About chicken sauce piquant. About mountains of peace and love. And about change.

Forest Gray Yerman's "about change,"

Forest Gray Yerman’s “about change,” (photograph by Sergei Isaenko)

“Around fifteen years ago I almost got a tattoo after my brother: a Thor’s Hammer on my right breast. I cancelled my appointment because I really wasn’t sure that I was as Viking as my brother Hrothgar. I don’t regret this decision, but ever since I have wondered whether I would ever get a tattoo.

For the past five years, earlier in my undergrad in creative writing and currently as a graduate student in Appalachian Studies, I have studied Frank X Walker’s poetry, and traveled hundreds of miles, from North Carolina to Kentucky, Virginia, and West ‘by God’ Virginia, to attend readings and ask questions of him. When I found out he was writing a poem for a tattoo project, I knew I was going to be a part of Love Letter To the World. So I got the pleasure, and difficulty, of choosing from the whole brilliant poem. I read Frank X Walker’s ‘Love Letta to de Worl’,’ and I read it again. And I read it again. I copied the poem freehand in a diary. And I read it. I poured over the designs, too, but mostly–I READ.

‘about revolution’ spoke to the brick thrower in me
‘seven different faces’ spoke to the holiness of 7
‘about companionship’ spoke to the spiritual power of love
‘about reflection’ spoke to my own ‘man in the mirror
‘your sneeze a tsunami’ is just good goddamn poetry
‘hail and thunderstorms’ spoke to standing outside in rain and snow storms
‘music and poetry’ spoke to my daily bread

but above all

the line ‘about change,’ spoke to my constant desire to change myself, to change so that I could live up to all of these lines and phrases and words in this poem that hollered at me, ‘change!’ To accept change, too. To be ‘about change,’. This line grabbed all of me, shook me, said, ‘get this tattoo where you can see it so you can change. Embrace the only constant in the universe, Change.’

My friend Justin, who works at Speak Easy Tattoo Co. in Boone, NC, and I talked about the Love Letter To the World project and the tattoo I wanted. Then I went home and got scared. I told myself a tattoo is a tattoo forever. It’s not a haircut, which I’m always changing. It’s not a beard, which I’m always growing and cutting and growing, both like and unlike Uncle Gurton’s. It’s a tattoo on my body forever. A mark.

I hesitated. Then I talked with Justin again. I asked how much this tattoo would cost. He said he heard I liked to cook, and asked me what kind of food I cooked. ‘Mostly southern,’ I said. ‘Cajun?’ he asked. I told him I could do that and we agreed on chicken sauce piquant at his request. I copied the recipe from my mother’s Paul Prudhomme cookbook during Christmas, over homemade eggnog and bluegray cigarette smoke.

Paul Prudhomme’s Chicken Sauce Piquant

-1 tbs and 1 tsp. salt
-1 tbs black pepper
-2 tsp onion powder
-2 tsp garlic powder
-2 tsp ground red pepper
-1 tsp white pepper
-1 tsp dried thyme

-1 cup flour
-2 whole chickens–cut in 8 pieces
-1 ¾ cups chopped onions
-1 ¾ cups chopped celer
-1 ¾ cups chopped green bell peppers
-1 ¾ cups peeled and chopped tomatoes
-3 tbs finely chopped jalapeño
-2 tbs minced garlic
-1 ¾ cups of canned tomato sauce
-1-2 tbs tabasco
-4 cups chicken stock
-cook 2 cups of rice

Lightly coat chicken in 1 tbs spice mix and dredge in flour, then sprinkle the
chicken with the remaining seasoning. Heat ½ inch of oil in a cast iron skillet. Fry
chicken 5-8 min per side in a cast iron skillet. Remove when browned on all sides.
Pour oil out of pan and add ¼ cup back.
Add onions, celery, and green peppers and cook for a few minutes. Add tomatoes,
jalapeños, and garlic to vegetables. Cook for two minutes. Add tomato sauce and
cook for three minutes. Add tabasco and remove from heat.
Add chicken pieces and stock to a large sauce pan and bring to a boil. Cover and
reduce heat, cooking for five minutes. Stir in half the tomato mixture, cover, and
cook for five minutes. Stir in the rest of the tomato mix and simmer for 8-10
minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve hot on rice.
(My only addition is to serve also with cold beer and good music, which I don’t
think Mr Prudhomme–may he rest in power–would object to.)

I stuck the recipe in-between two Frank X Walker books and waited about five months, going back and forth on whether I was really going to get a tattoo. I told myself I didn’t have the time, and that I wasn’t ready. I backed out. I was busy, which I was as a graduate student. And I read the poem some more. And I read, and I thought about ‘about change,’. I recognized the lifelong commitment not just in the permanency of the ink, but also in the message, the reminder, right where I could see it, to be ‘about change,’.

The semester ended and I had the time. I had the kitchen. I bought the food. I was ready. I rented three VHS tapes of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, because a professor told me these tapes would make me a better person. I pulled a stool up to the stove and set a small tv/vcr on it. And I watched these tapes while I cooked the best goddamn sauce piquant any mountainboy in western North Carolina ever cooked. For a tattoo.

And the food was good, or as my dad might say, ‘gooder’n snuff, and not half as dusty.’ While we ate we listened to a Dewey Balfa record and drank cold beer. Justin said it was as good as his grandmother’s. And, when you can cook something as good as a cajun grandmother, you’ve done right. Then the next day Justin’s tattoo gun changed my left arm forever. I got my first tattoo. ‘about change,’

Every time I look at my tattoo, it gives me the power to change myself. And every now and then I forget I have it, which gives me a pleasant surprise when I look at my arm and am reminded. It’s helping me change, not necessarily always into a better person, because it’s about not being stagnant, too. Maybe it’s also about chaos. And, of course, it is about being a better person, a reminder to change for the better. To change any way possible to remove myself from mainstream American culture, a culture of racism and homophobia and sexism and classism and Islamophobia and oppression and fear and endlessly needless consumption. I’m also reminded that change is more than an overnight process. Change is constant.

I’m changed for the good in being a part of the Love Letter To the World family with this tattoo. I still haven’t met anybody else with a LLTW tattoo, though I’ve seen many of the pictures on the Facebook page and read many stories on the LLTW Blog. I’m amazed at the creative power of this project and the international scope. I love all of the translations, but the one in Jamaican English is a favorite that I have listened to countless times. This November I get to present about LLTW at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) Conference in Durham, North Carolina. Maybe I’ll meet some LLTW family there and see your tattoo, or at least get the opportunity to turn some people onto this project. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to give back, in a sense, for what Frank X Walker’s poem and Kurt & Kremena’s vision have given me.

With Mountains of Peace and Love,
Forrest Gray Yerman”

Note: See if you can catch a different glimpse of Forrest’s tattoo here. Or in Boone, NC. (Or in Durham, NC, if you happen to be there in mid-November.) And be sure to say hi if you encounter him in person. He is family.