Tag Archives: summer 2002

Rebel Without a Pause: An Interview with John Bennett

by Mark Terrill

John Bennett is the founder of Vagabond Press, the former editor of the seminal small press magazine, Vagabond, and the author of over 21 books of prose, poetry and "shards," a high-octane, hybrid form of short prose pieces. He also edited Ragged Lion, A Tribute to Jack Micheline, and recently recorded a CD of his shards entitled Rug Burn.

A true iconoclast and die-hard individualist, Bennett has a strong aversion to all schools, movements, isms, etc, championing instead the voice of the socially dispossessed and the marginal outsider. Published on a hand-cranked 1917 A.B. Dick open-drum mimeo that was found in a garbage heap, Vagabond was one of a handful of magazines back in the Sixties such as Wormwood Review, Olé, The Outsider, December and New York Quarterly, where Charles Bukowski, Lyn Lifshin, d.a. levy, Doug Blazek, Anne Menebroker, Jack Micheline, Jerry Bumpus, Gerda Penfold and many other now-familiar names first appeared in the small press scene. The Vagabond Anthology, originally published in 1978, still serves as a monument and testament to both literary and individual integrity, two ardent strands that wind their way through all things Vagabond.

More than 35 years after the founding of Vagabond, Bennett is still going strong, now armed with a website (http://www.eburg.com/~vagabond/) instead of the hand-cranked mimeo, washing windows for a living, and churning out his shards like a man possessed. This interview was conducted by email in September-November 2001.


Mark Terrill: Your latest collection of shards, Fire in the Hole, just came out from The Argonne House Press. In the introduction, you say that "Shards are not prose poems, short stories or political persuasions. They're not cattle prods of social awareness. Toss a term like "social awareness" into a shard and see what happens--it's like tossing a chunk of red meat into a fish tank of piranhas." Maybe you could tell me a little more about the genesis of the shard. Was there any particular catalytic event that led to the form? Any particular influences? They seem to be very spontaneous in nature, definitely more from the gut than from the mind.

John Bennett: The old body/mind conundrum. The either/or game. The gut/mind simple-Simon package. Duelality. Someone gets shot dead and then what? Loneliness sets in. (Please don't put "sic" after duelality.)

Genesis? Listen, I don't have long to live. My kind keeps getting culled from the herd. At 20 it seems we are legion ("We want the world and we want it now"), at 40 there's Jackson Brown singing "Running Against the Wind," and at my age--I think I can make out two or three other fleet-footed gazelles bounding far off across the tundra, but it's hard to be sure, the place is cluttered with wolves. Critical mass is more like it. Fusion. A great meltdown. Think of lava snaking its liquid way down a mountain side on some Pacific island. One day four or five years ago it just happened. I woke up with the words "The Ghost of Tokyo Rose" going around in my head. I went straight to my typewriter and wrote those words down. All hell broke loose. Page after page. I thought I was into a novel, a hugely spontaneous novel. Okay, I thought, I can ride this bronco. After a month or so the thing was going in so many directions at once I began getting vertigo--it exploded into shards like a volcanic eruption. I gave up on the myth of continuity and a lot of other myths that we shackle ourselves with.

There wasn't a catalyst that sparked shards into existence, shards are catalysts that drive fragile flowers straight up out of concrete, that spark chaos and mayhem and fear and disorientation--all the things necessary for breakthrough, for quantum leap, for a change of heart. I'm Henry Miller's love child. Charles Bukowski's arm-wrestling partner. I'm a shard serf. An indentured servant waiting on emancipation. No time to say hello good-bye. Read 'em and weep. Shards are the language of an improbable future.

MT: What's the difference between a shard and a prose poem?

JB: A prose poem is a form. A shard is a prophecy.

MT: You've been involved in the alternative/small press scene for over 35 years now, having made the transition from a hand-cranked mimeo to cyberspace. How would you compare the small press scene of today with that of the mid-sixties?

JB: Guerrilla warfare vs. workshops.

MT: How do you see the current proliferation of workshops, seminars, MFA programs, poetry slams, etc.? You think it represents a bona fide increased interest in writing in general, or is it just another attempt to make a commodity out of art?

