The cavernous beaux-arts building, clad in stone, steel and glass, was demolished in 1964 to make room for a plain modernist complex including an underground train station, a skyscraper and Madison Square Garden. The travesty of this loss is the subject of a heartfelt children's book, Old Penn Station, written and illustrated by William Low. The author's lush and warm paintings pay tribute to the lost architectural masterpiece by imagining them back into being. I got a chance to ask William a few questions about Old Penn Station recently.
Have you gotten a good response to this book? Are you surprised by any of the reactions?
I've had a terrific response to the book, especially with the artwork. The book took over three years to complete, so I am naturally proud of the way that it came out. However, I am surprised by the emotional response to the book. The building was torn down forty years ago and yet the outpouring of sadness and anger continues to amaze me.
Do you think this book appeals differently to New Yorkers and non- New Yorkers?
At first, I'd say yes, especially if the reader is a New Yorker who remembers the original Penn Station or has visited its crowded, underground replacement. For non-New Yorkers, I hope that the art will draw them into the story.
But I hope that this book will not be perceived as a New York book, because Penn Station really is a symbol of a broader change in America. Many believe that the destruction of Penn Station was in part, a result of changing times and attitudes during the 50's and 60's. During this age of the suburban house, many cities suffered when its middle-class residents moved out of the city. Long distance rail travel also suffered when travel by plane became affordable. This had a direct effect on cities and railroad terminals on a national scale.
What words would you use to describe the architectural vision of the old Penn Station? (note: I know you describe it in "kid-speak" in the book, but how would you describe the visual/artistic appeal in "grownup-speak"?
Grandeur comes to mind. That's something that adults can understand. But my focus is really on the child's perspective, and I would imagine that the station must have been an imposing, scary place because of its size. Converting this massive architectural space into a kid friendly place was tricky ... and I decided to focus on light and the effects of the changing light instead, to make it less imposing, more magical.
Are you a "train freak"? Do you find that trains and train stations have always been a big part of your sensibility, or is it just that there is something special about Penn Station?
My father had a Chinese hand laundry in the Bronx next to the elevated number 6 Pelham train. I used to sit for hours by the front of the store reading comics, drawing and watching the train go by. I guess that makes me a "train freak." When I was in high school, I had a part time job in a store in Grand Central Terminal and I fell in love with this space.
This was during the mid-70's, when the homeless slept in the Terminal's waiting room and it was a pretty scary place at night. The financially strapped Penn Central Railroad wanted to overturn the Terminal's Landmark status, to clear the way for its development and possible demolition. Protestors (including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) stopped traffic on Park Avenue South, determined to save Grand Central Terminal from the fate of Penn Station. That was the first time that I heard about this station and upon further research, I rediscovered the original Pennsylvania Station and my heart was broken by its loss.
Do you think the proposed relocation of Penn Station in the Farley Post Office across the street will be a success? Are you excited about it, or do you have mixed feelings about this attempt to replace what was lost?
I have mixed feelings about this project for a number of reasons. I don't know if the new station will ever be built, given the cost and size of the project. Of course, I welcome any change and I would even tolerate the inconvenience during this new construction. But the Farley Bulding is on Eighth Avenue; the station will go further west. That extra block makes a big difference in terms of accessibility, convenience and ease of use.
What are some of your favorite works of classical architecture in New York City that have not been torn down?
Grand Central Terminal is at the top of the list. I just love the restoration and the attention to detail. As a Long Island commuter, I am jealous that we do not get to pass by this incredible station on a daily basis.
What are some of your favorite train stations in cities other than New York?
I've been to the magnificent Amtrak station in Philadelphia and the Union Station in Washington D.C. is also terrific. One day, I'd love to visit the large train stations in Europe.
You can see more of William Low's work at his website. You may recognize his richly expressive painting style if you've ever seen the classic Penguin paperback series of John Steinbeck novels for which he once painted a series of evocative and memorable covers.
But it's his own city that brings out this author's deepest convictions, and Old Penn Station stands as a personal statement about the importance of great public artwork for young growing minds. William Low will be signing copies of this book at Books of Wonder in New York City on Saturday, May 19 (information can be found on on the store's website).
This is the work of The Movement Group, a very original dance troupe founded by a young woman named Aynsley Vandenbroucke. She conceived and choreographed this 50-minute work, which begins tensely as Dawn Springer, Djamila Moore and Kristen Warnick take tentative steps around a wide floor, muttering the poem's opening lines, "Let us go then, you and I." Typing paper appears as the first symbolic element, as the dancers box themselves in with stacks of blank pages and try fitfully to sleep, until one of them has a burst of inspiration and sends a jet of white papers flying into the air. But moods change again, and they sadly sweep the mess up, embarrassed. Two of the dancers engage in a hilarious dual-voiced pastiche while spinning coffee cups, and eventually the three dancers curl up like crabs, become old, turn into crashing waves and then into spinning mermaids, attempt to hug and touch each other, and finally find peace, falling asleep in three separate spots on the floor.
I am no expert in modern dance, but I found the experience dazzling. I got a chance to ask Aynsley Vandenbroucke a few questions about this work in an email interview this week:
Where did the idea come from? Have other choreographers done work like this?
Well, actually someone (Ariane Anthony) created a dance/theater piece based on "Prufrock" a few years ago. I didn't get to see it, but her work is really interesting. I was annoyed when I found out she was doing it, because I'd had this piece in mind for a few years. For a while, I thought I shouldn't go ahead and make mine because she'd just done one. But then this year, I realized I really needed to make it. And that it would be my own take and style anyways.
Another choreographer I can think of is Alexandra Beller. I think she did a piece related to Sartre's "No Exit". I can't think of other pieces in dance that are built around particular poems or existing works of writing, but I'm sure they exist.
Working on this piece also brought home strong similarities between the art forms of poetry and modern dance. I felt like they're both working with images and essences in a way that is very experiential and not necessarily linear. I think that way of working is the beauty of both forms and also what sometimes makes them hard for new audiences.
Can you tell me about your own personal encounter with T. S. Eliot's poem?
I first read the poem senior year in high school. We had to memorize and recite a few lines for the class. At the time, I thought the memorizing assignment was silly. But then the poem really stayed in my head... I would find myself repeating lines and thinking about it regularly. When I think back on it, it was a lovely poem to have people read as they're about to leave home and high school. It was a time when we were all asking questions, wondering what to do with our lives, how to find meaning.
The poem has always touched me deeply. Here is this man experiencing the nuances and concerns that I feel. They're not so wierd or unusual and they're not made pretty in a fake way. I've always been particularly pierced by the lines about "one turning her head should say, 'That is not what I meant at all, that is not it at all'." This human (and artistic) experience of trying to share what is inside, to be met.
When I first heard that your piece dramatized Eliot's poem with three women dancers, I was wondering what role gender would play. Of course, Eliot's poem is about a man who sees women as somewhat alien -- and yet in your poem it seems the women *are* T. S. Eliot (or, to be more precise, they are J. Alfred Prufrock). Was this gender switch part of the meaning of the work, for you, or was it an incidental choice?
My company is generally all women, just because that's the way it's worked out, not for any particular statement. I too was curious how we would deal with these beautiful young women being parts of Prufrock. At the same time, what I wanted to explore was human experiences that I think transcend gender. I've always related to Prufrock and I've always read his concerns as more universal, fundamental than being about a particular man relating, trying to relate to a woman. We had some interesting discussions in rehearsal about Eliot and his relationship with women. But again, I felt that what he is getting to in the poem is much bigger.
I understand that you are involved in Buddhism (as I am as well, and as T. S. Eliot was too). Do you see "Prufrock" as in any sense a Buddhist-themed work, a meditation upon "desire", and did this play a role in your conceptualizing of the dance?
