Friday, September 30, 2016

Ode to Favorite Book Stores

On a recent visit to Norwich Vermont I stopped in at the Norwich Bookstore, a lovely little book store — warm, welcoming with a small but smartly chosen selection. If you ever get a chance, stop by.

It reminded me how much I love book stores: browsing through what seems like an infinite amount of fascinating possibilities. Even after I was familiar with most of the current work in my particular areas of interest (modern poetry, mainly) book stores could surprise me with something new, something unknown, something unexpected.

Which got me to thinking about my favorite book stores. Which in turn got me to thinking about how many of my favorites are no longer around. It's sad, but not surprising after 30-40 years. And also not too sad since the fact is I have very fond memories of each store that keeps them in my thoughts. As I look over my bookshelves, certain books are intimately connected to the store in which I found them.

So here's an ode, an elegy if you will, to some of my favorite book stores that are no longer with us.

Phoenix Book Shop, New York  City  

I had no idea of the heritage of Phoenix Book Shop when I found it, near where a friend lived in Greenwich Village. I just knew it was a tiny store chock full of amazing poetry books in the lower level of a residential street. I found old copies of Big Table magazine there. And I found a copy of the original The Nights of Naomi by Bill Knott. It was like discovering King Tut's tomb. What's more it was affordable! The price written in pencil on the inside front cover is $3.50. Even then, unnaturally cheap for a book whose publisher went out of business before it could be distributed. I took it to the front where the person sitting at the desk looked at the price, looked at me, then looked at the price again and said "This can't be right." I felt like a thief caught in the act. But after what seemed like 2-3 minutes silence he shrugged and sold it to me for the price as marked. The store was full of beautiful volumes, most well beyond my means. But even a few old magazines and the rare find like the Knott book made me feel like I came away with buried treasure.

Gotham Book Mart, New York City

What can I say? It was Gotham Book Mart.  The holy grail of book lovers, and particularly poetry lovers, in New York City. So much to discover. Barely room to stand up. The books (at least in the poetry section) were double stacked on the shelves, making browsing a physical challenge. But always worth it. And then there were the tables with stacks of books (recommended? I guess) when you got tired of struggling with the shelves. Anything but a relaxed ambience, but you had the feeling you were knee-deep in literature itself.

Compendium Books, Camden Town London

When I was in London in 1977, someone told me about Compendium Books. So I took the train over to see it and ended up making several stops there before I had to leave England. Wow! It was like Gotham Book Mart, except in London and without the NYC bustle. More relaxed. The shelves were crammed, but the aisles were wide enough you could take your time. Camden wasn't hip then — just a cheap place to rent space. And the ambience was more hippy flea market than NYC subway. Among the British poets, they had a surprising array of American poets too, including a number of Kayak books. I found Charles Simic's What the Grass Says there. And it was my first discovery of Portugal's Fernando Pessoa in Jonathan Griffin's exquisite translations published by Carcanet. I always felt like I came away with only a fraction of what I needed to know or experience. But even at their prices, I only had so much money — and time — to spend.

Asphodel Books, Burton, Ohio

 I didn't know Asphodel when it was located in downtown Cleveland. I discovered it after James Lowell moved it into the garage of his house in Burton Ohio. Not a regular bookstore — you had to call to arrange a visit. But Lowell's"shop" was packed with the most amazing collection of books. Given his history, and my lack of funds, I'm surprised he put up with me. But I was in love with modern poetry and he liked to talk. So he let me look through his shelves oohing and aahing over marvelous books (most of which I clearly couldn't afford). He talked about visiting Ian Hamilton Findlay — one of my recent personal "discoveries" — and complained about how Findlay never took enough care packing anything so half of what he ordered arrived damaged. Which is why he would go in person to Scotland once a year to restock. Asphodel is where I first saw an original copy of Andre Breton's Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution; several issues. I don't remember what I bought there. Probably not much. But I did buy a Findlay silk screen of tug boats entitled "Triptych". (Sadly, lost during one of many moves over the years.) And James gave me a signed pamphlet by Robert Bly for free. Because,  he claimed, "Bob gave it to me to make a few extra bucks off people who can afford it."

Spring Church Book Company, Spring Church, Pennsylvania

  Before there was the internet, before there was Amazon, there was mail order. And if you were interested in modern poetry, Spring Church was an absolute necessity and life support system. I don't know who told me about Spring Church — maybe Tom Lux or David Young, maybe Phyllis Jones my freshman college English professor. But whoever did, thank you. Spring Church was a mail order book service originating from Pennsylvania focusing on poetry. Living in Ohio in the 70's it was difficult to know what was happening in modern poetry. Spring Church provided three invaluable services: 1.) a catalog of recent books sent out four times a year or thereabouts, including many small press offerings; 2.) recommendations of books of particular note; 3.) a discount on the books themselves!  I lived off Spring Church much of the time I was in college and the two years after while I was still in Ohio. I suspect I bought more books from them than from all of the traditional book stores combined. They were a lifeline, a source and trusted companion in this new world I was exploring.

