Out in Print will be Out of Town

IMG_20140203_095704As you may or may not know, I’ve been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award (Best Gay Erotica – “The Bears of Winter”), so I’ll be in New York City for the ceremony next Monday and won’t be posting. Win or lose, Out in Print will return Monday, June 8th with a review of whatever I read on the plane. As Duncan has more pressing affairs at the moment, the lovely lady Lexie will guard the blog if she can be coaxed from behind the computer.

JW

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Nothing Looks Familiar – Shawn Syms (Arsenal Pulp Press)

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Shawn Syms is one of my four favorite writers currently working from Canada, the others being ‘Nathan Burgoine. Christopher DiRaddo, and Peter Dube, so I have been looking forward to reading this collection of his work since it was released in Canada months ago. I can say it was definitely worth the wait. But before we dive into the review, I need to say the cover is brilliant. Seldom do I see art that comments on the interior in such a provocative, pithy manner. The title, too, illustrates the theme of these stories.

Throughout a dozen pieces, Syms explores the concept as well as the boundaries of normalcy, tackling the subject from the very first story, “On The Line,” a tale of a single woman working on the line in a meat packing plant. Wanda isn’t a particularly likeable character, but by the end, we learn she has dreams and goals and makes a promise to herself to move away and do something she wants to do. But when she leaves work on what she thinks is her last day, she tries to find her car in the plant parking lot, but can’t because “nothing looks familiar.”

From the drug-addled adolescents and roofied male-on-male rape of “Four Pills” to the blurring of boundaries at a church basement meeting room full of sex abusers in “Snap” to the Ozzie and Harriet Manson family of meth-heads in “Family Circus,” Syms is bent on creating characters that slide from gritty fantasy to grittier reality and back again. This is particularly true of the narrator of “Family Circus,” for as anti-suburban as making and dealing meth, altering checks with acetate, and OD’ing in the bathroom is, a veneer of responsibility is overlaid on the scene: I keep Cindy in the crib in the back bedroom when we wash the cheques, so the fumes don’t get to her… the narrator says …I manage to keep things tidy and focus on working the mail, and the money we get from that lets me feed the kids. Rent, meth, beer, food–in that order. And then clothes and toys for the kids. Oh, and formula for Cindy. I know it wouldn’t be safe for her to take my breast milk. I’m not stupid. 

You say you’re looking for some blurred gender roles? Look no further than “Man, Woman, and Child,” a story about a young couple and their basement renter, a guy who is an adult baby, replete with forty-six baby outfits in his closet and a man-sized crib. What’s wonderful about these characters is that all three characters share gender role behaviors of the others. The adult baby is both child and man, the man in the couple has some decidedly feminine attributes, and the woman possesses a distinctly male side who appreciates a challenges and craves sexual variety.

Fascinating and engaging without being showy or self-conscious, Shawn Syms’s “Nothing Looks Familiar” is as rewarding as it is unique–a fine example of one of the finest gay writers in Canada. Highly recommended

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Hot Copy: Classic Gay Erotica from the Magazine Era – Dale Chase (Lethe Press)

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There was a piece of advice I was given about writing erotica years ago. I unfortunately can’t remember who it was who passed it along, but the short version is this: if you take out the sex scenes, it still has to be a good story. Erotica is undoubtedly about sex, but sex presented as a mechanism devoid of the energy and drive and character of the people involved will fall a little flat and become a scene, not a story. Make the reader care about a character, or even deplore a character, and the reader becomes invested. And when the clothes start dropping and the sex scorches on the page, the reader will willingly go all-in.

Hot Copy, Dale Chase’s recent collection of classic magazine era gay erotica, is exactly this notion put to practice. These tales, which originally saw print between 1997 and 2006 in some of the hottest gay magazines, burst with character – and sex – from beginning to end. To those coming to reading gay erotica more recently, don’t be tempted to dismiss Freshmen, Indulge, Men, and In Touch as being from a bygone era in this digital age. The best stories – and make no mistake, Chase has some of the best stories – survive the scrutiny of a modern eye.

That isn’t to say that the time and place of these stories is not a welcome flavour to the telling. “Politically Incorrect” – a story of a closeted politician caught with his pants down – is by no means an alien event today, but there’s something extra-gleeful in this nineties/aughts version of an outed politician and the gay lover who had no idea he was seeing a man who’s politics undermined everything he secretly enjoyed. The pivot of this unaware partner telling the tale is just so viscerally enjoyable – and pulled me right back to the anger at the hypocrisy that ran so rampantly in those decades.

