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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Monday Night at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble: Emily Mitchell and "The Last Summer of the World"


This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Tuesday, July 31, 2007:

Last evening, via the clattering G train (only line in the city that never sets metaphorical foot in Manhattan), and when it ends at New York's highest elevated subway station with its glorious skyline view, aboard the cozier F train for the two final stops, I traveled from my largely childless hipster 'hood of twentysomethings to Brooklyn's Stroller City of mommies and nannies, Park Slope -- famous for having more authors and book publishing people per capita than any other census tracks in these United States.

I'm here for a reading at the Slope's Barnes and Noble branch by Emily Mitchell, the British-born Brooklyn College MFA whose first novel, The Last Summer of the World, has just been published to a couple of excellent advance reviews:
Publishers Weekly: (starred review) First-time novelist Mitchell pulls off the dazzling trick of allowing readers to see through the eyes of art-photography pioneer Edward Steichen in her excellent reconsideration of his life and art. This would be merely impressive if the book confined itself to the stormy end of Steichen’s first marriage, a sub-theme that gets its due and packs a psychological punch. Instead, Mitchell follows Steichen through his airborne reconnaissance work during WWI, providing a devastating portrait of the insanity of war in general and the Great War in particular. Throughout, individual photographs are described in detail, along with surprisingly rich narratives—some reconstructed, some imagined—filling in the stories behind the pictures. Most powerful are the descriptions of what Steichen saw from the air, such as his view of Americans chasing a group of Germans and killing them all, including one who tried to escape. The book offers up glimpses of Paris and the French countryside, including memorable scenes of Steichen’s visit to his good friend and mentor, sculptor August Rodin, but in the end, this commanding novel is about the images one can never quite burn from memory.

Library Journal: Mitchell presents a bittersweet first novel about famed photographer Edward Steichen and his experiences as an aerial photographer in France during World War I. While witnessing the horrors of war, Steichen remembers his earlier life in Europe and tries to understand the dissolution of his marriage. The flashbacks are framed by some of his early photographs, at times an awkward device, but on the whole Mitchell's prose is engaging and spirited. Perhaps owing to this stratagem, Steichen's celebrity circle is downplayed; the sculptor Rodin merits several scenes, but brother-in-law Carl Sandburg gets only the briefest allusions. Of course, Steichen himself along with his complicated past is the heart of the story. Mitchell, who has taught at Brooklyn College and Lehman College and published works in the Nation, the Indiana Review, and other journals, has written a striking novel highlighting the rich experiences of artists in Europe in the early 1900s and the inner life of a conflicted individual. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.

Anyway, I get to the Barnes and Noble about ten minutes early and find a small crowd and folding chairs set up downstairs at the corner of New Age/Bibles and Spirituality/Astrology. I recognize Emily from her photo, though she's actually prettier in person. She seems to be talking to old friends from when she lived in New York. She says she's reading only in cities where she knows people who will show up. Some of her friends seem to be classmates from her time in the Brooklyn MFA. Michael Cunningham directs the fiction program now, and I wonder how much he's influenced Emily.

When I applied for Brooklyn's MFA program in 1974, I suspect they took just about everyone who wanted to go because it was the first year and people didn't know about it. Back then few people had even heard of an MFA.

I'm sure today my application would be rejected, as the competition is a lot more fierce. One of the best younger fiction writers I know, who was living in Brooklyn, wanted to go to BC but was rejected, so he had to go to his second choice -- Iowa! No kidding.

I think a lot of the success I had early in my career -- getting a commercial book published, getting state arts council grants, getting into the MacDowell Colony and other writers' retreats, getting my stories published in magazines -- stemmed from the lack of competition as opposed to today. It was simply easier because far fewer people were submitting and applying. For example, when I got my first individual artist fellowship from the Florida Arts Council in 1981, I'd been living in the state only a few months. But one out of three people who applied got the grants that year. By the late 1990s, when I served on panels evaluating the applicants, maybe one out of 25 got a fellowship. I had it a lot easier than writers starting today.

As the crowd gathers, I spot a couple of tykes in their menacing strollers, which I thought this store had banned from downstairs. Each of them appears to be asleep; however, I believe they have been trained to feign drowsiness by their mommies or literature-loving nannies and will awaken screaming at the most crucial section of Emily's reading.

I get a seat in the back. A crowd of about 40 or 45 is there now, and people in the back have to stand. As the community relations director asks us to start and gives us the usual drill about shutting cell phones and directions on where to line up to have our books signed after the reading ("along the Religion wall"), a guy plops down on the floor to my left. He looks a great deal like an extremely famous fortyish novelist, but I am trying not to stare so I can't be sure. The glasses don't look quite right, and it's a very typical New York "look," so it may be my imagination.

The bookstore community director, who's obviously read the novel (good sign), introduces Emily, who sets up the chapter she's going to read.

It takes place early in the novel, at the beginning of the 20th century, when Steichen is first engaged to Clara in Paris. They're with a bunch of their friends, including the woman who'll later figure in the infamous triangle that ends the marriage, as well as Leo Stein (Gertrude's brother) and others. It's evening, and they're going to walk to a cathedral. Edward realizes he wants to get his camera.

The prose is exquisite and sensitive. Written in the present tense and third person, the chapter switches point of view between Edward and Clara -- and it's clear only in the misunderstanding at the end how skillfully that was actually done. There's a delicious irony in the relationship between Clara and the woman who, years later, she will sue for alienation of Edward's affection.

Also, the chapter has interesting meditations on the role of the artist and in what ways he needs the support of others and whether the special nature of his role allows him to break ordinary rules of social conduct. The point of view is handed off gracefully from character to character, as in Virginia Woolf.

Steichen and his fellow reconnaissance bombers in World War I, working with new but untested technology (their planes were called "flying coffins") were photographing the world from above, seeing things from a perspective that no human beings had before. Steichen, better known today perhaps for his iconic portraits of Garbo, Churchill, Robeson, et al., was one of the first photographers to understand that the medium could be every bit as much great art as painting. In addition to Rodin, he knew many other artists and was the first person to introduce Brancusi and Matisse to American audiences.

The chapter has meditations on the nature of memory and also a beautiful passage explaining why Steichen prefers night photography -- the forms merely suggest themselves rather than appear in sharp detail, and that tells a better story, one more filled with mystery. But unlike with a lot of day photography, one can never be sure how a night photograph will come out.

Emily's conclusion is greeted with a round of applause, and she sits down to take a few questions. One person asks her about her work researching the characters, and Emily says she enjoyed doing research, especially when the writing got stuck because it gave her a feeling of progress, but at some point she realized that she'd have to stop researching and make things up. Indeed, the time frame of the novel is not quite like that of the events in real life. In some respects, she is lucky in that there are certain mysteries in Steichen's life; for instance, his biographers cannot agree if a particular love affair actually did take place or not, so she was free to decide for herself. Emily says she especially enjoyed going to the National Archives and reading the accounts of Steichen's fellow pilots from World War I.

Another audience member asks Emily about the use of photographs in the novel, and she says some of the ones she employs are actually composites of different Steichen photos from the period. Someone asks if Steichen has any descendants and if Emily talked to them, and she says he has a granddaughter who was involved in the making of a mid-1990s biography and that his third wife still lives in New York City.

"That's Joanna Steichen," the woman sitting next to me calls out. "I went to social work school with her in the 1970s." Emily says yes, that's the same woman.

Just as the community relations director, with no more hands up for questions, thanks Emily and starts to arrange for the book signings to proceed, one of the babies gives out a fearsome howl. Wow. These Park Slope mommies and nannies have them trained better than I thought. What self-control for a sixteen-month-old! Or maybe he was trying to get in one more question?

The man who may or may not be a famous novelist gets up from the floor and scampers away before I can get a close look.

