If you’re looking for a somewhat off-the-wall gift for that special somewhat off-the-wall person on your holiday list this season, Contemporary Krampus may be exactly what you’re looking for. Curated by Mike Drake, this volume offers a wide range of contemporary depictions of Krampus, the “Christmas Devil.” Along with paintings and drawings that range from charming to creepy, Contemporary Krampus also includes brief bios of the artists who produced the works. While the typesetting is a little odd (with text running almost to the edge of the page) and the bios are somewhat uneven (reading like they’ve been taken directly from the artists’ webpages without any editing), the art is what makes this volume particularly enjoyable. With that in mind, here are a few samples…
Peter Baroth lives in Media, Pennsylvania with his partner, the poet and professor Courtney Bambrick. He is a writer, visual artist, musician, and sometime editor. He’s recently published his first full-length book of poetry, Lost Autographs, with Moonstone Press. His poetry, short stories, and artwork have appeared in a variety of print and online journals including Philadelphia Poets, Mad Poets Review, Apiary, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and elsewhere. Baroth also published the novel Long Green with iUniverse in 2003 and three poetry chapbooks between 2001 and 2005 – Mounds of Sounds, Sessions, and Ski Oklahoma – all with Wordrunner. Of Baroth’s work, Mad Poets Review Editor Eileen D’Angelo has said: “It’s St. Louis. Oklahoma. Chicago. Philadelphia. It’s Blues and Jazz, Coltrane and Miles, dark glasses, smoky bars. All words and music rolled into one.”
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the poetry collection. Can you tell us about the book’s journey?
Peter Baroth: Although it really started out as a sort of “Best Of” collection of my work since my last book of poetry published in 2005, Lost Autographs developed a pretty definite autobiographical shape, or arc, as it evolved. The book is broken into three sections: “origins,” “end/beginning,” and “travels.” But this is actually something that came together after the fact – after I had written most or all of the poems that comprise it. And it happened almost as if my unconscious had been planning this structure. So, really by good fortune, I ended up having a manuscript in my hands which spoke to a family past, then through my youth and formal – as well as informal – education, and onto some of my adult experiences. And I feel pretty good about the way it fell together and also really good about the fact that a version of it was recognized as a finalist in the Mad Poets Joie de Vivre manuscript competition.
CS: What poets have had the biggest impacts on your work? What about their work speaks to you?
PB: Well, there is definitely the big “Beat” or “Jazz Poet” element to my work: Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen being very influential. I think a lot of that has to do with the Beats’ place so immediately after WW II. Ferlinghetti served as a Commander of a submarine chaser during the war but emerged from the experience as an avowed Pacifist. To me, so many of the Beats were important in defining that great postwar consensus in the arts and culture which began to say, “no” racism and “no” to war because, I think, the creative community had directly or indirectly observed the worst in humanity in the war and so much of the human race was chastened. And here I was, born in 1963 in Hyde Park, Chicago into this emerging “mélange” of American sub-cultures. And it really wasn’t a reach to fall in love with – and be moved by – Jazz at that point. It was there. And the Beats embraced it. Embraced virtually all of life. Today, there is, perhaps understandably, more of a Balkanized cultural environment, but there, in the mid-‘60s there was this emerging organic smorgasbord that was America. The Beats weren’t perfect, no. And by ’68 I was living in Norman, Oklahoma – which is another chapter. But the Beats speak to what was really in my bones by age 5 – an inchoate loosening of the breath.
CS: I’m always curious about a writer’s process. Can you tell us a bit about yours? Do you write every day? In spurts? Do some pieces come easily while others need to be wrestled with for months or years?
PB: When I look back at the poetry that I wrote in my 20s, I think it really leaned toward the mystical and the visionary – and a sense of nostalgia, almost. I was kind of like a frustrated movie director but without the means or tech skills for film school. And I think that I did write in sort of spurts with the idea that the first “take” was the best. But taking workshops with Leonard Gontarek, Paul Martin, J.C. Todd, and the late Len Roberts really taught me the importance of incorporating revision. And while I’d always been a bit of a Luddite, using the computer – not to compose but to revise – helped me to work more intensively on one poem – with a little bit more of a work ethic – but still not more than three hours a time, max. More than that was one way to risk overworking. I did write every day for 5-8 hours when writing my novel back in the ‘90s. And what really prepared me for this was writing an honors thesis as an undergrad at Wash U in St. Louis. The thesis wasn’t necessarily a masterpiece but it did really stretch me and my prose writing through to a longer sort of form.