And it was still damned hot. Make no mistake, Dale Chase is one of the best erotica writers out there. Sensuality that blisters with a kind of frank realism is in every story. Taste, scent, touch – Chase grabs the reader though the senses and doesn’t let go, and this willingness to explore the physical alongside the emotional is a huge strength.

For many readers, myself included, Dale Chase has long become the name associated with the best of erotic gay westerns. The grit of trail dust, the reality of a time before gay love could speak its name, and the scent of leather and sweat are rarely evoked with skill comparable to that of Dale Chase. It should be no surprise to find that Chase’s skill translates so easily to other times, other places, and other characters but I will admit to a few moments of genuine awe when seeing what Chase accomplishes in the space of such a short piece.

And I do mean short. Remember, these are gems mined from the magazine era. In the magazine world, word counts were harsh taskmasters, and many of the stories in Hot Copy achieve their goal in six to eight pages. An equal sized anthology of erotica collected today might contain sixteen to twenty tales; Hot Copy has thirty-three, and every story still delivers rich characterization and a satisfying narrative arc. It’s no wonder Chase had to come up with a second pen name, Karl Taggart, to disguise multiple sales within single issues during those magazine years. “More with less” is rarely accomplished this well.

The stories themselves aren’t arranged chronologically as they were originally published (which must have been a temptation) but instead an enticing mix of tones. The collection launches with the less-than-hopeful (but still hot) “On the Run,” where Chase takes the Pizza Delivery trope and tops the heat and sweat with a kind of painful desperation, but follows with “Man’s Best Friend,” which has a sweeter side, more emotional connection between the two men, and a light – and funny – conclusion. I found myself enjoying the unexpectedness of the stories, and failing to accomplish my original goal of one story a night (my usual habit when reading anthologies). I often had to force myself to put the book down after three or four stories, and even then with great reluctance.

The recurring theme of San Francisco and the surrounding area is never overpowering, but lends itself to adding to a sense of cohesion as well. Glimpses of areas (and eras) of change are tiny brush strokes in the whole. Silicon Valley is visited, and I laughed out loud at “Supply and Demand,” where a stock boy is saddled with an ancient 386 on his desk. There’s charm in the California weather – fogs, mists, El Niño – as well as the reality of nearby natural escapes. Cabins and forests and parks feature often, even the ranches that flourished to the east, out of the grasp of urban sprawl, and even the author admits to being amused at finding a cowboy tale in this modern era of stories.

Those author notes, by the way, are a wonderful touch. Sometimes a single sentence of context, but often a paragraph or so adding a lens through which to think about the story you’ve just read, the commentary added a wonderful insight to both the author and the writing. I’ve always loved hearing about the birth of ideas, and many of these spoke to the truth of the writerly experience: have a pen handy, because that lightning can strike anywhere and any time. Even traffic school.

I’ve mentioned a few, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t step forward and put a few stories into the spotlight. First, I’ll say it clearly, I loved this collection and it is rare that I enjoy every single story in an anthology, but that was my experience with Hot Copy.

Of course, I have favourites.

The aforementioned “Man’s Best Friend,” tickled my funny bone with a cat-loving man falling for a dog-walker and not just the least bit owing to my own status as a cat-person who ended up with an eighty pound dog who now rules a good portion of my day thanks to my husband. “Bear,” in which a husky hairy fellow makes an appearance – a rarity in the magazines of the time – was a hot and very welcome addition, and the author notes thereafter brought another laugh-out-loud moment from the collection. The potential May-December romance in “Higher Education” was a lovely mix of romance, sweat, and the pervasive nervousness of the decade, and had just the right note of hopefulness to leave me smiling. And finally, “The Act.” Chase cleverly chose to close the collection with this piece, which is set in a theatre and was the perfect mix of everything that had come before – the sex, the hope, the worry, the vulnerability, and characters who are unforgettable and handled so deftly the reader closes the book wishing to start over again at once. Chase calls it her favourite, and I can’t help but agree.

The forward motion of queer culture and technology (and the intersection of the two) inevitably leads to some things falling by the wayside that trigger nostalgia in those of us who look back and remember. The physical magazine era feels like one of those things, and though I wouldn’t trade the progress for anything, I’m so pleased that presses like Lethe exist and that these stories – such a perfect example of the best of the era – have a second life, and can find their way into the hands of eager readers.

