Poetry Readings

(Literary Kicks is twenty years old today. This fact has left me speechless, so I asked Jamelah Earle to send some retrospective thoughts. -- Levi)

When I was 16, I was on my high school forensics team. This was not in any way related to anything you might see on an episode of CSI, but instead was competitive speech and dramatic performance. That year, I had chosen poetry as my event, and I was looking for a poem to perform. The trick with forensics events, I had learned in a previous season, when I did storytelling with Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, was to come up with something that nobody else would be performing — Alexander was a popular piece, and more than one time I would be in a competition round with another person doing the same story. So, when I switched to poetry, I was determined to come up with something nobody else would do.

My coach gave me a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems to see if anything in it would work for me. I eventually ended up choosing the poem "America" and I had a great season. I think I would've made it to the state championships that year, had I not gotten laryngitis so severely that I was rendered essentially mute during regionals. Alas, I'll never know, so I can just imagine that I would've gone all the way. Maybe I could have even won the chance to tell my hometown newspaper how to spell "Allen Ginsberg".

What I do know is that I read Howl and Other Poems cover to cover several times over the second half of my 11th grade school year. This was both an easy feat — it's a small book — and a not-so-easy one. I'd never read anything like Howl before. It wasn't the type of book that came up in my school English classes, and though I was (and still am, to a degree) a voracious reader — basically, put anything that has printed words in front of me, and I will read it, regardless of how interesting or dull it may be or how many times I've already read it, which is why I have the ingredients list on the back of my shampoo bottle in the shower memorized. But I'm not sure I would've come across Ginsberg on my own had it not been for my coach Amy handing me that book.

I wanted to know more, though, so I fired up my coal-powered modem and looked Ginsberg up on the internet. It was then that I found a site at charm.net called Literary Kicks. It was broken up into different pages about different writers. I read more about Ginsberg, I read about Burroughs and Kerouac. I liked the site; the writer, Levi Asher, was engaging and interesting, and I would check back from time to time and read the updates on the Beat News page, which was essentially a blog, before the word "blog" existed. I never sent Levi an email, because he said he didn't answer them, but Literary Kicks was a go-to website for me. I learned from it, and I got a lot of reading recommendations.

Not long after, I started my own website at Geocities. The site was mostly links to other sites I liked, but I also had a page where I'd write thoughts about things. This was just a static HTML page that I'd update from time to time with a paragraph or two, and it was the genesis of the site that I run these days. Nothing of it even remotely exists now; I cleared out the last vestiges of it in, I think, 2005, when I was using Blogger to create updates and I decided that since the blog (the word "blog" existed by then) was the only really active part of the site (the other sections were pages of photographs, fiction and poetry), I would convert to having only a blog and get rid of the rest. I used my website to learn how to create things for the internet — I taught myself HTML and CSS and my site was always under construction, because I always had to try out this new thing I just learned. When Litkicks became a blog in 2004, it went live with my design (tweaked, because Levi and I never agreed about colors).

I'm getting ahead of myself.

During my last semester of college, in 2001, I went back to Litkicks for the first time in a long time, and I noticed that the format had changed: there were message boards. I didn't post anything for awhile, but I did read them from time to time, figuring out the lay of the land, as it were. I think my first post on the boards was in April or May 2001, right around the time I graduated. I posted a little, here and there, but didn't really get sucked in until later that year. I always wanted to be a writer, whatever it means to be a writer (I'm still not sure, except that it involves writing — beyond that, the particulars are sketchy), and in Litkicks, I found a community of people who also wanted to write, who wrote, who shared. It was in this community that I began creating work and sharing it for comment, an act that had seemed so terrifying when I was a student that I stayed out of all possible creative writing classes in college.

I learned a lot, and I wrote a lot. I've never been so prolific since (there was something strangely magical and compelling about that little text box I would type into when writing a Litkicks post — a blank Word document just doesn't have the same pull). I also met a lot of people, made a lot of friends. I talked to people from all over the world about books and writing and everything else; I still talk to some of those people to this day. (I also got my very first stalker and death threats thanks to Litkicks — it really was a wealth of experience.)

In August 2002, about a year after I started hanging around Litkicks, I traveled to New York to perform at a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, and I stayed at Levi's apartment. I had fun that weekend, doing a practice run at the famed Chelsea Hotel, performing at the Bowery Poetry Club, shooting pool at a bar after the show, hanging out with Levi and Caryn. It was during this weekend that I learned that Litkicks was run from a computer in Levi's kitchen, and not from some magical room full of computers and servers like I'd imagined. It was also during this weekend that I agreed to become part of the Litkicks staff.

