Mark McGurl has a new book out. I enjoyed and reviewed his previous book “The Program Era,” here, and his new work, “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon,” which appears to revive the Reading Crisis theme I first started following over at Caleb Crain’s site, is reviewed by Benjamin Kunkel in a recent Bookforum post: Sense and Saleability: How Amazon changed the way we read. After reading the Kunkel review, I don’t feel I need to read the new McGurl take.
First, it’s still too early to say what’s really going on or how dramatically it’s affected our reading, particularly the reading of the common reader (who seems to persist, in spite of the odds). Second, Mcluhan, who explains the effects of the printing press, and predicts a long time ago now the current reading crisis (not to mention a plethora of other ideas), I still find more convincing. And while McLuhan did not personally look forward to the changes in literacy his theories explained or predicted, he didn’t necessarily feel the world would be a worse place as a “global village.”
In any case, if I’m reading Kunkel correctly, what today’s gatekeepers seem to want protecting turns out to have been cut off only in its infancy:
Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the pandemic has reversed the trend. Meanwhile, over approximately the same dozen years, professors in English and other literature departments have more and more bent their attention away from the real or alleged masterpieces that formed the staple of literature courses ever since the consolidation of English as a field of study in the 1930s, and toward more popular or ordinary fare. Sometimes the new objects of study are popular books in that they belong to previously overlooked or scorned genres of “popular fiction,” such as crime novels, sci-fi, or horror: this is popularity from the standpoint of consumption. And sometimes they are popular books in the different sense that they are written, in huge quantities, by authors with few if any readers, whatever the genre of their work: this is popularity from the standpoint of production.
Theory and the Social Sciences, not to mention Reagan as governor of California ruining a good thing for the children of laborers who might have somehow discovered literature in the 50’s and 60’s and where McGurl now sits as public intellectual gatekeeper at Stanford, presumably with small cohorts of readers filling sandbags, had already altered how we read and precipitated the slide of the English Major, still a baby if born as recently as 1930. Amazon has not changed anything, at least not having to do with literature.
Meantime, James Lardner posts a recent Gatekeeper entry on the New Yorker online site, lamenting and lambasting the so called for profits (as if schools like the factory at UCLA pumping out Phds in the 60’s and 70’s is not de facto a for profit).
But not all English majors are created equal, and this one wishes he would have become a plumber like his father (having never read a book, good or bad) wanted him to become. And then he wouldn’t be sitting here writing a post no one will read on a subject few care about when he should be down in the basement checking that the plumbing didn’t freeze last night.
If to identify is to accuse, I probably shouldn’t mention Keith Kopka’s travelling punk band past in easy to get front row outlier venues where the stage is so close to the audience sweat exchanges and curls the tickets, nor mention his emergence as a poet with enough good material to fill a book, “Count Four.” Good title for a book of poems, readers waiting for the rim shot, the close cadence that bridges music and language, a command, like Basic Training drill marching, the poet soldier the sensitive one who saves the Motel 8 (or 6 or 4 or 12 bar blues) weekend pass receipt on the back of which is scribbled a waitress’s name and phone number which might appear in some future poem about a past mistake. She gotta way, don’t she, babe. And we’ll never know if she’s still a waitress (speaking of identity, and so what if she is?) or if she found success (if not happiness in apple pie crust) by turning her con artist skills into legitimate work as an adjunct and now only waitresses part time to make ends meet:
She’s a waitress, no older than nineteen, mouth caked in lipstick, pie flour streaked on her thigh. Watching her, I can tell by how she keeps her apron on during sex, that she’ll wait tables forever.
III. Lafayette, Indiana, Star City (50)
Kopka’s poetry seems to successfully bridge what should satisfy simultaneously the respectable academic reader with diplomatic credentials and the still street smart fighting guys and gals intellectually inclined but unwilling to sell their future for a degree, happy to wait for an encore they know deep down where the blood runs true will never come:
but on the entire crowd who continues to believe it, when you sing about the coal vein of hillbilly music being the only thing that keep you hangin’ on, the expensive idea that you still break our hearts, and have your heart broken.
