Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tuesday Evening in the West Village: Red Hen Press presents Brendan Constantine, Jamey Hecht, Amy Lemmon & Lyn Lifshin at the Cornelia Street Café

We went to a great poetry reading tonight at the Cornelia Street Café, our first time there. They have over 700 readings a year, twice an evening, and we're not sure how we ever missed it all these years. We were grateful for the early start at 6 p.m. and didn't mind the $7 admission, which included a free drink (Diet Coke with a twist in our case).

We sat at a back table near Greg Sanders, a great writer whose story collection Motel Girl was published by the evening's sponsor, Red Hen Press, which also brought out our own The Silicon Valley Diet nine years ago. (Greg will be reading with Ernest Hilbert, Elise Paschen, Timothy Green for Red Hen Press at KGB on Friday.)

Stephanie from Red Hen was nearby with the books from the four authors who were reading, but Red Hen Press's Kate Gale, who we've always thought of as the doyenne of the Los Angeles poetry and small press scene, was late. We did get to see Kate, whom we last saw last year when we sat with her and her co-publisher and husband, Mark E. Cull, who has designed some great covers for the press, including ours.
Red Hen Press

In Kate's absence, Angelo Verga, who is the curator of all things literary at Cornelia St. Café, emceed and gave nice introductions to the four poets. He's got a beautiful venue downstairs, with antique-looking mirrors on the walls, dark paneling and warm bare lightbulbs of green, yellow and red. We'll be back after having such a good experience tonight.

First up for the evening was Jamey Hecht, who read from his fascinating poetic take on JFK in Dallas and America in crisis,Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapruder Film.

In Midnight Blue, Jamey, born sometime in 1968 between the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, uses Abraham Zapruder's most famous home movie as a meditation on American culture. Jamey is a dynamic reader; at some points he was holding the book over his head with one hand as he read from one of the numbered frames of the Zapruder film. Here's Jamey reading "Z-150," one of the poems we heard tonight:

We especially liked the poem for frame Z-192:
Imagine me riding skeletal down Main Street on a bicycle.
I get death, you get the shock of your lives, your daughters
heroin addicts and your sons marines on fire in mud, guilty.
I am pedaling through perfect silence in the capital

of Dixie. Spit on the street when you mention me.

This Site Possesses National Significance
In Commemorating The History Of The United States
of America. 1993. National Park Service. United States

Department of the Interior. You rape my brain,
I haunt you. All my unfinished work impossible,
the very thought of me ridiculous, become an airport,
fried chicken, documentaries. Salute your Nazis.

Operation Paperclip. Go look it up. And while you die,
I and my midnight blue and silver bicycle go by.

The second reader was Amy Lemmon, who read from her just-published book, Saint Nobody. Amy's poems and essays have appeared in Rolling Stone, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Marginalia, and other magazines, and iIn 2006 she was awarded the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Prize by Red Hen Press. In the fall, look for ABBA: The Poems, a chapbook Amy wrote in collaboration with our friend Denise Duhamel; it will be published by Coconut Books.

Amy, who this week has been guest-blogging at the Best American Poetry blog, is an accomplished and the snaps she got from audience members were well-deserved. Before she read, she spoke interestingly as the mom of Down syndrome child on a campaign we're interested in, to eliminate the use of the derogatory R-word. As the New York Times noted in yesterday's report by our friend Stuart Elliott, "Research found the derogatory expression 'is most extreme among older teenagers in high school and early college,'" so it's important to educate young people.

Amy read some wonderful poems from Saint Nobody that contained echoes of Blake and made us nostalgic. You can listen to Amy's poetry on the Bloomington radio station WFIU here. This is one of our favorite (somewhat older) Amy Lemmon poems, one that she didn't read tonight, "After Di Chirico’s The Uncertainty of the Poet":
First, you notice the torso, archaic but not Apollo’s
by a long shot. It has breasts, and callipygian hips,
but isn’t exactly Venus, either. The head’s fallen off
and the arms, blunt stumps, point mute questions.
The legs halt just below the buttocks. A bunch
of bananas blooms before the crotch, connected
by a dark strip I want to say is shadow, but. . .
Tarantula? Bloodstain? I can’t see the front
lower torso, or privates of any sort, and look
again at the bananas. The black banana-stem? Naw.
Too obvious. I resist waxing Freudian since it’s 1917
and “Yes, We Have No Bananas” is yet to become
every immigrant grocer’s nightmare.

