On Sticking To It (or: Writing, Publishing and Other Forms of Self-Abuse, or: Yay, Hubris!)

sisyphus.jpg

There are likely endeavors as maddening as trying to get a manuscript of your own writing published, but I don’t know of them. I can guess that swimming the English Channel, climbing Mt. Everest, or scoring above bronze in the Olympics presents challenges and mental (not to mention physical) strain, but I wonder if those feats of athleticism are ever impeded by anything like the trends and whims of the publishing world.

 

I speculate above knowing that my analogy is bogus. But I’m feeling at the moment that I don’t give a mad ass fuck. It’s my analogy, and I’m sticking to it.

 

Permit me to humble brag.

I’m a published writer, but I never think of myself as belonging to the Writer Club because: 1. I was raised Catholic, which instills one with a sense of unworthiness; 2. my books are small in comparison to the avalanche of books from peers published by Big Five presses; and 3. my books are not poetry collections and I’ve long said that poetry is my calling.

 

I’ve published two books with a small press, Blue Heron Book Works. Its owner, who I’ll go ahead and name because I have no beef with her, Bathsheba Monk, has been good to me in many ways, not the least being that my wayward stabs at literary nonfiction have been made flesh (er, paper). And apparently that’s big. It felt big when the first book, the memoir, was picked up. I had submitted the manuscript to a few local agents, a couple of nonfiction contests, none of it getting me anywhere. And then the Blue Heron flew into my life. After a bit of a back-n-forth emailing, the book was accepted. Oh, happy day!

 

The process of getting that book, called Like a Dog (not the original title. . . my publisher and I wrestled over that), from my laptop to the bookshelves was not as long as it should’ve been. I’d shopped it around, as I stated, but not as much as most writers shop around their manuscripts. I was arguably blasé about the whole thing, having a poetry manuscript in the works that I’d dedicated far more time to. You see, I studied poetry in graduate school under the tutelage of some damn fine professors. I’d mixed with aspiring poets, read books on what poetry means, what it is, what the traditions are and how people are breaking those traditions. I’m a fan of jazz, avant-garde soundscapes, punk rock, and Japanese noise— poetry seemed akin to those playful arts. Know the rules, break the rules; respect the rules, flout the rules. There seemed so much possibility in poetry. Even the rigid adherence to forms held the promise of excitement. What can anyone do with a sonnet that hasn’t already been done? Can’t wait to find out!

 

This is not to say that prose is dull or uninventive, or that everything that can be done in a novel or essay has been done. Not by a long shot. Fuck the anxiety of influence. But yeah, I was supposed to be a poetry writer. And there I was publishing a memoir.

 

(Side note: I have never called myself a poet because to do so would be revoltingly cocky. It’s the highest compliment someone can give, in my estimation, but to self-apply that term is an act of egoism. I know a lot of poetry writers. A few call themselves “poets.” A few of those few have earned the right. Many have not. If poetry is a religious calling, as I’ve said it is, then I feel that only someone else can bequeath the honor of poet onto you. Just my view, but I’m sticking to it.)

 

I like my memoir, but I’m a wee bit more passionate about the poems I’ve been tinkering with since grad school. Of the things I wrote in those years, only two or three poems remain. But the tools I’d acquired (thinking about forms, rhymes, chiming, making the language do something other than its barest essential duty) are with me. I don’t know that I employed them when writing Like a Dog, and I’m certain that that book would be very different were I to write it today. In fact, I only wrote it as a break from trying to write poetry. The freedom. . . the joy of not caring if a line was slightly clunky or didn’t have a similar structure as the preceding line— the joy of not thinking in lines but in paragraphs! Ah, that break from consulting a thesaurus, of just letting my voice be its shaggy, sloppy, rambling self. I had a story to tell, and I told it quickly. Unconsciously still wedded to the dictates of poetry, I grounded the book with a few simple rules: it would be organized in three sections with an intro; it would governed by the (false) theme of bad jobs; the individual sections would focus on specific eras, places, and people; the book would be a true memoir inasmuch as it would be “equal parts truth and bullshit.” And voilà! I had a working manuscript.

 

It’s easier to say you don’t care about one project as much as another. The project that gets the attention is the one you can dismiss, building the hype around project 2, and deflecting any unfavorable attention garnered by project 1. “Yes, I’m proud of my memoir, but my real passion is for poetry, which I’m working on, which will be out someday, which will be truly remarkable.” I’ve said to people that I’d not feel success as a writer until I published a book of poems. Oh, what a lovely safety net. So when Like a Dog got a few bad reviews— one on Goodreads, which I could easily laugh at, and one on Amazon that cut me to the bone— I was able to wrap myself in some protective coating. After all, this was not my passion project. It was my tossed-off distraction from poetry.

 

But why write it at all? If Like a Dog was merely some exercise in genre switching, why publish the fucking thing? If I truly didn’t care, it would’ve been abandoned in the dark of an old flash drive along with scores of failed poems and half-starts.

 

After the rush of publishing a book, followed by the fast come-down of indifference and next-to-no-sales, I decided to dedicate myself to poetry again. Poetry is not supposed to sell. It’s rare that a poet acquires a literary agent, as most poets find small presses to publish their work. People (at least in this country) don’t really buy poetry collections unless they’re written by dead people named Sylvia Plath or Maya Angelou, Rupi Kaur notwithstanding. I never counted on making any money writing poems (though I’ve actually made a good chunk of dollars by winning a contest, more money that my memoir netted me). Maybe it was time to recommit to the poems.

  

The next eight months I wrote, edited, revised, tore up and rewrote, re-edited, re-revised poems. I read only poetry: C. K. Williams, Louis MacNeice, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Leontia Flynn, Elizabeth Bishop, Kenneth Koch, Thom Gunn, John Berryman, Simon Armitage, Lucia Perillo. Jo Shapcott. . . I read anthologies of sonnets, anthologies of short poems, of odes, of ghazals. I thought little of prose. I saw fat novels and read the praise surrounding them and thought, eh. . . it’s not important to me at the moment. Maybe next year.

 

By the end of this immersion, I had a revised manuscript of poems, some old, some new, all of them viewed through the lens of my recommitment. The next book would be a poetry collection, a book I would labor over and stand behind. A triumph.

 

But, of course, I was straying the whole time. I wrote essays, long sad-bastard thoughts on all the shit that was plaguing me in the year 2016. Somewhere in that time I decided that maybe that collection of misery resurrected in prose could stand as a book. The lure of publishing another nonfiction manuscript was there, along with the insulation that a book of not-poetry offers. But this time I decided that I would be proud of this book, I would fight for it, give it attention and ask others to do likewise. I would not hide behind the idea that I was supposed to be writing poetry. I may not like to call myself a poet, but I’m comfortable using the term “writer.” And a writer writes. Poetry, essays, stories, novels, plays. . . no matter. It’s all writing.

 

After a few dozen revisions, The Soft Lunacy was on its goofy feet. Bathsheba agreed to take it on, telling me she enjoyed the book a great deal. I was worried that no one would like the book as much as I do. It’s a book about books, about book collecting, about my relationship with books in comparison to my relationships with people. It goes from memoirish to absurdist vignette to think-piece and back, not obeying the conventions of a standard nonfiction book. It’s a mash-up, maybe the most Vince book I can write inasmuch as it is my obsessions on paper for anyone to see, should they give a fuck. Jim Jarmusch once said that he didn’t have it within him to make a normal film. I don’t think I have it within me to write a normal book. And I don’t know that I care.

 

So yeah, I like The Soft Lunacy. It’s not a book of poems, but it’s starting to become clear that maybe I’m not meant to publish a book of poems. Faulkner and Bolaño, two of my heroes, were basically failed poets who wrote strange novels. Maybe that’s my fate.

 

I state this about my fate because just yesterday the bottom of what was my solid poetry ground fell out. I’ve lived the last few months with the joy of knowing that my poetry manuscript has finally found a taker. A local press, who I won’t mention by name, had shown some interest in my poems last year. They needed to send it to their team of readers, but the first two editors to peruse the manuscript were very taken with it. So many of the poems are about Chicago, so it made sense to shop it locally. All my efforts— and there have been many in the last decade— to gather interest in my poetry have gotten me nothing. Until lately. I waited through an agonizing number of days, weeks, months for another response, one that would assure me that— indeed!— my manuscript was what they were looking for. I’d nearly given up when I got an email asking if I was still interested in having my work published by their press. Still interested? Are you kidding?!

 

At last, after two books of prose, after countless rejections, after hours of doubt, I would have a book of poems, a physical representation of my efforts. I was no longer claiming that this was the one thing that would validate me, but there was nevertheless a residue of that need, that illusory badge of honor. I would finally feel worthy of induction to the Writer Club.

 

I signed a contract, polished the manuscript once more, sent it off to the publisher, and hosted a launch for The Soft Lunacy where I announced that a book of poems would follow next March. My god! Two books in one year! Fresh off the thrill of publishing my essay collection I would share my poems with the world. I concocted a five book plan: a memoir (check), an essay collection (check again), a book of poems (a check to come), then a book of stories (I’ve already got a dozen in the works) and then, I guess, a novel (why not?). Then drop the mic. I would be a true writer, bouncing from genre to genre with more than ease: with fucking grace.

