Lexie apologizes, but between bad timing and too many deadlines, Out in Print has to take a bye week. We will return next Monday with Keith John Glaeske’s look at Paul Brownsey’s “His Steadfast Love.” Also upcoming are reviews of Justine Saracen’s “The Witch of Stalingrad” and Jarrett Neal’s “What Color is Your Hoodie? Essays on Black Gay Identity.” Out in Print is still all you need to read about all you need to read–just not this week.
Monthly Archives: August 2015
Walter Beck is a throwback, but I mean that in the most complimentary way. Beck’s poetry is rooted in Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, classic (and obscure) metal, and all major punk icons–all of which are miles away from the lyric or even grittier realistic choices many of today’s queer poets make. Bisexual Beck speaks in a populist’s voice, calling to workers and the disenfranchised everywhere, and this is especially true of his last three chapbooks: Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues, Last Tent City Blues, and Red Ink Sludge.
Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues and Red Ink Sludge deal with Beck’s work experiences at a gas station/convenience store and on the disassembly line in an unnamed industrial setting, respectively. Last Tent City Blues is the odd man out in that the poems are largely about his time as a Boy Scout leader at Camp Krietenstein in Beck’s home state of Indiana. However, it is a reminder that duplicity, betrayal, and marginalization are not unique to the urban landscape and can occur in the most beautiful of settings.
Anyone who’s worked retail, especially for a convenience store, knows what a mindless, soul-crushing job it can be. Still, it has its humor, its ironies, moments in the day where you can let your head drift away, even momentarily–although those moments are hardly compensation for dealing with the public for eight to twelve hours a day. None of this is lost on Beck, who uses the arsenal at his disposal to digest the experience and turn it to art, as he does in Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues‘s “On Break”:
“That must be a good book,” the lady said to me./I was on my smoke break/And reading a little Kerouac/in the cool September evening./I told her,/”Ma’am, this is all I have right now at work/To feel human.”
Last Tent City Blues, the outlier here in terms of subject, is all of a piece with the rest of the trilogy in terms of voice. Beck’s heroes, markers, and points of reference are the same as he name-checks Bukowski (of course), Kerouac (naturally), Megadeth, and Motorhead. But rather than sounding “samey,” as it might, Beck has a real emotional investment in the wilderness and the spirit of the organization with which he’s involved that prevents Last Tent City Blues from sliding into self-parody. His love for the camp and its denizens is everywhere–from the respect and admiration of “The Wise Old Man” to the relief and longing of “I Finally Found My Home” to the betrayal of it all going horribly wrong in “When the Masks Melt Away” and “A Note from a Piss-Stained Latrine.” And his regret is palpable in “Suicide Option”:
Go quietly/Fold up the khaki colors/And go quietly into the night/Leave it all;/Leave nine years to rust/Like a beautiful half-remembered dream./Run quietly into the black,?Run from the cold machines/Who let money & numbers kill their souls./Fade into the shadows/Like they wanted to five years ago,/Let them deny you were ever there./Let the sniper’s silenced death/Cut you down;/Let him finish his long war.
Red Ink Sludge is a return to the nine-to-five world, but the difference between this and the first volume of the trilogy is that here we start to see Beck’s Socialist leanings. He also ups the desperation quotient so that this chapbook is less passive than Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues, and he is less inclined to sit back and let the experience wash over him (“What Normal People Buy,” “To a Warrior Sister,” “Break in the Cold”). Of course, being a subversive nail attracts the attention of a hammer, and Beck shows us just how hard that bad boy can hit–as in “Sickness”:
I’m sick from quitting and sick from firing,/Of being able to stand the ground on the picket line/But not being able to toe it on an assembly line,/Or a register line,/Or an order line./I’m sick of machinery,/Of clanging registers and horns,/I’m sick of the public./I’m sick from running,/From hiding,/From escaping,/I’m sick of escaping.
This final volume in the trilogy also hints at Beck’s successes on stage, his predilection for “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and other outlets, so it’s not depressive or consumed with hatred. It has the right balance.
Beck has these experiences nailed, and the confirmation is in these three chapbooks. His talent is without question, and I’m always anxious to find out what’s on his mind. If it’s revolution and anarchy, so be it. We could use a little of both.
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler
Brotherly bonds are like any other family tie. Depending on how they are applied, they can either support or strangle. Often, they do a bit of both, and that’s never been better exemplified than in Yarrott Benz’s The Bone Bridge. By turns family history, memoir, and medical thriller, Benz has dug deeply into his intense, thorny relationship with his ailing older brother, Charley, and unearthed nuggets of wisdom and sacrifice that are as amazing as they are inspiring.