Yes! For me "Prufrock" is deeply related to a Buddhist focus on awareness of life and death. If I am aware of the preciousness of my life and that it is going to end, I want to make sure I spend every minute of it taking advantage of being alive. Prufrock seems aware of time slipping away and yet he is not quite able to take charge of how he is going to spend it. I find myself constantly checking in during my every day life. Am I worrying about parting my hair? Am I worrying about eating a peach? Is this the way I want to spend my life? If I've only got a short amount of time, how do I want to spend it and what kinds of risks make it worth living?
I've written elsewhere on LitKicks about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. We each have our own favorite poems in the world; this is mine. In fact, the only other poem I like nearly as much is Eliot's later, longer The Waste Land, which has much in common with Prufrock (both deal with the dread of sexual intimacy, both are "purgative" works infused with nearly pathological honesty, and both personify human beings as cities, and cities as human beings).
If Aynsley Vandenbroucke and her talented dancers ever decide to take on The Waste Land, I'll be there on opening night. Till then, try to catch this show while you can.
I'm in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO's groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny's living room is like an art gallery -- no, it's like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I'm here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn't seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn't born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny's friends, who would gather and perform open mic's at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny's original passion) in the early 1990's.
I've been chatting with Susan Winters Smith, a long-time friend and patient of the controversial late psychiatrist portrayed as the near-crazy "Doctor Finch" in Augusten Burroughs's Running With Scissors. I wanted to ask some questions about the real-life doctor, who died in 2000 and is now being played by Brian Cox in a fairly successful movie version of the book.
Susan is currently working with an agent on her own book deal regarding Doctor Rodolph Turcotte of Northampton, Massachusetts, so I appreciated her taking the time to tell me about her own personal experience with this difficult-to-understand figure.
The events portrayed in Running With Scissors took place in Northampton, a university town surrounding Smith College (where Sylvia Plath was once a student). The doctor had many friends and ran a thriving practice, but he was also fairly famous around town for his emphatically non-conformist ways. He would cover himself with balloons and parade through town for the appreciation of fatherhood, for instance. On the darker side, according to Burroughs's memoir, he was a crazily permissive super-patriarch who ruled an impossibly disorganized and filthy household that amounted to a 24-hour nonstop id-fest. Burroughs also alleges numerous financial and sexual abuses (any many lawsuits and private settlements have ensued since the publication of the book).
A memorial website for Doctor Turcotte can be easily found, as well as a humble and attractive poetry website for Augusten's mother, Margaret Robison (and, of course, Augusten Burroughs has a website too). Each of these sources describe utterly different views of the kaleidoscope, so it was refreshing for me to be able to ask Ms. Smith some basic questions.
Who was Rodolph Turcotte?
He was an innovator in family therapy, a Jungian with a great interest in synchronicity and the spiritual aspects of the human psyche. He believed that mental illness was a result of an interruption in the growth process, and that growth was accomplished through relationships. When his patients had no supportive family relationships, he would bring people into his own family.
He was always a top scholar, served his country in WWII and Korea, and was honorably discharged as a Captain in the US Air Force. He was also a concerned social and political activist, a peace activist who wrote hundreds of letters-to-the-editor, and was outspoken on every issue that concerned him, sometimes incurring the wrath of people in positions of power.
He believed that he was guided by God, and he followed that Divine Guidance wherever it led.
The book and movie paint a damning picture, portraying him as a con-man with horrifying personal habits. Is this treatment fair?
Was Augusten Burroughs unfair? I make no attempt to get into his mind. I cannot testify as to whether he actually believes what he wrote. All I can say is that my memory, and that of many others who were there, is significantly different than his.
What about the alleged eccentric housekeeping, the horrible unsanitary filth that all the members of the household somehow seemed to thrive in?
Eccentric housekeeping? There were a lot of people in that house, and it was "lived in". If the sink was piled with dirty dishes (as mine often is), it didn't last long. People pitched in and kept it quite acceptable. I never ever saw it as it was portrayed in the movie.
From about 1973 to 1990, the house was always full of activity, with creative interesting people involved in fascinating projects, and relating to each other in an atmosphere of free verbal expression.(Any form of physical violence was forbidden). On a Sunday, when Doc invited everyone in for Pot Luck dinners, there would be doctors, lawyers, professors, musicians, mathematicians, all interacting, brainstorming, arguing. It was inspirational. Of course (as you may know), a psychiatrist's family could be quite adept at adopting the language of the psychoanalyst and teasing each other about being "anal" or "projecting" their own sins onto another. Alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity was extremely discouraged in that household. Those were not advocated as creative outlets.
He did not believe in keeping a patient to the 45 minute hour. He rarely prescribed drugs, and I would not say that he believed in sexual permissiveness.
What can you tell me about his wife, "Agnes"?
Mrs. Claire Turcotte, who celebrated 50 years of marriage to the doctor before his death, is a marvelous woman who, in my opinion, in no way resembles "Agnes" in Burroughs tale. She was not a weakling, sitting around eating dog food. She was a very strong woman who had no problem asserting herself with anyone, especially her husband, with whom she had many philosophical differences. She helped him care for many people over the years, and was dubbed "the Red Carpet Lady" for her graciousness. She always offered a cup of coffee, a sandwich, and a shoulder to cry on. She never watched horror movies, but did like documentaries and investigative reports. In her younger days she was a champion tennis player. Later in life she sang with the local Young at Heart chorus.
She is 87, and in a protected situation watched over by her children.
What about the kids?
They were, and are, very intelligent and talented people. One is a neuroscientist, one is a graduate of Mt. Holyoke and Smith, one went to the Boston Conservatory of Music, one graduated from UMass in Art and English, one is a professional singer, and another is a very talented writer and artist. They were affected in many ways by the community disapproval of their father. Most of his biological children sided with his wife in wanting him to be the establishment doctor and play by all the rules, which of course he would not do. Yet, they all loved him, and had some appreciation for his idealism also. June ["Hope"] was his strongest supporter.
How did you meet him?
My husband and I sought out Doctor Turcotte for some marriage counseling in 1975, at the urging of another couple who was seeing him. We became good friends with him and his family, participated in several of his projects, and learned a great deal about families and relationships. We raised our three children to be strong, healthy people, and took in nieces and nephews and a handicapped uncle, and continue to support strong family relationships with all of our brothers and sisters and their families. We expect to remain happily married for the rest of our days.
Did the doctor realize how eccentric he was? Did he ever have doubts about his methods, or regrets about some of the things that went so wrong around him?
Doc did have a couple of regrets ... for some of his outspokenness over the years. Knowing that repressing his anger could cause cardiac stress, he allowed his anger free expression, and a couple of times he forgot to size up his adversary beforehand. There were times when he looked back and wished he'd done some things differently, yes. He admitted to having made some mistakes with his kids and wished he had been more aware in that area.
He once fell in love with a patient, and though he never regretted the feeling, he often said later that he was embarrassed by his own foolishness in that matter, acting like a silly school boy. He quoted his old mentor Dr. Elvin Semrad who said that "Falling in love is the only socially acceptable psychosis".
When Doc was being questioned by the Hearing Officer of the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine, he allowed himself some angry outbursts in the board r oom, not realizing at the time that this man was the sole decision maker in the case, and held Turcotte's license in his hands. For many years he regretted not having educated himself as to the actual workings of the board.He had assumed that he was being judged by a panel of his peers and not by one man.
The Doctor did not regret his outside-the-box methodology, as he felt that that box was too restrictive, and unhealthy. He felt that the whole system that we live in was not functioning in a healthy way...too much crime, mental illness, etc., mostly as a result of the lack of what he defined as "fathering", healthy emotional growth through relationships.
