Let me say something about contemporary poetry. It believes itself progressive. That is, when we write, as poets, we think of ourselves as creating something new in the world, that our thoughts & feelings & word choices are not replications of the past, though they are built of things from the past, the way a new home is built of brick & brick is made of sand & sand was around for a long long time. The sand, however, could not have hoped to become a house. Nor the brick, which was intended for construction, might never have been, in the brickmaker’s mind, intended for a specific house, shaped as it is from the mind of an architect. & yet I read the poetry of Philippe Soupault from three quarters of a century ago & it reads as if could be presented at Pete’s Candy Store or Studio AIR tomorrow night by one of my friends. Here’s an excerpt from a poem by the old Dadaist/Surrealist: I. Wednesday on a barge and you Saturday like a flag the days have crowns like kings and dead men lissome as a kiss my hand rests on chained foreheads A child cries for her doll and we’ll have to start over again Monday and Tuesday cold-blooded four Thursdays off from work II. a thread unravels a shadow falls a butterfly exploded chrysalis or glow worm … [translation by Paulette Schmidt] Progress lies in the thinking behind a thing, in the intelligence that incorporates the teachings of the past (in as much at it can in one lifetime), but this does not prevent the intelligence from covering the same territory as the minds preceding it–on its own terms, in its own way, in its own time–nor does the newer intelligence find itself mired in absolute fallibility when discovering that its insight into an experience or phenomena matches up with what came before. What may seem derivative may also just be that certain like modes of inquiry & experimentation yield similar results, even when the minds doing the inquiring are separated by a century or more. A poem written by a young poet today might share certain values, sounds, verbal play, word choices, even an underlying aesthetic with those developed by the co-founder of the Surrealist movement years ago, but that does not necessarily mean the poet has not progressed, or that poetry has not. Millenia separate Plato from his adherents. It’s not that the world hasn’t changed, it’s that the world & human emotion & human reasoning hasn’t changed so much that the past has little to no direct bearing on the present. It does. & poetry, for all its impressive strives, still maintains a primary interest in humanity & the human condition, & for this reason will continue to entertain & employ elements of its forbearers’ work for centuries to come. Readers have a penchent for the unexpected; poets are expected to deliver the old news in new wrappings, or the new news in raw form, but sometimes the old news, in its primal form, which was new for the time, is the best news for the new time. & some poems, as we know, reach from behind you to grab hold of the future you are just now imagining. & that can be a fun sort of tickle. When I read this Philippe Soupault poem a certain delicious shiver runs through me. I can’t just read it once. It becomes a sort of deep incantation. I find myself speaking it aloud while reading without even knowing I am: Georgia I’m not sleeping Georgia I shoot arrows into the darkness Georgia I’m waiting Georgia The fire is like snow Georgia The night is my neighbor Georgia I hear every single noise Georgia I see the smoke climbing and escaping Georgia I walk stealthily along in the shadows Georgia I run–here is the street to the suburbs Georgia Here is a town which is the same And which I don’t recognize Georgia I hurry–here is the wind Georgia And the cold and silence and fear Georgia I run away Georgia I run Georgia The clouds are low and they’re going to fall Georgia I have to be in your arms Georgia I’m not closing my eyes Georgia I call ‘Georgia’ I call you Georgia Will you come Georgia soon Georgia Georgia Georgia Georgia Georgia I’m not sleeping Georgia I’m waiting for you Georgia [translation Julia Murkin] ___________________ There are also times in my writing life where I discover something of the past with a determined mode of expression that speaks directly to me in such a way that I cannot learn from it, or overcome it, or work against it with subversion. It feels like a perfect example of a thing, even if I find certain word choices to be too easy or just slightly off in one direction or another–all the better for its human flaws. So what I end up doing is singing with it, a kind of spiritual translation into the newer time of ever-occurring now, though I don’t believe much in the soul or in translation. I think it’s common to experience reading a good book at the right time, & perhaps picking it up later & feeling it childish. But for that time it was a great book, & it delighted. This love of a great book inspires people to write. Not because they wish to outdo the creator of the great book, or outdo the great book itself, but because that book makes the writer wish to sing along. To contribute. To add. But of course, when you sing, it can never be quite the same song. Florida I’m waiting Anna. I’m not sleeping Heather. Amy. Mildred. Mildred. Mildred. Don’t be long Michael. Won’t you come Bethany. I’m calling you Lucy. I’m calling Stella. I’m crying Billy. I’m calling Amelia. I don’t close my eyes anymore Dawn. I open my arms like a goalie Lenin. The sky is already falling Lauren. I’m running Julian. I scatter like nickels Damien. All this cold silence & fear Cordelia. I hurried but here’s the wind Libby. & it’s all very strange to me. Here’s another fucking causeway Sister. I’m running down a suburban street Hermione. I’m a wolf to your shadow Adam. I see the smoke rising in shapes Brandon. I hear all noises no exceptions Janice. Night is the hot girl next-door Joanna. Fire is a kind of quick snow Matthew. I’m thinking of you Julia. I’m waiting Emily. I send flares into the night Cynthia. I don’t sleep Georgia. I don’t ever sleep Georgia.
Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category:
Ann Liv Young as Sherry Vignon from Joe Pan on Vimeo. This video was shot in December, 2011 at the Louis B. James gallery in the LES of New York City, during what was deemed a retrospective slash holiday special by performance artist Ann Liv Young’s infamously in-your-face character, Sherry. (Why write about this performance a year later? Because I’m a pretty busy person, & because I needed to let this piece, however light it may read, stew a bit. I’m not setting out to make a grand statement about the work of Ann Liv Young; these are a few observations on a performance that stuck with me, which I think speaks to its resilience as a work of art. Also, it interests me in the way real world events might carry themselves into fiction, as Sherry is a true character.) The event was entitled “Sherry is Present,” a slanted homage it seems to Marina Abramović. But where Abramović sat quiet & still across from her participators, Sherry gets up in your grill, belligerent & unavoidable. The audience reaction, though, strangely mirrored how audience-participants react to the work of Abramović. Some people leave feeling like they’ve just experienced something profound & authentic. Some are moved to tears. Some find the whole thing ridiculous. But everyone, you can be sure, will have an opinion. In the video above you will see Sherry do several things of note, for which I’d like to provide some context. 1) Sherry will sing the song “Dead and Gone” (T.I., featuring Justin Timberlake). 2) While face-humping a fan, Sherry will bring down a ledge above him. Resting on that ledge was, along with various other Sherry artifacts, a large stoppered jar full of her urine. 3) Sherry will, at one point, refill the jar with urine in front of her audience. 4) Sherry will call onlookers passing by the large gallery window “a bunch of cheap-ass niggers” for not paying to watch the show. Audience members will cringe & laugh. The video will end. Context: Sherry was singing “Dead and Gone” for a man whose father had recently died. The entire holiday performance was centered around the idea that brutally honest discussion can set you free. Sherry is a character that will say or do anything to provoke a viewer into action. Most wilt under her scrutiny. At first, she reaches out to her participants with a delicate urging, mic in hand, a few feet from your face, in front of everyone. At times, she’s a real sweet talker with genuine southern charm, exuding warmth & strength. But what keeps the average viewer/participant at bay, & nervous at first about sharing with this woman anything of value (to be used against them perhaps), is Sherry’s overwrought style & appearance, her heavy makeup & what feels like a latent, explosive violence waiting in the wings—evidenced by manic bursts of karaoke, manic speeches, & a seemingly crazed, impetuous need to involve her captives in the discussion of capital H honesty. It’s no wonder then that Sherry has a history of angering people with her antics. On this particular night, near the beginning of the performance, Sherry engaged a pissed off woman who believed Sherry had singled her out for slow torture. Sherry continued to ask the woman why she was being so defensive, pointing out that her body was curled in a defensive position, that her tone was defensive (as I remember it), wondering aloud why such a person would continue to attend the show, or show up in the first place? Sherry urged the woman to speak her mind, refusing to drop the subject. The woman eventually rose & left, taking her friend with her, but not before giving Sherry what she demanded, which was her honest take on the experience. It was not a flattering take, but it was