Audience & Experiment

This weekend Beau and I went to a theatre production--I'll try to keep the details of it as vague as possible, unless otherwise relevant, because the point of my post today isn't about the show's quality, but my response to it.

I was in the theatre less than 30 seconds when I realized what I was witnessing was not theatre as I knew it, but a form of experimental/innovative/strange theatre--if you've seen She's All That, think of Rachel Leigh Cook's little performance art show and you'll get the picture. The staging was minimalist to say the least, the costumes professional but a little strange, the acting bizarre. The lighting, I thought, was fantastic--beautiful, evocative, innovative. But it was the only thing you could say I "enjoyed."

I got nothing out of the performance except confusion and consternation.

But it got me thinking about audiences and experimental poetry. Because I am fairly well indoctrinated into poetry, I understand some of the more consistent elements of it, or rationales, if you will, for creating it. Even when I don't like experimental work, I can usually appreciate the concepts, the effort, the ideas, the risks. But when I was an audience for another art form, my boundaries of participation were much more strict. I not only did not enjoy the play I saw, I actually felt some hostility toward it. I actually thought, "What's the point of doing this like this? Why not just do it in a straightfowardly dramatic way?"

And there's the catch--

--because the way it was produced was part of the point. Sure, I get that the story is a psychological thriller and that two of the characters were crazy inbreds. Sure, I get it's drawn from Gothic literature. I get those aspects of it.

But I did not enjoy the show, and it made me realize that one of my primary goals as an audience member that day was to find enjoyment, to be entertained in the mode in which I had expected. But I actually felt something I often hear people say after encountering poetry:

"I didn't get it."

And up until that afternoon, I had assumed that an audience member's failure to "get" something was really a failure of the artist to communicate it. But after this show, I felt like I, as an audience member, was underprepared to appreciate the art I just experience, and it made me feel--frankly--weird and embarrassed, partly because I do consider myself somewhat "cultured," whatever that means.

Now, if someone told me prior to the show, "It's a little experimental and avant garde, so you'll have to be patient," I might have come out of it better. But the fact that I had no preparation for that, that I went in expecting one thing and got another, really had me flummoxed.

In terms of poetry, this raises some questions for me:

a. How can we, as poets, prepare our audiences to experience our work (on page or in voice)? What tools do they need that they might not already have? This would be a key question to understanding how to get new audiences involved in poetry.

b. How can we, as artists, contextualize our work for an underprepared audience? What's the responsibility? I feel like some audiences will seek out their own education in this regard, but because audiences are notoriously lazy and prefer to be handed the tools they need, what else can we do, or how can we inspire them to seek more information?

To some degree, I think great art can transcend its form, meaning that even the most experimental work, when most effective, will appeal to and speak to an "under-indoctrinated" audience. Like how, as an eager film student, I was very put off by David Lynch's Eraserhead but loved Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, even Mulholland Falls. I was moved by some of Maya Deren's short films and loved Bruce Conner's A Movie. But there again, I was in a specific audience context, there to learn and discover, not just to enjoy.

I feel like I'm getting lost in this maze of logic and discussion.


Happy Yam Sham!

Willow: What a load of horse hooey.

Buffy: We have a counterpoint?

Willow: Yeah. Thanksgiving isn't about blending of 2 cultures. It's about one culture wiping out another. And then they make animated specials about the part where, with the maize and the big, big belt buckles. They don't show you the next scene, where all the bison die and Squanto takes a musket ball in the stomach.

Buffy: Ok. Now, for some of that, you were channeling your mother?

Willow: Well, yeah, sort of. That's why she doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving or Columbus Day--you know, the destruction of the indigenous peoples. I know it sounds a little overwrought, but really, she's...She's right.

Buffy: Yeah. I guess I never really thought about it that way. With mom at Aunt Darlene's this year, I'm not getting a Thanksgiving. Maybe it's just as well.

Anya: Well, I think that's a shame. I love a ritual sacrifice.

Buffy: It's not really a one of those.

Anya: To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice, with pie.

[And later...]

