“True, the imprint is strong in me, but it will always be up to me.” – Repo! The Genetic Opera
October 31st, 2020
In a traditional Tarot deck, Death is the thirteenth card of the Major Arcana. (The first 22 cards from 0 – 21, for the uninitiated.) While (understandably) feared by many, pulling the Death card does not indicate that the querent isn’t long for this world. What the Death card actually represents – which, admittedly, may be more frightening than death itself – is change. The end of one cycle, and the beginning of another. It is an opportunity and an invitation to let go of what is no longer working in our lives so that we can move ahead on our journey towards better things.
At the time of this writing, we are a mere three days away from the US Presidential Election. While no one can ever clearly predict the future, it’s safe to say that this will likely be the most important political moment in our lifetimes. And it comes on the heels of a year that has been…memorable, to say the least. 2020 has brought us a global pandemic that has cost millions of lives. It has brought wildfires and melting sea ice to remind us how desperately we need to address climate change if we want the world as we know it to continue, for ourselves and for future generations. It’s brought an international wave of resistance to police brutality and systemic racism. It has brought the deaths of the legendary John Lewis, the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and many other beloved public figures who opened doors and granted us opportunities that previous generations could only dream of – doors that are in danger of being shut once again. It has upended everyday life as we know it, laid bare the ugly underside of human nature (#maskholes, anyone?) and brought an election season that has torn families apart, destroyed friendships, and turned neighbor against neighbor. 2020, it seems, has brought out the worst in us. And in some ways, it has.
But 2020 has brought out the best in us, too.
Voter turnout is at a record high. Young people are energized and ready to use their power to challenge authoritarianism. Communities are coming together to protect and aid one another in their darkest moments. And people all over the world are continuing to make art that reflects this time we’re upon – just like all of our fine contributors who have been a part of this zine. Maybe one day, future generations will look to the work we’re creating now for comfort and inspiration for how they may confront their own challenges. We are all going through an extreme amount of collective trauma right now – trauma that will forever reshape generations – and it is completely normal and natural to feel powerless in the face of so many daunting, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But it’s also easy to forget how resiliant humanity truly is.
You – yes, you, reading this – have already beaten an unthinkable amount of odds to get here. From the earliest lifeforms that gave rise to humanity after so many of their kind vanished into extinction; from all of the trials and tribulations that our species has faced for the last three million years, to cultural upheavals and familial traumas and the ugly legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, and other horrors that have left all of us scarred and wounded in one way or another – your ancestors survived. They thrived. They carried you here. And you have already come so far in your own life. You are a survivor. Each of us are.
We were made for this time we’re upon.
To the ancient Celts, October 31st – what they called Samhain, we call Halloween – was not only a day to celebrate the final harvest and remember the dead, it was also their New Year. A holiday that celebrates both endings and beginnings. Change is never easy and is always just a little bit frightening, but it clears the way for something new. The world may be a frightening place right now, but hear us when we say that we are not powerless. Human beings are not and never have been passive actors in our own history. We, the people get to decide how this next chapter plays out.
Let’s begin writing here, now – together.
We have a few exciting announcements about the future of Crown & Pen!
First off, thank you so much to everyone who has made these first three issues possible. We literally could not have done it without all of you! When we started Crown & Pen, we wanted to create a space to share our experiences living through the COVID-19 pandemic, and give other folks a platform to share their own – especially those who are often ignored by mainstream media and traditional publications. While we will still be accepting pandemic-related content going forward – COVID-19 will, unfortunately, be with us for awhile yet – we now feel called to expand Crown & Pen into other areas.
Going forward, Crown & Pen will be accepting submissions of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art that address topics that are (for most people) too heavy for the kitchen table: illness, mental health, racism, the climate crisis, death, addiction, coming to terms with sexuality and gender identity – you get the idea. We want this platform to be a place where narratives that are maligned and crossed out have a space to thrive, while staying true to the roots of our publication. Our next issue will be released in December, so keep an eye out on our social channels for announcements on the upcoming theme and submission opening!
We will also be moving away from WordPress to our very own domain very soon! We’re excited to take this next step for Crown & Pen, and can’t wait to share our new website with each of you. There is also a dream to eventually expand Crown & Pen into a small publishing press – that time will likely be a ways off in the future, but our sights are set on great heights!
Finally, we are pleased to offer you a very special surprise with this issue: an interview with Travis Hampton and Phokus Lilly, two of our favorite Austin artists! These incredible folks were kind enough to share their time and their thoughts on art, and what it means to be an artist in the 2020s, with us and our readership. You’ll also find some short video clips of Travis and Phokus sharing their work. (FYI, we have a YouTube channel now!)
Happy Halloween and Blessed Samhain. We are so grateful for each and every one of you.
Ashton & Nori
by Kristin Garth
(the eleven attempts of the gilled girl
Gilda Sheen to escape the Girlarium
of Joseph Q. Youmans publicly
known as Anemone; after these failures
she is kept inside the tank)
attempts to flee Anemone — two first
require tape I peel for days from orange
juice bottles, stick upon a lock. Coerce
servant, third time to let me walk. Porridge
poisoning, feigned, my fourth offense in hope
they’ll call an ambulance. Fifth I ambush
escort with a pine bureau drawer . Sixth, rope,
too short, of sheets from second floor. Combust,
rage replete, kick down door, seven — loud!!!
Eighth a shimmy through window, pool bath-
room. Nine, fake my death with blue lips, lace shroud.
Ten, scale facade but fall on pebbled path,
twist ankle. Uniformed, eleven
caterer — gilled girl are not chameleons.
Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of seventeen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House (Maverick Duck Press), Crow Carriage (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press), The Meadow (APEP Publications) and Golden Ticket from Roaring Junior Press. She is the founder of Pink Plastic House a tiny journal and co-founder of Performance Anxiety, an online poetry reading series. Follow her on Twitter: (@lolaandjolie) and her website kristingarth.com
by Elizabeth Adan
you just walked out naked into the world
to start a wildfire
every circle the lighthouse makes
hits me with a ray of magic
perennial fear in the form of footsteps
it watches, listens at the bedroom door
my heart aches as the doorknob rattles
and a cold sweat engulfs my fear
what are these days that we cling to
and devour like violets?
the cold white light hits my freckled face
and the ticking clock
takes a second too long to tick again
by Elizabeth Adan
I don’t want to go home right now
because the paint’s still wet
and cooling on the pavement
you called me
with a voice like midnight jazz
and I hear the yellowtail
yearning for yesterday
(so do I sometimes)
I’m pinned like a butterfly
with the force of the free earth
the ground shakes harder here
as we touch each other with timid fingers from 6 feet apart
by Elizabeth Adan
I’ve got death on my fingertips
as the sun runs to the ground
like it can’t turn away from us fast enough
please say something before it’s gone
I promise you
these moments are frostbite in a cold rain
but I will never look for another lighthouse
Elizabeth Adan is a lifelong artist who enjoys deconstructing the smallest moments and largest emotions, often at the same time. Her alliterative, lyrical writing takes on topics ranging from sustainability, nature, love lost/found, and community responsibility. A Pacific Northwest native, her true passion is the great outdoors, soaking up as much inspiration and natural color as possible. Find Elizabeth on Instagram and Twitter @edgeofelizabeth or at www.ElizabethAdan.com.
by A.R. Salandy
Still skies become overrun
With birds fleeing clouds of torment
That begin to holler and stampede skies
That lose warm mirth
Only to now bear witness
To fiery grounds
Whose smoke rises on the equinox
Where the fires of simple folk
Grow to consume piled roughage
As barn doors close one final time
And foliage morphs
As winds cry brutal carnage
On grounds now barren
And shrouded in mournful mist
In prelude to frigid burial.
by A.R. Salandy
In video calls that break
The disturbed time zones
That separate us
Is where I see little boys
That exist deep in the adult bodies
That give reality to their existences,
Existences which seem so wrought
By a lacking maturity
So overwhelmingly innate
That one might pity
Their aspirations and hopes
As nothing more than dreams
That existed deep in the minds
Of men who called and cared
For women who sat so consumed
By their own worries
That in conversation
A strange attack ensued
For long before the group
Went in divergent ways
Was the war of words growing-
To overcome the bonds of past kinship.
Anthony Salandy is a mixed-race poet & writer whose work tends to focus on social inequality throughout late-modern society. Anthony travels frequently and has spent most of his life in Kuwait jostling between the UK & America. Anthony’s work has been published 75 times internationally. Anthony has 1 published chapbook titled ‘The Great Northern Journey’. Anthony is also the Co-Editor in Chief of Fahmidan Journal. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @anthony64120.
by Ashton-Taylor Ackerson
A graveyard so nearby
it calls from your pocket
as mournful cries of the living
ring in before an eternal audience
an extraordinary bridge
that links the living and deceased
we can relive entire conversations
and previous interactions
any time we please
memories brought to life through coding
we etch new words that won’t fade
affixed to uploaded photos
adorned with bright emojis
to smile back on whenever
as we remember our friends
then as prompted through the years
we do it again and again
when have we ever been this close
to our beloved dead?
Bubble Tea & a Macaron
by Ashton-Taylor Ackerson
Just one day
after gathering for your goodbye
our friends join again
for a few of your favorites
curry and bubble tea
the place you once worked
full of savory memories
and while the tea shop next door
we never entered together
the boba still brings me back
to precious times years ago
as unseasoned adults
to tea just before closing
sweet and floral flavors
cups carried through the pet store
while shopping for our baby
straws as thick as our amity
empty cups of ice and pearls
the evidence left behind
of another perfect night.
Our last conversations
after years of misguided silence
updates on life
I wish we had more time
to get back to what we had.
Día de los Muertos: Making My Own Tradition
by Ashton-Taylor Ackerson
For several years now, I have been fascinated by Día de los Muertos, the Mexican
holiday which celebrates the deceased for three days every year beginning on Halloween. As a Hispanic woman who grew up in a somewhat whitewashed household, this is just one of many traditions that I wish we had practiced growing up. I took it upon myself to celebrate one year as an adult. I wrote a poem for a classmate who passed away our senior year of high school, and asked one of our close mutual friends if they’d like to celebrate Day of the Dead with me. Together we selected a frame for my poem (a found poem of Breathe Carolina lyrics because he introduced me to them, and then they became one of my favorite bands) so that we could leave it at his memorial site. We nestled my poem in with the teddy bears and other offerings, then ate store-bought pan de muerto and poured out shots of Hypnotic on the side of the highway. I feel that this was a solid first attempt at a Día de los Muertos celebration by misguided me, but five years have passed since then, and I think that it’s time to try again.
Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a three day celebration that takes place
every year in Mexico, where people celebrate their dead relatives and friends, and invite their spirits to come back and visit for one night. This is done through the use of altars or ofrendas, where photos of the deceased are displayed, and food and drink are offered to the spirits. On the first day (October 31), children are invited back with offerings of food and toys. On the second day, adults are invited back. On the third day, family and friends take to the cemeteries to decorate their loved ones’ gravesites with calaveras (colorful skulls) and marigolds. The holiday has Aztec roots, and originally celebrated the goddess, the Lady of the Dead. Today, the Lady of the Dead has evolved into the more modernized La Calavera Catrina. Día de los Muertos was originally celebrated in the south and central regions of Mexico, and was not celebrated in the north until the 20th century because the indigenous people of this region celebrated different holidays, and members of the Catholic Church initially rejected the “pagan elements” of the holiday. Many Catholic families celebrate All Saints Day on November 1, and this holiday is now tied into the Día de los Muertos festivities by many.
