27 December 2010

Reading in the Gap: High Culture vs. Low Culture, Indie Music and CornNuts

The longer I am in my MFA program, the more I notice a distinction between what my classmates and I are reading and what members of my extended family are reading. While I was finishing Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Zak Smith’s memoir We Did Porn, my relatives finished the third book in the Twilight series and worked through Work Song by Ivan Doig. Admittedly, I was reading for a contemporary memoir class, but these are books similar to what other MFA students would be recommending.

To a lesser degree, I noticed this working at an independent bookstore. We had an Indie Next bestseller wall that featured the top ten fiction and nonfiction books in hardcover or paperback. The books shuffled their order each week, but it often reflected what was selling with the major publishing houses as well. In short, this wall was our bread and butter as a bookstore. “Steig Larson? Let me take you to the bestseller wall.” Many of the people who worked at the bookstore read and enjoyed these books, but they also loved other ones; books that didn’t make anyone’s bestseller list. We hand sold our favorite books to one customer at a time. “Many people are reading Tom Clancy, but let me tell you about the best legal mystery novel written in ten years…”

Is there a gap between what us “literary folk” and the common people are reading? Yes.  A recent article in Slate.com addresses this divide at length. http://www.slate.com/id/2275733/ The headline asks “Which One Will Last?” I don’t think that the divide is so extreme. The world of literature won’t end up as either a Costco table or an experimental genre anthology. Journalism loves the term ‘culture war’ with or without an election happening.

My brother told me a joke this week, “How many indies does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The answer? “You probably haven’t heard of it. It’s an obscure number.” At times, the world of literature and academia can feel like that.

For Christmas, I got The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David Ulin. Clearly, someone who values books and literature is the intended audience. This essay probably won’t find a home in the home of those who own all of Tom Clancy’s novels in paperback. Ulin is preaching to the choir. I could give this book as a gift to my family and friends, but I wouldn’t expect most of them to read it, let alone have it change their reading habits.

We all know where a well-meaning gift book we have no interest in ends up.

I am a poet, but I don’t just read poetry. The books that kept me reading during my middle school years were epic fantasy novels. The books I read in-between my “important books” are urban fantasy, noir thrillers and X-Men graphic novels. I am reading in the gap between the next bestseller and a discourse on the modality of time in Shakespeare’s plays. I want to go to a poetry reading where there are bowls of CornNuts served with the glasses of cheap red wine.

I don’t know where the future of literature is headed, but I hope it continues to remain diverse and offer something for every reader.

19 December 2010

Guest Blogger: Poet, Artist and Mad Biolgist John Myers

 John Myers is a poet and developmental biologist who lives in Missoula, Montana. His manuscript, Cider Kit, was a finalist in Omnidawn’s 2010 Book Prize. He blogs at http://www.ineffectualeffigy.blogspot.com/

Writing is like collage, for me, and I work in both media. Writing is about recombination and surprise for me, and, because I have a background in science, experiment. What happens if I move this line down here, this bandage of wind into the hat. I think about wolverines when I write, of chased brass and sleet. But my favorite form of creativity is collaboration, whether it be visual art, conversation, or writing. If I were to tell you this poem is governed by three main rules, what would it be? Which operations could someone follow, not knowing this poem, and come to a similar stance with repect to language? I like to think. I like to write.

I grew up in Pennsylvania, went to college in Ohio, at Oberlin, and finally moved west three years ago to attend graduate school at the University of Montana. My job now is as a habilitation aid in a group home for persons with developmental disabilities.

I'm gay and I'm an artist, and what does that mean? I don’t think it’s much different than anyone else I know, because I believe everyone is creative. How do I embrace that I like to build it and what happens after I've built it. The joy is in the making and in the attending for me and this morning in Missoula it's snowed. The trees are covered and my car is a diamond patent pending. My task today is to cobble together a collage or a show. So I look up weird party favors on google images. My process likes to be open to chance and I love new ways of letting chance in. This is one reason why I love to collaborate. I collaborate with poets locally one on one and further away using gchat or googledocs. Maybe this blog post sounds like I work for Apple, how much I mention their products. I find pleasurable anything that allows greater expression. I enjoy solitude and the large spruce outside my window here.

Seemingly so in the air, I didn't start writing until after I graduated from college. I began writing as an experiment and because I like it, I still do. I was worked in a developmental biology lab at Case Western Reserve University and studied poetry with Sarah Gridley, a radically kind and radically intelligent poet who encouraged me to apply to MFA programs.

My poems compass my affections, the way my collages are nothing like my sense of sight. Visual art is something that comes to my like a magnet comes to metal. The materials are there for me and I use them. I hope language thinks of me that way. The atlas, I'm told, is compliments of you, and, I agree, is adorable, not that I'm putting it up on my wall or anything, rest assured. My favorite? More than a hand but less than a fever. An attitude in language is like a weal or cleavage, both of which mean two different things that contradict one another but one is left feeling satisfied and true.

Some of my favorites are Elizabeth Bishop and Cesar Vallejo.

13 December 2010

Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Berlin Wall and Mixed Metaphors

Let me start out by saying that my situation is nothing like the division of Germany after WWII.  I have not been separated from the rest of my city, country or had my freedoms restricted by a totalitarian regime.  But the metaphor of wall may work.

Some of you know that I have spent the past eight years living in the tippy-top of western Washington in the city of Bellingham.  It is hard to get much more northerly without bumping into the Pacific Ocean or Canada.  The year after I graduated from WWU I grew a little antsy.  I let myself dream about living somewhere else.  I also applied to graduate MFA programs, which allowed me to dream a little more concretely.  I took the Edward Abbey approach to choosing my program: "Nothing east of the Mississippi."

So time passed and I heard back from the schools.  The University of Idaho and I began courting and that is where I ended up.  Moscow, Idaho.  Population roughly 24,000 hardy souls.  Incorporated as a city in 1887 and sitting at 2,579 feet above sea level, Moscow is where I have a temporary address.  However, I am not a resident of the state of Idaho.  Now you may be asking yourself, "Why is he telling me all of this?"

Allow me one more digression.  When I moved to Bellingham eight years ago from Missoula, MT,  I never thought I would get over calling Montana's "garden city" my home.  Around year six, I'd been away long enough (most of my friends had moved and things had changed ) that Missoula didn't feel like the place I came from anymore.  But for some reason, Bellingham didn't sit quite right as my home either.

In the four months that I have lived part-time in Idaho, I am starting to remember all the things I loved about Western living that I had forgotten about: friendly people, short lines, little traffic and an abundance of space to breathe in.  Coming back to Bellingham now  feels cramped, busy, noisy and more than a little grubby.  But Idaho isn't my home either.  I catch myself saying of both cities as "I am headed home to..."

So I am a drifter.  I am a city divided.  There is no "center" to my sense of geography.  I don't know where I will be headed to once I finish up my graduate program in Idaho, but I hope it is to a place that sings to me and calls me to call it home.

While in Bellingham, all I did was write about Montana.  Now that I am in Idaho, my writing has become jumbled and confused.  I am investigating dreams, the imagination and popular culture.  The landscape in my work is largely internal.  Perhaps when things settle down, I can start to write about Bellingham and the good and bad things found there.

I have a place to hang my hat.  What I need now is a place that feels like home.  Center.  Connection.

05 December 2010

Why are You Still Wasting Your Time with This?

Second year MFA candidates read from their work at what people at the University of Idaho call a “symposium.” It is a chance for writers to showcase their work and share just what they are up to in their writing lives. After reading, students are asked questions about the pieces. There is also a potluck style meal and drinking.

Last night three students read from their work. Mary Morgan read her nonfiction essay inspired by Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” She composed fifty-two notes attempting to define or distinguish was made an essay, well an essay.

In the piece, I observed that she set up a very clear dichotomy between herself as a writer and essayist and the people she interacted with. People in bars, mutual partygoers, clerks in bookstores and even her husband “didn’t get it.” The essay appeared to be an attempt to answer the question they all asked her: well what exactly are you writing?

I asked Morgan about this dichotomy. Whom is the essay intended for? Why is there such a divide in the piece? Is your audience the same people who give you perplexed looks when you say you write creative nonfiction?

