I met Eliot Katz many years ago at St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, back in a different era when several now legendary figures like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega were still alive and never missed a reading at St. Mark's Church.
I first encountered Eliot as part of the crowd that surrounded Allen Ginsberg -- his "entourage", basically -- but I also heard him read his own poems: moving, well-crafted verses with a humorous Ginsberg-ian self-questioning touch, often containing powerful messages about political activism, about life in New York City, about escapes into nature. Eliot was the co-editor with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen of Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems and also published two books of poetry, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull and Unlocking the Exits.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last September, I expected to see Eliot Katz around the scene, since I know he's an eager political activist who never turns down a good event. Unfortunately, I learned that Eliot has been slowed down by a bout with Lyme disease, and has been forced to participate in the Occupy movement more from the sidelines than he would have liked. However, the sidelines can offer a good perspective for observation. Eliot recently sent me some notes containing his thoughts about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can best position itself to succeed in the future, and I thought I'd give Eliot a chance to air his ideas out with an interview here. Eliot and I got a chance to talk about some more esoteric and poetic topics too. Thanks, Eliot, and I hope you'll be back in full health again soon.
Levi: In an article you recently wrote, you quoted Abbie Hoffman speaking in 1988 at Rutgers University (where you were a student) about one of the discouraging realities of protest movements:
Decision making has been a problem on the Left. In the sixties we always made decisions by consensus. By 1970, when you had 15 people show up and three were FBI agents and six were schizophrenics, universal agreement was getting to be a problem. I call it ‘The Curse of Consensus Decision Making,’ because in the end consensus decision making is rule of the minority: the easiest form to manipulate ... Trying to get everyone to agree takes forever. Usually the people are broke, without alternatives, with no new language, just competing to see who can burn the shit out of the other the most ... Most decisions are made by consensus, but there must also be a format whereby you can express your differences. The democratic parliamentary procedure—majority rule—is the toughest to stack, because in order to really get your point across you’ve got to get cooperation, and to go out and get more people to come in to have those votes the next time around.
Abbie was talking about the need for decision by majority vote within protest groups, and you quoted him to support your own suggestion that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to create a leadership structure and begin making decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. But wouldn't that harm the essentially open character of the Occupy movement, and create a politicized infrastructure that would inevitably succumb to corruption, favoritism and personality politics? Wouldn't something great be lost if Occupy ceased to operate as a quasi-anarchist movement? Would it be worth trading this in for a more organized movement?
One reason Vanessa Veselka is just about my favorite emerging novelist is that she studies anarchism and counterculture from the inside, allowing her stories to venture into the murky, manic, comic realms of intense political ideology -- a dangerous territory that many novelists lack the courage or knowledge to enter. But Veselka doesn't write about the kind of politics that appears on TV or computer screens. She writes about the kind of politics that hits us hardest -- the kind that's personal.
Her novel Zazen, which was released a year ago, turned out to be well-timed for the tumultuous year of 2011. I recently had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka for her perspective on all the political climate changes that have occurred since her novel hit the streets.
Levi: Vanessa, the timing of your novel Zazen was remarkable, in that the book's narrator Delia is obsessed with acts of self-immolation as political protest, while Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, which took place in early 2011, just before your book started hitting the streets, has turned out to be "the self-immolation heard round the world". It kicked off the so-called Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, and indirectly through this the Occupy Wall Street action in the USA. Time Magazine just announced "The Protester" as the Person of the Year, with a nod to Mohamed Bouazizi.
How have you been reacting to (and/or participating in) this wave of protest that has swept the world in the past year? Have you felt like a part of the Occupy movement? Do you feel hopeful about the nature of these protests?
Vanessa: I have a feeling you are going to regret asking me this. I’ll apologize to you and your readers in advance for wending on. Okay, here goes ...
When Bill Griffith was a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he ran into Marcel Duchamp at Manhattan gallery hosting a retrospective by the venerable Dadaist. When he told Duchamp that he, too, wanted to be an artist, the old man sternly warned, “Go into medicine. The world needs more doctors than artists.”
Had Bill Griffith taken Marcel Duchamp seriously, we would be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, currently running in 300 newspapers across the planet.
Griffith didn’t ignore Duchamp’s advice; he simply interpreted it in the spirit of Dada.
As he recently said, “I did consider his comment, that I should go into medicine, as a Dada statement. On one level, when he first said it, I had an immediate deflated moment of ‘oh no, this is not what I want to hear,’ but then literally a second later, I thought ‘wait a minute, this is Marcel Duchamp, he doesn’t speak the way normal people speak. This is a code.’ I convinced myself that that’s what he meant.”
