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Sunday
Apr122015

There's Something Funny About Poetry Month

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found...
A mode of proving that the earth turn'd round
In a most natural whirl, call'd gravitation;
And thus is the sole mortal who could grapple
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple. --Byron

A poem is a funny thing. You can make one out of the simplest ingredients. Take one apple tree in an orchard, add Newton's Law of Gravity, Adam & Eve's biblical quartet (temptation, sin, knowledge and exile), Mother Nature, nourishment, decay, iPhones and New York City. Blend with all five senses and you'll find a poem in there somewhere. It might even be a funny poem.

Or think of the apple tree itself as poetry. Perfect apples are great poems, but there are also apples that are ordinary or unripe or bruised or misshapen or worm-eaten. Apples that fall from the tree are called "drops." As a little kid, I was paid 25 cents a bushel to harvest this often damaged fruit from the ground. Drops weren't great apples, but they were still apples, and I suspect a poem titled "Drops" would have more potential than a poem titled "Apples."

In April, poetry is everywhere and some of it is funny. Even though I'm a near lifelong reader of poetry (beginning circa 1953 with Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses), there are moments I like the form best when it makes me smile, as I did when spotting this "Flash Poetry Zaniness" announcement for an April 30 event at RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, N.H.:

"Okay, so let's finish National Poetry Month with some fun. Introducing the Flash Typewriter Poetry Contest. Each contestant will be given a manual typewriter, three sheets of paper, and a pencil. Then we will draw a random topic. Contestants have 30 minutes to write a poem on the topic, TYPE IT OUT, and turn it in. The completed poems will be shuffled and handed back out to the poets random. The poets will then read the poem they were given. After the reading, each poet will vote for their favorite poem (exluding their own).... This is going to be tons of fun."  

Or this, from the O, Miami Poetry Festival: "Murinals are poetry murals installed on Miami-Dade urinals by artist Ian Thomas. Using classic gold leaf paint on porcelain, Thomas creates a series of site specific installations that require viewer participation to complete its concept. The exclusively male audience is invited to urinate on a passage of poetry consecrated via traditional illumination methods. By participating in this way, the viewer exhibits an animalistic dominance by defiling something hallowed, while ultimately exposing himself to the poets' words. This tension of male dominance and vulnerability is what the series seeks to explore."

Kids seem to have a natural talent for writing at once great and bad funny poems. All over the U.S. this month, bookstores, libraries and schools are hosting poetry writing contests for children and every single participant becomes a poet, if only for one day and a single poem.  

There are so many places to look for poetry smiles. For example, The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram features mischievous musings by the resident bookseller extraordinaire at Iowa City's Prairie Lights Books, including:

Jeff Bezos
Believed he was Jesos,
He left out no detail
In dismantling retail.

Author Elinor Lipman, whose sharp and entertaining Twitter rhymes during the last presidential election cycle rescued my sanity, and were later collected in Tweet Land of Liberty: Irreverent Rhymes from the Political Circus, is back in form as new campaigns launch:

Kentucky's Paul is in the race!
Unorthodox or basket case?
Polling isn't showing love
The GOP thinks he's a dove.

Poetry is serious business, except when it isn't. Consider David Budbill's "Dilemma":

I want to be
famous
so I can be
humble
about being
famous....

or Billy Collins's "Introduction to Poetry":

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide...

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

In 1980, I sold a short story to Cimarron Review that had a final paragraph I was, perhaps delusionally, pleased with. So pleased that 15 years later, on a whim, I reworked that paragraph into a "poem" that was published by a literary journal in the Midwest. It wasn't a good poem, but it was still poetry, just as a "drop" is still an apple.

Poems are funny that way. Happy Poetry Month. I mean it. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2483

Sunday
Apr052015

The Beautiful Absurdity of Poetry Month 

Ten random, or not so random, thoughts as spring and National Poetry Month blossom once again:

1. I prefer to begin my National Poetry Month this year with Amanda Palmer reading Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska's poem, "Possibilities."

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.

2. National Poetry Month is much better than the lack thereof. Cynics insist the public's poetic attention span should be longer than 30 days. Maybe so, but a month of focused attention annually is still better than year after year of general neglect.

3. I like the idea of people writing poetry who are not poets--especially children. For example, the Toadstool Bookshop, Milford, N.H. is "calling all young poets K-12! Celebrate National Poetry Month and win a prize! Free verse or rhyme-up to 15 lines!"