As a poet and writer myself, I know that all writers consider their audience. This concern extends beyond “How do I market this?” or “Who is likely to publish this?” The real question is who is going to read this and ultimately, “Will my work last beyond myself?”

Being a writer and explaining what you do can be mildly frustrating on the best of days. There is a sinking feeling in my heart much of the time that the nonwriter will “never really get” what I am up to. Even close to home. My partner isn’t a writer. He doesn’t read much beyond magazines, the newspaper and things from the internet. The statistic that one in four Americans didn’t read a book has come home to roost on the pillow next to me. (I am actually outnumbered in my home because the cat did not read a book last year either.)

Sometimes we fight about reading and writing. He has told me, “Your blogging is like me entering contests on the computer.” He has also said, “Writing is good for you, everyone needs a hobby.” What he fails to see and I often fail to explain in a nonhysterical manner is that my blog has something to do with me being a professional writer and that my hobby is more something far more serious.

I don’t know how to tell my partner that writing is in my hardwiring.

I cannot illustrate my obsession, my NEED to put words on a page and rearrange them to him in a clear fashion. He landscapes, but he does not get angry if he is not able to put a bulb in the ground. He enjoys watching action films, but he won’t feel as though there is a bomb going off in his chest if he doesn’t see a car chase once a week.

What I write is an extension of who I am. What I write and revise is an act, however clumsy, of creation. So I ask you this week, why do you write? Whom are you writing for and how do you explain it to others?

And for you nonwriters, I also saw some quail today in the snow.

24 November 2010

Guest Blogger author 'Nathan Burgoine shares about Queer Youth and the Arts

‘Nathan Burgoine is an ex-pat Brit living in Ottawa, Canada with his husband. His works appear in FOOL FOR LOVE (Cleis Press), edited by R.D. Cochrane and Timothy J. Lambert; I LIKE IT LIKE THAT (Arsenal Pulp Press), edited by Lawrence Schimel and Richard Labonte; 5×5 Literary Magazine; and I DO TWO (MLR Press) edited by Kris Jacen. He has two more upcoming short stories appearing in BLOOD SACRAMENTS (Bold Stroke Books), edited by Todd Gregory; and TENTED (Lethe Press), edited by Jerry Wheeler.

In today’s blog, the role of Jory M. Mickelson will be played by ‘Nathan Burgoine.

You might be wondering “What’s with the apostrophe?” I get that a lot.

The answer is my grade eleven English teacher. She was the first English teacher to really catch my attention and introduce me to new authors and genres. In those days I was still using my full first name but when I decided to drop the first two letters – that’s a clue – I put the apostrophe where it belonged, mostly as an homage to the woman who had opened my eyes to the joy of language. I think she’d appreciate it.

She was also the teacher who handed me my first gay character. She loaned students books from her personal library, and recommended titles she thought we’d like. She had an uncanny sense of what we’d enjoy. I’m not entirely sure she intended it to be the event that it was and I’m a little embarrassed to say I can’t recall the title or author of the book. What mattered, however, was that there was a capable and strong male character who happened to be gay. He was a marine, actually, if my memory serves. He helped a woman save a child from some nefarious evil plot – and did so while being gay.

I was terrified to answer any questions about the book when I gave it back to her. I don’t recall what I said when she asked me if I liked it. It was a defining moment for me as a gay kid. Here was someone like me represented in a fictional world for the first time.

It seems like such a small thing now, but the impact was incredible back then. That I ended up having my first boy kiss later that year was in no small part built on that tiny shred of confidence I’d gained from reading that book.

With gay suicide awareness making headlines recently, I saw something on Facebook that illustrated this point far stronger than my own experience. Take a second and watch this youtube submission to the “It Gets Better Project” – though I should warn you to keep a handkerchief handy. I’ll wait for you to come back after.

[Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/user/JonathanSmith86#p/a/u/0/a3J9ge_vyFk ]

See? I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Michael Thomas Ford at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, and I can only imagine the impact of this video on him. Books have power – I daresay if you’re reading this you’re likely in agreement with me – and sometimes I think we forget how much good we might do with them.

We’re represented out there a lot more than we were. There were no Kurt Hummels on television when I was young. I cannot believe some of the amazing things I hear from people about high school gay-straight alliances. It’s fantastic. It’s also urban. Those far flung rural areas like where I first encountered that gay character don’t have high speed internet access. They don’t have youtube.

But they usually have a library.

I wonder if there’s not a way to get those books and magazines and poems into the hands of more of those young people who need them – and I don’t think I’m overstating by using “need.” I think you need to see yourself represented in the world before you will believe you can – or should – be a part of it.

Those young adult books out there with gay characters – which I never found until after I was working in books and past my own young adult days – need to be where they were intended to be: in the hands of young adults. Teens and tweens are reading more than ever before. Teen fiction is one of the hottest markets out there right now – which means publishers are paying attention to it – and when I find a title that illustrates our existence in a positive light I’ll often take a moment and track down the author and thank them.

There are some fabulous young adult books out there, and more on the way – I’m personally itching to read Greg Herren’s SORCERESS later this month – and every one of them has that potential to be in the right hands at the right time.

Here you are, right on the page, says the book. You’re okay. Do you remember the first time that happened to you?

When I’m flush, a copy or two of these awesome teen and tween books will also usually end up in my local library, where I hope they end up in the hands of one of those young adults who happens to be feeling like they’ve got no place in the world. After all, I’m an adult now. What adult doesn’t enjoy proving to a teenager that they’re not right about everything?

18 November 2010

Justin Spring’s “Secret Historian” and Wendy Moffat’s “A Great Unrecorded History”

I drove seven hours in one direction for a book reading this past Monday. I have been following Justin Spring’s Book Secret Historian: The life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade for almost a year. When I saw that Mr. Spring was reading at Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, I had to go. His only other West Coast appearance was in San Francisco.

Also Wendy Moffat read from her new book A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster. Her book is an exposition of Forster’s life as a gay man. It documents his sexual and romantic life that’s been ignored by previous biographers.

Both authors said that they had spent about ten years writing their books and met because their research crossed paths. Both were writing about gay social history in the United States during the 40s, 50s and 60s. Friends of Sam Steward and E.M. Forster overlapped although they had no recorded contact with one another.

Moffat said that it was a relief to find someone else doing work in this field, because it is a veritable blank spot in American history. The life of gay men prior to Stonewall remains largely undocumented due to secrecy, shame and its clandestine nature.

What struck me was the contrast between the books’ subjects. One was a biography of a very famous person from a new angle; the other was a biography about someone that is entirely unknown. Forster’s biography was written to highlight his life and how that affects the reading of his work. Steward’s biography was generated because of the fascinating life he led.

Samuel Steward was an English professor who left a life of academia to pursue other passions. He was friends with and corresponded with Gertrude Stein. He worked with Alfred Kinsey. He was the tattoo artist for the Hell’s Angels under the name Sam Sparrow. He wrote literary gay male pornography under the name Phil Andros. Sam Steward also documented his voracious sex life from early adolescence until a decade before his death in 1993.

E.M. Forster wrote and rewrote his homosexual novel Maurice throughout much of his life. At first he said he didn’t want it published while his mother was alive because it would upset her. After her death, he said he didn’t want to publish it because it would cause problems for his long-time lover, a married police officer. Maurice was published shortly after Forster’s death in 1970.

The reading was wonderful and I hope to be speaking with these authors in the future.

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster
416 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Secret Historian: The life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade
496 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

05 November 2010

New Poems in Print!

Please take a moment and stop by to read four of my persona poems about the constellations at Orion headless: Poetry, Art, Found Objects.  I am thrilled to have four poems picked up by a single literary magazine or website.

Stop by and you will encounter "Lyra" about Orpheus, a cranky "Orion," "Dorado" in which fish mysteriously multiply and  a reflective "Herakles."

Thanks again to Sara at Orion headless for printing my work!


28 October 2010

Happy Halloween: Guest Blogger Chad Helder Shares the Books that Shaped Him

Hi there Literary Magpie readers! I’m the guest blogger today (thanks, Jory), and I thought I would write about some of the books that “made me” (thanks to Nate Southard for the idea) as a way to pass along some literary inspiration and explain the origins of my weird books of poetry (Vampire Bridegroom and Pop-Up Book of Death), which will be released soon.