My life has changed significantly since my last experience with the holiday back in 2015. I am now engaged to a wonderful man, and I have two future step daughters that I have welcomed into my life. I have loved more, but also lost more. In 2016 my paternal grandmother passed away from brain cancer. In 2017 my cousin passed away from ovarian cancer. In 2018 I lost my childhood cat to old age, then several months later one of our family dogs. In 2019 we lost my best friend’s grandfather to lung cancer. Then this September his granddaughter, a very close friend of mine for over fourteen years, passed away. Considering all of this, I’m left with many questions. How do I, a Hispanic woman who did not grow up celebrating Día de los Muertos, navigate all of this love and loss with my new family? How do we adopt this tradition and make it our own? Are we able to invite the spirits of our beloved pets to come back for a night, too?
Two years ago, my aunt celebrated Día de los Muertos for the first time. It was the year
after my cousin’s passing, and my aunt set up an altar for her. She offered my cousin her favorite food and drink combo: chili and Coke. What happened next convinced me that Día de los Muertos was not only worth celebrating, but something that I wanted to celebrate every year. That day, my aunt’s voicemail message was replaced with the exact voicemail message that was attached to my cousin’s phone number when she died. They never shared a phone number, and over a year had passed since my cousin’s phone had been disconnected. People called my aunt all day long just to hear my cousin’s voice. My mom and I called too. Her and my aunt described it as “creepy, but a creepy good.” Was this an extremely coincidental glitch at the phone company, or my cousin’s spirit visiting for the day? To this day I am convinced that it was the latter.
Last year, I expressed the desire to celebrate Día de los Muertos with my fiancé and kids. They are familiar with the concept thanks to the Disney movie, Coco. My fiancé was on board, but unfortunately I made my wishes known too late in the game. We did not have time to plan or prepare the way that I would have liked. We bought a few decorations, as well as some pan de muerto from H-E-B, and agreed that we would be more prepared in 2020.
As the holiday nears, my biggest concern has been the ofrenda. Did we need to buy one,
and where would it fit in our already snug apartment? My fiancé actually suggested the perfect solution to this: using a corner of the dining table. If we use space on the table to set up photos, ashes, and trinkets, then we can light candles and offer food and drink while we eat dinner. It will be like sitting down to have dinner with our deceased loved ones. In addition to favorite foods, what about pan de muerto? Pan de muerto is a sweet bread topped with either crystalized sugar or a glaze, essential to the Día de los Muertos celebration. I have never attempted to make it myself because honestly, bread intimidates me. I love to cook, but I rarely bake. However, I think it’s important to incorporate making the bread together from scratch into my family’s celebration, because making food is making memories. With the Internet as our teacher, I look forward to the memories I will make with my girls as we all learn to make pan de muerto together for the first time.
Earlier I posed the question of including pets on the ofrenda. I am not sure how customary this is in traditional Día de los Muertos practices, but this is something that we would like to include in our family’s celebration. We as humans get very attached to our furry and scaly friends, and we welcome them into our families with open arms. Losing them is traumatic, and is not something that we should brush off or invalidate. For seventeen years of my life, my cat was my best friend, and I believe that she deserves to be remembered and invited back on our ofrenda. Opening the altar up to pets also allows for our kids to feel more included in the celebration. Being so young, they have not experienced as many losses as their father and I yet, and for that I am grateful. My goal is to get the entire family excited about the celebration, so I asked both of our girls who they would like to include on the ofrenda. There were several requests to remember the pets that they grew up with and miss dearly. As long as we have photos to display, we can make it happen!
Creating new traditions is always exciting. I want to do my best to be respectful of my
people and culture as we celebrate. Being accused of cultural appropriation is always a fear of mine whenever I want to celebrate any part of my Hispanic heritage, since I am what many would refer to as “white passing.” Growing up so out of touch with some of the key elements of Mexican/Hispanic culture sometimes makes me feel like an imposter, and I constantly have to remind myself that I’m not. I want to embrace this part of myself, and share it. Then, as the space on our ofrenda fills over time, hopefully the tradition and memories will carry on.
Ashton-Taylor Ackerson is the co-founder and editor of Crown & Pen. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin, and writes poetry and fiction. This is her third publication with Crown & Pen. Her poem “Woman With a Whip” was also recently published in ARC Journal. She is currently working on her first poetry collection, which will be about a year’s worth of socially distanced meals. “Bubble Tea and a Macaron” is one of the dozens of poems to be included in this collection. When she’s not writing, Ashton-Taylor is always on the lookout for the best food, wine, and beer to be had in Austin. Follow her on Instagram @ashtonalopoli.
The Girl Who Carried Death in Her Body
by Nori Rose Hubert
The girl didn’t choose to carry death in her body. It was passed to her from her own mother, who died bringing her to birth.
It served her right, they said. That woman was a poisoner. No wonder her offspring stinks of death.
The girl grew up alone in the ruins of her mother’s garden: anyone who offered her kindness was shunned, turned away from work and food and community. There were whispers that those who came near her didn’t live very long – some disaster would strike the moment they felt safe and happy. When she became a woman, it was whispered that she could take no lovers: to lie with her meant certain death, some sweet sickness of the blood that slipped silently into cells and destroyed them. So they said.
The girl, who was called Nima, left her village where no one would touch her, and went out to try the wide world.
She walked to the farthest cities of gold, silver, precious gems and midnight music, but on every street corner it was the same: fear in the neon eyes of people as they scuttled past, as if they could smell death rolling off her skin. So she followed the concrete streets until they became dirt roads, until dirt roads became woodland trails, until the trails faded into bracken and gorse and heather and nettles and faerie rings of bright red and white spotted amanitas. Only then did she take off her tattered shoes.
