Monday, August 29, 2011

Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel

This evening, my new chapbook, Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel was released by the lovely Blood Pudding Press

6 years ago my poetry mentor Michael Dennison invited me and a number of his other students to an event called Kerouac Fest at the Grand Midway Hotel in the town of Windber, Pennsylvania. My son was two months old at the time, and even tinier than the average newborn as he had been born two months prematurely. Nevertheless, I decided to go and take my little one with me, and every day I am glad that I did. In the years that have followed I have grown to love the Grand Midway Hotel and the amazing, beautiful, enchanting people who live there, who pass through, and who, like me, consider the hotel to be their second home.

Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel has taken me 5 years to write, and when I started I wasn't aware that I had. The title poem was the first poem I wrote, and it was originally 7 pages long. I wrote it in one sitting with a manual Smith Corona typewriter named Stewart and a bottle of ice wine in room 27 (which is now filmmaker, novelist, host, and beautiful friend Blair Murphy's office). I still have the typewriter, though the wine was gone in about an hour. The rest of the poems were all written with typewriters (though the alcohol content was more varied), and, at least in the case of the older ones, often after one too many viewings of Gothic.

This chapbook is ultimately a long love poem to the Grand Midway. It's creepy and dark and more than a little fucked up in places, but I'm okay with that. I am eternally grateful to Juliet Cook for the huge amount of work she has put into this chapbook. Blood Pudding Press is the press I envisioned putting out Letters From Room 27, and I know that I am extremely lucky for that to have happened. Below I've added the title poem as a teaser to the rest of the chapbook.

Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel

I know I’m not the only one who dreams
of watching all the boys who almost fucked me commit suicide, Claire says.
A bullet to the brain and it doesn’t matter if they finger-banged me,
laid in my bed, cock out and unmuzzled.
They had gunpowder fingers and she used to think she was water
to make them moist and useless for weeks,
but she cries for men who kiss her there in Pennsylvania’s belly,
mouths open, and think of New York.
She stays upstairs and drinks late harvest wine,
reads love letters not meant for her. She never gets letters.
She gets boxed wine, calloused feet, and panties covered in blood.
She gets spanked and smokes up in the monkey’s room
when flies pile on the windowsills in mustard gas heaps,
when she is soggy and her mouth is caving in.

After each sex act she turns back into a woman,
stiff-laced and dressed like a puritan. Ripped at the knees,
she calls herself Gorgeous when she is alone at night,
face buried in the pillow, holding her breath.
She drums herself to sleep,
draws her skin taught and slaps the stretch marks.

She would rather break her nails on typewriter keys
than make her legs a kickstand to hold up men
who cannot see the violin carved into the back of her skull.
They write her lines of poetry and they take off their pants.
They tell her they never have casual sex
in the same breath, and she is somehow undone.

She is the girl with her heels sliced off,
a closed fist and a four leaf clover
that blooms like her chest.
She has no secrets on her skin in a closet not her own.
She sits dumb and numb in the half-cold morning,
feels dirt in her hair, in every crease of her body.

Last night she collapsed in on herself, dried to a husk and crumbling.
she woke up cold, she slept cold, and this morning
she will cross the stream from hotel to metal graveyard,
baptize herself in sulfur and mud.
She will throw herself into the husks of train cars, and eat paint chips
that slough off the ceiling. She will break a window in every car.
She will show you just how afraid she is.
I think I grew old in one of the lifetimes I lived in my head.

If you want to read more, I've already linked a couple of times but will do so once more! Blood Pudding Press and Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel are on etsy. I absolutely encourage you to support the publisher, the lady Juliet. I will be visiting her briefly this weekend, so if you order a copy in the next few days I can personalize it!

Also, I have been even more lucky, because my dear friend Kevin Ross took photos with me at the Midway about a month ago, and has graciously printed (and then cut out by hand - bless him) small, delicious photos to slip into all of the chapbooks. They add another dimension to the chapbook that I am so very, very pleased with. The prize in the Crackerjack box, as Kevin put it.