honest. & so Sherry was satisfied. A Sherry there is that does not love a wall. Conversely, as the night went on, attendees (what were we, exactly? witnesses? viewers? participants? actors? enablers? We sat in a gallery that became a stage with us on it) grew more comfortable with Sherry & began sharing their own experiences, real life stories of pain & pleasure that reduced other listeners to giggles & yes, genuine tears, executing what I believe was Sherry’s ultimate goal: a holiday catharsis. This was, after all, Sherapy. Something about us needed fixin’, & right quick. Sherry wasn’t interested in song & dance, she wanted purging. Thus the gentleman who told Sherry about his father’s passing & was rewarded with a soulful karaoke attempt at an empathetic eulogy. The strange pairing of words in a phrase like “soulful karaoke” is indicative of my theory of the performer’s intent, which was to create (& moderate, & modify) dualities. To set up an obstacle to reckon with, & reckon with it. Be it real, imagined, or the politician’s straw man, It was being dealt with. & because Sherry’s dual roles as profligate performer & homespun psychologist amused & terrified us by turns, our moods becoming more dependent on her shifting. Oscillating between repulsion & attraction, we took sides when we needed to. Nobody wanted to be an I, not in this space. We needed to be part of the Us, or risk embarrassment by Sherry, who we knew would not banish us but make an example of us, turn us into a Them, & needle us until we gave in or gave up. When one walks into a gallery, does crossing the threshold automatically sign you up for whatever will transpire in that space? Artists sometimes speak of this as if it were a natural law or universal known, & not a formula for arranging one’s preclusive sensitivities: “Know what you’re getting into.” If the stage suddenly becomes the floor you’re standing on, too bad, participate or beat it. But then what is to be done with nonparticipants who refuse to leave? The rebels? The ones that shy away? Some of these folks, in moments of dread, create a performance within the performance, lashing out at the provocateur in hopes to be left alone, confirming their feelings with the audience, or joking their way into ultimate withdrawal. Sherry does not seem to allow for this. (Perhaps once, out of distraction.) The question remains, though: what are we to these performers if not simple resources? Does our sharing mean we were having a more authentic experience, or were we just feeding Sherry’s own desire to watch us squirm? The man who’d lost his father, it should be noted, seemed genuinely pleased & thankful for, albeit a little embarrassed by, Sherry’s tribute. His smile never faltered throughout the rest of the performance. Despite the abnormality of the situation, people were displaying sincere emotions & purporting to be genuinely touched. I certainly was. Despite being shadowed by a creepy Santa & various male minions in old-lady drag, Sherry had a way of focusing all attention on her, until she wanted that attention focused elsewhere. When Sherry asks you for your honest opinion, it actually means “you honest opinion with a microphone shoved in your face, before a crowd of raw & sensitive individuals (being kept this way by an energized prison guard) who are poised to either relent or become confrontational. But, really, say what you sincerely feel.” Sherry is easiest on those who acquiesce. The confrontational are asked to explain themselves, undergoing a barrage of questions until they give her something she feels is authentic & real. Even if it’s nasty, or attacks her, Sherry respects “the real.” Not the actual. Not necessarily the truth, but the “real” of the moment—which is more or less a confessional sort of response that lies somewhere between “the unfiltered genuinely expressed” & “the case.” The first words we hear from Sherry comes from the song she’s singing: “Lemme kick it to you right quick, man. Not on some gangsta shit, man, on some real shit.” A question Sherry is always posing is: “Where is the real shit?” It’s a good question. A second unavoidable question during the performance is: “Who here has the power?” And one’s response is always: “You do, Sherry.” & in most cases, this is true. If Ann Liv didn’t excel in fully embodying her character, Sherry would not be able to hold you. The single most powerful act any viewer is ever capable of is walking out on a performance. (I would urge you not to; the show sustains itself.) The unseen performance artist is a word stripped of its speaker. The audience brings the real. & so we shared. & perhaps because telling a story about yourself helps you share in the feeling of having power, or because Sherry’s eyes & those of your peers tell you that you have done right, you are relieved. The mic is taken from your face & you feel better. Happy holidays. During our sharing, people wandered in off the street. They were actually being coaxed in by a woman standing near the door. The gallery space had crept out onto the sidewalk, & into the lives of people on their way to dinner & drinks. At one point, several men wandered in (I believe one admitted to being on Ativan or Adderall & drunk on beer—we’ll call him Adderall Guy) & began interrupting Sherry mid-performance for laughs. After Adderall Guy made a rude comment directed toward a participating audience member, who immediately broke down crying, Sherry interrogated the abuser until he began revealing details of his own life. He spoke of his own insecurities & failures, which led to an apology. But that wasn’t enough for Sherry. She asked the man to take off his pants. One question that remained with me following the show was whether Sherry is a hardass with a keen sense of persuasion, systematically breaking down the boundaries of her audience, or whether she’s an outright bully, demanding our full participation in this ritual of art (one couldn’t imagine Sherry in any sort of non-engaging meditative space). When we opened up to her, she made us believe we were part of the discourse, that what each of us said carried equal weight, & that what we were engaging in was a traumatic, public version of group therapy. Of course, this was never the case. Sherry controlled the space. The audience was participating on an unfair playing field. But so what? We took for granted that Sherapy was designed to help us, because it rhymes with therapy, & therapy is supposed to help us. Sherry never promised us anything. We began trusting her, & each other, with our feelings, which was perhaps a mistake. Or maybe that’s just what being a socializing human entails—sharing, with no promises. Sometimes you get a positive experience, sometimes a negative. When the Adderall guy refused to take his pants off, though we could sense he was close, Sherry attempted a new line of persuasion by showing the man that nudity was accepted in the space. She asked two of her collaborators, Michael Guerrero & another man, dressed in holiday drag, to take their pants down, which they immediately did. The collaborators were part of the show, & thus quite familiar with what Sherry expected of them. But though Adderall Guy was aware of the momentary ridicule he’d experience undressing before the crowd, he might not have been aware, given his state of mind, of its lasting effects. For instance, there were many cameras present. Most of Sherry’s collaborators had cameras in their hands & were digitally recording the event, & one must assume that at some point the videos will pop up online or be sold to a viewing public. The Adderall Guy, as any witness would attest, would have disrobed of his own free will, in a gallery space, which as a venue could have had him arrested, & that choosing to participate in this way was not the responsibility of the gallery or that of Sherry but only of himself, & that his naked error (or drunken, drugged antics) could be broadcast at any time without his given permission. But it is also important to realize that Sherry wanted this to be the case, was trying to talk him into this possibility, thereby extending the duration of his shame. This particular moment seemed an act of humiliation. This man had hurt one of the people Sherry had worked so hard all evening to manipulate into a place of true vulnerability, & he was going to pay for it. & that’s what we wanted, too, as the audience. We wanted to see the drugged asshole drop his drawers. If the bully wasn’t bullying us, what did we care who she was bullying? Was it so bad that she was bullying a bully? Footage of the Adderall Guy naked will never see the light of day, because it didn’t happen. The dramatic apology following the public shaming, sans nudity, was still an impressive win. Sherry was a lawyer, a caretaker, a lounge singer, a deviant, a therapist, a friend, a hound dog, a psychopath, & an ex-wife all rolled into one. A chimeric being with love in her heart, & perhaps more than a little sexual animosity. A person with a deeply fucked-up sense of convention, with an instinct to punish always simmering just below the surface of her desire to lend a hand. & whether they were enjoying themselves or laughing through the weirdness, everyone was enjoying the spectacle. The gallery had an upstairs & a downstairs. Each floor showcased a variety of objects—shoes, fingernails, paintings, purses, dresses—artifacts of a cultural icon; the apotheosis of Sherry into a star of trash & camp: the Queen Tramp. The objects appeared framed in glass, kept in bottles, displayed behind velvet ropes. There was living room furniture, as if we were in a house within a gallery. Videos showed past performances. All of it was highly self-referential. Downstairs stood pink Christmas trees & a table set up for Sherry merch. I can’t recall what was