Did he have doubts? He suffered from periodical depressions. He believed that these depressions were reactive to his life circumstances and not part of a bi-polar disorder. When he came out of them he was stronger and more creative than ever. He frequently reality tested and re-examined all of his beliefs and theories, and would reassert their validity.
He did occasionally trust people that perhaps he should not have. I sometimes thought him naive in that, but he insisted that he had to trust in the goodness of people. Of course he got burned. Some thought that taking mentally ill people into his family was pure folly, and there were two who turned on him, perhaps with transference of rage, and ultimately brought about his loss of license.
Did you have doubts when he was your doctor? Or when you read Running With The Scissors?
Burroughs, whom I knew as Christopher Robison, did not cause me any doubts about the Doctor's theories or methods. I was there. I knew the story.
Yes, I had doubts on and off from the beginning of my family's relationship with the Doctor. I may have been the Doctor's worst skeptic. I made him prove everything to me, and I observed human nature myself, and I put his teachings into practice and saw them work. My husband and I have helped many people with these methods.
Is Dr. Turcotte in some sense an example of 60's/70's pop psychology gone amok? This was the age of I'm OK, You're OK, R. D. Laing, Gestalt, Psychology Today, Dr. Spock. In a sense I see Dr. Turcotte as an extremist outgrowth of this cultural phenomenon. Am I on to something here?
Well, when he was interning in OBGYN he gave every patient of his a copy of Dr. Spock's book. And, yes, he was a liberal.
Thanks to Susan Winters Smith for a very interesting conversation!
Suffice it to say, Matthew Pearl stands alone at an intersection between popular fiction and literary history. He might be compared to Dan Brown, but unlike Dan Brown he takes academic research seriously and works hard to earn the respect of the experts in his fields. His work also hints at complex psychological themes, and it's no coincidence that the writers he illuminates in his imaginary plots are among the darkest voices in the history of literature.
The young author's second novel is The Poe Shadow, a fictional and near-dreamlike spin through mid-18th Century Baltimore and Paris in the aftermath of Edgar Allan Poe's sudden death. Like The Dante Club, the new novel presents literary history in a genre setting to very pleasing effect, and is generating heated reviews and much attention from readers.
I had a chance to ask Matthew Pearl a few questions in an ongoing email interview. We talked about Poe, Dante, history and fiction, and Pearl offered some controversial ideas about how literary criticism is practiced in our time.
ASHER: There is a general perception that Edgar Allan Poe was an uncontrollable alcoholic with a self-destructive streak. Your book leads a reader to believe that this is entirely untrue. Are you convinced that the popular conception of Poe's troubled life and death are wrong?
PEARL: Poe was self-destructive but not entirely, and his drinking was far more complicated than people (scholars and public) usually want it to be. We tend to de-historicize, and superimpose our own experiences on the past. We drink, and we understand the difference between "having a drink" and "getting drunk." Between 1840-1850 (Poe dies in 1849), American males drank more alcohol -- undiluted with any water, mind you! -- than anytime in our history before or since. To whatever extent Poe was obliged to drink, the minimum expected of an adult male would be frighteningly large, and Poe clearly could not handle even a small amount of alcohol. This does not mean there were not times when he actively drank too much, he admitted he did, but the idea of Poe as Bohemian drunk, as a pre-Jim Morrison, seems to me all wrong. The actual documentary evidence points to Poe being hardly able to drink a minimum amount of alcohol, rather than someone who drank to excess.
There are other health issues that may have impacted Poe's drinking, and his behavior generally, and these still need sorting out. I hope readers of The Poe Shadow might consider resetting their ideas about Poe just a bit. Even if one concludes Poe was an alcoholic (and I don't, obviously), it is important, at least, to see it was something Poe fought against, not something he embraced. Again, there are interesting questions to ask ourselves. Why are we so anxious for Poe to be drunk? Do we want to believe that only someone intoxicated could write what he wrote? Does that rationalize our desire to drink, or let us "explain" Poe's writing in an easy way?
ASHER: You're presenting a vision of Poe as a purer writer -- devoted to his admittedly spooky and disturbing craft but capable of separating his life from it. Where do you think most academics and Poe experts stand on this question? Have you caught any flak for this book yet?
PEARL: Poe experts are pretty accustomed to a range of opinions about Poe. Scholars have actually been supportive of the book and my research. My findings about Poe's death will actually be published in the academic journal, Edgar Allan Poe Review.
ASHER: You seem to have managed a difficult balance here. In one sense, your books seem similar to Dan Brown's in that they are entertaining works of historical fiction. But nobody (as far as I know) takes Dan Brown seriously as a historian. As you continue to become more well-known as a novelist, are you concerned that this balance may become harder to maintain?
PEARL: I do not know that it would be a function of being well-known or not. As with my fiction writing, if I am proud of my scholarship then I feel satisfied. I cannot control what anyone else thinks. I also hope to write nonfiction books, and have no plans to write exclusively one type of book.
ASHER: How did you become a writer?
PEARL: I guess I became a novelist by accident. I was in law school and reluctant to be a lawyer, in part because I didn't feel that I was good at most of it (though there were areas I found interesting, and still do, from an academic and historical point of view). I played around with a "chapter" of The Dante Club one night in my apartment in New Haven -- at that point, the book was just a storyline in my head. I read it over. I thought "Well, this isn't bad at all!" It probably was bad. I don't think I have those test pages because my computer crashed at some point and they wouldn't resemble anything in the novel (they dealt with the characters discovering George Washington Greene, their elder member, stuck in ice in the mountains, if I remember correctly).
That night -- or over the course of a couple of days -- working on those test pages made me a fiction writer, in retrospect. I was too timid to tell anyone when I started writing the book. It just grew and grew into a project that could have been pretty destructive to me -- really, I should have been working on my law stuff. I had no reason to think I could pull it off well, and certainly no right to think that I could find an agent, a publisher, etc. It wasn't a very rational decision, looking back.
ASHER: There are shades of Quentin Clark [the main character in The Poe Shadow, and a reluctant lawyer] in this comment -- is Quentin Clark Matthew Pearl?
PEARL: Sure, there are some coincidences, or non-coincidences. Quentin is a better lawyer than I would have been, though.
ASHER: In your two novels, The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, you have depicted not two but three distinct literary worlds: Dante in Florence, the Transcendentalists in Boston, and Poe in Baltimore. Are Poe and Dante your two favorite writers, as the evidence would suggest?
PEARL: Well, yes, they are two writers that have been meaningful to my reading and life. Of course, writing these novels made me feel more engaged with both.
ASHER: You hint at a rivalry between Poe and, if I remember correctly, Longfellow. Can you shed some light about this? Since you portray both very favorably, I wonder where you stand on the matter yourself (whatever exactly the matter is, or was).
PEARL: Poe accused Longfellow of plagiarism. It became something of a sensation in the literary world because of the fight that followed. This was more or less a publicity stunt, though it got such negative publicity it backfired on Poe, as with most business decisions. Longfellow stayed out of it, for the most part, but his friends fought back against Poe. The fight was a stand-in for many other things, including Boston's rivalry with New York.
ASHER: Very inte resting ... and, in your opinion, was Longfellow actually a plagiarist? If you were a lawyer and this case was going to court, whose side would you prefer to argue -- Poe's or Longfellow's?
PEARL: No, Longfellow was not a plagiarist anymore than any of us are for using the English language (Poe's main complaint). What an interesting thought -- a court case between the two sides! I suppose Poe's side would be more interesting, but Longfellow's side is the winning one.
