22 February 2011

Book Notes on Pop-Up Book of Death by Chad Helder

Paperback, 124 pages
From Queer Mojo (a Rebel Satori Imprint)
December 2010
ISBN: 9781608640263

I have gotten to know Chad Helder in the past year through an interview and correspondence.  He was a guest blogger back in October as well.  If you have missed either of these or want to know more you can check them out here:

Interview:  http://jorymickelson.blogspot.com/2009/10/oh-horror-interview-with-poet-chad.html

Guest Spot: http://jorymickelson.blogspot.com/2010/10/something-spooky-from-literary-magpie.html

One thing becomes readily apparent when reading Helder's poems; there aren't a lot of people writing about the topics he covers.  Nightmares, horror films, repression, and suspense are the stock and trade of the Pop-Up Book of Death.  "Fear of Spiders," "Fishtank Wolfman," and "My Paperboy is a Vampire" are just some of the poems you will find within the shadowy covers of this book.  Although the tone of some of these poems are humorous, there is a great deal at stake.  Helder is earnest in the best sense of the word "something of value given by one person to another to bind a contract."  And make no mistake, reading a book of poems is a kind of contract between the author and the audience.

The first seven poems in the book are exactly what the title promises, an imagined pop-up book.  My favorite things are the interactive portions in which the poem says "Pull the tab:" and then describes what actions follow.  These poems also have "A fun activity:" to try, such as "Bury a friend in the fetal position."  They reveal not only the range of imagination that Helder possesses and his concision with imagery, but also the way in which he uses humor to talk about dark things.

I was surprised by  the number of poems involving dogs in this book.  I have to admit that I have a grudge against dog poems.  Billy Collins and Mark Doty write much good work, but they are perhaps the greatest sinners in regard to writing about man's best friend.  Although Helder is sentimental about his dog, some of his poems surprise and even seem to violate the dog-poem conventions.  In "Ghost," for example,  the speaker's dog comes back to him from the dead.  In "A Boy and His Dog," the speaker dresses up in a dog costume.  The dog becomes something else, "Her image, her symbol, the idea of the white dog / filters my secret."

The secret is revealed in the poem "Instead" in which Helder comes into his stride.  One of the longer poems in the book, "Instead" acts as a map for how to read many of the others.  The idea of sexuality and monstrosity blur in many of the poems (as it often does in horror movies), yet "Instead" tells about an friendship ruined by budding sexuality in plain terms.  It opens with the lines "I wanted to be your best friend in the fifth grade, / your best friend and more."  Later the poem continues:

But something mysterious
from beneath
began to gain
definition and momentum, 
as threatening as
a whale breach, so I pushed it down,
and it sounded into the depth again,

The boy sublimates these feelings by getting a puppy because "a dog is much safer than a boy."  I have yet to find coming of age poem, as a gay man, the resonates with me more than this one.

A little past half way through Pop-Up Book of Death  are three poems that stand out for their change in placement on the page and imagery.  "Undertow," "The Rapids and the Raft," and "Babel" appear to be the shuddering undead heart of this collection.  The language of these three poems is more lyric and abstract.  The narrative isn't given neatly, but is scattered and broken.  I was so curious that I had to email Helder and ask about them.  As it turns out these three poems used to be part of a single "very long poem."  They stand alone just fine, but their likeness in tone to one another is unmistakable.     

There is something in this book for most readers.  The horror fan will finally find poetry that speaks to him or her.  A casual reader will be disarmed and drawn in by the use of humor.  Queer readers will find new representations of themselves.  In short, Pop-Up Book of Death is entertaining and uncomfortable at the same time.  It will stay with you just as long as your reoccurring dream about the man behind your bedroom door with the knife.

14 February 2011

Happy St. Valentine's Day from Literary Magpie

I hope every one of you who read this blog know that Literary Magpie loves you!  Here is a valentine of distracted tabbey cats and a song by one of my favorite vocalists from the 1930's and 1940's. 

09 February 2011

Literary Magpie Celebrates 100 Posts and Much Much More!

This is a good road marker for Literary Magpie, one hundred posts.  Although one hundred is an arbitrary number, it does mark a continued effort to blog.  This thing started on July 30, 2009.  An interview with the author Carol Guess went up and the rest is history.