Dwight Yoakam’s Hat (89)
Just so the key to the effectiveness and efficiencies of Kopka’s poems, which will be popular scratched on the walls of an egalitarian latrine or published in the pure pages of a Poetry magazine, where normal wears formal:
Asia is a sexual astronaut, surrounded by a radiated halo, a solar system of pleasure choices, links to videos, and a chat room.
Asia Carrera’s XXX Butt-kicking Homepage, 1998 (12)
Yet there are domestic, familial, moral imperatives, purposeful and meaningful roots to Kopka’s poetry. One doesn’t become a Punk (or poet) by chance, but by choice. The decision is existential and requires a rebirth. All life begins as a kid and spins like a top:
By then I’d circled all the way around to my father’s house again. Same house I grew up in. So I ring the doorbell, and when my father answers I start to name what I’ve lifted.
His dad sets him up in a suit in a poem that contains the ritual of a sacrament, the Sacrament of Confirmation. On the way home they rehearse a lie for his mom about how they got the suit, as if she won’t guess the truth. They won’t mention “Vinny the Tailor,” the kid’s sponsor, who never sewed a stitch in his life:
Vinny, menace of the Jersey Turnpike, man who never stitched a thing more complicated than an alibi,
Vinny the Tailor (20)
The world turns, as in a soap opera, life grows hairy, there are chores to get done, some things change and others don’t:
like an un-staked scarecrow. My aunt dries dishes while my mother washes. My uncle rolls his eyes when I toss Danielle a dish rag, and take my mother’s place
The roots of now old trees rise up, raise the sidewalk, crack the cement. You can’t go home again, but neither will you feel at home in Harvard Yard. You find yourself starting to talk about punctuation, a concern for commas:
This comma, handed down from generations of working class parents
Georgic on the Boston Comma (37)
“Count Four,” and place a comma. As good a rule as any. And with rules come sophistications, affairs of the road, where poems become counts of indictments, stories are told slant, as Emily suggested, where “Success in Circuit lies.” But there are more guns in these poems than guitars, and a violence that cries out for meaning. The words are crisp and intelligible, not muddy as if through a Marshall 100 watt amp built to take squelching and squealing abuse. The poems waiver in stereo back and forth between anecdotal narratives laced with abuse and epiphanic moments and where some never awaken from the noise of self-abuse. These poems were written over time, the book collecting from a myriad of sources, a few independent or alternative, and are brought together under the imprimatur of a vintage label. The book’s title appears in the poem “All We Do Is Begin,” as in “Begin the Beguine,” where poetry translates noise into music, mosh pit convulsions into slow dance. It’s poetry where the Punk finds their way out of the mosh pit and into the solo business of writing poems to make sense of it all:
Through the wall you heard a song end, and in its ring the singer counted to four. You were just starting to understand how he’d count four thirty times a night for twenty years. It is easy to hate what we’re given, especially when it’s all we know.
All We Do Is Begin (85).
The guns are not symbols, as any guitars might have been; they’re literal and costly and deadly and like tattoos hard to erase. And the poems come loaded with history lessons, poems like “You, Strung,” that meld the personal with the general, reality with fantasy. These are poems Holden might have written, if he had written poems. And an epigram might make for the stunning occasion of the argument, as in “Square Dance Conspiracy,” above which Henry Ford gives us his opinion on the source of jazz, which he gets wrong, though his description seems to work. In any case, “Square Dance” a great exercise in poetic apostrophe, where “Wild nights – Wild nights!” are calmed if not tamed.
I don’t get the feeling Kopka’s poems are hastily written. There’s an underlying patience, notes of growth and maturation, and his poems show both temperamental talent and writerly skills at work. The ideas begin in observation, might be confessional, but could be fictional, and ethical choices are made, dug out, and then backfilled. Description moves us forward, closer to the action:
We’re eating poutine in a courtyard canopied by hackberry trees…. Under the table, the brunette unfolds a napkin on my lap, her palm holding me through the cloth makes a slow, migratory circuit.
