Monday, November 30, 2009

Breaking Bryan Charles News

It has come to my attention that author Bryan Charles's "Wowee Zowee," his entry in Continuum's 33 1/3 series of books based on seminal music albums, is slated for release in April. The book focuses on the 1995 album of the same name recorded by the alternative rock band Pavement.

According to Charles's MySpace blog, the book will feature "extensive interviews with all five members of the band about the WZ period, before and after etc. Also interviews with assorted label honchos, various engineers -- including the first-ever interview with Mark Venezia who recorded Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and some Wowee Zowee songs -- and cover artist Steve Keene."

Adds Charles: "Wowee Zowee is my all-time favorite record by my all-time favorite band Pavement."

Charles grew up in the same city I did. He went to the same high school and the same college. His first novel, the wonderful "Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way" (which incidentally takes its name from the Pavement song "Angel Carver Blues") reads like a semi-biographical account of my own life, set in our hometown and including episodes of restaurant dishwashing that could have come straight from my past.

All biases aside, Charles is a good writer. Read his books. Buy his books. Send him a note to say you appreciate how he acknowledges the places he's come from.

If you want a preview of what's next from Charles, an excerpt from his yet-to-be released memoir focusing on his first few years in New York City, where he now lives, was published in a recent issue of Open City.

You Say You Want a Revolution

This week I received my contributor's copy of the literary journal Struggle, or more accurately as to the journal's subtitle, I received my contributor's copy of the "Magazine of Proletarian Revolutionary Literature" called Struggle. It's a saddle-stapled, summer/fall 2009 double issue of 72 pages and it includes my prose poem/flash fiction piece "The Bear," which was accepted for publication about three years ago and which, until I received my contributor's copy this week, I thought would never actually make it to print.

The journal/magazine is a collection of poetry and short fiction ardently opposed to capitalism, war and The Man in general, and while I don't necessarily agree with all of editor Tim Hall's politics (I don't necessarily disagree with all of them either), it's a decent read and it fills that void of militant socialist dogma in print we've all been secretly pining for since the Religious Right began questioning the birthplace of our president however many months ago.

Unfortunately the publication -- "an anti-establishment, revolutionary literary journal oriented to the working-class struggle," according to its Web page -- like so many other arts institutions of late has fallen on hard times. According to a handwritten, personalized note from Hall included with my copy of the journal, the publication must raise $700 to survive.

If the inclusion of a handwritten, personalized note from the editor of a literary journal isn't enough to make you want to send him a couple bucks to carry on in a floundering economy (one that's only serving to make the focus of his publication more relevant), what is? If you feel so inclined, shoot him some support at P.O. Box 13261, Detroit, MI. 48213 or e-mail him at to see how you can help.

Hall also is involved with Communist Voice, which according to its Web page "deals with the world crisis of revolutionary theory, analyzes what happened to the revolutionary movements of the past, and opposes Stalinism, Trotskyism, anarchism and reformism." Another version of the Struggle site can be found here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Free Poetry: Ben Mirov's "Collected Ghost"

Print purists can say what they want, but the information-dissemination possibilities offered by the digital age can't be denied. One of the great opportuities offered by the medium of the Internet is free poetry, not only in the form of individual poems, but entire chapbooks and collections as well.

The latest free PDF chapbook I took a liking to is Ben Mirov's "Collected Ghost," recently released by H_NGM_N Books. "Ghost" is an apt term to describe the collection, which consists of 27 poems separated into three fairly distinct sections. The first section is the strongest of the three, with the following sections dissolving into a kind of indifferent ambiguity by the end like a ghost which, as you proceed toward the floor, dissolves into the ether.

Each of the nine poems in the first section reads like a summarization of the poet's day, as in this selection from "Fillmore Ghost": "She arrives and I can't remember her name and / she kisses me. The last three songs are dim. I can't find an ATM. I / throw the poster in the trash. My pants are covered in beer."