First there was Ai’s Cruelty and The Killing Floor. This was the very first poetry that I loved as a sophomore in college. I love the dark, brutal storytelling in these poems that take the form of dramatic monologues. I didn’t know poetry could be like this, and it definitely planted the seed of my literary obsessions. Ai was relentlessly brave with her subject matter and not at all afraid to delve into madness. She passed away earlier this year, and right now I am reading her final collection. Writing grotesque poems with mad narrators is one of my favorite ways to express myself (even if the subject matter is a complete fantasy).

Another major inspiration for me are Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems collected in Transformations. The poems in this collection are a model for me because of the way they combine storytelling with startling metaphors, visual images, and scalpel-sharp wit. This book proved to me that poem-stories can be as rich as prose fiction (in a different--symbolic and visual--way, of course). In the Vampire Bridegroom, a lot of the poem-stories (that want to be horror movies) are modeled after Sexton’s storytelling in this book.

Strangely enough, another book of massive importance in my life is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. On the surface, this is a textbook on comic books in the form of a comic book, but this book has informed my poetry more than any book on poetry because of the ideas and theories it presents about visual storytelling, creating images, and how the brain makes meaning out of stories. In addition, the parts about how the brain connects gaps between comic book frames profoundly impacts how I make gaps between stanzas. I did write some comic books a couple of years ago, but now I am much happier and more comfortable writing story-poems that use a lot of the lessons I learned from writing comics.

Another huge inspiration on my writing is Li-Young Lee’s highly-anthologized poem Persimmons. I have taught that poem every time I have taught American Literature because of its brilliant, rich portrayal of identity. For me personally, I also love it because of the pastiche structure and image-based storytelling. The structure of this poem has influenced every memoir poem I have written, and that’s quite a few in both books--I am always trying to write my own Persimmons.

I am very excited to have two poetry books on the way: Pop-Up Book of Death from Rebel Satori/Queer Mojo Press (this book is more focused on dark surreal poems and memoir poems about the trials of Coming Out) and Vampire Bridegroom from Dark Scribe Press (this is my big horror genre book--lots of poems about queer horror and how The Closet creates monsters).

Thanks, Jory, for giving me the chance to tell your readers about my books and the books that have made me. Come and visit me at ChadHelder.com and HelderHorror.com!

21 October 2010

Is Wearing Purple and Making a Video Enough? Queer Youth Suicide and What You Can Do About It!

I keep thinking about the first season of RuPaul's Drag Race and her constant admonition at the end of the show, "If you don't love yourself how the hell are you gonna love someone else?"  I always found those words quixotic because they came on the heels of the judges eliminating a drag queen from the competition--usually with RuPaul as the final arbiter.  The world isn't a fair place and it often doesn't make sense.

I keep thinking about what RuPaul has to say in relation to the recent national media attention to gay teen suicides.  This isn't a new problem.  This isn't even an increasing problem.  The national media and straight America is just now becoming aware of what many queer people have known for a long time--being an LGBT junior high or highs school student is incredibly hard.  Even   if you aren't aware of your sexuality yet, even if you aren't really queer--once you get branded as a "Faggot" or "Dyke" by your classmates it sticks with you.  There is no escaping the names, the taunting, the intimidation, the bullying, the harassment and the violence that comes with being queer.

Growing up in a rural Montana town, I didn't have access to LGBT resources or culture.  In my high school, there were books about homosexuality in the library card catalogue, but the books were not on the shelves.  I checked.  Repeatedly.  The books were kept behind the counter and you had to ask the adult librarian to check them out.  She was an intimidating woman.  My parents worked at the school I attended.  I never asked her for the books.

I tried to come out to a school guidance counselor.  By my senior year I knew that I was gay and it was tearing me apart inside not to be able to talk about it or tell anyone.  I didn't expect to find a boyfriend in high school; I was desperate to be honest about myself with someone.  Anyone.  Even the guidance counselor.  I was told "Why don't you just wait to deal with that until college."  College was years and miles away.  There was no place for me at home or at school.

There was one gay student at my high school.  He transferred in from a bigger city.  He got harassed and beat up several times.  He went to the principal of the school and to the superintendent.  He was told, "You invite it on yourself.  If you are going to flaunt your sexuality, expect to be beat up."  That was my school's solution to creating a safe learning environment.  The student transferred to another school.  Then it was just me.

Remember, I came out before the Internet.  Being queer in rural America meant total isolation.  There were no gay people on television.  There were no gay pride parades in my state.  There were no gay publications for me to purchase or look at in a 20 mile radius. 

When I graduated from high school and went to college, things got harder for me.  I didn't meet any queer people.  I got beat up.  I was fired from a job for being gay.  I ended up dropping out of school.  I had been waiting to deal with being gay for two years.  I was at college and thing were infinitely worse for me.

I am glad that the Internet is helping to get the word out about queer youth suicide.  I am pleased to see national media, which has dismissed queer youth for so long, finally take notice.  Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project is a good idea.  The response has been phenomenal.  Even the media says so.

I wanted to make a video for the It Gets Better Project, but the longer I thought about it--the less I could reconcile myself that telling queer youth that "It gets better...three, four, five or six years from now." That wasn't good enough for me.  Isn't that what my guidance counselor in high school had told me?  To wait?  To hang on?  I can't bring myself to tell queer youth to wait.  I want to make a bigger difference.  Putting off a solution is no solution at all.

In response to Dan Savage's well intentioned project, another group wants to go further.  The Make It Better Project gives teens and adults tools they can use to affect change now.  The website says "LGBT youth should not have to suffer through bullying at school.  We can Make It Better NOW!"  There are resources for making schools safer for queer youth and their lives better now instead of after they graduate from high school.

Please take a moment to stop by the website, explore what you can do to affect change now, donate money to the organization and spread the word.  An LGBT youth may not be able to wait another three years for the harassment and bullying to stop.

Thank you for caring, no matter how you do it.

Jory M.-a once youthful queer



14 October 2010

Coming Soon: A Post of Substance

Graduate school and teaching is kicking my ass.  I will post something of substance soon.  Please stay tuned.  But to hold you over, here is a picture of me reading some new work this past week at the MFA reading for the Hemingway Festival in Moscow, Idaho.  (You can tell it is more noir poems because of my hat...)

05 October 2010

Some Sad News: Reposted from Band of Thebes Blog

I have been waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for Alyson Books to release the book Notes from the Sexual Underground, 1935-1975: The Selected Writings of Sam Steward (The Renegade Author Also Known as Phil Andros) by Justin Spring.  At first it was due out in February and then June and now it appears that it will never be released by Alyson Books.

Reposted from Band of Thebes blog: http://bandofthebes.typepad.com

Publishers Weekly is reporting today that the nation's oldest lgbt book publisher, Alyson, will restructure as an e-book only publisher and Don Weise is leaving the company. The announcement may surprise bookwatchers who've noted Alyson has never before produced an e-book. They expect to release their first digital titles in 9 to 12 months. John Knoebel, v-p of consumer marketing at Here Media, has been named temporary publisher until a replacement can be found. Discussing the decision to abandon print entirely, Knoebel said, "There are just fewer places to sell books."

PW reports,
"Over the next few days Alyson will be reaching out to the authors it has under contract and whose books they have not published to give them the option of getting their rights back or moving ahead with Alyson's digital program. "We know authors are working in different circumstances," Knoebel said. "We hope some will stick with us." Alyson has about 24 authors under contract whose books have not yet been released."
Alyson's front list has been dormant for more than half a year, not having released any of their scheduled titles since late winter. Weise had spent the interim months trying to acquire the company from Here Media but ultimately the two sides failed to reach a deal. Weise released a statement calling the situation "heartbreaking," adding "even after offering a price that I believe to be twice the fair market value, we were unable to come to an agreement."

This makes me incredibly sad.  Another publisher of queer books will no longer be publishing actual books.  As the publishing industry changes and collapses at the same time, I wonder how authors will continue to promote their books if there is no physical book to sell at readings.

