Monthly Archives: April 2015

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.

Interview by Gavin Atlas

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A Gathering Storm – Jameson Currier (Chelsea Station Editions)

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I know this came out last year. I confess, I’ve had it on the reading pile for quite a while as one of those meaning-to-get-to-it books but, very often the decision to feature something in the blog or not depends on its length. It’s just a physical consideration of the reviewing process. So three-hundred-and-fifty page books have to be saved for special occasions like…airplane trips. A Gathering Storm was one of my take-alongs to Saints and Sinners, and I couldn’t have asked for a more absorbing travel companion. Much better than anyone in the seats next to me.

Inspired by the killing of Matthew Shepard, A Gathering Storm details the bashing death of a gay university student in the South. As he struggles for survival in the hospital, the investigation into the brutal attack echoes throughout the town. Besieged by national media, heroes and villains emerge from both sides of the story. When he dies, the hurricane intensifies until finally it blows its ill wind out and all that’s left is to deal with burial and aftermath.

Currier indicates in his introduction that this was written immediately in the wake of Shepard’s death but not published for one reason or the other until only recently. Though painful for Currier, I actually think the late timing works in his favor. Had it been published immediately, it would have been undeservedly swallowed up in the sea of similar books written on the subject. Though the crime Currier depicts bears much resemblance to Shepard, he takes the story to another level–several levels, actually, as he explores the heads of the victim, the perpetrators, their girlfriends, the victim’s parents, and investigators among others. He seeks to look beyond the stereotypes on both sides by looking at the inner truths of everyone involved.

In the hands of a writer without Currier’s narrative skills, the multiple viewpoints might either be too similar or too much of a stretch and chop up the narrative into too many pieces. Currier has bound these disparate parts into a cohesive whole that reveals the multiple facets of the tragedy and involves the reader in all aspects. Considering the diverse cast of characters, that is no easy task.

So even if you know the story, A Gathering Storm is  of a different mind than most books you’ll read on the subject, concentrating more on the shades of grey than the black and white whole, written with a spare style that suits the subject and the characters. Recommended.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler


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Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography – Philip Gefter (Liveright Publishing Co.)

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Biographies are such arduous and long term investments in writer’s lives that it’s almost a cliché by now that writers either end up loving or hating their subjects when the book is done. Philip Gefter unquestionably fell in love with his subject from the beginning and the amour lasted throughout the long research and writing. What’s not to love? Sam Wagstaff was upper crust, rich, privileged, intelligent, able, tall, slender, handsome, casually yet openly gay years before it was accepted, and he traveled in some of the most interesting of the cultured crowds of his period.

Also, and more importantly, Wagstaff was in many ways a visionary: seeing photography fairly early on for the art that it actually can be in the right hands. Eventually, his enormous collection of photographs, including many French, British and American pioneers of the mid-nineteenth century, ended up in the Getty Center Museum, a few miles from where I live. I appreciate that fact and those photos every time I see an exhibit there.

As the title after the colon points out, Wagstaff is best known as the “discoverer” of photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom he seemed to have an odd, mostly love but along the road love-hate, father-son, student-teacher (feel free to add in more dichotomies) relationship over a period of decades until their deaths a few months apart from HIV-related illnesses. But long before he encountered Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff was already seeing the value and acquiring the 1960’s “pop” artists. Then, he latched onto the 60’s-70’s Minimalists, curating a ground-breaking exhibition in a Detroit museum long before the New York galleries and curators got hip to the work.

In his last year,s he sold his vast photo collection, which by then had become not merely a golden but at least a diamond parachute, and he had begun collecting American silver—another area pretty much ignored until then.

Gefter does an excellent job of bringing Wagstaff’s life and times into some sort apparently real life quite similar to what I remember from “in the day”—I knew Robert and socialized with Sam a bit. The book is chronological and so the reader gets the same sense of forward motion as Wagstaff and his closest colleagues must have experienced during that heady period when New York City became for a decade or two the center of art and culture in the world. Concentrating upon the best known art world gallery owners, museum curators, artists and collectors, as he does however, means that the author doesn’t really have room nor inclination to look at what else was going on in the bohemian gay art world of lower Manhattan where, after all, the two men resided and played out most of their lives.

That world provided the context and the energy that levitated Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe. So, for example, Gefter mentions Peter Hujar, but not his lover/pal/colleague David Wojnarovich. Warhol is noted everywhere, and, oddly enough, my friend painter, Norman “Billiards”; but not Ondine, nor director Paul Morrisey, nor the Velvet Underground, nor any other art or writing that exploded out of The Factory. Those and the theatre and music and literary worlds were all commingled together: that was what the Red Room at Max’s Kansas City that Gefter mentions so often was all about. Not being there, he doesn’t get that you could be applauded for your poetry, sucked off by Charles Ludlam a few minutes later, and have voyeur “Drella” Warhol screen test you right afterward,  “to capture the post-orgasmic glow.” The entire mixture was needed to perform, do art, and emerge to various levels of celebrity and artistry. Gefter is so busy gazing up at the “name” art stars that he misses the far more interesting gutters.