Willow: Buffy, earlier you agreed with me about Thanksgiving. It's a sham. It's all about death.

Buffy: It is a sham, but it's a sham with yams. It's a yam sham.


The Four Seasons

Maryland style:

Monday: Cold and cloudy
Tuesday: Sunny and warm
Wednesday: Rain
Thursday: Rain
Friday: Cloudy and humid
Saturday: Cold and cloudy
Sunday: Rain

Monday: Hot and superhumid
Tuesday: Hot and superhumid
Wednesday: Rain
Thursday: Hot and superhumid
Friday: Hot and superhumid
Saturday: Rain
Sunday: Rain

Monday: Rain
Tuesday: Cold and rainy
Wednesday: Cold and rainy
Thursday: Cold and rainy
Friday: Cold and sun--er, nope, that's a streetlamp because it's so dark outside; Rain
Saturday: Cold and rainy
Sunday: Rain

Monday: Cold, dark
Tuesday: Cold, dark
Wednesday: Cold, dark, rain
Thursday: Cold, dark, rain turning to snow
Friday: Cold, dark, and everything is covered in ice
Saturday: Icy, cold, dark, rain
Sunday: Slushy, cold, dark, rainy


Angels in America

I caught part II of Angels in America at Forum Theatre this weekend, and collectively, the two parts of the show represent the best theatre I've seen so far in DC. The acting was really, really phenomenal almost without exception, and the set and costume work was spare, interesting, innovative.

I think it's such an interesting piece of theatre. What I love about what Kushner did--and what I strive to do in my own work when appropriate--is that he doesn't shy away from the complexity of the issues in the play. Of course, Roy Cohn is as close to an Iago as you'll get this side of Shakespeare and he seems to have few if any redeeming qualities (witness his duping of Ethel Rosenberg just before he dies, and then his delight at duping her). But Roy Cohn is also a character with a clear and consistent moral compass.

It would have been easy to write Joe, Harper, and Hannah Pitt off as fruity Mormon stereotypes, but I think he really gets into the struggle in Joe's coming out. But Hannah Pitt is a tougher character. Becaue Kushner was pushing an agenda in the show, and because Hannah really stood outside of the agenda, he could have written her as a real unfeeling villain. But he gets inside her skin, understands what her values are and why she believes what she does (without judging the beliefs, as she so sternly reminds Prior Walter not to do when he criticizes her).

It's a really long show. But I'll tell you, it moves so quickly and doesn't have 1 extra word in it, 1 extra gesture. It needs to be six hours long. It's doing something. And it does it perfectly.


The Phenomenology of Anger

I realized, about a day after the fact, that last week represented a passage of 14 years since I first came out to another person. It happened at college. I'd been out to myself, somewhat, for a few months before, but I don't really count that time because it was a tentative, exploratory, uncertain kind of growing-towards being an out person.

How can I recall the date? I told my best friend right after she'd opened the birthday present her family had mailed to her. Kind of sticks in your mind.

After feeling sort of stunned by the amount of time that has passed, I started remembering other people I came out to after her. I remember being really excited, but also nervous. I'd grown up in this little town and I'd gone through a few really difficult years of high school--years that I think most people in my life, including my friends, had no realization of just how difficult they were.

Almost all of my friends were supportive, and I'll never forget my best guy friend's response: "Actually, Charles, I'm not all that surprised." He said that while we shot some pool in my parents' basement. I was sort of offended. Hadn't I been just sooo in the closet that nobody could tell? Ha. Good god, no.

I told one friend when we went ice skating. I loved to go ice skating even though the closet rink to my town was 40 minutes by car, in an outer ring suburb of Milwaukee. We'd driven out together, and skated around the rink during open skating, and as we sat on the bench unlacing our skates afterward, I told her.

This was a girl who I'd known for years. For most of my life. A girl who had sat next to me in band as people threw shit at the back of my head, who teased me mercilessly because they thought I was a fag, who had seen me humiliated in the lunch room by kids in my school on more than one occasion. I'd driven her to school in my little car and forced her to listen to Ace of Base, Madonna, etc. And when I told her, her face went pale. It crumbled with disappointment. She had a hard time keeping eye contact with me. Me? I sat there, smiling dumbly, thinking she was just surprised.