CS: I was drawn to your poem’s deeper backgrounds—their sense and utilization of history—not just personal histories but also the history of nations. Are you a history buff? What about this kind of background and deep focus appeals to you? What does it bring to your work?
PB: Well, I almost had to become a history buff in order to be able to write, at least the “origins” section, of Lost Autographs. My parents are both immigrants. My father came to the U.S. from Hungary in 1947 – Jewish and a Holocaust survivor. He got his Bachelor’s in Industrial Design and served as a naval officer – both in the U.S. My late mother, a gentile, who was nearly five years older than my father arrived in America in 1957 from Germany. She had worked at the American headquarters in Heidelberg and from what I understand, just sort of became fed up with German culture. They met and married in Chicago. At a certain point in my adolescence things started happening to me which heightened my curiousity about my family’s past, and more broadly, that of European history in general. And I found that, for instance, my maternal grandmother – a German non-conformist in the dangerous ‘30s – and my paternal grandfather, a Budapest lawyer ensconsed in the upper bourgeoisie who didn’t survive the war, were alive in the sense that they were holding messages for me. That if I understood their situations and historical contexts I would understand those messages better. So I majored in Literature and History in college and then went onto law school – that second part as sort of a way of following my grandfather’s footsteps. But one of the elements of these “messages” that I mention is that the world can be a very, very dangerous place. Whether you aspire to just “fit in” as a Hungarian professional or follow the path of rebellion and resistance, as my grandmother did (though she was also a pharmacist). My German grandmother actually died in a motorcycle accident well before the war. Studying history was a way of turning a corner and understanding these people. It became a task because turning that corner wasn’t just a physical corner on the way to Pop-pop’s house. I had to cross oceans to understand – maybe a little bit like Obama had to. Anyhow, I feel like this has endlessly enriched my writing as well as my self-understanding.
CS: Another aspect of your work that interested to me was your use of place and geography. Perhaps that goes hand-in-hand with the history angle, but I found it very grounding and satisfying. Is the use of this a conscious decision? Can you share what this adds to a poem?
PB: Part of my parents’ immigrant experience was that they were very curious about this new country that they had both come to. So they, along with my sister and me – did a lot of traveling in the United States. Moving to Oklahoma – where I lived from age five to 22 (minus time away at college) put us in the middle of the country which made the West accessible along with the East – where we had relatives – and the Midwest. Later on, since I skied, I went on a lot of ski trips to places like Colorado, Vermont, and Canada. Later on came Europe. When things aren’t going well for you in one place – such as when I failed the PA bar exam a number of times – it is a great salvation to travel in your mind to somewhere else. Somewhere where you might have memories. At times I’ve thought of myself as a bit of a drifter with a law degree. In this way it consciously and unconsciously seeps into my writing. And it can buoy you. If your day didn’t go very well in Philadelphia – or Media – it’s an escape to think about –or write about – the maid in Summit County, CO or the activist in St. Louis, or the musician – or the soccer game – back in Oklahoma, where I spent a lot of time driving around delivering pizza. Or the castle in Budapest. What this can add to a poem is that the “then” and the “somewhere else” can well become a subversion of the oppression of the here and now. And that is freedom – going places. I love maps – especially of the U.S. There is a message and a drama to them – and in another life I could well have become a geography professor.
CS: You write and publish fiction as well. I’m always fascinated by authors crossing genres. Which came first for you? How does your background in poetry influence your fiction—and vise versa?
PB: One thing that I haven’t touched on has been my art and my music. I grew up playing the cello and planning on being a professional artist or designer. Thus, I had a good bit of grounding in a couple of the arts before I started doing creative writing semi-seriously in high school. There I remember almost simultaneously writing a couple of short stories and getting poetry published in the Norman High School anthology Soupstone. But I mention music especially because I think that that background has influenced both my poetry and my fiction. A reviewer, Pat King, called the prose in my novel Long Green “musical.” I think that it was as a cellist that I first wrestled with the concept of virtuousity. Playing with vibrato, having an ear, playing through crescendos and diminuendos, bowing those exquisitely rich mid-range tones – the cello, with its Renaissance origins, is a beautiful instrument. And while I’ve played the cello maybe once in the past 35 years, it still influences, first, my poetry. And because I don’t think that my prose is ever completely divorced from poetry, it then influences my fiction. Plus, I think that I’ve written two line poems about huge things and long short stories about very small things.
CS: What’s next?
PB: I’m hoping to have a formal launch for Lost Autographs. And then maybe trying to set up a small tour to get the word out about it.
