An Interview with Vernon Shank


Vernon Shank has long been known as the undertaker of the fine town of Great Bend. Recently he has been promoted to the vastly impressive job of Medical Examiner and has done brief stints as a deputy, starting during the town’s smallpox outbreak. A man of few words he is mysteriously macabre.

Do the Shanks have a long history with the town of Great Bend?

My Grandfather, Ezekial Shank, was thrown out of the Quaker Church in Branson Missouri for what documents say was “inappropriate use of scarecrow”. Ezekial intended to travel to St. Louis to relocate but had a remarkably bad sense of direction and ended up running out of food just outside Great Bend.

Did you have a fascination with the macabre early on or is your current profession one chosen out of necessity?

My father was an inventor and tinkerer and had an interest in taxidermy. In fact, unbeknownst to me he had my mother stuffed when I was young and I learned about it six years later. Boy we had a good laugh. I really thought she just loved sitting in that rocking chair. I enjoy experimenting with cosmetics and I’m very good at building crates. Undertaking seemed like a perfect fit.

What dreams lie within the mind of a man who works with the dead? Do you ever wish for a more distinguished life? Where do you see yourself when you are old?

Oh no, I’m a simple man. I very much enjoy the time I spend with myself in my ‘creating shed’. I like playing with different aspects of cosmetics. I also have a fairly elaborate doll collection and have just started sewing and needle-point. Also, I host a ‘game-night’ on the second Tuesday of every month.


How did it feel to be promoted from the Undertaker of Great Bend, Kansas to Medical Examiner?

I don’t always adapt to “change” very well so it was a little scary. Plus, I sometimes get a little fuzzy eared when Sheriff Hoyle is talking so I think some important information got lost in translation.

Do you really care much what people think of you due to your line of work?

No. I’ve been teased most of my life. In school, some of the other children called me “poke rat” and “boogie trout” because I didn’t look like everyone else. There was also an incident where I was caught in a barn with an alpaca goat that people really rushed to judgement on. That wasn’t fair but I learned to deal with it. I’ve become immune to some of the mean things people say.

Were you surprised to see Hoyle take a bite of that apple found in Mr. Webb’s stomach?

Nothing that Hoyle does really “surprises” me. Although I was scheduled to go to his house for dinner that week and I cancelled.

What is the strangest thing you have seen over the course of your career working with the dead?

I remember working on old Abner Treman and did a lovely job prepping him for burial. He had a big shock of lovely red hair that he was very proud of and I styled it beautifully. When I woke up the next day it was parted on the opposite side and the comb was in his hand. Brr…


Did you have anything to do with Hoyle’s shoot out with the Younger’s that nearly killed him on the day you had picked for the Sheriff’s Death Pool?

That’s a beautiful shirt you’re wearing.

How did it feel to have to open a man up with so little medical experience? Did you ever find out what part that was you took out of Hoyle and put in that Mason jar?

I think opening a man up has less to do with ‘learning’ and more to do with the right attitude. And that I have. And I have no idea what that little thing was but I should probably find out because I’m pretty sure it ended up in an omelet. I really need to separate my kitchen from my workspace…

Does it feel rewarding to be one of the few Great Bendians who owns his own business establishment?

Yes, but I’m not thrilled with my location. Right now I’m sharing storage space with Mr. Hovennian’s textile shop and he hogs all the parking with his stupid carriage. He’s a terrible parker.


You have been accused of moving that watering trough when Jeremiah Dunlop leapt to his death. Do you sometimes have to take measures to drum up business when things get slow?

People made a big stink of that, but they fail to mention that I am on the town’s civic planning committee and I moved the trough to free up maypole space in front of the saloon. I mean, come on. I’m not a monster.

Did losing your mother at the age of six affect your psyche to this day? Did her experience with spiders make you somewhat arachnophobic?

She had a fairly stern expression even before the paralysis from the spider bite but that really took it to a new level. Add that to the facial droop she got after being stuffed and it was pretty spooky. I don’t think it has affected my relationships with women, though.

Were you nervous going into Cole Younger’s hideout dressed as a woman? Was it the first time you had done such a thing? Did help bring you more in touch with your feminine side?

First time? I mean, of course, how would it have happened any other time? I mean, that was like such a strange scenario that would never…could never have even happened before I don’t know what you’re…are you implying…I mean…oh my look at the time I need to get to an appointment thanks so much for talking don’t hesitate to ask any more…bye.



The Paintings of Luke Hillestad












Severed Wing

Severed Wing

Luke was born in 1982 in Minneapolis.  In 2006 he left his work as a land surveyor and began painting full time, with Rembrandt and Odd Nerdrum books open next to an empty canvas.  He immersed himself in apprenticeship, later studying with Nerdrum, and traveled to museums and studios around the world to learn from the paintings of the old Masters whose tradition he seeks to follow.

