31 August 2009

More Good News

Five of my prose poems will be published in the January 2010 issue of Collective Fallout.

To find out more about Collective Fallout, you can visit them at: http://collectivefallout.com/

20 August 2009

An Interview with Emanuel Xavier

Emanuel Xavier is an American poet, spoken word artist, author, editor, literary events curator, and actor born and raised in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. He is one of the most significant voices to emerge from the neo-Nuyorican poetry movement using political, sexual and religious themes throughout his work. His background is Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian. He has been featured on television on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry on HBO, In The Life on PBS He performs regularly throughout the United States as a spoken word artist and internationally in cities such as Buenos Aires (Argentina), Guayaquil (Ecuador), and Ghent (Belgium).

This interview was conducted in June 2009.

Jory Mickelson: From the outset, some of my readers might not know the difference between standard poetry and spoken word. Could you tell us more about that since you distinguish yourself as both a poet and spoken word artist in your bio? Would you say that spoken word differs from performance poetry or is it the same thing?

Emanuel Xavier: Performance poetry involves poems that are specifically written to be performed aloud with or without music but always using theatrical elements and has been around since the Beat generation. Spoken word evolved in the United States in the late ‘80’s with poetry slams where poets face off in cabaret-style duals but it was a popular competitive event in India for centuries. Spoken word is a broad term that covers everything from the reading of a children’s book to a monologue. Both performance poetry and spoken word poetry usually involves work that is more political and has a tone of protest, which appeals more to high school and college students. They are both different poetic styles than say Shakespeare but I could easily imagine Walt Whitman sitting in the audience at a poetry slam. Whether you choose music or metaphors, it is all about expressing yourself creatively. I suppose I am listed as both a traditional poet and a spoken word artist because I write for both the page and the stage.

JM: In 1997, spoken word must have felt more ephemeral than it does today with the internet, YouTube and digital media. What do you feel that digital media has done for spoken word? Where do you think technology will take the arts in the future?

EM: Digital media has done a lot for spoken word poetry. In order to get our work out there as spoken word artists, we no longer just depend on bookings and gigs to reach an audience. Besides print publications, people around the world could watch us perform one of our poems on YouTube or read one of them on the internet. I think the future holds exciting possibilities for being able to reach the masses.

JM: You self published your first book of poetry, Pier Queen , in 1997. Would you say that self-publishing was a good thing for you? Would you recommend that other poets and spoken word artists self publish, or should they seek more traditional publishing outlets for their work?

EM: I really enjoyed self-publishing my first book because I learned a lot about the business. I am sort of a control freak by nature so it was a great way of getting my foot in the door. I would absolutely encourage it for the experience but, at the end of the day, it is ideal to seek a publisher. It is nice as artists to be able to focus on our art and leave all that boring stuff like distribution and such to the professionals. Self-publishing has its rewards and it is a great way to start but, unless you are looking to go into the publishing industry, collaborating with others to put a book out is also a great experience. It is hard enough trying to write a poem or a novel without having to think about getting the ISBN number or getting it on bookshelves.

JM: Your first novel, Christ Like was first published back in 1999. Can you tell me a bit about how you went about writing it? Some of Mikey’s life seems to mirror your own. Would you say that this book is largely autobiographical or something else?

EM: I started writing the novel when I was 25 years old. At that point, I realized I would either crash and burn or do something with my life. I packed my bags and went down to South America during the Fall. My uncle owned a beach house in Salinas in Ecuador and it was off-season. I was in complete isolation for several weeks. I was either going to go mad or emerge with a rough draft manuscript. I was determined to write this book and leave something behind so that a quarter century of the insanity of my life had not been in vain. In the tenth anniversary revised edition which just came out, in the introduction, I admit that the few changes which had been made make this more of an autobiography but it still warrants the title of a fiction novel.

JM: How did it feel to be nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for your first book?

EM: It was an interesting time. I was dealing with some harsh negative reviews setting me up against established writers who were also college professors and I had just found out Painted Leaf Press, which published the original, was filing for bankruptcy, and going out of business. The book was pretty much dead on arrival and so I did not get to truly appreciate the fact it was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Even if it was in a small category, the fact that the queer literary community was validating my humble beginnings as an author should have been something to celebrate. Unfortunately, my history preceded me and I was still doubting whether I could actually make this transition or not. It is always easier to believe the negative things people say about you than the positive things.