"You know what? I'll pray for you," she said finally. It was the conclusion of a long internal monologue that apparently ended in my favor. She put her hands on her thigh decisively. "I'll pray that you won't end up in hell for this."

Naturally, an awkward silence opened up between us.

She said, "I want to tell you something, since you shared a secret with me." She went on to explain how she'd been away from home, involved in a group that required her to be out of town for training and preparation purposes, and she explained that she'd gotten romantically involved with a man in her group. "He really wanted to have sex," she said, "but I want to be a virgin when I get married, so I let him have anal sex with me." She started crying a little bit. "And it was awful," she went on. "It hurt so bad." I could tell she was embarrassed and ashamed. I comforted her. I told her it was okay, that it was nothing she couldn't or shouldn't move on from.

It wasn't until sometime later that I realized she had thought me coming out = her dirty anal sex secret in her mind.

And this week, I finally got angry about it.


Where the body is buried.

Yesterday I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Edgar Allen Poe exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, courtesy of Maryland Citizens for the Arts.

The exhibit's curator, Doreen Bolger, walked us around the gallery, describing not just the significance of the art included, but explaining the motivations behind the entire construction of the exhibit. It's a gorgeous setting, with the perfect wall colors enlivening the works of art on the walls, and curtains and furnishings that have a transporting effect on the visitor.

Poe lived all over the East Coast, attended West Point and UVA, and generally didn't settle anywhere too long until he dropped dead in Baltimore, which sort of gives the city bragging rights over him. This year is the bicentennial of his birth and Baltimore has been celebrating him for a while. This exhibit was one of those celebrations.

The first room, Doreen explained, was dedicated to French response to Poe's work. As with film noir, French artists were the first to celebrate and remark upon the significance of Poe's writings, and he remains--along with jazz--one of the few American imports that is squarely absorbed into French culture. Edouard Manet's sketches of Poe, along with portraits of Charles Baudelaire, to whom Poe was often compared, line the walls of the room. Most surprising were the line drawings of Poe's face by Henri Matisse that had been drawn for inclusion in an anthology of the author's work. They are simple, evocative--capturing the true essence of Poe's strange and compelling facial features.

In the exhibit's larger hall, Poe's literary work is explored by three themes--Love and Loss, Fear and Terrror, and Madness and Obsession. Throughout the exhibit, illustrated books of Poe's work are visible under glass. "The Raven," of course, takes center stage here--Manet's illustrations of the poems stand out, as well as do more contemporary pieces that incorporate text from the poem. To the side of that, his short stories like "The Pit and the Pendulum" come to life, while the other wing of the exhibit is dedicated to things like "The Tell-Tale Heart."

The exhibit really sparked my curiosity about Poe. When I was a kid, I tried memorizing one of his poems for school, but honestly I just failed miserably at doing it. But he was one of the first poets I remember reading on my own, and I read many of his short stories, totally disgusted by most of them, but oddly interested as well.

I guess now all I have to do is make a visit to his grave, which I hear is a bit of a tourist destination in town...


More on the Literary Market

So, now that we've got this growing bubble of publishing outlets, what's going to happen?

First, I think we're going to see a lot of non-subsidized literary magazines start to fold and close up shop. The ones tied to universities will mostly be okay, although if New England Review gets shut out in the cold by Middlebury College, I think that will set a dangerous precedent for peer institutions across the country.

This all comes down to one of the fundamental questions of the free market system: should insolvent literary publications be saved?

Why don't people read literary magazines? I mean normal, average, every day people. Like my parents. Have they become too much like trade magazines to matter to the general public? You can cite the decline of reading on a universal level, but I say poo poo to that. People are not reading less. They're reading other things. In fact, I'd hazard to say that the rise of the internet and its associated technologies has people writing and reading more frequently than anytime before in the last century. Most of us can't do our jobs without our hands on a keyboard anymore, our eyes glued to a screen. We may not be reading Chekov, but we're reading.