Too cheap to buy a book -- I'm fourth in the reserve queue at the Brooklyn Public Library -- I leave the store and walk across the street to Methodist Hospital. Just near the entrance is the chapel where I like to visit this plaque commemorating a tragedy that happened just a few blocks away:

As usual, I tear up a little. It's a memorial to Stephen Baltz. Here's the Wikipedia entry on him:
Stephen Baltz (1949-1960) was the only person to survive the crash of United Airlines Flight 826 after it collided with another plane on December 16, 1960, in a snowstorm over Staten Island. The eleven-year-old boy from Wilmette, Illinois was flying alone to meet his mother and sister, who flew in the day before; they were planning to spend Christmas in Yonkers with family. On impact with the ground, Baltz was thrown from the plane into a snowbank, where local residents rolled him in the snow to extinguish his burning clothing. Though alive and conscious following the crash, the boy was horribly burned and suffering from smoke inhalation. Stephen later died of his injuries in Park Slope's New York Methodist Hospital. A plaque was installed in the hospital's chapel in memory of the victims of this air disaster; part of the plaque contains sixty-five cents in blackened change from Stephen Baltz's pocket.

As a 9-year-old, I happened to be in the neighborhood on December 16, 1960. I tell what happened that day as I experienced it -- clumsily, awkwardly, because I can't write like Emily Mitchell -- in the final story of my last book. There's a version of "The Boy Who Fell to Brooklyn" from the University of Miami magazine Mangrove here, but luckily it seems to be in a yellow typeface that makes it unreadable.

Jason Sanford wrote a good poem called "Brooklyn Aircraft Disaster, 1960" here.

I guess what makes me especially sad tonight is that in a few years there'll be no one like me left, nobody who actually remembers that boy and that day of the crash.

But imagination can always replace memory if we want to capture the lost past, right?

Emily Mitchell does that in her novel, deftly capturing Edward Steichen in World War I as he returns to a place of memory and meaning.

And of course Edward Steichen captures lost moments in his photographs. Here's my favorite of his night photos of New York City. It's the Flatiron Building at the intersection of East 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue and Broadway, a place I've passed a hundred times but never quite have seen this way:



In my subway car on the way home, a cellist is playing Vivaldi. I don't have a one-dollar bill or even any quarters, but I give him nickels and dimes like the one in the hospital's memorial plaque.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sunday Afternoon at Unnameable Books: Erika Howsare and Tyler Carter


This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Sunday, July 29, 2007:

Before rocking out at the McCarren Pool yesterday (incidentally, last week the city gave the Depression-era WPA project landmark status, and there's talk of restoring it as a pool once more, so who knows how many more summers there'll be free concerts?), I went to a different part of Brooklyn, for a poetry reading and my first visit to Unnameable Books.

Because of the heavy rain and weekend subway service changes, the best way to get from Williamsburg to the bookstore on Bergen Street off Flatbush Avenue was via a John Dos Passos-style Manhattan transfer.

The store is just steps away from the subway exit, so I didn't get too wet. This block is one which, in the early 1960s, our housekeeper and baby-sitter Jusele, recently arrived from Haiti, warned me against ever setting foot on -- lest I be whisked into one of the cars of the unspeakable "Devil People" who hung out there and never be heard from again, presumably a victim of their horrible magical spells.

(Jusele, now retired to a Miami condo, claims she never said this -- nor, just for the record, did she ever believe that Papa Doc Duvalier could fly or stay underwater for hours at a time or was invulnerable to bullets.)

It's also the block where Bruce, who I thought was the most talented person in our MFA fiction writing program at Brooklyn College, used to have an apartment just about the time he took the NYU computer programming course (about five years after our graduation) and then set out to the Bay Area for a life as a systems analyst who worships Rush Limbaugh. Aside from a few mid-1970s stories in little magazines, he never published fiction again -- although his work in the program was truly brilliant.

Of course the vast majority of creative writing MFAs end up more like Bruce than they do like me -- obviously because they're a lot smarter about life than I am.

Adam Tobin, a recent MFA in poetry from Brown, opened the bookstore last fall as Adam's Books, but he changed the name to Unnameable after getting a cease-and-desist order from a company called Adams Books.

(Memo to anyone opening a business from a lawyer more familiar with the Lanham Act than he ever wanted to be: please have someone do a thorough search of trademark registrations, both state and federal, before you settle on a name for your enterprise and you'll avoid a lot of what intellectual property attorneys refer to as tsuris.)

Unnameable Books is a delightfully cluttered new and used bookstore filled with interesting volumes: the kind of store that's a browser's delight. It may not be The Written Nerd's "Ideal Brooklyn Bookstore," but it's a good approximation in a neighborhood starved for one and a great place to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon browsing and hopefully buying -- even better if, as yesterday, there's a scheduled poetry reading at 3 p.m.

Bad weather, like yesterday's torrents, can make for bad turnouts at readings. In 1982, I gave a reading at the St. Lucie County Library in beautiful downtown Fort Pierce during a thunderstorm and tornado watch at which the only attendees were the four librarians on duty that evening. (However, thanks to the Florida Book and Author Festival, I still earned my $300, plus an overnight stay at a swanky beach hotel on nearby Hutchinson Island. Where have those days of easy money and luxury gone?)

So I was glad to see about 15 of us make our way downstairs (no railing yet on the wooden steps, so superannuated people like myself have to take care) to the new basement venue, which Adam recently got access to. Before this, everyone attending a store reading had to stand amidst the many bookshelves upstairs.

I say "new basement venue," but it's actually -- well, my first impression was that the space had been most recently used by associates of Harriet Tubman. But it's got a certain kind of charm, especially in the brickwork and that old fireplace. And it really is an ideal space for a reading. Wine and cheese were served, though naturally your abstemious correspondent merely smiled at them.

Today's poets were classmates of Adam's at Brown, and both came from out of town: Erika Howsare from Virginia and Tyler Carter from Oakland. While some people claim that writers from a particular program tend to produce relentlessly similar work, their voices, at least in what they read, seemed quite different: a pleasure to listen to but in distinctive ways.

Erika, who in addition to numerous magazine publications has published a couple of chapbooks (such as Elect June Grooms), read sections from a longer work inspired by Isabella Bird, the 19th century traveler whose most famous book is A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

In her narrative episodes, Erika is driving her car (parked outside on Bergen Street in real life) through a mythical and hyperreal old West, along with her traveling companions Isabella and Laura Ingalls. Both a guidebook and a meditation on the ethos and open spaces of the West -- a place the poet treats with reverence but with a somewhat jaundiced eye, this long prose poem is both imaginative and contemplative.

For a sample of Erika's work, here's a poem in the journal 580 Split.

The sound of intermittent thunder and wind chimes punctuated both poets' readings, making for a pleasant, cozy reading.

Tyler read from his current chapbook, New Place. Well, actually, he read the chapbook in its entirety, making the connections and contrasts between the poems that much more clear.

(Tyler also said, somewhat uncomfortably, that he wasn't trying to get anyone to buy the chapbook. Sometimes I think that in 2007 the most radical, transgressive literary act is a refusal to engage in self-promotion. So I'll do some promotion: Adam, Tyler and Erika all have chapbooks out from Horse Less Press in Providence.)

In Tyler's work, very spare, intense bursts of short, earnest words alternate with sudden complex and abstract -- but often playful -- texts. My favorite lines (and I don't know where the breaks go): To become bored with oneself ia a beautiful and necessary process and A snowy day is still a day.

For a sample of Tyler's work, here's a poem from the journal Typo.I wasn't bored at this reading. The poets took less than fifteen minutes each -- or so it seemed. Tyler's last poem was titled, fittingly, "Bookselling in Brooklyn."

Unnameable Books on Bergen Street is itself kind of a poem. Adam Tobin, who's had a lot of experience working in Bay Area bookstores and for SPD: Small Press Distribution, is creating an interesting work in progress. Independent bookstores are friends to the kind of important but "noncommercial" work that is being done by poets throughout the country, poets like Erika, Tyler and Adam himself. Please support them.

P.S. -- And you can also find Harry Potter at The Bookstore Which Must Not Be Named.

Sunday Evening at the McCarren Pool: TV on the Radio


This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Sunday, July 29, 2007:

It's 7:35 p.m. and I've just walked home the seven blocks down Lorimer Street from the McCarren Pool, where for the last couple of hours I saw an amazing free concert by TV on the Radio, a band I like so much that I made sure to mention them in one of the stories in my last book.

I walked over there around 5:30 p.m. after nuking a burrito and Boca burger for dinner (I can't cook but I can press buttons) when I came home from, yes, another poetry reading (which, he threatened, he would write about tomorrow). It had been raining very hard earlier, and I thought this Sunday's concert might have been canceled (an organization called JellyNYC has been running free concerts every Sunday this summer and last year, and so far this year I haven't missed at least a few hours of any of them). They never really announce when which band will appear. So some things on the web said 2 p.m. for their appearance and TVOTR's MySpace page said 8 p.m., which I knew couldn't be right because the concerts don't go that late.

