is her beau Scott- whom she has mixed feelings for, or Scott’s best pal Colton- with whom she hooked up 1 night with when she & Scott were on the outs. Shit happens. 1 of the major players is nearly killed in a car accident, & the tale ends in the church of Brother Jed, from Cold Pelts. Yet this tale is not really a morality play, nor coming-of-age-tale, nor set piece, as much as it is a revelation into how people both rationalize & position themselves for life’s living.
  Tale 3 is a children’s story called Rumpelstiltskin, Private Eye. Obviously the least serious piece, it is a cute mystery of swindlers & pelf. The hero triumphs, of course, & there are a number of cute moments. Unfortunately there is a 2nd version of the tale out there that Sanford claims was butchered by the original editor he worked with. Nonetheless, it’s a quick fun read for adult or child.
  Tale 4 is the piece not posted on Jason’s site. It’s a sequel to Links set some decade or so in the future. It’s called Blue Doily Dreams & picks up the pieces that unraveled since we last left the tercet a decade & a half earlier. Scott & Barbara are long married. Colton is still friends with Scott, whose contact with him is disapproved of by Barbara- who has descended into shrewishness with the years. Her child, Donny, is to spend an evening babysat by Colton. The tale follows their night. Much is revealed- but not what & how 1 might expect it from the setup of Links. This tale’s title does have a very significant bearing- again, not as the reader would expect. This is a very good story which leaves you wanting to know even more about the characters- especially why & how Colton got to where he is from the 1st tale. Incidentally, this & other offline tales, can be had by emailing a request to Jason.
  Of the 4 stories, however, Cold Pelts is the best- it has utterly masterful moments. That said, the Links-Blue Doily Dreams characters could really make for a great novel, or set of related tales in the Tales Of The City fashion by Armistead Maupin. The fact that minor characters emerge as major in other tales, & vice-versa, reminds me of the approach employed by such notables as Kurt Vonnegut &- especially- William Kennedy, whose marvelous tales based in Albany, New York seem to almost beg for a Grey counterpart to their Blue. Sanford is, at the very least, a very good & competent tale-teller. He has the potential to be a great fictionist- of short stories & novels. Yet, despite his claims regarding poetry, in just the few months since coming to the UPG his poetry has shown a diversity & quality rarely found. While he is ultimately responsible for his work, I do take some satisfaction that both the examples he has seen at the UPG, & the discussions therein, have led him- in my opinion- to take chances & analyze things more rigorously than he would have alone.
  I will now turn to 2 poems Jason has recently brought to the UPG, reworked, & posted on Cosmoetica. I do so because both are on familiar poetic subjects: 1 is on a photograph & the other on a relationship. I will briefly explain a bit of their workings, but- more importantly- how they differ from the typical poems that tackle the same subjects- & in the positive sense. I will then sum up on how the poetry & fiction relate to the overall writer. Let’s look at the 1st poem:


Woman processed at Tuol Sleng Detention Center
finds her way to my morning paper,
ending STAT unmoving
as instant-cereal bleeds—milked, spooned off—
silver her halftone dribbles from black into
shades of ten-second mugs, death
off to simple point and click sentences—
           the guards…out frame, head…shadow-bulbing wall,
           flashed eyes…just an infinite hair—
looking beyond until she’s silted ten thousand photo
things of more befores than insides
until the ends of academics rescue her for exhibit
           (and in exhibit reaching art
           and in art Caesar’s bust)
before across my entertainment section—
column two, above fold—
her eyes snap to see if
any from right unto death
tell all we need, knowing
that our own reasons state the same as
crunching frosted flake twines, setting
orange juice glasses
over war crimes exhibit A, and
her face relaxing away solemn
to half-body comings about the world
until halfway here it's reminding of
the same eyes as my girlfriend
who, despite repeated promises the night before,
I will not call this morning.

  The speaker starts this poem relating that a woman has been noticed in the morning paper. We are led to believe something not too pleasant is the reason for this appearance because of standard markers as ‘bleeds’ & ‘death’. Yet both possibly clichéd words are subverted because what bleeds is ‘instant cereal’ & death leads ‘off to simple point’. We only learn definitively that this poem is in response to a photo after a # of words have led us in nicely: ‘halftone’, ‘mugs’, ‘frame’, ‘shadow-bulbing’, ‘flashed’. There are some possibly poor line breaks ending in ‘if’, ‘as’, ‘and’, & ‘of’; but because these occur in the 2nd ½ of the poem- after some of the more grisly revelations- we sense this may be a slackening of structure in the speaker’s mind- thus the enjambment suggests the speaker’s unnerving. There are nice shots against death as entertainment, academic masturbation, & society in general. Even possible hyperbole- ‘infinite hair’- is rescued by a simple article: an. This poem is not a poem that works with ‘sound’ as its music- rather it is the music of images, & the ideas they invoke. But how it really differs from the standard photo poem is how instead of ending with the standard PC decrying of atrocities, the speaker reveals a far greater & more believable sense of humanity by subsuming it all into the petty problems of his life. Most poets would have ended this poem with the line, ‘over war crimes exhibit A, and’ so that we are left with mortus interruptus. A small Holocaust poem by Dan Pagis, Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car, is probably the most famous poem to use this ‘ain’t it horrible’ technique- with the unfinished line meant to let you linger & rue. Also, most photo poems rarely go beyond recapitulating what the photo shows (which is redundant); or supplying a fictional backstory for the photo (usually a thinly veiled screed of some sort). This poem does not. The herky-jerky descriptions & self-centeredness of the speaker are far more believable than the standard narrative of photo poems. Also, that we have no idea whether the speaker is reading of this event in his relative backyard, or from across the globe, only serves to heighten the reality of our everyday detachment from others’ pain. This is not an unusual tack in a poem [PC Elitists always condemn the working masses for nor being able to see above their day-to-day struggles- usually because said PCE’s have no such struggles themselves!], but it’s how this tack is pursued that makes this poem memorable. The title in no way prepares us for the poem’s content- this serves to reinforce the ho-humness of the speaker’s reaction. That the poet chose to highlight this reaction, rather than the story of the photographed woman, is the reason the rest of the poem works- both narratively & imaginatively. It all flows from that 1st decision. Add to it all the image-music & this is an excellent poem.
  Now, a relationship, or love, poem:

