1. I’d Rather Not Be Here.
It’s Thursday night in Altadena, a foothill town north of Los Angeles. I’m driving up and down Mariposa Street looking for the Altadena Library, which is hard to find because the street is so dark; all scattered light is obliterated by trees. On the plus side, it’s easy to make U-turns in the middle of the wide, empty avenue.
I’m in search of a poetry reading featuring Mary Fitzpatrick and Brendan Constantine and (full disclosure) co-sponsored by the nonprofit literary organization I work for.
I’d rather not be here. Because it’s rained most of the day, and I want to be home drinking tea in a cat-warmed bed. Because it took me an hour and a half to get here from my office in Westwood—and I left before rush hour and didn’t get on the part of the 210 that had been plugged by a fatal big rig accident all day. Because I went to the gym in between work and poetry, and the woman on the elliptical next to me seemed way too excited to see a news segment on the accident.
“That’s why I was late to work today!” she exclaimed to the nearest trainer.
I understood the macabre thrill of these little brushes with death and media. My JetBlue flight had been diverted to Long Beach the day a man shot up Terminal 3 at LAX. I’d felt a tiny bit famous and a lot lucky. But the accident and the woman on the elliptical just made me annoyed and depressed. People were dying and someday I’d be one of them and, as usual, I’d wasted half my day on the internet. And I was going to have to change out of my sweaty gym clothes and back into my work clothes, and that’s always gross.
I find the library and park, killing a few minutes so I don’t have to mingle more than necessary. Here’s what no one tells you when you find a way to make a living doing the thing you love (or at least the administrative thing adjacent to the thing you love): Work will be more fun, but fun will sometimes feel like work.
This is what contemporary poetry is up against: Even energetic, book-loving child-free writers with MFAs have trouble getting themselves to a Thursday night reading featuring free cookies. And they’re good cookies. Homemade with several choices of chip type.
2. That Was Uplifting.
The library’s community room has a dropped ceiling, flags of country and state, and a salmon-colored curtain behind a podium. But in an era when tony restaurants have cement floors and exposed beams, I’m going to make the case that nothing is more punk rock than a poetry reading at a suburban library. A man named Derrick Brown, who runs a small press called Write Bloody, is making that case too. Hear us out.
First, the open mic. As the host, a local poet named Linda Dove, requests people keep it to one poem—one short poem—please, the man next to me folds and unfolds his poems. I catch a line: I lie in bed looking at your white butt.
A man with limp blond bangs takes the stage and reads a poem that could just as easily be a suicide note. He talks about spending holidays alone and alludes to living in his SUV. He reads, “I wish people trusted me with their phone numbers. I guess I’ll just drink until I pass out.”
The white-butt author mutters, “That was uplifiting.”
As is the way of open mics, brave and patient listeners are rewarded with a few home runs. Everyone laughs cathartically when a woman reads about missing her favorite poetry night because it’s in Santa Monica and she’s trapped in North Hollywood and, as always, there is traffic—the thing that strands her in the world of laundry and dog-walking and keeps her from the ethereal magic of poetry.
Traffic is a very real thing in L.A., thick and solid, the ninth circle of hell in the rain, the thing around which everything else must be choreographed. Once, when my girlfriend and I were trapped at a standstill on an entrance to the 405, we watched car after car drive over the embankment to escape. They looked like lemmings. We made it out of there eventually, but not before she had to sneak into some bushes to pee.
But traffic is also a metaphor for all the things standing between us and transcendence. Traffic (and money woes and family woes and work and stupid people at the gym and holidays spent alone and drunk in your car) is the thing we need to transcend.
As the first feature, Mary Fitzpatrick, reads: “I want what the spirit world wants: another chance, another chance.”
Then Brendan Constantine takes the stage. He’s wearing a dark teal shirt, sleeves rolled up, and although he still has his signature striking bald head (“Never make a bald person blush,” he says when someone compliments him. “Even people behind you can see your humiliation.”), he has somewhat recently abandoned the row of silver hoops that used to climb up one ear.
The child of actors, Constantine is a performer. He can project to the back of the house, and he reads in a voice that is dramatic without falling into either of the two terrible-poetry-reading-voice camps: the impressed-with-itself up-speak monotone of some academic poets, and the wannabe-hip-hop singsong of spoken word poets. Constantine’s poems, which are often hilarious, marvel at and revel in the absurdity of life and language, while frequently quivering with danger. His voice rides the waves accordingly.
Take “The Search Party,” in which he imagines showing up to look for a missing person thinking it would be a party party. He brings a gift. He thinks the flashlights are birthday candles. He wonders why the guest of honor never shows.