Litkicks already had been such an integral part of my life, but after joining the staff, it became even more so. Levi, Caryn and I had regular meetings on AIM (remember AIM?!?) about what we were doing with the site. We did some cool events (The QUEST, 24-Hour Poetry Party, October Earth), we published a book (Action Poetry), we had some ideas that barely made it out of beta into production (Indie Writers' Marketplace). I remember it as a somewhat frenetic time, though my personal life was also somewhat frenetic in those years so I'm sure that's related, and we had fun.

Since 2004, when Litkicks switched from message boards to blog, I've been around here and there — weekly at the beginning, and much less frequently in recent years. I will say this, though: out of all the places on the Web, there's still just the one place that feels like home, and that's Literary Kicks. In the past decade, I've worked with another online community, and restructured my personal website too many times to count, but these days, when I barely turn on my computer when I get home from work, if there's a site that I drop by, this is it.

This is how my own internet history has gone full circle, I suppose.

I've been around Litkicks for most of my life. I've learned so much here, about writers, about writing, about graphic design and user interfaces and maybe trying the fluorescent green. I've laughed, I've cried, I've traveled, I've argued about all sorts of things, from CSS to whether jam bands are listenable to if we'll ever have world peace. I was hanging out with Levi and Caryn a couple of weeks ago, and I thought how funny it was that back when I was a teenager, I looked up Allen Ginsberg on the internet, and then, nearly 20 years later, I was having a beer and talking with the guy who created the website I'd found way back when. Life is funny, and that's the best thing about it.

Happy birthday, Literary Kicks.


On the 20th birthday of this website, Jamelah Earle remembers her first encounters with Literary Kicks.

view /GrowingUpWithLitkicks
Wednesday, July 23, 2014 12:42 pm
Growing Up With Literary Kicks by Jamelah Earle
Jamelah Earle

I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago. I was awestruck by both legends on that stage: McClure for being a Beat Generation poet and Ray Manzarek for being the most exciting keyboard player in the history of rock, the architect of the "Light My Fire" sound, a key literary/avant-garde scenester of the hippie and post-hippie era, and the enabler of Jim Morrison.

I wasn't actually blown away by the Bottom Line poetry show, maybe because I like Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek too much individually for the tastes to go together. But, looking for a YouTube video with which to pay tribute to great Brother Ray today, I skipped the obvious Doors selections and settled instead on a McClure/Manzarek performance uploaded in 2008. Manzarek plucks shimmering riffs from "Riders on the Storm" while McClure says stuff like this:

i am my abstract alchemist of flesh made real

The luminescent celestial canvas of "Riders" is a good example of Ray Manzarek at his best. It's good to see in this late-career video that maturity did not dim Manzarek's spiritual major key brightness, nor slow his tempo. He died of cancer at the age of 74. As McClure says: O Muse!


I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago ...

view /RayManzarek
Monday, May 20, 2013 08:33 pm
Ray Manzarek and Michael McClure performing
Levi Asher

Droopy eyes under the hat. An old, creepy looking man leaning on the bar, crouching like a frail spider among a few smarmy-dressed women. The 50-ish ladies sneered at me when I wandered in off Bleecker and Houston streets on a Tuesday afternoon, but the spider just squiggled his mouth in a thoughtful glance toward me. He then screeched something inaudible to my ears, and his ladies cackled in response like obscene muppets.

I was hungry. That's what I remember most about that day. I had just started a new job in furniture sales and was sending every penny I made back home (which was still nowhere near enough). I had lost weight, but I felt good and desperate. A stranger.

The Bowery Poetry Club was one of my stops, along with Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, the Nuyorican Cafe and the Yippie Museum. By the end of the night I would be in front of a bunch of veteran NYC poets at Big Mike Logan's demand (he pushed me to the stage at the Yippie Museum) reciting my own complaints/poetry after seven drinks on an empty stomach, but I hadn't gotten there just yet. It was only 3 pm as I sifted through all the flyers in the dark, beer-musked Bowery with the screeching spider and his smarmy muppets.

"You're a fucking whore!" the spider exploded in a slurring outrage, then lowered his voice into a gentle compliment. "But we do, do, do love you."

I looked behind me and noticed there was another man around him now, but it was obvious the spider was the center of attention. He orchestrated the crew. Whipped them up into their cackles and they did their best to match the spider's wit and spontaneity.

"Aren't you pretty," the spider said to me as the whole group looked on while I ordered a drink.

For the next hour or so I listened to the strange old man and his muppets. I couldn't place him, but I thought for certain I had seen his face before, but as the drink splashed in my empty belly, muddling my senses, I couldn't figure out where. I kept thinking of Jean Genet, the French vagabond/gay writer who was long dead.

He swept away the beer puddles in front of him like a diva sweeps past dawdling reporters. He squeezed the titties of his one of his ladies like an effeminate pimp and made her pull one out to show us. He made demands of the bartender to bring him champagne, though she just smiled. The entire time he drank. Bringing his shaking beer to his lips for a tiny sip like a doe at the river.