Stage right, a green coliseum arches. In the distance,
a train rushes past, all a-steam. Factory smokestack.
Ship’s mast. Not a single gun. Not even a fire. It’s 1917
and war ravages Europe, blotted to a green sludge.
Sun? Moon? No light-source to be seen. Nothing but bananas,
bananas, we certainly have bananas, and this torso—
twisted relic—truncated and the brightest thing around

If you're not familiar with Amy's poetry, you must change your life.

After Amy, the next poet was Brendan Constantine, who lives in L.A. and has been reading about town in a visit this week.

Although Brendan said that "bringing poetry to New York is like bringing cocaine to South America," we were enthralled by his visionary poems in the form of letters to guns throughout different points in history from various inanimate objects like a Civil War army boot or a fifteenth-century broadsword. They're from his new Red Hen Press book titled, well, Letters to Guns.

We also enjoyed his non-gun poems, like a love poem in the form of a Miranda warning. Here's another poem by Brendan, "Litany":
Why do we say Good Morning like a command
when we know it won't sit still? Why Good Night
when it won't be flattered?

Why do we whisper in the presence of trees or remove
our shoes to step on the skirt of the sea?

And why do we think of the lake as lonely
when the call of the duck does not echo?
Not even in the chambers of the heart.

Why do we treat infinity as old, as something
we may look into, when we know it is a teenaged boy
who looks no one in the eye?

See what fire does to the hands, water
to the brain, blood to the color of anything;
why do we pretend God isn't an animal,
a big black beetle, antlered for the hoisting of stars?

Infinity keeps her in a box of sand, feeds her silence.
She in turn creates worlds that do not endure
so he'll feel older, grown up.

While we're at it, the sun and the moon have never
risen to greet anyone. The forest does not hear
gossip. The ocean prefers to dance alone.

And none are more abandoned than we who wait
in a wilderness for the children we have been
to lead us out.

You can see Brendan reading on this video, one of many good ones from Valley Contemporary Poets:

Finally, the queen of the literary magazines, the great Lyn Lifshin, who's published five skillion poems (she kindly remembered us as someone who published alongside her in lots of literary magazine issues).

Lyn, author of more than 125 books, read some wonderful work, some of it autobiographical, from her Red Hen book Persephone and others. What a treat to see her.

Did we tell you that we've been in love with Lyn's work since we first discovered her magical poems in every other literary magazine we saw in the early 1970s? We're proud to have published alongside Lyn in such litmags as Hanging Loose #37 in 1980, Star-Web Paper #7 in 1979, and Bachy #8 back in 1976.

Lyn didn't disappoint. She never does in print, and in person she's even better. After all, Lyn has given over 700 readings across the U.S. Here she is at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs:

Lyn is also an amazing prose writer. Her brilliant memoir, about growing up and beyond, appeared in the same volume of Contemporary Authors, #210, in 2002, along with a much less interesting autobiographical essay.

Here's a Lyn Lifshin poem we love:

I write titles for
poems I'll never
write while she's
living in a note
book, shaking as
her eyes roll back
and I feel guilty
I sat on the out
side stoop this noon
while the nurse's aide
changed her. Mama
my mother calls out
only a few weeks since
we took the ambulance
down here thru black
eyed susans and she
wanted muffins,
coffee, wanted to
smell the air on
the lake. Her skin
the nurse says is
already mottled. Lyn,
she gasps, take
me home

And one of our favorites from tonight:

Someone writes kike on
the blackboard and the
"k's" pull thru the
chalk, stick in my

plump pale thighs.
Even after the high
school burns down the
word is written in

the ashes. My under
pants' elastic snaps
on Main St because
I can't go to

Pilgrim Fellowship.
I'm the one Jewish girl
in town but the 4
Cohen brothers

want blond hair
blowing from their
car. They don't know
my black braids

smell of almond.
I wear my clothes
loose so no one
dreams who I am,

will never know
Hebrew, keep a
Christmas tree in
my drawer. In

the dark, my fingers
could be the menorah
that pulls you toward
honey in the snow

The whole early evening at the Cornelia Street Cafe was wonderful, and we're grateful for the rare chance to get out during this hectic semester for us. (One of the people who hired us as a teacher of evening classes was Amy Lemmon, who's deputy chair of the FIT English and Speech Department.) It was a pleasure to hear the varied voices of the Red Hen Press poets, and it was a delight to see old friends like Susan O'Doherty ("Dr. Sue") and others there.