Using the palette of the Ancient Greek painter Apelles Luke paints friends and a collection of taxidermied animals, illustrating the primal beauty of humans at their most noble with narratives that center on themes of death, kinship, ritual, and wilderness.

Luke Hillestad is represented by The Rymer Gallery in Nashville, the L’oeil du Prince Gallery in Paris, and Flanders and Rogue Buddha galleries in Minneapolis. His work has also been exhibited in Florida, Chicago, Norway, and Germany.



“Nightshade Gazal” by Judith Skillman

Nightshade Gazal


Mother can no longer eat from the family of nightshades—

peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, all verboten, nightshades


make arthritis worse, stiffness cumbersome. In Hades

her girls lost half the year, down there, with the shades.


Call her Demeter, still, mother can no more imbibe

of sun berry than drink a potion from foxglove, nightshade


the color of indigo, ink dripping into her heart. Eradicate

her sadness, her endless grief, still she will refuse nightshades


when the waiter comes in his stiff whites to take her order.

She’ll explain, as if it were a story, how it started. Nightshades—


once her favorite vegetables, completely gone, the diet

works for her, and all is well in the garden of Eden, nightshades


aside. Mother me or what I will become in these two decades,

my own version of mother, her stories, her family, nightshade.


pub shot



Judith Skillman’s new collections are Broken Lines—The Art & Craft of Poetry (Lummox Press, 2013), and The Phoenix—New and Selected Poems 2007 – 2013 (Dream Horse Press). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, FIELD, The Midwest Quarterly, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, A Cadence of Hooves, and other journals and anthologies. She is the recipient of grants from the Academy of American Poets, the Washington State Arts Commission, the Centrum Foundation, and the King County Arts Commission. She teaches for Yellow Wood Academy.


An Interview with Pearl Starr


Pearl Starr is best known as the daughter of the infamous wild and reckless outlaw Belle Starr. She also gained notoriety as the girlfriend of the lawless bad boy Frank James. Pearl has gone on to becoming one of the hardest working women in the town of Great Bend where she works tirelessly to make the town a generally all around happier place.

What was it like growing up with a mother like Belle? What are your some of your most fond memories of those times?

I guess it was like anyone else’s childhood: full of resentment and inadequacy. My most fond memory of her is when she’d go to sleep. Because she’d stop talking about herself. Unless she talked in her sleep, and then you were in for another 8 hours.

What did you love about her most?

Her face. Because it was different enough from mine where I could get away with saying we weren’t related if I didn’t feel like dealing with the ”Oh my god, BELLE STARR IS YOUR MOTHER?!” conversation.

What do you think is the most important thing she taught you?

“Don’t smile like that. You’ll get wrinkles.”

What was it like being the girlfriend of Frank James? Was it the lure of fame and fortune that first attracted you to him or was it his personality?

I think Frank and I were like any other couple. If you like fishing, you want to find someone else who also enjoys fishing. If you like robbing banks and the rush of dodging bullets as you gallop away with enough money to buy yourself anything you could ever dream of…you wanna find someone who enjoys that, too. And it didn’t hurt that we looked good together on a Wanted Poster. Nothing good ever lasts with outlaws…it was still fun, though.

Why do you think so many women seem to be initially attracted to men that carry those sort of bad boy traits?

I think most women like the fact that they’re with a man who isn’t by the book, who’s “dangerous”. Does things that are illegal and exciting. I think they like being close to danger without having to do it themselves…but I liked finding someone to be in the danger with. My mom always said, two people robbing a bank is better than one. Not that I’d do that anymore…that would be illegal. And bad. And wouldn’t give you the best rush you’ve ever felt in your life. And…really bad.


What did you think when you first saw the town of Great Bend?

“This place smells like a giant turtle turd.”

Did you ever imagine you would be living there?

Not even in my worst nightmares.

How has your life changed most since you’ve settled in to the small town?

Well, I went from being a member of essentially an all-male group of hardcore criminals to living with a handful of prostitutes. With the gang, if someone did something you didn’t like, you’d shoot them. With the ladies at Honey’s, if you do something wrong…no one tells you. But tiny passive-aggressive notes start popping up everywhere. On your vanity. In the outhouse. On your face when you wake up. I miss the shooting, it was a lot less painful.

What is the most outlandish thing you have seen during your time there?

I had a customer ask me about how I was “feeling” once.

What do you love most about living in Great Bend?

I feel like love is a strong word when talking about Great Bend. I guess I like some of the people…Honey’s really great. Hoyle is…a lot. Eli has a nice face. Wanda smells like my grandma, which is oddly comforting.