JB: I'm not sure I'd put poetry slams in the same boat with the other phenomena you mentioned. Poetry slams are more like Roman arenas full of gladiators; gladiators with plastic swords, perhaps, but definitely a step above an MFA program.

Workshops, seminars and MFA programs are all lessons in political correctness. The best that can be said about them is that they are geared to the mechanics of writing. Mostly what they do, however, is sell formulas for pleasing editors and supposedly audiences, formulas for "making it." They're rooted in greed, fear and vanity. There simply aren't that many true poets and creative writers with poetic depth. I think the ratio to the general population has been roughly the same throughout history. The so-called proliferation of poets that so many see as wonderful is actually a sign of advanced spiritual decay. There is no such proliferation, it's all packaging. And what's packaging but deceit, an attempt to make something look better than it is? Poetry is a bare-naked thing. It has nothing to do with image.

MT: What was your last contact with Bukowski? What do you think about his legacy? Do you see it as a boon or a curse?

JB: When was it Bukowski died? March of 94? Almost eight years ago. Our correspondence began thinning out in the late '80s.

His legacy is a boon. What is being done with it by eager literary types is largely a disaster. A lot of people drinking themselves senseless and feigning a skidrow outlook on life. You can get all tangled up in the contradictions and complexities of Bukowski, but for my money the most important thing his writing does with enormous success is subliminally spotlight and verify the individual while flinging the whole corporate, institutionalized world into the shadows--I think this accounts for his enormous world-wide popularity more than anything. Hell, at one time Bukowski's books held two of the top-ten best-seller spots in Brazil simultaneously! Brazil!

MT: What did you think about Howard Sounes' biography of Bukowski?

JB: It doesn't make sense to write biographies about people like Miller (Henry) and Bukowski. It smacks of necrophilia. Looking for love in all the wrong places.

MT: Are there any magazines, periodicals or small presses out there these days that seem to be carrying on in the "guerilla warfare" spirit?

JB: I know there are down-to-business, non-literary tabloids out there with a strong radical social orientation, similar to the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Good Times of the Sixties (Seattle's Washington Free Press comes to mind), but I'm not aware of any literary presses with chops like Doug Blazek's Open Skull Press, Jon and Gypsy Webb's The Outsider, or the whole astounding and brutalized Cleveland scene with d.a. levy as residing guru.

MT: The life and death of d.a. levy has become a sort of legend in the interim. Did you actually know levy? What do you know about the circumstances of his death?

JB: Never met levy. It's the work, you know, in the final analysis, that counts. I knew Joel Deutsch out in San Francisco, and Kent Taylor, both Cleveland poets from that era. And I've stayed in close touch with t.l. kryss over the years. kryss is about the purest poet I know. Another poet of great power that almost no one knows about because she just doesn't give a rat's ass about networking and publishing and what the hell anyone thinks about her is Maia Penfold. I don't think she's ever been to Cleveland, but she's a Cleveland poet in spirit. People put way too much emphasis on eras and movements and geographical identity, and that creates a fictitious coherency and obscures the essence of poetry.

levy's death--christ, people just don't know when to let something go.

MT: I don't have any problem with letting go, especially when it comes to death. I was just curious about levy in particular since there seems to be some controversy as to whether or not he actually committed suicide. Is Maia Penfold related to Gerda Penfold?

JB: The controversy is what I'm talking about letting go of. It's turned all sorts of people against each other. I mean, did Christ really get crucified? Did he really ascend into heaven? Was it really Judas who dropped the dime on him? And off we march behind the banner of Christianity on our crusade to get seasoning for our meat... Is this too esoteric?

Maia Penfold is Gerda Penfold. She changed her name to Maia about 20 years ago. Didn't seem to change her one iota, thank God...

MT: Any contemporary writers that you particularly enjoy reading or would recommend?

JB: Sure. Jesse Bernstein. Moritz Thomsen. Albert Huffstickler. Charles Bowden. Thomsen and Bernstein are dead, does that disqualify them? Albert Huffstickler is old but hard at it, a first-class poet, does he count?* Bowden has a great book out called Red Line. What's contemporary in a world where everyone is famous for fifteen minutes? (*Note: Since this interview was conducted, Albert Huffstickler died. As did John Thomas who wasn't listed above but should have been. As should have/could have a long list of other writers and poets--died and/or been listed...)