I guess I lucked out. There were several thousand people there when I got there, but only three people were ahead of me on line to be seached (oddly, one guy appeared to be about 70) and I found a place where I could get a clear view of the band from the railing at was the deep end of the pool (at the right, facing the stage). There I could stand under my umbrella -- it was still raining lightly -- and not poke anyone's eye out.

Most of the crowd, of course, stood in front of the stage in the drained pool but there appeared nowhere to go on the pool steps in front of me without getting soaked by about four inches of rainwater. A little boy and his mom were splashing in it, as were a young hipster couple, and most people didn't care about getting their feet drenched, but I was just as happy back where I was.

TVOTR did a really long set of some songs I knew and some I didn't. To my ears, they all sounded great. I don't have the critical vocabulary to talk even semi-intelligently about music; I just know what I like, what makes me happy. And I was totally happy just standing and listening and, yeah, swaying (but mostly to avoid back distress).

It was really good of the band -- which does have neighborhood Williamsburg/Brooklyn connections -- to appear for free. Last night I walked up to the pool but just stood outside to see what I could hear of the Sonic Youth concert, which cost $34 a ticket (same two Saturday nights ago with Cat Power).

I always enjoy the pool scene on Sundays. But today was special.

Two weeks ago, after we went to the pool after attending the last day of the Giglio feast about eight blocks away, a friend I know from my undergrad and MFA days at Brooklyn College said that when he was a teenager there was an old man in his neighborhood who listened to the same kind of rock music he and his friends did, and they made fun of him for trying to be like a kid again. He said the hipsters at the pool probably were ridiculing me, too.

Maybe. I've heard that most people's musical tastes are fixed in their early years and that unless they're in the music business, they basically stop following new music after 25 or so. (Mistaking me for a record company exec or producer may be why at hip-hop show I went to in Miami a couple of years ago, three audience members asked if I'd take their own CDs and listen to them.)

Here's an interesting radio show dealing with the subject of older people listening to "younger music." I'm not sure if there's any way those of us from a useless generation can win.

I actually don't think anyone at the pool noticed me at all.

Like me, they were mostly paying attention to these guys:

Thanks for the free show.

MONDAY MORNING UPDATE: For someone who can discuss the music intelligently, I defer to Darcy James Argue's Secret Society:
TV on the Radio make records full of densely layered vocals, savagely untamed guitar sounds, and almost impenetrably thick sonic constructs. This is not the kind of sound that can be reproduced live (at least, not without relying heavily on prerecorded samples), but the band compensates for the absence of studio wizardry by rocking really fucking hard.

The Gerard Smith (bass) - Jaleel Bunton (drums) back line is fierce. Where the grooves on the recordings have a kind of studied abstract sloppiness to them, at yesterday's free show at McCarren Pool, everything was stripped down and locked in tight. Hearing the straight sound of frontman Tunde Adebimpe's vocals without the studio multitracking effects makes you appreciate what a great singer he really is. Same goes for Kyp Malone, whose falsetto backing vocals on record are kind of nasal, but live are pure and sweet, even a bit Curtis Mayfield-y. The rainy-day crowd sang along with almost every word.

TV on the Radio represent everything that is good and right about the Brooklyn indie scene from which they emerged -- they are restlessly experimental but grounded in irresistible melodies. They draw on a staggering variety of influences, but they blend them all so skillfully that the individual ingredients of their sound are barely recognizable -- it just sounds like them, and they don't really sound like anything else. They manage to appeal both to devoted indie rock hipsters and those whose primary musical interests lie elsewhere. Their music is abstract and artsy but genuinely connects to people on a visceral level. And, as I believe I mentioned, they rock really fucking hard.

This hit was one of those rare shows that made me feel good about the time and place I'm living in.

Me too, me too.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Friday Night in Williamsburg: MiPO Reading Series at Stain Bar with Richard Peabody, Cate Peebles & Nicole Steinberg


This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Saturday, July 28, 2007:

Late yesterday morning I received an email from Richard Peabody, the editor of the incredibly long-running D.C.-based literary magazine Gargoyle and Paycock Press and a talented poet, writer and anthologist. As a guest blogger at Ed Champion's Return of the Reluctant in the spring, I wrote a long post about Rick, calling him "the survivor." We've known each other for over 30 years although I've probably seen him no more than ten times (in the old days snail mail was, of course, the way writers living in different cities connected) -- the last time at a March 2005 conference at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Rick wrote that he'd be coming up to New York to read as part of the MiPO Reading Series at the Stain Bar, which is just a few blocks from my house. But I was surprised to see he'd be reading at 7 p.m. that night. Later Rick told me that he'd sent out the announcement over a week ago but it apparently got lost in the cyber-ether. I canceled my other plans and was at the cozy Stain Bar well before 7 p.m.

I've been there about seven or eight times. Back in May, I read there with my friend and teaching colleague Bronwen Tate and others as part of the monthly P.E.E.L. Series, which features four writers reading, respectively, poems, an essay, an excerpt and a letter. In late June, I went to see another friend, Nick Antosca, and three other writers, as part of the Sunday Salon reading series.

So that's at least three different reading series at Stain, whose owner is the novelist Krista Madsen, author of Degas Must Have Loved a Dancer. When I met her the first time I came to Stain last fall, I noted that I didn't seem to be getting the familiar fish-eye from younger patrons, the way grizzled geezers like myself and Kevin Walsh (Forgotten New York) often do in Williamsburg.

"I didn't want this to be just another hipster bar," she said. "I want everyone to feel comfortable here." And to make me comfortable, she proceeded to point out a couple of people who looked even more ancient than myself.

So I always enjoy going to readings at Stain; it also helps that it's a 10-minute walk from home. The last reading I'd attended was in their cozy backyard, and that's where I found Rick when I arrived there early. But the reading was indoors, perhaps so MiPOesias editor Amy King, the coordinator of the series, could videotape it.

If you don't know MiPOesias, you don't know poetry. Por ejemplo, the latest eclectic issue, edited by David Trinidad, for example, features some of the best American poets currently writing; I can't believe how many of them are my acquaintances and friends from back in the 1970s (Edward Field, Brad Gooch, Lloyd Schwartz, Maureen Owen, Dodie Bellamy, Joan Larkin, Ron Koertge, Charles Bernstein) and ones I've only met in the past couple of years (Charles Jensen, Gregg Shapiro, Aaron Smith).

But if you look at the previous issue -- edited by Nick Carbo, author of the shrewd and funny Secret Asian Man and other great books (who, with his wife Denise Duhamel, was one of the writers I knew back in my South Florida years) -- you'll find a completely different group of excellent writers, all Asian-American, represented: people like Purvi Shah, Ira Sukrungruang, Lee Ann Roripaugh and Jennifer Chang. The great variety in MiPOesias is what I love most about it.

By the way, no offense to anyone, but if you can't identify at least three of the names above, as far as I'm concerned, you're a total literary ignoramus. Literature is more than just fiction! And any fiction writer that doesn't believe that -- well, as Emerson said in another context -- you've just seen half the universe.

Like a lot of New York readings, Friday evening's started about half an hour late, giving Rick time to talk with me as his other New York friends who'd come to see him.

While he's in the bathroom, a young woman comes over to me and says, "Richard?"

"Yeah," I say. I guess I know her from someplace. I've become horrible with names and faces.

She introduces herself as Amy King, so I then realize she wanted Mr. Peabody. "Oh no," I say, "I'm a different Richard. He's in the bathroom, Richard Peabody."

"Oh," Amy says, and then I introduce them when Rick comes out.

Obvious mistake: one 56-year-old white man looks pretty much the same as every other one, and nobody here is nearly as old as we two Richards. (Just as he's Rick to me, I'm Richie to him. My old Brooklyn name, Richie from the block, whatever.)

Weekend summer evenings at readings generally have the smallest audiences, Amy King tells us, but there's a nice-sized crowd gathered: about 25 people, I'd say.

Finally Amy gets us all to sit down and be quiet and she introduces the first reader, Cate Peebles.