 

Yay, hubris!

 

Yesterday I received an email informing me that the poetry book will not be published. Here’s the story quickly: My contact at the press— let’s call him Guy— was in the process of acquiring the organization from its first owner— who I’ll call Dude. Dude had left town for work and could no longer keep the publishing thing going, so the acquisition was seemingly peaceful. Guy signed me up; I was to be the first writer he published as full owner of the press. And all seemed rosy until Guy’s email. Apparently, Dude skipped town without paying off a lot of debts accumulated by his years running (mismanaging?) the press. And Dude failed to disclose those debts to Guy. Guy was being hounded by those to whom Dude owned money. Not able to cover the debts, Guy was dissolving the press. No more books to come from this local indie. That alone is sad, but that my book was now a dead project. . . that hurt like a motherfucker. I’m used to rejection, but not to having the prize taken away three paces from the finish line.

 

To borrow a line from the band X: “This is the game that moves as you play.”

 

I spent a few hours thinking of how to reply to the email, even though I’m sure Guy did not want any reply— surely he wanted to send the email and be done with the matter. My first thought was to ask if he’d considered starting a crowdfunding project to get the money to cover the debts. The amount owned does not seem too big to me. Hell, I might be able to cover some of it, if that would maybe mean I could be hired on as a board member or vice-president (vice-editor?) or something. We could appeal to the literary community, ask for help, hold a fund-raising event, apply for a grant. Then I scrapped those ideas— I figure if I’ve considered these options, so has Guy. And he’s decided it’s not a fight worth fighting. Which means he knows more about this than I do. Maybe the press is riddled with more problems that he need not go into. Maybe his original commitment was earnest, but the realities of running a small press, often a losing venture, became too real in the last weeks. Maybe this was the proverbial straw on his camel’s back. Anyway, if he was throwing in the towel, as correct a move as that may be, why would I want to be involved with his press? Would they have gone under anyway, resulting in a small run of my poems followed by rights reverting back my way and no one in the future having any tangible means of obtaining a copy of my opus? Maybe I dodged a bullet.

 

All of these possibilities have been running through my head since yesterday. And they may all have merit. In the end, I emailed Guy and told him how sorry I am (truly) that the press is kaput. I wrote that I’m tempted to ask him to start a new press on his own, free from the shackles of Dude’s debts, and that I’d volunteer to help, but I know that’s not happening. I’m just desperate to get my poems in print and looking for life rafts where there is only the vast expanse of frigid ocean water. If my poems are going to be published, they’ll have to find another fucking press. Which means I’m back to the dispiriting work of carpet-bombing Submittable.

 

(I’m teaching a class for StoryStudio Chicago called The Complete Writer. It’s funny— I now have a new aspect of the writing life to share with my students: The Perils of Working With a Small Press, AKA: Don’t Count Those Chickens Until You Know When.)

 

So what now? My first thought is that the poems are not going to ever be published, that the old goal of seeing them collected in a book is simply not possible. Considering the weight I give poetry, maybe it’s best that I never publish mine in book form. I’m going to have to admit to being a failed poet like Faulkner and Bolaño. And hey, that’s some pretty great company. And while there’s no way I could ever compare myself to those writers, I can at least take some pride in my accomplishments. Two books. Dozens of poems in small journals. A few stories out there. A few essays. Some book reviews. All in all, not a bad body of work. And there’s more where that came from. So I guess I keep going? Keep fighting? I’ve long called myself an absurdist who, like Camus’s example of Sisyphus, sees the futility of his task and goes about it with a smile, happy as he sets about pushing the boulder uphill. It’s another fight, another struggle, but one I will continue because what’s the option? There’s an old saw here about those who give up not really being serious to begin with. We don’t write because we want to so much as we have to. If that’s true, giving up means I was never a writer, that even if my book of poems had come out on Guy’s press, I would’ve been pretending because, in a parallel world, it would not have come out and I would’ve quit.

 

No one likes a quitter.

 

I’m likely going to keep writing (I mean, lookie here: 3,000 words just this morning) because I apparently have no choice. Whether or not that writing amounts to another book remains to be seen. And while I’d be a fucking liar if I claimed that I’m in this only for the joy of writing and not interested in publishing, I can definitively state that, regardless of future publications or lack thereof, I will not quit. Because I cannot. Come what may. I can’t state that failure is not an option, because it is. In fact, it’s a probability. But here I am back in front of a screen arranging words. That’s my fate, and I’m sticking to it.

Let's Bossanova again like we did in 1990

pixies-1992-portrait-billboard-1548.jpg

McSweeney’s (which I have mixed feelings about, but fuck it, they’re inescapable) ran an amusing article from a Gen Xer ranting about millennials and Gen Y (iGen?) that featured a bit about Cage the Elephant and how the kids are listening to this band when they should just listen to the Pixies. Having little to no knowledge of Cage the Elephant, I can’t say that they ripped off the Pixies the way I can definitely say that Green Day ripped off the Descendents. But I’m not doubting that Cage the Elephant owes something to the Pixies. After all, the Pixies are pretty damn great and were likely an influence on bands I know nothing about, which is a lot considering I stopped paying attention to music after 2002.

 

This article got me nostalgic; I went to Spotify and added a few choice Pixies’ cuts to my playlists. There were more than a few from their fourth release, Bossanova.

 

If you ask a Pixies fan (and they tend to be rabid in their fandom) which album is their best, you’ll likely get a rambling response about the impossibility of ranking them, of each effort being a logical progression, or something along those lines. Opinions tend to be split, but if we’re being honest, Doolittle is their best record, though Surfer Rosa is a strong contender. Pixies nerds who wish to be seen as cooler-than-thou will claim Come On Pilgrim is their best effort, though we know better. I’ve never met anyone who thought Trompe le Monde was more than pretty good. I know there are two other records that have been released since the band reformed, but I’m not counting those because I have idea what’s going on with them. Sue me.

 

I love all five, but I have a weird affinity for Bossanova, a record that seems forever eclipsed by the one-two punch of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. How to follow those masterpieces?

 

By the end of the 1980s, the Pixies, for all their obscurity, had already created a fairly recognizable sound: loud/quiet/loud song structures, quirky lyrics that bordered on brilliance, Black Francis’s vocals both melodic and screaming, Kim Deal’s breathy back up singing and down-stroke picked root note basslines, Joey Santiago’s blisteringly strange lead guitar, David Lovering’s precise, anchoring beats (I mean, just listen to the hi-hat work on “Tame”).


But as hair metal waned and grunge awaited, the Pixies were not a band that made sense. They weren’t heavy enough to be metal, nor were they mining angst and ennui to the extent that grunge could claim them. They had no marketable look; really, they looked like they’d met randomly on a bus and decided to form a band. The leader was pudgy and aloof, the lead guitarist could only be counted on to offer non sequitiur nonsense in interviews, and their bassist often barely seemed conscious. The drummer smiled too much for a drummer. Who the fuck were these oddballs?

 

Bossanova might’ve been the record to put the Pixies more solidly on the map. It was coming out as the word “alternative” was becoming more of a thing, at least in my suburb. We knew of punk and hardcore and loved bands that weren’t featured on MTV, but then MTV got wise and started a show called 120 Minutes that offered misfits like myself a cherished two hours to enjoy outsider music. Thanks to this show, and its pretentious asshole host, Dave Kendall, I lapped up videos from the Butthole Surfers, the Replacements, the Stone Roses, and a slew of bands that would become essential to me. This is where I heard the Pixies. Dave Kendall actually said, before he aired their video for “Velouria”, that this was the first and last time MTV would play it because he found it to be stupid. And it’s hardly an exciting video, but… the BALLS ON THIS BAND. Who else would release a video in slow motion where nothing really happens?


I’d actually heard of the Pixies before then. A punk girl I worked with played me “I’ve Been Tired” from their EP, the song where Black Francis expresses fears of losing his penis “to a whore with disease.” It stuck. But I’d forgotten all about them until Dave Kendall dissed their new video. Dave Kendall… that utter douchebag. If he didn’t like the Pixies, I was duty bound to check them out. Plus, “Velouria” rocks. It’s heavy as fuck and, somehow, simultaneously beautiful.

 

My job in 1991—mail sorter at PPS Presort service—was miserable. The boss, in an effort to make things more tolerable, allowed the staff to play CDs at work. Each employee had their designated day and time to inflict their idea of good music on the rest of the drones. Thankfully, my boss was an alternative rock junkie hooked on R.E.M. and Elvis Costello. When I chose Bossanova to play, he asked, “Fuck, why didn’t you bring Doolittle?” And that would be the refrain for the rest of the year: every alternahead I knew thought Bossanova was a flop in comparison to the Pixies’ earlier records. There were a few stand out songs, but no slicing up of eyeballs or monkeys going to heaven. And the sound had changed. Too loud, too in your face, too muddy.