for sale, but some part of me believes everything was for sale. The urine that fell on the fan (I call him “fan” because I heard him expressing his love for Ann Liv’s work; he might even have been a friend) was several weeks old. It was, as Sherry hinted, putrid, an assault on the senses. Which made it all the more funny. It was only one of only two times during the performance that Sherry was caught a bit off-guard, & where Ann Liv Young possibly broke character. Sherry made up for the shift in power by refilling the container with her piss, as you can see, much to the moaning delight & laughter of the audience. In the video, the woman sitting next to the fan drenched by the urine is my wife. Wendy received a little bit of Sherry herself, some droplets on the sleeve of her coat, free of charge. Barring that not so wonderful moment, Wendy thoroughly enjoyed the performance, & saw Sherapy as a means of honest discourse. Urinating in public is an act which Ann Liv Young’s become known for, best recalled by Art Fag City (in regards to Ann Liv’s now infamous PS1 show) & by Ann Liv herself in this interview with Idiom. She peed to retake control of the situation, & to ask us to follow her back into the magic space of our shared performance, which we did. During the crazier moments of performances like this one, people sometimes leave, & I’ve never understood why; I’m always excited by the prospect of what might come next: will the artist try to outdo herself, or reel the strangeness in a bit & give us all a breather? Sherry, filled with power & the excitement of the night, thrown off balance by the unforeseen collapse of the ledge, managed one more massive shift of perspective by calling gawkers at the gallery window “a bunch of cheap-ass niggers.” In the video, watch the young black man do that thing with his glasses, the thing one does when somebody you enjoy suddenly says something way out of line. Beside him, a woman who I believe is a professor at Columbia University creates a mask of her smiling face & retreats inward. It’s a tough one to swallow, this person you’ve trusted to unite everyone in embarrassment & march them through a desert of honesty & deliver them to…not salvation, exactly, but perhaps to a place where one feels like one belongs to a community of survivors…has suddenly betrayed that trust & sent everyone off to their personal corners. For some, I’d imagine, the off-hand statement killed the fictional dream we were experiencing as a group: it broke the spell. Racism is a line toed by few performers regularly save perhaps comics & even they can lose careers over it, when the line between performer & performance breaks down into actual hate speech. (Michael Richards comes to mind.) But more people make their careers in its cringeworthy parody (Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Daniel Tosh), upsetting the conceptual space between perceived & actual, which leads to a slew of obvious questions: Can Sherry get away with this? Does her parody of a crass, off-balance, trailer-park raised Southern healer hold up? It certainly wouldn’t be beyond the realm of her character to say such a thing. & yet later, after the performance, the young black man asked Sherry why she felt comfortable using such language (Bear in mind, it has been a year since this happened, so I’m not sure if the young man asked Sherry about the word outright, or if Sherry asked people what they liked/disliked about the show, & he responded). Sherry’s response was that she shouted the common but still jostling go-around word “nigga,” a word ushering from the general vernacular of the songs she’d been singing (again, this is paraphrasing), at which point both the gallery owner & Michael Guerrero (Ann Liv’s co-producer/husband/bullshit detector) pointed out that no, Sherry had pronounced it distinctly as nigger, not nigga. At which point Sherry apologized. Or Ann Liv did. Certainly one of them was present. Her argument amounted to being in a headspace where people wouldn’t bat an eyelash at the use of the word “nigga,” & that any slip of the tongue was just that. Which I believe was the case; she seemed uniquely vulnerable at that moment, & Sherry was so open to everything & everyone that any attack of racism would seem to me unfounded. One could argue that Sherry is a secret racist, or that she has a subconscious or latent racism, but then who are we talking about now, Sherry or Ann Liv? Can there be a subconscious racism within a character that doesn’t exist for the artist? (If you’re a behavioral analytic studies PhD candidate looking for a thesis project, you’re welcome.) & why would Sherry apologize for this & not for pulling up her skirt & rubbing her vaginal juices all over the gallery window, much to the disgust of gawkers & winter-night passersby? Was it a mistake in the heat of the moment? Was Sherry just a fucking nightmare of a human being? Was she a delusional woman regressing at times to a violent childhood? Was she yanking our chain? Could any part of the experience be described as genuine, the real deal? After sitting through a performance, its natural to wonder just how far removed Ann Liv is from her testy, inviolable character. Quite a lot, I’d imagine, as I don’t suspect Sherry’s personality would keep her on the streets for long before she was institutionalized. Ann Liv has talked a bit about the real her peeking through her characters, though, & if you’re up for a fascinating meta-interview, I’d suggest watching the video of Ann Liv interviewing Sherry. It also bears mentioning that the very person one might expect to defend Sherry’s actions or come to her aid, Michael Guerrero, patently refused to, because that’s not what the show is about. It’s not what Sherry is about. Sherry is about peeling apart the reality of a situation. Sherry is about honesty. After confronting her, the young black man in the glasses laughed it off, saying he knew she wasn’t racist, but that it had jarred him, if only briefly. Earlier on, it should be said, Sherry had grown visibly excited & proclaimed her happiness to see people of color in her audience. (She also gave a shout out to any lesbians in attendance & sang a song for them.) This does not absolve her of anything, though it does speak to her wishing to make everyone aware that her desire to help is all-encompassing. People will come to their own conclusions, but by the end of the show, those waiting to speak to Sherry seemed unfazed by the incident. So many boundaries, so little time. As the magical truth-telling time faded, folks spent the final minutes praising the performance for what it was—a truly unique, nerve-wracking experience with implications for larger social change. I’m not saying one should seek out enlightenment in group therapy sessions led by a sociopath, but it is remarkable how some of our more basic core values are now being expressed by characters residing at the fringe. Think Dexter from the self-titled TV series, or Tony Soprano, or Rorschach from The Watchmen, or Jack Bauer from 24. We see who we are through their view of us, because they are us, exploded. We say we want brutal honesty, until it hurts, but when we get it, the way that Sherry gives it, we may not want it ever again. When we find wrong in others, the same wrong that may exist in ourselves, we shame them anyhow. Because who doesn’t deserve it. These creepy little dualities that exist within us, how they itch so. So there’s some context. I asked both the gallery owner & Mr. Guerrero if I could use my iPhone footage for a blog post & they said it was fine. I hope one day to see the entire performance again online. It might just show that how I remember it is not how it happened at all, & I’ll accept that. Things change after a year. We further privatize experience until it becomes a trigger for nostalgia or something useful, & this experience falls into the latter category for me. Maybe I’ll use my idea of Sherry as a character in a short story or something. Only time will tell. If you’d like to see Sherry live, she’s been traveling around in her Sherry Truck, billed as “a mobile Sherapy office, a sculptural coffee shop, and a boutique filled with memorabilia from Sherry’s world” by MoMA: PS1. Or would you Skype with Sherry? Or experience Sherapy in your living room? Check out Ann Liv’s website here for more details. If you, dear reader, actually book a Sherry therapy session, please drop me a note & let me know what it’s like. I’d very much be interested to hear about it. End matter: Disclosure: I’ve met Ann Liv at various times in my life. Before New York, I knew her as a modern dancer attending the North Carolina School of the Arts; I lived across the street from NCSA with a former girlfriend & they took a lot of the same dance classes. Ann Liv & I were often at the same parties & spoke on occasion, but I never really got to know her well. I’ve seen her perform here in New York several times, once with live bunnies. When her & the two other women on stage began singing, the rabbits began shitting. Ann Liv dropped a finger under her skirt, played with herself a second, & took a whiff. Even as the audience in the warehouse roared, she appeared unshaken, nonplussed, & as I watched her watching the audience, I was struck by the idea that this performance wasn’t being done for us. We were performing for her. If I remember correctly, the day of the NCSA graduation, Ann Liv, wearing a tutu or a skirt, I can’t recall, walked across the stage to receive her diploma. Just before she reached her spot, she leapt up in the air & mooned the entire audience. There were a good many people laughing, but there were just as many people around me saying “Jesus Christ why.” All I remember wondering was whether or not she got away with it, or if she was reprimanded.