Yarrott and Charley seem to have the quintessential brother relationship–hateful and loving, simultaneously. However, when Charley is in high school, a new wrinkle develops. Charley is diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a condition that occurs when the bone marrow stops manufacturing new blood cells. Charley receives his red and white cells from the Red Cross, but his only source for blood platelets is his brother, who must undergo a four-to-six hour centrifuged procedure called a pheresis twice a week to keep Charley alive–an act of unselfish devotion that links both boys in some extremely destructive ways.
Benz’s charitable act (not that he gets a whole lot of choice in the matter) slaps several more layers of complexity on an already troubled relationship. The boys are quite different outside the medical issues, and one gets the feeling that there would always be problems between them even if Charley had his health and did not have to depend on Yarrott for his life. Benz looks at this situation with an absolutely unsparing eye. His candor is terrifying as he explores how keeping his brother alive actually threatens to destroy parts of both their lives. The fact that Yarrott is gay is yet another complication. For many of us Benz’s age, coming out also meant moving away to avoid conflict with the family. This option is closed to him for the foreseeable future, adding even more pressure to an already charged adolescence. To make matters worse, when Yarrott’s sister, Angela, comes out, the family does not take the news well, driving Yarrott deeper into the closet.
As far as Yarrott’s parents are concerned, everything must be sacrificed for Charley. His father spends their savings as well as his pension on medical procedures, his mother devotes her time to him, and they even conspire to keep Yarrott pinned to Charley’s side by hiding correspondence from colleges so that he’s forced to go to university in his hometown. From glee and heartbreak to remissions and relationships as well as relapses, Benz’s story is compulsively readable. He balances science, philosophy, and family drama with the assurance of a pro. But Benz never wallows in pity or plays anything close to the victim card.
The Bone Bridge, then is probably one of the finest memoirs I have ever read; one that tells its own story while making you wonder what you would do if you were in his shoes. Highly, highly recommended.
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler
Bill Konigsberg is the author of three novels, including Out of the Pocket, which won the 2008 Lambda Literary Award for YA fiction, and his second book, Openly Straight (2013), which received numerous accolades. His latest book, The Porcupine of Truth (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), released this May. Bill previously worked as a sports writer for the Associated Press. He came out to the world in an article for ESPN.com entitled “Sports World Still a Struggle for Gays,” which won a GLAAD Media Award in 2002. Bill lives outside Phoenix with his husband, Chuck, and their Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford.
Out in Print: Hi, Bill! Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview. I thought your premise in The Porcupine of Truth was beautifully inventive—A straight teenage boy from New York and a beautiful homeless lesbian meet at a terrible zoo in Montana, quickly form a strong bond, and take off on a road trip to find the boy’s long lost grandfather. How did those plot threads first form for you?
Bill Konigsberg: It all began with the voice of the main character, Carson. I found that voice and realized he had a female sidekick. From there, I did a lot of exploring and the various threads—that Aisha was homeless, that Carson was in town to take care of his ailing, alcoholic dad, that he had a long-lost grandfather, all came together. It’s always an interesting journey when I start a novel. I have no idea where I’ll wind up, and this was no exception.
OiP: You weave positives and negatives of religion throughout your story. I thought the most enlightening moment took place when a character said whatever someone believes about God is “totally, completely, irrevocably true” as long as “you add two words,” which I won’t reveal. I found that passage eye-opening. What, if anything, in your background helped create your spiritual outlook?
BK: I grew up with a real aversion to organized religion. My family was agnostic if not atheist, and I was taught that believing in God was a sign of weakness and a lack of intelligence. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I don’t actually agree with the lessons I learned when I was younger. I think a person can be intelligent and strong and still very much believe in a power greater than oneself. I personally don’t have a strong need to be right about what’s out there in the universe, but I’ve found that having my own beliefs is really important. Also, as a gay man, I’ve been taught that “the cosmic mystery” is not my purview. I think that’s really unfair. Straight people don’t own the concept of God.
OiP: What has your experience with road trips (or spontaneous adventures with someone you barely knew at the time) been like?
BK: I love road trips! There’s nothing like exploring the open road, alone or with a friend, a bag of Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids at my side. I can’t say I’ve ever taken a road trip with someone I’ve barely known, but I did think as I was writing it that the closeness of a car would be a real challenge for two people who think they know each other better than they do.
OiP: Based on his improv skills and on his epiphany at the end of the story I have conflicting thoughts on this, but where do you see your narrator, Carson, in five or ten years?
BK: Hmm. I haven’t really thought about it. I think Carson has a lot of potential, and that the greatest thing he gains during the course of the novel is a connection to the universe and to other people. I think he was entirely alone at the start, and by the end he’s accepted that he’s a human being like everyone else, which is of course a great thing and a horrible thing, depending on one’s attitude. I do think that Carson will come to believe that being a human being connected to other human beings is a great thing. As for what he does with his life? Not sure.
