28 March 2011

The Dark City: Noir Then and Now

I don't know when noir happened to me.  Perhaps I got my first stirrings from my paternal grandfather's insistence that I watch the early and eerie Universal Studios monster movies with him.  The fog, the dark villages, the cursed man alone in his plight--these were the precursors for my love of the fatalistic and dangerous cities of 1940s and 1950s film.

These films seem to embody everything that I love about cinema.  Although there are several subcategories within noir films, most of them contain several key elements: an ordinary man who's life takes a wrong turn through an immoral act or chance, a beautiful and often dangerous woman, the disparity between the desperation of the poor and the desperation of the wealthy, the crumbling barrier between "everyday life" and the underworld, and a bleak fatalism.

What isn't to love?  Noir had a short lifespan, perhaps only ten years.  Although there are earlier depictions, many would say noir started at the end of World War II and died as people moved to the suburbs around 1955.  Television transformed noir into pulpy crime dramas.  The dark city underwent the Big Sleep.

I didn't come to really appreciate noir until my thirties.  (Yes, I am older than 29.)  I began to enjoy the movies I grew up viewing on afternoon television when I read the books that had inspired them.  Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Ring's Twice, and of course Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep

Any book that begins with:
"It was about eleven o'clock in the midmorning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.  I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blew clocks on them.  I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it.  I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be.  I was calling on four million dollars." has me for good.

As a poet, I wondered how I could incorporate the things that I loved about noir into my own writing.  And then the dreams began... 

In the year before I started graduate school, I began to have dreams with strange narratives that were akin to David Lynch films.  Never able to recall entire story lines,  images, emotions and words managed to stay with me throughout the day.  I decided that I would try to use prose poems to capture the them.  What followed were my "Carbonite Dream" series of prose poems.  Some of them based on dreams and others on the world around me.  You can some of them here and a few more over here.

Noir continues to fascinate me.  I look forward to reading and watching the classics and modern twists on the genre.  Two recent books have delighted me with their adaptation of classic noir themes. 

The first is Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim urban fantasy novel.  Modern day Los Angeles is the setting for the story in which the main character literally crawls out of hell to exact revenge.  Hard boiled doesn't even begin to the wonderful dialogue Kadrey brings to the page. 

The second book is Kris Saknussemm's Private Midnight.  The book is darker and far more sexual than Kadrey's.  It was a challenging and uncomfortable ride through what the flap describes as "a psychoerotic noir fairytale."  I don't know if that is an accurate description.  I argued with this book aloud.  "Did that happen or not!" The ending satisfied me, but it was hard to get there.

Noir hasn't finished with us yet, and I for one am glad of it.

21 March 2011

On Sound and Vision: David Wheeler as Guestblogger!

David K Wheeler is the author of Contingency Plans: Poems, from TS Poetry Press, and the album There There. He writes for two web magazines: The High Calling and Burnside Writers Collective. His essays have been featured at The Morning News, as well as in The Pacific Northwest Reader, an essay collection from Harper/Delphinium.

On Sound and Vision

Closing their 2003 offering, One Bedroom, post-rock quartet the Sea and Cake covers one of few singles from the first of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy albums, Low. All things considered, their version of “Sound & Vision” remains fairly true to the original. Such unabashed homage, I don’t often gravitate toward in a cover. If I wanted something so straightforward, I’d listen to the original. However, it is plain to see that the Sea and Cake is much indebted to Bowie and his Berlin collaborator, Brian Eno; half of the band’s sound is comprised of synthesizers and uncommon percussion. At the time of Low’s production, grounding an entire rock project in synthesizers was certainly not taken seriously, if not altogether unheard of. The sonic experimentation that resulted in not only the (eventually) critically acclaimed Low, but “Heroes” and Lodger as well, was a revolutionary move for any musician, particularly one so iconic.

I must have surprised a friend after reading a poem called “Sound & Vision,” as unabashed homage as the final track on One Bedroom.

“I don’t think I’d caught onto your Bowie obsession before,” this friend commented, clearly forgetting Halloween 2007, when I dressed as Ziggy Stardust, circa 1973, Aladdin Sane. (To my dismay, the Will Ferrell / Jon Heder romp Blades of Glory released the same year, so I spent most of that night mistaken for a figure skater.)