Last year, up through November, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than were killed in battle: 177 to 176, respectively. One of the great difficulties of war is the post-service operation of reintegrating soldiers. Most return home to families that can’t fully grasp what they been through. The loneliness & the horrors of war stay with them, & for some, the emotions & memories never dissipate to a point that can be reconciled, & lived with. I’ve known people with PTSD, & each would say it’s a horrible thing to wake up with each morning. We cannot forget these people. If we turn away they will disappear down the rabbit holes of their own misery. It’s our responsibility to help them acclimate to the culture that is theirs, to find the mental & medical help they need, & to prevent any service person from taking from themselves what they put on the line in the name of duty. I am a big believer in personal freedom, which includes the right to die, but I also understand that certain pain, though it may not be remedied completely, can be controlled & cared for, & that one’s mental health might often depend on the willingness of those around to help. Sometimes people are embarrassed by the idea of needing help. I know because I’m one of them. It’s never a good lesson to learn the hard way. Sometimes it takes another person to take the first step & start the process. I’d encourage anyone who knows a soldier having difficulty adjusting to contact the Defense Center of Excellence (for Psychological Health & TBI Issues) at: http://www.dcoe.health.mil/Families/Help.aspx. They’re available 24/7, & have information ready for anyone who calls, from family members to educators. There is also of course our military’s suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-TALK) who may be of assistance. I hope 2013 is a better year for all of us.
For the past month I’ve been collaborating with choreographer Stephanie Sleeper on a piece that infuses modern dance with contemporary poetry. The work is entitled Green, and we will be performing the piece (yes, I am in it) on Friday & Saturday, October 26 & 27th, at the Triskelion Arts Center, located at 118 N. 11th St. 3rd Fl, Brooklyn, New York 11249. Tickets are $15. Performance time is 7:30. “GREEN is a surreal work influenced by video games, the green of astro-turf, the sonics of language, competition and memory, and features the poetry of Joe Pan.” Green will be performed after Black as part of a two-piece performance. In terms of movement, there was a great deal of back & forth collaboration between Stephanie & her dancers in piecing the work together. Each dancer was invited to keep a running journal, & even at various times during the creation use a marker to write words or phrases that rose out of themselves & the movement onto a scroll, so they could express & feed off one another’s ideas. Originally, I was going to be performing alongside 2 other males, but circumstances changed & I became the lone male in the piece. The dance quickly grew around my words & my presence on the stage. The piece is more or less a meta creation a la the film Adaptation. You see me engaged in the process of creating the very dance you’re watching, which is also a rumination on the color green, its connotations & various meanings, with a nod to vegetation myths & Stravinsky, etc, of course. So here’s the rub: words & dance don’t fuse very well. I’ve seen plenty of dance pieces over the years that attempt to incorporate text/words, & the text/words more often than not come off as combative, meaning they seek the spotlight. Where music often amplifies a dance’s movement/tension, text vies to commandeer the piece & the viewer’s attention. At worst, text becomes a distraction. Usually it just sounds like an older brother yelling over a younger one to make his point heard. So how does one get around this? We chose to allow the words their own space in the piece; the dance, then, becomes an accentual background visual, or better: a visual music to the reading’s tonal/inflected music. When the words stop, the air is filled with the dancer’s stomps, scattered foot beats, silence, & the dance again becomes the viewer’s emotional & visual focal point. I hope we have a good crowd. I have no expectations, & no real fear of failure, yet. & may not, as failure, in small ways, has been worked into the creation of the piece, so that it becomes almost a demand of the piece to screw something up, or (to be more accurate) taken over by another force. In the natural world we associate greenness with life-giving qualities, but it is also the color of jealousy, youthful competitiveness, the soft slow strangulation of a tree by kudzu. A natural thing must live by taking the life of another living thing. The piece is about struggle, & was a delight to create. The poem itself will be part of a larger poem later. I fully intend to include it in my next book, though with added-on stanzas. I’ve been toying with the idea of calling the form of this new poem a Divorce, since it was intended as a collaborative piece at first, then must divorce the idea of its former self & make itself anew. We’ll see. Cheers.
A few months ago, Hrag Vartanian, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic, approached me about serving as Poetry Editor of the online arts magazine/blog. Today marks my editorial debut, & I couldn’t be more thrilled. The inaugural poem is by Joanna Fuhrman, entitled “Poem for My 39th Birthday.” One of the great things about Hyperallergic is that it seems to be everywhere at once, with a stable of great freelance writers & peripatetic bloggers attending various exhibits & art happenings throughout the city, & more often, as it grows, around the globe. The writing does not shy from political or cultural discourse, in fact invites reader engagement – some of the best reading moments occur within the comments sections, where people actively sort out their opinions & criticism, & where writers can & do interact with their readers. Hyperallergic always feels like it’s bringing you the news of what JUST happened right NOW. It feels current & alive & takes full advantage of the format in which it operates. In thanking Hrag again by email earlier today, I noted something I’ll share here, regarding art in praxis & the reason I took the job: “My hope is that the work I choose, in congress with the literary criticism of John Yau & Morten Høi Jensen, two writers whose opinions I often share & whose writing I admire, will broaden your readership & ultimately the community of artists cognizant of each other’s works.” This last part is quite important to me: that artists seek out & maintain awareness of other forms of art – their practice, their histories, their criticisms. As various arts move within each other’s orbits, dialogues & tensions occur, ultimately growing community, not to mention creating more opportunity to share, borrow, & steal – the genetic dispersal responsible for art’s ability to adapt to ever-changing environments. As I choose poems for the website, some will no doubt be works of ekphrasis, given the artistic nature of the magazine. But I will also choose poems representative of poetics as they’re being exercised today, concerned with language & experimentation & the theories of their own manufacturing & playful logic, so that readers possibly unfamiliar with what’s happening in poetry now can get a sense of it & possibly even develop a taste for it. This is my hope. I’ll post links here as the poems go live on the site. In the meantime, enjoy Joanna’s poem. I absolutely adore the music that arrives in the ending. Cheers, J
(photo by Hilary McHone) Two weeks ago, on Friday, March 23rd, Wendy and I were coming home from a poetry reading and dinner when we witnessed a tragic event on the L train. Two men, Joshua Basin, 20, and Ryan Beauchamp, 33, got into a fight at the Bedford stop and fell onto the subway tracks. Originally I ran over to help separate them, but after they fell, to help them back up, but it was already to late. A Manhattan-bound train was barreling down the tracks, and I yelled for the men to lay flat on the ground, but they both tried to pull themselves up. Ryan Beauchamp escaped, but Joshua Basin was hit by the train and pinned between the train and the platform. I went over to Joshua and stayed with him, trying to keep him awake, until a doctor took my place and the cops arrived to tell us to leave. Joshua was pronounced dead at Bellevue Hospital. A manhunt was soon underway for Ryan Beauchamp. As witnesses came forward and the police supplied their information to an interested media, a great deal of misinformation demonizing Ryan Beauchamp found its way into the various articles and comment sections. My wife and I held ours tongues as we spoke with detectives and waited for the charge. When Ryan Beauchamp was charged with aggravated assault and not murder, I felt it was necessary to speak up about how the initial information was handled poorly by nearly everyone involved, and how the handling of the story actually ended up hurting the friends and family of Joshua Basin even further. As more and more witness testimonies became public, it became clear that both men, at least in part, had a hand at various points in what transpired. I wrote about the incident at length, and will post my initial piece at a later date. In the meantime you can read a deftly edited rendition of the piece on the New York Times‘ “The Local” website: http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2012/04/06/a-subway-death-a-narrative-and-a-witness I really have nothing else to add at this time. It was a deeply sad, human experience, and Wendy and I have worked through it in our own way, and our thoughts go out to the friends and families of both parties involved. As some of you may recall, I wrote about another tragic event, a suicide, on the Bedford L train last year. Directly following a tragedy we have an impulse to share and pick apart of all the information presented to us by the news and by followers of the news via Facebook, Twitter, comment sections, blogs, etc, and that the result is often a muddled mass of misinformation that solves nothing, and in some cases actually continues to hurt the real victims of a case. Both articles in part make the case for Slow Replying or No Replying, meaning in the age of the 24-hour News Cycle, where information is updated by the minute and arrives from sources not yet fully vetted, we should withhold on forming or adding our opinions to the mix too soon and skeptical of any initial information put out by the media, as it’s sure to change.