He does a pretty good job, however, of limning the over-privileged, off-beat and original character that Wagstaff actually was. More than one person described him as “organically eccentric.” And Gefter captures his busy and wayward romantic life. Long Island bred, working class stiff Mapplethorpe was anything but Sam’s masculine ideal. Most of his lovers were blonde, slim, handsome, un-intellectual, and with zero interest in the arts. But, as Gefter hints at but never comes out and says, Mapplethorpe was the ultimate hustler of fin-de-siecle America. He could assess in an instant what and how much you could do for him and his career. He then exploited you so nakedly that you had to laugh. He was always on the make, and when he laid eyes on Sam, it was like sighting the Annapurna of sugar daddies. Also Robert held on to everyone he ever used; after all, you might still be exploitable. When Sam died, guess who was heir to his millions?

So really large and full is this biography that it might seem churlish to point out several odd errors: he describes the film Fitzcarraldo as about a steamboat going up a mountain. It was actually about making that ship into an opera house in the depths of the Amazon jungle and then hoping Enrico Caruso would come sing to the Indians. Gefter writes that Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I was present in late 1981 with twelve other men at the apartment of Paul Popham, who became GMHC’s president until his death in 1993, when the idea was first discussed and the first steps were taken to raise money to financially launch GMHC. Kramer arrived, ranted about the presence of Enno Poersch, calling him a Nazi, and was asked to leave. In fact, the Poersch family were religious activists, fugitives from Germany in the 1940’s and Enno’s lover, Nick Rock, and friend Rick Wellikopf (close friends to the rest of us) were the first two known AIDS deaths on the East coast. What Gefter writes is “Kramer summoned sixty prominent gay men to his apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue.” But Kramer had recently published Faggots, a book loathed in the community as virulently homophobic. I doubt if he could have summoned sixty prominent gay men to his funeral.

There is also one real missing piece of the puzzle. As part of the Violet Quill and the Christopher Street/New York Native writers in the late 1970’s, I recall attending several art show/parties at the Robert Samuel Gallery on Broadway across from the Episcopal Church between 11th and 10th Streets, a gallery that Wagstaff put together especially to first showcase Robert’s art to the gay media. He did so in a series of photo shows in which Mapplethorpe’s works hung alongside what many of us accepted as established homoerotic photos by Platt-Lynes, Georges Dureau, Von Gloeden, Charles Demuth, et al. Another Sam who worked there eventually left to open his own gallery in Provincetown. and their bookkeeper Stephen Myrick is still alive to tell of this gallery and of its early influence in the gay community. The author never even mentions it.

One has to wonder, did Gefter interview anyone outside of Manhattan? If so how did he miss this?

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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Erebus – Jane Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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Since April is National Poetry Month, I normally would have saved this until the Spring Poetry Roundup I have planned for the end of April. However, if Jane Summer’s Erebus is not sui generis, it’s the closest thing you’ll see this month. Poetry, yes. But it’s also prose, graphs, maps, photos, lists, newspaper articles, and other media all about the little known crash of Air New Zealand’s flight TE901 , a sightseeing excursion on a DC-10 which slammed into Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus on 28 November, 1979, killing all 257 people aboard. The link to Summer is that her best friend, Kay Barnick, died in that disaster, as did Barnick’s mother, Marion.

I knew nothing of the crash, but that wasn’t the case after Erebus, which presents facts and poetry in a tumbled jumble of feeling and sorting. But isn’t that how we remember? How we grieve? Not in linear motion, but in a random fashion that sees words cheek to jowl with pictures and overlaid with other images. It inhabits the past as well as the present, and it’s so garbled that it shouldn’t work. The parallel lines of logic and storytelling should order this anti-structure into submission, but it can’t. The emotions are too powerful to be contained within those lines. It breaks free in a way I’ve never quite experienced before.

Summer’s grief and anxiety is palpable here, her raw, wild poetry matched by the horrific images and neutered language of post-accident reports that lend an air of normalcy to proceedings only to vanish like the mysterious pages of the pilot’s personal notebook–seen one moment and officially gone the next–before another wave of imagery breaks over the reader. Finding a portion to quote is difficult as it works more all-of-a-piece than it does separately. However, these lines from “Cruising Altitude” say much:

No one in the world hears/metal claw ice/or the retort when the craft explodes./No one in the world sees bodies catapulted into crevasse after crevasse/cleaved by wreck as it hurtled along ice, the dying animal furiously burrowing/passengers into frozen tombs. A hand in shifting snow/seems to imitate the royal wave, not wanting/to make a fuss.

The overall effect of Erebus is one of elegy and honoring lost friends, but Summer also makes clear how the investigation was bungled, with evidence missing or stolen through bureaucratic indifference. It retains its razor edges so that it never slips into sentimentality, remaining sharply observed and even more sharply expressed. I actually read it twice. I put it down the first time, astonished at how much I’d learned and how much I felt, then immediately went back to the first page. Erebus is a remarkable achievement by a marvelous poet.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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