Deep in the woods, far from the scent of man, she found a cottage built of bones. The bones were smothered in a lush garden of roses, wisteria, peonies, rosemary, thyme, lavender. Sunflowers peeked through the empty eye sockets of skulls. The smell of summer hung like warm, spicy perfume in the air.
Nima took a step back. She was used to death. She was not used to life.
But the old woman who lived in the cottage opened the gate of tibias and femurs for Nima with no hesitation, as if she had been waiting for her to arrive since the beginning of all things. She fed the starving girl brown bread, strawberries, fresh cream and cheese from a cow with two heads and horns like corkscrews.
“What are you running from, girl?” She asked in a voice that sounded like a cricket song doused in whisky.
“You’ll be running for a long, long time.”
“I don’t understand, Nana. Why was I cursed to carry death in my body?”
“Is death a curse, really?” The old woman asked. “Everything that lives got to die sometime, and all that dies will live again. That’s how it’s been since the stars burst into being.”
“So we can feed each other.”
The old woman was not afraid of Nima. She brought her into the summer garden: while the old woman planted, watered, fed the plants, Nima pruned, pulled weeds, harvested. There was a tiny room in the back of the house painted black, and the old woman sent Nima there every night to become comfortable with darkness.
In that black room, Nima learned to weave.
She wove cities made of music, forests aglow with the songs of elves, oceans lit like sapphires with siren lullabies. She wove her tapestries from the threads of disease, border walls, plastic islands. Because she carried death within her, it did not frighten her to touch it, taste it, spin it into something new and alive. When she dreamed, she was a raven, scouring warzones with golden eyes, ravenous for the flesh of the dead. She feasted on their still-warm bodies, and her sleeping human body quivered with pleasure as blood trickled down her throat like fresh wine. The dead passed through her and became green seeds that bloomed into new endless forms, each more beautiful than they had been before.
“You are a weaver,” the old woman said when Nima described her dreams, the things she created in the tiny black room. “Never forget what you are.”
But word of Nima’s weaving rumbled far from the shelter of the bone house. Though the girl who stank of death used her hands to bring beautiful things to life, there were many who feared her strange and unusual gift. It was whispered that she stole the breath from babies in their mother’s wombs, inflicted disease and disfigurement on those who displeased her, that she crept into men’s beds in the darkest hour of night and drained their blood, sacrificed them with pleasure and pain.
“She must be stopped,” declared the king.
“She’s a demon,” whispered the housewives and wet nurses.
“She’s bad for business,” grumbled the doctor.
They armed themselves with flames, guns, sharp objects. They trekked through the forest, burning their way through trees and undergrowth, trampling the toadstools and releasing their pungent fumes, until they found the house of bones.
“Bring out the witch!” Bellowed the king.
“This monster must be stopped!” Cried the housewives and wet nurses.
“She must be destroyed,” sneered the doctor.
The old woman was ready to fight. She reached for a rifle, but Nima shook her head. “No, Nana,” she said gently. “I will go to them.”
Nima took a deep breath and walked outside. The wooden planks rotted under her feet and the grass wilted where she stepped. She walked to the center of the circle. The king stepped back and the housewives and wet nurses recoiled. The doctor stood still.
“You bring nothing but death and destruction wherever you go,” the king spat. “Our children live in fear. Our crops wither and die. Our animals go mad in the fields. What do you say for yourself?”
“It’s not me you fear,” she said; she heard her own voice as if for the first time, calm yet loud. “You fear what I bring: change. Chaos. A reminder that there are things beyond your control and understanding.”
“Then you must destroy yourself,” the doctor screamed. “And put an end to the evil you carry in your skin!”
“Is death evil, really? Life can be cruel, painful, riddled with loss and heartbreak. Death brings peace, release, rest. What so few of us get enough of in this world. It’s a doorway to something so large and grand no words can describe it. Life and death are paramours – they cannot exist without each other.”
Some of the housewives and wet nurses seemed to soften at this, but the king and doctor grew even angrier.
“Lies! Lies! This is Beelzebub’s poison!” Shrieked the doctor.
“She must burn!” Cried the king.
But they were all too afraid to touch her, so they threw their torches and weapons where she stood. Flame caught the hem of Nima’s dress, but she stood still and made no sound. She let the flames lick their way up her body, bathe her in their burning glow, until her very bones were seared away.
When the embers cooled, everyone saw that a garden had unfurled from Nima’s ashes. A garden of bright, beautiful, deadly plants and fungi: hemlock, belladonna, aconite, deathcap, jimsonweed, hellebore, oleander, yew. Snakes, spiders, scorpions, wolves, rats, bats, skunks and wild cats roamed among the fatal flowers and trees, creatures who know little of the love of men.
The crowd shook with terror at the sight of the deadly garden. Some ran, others charged, hoping to obliterate the poisonous plants and wild animals, but they were poisoned, devoured, strangled by the vines of their own fear.
But the old woman, who feared neither death nor life, tended the poison garden alongside her own. She befriended the creatures, learning their ways and leaving them to their own devices, and in time, they spread throughout the world. Most people feared them, loathed them, killed them at every opportunity, in a frantic desire to drive death and imperfection from the Earth.
But a few took it upon themselves to study them, learn from them, listen to the lessons they had to teach. And what they thought was this: each of us carries death within our bodies. A clock ticks in all that lives.
The old woman tends the garden while we go about our lives, and Nima weaves the threads.
Nori Rose Hubert is the co-founder and editor of Crown & Pen. She holds an AA in Creative Writing from Austin Community College and a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of the forthcoming novel The Dreaming Hour, and her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Rio Review, Feminine Inquiry, Musings of a #LonelyFeminist, Hothouse, and online in Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Corvid Queen, The Elephant Ladder, Mookychick, The Freque, and the feminist anthology The Medusa Project. She is a regular contributor to the Work & Bipolar or Depression column at HealthyPlace Mental Health, and writes about all manner of taboo topics on Medium. She is a lifelong Texan and divides her time between Austin and Dallas, sharing a home with her husband and a small menagerie. She believes in magic, stories, and you. Connect with her on her website, Tumblr and Instagram + Twitter @norirosewrites.