Thank you to everyone who has supported, inspired, and encouraged me, this manuscript, and the hotel. I can't name everyone because I would be here all night (and I really should sleep at some point), but special special thanks to: Blair Murphy, Juliet Cook, Kevin Ross, Michael Dennison, Skot Jones, Mihnea Vasilescu, Adam Blai, Sarah Ireland, Crystal Hoffman, Dylan Fornoff, Deanna Dolges Kane, Martha and all the other ghosts, Manuel Ibarra, Stephanie Conrad, Joey Bertolasio, Damien Youth, and Kevin Bean. If it sounds like I am a silly, gushing girl, then I am. And I'm okay with that, too.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Life and reading updates

It's been a rough week in my household - I got hit pretty hard with a sinus infection last Sunday, went completely hoarse on Wednesday, and am still suffering from laryngitis today, though my other cold symptoms have lessened pretty drastically. In addition to that, my husband and I are still wrestling with the idea of moving (we have decided that if we do move we are getting a decent amount of new furniture, though, which pleases me in a domestic way. Our couch was picked up from a sidewalk and is certainly on its last legs, and our mattress definitely needs replaced.), and while neither of us is 100% happy, we are resigned. Such is life sometimes.

To cope with my laryngitis, we have been using text to speech software with some pretty hilarious results. My husband's name is Romanian (like him), and the text to speech software has a lot of trouble with it.

I hate being sick. I'm sure that there really isn't anyone out there who enjoys it, but I'm the kind of person who doesn't get sick a lot, but when I do get sick, I really get sick. I don't get the sniffles and then get over it. I am laid up in bed for 3 days, have a fever, can't talk, and then the cold lingers for a full 10 days. I've tried going to the doctor, but they just tell me to take it easy and try Zicam. Meanwhile, my son tears around the apartment with only the slightest hint of the sniffles.

But all is not illness and cardboard boxes! This upcoming week is Kerouac Fest! Hoorah! No matter what else may be going on, I am going to Kerouac Fest, dammit. It keeps me sane and balanced to be with my arts family. While we are there, Blood Pudding Press will be releasing Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel!! The poems in this chapbook haven't appeared in many journals, unlike the poems from Barefoot and Listening, so I'm double excited. Yay!

I have also managed to do some reading while in the midst of all the craziness. I read Gorgon by Peter D. Ward, a nonfiction book that chronicles the adventures of a paleontologist as he attempts to find evidence of a rapid mass extinction at the end of the Permian era, 250 million years ago. While not as much about science as the copy would suggest, I actually found the true content of the book much more interesting than I had expected. Ward weaves into the book his experience with apartheid while working in South Africa, which was truly fascinating, and makes me want to read more on apartheid. When the "heavier" science is present, it is explained in a way that I, a non-science major, could understand without feeling talked down to, and the end of the book made me hope he is planning to write more. Also, he managed to connect discussion about mass extinction on Earth to discussion about life on other planets, and I do love outer space.

I also read The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, and am probably the last person to have done so. I very much enjoyed it, and will probably move on to read Unaccustomed Earth, in spite of it generally receiving less glowing reviews. It was a great collection of stories dealing with what it means to belong to a country and a cultural identity as well as the loss of cultural identity. Loss seemed to play a big theme in the collection - how we deal with loss, how we interpret loss through a cultural lens, and how others respond to a loss not their own. It was extremely readable, and I felt like I knew her characters instantly. I wasn't particularly a fan of The Namesake as a story (though I will admit that I only saw the film), and wouldn't say that I loved every one of the stories in The Interpreter of Maladies, but the combination of them was gorgeous.

I'm still plodding my way through A Briefer History of Time (I never took physics in high school - give me a break!) and am about half way through The Toughest Indian in the World (though I am tempted to shift over to Indian Killer for reasons that I will discuss in whatever I write about whichever book I finish first). I am also slowly making my way through Saint Monica, though less in the plodding way with Briefer History, and more in the this-is-so-delicious-I-can't-swallow-it-all-in-one-gulp way.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I was hoping to get reviews going again here in August, but August has turned into a very very busy month, in some ways happy, in others ways... less so.

My husband and son and I may have to move out of the apartment and neighborhood that we all love in order to get my son into a school that we are all comfortable sending him to. Ben is a great kid and last year we had a very poor match with his school. He is smart and inquisitive and interested in learning (many of the books I read him are books about outer space and paleontology) and I fear that another year at a school that does not work well with him will lead to a stifling of that love of learning and a belief that school cannot possibly be a good place. So we may move. We will see.