ASHER: Dante Club inspired me to read Inferno for the first time. I was quite fascinated, but at the same time I find Dante's single-mindedness frustrating. I certainly feel the power of his work, but I am confused when I hear Dante compared to, say, Shakespeare -- it seems to me that Shakespeare had a much broader range. Can you fill me in on the source of your deep connection to Dante?
PEARL: Dante is broad in a different way, with the range of his topics rather than stories or styles. Dante's fame is based on a single work, of course, as opposed to Shakespeare's range. It's the depth of Dante that's so remarkable. He is relentless in his insistence on the importance of his poem, and somehow this infects readers who otherwise wouldn't care about many of the topics -- at least some readers.
ASHER: I think that's a great point -- I noticed as well that admirers of Dante's work often talk about the force of Dante's personality, and about the travails of his life. Would it be far to say that both Dante and Poe were literary celebrities in their own time? Is there something about the concept of literary celebrity that particularly interests you?
PEARL: I am very interested by literary celebrity, and both Dante and Poe experienced it in some degree. Or, in Poe's case, he aimed for literary celebrity and never quite achieved it. In his own lifetime, he was more of a literary anti-celebrity, the guy who today would be on Page Six for fighting with an author more respected than he is. The guy whose achievements were bogged down by rumors and apparently strange antics. Longfellow was more genuinely a celebrity. People would stop him in the streets, particularly in his later years. Imagine that today, a poet stopped in the streets! It was also common for writers like Longfellow to have their autographs cut out of letters and sold, or even their signatures forged and sold. I use this in a few scenes in The Dante Club because that just seems so proto-eBay.
ASHER: I also delved further into Poe after reading The Poe Shadow -- I had never read the Dupin mysteries before, and I was shocked to discover what looks to me like the template for Sherlock Holmes in the character of Dupin. Now that you've cleared Longfellow of the charge of plagiarism, do you think we might convict Arthur Conan Doyle of this charge?
PEARL: First let me say your reading more Dante and Poe in conjunction with the two novels is very gratifying for me. And your comments about Dupin are right on: it was my first reaction, too. "This is just like Sherlock Holmes!" Conan Doyle made no secret of it, and credited Dupin as the better detective. Plagiarism, probably not, but inspiration, deeply, and I think it's time for people to rediscover the Dupin tales (which is why I was happy to republish them as a standalone edition through Modern Library, for which I have a page on my site).
ASHER: I've observed, and I hope you don't mind me saying so, that you don't strain too hard to make your novels utterly plausible. In fact, over a year ago I wrote an article that compared your Dante Club to Da Vinci Code in which I called you the better writer but called Brown the better plotter, in that there were a number of spots in Dante Club where I felt I had to suspend disbelief (most notably, the idea that these lofty writers of New England would not seek help from the police in solving their mystery).
Similarly, while this did not impair my enjoyment of The Poe Shadow at all, I did notice that this plot depended on numerous coincidences, mainly in terms of Quentin Clark magically finding himself at the exact right spot at the exact right moment to observe the next unfolding of the plot, which seems strange in a city the size of 19th Century Baltimore. As a writer, how important is plausibility to you? Do you agree with my appraisal that the coincidences of Poe Shadow depart from utter believability, or do you think my criticism here is misguided?
PEARL: I have to say I think most of that is opinion -- and opinion is the right of every reader -- so I do not know if it's fruitful for me to lay out other points of view, except to say that for any opinion one reader has about a particular element in my book (or any book) I can guarantee to find a reader who has the opposite opinion about the same element (for instance, I get emails about both books saying they were so plausible, they questioned whether they were fiction). This is not a right or wrong proposition, but certainly The Dante Club explains why they can't go to the police (and opinion can follow on whether a reader would agree with the reasons).
The only thing I'd say, regarding The Poe Shadow, is the plot is designed to seem much much more external than it actually is -- and Quentin interprets it as much more external than it is, too. Almost everything in the plot is generated by Quentin's own actions and imagination (including the letter that provokes the Baron to get involved), so it is not coincidence that he is present for the moments of the plot, since he is the plot, in a way. He converts random events into plot in his mind, and interprets them as happening to him. One could even read the entire book as taking place in Quentin's imagination, though I would not necessarily advocate that reading. For much of the story Quentin is spying on the competing investigators, so it also builds in that his observation of things around the city would make sense.
This is not to say I am against coincidence -- it has its role in every story, and its own literary importance we shouldn't dismiss or become too cynical about in an age of faux "reality" media. Coincidence is part of reality, too.
ASHER: What do you think of Baudelaire and T. S. Eliot (two of my favorite authors who happen to share your interest in Dante and Poe?) -- might either of them be the inspiration of a future Pearl novel?
PEARL: Baudelaire and Eliot had similar strengths and weaknesses, in my opinion. Both were profoundly self-aware not just of their writing but their identities as writers. This lead both to different sorts of crises of identity. Eliot is one of my favorite poets and probably the reason I'm so engrossed by thinking about the relationship between literary periods over time. "what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow" -- can't get better than that.
ASHER: What contemporary fiction writers do you most admire?
PEARL: Wow, that's a tough one. Whenever anyone asks my favorite movies or books my mind draws a blank as though I've never seen a movie or read a book. I really like David Liss as someone who pushes historical fiction in a great direction (I haven't yet read his new contemporary book), Arthur Phillips is exciting, too, and I loved Zoe Heller's Notes from a Scandal.
ASHER: You've been touring Europe and the world -- how is your novel being received around the world? Do you enjoy this type of activity?
PEARL: The Dante Club was published in about 42 countries, including some I couldn't find on a map (Estonia? Ok, I'm not good with geography to begin with). The publishers are all supposed to send copies of the books when they're published, though not all of them do, but I have a shelf with all the foreign editions which is a real kick in a silly way.
On a personal level, the travel has been one of the best parts of publishing these two books. Before The Dante Club was published, I had only been out of the country twice, Canada when I was very young and England when I was in college. Since The Dante Club, I have been to something like 13 countries on the books' nickels, including multiple times to England, Italy and Spain. It's great to see Poe fans everywhere -- he's bigger in Europe than here.
ASHER: Have you generally been treated well by critics?
PEARL: For both books, I have received amazing reviews, good reviews, and some horrible reviews. You get used to it, I guess, though it's certainly one of the stranger parts of the process. I've had a few reviews that read like personal attacks, on my age or my educational background or my success (by whatever definition of it they're using), and these just mystify me. Probably my favorite recent review was one of The Poe Shadow by Jasper Fforde because he's a novelist I really admire, and I actually have all of his books! To be honest, I am probably just as or more excited when I receive an email or message from a fan talking about how much they enjoy one or both books, than by a review. There's just something about how self-motivated that fan is, not only to pick up the book and read the book, but also take the time to share their response with me, that is really gratifying and affirming.
ASHER: Having published two novels, do you think of the publishing industry as generally healthy and functional? What, if anything, would you like to change about the way books are produced and sold, and about the way writers are treated?
PEARL: Big question, Levi! It would probably take three times the length of the whole interview to give my thoughts, but I'll just throw a few things out there.
First, on the bright side, I'd say my experience has been that publishing is filled with really smart, really motivated and dedicated people. I have worked extensively with two different editors (Jon Karp and now Jennifer Hershey) and the same literary agent (Suzanne Gluck, whom I couldn't live without) throughout the process of writing and publishing my two novels, as well as two publishers (Ann Godoff and now Gina Centrello) and two publicists (Todd Doughty and now Kate Blum) at the publishing house, and they have all been superb. (Hey, I'm sure not everyone in the industry is as great, but I can only speak from my experience).
Also on the bright side, I think it's largely a fair business in terms of the setup in relation to writers. I say this in comparison with other media-related fields, like the music industry which, if I understand correctly, deducts marketing expenses from the artists' payments. Yikes!