Fractured Fairy Tale: The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’
by Allison Dumont
Once upon a time, there was a small cottage that held a family of two: a boy ripe of age and his father. The mother was recently deceased. A wolf tore away at her flesh while she lay in a field of flowers atop a hill, singing to the sheep and soaking in the sun. This hit home with the boy, who always preferred his mother to his father – who was rather sheepish himself.
His father was a man who never confronted the wolvish people of the village, too afraid to leave the comforts of the walls of his home. After the passing of the boy’s mother, the father had to step up and teach the ways of the grazing sheep to his son, and lead the business himself.
“You must always be cautious, boy. Be aware. Wolves lurk all around you, sometimes hiding within the sheep just to eat you. If you ever see one, be cautious. Scream as loud as you can. Those who are not sheepish will come.”
But alas, the father did not heed his own advice. Late one evening, the boy questioned the wanderings of his father. Afraid to venture out alone, the boy figured it would be easier to wait until morning: his father was a worrier, after all, and it would be wrong to not do as he would want. He locked up the cottage, every bolt and chain, closed the curtains, and sat inside the coldness of the four walls. He lay awake thinking about what may have kept his father out so long, and fears of what may have happened rushed through his brain.
“It’s the wolves. They took him, they ate him, they killed him alive.”
Before the boy knew, the sun crept into the sky, and small beams shone from under the thick material guarding the windows. Yet another sleepless night the boy has suffered, one of many since his mother’s death. He kept himself locked in the confinement of his home until he built up the bravery to venture out in search of his father’s whereabouts.
He wandered to the edge of the open field near the trees. All he found was the remnants of a fleshy carcass, the face a dented spherical soup, and the gut torn open – organs and intestine spewn around the glossy grass. Rigor mortis had set in, and there were bugs already infesting the body. The sheep were not fazed as they grazed feet away from the blood stains the Earth absorbed, as if to take in the life that was slain.
Silent and still, the boy processed his emotions. How could this happen so soon, and in the same fashion? At least the first time around it wasn’t the boy who found the mother; it was his father who had to bear the weight of death. But just as the father once did, the boy now had to do. He swiftly ran back to the cottage. He made a call to the village morgue, giving the location of what was left of what he loved. Although he should have been there to see to it that his father had a proper burial and arrangement for his funeral, the boy could not face it just yet.
He went to the sheep who gathered all over the openness of the grass, preparing to bring them down to the pen in the village for the night. His father was gone, and the boy let the empty sting of it set in finally. It hit him all at once; he had been quiet for so long, holding the swirling fears until the crashing waves filled his chest. His legs lost their ability to hold themselves stable, and he sunk to the ground, letting his hands catch his fall. The grass was silk against the callus of his working hands, and his lungs were slowly inflating faster than he could control.
Breathe. In. Out.
It wasn’t working.
His feet went cold, then his legs, chest. His breath was panicked as sweat beaded on his forehead. What was this he was feeling? Why did it feel as if his heart was trying to jump from his chest? His hands shook as he punched a fist to his chest, collapsing to his side in a hazy fit of breaths. He couldn’t stop the stream that flowed from his eyes, and his head pulsed to the thumping beat within his ribcage.
In the corner of his eye, he saw a ball of black fur, edging its way closer to him.
Reality struck him cold.
“WOOOOOLF! THERE’S A WOLF, HELP! PLEASE, SAVE ME, I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”
His shrieks echoed through the trees and down the hill, and those who heard rushed to the noise. Instead of seeing shreds of flesh and blood as they expected, they saw the boy balled up in a fetal position, panting and pale. He shook something fierce, and kept chanting wolf as he gasped for breath. The villagers ground their teeth into their jaws, some angered at the false terror, and some sympathetic.
“What should we do? Leave him to settle it out? Carry him to the shepherd’s cottage uphill? We can’t just leave him there to get torn apart like the rest of them.”
And at that moment, the boy realized he was the topic of conversation, and instantly wanted to be out of the spotlight. He would do anything to be away from these people who were giving him looks, he knew they were all judging him, thinking how bad they felt for him. He slowed his breathing, wiped his palms on his pants, and rose to a barely steady stand. His vision blurred and he felt as if he were going to upchuck. He blinked before seeing all eyes on him, and then croaked out what little words he could.
“I’m fine, folks – sorry for the disturbance. I could have sworn I saw a wolf. Really, thanks for the help, but I better get herding before the sun sets. See y’all come yonder.”
As he led the group of sheep down to the pen, the boy could not focus. He was tired. Fatigued. Gross and uncomfortable in his own skin.
He locked up the sheep and hurried home to the peace and familiarity of his home. Tomorrow would be different, he told himself. He lay in bed, tossing and turning in and out of sleep. A dreamless dull slumber that only lasted in increments of an hour at most, the boy awoke again at the crack of dawn. He felt groggy, and that any minute, something was going to get him.
He remembered the previous day and all that unfolded, and before he knew it, he felt a numbness in his feet. Not now, not again, this can’t happen again. He dug his fingernails into his palms, breaking skin to stay calm. Focusing on the pain gave him some form of distraction, a way to stand and get out of bed to rush to the bathroom. After his mother’s death, he began worrying all the time, to the point where it hindered his daily activities. A visit to the local physician prescribed him pale orange tablets to fix him in his random fits of anxiousness, but never had he ever had a fit to the extent of yesterday. He wasn’t supposed to take these daily, just only when he had a fit, and that moment was now, was it not? He swallowed one, its foul taste staining his tongue, and chugged a glass of water.
The boy walked out the cottage in a buzz. He felt completely numb: not thinking, just doing what his body knew by instinct. This was his life. Herd the sheep up in the morning, herd them down at dusk.