4. I've written and published poems, but I'd rather be a great poetry reader than a bad poet. And as a former bookseller, I really love the concept of a month in which customers enter independent bookstores nationwide, explore poetry displays and ask booksellers to recommend some great new poets. Handselling excellent poetry is so much better than writing bad poetry.

5. Poetry is everywhere. To celebrate the end of a very brutal winter, the Cambridge, Mass., Department of Public Works, along with staff from the Cambridge Arts Council and public library have partnered for a Sidewalk Poetry Program. As crews from the DPW "replace sidewalks damaged by the winter's historic snowfall, they will imprint poetry written by residents into the slabs, hoping to capture the attention of pedestrians," the Boston Globe reported. The initiative was inspired by a similar project in St. Paul, Minn., which began in 2008 and now showcases "more than 450 poems imprinted on the city's sidewalks."

6. Poetry Month always begins on April Fools Day. I used to think that was unfortunate, but I changed my mind because the poetry world can sometimes take itself a little too seriously. On April 1, the Bookseller countered that tendency by "reporting" that Profile Books had acquired a poetry manuscript by Jeremy Clarkson, the disgraced and recently sacked star of British TV's hit show Top Gear: "The collection was said to 'draw heavily on ontological questions surrounding the nature of reality,' showing the influences of 'Emily Dickinson, Karl Ove Knausgård and the Vauxhall Zafira.' "

7. On the other hand, poetry is serious business. The Guardian's poem of the week is Elaine Feinstein's "April Fool's Day," a stark reminder of the power, and powerlessness, of verse:

Does anybody know what it was all for?
Not Private Rosenberg, short as John Keats.
A nudge from Ezra Pound took him to war,
to sleep on boards, in France, with rotting feet,
writing his poetry by candle ends....

He died on April Fools' Day on patrol...."

8. A confession: Sometimes--and I'm not mentioning any names--I prefer the poems to the poet. This is primarily, though not exclusively, true of living poets. On reflection, it is probably better than preferring the poet to the poems.

9. I know many poets. They do not read poetry like I do. While I try to examine the surface cracks and seams of a well-crafted poem, as I might look at the brush strokes of a painting up close, they can see through those cracks and seams and tell me how the poem was made. I admire their knowledge and focus and insight, but do not envy them.   

10. As Poetry Month begins, I've saved the best for last. From a Guardian essay, "I am in love with poetry," by Andrew O'Hagan: "Maybe the optimists are right; maybe poetry does help you live your life. And maybe they are more right than they know, and it rounds you out for death, 'the dark backing that a mirror needs,' as Saul Bellow writes in Humboldt's Gift, 'if we are to see anything....' And where the times are brutal and the banks are deluded and the adverts are venal and the news is all lies, perhaps the madness of poets represents the rage of the imagination against the viciousness of reality. 'I could see that Humboldt was pondering what to do between then and now,' writes Bellow, 'between birth and death, to satisfy certain great questions. Such brooding didn't make him any saner.' Yet the world is more than the settled mind, said John Clare, Robert Fergusson, Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. It is more than our ordered sense of it, and poetry is the least servile of all our forms. That is why I love it." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2478

Friday
Mar272015

A Bookseller's #MuseumWeek 

I did not know this was international Museum Week until I read about it in Monday's Guardian: "This community event runs from 23-29 March and has two main goals: to encourage the public to participate in a fun community initiative and to bring a global dimension to this event.... Instead of shouting at rule-breakers with camera phones, more and more museums around the world are starting to embrace the Twitter crowd by removing their restrictions on photography and by providing free institutional wireless access so we can snap-and-live-tweet photos of their collections. This was an important decision because everyone knows that a few tweeted photos can provide only the tiniest taste of reality, and for that reason, often serve to lure in more inquisitive people rather than fewer."

As of Thursday, 2,827 museums from 76 countries were taking part in #MuseumWeek, including New York's Morgan Library, which tweeted: "Books on books! The walls are lined with bookcases fashioned of bronze and inlaid walnut." For many reasons, I've long associated being a bookseller with some of my best museum experiences, so #MuseumWeek represents a perfect melding of complementary obsessions:

  • In 1999, I saw the brilliant "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, just before BookExpo America began.
  • I was a bookstore remainder buyer for many years and regularly attended CIROBE, spending extended lunch breaks exploring the Art Institute of Chicago's permanent collection, as well as special exhibits like "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South" and an extraordinary Juan Munoz retrospective in 2002.
  • A few years ago at the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association fall conference in St. Paul, I visited the Science Museum of Minnesota to view fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I recall being overwhelmed by the concept of words defying time.
  • In 2013, I saw the Frick Collection's "Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis," featuring "Goldfinch," a 17th-century painting by Carel Fabritius that plays a key role in Donna Tartt's bestselling novel. The exhibition also showcased Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," which drew art lovers as well as fans of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling 2000 novel.
  • Since BEA settled in New York City for its annual trade show, my membership at the Museum of Modern Art has provided welcome, brief respites from the crazy carnival of books at Javits Center.


