an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org
A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org

This morning, my colleague, publisher, and fellow scribbler Jason Buchholz emailed me to ask if I had seen the review of my recent book of flash fiction, small, fierce things in Mary: a Journal of New Writing.

I had not.

As the writers out there know, and most readers probably don’t, the publishing world is not what the shelves at Barnes and Noble might imply. If you are not a Stephen King or a JK Rowling, (which 99.9999999999999% of us are not) finding a publisher for your book is not the domino that sets the rest in motion: it is only the first step. The next is a lonely, shameless, and grueling campaign of self-promotion and self-marketing through any and all means, such as selling your book out of your backpack, bringing your book to local shops to see if they are willing to sell on commission, posting relentlessly into the general cacophony of social media, begging your former teachers to consider teaching the book, inviting yourself to open mics and readings, and hoping your family, friends, and people from your writer’s group are not the only people who read it. In my case, I had the help of Achiote Press and my colleague Jason, who showed up at my readings, blasted his own social media to promote my work, and as this post shows, was out there looking for reviews of my book in his spare time (when he isn’t working full time, raising a child, co-running his small press, and writing his own novels.)

How does one get reviewed if you are a small, fierce mouse and not a large, visible elephant? You beg. You send out email queries and never hear back. You mail out free review copies to anyone who will take one, and then pass out after holding your breath for a few months waiting to hear back (while sheepishly googling your book title to confirm that no one has reviewed it.)

Then you give up.

And then, if you are really really lucky, a kind soul not only reads it, but reads it closely, and writes their observations down, and publishes it. In my case, that kind, generous, thoughtful reviewer is Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org.

I don’t know Andrew, but I would like to say this: writing book reviews for small presses is the literary equivalent of volunteering to get up and sing your heart out to an invisible crowd who may or may not be there, and who may or may not be paying attention. Most reviewers of fiction are not paid for what they do… except in review copies, a very small per-review stipend ($25-$50 if you write for say, Publisher’s Weekly) and the author’s undying gratitude (even negative reviews sell books). Book reviewers, in my opinion, work harder than the authors themselves… putting their craft and art into a piece of writing about someone else’s piece of writing. They are the (mostly) unsung heroes of the publishing world. Those who do have high visibility, like NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, give solid but eventually predictable and repetitively-styled reviews as bookends (yup) to Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air. If you are everyone else, you are competing to be read by an audience terminally distracted by the sheer white noise of the net. And don’t get me started on the reviewers who treat reviewing as an exercise in cynical showboating.

So, if you’ve read this far, please doff your hat to those book reviewers out there who do this work as a labor of love, a masochistic reflex, an unspeakable kindness, or whatever it is that makes them kind enough and crazy enough to donate their precious mental resources in this act of service. Andrew Hamilton, and maryjournal.org, thank you. 

A Bird Black as the Sun: California poets on crows and ravens

A Bird Black as the Sun: California poets on crows and ravens

Please read this review on Litseen

A Bird Black As The Sun: California Poets on Crows and Ravens, edited by Enid Osborn and Cynthia Anderson
reviewed by LJ Moore

Green Poet Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-615-53632-3

The Takeaway Bin, by Toni Mirosevich

The Takeaway Bin, by Toni Mirosevich

The Takeaway Bin

The Takeaway Bin
by Toni Mirosevich
(55 pages/Spuyten Duyvil/ New York City 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-1-933132-81-5

Any archaeologist will tell you that you learn the most about a culture by what it throws away. In her new book of poetry, The Takeaway Bin, Toni Mirosevich takes the odds and ends of our post-analog language and sends them through a mystical generator inspired by Oblique Strategies, a dilemma-based game invented by Peter Schmidt and Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno (aka Brian Eno, godfather of ambient music.)

Writerly gamesmanship, in the hands of a lesser poet, might alienate the reader- offering a wink and an ironic jab to the hopes with which many readers approach poetry: to be compelled, surprised, expanded in some way. But Mirosevich is more than worthy of the task: handed a dilemma, she neither plunges her head into the sand, offering up easy but empty salvos, nor takes the academic chicken-exit, barricading herself behind impenetrable and inaccessible word-play. What Mirosevich does is demonstrate that there is a sweet spot in poetry where wit, defiance, warmth and irreverence embrace:

No one told the bird dogs. Their eagle eyes spot the morning dove and they start up. The neighbor yells “noise pollution!”and before you can say Jiminy Cricket someone else joins to pollute the argument. “You’re polluted,” she said to her hubby when he returned from the bar with six pints in him. She’d been fuming in silence on the couch, waiting for the big shebang which never came. The neighbor calls for her orange tabby, Fluffy, Fluffy,and when that doesn’t work, screams Fluffy, you prick! and the holy night is broken.”

But Mirosevich isn’t just playing just for play’s sake: beneath the wit, beneath the snappy turns of sentence, arch reversals, and tumbling teases, the rumble of deeper workings can be felt. The Takeaway Bin arises out of an ultramodern language aftermath: the fragments and shards of language we are currently left with in an age of verbal foreshortening, where Photoshop has imploded the failsafe idea that “seeing is believing,” and Wikipedia has shifted the idea of fact into the realm of a constantly updating consortium. This melee of reference points is the Takeaway Bin’s fuel, and the profound plasticity of modern reality is the engine Mirosevich harnesses:

Even though it would be nice… to go buck naked into the world… there are veils and shadows and shadow puppets in the firelight glow, someone’s hands all over the strings, ghosts who manipulate… the past is clearly no longer of use… yet what is no longer serviceable clearly persists, like a cough, or a mangle.

Mirosevich has a bat-girl-worthy toolbelt, hung with sing-song sayings, back-woods phraseology, drunk-uncle slurrings, pop-lyric retorts, nautical arabesques, down-home cliches and uber-intellectual tongue-twisters: each of which she snaps, skins, and tosses into Eno & Schmidt’s machine, which is really a helmet the poet dons in order to unthink the norm.

…somehow a slight infraction became an infarction, we turned one cheek, then the other, and soon we were spinning, face forward, then butt ugly. It’s a vertiginous life,said the prophet, a guy who’d lost his footing more than once. Before we could stand upright someone stepped on our knuckles, shove came to shove, and we went ape over the debate, creationism versus crustaceanism. You say you want an evolution, well, we all want to change the world. “He was a cretin,” Eve, said, after her first date with destiny, “a fumbler, a stumble bum.

What comes out is heartfelt nose-thumbing. Flippant and sincere, showboating and shadowboxing, sincerity and shrugs: Mirosevich is sifting through the rubble and word-noise of language and cultural legacy and coming back with a hollaback that though all thought seem pre-thunk, though all feelings used, all insights, conclusions and hopes at times seemingly mass-produced, all words only rearrangements of the same few letters, and therefore all meaning seemingly mere rearrangements of the same few words– the key is in remembering who is steering this juggernaut:

Question what is handed down, deconstruct, then sand it down… Toss aside the roof, the joists, the rafters… Sweep the darkened closet clean: of moon boots, bow ties, leisure wear… all garb in which you cannot move.

At the heart of The Takeaway Bin is a twinned idea: that reclamation and invention are not opposites, but parts of the same process, that all that distinguishes junk from jewels is the process of seeing anew.

The Broadsider: an annual magazine of rescued poems, edited by Paul Fericano

The Broadsider: an annual magazine of rescued poems, edited by Paul Fericano

The Broadsider: an annual magazine of rescued poems, edited by Paul Fericano

In 1980, eight years before the beloved, and now defunct-in-print Onion, was founded, Paul Fericano and Elio Ligi co-created Yossarian Universal News Service, a parody news site devoted to mussing Ronald Reagan’s carefully coifed politics, perpetrating literary hoaxes Charles Bukowski himself described as “ass boggling,” and refusing to recognize the emperor’s new clothes.