There is some good news (for me at least).  Justin Spring had this to say on Amazon.com about his book:  

"This book is not being published by Alyson, and never will be - as the editor of this book I'd like to let potential buyers know that a book of collected Sam Steward writings will be self-published via LighteningSource later this fall.

Alyson never issued a satisfactory contract for the book, and yet it continues to list it as an available title - which has created a great deal of confusion on the internet about the book's availability. None of my emails about the situation to Amazon have been successful so far, so I'm simply posting this message for the public good."

You didn't hear it here first, but I wanted to pass the word on.  

27 September 2010

Matthew Shepard: On Martyrology and Media Distortion

I've been writing about Matthew Shepard, or at least the image of Matthew Shepard clouded by eleven years of martyrology and media distortion.  If the gay rights movement has a patron saint, it is the smiling face of Matthew haloed by his longish blond hair.

Harvey Milk's face has been edited out of history by that of Sean Penn.  Judy Garland has been demoted to an entertainer and actress.  And Harry Hay, well ninety to ninety-five percent of queer youth have no idea who Harry Hay is.

Honestly, what else is there to say after eleven years?  Everyone from his mother to gay rights groups, Fred Phelps to Congress has had something to say about Matthew.  It's pretty much all been told by this point.  Posthumously Matthew has several movies and even a poetry anthology.  What is left?

 I started writing about Matthew by accident.  My ex sent me some old love letters that I had written twelve years ago.  My ex was in Spain studying abroad during the period when Shepard was killed.  In the letters, I am writing about the crime, the fledgling efforts for hate crimes legislation and how a 21 year old man in Wyoming sparked the anger and fear of a twenty-two year old man in Montana.

I even found a copy of the November 1998 issue of OUTSpoken: The Voice of Gay Montana covering the vigil held for Matthew Shepard in Missoula.  The article included pictures from the candlelight vigil.  It gives an immediate emotional portrait on the tail of Shepard's death.  OUTSpoken, the author of the article Greg Kastl and Matthew Shepard have all passed into history.  I suspect that only Shepard remains in the cultural conversation.

Trying to write about Shepard is like attempting to scale Everest.  It can be done, but few do and fewer still scale the peak well.  My writing began with a series of negations.  I attempted to remove eleven years of media attention and popular culture from the lens.  I don't think this is entirely possible, but the attempt was necessary.  Who was Matthew Shepard before his death?  Who was he at the time of his death before so many other people responded to it?

I may never answer those questions in my writing.  Shepard might remain a cultural nexus point, unable to transform back into a 21 year old college student in Wyoming.

Timothy Liu said that writing a poem is in essence having an argument with yourself.  In this case my poem is an argument with Shepard, both who he was and what he has become.  What is straw and what is chaff after so long a time?

12 September 2010

Book Notes on Elizabeth J. Colen's Money for Sunsets

Paperback, 90 pages
From Steel Toe Books
July 2010
ISBN: 9780982416938

Reading Elizabeth Colen’s Money for Sunsets isn’t something that I could just once. After finishing the book, I needed to go back and reread the text with all the cues and nuances I picked up the first read.

Money for Sunsets has a persistent anxiety of certain danger. The end is near (now) ((maybe)). In her poem, “The Rules of Subduction” Colen urges the reader, “Read about tsunamis from a thick blue book. Read about the Big Ones, the ones that killed…” (10).

There is a luminosity to the voice that graces these poems. Call the voice adolescence or coming of age. Colen manages a self-doubt and bravado so compelling that I never questioned them coexisting within the same person.

After reading sections in this book, I was unable to sit still. The prose poems are filled with cars, travel, and motion. There is an energy, an immediacy that persists after you shut the cover. Someone (Auden?) said that poetry does nothing. Colen’s poetry says, “Go. Now. Faster.”

The musicality of the speech in Money for Sunsets carroomed off the page. In the poem “Take,” “Sweet, slow sound, her jaw rounding out the silence” (24).

This collection of prose poems is not only smart to the ear. There is a running commentary about the roles of women when conflated with money and power. In the poem “Synthesizer Approximating Strings,” Colen give the reader a hard look at violence against a sex worker, saying the forty dollars she was paid “buys here silence” (19).

Colen also gives a brilliantly scathing critique of oil and the implicit consumerism even in the best of us in her poem ‘The Next Cold War” “O’ my electronics never deceive me.” “My gas tank is filled with oil, my gas logs; oil, picture frames are wood or oil, but oil was used to make them…” (6).

Poetry this complex and urgent is a kind of reward for all the mediocre verse that I read.

Please do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Elizabeth Colen’s Money for Sunsets.  Read it. This book is equally good read in a comfortable chair or pacing back and forth across the living room carpet. You can read it a second time, doing the other.

24 August 2010

Let's Get Metaphysical: Marvell, Donne, Mark Wunderlich and Vaughan

Perhaps my wires are crossed.  I keep looking at this picture trying to figure it out.  Is it an anchor and a shark?  Where does the fin being and the metal end?  There is no shark.  It's a picture of two anchors lashed together with rope and chain.  One is visible and the other is partially submerged in the water.

I thought that this was a good place to begin, this photo that is.  I have been reading a lot of poetry.  I am half way through Money for Sunsets By Elizabeth J. Colen.  I have read and reread Mark Wunderlich's book The Anchorage.  And then there are the four metaphysical poets I am reading: Herbert, Marvell, Donne and Vaughan. 

The sound and style of verse in my head at the moment looks a little like the anchor.  I began with Colon's self-circling prose poems.  The intensity of examination to the language and structure of language is amazing.  I feel as if in some of her poems that I can almost hear Paula Abdul singing "Two steps forward. Two steps back..."  Rather than distract from the poems, this hyper-awareness contributes to the pressure and urgency they transmit.  (I will give a full review of her book in September.)

I then shifted to an intensive read of Mark Wunderlich's The Anchorage, which won the 1999 Lambda Literary Award for poetry.  His book has been our for long enough and reviewed extensively.  I feel that other people have said what I have to say (and more thoroughly than I could at the moment) about the poems therein.  I do want to comment on the shift in styles between the sections of the book.  The book moves from tercets to finish with dense paragraphs of prose poems.  Wunderlich's flowing lines and internal and off rhymes are a contrast to Colen's book.  What I took away from The Anchorage was a watery image of winter light, sheets hanging on clothes lines and empty beds.  His book was an extended meditation on the body and longing.

I almost feel as if Wunderlich was an ideal segue into the metaphysical poets who are very much concerned about questions of the body, the soul, longing and desire.  The language and style of verse aside, I feel that there is something very modern about the metaphysical poets, especially Donne.  I think that this is one reason that he continues to be popular; Donne remains witty four hundred years after his death.

What I love the most about the poets of 1600s England is the sheer music of their lines.  It is a relief to hear some apologetically rhymed and metered verse after the barrage of free verse in modern poetry.  The antique language and stilted phrases can come off as corny, but when I read the lines aloud and repeat them my tongue begins to leap from line to line.

Although some of the references in the metaphysical poems are obscure (and I am the sort to look them up) I find that their logic is refreshing.  Poetry as argument.  Poetry as a questioning on philosophical matters.  Poetry as praise, satire and scorn.  There is something delightfully straight forward about these poets that is missing in most modern poems.  Don't get me wrong, I don't think that poetry should have to have a clear arc.  Half of poetry is that it means more than it says...  Sometimes the sound is the sense of a poem.  What I am saying is that there is a great obfuscation of meaning in modern poetry that is not found in earlier verse. 

I am much less likely to memorize a Rae Armantrout poem than one by Andrew Marvell.  The rhetorical moves and the music in Marvell are clear.

In my head these poems and prose poems are twisting together into a knot of sound and form.  It is exciting even if the results remain hidden beneath the water.

I want to leave you with the opening stanza of John Donne's poem "Song" so that it can sing in your head for the rest of the day.

"Sweetest love, I do not go,
   For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
   A fitter love for me;..."

15 August 2010

Book Notes On: The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs by Frances McCue

Hardcover, 266 pages
From University of Washington
March 2010
ISBN: 9780295989648

The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs is a tour of the Pacific Northwest through the eyes of Richard Hugo’s poems. If you don’t know who Richard Hugo is, you are missing out. Born in White Center, Washington and buried in Missoula, Montana, Hugo’s poetry encompasses the landscape and places of the northwest. Although Hugo passed away in 1982, his work continues to inspire and instruct modern writers.