I knew I was on to something. I knew I had just witnessed some kind of superstar, but I wasn't sure who he was. To me, he was a screeching spider in a dark place on a Tuesday.

He was Taylor Mead.

I didn't know that for some time still, but when a film school friend turned me on to some Warhol films, I found my screeching spider as a young man. I had seen these movies when I was younger as my mother was a big fan of the Beats in New York City. She graduated from high school in 1966 as a clean-cut Brooklyn-Irish girl that had emigrated to Long Island, but by the time she was twenty, she had morphed into a hippie. She used to tell me about New York in those days and made me watch all types of movies that I'm certain none of my friends were made to watch. Easy Rider I saw at nine years old, Godard's Week-End, Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Deer Hunter. And The Flower Thief, which starred my demure and violent spider.

"I saw that guy in a bar, Lower East Side," I told my buddy.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I think he's still alive."

Mead had become a relic, but was as ingenious as ever in his late age. He hadn't changed a bit, though the world had. Manhattan had become a brand and was fast gentrifying. The fears of the Beats and the hippies had come true just as the warnings of George Orwell were used as a guide by the enemies of art and freedom. As life treated us more like consumers than free souls, the likes of Taylor Mead and the experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s faded into a muddled, recent history.

I feel bad that I didn't spend more time with him. That I didn't reach out to him more, other than listen to his rants for an hour over a couple drinks. Why didn't I go back to look for him? Now that he's dead, I really wish I had. So do you ... To listen to his half-smiling mouth recite the poetry of old New York as he sat there holding his tall, shaking beer. To watch his droopy eyes with the sad light in them tell stories.

A prince of American poetry has died, uncrowned and evicted. Many see the losing of his Lower East Side apartment as a direct correlation to his passing. Many see him better than ever, now that he's died. But we should have spent more time with him while he was alive.

* * * * *

Eamon Loingsigh's historical novel of Brooklyn's White Hand Gang is due out St. Patrick's Day, 2014 by Three Rooms Press. His blog is Art of Need. His first Litkicks article was about Lautremont.


Eamon Loingsigh remembers downtown personality and "Flower Thief" star Taylor Mead.

view /TaylorMead
Monday, May 13, 2013 03:20 pm
Taylor Mead
Eamon Loingsigh

(This is chapter seven of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

The World Wide Web was a social network from its earliest days, but it wasn't much like the social networks of today. It was a small world, for one thing, and everybody in it had some degree of technical skill. Maybe that's one reason the earliest creatures to populate this society tended to be such strange specimens, and also why our friendships often had an obsessive edge.

Soon after launching Literary Kicks in the summer of 1994 I got an email from Malcolm Humes, webmaster of the Brian Eno homepage, who wanted to collaborate with me on a new site about William S. Burroughs. I didn't want to collaborate, but I found that Mal and I had an awful lot to talk about. We began emailing several times a day, and it meant a lot to me to be able to compare notes with another creative techie soul.

The web was quickly getting looser, friendlier, crazier. My favorite site in these days was probably Links From The Underground, curated by a sweet-tempered Swarthmore college student named Justin Hall who had an appealing way of throwing his entire personality online. I was always cagey about how much of myself to reveal on LitKicks, but Justin Hall just let it all go. He scattered photos of himself and his friends, shared the disturbing memory of his alcoholic father's suicide, changed his pages to reflect his daily moods and whims. Yet there was much art to Justin's casual and unabashed style, and I know that Justin Hall took website design very seriously, because after I sent him an email introducing myself he responded with a long unsolicited list of problems with LitKicks and suggestions for the site. He pointed out a couple of technical errors (which I fixed) and mentioned that some ethnic characterizations on my Beat pages could be offensive (which I fixed too). I was impressed that Justin took the time to give me this extensive troubleshooting report, though I disagreed strongly with one thing he said. The first sentence on the LitKicks front page was this line from the Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows":

Turn off your mind relax and float downstream.

Justin said I should format the quote like this:

"Turn off your mind relax and float downstream"
-- John Lennon

But that wasn't what I wanted on my front page. I wasn't trying to say "here's a quote from John Lennon". I was trying to say "Turn off your mind relax and float downstream" (and I did attribute the quote to Lennon further down on the page, so I wasn't stealing anything). I was a little annoyed that a web reader as intuitive as Justin Hall thought my big opening line was an error, but I was still very pleased when he raved about LitKicks on his literary links page.

I had originally planned to move on from the Beat scene after launching LitKicks, but some of my pages began to take on lives of their own. I was surprised to discover how much interest there was in Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac's best friend, who died in 1968 and was both a catalyst among Beat writers in the 1940s and 1950s and a key figure in the San Francisco rock scene in the 1960s. He was a main character in both On The Road and Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and no page on LitKicks ever generated more activity or interest than my brief biography of Neal Cassady.