© 2015 ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Gary Carnivele, Thief of Intellectual Property

IMG_0754I have been writing Out in Print since the middle of 2009. Six long years and over 500 posts celebrating wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) authors who tell the stories of my community. It has been a pleasure and privilege, and I’ve been proud to champion new writers as well as publicize established ones.

Blogs such as this are a tremendous amount of work–both in terms of time taken to read the material as well as the energy involved in processing it and writing about it. My job as freelance editor and my own writing career sometimes must be put on the back burner to get a blog post out. That’s fine. I long ago accepted that as part and parcel of the job. Neither I nor William Holden (Out in Print’s co-founder, who left to pursue other activities) have ever entertained the notion of accepting advertising to monetize this blog. We both felt it would undercut our credibility.

Enter Gary Carnivele, a thief who has taken numerous posts from Out in Print and re-posted them on his own blog, We the People (I’m not even going to link to it). He has also stolen from other publications, including the Bay Area Reporter (shout out here to my good friend Jim Provenzano for alerting me to the situation). And he is, most likely, making money from our efforts. He accepts advertising–more on that in a moment–and I’m sure he doesn’t give it away for nothing.

What does Mr. Carnivele think that copyright symbol is for at the end of each post? This is my intellectual property. This comes from my heart and my soul. They may just be words on a screen to Mr. Carnivele–no-sweat-off-his-brow content to post to turn a quick buck, but this is my life. It’s what I do and what I share with my community. To see it stolen is an incredible violation of my trust as an artist and a writer. There is a special place in hell for this guy and all who do what he does.

After a rather sternly worded Facebook message (full disclosure: I called him a “bitch.” It was kind under the circumstances), he has now taken  down my posts. I suspect those stolen from the B.A.R. have also been deleted. However, that action doesn’t alter the offense. Discarding what you steal doesn’t excuse you from the act of stealing it. It also doesn’t address a couple fundamental questions I’d like to put to Mr. Carnivele: How can you justify taking someone else’s work and turning a buck (or even a cent) off it? Why didn’t you at least email me and ask to use it? How do you sleep at night knowing you’ve stolen from others?

Also in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve messaged our mutual friends on Facebook a link to this post as well as emailed it to his advertisers. Shouldn’t they know what sort of man they’re dealing with? After all, if he’ll steal from me, he’ll steal from you. And if Mr. Carnivele wishes to respond to any of this, I beg him to do so. Let’s have an open, frank discussion of why you believe stealing content from my blog to post to yours to make money (or even for free) is a socially acceptable thing to do. I’ll post any response you wish to give, unedited, in the comment section.

But I doubt he’ll respond.

Thieves operate best in the dark.

 

JW

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Spring Poetry Roundup II

CAFE_frontThe Cafe of Our Departure – Priscilla Atkins (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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This celebration of love and friendship is also a devotional from Atkins to her best friend/soul-mate, Mike, who was stricken with brain cancer, and it’s everything you’d expect from such a subject. It has joy and grief, sometimes cheek-to-jowl in the same poem. Rather than being depressing, however, it gives you the picture of two lives well-lived and a bond that lasts, in many ways, to this day. Atkins is, by turns, lyrical (“Cabinet of Wonder”), contemplative (“Unguided Tour of Grief with Green Wallpaper”), frank (“Hospitals & Guns”), and consumed by memories (“The Day I Made Potato Latkes”). My very favorite piece in this book, however, is one of the few poems of rage, “Why It Pisses Me Off When Someone Assumes You Died Of AIDS”: Because you weren’t HIV-positive;/because it doesn’t matter./Because it does matter/that people check their assumptions./Because I’ve seen someone/who’s sat at my table/say gay people, look/down in shame/and in that look/murder thousands. I know from personal experience that grief has at least some of its origins in rage, and Atkins’s is well-expressed and aimed here. A breathtaking journey with a sorrowful outcome, The Cafe of Our Departure is very emotional reading.

imgresTapping My Arm for a Vein – Jim Elledge (Lethe Press)