Frances McCue, a true devotee of Hugo follows a winding course through Washington, Idaho and Montana using his poetry and life as a road map. McCue’s book is part travelogue, part literary history, mixed with memoir and dashed with speculation. There is no single genre that this book falls easily into. Hugo fans, poetry lovers and northwest travelers will all find something between its covers.

Hugo’s poems are a lesson in alienation and longing to fit in. McCue travels to the towns that surface in the poems: Phillipsburg, Wallace, Dixon, Butte, White Center and others with Hugo’s lens of words. She also visits each place with her own inquisitive gaze. This double vision creates a tension of perception. It examines the truth in both the imagination and physical facts. McCue also adds to her essays the voices of Hugo’s friends, critics and colleagues to give a broader vision of the author. She also talks to many people who live in these towns who have never heard of Hugo.

A wonderful addition to McCue’s exhaustive knowledge of Hugo and his work was the photography of Mary Randlett. She has been photography the Pacific Northwest and its people for nearly over 55 years. Randlett’s black and white photographs of the towns and landscapes in Hugo’s work add a stunning complexity to The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs. Even her most direct shots evoke a charged mood. Randlett’s photos lend McCue’s words and Hugo’s poems an almost premonitory quality.

This is a book for people who love pilgrimage. Twenty-four of Hugo’s best poems of place are sandwiched in between Randlett’s photographs and McCue’s tightly written, deceptively broad essays. Each chapter in the book is divided by town, although you cannot always travel from one place to the next in a direct route, nor chronologically.

One of my favorite chapters is about the Dixon Bar. Hugo wrote a poem that inspired a feud, which stretches from Dixon, MT to The New Yorker and spans nearly forty years. You can read an excellent news article about the feud and McCue’s book here: http://missoulian.com/lifestyles/territory/article_b25ef6ba-548f-11df-b6a8-001cc4c002e0.html

To hear Hugo read his own work, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56Vm9kdNlf0&feature=related

This book is a work of love to Hugo and the towns of the Pacific Northwest and one, which I loved to read.

07 August 2010

Where You Can Find Me This Summer

This summer has been very good to me.  You can find my work in three literary journals.  You can even see two of my newest poems online, for free!

Psychic Meatloaf: Journal of Contemporary Poetry 
published two of my newest poems in their first issue.  You can see my poems from the "Carbonite Dream Series" on pages 36-37. 

Here is the link:  http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.psychicmeatloaf.com%2F&h=0c0ee

Gertrude Press out of Portland, OR publishes the literary journal Gertrude: A Journal of Voice & Vision

They've been publishing LGBTQ artists and writers since 1999.  Gertrude Press is one of oldest continously-published literary journals for the queer community worldwide.

I have a poem forthcoming in issue Number 15.

Here is the link:  http://www.gertrudepress.org/journal

And last but not least, you can see my poem "Cold Mountain Blues" in the 2010 issue of Front Range: A Review of Literature and Art Volume 5 Issue 1.  This journal publishes out of Great Falls, MT.  I was happy to appear in a home-state journal.  My poem is on page 38.

You can learn about Front Range here:  http://www.frontrangemt.org/7.html

01 August 2010

Boot Polish and the Ballad: Poetry by the Palouse Country Cowboy Poets

Last night I drove from my new home in Moscow, Idaho to a small town called Uniontown, WA.  Early in the last century, Uniontown was still booming with river transport along the Snake River and the pre-industrialization of farming.  Today, Uniontown is still at farming community, but its population is down to about 1200 souls.

The Dahmen Barn was on its way out too.  The old structure was slated to be torn down.  Through many members of the community, the barn was transformed from a sagging pile of lumber into a community art space.  Today it is filled with art studios, workshop space and a gift shop.  This is where I would get to experience an evening of cowboy poetry.

The event was put on by the Palouse Country Cowboy Poets. This group of farmers, ranchers, vets, teachers and community members has been meeting for the past 40 years or more. The organization currently boasts 35 regular members, some who have been with it for as many years.

It was a packed event with 40-50 people in attendance. What got me excited was the $7 admission. I can't remember the last poetry reading I attended where the audience members had paid to listen to a poet recite work. Eric Larson emceed the event and even got in a poem of his own toward the end.

Cowboy poetry is a form of the ballad.  The first ballads appeared in Europe during the 15th century.  They were narrative or told popular stories of the time.  Think of ballads as courtly pop radio songs.  Ballads use a regular rhythm and simple ABAB rhyme scheme. Some better known ballads are "The Man From Snowy River" from Australia and The Rime of The Ancient Mariner.

What impresses me a great deal is the memory of the poets who performed their own and others work.  Almost all of the poems were recited by memory.  Although cowboy poetry is written down, it began as an oral tradition--something recited around the campfire or cook stove at night.  In the early days, not every cowboy was literate.  The ballad's rhyme and meter helped the trail rider commit it to memory.  Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house... 

Howard Norskog read last night.  Speaking to one of the other poets during the intermission, I found out that Mr. Norskog is well known in the cowboy poetry world.  He is a three state champion and the author of four books and four recordings.

Here, he is reciting his ballad "The Lost River" accompanied by Maxine on her accordion.

The evening also featured a few songs.  It was a great experience and one that I hope to repeat.  There are things to look forward to in rural Idaho.

21 July 2010

You Have to Pay to Play: Submitting to Literary Journals in the Digital Age

There are some great discussions going on about the future of literary magazines, changes in the submission process and new viable models for literature.  These discussions have also whipped up a veritable hurricane of criticism. 

Some of the furor began after Tin House posted their new submission guidelines:

"Between September 1 and December 30, 2010, Tin House magazine will require writers submitting unsolicited manuscripts to the magazine to include a receipt for a book purchased from a bookstore. Writers who are not able to produce a receipt for a book are encouraged to explain why in 100 words or fewer. Tin House will consider the purchase of e-books as a substitute only if the writer explains why he or she cannot go to his or her neighborhood bookstore or why he or she prefers digital reads..."

Brevity, a nonfiction magazine, asked its readers whether or not they should charge for submissions.  You can view the discussion and comments here: http://brevity.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/should-brevity-charge/

As more and more established literary magazines go digital, including their submission process, they need to begin to ask themselves how can they be viable when not only the readership, but the method of reading is changing. 

My own literary magazine 5x5 started using the popular Submishmash software to speed up the process of sorting through submissions.  We are a small journal, but we received over 300 submission for our last issue.  That is a lot to ask volunteer editors to sort through on their own time.  Larger journals receive thousands of submissions for each issue.

Is the idea of changing the submission process or even charging for submission just another hoop to make the writer jump through?

Michael A. FitzGerald, the co-founder of Submishmash, weighs in on the issue here:  http://www.submishmash.com/2010/06/reading-fees-from-a-writers-perspective/

I am thrilled to be able to submit to journal electronically, either by email or a submission manager program.  It saves me time, money and trips to the post office.  It also increases the speed with which I am rejected.  I no longer have to wait up to a year to hear back from literary journals.  By and large electronic submission has increased the speed and ease with which a writer can see his or her work accepted or rejected.

On the other hand, it also means that major literary journals can be flooded with even more submissions, since no one has to leave their computers.  What do you think?

I was made aware of most of this issue by http://www.newpages.com/

19 July 2010

I promise I haven't forgotten about this blog!

I have been moving to Moscow, Idaho.  There will be a new post this week.  In the mean time, check out the photo from just outside the city limits.

14 July 2010

Check Out My New Poem in Print!

My poem "The Twins" appears in Issue 2 of Lady Jane's Miscellany, published by San Francisco Bay Press.  You can go here to learn more:  http://sanfranciscobaypress.com/lady-janes-miscellany-issue-2

09 July 2010

Driving with James Lee Burke and Dashiell Hammett

It’s been a while since you and I last saw one another.

I’ve been packing my bags and books and furniture, everything really, in preparation for the move to Idaho. I keep asking myself, “Where did all of this stuff come from?” Followed immediately with, “Can I live without this?” Somewhere between the start of packing and the half way marker, I knew that I needed to start making cuts. Can you see how this is going to start pointing toward writing?