The poems are conversational in tone, mostly caught somewhere between free verse poetry and the prose poem, and are full of potent and telling imagery, as in "Same Ghost": "I act like myself at a coffee shop and try not / to shake. My day is a petal of in a glass of vodka."

Elsewhere in the section, the lines are inexplicable yet somehow entirely accessible at the same time, as in "Empty Set": "I can't eat anything that begins with C. I can't run faster than that guy / in my brain. I don't feel like emailing V in Morocco. He's scoring weed / and not eating lamb."

The second section of the collection is titled "Eye, Ghost," and is a series of 10 numbered poems that each consecutively weave into the next. Dominant in this section are form (each poem is 10 lines long and has similar line length) and the replacement of the personal pronoun "I" with the word "Eye," which sadly ends up seeming too much like a gimmick, being little more than a distraction from the rest of the poetry.

The strength of the second section is the various references to lines from the first section, which by the end of the second section ultimately makes one feel at least satisfied that it ties in to the collection somehow. If each poem from the first section seems like a snapshot of the poet's day, the second section is like a photo album that brings them all together.

Yet by the end of the second section one can't help but relate to the poet, who in the first line of the first poem of the series writes, "Eye woke up in a construct."

The eight poems in the third and final section seem like outtakes from the first. They follow the same sort of thematic curve, but are less effective in their execution, the collected impressions seeming more randomly thrown together, as in "Ghost Chapter": "I eat too many eggs at work. / I put too much ketchup on my hash browns. / R gets mad and throws a computer. / He can't brush his teeth."

Ultimately it's a rewarding collection. It's a quick read, and again, it's free.

As far as the poet goes, Mirov is a New York-based, widely published writer who, according to his chapbook bio, won the Diagram/New Michigan Press 2009 Chapbook Contest for his chapbook "I is to Vorticism." He edits the online journal pax americana and is poetry editor of LIT Magazine. He also keeps an interesting blog.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nisi Shawl

In my last post I listed off a number of authors with ties to my native city of Kalamazoo, Mich., concluding that despite the number of authors with impressive resumes already listed I was sure I had forgotten some. Sure enough, it's a day later and I've already realized I left a glaring hole in the list: Nisi Shawl.

Shawl is a fantasy and science-fiction writer who now lives in Seattle but lived in Kalamazoo through her high-school years. Earlier this year Shawl became the first African-American woman to win the prestigious James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, for her 2008 short-story collection "Filter House." The award is an annual $1,000 literary prize for works of science fiction or fantasy that explore the understanding of gender.

Additionally, "Filter House" and another of Shawl's works, a novella titled "Good Boy," both were nominated for 2009 World Fantasy Awards.

For more information on Shawl, follow her on her blog.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kalamazoo: Best American Poetry City

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in July 2008 Kalamazoo County, Mich., had a population of 245,912, roughly 8 million less than New York City, the cultural capital of the east, and more than 9.5 million less than Los Angeles to the west. Yet two -- two! -- poets from the area in or surrounding Kalamazoo County have had their work selected for "The Best American Poetry 2009" anthology, guest edited by David Wagoner.

The poets are John Rybicki, of Delton, who appears for his poem "This Tape Measure of Light," originally published in "Third Coast," and Kalamazoo's own Susan Blackwell Ramsey, who appears for her poem "Pickled Heads: St. Petersburg," originally published in "Prairie Schooner." This is the second consecutive appearance in the series for Rybicki, whose poem "Three Lanterns" appeared in the 2008 edition, guest edited by Charles Wright.

This poetry news comes on the heels of news that Kalamazoo resident and poet Jennifer Sweeney's second book of poetry, "How to Live on Bread and Music," won both the 2009 Perugia Press Prize and the prestigious 2009 James Laughlin Award, which is sponsored by the American Academy of Poets and is awarded each year for the most outstanding second book from an American poet, the only second-book award for poetry in the United States. Her husband, Chad Sweeney, appeared in the 2008 edition of "The Best American Poetry" for his poem "The Sentence."

Had enough proof that Kalamazoo has an abnormally high concentration of the literary elite? No? Read on.