I'm not the only bookseller who feels this connection between books and museums. On Facebook yesterday, Berkeley Books of Paris posted: "The bookseller grew up just before the Internet arrived, and sometimes there are these moments. They consist of pure wonder bordering on awe, and would not occur if I'd been raised with the Internet. It's not the technology itself, but how people use it.

"Had one of these moments yesterday because of Twitter. The bookshop has a Twitter account, and follows mainly museums, indie publishers, and other bookshops. This week has been designated Museum Week, and museums around the world are showing off their pretty things.

"Yesterday afternoon the Musée de Cluny, the medieval museum here that is located in Roman ruins, threw down a challenge. The Louvre and the National Library picked up on it right away. They proceeded to have a battle of rooftop views over Paris, which morphed into a battle of the doors. When I was done rubbing my eyes, I still couldn't believe what I was seeing. The upshot is, the great museums were very playful yesterday, and your faithful correspondent grew giddy. If you use Twitter and want to see what I'm talking about, see #‎BattlePortes #‎Battletoits."

The post reminded me of a pleasant stroll I took a few times two years ago in Paris from the Louvre to the Musée d'Orsay to Shakespeare & Company bookstore, and what a perfect, cobbled little path winding between art and literature that proved to be.

And I thought of British artist Tom Phillips, whose love for words and literature infuse his work ("After Henry James," "Iris Murdoch," "Curriculum Vitae," "Samuel Beckett," "A TV Dante"). "I love the smell of a library and the feel of books," he once observed. "Most of all I love the serendipity and the aleatory quirks of browsing.... Every book, however unpromising, will turn out to have its day."

Happy #MuseumWeek! --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2473

Sunday
Mar222015

My First Indie Bookstore

Do you remember your first independent bookstore? Maybe your parents started taking you there even before memories stuck because it was their indie. Did the shop have a huge children's section, where you could sit on the floor and read quietly? Was there a bookseller you loved seeing every time you stopped by, someone who called you by name? Do you treasure memories of cool story hours, book-themed parties or eventually, depending upon your age, a Harry Potter midnight launch or two?

As a bookseller and then editor, I've been closely attached to the indie bookselling life for almost 25 years, and I am always entranced by the never-ending ceremony of parents introducing their children to bookshops and spending genuine, no-rush time there. And yes, before you say it, I'm also aware of the many exceptions to this idealized image--like the toddler left on his own to reorganize the board books section with the deft touch of baby Godzilla. But early introduction to an independent bookstore that a child can claim as his or her very own is both magical and fundamental. (Photo by Tim Pierce)

I was not one of those kids. I didn't find my first indie bookstore--the Hartford Bookshop in Rutland, Vt.--until I was 18 or 19 years old.

I was born a reader, apparently, but for much of my childhood, books came to me as gifts or hand-me-downs or from school. I don't have any memories of going to a magic place to obtain The Wizard of Oz or the many Big Little Books that reached me. Later, I devoured the Hardy Boys series, but I don't associate the appearance of those books with a retail wellspring either.

Only when I reached adolescence did commerce enter the picture. I was a working man by then--mowing lawns or shoveling snow, mostly--and my investment portfolio was heavily weighted toward comic book stocks.

I inherited my first stack of comics when I was about 11 from a kid in the neighborhood who was a few years older. Soon I'd expanded that collection with issues featuring then-new superheroes like Spider-Man, Thor and Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos. The key aspect of those formative comic book years was that I finally made my first genuine connection between what I read and the retail store it came from. In the small town where I lived, there was a newsstand that sold the usual array of print goodies--newspapers, magazines, comics, paperback books, etc. I knew the exact release day every month for new issues of my favorite comics and I was always there with cash in hand.

It was at this newsstand that I first began purchasing paperbacks, the highlight of my nascent library being all 24 editions of The Man from UNCLE novel series based on the TV spy show, as well as several of Ian Fleming's James Bond books.

I still had not found my first indie bookstore.

But all that that changed in the late 1960s, once I had my driver's license a little mobility. I finally discovered the Hartford Bookshop, which was located in an old building in downtown Rutland. Although my memory is hazy about specific details, I do recall that upon entering, the service counter was on the left, books lined the walls and freestanding bookcases stretched deep within the high-ceilinged space.