This began immediately after I launched the site, when I learned that an elder hippie named Tim Bowden who ran a countercultural online storytelling community called Nerdnosh had loved and lived with Carolyn Cassady after her husband's death, and had privately circulated a reminiscence of this affair. A copy of his story fell into my hands, and Bowden agreed to let me put it online. This was a hit with LitKicks readers, though it caused me trouble years later when I got a chance to meet the charming and very funny Carolyn Cassady, who has never stopped scolding me for publishing Tim Bowden's "awful lies". I thought he wrote a tender piece, but Carolyn didn't see it that way.

The biggest Neal Cassady fanatics in the world are not Kerouac readers but Deadheads, since Neal was a part of the early Grateful Dead scene and was memorialized in songs like "The Other One" and "Cassidy". I'd never been a serious Deadhead myself -- I liked them and had been to three concerts, which made me a complete amateur in Deadhead circles -- but the warmth and humor of the rec.music.gdead community increased my interest in the band, and I was blown away in September of 1994 when the rec.music.gdead circles put me directly in touch with John Perry Barlow, who later became well-known as an Internet activist and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but who I then only knew as Bob Weir's childhood friend and the co-author of many excellent Grateful Dead songs like "Cassidy", "Looks Like Rain", "Mexicali Blues" and "Throwing Stones". Barlow had also privately circulated a reminiscence of his friendship with Neal Cassady -- (I was starting to see a pattern here) -- and of how he came to write the song "Cassidy", and again a copy fell into my hands. I emailed John for permission to publish the piece on LitKicks and he graciously allowed me to do so. I must have made an ass of myself, though, when I asked him if he wanted a copyright message on the page ("I don't believe in copyright", he responded) since it turned out he had published an article in WIRED Magazine about the flaws in the copyright model earlier in the year.

A couple of my web-oriented personal encounters were disasters, like every attempt I ever made to visit the Soho loft where an entrepreneur named Josh Harris was trying to turn himself into the 90s equivalent of Andy Warhol with a pop-culture/online-culture factory called "Pseudo", already in 1994 a glorious and large mess of garish web pages, primitive online audio streams and in-person events reflecting subcultures such as hiphop, graffiti, alternative sex and spoken word poetry. An East Village slam poet named Robert Galinsky who worked for Pseudo -- this website actually had major funding, as Josh Harris was a successful information/research systems entrepreneur -- invited me to appear one night as a guest on Pseudo Online Radio, an internet show that was not broadcast online but somehow on an actual radio station. I met with Galinsky, but I think he was disappointed to meet me, because he seemed to expect the proprietor of a Beat website to be some kind of jive-talking finger-snapping goatee-wearing hepcat, which is really the polar opposite of the rather shy and diffident persona that is myself.

I actually thought the whole Pseudo scene was great fun, and I only wished I had the kind of outrageous and larger-than-life personality that would have allowed me to fit in. Instead, I succumbed to a ridiculous panic attack as I sat in my apartment waiting for Josh Harris to call me live on the radio, and when he asked me "what's up" I had nothing to say and Josh Harris hung up on me after about six seconds.

There was plenty of room for us introspective poetic types on the Web too, though. In September an illustrated web poem called "Life With Father" by Joseph Squier got some attention on Usenet, and as far as I know it was the first serious or widely read poem designed specifically for the web format. The rather sad tale of child abuse inspired me to spend more time on my own writing ideas, and I began dreaming up a new project called Queensboro Haikus (I knew the name needed work).

I was then invited to submit a piece for a new online literary journal called Enterzone by a California tech writer named Christian Crumlish. Christian and I discovered we had a lot in common and became fast friends, and I created an illustrated memory piece called "7 Pinoak Lane" -- format-wise, a straight-up bite of Joseph Squier's "Life With Father" -- to appear in Enterzone.

I also began corresponding with the other Enterzone editors, Briggs Nisbet, Rich Frankel and an up-and-coming novelist named Martha Conway who shared many of my literary interests and frustrations. I also introduced the Enterzone gang to Malcolm Humes, who eventually brought in a few webby friends like Annette Loudon, Janan Platt (AlienFlower Poetry Workshop) and Scot Hacker (Birdhouse.org) to form a secret society called "antiweb" that would go on to encompass many other creative web people for years to come.

The significance of some of my new online friendships wouldn't come clear for a couple of years. I still posted often to the rec.music.dylan Usenet group, and one day I was invited to lunch by a fellow Dylan freak and music industry insider named Dan Levy. Dan's media interests spanned many formats -- as a book publisher, he'd recently created the Citadel Underground imprint, which published Ed Sanders and Emmett Grogan -- and he was now building an online countercultural gathering spot called Levity.com, which he invited me to be a part of. He also hinted that he had big connections within the Bob Dylan management circle, and wanted to know if I'd be available for future web development projects involving Bob Dylan. "Is this serious?" I emailed Dan. He emailed back, "If you knew how serious this was, you would plotz".