In happier news, Kerouac Fest is right around the corner and I will get to be reunited with my undergraduate creative writing professor. He lives in Lebanon now, so I hardly ever get to see him and I can't wait. It is fitting that we will see each other right as my new chapbook, Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel will be coming out then, too - he is the reason I am no longer a terrible poet (oh lord, I was terrible - I'm rereading some of my high school era poetry for Scary Bush, and oh god...) and he's the one who first brought me to the Grand Midway.

Juliet Cook is doing an amazing job with Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel - when this manuscript was still in its fetal state I told myself that as soon as it was done if Blood Pudding Press was taking submissions I would send it there. Juliet is, in so many ways, the right publisher for this manuscript. I think she gets it more than any other editor possibly could have. Juliet recently did an interview with Women's Quarterly Conversation that is well, well worth reading. It is here.

Back to reviews soon, I promise - I've been reading a lot of really great books and chapbooks and I can't wait to talk about them!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Negativity and the Arts

I briefly debated whether I should write this entry or not - I have decided that it is important to me that I do, and that I will do my best to leave out information that could lead to the persons involved being easily googled. If you are a super internet detective you might figure it out, but only if you have super powers, and if that's the case, what are you doing using them for this?? Go fight crime or put a stop to frakking or something.

Last night I was at a coffee shop somewhere in Pittsburgh (which will remain nameless), sitting at my table, reading my book on prehistoric creatures, when a stocky man entered the coffee shop and sat down at the table across the way from me with a petite, pretty young woman. It quickly became clear that the two of them were there to have a meeting about an arts event that they were working on together. Now, before you think I was listening in on their conversation from the get go, let us be clear - this man was loud. At no point was it difficult for me to hear anything he said.

At first, I was completely disinterested, and actually a bit annoyed because my book on prehistoric creatures was interesting, dammit, and his loudness was making it difficult for me to concentrate, but then my ears started picking up things he was saying that made me sit up and listen rather than try to ignore him. I didn't start writing down what he said until later, so I will have to paraphrase/summarize. Essentially, he was saying that the Pittsburgh arts scene sucks, and there aren't very many good artists in the city.

Now, I'm in the Pittsburgh arts scene and I know a lot of very talented people in the Pittsburgh arts scene, but this guy just seemed - I don't know - sort of like a joke. He was loud (as I said), dramatic, and annoyed in that super-entertaining sort of way, so rather than get disgusted and leave or move, I made a quick facebook post: "The loud guy in this coffee shop is making sweeping generalizations about the Pittsburgh arts scene and it is kind of entertaining due to his drama levels. I think if I could take him at all seriously I would be somewhat offended on behalf of, well, the Pittsburgh arts scene." A couple of my friends commented, and he kept on being loud, so off we went - we both had an audience.

He mentioned that he is "totally over" animals in art (and pine cones for some reason ???), which I just thought was silly (plants are okay though, fyi, as long as they are not the evil pine cone), but then he made this comment: "I am totally over animals in art...Like all the stuff in that show at [NAME OF A REALLY GREAT GALLERY]? I mean, that place is all right and everything, but it's all just so played out". I know the gallery he speaks of. I have been there many times. The person who runs it works their butt off and has done great things with said gallery. Don't say these things in public. No. Bad.

He continued: "artists in this city do not know what it is like to be a real artist...they can mope around and be depressed and still survive...if you're in New York City or Dublin...or anywhere else you can't do that" (ellipses indicate where there was a word or two that I missed - I was trying to type as he spoke - apologies for that). This statement is A) utter bullshit B) so much an awful generalization that I can't even begin to deconstruct it C) my first concrete clue that he thinks of himself and being separate from and better than the people with whom he shares a city of residence.

So, of course, using a couple other conversation clues (a gallery show he said he curated) I began to try to google him. Obviously.

He also mentioned earlier in the conversation that unlike "everyone else" in Pittsburgh he is morally superior and does not place his own work in gallery shows. I've given this dude's website (spoiler! I eventually found him!) enough hits for one day, so I'm not going to try to confirm this statement.