Let me set aside, for the moment, David Bowie’s severe cocaine addiction at the time, and Low’s permeated sense of despair and “depiction, possibly a glamorization, of the kind of speed psychosis,” as Charles Schaar Murray of NME (New Musical Express) is reported saying in Marc Spitz’s relentlessly fascinating biography of the man, simply called Bowie. “Sound & Vision,” to me, presents as crucially self-aware for an artist who managed to shift both the look and the sonic landscape of rock ’n roll throughout his forty-plus years making music. Centered on Side A of Low, dead-center in his catalog of 23 LP’s, “Sound & Vision,” in the meta-narrative of the Bowie myth, acts as the concept around which ever other piece orbits.

Such a simple question he poses, Don’t you wonder sometimes / about sound and vision? seems almost rhetorical, as though he were seated in a workshop, peculiar spectacles whirring and buzzing about himself, the tinkerer. I want to answer, as both my hearing and my sight aren’t exactly up to snuff. In the poem, I rock out my eardrums at electronica shows and lament my steadily declining vision, and eventually concede I don’t know “whom I might blame but / myself for / losing both.” It’s no speed psychosis, but if I’ve learned anything from the Thin White Duke, it’s nothing good about blow in the long run.

In one of the earliest vignettes of the Bowie mythology via rock journalist Marc Spitz, George Underwood, a childhood friend, socked then-fourteen-year-old David Jones a good one over a girl for whom they’d both fallen hard. That punch would be the first of many alterations to the iconic Bowie look. This one permanent. Underwood caught David right in the eye, forever leaving it unable to dilate or contract.

I’ve always wondered about that eye, what it is he sees. Spitz calls it “oracular”; I’m not inclined to argue. What I will say is Bowie proves the human capacity to sublimate, to transform flaws into magnificence, because, in the end, he is just one man, imperfect and tragic at times. Still, both his sound and his vision remain unparalleled, inspiring me to assess my own flaws a bit closer. So when I open my poem with, “Everything I could want to know / I learned from David Bowie,” in a sense, I am asking, myself mostly, a simple, almost rhetorical question: Don’t you wonder sometimes?

(P.S. If you want to see Dave's photo as Bowie, you will have to friend him on Facebook.)

13 March 2011

A Forray into Seattle's Pilot Books

I returned to Washington's coast and spent part of my rain-soaked Sunday at Pilot Books.  The bookshop is a small retail, almost loft like space in Seattle's Capitol Hill district.

What separates Pilot Books from other bookshops is that it only sells books put out by small presses.  True, you can purchase a Copper Canyon Press poetry book here, but CCP is still a small press despite its national reputation.

There will be none of the issues that Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore mentioned in her blog post about independent bookstores at Pilot.  Better yet, Pilot isn't afraid of chapbooks, uncategorizeable small booklets and experimental, cross-genre writing.  (Hybrid and cross-genre writing fast becoming my favorite to read.)

I had originally gone in to try and purchase Joe Wenderoth's Letters to Wendy's which is a collection of prose poems composed upon the fast-foot chain's comment cards.  I so enjoyed Billeh Nickerson's McPoems, a series of poems all centered on working at another fast-food chain, I was hoping to find another literary take on food service.  Pilot was sold out, but I was assured it was "a brilliant book" by Summer Robinson, the bookstore's founder.  I plan on ordering it.

What I found instead was Kate Lebo's A Commonplace Book of Pie (2010,  Iron Curtain Press) a chapbook about pie including recipes in the back.  I am going to be testing the recipes when I return to Idaho.  Ms. Lebo also happens to be the poetry editor for the lovely, handmade literary journal Filter.  

I also found that each genre had a used section (shelf) and picked up a copy of Justin Taylor's More Perfect Depictions of Noise (2008, x-ing books).  In addition to the brilliant yellow cover and the fact that the author's name is the same as my partner's, the poems were quite good.  Justin Taylor also co-edits The Agricultural Reader, whose name keeps popping up in my life.

Finally, I found the exceptionally fun book Our Starland /Dear Canada Council by Emily Hurst (2008, Conundrum Press.)  This book features two illustrated novellas back to back--literally.  I can't wait to examine my purchases in greater detail.
You won't find John Grisham or Jodi Picoult or even Sherman Alexie on the shelves of this tiny bookshop, but you will find a range of brilliant, strange and undiscovered books that the big stores don't have shelf space for.  Every time I visit Pilot, I have come away with something I have not heard of, but am thrilled to have discovered.  Along with the avant-garde, you will also find some great authors whose work I have talked about on this blog: Elizabeth J. Colen, Jeremy Halinen, CA Conrad, Carol Guess and Eileen Myles to name a few.