There’s something to this. The production on Bossanova isn’t as solid as it was on Doolittle, which wasn’t as solidly produced as Surfer Rosa (hard to top Steve Albini behind the board). Whereas those other records allowed the listener to marvel over Kim Deal’s simple-yet-perfect bass playing and sweet compliment to Black Francis’s madman vocals, Bossanova was all guitars and drums. We know now that Deal and Francis had developed a tense working relationship, and I can’t help but wonder if he oversaw the burying of her in the mix. Whatever the reason, Kim Deal seems barely present on Bossanova. And fuck… the drums sound overproduced and false. Compare the snare sound on “Cactus” from Surfer Rosa to the machinelike 90s style drum sound of “The Happening”. The former sounds menacing and alive; the latter is leaden.



While Bossanova’s production does no favors to the Pixies’ rhythm section, the guitarists make out like fucking bandits. Jesus, Joey Santiago’s best playing may be on “All Over the World”. And for fuck’s sake is there anything as wildly mad as “Rock Music”? Santiago’s guitar anticipates grindcore while Black Francis lays down sloppy chords and throat shredding vocals. There’s some harsh as fuck songs here that allow the twin guitars to make more noise than ever before, as if that were even possible.

Speaking of Black Francis… this was really his first solo album, wasn’t it? It wouldn’t be long before he became Frank Black, killing his band via fax machine and branching off to make a few good solo records and a lot more that I’ve never heard (who can keep up?). And much like his solo records, Bossanova is brilliant in spots but uneven. Also much like his solo efforts, the thematic emphasis is on space and aliens. By the time Frank Black released The Cult of Ray, many of us were wondering if he was lost in orbit. The obsession starts here, and it mostly works. “Velouria” is (I’ve been told) a love song to an alien. So is “Ana” I think. “Ana”, by the way, is maybe the prettiest thing the Pixies have ever recorded. It’s so good it redeems “Is She Weird”, a song I’ve never cottoned onto.




So yeah, Frank Black—UFO obsessed solo artist—was taking root here, for better or worse. And the better does outweigh the worse. Let’s maybe start at the start, huh?

 

“Cecilia Ann” kicks off the record. An instrumental cover of a kick ass song by the Surftones, this is the song most fun to drive to at night when there’s no traffic and the radar detector says All Clear.


Next comes the before mentioned noisy “Rock Music”, which is a top ten favorite Pixies song, though I may be alone there. In 1991, I thought nothing of kicking off a record with an instrumental and following it with a piece of unapologetic chaos, but it seems pretty ballsy to me now. And I’m sure the song is supposed to be ironic, or maybe I’m just supposed to experience it ironically, but I don’t. I sincerely turn it to ten and scream along.

 

“Velouria” is next, which, as I’ve stated earlier, is a great song. One of the best on the record. I love it so much that I told my 1991 girlfriend that if I ever had a daughter I’d name her Velouria. That relationship didn’t last.



At 1:17, “Allison” is a punchy number that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Would that I could say as much about “Is She Weird”. I said it once, but I’ll say it again: this song borders on terrible. Not so bad I hate it, but tossed off and overlong even at a mere 3:01. One idea stretched too far. Hey, they all can’t be “Cactus”.


“Ana” is short for anagram. Look up the lyrics and you’ll see it. Actually, wait, this is more an acrostic poem. But I guess “Acro” wouldn’t have been as good a title. Oh and yeah, I stand by my earlier statement about this being the prettiest thing the Pixies have come up with, the surf (not really) version of “Wave of Mutilation” being a close second.

 

I wasn’t fond of “All Over the World” in 1991. Now it’s one of my favorites on the record. I love the springy bits countered by Joey Santiago’s scorching guitar fills, then that whole ending section that comes out of nowhere. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

 

Remember when there were sides? This ends side one.


 Side two starts with “Dig for Fire”. I also loved this one back in the day (as the kids still say, right?), and while it is still a fine song, there’s nothing so compelling about it that I felt, upon this week’s listen, that I’d been depriving myself all these years. I love rediscovery. I love dusting off the CD player and devoting a week to one chestnut from the so-called glory days, but “Dig for Fire” is not that chestnut. “Down to the Well” is. Or it could be. It’s still as menacing as it was 20 years ago. And that line: “her body a rocking chair for my soul” is killer.


“The Happening”… what to say about this song? I never loved it. Still don’t. The exiting bits are nice, but otherwise, this is where me and Space Commander Francis split.

 

“Blown Away” made a stronger impression on me than I’d expected. In my memory, this was a fine enough ditty without any real connective tissue, but what the hell was I remembering? Not this gem. Love the vocals, love how watery it all seems. Glorious.

 

“Hang Wire” and “Stormy Weather” are easily my two most skipped Pixies songs, not counting most of side two of Trompe le Monde. “Hang Wire” is okay. Forgettable but forgivable. “Stormy Weather”, on the other hand, is the very definition of filler. I read that Black Francis wrote some of the lyrics on Bossanova on napkins minutes before recording. It definitely shows here.

I rather like the gentle closer “Havalina”, such a nice way to wrap up a record that is often quite harsh and jagged. In fact, I like the way each of the five Pixies records (that I’m familiar with) end. “Elevate Me”, “Brick is Red”, “Gouge Away” (maybe my favorite Pixies song) and “Havalina” are just perfect closers. And yeah, even “The Navajo Know” is a nice exit. This is a band that knew how to make an exit.

 

And that’s the whole damn thing. Despite what I do for a living, I’m not fond of assigning grades, so I’ll skip the A-F rating and state that Bossanova is a fine record with a few inoffensive yet lesser tracks. Compared to every other Pixies’ release, it’s not the tops, but this is a record every other band in 1990 wished it could have put out. Seriously, what else was out in 1990? Bona drag by Morrissey? I’ll take Bossanova over that any day. The Replacements, one of my favorite bands, put out their last and worst record. No contest there. Sonic Youth’s Goo also came out in 1990. A tough call, but… yep, Pixies beat Sonic Youth every time. Violator by Depeche Mode? Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em? Yeah, I think we see who the clear winner is.

Loving Big Books, or: Be the Sub

1.

Once upon a time, I met a guy at a party who had a BA from Harvard. He managed to bring it up five times that evening. I never saw him again, but I’ve often thought of him when, after some regrettable occasions, I start to brag. Vince, don’t be the Harvard guy, I tell myself.

What do I brag about? Mostly the books I’ve been reading these last five years. Permit me to brag about them for a bit. I promise I’ll not be Harvard Guy for very long.

2.

In 2014 I decided to read Ulysses. I’d tried and failed to finish it before. But it seemed like the right time so, what the hell?, let’s go.

Yes!

Yes!


I discovered that the way to get through the book was to not care if I understood every word of it. Or every sentence, paragraph, page. If enough of it was sinking in, that was fine. And if the parts that confused me were not greater than the parts I enjoyed, all the better. Prior attempts saw me stall on the third chapter, the one where Stephen Dedalus is walking on Sandymount Strand all lost in his thoughts. This is where a lot of people decide, Eh, I’ll give this a go another day. It’s the chapter that really introduces the difficulty that Ulysses is famous for. To get through it, I had to surrender to the book, let it do its thing and stop harping on the necessity to get it. In doing so, I got enough.


I’ve reread Ulysses since then, this time with a guide, an experience that yielded deeper understanding and appreciation. There’s no way I was going to derive all the book has to offer in one reading. (There’s a considerable amount left for me to derive after just two readings.) Why, in those initial attempts, did I feel required to understand the entirety of the text? This is what stopped me from finishing, and loving, the book.

3.

I tried the same approach in 2015 when I read Finnegans Wake. And it worked. What a surprise to find that the book is, despite its reputation, not only readable but hilarious. Giving in to the book—letting it do what it’s going to do and not insisting it adhere to narrow concepts of “the novel”—was, again, the only way to get through the thing. There’s a sort of humbling that went along with the experience, a submission to something above me, something I might never truly comprehend. How beautiful.

Submit!

Submit!


4.

Giving in... submitting. Letting it do to me what it pleased. Having little say in the matter but going along anyway. I’m the sub in a BDSM relationship with Joyce.

5.

How I spent 2018.

How I spent 2018.

Last year, I read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. While certainly every bit the literary clusterfuck I’d always heard, the book is surprisingly accessible and, as with Joyce, funny. How do these gut-busting novels get such somber reputations?  Might it be that the sheer audacity of publishing something big and strange merits the misapplication? Too bad. I’d wager people avoid these books, wrongly labeled SERIOUS LITERATURE, due to common ideas that the novels are humorless.


6.

Not every big book needs to be so dense; they just need to be long. That’s enough to drive away readers. Of course, if a novel is too short, there’s little chance it’ll get published in this country where we, to borrow from Dorothy Parker, foolishly measure literature “with a yard-stick.” Novellas, sadly, are unmarketable. How, then, do big books make it to press more often? I suspect there’s a market for them inasmuch as people will buy a big book, even if they won’t read it. Many of us have aspirations to get through all of Proust, every short story by Clarice Lispector, the entirety of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary, and those are just the unread doorstops currently staring at me.

“Why aren’t you reading me?”

“Why aren’t you reading me?”