Now, things to change. I'll toss out two problem areas, at least problems in my opinion. First, the book reviews, which I touched on a bit earlier. There are some deep, fundamental problems in the way the system works. There is, of course, the strange fact at the outset that you as an author are being reviewed by your rivals. Imagine if this was the case in any other field? Imagine if rival film directors were reviewing each others' movies, and this was what we read in the newspapers? I don't think it would be allowed, at least not without that being the whole explicit point, but that's exactly the case frequently in books. There may be no way around it, but it makes for a blatantly odd dynamic -- particularly since within publishing the advances (how much money an author is paid up front) are often public knowledge.
The flip side of the problem with rivals: you can just as easily call it a friend problem. I don't think anyone would stoop to reviewing his or her friend directly, but it's just not that big of a world, and writers know writers who know other writers or their agents or publishers who are close with other writers. There are many writers I feel I know and I root for (or don't root for, after hearing stories of rudeness or unprofessional behavior) even though I've never met them, because of these sorts of indirect connections.
Second problem, the way reviews are assigned (even putting aside the rival/friend situations). There are so many times where a book is reviewed by someone completely inappropriate. I think there should be a simple rule: if a person would not buy and read a book on their own, they should not be reviewing it. I had one vicious (Imean vicious) review of The Dante Club in which the reviewer started the review by ridiculing the premise. Okay, well, this person would not buy the book, right, so is he really the right person to publish a review? Forget journalistic ethics, try out decency and decline writing the review. (From what I found out later, this reviewer had also been rejected for a book of his own by my editor and publishing house, so that would also fall into the category of problems with "rivals" reviewing).
Third, and this is the deep dark not-so secret of the industry, there are some reviewers (and let me be very very clear that this is a generalization -- this applies only to a small fraction of reviewers) who are simply not good readers; they tend to read quickly and sloppily, maybe because they are on a tight deadline, maybe because it simply isn't their priority and they are fitting it in between other activities (most reviews are not written by full-time critics). There are reviewers, yes, believe it or not, who *skim*. I've had reviews (both positive and critical) that make major factual mistakes in talking about my books, I mean, talking about characters who *are not in the book*.
Again, this is not meant to be a generalization, and I think the good reviewers and book page editors would be the first to agree and point out the changes that need to be made. Publishers and writers are understandably scared to say anything or defend books, because there can be repercussions, so I think it falls to readers to be vigilant.
More than anything else, I hate when I see reviewers being disrespectful. It's not about every review of every book needing to be positive, but even a critical review can be respectful of the fact that the writer probably took years to write the book and are putting part of their writing career on the line, and the reviewer is taking a few days or weeks to do their piece at no risk to themselves. It's asymmetrical warfare, because it's very cheap and easy for a review to be backbiting and vicious, and a potential reader is more likely to see that than to give a new author a chance, and there's nothing an author can do about it.
I'm not talking about myself now, because I'm lucky enough to be at the point of having some degree of a readership and I don't live or die on reviews, one way or the other. Plus I have support from a major publisher who can afford advertising and other means of communicating about the book to the public. But the disrespectful reviews can destroy a first time writer, and being a first time writer is a hard enough position to be in. And don't write a review under the premise of informing everyone how you would have written the book differently; again, not fair, you didn't write the book.
If all of this would make reviews lean a bit less negatively, I say unequivocally "good"; when accepting the trend of disrespectful and patronizing reviews, we are sabotaging careers of authors -- human beings, remember, not just names -- who have probably worked years to get the chance to publish; at worst, if we (readers, writers, editors and critics) stand up against these and end up with something more responsible and civilized, we may be encouraging a few more readers to be open-minded.
I'm also thinking of reviewers who are out to prove themselves smarter than the author on whatever the author is writing about; again, what's the point of this? In all likelihood, the author has probably dedicated years studying the subject (if nonfiction, for instance, or nonfictiony fiction) and again it's asymmetrical warfa re because the author has no forum for reacting. I had a review of my new book in which the reviewer clearly had only read two Poe stories, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell Tale Heart, and attacked me because I didn't capture The Pit and the Pendulum's themes in my book. I didn't want or try to capture The Pit and the Pendulum -- hey, I love the story too, but Poe wrote about 80 stories and the truth is many of them not about premature burial are really interesting.
It was obviously important to this critic to prove that he knew more about Poe than I did, even though it's really, really unlikely (and believe me, not all of Poe's 80 stories are great or so fun to read, so I'm not saying he should know as much about Poe, just that he should have some respect). Unknowingly, critics like that are imitating none other than Poe himself, who was brutally unfair as a critic, although self-aware enough to be tongue-in-cheek about it.
I don't think book reviews are even fact checked. I don't know why. In addition the mistakes I already mentioned, I have had reviews incorrectly point out anachronisms, too. I'm not perfect on this front (I don't think anyone can be). But if they're wrong, and I know it, what do I do? On two occasions, I've emailed the reviewers noting that, in fact, the words or phrases they picked out were not anachronisms. The first, not disagreeing, said I could write a letter to the editor. Well, sure, I could, but should that be my responsibility? What about a correction on their part? The second basically said, oh yeah, they're not anachronisms, and offered no recourse or even an apology.
I've had reviews for both of my novels point out typos -- yes, typos, in a 400 page novel; just disingenuous, as anyone in any form of publishing or journalism, or even who has been on a high school newspaper, knows.
I'm frequently asked to write reviews for major publications and, although flattered, I politely decline because I see too many problems in the practice. Plus, I freely admit, I don't know if I'd be immune, for instance, to the dynamics I mentioned above of feeling in competition or camaraderie with authors I'm asked to review. I don't have answers to most of the problems (and I'm open minded enough that maybe you could convince me they're not problems) but I think the questions are worth raising and the call for respect and decency a must. Again, I think the good, responsible reviewers and editors would tend to agree with most of what I've said, and would have much more insight into it than I do.
One other thing I'd say about what can improve in the publishing industry, if I haven't said too much already: We need to publish more books translated from other languages. I think we miss out by not doing so (I think only about 5% of our books are translated, compared to 30%-50% in many European countries). Also, many authors in other countries cannot earn a living because the English language market is so important and they can't break into it, even when they are hugely acclaimed and successful in their own markets.
ASHER: You obviously know a tremendous amount about literature in general, and about famous literary controversies specifically. I thought it would be interesting to run a bunch of other hot-button literary enigmas by you and see what you think about them. Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?
ASHER: What was the deal with Lord Byron and his sister? And what was the deal with Lord Byron, period?
PEARL: Byron's the first beat poet. Anyway, sister is such a subjective word.
ASHER: Why did Virginia Woolf (or Sylvia Plath, or Anne Sexton, if you prefer) kill herself?
PEARL: Hmmmm... which one was played by Gwyneth Paltrow?
ASHER: All of them, as far as I can tell. Why was Pushkin killed?
PEARL: Wow, I actually didn't know he was.
ASHER: If there were a cage match between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would win?
PEARL: Papa Hem, definitely. But Scott would be tragic in his loss.
ASHER: What is J. D. Salinger doing right now?
ASHER: Finally, what other literary worlds will you be taking us too in your next novels?
PEARL: I hope some of my novels will return to the literary world, particularly literary Boston, however I don't have a master plan, so I can't know for sure. As of now, I haven't decided on my third novel.
ASHER: Thanks for doing this interview with me, and I'm thrilled to realize I could beat you at Jeopardy in at least one category (Pushkin).
Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett's work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: "The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV."
Steve Aylett's new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age when "dozens of new magazines appeared, with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling...Useless...Appalling, Made-Up ... Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups" and editors would order up "an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman" for the cover of a typical issue.