When at the top of the hill with the sheep, he looked toward the edge near the trees. Flashes of his father flickered through his foggy head, and he remembered how soft the grass was. The boy wanted that comfort, the embrace of Mother Earth herself as she held him as she once did his parents. He half crouched down to lay down, but collapsed. He began to doze off into the green silk of the ground, but a crack of a twig to the right of him snapped him out of it. Barely opening his eyes, the boy moved his head a small angle to the sound.
“WOOOLF! OH GOD, SAVE ME, DON’T EAT ME PLEASE!”
“Awh hell, he’s back at it. Can’t we just leave him alone in his fits? He’s starting to scare the children like his father used to.”
“Just leave him to fix himself, he isn’t our problem. He’s just a crazy coon like his parents.”
And the wolves were gone. The boy stared in the distance, dizzy.
Exhaustion took over, and his world faded to black. He awoke to the hum of crickets and the humidity of the night. Stunned at where he lay, he sat up quickly.
Wolves. Everywhere. Darkness. Hurry, now. Run. He fumbled to a stand, looking all around, whipping his head left and right. They’re going to get me. This has to stop. He dashed to the cottage, ready to put an end to the wolves and their games. He erupted through his door, located the shotgun that belonged to his father, and made a beeline to the sheep pen. Wolves like to stalk their prey, with snarling teeth and sharpened claws, waiting to get at head and brains. The boy fell next to the pen, slouched with the shotgun cradled in his lap. His head rested on a support beam, eyes half opened. The moon was full, there would be wolves out tonight. He heard movement to his left, and without thought, pointed and fired.
“WOLF! I GOT YOU NOW!”
He sprung up to the lifeless lump that lay there. It was a wolf – a wolf from the village.
He would need to get the rest of them to ease his stirring thoughts.
It would not be the only wolf he took tonight.
Allison Dumont is an exuberant and energetic person who thrives in a moving world. She is the mom of three cats and a few reptiles, along with a loving fiancé. One day, she hopes to delve into the literature world further with fierce intensity. Until then, she manages at a local pet store.
Crown & Pen Special: Interview with Travis Hampton & Phokus Lilly
by Ashton-Tayor Ackerson
On Saturday, October 3, 2020, I had the pleasure of interviewing Travis Hampton and Phokus Lilly, two Austin artists. Their artwork was on display at The Inn at Salado during Sirena Fest, a festival that celebrates the local legend of Sirena, a woman that was turned into a mermaid by an evil catfish that lives in the town’s creek. The festival operated on a much smaller scale this year due to COVID-19, but that didn’t stop locals and tourists in Salado from taking time out of their day to sip some wine at the Inn’s winery while appreciating art.
I admit that I was a bit nervous to conduct this interview, despite knowing both Travis and Phokus for years. After sharing a laugh about this, they made me feel right at home!
Ashton: Alright, so I’ve never interviewed anybody before in a professional setting like this. But you guys are my friends so I think we’ll be okay! How are you guys doing today?
I explained to Travis and Phokus that I would begin the interview by asking them the same questions, and I would give each of them the opportunity to respond. Eventually, this evolved into asking more specific, personalized questions of each artist, as well as several great collaborative conversations!
Ashton: So tell us about yourself.
Travis: I’m a local Round Rock artist and I’ve been doing it since I was ten. I just graduated with an English major, and I’m trying to bridge fine studio art with narrative storytelling. Overall, that’s kind of my focus.
Phokus: I’m Phokus. I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. I can’t really think of a time that I wasn’t making work. I feel like we’re all artists in the beginning, because some of us stop being and some of us stop creating, but like at the end of the day we all have those parts of us and I feel like some of my favorite artists that I’ve ever known in history have always tried to figure out how to keep that in a sense. My work is about reclaiming. I do all kinds of things.
Ashton: Where does your inspiration come from, and how does your unique life perspective influence your work?
Travis: I draw a lot from my family, or just sort of like myths and folklore from different cultures and different areas, and I try to get a lot out of storytelling and like reading a lot of things.
Phokus: I can’t say that my work is really inspiration-driven, just because I spend so much time researching and mining information, but [I do pull from] my family [and] my personal histories[.] I’m also really interested as an African-American or a Black man, what that means in the contemporary art world, and what it means to draw figures. You know, my work is unapologetically Black.
Ashton: Which I love, I think that’s great.
Phokus: Thank you. One of the really interesting things about that is initially, I would stray away from it because I had apprehensions about just the idea of what it is to be a Black artist and how contrived that term is to me. And so I see myself as an artist, but I do understand the importance of being a Black man that makes art if that makes any sense.
Ashton: Yeah, absolutely. That makes sense.
Ashton: So this was a question from Nori, our other editor for Crown & Pen. How are you both thinking of planning for your futures as artists while navigating the pandemic, since that is happening right now?
Travis: I want to try and show as much [art] as I can, as places are showing. I think now’s a good time to really build up an internet presence if you want to be an artist out there. Even if it’s just like daily doodles, and like, throwaway kind of stuff, it’d be a good way to generate some followers and some attention.
Phokus: I love that your generation thinks of it that way. I have so many issues navigating that. For me, a huge part of being an artist for me is like in my head. I don’t really feel a shift because I’m constantly researching or finding things. If you look at my phone I have this one thing that’s this continuation of notes. And then I have another folder that’s a continuation of titles. It’s just a constant mining process. The thing that I do is I get to this space of “okay, I can’t sleep, I can’t shut it off.” And that’s when I start making. I have a studio now, and so I started making again and I’ll start a piece and I’m like forcing myself not to finish it. I’m like “slow down.” It’s really been important to me not to finish a piece in one go now. So as far as the pandemic goes, it’s still that same space of making and seeking spaces that I can form relationships with. Like when we [Travis and I] met initially, and we were talking about “hey, let’s form a group or a coalition” because you get so used to being in that isolated space.
