Month: March 2009

Conventional Heresies — A Quick Chat with Poet Jamie Brown

jamie-brown-cover_image_croppedConventional Heresies, Jamie Brown’s first full-length collection of poetry, is just out from Bay Oak Publishers. Taking a short break from his duties as the editor of Broadkill Review, Brown took a few moments to answer some questions from SPR about his new book.

Is there a unifying theme to your collection?

The title, Conventional Heresies, is meant ironically.  Rather than earth-shattering heresies, I envision “conventional heresies” as those ideas currently out-of-favor.  Not so much large-scale thinking as personal-scale thinking.  John Updike was once described as writing about three secret things: Sex, Art, and Religion.  The trio of thematic threads which run through this collection have to do with Body, Mind, and Soul.  They may not be appreciated by all, but they are a sincere attempt by a mature male at midlife to tackle subjects from a particularly (and peculiarly?) masculine (but not macho) perspective.  One reader once told me that, “There’s a lot of testosterone in your poetry.”  Another claimed I was a chauvinist.  You be the judge, although this last is ignorant beyond belief.  I spent eight years three decades ago as the home-making, child-rearing parent of two kids, while my wife was the primary breadwinner, and no one appreciates the strengths and capacities of a self-actualized woman as much as I do.  Some people seem to like to make superficial judgments about others in lieu of actually listening.

Who are some of your influences, and how will your readers see this influence in your work?

Everyone I’ve ever read.  Shakespeare, Milton, Villon (in translation), Dryden, Blake, Dickinson, Whitman, Keats, Shelley, EB Browning, R Browning, Burns, Brooke, Masefield , Edward Steese, Lyman Bryson, Frost, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams, E Lowell, R Lowell, Plath, Hughes, Berryman, Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, and countless others.  You can learn something from everyone you read, if they’re any good and you pay any attention.

Who is your ideal reader?

A reasonably intelligent adult who leaves his or her preconceptions at the door.

What is poetry, and why does it matter?

Poetry changes the world and the way we perceive it, although not everything that changes the world and the way we perceive it is poetry.  It’s a conundrum, a quandary, a moebius strip which leads us back to what was once thought lost, in ourselves and others, etc., etc., etc. and all that noise.

The History of Now

historyDaniel Klein’s The History of Now is a novel with a thesis: the least remarkable actions can have massive repercussions. If this sounds remarkably like the premise of the 2004 Ashton Kutcher vehicle The Butterfly Effect, fear not, for Klein’s treatment of the material is infinitely more nuanced and far less–shall we say–Kutcheresque? Perhaps a better point of comparison, then, might be James Burke’s The Day The Universe Changed, the television series that explored the ways in which scientific and social advances of years gone by directly (or indirectly) led to the world in which we live today.

The historical sweep of The History of Now is so grand as to encompass several centuries, yet Klein brings a sense of intimacy to his work by focusing on the small New England village of Grandville and its populace. For example, the then-revolutionary decision of 17th-century housewife Marta deVries to insist that the bevy of guests who stayed in her home on a regular basis sleep in a room other than the one she shared with her husaband is juxtaposed with a depiction of 21st-century movie theater projectionist Wendell deVries reversing that trend by inviting a number of people into his kitchen for a small feast. And in this juxtaposition, we see one tension of many that makes this novel work: that between past and present, tradition and transgression. Yes, we are products of our past, The History of Now intimates, but we are also agents of the future.

Click here to read an auto-interview with Daniel Klein!

The National Virginity Pledge

The National Virginity PledgeAs the driving force behind the flash-fiction journal Dogzplot and the Achilles chapbook series, Barry Graham was well on his way to making a name for himself in indie publishing circles before his latest collection of “short stories and other lies” came on the market. With the publication of The National Viriginity Pledge, he comes one step closer to having a full-scale juggernaut on his hands. A frenetic, jangled, edgy, tragic, disturbing joyride through angst-ridden Middle America, The National Virginity Pledge feels like a cross between a David Lynch movie and a trip to your favorite dysfunctional uncle’s house — and I mean this in the best way possible.