Having read only Swann’s Way and the first 90 pages of Gombrowicz’s Diary, I must confess to being one of these apirational readers, the kind that’ll invest in books that may never get read. But damn if they don’t look impressive on the shelves!

7.

This is a long way toward stating that all I wanted for Christmas was Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson. Nearly 1,700 pages separated into two handsome volumes housed in a slipcase, it’s a mammoth beast of a novel. From all reviews I’ve seen, it’s only the staggering length of the thing that’s likely to put off readers. The story and prose are both said to be engaging and clear enough, minus some digressions, which are pretty much going to occur in anything that big. But seriously… 1,700 pages. Yeah, that’s a commitment.

Double the tomes. Double the fun.

Double the tomes. Double the fun.


I crunched the numbers. If I read 33 pages a week, I’ll have the thing read in a year. 33 pages seems beyond manageable. This will allow me to read other books along the way, smaller books with more conventional plots. Books that won’t be cumbersome on the train. That stated, Anniversaries doesn’t sound like such a chore, does it? The sole requirement is that the reader agree to live with a book for a protracted time, longer than we’re used to. I’m tempted to make an argument about how tech culture and digital distractions are disenambling our willingness to form long-term relationships with art, but you’ve heard that all before. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not true: in an era where we expect things immediately—where Uber Eats and Postmates have altered my relationship with that great noodle shop across town that won’t deliver to my apartment—it seems ironically lazy to spend so much time with one damn book. Netflix offers dozens of TV shows, so many that I feel lacking for having only watched three. We’re expected to be aware of, if not immersed in, Ozark, House of Cards, GLOW, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to name just the shows I’ve heard of. How ridiculous it feels to only be able to name four.

Instantly streamed and easily digested content may be doing a disservice to art, not to mention the disservice to we the consumers. Or not—I don’t pretend to know. But I suspect there’s an important reclamation of patience and focus that comes with steadily reading a book as a big as Anniversaries. I aim to find out.


8.

Look at that—I went ahead and made a technology-is-not-so-great argument after all.


9.

I’m between semesters, enjoying winter break. Among the few tasks I’ve been assigned these last few weeks—washing the occasional load of laundry, cooking, not rendering the apartment completely uninhabitable—taking Q., my dog, to the parlor seemed easy enough. The little guy needed only a “sanitary trim” along with the removal of some wild growing hairs from his paws. His spats, as I call them. I told as much to the woman on the phone, asking if I might just bring him in this morning for a quick visit.

“We’re booked,” she informed me.

“Even for a sanitary trim?”

“We’ll put you on the waiting list.”

Oh well. Looks like another day of drinking tea and reading and napping and binge watching The Deuce. Winter break is a motherfucker.

11:00 AM. I get a call from the parlor letting me know that a slot has opened up. Q. will have his private areas tidied up to facilitate cleaner calls to nature. But I was about to start reading some of Anniversaries. I’m on page 96, ahead of schedule, but this weekend is my last before I have to return to teaching, so I’m trying to read ahead. No problem—I’ll just being Anniversaries with me on the errand. After all, the parlor will likely need some time to get through the thicket of blonde hairs that adorn Q.’s under and back sides.

For whatever reason, I don’t bring a backpack with me, thus I’m forced to carry the first half of Anniversaries (875 pages, not counting the appendices) under my arm as I walk Q. to the car. But Q. needs to stop and smell a few trees, lift the occasional leg. Anniversaries threatens to slip and fall into the snow, a fate I cannot allow. So I carry Q. under one arm, Anniversaries under the other. I’m not sure if the dog outweighs the text.


I park on a side street near the parlor. It’s free, which is good, because I can’t deal with parking meters at the moment. Besides, I’m unable to pay for parking without shouting, “Fuck you, Richard Daley” and there are children within earshot. I put Anniversaries in a tote bag and sling it over my left shoulder. Q. is excited to be sniffing new terrain and fights me as I try to get him where he needs to go. Of course, I’m running late.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Where are you taking me?”


The tote slips off my shoulder once, twice, three times like Christ falling. I give up, walk Q. back to the car, leave the book-in-tote in the driver’s seat.

Q. is dropped off, much to his displeasure. I walk back to the car, grab the tote and book and head to Whole Foods, the sole place in walking distance where I can get a cup of tea and read. But I need to get some cherry tomatoes and olive oil and, well I’m here so, why not, some beer and, yeah, some dried pasta and a tub of Greek yogurt and some hummus. You know, the staples. I pay for the groceries and head to the café section of the hip grocery store, order tea. Which is when the phone rings.


“Q.’s ready for pickup!”

There’s no way I’m going to walk my dog while carrying all the groceries, so I walk back to the car and drop off the load, then fetch little Q., who’s so happy to see me, Oh my god, father, the things they did to me in there! Back home, I unpack the grocery bag while Q. gets some much needed rest. Anniversaries is in the bag. I didn’t look at a page of it during this little odyssey.

Why the hell did I bring the book with me? A voice in my head scolds me for not bringing a small book with me on the outings, one that would fit easily into my jacket pocket. But that’s not how this works: if you’re me, afflicted with the soft lunacy, you don’t always have a choice. You want to read what you want to read. You’re not in control. A big book like Anniversaries is impatient, demanding. It needs to be read, to be adored, to be taken on train rides and brought to doctor’s appointments. I could’ve brought any number of smaller books (something by Thomas Bernhard, a slim book of poems, a pocket paperback) but I didn’t. What was I thinking? Answer: I wasn’t. I let the soft lunacy do the thinking for me.

Bookman's Corner and the Dying Chaos

This should not be. Thank god it be.

This should not be. Thank god it be.

An article, that looks like this, came my way recently claiming that the independent bookstore has risen from the status of near extinction and is now “booming.” While this is wonderful news for those of us who love bookstores as much as we love books, it made me question what kinds of bookstores are thriving in the era of Amazon. 

 

Considering the bookstores in my city, I might make the argument that shops that do well in the era of online shopping are bringing something to the proverbial table besides books. Many of us predicted that the saving grace of the indie bookstore would be events and actions that seek to build communities. 57thStreet Books, Unabridged Bookstore, and Volumes Book Cafe— three of my favorite local shops—regularly hold author readings and fun activities in an effort to bring people together as well as sell books. And while I’m not sure if all three are booming, I do know that the first two on the list survived the rise of Borders and Barnes and Noble seemingly unscathed. Perhaps one can surmise that the bookstores that lasted had a dedicated group of regulars willing to support their favorite shops and ignore the siren song of the Very Big Business. Now that Borders is kaput and Barnes and Noble is limping, these stalwart shops can have the last laugh. 

 

So great— a few venerable indies have survived and a slew of new shops have sprung up, but what exactly have they sprung from? I might suggest that the independent bookstores of today’s Chicago have replaced a kind of shop that is currently on its way to extinction: the dusty, messy, quirky-at-best and cranky-at-worst used bookstore.        

 

And now a bit about me (of course). 

 

I arrived in the north side of Chicago in 1993, having spent my childhood in a series of southwest suburbs without a good bookstore in sight. I would’ve killed for Borders. Ready for a life of literature, art, and aimlessness, I moved north and started haunting the used bookshops. And there were a lot of them to haunt. Almost all of them were helmed by strange men who appeared unable to function anywhere other than behind the counter, usually in a chair, often reading, sometimes drinking. The stores were often “loosely organized,” and browsing required a sense of adventure. One did not stroll in looking for a specific book. Rather, it was best to wander the aisles and let a book find you. These shops would not hold events, as they—too crowded with clothbounds and paperbacks—had no room. They sold no coffee, no scones, no tchotchkes. In the early to mid-1990s, when bookstores were beginning to double as record stores and cafés, these shops were not long for the world.

 

I worked at one of these shops, the Aspidistra. It remains my favorite bookstore. It is the model for what I look for in an indie: a variety of books, many I might not find elsewhere, many out of print, all reasonably priced. The Aspidistra sold only used books and some remainders, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare City Lit or the Book Cellar to my beloved used shop, but I nevertheless tend to romanticize the cramped near-chaos of a used store.

 

Thankfully, the quirkiest, dustiest, most disorganized and downright impossible of used bookshops still remains. Bookman’s Corner (AKA Chandler’s) has been in its location at 2959 N. Clark Street since… actually, I have no idea how long. I do know that it was there in 1993 when I first walked in, and that little has changed. 

Puns are your friends

Puns are your friends

 

If anything, it’s gotten less organized in the last 25 years. The window display may have once been carefully arranged with eye-catching titles and art books, but any plan has long been abandoned. The shelves are homemade, uneven, towering, sagging in places, double and sometimes triple-stacked with books in the loosest order imaginable. There’s no register—John, the owner and (usually) sole employee—does the math in his head or longhand on a scrap of paper. The prices are unbeatable. Most of the time, there’s an ongoing sale on anything older than a year; what we used to call “deep discounts” are ample. There are packed history sections separated by region, a recent infusion of philosophy texts, art books aplenty, and fiction that spans most of an aisle. 