The Birds of Montreal (86)
There are three sections to “Count Four,” and a single poem introduction (“Interrogation”), for a total of 32 poems. The book is well organized and presented. No very short, tweet-like poems. The poems are formally written using poetic devices both hidden and obvious. Not that these need to be recognized for enjoyment of the book. The poems are accessible, and in that sense traditional and conservative, at least in form, rather than radical and blurred. There’s humor as well as remorse. The narrators are dynamic characters, changing from their beginnings as a result of their experiences. It seems there is no end to some of these experiences for each new generation that cometh. The poem “Hollywood Ave,” for example, takes a new pic of an old icon. Originally named Prospect Avenue, but changed to Hollywood Boulevard; too bad, Prospect far more telling. Or maybe the poem is about any one of the other 90,000 Hollywood Avenues spread throughout the country. And “Coke Folks” could easily be a nowadays sitcom.
Final Note: I very much enjoyed and like the poems in this book. I don’t want to be in most of them, but I imagine Keith Kopka doesn’t either these days. He’s no doubt moved on, this book seems to function as a kind of memoir, and I look forward to reading his future writing. For readers who would like to know more about Kopka now, here’s a link to an essay he wrote last year, titled PUNK ROCK, POETRY & THE MYTH OF MASCULINITY (OCTOBER 14, 2020 VOL. 1 BROOKLYN). But get a copy of “Count Four”; it’s the real thing.
Nine stories and a “Dance-Drama” by Nobel Prize winning Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata. Domestic settings around living quarters, gardens and paths, plants and pets, involving marital and extramarital relationships, post World War II thoughts and experiences in lovingly (at once sympathetic and detached) close, naturalistic readings of character motivations and responses – to one another, to nature, to self. In a “Translator’s Note,” Michael Emmerich summarizes the style:
“He [Kawabata] had to make the most of each unclaimed moment, each precious word. So it’s no surprise to find that the pieces in this collection are incredibly distilled, often dealing with the relationship between language and being, words and the past, and with being claimed, with losing possession of one’s historical self” (ix).
Not that the motivations and responses are necessarily absent any ambiguity, in spite of the lucid, no-nonsense prose. There might be an impulse to get away from one another, the hugging closeness of living together, from one’s own place, of wondering what taboos have to do with you, from, in the end, comparing and contrasting what you have with what you think others might have, to break one’s silence of the solitude that comes with living with someone else:
“Once more I seemed to have said too much. Wasn’t what I was doing like forcing a desperately wounded soldier to return to battle? Wasn’t it like violating a sanctuary of silence? It wasn’t as though Akifusa was unable to write – he could write letters or characters if he wanted to. Perhaps he had chosen to remain silent, chosen to be wordless because of some deep sorrow, some regret. Hadn’t my own experience taught me that no word can say as much as silence?” (167).
Kawabata’s writing is full of atmosphere created from the smells and sounds, visions and touch, of ordinary living. The effects might be described as calming, even if the events portrayed are not. And in that sense there is an acceptance of life the characters often in personal rebellion don’t want to accept, or, at least, wonder what life might be like on the other side of such acceptance. That is brought forth from description, dialog, shifting point of view, of course, but here the brush strokes, the word juxtapositions, the storytelling flow, just seem so perfect and create that sense one sometimes yearns from reading – a momentary relief, as Frost said of poetry, against the confusion of the world, even, again, if confusion is what it’s all about.
The copy I read is a Counterpoint (Washington, D. C.) paperback, 227 pages, Perseus Books Group (ISBN: 1-58243-022-5), 1999, but there appears to be a reprint, “revised,” which I’ve not seen, from Counterpoint (Berkeley, 2000, 248 pages).