Cate's originally from Pittsburgh but currently lives -- where else? -- in Brooklyn, and works as an editorial assistant on an oral biography of George Plimpton that will be published by Random House in 2008.

Cate recently graduated from the MFA program at The New School (along with my pal Justin Taylor, editor of the groundbreaking anthology The Apocalypse Reader -- yes, you knew this was a plug -- and if you're in Portland on Sunday evening, you really should go to his reading at the downtown Powell's).

Like the other two readers, Cate keeps it pretty short and sweet. Here's a sample of her work:
Taco Truck to Awesometown

All the waterfront property in Funkytown
was taken, & we knew the dog-days of groove
were slumped & shaking in the corner, drowning
in pools of mohair and leather; it was time.
The tattoo above my ass says: enough with nut-
shells, I want almonds. Like most things,
it has to do with an ache. There were no circles
under our eyes, but octagons & trapezoids;
all night the barbaric yawn of feral
iambs kept us chewing on our blankies.
Say, it was time to wipe our noses & shut up, it was
time to say yes to hot-sauce, queso-blanco, & lime:
It was time to tighten our lips and trousers & get up, not
down; time to get this motherfucking freak-show on the road.

Real nice. You can read an interview with Cate here.

After a short break to get some drinks (and for some of us to use the bathroom), Amy introduces Nicole Steinberg.

Nicole is the Co-Editor of Lit and Associate Editor of the venerable Bomb Magazine. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast , McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel—Second Floor, PMS, Lumina, and Half Drunk Muse, and she writes for music webzine Axis of Live. She's the founder, curator and host of the Earshot reading series dedicated to the work and presence of emerging writers in the city. She lives in her native Jackson Heights, Queens -- the best place in the world to be if you want to have both arepas and a samosa for lunch.

Here's a sestina by Nicole:
I'm Obsessed with My Wife

Her lips are a very dark pink.
The homeless are especially nice to my wife.
She gives money to every beggar she sees, smiles at each God
bless you, child. She doesn't have to be naked
to get a man's attention. All of Brooklyn
loves her. I read

the funny pages to her every morning, then read
the rest of the paper myself. We hold our mugs with outstretched pinkies.
I saw an ad for the Miss Brooklyn
beauty pageant last week and thought, My wife
would be perfect for that! Still half-naked,
I ran to the phone and registered her. For God's

sake, she said, blushing like a winsome goddess.
Her cheeks were as red
as her naked
pink
ass after her "Bad Wife"
spankings. (Sometimes nightlife is scarce in Brooklyn.)

I would never win Miss Brooklynite,
she said. Miss Brooklyn, I corrected her. Thank God
for her low self-esteem; with minor cajoling, my wife
agreed. After I read
the sports section, we bought a pink
dress. The fabric was flimsy; it made her look naked.

One contestant arrived naked
from the waist up. Not unusual for Brooklyn,
though the pageant was held in Manhattan. My spouse pinked
me in the arm with a fingernail, anxious. God
forbid we do something I wanted to do. Read
my lips, said my wife.

I want to leave, said my wife.
Please—we'll go home, you'll read
and I'll lie naked
on the couch. She cried as we crossed the Brooklyn
Bridge, bawling ungodly
noises. Her tears stained her dress a pretty dark pink.

Have I told you how I met my wife? Two years before Brooklyn;
I was halfway through Naked Lunch. She'd never heard of it. God,
I said, don't you read? No, she said. Her cheeks went pink.

Here are more poems by Nicole.

Finally, Amy introduces Rick at length -- those of us over 55 tend to have lengthy bios if we're lucky. I'll quote the whole shebang here, even if I know it by heart:

Richard Peabody, a prolific poet, fiction writer and editor, is an experienced teacher and important activist in the Washington , D.C. community of letters. He is the founder and co-editor of Gargoyle magazine and editor (or co-editor) of fourteen anthologies including Mondo Barbie, Mondo Elvis, Conversations with Gore Vidal, A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, Alice Redux, Sex & Chocolate, Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women and Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women. He is the author of the novella Sugar Mountain, two short story collections, and six poetry collections. He is currently working on Electric Grace: Still More Fiction by Washington Area Women (forthcoming 2007). Peabody teaches at The Writer's Center and at Johns Hopkins University, where he has been presented the Faculty Award for Distinguished Professional Achievement. He lives and works in the Washington, D.C . area. You can find out more at www.gargoylemagazine.com.

Recently Rick's poetry has concentrated on his antiwar activism and being an older, sometimes stay-at-home dad to his two daughters. Here's one of the poems he read last night:

folding Laundry in my dream

—for Naomi Shihab Nye


I could fold laundry every day
for one thousand years
and never satisfy the women in my life.

The truth is I was proud of my folding abilities
until one lover confessed with a shrug
that she had always refolded every single item
in the basket upon my leaving the room.

I understand something about
compulsion. Nobody has ever
filled the dishwasher exactly
the way I want it filled.

Never. Ever.

But this laundry issue can make
or break any relationship.

I know.

So I practiced folding.
Took to it like a new religion.

Learned how to fold napkins for wedding
receptions. Practiced folding enough tables
and chairs, until I could set-up the
Roman Coliseum.

Mastered the art of origami,
My specialty—Puff the Magic Dragon.

Worked in a Laundromat until I could
fold jeans like a Levi Strauss employee.

Folded decorative towels. Slipcovers.
Lawn furniture. Money.

Folded knives. Folded doors. Folded bikes.

Learned how to fold myself—to flatten
my bones like a mouse and slip
through cracks in the molding of
our drafty old house.

Even that wasn’t good enough.

I spent hours learning to play expert poker
so I could scream “fold” every time things
were getting interesting.

I tried protein folding. Folding different
parts of my anatomy into each other
like a Russian nesting doll,

until my proteins and amino acids
resembled a room filled with
different-sized corrugated boxes.

After yet another relationship
fell apart over my failure
to fold lingerie “correctly”

I dreamed endlessly of paper airplanes
which I folded into so many intricate shapes
they could never be expected to fly

and somehow they did
soaring higher than I imagine
my laundry ever will.

After Rick's last poem, Amy King stops videotaping (you should be able to see the reading here fairly soon), closes the reading with thanks and an announcement of next month's program, and people leave, hang out, buy more drinks. I am a teetotaler due to a lifelong horror of sounding like Lady Chatterley's father.

I sit outside with Rick and a couple of his writer friends for several hours, talking about a variety of subjects, fun stuff mostly -- but also how communities of artists and writers can survive in these weird political and economic times. Inside the bar, a woman is singing and I smile profusely, as Rick's friend Linda suggests I do, when I enter and exit the bathroom. From experience, I know that people in the bar can hear people in the restroom peeing, so I hope the singer is resonant.

Around 11 p.m., when I say goodbye to everyone and wish Rick a safe trip home to D.C. the next day, I feel good enough to walk the eight blocks home rather than take the L train 2 stops.

It's a gorgeous night, and I feel enormously grateful for poetry, old friends, the efficacy of physical therapy, and the title of Daniel Fuchs' classic novel from 1934.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Thursday Night at Bluestockings: Min Jin Lee and Rebecca Wolff for WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly


This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Friday, July 27, 2007:

Bluestockings, on the Lower East Side, is one of my favorite bookstores in New York City. In the past year, I've gone to over two dozen events there. Most are free but I usually try to give a small contribution when they pass around the bucket; even for the events that have an admission fee, nobody's ever turned away because they can't pay. It's that kind of place: proudly radical and feminist, it always seems comfortable to someone like me, who came of age in what seemed like a more radical time. Mr. Peabody, get the Wayback Machine:

Gail Collins, now a New York Times op-ed columnist, ends her magisterial 2003 epic history, America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, on August 26, 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which established women's suffrage. Ten thousand women and a number of male supporters -- including one very callow 19-year-old boy from Brooklyn -- gathered in Manhattan to celebrate and support the second-wave feminist agenda.

Mayor John Lindsay -- whose re-election I'd worked for the year before, in both the June Republican primary (lost) and the November general election (won, as the Liberal Party candidate) -- denied the group a permit to parade on Fifth Avenue, asking that they march only on the sidewalk. Parade organizer Betty Friedan surveyed the unexpectly huge crowd swelling around her, and issued the command I was to hear a number of times during the next few years:

"Take the street!"