IMG_2639.jpg

 

Somehow, among the clutter, there’s a system. Navigating it is part of the fun. Earlier I stated that these sorts of shops require a sense of adventure. At Bookman’s Corner, browsing is more of an extreme sport. Piles of books litter the floors to the extent that knocking them over, while not appreciated, is de rigueur. Large stepladders double as shelves. Getting lost in the space seems easy—claustrophobics will certainly be triggered before placing both feet through the door. There’s a spot in the store where shelves narrow and nearly converge, making movement to the next aisle difficult for many a Midwestern body.

IMG_2641.jpg

 

I love this shop. It’s everything that commerce shouldn’t be in the year 2018. Few favors are done for the patron used to uniformity. There’s no cell phone usage allowed, photos are discouraged (whoops), and the owner will likely not know if a specific book is on site. To enter Bookman’s Corner is to travel back to a time when consumers were not aided by user-friendly interface, where exact needs were not catered to, where one might devote a chunk of time to the experience of meandering among physical content and fall down a rabbit hole of the printed page. Dare I argue that vanishing opportunities of disorientation and discovery are important in a tech-saturated culture predicated on the immediate satisfaction of every desire?

 

It’s fair to say that the old model of bookstore management—indifferent-to-grumpy customer service, a casual relationship with order, lack of adherence to posted operating hours—is ineffective. Your average patron would surely welcome the sleeker indie bookshop. Can’t fault anyone for preferring organization and regularly dusted shelves. Nevertheless, I don’t know what to think of a world where places like Bookman’s Corner won’t exist. The absurdist in me believes that these soon-to-be-extinct shops represent something profound and essential to our culture, and that their absence will cost us more than we know. I’m at a loss to articulate what exactly is so important about cranky little shops that alienate as many customers as they enchant, but important they are. To me, at least. 

 

So while I’ll gladly drop my cash at Volumes, 57thStreet, The Seminary Co-op, Unabridged, and The Dial, I’ll also make time to savor Bookman’s Corner before the inevitable occurs and the old beast goes belly up. Hoping that’s not too soon.

 

Defending the Weird

I’m coming at this lil’ piece of writing after having spent an inordinate amount of my morning reading book reviews on Amazon.com, surely the worst way to kick off a day.  Why would I—a reasonably sane adult—spend my morning this way?  I lack a sufficient answer.  I can detail the process that brought me from a quick glimpse at the behemoth’s user reviews to a deep immersion: I wanted to get some specific details on Caitriona Lally’s novel Eggshells

A fine book you should read

A fine book you should read

 

After obtaining that info, I spied a one star review and clicked to read the insightful criticism of Lili W., a reviewer who seemed especially angry at the book.  Lili’s review in full:

 

This book goes nowhere.  Maybd author should take a riding course,  How did this even get published?

 

While obviously not the stuff of R.P. Blackmur, Lili may have a point.  Perhaps Eggshells would have benefited from its author having some experience riding, be it sidesaddle or bareback.  Maybd.

 

Here are a few excerpts from other reviews:

 

I skipped to the end to find that nothing really had happened.

 

There is no story and the pages are littered with lists of words. Truly a waste of time.

 

I tried to persevere with this book and actually read half of it but could not go on wasting my precious time on something so disjointed, nonsensicle and depressing which appeared to have no real story to it.

 

Congratulations to  the last reviewer for having read half a book! 

 

A theme emerges: time is precious and time spent on a book without a significant event is time wasted. 

 

While I understand this perspective, I don’t share these reviewers’ sentiments.  I loved Eggshells.  Lally’s narrator, Vivian, possesses a very singular vision of the world and her quest, while seemingly mundane, is soon revealed to be as important as any of the great sagas.  The book is quite funny, though ultimately very sad.  But it's not my intention to criticize, analyze, or even defend Lally’s novel.  (Read it yourself and make up your own mind.)  Rather, I want to address the manner in which books (and art in general)  are discussed, or dismissed, and what that may signify, suggest, imply, state, mean, connote, denote, demonstrate, and here I am listing words like an asshole.

 

The above review snippet that bemoans Eggshells for containing “pages. . . littered with lists of words” is a good place to start.  Having read the book, I catch the reader’s complaint—there are spaces in Eggshells where Vivian writes down words she finds interesting.  This can grate a bit on the reader who may be inclined to vent their annoyance on public spaces such as Amazon (itself a spot for people to place words in annoying order).  I’m sure venting made the above reviewer feel better.  After all, how dare Lally subject innocent readers with scant precious time to her unorthodox approach?  Doesn’t she understand that readers should only be exposed to easily digestible prose?  Effort?  Effort?  Who has time?  Netflix beckons, after all.

 

All joking aside, what happens when readers get to the point where they can only accept traditional linear stories, when anything slightly different than they’re (okay, we’re) used to merits dismissal or condemnation, not curiosity.  What is lost when we reach this point? 

 

Might I postulate—based solely on speculations and anecdotal observation and with no empirical evidence—that the costs are great.  Major leaps in the ways we tell and absorb stories are tied to major leaps in culture.  Trends, attitudes, technology, and current events mark our eras and our literature.  Is it possible that culture and art are always intertwined?  Could Modernist works like The Waste Land or To the Lighthouse have been possible before World War I?  Was the isolation and horror of mechanized warfare what fed these writers’ works, not to mention drove them to simultaneously break and engage with form and tradition?  While I’m willing to answer that, indeed, social and political realities informed the art of that era, I could suggest a chicken-egg thing.  Maybe the era was as informed by the art?  If that’s the case, then my question above about the ramifications of rejecting weird or seemingly “pointless” books could be dire.  We’re setting ourselves up for a culture that only knows what to do with shopworn techniques and conventional narratives.  This then influences our thinking, even at a subconscious level.  We reject the abstract.  And when we do that, we find it perfectly valid to deny that which should be (at the very least) acknowledged—like, you know, climate change. 

 

Let’s talk about that for a bit. 

 

Assume I’m right.  Assume we’ve been reared on traditional black/white narratives with rising action and ideas lacking ambiguity or nuance.  Confronted by a more elliptical, obscure, or just plain different narrative, the average reader will react with either indifference or—as in the case of the above Amazon reviewers—hostility.  Why?  Because something seems off.  Too abstract.  In a world where the concrete is privileged, where do difficult ideas that require a level of faith, trust, or acceptance fit?  Climate change exists along those lines.  The average person without a degree in climatology has to take it largely on faith that climate change is real and deadly serious.  So how is it that so many have for so long denied the existence of climate change, not to mention its threat?  Sure, the numbers of deniers are shrinking, but their mere existence is troubling.  While I can’t cleanly argue that the fault lies with the rejection of abstract art in favor of cookie-cutter narratives, I don’t know that this rejection is not partially to blame.  Recycled tropes and low-bar aiming stories don’t ask much of the reader.  Neither do the drones on cable news stations who sell easy answers to complex questions. 

 

My point is not to place so much importance on literature alone, but to argue that literature—and all art—has a vital role in contributing to the culture, and that the contribution is greater when the literature is allowed to be strange, different, and challenging. 

 

Of course, literature is allowed to be weird.  There are groundbreaking books and poems and plays in every era, though I might be forgiven for suggesting that the audience and impact of what is often reductively called “experimental” literature is currently small. 

 

I’m tempted to get all grumpy-old-man-like and blame the advance of streaming services and ubiquity of screens.  Screens are meant for television and film, art forms that—god bless them—are more passive than active.  Yes, navigating the plot of Breaking Bad or The Wire requires attention, but the story is still happening at the viewer.  The reader of a story with as many characters and narrative arcs as The Wire needs to be considerably more active than the viewer of the acclaimed series (which may be the best TV show ever made). 

 

With the dominance of screen-based stories, we have embraced complex narratives in easier to absorb packages.  Reading a book as labyrinthine and polyphonic as those penned by Dostoevsky may require balancing a lot of ideas, stories, and characters, just like watching The Wire, but the reader is also tasked with imagining the scene, picturing the faces of the characters—in short, co-creating the story.  The reader is an active participant.  This is reason enough to advocate for spending as much time reading as watching things on a screen, but I want to take this point further and suggest that the decline in literacy—not to mention reading difficult or weird books—has a doubling effect on culture.  We see reading as burdensome rather than essential.  And we champion screen-based stories over print.  In doing so, we make the erroneous claim that the best television out there—and there is some amazing TV being made—is on par with the best literature being published.  Balderdash.  And dangerous balderdash at that.  The feeling that we have properly flexed cognitive and intellectual muscles with a diet of only TV, however great it is, allows us to believe we no longer need print.  And when we do condescend to read a book, it better have a conventional plot with likable characters.  After all, my time is precious.

 

To be sure, not every “experimental” or what I’m calling weird book is worth reading.  Ultimately, this is dependent on one’s taste.  I’ve tried and failed to read and comprehend a lot of books.  Some are considered to be great by the literati, though I failed to engage with them.  The significance of the works of Thomas Pynchon, for example, continues to elude me.  It took me many years to realize that James Joyce’s books are as amazing as I’d always heard.  My response to these books was dismissive, but the older I get the more I’m humbled.  If the 20 year old Vince wasn’t ready for Ulysses, why should that stop the 40 year old?  That it took 20 years for me to appreciate Ulysses and Finnegans Wake suggests that sometimes we have to be in the right place to be ready for a challenging work of art, and that it’s silly to dismiss what we don’t understand.  To be curious about, and humbled by, intellectual or cultural challenges is a sign of maturity.  The angry, useless pan on Amazon is callow.