The Ant is a nickname for Delia Del Carril, second of Pablo Neruda’s three wives, and the title of her biography, by Fernando Saez, translated into English by Jessica Sequeira and published by Fiction Advocate, a small alternative press producing e-books and excellent quality paperbacks. As an enthusiastic follower of Jessica Sequeira’s work, I early ordered and read The Ant and considered a long reflective review comparing Delia to Joyce’s Nora, whose fictional biography I read and reviewed back in April (Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial). There’s almost no basis for comparison. Delia was a wealthy and influential scion world’s away from poor Nora, and she would be cast aside by Pablo, her junior by two decades, for the younger Matilde. But Delia and Nora were born the same year, 1884, and both married men who grew to gigantic proportion in the country of books. Both were dedicated to and sacrificed for their husbands, who, it might be argued, scarcely deserved their affection. But that is love. That Pablo was no saint should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his poetry or his Memoirs. Likewise, Joyce was no saint, at least not one likely to be canonized in the eyes of Holy Mother Church. Yet both Pablo and Joyce seemed to possess boundless capabilities (some might say disabilities) for love and love’s expressions. Time is the great canceller of the postage stamp that is literature. “Neruda participated in a bohemia of bars and poverty” (86) – places from where Joyce also drew a good amount of inspiration. “Could there have been two people any more different [than Pablo and The Ant]? It’s difficult and risky to explain the origins of an interest, the unthinkable reasons that bring a couple together and make love possible. The mystery of why him, and why her, can lead to a number of questions without answer, in which there is surely more absurdity than logic” (89). “More absurdity than logic” – how’s that for a definition of literature? But don’t we go to literature to find the logic that might displace the absurdity of our lives? In any case, apart from the absurdity of the love story, there are good, practical reasons for reading Saez’s The Ant: to further our understanding and appreciation of 20th Century thought and expression; for an inside view of the history of politics, art, economics, and the geography of Chile and Argentina; and it details the ins and outs of the lives of artists and the families and friends they choose to live and correspond with. It’s possible that Delia and Nora might have met one another. They may have both been in Paris at the same time, where circles of expatriates, artists, and bohemians of both wealth and poverty often overlapped. If they did meet, would they have recognized one another? What would their talk have been about?
Most of us carry about a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. Some carry a portfolio of pictures about, anxious to show all they meet all about themselves – their family, schools, jobs, homes, accomplishments, disappointments, hobbies, books read, movies liked, places visited, lived, abandoned. Friends. Others don’t like having their picture taken, the only photo about them on their driver’s license, and that they don’t like either. Acquaintances may be more interested in your market value than in your face value.
Taken at face value, that is, legal value, net worth at birth, which may or may not bear any resemblance to one’s market value at the end of a life of living, of struggle, of getting by, of adapting to, or avoiding where possible, the more absurd cultural mores, steering as clear of the wildly ridiculous ones met on the street as one possibly can, Nora Barnacle’s life story is nominal, average, without great distinction. Most of us share a similar story. But, as the lifelong partner of the famous writer James Joyce, Nora’s life story far exceeds its salvage value – it’s a life worth a ticket-scalping.
But how should Nora’s story be told? Nora never read her husband James’s books, though he often read aloud to her from them, and she put no stock in literary values other than as a means to put food on the table, and which, as a means to make a living, for most of their lives proved woefully inadequate. They were never, until later in life and only then to satisfy the legal issues of the passing on of debts and assets and to protect their children, married, though they remained devoted to one another, having two children they were almost never separated from, living literally on top of one another in a seemingly endless succession of rented rooms, flats, shared spaces, hotel stays, sustained by gifts from sacrificing siblings and wealthy benefactors, until at long last Joyce’s reputation and writings began to produce earned royalties, distinction, and then the trappings of fame.
Joyce was always, and in all ways, a difficult man to live with. He was impractical, stubborn, inattentive, wasteful, and drank to excess. They fight and argue, Nora threatens to take the kids and leave, but of course she’s nowhere to go, but more importantly nowhere she wants to go – she wants her life with Jim to settle in with the peace and love of its original promise, which was to take her away from a life and family and place of destitution, beggary, and abuse. At the same time, they love and celebrate – their family, birthdays and holidays, their marginal achievements and successes, their apartments, the air and freedom of life away from dreary and unfair Ireland. They celebrate food and drink, family and friends, music and poetry, dance and lovemaking. Meantime, they’ve the bad luck of having to live through two World Wars and the Great Depression.
But how is the life just described, at face value, any different than most? Why do we want to know Nora’s story, particularly when, as we probably already know, she’s destroyed Jim’s letters to her and requested him to destroy her letters to him to keep private their private lives? They both remain victims, or feel victimized, to attempts to shame to control – attempts by the state, the church, society, friends and acquaintances, critics. Their attempt to live an existential life, defined by free choice, true to one another and to Jim’s belief in himself and his ability to make a difference with his writing (a difference to art, literature, and to all of the above), is a messy affair.