As Angelo kept reminding us, book make great presents for Easter, Passover and Mother's Day. Check out these exciting poets and their works.

And there's a Red Hen Press and Rattle 15th anniversary party (not a reading, a party) on Saturday from 6:00-9:00 p.m. at Telephone Bar that everyone is invited to. Come if you can!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Adding It Up: We review the March 29, 2009 Sunday New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review for March 29, 2009 is 24 pages, and sadly, the news about the book review's most crucial function - to bring in advertising revenue for the company - has reached its nadir.

We said the same thing five weeks ago, when we counted 3.95 pages of ads. But this week's issue is much, much worse.

One reason we stopped doing these "Adding It Up" looks at ad pages, in addition to our illness, was that we began feeling they smacked of snark and Schadenfreude, and we have no reason to be unkind to a publication that we've been reading since maybe 1963 - when Mrs. Sanjour, our ninth grade English teacher at Meyer Levin J.H.S. 285 in East Flatbush used to give us Monday quizzes on the Sunday Times.

The New York Times Book Review generously reviewed two of our books, and we've been lucky enough to be mentioned in NYTBR columns several times. So let's make it clear: we like NYTBR and we admire Sam Tanenhaus and the other people who work there.

None of the readers who came here via mentions in the blog of the terrific poet Ron Silliman or our own self-serving comments on Levi Asher's weekly astute content reviews at Literary Kicks took enough offense to write us, but the tone of the posts, on rereading, bothered us.

Anyway, this week we just wanted to note the critical situation in regards to advertising in the Book Review, which has been averaging about 4-5 pages of ads in recent weeks.

The cover, of course, has no ads.

Page 2: The Editors' "Up Front" is flanked on the left by a decent-sized ad from Grand Central Publishing, a Hachette imprint, for Susan Jane Gilman's Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and on the right by a smaller ad book on prostate cancer from the Dattoli Cancer Foundation. Counts as 60% of a page.

Page 3: Table of contents page has side ad for The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by one of the Times' most stylish local-beat writers, Jennifer 8. Lee. (We loved the book, but an hour after finishing it we wanted to read it again.) Counts as 40% of a page in our estimation. And that means we've got one page of ads out of the first three. It's downhill from here.

Page 4: An ad for the New York Times Book Review on the letters page doesn't count as an ad, but maybe the subscriptions they will get can offset the lack of advertiser revenue. Counts as no ads.

Page 5: First book review of the issue, for the very funny Russell Brand's My Booky Wook, has a smaller version of the NYTBR ad on the opposite page. Counts as no ads.

Page 6: A left-hand ad for the New York Times Store. Counts as no ads.

Page 7: A graphic book review by the great Alison Bechdel, whose Fun Home we've taught at Fordham. We're glad it takes up the whole page, but that means no ads.

Page 8: Pic of a wonderful short story writer, Wells Tower, but no ads.

Page 9: No ads.

Page 10: No ads.

Page 11: No ads.

Page 12: Bupkis.

Page 13: Nada.

Page 14: Zilch.

Page 15: Nothing in the way of ads.

Page 16: Nope.

Page 17: No ads.

Page 18: No ads.

Page 19: This page has lately been where ads start to appear again after the middle-of-the-review drought, but there's nothing today.

Page 20: No ads.

Page 21: The right-hand ad is for The New York Times Almanac, which is published by Penguin, whose website address is given, but the order information is for The New York Times Store. Maybe this is a co-op arrangement, but until someone tells us otherwise, we will count this as no ads.

Page 22: Um, on the left 40% of the page is one classified ad, two New York Times ads, an ad for the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, and another ad half that size for an Edgar Allan Poe event, Nevermore 2009, in Baltimore. Let's count this as .25 of a page.

Page 23: The essay page never has ads.

Page 24: Just as on February 22, the last time we surveyed, the back page, a primo space to put ads, has an ad for a New York Times book, Obama: The Historic Journey. It's distrubuted by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) but the website and phone number for ordering info are from The New York Times Store, so we cannot count this as an ad.

Adding it up: The ads on pages 2 and 3 total one full page. The only other page with ads (.25) is page 22.

There are just 1.25 pages of ads in today's New York Times Book Review. Sad.