The next time you are in Seattle or online and hungry for great writing, Pilot Books is where you will want to stop.  Say hello to Summer Robinson and let her recommend a piece of writing you might not see anywhere else on the West Coast.

03 March 2011

A Longish Interview with the Handsome Poet Stephen Mills

Stephen S. Mills has an MFA from Florida State University. His poems have appeared in The Gay and Lesbian Review, PANK Literary Magazine, Velvet Mafia, The New York Quarterly, The Antioch Review, The Los Angeles Review, Knockout, Ganymede, Poetic Voices Without Borders 2, Assaracus, and others. He is also the winner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award. He currently lives in Orlando, FL with his partner and his dog. Website: http://joesjacket.blogspot.com/

Jory Mickelson: Your poetry is filled with pop culture references, characters and images. How did this start? Where did your obsession (is it fair to call it an obsession) with popular culture begin?
Stephen Mills: I've always loved movies, television, and celebrity culture. As a fairly young teen, I would spend hours reading Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone. I always made sure to watch the award shows and I would try to see all the movies nominated, which was challenging living in the middle of rural Indiana. I don't know if it was a complete obsession, because I did lots of other things and as a young kid my parents didn't let me watch tons of TV or rated R movies. As I got older and smarter (I guess), I started seeing pop culture in different ways and began to analyze it and think about the greater implications of what we watch and are surrounded by on a daily basis.
This interest in pop culture didn't enter my poetry until much later. The moment I pinpoint as the beginning was during my second year of graduate school at FSU. It was my turn to be workshopped and I didn't have a poem that I really wanted to take. The day of the workshop, I kept trying to come up with something. I had just recently watched Interview with the Vampire and I suddenly came up with this title "Making Love After Watching Interview with the Vampire." I thought it was kind of silly, but I went with it. I wrote up a draft of a poem that was about a gay couple and their sex life that used the film and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. I took it to class and the reaction from my workshop was completely unexpected. People really liked the poem and they gave me some great feedback. I felt like I had touched on something useful and unique.
After a few weeks, I realized that maybe there was more to this poem and I came up with the idea of writing a whole series of poems using Brad Pitt films that would all be about a central gay couple. This was truly a breakthrough for me. I started to consider the power of using pop culture to examine the inter-workings of our lives and relationships.

The colliery to that is does being a gay man have something to with your love of popular culture?
As for being gay, I do think it plays an interesting role in how I view pop culture. Many gay people view TV, film, music, etc. differently because we are always searching for a little glimpse of ourselves. We often read pop culture more closely because we are looking for a hint of something homoerotic or a little suggestion that some character might be gay. You learn to read codes. For many gay people, especially those of us who grew up in very conservative places, TV and film were outlets for seeing the way others live. The first gay person I ever saw was in a movie or on TV. This is why many gay people are drawn to writing about pop culture. One of the biggest influences on my work is Frank O'Hara, who was one of the first poets to really write a lot about pop culture. He loved to use movies, celebrities, and even the local art scene of New York City. David Trinidad is another great example. He writes a lot about the Hollywood divas of the 50s and 60s. While many people can love pop culture and write about it, I do think my gay perspective changes how I view it and use it in my work.

Are you familiar with the poet Kenneth Fearing? He was hired by the government as a WPA poet in the early 1930s. He, as far as I know was one of the earliest modern poet to incorporate popular slang and even newspaper advertisements into his poems.
How did you come to poetry? Have you done other kinds of writing?
I'm not familiar with Kenneth Fearing, but he sounds interesting. I will check him out.
I've always wanted to be a writer even before I could fully write. As a really young kid, I would scrawl out these "stories" in old bank calendars my parents would give me to play with. The stories, of course, didn't make sense, but I would "read" them to my mother. In 3rd grade, we had to draw a picture of ourselves on the cover of Time Magazine and had to write a story about what got us on the cover. I made myself get on the cover for winning various Newbery Awards, which was the only literary award I knew about at the time because it is for children's literature. It is safe to say the desire and passion to write has always been in me, but I didn't always envision myself as a poet.
I spent much of my middle school and high school days writing novel length works and short stories. I wrote a poem here and there, but not much. My senior year of high school, I got a bit more into poetry after reading more and meeting a student teacher who encouraged me. My freshmen year of college I took my first ever creative writing course. It was a fiction and poetry workshop. When I turned in my final portfolio for that class, my professor, who became my mentor, told me I was a poet and I needed to know it "bone marrow deep." I took her advice and wisdom and devoted most of my writing time after that to poetry. I have written a handful of short stories since then and I also enjoy writing creative non-fiction or memoir pieces, but poetry is my home.