What do you find most challenging about your current career?

Taking a vacation. Redheads are in high demand and supply is limited. Also, I’m double jointed. So you can imagine.


Why do most of the women who work at Honey’s saloon seem to keep their gloves on a lot? Is that to establish some sort of protective barrier between you and your work?

It’s the same reason we don’t kiss customers on the mouth: it’s just not sanitary. Can you imagine having sex with people and actually touching them with your bare hands? That’s disgusting.

Do you think your particular line of work helps somewhat lighten the mood and improve the dispositions of the citizens of Great Bend?

I think it definitely takes people’s minds off of the fact that they live in a barren wasteland of a town and that their lives are pretty much meaningless. So, yeah.

Is there a certain freedom that comes from working at the saloon and being able to pay your own way? What advice would you offer women in regards to having your own career?

It definitely beats relying on someone else to buy you food or a hat or something. I don’t like having to ask anyone for anything. I was raised where if you wanted something, you have to steal it yourself…or, yeah, buy it, I guess. But ladies, pick something to do that you can actually make a decent living out of. Like making your own whiskey. Or bank robbing. Or prostitution. Those are careers that’ll go somewhere.

Were you surprised to learn that John Henry Hoyle was your step-father? Does it feel good to have at least some sort of family left?

I was definitely surprised that Hoyle was in any way, shape or form related to me. Definitely not my mom’s type. There was about 10 seconds of my life where I thought there was a possibility of him actually being my father. Those were the scariest 10 seconds of my life. But honestly, he is probably the best father figure I have. Mostly because he’s the only one who hasn’t tried to murder me. So that’s nice.


Do you think people tend to underestimate you given your roots?

I think I’ve been here long enough where people forget who I was before I went straight. Sometimes it’s good to give them a little reminder…

What aspirations and dreams do you hold for your future?

I’m trying hard to do this “normal” thing. So. I guess to have normal things…like living in one place for a long time. And laughing at jokes people make even if they’re not funny. And not poisoning anyone. Yeah…I can’t wait for that.

Are the any little known things about you that our readers might be surprised to learn?

I can’t read. But I AM an excellent shot. So I feel like that evens things out.

Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

Cuddling IS extra. I’m tired of having to repeat that.


“The Tuscan Cypress and Van Gogh” by Chris Waters

Road with Cypress and Star by Vincent Van Gogh

Road with Cypress and Star by Vincent Van Gogh

The Tuscan Cypress and Van Gogh




Into English, from Greek and/or Latin.

Where from there? Hebrew “gopher”: Noah’s tree,

sweet and long-lived? Or, along other trails:

“camphor”? ; “brush”? Still what’s in a name? Different

species vie. Same name” “Monterey cypress.”

Other names: China’s five varieties.

No names for cypresses go back far enough.




Chums, the cypresses and the Etruscans

first traveled through Iran and Syria;

then the island called after them, Cyprus.

They settled at last in self-named Tuscany.




Trees of death encircling cemeteries,

thin straight-down roots respectful of tombstones,

the very caskets made from their sweet wood.

Though survivors too, living centuries,

staying green year-round, deflecting bad winds,

life’s guardians via its countless forms of

boundaries, Stonehenge-like telling of

folk-tales and for assorted church doings,

heat-providers with thick fuel even when

excavated from long-past extinctions.




How about the trees in themselves? R.L.

Stevenson flubbed. His title characters

in “Cypresses” hark back three millenia

to the Etruscans, At least, Van Gogh skipped

God, and didn’t look on them as upside down

humanity. They’re not now even real

trees. Mostly at night, grouped or solitary,

pulsating, emitting warmth and feeling,

transgressing barriers between the senses.




“This wondrous mysterious tree has…,”

yes, the Tuscan cypress has a fungal canker.

Goodbye too to its black ash cousin, ground into

by the emerald bore. Their last century.

Oh to be a cockroach or a bedbug,

likely several more extinctions to go.

Wrong track? Rebaptize, waiting in the wings,

the canker-immune Bolgheri cypress?

And there are other hues of ashes. Don’t

say die. Allow, green, blue, and white a chance.

Ecosystems live, woodpeckers change tastes.




Wrong track bis! Alas, beloved Vincent!

Stars galore, cypresses a gogo, fields.

Where would Vincent be otherwise, or we?

No, another flag! Those themes were just aids,

drawing him on, ways to share, soothe, recount

a message he didn’t quite know himself,

the pulpit not having worked out at all…

For fun! Let George G. Mallory(Everest fame)

play the short-tempered Vincent Van Gogh.

(By one year they lived the same lifetime!)