As if running end-patterns around political galumphers, windbags and wormtongues were not enough, Fericano also brought down Barabarella‘s ire by writing a satiric poem that touched a nerve in the California senate during the comparatively literate, pre-governator years. Fericano even took on the literati themselves, or those who purport to judge them, by inventing his own poetry prize, The Howitzer. In a twist of fate only Vonnegut himself could have penned, this award is currently listed among Fericano’s credits on the Poets & Writers website, the very venue he dreamed up the fake prize to hornswoggle.

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In addition to Fericano’s tricksterish bent toward lampoon, he is also a poet with a deep appreciation for the work of other poets. Every year, hundreds of books, anthologies, journals, zines and blogs publish remarkable poetry that, because of the small marketing budgets of micropresses or narrow circulation, reach only a limited audience. Unwilling to see notable poems disappear so quickly from view, Fericano edits and publishes The Broadsider, an annual, limited collection of author-signed broadsides.

Volumes 1 and 2 of The Broadsider include some well-established names– Diane di Prima, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, Robert Bly, and Wanda Coleman– along with emerging poets like Sara Larsen, Debbie Yee, Tom Stolmar, Angelica Jochim and leah angstman. Thematically, the work selected favors the meditative and pastoral. The following lines are representative:

“the sky’s summer lustre”

“the night wind hard in the open doorway of a boxcar”

“the orange half-light that comes between the evening and the day”

“that blue of certain hydrangeas”

“young men with light in their faces”

Though there are slightly toothier moments:

“Crone broth, swam broth, whatever doesn’t kill you”

“a sawed-off sinatra is a dangerous weapon at close range”

“you move the joystick in the direction of the spin”

“holy enor saxophone filling empty beercans with voodoo”

“crisp starches sagebrush narcs crawling campuses”

the poetry of melody forms the bulk of the collection, with few edgier or riskier offerings to pose a counter-note. Traditional free verse is also the rule in the 2009 and 2010 issues: maybe the 2011 volume will branch out to the thriving community of poets out there working in other modes.

The Broadsider is a unique offering: it rescues, distills, and redistributes. It is also a deeply personal gesture from both the editors and the poets involved. Unlike a mass-produced anthology (or the mass-produced thoughts Fericano elsewhere satirizes), it is an intimate, interactive collection created specifically for the pleasure of the reader.

2009: The Broadsider, Volume 1, Series 1-30.

2010: The Broadsider, Volume 2, Series 1-17.

Selenography, by Joshua Marie Wilkinson with polaroids by Tim Rutili

Selenography, by Joshua Marie Wilkinson with polaroids by Tim Rutili

Selenography

Selenography
by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Polaroids by Tim Rutili
(103 pages/Sidebrow Books, San Francisco 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0-9814975-2-5

If you have ever listened late at night to the sound of a river murmuring over rocks, or been somewhere very remote and heard wind moving through pines, you know the uncanny feeling that you are hearing a language that remains just at the periphery of sense. If that restless murmuring were translated into words and images, it would be Selenography, a new book by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, with Polaroids by Tim Rutili.

Selenography has a tidal energy comparable to those natural forces that only exist when in a state of motion: river, wind, coriolis. Ideas bloom out of spare lines that somehow contain more reverberations of meaning than seem possible in so few words. In a sense, these poems contain embedded information in the same way haiku do, except that Wilkinson’s poems don’t hold still with that self-contained, restrained delicacy, but detonate on the page:

a curse has
all the ingredients
to be legendary if its
children make
room
on their forearms for drawings
of what the curse
itself might do
nobody visits the sewn-up hole
in the ceiling with flashlights