The area also has two finalists -- two! -- for this year's National Book Award. Bonnie Jo Campbell, of Kalamazoo, is a finalist for her collection of short stories, "American Salvage," and David Small, of Mendon, is a finalist for his graphic memoir "Stitches."

And we have no shortage of area natives who are now producing quality work elsewhere. Horror writer Joe Schreiber, a former Portage resident who now resides in Hershey, Pa., released an original horror novel and a standalone "Star Wars" horror novel on the same day in October, the latter of which, "Death Troopers," reached as high as #13 on the New York Times Bests-Sellers list for Hardcover fiction (it's currenly #28). Richelle Mead, formerly of Comstock, is another New York Times best-selling author of "urban fantasy" books for both adults and teens. She's currenly based in Seattle, where she's working on three original book series at the same time. And "Wowee Zowee," Kalamazoo native turned New Yorker Bryan Charles's Pavement-based contribution to Continuum's "33 1/3" series, is due out next year. He also will be following up his 2006 novel "Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way" with a memoir of his first few years in New York City, an exerpt of which appears in the current edition of "Open City."

I'm sure I've unknowingly left some prominent names off this list, and for that I apologize, but the fact that the list runs even this long is an indication of what we're dealing with here in Kalamazoo: A total domination of the national literary landscape by native Kalamazooans. Which sounds good to me.

But, of course, I live here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Can Poetry Be Profitable?

According to publisher Dominique Raccah (at left), yes.

Raccah's Sourcebooks MediaFusion, an imprint of her independent publishing company Sourcebooks, Inc., has become the nation's leading publisher of books with integrated mixed-media. MediaFusion is responsible for the release of, among other titles, the popular "Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath," a book and three-CD combination featuring noted poets from Tennyson to Plath reading their own work.

Now Raccah's Sourcebooks has launched, a Web site with the mission to "create a place where people can discover and experience a poem that touches, moves, or inspires them and to make that experience visceral," according to the press release announcing the site's going live Nov. 4.

"We believe that can solve some of the challenges the poets themselves face in getting their work, their message, and themselves in front of readers," Raccah says in the press release. "We wanted a site that helps connect poetry readers (and potential poetry readers) and poets. And we wanted to begin developing a new business model for poetry."

Also according to the release:

"On, poets will be able to manage their own information, blog if they wish, explain and display their body of work to their own choosing, and even post their speaking or performance schedules. In essence, it's a social network for poets and poetry lovers. Both interactive and educational, visitors will be able to create their own 'favorites,' plus connect to the poets via Twitter and other social networking sites.

" will also be a business and marketing engine for poets and poetry presses. There are already three revenue streams, with several others identified and being developed. sells individual poems in different formats (audio, video or text), as well as books, ebooks, DVDs and CDs, and tickets to online performances, slams or readings."

A cursory look at the site shows there are three main areas: "PS Voices," featuring classic and contemporary poetry, where you can "Hear Great Poets Read Their Own Work"; "SpokenWord," showcasing slam and spoken-word poetry, where you can "Hear the Poetry Revolution"; and "YourMic," where you can upload your own poetry performances and videos.

I have yet to take an in-depth look at the site, but my initial impression is that it's nice to finally see someone doing something productive concerning the current state of poetry -- especially on such an intense scale -- instead of just complaining about how you can't make a living writing it.

Visit the PoetrySpeaks Web site or read the Nov. 3 Wall Street Journal article about the site for more information.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Interview with John Gallaher

John Gallaher is the author of the poetry books "Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls" (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001), "The Little Book of Guesses" (Four Way, 2007), winner of the Levis Poetry Prize, and "Map of the Folded World" (University of Akron Press, 2009), as well as the free online chapbook, "Guidebook" (Blue Hour Press, 2009). He won the Boston Review's 2009 Poetry Contest for his series of "Guidebook" poems, and is currently working on a co-authored manuscript with the poet G.C. Waldrep, titled "Your Father on the Train of Ghosts," due out in spring 2011 from BOA Editions. Gallaher also is co-editor of The Laurel Review and GreenTower Press.