So Lizzie Simon from the Wall Street Journal interviewed me about BAP (click to see), which was a strangely stress-free experience. I met her at El Beit cafe and she told me how beautiful our books were and we talked and she scribbled down notes and I made her laugh a few times and when that happens you know everything is going to work out. Prior to the interview, she asked me to come up with some fun numbers for a graphic that would accompany the interview. Well, I provided a lot of numbers and they used the more business-y ones, which makes sense. Below you’ll find the entire list I provided. All in all, a great experience. I love that they used the trees quote. I wish there had been enough space to include more of the interview. Here’s a longer quote in regards to being an editor: “I’m an old-school editor, versus the modern day poetry curator employed by literary journals. Once it hits my desk I am going to edit it. If something’s not working, I am going to tell them.” Lizzie was a total sweetheart and somehow boiled half an hour of conversation down to a few informative paragraphs, so I’m thrilled, and what a great thing for Brooklyn Arts Press! WSJ Numbers from Brooklyn Arts Press 3: Poets whose books have been used to successfully woo 38: Average number of emails between a BAP editor and author 45: Percentage of books thanking or dedicated to, in part, a significant other 27: Percentage thanking or dedicated to a parent 100: Percentage of book cover art referencing trees or vegetation 6: Average monthly free coffees awarded publisher by El Beit baristas 26: Known BAP acronym nemeses in the publishing world 3: Pages it normally takes to know if a manuscript is any good 4: Known people who’ve lied to our authors about purchasing a book directly from our website 1: Percentage of manuscript submitters who unsubscribe from our mailing list after rejection 1: Neighborhood whiskey-store owners amazed poets still exist 10: Most hominids referenced by cover art of a book (Barry Bonds, Jesus, Mary, Os Gomeos character, scary model face, dancer hand, author, author’s brother eating a Whopper, Toulouse Lautrec drunk) 93,553: Total words in BAP’s entire catalogue 5.77: Average number of letters per word in BAP catalogue 26: Number of characters in longest title (Autobiomythography & Gallery) 5: Number of letters in shortest title (state) 250: Number of books normally printed in a first run 4: Digital printers, out of 434 contacted, whose production value rivaled that of an offset printer 7: Proofs rejected for printer errors (1 was printed backwards) 340: Pounds of BAP books currently in my office 136: Rejection letters sent out in February 0: Acceptance letters sent out in February 488: Steps from my office to the nearest bookstore carrying BAP titles (Spoonbill & Sugartown) ****************** By LIZZIE SIMON (From The Wall Street Journal) When we asked Joe Pan, publisher and editor of the Williamsburg-based Brooklyn Arts Press, to assemble numbers related to his art monograph and poetry chapbook operation, he discovered that all of his books had images of nature on them. “I had no idea I was so earthly,” he said. “Trees on everything.” Brooklyn Arts Press, which allocates between $600-$2,000 to produce each volume, will have a table this weekend at the fourth annual City University of New York Chapbook Festival at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Ave., in Manhattan. While the recession halted production in 2008 and 2009, in 2010, “we broke the barrier where each book pays for the next.” The audience for poetry is “mostly poets,” he said. “MFA programs abound.” To market to them, he frequently pushes his authors to promote themselves on social networking sites. “They spend so much time in the writerly dark, but you’d be surprised: some of them have business acumen.” Mr. Pan is always on the look out for “range and sensitivity, accuracy, style and depth.” Most of the poetry he reads he rejects by page three, but work that passes muster provides his job’s greatest gratification. “You’re chasing the tail and chasing the tail and then suddenly the thing turns around and looks at you,” he said. An “old-school editor”, Mr. Pan, also a poet, regularly puts himself on the inside of his poets’ stanzas: “Once it hits my desk I am going to edit it. If something’s not working, I am going to tell them.” —Lizzie Simon A version of this article appeared March 26, 2012, on page A24 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Pressing for Good Poetry.
(Joe Pan, Heather Morgan, Michael X Rose: setting up for the Fountain, 2012.) Last Thursday evening I helped Michael X. Rose set up his wall at the Fountain Art Fair. It took about 5 hours, and we were dealt our fair share of those happy mishaps that somehow make the effort more worthwhile, such as: the electricity in our part of the Armory at 25th & Lexington was out (No problem, our film-worker guardian angel Romaine from the next booth over lent us his power for our own, brighter lights); our wall hadn’t been painted (No problem, Mike brought fabric for the walls); the overhead light trellis we could use could not be extended over the wall, therefore we would have suspended the trellis using guide wires overhead (Which worked wonderfully. If you look at the picture above, you can see that because of the trellis, we were able to use leftover fabric to create a space even more maudlin and caravan-esque and therefore more unique and inviting than it would have been originally); and we were paired with two urban artists who took the wall directly across from us, and whose photoshopped street vision seemed to clash with Mike’s outsider-art-cum-Rueben style and his paintings of ritualistic murder, myth, lightning strikes, rape, Nazis being attacked by gun-toting Amazonians, and the like (The two ladies turned out to be terrific, in conversation, technique, and artistic temper, and we got along splendidly. One of the artists, noting the lone empowered stance taken by one of Mike’s heroines in a field struck by lightning, decided to buy the piece for herself). Mike had used Kickstarter to fund the booth. Above that, he was able to sell six paintings and a bunch of limited edition books. Walking around after Fountain ended, I learned that not too many people had sold as much work as Mike, although if I had to compare the Fountain show with the Armory show on Pier 92 and 94, there was much more exciting and profound art per square inch in the 25th St Armory than on the Hudson. Take for example this enormous, beautifully twinned Swoon (Thalassa) in the background and the decidedly more naturalist 70s piece at the fore, being sold by the Kesting Ray gallery off Grand Street. Their booth, piece for piece, which included the mesmerizing resin sculptures of Stephanie Dotson, was better stocked than 80% of the booths viewable in the Contemporary section at Pier 94. Across from them stood the Cheap & Plastique tribe, whose artist Heather Morgan I know personally and whose work I’ve always very much admired. Heads up, I just received word Artnet posted a few pics of Heather and her work as part of their review on Fountain, part of which reads as follows: Among the fair’s 60 exhibitors were plenty of independent artists, many of them of the Street Art variety, as well as several scrappy Brooklyn galleries, giving the goings-on a distinct DIY feel. The Fountain was filled with bad art, too, don’t get me wrong, but at least it didn’t reek of the utter banality, complacency, and the thinly veiled nostalgia of a rougher, smarter time most of the Pier 94 stuff I waded through last Sunday did. It was as if the dilemma of art has shifted from the metaphysical to the melodramatic, and from interior space to exterior composition. Surface reigned at the Piers. I’m surprised they served the Diet Cokes with actual diet coke inside. (What a waste of marketing potential, right?) There were very few objects and installations of any substance, and the most interesting pieces were totally baroque and resisted the rushed, flea market feel of the presentation, like the works of Simmons and Burke from the Michael Kohn Gallery in LA, with their collages of hundreds of ripped-off internet images, which asked of the viewer, if nothing else, to slow the fuck down for a second and do a little investigating. Here’s one of their pieces: Speaking of the metaphysical, have you ever seen the golden mean (or fibonacci spiral) better represented by blue shower tiles? No, you haven’t. I’m not even sure that this is what the artist was going for, but somehow this was the most comforting piece of all the shows, and it was at Fountain. I guess what I’m saying is, next year I won’t spend $30 on the Big Armory festival, and will instead spend a little more money (or hawk my way in for free) visiting several smaller venues, which makes me a little distressed and sad, given that I may miss the works of some great new artists like Yoshiyanu Tamura, whom I was told was is apprenticing with T. Murakami, whose work (and mind, and essays) I adore. Unfortunately Tamura can only be viewed at the Big Armory. If only Tamura lived in Brooklyn…
A Quick Email Correspondence Regarding Small Publishers, University Presses, Their Authors, Shared Responsibilities, and the Future