I primarily intended this blog to showcase interviews with queer authors and book reviews, but as time went on it came to include news, guest bloggers and a lot of personal commentary.  One thing that I have not done is showcase my own poems directly.  This will be the case as long as the blog continues.

 Things have been moving quickly in the past few weeks.  I attended the AWP conference in Washington D.C. which allowed me to see the Hide/Seek portraiture show at the National Portrait Gallery.  The show gave me an incredible sense of weight and loss.  There is so much art and evidence that has been lost over the years.  The visual documentation of queer life is often ephemeral at best.  I was extremely grateful to have seen pieces from the late 1800's onward gathered in one place.

That said, I was disappointed that the video piece "A Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz had not been put back on display.  You can view it here:


Included in the show was a video from 1971 called "Pink Narcissus," which everyone I spoke to about it had seen.  How was I not aware of this video's existence?  I watched about half of the video while at the Portrait Gallery.  It has inspired me to begin working on a new project in addition to my own poems and Literary Magpie.  I will keep you posted.  If you want a sugary, glittery taste of uber-gay goodness, check out this: NSFW


Coming up in the near future are some exciting new authors I "discovered" at AWP, some queer literary magazines that you will want to read and support and more interviews with LGBTQ authors, editors and publishers.

Here is to 100 more posts and especially to YOU for all of your support!  Keep reading!!!!

01 February 2011

Guest Blogger: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

I used to think that independent bookstores supported independent authors, and independent presses, but now I’m not so sure. So many independent bookstores have become little more than showplaces for the NPR circuit, endlessly parading the same authors on their front tables, or if not the same authors then the newest authors to win the same awards and maybe even come from the same schools or the same schools of thought. These are the wrong independent bookstores, the ones I’ll still support rather than shopping at Borders or Amazon, but the ones that long ago ceased to think independently.

Don’t get me wrong -- there are plenty of amazing bookstores left, or at least a few scattered here and there -- the bookstores that actually do the job of building community on radical ideas, challenging norms of style and substance, exposing their patrons to new ways of thinking, showcasing books that most people haven’t heard of, but need to. But these bookstores are definitely in the minority, and rarely gain the kind of acclaim that the big independents wield, the tastemakers, the ones where the prestigious authors read, in between their NPR appearances.

I might as well add that the snooty independent bookstores don’t tend to carry my books -- even, sometimes, the stores where I read! To tell you the truth, sometimes it takes me a while even to ask, it’s too depressing when they look at you in that blank pompous way, but hello -- now I live in Santa Fe, these stores need to order my books, right? So, at the larger independent I found myself mentioning that I’m an author who recently moved here, and I’d love it if they’d carry my books. The person working there said let me give you our consignment brochure. I said what about ordering them without consignment? He said that’s the only way we do it.

So I took the consignment brochure home, and the first thing I noticed was that it’s a program for self-published and print-on-demand titles. None of my books are self-published or print-on-demand, so I’m wondering what it was about me that made the employee decide, without asking, that I wasn’t “legitimate” enough to be another kind of author. Was I too close to his age, or too much of a freak? Too young in appearance to be a “real” author, or too queer? Not that there’s anything illegitimate or fake about self-published or print-on-demand titles -- the more, the better! But, the truth of the matter is that my books are put out by the exact publishers that independent bookstores were started to support.

Anyway, I did read that the consignment program gives you 60% of cover price, instead of the usual 7.5% that you would get from a publisher, so that sounded all right. Until I noticed that they make you pay $25 for six months, in order to shelve four books. $25 doesn’t sound like that much, except that they might not sell a single copy. And, even if they do sell all four copies -- let’s say your book sells for $15, so you get $9 per copy, but then that really means you only make $11. Does that sound fair?

It gets worse. For $100, they will feature you in their email newsletter, and allow people to order your book online from the bookstore’s website. That’s like giving them $100 for nothing. I even signed up for their email newsletter over a month ago, and I haven’t received it once! But, here’s the best part: for $200, they will arrange a reading in the store with two or three other local authors, space permitting. That means that the big independent bookstore in town is charging self-published and print-on-demand authors up to $800 for a reading. And, presumably making more money off you when people come to your event and buy things! They create all these scams to pretend that they’re supporting local authors. But, they only support local authors who pay them more than the authors will probably ever receive. This is what independent bookstores have become.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights 2008).


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