Curtis Smith’s latest books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Communion (essays, Dock Street Press). His next book, a series of essays about Slaughterhouse-Five, will be released by Ig Publishing this coming spring.
In Voice, FP Dorchak returns to many of the metaphysical themes he has explored throughout his other works, but he does so in a megaphysical, not to mention sexually explicit, way. The novel opens with protagonist Benjamin Becker on a plane bound for his hometown to deal with the dispersal of his father’s estate. Divorced and at a crossroads in his life, Benjamin has a head full of questions: “What was the meaning of life? Why ere we all put here to endure physical existence? Why did people have to die? Why was honesty so damned hard? Was true love ever obtainable if people continued to lust after seemingly greener pastures?” Though the novel grapples to some extent with all of these questions, the final question is its primary focus. To answer it, Dorchak has his protagonist fall for a flight attendant named Amanda and an apparently imaginary lover named Rebecca in rapid succession. That Benjamin is attracted to both concurrently only adds to his own confusion about the nature of love, and the fact that he attempts to bring Rebecca to life by projecting her personality into a mannequin doesn’t help matters. (Nor does his growing suspicion that Rebecca may not be as imaginary as he first thought.) What emerges from all of Benjamin’s turmoil is a bizarre and mind-bending meditation on love, being, and reincarnation that would feel right at home in an episode of the X-Files. Or maybe the XXX-Files.
Pretty much everything you need to know about digging into Tom Williams’s newest book is in the title: Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. For me, it’s one of the best titles in recent memory, and shows readers the humor Williams brings to the topic of race before they open the book.
Don’t mistake that humor for flippancy. The book is funny, but as a result of raw honesty about the situation.
And do not mistake that raw honesty for an oppressive read. Williams does not pull his punches, but nor does he ever pile on.
Yes, every story in Among the Wild Mulattos deals with race in America, but some do so more intensely than others, some with outlandish humor and others with a darker tone, creating an ebb and flow of emotion and intensity through the book.
Williams’s collection begins with “The Story of My Novel: Three Piece Combo With Drink,” a story about a writer—a bi-racial man—who can’t sell his writing in the traditional manner, and instead queries his favorite fast food chain. The chain publishes his novel, but changes it to make it a piece of propaganda for the company. The character then embarks on a hilarious, slapstick-style tour of franchises all around the country to promote what is only sort of his book. The heightened style Williams employs here adds to the humorous farce of it all.
However, the range of this collection is revealed when one contrasts “The Story of My Novel” with “Ethnic Studies,” a story about four men of different racial minorities recruited to stand in front of a college class and be, essentially, humiliated by the professors and their students’ ignorant questions. The professors, in a misguided and self-righteous attempt to broaden their students’ horizons, eventually become the butt of the jokes when the men brought into the class take control of the conversation.
“Ethnic Studies” is a funny story, especially at the end when the men parody their own stereotypes, which only makes the sheltered students more uncomfortable. But the style is more terse than many of the other stories, and the indignities the characters suffer are more brutal and overt. But, in the end, the humor is what Williams uses to balance things out, to restore a sense of justice to the story.
In constructing such a collection, Williams achieves a deft balance of poignancy, clarity, and humor. His work reminded me of a quote by Vonnegut:
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
It would be natural and justified to write a tearful book about the frustrating and exhausting situation of race in contemporary America, but to write one with laughter is its own accomplishment, perhaps a more difficult one. And, the clean up from this reading experience is pretty easy.
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales is available here.
I interviewed Tony Rauch back in 2011 upon the publication of his short story collection, Eyeballs Growing All Over Me — Again. Now he’s out with a new collection, What If I Go Down on My Knees?, which finds the author moving forward with his craft and breaking strange new ground. I caught up with him recently, and we chatted about his new collection as well as his recent quest to find a new pair of blue jeans…
What have you been up to lately? Mostly sending emails for promotion of my new book “What if I got down on my knees?” a short story collection of romantic misadventures and entanglements. People can read more about it on this web page: https://trauch.wordpress.com/books/whatifigotdown/. The book has been getting some nice reviews, and more are pending. At this point in a book release, marketing takes up 80% of my writing time. This includes contacting potential reviewers and answering interviews. I enjoy the interviews because it’s nice to converse with people who are also interested in literature, and they ask some questions I had not thought about, so it gets me thinking on other levels. But sometimes I feel like I’ve become an emailer and sales person instead of someone interested in writing and exploring literary ideas. I guess that’s all part of it though. I’m also looking for new blue jeans.