MT: I'm not familiar with Charles Bowden. What can you tell me about him?

JB: Not much. He's an ecologist, very much in the Edward Abbey vein. He understands that hawks kill and that it's part of the natural order. He drinks hard and wanders off into the desert for long stretches of time. A couple of his other books are Blue Desert and Mezcal. Red Line is an undulating mix of personal dilemma, desert life, and drugs. I discovered the book because I'm involved in doing a book based on the life of a cocaine drug-cartel kingpin. This guy decided to let me write his book after talking with me for a couple of hours. At one point he asked me, "Did you ever have someone stick a gun in your face?" I told him yes. "Who?" he said. "Me and one other person." "What did you do when it was your finger on the trigger?" "There was only one bullet in there somewhere," I said, "so I pulled it." "And the other time?" "I said, 'Go ahead and do it, but you're going to make a fucking mess out of the cab of your truck.' " I think that's when he decided he wanted me to do the book. Way to-hell-and-gone outside the world of seminars and workshops.

MT: You were included in the anthology, The Outlaw Bible of Outlaw Poetry. How did that come about?

JB: Alan Kaufman, who edited Outlaw, contacted me, asked me to contribute something. I did. They butchered my work (whole stanzas left off), my name and my bio. When I pointed this out, I was told I should be glad to even be in there with all those names. Too many names, for my money. Too many celebrities and far too few outlaws. I managed to get Jesse Bernstein in there. Kaufman didn't know who Bernstein was. Jesse was Seattle's quintessential outlaw poet, he wrote a fine, fine line, and he took everything to the limit. He was the spirit of the Sixties toughened up for contemporary America. He was more outlaw than anyone else in that big thick book. It was not a good idea to fuck around with the skinny, pop-eyed little fucker. If you handed him a pistol with one bullet in it and said, "I dare you to put the barrel to your head and pull the trigger," he'd do it without a moment's hesitation and then hand the gun to you and say, "Your turn." He offed himself, stabbed himself three times in the throat. The world was just too nasty and ugly for him. Bukowski wasn't in there because Bukowski was dead and his estate wanted more than the $25 Thunder's Mouth Press was paying each of the contributors.

MT: Your own Vagabond Anthology is an amazing collection. Why don't people write like that anymore?

JB: Well, there are people mimicking "writing like that," but it's somehow not the same. It has something to do with the times. I no longer write like that. I write shards now (to the dismay of many) because they seem to shape words in a way that sheds light on the pulse of the times, down under the onslaught of technology and shrill speed, down under all the packaging. You have to listen to that inner voice in order to get beyond the packaging, down to the heart of the beast. Once you make contact at that level, it's astonishing what sort of language comes into play, what concepts and juxtapositions...

The Vagabond Anthology is a clean, lean machine. It's a monolith of its time. A good reference point to check your compass by... I've still got copies. $10 a pop for anyone who wants one.

MT: Vagabond was originally conceived by you and Grant Bunch in Washington D.C. back in '64, but the first issue didn't come out until a year later when you were living in Germany. Why the transition from D.C. to Munich?

JB: Grant and I got inspired to start our own mag in a bar called Brownley's near George Washington University in D.C. Other than Marvin Malone's Wormwood Review, we were unaware at the time of any small press activity, leave alone a "movement." We just knew that what we needed wasn't available in the university and big-name magazines.

We kicked the idea around for some time, and then I went to Munich with my wife and son to study at the University of Munich. That didn't last long. I wound up washing dishes, and my wife at the time, a German citizen, got a job with the German post office. Grant showed up at our 5th floor one-room efficiency one day, and the idea for the magazine erupted again over a few bottles of good German white wine. We kicked names around, and my wife, said: "What about that poem you wrote called "Vagabond," why not call the magazine Vagabond? It was appropriate. We were always moving from place to place, and the trend continued. So Vagabond it was.

Grant split on a Norwegian freighter and was never active in the mag again. He was our wandering emissary. We did five issues out of Munich, and then it was D.C., New Orleans, San Francisco and Ellensburg.

MT: What were you studying at the university, and why Munich?

JB: Literature and philosophy. Why? Good question. It was my last attempt to somehow fit in with the system. I thought I would become a teacher, largely by osmosis. It all came crashing to an end one day after an altercation with an academic advisor. She said, "Herr Bennett, Sie sind ein Bauer! " and I replied, "Fräulein Doktor Riegler, lieber ein Bauer als eine alte Jungfrau." ("Herr Bennett, you are a peasant." "Fräulein Doktor Riegler, better a peasant than an old virgin.")

That's when I began to cook. That's when my writing took off and Vagabond became a reality. When I finally gave up the ghost. When I dared cut the rope and be free. I wrote Bukowski and he sent a book's worth of poems and a sheaf of chalk drawings. He said my letter made his friend (unidentified) run howling into the night. I wrote my first true short story shortly after that, and it turned out to be my first published story--"The Night of the Great Butcher." Curt Johnson of December Magazine accepted it with a letter in which he said, "Damn! The story that makes the issue always seems to come in just under the gun." Raymond Carver had a story in that issue of December.

MT: And that was the end of your academic aspirations? How have you earned your living since then?

JB: That was it for academia and me. Bounced around after that doing construction grunt work, idiot-savant gardening, janitorial gigs, and working the bars and honky tonks in New Orleans and San Francisco as waiter, bartender and door man. Started cleaning windows over twenty years ago to give my son something to apply himself to one summer--he was heading in a bad direction. He kept going in a bad direction and I've been cleaning windows ever since. "Just a working man in my prime, cleaning windows." Van Morrison.

MT: Part of my previous question didn't get answered--why Munich, of all places?

JB: Good beer. I lived across the street from the Theresien Wiese, which is where the Oktoberfest takes place. I mean literally across the street! Step out the door in the morning, and it was like the aftermath of a war zone. Bodies strewn everywhere, puddles of vomit. Good old Gemütlichkeit.

MT: You moved to Germany to study literature and philosophy at the university in Munich because the beer was good?

JB: Best beer in the world. In the summer I'd disappear into the Augustinebräu beer garden for days on end, they'd have to send in a search party to find me. I lived in Munich's West End, a tough little blue-collar neighborhood. Have you read my Munich stories? They're in The Night of the Great Butcher and The Names We Go By. I was the resident Ami at the corner bar, a good old-fashioned Gasthaus. Americans never came in there. Alois, Siegi, Julius--my running mates. We raised a lot of hell.

Look, the handwriting was on the wall. I'd done my army time (that's how I got a German wife), and I was bulling my way through George Washington University in D.C., working two jobs on the side to support the American Dream. It was terrifying. It was summer, and I snapped. I put on my Robert-Hall el-cheapo suit, picked up my empty attaché case, and started hustling. I was good at it back then, working the system. In one afternoon of cruising from office to office, and two months past the deadline, I'd talked my way into the University of Munich via one of those junior-year programs. I had to take a proficiency test and sit down and chat in German with some dude for ten or twenty minutes, and I was in. I sent my wife and son to Berlin for the rest of the summer and went wild. I got off my Icelandic flight in Luxembourg with a backpack, a portable typewriter, and about $200 in cash. I hitched to Munich.

I checked in with the junior-year people, then signed up for a lot of courses that were not affiliated with the program. I never went back except to pick up a financial aid check every month and to hook up with a couple of ex-army guys who were doing the G.I. Bill. I spent more and more time drinking and less and less time going to classes and finally I threw in the towel on the whole thing and--as I think I already said--began to write like there was no tomorrow.

MT: So you went to Munich under the pretense of getting an education and came back instead as a published writer and the editor of Vagabond. How did you go about soliciting material for the first issues of Vagabond? You said you wrote Bukowski--had you already known him previously?

JB: I didn't know anyone. Somehow The Wormwood Review got into my hands back in D.C.--my first poem was published in Wormwood. I hop scotched via Wormwood to some other small mags that were springing up. It was a 12th monkey sort of thing. These mags were springing up independently of each other and then finding each other after the fact. There was rapid escalation and then spontaneous combustion. It was a phenomenon endemic to the times, across the board. We were feeling our oats. A veritable magical mystery tour...

It was in Doug Blazek's Olé that I first read Bukowski's poems, and they set me on fire. I wrote him a long, crazy letter. I wrote everyone whose work I liked and asked for poems, stories, whatever they had. Good work came flooding in, but to be honest, it took me a while to hit my stride, to find my editorial chops, to scour out the last vestiges of conditioning that was there in spite of my loner, outsider existence. Simply slapping a bunch of good poems and big names between two covers doesn't make for a good mag. Publications with that feel to them always make me uneasy. There has to be a cohesive quality, and that is editorial presence. Shit, with today's technology, anyone can slam a bunch of words between two covers and call it a literary magazine. Back in the days of manual typewriters, stencils and mimeo machines, it was messy business and a labor of love.

MT: You mentioned that Raymond Carver had a story in the same issue of December where your first story appeared. What do you think of Carver? And what about Richard Brautigan? Not that they necessarily have anything in common, other than the fact that they were both establishing their careers at the same time that Vagabond was happening, and were two very unique and inimitable voices.

JB: I made a mistake. Carver had some poems in that issue, not a story. There was a lot of good stuff in that issue--early Blazek, Lifshin, Richard Hugo. Curt Johnson's December was one of the better little mags around. December had it all--poetry, fiction, film, reviews, art, opinion, and that all-important editorial presence; hefty but without the pretense of its well-heeled cousins, the university mags. Johnson is a heavy. As tough as they come. The only person I ever ran into who could drink me under the table. And with one lung and all sorts of health problems, he's still at it (drinking)--I quit.

What do I think of Carver? He's a master story teller. It's embarrassing to see the way Tess Gallagher feeds off his name and his talent, years after his death. A little bit of trivia--Tess Gallagher's ex-husband (pre-Carver) is my landlord. He was in here doing some repairs not too long ago. Ex-fighter pilot, sculptor. It's his name Tess carries.

Brautigan? He was great to read back in the Sixties, sitting in the sand dunes along the Great Highway in San Francisco, stoned out of my head, but he's a lightweight compared with Carver. I heard him read outdoors on the Berkeley campus on the same bill as Gary Snyder. He didn't look so good up against Snyder, man of steel.

MT: I had the same impression of Brautigan for years until I recently stumbled across an excerpt of Trout Fishing in America somewhere, which prompted me to read it again. I wound up reading everything by him that's still in print, and I would have to include In Watermelon Sugar in my top-ten list of all-time greatest books. I think his lightweight status was/is very deceptive. I think he was a genius. A confused, mixed-up genius, but a genius. His stuff reads even stronger today than it did back then, even when you're not stoned out of your head.

Anyway, so Vagabond got on its feet in Munich and went for how many issues/years in total?

JB: "The genius is the one who plays most like himself." Thelonius Monk.

I'll have to circle back around and give Brautigan another read. Things change. Things Fall Apart. Have you read that book by Chinua Achebe? Did I spell his name right? Is my tie straight?

Everything is in a constant state of flux, including perceptions. Surfers have the right idea. You catch that wave just right, and you ride it in. Then you paddle back out and catch another one. I was a teenager when the James Dean movie Rebel Without A Cause came out. It blew me totally away. I saw it six times. I saw it again years later, when I was in my early 30s, and I was embarrassed. I saw it again, just last year, with my teenage adopted grandson, and it blew us both away, but for different reasons. So many facets. This is important to understand. If a person doesn't understand this, they can put out literary magazines and accumulate kudos until the cows come home and all they're doing is trashing an already battered psychic landscape.

The circumstances of my life kept things lean with Vagabond. Five issues out of Munich, six counting the one we did in German. When I returned stateside I eventually drifted down to New Orleans, found an A.B. Dick open-drum mimeo, 1917 vintage, in a garbage heap behind the American Legion, and cranked out a few issues on that. Also did a few books, like French Quarter Interviews, and a few issues of something called Mr. Clean Magazine which landed me and Glenn Miller, the art editor, in jail on pornography charges. I got the hell out of New Orleans after that. I wound up living on a roof in a converted pigeon coop in San Francisco's Mission District and cranked out a few more issues. I was wifeless by this time and moving around with an old steamer trunk and the mimeo. I could slam that trunk shut and be gone with a half hour's notice. And I was writing like a stallion, stories and poems and a novel, The Adventures of Achilles Jones, which two editors from Atheneum wanted to publish, but the thing got shot down by "The Committee," meaning the sales people. Joe McCrindle of the now defunct Transatlantic Review took a shine to my writing, published three stories. He came to San Francisco, a well-mannered, nice little guy in a double-breasted suit, and I threw him in my VW van and raced all over the city drinking beer and smoking joints and checking out a Jackson Pollock retrospective. I terrified him. He never answered my mail after that. I was lost in the labyrinth of Blake's palace of excess. I kept shooting myself in the toe.

Anyway, I hooked up with an intense little number while working the Christmas rush at the post office, I thought she was a speed freak but she was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, and the next thing I know we're married and heading for Ellensburg, Washington, where she had a teaching position. I've been here ever since, with numerous forays out into the world. The marriage didn't last, I'm very unhappy anywhere near academia. I wound up cleaning windows, a gig I do to this day to pay the rent.

Ran up a total of 30 issues of Vagabond over the years (seemed appropriate, the telegraphers -30- signifying the end of a transmission) and a good number of books. But I can't keep my hand out. Within a year after the last issue of Vagabond I did something called Once More With Feeling, which was touted as an anthology but in reality it was just more of the magazine. I'm like some prehistoric beast that's been snare-trapped and staked down. Every now and then someone pokes me with a stick to see if I'm still alive, and I raise my head, let out a roar, rip an arm free and swipe a half dozen Twinkie-eating smocks right off the face of the earth. It is--ha-ha--the nature of the beast.

No one's going to print this. It's too long. But we're having fun, aren't we? I like the thing you did on Paul Bowles, by the way. That should be put out in book form. If I wasn't so overwhelmed with things I'd do it myself. But some young blood should take it on... We need to recognize truly worthy things in each other and support those things. "If we could only get enough good men to walk together," Bukowski wrote in an early poem. "But we won't."

MT: 30 issues is a long haul, especially under those circumstances. That's a great image--the steamer trunk, the mimeo, and a magazine named Vagabond. Like, "Who was that masked man?" And I know what you mean about changing perceptions. The same thing happened to me with Henry Miller. First time I read Tropic of Cancer, I thought I'd seen the light. Read it again years later and thought it was crap. Read it again recently and realized again how great it actually is.

So being on top of those changing perceptions is definitely crucial to achieving that sort of "editorial presence" that you were talking about earlier. That and having the luck to hook up with poets and writers with "poetic depth." What are the other necessary ingredients for putting out a good, solid literary magazine, besides the basic finances and a sort of psychic stamina? What advice would you give to someone starting up a small mag today?

JB: I think you've about covered it. That's all you need! You might take out the word solid. You don't want to be solid. You want to be mercurial. You want to flow with all those oscillating perceptions. You really have to be driven. The last thing you need is an agenda. It's all attitude, longing. It's an attempt to live your longings. That is liberating, and it helps liberate others who down in their marrow long for liberation, deep-down psychic and spiritual liberation, down under all the crap--and there is a lot of crap. If you're not doing that, if you're not tending in that direction, you're wasting everyone's time, as far as I'm concerned.

There are a zillion (allow me some hyperbole) "literary" magazines coming and going all the time that are deadly boring and predictable and anchored in some form of largess or another. I got voted onto a CCLM grants committee once, back in the late 70s, along with Harry Smith and Diane Kruchkow. We wound up with controlling votes. We gave everyone who applied exactly the same amount of money--$812.76, I think it came out to. This put mags like Partisan Review who were asking for $20,000 into a financial crisis, while other mags with names like Butchered Pigs threw blowout parties because they got four times what they asked for. This was in Seattle. When CCLM saw what we were doing, they flew in lawyers and big-name writers and publishers and tried making us an offer we couldn't refuse to change our minds. We stood fast. I'm despised in a lot of circles.

MT: Maybe that's one necessary ingredient we overlooked--the willingness to risk your ass in the face of the accepted norms, to go against the grain and be a real trouble-maker. No risk, no gain, right? And by gain I don't mean subscriptions, grants, etc., but rather a broadening of the literary landscape, from which all of us stand to benefit.