If people aren't reading literary magazines, it's for one of the following reasons:
1. The magazines don't interest them/have content they want to read
2. They are not readily accessible to the casual reader and not easily accessible to the more devoted reader
3. They cost more than the consumer believes they are worth
4. There are other more satisfying outlets for reading that are more affordable, more interesting, or more available to the consumer

It kills me to know that we now live in a country that has like 10 different celebrity gossip tabloid magazines, most of which are produced weekly, and knowing this is so because the consumer's appetite for this kind of reading materials hasn't yet been sated.

And yet, there are so many more literary magazines than readers to sustain them. They're dying off every year. The fact of the matter is, most writers, who would constitute the majority of the literary magazine consumer market, would rather look them up online to see sample work so they know what to send in for publication. They may or may not read the copy in which their work appears. They likely do not subscribe after their work appears. Instead, they move on to other magazines and repeat this process.

It's an economy of use, not an economy of sustainability. Are literary magazines the writer's fossil fuels?

On top of everything else, the literary magazine is a disposeable/non recyclable commodity. That means as soon as it has been consumed or reaches its "expiration date," its relevance ends and it is thrown away or, in many cases, the covers are torn off and sent back to the distributor to prove no one bought them.

From my perspective, what the literary magazine needs to do to stay competitive is:

1. Do it differently. I think magazines that niche themselves are better off than the "everything to everyone" magazines. Tin House and Passager are good examples of this, as is the print version of MiPOESIAS, with its huge glossy pages dominated by photography. It's gorgeous.

2. Do it cooler. Whenever a technological advance democratizes the means of production of something, the outmoded way becomes a form of fine art (like letterpress printing, for example--formerly the norm, now an art form). So magazines like Ninth Letter really up the ante on quality and innovation in design. I say that's a good call. Another great example is the print version of spork, which was community-made, hand-bound, and beautiful.

3. Do it smarter. American Poetry Review seems to understand the temporary nature of its work, and prints its issues on newsprint, which I'm sure saves buckets of money each year.

What are some other ways lit mags can stay solvent and/or relevant today...?

Seven Kitchens Press ReBound Chapbook Series

Submissions are now being accepted for our second annual ReBound Series. Please read on for complete guidelines:

The ReBound Series expands the mission of Seven Kitchens Press to bring new and/or underappreciated writers to a broader audience by reprinting out-of-print chapbooks in select new editions. Each title in the series will feature an introductory foreword by a nominating writer (who will be given the opportunity to edit the introduction); self-nominations will not be accepted. As with all our titles, the authors (if available) will work closely with the editor in the production process; each chapbook will feature a full-color cover and ISBN, and will be printed in an initial set of 125 copies. (Subsequent printings will follow if the initial print run sells out.)

* The ReBound Series from Seven Kitchens Press will select one to two out-of-print chapbooks each fall to publish in new editions the following calendar year.
* Each chapbook submitted for consideration must be accompanied by a two- to five-paragraph nomination, completed by a writer other than the author. This nomination may be sent separately, and will be edited to serve as the introductory foreword to the winning chapbook(s).
* The reading period will extend from October 1 - December 15, and the selected title(s) will be announced in February of 2010.
* Each winning author will receive fifty (50) copies of his or her hand-trimmed, hand-tied chapbook. Additionally, the publisher will distribute ten review copies to reviewers, libraries, and organizations at the author's recommendation.
* Nominated chapbooks may not exceed 27 pages in length (excluding front matter).
* Chapbooks published within larger bound works (i.e., as a section in a literary journal or as part of an omnibus volume) are eligible. Chapbooks published online are not eligible: we are looking to revive out-of-print work.
* Submit an original copy of the chapbook, along with a cover letter of nomination by a second writer. [NOTE: The nomination letter may be sent separately, but must be provided for the winning title(s) as part of the editorial process.]
* Chapbooks may be submitted by either the author or nominator, but must be accompanied by a $12 reading fee, payable by check to Ron Mohring or via PayPal to sevenkitchens at yahoo dot com.
* Do not include SASE or SAS postcard for acknowledgment; work received will be publicly logged by title and manuscript number on the Seven Kitchens blog.
* Manuscripts will not be returned. If you do not wish to send a rare copy of the chapbook, please send a clean, legible photocopy of all pages, including the front and back cover.
* Each manuscript must be accompanied by a signed statement from the author, nominator or literary executor, attesting that the work is out of print.
* Winners will be responsible for securing reprint permission from the original publisher within three months of 7KP's winning announcement.
* Each entrant will receive one copy of the winning chapbook (if more than one winning title is selected, entrants may choose which title they would like to receive).
* Entrants are responsible for keeping the press apprised of changes in address or contact e-mail.
* Because of the nature of this contest, it is impossible to exclude work that may be previously familiar to the judge; however, every effort shall be made to select the finest representative titles from a wide aesthetic range. The goal of the ReBound Series is not to reward friends and acquaintances, but to bring deserving poetry titles back into print, where they will gain an extended readership.
* Send all materials to: Ron Mohring; Seven Kitchens Press; PO Box 668; Lewisburg PA 17837.
* Contest entrants may purchase a copy of the 2009 winner, Notes from the Red Zone by Christina Pacosz, at a special discount rate of $5 postpaid (simply add the $5 to your entry fee).