What keeps you coming back to poetry, instead of another genre?
For me poetry is the most freeing genre. Since I write mostly free verse, each new poem is a whole new adventure and I must find my way into it and figure out the form and shape of it. I also love the compression of poetry and how you can convey so much in a simple line or two. It is the challenge that keeps me coming back again and again.

I was first introduced to your work through a review of your poem “Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran.” Steve Fellner reviewed it on his blog Pansy Poetics (http://pansypoetics.blogspot.com/2010/04/on-stephen-s-mills-poem-against-our.html). I was wondering if you could tell me more about how this poem came to be written.
First of all, I am very thankful to Jeremy Halinen who accepted and published this poem in Knockout last spring. I am also thankful to Steve for writing such a thoughtful piece about it. The poem actually came about from a picture that was in The Advocate in the summer of 2005. It was an image of two Iranian boys (they were both about 16) with bags over their heads and ropes around their necks. They were about to be hanged for sodomy charges. The image was so startling and terrifying that I couldn't stop staring at it. I cutout the image and saved it. Months later, maybe even a year, I came back to that image and wrote the poem "Iranian Boys Hanged for Sodomy, July 2005." It ended up winning the Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award in 2008 and was published in an anthology. After I wrote that poem, I kept thinking about the issues facing gay people in Iran and the helplessness one feels as an American. I felt there were more poems to write on the issue. This is what inspired the poem "Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran."

Also, why do you feel that this poem got as much attention as it did?
It can be hard to determine what makes a poem stand out to people, especially when you wrote it yourself, but I think this poem has a rawness and honesty to it that you sometimes don't find in more politically charged works. The poem isn't preachy. It is angry and maybe even offensive to some. The speaker doesn't have all the answers and the ending begs more questions than solutions. It gets at that American desire to save others, but also at the selfishness and sometimes insensitivity we have as members of this society. I'm extremely happy that it got attention, because it is a great example of the work I do and the things I care most about in poetry. Plus it is an issue worth discussing and thinking about even if it is a painful one.

Let's talk a bit more about activism. What current issues or concerns to you have for the LGBTQ community right now? Do you think that poetry can "do something" in the face of those issues?

My biggest concern for the community is a lack of education. So many people out there don't know the history of the gay rights movement or gay history at all. Many also don't know the clear facts about the lack of rights we have as gay people in this country. Something very strange has happened with gay rights. It is almost the opposite of the civil rights movement. In the case of civil rights, the laws and rights often came before social acceptance of black people in society. Gay rights has moved in a different direction. Gay people are more socially accepted. We are on TV. We are in movies. We are politicians, teachers, police officers, etc. This doesn't mean things are perfect, but it is more widely accepted on a social level, yet we still haven't won many important equal rights. This has created an apathy and misunderstanding in a lot of people both gay and straight. I have educated people countless times about the fact that you can still be fired for being gay in 29 states in this country. People always look at me in shock and typically don't believe me until they look it up. I'm talking about well-educated and accepting people. We have somehow created a world where people can't see the complete injustice that they are faced with on a daily basis. This is very dangerous and allows for the right-wing movement in this country to gain even more power. The facts remain that we have a long road ahead of us.

As for poetry, I do think it can "do something." As a lover of literature, there have been countless poems, stories, and novels I've read that have completely changed me and my outlook on life. In my poetry, I attempt to shed light on many issues people are very uncomfortable with. By doing that, I know many will turn away from my work and not accept it or value it, but I also know there are people out there wanting and needing poems like mine. In many ways, I try to write the poems I wish I could have read as a younger man coming to terms with being gay.

I heard a recent statistic that of all the money that goes into funding the queer community, only about five percent of it is spent on LGBTQ arts. Is it important that queer people support queer artists? Is this a ghettoization of queer people, and is that dangerous or are we beyond the need to make distinctions gay/straight/lesbian writer or book? Is it just a form of marketing?

All arts need support, so I would say that it is vital that queer people support queer artists. That doesn't mean that you support people solely based on their queerness, but also on the quality of their work. I often feel like I'm in the minority on this issue, but I don't have many problems with the label of "gay poet." No matter what I write it is from my perspective and I am gay. I may not be writing about something gay, but it is coming from me. I don't think we are in a place in society to completely remove these labels. On a very practical level, it can really help people find your work when they are seeking out gay poets.

