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.

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