Readers familiar with the James Joyce story, whether fan or foe of his writing, may feel differently about the Nora Joyce story. In Nuala O’Connor’s “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” we experience the James Joyce story through the eyes and ears – the sentiments and temperament – of Nora, who tells the story in her own voice. And we get the Nora Joyce story. Nuala’s book is neither straight biography nor straight fiction. Readers may choose to focus on one or the other, but the blend is a perfect mix, and you can’t have the one without the other. The Nora here is Nuala’s Nora, not Joyce’s Nora nor even Nora’s own selfie. But you come to see that you can’t have James Joyce without Nora Joyce, nor can we have Nora without James. What a glorious and perfect union.
Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial.
Nevermind, I’m already 10 minutes late for my appointed volunteer shift at the Portland Convention Center to help out at AWP19. Turns out even 11:30 am too early for this old kid to gig. I hope my unexcused absence doesn’t reflect too poorly on my literary reputaughtshun. But I will use the time though, looking ever closer and deeper into “Berfois: The Book” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.”
Whenever confronted with conventions, I remember the Salinger story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which begins:
“THERE WERE ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.”
Why ninety-seven? The 97th Infantry Division was active in WWII, but Salinger served in the 4th Infantry Division. In any case, today, “the girl in 507” would, in addition to all her other time using activities, be on her cell phone, wouldn’t she? As for the advertising men, they might be attending an Associated Writers and Writing Programs annual convention, such as AWP19, this week being held in Portland. Portland is a good place for bananafish. Maybe something to do with all the rain. In the today Salinger story version, AWP might be an acronym for All Earwickers Post.
But the word “ear” appears only once in “Berfrois: The Book.” Six times in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.” One can read too closely. And that’s just whole words, anyway. Backing up a bit, we see “ear” appears frequently as part of other words: years, bear, Radishes, breath, Misrepresentation (in the Berfrois book); Eavesdropping, great, Picaresque, artes, Funeral, Breakfast (in the Queen Mob’s book).
The only use of the whole word “ear” found in “Berfrois the Book” is in the essay by Ed Simon, “Moved the Universe: Notes Toward an Orphic Criticism” (59:72):
“…Erato whispering in Sappho’s ear…” (59).
In his essay, Simon speaks to the mystery of literature. It’s what can’t be quizzed in class. Nor is it:
“I’ve no interest in taste, discernment, or style…” (66).
Simon is talking about the ear, about listening. He’s not asking what is literature, but where does it come from, and how does it get here. How do we hear it, learn it, learn to listen to it, for it. It’s a raw approach. It cuts through a lot of crap:
“What defines the Orphic approach is never necessarily analytical acumen (certainly not that), nor adept close readings, but rather, an ecstatic, enchanted, enraptured sense of the numinous at literature’s core. Orphic criticism is neither method nor approach, but rather attitude and perspective” (71).
For a reader, the attitude might have a bearing on Nabokov’s emphasis on relying on one’s “spine,” the “tingle” that goes up it when the magic kicks in:
“A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic…In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle” (5:6). (Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” from “Lectures on Literature,” Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980).
Simon’s essay is in form a classic argument, and a perfect example of one. Plus, we get a history of literary criticism and enough references to keep us going for some time. The essay bemoans the very academic sustenance that gave it life, but explains why. In essence, theory grows monstrous when it becomes horror to the common reader. Simon’s statement, about which there will be some disagreement, I found very persuasive, intuitive, purposeful, clear and concise yet thorough and clarion in its call to let the sound back into the word.
“What I remember most vividly is the great cleavage, in the earliest time, when the moon was torn away from us” (101).
The speaker seems to be an ecological griot, an evolutionary being that “remembers everything,” and attempts to dialog with those who may have forgotten or never knew:
“There is a memory that runs through all of us unbidden, and that can be brought to the surface with a little effort. In this effort, we stop being I and thou, which seems implausible, but I have always felt that coming to see oneself as an I in the first place was the far more remarkable way of apprehending the world, while conjuring our shared memory with all the other Is is by far less remarkable” (101).