The owner, whose name I've long forgotten, was the first genuine bookseller I ever met. In time, he would recognize me when I stopped by and our conversations about the books I bought, as well as his suggestions for future titles, were a new and welcome experience for me. During that period, I also had many conversations with a close friend of mine about eventually opening a bookstore together, a golden if never-realized idea inspired by our pilgrimages to the Hartford Bookshop.

There must still be several books in my personal library that I purchased there long ago, but the only two I'm certain of are Modern Library editions: Walden & Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau and The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Well-worn from multiple readings and teeming with marginalia, they served me well this week as Proustian madeleines to evoke memories of my first indie bookstore, which itself exists only in memory. I don't think the Hartford Bookshop survived the 1970s.

What was your first indie bookstore? I'd love to hear that story. --Publishe by Shelf Awareness, issue #2467

Friday
Mar062015

Whose Book Is It Anyway?

Authors write books and readers read them. It's a deceptively simple contract. Booksellers are professional readers who get to discover works before they're reviewed or released, thanks to the ARC avalanches that bury, in the best possible way (mostly), bookstores everywhere. Agents, editors and publishers may justifiably profess to being the readers who truly discover new works, but booksellers still plant a flag of their own with staff picks.

Given the intimate connection on the printed page between authors and their readers--in the book trade and beyond--certain questions inevitably arise. What is the true nature of this relationship? Where is the borderline? What do authors "owe" their readers beyond the work itself? And when a reader tumbles down the rabbit hole and fully enters a fictional world, does the novel's alchemy change? Whose book is it anyway?

I recently fell down one of those reader's rabbit holes while checking out the Paris Review's interview with playwright and author Yasmina Reza, whose latest novel is Happy Are the Happy (translated by John Cullen).

"To my mind, to understand a character is to understand his inner voice," she said. I immediately thought about my favorite authors, narrators and characters; as well as all of those other readers who breathe life into letters on a page with their own disparate inner voices. Reading is a creative, collaborative act, and hearing voices plays a key role. Polyphony? Cacophony? It depends.

This sparked a memory from 15 years ago, when I saw the brilliant off-Broadway production of Reza's The Unexpected Man, starring Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates. The play is about two strangers, in their 60s, sitting opposite each other on a train from Paris to Frankfurt. For all but the final 10 minutes, they speak only in interior monologues (to me, audience members might reasonably think), each caught up in personal obsessions while occasionally, and surreptitiously, observing the other.

Paul Parsky is a dyspeptic Author (his opening lines: "Bitter. It's all so bitter."), while Martha, we soon discover, is his Reader. She recognizes him immediately, but remains discreet. In her handbag she carries a copy of his novel, The Unexpected Man, and she wonders whether she should speak to him or just "fetch out" the book and read it.

For his part, the Author simply passes judgment:

Strange this woman never reads anything. A woman who doesn't read anything the whole journey... Is there today one single person in the whole world, in the whole world, who might know how to read that book?


Martha again considers unmasking herself as his Reader:

I'm fetching out the book. I'll place myself so he can see me. He can't not react. He can't watch me embarking on an intimate relationship with him six feet away without revealing himself. What are you going to do in Frankfurt? The Book Fair? No. First of all, I don't think it's the time of year, and a writer with your nature, flirtatiously antisocial, doesn't turn up at the Book Fair.


She also contemplates an all-to-familiar social dilemma:

Maybe I ought not to get to know you, Mr. Parsky. Suppose I don't like you, why take the risk of no longer being able to love anything about you? I'm told there isn't necessarily an intimate link between a man and his work. How can that be possible?


Then the Reader finally stakes her claim to his books:

I'm the one. The one who loved you, who colored you according to my inclinations, the one who studied every subject under your perpetual catechism, I shall abolish you, I shall make off with you when my time is up and nothing will remain of you or anything else.


At last, like Chekhov's loaded gun, the novel is brandished and the Author struck by its appearance:

She's reading The Unexpected Man. It's really too much. I knew she was an interesting woman. Shall I remain anonymous? Why wasn't she reading it when we set off?


They have a brief conversation. The Author attempts to conceal his identity, but the Reader counters that move by citing examples from his work, concluding:

All these things and so many others you've described, Mr. Parsky, have made me weep... You have no right to be bitter. In your books there have been hundreds of moments like eternity.


I won't reveal how the play ends, but it's safe to say the relationship between Author and Reader remains a complex one even after the applause has died down. Whose book is it? Why spoil the mystery. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2452