Here are some photos I took early that morning 37 years ago as we gathered at City Hall Park.

That's Betty Friedan in the top row, and below are Congresswoman Bella Abzug in her trademark hat and NYC Consumer Affairs Commissioner Elinor Guggenheimer (who'd finished fourth in the previous year's Democratic primary for City Council President, beating only writer Jimmy Breslin, running on Norman Mailer's mayoral ticket). I can't find the photo I took of Gloria Steinem, who would found Ms. Magazine the next year when it first appeared as an insert in New York Magazine.

Around that time, as a Poli Sci major at Brooklyn College, I'd take my required seminar in Sex and Politics and do my undergraduate writing requirement on feminist health issues, particularly in regard to gynecological care. We students successfully petitioned and demonstrated until the college hired its first staff gynecologist.

Twenty years later, in Gainesville, I'd be one of three guys in the first Women and the Law class (our text: Feminist Jurisprudence: Taking Women Seriously) offered at UF Law School and volunteer as an escort at a women's health center at a time when North Florida abortion providers were being killed.

The only national or state political action committees that endorsed me when I ran for Congress from Florida in 1994 and 2004 were those of the National Organization for Women.

On my 19th birthday I rather idiotically wrote in my diary: "I commit myself to radical social change." Um, yeah, Richie, right. I guess I was a pretty pretentious kid, but 1970 was a pretty heady time.

That year, a collective of feminists started The Feminist Press to publish work of notable women writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston, that had gone out of print. People like me sent in small contributions to get them started. Two years later, they began publishing a stapled newsletter in the new field of women's studies; by 1981, that newsletter had become the academic journal Women's Studies Quarterly. The press and the journal eventually came under the aegis of the City University of New York.

Tonight's event, organized by Lauren Cerand, in my opinion New York's best literary publicist (and compiler of the weekly event listing The Smart Set at Maud Newton), celebrates the latest issue of WSQ, the current incarnation of the now-venerable and very important publication in feminist studies. It now includes creative work -- poetry, fiction, drama, creative nonfiction and visual art as well as scholarly articles. This issue's cover art by Renee Cox, "Olympia's Boys," is of course Manet revisioned. (Cox is one of the artists who royally pissed off Rudy Giuliani during his mayoralty -- in her case, with what he felt was her blasphemous photograph, "Yo Mama's Last Supper.")

Nancy K. Miller, one of the general editors of WSQ and a CUNY Graduate Center professor, follows Lauren to the podium and discusses this issue's theme, The Sexual Body, and introduces the evening's readers -- first Rebecca Wolff, a poet and the editor of the literary magazine Fence.

Rebecca lives upstate now and says she doesn't get to Bluestockings very often but feels at home here. She reads for about twenty minutes, poems on the evening's theme, though she says she's interested in the literary sexualized body. Poems like "The Trick of My Life," "Don't Know What to Call Him But He's Mighty Like a Rose," and "Chinatown, Oh" ("Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?". . . "My brother. My lover. My brother. My Mother. Slap slap slap". . ."This can't be heterosexuality / This must be heterosexuality") and her recent "Man Tits" ("Look at that pair / On that man over there") were all provocative, as were the poems she read in opposition to the work of the monstrous but inevitable Sharon Olds.

I hope she'll forgive me for probably misquoting her. My favorite poem she read was "The Bawdy Mothers," but I can't find any of last night's poems online (you'll have to buy Manderlay or her other books); the best I can do is this link to Ron Hogan's Beatrice for her poem "Dana Plato Fatality."

Min Jin Lee, if you've been living on Saturn, is the celebrated author of the debut novel, Free Food For Millionaires, number one BookSense pick, heralded in The New York Times and just about everywhere else. Prior to moving to Korea with her husband next month (her next novel will about Koreans living in Japan, and she said she finds the prospect of the new environment frightening and exhilirating), she's been on a hectic book tour around the country -- but she said she would not have missed coming to Bluestockings (she didn't say it, but it I will: for an event that was not specifically to sell her own book).

Part of being a feminist, Lee said, and others later agreed, is to give back to the women and the community who helped and shaped you. Free Food was actually the fourth novel she'd written and that Nancy K. Miller had been instrumental in helping her with it. Lee also talked about the importance of Rebecca Wolff's work helping other poets with Fence.

She read a passage from the book that's excerpted in WSQ, one in which the narrator, Casey Han, having broken up with her Korean boyfriend and unable to reach him due to a disconnected phone, connects instead with the rake Hugh Underhill, who after sex "does the gentlemanly thing" and goes out for Haagen-Dazs.

In his absence, looking for something to wear, Casey finds a porn video called "Pearl Necklace," featuring an older Asian woman who wears one with two younger unattractive white men. Casey tries to be liberal but is kind of nauseated by what she sees -- and even more so, what she hears, because Hugh had used the same exact phrase to her during sex that one of the men did in the porn video.

Anyway, it was enough to make me decide I'm going to beg the book's publicist -- the best literary publicist in New York, did I say that already? -- to get a review copy. Ahem.

A question-and-answer period followed the readings, and audience members asked questions regarding the pitfalls of writing abaout sex (Rebecca Wolff said she never thought of writing about sex differently than any other subject matter; Min Jin Lee discussed her struggles and initial discomfort in writing sexually explicit scenes); about what one woman perceived as the current pro-pornography attitude of most New York feminists; and about threesomes: why men fantasize about them and why men are actually threatened by them. Both authors and the editor had interesting responses to all the questions.

After the reading, I hung around Bluestockings, where I can find titles that for some reason the book department at the Apache Junction Wal-Mart SuperCenter doesn't carry: Pat Califia's Public Sex, Philip S. Foner's The Black Panthers Speak, Edith Thomas's The Women Incendiaries, Sheldon Rampon and John Staur's Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq, Julia Serano's A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Craig Steven Wilder's A Covenant With Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn, Dreena Burton's Vive Le Vegan!, Megan Seely's Fight Like a Girl: How to Be a Fearless Feminist, H.G. Carrillo's Loosing My Espanish, Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schawer's Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing -- and there, on the fiction shelf, three of the legendary Ann Bannon's masterpieces: Odd Girl Out, Journey to a Woman, Beebo Brinker...

Four years ago I got to shake hands with Ann Bannon in the women's bathroom of the Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Community Center. The men's bathroom was closed for repairs, and when I came out of the stall, I saw a woman of a certain age so classy I knew had to be Ann Bannon. If you haven't read her books, go out and find one. Even if you're not a lesbian. Especially if you're not a lesbian.

There's only one little bathroom here at Bluestockings, and I needed it before I returned to Brooklyn. As I waited for cooperation from my prostate, I stared at the poster in front of me: a drawing of a woman in a headscarf, holding a baby and looking scared by the large tank menacing her. INVADING ARMIES HAVE NEVER LIBERATED THIRD WORLD WOMEN AND WOMEN OF COLOR, it says.

As I made my way out of the store, I took one last look above and below the counter. There were T-shirts: SALUD. DIGNIDAD. JUSTICIA. A Native American warrior on a horse (MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS). BIKE: PUT THE FUN BETWEEN YOUR LEGS.

And buttons: PRO-CHILD, PRO-CHOICE. Swastikas with slashes through them. I (HEART) MY CUNT.

And postcards for WBAI, Code Pink New York and the documentary Soma: An Anarchist Therapy.

Although tonight's Bluestockings event features Domenic Priore, who I just saw in Brooklyn last week, I'm sure I'll be back there sooner rather than later. If you're a book-lover who lives in New York or are just visiting, Bluestockings is always worth the trip.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Wednesday Night in Washington Square Park: Opium Magazine's Literary Death Match


This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Thursday, July 26, 2007:

I first discovered Washington Square Park the summer I turned 18, the summer of Woodstock, of Stonewall, and of the first moon landing.

(For those of you wondering about what you may consider superfluous prepositions -- or the length of my blog posts in general -- it is my understanding that upon his return, Jeff will be paying me by the word.)

The West Village, and Washington Square Park in particular, was still a favorite hangout nine years after 1969, during the summer of Son of Sam with its blackout riots and Yankee Stadium dramas.