Another book you should read

Another book you should read

 

Eggshells is not a challenging book.  Though it might qualify as weird, nothing in it is difficult or cumbersome.  While this half-thought-out-think-piece is quickly becoming a long defense of Lally’s novel, I risk that in order to further make a point: in an era where a slightly off, not very challenging novel raises the ire of the average reader, what chance does a truly original, unconventional book have?

 

Clearly there have always been people who’ve reacted negatively to the so-called avant-garde.  Waiting for Godot—a more or less canonized work—was initially met with condemnation.  Ditto the first screening of Jodorowsky’s Fando y Lis.  People are still pissed at John Cage for writing a piece of music with no notes.  I’ve exhausted myself defending John Zorn’s saxophone blasts, Yamantaka Eye’s screaming, and Merzbow’s black noise recordings.  I showed a class a sonnet by Donald Justice that ends on the thirteenth line instead of a fourteenth and got the response, “This is not a sonnet!”  Any deviation from the norm is likely to raise a bit of ire.  I get that, and while I’m tempted to endorse the quote by Craig Raine (that fat hairy bastard), “the stupid are always with us,” I don’t want to dismiss anyone whose aesthetic sensibilities differ from mine.  That would be as foolish as a knee-jerk rejection against art that asks for deeper contemplation. 

 

Here may be the best way of thinking about all this: some works of art ask for more than surface readings or immediate assessment.  This requirement doesn’t make these works superior.  To be sure, there’s a lot to be said for a perfect three-minute pop song, a linear narrative, and a lovely oil painting that flawlessly reproduces the human form.  Those works require skill and discipline. That they seem easy is evidence of their creators’ mastery of craft.  But there are also works of art that try for something else, something more conceptual and displacing.  And while I could argue for the level of artistry and skill that goes into a seemingly chaotic work, I’m less interested in that than in a work’s overall effect. 

 

Let’s look at two examples from the world of music. 

 

Exhibit 1: “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

200px-Themiracles-early60s.jpg

 

Exhibit 2: “Osaka Bondage” by Naked City

387ee56e97514e1b8745da3aeb2c5c65.jpg

 

If you know both of these songs, you’re ready for me to make my case.  If you need a little time to find these tunes on Spotify, go right ahead. 

 

Okay, ready?  Good.

 

Ex. 1 is, in my estimation, a perfect pop song.  Sure, it’ll likely sound dated to young listeners, but examining the hook, the chorus, the production, the layers... it’s all cohering into something grand.  Nothing seems terribly ambitious to contemporary ears, and I’m guessing nothing about it seemed strange when it was released in 1963.  A good, engaging song.  Well done, Smokey.

 

Ex. 2 seems chaotic inasmuch as there are abrupt changes in style—we go from punishing screams and guitar/drum driven thrash to electric piano jazz with barely a second between movements.  But it is organized—Naked City was a band predicated on deliberate composition.  Still, the unusual nature of the song alienates as many listeners—if not more—as it engages.

 

It's not my intention to argue that Ex. 2 is as good as Ex. 1, though to me they are both equally great.  I compare them only to demonstrate that both are carefully composed songs driven by the composers' need to share something, to evoke, and to please.  I truly believe that Zorn did not write “Osaka Bondage” to piss off listeners; he wanted to give them something pleasurable.  Smokey Robinson also wanted to express something in his composition, a song about the frustration of being in a difficult relationship.  The mood of the music perfectly accompanies the lyrics.  It’s a work with intentionality behind it.  Ditto Zorn’s composition.  They’re doing different things with different sounds but are both pieces of music with specific goals.  Both of them are great.  Only one of them was a hit song you’ve likely heard before. 

 

What might the listener gain from exposure to Ex. 2? Or, in anticipation of the average listener’s reaction: why the hell should I listen to this mayhem?  What’s the point of a thrash/jazz collage with “vocals” by a screaming Japanese man?  Is this not just some avant-garde bullshit masquerading as art?  At least Ex. 1 has a clear story about the ambivalence of difficult romance. 

 

I can only answer these questions about Ex. 2 the way I might respond to those who dismiss Jackson Pollack’s work as rubbish any 5-year old could paint.  The point of Naked City, or Jackson Pollack or James Joyce, is to push the limits a bit, to find new ways of conveying old ideas.  And sometimes to express new ideas through old mediums.  And sometimes to do both at once.  Naked City rethinks genre.  Jackson Pollack breaks through the limitations of painting.  James Joyce throws everything possible into Finnegans Wake and remakes language.  All of these artists are reaching as high as they can.  We should applaud this ambition, even if it sometimes falls short of its mark or strains our need to “get” what's going on.  To borrow a quote from Big Trouble in Little China, I was not put on this earth to “get” things.  If I do, wonderful.  If I don’t, well, is the thing I don’t get interesting?  Am I intrigued?  Am I excited?  Am I confused?  Maybe, but is my confusion just curiosity stimulated?  Am I willing to give these difficult works a little consideration?  Have the artists done something worthy of deeper thought and reflection?  What does my response say about me as a consumer of art and ideas?  Do I only want easy experiences?  Am I not willing to do some work? 

Why does this piss you off?

Why does this piss you off?

 

I want to give a work of art its due attention.  I hate outright dismissal.  Of course, I’m willing to abandon a book or stop a film before its conclusion, but I always want to have a reason for doing so beyond, I don’t get it.  Grappling with unconventional work is necessary for our intellectual development.  The weight of a barbell does us a favor when taxing our muscles.  It's strengthening us.  Difficult works of art do the same.  Here’s hoping we’re up to the challenge. 

Misdemeanor Outlaw: Jim McGarrah's Path and Some Boomer Criticism from a Gen Xer

In his funny, self-lacerating look at Baby Boomers, Balsamic Dreams, Joe Queenan accuses his generation of navel-gazing and premature nostalgia.  He cites Carol King’s “So Far Away” as being the beginning of the Boomers’ descent into soppy, untimely ennui.  To be sure, 1971 was too soon for this generation to be so goddamn depressed about the loss of time, considering the average Boomer was around 20-30.  Yeah, Queenan’s making a bit of hasty generalization, but for the sake of argument let’s accept his point.  If we do, we can easily see how, though not unlike other self-absorbed generations, Boomers tend to mythologize their heyday, perhaps driven to do so after the utopian dreams of the late 60s gave way to the disillusionment of the 70s and the crass materialism of the 1980s. 

 

Most of the Boomers I know— hi, family!—tend to agree that the music and culture of their generation represents the pinnacle of human achievement, which always makes me want to smother those aging pricks in the bubbling tar of punk rock.  This boomer insistence that their version of rock and roll is the greatest thing ever, that Woodstock was the event, man, and the agonizing claim that they ended a war (sure took them long enough) via smoking weed and sitting in the dirt playing bongos has always made me roll my eyes.  Which is why I approached Jim McGarrah’s book Misdemeanor Outlaw with a bit of trepidation.  Do I really want to read 180-pages of Boomer self-aggrandizement? I asked myself.  Turns out I was wrong about the book, though not 100% wrong about Boomers.

 

(Side note: All writers are self-aggrandizing.  I aspire to be part of the club; I wrote a memoir and asked people to read it; I write poems and get them published in corners of the internet and then ask people to peek into those corners.  I am as self-aggrandizing as the next damaged bastard.  Even those of my generation with the good sense to try their hand at pursuits other than writing are myopic and sentimental.  So yes, we Generation Xers, and certainly the much-maligned Millennials, are equally guilty of the above accusations leveled at Boomers.  And while we’re at it, so are the members of the so-called Greatest Generation.  We’re all human; we’re all flawed and beautiful.  We all suck.) 

 

But here’s the thing about Misdemeanor Outlaw: it’s a book by a Boomer, not a Boomer book.  Meaning it’s not overly sentimental; it’s not the equivalent of one of those goddamn Facebook memes with a photo of a 45 record adapter and the request to “Like and share if you ever used one of these!”  It’s a damn fine collection of loosely connected essays that jump through time in a mostly linear manner, forming a meditation on the author’s inability to find his place among rules and authority figures.  Along the way, he makes and loses friends, gets married and divorced, picks up a social disease, faces the horror of combat in Vietnam, swallows an apothecary worth of dope, and even tries his hand at the post office (which I, a former mail sorter, was delighted to read about).

 

The epilogue does, as expected, contain a sort of case for the 1980s—a decade I tend to romanticize—being the example of how corporate culture corrupts true art and beauty, evidenced by the rise of pop songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” a nauseating tune, indeed, though the boomers would have us believe that their generations’ musicians never recorded anything as soulless and vile.  One need only recall the Ohio Express’s “Yummy Yummy Yummy” to debunk that claim. 