Justin’s piece is in form a parable. Why is life so reliant on symbiotic relationships that eat one another? There is a partnership, on Earth, at least, of animal and plant life. At least one form from the animal life world has suppressed and oppressed plant life. Too, within the animal world, there are unmarked distinctions that have grown into borders creating divides that threaten all kinds of partnership. Why does life eat itself so?
We find more “ears” embedded in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.” But, before we get too far away from “the girl in 507,” we find, in QM’sT:tB, “advertising.” Only once, both books combined, do we find the word “advertising.” It’s in “Conductor,” by Nate Lippens:
“I drive around my hometown, past the Sons of Norway advertising a Saturday lutefisk lunch, past the strip mall, past the mega-stores and past the Irish sports pub where men who look like fraternal twins line the bar with boilermakers” (187).
How is disgust drawn, when even one’s mother expresses doubt? While pure hate simply ignores, or pretends to. What happens when dislike pierces the skin so often we begin not to like ourselves, and begin to scratch away at an itch the source of which we know comes from where? Do we begin to blame ourselves for being the lightning rod? Nate’s piece seems a personal essay (it could be a story, the narrator a character). The writing is visceral, honest, seemingly true to experience. The writing is clear, drives forward without blinking. The essay contains the kind of writing you feel in your spine.
We interrupt this post for a PSA (Public Service Announcement): I’ve learned that I am being given the opportunity of redeeming myself from today’s (now, as I continue these notes, yesterday’s) unexcused absence. Either tomorrow or Friday, This afternoon, I should be helping out at the Berfrois table at AWP19 for a spell. I’ll be wearing my ears and my advertising cap. If your there, the table ID is T11094. We might talk about how I’ve no doubt misread Simon and Smith, Lippens, and now Pickens?.
Meantime, in the Queen Mob’s book, we find Robyn Maree Pickens using the word “ear” in “The skeleton of a dog who is still alive” (47:57).
“She has been trained to fix her gaze on the clients’ hairlines or ear tips” (48).
The story moves in a form of dream language, which is to say surreal, both clear and unclear at once. Yet,
“Her dreams are full of bounding for terriers. They are either benign guides or soporific constellations that suffocate her eyes. They must never talk about dreams at the institute. She registers the cessation of oscillating air on her head and leaves the circle” (51).
Perhaps the secret to reading all dreams is simply this:
“All references are lost. Their lives are so short. They glisten. They hum” (57).
The Pickens story also is the kind that you feel in your spine.
This is the fifth in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.
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.
Julian Gallo’s “The Penguin and The Bird” (2018, New Horizons Editions) is an impressionistic work. It functions as a graphic novel, but one without the drawings. There are 72 short chapters spread across 122 pages of text. The chapters are organized into four parts: “Her Mother’s Violin Early Autumn, 1979,” which concludes with Chapter 13, subtitled “New York City, Ten Years Later”; the second part is titled “Diamond Street, Brooklyn New York Mid Spring 1989”; the third part is titled “Under Black Light Late Spring-Late Winter, 1990″; and the fourth and final part is titled “The Penguin and The Bird Early Spring, 1991.” These named parts allow for a traditional structure to an otherwise experimental form. Narration shifts from third person omniscient to a second person who seems to be talking both to himself and to someone else, and taken together sometimes seem to merge briefly into a third person plural. Each short chapter functions as a kind of graphic novel thought balloon, but again, without the mechanical drawing. Other characteristics of traditional genres are employed, including plot and character development, the protagonist a dynamic character who changes significantly from beginning to end, and there are traces of noir and mystery genres, Bildungsroman, minimalism, and a kind of anti-writing, a writing that both discovers and develops itself in an improvisational jazz style while at the same time destroying the very expectations it creates, and in that sense the writing is realistic. But the impressions created while reading last, and the novel must be read from an appropriate distance: too close, and the strokes won’t properly merge to create the impressions; too distant, and a reader’s preconceived ideas of what a novel should be will interfere.
