The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) convention is being held this coming week in my home town of Portland, Oregon. I’ll try to post daily through the week my local observations of the main event and its various outlier happenings. One of those happenings is the concurrent publication of “Befrois the Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe Original, 2019). Editor at large Russell Bennetts will be on hand at the AWP Berfrois table with an ample supply hot off the press.
These two anthologies of contemporary writing include work by a community of writers from around the world whose collective voice argues for independent and alternative, experimental, grass roots writing and engagement in the Humanities. By calling them a community, I don’t mean to suggest I personally know any of them. I don’t. Nor am I deeply familiar with the writing of them all. I have, however, since my own discovery of Berfrois about ten years ago, and later when Queen Mob’s Teahouse went online, followed the progress of several writers appearing there, and remain a frequent reader of the sites. And of the whole I’m confident in calling it not only international but diverse in all the characteristics generally acknowledged to matter in today’s world, at least to those whose hearts beat in their chests and not in their pockets. Which is to say the community seems genuinely united in standing for freedom from tyranny or abuse of any kind in any place.
There of course we swim into deep waters, for the books, designed and published by the neophyte press Dostoyevsky Wannabe, are printed via the gargantuan Amazon. The DW press readily speaks to the issue which for some could be a show stopper – from their About page FAQ:
“Where d’you stand on the ethics of using Amazon?
We stand where every radical bookshop and arts organisation and alternative and independent organisation stand when they use Twitter and/or Facebook, or when they use a smartphone or a laptop made by another similarly faceless corporate entity who may or may not be very ethical. Ask any giant faceless corporation how ethical they are (ask their lobbyists). We stand where zine makers stand when they use Hewlett Packard or Canon printers or photocopiers. We sometimes also sit in cars and on buses that pollute the earth much the same as other independent and radical and alternative organisations. We don’t like that we have to more or less do this but we do.
Or as one of our good friends put it recently: ‘I hear Richard Kern used Kodak film for his movies. Was he really No Wave?’”
I mention the publishing platform question here in anticipation of possible staid literary critical rebuttal to the content (a criticism which might include the snobbish notion that the self-published is by definition unworthy). When Ferlinghetti began City Lights, back in the 50’s, he wanted to establish a literary community, and he did so on the back of paperbacks, at the time a sign of inferior publishing content. In any case, literary revolution was ever so, as a review of the so-called modernist journals will reveal. The work is radical at least in as much as it questions the status quo of form, content, gatekeeping (including academic), and distribution. The Berfrois and QM’sT work also seems inspired at least in part by the open source, open access, creative commons, and dropping paywall movements (particularly where academic or research papers, already in part publicly funded in many cases, are concerned). The work is Indie and Alternative, and departs from traditional industry publication methods much as the work of musicians has ventured away from the traditional recording industry – all enabled of course at least in part by technology but also perhaps by a general turning away from or shrugging of the shoulder at the popular, the mall-ed, the commercialized, but as well from the so-called credible, reliable, cited sourced and footnoted, peer reviewed. There’s a new pier in town, and it’s not Stephen’s disappointed bridge. It at least points toward something new.
Not to say though any one individual within the Berfrois and QM’sT community has not also benefited from or would refuse professional (i.e. paying) gigs. I almost framed for the wall my poem accepted and published in The Christian Science Monitor back in 2009, for which I was paid the handsome sum of $40.00. I was going to frame a cutout of the poem with the check, but I ended up cashing it to help fund my book habit. There are of course differences between writing for payment (at least one of the prerequisites to the ranks of pro) and writing for payment enough to quit one’s day job. Or night job. Or multiple jobs. Add to that one’s status as an adjunct of any organization and we wonder what kind of fuel keeps these engines running when they can only run in overtime mode. But nor is this work simply about “exposure” in lieu of pay or some sort of deferred payment or contract. Maybe, at its core, it is about the amateur spirit in writing, a spirit we remain loath to lose, as E. B. White suggested, no matter how professional we become.
So who are these spirits whose light has filled our screens and now illuminates the pages of the Book and teh Book? They do indeed include both professionals and amateurs by imprimatur and in their own right. As with any group of artists, bohemians, intellectuals, their diversity skews any leaning toward a unifying code that might undermine their independence. To what degree is calling these Berfrois or Queen Mob’s writers a community even accurate? Has someone proclaimed a movement, written a manifesto? Do they form a new school of writing, such as the Imagists, or later, the Beats? To call these writers a community might be simply to identify the line of best fit. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” as Dorothy says upon landing somewhere over the rainbow. Or maybe that’s exactly where we are, Kansas. But what exactly is an artist and where do they work and reside? Recall father and son from Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”:
“There’s that son of mine there not half my age and I’m a better man than he is any day of the week.
—Draw it mild now, Dedalus. I think it’s time for you to take a back seat, said the gentleman who had spoken before.
—No, by God! asserted Mr Dedalus. I’ll sing a tenor song against him or I’ll vault a five-barred gate against him or I’ll run with him after the hounds across the country as I did thirty years ago along with the Kerry Boy and the best man for it.
—But he’ll beat you here, said the little old man, tapping his forehead and raising his glass to drain it.
—Well, I hope he’ll be as good a man as his father. That’s all I can say, said Mr Dedalus.
—If he is, he’ll do, said the little old man.
—And thanks be to God, Johnny, said Mr Dedalus, that we lived so long and did so little harm.
—But did so much good, Simon, said the little old man gravely. Thanks be to God we lived so long and did so much good.
Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.”
Perhaps, then, there is some kind of temperament that brings and holds the Berfrois and Queen Mob’s writers together. Throughout the writing, one begins to recognize the use of certain scales. And when you mix them together you get the four body humors. And more, and there’s the humor of it. The temperament might, after all, belong to Russell Bennetts. I wonder if Russell wouldn’t prefer pizza and a beer with the hearty senior Dedalus rather than the morose Stephen. But that sets up an out of whack either or fallacy, and anyway, Russell has already invited them both.
Berfrois the Book includes work by 41 writers. Queen Mob’s Teahouse: teh Book includes work by 57 writers. Only two writers appear in both, so 96 writers from around the world represented. Many are US or UK, some Canada. New Zealand. Tokyo. Singapore. Berlin. Melbourne. Chile. Paris. Netherlands. India. Poland. That much a reader can see from the short biographies included at the end of each book, many of which though don’t name a place. In any case, Joyce said he could write anywhere. Hemingway said he could too, but maybe he wasn’t so good in some places. Where one might be located at any given moment does not necessarily betray one’s identity as a writer. For that, we must read beyond the biographies to the work. Writers travel outside time and place and person, even if they never leave their desk. As do readers.
I’ll be reading through the anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on. I’m hoping to meet up with, in person, the, as Jeremy Fernando would say, inimitable Russell Bennetts, who is apparently already in Portland town for the conference. I already missed an opportunity yesterday.
…to be continued