The other day I received a nice email from Allen, who is security services & systems engineer, and also a poetry reader, regarding how well he liked the look of one of our poetry books. The email exchange kept up for a while, and in the end I felt like I had remarked upon a few things I felt were important to understanding how a small press operates, so I wanted to share them. Allen confirmed it was okay to share the exchange, though I have changed a few specific names in order to make the emails available to the public, without drawing any unwanted attention to third-parties. *** Dear BAP: I bought your “Already It Is Dusk” by Joe Fletcher (from SPD) and want to tell you that the layout, cover and binding are all nicely done. Very simple, very clean. Nice job. Allen Senior Systems Engineer Safety and Information Security Services Division *** Allen, Thanks so much. We just started making chapbooks at the end of last year and wanted to create books people also valued as objects. That said, we think the poetry inside outshines the covers. Cheers, Joe Pan BAP *** Dear Joe: Perhaps poetry will outshine the covers, but lacking SPD’s write-up, it’s the cover that will make folks pick the book off a shelf. And your cover would do that for me. Do you stripe the spine on your other chapbooks? I poked around your web site a bit – you use volunteer (unpaid) editors to screen submissions? Great idea of course. Al *** Allen, We do stripe the spine on the other chapbooks, all except Lauren Russell’s, which was too thin to perfect bind, or it would have had a blue stripe. I wish I could pay my readers and editors in something other than copies. I don’t even pay myself anything. The money we make from books gets poured into other books. Such is the world of poetry publishing. Joe *** Ha! You must have a trust fund! I am not a poet or other kind of author but have several friends who are both authors of the academic variety as well as poets in their own right. They have shared some of their stories about trying to find a publisher and then, once they do, how tough it is sometimes to get the books published and even tougher sometimes to get the publisher to do any advertising. Several of my friends write on Robinson Jeffers and are published by **A LARGE UNIVERSITY PRESS**. The authors have expressed frustration about **THIS PRESS** not doing enough to advertise their work, which is understandable, but what strikes me the hardest each time is the fact that academic press runs are so small. I’m talking about people who have put years into developing and researching a book, only to have a press run of 500 or so copies. Makes me shudder. A friend of mine (with some help from me) has started the arduous process of shopping for a publisher for a new bibliography of Robinson Jeffers. Initial responses have been tepid and have included the need for us to fund the book ourselves. We will eventually find a publisher but, as with you and BAP, our work will forever be on our dime. Al *** Allen, I don’t have a trust fund. I just choose great writers and great cover designs and push my authors toward self-promotion. I’ve known many writers over the years who have had, like myself at one point, the expectation that once you finish writing a book and ship the final proof to a publisher, your work is done. From there, the publisher’s marketing dept. would immediately get on the horn with the top newspaper editors and radio shows and heavily push the book. I actually had no idea how books got promoted before, so my expectation was the product of magical, or rather “unrealistic,” thinking: drop book in publisher box, rub box, open box, money and fame inside. Promotion differs between large and small presses, just as it differs from between what genre you’re pushing. A 500 book print run for an academic book on a California poet beloved by the 60s-70s generation but relatively unread now doesn’t seem too low to me (I’m assuming it was printed in hardback). Your friends, unfortunately, and I hope not to sound rude, might have managed their expectations better. Their type of book may sell to libraries and lovers of Jeffers work, and to friends and family, but beyond that, its popularity is limited. A first run of 500 also signals to me the publisher was testing the waters–if the book sold out quickly, they could have a larger second one printed out in a few weeks at a greater cost-per-book but without sinking too much money into what is essentially a crapshoot. When a publisher “pushes” or “gets behind” a book, that means advertising money spent, and it doesn’t necessarily translate into big sales. What generates big sales is word of mouth, popularity of the subject, the artist’s popularity, and a full combination of other things. Academic presses like the one publishing your friends’ book don’t receive a lot of funding, meaning they probably can’t afford to shell out $6k-$12k for a New York publicist to hound large newspaper reviewers and radio and TV talk shows to give you some space/time to promote your book. At most they may take an ad out in Poets&Writers or some such magazine, and do what we all do, which is send review copies out with nice notes and hope for the best. What I didn’t realize until I started publishing books is that self-promotion is a writers’ greatest asset. Blogging and new media development, personal contacts, personal emails sent to potential reviewers asking for consideration, setting up readings, searching out places to advertise freely, etc. That’s what gets people’s attention and that’s what sells books. A small publisher is already busy reading other manuscripts, laying out other books, contacting printers, contacting distributers, contacting bookstores, mailing out books, setting up book fair tables, answering emails, traveling, updating calendars and websites, and trying to publicize both itself and its many authors to throw itself fully into the sink-or-swim effort of a sole title. We just can’t do it. We rely on our reputations, our author’s reputations, and a singular book’s inherent meaningfulness **and salability** for any press we may receive. Also, cover art? If you don’t have friends doing it, that’s $1k-$2k in “advertising” money right there. Book setup? $500 to $2k to a graphic designer using InDesign. Editorial and proofreading work: $1k-$3k, depending on workload. Cost of offset-printing a 300 pg hardback with dustjacket at 500 books? $6k. Advance to author on royalties? Probably nothing, but let’s be generous with $3k-$5k **if you’re looking to nail down a big name**. What should we spend on advertising, now that we’ve already spent upwards of $18k on a book that will now have to priced at $50-$60 a piece to turn a minor profit? Probably not much. To be fair, this was the old way of doing things, but many academic presses still stick to it, which is how we get academic books with a $60 price tag. If they switched to digital printing or POD, they could raise their profit margins and possibly spend more on advertising, but again, no amount of monetary “push” can help force-feed a reading public any book or author. And any book on Jeffers should be viewed as a labor of love, with the hope of garnering more interest in his poetry and lifestyle and “inhumanism.” If you are going to self-publish a book, I suggest starting a small press and printing it digitally through CreateSpace, selling it on Amazon and in ebook form through the many outlets, and spending the majority of your time contacting Jeffers devotees directly with a free copy and inviting them to blog about the book. Damn, I’m sorry that was so long, I think I just needed to get that out. Cheers, Joe Pan *** Hi Joe: Your email reply makes eminent good sense and makes me doubly glad to be an engineer with a 9-5 type job – or in my case a 0630-1500 type. Warm regards and keep doing what you’re doing, Al *** Allen, Both of my grandfathers were engineers–Martin-Marietta, Pan Am, NASA. We lived on the Space Coast in Florida. The closest I ever got to engineering was research for a 12-page poem about the MQ-9 Reaper Drone. Cheers, Joe *** There’s hope for you yet. Al *** Ha! And for you, SPD buyer of poetry. Stay well, J *** So that was the exchange. Reading back through it, there are lots of little things I would like to change or tack on, like saying that “any book of Jeffers should be viewed as a labor of love,” which discounts the possibility of an “Hours”-like novel resurrecting Jeffers in his primacy and element, which could sell a ton of books, etc. Also, certain academic presses absolutely do receive good funding, just not many of them, and not necessarily from their namesake institutions. Most university presses are non-profits that rely on outside grants and a great deal more outside funding just to say alive. Very few, if any, live off their sales entirely. Check out this TERRIFIC SLIDESHOW by Darrin Pratt of the University of Press of Colorado. To quote his findings: “No university press in the country generates an excess from its book publishing operations alone.” The University of California’s publishing unit may lead the field with $6 million in sales, but that isn’t all coming from sales, apparently. And only 30% or thereabouts is coming from the university itself. Here’s another quote: “Over the past 30-40 years, average unit sales of scholarly monographs have declined precipitously,” going from 2000-3000 typical print run copies to 300-500 copies, just as Allen had said, with a 75%-95% decline in sales. Ouch. Also, my $18k figure pales to their $31k figure for a monograph! I can only assume this was for a larger print run, but maybe not. So what’s the future for university/academic presses? How are they planning to make sales? Are they planning on making sales, or just procuring grants and monies from fund-raising? Is the book-buying business not really about book-buying any longer? I’m not trying to be a dick, I’m seriously interested in understanding how these presses hope to survive in the new decade, and whether or not they plan to phase out old methods and what new methods they plan to adopt. Chime in if you have any personally relevant information.