JM: Christ Like is being reissued after ten years. What was it like to revisit your novel a decade later? What kind of revisions did you make? Was there anything that surprised you during the process?

EM: I was surprised at how much editing it needed and still I did not perfect it. I tried not to mess with it too much even if it meant it would remain amateurish because the writing reflects the main character and this was his story so it needed to be genuine. I went crazy with the footnotes probably because I wanted to reach a wider audience who was not familiar with much of the slang that appears throughout the book. It was difficult to go back to this novel because there were so many bad memories attached but I was finally able to appreciate what others liked about it and, most importantly, I was able to laugh at how silly the main character and I were.

JM: I am finishing a degree in English and I was shocked by the fact that several younger, heterosexual college students did not know who Matthew Shepard was. I know his murder happened nearly 11 years ago now, but it still seems current to me. We are still trying to pass a national hate crimes law named after him. Is our current culture more accepting of queer people, but more ignorant about queer history? Am I just being an old queen?

EM: I could understand high school students but college students? Seriously? It is not you at all. It is totally them. I think current culture has come a long way, but there is still a long journey ahead of us. That is why it is important for us to document our histories and tell our stories. In one of my poems, “Children of Magdalene,” I write:

This prejudice is the pain that clouds my eyes and knots my spine
the scars on the back of my headen
graved by those who reach out open arms
bloodied with hypocrisy, lost dreams, and intangible mantras
those who haunt our daily prayerswith the sounds of oppression
to silence our shepherds with death
because death equals dreams never to be heard of again
and our prophets get no maps to salvation

But the wind will not inherit the echoes of our souls
we will not leave our canvas with unfinished colors
or remain the uninvited children of a lesser God
we will ground our bare feet with toes in soil
listen for the wind chimes in the insanity of life
light candles for our brothers and sisters
from the West Side Highway piers of New York City
to the farm lands of Laramie, Wyoming
to the Castro Streets of San Francisco
and feel the closest we can to heaven
because true love has no boundaries
and our angels have wings too

JM: How do you feel that queer culture has changed in the past decade?

EM: There has been a lot of progress but we still have to fight for the same basic rights everyone else gets to enjoy. It is ridiculous that we have to fight for a piece of paper that grants us the same rights of marriage because the church gets involved. Many foreign countries and Massachusetts have had gay marriages for years and they have not burnt to the ground. Nobody can force any priest to marry them, even heterosexual couples. In addition, the whole “What’s next? People marrying animals?” has been reduced to an eye-roll for anyone with half a brain. Ten years ago, these arguments may have been considered but today the smell of equality is in the air.

JM: What about the queer arts and literature? What have you seen happen in the past ten years with queer writing and publishing?

EM: Well, unless you are fortunate enough to be Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris, both of whom I love, it is still pretty much the same. Ten years ago, many small presses and queer bookstores were going belly up thanks to the economy and, funny enough, that is where we are today. There is more opportunity to sell with online purchases and Kindle but there are fewer spaces for queer authors to gather comfortably and enjoy book signings and readings with their audiences.

JM: You have edited two collections of poetry, Bullets & Butterflies: Queer Spoken Word Poetry and Mariposas: A Modern Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry . What is it like editing an anthology vs. putting together a collection of your own work? How has your experience as an editor shaped your own writing?

EM: Both were poetry anthologies so they were much easier to publish than putting out my own collections. You do not mess with another poets work. Either you like it or you don’t. If you do, you might make simple corrections but you don’t go through it with a red pen. Everything, including the line breaks, is crucial to a poet so, if you choose to publish it in an anthology, you make sure their voice is being heard load and clear. Putting together your own collection is different because it’s your work and you could edit and make changes as you see fit. You are also piecing the book together so that there is a flow. Both are exciting and I look forward to doing more of each.

JM: I know that you are doing readings for your new book and signings, but what else are you working on at the moment?

EM: I have a new poetry collection coming out before the end of the year. I also have to revisit some spoken word/music collaborations recorded a few months ago and go back into the studio
to complete that project. I am also curating a literary series at El Museo Del Barrio this fall.

JM: Is there anything else you would like to say?

EM: Yeah, this has been a long interview and you’ve really made me think! (Laughter) I’m just glad I’m still around and hope someone out there finds some inspiration in any of this.