Let’s start with the David Lynch movie. The first image we get in the collection is that of a vaguely-remembered hit and run accident that leads the story’s protagonist to separate negotiations with a prostitute and a used car dealer in a seedy motel bar in Las Vegas. From here, Graham moves the reader through a series of short stories and vignettes that, through a process of accretion, begins to chip away at comfortable notions like individuality and identity. The hit-and-run driver we saw in the first story may or may not be the online gambler who watches from inside a closet while his girlfriend has sex with a stranger. In turn, the gambler also may or may not be worn-down father who loses and later contemplates killing his children’s hamster. Throughout the collection, Graham provides enough details to suggest that, yes, these are all probably different characters, but the unifying theme of desperation that runs through their lives–and the uncannily identical forms that this desperation takes–hints that they may all be one and the same. Of course, this may well be the point of the collection: the details may be slightly off, but there’s a striking (and horrifying) sameness to the near-infinite number of variations on the American dream throughout the country. We’re not leading lives of quiet desperation, The National Virginity Pledge insists. We’re all leading the same life of quiet desperation–because each of our own lives is more or less interchangeable with everyone else’s.

But then there’s your favorite dysfunctional uncle’s house. As disturbing as they can be, there’s something endearing and familiar about the characters in Graham’s collection. There’s the guy who keeps digging a deeper grave when, after giving the matter some thought, tells his girlfriend that he’d sleep with Monica Lewinsky if he had the chance. Then there’s the woman who honestly believes that winning an Atlantic City bikini competition will lead to something big. There are gamblers and strippers and people in cars. There are people trapped in bad relationships, and people stuck in dead-end jobs. But they’re not just strangers. They’re people we come to care about, and this is possibly Graham’s greatest gift as a storyteller: he depicts what we might otherwise dismiss as the dregs of society in a way that reminds us of their humanity. And of how much we have in common with them.

One other thing worth noting about The National Virginity Pledge is that it’s published by Another Sky Press, which, according to the book’s front matter, operates “under a progressive publishing and distribution paradigm that aims to directly benefit both audience and author.” In short, you can read digital copies of Another Sky Press titles free of charge and pay for what you like–a little like public broadcasting. Additionally, Another Sky offers a sliding scale for bound titles; there’s a set minimum price for each book ($2.68 for The National Virginity Pledge, for example–a great deal in any economy), but you can pay more if you really like the book–not, I suppose, unlike tipping your bartender. And if Graham’s work is any indication of the caliber of titles this press is producing, Another Sky is absolutely worth supporting.

Final thought: I don’t know what font was used in this collection, but its capital Q is pretty amazing. Shell out the $2.68, and turn to page 14 to see what I’m talking about.

Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

The first glimpse we get of Charlise Lyles in her recently updated memoir, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?: From the Projects to Prep School and Beyond, is that of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. She lives in a housing project in a poverty-stricken section of Cleveland, her father is largely absent from her life, and the memory of the Cuyahoga river catching fire is still relatively fresh in her memory. At the same time, however, the young Lyles is filled with hope and ambition; she has a loving, driven, practical-minded mother who will do anything to see her daughter succeed, she has teachers who recognize her potential, and, perhaps most importantly (as far as the narrative is concerned), Lyles has just earned a scholarship through a program called A Better Chance, which means that she will be attending a largely white high school in Cleveland’s suburbs starting the following Fall. Given the tension between the forces of hope and despair operating in Lyles’ life, it’s no wonder that her memoir amounts to a complex and compelling meditation on class, race, gender, and education.

Take, for example, Lyles’ complicated relationship with her father, Charles. Though absent for the most part from his daughter’s life, Charles is, nonetheless, a presence, a ghost who haunts his daughter’s every step. In his only sustained appearance in the memoir, Charles comes off as a man who yearns to be an intellectual and who, given vastly different circumstances, might have made something of his life. He reads voraciously and is, in his own fashion, an expert in history and astronomy. Yet poverty and alcoholism have weighed Charles down, so even as he inspires his daughter to pursue the intellectual interests he can only dream of following, it’s impossible to miss the fact that the man has no prospects. Subsequently, his complete disappearance from his daughter’s life serves as a catalyst: Charlise must pick up where Charles has fallen short, must become the intellectual that her father always dreamed of being.

Overall, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?, is an insightful and enjoyable book. Moving dramatically from a life filled with Black militants and violent, rat-infested housing projects to the more idyllic yet no less challenging setting of her suburban high school, Lyles paints a detailed, thoughtful picture of race relations in the 1970s and, in so doing, demands that we continue to examine these same important issues as we move into the future. Highly recommended.