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In Lambda Literary Award-winning poet Jim Elledge’s latest collection, stories and linear meaning is less important than emotion and configural word association–almost as if the literal is deconstructed so that the reader pays more attention to the meanings of individual words than how they relate to each other. Either way, this landscape holds no comforts. This is not a place of warm fires or wonders of nature. It’s a dystopian fugue state of numbered, multi-part nightmares populated by grief, anxiety, and trepidation. The section called “Aftermath” features a character named Mister who is followed (“A Terrible Body Stalks Mister”), bereft of company (“Daylight Savings Time & Mister In It”), suicidal (“Mister Faces the Holidays”), and overloaded on information (“Mister Betwixt & Between”). He finds solace in no one and nothing, and his torture appears to be perpetual, as in “3rd Person Helps Mister Articulate His Woes”: Mister’s bored day to day, July to June./His job’s a joke, his days off fraught with stress./Most nights, he slips out to spit at the moon/and curse each star./ He can’t help but obsess about loss other nights. Elledge’s world is full of people I’d not want to meet and places I’d not wish to visit often, but reading the reportage from a correspondent to this sphere of trauma and strife is often fascinating. Look, but only from a distance.

Dykewomon_cover-e1426014573919What Can I Ask: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014 – Elana Dykewomon (A Midsummer Night’s Press)

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This is a terrific collection from a poet whose work spans decade, and it’s a rich body of poetry in which one can see joy, heartbreak, and elegy, but growth most of all–personal as well as artistic, though you’d be hard pressed to separate the two. Dykewomon’s work is all about acceptance and empowerment, looking inside for who you really are and exploring those avenues. Moreover, it’s about belief in yourself, belief in your identity, and belief in your abilities. Even though it’s plainspoken poetry, the lessons are as powerful as any which come with more flowery, ornate language. And Dykewomon is more than willing to pass on the knowledge she’s gained. In “a poem for my unborn niece,” for example, she states: We all know a fat womon is/what she eats./Can we watch you eating?/You must be hiding something/in your flesh,/is it rage or sex?/C’mon, we’re your friends,/we just care about you and we want to see/where the fabric hugs the expanse of your/stomach/the rolls at your waist/the fat that collects in pockets on your upper back. This self-examination is brutally frank, but its honesty resonates with anyone who has been deemed different at some point. Powerful and poignant, this is a collection of life lessons worthy of everyone’s review.

TAIL_FRONTTeaching a Man to Unstick His Tail – Ralph Hamilton (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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I love learning things, especially about poetry as my education in this realm is spotty at best. The last part of this roundup, I learned what a glosa was; this time, I learned that a cento is a poem comprised of lines taken from other authors. Hamilton has some interesting centones from John Ashbery (“Prayer for Spring”), Joseph Cornell (“Columbaria”), and Sappho (“Your Soft Throat”) as well as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (“Clean Wood Box”). As interesting as these pieces are, I think I prefer Hamilton’s own vision unconstrained by the lines of others. From the simplicity of “Us, Explained” to the more complicated “Pentimento,” Hamilton relates the dissolution of a relationship with astonishing clarity and lack of sentimentality. Sometimes, he uses toys, as in “Pals”: …By four/years old I loved/Play Doh’s sweet smell/too, its crayon hues,/soft-silk stretch and all/the things I shaped–/sausagey trees, whole/houses, roly-poly/families and pets. Even/so, left out too long/things formed grow/hard, and overnight/they crack. I had never read Hamilton before, but the energy and detail in poems like “Putting Down the Dog” or “Spooning” make me look forward to the next collection. I wonder what I’ll learn from that one.

And that’s it for this Roundup. I did have one more collection time simply didn’t allow me to get to, so that’s where I’ll start the next one. Until then, these fine volumes will have to get you through. Click the links and enjoy!

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Spring Poetry Roundup I

I had fully intended to get this roundup in April since that’s National Poetry Month, however, a cracked tooth and other of life’s unplanned events interfered. Better late than never. And I have so much material, I have to split this into two parts. Get your credit card out and be ready to click on the links, because there are some marvelous collections here.