Travis: Like trapped. I know what you’re saying.
Phokus: You know what I mean? Because it’s just you making your work, and there’s no audience, and that’s the thing that stops making it be an object, and it becomes art. There has to be that engagement, that conversation with an audience. Or with your peers, and critiquing each other, and really thinking about “are you really delving into whatever space, or are you just making a mark for the sake of a mark?”
Ashton: Have anything to add onto that Travis?
Travis: I think that’s really really important is getting those outside perspectives like you said, because you do get trapped in your own head. And I feel like having stuff online too provides something similar, but kind of different because you still get feedback and sort of like see what things people are like, really clicking with, but then you don’t get those same sort of in depth discussions that you get in person. So I think there’s benefits and drawbacks to both, but I think really being with people in person adds a lot.
Phokus: Yeah, I crave just a peer group just to let me get out of my head for a second with this work. You know what I mean?
Travis: Yeah, toss it to someone else.
Phokus: I’ll show you my work and I’m like “what do you think,” and I’m hoping you’ll find a flaw. Because you’re only playing to your strengths when you make work. Think about it. Anything you do in life, you’re going to sit in a comfortable space. That’s one of the reasons why I do non-figurative painting, because gives me a space to really just not think about figure, not think about a specific narrative, to think about the paint for the paint. Then when I get comfortable with that, okay, how can I challenge myself? And so then painting outside, where the elements start to play, where then I’m forced to adapt and forced to adjust the piece to what nature is doing to the piece.
Travis: After our last meeting talking about those things I radically changed a painting that I was working on, and was like shoveling dirt onto it and putting resin on it and stuff.
Phokus: I can’t wait to see it.
Travis: Yeah, it’s much more gravelly, much more gritty, I think it’s taken a much better turn, and a lot deeper turn.
Phokus: So my question now is, why?
Travis: I think it gives it like a tactility, and it has a narrative element of like a seed in a story, and so I think having that real, physical tactile-ness lends some sort of credibility or relatability to the story in the way.
Phokus and Travis chatted for a few minutes about advice that Phokus, as the artist with more years of experience under his belt, gave to Travis the last time they met. They discuss connecting to your work, and how Travis has several interesting things to connect to his work. We will revisit this topic later.
Phokus: One of the biggest things that I intentionally put in my pieces are peacock feathers, and it’s such a double entendre symbolism for me, you know what I mean? Because it’s like one of those things I grew up with in my family where it was like something in our homes, but once you start to research and look up the symbolism of peacock feathers it’s like this whole other world starts to open up.
Ashton: Tell us about the symbolism of peacock feathers.
Phokus: Look it up! It’s some really cool stuff. I mean, everything from it looking like an eye, to you think about like peacocks and the way they are, it’s just a really interesting tool you can use to activate a whole other space with the work.
Ashton: I love hearing you guys talk about this stuff. I don’t know art like y’all know art, but I’m a big fan of y’all’s stuff, and it’s really great to hear you guys like, just talk about it.
Travis: It’s always fun talking about art with everybody!
Phokus: Yeah. The big thing that I always hope is that people are like, how can you get people engaged in this? That’s my biggest challenge. And it’s like, because we get so used to working or it becomes invisible, which there’s something to be said about that too.
We got into a discussion about English artist Rachel Whiteread, and how her work with concrete and houses creates a negative space that makes the art blend in with the landscape or “become invisible” as Phokus described. Then, on the subject of utilizing space, Travis mentioned an artist that he could not remember the name of who is a mortician. She saves the water from bodies that she washes down, disinfects, and then puts into smoke machines to fill the room with smoke and mist from the dead. Really excellent examples of immersive exhibitions/experiences!
After more discussion about other great examples of art, Phokus and Travis began talking about Travis’ work again.
Phokus: I can’t wait to see what your work is going to be like in a few years. Like one of those things where we were talking about life and your family, I was like, “I wanna see more of that in your work.” I feel like you have a rich canvas that you could pull from.
Phokus: My work I pull from like, things that I collected as a kid, and so that became my thing, and just that weird “what does it mean now?” Like as an adult, looking back to those childhood memories.
Phokus: Like looking at the history of X-Men comic books and finding out that it was literally like Stan Lee trying to make a comic that spoke to African-Americans’ trials and our fights for equality, and literally basing two heroes off of Professor X and Magneto: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. What does that mean?
Travis: And especially what does that mean too because X-Men also, as time went on, became a good symbol for the queer community, and what it’s like to be ostracized because of your sexuality. They’ve even used in more recent years X-Men as a metaphor for trans people too in certain stories. So it’s really interesting that the symbol of struggle has evolved over time to be about more than just one community’s story, it’s multiple communities.
Ashton: Isn’t there also stuff about like the Jewish community and all that too? Because a lot of Marvel writers are Jewish.
Travis: Yeah, a lot of the original, not even just Marvel, a lot of the original comic creators were Jewish.
We get off onto a tangent about representation in Marvel comics and Captain America punching Nazis for a short while, which then leads to a discussion about Nazis in general and how Nazis unfortunately still exist today. Phokus brings us back with a few more thoughtful comments on race.
Phokus: I find stuff like that just fascinating. I find just like the way conversations about race and so on and how people get uncomfortable…Like, why are you uncomfortable? It’s just a conversation. You know, like I just want to have a conversation because I want to learn your perspective… I want to learn your perspective because I never want to speak for your voice. That’s your thing! And I get uncomfortable when people want to speak for my voice. I can handle that! Ask me, I don’t need a representative. I’m right here, let’s have that conversation because I feel like it’s a moment that we can both learn from each other, we can grow.
Travis: It’s a good conversation!
Ashton: So Phokus, you were talking about things that you incorporate into your artwork from your childhood and stuff. I know earlier we had a conversation about using family heirlooms in your art. You want to talk about that for a minute?