He then went on to talk about how the cost of living is so low in Pittsburgh that artists here are all spoiled and don't know what it means to suffer. But apparently none of us are allowed to complain, ever, so facebook friends and I have determined that, for this dude to be happy, all artists in Pittsburgh need to sit on the corner holding this cardboard sign:

Real artist. Starving, but not bitching about it. Don't give me money. This is just a PSA

Then they talked a bit about the event that they were actually having a meeting for, and it became briefly less interesting. Just when I thought that the show was over, though, he decided to take a completely innocuous bit of conversation (discussion about the deadline for turning in juried work) and use it to, yet again, bash all artists in Pittsburgh, and, of course, toot his own little horn. Before I could start typing, he began talking about how all artists in Pittsburgh (yes, he was saying "everyone in this city" - I am not making this part up or being hyperbolic in any way) do their work hastily at the last minute. Oh, but he doesn't. "Some people call me an over-achiever," he claimed. The girl smiled and nodded the whole time, making affirmative noises.

It was at this point (the over-achiever line) that I lost it and began laughing hysterically in the middle of the coffee shop. The guy next to me clearly thought I had a brain-related problem.

They then went back to talking about the event, and as I listened, because now I was invested in his stupidity, dammit, I realized that some of the ideas he has probably don't suck. The problem is that he was talking like such a self-centered, egotistical pain that I don't think I can appreciate any of his ideas or vision.

Then they started talking about gathering work from artists and he said this little gem: "[The organizers] are being protective over me calling people...I don't know why...Everyone loves me...They're all like "It's so cool that you're from [city that would potentially be too identifying]!"... I guess everyone is just intimidated by me." I did not know that real people talked like this in a serious way.

And then he went on a few minutes later "I'm a little burnt out on Pittsburgh...doing all these events takes a little bit of my one appreciates all my work...I mean, I have a fabulous life here...I get to work in film and everyone loves me." No dude. No they don't, not if this is how you act. They really, really don't. But the girl agreed, saying "Oh yeah - I totally understand. I mean, I lived in New York and in L.A." Because LA is the hub of all that is genuine art in this world.

This set of quotes is what really gets me, I think. This mentality that they're better artists, more dedicated, and more talented merely by virtue of having lived in cities like New York and LA. I see this a lot, this desire to trumpet being from New York in particular. Now, I have a good number of artist and poet friends who are from New York who do not do this. They are lovely, amazing people and this is not directed at them. This is not something I see in all New York artists, just the obnoxious ones, and those obnoxious ones are in the minority. There's this idea they have of "I am from New York and therefor know more about art/writing/life/the world/ monkeys than you do, and my art must be better and you are a peasant from - ugh - Pittsburgh. If you were dedicated to your craft you would move to New York like me."

There is nothing wrong with being proud of where you are from. There is something wrong with acting like you are better than someone else because of where you are from.

At this point, the coffee shop was closing and I had to leave. I wanted to say something to this guy. I think I should have. If this is what he is willing to say in a very public place, then what does he say in private? How does he treat people who have probably helped him and shown his work and befriended him? I wish that I had said something. I did figure out his name (it turns out we have friends in common on Facebook - a decent number of them) with a bit of help from a friend, but I was then forced to sign a verbal non-disclosure agreement and promise I would not share his name. I am honestly conflicted about this. I feel like the kind of talk and behaviour he exhibited (and per my friend, this is not the first time he has done this) needs to be punished socially. Also, while my friend is "good friends" with him, I have to wonder - when someone says "everyone sucks... except me and you" what is the likelihood that they are saying that to everyone and being nasty behind your back? I think it's pretty high.

I am not immune to negativity - when I was an undergrad I said some not-so-kind things about slam and spoken word poetry in a decently public setting. I am really fucking sorry I said those things, not because of the social backlash (though there was a bit of that), but because it was stupid and childish of me. The social backlash, however, was part of what helped me to recognize my childishness for what it was. People like this man are a cancer. The attitude he has is a cancer. The fine arts and literature are not money makers (even in Pittsburgh - surprise!) and it is very difficult to be an artist and be true to your art and, well, eat. It honestly bothers me that this man is getting away with this. I feel like I have failed somehow in not saying anything, because that is what people like him count on - nobody saying anything.

What to do? I hate to sound like an after school special, but we need to root out negativity in our community. Our city is small. We cannot escape each other and we should not be able to say mindless, unkind things with impunity. So please, think about what you are saying. Don't let someone you are in a conversation with get away with being endlessly mean. Appreciate the good in the arts scene of whatever city you are in, because I guarantee you that the good is there. Oh, and if you must have a nasty, self-congratulatory conversation in a trendy coffee shop keep your fucking voice down because there might be a creepy-ass poet sitting close enough to hear you who will write down the offensive things you say and post them on the internet.