s245970311962353406_p126_i2_w600Rebels – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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I can’t think of a better way to kick things off than with one of my favorite writers, Jeff Mann. In his latest offering, Rebels, Mann shows his Southern roots–though, to be fair, he rarely strays from them, which is part of his appeal for me. He stays in the Civil War vein of his novels Purgatory and Salvation, offering up poetry suffused by the War Between the States. Rather than enter the battle wholly, however, he has one foot firmly planted in the present, a dichotomy reflected in the cover, which shows a Confederate soldier above a pickup truck. From the delicious elegy of “Buckwheat Cakes” to the beautiful imagery in “Snow Quilt,” Mann occupies his niche with a comfortable assurance that makes his work solid and dependable. A fine example of this is the opening to “Turner Ashby Monument, Chestnut Ridge”:  Turner, you’re hard to find, nineteenth-century/hero lost in the twenty-first-century sprawl/of Harrisonburg, Virginia. We’re using/my husbear’s fancy iPhone to track you,/past McDonald’s and malls, aluminum-siding/housing muddle, one contemporary/abortion after another. The Daughters/have managed to save a few woods yet;/the spot where you died, bullet through/your Fauquier heart, is shaded still with/thick green oak-shade, though Chestnut/Ridge has nary a chestnut left, all brought/low by a foreign blight. No one else does what Mann attempts, and though I would normally exhort a writer to get outside his niche and try something new, for Mann that would represent a betrayal of sorts. I love that he stays where he is, respecting his traditions and his heritage. Long may he do so.

9781484974933The Candied Road Ahead: Poems and Stories – Robert P. Langdon (CreateSpace)

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Growing up gay and Catholic is not easy, as witnessed by countless books by men and women who have done just that. Drawing inspiration from “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Brooke Shields, John and Yoko, Diane Arbus, adolescence, care of elderly parents, and shopping malls, Langdon creates worlds that are heartbreakingly accurate–as pointed as they are occasionally humorous. His experiences are, perhaps, no different than ours, but he has a particularly warped point of view. Sometimes the warp is for comic effect–most often in the stories/monologues at the end of the collection–but that warp pokes its scaly head up for some deliciously awkward and telling moments in his poetry. I’m thinking of the poignancy in “My Father’s Naked Body” and “Life Support,” or the oddly erotic “Dentist,” or his ruminations on the differences between gay men, “Gay Like Me” or “Alone Still.” Langdon’s images are crisp and his intent straightforward, as in this snippet from “The Past is Hunting Me”: The past is hunting me./Blooms in my old room/like a snail./It leaves cum smears/on the mattress./Feasts on fallen/lint from my navel./Redecorates and makes use/of every stained corner.It follows me to work/like a ratted dog. This volume is the first I’d heard of Langdon, and as far as I can determine, it’s his only collection, but he’s a poet to be reckoned with and you should definitely seek this one out.

City_FRONTCity of Starlings – Daniel Nathan Terry (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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I first encountered this wonderful poet through his last collection, Waxwings. I was mightily impressed with his voice, and his latest release, City of Starlings, is no less impressive. Although the bird and nature motifs run through nearly all the poems here and are givens both here and in Waxwings, this seems to be more concerned, on the surface, with death. The more I read, however, the more I believe the majority of these pieces concern themselves with the brevity of life–a concept far different than that of death. This is clear throughout poems like “City of Crows,” “The Deer,” “Only the Jays,” and “Since I Married the Painter.” However, Terry also visualizes a nature that exists despite the presence of man, as typified in “Cycling Through the Graveyard” and this bit from “Cycling to the Sea, You Realize”: most of it exists without you–/the green loom on the saw grass marsh,/the warp and weft of the dark bayous,/the oyster beds’ gray skeins. Little of it needs/you–not the harried, scuttling ghost/crab, nor the egret embroidering its light/onto the brackish water while you, pedaling/by, have just the time to pull this thread/of memory. Whenever I read Terry’s work, I’m always left amazed and a bit awed by his use of language. I can hardly wait for his novel, The Guardian.

9781551525839_WhereWordsEndWhere The World Ends and My Body Begins – Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp Press) 

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For those who don’t know, glosa poems open with a four-line stanza (usually a quote from another poem), then four ten-line stanzas each ending with a line from the original quotation. I love the structure of this form because it really challenges the poet to tie theme and vision to a tight format and it enables her to extend the work of her influences and pay homage. Amber Dawn meets all the challenges of this form brilliantly, engaging with such wonderful forebears as Gertrude Stein (“Chicken Dance”), Lucille Clifton (“Story Book”), Adrienne Rich (“Queer Grace”), and Christina Rossetti (“On and Up”). This form is ripe for staking a claim and taking territory for you own, and Dawn does just that in pieces like “The Revered Femme Bottom,” “Dirt Bag Love Affair,” and my favorite of the bunch, “Vagina Cantata” (which glosas award-winning poet Rachel Rose’s “American Pageant”). Here’s the second stanza: You’re one of us, gobble-gobble, we accept./Are you ready to rule your nympholepts?/Trust your idiosyncratic gut and follow/these step-by-step instructions./Don’t be nervous, men would rather/buy your used panties than pay child support./After all they deserve, just deserts, desert ride/the long hot hot long long hot desert ride/A mirage is mostly water vapor, play your fluid part/singing and swinging to A Cowboy’s SweetheartDawn’s vision is so powerful that I’m anxious to see what she can do outside this structure.