Tim Rutili, a musician and filmmaker, creates an almost backroads-film-noir harmonic with thumb-printed, fuzzed-out, Polaroid images that hone-in on emotion via their fugue-like haze. Unlike pictures we usually take– to document places or events in a way that is instantly recognizable to others– Rutili’s photos capture the fragments of consciousness that actually make up real experience: red party balloons in someone’s shabby living room, rearing white, plastic horses at what appears to be a truck stop, a dog behind a chain link fence in front of an abandoned church. Rutili is documenting mood, indicating the commonality of spontaneous glimpses of meaning, of how objects and places seem inhabited by a mystical quality that comes and goes at will:

there is no love without
strangers in the street
with their murmuring
like wires
a knock at the
wall
a chalk line to cross says the boy
with the trapdoor in his eye

Together, Wilkinson’s verse and Rutili’s images offer a kind of portal into a landscape most of us only experience in dreams, where language is effortlessly made of light and dirt and focus and movement and feeling, and the only limits are how deep you are willing to go.

The Lyricism of Sluts and Drunks, a review of A Communion of Saints, by Meg Withers

The Lyricism of Sluts and Drunks, a review of A Communion of Saints, by Meg Withers

Originally published in Jacket #36

The Lyricism of Sluts and Drunks

In 1987 I was a senior in high school, living in a middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. That summer before my senior year, there were whispers along the street where I lived; one of our neighbor’s sons, a young man in his early 20’s, had come home to die. He had AIDS. Two years later, my first cousin was killed in a terrible accident — he was only 17 years old. He was not gay, but during the memorial service, the minister, caught up in the heat of his preaching, went off on a tear about the evils of the contemporary world — among them was AIDS — a sign of God’s wrath on homosexuals.

I recalled these two events while reading this book, because I realized that I had always approached the AIDS epidemic as a thing. A “thing” disconnected from people, and disconnected from first-hand experience. As with all catastrophes, there is always an attempt to find a reason, to understand why the unthinkable has happened, and most of the time the easiest place to find fault or place blame is with the victim: this is the inherent political nature of any tragedy, and the politics of the AIDS epidemic, not the actual experience of the tragedy, were really all I had experienced.

Meg Withers’ book, A Communion of Saints, approaches such a fraught subject in the spirit of this particular experience of that tragedy — by getting right in its face — literally while clutching a cocktail in one hand and a bible in the other. I think it’s important to say that I’m already focusing at this point on the tragedy, which is impossible not to take into account when writing about this period of time. But the book itself really avoids that trap — it begins like a fable, with a sympathetically fucked-up misfit arriving in paradise and being effortlessly, wondrously kidnapped into a glitzy, drunken, diva-istic, many-layered enclave of misfits.

So I mentioned that the book doesn’t fall into the trap of existing in order to explain, justify, or champion the AIDS epidemic. Neither is it a romanticization of a carefree “fuck the oppression of morality” fantasy. What I felt it was, in the reading, was an offering and an elegy. The book is dedicated to, and about, real people, who are not remembered best as “part of a tragedy” or a “symbol of a former time”. They were people with complex histories who were later caught up like insects in amber. This book sets out to explode that idea, as it also sets out to explode the idea of an easily interpreted universal morality.

The story is told in a series of candid, candy-bright prose poems. They are titled in a style reminscent of Henry Fielding in “The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild” — where each title introduces the plot of that particular poem, but written as a kind of tongue-in-cheek morality play. Examples of the titles show what I mean: “in the beginning was…”, “in which even knowledge hurts…”, “thus fear crawls its way…”, and “in the end arlene/noboyfriend visits blowhole…”. The poems themselves are highly visual and tactile. Since everyone is drunk and drugging throughout the story, it could be easy to get lost in that kind of rush of disconnected emotion and energy — but the poems are solidly anchored in physical descriptions of people, and the kaleidoscopic beauty of their personalities. They seem to match the surroundings in this bizarre way: the tropical lushness of Hawai’i that is so characterized by lushness, is full of these dazzling lushes.