Due to ongoing renovations at Dumbo Books HQ, we have been spending a few days at the splendid Best Western Brooklyn Bay on Emmons Avenue and enjoying the salt air of Sheepshead Bay, easy access by the B44 Limited bus to our weekend classes at Brooklyn College, cheap and delicious dinners at the Roll-n-Roaster across the street (we were going there back in Ford administration) and the pleasures of the UA Sheepshead Bay 14 multiplex on the spot where, when it was the Deauville Beach Club, we had our bar mitzvah reception 45 years ago.

But as soon as we return home to Williamsburg, we will walk down the block to Settepani and ordering some Panettone Mandorlato for the Times display advertising department so they won't have to stand in a Great Recession breadline.

Times are hard at the Times.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday Night in Morningside Heights: Brad Gooch & "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" at Book Culture

We fell in love with Flannery O'Connor's fiction just a few years after she died in 1964, in our "gap year" (we called it a nervous breakdown back then) between high school and college. Her stories tickled our funny bone like the Grandmother's story about her suitor who carved his initials, E.A.T., into watermelons did John Wesley's. They seemed magical back then, an entry into a world far removed from ours, comical and violent, absurd and profound. (Hey, we were young!)

Only in 1981, soon after we'd moved below the Mason-Dixon line did we encounter someone - a woman named Dixie at a party in Uptown New Orleans - who seemed shocked that we considered O'Connor's characters unbelievably grotesque. "All my relatives are like them," she said, though we oculdn't tell if she was bragging or complaining.

Over the decades we've read O'Connor's stories repeatedly, and by now, a zillion years later, we've probably gone over "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Revelation," "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and the others well over a hundred times. Just last Friday night we were teaching community college students "Good Country People," a story we never get tired of and know almost by heart.

Having managed to get more mediocre stories published than any writer worthy of stifling by universities, we sometimes get asked who our own favorite short story writer is. Assuming that nobody will blame her none for our fictional failures, we've always answered, without hestitation, Flannery O'Connor.

So we were happy on a rare night off this winter to get to the fabulous Book Culture bookstore on West 112th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway (at one corner of the block is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, at the other the diner from Seinfeld) to see Brad Gooch read from and discuss his acclaimed new biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor.

Every time we are in Morningside Heights, we feel that we hardly get there. Back in the early 1970s, we hung out in the neighborhood a lot, and when we lived part of the year on the Upper West Side, we managed to be around Columbia University and vicinity a lot, accumulating 30 credits at Teachers College's computing in education masters program (we never got our degree because we kept taking stuff far afield from our requirements).

Brad Gooch, a professor of English at William Paterson University, first read Flannery O'Connor at a frat house just a block from where he was speaking tonight.

He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia although at the time we mostly knew him as a writer; in 1977, we reviewed a book of his poetry for an upstate literary journal, and a thirty years ago, before we developed a tapeworm, we put him in an article called "Some Young Writers I Admire" (along with Dennis Cooper, Peter Cherches, Miriam Sagan, Richard Peabody and Crad Kilodney) and Tom Whalen. Mostly we've seen Brad once every decade, most recently at the 1993 Miami Book Fair International, when we were presenting along with other Mondo Barbie contributors and he talked on his very shrewd biography of Frank O'Hara, City Poet.

We picked up Flannery this morning at the Leonard branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, where we were the third person to request a hold weeks ago, and are already a good way in and can say that the terrific reviews it's gotten are more than justified. (We kept our copy in its plastic library cover hidden in our briefcase tonight, not wanting to let everyone, most of all the author, know how cheap we are.)

Getting to Book Culture early to browse among their tables, where we see books that we're unable to find elsewhere, towards 7 p.m. we made our way to a folding chair upstairs, sitting in a crowd of about fifty, mostly older people, including some familiar literary names we shared smiled and nods with.

Brad was introduced by Sylvia Nasar, Columbia J-school professor and author of A Beautiful Mind , who met Brad while both were in residence at Yaddo, where she said they wandered the grounds together in the middle of the night unsuccessfully trying to raise Flannery's ghost.

Wearing a well-tailored brown suit and tieless, Brad began by quoting Flannery O'Connor on why a biography would elude her: "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." He brought up some of O'Connor's extreme and complex characters who remain etched in reader's brain, like the Misfit or the Bible salesman who calls himself Manley Pointer. Similarly, O'Connor herself lived a life of depth and complexity. And clearly, she's still a fascination, having recently made Time Magazine's Short List of What's Hot.