But that was two or three decades ago, and those fun-filled days watching hippies dance in the fountain under the influence of LSD are long gone, as are favorite neighborhood haunts like the Eighth Street Bookshop, The Postermat, Orange Julius, The Bottom Line, the Eighth Street Playhouse and Art Theatre, and restaurants like Shakespeare's and The Cookery, where a stoned dinner companion would embarrass me by calling out "Sing it, Alberta!" I met a boy named Frank Mills standing right here in front of the Waverly but unfortunately I lost his address...

I had my March 1983 publication party for I Brake for Delmore Schwartz at the old B. Dalton Bookstore on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street (now, inevitably, a Barnes and Noble, albeit one with neither a cafe nor a public bathroom). But by the time I spent most summers living on the Upper West Side in the late 1980s, I stopped hanging out in the West Village and in Washington Square Park. AIDS had taken most of my friends from neighborhood, and the vibrant shopping street on West Eighth that I knew from the 1960s and 1970s had become filled with discount shoe stores -- the stores that weren't boarded up, that is.

By the 1990s all the action had moved east to St. Marks Place and the rest of the East Village, and more recently, retail has decamped half a mile uptown to what seems like Manhattan's center of gravity, Union Square -- which in 1969 was filled with nasty old ladies carrying DON'T BUY JUDY BOND BLOUSES shopping bags and drug addicts attempting to auction off their children to passersby.

In those days my wardrobe was heavy on tie-dyed T-shirts, bleached jeans with floral appliques, a headband and a peace symbol dangling from my neck.

This evening I'm wearing a sensible Woody Allen plaid sports shirt, ugly old-man cargo shorts and orthotics in my New Balance walking shoes. Hobbled by an uncooperative sacroiliac, I unsteadily make my way into Washington Square Park for yet another of my continuing unappreciated efforts to let blog readers across the country know what New York literary events are really like -- as if you care.

Back in the day, this park was filled with furtive, teasing cries of "Loose joints!" Today my own joints are more interested in ibuprofen and capsaicin cream than cannabis -- although, come to think of it, I do support medical marijuana.

Any-way, due to the excruciating twinges at the base of my pelvis as I hobble past the chess hustlers, the dog run, a band of high school boys playing Beatles songs and the fountain where I spent many happy hours reading Ramparts and dodging Crazy Judy's entreaties to "let me crash at your pad, man," I find I am somewhat late to Opium Magazine's Literary Death March -- sorry Literary Death Match.

(Focused on the past, for some reason I was thinking of Bataan -- in World War II -- for those young'uns: the one with Hitler.)

A San Francisco version of this event a few evenings ago apparently had its acrimonious side, but tonight's New York Death Match will prove as mellow a literary time as Washington Square has ever seen -- well, if you don't count Catherine Sloper's first date with Morris Townsend.

At first I don't see any evidence in the park of a Literary Death Match. But then some people who look slightly literary -- don't ask me how I can tell -- seem to be congregating aimlessly by the statue of Garibaldi sheathing or perhaps unsheathing his sword. (My MFA thesis at Brooklyn College was titled "Garibaldi in Exile," its title story about life in Staten Island noting that the Italian patriot shot thrushes and made candles while living there.)

By the time I make my way to the edges of the crowd (naturally, as I walk, I get hit in the knee by a 10-year-old's Spaldeen), the master of ceremonies -- he's got a beard and cool wrap-around shades but I don't catch his name, sorry -- is introducing the judges: Ben Greenman of The New Yorker and McSweeney's fame; fiction writer Leigh Newman; and musician/writer Wesley Stace, who doesn't want his bio note read aloud.

Ben will be the literary judge, Wesley the performance judge, and Leigh the judge of intangibles (here insert pun using the adjective "touching"). Apparently Clarence Thomas, he of the $1.5 million HarperCollins advance, was unable to serve as the hotness-factor judge.

But who needs Clarence? Ben, Wesley and Leigh are every bit as qualified as any appellate panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit -- with the sole caveat that none of them has ever been an active member of the Federalist Society.

The first semi-final round will have the debonair Tony O'Neill, representing 3:AM Magazine, facing off against the fetching Maureen Tkacik (pronounced "Tay-sick," the announcer is told), representing The Crier or something.

After a short intermission, the second semi-final round will pit the charming Irina Reyn (a substitute for the previously announced Joshua Mandelbaum, who presumably injured himself at practice), representing Ballyhoo Stories [to whom we express thanks for the pics], against the lovely Tao Lin, representing Opium Magazine.

Wait a minute. Isn't Opium sponsoring this match? How can they do that and still be one of the contestants? Oh, why should I give a shit? After all, they once published my story "G-d Is My Fuckbuddy," even if they did remove it from their archives. Who cares about conflicts of interest? After all, 3:AM has also published me, both a story and a poem accepted by their poetry editor Tao Lin, and that won't make me lose my journalistic objectivity here. (Go Tao! And whichever magazine you're pretending to represent!)

The man standing next to me, holding a violin for some reason, says, "This should be good."

I turn and stare at him, wondering why he's missing a bow.

Tony O'Neill, wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, black dress pants and shoes and a loosened skinny tie, will read an early chapter of his novel Digging the Vein, entitled "This Is What Killed Hemingway." (Full disclosure: Tony is one of my 13,576 friends on MySpace.)

Some people here at the back of the crowd of about 65 (some younger folks whose lumbar discs have not yet ruptured are squatting on the floor with a semicircle of us in standing room at the back) start to leave as soon as Tony begins to read.

It's much easier to walk out (i.e., away) from a reading held outdoors than one in an indoor venue with chairs, I note. Too bad New York City has such terrible weather nine months a year.

But due to my vast and eclectic reading habits, I am already familiar with this excerpt from the O'Neill ouevre and consider it a masterpiece, so I can listen to Tony's excellent account of crazed druggies in London in his storied past while allowing my mind to wander a bit -- like to the intriguing headline in the tabloid of a nearby loiterer: "Cat predicts hour of patients' deaths."

Tony clutches the mike (attached to a stand) with one hand, reads from his manuscript pages in the other. I guess if he had brought the book in which this chapter appears, he would not have an extra hand to clutch the mike. (Am I supposed to spell it "mic"?)

Tony's a little hard to hear, what with the competition from squealing toddlers and the drum accompaniment to musical stylings of the faux Fab Four. The guy next to me is eating what looks like an interesting combination of yogurt, granola and chocolate syrup.

A guy on a bike comes up on my right. "What's this?" he asks.

"A literary death match," I say. "One of these people will die before the night is over." I hand him my leaflet, printed off the Internet.

"Cool," he says, looking it over. "I know who Ben Greenman is." Then he rides away on his bike.

I try to focus on some of the highlights of Tony's chapter:
"We spent it, asshole, on fucking drugs."

"We're fucked."

"Any crack left?"

"Motherfucker, my fucking car, man!"

"We were officially fucked."

Sitting at the base of the Garibaldi statue, Judge Ben is furiously taking notes. Judge Wesley is looking pensive. Judge Megan has her hand on her chin and is swaying back and forth. You can hear that Beatles melody in the background.

Tony finishes on a high note (though pretty much the whole story was told on a high note) and gets a well-deserved enthusiastic round of applause.

Next up: Maureen Tkakic, who comes up smoking a cigarette. "I have no business participating here," she says modestly. "I'm a blogger who blogs about women's magazines. My story is about my attempt to become a real writer."

I happen to know that Maureen has published in such places as Time, The Wall Street Journal, Crain's New York Business, and Philadelphia and Boston magazines -- publications that have readers with a paucity of body art -- so I can understand her feeling that as a writer she is an imposter.

But as her story, whose title I don't catch, proves, Maureen is the real deal. It's a road trip story, with a first-person female narrator who with her fuckbuddy Schwartz encounters an Iraq war deserter named Sanchez -- a relative of the Gen. Sanchez disgraced by the Abu Ghraib tortures -- who wants to be driven to Juarez to this camp where Kellogg Root Brown guys and other deserters are training Mexicans for the war on terror or something.

Maybe Sanchez is a con man. Maybe he's not. The story begins with a quote from Cosmo about sex and includes a funny email about why the narrator would rather be in the Hamptons than on this road trip. To my mind, this story is an unalloyed masterpiece. I am enthralled.

Maureen's story involves Lexis/Nexis searches at truck stops, a former manager of a Payless shoe store, and attempts to drive to both Crawford, Texas, and Hope, Arkansas. In other words, it's filled with both trenchant social commentary as well as sexy scenes involving suppurating wounds.