I have since found other wonderful book stores and many happy surprises in quite ordinary shops. But these four in particular are experiences I will never forget and I will always cherish as significant milestones in my growth as a poet, a reader, and a person. I will always be indebted to the people who made such wonderful oases of art and literature available. Thank you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Art & Society: A rant

At times it seems like the United States is coming apart. Or more accurately, tearing itself apart. The daily reports of black citizens being killed by policemen in the most menial incidents (such as traffic stops) with little or no provocation. Egged on by the incendiary and anti-constitutional ravings of the current GOP presidential nominee, all playing to the basest instincts of the (WASP) population.

It is not a question of whether to respond or not — you can't help but react emotionally to violent schisms in the social fabric. But the question is how to respond.

First you need to decide how you wish to respond as a individual; as a member of society.  This in itself is no small feat. Silence feels like implicit acceptance. Railing against injustice with words, although cathartic, seems like an empty gesture, especially from those of us not directly in the "line of fire" so to speak.  So, action. But what action? The options, from silent protests to direct confrontation, all have their pros and cons, which it is up to the individual to decide between. Ultimately, few if any reach a completely satisfactory balance between appropriate scale without breaching the moral boundaries of the actor. (Violence as a response to injustice does not breed justice. Or simply put: two wrongs do not make a right.)

But if you are writer, or some other form of artist, words (or your medium of choice) are your primary weapon. It just feels wrong to write cheerful poems that ignore the storm outside the door. Silence may be implicit acceptance, but changing the subject feels downright complicit.

However, more often than not, art that attempts to address immediate political or social upheaval often falls flat. And the more pervasive and violent the upheaval, the less successful the art tends to be.

I am reminded of this fact by Juan Felipe Herrera's poem on about the latest police shooting of a black citizen. The poem is clearly heart-felt and well-meaning. More importantly, coming from the current U.S. poet laureate, it probably will have more of an impact than work by any other poet. However, the impact comes from the poem's context, not from the art of the poem itself.

It's not Herrera's fault. It is simply hard for a work of art to address horrific events of such scope and depth. Attempting to encompass the scale of the issue within a poem  tends to result in abstractions and generalizations, that make the poem flabby; trite rather than touching, stereotyped rather than transformative.

But the artist has no choice but to try. And it strikes me that there are two options that tend to have a higher record of success than others. To encompass the horror without being consumed by its incomprehensible size, the artist needs to take the poem to an even higher, almost mythic level. Think of Robert Bly's Teeth-Mother Naked at Last, for example. The other option is to drive the poem deeply and inexorably towards the personal, to bring the issue down to size. An example of this is James Dickey's The Firebombing.

By personal I mean individual in scale, not personal as we tend think of art, as self-absorbed. In Dickey's case, he forces us to empathize with the bomber, not the victims, creating an uncomfortable union where we as audience must experience the separation and dehumanization needed to carry out acts of war. Another more recent example is Ross Gay's excellent poem about Eric Garner. This time, Gay focuses in flat objective language on the absolutely trivial, most human,  aspects of the victim. The small but essential things that have been snuffed out, rather than attempt to capture the man as a whole.
An aside: part of what makes  Picasso's Guernica such a remarkable work of art is that it some how  manages to approach a horrific event from both a mythic and deeply personal point of view at the same time. 

So what happens if you don't write about it? Well, that might be considered the third option. If you choose not to write about what is happening around you, and continue with the other parts of your life and art, something strange happens. You might be in the  middle of a poem about the Edo period in Japan and its attitude towards western intrusions. Or might be writing about how the light at dusk filters through the leaves to form ever-changing patterns on your living room wall. And suddenly the writing takes a dark and ominous turn. Subjects come up you didn't expect. Your writing is hijacked by an emotion that demands to be heard.

Essentially, whatever emotions you do not address, start to seep into your work, ooze out of your pores, and inform everything you do. This might not be recognizable by anyone else.  But as an author, you immediately detect the loss of control, the invasion of another, more influential consciousness on your work. Will it help? will it impact others? Unlikely. But it is the consequence of not taking action earlier. Or even writing a bad poem rather than no poem at all, when situations demand it.

As an artist, you may not be able to sway society, to influence for the common good, or change the course of nature. But then again, maybe you can. Maybe if you stop being an artist for a few minutes and just be a citizen, a member of society, a human being. Maybe what you say will have an impact. No more nor less than any other human. But collectively, as a voice quiet and firm, demanding that we, as a whole, act on our better, if sometimes flawed and susceptible, nature.