Brad's prologue in the book, about a five-year-old Mary Flannery in Savannah making a Pathe newsreel for teaching her chicken to walk backwards, was also the prologue to his discussion of O'Connor's life. Self-possessed and glad for the public attention even then, the graceful perversity of her making the chicken into a kind of freak (Brad said it barely walks backward in the film footage) presaged her own manipulations of characters and her own public image, as well as her self-disparaging delight in celebrity (after some quasi-glamourous magazine spreads in the likes of Vogue, O'Connor compared herself to "Roy Rogers' horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955").

Going on to discuss her early life in Milledgeville, where she and her mother Regina moved after the death of her father from lupus, Brad set the scene nicely, moving from her early cartooning - her first serious career goal was to be a political cartoonist - to her "early escape" to Iowa and her initial conversation with the Writing Workshop's Paul Engle, who couldn't understand Flannery's Southern accent and made her write down her request to transfer from the journalism school. When Engle read her stories, though, he clearly understood her talent.

Brad discussed her life in Iowa - the returning WWII vets on G.I. Bill who made up the majority of writing students didn't quite "get" Flannery's work, but she gained respect and recognition from the "three-name" Southern writers (Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom) passing through - and her time at Yaddo, and friendships with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. She seemed happy to be a third wheel, though she never could quite remember her friends' children's names.

Eventually lupus strikes, Flannery goes home to Milledgeville and Andalusia, where she lives with her mother Regina in a very complicated web of deep love, need, some hostility and a lot of bemusement (for months Regina orders that no one tell Flannery of her diagnosis but she sensed it and seems almost relieved to hear the truth).

Most of us who know anything of O'Connor associate her with the constricted life at Andalusia - as a rookie writing teacher a generation ago I always quoted her remarks about sitting in front of her typewriter from nine to twelve regardless of whether or not she was able to produce a word - but Brad showed that she was far from being a recluse, meeting visitors, writing tons of letters (like us and many young writers, Brad was knocked out when The Habit of Being came out in the late 70s, but there's far more correspondence than appeared in that Sally Fitzgerald-edited book, some of it still being held back by the family), getting out when she could.

This prodigal Southern daughter loved mean gossip and had pretty primitive views on race, though tonight Brad seemed to soft-pedal her position as audience members discussed how she never condescended to make her "Negro" characters plaster saints; in the book, more of her blatant racism is documented. (For our mostly African American students, this has always been a problem with O'Connor, whatever Alice Walker's famous essay speaks to.)

The extended question-and-answer session after Brad's initial talk and take on O'Connor's life was lively and interesting.

There were discussions of his access issues, the letters from and to Erik Langkajer (we're particularly interested into how their relationship plays out in "Good Country People"), O'Connor's "Irishness" or lack thereof, her attitudes toward Jews and her brief stay in Manhattan, violence and humor in O'Connor's work, the severity of her illness on a day-to-day basis, her relationship with Betty Hester ("A" in The Habit of Being letters; those of us who thought there was some sort of lesbian undercurrent there were apparently off the mark), her theological readings and her late interest, circa Vatican II, in ecumenism, and the unanswerable "What if she had lived?" (She'd be 84 in a couple of weeks.)

Sylvia Nasar asked the last question - did Flannery O'Connor remind Brad of Joyce Carol Oates? (answer: yes, Oates is probably the closest writer to her in her conventional demeanor and appearance and the wildness and violence in her fiction) - and people lined up to talk with Brad and get the book autographed.

Having been accused of defacing a Brooklyn Public Library book in the 1970s when we returned a copy of Fear of Flying with Erica Jong's autograph (our friend, now the literary agent Linda Konner, had borrowed the book from us and seen Jong in the street) and still not wishing to be outed as a cheapskate, we instead browsed downstairs and headed for the IRT.

Brad's book is indeed a great read, although we have to admit it that it makes us like O'Connor a lot less as a person. We often think of Isaac Bashevis Singer's remark about how, though he revered Tolstoy, he wouldn't walk across the street to meet him. That's why we never talked to Singer in the 1980s, though we'd see him seats away from us many evenings in the 1980s, at the diners along Broadway around 86th Street or at Danny's in Surfside, when we lived near each other in both the Upper West Side and Miami Beach.

We wouldn't walk across the street to meet Flannery O'Connor and wouldn't want to know her. But knowing her through Brad Gooch's excellent biography is fascinating, and knowing her through her fiction is a wonder.