 

Aside from that one paragraph, I was far more engaged, amused, and compelled by Misdemeanor Outlaw than I expected to be.  I was familiar with McGarrah’s work.  (We share the same publisher, which, were we musicians, would make us label-mates; not sure what we are. . . Blue Herons of a feather? A Flock of Herons? Being close to “A Flock of Seagulls,” a 1980s band I assume McGarrah dislikes, I’ll go with that one.)  He is a writer who seeks to recollect things with less tranquility than honesty.  When McGarrah writes of his childhood, he eases up on the idolization of the all-American small town and presents not so much a Norman Rockwell Eden as a confining place of mores and customs that, even as a wee lad, he’s inclined to challenge.  Soon he’s dropping out of college to enlist in the Marines, a decision that sends him to Vietnam, then to a crisis of identity.  Rejecting the scare tactics and justifications of politicians, McGarrah actively opposes the war, grows his hair and embraces the hippie idealism that engulfed his generation the way Techno-solutionism is currently seducing Millennials.  When the limits of commune life are reached, McGarrah seems at his most unmoored.  Plagued by survivor guilt from Vietnam, unable to comfortably fit back into his hometown, and beset by uniformed men seeking to get over on him regardless of the length of his hair and manner of dress, our hero is the true representation of a man without a country, an outlaw, albeit of the misdemeanor variety. 

 

It would be remiss not to remark on the quality of McGarrah’s humorous, unflinching prose.  I laughed often while reading these pages, though the most impacting moments are the honest appraisals of the injustice done to the young men of his generation and the “true cost of these foreign policy adventures urged on by corrupt politicians and controlled by corporate interest.”  Recalling his stint in Vietnam, McGarrah writes, “On quiet nights, when the dead visit, I greet them with respect and we talk.  They speak of the loneliness of their fate and I speak in awe of mine.”  Though I know the man is writing of a time and place I can never understand, he may as well be discussing what it means to write a book.  Or, for that matter, to read one—we are seeking to converse with the dead, to compare our fates to theirs, to measure our struggle against theirs, to see what insights we can glean.  The result, in Misdemeanor Outlaw, is a book for anyone interested in walking in the shoes of a man on an absurd road toward self-actualization, though not in the trendy way Boomers sought to do as they went from well-meaning young idiots to 1980s sell-outs looking to reclaim their idealistic past.  McGarrah is too raw for that sort of thing.  His self-examination is his own, but in offering it to us, we’re privy to insights and anecdotes that are surprisingly familiar to anyone who’s ever felt mystified at the conventions the rest of the world is all too happy to obey. 

Digging "Digging"

There I was at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry surrounded by writers from various spots on the globe, all of us finishing a week of craft discussions, close readings, and general merriment.  We were discussing Heaney’s poem, “Digging” and I had to open my big mouth and confess that I never liked that poem.  I felt instant regret.  What the fuck are you thinking?  This is the SEAMUS HEANEY Centre for Poetry.  This is Belfast, Northern Ireland, not terribly far from Heaney’s birthplace.  Not terribly far from the plot of land his father dug up that inspired the poem.  Are you trying to alienate everyone? 

 

Thankfully, the workshop leader, the talented Leontia Flynn, broke the silence by affirming that, indeed, it’s not a perfect poem. 

 

“Pens aren’t really squat, are they?” she said, referring to the opening lines: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” and closing ones: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” 

 

It would be an understatement to say I was relieved. 

 

In the year or so that’s followed, I’ve thought back to this moment, not with pride.  The week in Belfast reacquainted me with Heaney’s work, inasmuch as I have been rereading him throughout the last several months.  First the selected poems, then all of North (always my favorite) then some of the later collections.  All of this has reminded me that, yes, Heaney deserves all the praise he gets.  The man had an ear unlike anyone else’s, a gift for finding essential phrases and constructing them into damn-near perfect lines.  His work is daring yet restrained, and almost always invigorating.

 

But “Digging” just never sat well with me.  And why should it?  Not every poem can be gold.  No one poet has produced a flawless body of work.  It’s just ain’t gonna happen.  None of my heroes—Ciaran Carson, C. K. Williams, Medbh McGuckian, Anna Akhmatova, Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman, Paul Muldoon, and a host of others I could name but I have to stop somewhere—have a perfect track record. 

 

That being stated, “Digging” seems at times to be Heaney’s most famous work.  When he died, three different people read me some of “Digging,” if not the whole thing.  Though the man wrote so much so well, “Digging”—one of Heaney’s earliest efforts—seems to be the sole poem stuck in the minds of casual readers, many of whom edit anthologies. 

 

That’s where I first read “Digging”: the second volume of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  Having kept the book with me after dropping out of college, I used to tote it from home to work and read some bits on the train and on my lunch break.  It was while eating a bowl of potato soup that I found “Digging” toward the back of the anthology.  How serendipitous to be eating potato soup and reading about Heaney’s dad digging potatoes!  I took note of the poem, loving the cleanness of it.  I think I’d skipped several pages and a few hundred years to get to “Digging” so I may have been refreshed by Heaney’s words after so much of the Victorians. 

 

Years later, when I started to read Heaney with greater interest, when poems like “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” and “Casualty” became known to me, I soured on “Digging.”  A fine poem in some regards, but the idea of Heaney grappling with his masculinity in the face of his father and grandfather’s ruggedness just annoyed me.  “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”  Oh, and why’s that, Seamus?  None around?  No digging to be done anymore?  Too busy are you?  Having worked a collection of mind-numbing, rotten jobs, I was a bit too reactive to any high-faultin’ bullshit about the struggles of the artist, which is what I stupidly took Heaney to be saying.  He compares his pen to a spade and says he’ll dig with it.  Yeah, great.  Write your poems, but we’re hungry here.  Can you maybe also put the pen down a dig a few potatoes while you’re at it?

 

Of course I was being ridiculous.  My reading of “Digging” was one-dimensional.  I saw it as his means of coming to terms with his ancestry of laborers, a line he could not (would not?) join.  I think “Casualty,” my favorite Heaney poem in some ways, confirmed this when the speaker represents the interrogation of his friend recently slaughtered by a night out at the pub despite warnings of an imminent bombing.

 

He had gone miles away   

For he drank like a fish   

Nightly, naturally   

Swimming towards the lure   

Of warm lit-up places,   

The blurred mesh and murmur   

Drifting among glasses   

In the gregarious smoke.   

How culpable was he   

That last night when he broke   

Our tribe’s complicity?   

‘Now, you’re supposed to be   

An educated man,’   

I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me   

The right answer to that one.’

 

Ah ha!  Heaney (who I assumed was the speaker of the poem—never assume) was referred to, somewhat tauntingly, as “An educated man.”  Was this the reputation he held among working class associates?  Did he assume the role with pride or with a sort of mild embarrassment?  I ask because I know that feeling.  While not coming from a part of the world anything like Heaney’s, I did grow in a rather working class environment where reading, much less writing, poetry was not something one boasted about lest one get taken down a few pegs.  Look at Mr. Fancy Man!  So maybe I was projecting?  Maybe the mild shame of being “An educated man” who digs with a pen rather than a spade wasn’t Heaney dealing with his issues but me dealing with my own. 

 

I have long said that one will find what they like in poetry, often what they bring to it.  If you come at a poem with some baggage, you may find that baggage staring back at you.  It’s like that damn tree in The Empire Strikes Back—be careful what you bring into it.  Could all of my years spent disliking “Digging” be the product of my own bullshit? 

 

Objectively, there’s much to like in “Digging.”  It sounds gorgeous.  Even during my most anti-“Digging” period I was willing to celebrate “the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat.”  And what about the second stanza, possibly my favorite:

 

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

 

Here are the cleanest rhymes of the poem, though they resist perfection.  Sure, “sound” and “ground” are pure, but “down” is off enough to pull us back to the preceding stanza, a slant-rhyming couplet:

 

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

 

“Thumb” and “gun” are great together.  They have that similarity of sound as well as the visual they create: cocking back the hammer before pulling the trigger.  This sort of playful loose rhyme gets me excited.  Those words... how to find the ones that don’t advertise themselves as rhyme?  That’s the goddamn beautiful struggle.  I’m sure that I missed the approximate rhyme while reading “Digging” for the first time.  I may have noticed the second stanza’s more obvious rhymes, but the first couplet flew past me. 

 

The subsequent stanzas stop rhyming all together, though I’m tempted to argue for a deliberateness of the line endings, especially in the fourth and fifth stanzas:

 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

 

Taking the last words of the fourth stanza together, we have “shaft firmly deep picked hands” which sounds like a line of poetry itself.  Regarding the next couplet, “spade man” is grand.  A new superhero, perhaps, one whose super power is the ability to “cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner's bog.”

 

A friend tried to convince me that the digging in “Digging” is metaphorical, and that Heaney is most concerned with the digging one must do when they toil in the life of the mind.  That certainly seems evident in the grandfather’s “Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, going down and down / For the good turf. Digging.”  I was reading it through one lens, my friend through another.  These multiple interpretations are both correct if you ask me, though I’m now happy to report that I’m on Team Digging after all these years.  It’s a fucking great poem.

 

Still, last week, when buying a used copy of Heaney’s Seeing Things, I had to give an eye roll to the inscription left by the person who gave the previous owner the book as a gift.  The gift giver, Jeffery, wrote in Melissa’s copy:

 

Christmas 1993 (belated but there nonetheless)

Here’s to happiness and peace on Earth and life-long friendship! Thank you for all of your efforts in helping obtain all 3.