I like to call Aylett's work a combination of sci-fi, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It's like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.
Karloff's Circus lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.
Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. "Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups," he tells us, or "Pause any country and you'll spot subliminal torture in the frame."
Jacque Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett's prose so much -- he gives us plenty of raw material to process.
I asked the author some questions by email:
Q: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can "pick up" on while reading.
Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some's almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there's the running gags or repetitions like the "Snail, Sarge" conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don't like all that there's always the story to fall back on.
Q: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone's mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.
Steve: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I'll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn't manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it's the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment's scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn't really mean anything. It's all just people.
Q: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the "Fall Marshall" is this a reference to the idea of the "fall of man?"
Steve: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall's album The Marshall Suite -- and he is marshalling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.
Q: Which is better -- for countries to worry continuously about other countries' ability to build nuclear bombs, or the "stalemate effect" of each country already having nuclear bombs?
Steve: As long as America has the 'pre-emptive' policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it's probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn't like an even fight) -- but in any case there'll be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It's inevitable.
Q: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?
Steve: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.
Q: Now I'm sort of freaked out because I'm not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie was with us until 1996 ... are you serious?
Steve: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance.
Unfortunately, it was crap.
I think I'd got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a 'name' of some kind, and I didn't know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane -- temporarily.
Q: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.
Steve: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics -- that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.
Q: Near the end of Karloff's Circus we read, "On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings."
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?
Steve: I don't think the book occurs in Mike Abblatia's mind/dreams or whatever -- it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.
Q: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac's Doctor Sax, even though they aren't all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?
Steve: Yes, I've read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.
Q: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?
Steve: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).
Q: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man -- P atrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?
Steve: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I'd go for him.
Q: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of "isn't it" all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, "Well, Lint is American, isn't he?"
Steve: English people say isn't, aint, aren't, innit, wot, and other things.
Jamelah Earle: A lot of people are forced to read poetry in school and then make a point never to touch it again because it was boring or they didn't understand it or their teacher smelled like mothballs or some combination thereof. Say those people were to read this interview -- what would you tell them? Is poetry something necessary (outside of the echo chamber of poets, teachers, intellectuals, etc.)?
Gary Mex Glazner: First let me say how much I appreciate the forum LitKicks provides to do this interview. Last summer I was working in a poet-in-the-school program with a group of students who had all flunked at least two classes, these kids were culled from all the middle school students in Santa Fe. It was a really hard class, we were in trailer, no water, no air conditioning and three classes of twenty-five to thirty students.
It turned out their average reading level was fourth grade and they were acting out a lot to hide the fact that they couldn't read, couldn't pronounce words, just had really low skills. The day before the class ended one of the students as he was leaving said, "You're looking for a Columbine." At first I just blew it off, but later that night I thought I should tell someone. We had a meeting with the principal and the school therapist. The student denied even having ever heard of Columbine. It was chilling, later it came out his father had a large collection of guns and had been reported to the state Child Protection Agency for beating the boy. It was only the Friday before where that kid in Arizona had shot his family. As I left that meeting someone hit me in the back of the head with a rock. Ouch, taking a rock for poetry!
As a poet I see a value in poetry that can help kids to be creative, can help them to learn language skills and public speaking skills. Those skills are useful to most professions. Studying poetry isn't the only way to get those skills but seeing that there is something practical and useful in poetry can help to reach students that otherwise might dismiss poetry.
I think it can be a great outlet especially for young people. I was lucky after that experience to start working with a group of students at Desert Academy. The class is an elective so all the kids want to be there. The group is called the Precision Poetry Drill Team and they were featured on NPR's "All Things Considered" in April, you can check out the broadcast at this link:
I don't think we should force people to learn poetry and I think in general that after the basics are mastered students should have more say in their curriculum.
JE: Is there anything you really hate about the modern poetry scene? Why?
GMG: The division between academic poetry and performance or slam or cafe or street poetry -- which ever name you choose to call poetry outside of the university system -- bugs me. When it gets down to it, both sides love the art form and have more in common than what they have in common with an avid football fan. The so-called poetry wars would be laughable if the academic side didn't control so much of the funding for poetry. If I could echo the famous line, "Can't we all just get along?"
JE: A common perception is that the general public doesn't have an interest in poetry, making it hard (if not impossible) to make a living as a poet, yet that's what you're doing -- making a living as a poet. Even so, from your experience, would you say this perception carries any weight? Are you a special case, or is poetry something anyone can pursue as a career?
GMG: If poetry is of use to the community, it is pretty easy to get paid. I am the director of the Alzheimer's Poetry Project, alzpoetry.com and have recently received funding from the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission to expand the program to include a Spanish speaking poet and a Native American poet. The State of New Mexico awarding funding to help expand the program to rural parts of the State.
That is just one of the programs I talk about in How to Make a Living as a Poet, and of course I hope this interview will point people to the book. I have about ten interviews in the book with other poets, including Mary Karr, Sherman Alexie, Naomi Shihab Nye all touching on different aspects of generating income from poetry, so I don't think I am a special case. I am working on a follow up book that will come out next year that has about twenty-five interviews with poets who make their living from their poetry, so it can done.
If I say to you I am a free lance writer, people don't automatically say, "But what is your day job?" I see being a poet as similar. I put poetry at the center of all my actives in generating income. I have done radio, digital film, set type and run old printing presses, worked with everyone from YMCA after school programs, to MFA graduate students, to Alzheimer's patients. Don't limit yourself to what poetry can be, be as creative in bringing poetry into the world as you are in writing it. In the fall, I am going to start working with a program that puts poets into the break-room for ER doctors and nurses. The idea is they can hear a poem, or write one them selves. It's an intense environment and I am looking seeing if I can make poetry work there.
JE: Online writing (from blogs to messageboards) has become a really popular medium in the past few years. While it has allowed people who may have never had a chance before to find an encouraging audience, do you think that the proliferation of online writing has helped or hurt those hoping to make it as writers?
Check out my blog: http://howtopoet.blogspot.com.
I think blogs can be useful tools in helping to build the audience for poetry. I am also very interested in podcasts as a way to get poetry out and help build the audience. I will be teaching a literary journal class this year at Desert Academy here in Santa Fe and plan to have the students explore both blogs and podcasts, as well as learn how to set type and how to run the old printing presses at the 400-year-old Palace of the Governor's Museum.
JE: Your book, How to Make a Living as a Poet, serves as a guide to turn writing into an actual profession. Why did you think it was important to write it?
GMG: I kept getting requests on how to get sponsorships, how to pull off some of the projects I was successful in doing, like the Slam America tour with Grande Marnier. (Here is a scoop for LitKicks, the film "Busload of Poets" which documents the tour, just sold to the Documentary Channel, a new cable channel which will launch in November.) So I kept getting phone calls and people pulling me aside and asking about getting funding for their poetry projects and I realized I had enough material for a book. Soft Skull liked the idea enough to make it a three book series, so the second book, How to Make a Life as a Poet (working title) will come out in April of 2006 and the third book, with the working title of The Readers Respond will come out in April of 2007. The idea with the third book is to gather stories on how readers have used the first two books, how the ideas have worked, good or bad and tell those stories. We are collecting them at http://howtopoet.blogspot.com/
So there is a chance for LitKicks readers to get published. I would also be interested in essays on the general topic of making a living as a poet, pro or con.
JE: To switch gears a little, you're attuned to spoken word and the slam scene and also ran the Bowery Poetry Club for awhile. With all this experience, you probably have some opinions on poetry readings. What do you think makes a good poetry performance? What makes a bad one? Does it take a special kind of writing to sound good when read live?