Looking around, I notice I am not the oldest person in the crowd. A lady of about eighty is leaning on a cane and nodding appreciatively. Maureen is very animated and acts out the parts when she does dialogue.

This line, said at a tense moment in the story, gets a big laugh: "This is exactly what happened to Judith Miller because she trusted the wrong people."

I am also impressed by Maureen's ability to hold both a cigarette and the mike in one hand and her manuscript pages in the other. One of the backs of her manuscript pages is in color and I wonder if she is poor and has to use the backs of papers from her office in her printer. My heart goes out to her -- I think I took my Plavix this morning -- and I join the thunderous applause and hoots when Maureen finishes with a flourish.

The MC says that they're going to forgo the scheduled break because they're running late and reminds readers to limit themselves to eight minutes or fewer. (He actually says "less," but I don't want to embarrass this guy, whoever he is.) I think that was directed toward Maureen.

The crowd stands there (or squats, the lucky few -- also, a few non-participants are leaning up front) while the judges confer in animated whispers. The MC says, "The atmosphere is tense with anticipation." Some teenage boys eating fries come over near me until one of them points to the fountain and says, "Hey, what's over there, dude?" and they leave.

I take advantage of the free time and attempt one of my less conspicuous sacroiliac-joint stabilization exercises. A white woman pushing a stroller with a black child and a black woman pushing a stroller with a white child eye me suspiciously. (Dear reader, you are a racist if you assume only one of them is a nanny.)

Washington Square Park actually still seems like a good place to hang out. I'm happy to see that and will have to come here sometime when there is no literary death match scheduled.

Judge Ben Greenman comes to the mike and starts commenting on the first-round contestants. He says Tony and his story were both "likable" and that the piece has a clear sense of purpose. It went to extremes, but in a good way, like with the needle sticking out of a woman's body part (I forget which one).

Ben says that last year the park officials came over to complain about the profanity in the stories, but this year no one did, thanks to a new policy laid down by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe that profanity is okay with him.

Ben says that the performance judge thought Tony's accent moved from place to place over the course of the reading. It sounded British to me. Overall, Ben says, the performance judge was impressed by Tony's drive.

Now the judges go into a huddle. They ask Maureen, who's now in the back of the crowd near me, with a friend who gave her "a real cigarette" to replace the one she had, which I now see was an unlit prop, what the name of her story is.

She hesitates. "Untitled," she finally says. Someone sitting on the ground, a fan of untitled stories, applauds.

Ben says that at first they thought the two stories were like apples and oranges but then after a while they didn't seem so much like apples and oranges but more similar -- like pluots and apriums, I guess.

The judges appreciated the details in Maureen's story, like the reference to some things that can't be Googled -- a highly original concept that seems unthinkable. The bold use of an actual telephone number whose prefix was not 555 also seemed daring. Ben said he wanted to try dialing the number when he got home and asked Maureen if she would give it to him privately later, as he didn't quite get all the digits.

The road trip story is always a good form, the judges said, and the performance judge was impressed by the cigarette.

The winner of the first round, Ben said, was Tony. There is scattered applause.

With no break, Tao Lin is introduced. He is not smoking a cigarette, nor would he ever.

Tao says he is going to read from his new memoir, "Fishing With My Family."


Now here I have to interrupt and say that in April, when I got to a reading at Galapagos Art Space early and Tao let me sit next to him, he asked, "What do you think I should read?"

"The whale story," I told him, knowing that it would amaze his friends and confound his enemies -- who, as a result of a shrewd public relations campaign, currently outnumber his friends fourteen to one.

Tao took my advice that night and had a big hit with the story. So I am prejudiced in favor of it in advance.

Without a manuscript, Tao is reading from one of his three published books.

Of course, I would no more reveal the ending to Tao's story -- some may call it a poem, but honestly, who knows the difference? -- than I would reveal that after Voldemort kills Harry Potter, he convinces the Bancroft family to sell him their Dow Jones stock at $47 a share (just kidding!) -- here's a version that appeared in Monkeybicycle.

I think tonight Tao is doing a version that condenses the opening but somehow lasts exactly eight minutes. He looks at his watch a couple of times.

Those of you too lazy to hit the last link won't understand this, but the key to a successful performance of this story is to remain deadpan. I can detect Tao's struggle to keep from smiling as the audience members around me look on slack-jawed.

A young Hispanic man in the middle of the crowd is the only heckler of the evening. "Tonight you gonna eat pig!" he yells out as he leaves.

That's not true, of course. Tao is a vegan.

Eventually he cracks up, but he gathers his composure within a few seconds.

"I know how this story ends," I whisper conspiratorally to Maureen, now standing next to me and smoking. She nods. We can hear the sounds of an amplified Michael Jackson singing "Thriller" coming from the fountain.

I'm curious as to what Ben Greenman is writing as Tao's story goes on and on. Megan is still swaying, but now back and forth rather than side to side. Wesley is still pensive.

The story -- naturally, I consider it a masterpiece -- ends, and Tao gets a very enthusiastic response in the form of applause and a few coughs.

"Going toe to toe with Tao," the MC says, "is Irina Reyn." He says that his paper says she wrote "What Happened to Baby Yaga" for Ballyhoo Stories but he knows that is a typo and her title is actually "What Happened to Baba Yaga."

Irina, the first contestant wearing a dress, says, "This will be apples and oranges." Though, it turns out, her story, like Tao's fishing memoir, is about a childhood humiliation.

The story takes place at a bizarre Queens Jewish day school, and having taught at an even more bizarre Phoenix Jewish day school (the headmistress was Protestant! two-thirds of the boys were named "Zach"! they had a Republican club but no Democratic one!), I can attest to its versimilitude.

Irina's narrator, who has just transferred into this bizarre school (which to my ears sounded suspiciously like the Solomon Schechter School on Parsons Boulevard, teaching at which I wouldn't wish on a dog) where the kids are divided into four cliques: popular Americans, popular Israelis, loser Americans and loser Israelis.

As a recent transplant from Russia to Rego Park, she learns the Russian kids must fit into one of these four categories and she stakes her quest to be popular to this amazingly cool Russian boy called Koshchey the Deathless, who cannot be hurt unless the narrator can find his secret soul.

The narrator pines for Koshchey the Deathless to invite her to the sixth-grade dance and seems to be making progress when he finally speaks to her after she brushes him on the playground. Unfortunately, what he says is: "Sinner! Do not touch the King!"

(I may be getting this wrong. At his point in the evening my ibuprofen was starting to wear off and it was affecting my memo-pad handwriting.)

But when the narrator breaks a tie in Bible class about which Carvel (I bet you didn't know it was kosher) product to order, the Lollapalooza or the Flying Saucer, in favor of the frozen UFO, Koshchey the Deathless approves and tells her: "Fine choice for a mortal."

(If Tao had written this, the preferred Carvel product would have been Fudgie the Whale.)

Need I say that Irina's story is a masterpiece? She finishes to thunderous applause and a few hoots.

There's another break while the judges confer. I look around. By the fountain there's a guy with long blond hair and a guitar. I remember him being in that exact spot on Good Friday in 1972.

Turning back to the judges, I see an animated discussion and what appears to be sharp disagreement, though it may only be about where to have dinner afterwards.

This time Ben will not be the only judge to speak, although he goes first, sort of like John Roberts. Here my notes appear to read: "promotion el announcement for reliable turn." So I have no idea what he was saying.

But he does praise Tao's story for its consistent tone. And he admired the audience's reaction to it as well. Ben wondered if Tao was showing off, reading from a book rather than loose pages of manuscript, and there is a discussion of whether Tao actually was reading from the book or had memorized the story and was holding the book as a prop to give his hand something to do.

Ben says Irina's story was the best of the four he'd heard. Isn't Greenman a Jewish name? Maybe I can hit him up for a blurb.

Oh, actually I see my notes were messed up here and it was actually Wesley who said Irina's story was the evening's best. Note how easy it is to become a self-hating Jew. Of course I have had years of practice.

And it was also Wesley who made the comments about Tao reading from his book. Really, what Ben said was indecipherable to me. I guess he has good editors at MacAdam/Cage.

Leigh announces her judgment of the intangibles, but first admits, "I think I'm the worst intangibles judge ever." How touching. (I'm tired and in pain and I couldn't resist.)