 

Then Jeffery, that pretentious fop, ended with the last stanza of “Digging” the one that always bugged me.  Ugh.  Is this the only poem of Heaney’s people know?  Have any of them taken the time to memorize a few lines from “Punishment” or “Limbo” perhaps the most chilling poem the man ever wrote?  

 

Of course there are plenty of people who’ve memorized Heaney poems.  I know a few.  But that won’t stop “Digging” from being the poem that’ll come to the lips of many when they hear the name Seamus Heaney.  And why not?  If that is the case then good for Heaney.  It’s rare that anyone writes one poem worth remembering, much less hundreds. 

Rogers Park, My Kinda Something

It’s been a whopping ten years since I moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.  This is significant inasmuch as I moved a LOT as a younger man and resided in a number of parts of the city, albeit mostly on the north side.  My relatives used to make fun of my vagabond ways, chiding me for their frequent need to update their address books.  Of all the parts of Chicago I’ve inhabited, I’m not sure Rogers Park is my favorite.  It’s just where I ended up.

 

Seeing as I’m likely staying in Rogers Park for at least a little while longer, and that ten is a good round number, I thought I’d review the neighborhood. 

 

At one point, a local publication called Rogers Park the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago.  The consensus cited a near equal mix of Caucasians, African-Americans, and Latinos.  This was celebrated.  Of course, I’m all for diversity, but—to echo a bit of Walter Benn Michaels’s ideas without making this an either/or—diversity is not enough.  A healthy mix of cultures is fantastic, but it’s not like they always get along.  When I moved to the area, I was told which parts were the ones to avoid, where this gang resides, which bars are hotspots for the other gang, where the college kids hang out, where the hippies congregate.  Anyone who knows Chicago knows that we’ve long been a segregated town, and Rogers Park is not different.  More diverse than Lincoln Park or Austin, sure, but here we’ve got a segregated neighborhood within a segregated city.

 

But we are diverse.  One can walk down Clark Street and find tacos, tortas, burritos, and tacos.  Sheridan boasts a used bookstore, a small café near a Starbucks, and a few bars, one of them a slashie!  A new microbrew pub just opened, along with a few trendy restaurants that seem nice.  I wouldn’t know.  These days, my favorite place to eat is my kitchen.  It’s the one place in America where bacon isn’t served on everything.  The walk from the train to my apartment brings me in contact with students from the university and the private school that, in the last decade, have both swallowed up a chunk of the neighborhood.  I look forward to 2027 when the area is renamed Loyola-Waldorf. 

 

Rogers Park is a patriotic neighborhood.  This 4th of July was as rowdy as ever with just as many idiots blowing things up.  I don’t know that I heard as many gunshots as last year, but maybe I’m less skilled at distinguishing between pistols and fireworks than I thought.  After July, one doesn’t hear so many bangs and blasts, but our commitment to our city and country remains strong.  At one point, we boasted more bloggers than any other part of the city.  Almost all of these blogs were political in nature and run by conspiracy minded weirdoes, angry cranks, or just those wonderful vigilantes armed with police scanners and fuckloads of weapons. 

 

I should note that sweeping generalizations about my ‘hood are likely bullshit.  I know this, as I live on a particular street that is perhaps unlike any other in the area, thus I ought to assume that life on, say, Farwell or Howard or Lunt might be unique.  But if I look at my street as a sort of microcosm of Rogers Park, I can make a few assumptions and declarative statements.  So let’s take the dog for a walk and see what my street has to offer.

 

Up the block is a house with a porch swing, as if this were fucking Georgia.  To make matters stranger, the man of the house likes to sit on his porch swing and play the banjo.  This might be charming, but the guy seems to know only a few notes and chords.  That or he’s practicing his scales at a snail’s pace.  Either way, it makes for dull listening.  He’s no Earl Scruggs, but we all have to start somewhere.  Until recently, the woman across from him would practice her violin.  If one were to walk past at the right time, they’d be privy to a war of the instruments, a sort of free form avant-garde piece for banjo and violin. 

 

While walking my dog, I often meet other dog owners.  Some of them are also parents of human children.  Plenty of families on my street.  And college kids.  Before 8:00 PM, the street can feel like a sort of small town with kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalks and riding bikes recently liberated of training wheels.  After 9:00, the scene shifts to a college party with the requisite marijuana smoke and inane chatter.  Almost all of the apartments and homes are adorned with vegetation, some of it purposefully planted and cultivated.  Urbanites do love their postage stamp lawns.  Sometimes they get their lawns fertilized for free courtesy of dog owners with lax attitudes regarding cleaning up after their pets.  Over the years, I’ve gotten good at spotting dog shit, a skill acquired after more than one shoe got soiled and had to be hosed off. 

 

My street has its share of wildlife.  I’ve spotted raccoons, opossum, a bat, a falcon, and many oddballs shuffling home after a night out.  Rogers Park may be ground zero for oddballs, actually.  Slightly touched, I call them.  Like the guy who walks down Sheridan with his pants around his ankles, angrily cursing at... well, I’m not sure.  Life?   The barflies at Bruno’s and Cuuneen’s; the shuffling, crushed residents of assisted living homes; the bearded, aging hippie who partied a little too hard in the ‘60s and sits in The Coffee Shop singing and laughing at his acid flashbacks; the whack-job on Columbia who told me my dog was the devil; I love them all.  Except when they piss me off.

 

Rogers Park boasts a healthy immigrant population.  Specifically, I’m thinking of the Eastern European men who congregate at Starbucks to drink endless espressos, chain smoke and chat in their native tongue.  They may not be oddballs, per se, but they are a community, one that seems impenetrable, as do most of the insular societies within the neighborhood.  I once met a friend at the bar formerly known as Jarheads.  We were happy it had reopened, though the old owner, a marine who ran the bar for other veteran marines, was no longer in control of things.  In his place was an preternaturally patient woman who let some of the new regulars hurl peanuts and insults at her.  Shortly after that display, a rival gang strolled in.  The bouncer—a scrawny kid in way over his head—did his best to insist that one group sit at the east end of the bar and the other stay west, but that distance proved too short for comfort, especially considering my drinking buddy and I were in the middle.  We'd wandered in where we didn’t belong.  But we stayed for another round, then got out before the tensions boiled over.  A narrow escape from a scene that was not ours. 

 

But you know what—it could’ve been our scene if we’d gone back the next day.   We might’ve become regulars.  It seems possible.  It’s just a matter of showing up.  However gritty or dangerous, Rogers Park is open to you.  We’re not Canaryville; we don’t shun outsiders.  Rogers Park is welcoming.  Still, the gentrification isn’t necessarily embraced. 

 

On that: I didn’t grow up here, so it’s not for me to bemoan the changes the area has undergone.  I’m more an amused viewer of the banter between long-time residents and the condo owners who, after their first summer in the neighborhood, realize Rogers Park has problems.  Then they take to Facebook groups, blogs, and Twitter to complain about the crime.  I’m always curious to know if they bothered to do a minute’s research before buying.

 

Then there’s the New 400, a movie house for those on a budget.  Of course, you get what you pay for—no stadium seating here.  But the place does serve drinks, which is helpful in the summertime when the movies inevitably suck.  Watching leather-clad men and women pretending to be comic book heroes is certainly a lot easier with a few whiskies. 

 

Of course, no discussion of Rogers Park would be complete without mentioning the beaches.  Ah... the beaches.  A wonderful expanse of sand, water, and sky perfect for long walks and laying out during those short months when the weather permits such indulgence.  I tend to stick to beaches near my part of town, as the closer one gets to Howard, the weirder things get.  I believe a sheep’s head was found on the far north beach.  I’m leaving that area the hell alone.  I can deal with the noise and sex workers and dealers and other urban realities packed tightly within that bit of the city on the edge of Evanston, but a decapitated animal’s head is too much for this citizen. 

 

Oh right— the Heartland Café.  I used to have issues with that place.  The food has gotten a lot better, but my first trips were a disappointment, partially due to the wait-staff that were pained to do their job in the face of their greater artistic callings.  Yes, you’re a painter/actor/musician/poet/sculptor, but since you’re currently wearing an apron not spattered with paint, could you get my fucking sandwich?  I was also annoyed when the Café asked for donations after admitting that they don’t understand how banks work and have mismanaged the place for years. But, again, that’s not been the case as of late.  The new chef is a lot better than the last one, the staff is friendly and helpful, and the business seems to be doing better.  After moving here, I quickly came to understand that the Heartland Café is a landmark, a long loved treasure here in the center of the neighborhood.  It represents a certain element of the area, the politically charged, leftist, soy and incense element.  I dig all of that, save for the incense. 

 

But I would be remiss if I didn’t state again that my favorite place to eat food, drink tea, and swill booze is my apartment.  It's also my favorite movie theater and library.  So long as it stays in Rogers Park, so will I.  Sadly, it’s a private spot that only lets in a few privileged individuals.  We’re a bit exclusive.  Sorry.