cover-mock-up-creamPelvis with Distance – Jessica Jacobs (White Pine Press)

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And speaking of homage, Jessica Jacobs’s latest release, is named after one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s most famous canvases and deals not only with O’Keeffe, but with her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Subtitled A Biography in Poems, this audacious collection does just what most biographies set out to do–chronicle a life so thoroughly that the reader actually feels like an intimate of the subject. O’Keeffe’s creativity and independence shine through in poems wrought of color and inflection. Their titles may seem prosaic (“In the Canyon I,” “Red Barn in Wheatfield,” “Lake George, 1922″, “The Grey Hills”), but those titles hide a multitude of shades. Even “Black Abstraction” is anything but monochromatic: Days my window-propped elbow/turns shades darker/than the rest of me, I would crush/every passing thing–rust-red silos/scrub oaks’ hardscrabble green,/the mountains blue with distance–/grind it to powder I could cut/with this sky’s titanium white/to paint it whole again. But as much as this collection is about O’Keeffe and her vision, it’s also about her relationship with her husband. Pelvis with Distance is an incredibly ambitious work, but amazingly, it fulfills all those ambitions and provides moments where you simply must put the book down and think.

And that’s it for Part I. Next up, we’ll be taking a look at Jim Elledge, Elena Dykewomon and a few others. Until then, happy reading.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with Keith Banner

BannerAuthor Keith Banner lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. His works of fiction include the novel, The Life I Lead (Knopf), and The Smallest People Alive, (Carnegie Mellon University Press), a book of stories. He has been published in journals such Other Voices, Washington Square, Kenyon Review, and Third Coast. He received an O. Henry Prize for his short story, “The Smallest People Alive,” and an Ohio Arts Council individual artist fellowship for fiction. In addition, The Smallest People Alive was named one of the best books of 2004 by Publishers Weekly. His most recent collection of short fiction, Next to Nothing (Lethe Press), has been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction. Banner is also the co-founder of Vision­aries + Voices, a studio for artists with disabilities, and Thunder-Sky, Inc., an outsider art gallery.

Gavin Atlas: Hi Keith. Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview! Your stories in Next to Nothing portray the bleakness and brokenness of parts of Ohio and nearby states. To me it doesn’t seem like you dislike the area at all, but it does sound like it makes you sad. What aspects of the region, if any, make you feel happy?

Keith Banner: The landscape makes me happy. The seasons hit hard here, and each one is defined and definite to the point of boggling your brain, each season ending so abruptly you get the feeling you’re not going to remember what each one is like. October here is spectacular. I also like the way you can drive five miles and find completely different landscapes: from hilly farmland to flattened nowhere tundra in no time. There’s a bleakness in winter that can’t be matched, and of course a lot of history. Cincinnati is an old river city, so the neighborhoods, suburbs, strip malls, etc. all have a ghostly quality after a while, just from existing together… It’s a feeling maybe not of happiness but of somehow being home. That goes for the people I know here too. It’s just where I live and I like it.

GA: How much effect do you think your setting has on your characters when it comes to their motivations and journeys?s245970311962353406_p231_i2_w160

KB: Almost everything. Writing fiction, for me, is about seeing and then finding meaning from what I see. Then the meaning gets turned into narrative so that it’s not “meaning” any more as much as a forward progression toward mystery. Without the setting, landscape, buildings, temperature, smells, etc., there would not be a reason to, or even a way to, write I don’t think. So characters come from apartment complexes I pass on the way to work, or fields on a rainy afternoon, or the way sunlight hits a windshield just so that it somehow jars you into feeling you’re not alone… As far as my characters’ motivations and journeys if you get started on the right track, at the right moment, the motivation and the journey are kind of built into what you’re doing. Sometimes you get that at the beginning of a story, in the first draft, and you can follow through; often, though, you have to revise and revise to get at it. Either way, it all begins with seeing and experiencing what I see.   

