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
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

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.

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