The chapters in part one transition in turns from the protagonist, at the time a 13 year old boy trying to write and draw comics, to the antagonist, a Polish immigrant we will come to know as Nadja. They are sixteen years apart in age. They don’t know one another, but they will meet. The narration withholds information; or, rather, the information necessary to follow the plot unfolds to the reader as it does to the protagonist. The opening juxtaposition of the boy’s and Nadja’s situations, their predicaments, reflect the theme we will later see resolved in the last part of the novel, in Chapter 67, where Nadja tells the story about the penguin and the bird, which offers up a traditional meaning for readers who might be in need, while adding another layer to the form’s structure.
Other techniques creating symmetry are employed, and the novel takes on a sophisticated, well-structured form. The language follows the form, beginning with the short, staccato-like sentences of the boy in the beginning, followed by the visceral, sour, and surreal hallucinations of the boy’s, now 23 years old, unrequited, unparalleled, and phantasmagorical fantasies of love and sex in the “Black Light” section. Nadja may be seen as moody, but the temperament of the young man, irrational and even non-rational, his complaints, editorial asides, and tortuous though short monologues, become increasingly angry, fearful, bitter, cynical. At times, the reader may feel like the episodes are being written from Desolation Row. But the writing appears to reflect the costs or risks involved for these characters. These middle chapters are written in a kind of diarist form, self-castigating, accusing, questioning, exploring, wanting, rejecting. This is not a superficial book; its aim is discovery and honesty.
The novel ends in Flushing, New York, the style of the writing returning from the Poe-like intensity of some of the middle chapters to a settling and sober epiphany that is calm and even tender in its resolution, language, and tone. Certain scenes from other parts of the novel are repeated, but with more information now at the disposal of the reader (and protagonist).
The novel’s atmosphere is noir and nouvelle vague. There is a romantic ending, but not of the Hollywood type. While the controlling theme throughout might be love, the love theme also contains naiveté awoken and the coming of age discoveries that dispel fantasy, or at least mixes it with frustration. We see a love turn to rage as love’s perfection is seen as unattainable, unrequited, even viewed as abuse. Metaphor is used throughout to create these impressions. Because of the aphoristic style of the many short chapters, the reader begins to realize the creation of an overall rhetorical device, where one is reminded of details that did not seem all that detailed to begin with. This is another technique that adds to the impressions. Included in the setting is the Poland background history of Nadja and Lena (a foil character if there ever was one). Repetition is another rhetorical device effectively used throughout the novel, in places both in terms of plot presentation and in sentence structure. The language always follows the feeling.
There is an air of intellectualism that blows lightly over parts of the novel, exhibited by often obscure literary and popular references, and the primary characters are made interesting in part by their intellectual pursuits of, or involvement in, culture, but they are not academic intellectuals, which makes them even more interesting. They may not be even necessarily accurate in every reference, but their predicaments are alive with feeling and emotion, with comprehension coupled with lack of understanding that results in a realistic depiction of the human in love and in fear. That depiction also gives them a realistic bohemian character, an avant-garde spirit often it seems forced upon the immigrant. They have lived as well as read about their literary adventure. That life contains so much irony is another of the novel’s themes. There is also much that is witty and sarcastic, sharp and soft, in the writing. Nadja’s meeting the parents after the tryst is an example of such a scene. Though they may all maintain their “little secrets,” it’s hard to keep private in a novel.
Julian Gallo is a prolific writer, but this is the first of his twelve novels I’ve read. I’ve read a few of his shorter pieces online. “The Penguin and The Bird” is a well-designed paperback, its format of short chapters natural and contemporary for today’s online habituated readers. The mix of literary and popular culture also seems a strategic choice for marketing a novel these days. There are references to The Kinks and to The Sundays. The many references to other writers will provide readers potential reading and listening lists, Vonnegut, for example, though when our hero meets Lena, he seems to have been a bit distracted from his Mr. Rosewater, or maybe I missed a gender bender jab there? In any case, the novel may be said to borrow its short chapter format from some Vonnegut examples, also its distancing, and there’s mention of Konwicki, and Cortazar, not to mention the French Sinatra, Aznavour.
I very much enjoyed reading Julian Gallo’s “The Penguin and The Bird.” Its range is wide, from what might be called the sentimental to the gritty and uncompromising.