OiP: I noticed you have a playlist for The Porcupine of Truth. How does music help you get to know your characters or your story better? Or is it that certain songs help you focus on your writing?
BK: I simply cannot write while listening to music, as I am so attuned to lyrics that they tend to overwhelm me when any music is playing. So for me, a playlist is more of something I will think about during the process. I played that playlist over and over during the writing of Porcupine, as it helped me think about my characters and their internal struggles.
OiP: How about sports questions? What’s on the list of your top five favorite moments related to LGBT acceptance in sports since your 2001 article?
BK: Certainly Michael Sam’s coming out would top the list, though I must say I’m so disappointed that he never played a snap in the NFL, at least not yet. I think it’s very telling, how that all played out. The noise about it all came with the caveat that “he wasn’t a good enough player,” which tells us that at least we’re beyond the blatant homophobia where it’s okay to hate an athlete simply because he’s gay. Now, instead, what happens is that a gay player is scrutinized more harshly than a straight player. Someday soon that will change. It’s progress, but there’s still a long way to go to equality obviously.
OiP: More sports: What do you think about a controversy in men’s pro tennis? A former pro, Francisco Rodriguez, came out after he retired and said in an interview that being out on tour would be a competitive disadvantage as opponents would think, “Oh, he’s a sissy. [I] can’t lose to him.” How true or untrue do you feel that is? If there is some truth, would that apply to male athletes in most individual sports?
BK: I wasn’t aware of this, actually. To me, it’s hard to judge the comment without knowing more about his career. I will say that for me, I had to separate out my own internalized homophobia from that which comes from the rest of the world. I know that as a gay sports writer, I had issues with my own masculinity, in terms of feeling the need to prove it. That was a hard thing to recognize, that sometimes the person giving me the most grief was me, not anyone else. Surely there’s homophobia out there, but who are we to say what other people might think? And also, why does it matter what an opponent thinks?
OiP: Going back to writing, can you tell us about YA books that you admire or have inspired you? If fledgling authors asked for tips on effective story telling for teens, what might you tell them?
BK: I’ve been inspired by many YA authors. Perhaps at the top of the list are John Green, Andrew Smith, and A.S. King, but so many others, too. Jandy Nelson is certainly one who has inspired me recently. As for effective story telling for teens? I’d tell them to stop thinking about teens. I really don’t think about my audience when I’m writing. I’m busy trying to get authentically inside the heads of my teenage characters, and I think if I do that, my audience will respond. When I think about writing for teens, I run the risk of writing down to them, which is not a good idea. Teens can sniff that stuff out, and it isn’t pretty when they do.
OiP: Ready for some wish-fulfillment? If you could be anyone else for a day or a week, who might you choose? If you could be the inventor or discoverer of something society doesn’t have yet, what would you pick?
BK: Meh. These days I’m working really hard on being authentically me. It can be so hard sometimes, especially when you’re programmed to people please, as I am. I’ve found myself recently working really hard not to agree with everything people say to me, to own my own beliefs even when they might not be popular. So yeah, I guess if I had a wish, it would be to feel more comfortable in my own skin.
OiP: In terms of a bucket list or in terms of your writing plans, what are you looking forward to accomplishing?
BK: I’d love to be able to continue to make a living this way. I love writing for a living, and I love creating stories. It’s a fickle world and a fickle market, so to me, the goal is simply to get to the next novel. Do I have desires as to how my books will be received? You bet your ass I do! I’d love to be a finalist for The National Book Award or the Printz Award someday. But I have so little control over that, and I find that it gets me in trouble to focus on the outcome rather than the process.
OiP: Is there anything you’ve never been asked in an interview that you’ve wanted to be asked? If so, can you tell us what that is and, of course, answer it for us?
BK: Not offhand… I think you asked some great questions!
OiP: Thanks so much, Bill!
Keep up with Bill at BillKonigsberg.com.
Interview by Gavin Atlas
(ED: Today, Felice Picano talks about a few of his recent poetry finds: Stories by Lewis Ellingham, This Day by Jonathan Bracker, and Orpheus in His Underwear by William Bory – click on titles to purchase)
These three books are by older, “experienced,” poets, two from San Francisco, the third from New York. Or rather, two of them are older: Bory died of HIV back in 1994. But if he were alive today, he, too, would be an older and experienced poet.
Aside from that, the three books here are as different as any three books could be. To begin with they are completely accessible to the common reader –that, I’m guessing, is you. You don’t need a degree in literature or a background in analyzing poems to read, enjoy, and as I’m already doing, to return to these books for the pure enjoyment of it. You are in the hands of three writers who knew very well what they were doing.
Secondly, they aren’t all poetry in verse and even when they are in verse, that’s almost secondary to the fact that they are more like stories.