I drove through Idaho and to Montana last week to see family and celebrate the 4th of July. During the drive, I listened to two unabridged audio books. The first, Bitterroot by James Lee Burke was set in the landscape and cities that I would be visiting. It was spread heavily with what readers want to hear about Montana: big skies, huckleberry bushes, and trout in every glinting turn of river or stream and a sprinkling of hard nosed rednecks with guns. Having grown up in the Bitterroot, I can attest that it is less bucolic and far more boring than the vision Burke pens. However, I gave him some leeway. I would rather read of fantastic murders and layers of revenge than what the mayor of a 2500 person town did between council meetings. Bitterroot had more killing in it than Ravalli County has seen in 25 years.

The second book, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, was everything one could hope for in a noir novel: gangsters, heavy drinking, wit, ditsy dames and plenty of “you got the wrong guy.” On the whole, I enjoyed Mr. Hammett’s work over Mr. Burke’s. The Thin Man was about half as long as Bitterroot in length and was a nonstop high-speed train of story. To be fair, I have noticed that my experience of reading a book on the page and listening to an audio book are entirely different experiences.

A written book is not always paced for the spoken word. Heavy description, internal monologue or a string of metaphors can kill the ear when read aloud. What the brain processes in silence has a much different pace than what the ear can take in. Many of the audio books I have listened to seem to sag in places or almost fall apart. I find myself agitated with the slow parts and give the stereo the lets get on with it glare. After listening to many audio books, I now know why authors pick high intensity portions of their work to read at book signings. The audience would be giving the author the same look of disgust.  Half of the audience would begin to leak sighs.

Listening to audio books does more than just makes a book droop; it also exposes the writing process for me. Hearing a book aloud, I am more aware of the writer’s method of moving the plot forward, the use of foreshadowing and repeated images or turns of phrase. I couldn’t help but commenting aloud on some of what I was hearing to my fellow passenger in the car. “Watch for that flower again later in the book.” “Trust me, this is a red herring.” Why yes, I am a person who talks through movies.

In the end, I prefer to listen to audio books of a shorter length. They keep my mind and rocketing forward with less time for reflection. Perception is everything. As my waitress at Glen’s Cafe in Florence, Montana commented to me, “Well we had those three murders almost ten years ago. It’s just like we are a big city or something.”

25 June 2010

New Work in a New Journal!

I am pleased to announce that two of my newest poems will be appearing in the first issue of a promising journal.  Please take a moment to check out Psychic Meatloaf: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry.  

Buy this journal.  Submit work.  Leave comments and look for my work in August!


18 June 2010

Guest Blogger: Writer Ian Denning

Ian Denning is currently enrolled in the MFA in fiction at the University of New Hampshire. His short fiction has appeared in A Cappella Zoo and 5x5, and is forthcoming in the Absent Willow Review. He also holds a Master's from Western Washington University. He likes beer, cats, books, and video games.

I've just returned to short stories after two weeks of devouring novel after novel (six novels in twelve days; man I love free time), and I'm having a hard time readjusting to the format. Short stories are just so... well... short. They're quick, bite-size, a handful of almonds to the novel's steak dinner. I remembered Jory's post a month and a half ago about how he has a difficult time reading short stories, and then I remembered that I used to have a difficult time reading them too.

I used to feel like Rita's., who commented on the original post that short stories make her feel “disgruntled: wanting more or far less.” I would read a short story and either not “get it” and wish that I hadn't read it at all, or enjoy the characters and wish that the short story were a novel, so I could really dig into them. But I was a creative writing student who specialized in fiction, so I had to keep reading short stories, and eventually I started to like them. I think it's a matter of developing a literacy.

There are certain things the conventional short story has—some kind of draw to start you reading, character development, an epiphany near the end—and we often come with expectations about what short stories are supposed to accomplish (I blame an undergrad English curriculum full of Carver and Joyce and the literary descendants of Sherwood Anderson). Part of the joy of reading a short story, for me, is seeing how the author plays with and against the qualities of the archetypal short story. I used to be a songwriter, and after listening to so many thousands of pop songs, I developed a good ear for separating those who used common pop song structures and those who molded them and cut them up and twisted them around to fit their own purposes. Short stories are the same.

“Deep, Michigan” by Josie Sigler, published in the 2008 issue of Water-Stone Review, is about an eighteen year-old who gets arrested for joy-riding with his friends (and a gun in the car), does his time, joins the marines, is wounded in Iraq and comes home to see his old high school friends, who work in factories or fast food restaurants. I was enjoying the story, but not blown away, until the ending, where Sigler uses the first-person narrator—the only of the wounded boys' friends to show him much compassion—to give us a peek into the future: the boy's pain is too much and he begs his friends to help him kill himself. Eventually the boy does it himself. We then return to the present, where the boys, intimidated by their friend's crippling war wound but still wanting things to return to how they were, settle down to play video games.

It's a killer ending, and I haven't done it justice (just read the story), but the point I want to make is that I did not expect the shift into the future, and it gave the whole ending a feeling of creepy predestination and transcendence. “Deep, Michigan” helped me remember that short stories can move in nimble ways that novels can't, and tie the weird beauty of the poetic unexpected to narrative forms. I don't think I would have felt that way about the story if I hadn't read (or been forced to read) collection and collection after anthology—and now, after so many novels (and an excellent J.D. Salinger biography by Ian Hamilton), I'm ready to dive back into short fiction.

13 June 2010

Is Anybody Listening? The Writer and Their Audience

There is a large body of perennial advice given to newer writers, “Show, don’t tell” being one of the most repeated. These statements are recited ad nausium at writing conferences, in workshops and university classrooms and in books about the writing life. Thousands of green parrots named Polly across North America ask you for a cracker again and again and again.

Another nugget is for a writer to consider who their ideal reader is. Who are you writing for? There is no correct answer to this question. Much like a zen koan, or what I understand of zen koans, the statement is meant to help the writer reflect on their work.  I started this line of questioning after looking at Dustin Brookshire's website and stumbling across his project "Why Do I Write" where several poets tackle that very question.  You can check out their answers here:  http://dustinbrookshire.wordpress.com/why-do-i-write/

I asked myself why am I interviewing LGBT writers? Why am I publishing these interviews in small, almost obscure monthly newspapers (The Betty Pages in Bellingham, WA and OutWords in Missoula, MT)?

What is the point? I am not paid. There is no chance of the interviews being picked up for pay or syndication elsewhere. At best, my work reaches five to seven thousand people between the two papers. My blog has fourteen followers. A mover and shaker, I am not.  So why persist?

There is no one answer.  Initially, I started interviewing other queer writers because I was geographically isolated.  I was a gay writer and didn't know any other gay writers in my area.  I may live only eighty miles from Seattle, but I don't get down there much.  Most of my sense of community came from reading books by other LGBT writers.  It was a one sided experience.  I read, but did not have anyone to share my thoughts with.  I wanted to talk to these authors and tell them what their work meant to me.  I also wanted to speak to other queer authors about their lines of inquiry in a body of writing that is surrounded by and endless wave of hetero-normative culture.  Was I slowly going crazy in the sticks or did my ideas match up with those of others?

Another reason I continued interviewing queer writers, editors and publishers is that it opened me to a wider and wider writing community.  With each interview I encountered new ideas. I learned about other writers or a new book.  The queer writing world is a small one.  Authors really do know one another, or at least know of one another.  After I interviewed Carol Guess, she put me into contact with Mattilda Bernstein-Sycamore--someone she didn't know personally, but who she felt I might have some things in common. A friendship developed out of  that introduction by email.

I continue to interview other queer writers because of those five to seven thousand people who may see my articles.  I grew up in rural Montana before the advent of the internet.  I know something about isolation.  Even after coming out and meeting other gay people, there remained a divide between being a rural queer and a gay in a large urban area.  I had drive ten hours experience the "gay life" that I read about in Out and the Advocate

Today there is still a cultural divide between queer life in the city and the country.  In some small way, I hope my interviews with queer authors help ease that gap.  A gay man in Helena, MT may never a attend a Queer Panic! reading hosted by Emanuel Xavier in New York City, but he or she will at least know about.  Perhaps a lesbian reader in Blaine, WA will feel some tenuous connection to the lesbian sci-fi writer Alyx Dellamonica who lives just over the border from her in Vancouver, B.C. 