She said the first reader (that's what she calls Tao) had a tightly constructed story with one line repeated endlessly to the point of strangeness. This could be seen either as gimmicky or quirky, Leigh says.

The second reader (that's what she calls Irina) read a story that was delicious and finely crafted; she didn't expect it to be as funny as it turned out to be.

Both stories were very good, Leigh says.

Now the judges confer. It is a split decision, Ben announces, but the winner is Irina. Magnanimous in total defeat, Tao vigorously applauds the woman who has vanquished him.

This literary death match, I now understand, is really a contest about character -- and all of the writers have been winners, blah blah blah.

Now we go to the quick final round betwen the two finalists. It's an on-the-spot literary improvisation. Tony and Irina each must compose a haiku in three minutes, and it has to be on the theme of "sin and redemption." I sense a morally uplifting conclusion to a perfect evening.

"On your mark, get set, GO!" says the announcer, whose name I really apologize for not finding out.

Now, watching two people attempt to write a haiku -- for members of the audience, the MC has explained that it's a Japanese lyric of three lines of five, seven and five syllables -- is not very exciting. But an enterprising Parks Department employee kicks a colorful beach ball into the crowd and the literary people have fun kicking it back and forth while poetry is being hastily written.

Finally time's up. Tony is first. His poem, he explains, is autobiographical. I wouldn't expect anything less. It is titled "Shoplifting at Urban Outfitters" (I see Tao start to take notes):
I didn't do it
I didn't know it was in my bag
Okay, I'm sorry

Irina, going not for the autobiographical but the postmodern, reads her haiku, titled "This Exercise":
This is torture
Like living under Stalin
But slightly better

Could Anna Akhmatova have described her feelings any better?

Ben says he doesn't think the judges will be very draconian about the syllable count but he sounds a bit suspicious that either poem added up to 5-7-5.

The audience will be the final judge, like you know what TV show. The MC calls for applause, first for Tony's haiku, then for Irina's.

Both get a lot of claps and some hoots and even a whistle or two. It's too close to call, and so there's a do-over. It still sounds pretty even to me, but then I went to one Kiss concert too many. (That is, I went to one Kiss concert.)

Ben is called upon to decide. Based on his legendary acute hearing, it is decided that Irina is the winner of this Literary Death Match. Everyone applauds wildly. I feel a chill up my spine. I wonder if my sacroiliac problem is actually an infection rather than an inflammation.

Irina is presented with a medal that has a red, white and blue ribbon and is round and gold. It reminds me of the one Bert Lahr got at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

"I love everybody!" Irina says.

"Sorry there weren't any chairs," the MC says. "Thanks to Opium Magazine." It might have been better had he made clear that this was two sentences rather than one, but it's been a great evening. It's 8:15 p.m.

I need to get home to bed. As I make my way across Washington Square Park, a teenage boy returns to his friends who are tossing a frisbee in the fountain. "While you two were engaged in this mindless violence," he tells them, "I was over there enriching my mind. I heard two haikus and the word draconian."

His companions look thoughtful, and then their attention turns to two girls in halter tops spinning hula hoops to James Brown singing "I Feel Good."

A unicyclist circles the fountain atop his lofty perch, as if in celebration of the written (and spoken) word or something.

* * * * *

FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE: Tony O'Neill and Tao Lin, bless their hearts, congratulate Irina Reyn on her victory.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Monday Night in Soho: Alison Rogers & "Diary of a Real Estate Rookie" at McNally Robinson


This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Monday, July 23, 2007:

New York is one of the most expensive cities to live in, but its many bookstores provide free entertainment nearly every night for those residents on a budget. Most bookstore readings and appearances begin between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., and oldsters can get home in time to be in bed before The 10 O'Clock News ("Do you know where your ability to stay up late is?") and others can get out in time for real fun, when the night is still as young as they are -- just not so drugged up.

With the mammoth Harry Potter for Grownups party of Friday night now a memory, this evening at 7 p.m. Soho's McNally Robinson store featured an appearance by Alison Rogers, author of Diary of a Real Estate Rookie: My Year of Flipping, Selling, and Rebuilding and What I Learned (The Hard Way).

The book is based on the online column for the website InmanNews about her new career as a real estate agent that Rogers, the founder of the New York Post's real estate section, began after she "stormed off in a huff" after 20 years of being treated like, well, like someone who works for the News Corporation's crazed management. (Her book's dedication is "To Rupert Murdoch, whose refusal to pay me a decent wage launched me on the adventure of a lifetime.”)

So I guess you could call Diary of a Real Estate Rookie a "blook" -- except it seems more like a memoir with sidebars (i.e., when looking at apartments to buy, bring along a heavy book like Ulysses so you can drop it on the floor at an opportune moment and see how many howling dogs and crying babies you can flush out).

No doubt many in the crowd were there just for the Q & A to find out where the cheap condos are (try Little Rock) but some of us came for the pleasures of Rogers' prose:
I write weekly dispatches about my real estate adventures, which I had pitched as "trading in my Jimmy Choos for a hard hat," and this is the first time in four months life really feels that way. Hey, I'm in the belly of the flip. What's it like? Well, your intrepid heroine is playing a beam of light through a darkened house, and she sees ... crap everywhere. Abandoned mattresses, fast-food wrappings, in one case actual human waste where someone had squatted like a dog over a piece of plastic, and then wandered off again. I feel only drugs could have caused people to live like this. I had seen a crèche proudly displayed on someone's lawn the day before, and what stuck in my head was, "I wonder if conditions in the manger were this bad." At one point, my partner moves a refrigerator, and a yowl and a streak of escaping black-and-white fur revealed that he'd surprised a cat. Frankly, I was glad it wasn't some kind of gigantor rat.

Though some in the audience didn't quite get it -- and I suppose that Kaplan, Rogers' publisher, may not want them to -- after listening to several beautifully crafted entries that Rogers read tonight, I suspect the New York Observer was on the mark when it said that this is a book about real estate the way the NPR show Car Talk is about cars.

Not that you won't learn a good deal: as Publishers Weekly noted, "...the book doesn’t just rely on funny turns of phrase: it also provides plenty of working advice, including tips on handling lowball offers, staging the sale of a bohemian apartment and talking to your realtor. Those looking for some good information on the real estate industry in a book that doesn’t feel like homework will be hard-pressed for a better choice."

I learned, for example, why the $10,000-a-month end of the rental market is impervious to any downturn and why Sub-Zero and Mille appliances are de rigeur and that when one Manhattan luxury building provides cold storage for grocery deliveries, within weeks every other luxury building has a refrigerator/freezer in its lobby.

Alison Rogers is wry, thoughtful and often extremely funny: the epistolary entry that she read as her last excerpt, "Sorry I Hid Your Underwear," makes equal fun of sellers, buyers, agents and the author herself.

Oh, and there were enough struggling writers in the audience so that of course one asked where in the city struggling writers could afford to live. Alison Rogers noted that she used to enjoy hanging out with Neal Pollack and his wife, but that successful as Neal has been, they moved first to Philadelphia and then to Austin.

"So that doesn't bode well for you," she told the questioner, suggesting that struggling writers might want to band together with their equally struggling writer friends and explore neighborhoods outside New York -- and maybe outside New Jersey, and maybe even outside the whole Northeastern corridor. . .

Still, I have to admit to being disappointed that Rogers didn't show more skepticism about the New York market. Like everyone else here, she buys into the myth that New York is "different," that it's now like London or Tokyo, a place where the superrich from all over the globe want to live. Rogers says nearly all her clients are younger than she is (she's 40 and a newlywed): mostly corporate lawyers and hedge fund types.

Having lived most recently in two markets -- South Florida and Phoenix -- that became incredibly overheated and then crashed below ground, plus knowing that my friends who bought Manhattan co-ops in 1987 who had to sell them before 1992 often took a substantial loss, I'm skeptical that New York's real estate market is somehow invulnerable.

Still, given her diary's literate digressions -- whether musings on the deaths of two rather inept New Jersey cops or reflections on how her "flipping" failures affected her relationship with her new husband -- this isn't a book just for New Yorkers. Newsweek's anointment of Diary of a Real Estate Rookie as a "pick of the week" indicates that it's a book lots of people not currently facing foreclosure can enjoy.