GMG: I am a big fan of the "Naked Poets" from L.A., also, drinking helps. In general though if the poets are to be clothed, I tend to drift to something original, in presentation, form, subject matter. "Make it new," says Ezra Dog Pound. Bad for me are most open-mics, but I think that might have to do with starting to attend them in the late seventies, I just have been to so many bad open-mics. I like to hear more of one person, in a featured reading setting, give the person a chance to shine, an opportunity to push themselves and present a range of their work. Having said that, some of the hip-hop flavored open-mics at the Bowery Poetry Club have been amazing, the late night "Crunk" works for me.
Jamelah Earle: I was looking at your website and it appears that you have a lot of projects. What are some of the latest things you've been working on?
John Lawson: Our big June release is Terror-Dot-Gov: Docufictions by Harold Jaffe. It takes a unique approach that blends nonfiction and fiction, covering the war on terror in a way that is both sad and hilarious. Last month we had Spider Pie: Salacious Selections by Alyssa Sturgill. She's one of the great new surrealists, and we're excited to be the ones handling her debut book. Our most ambitious work yet is a move away from digital printing (print on demand) to do a substantial press run for the uncouth thriller Play Dead by Michael A. Arnzen, which will be out in August. And, of course, our most challenging collaboration yet: a son due in late July! I guess you'd call that a "limited edition." Seriously, though, I believe we'll have released something like 15 titles in 21 different editions during 2005. Of course, that doesn't count the various eBook editions we'll be putting out -- eight electronic formats for each book. So it's busy, busy, busy, considering we're just two people with some volunteers.
JE: What do you think about today's literary establishment? Did it play a role in your getting into indie publishing? How did you get into indie publishing?
JL: Well, I took the roundabout way. I started off as an aspiring screenwriter, completing scripts between sessions in the studio -- I used to be an audio engineer. That ended when I got encouragement from producers, although the final sale continued to elude me. As a writer of "weird" stuff it turned out I need somebody else's stamp on me before producers would invest. So I began selling articles and short stories, and pretty soon the Hollywood scene didn't matter anymore. Then, trying to sell my books, it became clear today's literary climate
isn't too much different than Hollywood. So I tracked down the most outrageous publisher I could find, Eraserhead Press, and asked how I could help them. My intentions were to help the literary rebels thrive so alternative voices would have a better chance. I started out as editor of EHP's online ublication, then moved up to Head of Promotions. It was actually Carlton Mellick III, EHP's founder, who suggested I break off and start my own company. His philosophy is that there can never be "too many" unusual publishers out there, and I agree. Ironically, as a side note, a UK producer is making me an offer on one of my scripts, so my plan worked...it took many years, but I finally made it.
JE: Do you think online writing is a good way for writers to find an audience, or does the fact that there are so many message boards, blogs and personal websites make it harder for unknown writers to have their voices heard above the fray? Is online writing a viable alternative to print?
JL: Online writing is one of the most under-utilized aspects of the publishing industry. The role of the indie publisher/author could really fall under the heading "guerilla writing." There's a great essay by Harold Jaffe illustrating how the five tenets of guerilla warfare can be applied to freethinking publishing in the current (corporate) publishing landscape. The major publishing and the midlevel people often have such bulky infrastructures that they can't respond to new developments until it's way too late. Our company springs from the advent of the Internet. We started as editors of an online literary journal, and all of our books have sprung from contacts we made there. There are plenty of webzines and message boards, and while traditionalists dismiss it all out of hand it's worth looking into. For us the zine is not only a testing ground for working with writers, but it's a free marketing tool. You can't beat it. Plus, our printer accepts the book files via online upload, sales reports from our distributor are updated daily online, we sell well through the multitude of online shops, we use online chats for promo, get our authors featured at various websites... the potential is endless.
As an author, there are plenty of low-grade webzines and message
boards, and others that put out product better than most "small press" magazines. There are serious readers and publishing professionals watching what happens on the Internet, and there are plenty of idiots too. It doesn't matter. Make a good impression on them all wherever and whenever you can. If you look at through the mindset of free advertising it would be insane not to put your writing out there in electronic format, even if you're just talking reprints. From where I sit, relying on the web has accelerated the growth of my writing career by at least five years, if not more. The contacts I've made with authors, editors, and readers have been invaluable.
JE: You run Raw Dog Screaming Press and an online literary journal, The Dream People, and I read on one of your pages that you "publish the unpublishable". How would you describe this so-called unpublishable writing? What kind of gap do you think your publishing projects fill?
JL: All the conglomerates to spring from the wave of mergers begun in the 1980's, they aren't willing to invest in authors so much as they invest in categories. What, then, becomes of the cross-genre author? The fringe literature? That's where we step in. Our focus is on the fringe, whether it's absurdism, surrealism, offbeat literary genre stuff, Beat-style work... essentially, material that's hard to pigeonhole, yet is sellable to multiple audiences. A lot of the stuff we've leaped at has passed through the hands of other companies because they don't "get" what the author is trying to do. The answer is obvious: they're telling a good story! Just because you won't find a section in the bookstore dedicated to a particular style doesn't mean it's an invalid approach. It just means us lazy publishers need to figure out how to sell/who to sell it to. We're gaining ground quickly, because there are people everywhere interested in all types of fiction, who want to see something fresh, something uninhibited. Despite popular opinion the sales are there, you just need to find a way to get the word out.
JE: Does being published by someone else give a writer more credibility than self-publishing?
JL: Well, that all depends. I know several publishers who do so little in terms of book design or promotion that you're better off self-publishing. That way you at least have some control over how the book looks and you know up front that you have to handle all promo yourself. Then again, you'll need to do some self-promotion even with the largest companies -- they may have a department dedicated to promo, but each person will be handling four or more books, and their staffs are being cut back all the time. As far as reviews are concerned, it's nearly impossible to get a reviewer to consider something you published yourself. By the same token, a new publishing company will encounter difficulty getting reviews, even for books by veteran authors, simply because it's expected that new companies will fail and nobody wants to waste their time on you.
Everything in publishing is a battle of attrition. The longer you stick with it the more people will take you seriously, because the shoddy companies will fail, or the authors who lack dedication will return to their day jobs, and you'll be left standing when the dust settles. The rules for promo are the same whether you're an indie publisher or a self-published author. It takes about six to twelve months to get recognized, and maybe a year to three years to see substantial profit coming in from a release. That's because you're relying, largely, on word-of-mouth promo, which also happens to be the best sort of promo around.
JE: What kind of advice would you give those who may be looking to get into publishing (either just their own work or the work of others)?
JL: There are plenty of books on the subject, so spend a few months researching the publishing industry to see what's expected out of you as a publisher or as a writer. When you do something, do something you
love because as I said you'll be promoting it for a while. Stick with it no matter what. One of the things I always tell myself is "Neither victory nor defeat shall affect me," which sounds corny I guess, but it's easy to get sidetracked by a bad review or a successful author signing. As long as you do five things a day for your company you can't go wrong. And, about bad reviews, research indicates that some people buy stuff reviewers trash to spite the reviewer, so it's never a completely bad thing. And lastly, right now might be the best time ever to get into publishing. Relying on digital printing means you don't need a crazy business loan to start up, and as I said the Internet gives you free access to readers on a global scale. Then if things go well you're in a position to go in any direction you want.
reVerse skillfully and surprisingly takes 14 tracks of poetry, song and every shade in between, then weaves them together into a CD that is an insightful representation of some of the best lyrical minds writing today. The strength in this collection is definitely the diversity. From Li-Young Lee's steady opening track "Echo and Shadow" (backed by guitar and a haunting vocal), to the jarring chaos of Marvin Tate's "Take Off Your Shoes and Run" and later the gospel-toned "Words Are My Salvation" by poet Sherrille Lamb, listeners will quickly and directly gain a sense of the range in today's poetry scene. reVerse juxtaposes seemingly unlikely collaborators in such a way that you feel they were meant to collide. Some tracks are purely spoken word, some poets read alongside music in a range of styles and there are a few straight up music tracks thrown in -- but then again, where does poetry end and music begin? Alexi Murdoch's "Song For You" is a real hidden gem on this CD, as is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's performance of "History of the Airplane" and Kent Foreman's rapid-fire "It's About Time". Lou Reed fans will want to be sure to catch his reading of "The City and the Sea" and the intense, quiet "What It Was" almost told as a secret by poet Mark Strand will make you want to be the unnamed subject of his performance. Each track exists strongly on its own merit, but it's the sum of all parts that is the power behind this work. Listening to the CD in one sitting is an accurate re-creation of styles and personalities you could find at any poetry reading -- that is if you're lucky enough to attend a reading by the likes I've mentioned above.
reVerse does what it sets out to do. It blurs the line even further between music and poetry while celebrating them both and much more.