GA: You broke my heart a little with the story “Happy That They Hate Us.” Can you tell us what it felt like when you wrote the last lines of the piece? And how do you feel about, Gina, your main character?

KB:  That’s one of my faves…  Gina is one of those characters you can’t aggrandize or even figure out. She just is. And the main fiction-writing gig here is about how to humanize her without overdoing it, without being romantic about the whole shitty situation. She has an innocence and a will to live that’s wild enough to be commendable, but she keeps making the same mistakes willfully and even happily I think. So that ending is very sad because she’s kind of admitting to her own exhaustion with herself. Those last few lines are about her letting us know that she knows what’s wrong with her, that she is cognizant of her selfishness, but that doesn’t really matter to her because “there is no other place to go.” It’s one of those moments I always want to get to when I write stories. Writing sometimes decorates and helps us cherish people and things in that high-end literary way. But I think my version of writing, for better or for worse, gets rid of decoration, and forces you to see beyond “cherishing” into a realm of if not of understanding, at least of realization of how much you have in common with people you think are beneath you.

GA: When specifically thinking about your story, “Lowest of the Low,” how do you feel about the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished?” How much control do you think your character, Dwayne, has to change his situation?

 KB: Dwayne is another one of those characters I do that are hard to figure out because he is what he is without a lot of explanation, just action and narrative and gesture, and that can sometimes mystify people, and at the end of day I would rather mystify than explain anyway. There’s no room for judgement, just the reality of his situation, in “Lowest of the Low.” He is openhearted and full of love, but he has a hard time finding a focus for it all, so his love often turns on him, gets him into trouble because it does not have a venue or a voice, just a desire to express itself. “No good deed goes unpunished” is totally a key to Dwayne’s life; he wants to take action but he also doesn’t understand actually how to take action; he’s all feeling. But that kind of also makes him heroic: he does not stop trying. All the punishment in the world cannot separate him from his will to love people in the way he needs too. His kindness both condemns him and allows him escape.   

GA: In my view, books like Next to Nothing that show what depression looks like can be cathartic or even life-changing for a reader, but could you finish this sentence? What drives me to depict depression, poverty, and emotional struggle is______.

KB: A need to understand it all without decorating it, without diagnosing it and fixing it. I think poetry comes from that need to find words to distill and distinguish situations and issues that are often codified and regulated with “therapeutic” language and strategies; poetry and fiction can find and even celebrate the wildness, the absurdity that somehow reveals what everything actually is. And since I’ve been around a lot of poverty and depression and struggle for a lot of my life it’s kind of what I’m most comfortable with in a lot of ways, and what I’m most interested in. Plus all of that stuff creates drama, which is the fuel for writing stories really; you need that fuel to make things interesting, to keep things moving.   

 GA: I read that one of your favorite authors is Mary Gaitskill, and one of my favorite books is her novel, Veronica. Maybe you can help me because when asked what I love about that book, I usually answer, “I’m not sure. It just makes me want to write.” So can you tell us what you love about her writing and the writing of your other favorite authors?

KB:  Mary Gaitskill’s writing is skillfully matter-of-fact, but also lyrical and translucent; she gets to a point without getting pointed. The flow of her prose is like dreaming, but then again it’s closer to reality than dream. She reminds me of Nabokov at his best, especially in her stories, a scalpel-edged clarity borne out of the desire to write so well you lose yourself to it. Veronica, her novel, as well has that hypnotic power without being tricky or purple or over-the-top. When you read her stuff, you can trust that she won’t be putting on a show; she’ll just let you have it in a way that’s sadistic and elegant and almost wordless, even though she’s using words expertly. I’ll mention Nabokov again. He’s up there for me for the same reasons: he’s a stylist, a virtuoso with language, but he also knows when to stop, when to let the writing turn back in on itself and become bliss without a lot of fuss. Other writers I love for probably the same reasons I mention in Gaitskill’s and Nabokov’s work: Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Jean Genet, Annie Proulx, Fyodor Dostoevsky, JD Salinger, and so on…

GA: Could you tell us about your art studio and the Thunder-Sky gallery?