(Above, left to right: Christopher Hennessy, Wendy Millar, Matt Shears, Lauren Russell) I now realize that there’s no way to write about AWP without name-dropping, so let it rain! We took Brooklyn Arts Press to the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference for the first time this year. It was held in Chicago, a city I love, a chilly city, a city with dense little clusters of Williamsburg-esque neighborhoods – bars with 80′s dance beats, indy bookstores, vinyl music shops, and well-lit cafes where feverish writers tap-tap-tap and slurp chai lattes and mine their inner-space to the tunes of the New Pornographers or beam their minds to outer- with Skrillex while keeping their Twitter accounts working overtime. We didn’t quite know what to bring along, having never done this before, so we decided on shipping 30 copies of each book from our catalogue to the Congress Plaza Hotel, where we were staying, along with 400 handmade books (print, cut, whiskey, staple) containing a few samples of each writer’s work, which we intended to hand out to attendees who signed up for our mailing list. (This paid off: we left with 220 emails and lots of business cards.) But the trip didn’t start off so smoothly. Arriving at the airport, we found our bags had been placed on a later flight, which we were assured would arrive in 15 minutes. We were given a choice to have the bags delivered or to wait, so we waited. Though a $12 Starbucks coupon may be tempting, I’d encourage anyone in this position to go ahead and leave for your hotel, as your bag may not actually be on the next flight, and the time you spend playing computer chess (while the TV in the common area blares a grisly interview with the parents of a child shot to death by his schoolmate) might have been better spent nodding off in a cab. Upon arriving at the Congress, I found that the shipped box carrying the 400 pocket-sized books had been squashed, with the small books emptying out the side. No worries, though, not too many damaged (did they not have tape at the hotel?), but then our room brought a bit more distress – the internet ethernet cord was broken and I locked my laptop into a safe that refused to prompt me for a security code, for which I had to call hotel security. After taking a deep breath, washing up, and settling in, Wendy and I took a stroll down to Buddy Guy’s Legends, a blues joint downtown. The food was amazing raging cajun (I ordered the catfish smothered in crawdad gumbo) and served in large portions; the band onstage was adequately bluesy. After a bit I wandered to the bar to grab a local pale ale and watch the Bulls game. Next to me sat an elderly gentleman in a workman’s lined blue shirt and brown Stetson hat and we watched the game together and made the appropriate oohs and aahs and eyeballs for great shots. Pretty soon an entourage of musicians showed up and accosted the old man and after two cognacs he stood up and said Fuck It and walk up to the stage to great applause and sang some of the best old school blues I’ve ever heard live. This was Buddy Guy. That’s him in the photo signing a CD for Wendy. After we left, we closed down the hotel bar playing darts with poet Michael Vizsolyi, who lives in our Brooklyn neighborhood but who we had to fly all the way to Chicago to meet. Michael won the National Poetry Series in 2010 and had his book put out late last year, and was psyched to see it on display. The bartender at the Congress is also named Mike, I believe, and he was a great bartender – good service, blind pours, quick with his jokes and a busybody of sorts with anecdotes of amusing local scandals on reserve. The next day I spent selling books to a substantial portion of the roughly 10,000 attendees. At AWP I learned that if I ever lose the taste for writing and publishing, I can always make it as a carney barker. I become somehow actively more socially adept than most when I have little to lose and much to gain. Nobody got by the BAP table without some offering of my interest in them: a smile, a wave, a slatternly wink. Before arriving, I’d read an account by a blogger who credited his ability to sell more books at AWP than his rival presses by simply being prepared to engage people on all manner of subject (much like my bartender, whom I tipped generously). If our book covers didn’t catch their eye, I called out to people, pulling them back and engaging them in conversation about poetry or Brooklyn or our decision to make our chapbooks using felt 80lb paper because we admired the look and feel of it. I sold poetry to fiction writers who didn’t normally read poetry, to small press owners, to avid poetry readers, and to writers who – and this is always exciting – people who already knew of BAP, who followed the press or our writers or had read a review of one of our books. Some people actually wandered over just to talk about Brooklyn, and I sold them books, too (there were lots of Williamsburgians and Park Slopers in attendance). This back-and-forth is the great pleasure of attending AWP as the representative of an independent press. I carried on a fifteen minute conversation with one woman comparing the subtle differences between lyrical short fiction (in the case of Carol Guess’ book, Darling Endangered) and prose poetry. I spoke with a poet whose publisher had told her it was impossible to put out any poetry book as an eBook, which is simply not true, it’s just difficult, and only truly difficult if the poet uses tabs and realizes the full usage of the blank page as a spatial reality. A person from Poets & Writers stopped by to say she loved our press, and Clay from Small Press Distribution paid us a visit and tried to make us feel like rock stars. Over and over, we received the same praise – for our choice of authors and the quality of our books. It was overwhelming. If you have a small press with over 5 solid books and are wondering if the $450 table fee is worth it, I’d reply with this: $450 can get you a quarter to half-page ad in a decent-sized lit journal, or it can get you a seat at a sold-out conference full of core potential buyers, writers, supporters, reviewers, bloggers, etc who share your general if not specific interests. Now, when your press begins pulling in a little more money, you may consider seeking larger avenues of advertisement (especially in terms of supporting great literary journals), but for sheer publicity, the AWP has a lot to offer the small publisher on a budget. We sold 75 books and gave away 5 to potential reviewers for big-name journals, which means we made back the money we put into renting the table BAP, including my pass, and the books’ shipping costs. Hotel and meals were monetary losses, but worth every minute of face-time with writers and publishers and panelists. Plus, you get invited to after-parties and off-site readings, and famous writers and writers you’ve admired over the years will simply walk up to the table and start conversing with you, as if fame were an illusory stoplight at the crossroads of Fear and Celebration replaced this day by a Yield sign where you, a lonely tinker, can peddle his wares without concern that the sheriff….The AWP will not make you better at off-the-cuff elliptical metaphors. The point is, it was worth the time and money to attend. I also finally met the wonderful Bryan Borland from Sibling Rivalry Press and Assaracus, who did Christopher Hennessy and myself such a kindness by placing postcards of ours in his books, and Martin Ott, whose book BAP will publish this summer. Matthew Hittinger stopped by and showed us his forthcoming book Skin Shift (the cover is beautiful; it looks like something from a Hayao Miyazaki film) and we ran into Eduardo C. Corral (an old friend from Iowa who won the Yale Prize last year) several times as he wandered around promoting his first book, which is due out on March 11th (got my copy). I was so busy that first day that I actually forgot to eat. I did, however, get the opportunity to check out the books at the Ugly Duckling Presse table, which is my favorite small press on the planet. Their books are beautifully rendered and perfect little example of how far care, book arts craftsmanship, and strict editorial curating can carry a small publisher. UDP is the oft-overlooked cousin to the premier-level platypuses, publishers now referred to as the Big Six. If I were a dirt-flecked, mild-mannered boy with a bowlcut at a prom I would stare down Ugly Duckling all night long wondering what rash bit of daring I might enact to get her to notice me. I would imagine building an empire out of thought-provoking hand-sewn limited-editions of 19th Cent. Russian translations, which I would use to woo her, and together we would adopt and nurture little Factory Hollow Presses and Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Presses and grow them into the Groves and Eccos and New Directions of their time, and buy several islands in the Keys or Everglades and pronounce them Poetry Cities on the Swamp and defend them against pirates and gatormen and rabid critics all. But as that child I’d probably just end up trying to introduce myself and spilling punch all over the front of my jeans. The rage comic I’d go home and make afterwards would be badass, though. Shit would get mad upvotes on