Add to this a further complication: each poem is coupled with a bible passage, which, taken in the context of the poem it is paired against, emphasizes that the moral fury that rained down on those contracting AIDS and living “unclean” lifestyles came from a book that is, in it’s most popular King James version, a 397 year old revision of a smorgasbord of fairy tales, historical records, morality lessons, political gambits, mystical poetry, and elegiac biography with so many translations, contributing authors, editors and revisors that it might be safe to say that the bible is the most powerful example of the politics of storytelling in existence. I find it humorous, in the blackest possible way, that a book of stories so twisted by time and personalities can be leveled at anyone as an example of truth, or how to behave — or more sadly, a reason that some people deserve to suffer and die.

Withers knew what she was doing when she perched each of her poems atop a solid, pulsating brick of bible verse. She understood that the most incendiary thing you can do is own the thing that disowns you. And that essential polarity, that seemingly mutually exclusive cross-purpose, is a huge part of the craft of this book.

The poems are built on that matter/dark matter tension — the language is often harsh and brash, while the characters themselves are sometimes rude, off-putting and dismissive of everyone, including themselves — but the strange outcome of that harsh, falsely happy-go-lucky language creates something soft, introspective and deeply lyrical. It’s like meeting a person so used to being pummeled that they run interference by being preemptively abrasive, yet that abrasiveness is clearly a front.

Some might argue that a bar scene lifestyle is hardly lyrical. I would counter that by saying that having a bunch of sluts and drunks tell a story is a well-practiced tradition of lyric writing, e.g. Sappho, Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Joyce. Drunk people in their regular bar/pub/dionysian meadow are lyrical mouthpieces often allowed to point out (and do) the things the sober are not, giving voice to the trickier and more taboo subjects behind the constant banter of surface jokes and verbal jousts. In fact, it might be that the all-encompassing magnanimity and loosened consciousness of the happy plane of drunkenness is what allows the reader to more easily participate in the candid rush of the book.

There is also the question then, of right and wrong, since the characters themselves admit to being on the fringes of a society which deems their behavior, more often than not, wrong. Enter the monster, which makes its vain, insidious entrance in part two. I’m not talking about the monster of AIDS, I’m talking about a far more sinister monster — that some interpretations of morality lead us to believe that certain people deserve to be sick, suffer and die, while others don’t. And the dividing line between those fates is as emphemeral as a story that’s constantly being reinterpreted and retold.

I see these ideas all over the book, but here are examples: page 30, in the first poem that disease makes it’s appearance in the form of a blemish people later would come to know as Kaposi’s Sarcoma:

…we partied on…made fun of his neck/lefteyebrow/ankle when they blotched up worse…he was dead one day…we went to see a cold bronze urn…ashes/to/ashes…after doing too much cocaine/rumncokes that changed nothing…

and here:

…there is no limit now to death and dying…shadows swallow whole kuhio avenue…black cloth replacing red/yellow aloha shirts…until the dead wax more real than the living…

So, maybe the darkness has triumphed a bit in this review so far — reading back over it I see the frustration and angst I felt while reading. But let me end by saying that the book doesn’t end in that darkness. It ends, of course, in resurrection, which is what, like a lot of this story, is so disconcerting about tragedy — that if you survive it and go on living, something must be created out of that pain. And in fact, people who come after will have the double curse of not having had to suffer what the people who paved their way did.

I’ve seen ads on telephone poles in San Francisco recently that show a comic-faced young man with tousled hair, his hands pressed to his cheeks à la Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream. Above him is the caption, “Got Stress? Need HIV meds?” There’s room now for humor, there’s room now for AIDS to be no longer a death sentence, but an inconvenience.

There’s a parallel here back in the bible — that is to Jesus’ story — a sufferer-by-proxy. I am not saying that any self-respecting person who died from AIDS would welcome this comparison, I’m just trying to make the point that moral authority is a servant to the interpretation of the source. In the case of Withers’ book, all of these wider political questions become eclipsed, as I believe they should be, by the true purpose of the book: to tell the story of a group of beautiful, raucous misfits who found and befriended each other and fell in love and drank and slept around and for a while, were deliriously happy.

Meg Withers
A Communion of Saints
reviewed by L.J. Moore
58pp. Tinfish Press (www.tinfishpress.com). US$14. 9780978992941 paper