In fact, Lew Ellingham’s Stories is just that: his own story and stories in poetry and in prose, interspersed with jottings and quotations of other writers, news stories from TV or from the papers. So it is something of an old fashioned “Day Book”: or, as they say in Japan, a “Pillow Book.” At the same time it is smashingly new and up to date, especially as it is set in San Francisco where Ellingham lives and happily details the various goings on of characters there, from bereft neighbors running mad, to unique street people, all the way to those Techies in cafes with laptops. All of it uniquely observed and told.
Here are a few examples in prose:
This morning I watched the still-dark sky and noticed an/array of small clouds stretching the whole distance from/west to east that look to be a skeletal hand slightly curved,/but with many more fingers than five, seen as bone as all the/way to the wrist. It was darkly elegant
The working poor, no one well dressed; it’s the faces/I stare at, the women more than the men. All/hurrying, old shoes, no one with a public face….
Suffering she understood is always there/Like the noise a little mouse makes,/A whispering noise but easily tuned out/Because of course it is always there.
When he does write in verse-form, it is usually something like this:
the mountain in its haze
the footprints left behind;
the hint of something said
popping bubbles on the sand
purple – lavender purple—
everywhere lilacs spilling
all around the Victory garden,
Mrs. Kerbock’s cat sleeping
in the shade, maybe
the purple makes a sound, the
yellow does, a little bit,
the orange more….
a round-robin of four voices by email
Another side is the San Francisco scholar and poet:
The English word “zombie” is first/Recorded in 1819, in a history of Brazil by the/Poet Robert Southey, in the form of “zombie.”/The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin/Of the word as West African and compares it to/The Congo words “mzambii “(god) and “zumbi” (fetish)
I just showed the outside of the building to a friend/who’s father my lover and I had received there in/the summer of … 4 Harwood Alley, even the street/name had been changed to Bob Kaufman Place, a/beatnik poet long dead.
Who can be satirical: “even babies have websites,” I commented at the chi-gong class
There’s something grand and full and even Whitmanesque about Stories. It feels both like a culmination and a new beginning. It has found a solid place on my shelf of new books, and I know I will return to it often.
Jonathan Bracker’s book by contrast is one of those little gems or treasure houses that poets should write but often don’t or often don’t release during their lifetimes. This Day is itself a kind of day book, but far from Ellingham’s very urban landscape, this book is set in nature. Those gerbera daisies on the cover aren’t just decoration, because nature closely observed in short verses are the subject here. But it’s the kind of nature we all know:
Down the three steps/From the front porch/Of the cottage for rent/With its door propped open,/A sparrow hops
My obliterating sole/Missed the caterpillar on his long slow walk/Because a Monarch butterfly/Disdaining weeds/Fluttered through a tree
The poems have an Asian feel, tiny, turning, complete, somewhat like modern Haiku. I was strongly reminded of Issa and also of Su’ T’ung Po. Bracker has such a clear eye. In “The Season for Lizards,” he writes:
Their appearance brief/Is mostly tail
and in “Teleological Song”:
Autumn’s purpose/Apparently/Was to turn completely yellow
He calls the “Narcissus” flowers
Dark green pick-up sticks God/Speared into the moist earth
I’ve been reading Bracker’s work for decades and his 2005 Paris Sketches is one of my favorites. But the Zen simplicity makes This Day a keeper.
Bory’s poetry is far more formal than either Californian both in its form and format. But it is also more sexual in its subject matter. In a way it too is a kind of Pillow Book, dealing with people, places, ideas, and events that have caught the poet’s attention, or that he’s lived through.
In “Art and Insemination” Bory defines the poet (himself), and warns:
Friend, do not trust his sly addresses,/”His heart laid bare” indeed./Is it really there?/No, long gone, purloined, forfeited,/panhandled.
And in “The Gratified Child”:
I saw the noted poet/with his plastic bag of tags/at a funeral,/dotty as an old duchess/and dressed in rags.
Bory’s portraits poems are each a perfect little cameo. “On a Subway Pickup””
Your clothes were wrong,/or so they said./You took them off,/we went to bed,/and there, your body,/like a light,/made everything around it bright/with beauty.
And “On Seeing Farmboys in Church”
In white shirts, in white churches,/The farm boys are asleep./Their tow heads nod beneath the slumberous ponder/Of the murmured sermon
While “The Demon Paperboy” has:
arms like pulls of toffee,/lest we not learn of the gulf/That separates us,/the distance between,/his narrow bike seat/and my doorstep,/the secrets he has yet to discover
Bory reveals himself through others, through rehab centers and Japanese Maples, through Portuguese whores, and even The Prince of Patagonia, writing about their darkness and light with equal fearlessness.
All three books remind me of one of the great tenets of Buddhism: to be mindful. These are three of the most mindful writers I’ve read in years.
They’ll make wonderful gifts for friends and family too.
Reviewed by Felice Picano