Reddit. Blogging is an artform of economy and grace. After the end of the first day, trekking back to our hotel, Wendy and I ran into Steve Marlowe of Foxhead Books and Paul Kerschen. We sat with them for a drink and I noticed across the way Nikki Giovanni (whom I’d met a long time ago in Virginia) and NBA-winner Nikky Finney. Famous people everywhere. Later I rolled out with Spencer Short, who has been a big supporter of BAP and my own writing, to meet Amy Lingafelter and listen to Tanya Larkin and Debbie Kuan read their work for Saturnalia with Campbell McGrath at a tater-tot-serving bar. Later still, we migrated to the Hilton for some drinks and oysters and deep poetry talk and ran into Megan Levad, Stephanie Soileau, and Jorge Sanchez (friends I rarely get to see, being in different cities) and was introduced to Steph’s old roommate, Jesmyn Ward, who just won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones. We had some drinks and laughs and then Spencer and Tanya and I headed out to another reading/karaoke thing, where we lost Tanya but picked up Heather Gibbons, who has a wonderful chapbook out, and headed down to a local townie bar for a nightcap and some dancing. I remembered to rehydrate before grabbing a cab. And that’s a pretty typical night for AWP, from what I understand. AWP is a mixer, really. It’s a place to make connections, talk about writing and publishing, get feedback and, truthfully, let loose a bit. The experience can be a bit overwhelming. I’ve seen plenty of people retreat into the corner, overcome, each with that thousand-yard stare. I’ve seen people drink their drinks too quickly out of sheer nervousness and lose balance quickly. There are definitely social butterflies in attendance, but most of us get carried along for the ride, because there are lots of panels to attend, plenty of readings to catch, plenty of book tables to sort through, new people to meet, and all of the bars and restaurants of a city to explore, that to stay still isn’t much of an option unless you choose to disappear into your hotel room, which you should probably do one night or risk getting Vegas-legs and Times-Square-eyes. The best part of AWP, for myself as a writer, is to go around thumbing through and purchasing books published by different presses and literary magazines in the hope that I might locate a few seemingly specifically tailored to my interests, aesthetics, and writing style – places I can send my work to. The best part of AWP, as a publisher, is to sit down with your writers at the table and explain to passersby just how awesome they are. We were joined first by Matt Shears, and later by Christopher Hennessy, Joe Fletcher, and Lauren Russell, each of whom took time to sit with us and sign books. Over the course of several days I had developed a shorthand way of selling each of their poetry books. I’d ask the customer what sort of poetry most interested her/him: “lyric, narrative, experimental, mythic, urban, language-y, a mixture?” For each answer, I had a book in mind. And I sold a lot of books with that simple formula in mind. If it was obvious they weren’t going to purchase a book, I pointed out the rows of handmade samplers: “Well, we’re giving away free samplers in exchange for an email address…” Christopher was having a particularly busy day when he sat down: he’d just hosted a panel that included Mark Doty, David Trinidad, Kevin Killian and Stephen Motika called “Recovery/Discovery: The Art of Bringing Queer Literary Heroes Back into Print.” And it was by some stroke of cosmic fortune that his poem “Carriers,” which we’d published in his book Love-In-Idleness, was up on the Poetry Daily website as their poem-of-the-day during the conference! Unfortunately, Carol Guess was one of the many writers locked out of the conference by limited ticket sales, and we missed her dearly (I still have yet to meet her and was looking forward to it) but we sold more copies of her book, Darling Endangered, than any other. Carol has quite the following, and fiction writers especially seem drawn to her wonderfully sonic, tightly crafted narratives. We also sold a good number of Broc Rossell’s new chapbook, even though Broc was up in Vancouver and couldn’t attend. AWP is for writers, but we brought along the art books of Jonathan Allen, Anne Beck, and Greg Slick anyhow, and those books sold as well. I could go on describing each day, but I think I’ve written enough to give you, reader, a taste of AWP as seen from the viewpoint of a small press owner attendee. The only panel I was able to attend was friend Seth Harwood‘s, as my main mission in Chicago was to stick close to the table and sell books. I would also like to take a moment to point out two small presses, started by friends, which I think you may enjoy: Nate Hoks’ press Convulsive Editions and Genevieve Kaplan’s Toad Press. Enjoy these cared-for editions to literature. I also have to say, even though you have to wait in line out in the cold for half an hour, the tacos and margaritas at Big Star in Wicker Park are to die for. My friend Johnny Schmidt, who drove up from Knoxville for the event, concurs. Shout outs to Vu Tran, Nick Arvin, the cigar-smoking Tim Liu, and Brendan Kiely from the Coffin Factory. In the end gatherings like the AWP are important because they carry forth the necessary torch of writing and reading into this new century in an open and involved way. Some day the AWP, or some conference like it, might be relegated to a Skype-systematized chatroom of sorts where we can peruse panels without concern for slow elevators or alarm clocks or crowded lobbies, but I hope it never comes to that entirely. I enjoy ebooks and I’m an internet junkie, but there’s nothing like handing a printed art object to a reader and having them observe the quality of the thing right in front of you. It’s like magic. Here, have some magic. I worked for months designing this. I read through boxes of manuscripts and edited this line for line because I am a old-school like that and I sent it to a printer who tried their damndest to print it funny but it survived its birth and now it’s here and in your hands and if that isn’t magic then what the hell is?
I’m just going to get this post out of the way. A Ride on the L, Disturbed by Blood on the Tracks http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/a-ride-on-the-l-disturbed-by-blood-on-the-tracks Before you ask: Slasher title not my own. The history: About six weeks ago I was at the Charleston again for Tuesday night trivia with Cook. I’d made my debut at the Bowery Poetry Club to exactly seven attendees, which included the bartender and sound man, my wife, Cook, two guys at the bar & Joe V who’d walked over from Harper’s to listen to me read a reckless mashup of Allen Ginsburg poems & then a puree of my own stuff for exactly 29 minutes. Afterwards, walking to the L, we bumped into Daniel Maurer, who I found out later edits the Local for the NYTimes, & his girlfriend, both of whom Cook knew & invited out to trivia in the Burg. Several shot-hours later I was being asked to report on an unfortunate experience I’d related to Mr. Maurer concerning an L Train suicide I’d (not actually) witnessed (thankfully). I was aboard the train that did the killing, but saw no body; what I did witness through one subway car window was pure chaos, & out the other a disturbing lack of human empathy, which in some small but villainous way I felt drawn to participate in, which is why Daniel asked me to write about it, which I did. I had already conducted most of the research I needed the very night of the suicide, intending to prove to myself that this thing had occurred, to frame it in history, relating my own experience to that of others. Instead, given how little info was available on the incident (2 blog posts), I stayed up all night reading about the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by train engineers and witnesses to train suicides. I read accounts of short-term disability that became long-term disability, waking nightmares, breakups, divorces, & in some cases, joblessness, when it was clear the drivers could no longer ride in a train much less drive one. When I wrote the Times piece in a whirlwind 36-hour order-in no-calls weekend, the voyeuristic aspect pervading the scene of the subway death was contained within the first four of eighteen pages, and in the final paragraph. The other fourteen pages dealt primarily with the second & more persistent tragedy, which was the affect train suicides have on the lives of survivors and witnesses, & with the fact that subway deaths go unreported by the MTA & the police, & rarely appear in the media. The piece I’d written was condensed & the sections devoted to voyeurism were printed by the Times, which you can read by following the link above. I think the piece, for that particular discussion, works well at that length. However, having read all those accounts that night, & having revisited the subject many times since, I’m moved to further investigation. I think there is a larger story here, one which I will try to extrapolate upon in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this piece, which is my first real foray into nonfiction apart from the writing I did for music magazines in my teens & twenties.