Interviewing other queer authors is a way for me to gather the diverse  voices and personalities of our community together one thread at a time.  It is one way for me to prevent the sense of isolation I lived with even after coming out of the closet.  Interviewing is a way for me to join my own voice with the continuing chorus the queer writing community no matter where I am singing from.

06 June 2010

Let's Dish: An Interview with Poet Dustin Brookshire

Dustin Brookshire is a Dolly fanatic, activist, and Pushcart Prize nominated poet. Dustin's work has won awards from state poetry societies and been published in Blue Fifth Review, Oranges & Sardines, Shape of a Box, OCHO, Ducts, Qarrtiluni, Ouroboros Review, and other publications. Feel free to stalk him on the web at http://www.dustinbrookshire.com/.

Jory Mickelson: How and when did you come to poetry?

Dustin Brookshire: I started writing teenage angst poetry in middle school. I would take my poems to the library and bind them together with the spiral binding machine. However, I can’t recall being exposed to poetry in middle school. Maybe I’m somehow blocking it out, or it could be an accurate memory from a small town, county school system.

As a reader, I fell in love with poetry my senior year of high school when I was lucky to have Mrs. Callan as my AP Lit teacher. She introduced me to Anne Sexton, Dante's Inferno, sestinas, and villanelles. I couldn’t step rereading "Her Kind” after being introduced to it in class. Symbolic retribution, Hell, terza rima—a delicious oh my! I wrote my very first sestina in Mrs. Callan’s class; it was about a whore seeking forgiveness. While Mrs. Callan took every chance to encourage her students, she was a bit conservative, so I’ll never forget the look on her face when I read my poem to the class.

JM: Tell me about your role as founder and editor of Limp Wrist Magazine. Where did Limp Wrist come from?

DB: I discovered a nifty online publication called ToasterMag. It had a bit of everything except for creative writing; I contacted the editor and next thing I knew I was on board as ToasterMag's freehand editor. When ToasterMag's editor decided he wanted to move on to other projects, he closed it down. I was saddened because I enjoyed my first taste of being an editor. My partner at the time suggested I start my own online magazine. At first I dismissed their suggestions but the more I thought on it the more I thought,”Why the hell not?” I got on it like Dolly Parton on a guitar, and Limp Wrist was born.

JM: Limp Wrist says it has a queer sensibility. Can you tell me how you would characterize or define the words queer and sensibility? Is it Quentin Crisp in his fedora or something more?

DB: Queer sensibility is my way of saying, if you don't like the gays; Limp Wrist isn't a place for your work or eyes. While I don't think everything needs a label of gay or straight, I do think we're living in a time where the LGBT community often gets second chair when deserving first or at least deserving to share first chair with our heterosexual counterparts. (I'm of course referring marriage equality, DADT, and so much more.) I am proud to promote Limp Wrist as part of my stand—doing my part using what I love the most, the written word.

JM: I have to admit it, even I don't like some of the gays. I know that some of your own poetry is rooted in activism. Can you tell me about the activist work you are involved with and how you got to be involved with it?

DB: Loaded question! I think there are tons of reasons for my passion of activism.  I grew up in a loving family, but I grew up in a family where I felt I wasn’t encouraged to ask why—that didn't go over well with me. I've always had the instinct to ask why or "why couldn't it be done another way?"

I grew up in Calhoun, Georgia, which you could call a one-horse kind of town. Calhoun's only claim to fame is that it is the exact midpoint between Atlanta, Georgia and Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s the kind of town where any minority should sleep with one eye open. If I had a dollar for every rebel flag I saw plastered to trucks during my high school stint, well, I don't think I'd be so Donna Summer working hard for the money. I was surprised and angered repeatedly by the way people who were “different” were treated, and by the attitude of most people that it’s just the way things are.

I had a lit teacher in high school that was a complete bitch to me. I never understood why. I always ended up bonding with my literature teaches, and it drove me bonkers that I couldn’t figure out why this woman always wore her asshat when dealing with me. She never crossed any lines where I could report her to administration, so I had to deal with it. After graduation, I ended up befriending a former teacher, and it was through this friendship that I found out why the lit teacher treated me differently. To other teachers, the lit teacher once commented that she thought I was gay, and she didn't like gay people. This experience in high school was my first real encounter with someone misusing her position of power. Once again, I was pissed off.

I’m pissed off when anyone misuses his/her power. I don’t care the position—whether it be in politics, religion, or relationships. People must never forget that we give our elected officials and religious leaders their power. Again, WE give our elected officials and religious leaders’ power. Vote them out of office; don’t attend a service—we have to keep them in check, or we don’t have a right to complain about them.

Combine it all together and you have a Dustin ready to change the world. Isn’t that a thought of grandiose? But really, I think all of my experiences growing up shaped me into an activist.

I serve on the Atlanta Pride Committee as well as the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival. I use my blog, “I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin,” as a way to keep elected officials in check. Blogging about elected officials can work; a few years ago, my blog was a reason a Georgia State Senator called me and I ended up with an invitation to the Governor’s office for a bill signing.

I have the same passion for poetry as I do activism, so I think there was no other choice but for there to be a marriage between the two.

JM: I grew up in rural Montana, so I can relate to the time you spent in Calhoun. I thought confederate flags meant that people were fans of the TV show “The Dukes of Hazard County,” like on my Bow and Luke Duke TV tray.

I was thinking about how you said you weren't encouraged to ask why as a child and began to wonder if in a way that poetry is a way to ask why--a way for poets to question the world around them.

Many of your poems seem to tell the reader where they come from, "Drunk Dialing Denise Duhamel" is a dream and "No Comedy in Tragedy" from a movie. Then I come across darker, uncomfortable poems like "Stuck" or "Soap." I know that poetry seeks to mine the truth--the emotional truth of an event. Where do your poems come from? What sparks them?

DB: Denise Duhamel once said, "As poets, I think we write from a deep wound." For me, I feel Duhamel's words ring very true. "No Comedy in Tragedy," "Soap," and "Stuck" all come from an extremely deep wound—rape. "Stuck" not only deals with the rape but also brings in the issues that I've dealt with since childhood. Rape and issues with my body are a driving force behind a lot of my poetry. When I put together my chapbook, To the One Who Raped Me, which is forthcoming from Pudding House, I thought I had written all the rape poems out of me, but I soon realized I was naive. Sometimes it takes time to realize the depth of a wound.

Of course, not all my poems are about rape and body issues. With a Southern Baptist family, my coming out experience wasn't very pleasant; a number of my poems deal with acceptance/rejection because of homosexuality. I have a bone to pick with religious hypocrites. I have never considered myself religious, but I consider myself spiritual. I often find myself writing about religion, and I’m usually doing it in a sarcastic manner to drive what I hope is a good point home.

Going back to your comment—I'm sure I believe that poetry seeks to mine the truth. I like that comment, but I can’t say I agree…wouldn’t that mean that all poets are truth sayers?

JM: Coco Peru's monologue from Trick is ringing through my head now, "As a truth seeker I feel that it is my duty to inform you..."

Poetry tends to have a small audience. How would you introduce poetry to people who have an involuntary flinch at the word "poem"? Further, what do you think that poetry has to teach people that usually avoid it?

DB: My BFF happens to be straight Church of Christ guy—who is also going to say when he reads this, "Why do you always have to mention that I’m heterosexual and Church of Christ—often says he doesn't like poetry, good poetry. (To a digress a moment—I love mentioning it because he has what I call the right kind of religion. He’s big on the caring/loving, not so much on the judging.) His statement is sassy; I love it and try to steal it as often as I can. I think that each person has his/her has a type of poetry that he/she would consider good poetry, and that doesn’t mean that poetry that doesn’t fall into that good poetry zone is bad—it’s a preference like Pepsi or Coke. Poets/poetry lovers should feel charged with the duty of sharing poetry. I'm notorious posting poems on the Facebook pages of my friends; most of these friends are people who would claim they aren’t fans of poetry. I seem to have a 99% success rate with these non-fans enjoying the poems I post. If you say you don’t like poetry, email me (dustinvbrookshire@gmail.com) because I want to email you a packet of poems by Denise Duhamel, Beth Gylys, Nin Andrews, and Laure-Anne Bosselaar—I firmly believe I can change your mind.