Having said that, I don't consider my work to be for a gay audience only. I think instead of feeling the need to remove labels and assimilate, we should be encouraging people to read outside of their box. The speaker in my poems is almost always coming from a gay perspective, but my poems touch on a range of issues, feelings, and themes that many can connect with and enjoy. I always it find it interesting when straight people seem to think they can't or shouldn't read gay work. I read straight people's work all the time and I learn from it, enjoy it, and am moved by it. I think of these labels more as facts. I am gay and I am a poet. These aren't going to change.

I like this. In a talk, Eileen Myles said that (and I am paraphrasing here) that as queer people we widen the range of human experience. We record an outsider's point of view from our work and that is one of the things that gives it great value, the ability to stretch the scope of possibility.

Who are some poets who have influenced and changed you or your work?

As I mentioned earlier, Frank O'Hara is a huge influence on me. He showed me a different way of approaching poetry. He wrote so much from his own experience. His poems are grounded in his life in New York with his friends, and yet they connect to much bigger themes and can really make you think. Richard Tayson is also a big influence on me. He is a contemporary poet and one of the first I read as a young man in college that really got at the inter-workings of a gay relationship. His poems made me realize how raw and direct my poems could be, but how they could also have a great beauty to them. Tony Hoagland is also an influence. I was encouraged to read him in grad school by my thesis advisor who thought I could learn from him. What is interesting about Hoagland is that we are both concerned with the personal in connection to the wider American culture, but he comes from a very different point-of-view, so our poems are similar, yet so different.

Who are you telling other folks to read?

I love to recommend books to people and I often do. Most people don't have trouble finding or reading older poets, but so many have no clue about contemporary poets and books. I read as much contemporary poetry as possible. I just finished Matthew Zapruder's newest book Come on All You Ghosts and it was amazing. I highly recommend it. I also always recommend David Kirby, Carl Philips, Denise Duhamel, and Kim Addonizio. I've recently fallen for Randall Mann as well. I could go on and on, because there are a lot of great poets and books out there.

I heard Matthew Zapruder read recently in Washington D.C. His reading and his work are fantastic. What are you currently working on?

I am currently sending out a new manuscript that I recently completed called He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I have my first book, which I co-wrote with Bryan Borland, coming out later this year. It is called The Hanky Code. I have new work in the winter issues of The Los Angeles Review, Mary: A Literary Quarterly, and New Mexico Poetry Review. I'm also always working on new poems.

You sound like a busy man. We saw Allison Books collapse in a sense, it no longer prints books--only does e-publishing. Print book sales are falling as ebooks are on the rise. Where do you think the publishing industry is headed right now?

These are all great questions and important ones to consider. Publishing is changing, but I am not fully convinced that the print book is on its way out. I personally don't own a e-reader and I don't like the idea of reading a book on an electronic device. If you look at most of these e-reading devices, they still don't offer many of the books I read or am interested in reading. They still cater mostly to very popular fiction and non-fiction, which means they don't cater much to the queer audience. It is hard to be a small press these days and some are turning to e-publishing, but there will still be a demand for actual books. Part of reading, for me, is the experience of holding a book in my hand. It is about the feel of it and the smell of it. Reading something on the screen just isn't the same. On the other hand, I do think that literary magazines can really gain some power and recognition from going online. My favorites still publish a print version, but have a very strong presence online.

Is reading still vital part of queer culture or are LGBTQ people no longer reading?

Reading is still vital and I believe still thriving in queer culture. It is often in books that we first discover glimpses of queer life and I think reading, for many, was a part of their coming out experience. There is a lot more diversity out there in books than perhaps any other entertainment medium. We have to help continue to produce work that some young boy or girl can discover and connect with and realize there are others out there just like them.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I want to thank you for asking me to do this interview and for helping to continue the discussion about poetry and the gay arts scene. Since leaving grad school, I have found a real sense of community in connecting with other gay poets through my blog, Facebook, and Twitter. While I have my technological reservations at times, I’ve greatly benefited from everyone I’ve met, so I encourage people to reach out to those poets they’ve read and enjoyed. There’s nothing like getting a quick note from someone who actually read a poem of yours and was moved by it.

Thanks again for doing this interview, it has been great!


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