“Why do you paint stars and trees so often?”

“Because they’re there!”

Van Gogh’s Ear Volume 4 special offer, $7 shipping included


Featuring poems by Maya Angelou, Norman Mailer, James Dean, John Gilmore, Tony Curtis, and many, many other talented poets of our time, Volume 4 of Van Gogh’s Ear is now available for the extraordinary price of $7.00(USD/Can) and $5.00(Euro). To order please see:


Volume four of Van Gogh’s Ear: Best World Poetry and Prose is now to be experienced! A powerful poem for peace by one of the great voices of contemporary literature, Maya Angelou, seizes the soul; Margaret Atwood’s insightful, often amusing essay on poetics inspires; Beat legend Carolyn Cassady’s intriguing new prose piece explores the energies that create and sustain all life; a high-speed letter from Beat icon Neal Cassady sweeps one away with his thoughts on Intellect and the arts; acclaimed renaissance man Leonard Cohen’s poem excites both the imagination and emotions; James Dean’s hardhitting poem gives a brutal glimpse into the acidic mixture of love and hate the legendary actor had for his father (a scan of Dean’s actual poem appears with photos from a private collection); John Gilmore’s snuff poem for Elizabeth Short“The Kiss of the Black Dahlia” churns the blood; Norman Mailer’s tasty “If Poetry Is The Food” will not only have you salivating for more, but on an inward journey beyond flesh and bone; Bangladesh poet Taslima Nasrin, who had to flee her country following death threats by Islamic fanatics, contributed a poem which reveals much through the rape of two young sisters who are ordered by a judge to be whipped in public for speaking out against the man who raped them; Yoko Ono’s piercing “Maybe I Was Too Young” and lovely “A Rose is A Rose is A Rose” appear with one of her intimate Franklin Summer drawings; Sue Russell shatters the Hollywood portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the movie Monster with her probing essay. There’s also Sonia Sanchez’s startling poem about a mother torn between love for her 7-year-old daughter and addiction to crack; Irish poet Eabhan Ní Shuileabháin’s intense journey into the minds of the main people involved in executing a criminal at the time of execution; and even more powerful work by Tony Curtis, Joyce Carol Oates, C. K. Williams, Diane di Prima, John Updike, Daisy Zamora, Michael Rothenberg, Joanne Kyger, Tess Gallagher, Richard Kostelanetz, Marc Smith, Alice Notley, J. T. LeRoy, Aram Saroyan, Billy Collins, in total 91 great talents. After reading this landmark anthology, you’ll feel as if you’d lived intensely in the skins of many different people in different parts of the world. Highly recommended as a rich resource for teachers and a library basic.


Maya Angelou, Shamsul Arefin, Colin Askey, Margaret Atwood, Michelle Auerbach, Elizabeth Ayres, Ian Ayres, Joe Bacal, Amanda Bay, Itzhak Ben-Arieh, David Bergman, Bill Berkson, J. J. Blickstein, Pat Brien, Mary Burger, Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady, Andrei Codrescu, Leonard Cohen, Billy Collins, Caitlin Condell, Holly Crawford, Victor Hernández Cruz, Dave Cunliffe, Tony Curtis, Jen Dalton, Andrew Darlington, James Dean, Albert Flynn DeSilver, Peter James Drew, Jordan Essoe, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Marilyn Yvonne Ford, Gloria Frym, Tess Gallagher, Marcene Gandolfo, John Gilmore, John Giorno, David Helwig, Jill Hill, Marie Houzelle, Scott Hutchison, Michael Huxley, Brendan Kennelly, Galway Kinnell, Richard Kostelanetz, Richard Krech, Joanne Kyger, J. T. LeRoy, Lyn Lifshin, Mark Lipman, Ken Mackenzie, Jayanta Mahapatra, Norman Mailer, Randall Mann, Sylvia Miles, Laure Millet, Taslima Nasreen, Thom Nickels, Alice Notley, Joyce Carol Oates, Tommy Frank O’Connor, Nessa O’Mahony, Yoko Ono, Lisa Pasold, Barbara Philipp, Kristin Prevallet, Diane di Prima, Terry Rentzepis, Bob Rosenthal, Barney Rosset, Michael Rothenberg, Carol Rumens, Sue Russell, Sonia Sanchez, Aram Saroyan, Larry Sawyer, Eabhan Ní Shuileabháin, Donny Smith, Marc Smith, Carolyn Stoloff, Nelson Sullivan, Mark Terrill, John Updike, Gerard Van der Leun, François Villon, Lina ramona Vitkauskas, Phillip Ward, Karen Weiser, C. K. Williams, Daisy Zamora, Harriet Zinnes…

Available at: