Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Thrill Is Gone: Bookstores and Me

          Back in the day, after college and before the lost decade I spent at Cosmodemonic Communications, I had a long career in the retail book industry. Beginning with a short stint at the old Waldenbooks in the barely-there Hudson Valley Mall, to three years at the dearly departed Ariel Booksellers in New Paltz, to a couple of years at Norman Levine’s Editions in Boiceville, books were my close companions, night lights of the mind, portals to times and lives I wanted to dip into without commitment, return to without hesitation. 

            I’m feeling lately like maybe I’ve read too many books. I can’t tell you the last novel I finished, or even collection of poetry. I used to spend hours in the stacks, happily pawing through the shredded covers for one treasure, a new poet or an old one I hadn’t read enough of, a magazine printed the year I was born, or even a few craft or cookbooks I’d spend more time reading than emulating. 

            I can still straighten a shelf up like nobody’s business. I remember dusting the fronts, the tops, filling the carts with new arrivals to merge into an already bursting shelf, and figuring out how to make them all fit. I knew the business. But who knew the business would change so drastically in my lifetime. I’m sure the clues were there, while I had my nose buried in Sylvia Plath’s journal or Allen Ginsberg’s collected works. The Internet. Before my current position, I had a final fling at the book business, and failed at my post badly. Unsupported, with a staff of just one (me), I spent my days alone washing windows, mopping the floor, making coffee, and doing just about everything but working with books. 

            The store is still open, and the owner is still breathing, both facts equally depressing. It was a used bookstore, but I was often instructed to sift through piles of buy-backs for books in good enough shape to pass as new. I spent too much money (really, money) on new titles, a mistake I wasn’t aware of until after the fact. The books were an afterthought, shoved onto shelves without thought or philosophy. Being fired was a stroke of luck, since I’d resigned myself to the mess, but the books were no comfort. They were helpless themselves in the murky wood and coffee grounds of the joint. 

            A couple of weeks ago we stopped at an outlet mall in Central New York, one where sneakers were the star. In the far corner was a bookstore of sorts, remainders and lesser known titles deeply discounted. Even with a decent salary, no longer having to rely on strips or bargain books to fill my shelves, I found nothing I wanted to take home with me. I knew the end of all the fiction, the rhyme schemes of the few poetry books on hand. I have plenty of cookbooks I already don’t use, although I’ve read them all several times. Even the books on CD didn’t interest me—what good is a book on CD once you’ve listened. I’ve no interest in the ghostwritten pop autobiographies, or the bodice-ripping romances, the simplistic craft manuals written for those who need written instructions for tying their shoelaces every morning. There was not one book in the whole store I was willing to take home. 

            I’m more interested now in clearing my shelves, my walls, my closets. It’s almost as if I’ve moved the library inside my head. I need the physical space these days to make some headway on the few projects I intend to go forward with. I have my Handler’s companionship day and night, so perhaps the books resent our drifting apart. But like old lovers, I’ll keep in touch with some, part amicably with others. Some will be dropped off at the thrift shop where they’re given away, because that’s the option I like best. Time grows a little short, and I hate to think of the clean up after I’ve dropped the body if I don’t do some of it myself ahead of time. It is time to pare down and focus. If only I can put down this Harriet Carter catalog… anybody need a wall phone with really, really big numbers?

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Live On Stage: The Ziegfeld Poems

August 20th came more quickly than I could ever have imagined, and whether I was ready or not, the evening of my presentation at the Omega Institute arrived. I billed it as a sort of lecture/reading, which perhaps might have frightened people less. There is a built-in fear of poetry readings that, having been to a few myself, I can totally sympathize with. Somehow the word “lecture” doesn’t have the same effect, so I was able to sneak a few poems into the presentation with the pressure of having the poems be the center of attention. Except of course they were, to me at least.

The meeting space upstairs at the Ram Dass Library is simply elegant and round, and no mic was necessary. Luckily, because all the mics were being used by Bobby McFerrin for his “Circlesongs” workshop that week. My plans to play a CD of Follies tunes while the crowds moseyed in was thwarted by technical difficulties, as was the use of a remote slide changer. For this event, I put together my very first PowerPoint presentation, using photos of the “cast” to help listeners make the connection between the poems and the people involved. I’ve since purchased my own combination remote changer and laser pointer for future presentations for a mere $20, so my Handler will get the night off. For now, he did me the great good favor of looking for my cues, and advancing the photos smoothly.

It is sometimes difficult for me to explain what I know about the Follies without skipping parts. I have to keep reminding myself about how little most people remember about that time today, without being condescending or overly detailed. I interspersed short biographies with photos and poems, and tried to create a brief narrative that I hope hung together. I was spared the agony of being corrected by anyone who was more knowledgeable about the Follies than I am, because they’re out there. They just weren’t with me that night. I’m sure I made some factual errors, and certainly perpetuated one or two long-standing myths that I hope to put to rest in the future. I see where I need to fill in gaps, and where the poems themselves could use some fine tuning.

There were about a dozen people in attendance, and even a few that surprised me. Still others were merely participants interested in my project. I was grateful for all. It was very beneficial to hear the work out loud, and to see if it would play in Peoria. I believe it will. Now, back to the desk, the books, the research, to make this project the best possible I can, one-hundred years after the fact.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Submittables or Unsubmittables: Sending out Poems

Like some of you, I’m old enough to remember when submitting poems to magazines for possible publication meant hours of typing, proofreading, correcting (with fluid or ribbon) and retyping manuscripts. Even a few pages might only be good for one shot. After months (often many months), you’d receive your carefully produced pages returned to you in the Self-Addressed Stamp Envelope you’d included with your submission, and with luck the pages were even still in good enough condition to mail out at least once more.

There’d usually be some kind of note, either accepting one or more poems for future inclusion, or a graceful decline, full of form letter regret. Occasionally you’d receive no reply at all and continue to wonder for the rest of your life if your poems weren’t languishing at the bottom of some pile of undelivered mail, or a pile of discarded poems in the abandoned offices of a defunct periodical.

Nowadays, submitting poems to potential publishers has never been easier. There is email, for one. Some of the smaller magazines take email submissions, and often reply very quickly, sometimes in 24 hours! And the are online magazines, too. These have far more flexibility than the strictly ink & mortar variety, and can publish more work, making it available online indefinitely. Between just these two advances, I’ve been able to submit much more work with much more ease. I’ve concentrated this summer on getting my poems out. Much as I adore (more or less) each and every one, they must see the world. And perhaps the world will see them.

Submittables is a portal used by some publications to act as a go-between. It prevents viruses from being transmitted via email, and also allows them to charge contest or submission fees easily via PayPal. Partly as an experiment, my stepped-up efforts to submit more work included two basic elements: no fees, and no Submittables. Perhaps these are unfair limits. I know many zines struggle financially, and I try to purchase when I can, but years of reading such things has convinced me that the standard advice each gives of “take a look at the latest issue to get a feel for the kind of thing we like,” has little meaning. I prefer the bolder message of, “Please support us and subscribe.”

I’ve used Submittables in the past, and it is relatively easy. However, at this point in my life, with a full-time job for the next several millennia still a very real possibility, and the brutal heat that evaporated the Northeast for much of this summer, I wanted to make things as easy on myself as possible. It would take all of fifteen minutes to locate a zine, scope out their guidelines, and send my work. I have a standard bio, if one is required off the bat, and a collection of “poet” photos that make me look serious and professional. And I never try to do more than one in the same day. I’ve been very inspired lately by the likes of Rebecca Schumejda, John Dorsey, Dan Crocker, and perhaps unethically sent work to magazines that had published theirs.

So far, I’ve had six poems accepted, and one being held for a possible future anthology, and have submitted a couple dozen maybe overall. Not a bad return for my time and electric. I’m not so focused on contests at present, because I don’t like the odds and don’t feel a need for that kind of attention. That being said, the DiBiase award of 2017 was a total surprise and I am grateful. That was also a very easy contest to enter. I was proud to be among those poets and honored to be one of their judges this year. But it’s not about contests for me right now.  

In fact, I get tremendous pleasure out of printing up my own chapbooks. That will happen again. Maybe I’ll start my own online zine. It all depends on Lotto.