Phokus: Sure. A lot of things I incorporate just to be able to mine and my family history, you know, so I’ll use objects that I’ve collected from my family like hand decorations, fans, doilies, ribbons, or string, so I’ll be able to kind of talk about these amazing women in my family that raised us. You know what I mean? So like my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my aunts, they’re all in my work. They were all maids and my mom worked at a styrofoam cup factory with cardboard and so I’ve always grown up with these weird, conflicting symbols when it comes to that. My baby sister’s in my work when it comes to the ribbons because she died from skin cancer, and so it’s just a way to kind of pull her into the work. Sewing, thinking of these things that they would casually do, like I try to find a way to incorporate them so that they become, they activate more so as symbols for them. Doilies: service; but is it necessarily service as them, still being in that space, or is it them placing themselves in a space of serving to provide for their family? You know what I mean? And so like, it just became this intuitive gesture that I started to make a while back, where like I love the idea of texture and how can I re-appropriate these things that are just common uses in our family lives? And so a lot of the things that are in there are things that you would use in casual rituals. So like family get togethers, gatherings, those are the things that I really wanted to use in the work. The work has to have this space of magic to it for me.
Travis: I think that because you do that throughout like so many different pieces it really reinforces the symbol and sort of connection, not just between yourself and the piece, but the pieces between each other, which is really powerful.
Ashton: Oh yeah, and I think it’s really cool too. I know I said this earlier, but since you said that you didn’t have kids to pass these things onto, I think it’s really neat that you use them in your work, so that way it’s kind of like you’re passing them onto the whole world, and then like the general public to tell your story.
Phokus: Mmhm. And then what does that mean for the heirlooms in our family? And what does it mean when they open up to everyone and you start to think of these things that you’re handing down to your families?
Travis: Yeah. So cool.
Ashton: Travis, I had a question for you. I know earlier you guys were talking about how you have a lot of rich family experiences and things to draw from that you’re hoping to use in future pieces, do you want to elaborate on that?
Travis: Yeah, I just want to build in, since mythology is such a big influence on me, I need to bring in my own personal family mythologies and stories to really help ripen things I think and really give some more universality to things if I have some specific that I’m pulling from my family, that can be something more relatable.
Phokus: I think it’s more important for it to be you. You know what I mean?
Phokus: Like for me, that’s why my pieces have started to come out the way they are. That was my challenge to you. What does that mean? I love that piece over there, how you found that piece of dress. So what changes if that would’ve been like your mother’s dress?
Travis: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That piece specifically, one of the things I really love about it, is the different origins to all the different scraps of paper and like where they came from and where I got them, and I think I want to try to bring that in more somehow, maybe like filming the process in some way or just having a list of sources of all these different photos…
Ashton: That’d be really cool.
Travis: Because these little bits of like, the pictures of someone’s family vacation to Brazil, knowing that those are there and what they mean and what they originally meant kind of draws into the sort of narrative of the piece in of itself, and what’s going on with that.
Phokus: That’s one of the things we both were talking about was mining other people’s history, re-appropriating it, which is to me a huge part of what it is to be American anyway, like America when you think about it it’s this amalgamation of cultures and other belief systems and narratives and histories. It’s this weird fable of what it is to be American when you think about culture. Like what is American culture?
This got us on the subject of how all “American ghettos” have the same amenities: a gas station, liquor store, a church, and Chinese chicken wings in almost a cookie-cutter fashion. This then got us onto the topic of gentrification (and cat cafes). We spent a good few minutes debating the logistics of cat cafes, and how they have become the unofficial symbol of gentrification, which then devolved into several other conversations.
Ashton: I have two more questions, and then I wanted to ask y’all some more specific questions and then take a video of y’all like talking about your art and stuff. So, what do y’all hope to accomplish with your art? Travis, you go first.
Travis: That’s a tough one. Um, I feel like I just want people to leave with something. Even if it’s just to have an image stuck in their mind, they’ve taken some of the stories or the narratives I’m trying to build in.
Travis: Yeah. I want things to really click with people. “Resonate,” like you said.
Ashton: I think that’s great.
Phokus: Are you familiar with the concept of residue? So basically you think about any object or anything you touch, or you leave your residue on. Like I always have this debate with friends about what is a successful piece of art? It’s something that makes an imprint on you. Hopefully it’s something that you want to support the artist on, but the most important thing is to make work that in some way imprints on people to stimulate conversation. Other than that, it’s just an object. It’s just a roll of paper, it’s something to frame, and it’s what happens when people engage in that work, and I think that’s the goal of every good artist.
Ashton: Yeah, absolutely. Right on.
Ashton: My last question is: what is your biggest challenge as an artist?
Travis: I guess getting it out there for me, is the biggest challenge is finding spaces for it, trying to get more and more people involved in seeing the work.
Phokus: Uh, yeah, finding people that can just shut the fuck up and get out of their own way, and just let you do what you do, and appreciate that and celebrate that. You know what I mean? Because it’s like so many times people want to imprint or force in their own narratives and their own lack of understanding or patience or engagement because they’re comfortable in their own headspace. And like, I think that’s something that a lot of artists struggle with until you get to a certain point. Yeah, I could agree with that. I struggle with that still. But I learn that when I get to work with people that really get things and that just want to be an artist, then that’s where it’s at. That’s where you want to be. I love spaces like that. I hope for me, and for you as well, to experience that more, it seems like especially in these times it’s a little bit harder because people are afraid to leave their homes and so what does that mean?
Ashton: Well guys, thank you so much for interviewing with me for Crown & Pen. We appreciate it very much, you guys are awesome, your art is great, and cool! Glad we could all be here today. Thank you!
To connect with Travis and Phokus and see more of their fabulous work, follow them on Instagram at @travistyart and @phokustheartist