                                               The Oxford Book of English Verse

Henry, from Nancy.
            to Christmas. 1926.
            browned ink. limned paper.

bought. Smart & Mookerdum.
booksellers. Rangoon.

by Nancy, for Henry.
            for British in Burma.
            no knowing. to come.
            between. all war.

Henry finds. only dates:
Wordsworth: 1770 - 1850
Tennyson: 1809 - 1892

Henry reads. them all.

to Nancy, off Henry.
            the book. returns.
            death railroad. down Kwai.
            Major Dunn. delivers.

“a good chap. held fast.
to ends. Henry did.”

Henry: 1901 - 1943

so Nancy, no Henry.
            well versed. rests down.
            those times.
            that won’t book.
            their becoming.

still a while, far away.
for Nancy. anyway.

Nancy: 1904 - 2001

  As with the 1st poem, the decision on how to approach this relationship is the most important. Compared to most love poems- this is devoid of hearts, flowers, forever, the poetic O, etc. The title leaves us totally unprepared for what is to follow. We should expect perhaps a rime with great linguistic wordplay or references to ‘the lives of the Poets’. Instead we get highly staccatoed images. Brief. Grouped. In pairs. Determined. It seems. By chronology. 2 people. A book. Passed back & forth? Or merely the book as symbol between them? We do get the famous poets- but epitaphed. What a nice way to linger the obvious- death- over these war-torn years. Totally a dissociative leap- yet apropos in retrospect. This shows the perfect ‘Negative Capability’ of Keatsian lore. How rare is that in the bland published garbage poetry presses churn out today? The characters are very aware of their mortality. Henry dies- probably in WW2 combat- although it could have been disease. His holding fast could have been against internal ravages. Is the quoted section a military man’s explanation to a widow, or lover? Is it a form letter with a personal addendum?  Nancy lives a long life without him. We end with knowing she probably marked off some of his favorite poems- or theirs. The staccato pacing & punctuation sans capital letters really climax just before the final epitaph. Simple, almost clichéd phrases are subverted, basically by the punctual usage. The resignation in the penultimate stanza’s ‘anyway’ really suggests a final inhalation & then-    her death touches us, not with sadness as much as comfort in the knowledge that these 2 briefly limned lovers are together again- or so we hope. This simply is not like most love poems- famed or not. There are some poems on memory, loss, & love that have tried the ‘token/object of affection’ approach. But the effectiveness of this poem vis-à-vis those revolves about the punctual choices. The contrast between both British love & war poems of the 1st ½ of the 20th Century is also a point this poem plays off of- this is not Georgian, nor Wilfred Owen; nor does this poem really do the ‘War is heroic!’ nor ‘War is bad!’ schtick. This is an excellent & very moving poem, that shows how less can be more- & not in the standard Minimalist vein that other workshopped poets ply. This poem is chocked with information- in fact, it’s virtually all information compressed to the max. We squeeze the relationship from out of the unspoken that most poems & poets cannot help but to speak. This is a great thing & it’s hard to argue against this being a great poem. Compare this to a Yeats poem. Or Owen, or even [in a different vein, but similar compression] an e.e.cummings love poem. This poem holds its own, & then some.
  Let me end by stating it’s this ability to find these odd little ‘ins’ to a tale that separate a typical writer from the great. Jason Sanford has shown that in these 2 poems, even if you think they’re merely good. Many similar markers are within his prose. I am excited to find that daring still exists. In a serious mode- when I 1st encountered this man working at S.A.S.E. I assumed that he- like most apparatchiks at arts orgs- was a mediocre talent, who even if he had the potential to improve, would not- mostly due to the inertia such havens foster. This is the archetype. I was wrong. Thankfully so. I hope he continues to attend the UPG, get his tales published, & succeeds with his online editing gig for Story South- for he’s shown better taste than most, & an eye for the innovative. He deserves wider reading & recognition of his work- both now & as it grows. Use this essay as a starting point. Now, GO READ!


Return to Bylines Bookmark and Share