I never got to meet some of the interesting creative web people who started turning up in 1994, and in some cases that was fine with me. Just a couple of weeks after I launched LitKicks, a guy named Glenn Davis launched the popular "Cool Site of the Day", which profiled one new notable or creatively original website each day (the August 1994 offerings include "The Froggy Page", "WWW Tennis Server", "Future Fantasy Bookstore", "San Francisco Examiner", "Le Web Louvre" and "The Tori Amos Home Page"). I kept waiting for Literary Kicks to be the Cool Site of the Day, but Glenn Davis never chose me. I'm still pissed off about this.

Another web writer I was interested in Carl Steadman, who published stories in Intertext and had a beguiling way of over-sharing that was similar to Justin Hall's, though with a moodier and darker edge. I didn't know exactly what was so intriguing about his pages, and I'm not sure he ever lived up to his apparent early potential as a web writer, though he would eventually get his picture in Rolling Stone magazine and go on to found Suck.com and Plastic.com.

Another site I became aware of in late 1994 was Beatrice.com, founded by a guy named Ron Hogan. I scanned this site eagerly the first time I heard of it, expecting to find a lot of material on Dante Alighieri. I never found Dante on Ron's site, and somehow I never met or communicated with Ron over the years, though we had many friends in common (I would eventually meet him years later when we both became part of a little something called the literary blogosphere, but we've got a lot of ground to cover before we get to that).

When I think back to the driven individuals I met on the web in 1994, I sometimes think of the scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where a few people around the world start getting obsessed with a shape, and start drawing that shape or building it in mounds of mashed potatoes or dirt. Like them, we worked in isolation, but we all seemed to be doing the same thing. Still, the people in Spielberg's movie eventually figured out what it was that beckoned them to create these shapes. And us? I guess we beckoned each other, and the main thing we found was ourselves.


Chapter 4 of Levi Asher's memoir of the Internet Industry. Fall/Winter 1994: Going on a radio show ... Hanging out on Usenet ... Meeting a whole lot of new friends, "creatures of the web".

view /CloseEncountersOfTheWebKind
Tuesday, March 3, 2009 10:58 pm
A postcard for Pseudo Online Radio, New York City 1994
Levi Asher

1. The Beat Poetry Happy Hour will take place at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City this Thursday, April 17 from 6:30 to 7:30 pm, featuring Tao Lin, Zachary German, Clarissa Beyah Taylor, Larissa Shmailo, Joy Leftow and, of all people, me playing bongo drums. How, you may wonder, did I end up playing bongo drums? Well, it has something to do with a recent Bowery Poetry Club Beat Poetry Happy Hour I attended. A drummer was struggling a bit onstage, and I casually sauntered over to host George Wallace and said "I can play bongo drums better than this guy."

I meant it in a sort of smart-ass generic way, the way I might also say, for instance, "My mother can pitch relief better than Aaron Heilman". The actual truth, though, is that my mother can't pitch relief better than Aaron Heilman. The actual truth is also that I don't know how to play bongo drums. However, George took me literally and signed me up, so I will fake it as best as I can this Thursday. I will also shout out a poem or two, and if you are anywhere near downtown New York this Thursday at 6:30 I really hope you'll come by. I guarantee it will be fun.

2. Hey, two other cool things about the Bowery Poetry Club (which has been, needless to say, my favorite poetry club in the world since it opened in 2002). First, rebel publisher Sander Hicks' Vox Pop has just opened a Vox Pop outlet there! Second, the club has got a very nice new website.

3. You may ask: is this event associated with National Poetry Month? NO! We at LitKicks are now officially on record as National Poetry Month haters, and that's a stance I can live with, even though it's been Jamelah and not me, for once, who's been doing the bulk of complaining.

4. Enough about all that. Here's a surprising piece about the inspiration for the Beatles' song "Paperback Writer". It turns out McCartney was thinking about a Penguin, and we never knew this until now! Great stuff. (Via Frank Wilson)

5. Indie publisher Tim Hall has a new model for financing books: AuthorShares. Check it out and see what you think. Let's just hope this doesn't end up like Enron.

6. As Ed mentions, I made the mistake of trying to argue with internet-naysayer Lee Siegel at a New York Public Library discussion featuring Nicholson Baker and Heidi Julavits. I was only there to catch Baker, but I got suckered in and tried to talk sense. Pointless.

7. From the Bureau of Public Secrets:
Six Japanese Novelists: Hiroshi Noma, Osamu Dazai, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Shohei Ooka, Junichiro Tanizaki.

view /BongosApril2008
Monday, April 14, 2008 05:22 pm
Levi Asher

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a blend of Jewish folklore with detective fiction, a sort of Saul Bellow meets Raymond Chandler. Or maybe if Bernard Malamud wrote haggadic murder mysteries. It begins, as all good noir begins, with the knight-errant detective, a real mensch of a cop named Landsman, called upon in the middle of the night to investigate a mysterious murder. Through the unfolding plot, Chabon draws a richly imagined world of a civilization that never was, a Jewish homeland in Alaska instead of Israel.