I interviewed Gallaher, 44, in August for a newspaper article in advance of a reading he gave in Kalamazoo with poets Wayne Miller and Michael Robins. While he has lived in Maryville, Mo., for the past seven years, I spoke to him by phone while he was staying with family in Texas. Originally from Portland, Ore., Gallaher's family moved around a lot when he was young, and he has lived around the country, from Long Island, N.Y., to Orange County, Calif. He currently teaches in the English department at Northwest Missouri State University.

During the course of our conversation he told me how his collaboration with Waldrep on "Train of Ghosts" is the result of a project where the two e-mailed poems back and forth to each other throughout the last year, each poem based somehow on the one that came before. On some days, he said, they'd write as many as five each, and they continued until they had nearly 300 poems between them. Gallaher actually received the contract from BOA the day before our interview – the first two-author contract BOA had ever offered.

A segment of my talk with Gallaher follows below.

Poetic Desperation: Is there anything about the structure of your poetry that your feel sets it apart from the work of others?

John Gallaher: "I'm restless with that sort of thing. I don't use received forms when I write, so I don't have anything that one would look at and automatically see the historic structure of it or that sort of a thing.

"There are two ways to think of structure. A lot of people when they're thinking about structure they're thinking about the words, like how words rhyme or how words feel going across the page or something. They're very interested in the words making structure, and so when they're doing things like rhyme and such they like to play with that side of the equation, the word side. And I'm great with that in other people's work, but when I'm thinking about my own work I'm just not interested enough in that way of playing with words on a page. And so I would rather think on the other side of that, which is the things to which the words refer. Perhaps one could play with those in the same way that one plays with the words."

PD: What about thematically? Are there certain themes or words you find yourself returning to in your poetry?

JG: "I do have things that I tend to write about. The idea of the house I think about a lot. I think about family a lot, and children, what it was being a child now that I have children that are growing up (Gallaher has a 7-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son). The things they're learning and what they’re going through take me back to my own childhood, and then larger questions of how we all come into language and experience and the world. And so I'm really kind of restlessly interested in that sort of thing."

PD: Do you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer when it comes to working out your poetry?

JG: "I would consider myself the inverse of my good friend, Wayne Miller. I'm very fast. I don’t know if I'm spontaneous, but I'm fast.

"I can write very quickly, but the reason I can write very quickly is I carry a notebook with me at all times, and all during the day I'm writing things in it. And so by the time I get home at night I have several pages that are full, and so often what I'll do is actually just sit down and just transcribe out those pages, oftentimes in pretty close to the order that I wrote things down in."

You can read more from Gallaher on his blog.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Sweeneys Poetic

Probably the best part of my job as a freelance writer, aside from actually getting paid to write, is that I get to interview people I likely wouldn't have much contact with outside of a professional context. Lately this has included a number of writers, including Audrey Niffenegger ("The Time Traveler's Wife," "Her Fearful Symmetry") and horror novelist Joe Schreiber ("No Doors, No Windows," "Death Troopers"), both of whom are currently on the New York Times Best Sellers list for Hardcover Fiction at spots 18 and 20, respectively.

At the end of October I also had the opportunity to interview Jennifer and Chad Sweeney, two Kalamazoo-based, award-winning poets who will be giving a reading here at the Kalamazoo Public Library at 7 p.m. Nov. 10. Jennifer's latest collection, "How to Live on Bread and Music" (Perugia Press, 2009) won both the 2009 Perugia Press Prize and the Academy of American Poets' 2009 James Laughlin Award, the only second-book award for poetry in the United States. Chad's work appeared in "The Best American Poetry 2008," and his latest collection, "Arranging the Blaze" (Anhinga Press, 2009), clocks in at 106 pages and took him nearly 15 years to write.

The two are currently on a reading tour together down in Florida. Check them out on their Wikipedia pages, here for Jennifer and here for Chad.