KB: I’m a social worker here in Ohio, for people with developmental disabilities, and have been doing that since 1993… I truly love this work, and through that I’ve been able to assist in setting up an art studio for people with developmental disabilities called Visionaries + Voices, which supports over a 100 great artists to make and market their work. There are 2 studios in the Cincinnati area, and I helped co-found (along with my partner Bill Ross) and build the board and programs for V+V till 2009, when I started working on setting up a gallery called Thunder-Sky, Inc. The name of gallery is in homage to Raymond Thunder-Sky, a Native American artist who lived in Cincinnati for most of his life, and drew beautiful drawings of demolition sites across the area. No one knew what he was up to (he was also probably autistic), until close to the time when he passed away. Oh yeah: he also had a penchant for dressing up like a clown/construction-worker too. So he was true outsider, and yet he was integral part of Cincinnati’s culture. People knew him, but did not “know” him. We’ve archived all 2200+ of his drawings he left behind, and we curate bimonthly art exhibits in the gallery that sort of echo Raymond’s ethos and aesthetic… I think a lot of what’s in my writing comes from the same need I have to support artists who are often not included in typical cultural circles. I’m always trying to find that old Island of Misfit Toys so I can feel okay with the world.  It’s my destiny.

GA: A lot of the “declining” cities in the Midwest like Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis apparently have world-class art museums. Because of your dedication to the arts, may I ask what you think of their collections? Which museums are your favorites, regardless of location?

KB: It’s wonderful how the rust-belt cities you mention (that came of age in the middle of the 20th Century) have some of the greatest collections in the US. Back then civic coffers and private donors were flush, unlike now of course, so art museum curators were able to purchase (and solicit for donation) great works that just can overwhelm you. In Detroit especially – that collection is just amazing.  My favorite art museum I’ve been to, though, is the Tate Modern in London. It’s fucking epic. A room full of huge Cy Twombly paintings, a room dedicated to gigantic Matisse paper-cuttings and on and on – just that huge industrial space overtaken by greatness. You can spend days there. Another great museum in the US is the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore; it showcases unconventional artists and has some of the smartest snappiest exhibits around…

GA: Besides the areas of the Midwest you describe, are there other parts of the world which intrigue you? A place you want to know so well you could set another collection of stories there? Or simply a destination at the top of your wish list?

KB: Las Vegas. Wrote a love-story to Vegas that was in Next to Nothing (“Winners Never Sleep!”). Would love to explore that weird, phony, glorious, totally America city more. New Orleans – we go there a lot, have friends there, and I’m trying to work out a way to place a story there. It’s so gorgeously old and trashy and wonderful. Top of my wish-list to visit is Spain. We’ve been to London, Paris, Athens, Prague, Rome, Sicily, but we really want to explore Spain. Think we’re gonna go try to go there soon. One more: probably my favorite city in North America is Toronto. Just the best place to go and walk around and have a good time.   

 GA: Speaking of wishes, here’s the genie question. Not counting world peace or anything wholly altruistic, what magic wish would you want to come true?

KB: Good Lord. That one is hard. I don’t think like that, in magic-wish terms. Maybe to have Flannery O’Connor back. So she wouldn’t have died at 39 from lupus – more stories from her, more insight, more greatness. Of course I’m thinking one of the main sources of her greatness was the fact that she knew she might die at any moment because of the lupus. So wishing that she did not die might eliminate somehow the purpose of bringing her back? Magic wishes just get on my nerves… Ha. Maybe Kurt Cobain not dying? Or Jeff Buckley not drowning in Memphis? That’s where my mind is going…

 GA: Last, is there anything you’ve never been asked in an interview you hoped you would be asked? If so, could you answer it?

KB: Your questions were great. Something I’ve never been asked? Maybe just something head-on like Why the hell do you write what you do?  And I guess the answer would be I write what I write because when I sit my ass down to write that’s what’s there in my head. And when I’m not writing, that’s what’s there too. I don’t really prize the niceties of life that much. I like the laughter you get going when things go horribly wrong – I tend to focus on the sad and absurd and perverse because it’s always there, like an old friend. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m an unhappy person, not at all. I laugh a lot. I get tickled at just about anything that’s filthy or silly or pretentious. I think I have a punk attitude, a DIY kind of mentality, and it’s getting more prominent the older I get (just turned 50 yesterday). And that off-center, snarling focus tends to be inspired by the people most other people don’t want to be around. The peripheral thrills me. Thanks for asking great questions and giving me a chance to make up one of my own…

GA: Thank you so much, Keith.

© 2015 Gavin Atlas

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