KC Clarke, Executive Director of The Poetry Center of Chicago and creator of reVerse recently took some time to share his thoughts on poetry, performance and the birth of reVerse:
Caryn Thurman: I'm curious how you first became interested in poetry and who some of your first influences were. How did you decide to make poetry a major part of your life?
KC Clarke: I first became interested in poetry in grade school through my 4th grade teacher Mr. Sutherland. He had a poet visit my classroom. We were living in Detroit at the time. Soon afterwards, my mother gave me my first books of poetry: Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost. I remember reading these books and in most cases having no idea what was going on, but loving it anyway. I've never been successful in resisting the artistic impulse. All said, I think poetry decided that it would be a part of my life. This sounds corny, I know, but I've sworn off poetry on several occasions and even got away from it entirely for a six year stretch during the late 1990s. This lead to a big relapse -- taking on the job as The Poetry Center's executive director. I think major league baseball is partially responsible for my poetry inclinations, but that is different conversation all together.
Poetry is the one area where I can include all of my artistic whateverings -- a cross genre of mediums and contents reduced into words. For me, the structures of poetry make it one of the most wonderfully morphable of art forms.
CT: I know the reVerse project has been a long time in the making. What prompted you to take on such a big project? How did the idea form and how has it evolved since you first started on the collection to what it is today?
KC: I love music. I'm always looking for good new work, even if it is only new to me. For instance, my recent obsessions include Interpol, The Faint and Arcade Fire. In a few months I'll start digging around and find some other bands/artists. Anyway, I don't have many choices in recordings of poetry. There isn't that much out there that combines poetry and music with respect to the art form of poetry. Most of the stuff out there either self-indulgent or is poorly recorded and produced.
I've always loved the Sire Records "Just Say Yes" compilations from the late 1980s. I think well-produced compilations do a good job at introducing people to new artists and artistic concepts. "Just Say Yes" put Depeche Mode with Ice-T and The Throwing Muses. Brilliant. Lots of electronica artists have become known through compilations. The fringe of music and the art of poetry aren't all that different is some respects. So put the solutions/outcomes/influences of all these things together and you get reVerse.
CT: I read a bit about the selection of the musician on the reVerse website -- did the final roster of artists grow and evolve over time or did you have a strong idea of who and what you wanted to include all along? Did you request specific works from them or did they select pieces they felt most strongly about?
KC: We had a pretty good idea of what people would offer since we asked for demos in advance. We included as many different aesthetics as we could. After our first studio session, we listened to the tracks over and over and found stuff we hated or were bugged by and fixed or replaced those things in other sessions. Alexi Murdoch and Lou Reed were wonderful late additions. We fell in love with Murdoch's EP Four Songs. "Song for You" is Murdoch's favorite from that album. We thought the piece Reed offered went spookily well with Ferlinghetti's piece, though they are thematically unrelated. The fact that Reed was featured on Just Say Mao, Volume III of "Just Say Yes" in 1989 is too perfect, for me at least.
CT: I see on the site that you refer to the current CD as reVerse Volume 1 -- I assume that a Volume 2 is in the works? When can we expect the next reVerse?
KC: Yes! We are working on Volume 2. I hope it doesn't take three years. But since it might take us two years to get the word out about reVerse Volume 1, who knows. There are not a lot of channels by which to easily promote and distribute a weird hybrid thing like reVerse, so we are in this for the long haul.
CT: I see you have a strong web presence with reVerse and The Poetry Center -- how do you feel the online world and "blogosphere" is changing the face of literature? Or is it at all? For better or worse?
KC: reVerse is primarily available via the internet. reVerse is its own little shop thanks to the internet. The net is good for literature, especially poetry. The traditional poetry publishing biz has produced lots of good and lots of bad books. One can find good and bad poetry on the internet as well. OK, nothing new in that comparison. Traditional news and information sources don't seem to consider poetry newsworthy. Can you imagine something like Blackbook actually devoting a dedicated corner of its magazine to poetry? Well maybe, but it is not likely. But we don't have to rely on Blackbook for our poetry, do we? We have the "blogoshpere." Viva la blogosphere! The only thing that is a bit scary about the internet is anyone anywhere can sit in front of a monitor in their underwear eating a block of cheese simultaneously posting outrageo us claims of being a sort of savior of poetry or whatever. People believe what they read. Hopefully as time passes we'll be more able to sort fact from fiction and enjoy both as they should be.
CT: Many writers on LitKicks have notebooks and notebooks (or document files and document files) of their writing, but may have never attempted to read their work in public. What advice would you give to someone who needs a little pep talk in this situation?
KC: I believe these writers should host their own poetry readings. Doesn't matter where. Host readings on a rooftop or in a garage. This way these writers can read their work for each other. They can invite other poets to come read. I'm completely serious. Reading in public is kind of like writing. A poet has to read a lot of poetry and write a lot of poetry to produce good poetry. Most people have to read their own poetry to an audience to become good at giving a reading. A Sony minidisk recorder is a handy tool. A poet can record and listen to their own poetry over and over. I don't know a single poet who doesn't have an opinion about what they like and don't like about how other poets read their work. If poets subject themselves to their own readings via minidisk, they can at least practice until they enjoy hearing their own poems.
CT: Finally, LitKicks always wants to know -- What are you reading? Any recommendations?
KC: Poetry: Franz Wright, Anselm Hollo and the book of Ecclesiastes (again). Fiction: Jose Saramago. Film: foreign Chinese films. The Suzhou River is an amazing flick.
(Thanks to KC Clarke for giving me a peek inside the creative energy of reVerse.)
reVerse Volume 1 is available through the reVerse website, where you can read more about the project, the artists involved and listen to an audio collage of the entire CD and individual track snippets.
Imagine standing under the night sky on the side of a mountain, surrounded by a thousand Ku Klux Klan members, all wearing their ghastly hoods and sheets. A huge burning cross casting monstrous shadows over the proceedings. You are also wearing a Klan sheet, but you are not one of them. You are there as a spy, to report their illegal activities to the police and expose their tactics of hate and intimidation. They have made it clear that they will kill anyone who betrays them. If they find out who you are, you're in trouble.
That is exactly what Stetson Kennedy did in the late 1940's. He wrote about it in his classic 1954 book, The Klan Unmasked, a gripping account of the experience. Disappointingly, the police and the FBI were reluctant to take direct action against the Klan, even when presented with hard evidence of arson, vandalism, assault, inciting riots, and murder. It turned out that many policemen and government officials were themselves Klan members. In fact, Kennedy says some of the Klan robes weren't quite long enough to cover the shoes and trouser cuffs of what looked suspiciously like police uniforms.