Landsman follows the clues to find a murderer and along the way we are introduced to every aspect of the Yiddish society of Sitka, from department stores to bars as well as the characters who inhabit the city. Landsman's journey through this imaginary landscape resembles Chandler's descriptions of Los Angeles as Marlowe prowled those city streets. The investigation and journey by necessity reveal many secrets of the society. The overarching tension of the novel is that the homeland, established by the United States government after World War II, is about to be dissolved. Due to the expiration of the agreement, the Jews are about to experience yet another diaspora.

In the establishment of this tension, Chabon explores the cultural dilemmas and stresses that occur as a people face the possibility that their culture and their identity will disappear. This worry is one common to Jews for hundreds of years, one which has historically fed Jewish fears of assimilation as well as annihilation. It's this same tension that fueled the hostility some expressed toward Chabon in reaction to his 1997 review of Say It In Yiddish, a language guide which was originally published in 1958. Referring to it as "probably the saddest book I own," Chabon wondered where one would find useful a book rendering into Yiddish such phrases as "Where can I get a social security card?" To most readers the essay was of little significance, but to a few Yiddish speakers with internet connections, Chabon had delivered an insult. He seemed to be making light of the language, they thought. Predictably, an internet khiluke-deyes soon erupted. Irate Yiddishels responded with fiery insistence that Yiddish is not dead or dying, claims that the Germanic tongue is a full language and not a mere dialect, and angry reminders that Yiddish was once heard throughout Israel. Chabon was accused of being both anti-Semitic and a self-hating Jew, an experience of which he told Salon.com, "I don't think you've arrived as a Jewish-American writer until you've been attacked for being self-hating."

During the writing of the essay, Chabon had looked into where a Yiddish guidebook might have once come in handy. That research yielded a little known bit of historical trivia: during World War II, President Roosevelt had entertained the offer of some American territory as a homeland for Jewish refugees. The location of the homeland: Sitka, Alaska. In his essay, Chabon imagined "another Yisroel, the youngest nation on the North American continent, founded in the former Alaska Territory during World War II as a resettlement zone for the Jews of Europe." This nascent thought developed over several years into a thoroughly realized fictional place, a frozen ganeydn of Yiddish speakers.

If you've ever wondered what a detective novel written by a Pulitzer Prize-winner might be like, here's your chance. Chabon's usual prose style offers a more lyric line than is found in this novel. He shifted gears for his attempt at this genre, adopting a style more akin to Dashiel Hammet or Raymond Chandler: terse, tense sentences where the knowing voice of Landsman slowly introduces you to his arcane world. Early drafts of the novel were written in first-person; the limited omniscience of the final version limits itself to the mind of Landsman, retaining the intimate feel of its genre antecedents.

The anticipation has been high, since last year when the book was delayed, for what is Chabon's first full-length novel since The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Price for fiction. It is perhaps the most deftly plotted of any Chabon novel. The story moves at a steady and determined pace while Landsman follows the evidence to the climax. As the mysteries and clues begin to dovetail toward a climax, the traditional course of the detective story takes a turn. Conspiracies, secret societies, and heavy paranoia rise as Landsman penetrates the shadowy veil of obfuscation that surrounds the murder.

While Chabon's earlier novel Wonder Boys occupies a special place in my heart, the new novel quickly took second place among my favorites of his work. Due to my past connection with the author, I'm not exactly a difficult sell: Chabon is one of my favorite authors and, in my opinion, a really swell guy.

I met Michael Chabon in 1996 during the publicity tour for his novel Wonder Boys. The book had so captivated me that I tracked down copies of his first novel (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and collection of short stories (A Model World). In no time I was a fan. I put together a few web pages focusing on the author and his work. Then I sent Michael an email, pointing him to the pages. He wrote back, thanking me for the attention.

We met when he was doing a reading and signing at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. The audience was small so the signing didn't take long, which gave me several minutes afterwards to talk to him. There were only four of us there: Michael Chabon, a bookstore employee, my girlfriend, and me. We talked about baseball and writing, the internet and literature. Michael personalized my books with very nice messages. They occupy a central place in my collection.

Tonight we're among a half-dozen or so people. We talk about the Yiddish controversy, other books set in Sitka, and predictably end up discussing politics and the war in Iraq. The author is somewhat famously liberal in his political views and is, a Berkeley resident at a bookstore in West Hollywood, among friends. Hints of current geopolitics can be found in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, particularly in the climactic solution to the mystery Landsman attempts to solve. Michael wonders how much longer the prevailing neo-cons can hold on to power. Someone tries to get him to sign some gag playing cards with pictures of the Bush administration. Michael shuffles through them and sets them aside.