ABOUT THE SERIES JUDGE: Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Ron Mohring received a B.A. in English from the University of Houston and an M.F.A. in Poetry from Vermont College. His chapbooks include Amateur Grief (Thorngate Road), Beneficence (Pecan Grove), The David Museum (New Michigan Press), and Touch Me Not (Two Rivers Review). His full-length collection, Survivable World, won the 2003 Washington Prize. Mohring's honors include the Frank O'Hara Chapbook Prize; The Oscar Wilde Award from Gival Press; and the Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing and Stadler Fellowship, both from Bucknell University. For six years, he served on the editorial staff of West Branch, first as an associate editor, then as fiction editor, and finally as interim editor prior to his departure from Bucknell in 2007. He is currently a visiting assistant professor at Lycoming College.


The Book Bubble

Is the publishing bubble going to burst?

I'm thinking a lot about how literary publishing has really exploded in the past several years, with the rise of small presses, nonprofit presses, print-on-demand services, diy publishing, and so on. I think it is fantastic that there are so many ways to get books into print now, but I'm also a little nervous about the book market's ability to sustain such diversity.

Whenever there is a technological advance--such as, say, the internet--there follows an enormous market swell of entrepreneurs who seek to capitalize on the advance by founding companies, services, and such. Affordable desktop publishing was one such advance, extending the means of book production to more hands, and print-on-demand technology has been another leap forward, making those production means endlessly affordable by reducing the amount of up-front capital required to found a press or even print a catalog of titles.

All of this has, so far, meant great things for writers, particularly poets, whose work is not widely read by the American reading public. While the for-profit world tends to operate in a Darwinian way (the market determines the lifespan of a product or company), nonprofit organizations crop up whenever "market failure" occurs. Consider market failure to be something like the vanishing of the passenger pigeon. Nonprofit organizations ensure that for any market, nothing goes out of style. Instead, nonprofit orgs require the interested percentage of the market itself to support the activity by making charitable gifts, which are, in non-profit speak, the same thing as venture capital is to the for-profit, but the return on investment is social rather than capital in nature.

Now, more than ever, poets possess the means of production for their work, reminiscent of the days when writers assembled their own "pamphlets" of work. Wasn't Walt Whitman's book essentially a self-published title? It feels like it could be a very democratic time in publishing.

Except for that fact that many publishers are going to fail, particularly with the recession.

It's as likely that a big publisher will fail, and possibly more likely because there is more capital at stake there, more money spent up front on printing and marketing, than a POD press, or even a DIY press. I think we'll start to see a significant change in the publishing model, although I'm not exactly sure what that is. I fear poets will see more and more fee-based contests, but as an idealist, I'm sure there will continue to be fee-free ways to get books bound.