Several collections of Zippy strips have been published over the years, but the single massive volume that Griffith’s work deserved had eluded him. That gaping oversight has now been partially redressed with Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a 400-page tome published by the estimable Fantagraphics Books, edited and brilliantly annotated by Griffith. It begins with samples of the work Griffith did in the early days of his career when he was among a group of Bay Area artists—including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, and Griffith’s wife-to-be Diane Noomin—who reshaped, reinvented and reinvigorated the comic book form to embrace hip, adult, intelligent readers.
(Last year's big counterculture memoir was "Just Kids" by Patti Smith, and 2012's might turn out to be "Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side" by Ed Sanders, an American writer, musician, happener and activist I've long admired. I'm proud to present this new interview with Ed Sanders by Beat scholar and librarian Alan Bisbort, and I'm looking forward to reading this memoir myself. -- Levi)
Ed Sanders has been a cultural force in America for the past half century. Arguably best known for his satirical 1960s rock band The Fugs and his perennially wide-selling 1971 book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Sanders's appeal to readers is also grounded in his deep Beat Generation roots. As a high school senior in Missouri, he read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and then, after a failed attempt at a college education in Columbia, Missouri, hitchhiked east to see what all the Beat commotion was about.
Sanders was founder of a legendary literary “scrounge lounge”, the Peace Eye Bookstore, remembered as a Greenwich Village version of San Francisco's City Lights Books during the hippie era; editor of the seminal Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts; publisher of works by Charles Olson and Ezra Pound; underground filmmaker (Amphetamine Head); prose author (Tales of Beatnik Glory); poet (America: A History in Verse); antiwar and anti-nuclear activist; he also seems to have known anyone and everyone affiliated with the American underground.
In his new book, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, Sanders ties all of his earliest threads—up to 1970—together in the most engagingly idiosyncratic memoir of the new year. Helpfully subtitled “An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side,” Fug You comes at you from all sides of this complex, rugged individual who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1967, emerging from splatters of Pollock-like paint as “a leader of the Other Culture.”
Still placing his shoulder to the cultural wheel, Sanders, 72, is today the strongest living link between the Beat Generation, the hippies and all other underground currents that have trickled along the countercultural pipeline since then. Sadly, his partner in Fug crimes, the irreplaceable Tuli Kupferberg, died in 2010 after 86 years of stirring up trouble and mirth.
On November 17, 2011 I spoke with Sanders by phone at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he lives with Miriam Sanders, his wife of more than 50 years.
Alan: The events you describe in the new memoir are so rich in detail that many of the chapters and sometimes even individual paragraphs would be worthy of entire books. Did it seem this complex at the time or is this true only in retrospect? In other words, did you just get up every morning and do all these things on instinct and now look back and you can’t believe all the ties to all the things and people?
Ed: I was very young, had a lot of energy, didn’t need to sleep a lot. Plus, I really believed that I was helping to make fundamental changes in the ways the economy works, in spiritual and personal freedom. Even though there were all those deaths and assassinations, the countercultural activities fueled the idea that there was a lot of hope throughout these years up to the early 1970s, which is where I stopped the book.
“Imagine you have a friend name Rob,” says our instructor at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. “If you want to ask your friend a question, you might begin by saying, ‘So, Rob...’ and that is how to pronounce my first name.”
Sohrab Homi Fracis (“Fray-sis”) is the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. He received it in 2001 for his collection of short stories, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. He resisted advice from publishers to combine the thematically related stories into a single novel, which they thought would be easier to sell. Fracis believed passionately that the stories stood strong and worked best as they were.
“And I was proven correct,” he says.
India Magazine calls the book, “Stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description ... a fresh voice in South Asian fiction,” and adds, “One can grow tired of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes, and village parodies. Fracis's writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter.”
"It's about persevering." These words appear in a funny short video about the life of a writer starring Kristen J. Tsetsi, who proudly lives up to that spirit. Her novel Pretty Much True ..., scheduled for publication in September, tells the story of a young couple separated by a military deployment to Iraq. This is the story she is most eager to tell, and I first wrote about Pretty Much True ... in 2007 when it was a self-published book called Homefront. Kristen has also published a Kindle collection called Carol's Aquarium, and edited the anthology American Fiction, Volume 11: The Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Authors. I got a chance to ask Kristen a few questions about the life she has chosen and the work she devotes herself to.
Levi: Your novel Pretty Much True ..., previously published as "Homefront", is about soul mates separated by military deployment: the narrator is at home while her lover fights in Iraq. According to your author bio, your husband went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. How did you handle the boundaries between fiction and autobiography when you wrote about this obviously personal subject?