There are bears in at least three of Constantine’s poems.
One of the open mic performers, a middle-aged man in a turtleneck, performed a Dylan Thomas poem earlier, so Constantine does the same, from memory. He does a little Robert Browning too.
Later, during the Q&A, Constantine says his parents sort of expected he would become an actor like them. When he broke the news that he would not follow in their footsteps, they were relieved.
“Oh, thank god, you’ll avoid all that heartache and rejection,” Constantine remembers his father saying.
Then he told them he was going to be a poet.
“A poet?!” his father exclaimed. “Even if you’re successful you’ll be a bum.”
Actors and musicians may spend their whole lives performing in tiny theaters with squeaky seats, or playing in dive bars where they’re paid in beer. But those who make it big, get really big—jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash. You know the deal. A big-name poet can hope to dine in a faculty cafeteria and hire a grad student to help sort his email.
3. I Want Us to Share the Same Weather.
There are many conversations, in the indie-lit world, about how to make literature and especially poetry more accessible. How to build audiences. How not to be a bunch of old, white, elitist assholes drooling over a dying form. These are good and necessary conversations, but there’s something a little desperate and self-loathing about them too. What if not all art forms are meant to be blockbusters? What if the scrappy, silly, impossible-to-sell-out nature of poetry is also one of its biggest assets?
Standing at the intersection of this push-pull between popularity and edge is the aforementioned Derrick Brown. In 2004, Brown founded Write Bloody Publishing after becoming frustrated by the lack of quality books for sale at spoken word events. As a touring poet himself, he’d been to many. Here were the self-marketers that larger publishing houses dreamed of but ignored—poets like Constantine, who could rock a stage and woo an audience, but who often didn’t have anything but staple-bound chapbooks or home-burned CDs to sell.
Write Bloody’s ninety books—cross-listed on its website in categories like “queer lit,” “humor,” and “slam champions”—tend to have striking, illustrated covers (Brown seeks out album cover artists to give the books a rock-world feel) and intriguing, irreverent titles like The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail, Love in a Time of Robot Apocalypse and The Elephant Engine High Dive Revival. Write Bloody published Constantine’s second book, Birthday Girl with Possum. It also published Spiking the Sucker Punch by Robbie Q. Telfer, whom I once saw bring down the house at Occidental College with his poem “Pseudo-Feminist Hippie Douche Bag,” a rant that compares guys who feign feminism to woo women to actual douches—destructive devices sold to women to do something the vagina can do all on its own.
I hope there aren’t many people out there who still think of poetry as pretty rhyming verse extolling the change of seasons, but if there are, Telfer, Constantine, and Brown are putting a nail in that coffin. Not to mention the not-dead, not-entirely-unearned stereotype of poetry as indecipherable, academic navel-gazing.
“Write Bloody has the most amazing top-to-bottom lineup of poets right now. In coming years, it’s going to look better as these people become better known as poets,” predicts Bucky Sinister, whose collection Time Bomb Snooze Alarm was published by Write Bloody in 2012. (Sinister also has a book out on Razorcake’s Gorsky Press.) He’s particularly impressed by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (author of The Year of No Mistakes and Dear Future Boyfriend, among other awesome titles) and Jason Bayani (Amulet).
“Right now, they’re doing a lot of first books for people,” Sinister says. “You’re still seeing their raw work. The lineup is already great but still functioning at a fraction of their potential…. Selling poetry is a struggle, no matter the publisher or the poet. You have to shove your way through a crowd of thousands of shitty poets who came before you. But what Write Bloody is doing is really smart. They’re cherry-picking the best poets available while maintaining a certain aesthetic. It’s almost like they’re starting a genre of poetics rather than just a press.”
Write Bloody was based, for a time, in Southern California. I keep thinking it’s still there, although the mailing address is in Austin, Texas. That doesn’t stop me from signing an email to Brown, one drizzly day, with Stay warm and dry. I think I just want us to share the same weather. I want to drive a few miles south and see the stacks of snazzy books piled high, computer screens laying out new pages. I want to watch Brown at work as I search the details of his life for some clue I can apply to my own, as I always do with people I admire.
But hey, email works too. So I send Brown my questions.
4. Derrick Brown Wants to be In Love.
Cheryl Klein: Razorcake is a music magazine, so I’m sure some readers may be curious why we’re profiling a literary press. But your “About Us” very clearly states, “You must tour if you are part of our family. At least 20 shows a year. Just like a band. You can tour your state, or the world.” Tell me a little bit about why you have this policy and some of the ways it has played out.
Derrick Brown: My press has this policy because it’s the only way I have ever known to get lasting fans—the sweetness of meeting someone and handing them the CD or book, signing it. The longer you do it, the less you have to tour in tiny cars and stay on weed couches. We made it a mandate in our contract because many authors just get a thrill out of the notion of being published. The anguish of squirting out a book is behind them. They think the hard part is over and it’s only just beginning. Since poetry is currently a hard sell, we tell them how involved they have to be, how they have to change minds and the road is a great start at making real money, since royalties are always so low.
Klein: You also use photographers and artists with rock backgrounds, and sell your books in record stores. Are there other tactics you borrow from the music world?
Brown: We use the model where once all our expenses are paid off, then we split the royalty with the author 50/50. A lot of cooler labels are doing this and artists get it. No one should go broke. It is easy for a press or record label to fold just after two or three missteps as far as putting out dud books or albums.
Klein: How would you describe Write Bloody’s sensibility?
Brown: It leaned heavy toward 1960s classic Penguin crime novels, just as a look. I wanted the books to feel like nail biters you kept in your purse, no pastoral scenes on the covers. We have had a bit of an upward battle convincing the world that we aren’t a spoken word press, even though our authors have to speak well and write well on the page. I think we would get labeled with that sensibility since so many authors who read their own work are devoid of the life and gush they felt when they wrote their original passages. Many of our authors can summon that and it makes for a pretty exciting show, to jam together page beauty and ease of delivery.
Klein: What distinguishes Write Bloody from other independent presses, besides the touring mandate?
Brown: A few things: Author-friendly royalties (most presses pay ten percent or under on royalties, or give fifty copies and say you will never see a royalty dime).
We are ambitious because we think the writing is great, so we save up to make a good-looking book with great art, something beyond a Xeroxed zine to hand to our friends and feel like it had a good life. We aimed and worked hard to get international distribution by going to conferences (boring) and conventions (expensive), we do larger print runs now where some authors sell several thousand copies of one title a year.
We have free beer Fridays at our little bookshop. We think booze and readings are good friends.
Klein: You have a brick and mortar store in Austin. How has interacting directly with customers informed your approach to publishing?
Brown: It has been a wonderful way to meet small local zines! It can be scary. You are kind of trapped when someone wants you to read their manuscript. We do have a cricket bat. And beer. Good cop bad cop.
Klein: What inspired the Write Fuzzy children’s imprint and the books you wrote for it?
Brown: I think kids are awful, downright annoying, and I thought this would be a great way to shape them all up. Make a few books that grind them down to their core until they can’t pull on Mommy’s leash at Costco anymore, ‘cause they are busy daydreaming.
Klein: Speaking of your work as a writer, a lot of people who work on the community/infrastructure side of the literary world find themselves with no time to focus on their own writing. How do you do it? Are you one of those enviable people who pretty much nails it on the first draft?
Brown: This is a great question. I had no sense of balance, just buzz. I got such a buzz from launching books I loved, I just kept going until the money slowed, putting out fourteen to eighteen books in a year. I am the only employee with two awesome interns. It is now clearly impossible to do all we do—distribution, marketing and such—with one person. I am slowing down production, no submission period this year. I am letting interns go in January and I am only going to put out books that swirl me up starting in October 2014. I was dying. I was so hungry to get my own work out, but when you get home, all your fuses are spent. I had to learn to monitor my fuses better.
Klein: If Write Bloody got a sudden giant grant, like the one Ruth Lilly left Poetry Magazine, what would you do with it?
Brown: I would open up a poetry bar called LOVE. A neon sign would be inside saying You Are In LOVE. Each table would have a phone, but you could only call other tables and you would have to follow the rules of kindness. There would be poems and food on the appetizer menu. You could buy a book with your steak and eat alone, and not feel alone.
5. Unbearably Sad Things.
Constantine prefaces a poem called “Acknowledgments” with an anecdote about a fellow poet, who I speculate might be a Write Bloody author.
“I’m friends with a poet who’s doing a rather vicious tour now—eighteen cities in fourteen days,” Constantine says. “He’s getting tired of being asked what his favorite word is. I think every poet’s favorite word is ‘forthcoming.’”
“Acknowledgments” is written in the style of that page we all know—the one that follows tragic or transcendent stories with a bunch of cheery, business-like shout-outs. Constantine’s poem, which imagines a poem called “The Unbearably Sad Guest Room” first appearing in the journal Unbearably Sad Things, draws out the disconnect between these two realities: the poem and the business of poetry. One is useless without the other, but they seem to reside in different worlds.
He closes by referencing the one-poem limit at the open mic: “I love that there’s a community of people—even if it’s a small community—who love words so much, who are so bursting to say something,that they just can’t be limited to one poem.”