It's over too soon and Michael is whisked off for the reading and signing. He's applauded by the audience and surrounded by admirers. Hungry and cold, I decide to slip out and head home. I don't like crowds, and besides, the fun part is over.


It begins, as all good noir begins, with the knight-errant detective, a real mensch of a cop named Landsman, called upon in the middle of the night to investigate a mysterious murder ...

view /YiddishPolicemen
Monday, May 21, 2007 11:41 pm
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
Cal Godot
PEN World Voices is a series of more than sixty encounters with writers from around the world, most of them taking place in small rooms before small audiences. But Wednesday night at Town Hall in Manhattan's theater district is "the big show", star-studded and sold-out, and host Salman Rushdie seems almost apologetic about this in his introductory remarks from the Town Hall stage.

Salman Rushdie played the host of last year's event as well, and once again I find his MC'ing skills underwhelming. He speaks with grandiose elocution as he delivers mild chuckle lines about turning off cell phones and feeling old among all the young faces in the room. (To my surprise, Rushdie will go on to deliver the best reading of the night, but more about that later).

The presence of Steve Martin on the bill must have presented a conundrum to the event organizers, since the seasoned humorist can obviously blow any mumbling poet or novelist off the stage. The only solution is to put him on first or last, and the organizers wisely place him in the leadoff spot. The event's theme is "Writing Home", so Martin chooses a chapter from his upcoming memoir Born Standing Up that describes his arrival as an unknown comedian in 1965 San Francisco. His performance is great, of course, especially when he acts out some of the material he originally performed in these North Beach nightclubs. The audience loves him, I do too, and I'm looking forward to the publication of Born Standing Up in December.

Pia Tafdrup, a Danish poet, follows Steve Martin with a few gentle poems about her mother and father. Next is a rare appearance by Don Delillo, who reads a scene from his new Falling Man in which the novel's taciturn hero visits his apartment near the wreckage of the World Trade Center. I'm not surprised to discover that Delillo reads with an unsmiling demeanor and a gravelly voice that complements his written work well.

Delillo is followed by Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstoya (yes, there is some relation, though she is not a direct descendant of Count Leo), who reads a moving narrative, complete with "suffocating stars". Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef makes a strong impression on the crowd, especially when he seems to become lost in reflection while reading about being lost in Paris.

I'm excited to see Kiran Desai, who acts out the charming Chinese-restaurant delivery scene from The Inheritance of Loss. Desai turns out to be a terrific reader, emoting delightfully along with her characters as she reads their words. She's the first performer of the night to actually "project", which makes a big difference in a theater this large.

The best-dressed writer of the night is Alain Mabanckou, a novelist born in Congo-Brazzaville, who looks great in a long white coat and cloth cap. I've been reading a translation of his African Psycho that's just been published by Soft Skull. African Psycho is a bitter and clever tour de force about a devious murderer, with a strong and quirky narrative voice that loudly recalls Albert Camus. I'm therefore surprised when Mabanckou's English translator delivers a gentle, scenic poem that seems completely removed from the violent satire of his novel. But even his smirk belies his scenic words as the translator reads, and I have a feeling this novelist knows exactly what impression he wants to deliver to this crowd.

Neil Gaiman saunters to the mic to much applause, and reads first a dull piece about travelling abroad on July 4th, then a good second-person piece about what to do if you find yourself inside a fairy tale ("If a creature tells you it's hungry, feed it").

Nadine Gordimer is impressive in the penultimate slot, speaking first about the crisis of political and economic refugess in the world right now, then reading a story narrated by an 11-year-old from Mozambique seeking refuge in South Africa. Gordimer is followed by Salman Rushdie, who finally unleashes his considerable talent. His "The Ground Beneath Our Feet" points out that humans have always located themselves on earth by looking to the east, and that words like "orientation" and "disoriented" are rooted in the concept of "the orient". He then asks what it would feel like to allow ourselves to become completely disoriented, to "let go", to exist without moorings, and then as we ponder this he lets us know that we will never find out, because we are afraid. It's a beguiling, melodic performance, a crowd-husher, and I am thrilled to finally discover what Salman Rushdie can do with an audience.

Wednesday night's "big show" ends on a satisfying note, but there is much more PEN World Voices to come.
view /PEN2007a
Thursday, April 26, 2007 12:58 pm
Levi Asher
I've just seen T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock performed before my eyes, complete with spilling reams of paper, booklights, hats, coffee cups and spoons and three human beings who danced and acted the poem out, section by section, in a studio in midtown Manhattan.