Kristen: Everything I've ever written creatively (not counting a couple of essays) has been fiction, but -- and this is probably true for most writers -- based on personal experience in one way or another. Non-fiction storytelling has always been a problem for me. I get too hung up on the details, and I forget the feeling.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.
The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.
As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.
This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.
(As a longtime Ramones fan, I was very moved by Mickey Leigh's memoir about growing up as the younger brother of Joey Ramone, who died tragically of cancer in 2001. The book has just come out in paperback with a new epilogue. I was thrilled to have a chance to ask Mickey Leigh a few questions. -- Levi)
Levi: Though it has a sort of jokey title, I sense that I Slept With Joey Ramone is meant to be a serious entry in the field of punk rock literature, along with many other good books like Rotten by Johnny Rotten, Go Now by Richard Hell, Poison Heart by Dee Dee, Please Kill Me by Legs, the new Just Kids by Patti Smith, even And I Don't Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen. Why do you think punk rock has become so literary, or has it always been so?
The San Francisco Chronicle said John Reed "excels in the realm of the strange". Reed is the author of four previous books, including Snowball's Chance and All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. He teaches creative writing at the New School and Columbia University and is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
His most recent title is Tales of Woe, published by MTV Press. The book is a compendium of true-life tragedies. However, Reed has done something subtly yet artistically important: instead of choosing tales that have a redeeming moral message or happy ending, he has deliberately chosen ones that do not. And he has done so for a morally serious reason: he wants to underline that life is sometimes brutally unfair. Justice, in other words, can be the result of how human beings do (or do not) organize their affairs as much as it can be the result of providential "forces".
I spoke with Reed by email and phone in August of this year.
FINN: Is the book partly an antidote to the Pollyanna-ish "arc" of so much contemporary culture? In other words, was it written in part to say, this is part of the truth of life on earth?
JOHN: That's it, exactly. Sin, suffering, redemption. That's the news, that's the movie, that's what they tell you to keep your hope alive, to keep you from accepting how much unhappiness there is, not only in your life, but in the world. It's not an accident, that story, it's a convenience of the class that own us. You'd think that model -- sin, suffering, redemption -- would make you feel better about life. Maybe it does for a few minutes, but it can't really help; you try to apply that model to your life, you'll meet with misery and resistance, because that model is bullshit.
(Goodloe Byron is a novelist -- with an unusual approach to literary economics -- as well as a book cover designer whose graphic work was recently featured on Mark Athitakas's Notes on American Fiction blog. The Wraith is his latest book, from his own Brown Paper Publishing.)
Levi: Your novel The Wraith is very charming. The portrait of hapless trailer park hipsters going about their lives reminds me of the affectionate stylings of Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch ... but I also understand that Jose Saramago was your primary inspiration for this novel. Can you tell me what your mission in writing this book was?
Goodloe: It is actually a knockoff of a Saramago book, but it warped in the rain having took so long! The original idea was to do something like the duplicated man; it would be about a little fellow who is suddenly deprived of the dimension of necessity. That is to say that he no longer needed to sleep, eat, drink water, come in from the cold, shave or whatnot. It would then follow that he didn't need to work either, or do anything. What I imagined was that this person would then flee this terrible freedom. He would then go about pretending to be alive as he was before and that his life would become a kind of hollow nightmare.
This isn't really a novel that many people would like to read, I think. That has not stopped me in the past, but it also wasn't enjoyable to write either. I started it about eight times five years ago, then I quit writing altogether. Then, last year, my friend Pablo D'stair and I were discussing the idea, which was the only book that I wanted to write anyway. In this discussion I figured out that the story could not really be told directly, as it was more of a static concept. So I decided to give it a Heart of Darkness touch and describe the story of someone on the periphery of such a man. Mr. Kurtz, for example, is much this some problem, because he is not a person so much as a concept; the collapse of civilization in the face of its underlying barbarity. Once I figured this out, it was very simple and I wrote it in a few weeks while another book was at the printer. All of the events involving the main characters I kind of made up on the fly, though a variety of them I'd thought up during my 'hiatus'. They came together all right I think. The brain stepped out of my way once I figured out the Kurtz thing.
Levi: I notice a strange price on the book's cover: $0.0. What's that all about?
Goodloe: All right, so ... this is kind of complicated to explain. But basically I don't really like to submit stuff places or do the whole writer thing. I just find it ghastly as an experience. Also I would like to point out that my books tend to be a bit of a drag and I design them that way. I want the audience to have to get a bit scrappy. Books that succeed in the market tend not to share this worldview. So instead I save up enough so that once a year I can print up about ten thousand books. Then throughout the year I roll out to different cities or wherever I can get and I hand them out for free or leave them in coffee shops.