The internet + desktop publishing + print on demand technology = completely user-based production integration. For example, my online magazine, LOCUSPOINT, costs me $100 per year to keep alive. My labor is volunteer, my authors are volunteer, and my readers are volunteer (meaning they don't pay). I feel like it's a good use of my $100 dollars (and my time!) to do this. A print magazine's budget can soar to $30,000 per year, just due to printing ($5K an issue), postage (yikes! always increasing), and staff salary (when appropriate). So, you tell me: which is the more sustainable model?

There's a growing sense, though, that when the internet is involved, content should be made available for free. Charging for access to information on the internet is quickly becoming a fool's errand, and I think another change we'll see to that model is that fee-based news services will die (sorry, New York Times) because there are alternative options that don't charge (Yahoo! news, for instance). And Google, with its insistence on extending services to clients for free, is really at the vanguard of this transition.

So this begins to beg the question: will there come a time when books are free? Now that we have Kindle and Sony Reader running around, it's more possible. With the production costs of the bound book decreasing, there are fewer things to pay for. Normally, this would mean an increase in the profit margin, but in this case, it means a reduction in cost to the consumer because they sense there's less value in their purchase (like how iTunes songs are cheaper than songs you buy on non-rewritable media).

And the next question: should books and literary magazines be free?

Yes, that is the $64,000 question, isn't it?

Free distribution is likely to widen readership (with no barrier to entry, people of all economic backgrounds can participate, which is something many traditional presses forget about, even contests who charge fees forget this).

Free distribution means the purpose of the activity is not to turn a profit, but to accomplish something else.

Perhaps what we'll see now is use of the literary magazine as a "preview" of books to come. Like, a press collects a cohort of authors into its fold, uses its literary magazine to promote and publicize their work through a free system of distribution, and then entices readers to purchase books (online, naturally) so that they can read the whole thing.

...and isn't that a model we've seen before (to some extent)? "Schools" of writers, banding together, publishing their work themselves, distributing it free or for low-cost, and then publishing books...

...yes, it sounds like something that happened the last time there was a significant advance in publishing: the photocopier.


Report: Atlanta Queer Literary Festival

Over the weekend I made a jaunt down to Atlanta for the AQLF. It was super fun!

I got in Friday night and had a nice dinner with friends, then went back to my hotel and hit the hay. Saturday I had breakfast with Jim Elledge, which is one of the nicest ways to start a day, and then spent the rest of the afternoon reading my poems to people, listening to other people's works, and chatting with other writers.

The festival was small, but it was nice. There was a very collegial and intimate feel to the day. It's the most fun I've had at a literary event that I didn't plan myself. LOL.

Other highlights were running into Michael Montlack, who edited My Diva, hearing Andrew Bierle read the opening of First Person Plural, hearing Collin Kelley, Dustin Brookshire, and Megan Volpert read their work, then spending various amounts of time hanging out. Jim's new chapbook is amazing, by the way. H, the full length version, is going to be fantastic when it comes out.

Odd story: I rode MARTA (their metro) to and from the airport and around town. On my way in, suitcase in tow, a woman struck up a conversation on the platform with me. (Mostly, she wanted to talk.) It turned out she was born in Milwaukee and had lived in Tempe for some time, and also loved DC. Then she went on and on about all the awful things that have happened to her--losing jobs, losing savings, etc, and I was totally sure I was in for the long-form panhandle like I got last time I was in Atlanta (guy talked to me for 15 minutes about how he was a Katrina refugee...then, did I have $5?). But when we got off in Decatur, she very kindly asked me where I was staying, then gave me clear directions to get there. And she said, "Enjoy your visit." And was gone. I have a theory on stuff like this that I'll share another time.

Even weirder, as I walked out the MARTA exit, another woman asked me if I understood the directions or needed more help. I looked around and was like, "Um, me?" And she was like, "Yeah, you." I thanked her but said I knew where I was going. I couldn't believe people were so friendly. It was a nice change of pace. In DC, when strangers talk to you, they just want to know what kind of shaving cream to buy, or if they can skip you in the line at Target because they're so much busier than you are.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun, and I needed the mini break from DC!