What can poetry teach people who don't normally read it? Well, another loaded question! There is so much that poetry can teach people who normally read it! What is learned depends on whom you are reading. You'll take away something different from a Mary Oliver poem than you will a Dara Wier poem than you will a Cecilia Woloch poem. From my experience, people who don't read poetry don’t read it because of bad memories from middle and high school. I think if they give poetry a chance they’d discover they actually like it. I won’t even have to use a line that I often use on guys because it won’t even hurt for a minute—give poetry a chance!

JM: Which gay male poets do you admire? Which ones do you want to sleep with?

DB: Well, I often feel there is a gay man trapped inside Denise Duhamel. Does that count?  I enjoy reading the work of Matthew Hittinger, Charles Jensen, and C. Dale Young. I admire the godfather of gay poetry, Mark Doty. I wouldn’t mind standing at the counter watching while a Hittinger and Jensen sandwich is being made!

JM: Tell me about your chapbook that is coming out with Pudding House. To the One Who Raped Me isn't going to be a book of light verse. Rape seems to be one topic that is rarely named directly in contemporary poetry. (Or I may just be under-read.) Can you tell me more about your chapbook?

DB: The publisher actually wanted me to change the title of the chapbook; however, I made my argument and won that battle. Before I could talk about the rape, I could only write about it. These poems helped me to come to terms with many aspects of the incident. I almost vomited on a podium the first time I read a poem from the chapbook; however, I knew I had to keep reading the poems after someone from the audience thanked me for making her feel not so alone. I won’t lie—I was selfish with these poems because I was trying rid myself of pain via poetry, but when that lady came up to me and made her comment, I knew had to keep writing and sharing about my experience—to make others feel not so alone, to show others it does get easier.

I originally planned to self publish To the One Who Raped Me, so I have a few blurbs for the book; however, Pudding House has a no blurb policy. I want to share one of the blurbs to answer your question.

“Dustin Brookshire’s To the One Who Raped Me serves as a harrowing analysis of the aftermath of violence in our culture. As he connects personal experience to film and vice versa, his poetry is one of witness and courage. Brookshire’s poems are culturally relevant while connected to ancient power structures and cruelties. To the One Who Raped Me is an amazing and important series of poems.” -Denise Duhamel

31 May 2010

You Sank My Prose Poem! A Word About Revision

I spent a good deal of time last week revising poems. Perhaps by some strange alignment of the stars, I’ve been locked into writing prose poems for most of the year. I have even gone back to some older poems, which draped across the page and turned them into blocky-talkie prose poems. What started out as a vital experiment in form locked me into a specific shape. My poems were beginning to feel like Kraft singles neatly displayed in their plastic packages.

Last week I took a chisel to the paragraph blocks of my poems. It felt good to hammer them into pieces. I displayed the old draping forms next to the rectangular ones and proceeded to make new breaks. The new shapes of the poems look like boats in the game Battleship. The depth charges of stanza and line breaks sunk the heavy freighters and left me with sleeker vessels.

With a few snips and hems, my poems make me happier than they have in a long time. They don’t appear “weak” like the draping forms and are no longer clunky word bricks. Again and again, I am amazed to find the real poem within the poem that I have written. Through many layers of revision, the true poem or the heart of verse emerges.

Much like a sculptor, it is my job to knock off the awkward pieces and to reveal what is underneath.

Revision on the page, especially revising a poem for shape, confronts the major differences between spoken word and verse. Spoken word revises for rhythm, musicality and sonic thrust, the same as traditional verse. Spoken word at its heart is an aural experience. It’s a performance that can be recorded and transmitted through visual and audio media, but cannot be translated accurately on the page—at least in my opinion. What thrills me about spoken word is the visceral and ephemeral quality of a spoken word artist performing live. The artist’s becomes as much of a medium for the art as the words. Voice, timing, breath, gesture and facial expression create a dynamic and intrinsic quality to the work performed.

The poem performed on stage is not the same poem written on the page.

There are as many ways to revise work as there are writers. After the initial writing of a poem I will read it out loud and tinker with it until I am either happy with where it is going or frustrated enough to let it go. After which, the poem must sit. I cannot objectively look at my work within a week of writing it.

For me, my first drafts are either brilliant or total pieces of crap depending on my mental outlook for the day. Coming back to a poem a after week or more gives me some breathing room. It may really be fantastic or terrible, but more likely it will land in the horrible place called “It Needs Work.”

I revise poems and let them rest again. A typical draft will see ten or fifteen tinkers at the very least. While these may not constitute major changes, each draft will attempt to take the poem closer to where I think it needs to go. Revision is the method by which I find what I am really trying to say. Initial drafts are just large gestures.

29 May 2010

Lambda Literary Award Winners for 2010

Please take a moment this weekend and buy yourself one or two titles from this year's winners.  There is something for everybody.  I put the poetry winners in bold because, well...I think you should read some poetry.  Congrats to the authors and presses that put these great books out!

Lesbian Fiction: A Field Guide to Deception by Jill Malone

Lesbian Debut Fiction: The Creamsickle by Rhiannon Argo

Gay Fiction: Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre

Gay Debut Fiction: Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal

LGBT Nonfiction: The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson

Lesbian Biography: The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar

Gay Memoir: Ardent Spirits by Reynolds Price

Transgender: Lynnee Breedlove's One Freak Show by Lynn Breedlove

Bisexual Fiction: (tie)
+ Holy Communion by Mykola Dementiuk
+ Love You Two by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli

Bisexual Nonfiction: Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala

LGBT Anthology: Portland Queer edited by Ariel Gore

LGBT Drama: The Collected Plays of Mart Crowley by Mart Crowley

LGBT SF/Fantasy/Horror: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

LGBT Studies: The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America by Margot Canaday

LGBT YA: Sprout by Dale Peck

Lesbian Mystery: Death of a Dying Man by J.M. Redmann

Gay Mystery: What We Remember by Michael Thomas Ford

Lesbian Romance: The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody

Gay Romance: Drama Queers! by Frank Anthony Polito

Lesbian Poetry: Zero at the Bone by Stacie Cassarino

Gay Poetry: Sweet Core Orchard by Benjamin S Grossberg

Lesbian Erotica: Lesbian Cowboys edited by Sacchi Green & Rakelle Valencia

Gay Erotica: Impossible Princess by Kevin Killian

24 May 2010

Book Notes on Vintage: A Ghost Story by Steve Berman

Paperback, 204 pages
Published by Lethe Press
ISBN: 9781590210536

Steve Berman’s young adult novel opens with all of the elements for a clich├ęd teen horror movie: alienated goths, check; nearly Halloween, check; and an ouija board, check. But he promptly destroys a reader’s expectations and gives me one of the best YA novels I have read to date.

The high school’s star athlete has haunted a stretch of highway since his untimely death in 1957. Enter the novel’s nameless 17-year-old protagonist who has come to terms with his fledgling sexuality, but is caught up in the angst of finding his first love. Boy meets ghost. And then the trouble begins.

This book continues to stay with me more than a year after first reading it. The main characters are believable and inhabit Berman’s detailed landscape with an unwavering presence. (Perhaps the ghost wavers in and out a bit, but that is a ghost’s basic physiology.) The storyline is taut and hums along from beginning to end. At 204 pages not a word or scene is wasted. To Berman’s great credit, he ends the novel with possibility, but no promises.

A great ghost story aside, what lurks underneath it all are the horrors of everyday life for LGBT youth. Rejection by family and the inevitable alienation from peers are common realities for numerous gay and lesbian teenagers. Even if a teen comes to terms with his or her sexuality, there are the feelings of isolation for many. These issues were present in the story without overwhelming the supernatural elements.

This is not a coming out story so much as a coming of age tale. It manages to give its reader a satisfying ghost story with some romance and redemption along the way. Most importantly, it digs out new territory in the YA genre with terrific writing.

I wish this book had been around when I was coming out during high school in a rural community. I know it would have made a difference then and will continue to do so.


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