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.
view /AynsleyPrufrock
Monday, April 23, 2007 08:24 pm
Levi Asher

I attended an interesting display of speed poetry last night at the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York featuring two acclaimed practitioners of the verse form, Paul Muldoon and Brad Leithauser. An eager audience of literati, blogerati and peoplorati had gathered to watch, quietly munching on grapes and cheese or sipping wine, as the two poets nervously typed into laptops connected to QuickMuse.com. The odd experiment made for a good evening of spoken word, and the finished poems aren't bad at all.

I'm more of a Paul Muldoon partisan than a longtime Brad Leithauser fan, but they opened the event by reading from their composed poems, and Leithauser immediately won me over by dedicating a unique piece to a favorite lyricist of mine, Lorenz Hart. Paul Muldoon followed with a couple of the exotic rhyming ditties that can be found in his strange and powerful Horse Latitudes. Preliminary readings now over, the main event began.

Moderator Jeff Spurgeon of WQXR presented both poets (and the audience) with this poem from Alicia Ostriker to "seed" their work:

The Blessing of the Dog

to be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
of God
inside you
and all the other dogs
can smell it

After a carefully timed ten minutes, Paul Muldoon read his poem, which turned out to be rather short and filled, in my disappointed opinion, with pedestrian rhymes. However, it's all part of the game. Brad Leithauser turned in a more substantial and, I believe, better piece. In fact, I like his poem a lot and I don't think it needs much more polishing.

The event was billed to be something like a cage match, but we never actually voted on which poem was best. I sensed, however, that the audience was with me in backing the dark horse (hah) Leithauser. Spurgeon followed up the exercise with a discussion section that probably could have been skipped, since the only thing either poet revealed was that Muldoon had started each line of his eight-line poem with letters spelling out S-T-R-A-N-D-E-D, which must have been how he felt.

Regarding the very blurry pictures I took with my phone: I guess I'm figuring the blur will connote the "speed writing" aspect, or maybe I'm just a bad photographer. At the top of the page is Paul Muldoon at work on his poem, and here's Brad Leithauser:

It was a very enjoyable event overall -- congrats to the fearless Ami Greko of FSGPoetry.com for making it work.

view /MuldoonLeithauser
Tuesday, April 17, 2007 08:35 pm
Levi Asher
1. Turner Classic Movies (the one cable channel movie I'd keep if I could keep only one) just ran an old chestnut from 1943, The Human Comedy, William Saroyan's story of a couple of sweet kids named Ulysses and Homer growing up in inland California's raisin country, starring Mickey Rooney. The movie is corny as hell but I loved every minute.

Here's an example of the corny: three soldiers on leave pick up two women on a rainy night, and at the end of the night the three guys are dancing in the street because they got kisses on the cheek. But even that turns out to be a great scene.

And there's plenty more. Mainly, the movie reminded me that a serious theme pervades Saroyan's poignant and lilting novel about a farm country childhood. Homer (the eager teenager played by Mickey Rooney) gets a job delivering telegrams. Sometimes they're singing telegrams, but sometimes they're Department of War death notices from the European or Pacific fronts. Frank Morgan (four years after Wizard of Oz) is a dispatch chief who's become a sad drunk because he can't stand typing these messages. Mickey Rooney is the rookie (with an older brother at the front) who has to knock on doors and deliver the news. This amounts to a big and sobering note that gives weight and feeling to this otherwise simply gorgeous and warm old movie.

I definitely recommend The Human Comedy as a new Christmas family movie, if maybe you're getting sick of watching the kid with glasses whine for the BB gun yet again. If you know what I mean.

Oh, and an older Carl Switzer ("Alfalfa") shows up as a neighborhood teenager in a funny scene stealing apples from a farmer.

2. This is probably a contrarian opinion, but I like Time Magazine's choice of "Us" (or, as they put it, "You") as the Person of the Year. I think Lev Grossman does a fine job with the explanatory essay. There's only one questionable moment in the piece, which is when Lev says "We blogged about our candidates losing." Dude, I don't know who you're voting for but my candidates won.

3. The Underrated Writers Project is back in effect! And this time I actually managed to contribute a couple of names.

4. David Lehman, an esteemed poetry critic and anthologist, is guest-blogging every day this week at the Oxford University Press Blog. Good stuff!

5. The 92nd Street Y on New York City's Upper East Side is hosting a 50th Anniversary celebration of Beat Generation literature on January 15, 2007. Guests will include Joyce Johnson, Laurie Anderson, Ann Charters, Bill Morgan and Hettie Jones. Should be an inspiring event.

6. Folks, I'm sort of winding down for Christmas vacation, which I hope to spend in relaxing surroundings (in other words, I'm flying the hell out of New York City). I've got some good stuff for the next couple of days (I think), and then I think we'll put up some poetry for a week. Hope you're all making good holiday season plans too, if you believe in holiday seasons.
view /HumanComedy
Wednesday, December 20, 2006 10:14 pm
Levi Asher