I’m still proofing and editing my new novel, Alma Lolloon. I hope to have it out by December. Meantime, I’m posting installments Saturdays here on the blog. Here is the third installment.
(Alma has told her knitting group she is writing a book. The book is to be about her five husbands, and the knitters agree to hear Alma reading from her book in installments at their Saturday knitting sits.)
3rd Installment of Alma Lolloon:
I simply would like to have someone to talk to, someone who actually listens to me. Is that too much to ask? So even though I don’t know you, and you might not be listening anyway, I’m talking to you, and I’m going to share everything. That’s not a trigger warning. Simply a goal. You might safely skip parts, your attention wandering. I’ve already skipped a few beginnings. But I want you to get your money’s worth. Even if you’re reading on-line for free or something, or you picked up this abused paperback copy you’re holding in the neighborhood library box. Go on, take it, read it on the bus. It takes time to read, and most of us value time. The thing is to sit down and relax. Breathe. Smell the paper and the ink, or whatever it is they print words on and with these days. Pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, a glass of wine, or pop a can of beer, or pour a juice or a clean clear glass of fresh water. Feel my hands kneading your shoulders. You carry tension there. I know. Let it go. Drop the shoulders. I know you have your own story. Let that go, too, for now.
We must have ritual. Ritual is what stops the crazy traffic on the bridge so the tall lovely ship can slip quietly by. Make some space in your day for reading as a kind of ritual. Nothing serious, of course, on the contrary, just a few quiet moments to yourself, for some peace and silence, to get away from your scares for a few moments, those voices in your head that won’t shut the hell up, or to find yourself, or to forget yourself, or to remember something you maybe should have never forgotten and is such a joy to find again. I’m well aware you could be reading something else, something more dramatic, sexy, literary, trashy, or some delightful ichor with goor and geer from some silly battle zone somewhere, or some soapy sap television shows are often stuck together with, if that’s what you like. Sure, and you’ll find soap here. I’ve eaten plenty of soap in my lifetime. My mouth is clean. Or non-fiction, some people prefer because it’s supposedly true. Nothing like getting one’s facts straight. We all need ritual, but we should not consider ritual what is merely compulsive.
“Alma Lolloon” is the title of my next novel, which is in the final proofreading and editing stages. I’m using the same publishing platform (CreateSpace) as I used for “Penina’s Letters” and “Coconut Oil,” but I’ve decided to roll chapter one onto the Toads blog to introduce the new work and to spark interest. I hope to have completed hard copies ready in December. Meantime, I’ll be posting excerpts here on the blog.
From Chapter One of the novel “Alma Lolloon”: Casting On
“Words is just sounds,” I heard Annie was saying, coming back from the lanterloo to rejoin them on the stuffed couches in the picture window at Lard’s Coffee they were Saturday morning, the knitting ladies.
“Words are noise,” Rufa nodded.
“Ah, fiddlesticks, I left my notebook in the loo,” and when I came back again they hushed like people do when they’ve been talking about you and suddenly you appear in their midst and there’s that pregnant pause.
“So you’re writing a book, then, are you, Alma,” Annie breaks the water of that wait and you could feel the rupture spill and spread across the hardwood floor.
“How long does one give labor to a book before quitting?” Hattie said with her know better than you ever will crooked smile.
“But what do you possibly have to fill a book with, Alma?” Rufa said.
“But I married five times, didn’t I, one selfish boy and four hapless men? Surely that ought to hold enough to fill a few chapters.”
“Ah, but what is good, what is marriage, what is a boy or a man? There must be some argument,” said Hattie.
“And what, pray leave me, is a wife?” Hattie went on, as is her wont, questioning everything but leaving no time for an answer before moving on to another question. Times she could be such the rhetorical bitch, and always jumping to the supposed hidden meaning of something when you hadn’t even discussed what was actually happening yet. But that Hattie was the book club hostess. The knitting Hattie was rarely so contrary. But the idea of my doing a book seems stuck in her professorial craw and she’s having trouble swallowing it.
“And I never divorced a one of my hopeless helpmates, wouldn’t you like to know?” I said, amplifying my voice a bit to hold the floor while I got something all out.