15 August 2009

An Interview with Marc Acito

Marc Acito’s is a full time writer who live in Portland, OR. He is the author of How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater and Attack of the Theater People. A former opera singer, he is now a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. To learn more about Marc, you can visit his blog at http://marcacito.blogspot.com/

This interview was conducted in October of 2008

Jory Mickelson: How did you come to writing, or being an author?

Marc Acito: I was one of those writers who refused the call. I flirted with writing in college, but became an opera singer. I had a rather mediocre career singing. I played comic roles in the Seattle Opera: drunks, dwarves, court jesters, mad scientists. I wanted to create my own art instead of performing other people’s work. At 30, I began writing to create my own art.

I was self taught. I was a drama major in college with a music and art minor. Theater taught me a lot about the decisions I make as an author. I learned how to create characters, direct a scene, and build a plot. I began freelancing for the gay press, Just Out, which is Portland’s gay paper. I drew cartoons and then covered a story on a visiting opera singer. The paper was so pleased with the article that I started doing more writing. I eventually had a self-syndicated humor column in 19 papers over a four-year period. I am now the author of two published books and one play. The books are the result of stillborn plays and my play, Holidazed, which is at the Artists Repertory Theater in Portland, was the result of a failed novel. I have been a full time writer for five years now. I do freelance work and am a sometime commentator for NPR’s "All Things Considered."

JM: Why do you write? What compels you to sit in a chair everyday and do this work?

MA: That is a great question! I have been giving interviews for four years now and no one has asked me that questions. The simple answer is that I write because I have to. I feel a need to make sense out of the random and chaotic world that we live in. I guess the more complex answer is that I write things the way I feel they should happen. I try to write and live my life as if it were a screwball comedy. I felt that I was in a rut this year, so I started a blog project where I would try something new every single day and write about it.

JM: What is the most frustrating thing to you about the writing process?

MA: The hardest thing for me about the writing life is publishing. I am not the captain of my own fate with publishing. As an author, I call the shots and make decide all of my characters’ fates. Right now, there is a large media conglomerate making decisions about my life. The movie rights for my first book have been in the works for five years. There is nothing I can do about it and that makes me frustrated. All I can do is write something new.

JM: In your opinion, what is the state of queer literature these days?

MA: I am concerned about the state of literature. Period. People don’t fucking read! That is the big issue. The number of readers goes down every year. Sure, we all read on the Internet, but largely, we are moving away from a culture that values words.

I don’t know about the state of queer literature. I have been surprised at the number of gay men who don’t read regularly. I thought we read a lot more. I find that shocking. We are supposed to be the vanguard of all things cultural and no one is reading. There are many great queer writers, but the reception they are receiving is an open-ended question.

Queer publishing is something that I have avoided. I strive for a crossover audience. I want to reach beyond the gay audience, although a great number of my fans are gay men and the women who love them. There are pros and cons for focusing on a specific audience. I wrote about a specific subculture, being in a high school musical. I wanted to share that world with those who had experienced it. I also wanted be a tour guide for those who hadn’t gone through it.

JM: What books or stories have been influential to your own work?

MA: I think that my own work blends the genres of my two favorite authors: Christopher Isherwood and Agatha Christie. Isherwood wrote quasi-autobiographical work. He wrote exclusively for a gay audience and was a master at character studies. Agatha Christie wrote corkscrew tight social mysteries.

Another book I love is Joe Keenan’s Blue Heaven. He is a very funny writer and was hugely influential to me. After reading his work, I really wanted to write a book like that. Let’s see, The Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding was also good. I would characterize this style of writing as first person neurotic. I want to write farces with heart.

JM: What is next for you?

MA: I am working on part three of the Theater People trilogy. I also want to write another play. I will keep writing for the theater if I can. I also teach-I just finished teaching some workshops at Write on the Sound Writer’s Conference, in Edmonds, WA. I also continue to freelance as a commentator for "All Things Considered."

08 August 2009

Book Notes: King of Shadows by Aaron Shurin

Paperback, 184 pages
From City Lights Publishers
(June 1, 2008)
ISBN: 978-0872864900

I discovered King of Shadows on a recent trip to San Francisco. Rooting through the shelves of City Lights Books, trying to limit the number of books I left the store with, I picked up Aaron Shurin's collection of essays. Thankfully, King of Shadows seemed to contain a little bit of everything that I craved on one plate. I desired nonfiction that I could pick up and set down as needed. As well as to read about San Francisco—something both literary and queer if possible.