The first story in What If I Go Down On My Knees? is about a man who runs a stampede of dogs through a town. What inspired this scenario? A sudden interest in being a part of a huge dog stampede. I was walking my dog and my sister’s dog and we were running and running and thought it would be really cool if the dogs had more friends and if there were more dogs with us. So I thought: how could that come about and where would we go? What context would that be plausible? So it was just me extrapolating an everyday event, sort of a wish.
The narrator of the story describes this running of dogs as a kind of art. Is there a parallel to be drawn between your own chosen art form, writing, and running dogs through churches, supermarkets, gas station, and alleys? Between running words through a reader’s mind and dogs through a town? There is no parallel for me. But maybe a reader may see it differently. It is for the reader to decide for themselves. I can only present the material, and hopefully that presentation is as clear as it can be. Writing is an art of the mind, where the dog stampede would be more of a visual art and thus have more limitations. A writer’s words can convey many stories and hopefully several possible interpretations of those stories. The art of the dog running, the herding and stampeding, is an act that can be seen in different ways by different people – as a poetic respite, as a disruption, etc. So that is the only connection I can see – like looking at clouds, different people may interpret the clouds as different things. I have been finding some jeans that may be suitable, to put your reader’s minds at ease. What concerns me is when literature tries to be perfect. A writer is reflecting a human reality, which by its nature is not perfect. So why write characters, dialog, and plots that are smooth and eloquent? In reality the way people speak and react to things is not always smooth and eloquent. To me, attempts at that come off as contrived. Though it does not bother me when other art forms – visual arts and music – strive to be smooth, in balance, well proportioned, mathematically perfect, etc. Because some of that is trying to be a reflection of nature, which at times is perfectly proportioned.
Your narrator mentions in passing that running a hundred dogs through an alley needs to be “done properly” in order to rise to the level of art. What are your own thoughts on the “proper” way to write? What makes good writing? What elevates writing to the level of art? And what should art do? Clarity of writing, but not necessarily of purpose and intent so as to leave room for the reader to assign their own interpretations and feelings into the situation. Imagination. Originality. Energy – a story should move quickly in a direction. Showing things in a different way, presenting new ideas or perspectives, another point of view. Art should attempt to assign life meaning and purpose, should attempt to explain why things happen, should aid in feeling empathy for others, should inform. Or it should be a respite from troubles and the daily sameness in taking us places we normally could not go. There is ‘meaning’ type art and ‘decorative’ type art. Both types are valid. Much like new dungarees have a function, but also must be decorative and comfortable.
Who are some writers who, in your opinion, rise to the level of creating art? Who inspires you? Who were you reading while you were working on What If I Go Down On My Knees? In general, that would be a long list, but for this book what I was looking at were short stories. Some of my favorites include:
- “for Esme – with love and squalor” by J.D. Salinger
- “winter dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- “the betrayed kingdom” by Richard Brautigan
- “murderers” by Leonard Michaels
- “our work and why we do it” and “the wound” by Donald Barthelme
- “from the floodlands” by Adrienne Clasky
- and sci-fi from the 40s, 50s, and 60s as it introduces ideas and possibilities.
To me these deal with realizations and change, with challenging readers to see the world in new and different ways, or expanding the short fiction format. What is life without the opportunities for future possibilities? Close yourself off and you die, open your aperture and you have many paths to explore. Hopefully, I am unique and different, but I’m probably an amalgamation of past experiences, formats, and themes that reached deeply into me for some reason I am unable to see at this time. At my best I am a combination of the favorites listed above, with myself mixed in.
And what if you do go down on your knees? I had not thought of that. Most of these stories are story starters as life is a continuum, sometimes with no clear beginning or ending. I guess if you have to beg for something, for someone to stay, then that is an indication that this someone means a great deal to you, or there is a void in your life. But you also have to let things go. This frees space for other things to arrive. But getting to that point where you are on your knees at least is getting yourself to see this need, so at the very least you are arriving at a point of departure, at a point of decision making, at a point of clarity in knowing that you need or want something, so maybe that’s not so bad, finding a hierarchy of needs and realizing a priority list is being arranged. You can decide what jeans to purchase. If you go to several large stores, you can find a variety and that will help decisions fall into place – to see what’s out there, what’s available. You just have to get out there and keep looking, keep going. Inspiration can come from real life occurrences, and sometimes those situations can be painful or confusing. Sometimes you don’t find those jeans that fit.
Word on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.
Not exactly a small press book, but here’s a link to my review of Jonathan Lethem’s new collection, Lucky Alan: http://monkeybicycle.net/book-review-lucky-alan-by-jonathan-lethem/