Shurin’s twenty-one essays range in topic from taking walks through San Francisco’s parks, the aesthetics of bars that no longer exist and a meditation on the flux of time and memory in connection to reading Proust.

The opening essay, “The Shrine,” had me at the very first sentence, “Birds are scary as shit, it’s as simple as that.” The piece unfolds into the author’s radical change of perception involving a minnow in 1967. In the space of eight pages, Shurin manages to not only encapsulate much of his personality, but also make the reader eager to plunge deeper into the book. It closes with the masterful sentence, “I swore to the Self-Realization Fellowship Church of All Religions that I would change fast—and history saw to it that I did.”

Shurin has a sharp eye and nose. His prose is always aware of its setting. Perhaps this is because Shurin is also a poet; words manage to be concrete and abstract all at once. In the essay, “Dahlias” he describes the scent of an odorless flower, “…next to nothing, but not nothing. The hint of hay that chrysanthemums give off. A light broth of cellulose and sun.”

In fact, it’s these wonderful leaps that makes reading Shurin so enjoyable. He constantly disparate ties ideas and subjects together that surprise. Everyday vignettes take on magical qualities through evocative prose. “Three Scenes from the Sauna at the YMCA” paints an older gay man ogling men at the gym in a new way, “He carries a smile on that divination—it’s projection—he sees what he wants to see—there are suggestions and outlines—nobody else can see him he’s blown away riding a wind or a current of remembered sex—”

Perhaps one of my favorite essays in the collection is “Reading in Time, Reading in Place.” Here Shurin explores the relationship between the landscape and what you are reading in that landscape. He says that his own memory of a book is inextricably tied to where he was and who he was at the time he read it. As a bibliophile, I find this concept to be true. I am unable to separate my memory of reading about a devastating Montana blizzard in Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean with my memory of reading it poolside in Maui, in December. The irony was not lost on me then or now.

Frank observation, wry commentary tipping toward despair or gratitude and humor are all features of King of Shadows. This collection of essays brings us to the center of life, often complex and contradictory, but never fails to place our hand on the humming, radiant thread that shoots through the weave.

05 August 2009

Look for My Work

You can read my work an upcoming issue of Oranges & Sardines.

Two of my poems will be featured there soon!

03 August 2009

An Interview with Lawrence Schimel

Lawrence Schimel is the Lambda Literary Award-winning author and anthologist of The Mammoth Book of Gay Erotica, Boy Meets Boy, The Drag Queen of Elfland, and Kosher Meat, among other titles. His most recent collection (with translations into Spanish, Portuguese and German) is His Tongue. He lives in Madrid, Spain.

This interview was conducted in May 2008.

Jory Mickelson: Tell me about your background as a writer and a publisher…

Lawrence Schimel: As a writer, I am what I sometimes call a bookseller's nightmare, because I work in so many different genres and areas, and don't often produce two books that are very much like one another. I'm not really building an audience the way that, say, a mystery writer can, because readers come to know what the next book (at least in the same series) is probably going to be like. I write and publish poetry, fiction, anthologies, essays, comics and children’s books as well. I also write books in both English and Spanish (sometimes translating myself in either direction, sometimes translated by others). So I'm really all over the board. My reading interests are varied, and I think this winds up reflected in my own creative output...

As a publisher, when I was an undergrad, there was a Vandercook letterpress in the basement of my dorm. I asked some poets I knew for poems and printed them up as broadsides under the name, A Midsummer Night's Press. When I graduated, the press went on hiatus until 2007 when started producing commercially printed books, such as Achy Obejas' This is What Happened in Our Other Life.

JM: When did you start writing?

LS: I was (and still am) a voracious reader. I began writing my own stories in high school, and submitting them for publication. So by the time I was applying to colleges, I was already used to the whole waiting and rejection/acceptance process! I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, so much of what I wrote was also in those genres, but I think one of the very first pieces I placed was a mainstream short-short in a magazine titled Modern Short Stories.

JM: What writers inform and inspire your own work and what you choose to publish?

LS: My influences are quite varied, and we constantly change and evolve as both readers and writers, so my responses to writers (or their individual works) is not always consistent. I may like a certain phase in a writer's output but not anything before or after, but I'm very grateful for those works that I do respond to. Right now my poetry influences are in flux, so I won't answer as to that genre. In general, I admire Paul Russell's writing a lot, especially his novels Sea of Tranquility and War Against the Animals. I find May Sarton's prose to be very resonant, especially works like The Small Room and Faithful Are the Wounds. I think Australian gay novelist Neal Drinnan is woefully underappreciated. I enjoy the feminist fairy tales of Nancy Springer, Plumage and Fair Peril. Three desert island collections of personal essays: Tony Kushner's Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness, Ursula K. Le Guin's Dancing at the Edge of the World, and Nancy Willard's Telling Time.

JM: What projects are you currently working on?

LS: Right now Richard Labonté and I are editing a companion volume to our last anthology, FIRST PERSON QUEER, this time focusing on advice from and for the GLBT community, titled SECOND PERSON QUEER.

I am also finishing a book of poems written in Spanish, DESAYUNO EN LA CAMA (Breakfast in Bed).

With A Midsummer Night's Press, we're working on the new annual series, BEST GAY POETRY and BEST LESBIAN POETRY (production of which is, alas, running late).

JM: What is your least favorite aspect of the work you do?

LS: As a writer: dealing with publishers who have infringed or otherwise defaulted on terms in the contract. Alas, this happens more often than I would like!

As an editor: Rejecting writers!

But I tend to prefer not to only dwell on the negative, so let me flip the question and say that the absolute best part is connecting with readers who've found resonance in something I published. (Sometimes the first reader who finds that sort of resonance is an editor!)

JM: Tell us how you go about revising your own work?

LS: I don't write in a linear fashion, especially prose, I tend to jump around, so I am constantly revising or rewriting as I create, making bridges between sections or scenes, going back to fill things in.

I do miss not having an English-language critique group here in Madrid.

JM: What was your first publication?

LS: My first book was an anthology of homoerotic poetry that I edited under a pseudonym. My first book under my own name was Switch Hitters: Lesbians Write Gay Male Erotica and Gay Men Write Lesbian Erotica, co-edited with Carol Queen.

JM: Do you have advice for people starting to write?

LS: The story or poem doesn't care if you've been published before or not, it just wants to be the best story of poem it can be. Focus on writing it as well as you can, and then worry about publication, etc.

JM: What are your feelings about queer literature in the United States? Do you feel that the status of LGBT writing differs in Spain and Western Europe?

LS: I think literature, in general, is not as valued in the US as it is in Europe, and as a result creators of literature, and the power of literature, are likewise diminished. It's not that there isn't prejudice (in the media, among booksellers, etc.) with regard to queer books in Europe. At the same time, the way books are sold here is so different: there isn't a gay section anywhere, or often sections for genres; some bookstores still stock titles by publisher! Although usually the division is fiction written in Spanish or fiction in translation.

Keep in mind that Spain is a country which has full legal rights for homosexuals, so the approach to the books (from writers and readers) is different. There is less struggle (for rights, carving a niche in the marketplace, whatever) and more reflection of our lives.

JM: As an editor and publisher, how do you view the market for gay and lesbian writers trying to get their work out? Are there challenges?

LS: I think that book publishing right now is in somewhat of a crisis, based largely on factors of how books are sold. The distribution channels, especially for independent books, has all but dried up or become over consolidated. Likewise, the network of specialty GLBT bookstores has in large part disappeared. This leaves a vacuum of books getting to readers, and I don't really see it being filled through other means, I think people are just foregoing books more and more and turning to other media or areas to get that sort of reflection of their lives in culture.

I think there is room for people to do more do-it-yourself publishing, but this requires a business sense, not just an artistic one. This seems to be the direction the music industry is moving in as well. A lot depends on why one writes or wants to be published. If it's just about finding an audience, there are ways of going about this, from creating a blog or posting one's work online, to readings or etc. If one is trying to build a platform and support oneself from writing, that's where things become very complicated... whether one is queer or not.

One of the advantages that an unknown queer author has over her or his straight counterparts is that there are still queer READERS out there who are looking to see their lives reflected in books, so they may be more willing to take a chance on an unknown or newer authors (if they can be made aware of the books or otherwise have it brought to their attention) simply because of the queer subject matter. At the same time, many non-queer readers will have no interest in reading our work, even if these same readers are open to the heterosexual tales of people unlike them: stories from other countries, other cultures, etc.

Of course, I always ask queer writers who complain that straights aren't interested in our work, how much they read across the gender divide within our homosocial world, to read lesbian books if they are a gay man and vice versa, and why should we expect heterosexuals to be interested in our lives and our literatures if, as is so often the case, we aren't ourselves within our homosocial subculture.


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