JB: I don't like the word literature any more than I like the word poetry, because the words have been co-opted, become flimsy. I'm into divination, the rest is claptrap. If you've got divination in your bones, you get labeled a trouble maker. There's nothing to be gained, only unearthed. The Big Lie beats just under the skin like a bestial black heart. Ka-thum. Ka-thum. If you stand perfectly still long enough, you hear it. Come on, Mark--broaden the literary landscape? What the hell is that supposed to mean? It's so Orwellian it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

MT: Another false step in the semantic minefield. I think it goes without saying that the terms "literature" and "poetry" have both been co-opted (or recuperated, as the Situationists say), but for the sake of this interchange, we need to call them something. And by "broadening the literary landscape," I merely meant opening it up (or ripping it open, or whatever) to include all the Huffsticklers, levys, Bernsteins, etc., instead of having our aesthetic tastes hammered into shape by the Corporate Combine, with their marketing strategies, trends, chain-stores, "political correctness," etc. That, to me, is the truly Orwellian part.

Or do you see it as a sort of ongoing Them vs. Us continuum, the establishment and the underground locked in some kind of perpetual, yin-yang, symbiotic tangle? The one constantly being challenged by the other? Maybe that's actually necessary to keep the whole thing healthy and alive, to keep it from becoming just one big moribund homogenous mass, producing the kind of McLiterature that I think we're both leery of.

JB: Now we're talking. You got a little pissed, a little miffed, and your language honed up. "Broadening the literary landscape" has a euphemistic ring to it. It's gelded language. The words do the opposite of what they advocate, which is very Orwellian. Smash assumptions, smash preconceptions, like smashing egg shells so the little chickies can come out and play. Not in others, in ourselves. Over and over and over again. By any means possible. Raze high the roof beams, carpenters. Yes, "sic" on raze. Salinger, there's someone did a lot for me years ago. Put a footnote in here if you have to.

All hell breaks loose when you dare cut the rope and be free, when you don't stand still long enough to have a saddle thrown over your back. Them/Us? We are the walrus--all of us. Ku-ku-ka-choo. Give me your givens, your downtrodden, your nubile young daughters...

MT: Another writer who dared to cut the rope was Jack Micheline. Your tribute, Ragged Lion, was obviously a labor of love in the truest sense. Why Jack Micheline?

JB: Micheline was the quintessential outsider. He lived more or less on the streets for over 40 years, and he never knuckled under. He was an outsider in his own clan, the Beats. He was cantankerous, a curmudgeon, an iconoclast, always turning over apple carts and ruining people's plans. If he'd been Native American in another century he would have been a Contrary. The literati would gather to congratulate each other on being such high-level sentient beings, and Micheline would come crashing in, reciting his poems in a loud voice and smelling bad. So, I was moved to do a tribute. I had in mind something much less extravagant than what I wound up with. I had in mind ten or twenty pages, something photo-copied, a press run of 100. But, the thing got out of hand, and over a year later I wound up with 210 pages, scores of contributors, art, photos, poems, stories and reminiscences galore. Cloth and paper editions. Harry Smith of Smith Publications helped bankroll it.

MT: All that response just shows what a huge impact Micheline actually had. Now someone just needs to come along and put together his collected works.

Previously you mentioned Salinger. It seems like he's holding up pretty well amidst all the oscillating perceptions. The Catcher in the Rye just keeps selling and selling. Not that sales are any criterion, but he obviously hit a nerve that's still twitching after all these years.

JB: Matt Gonzales brought out Micheline's Sixty-seven Poems for Downtrodden Saints shortly before Micheline died. It was also a labor of love. Gonzales is a lawyer, not a publisher. The book went into a second edition. Micheline's son, Vince Silvaer, also a non-literary type, has set up the Micheline Foundation, replete with a web site. Yes, a complete collected works would be nice. Micheline was the poet of the streets that Henry Miller was always talking about.

Salinger--his stories got me as much as Catcher. Back in a long-ago perception matrix, "For Esmé, with Love and Squalor" just blew me away. There are some pirated editions of his uncollected stories floating around--have you seen any of those?

Another writer from that era who impacted me was Alan Silliltoe with his Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Also, a very good movie was made from the book.

MT: What about Ken Kesey? There's another outsider who came in the Sixties window and who had his own ideas about what writing should be.

JB: For me there are two Keseys. The one Tom Wolfe mythologized in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and the one who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Somewhere along the line, Kesey got trapped in the messiah box. I saw him and his troupe of not-so-merry pranksters perform a bizarre Wizard of Oz spin-off in Seattle four or five years ago, and it was a dreary affair, drenched in political statements, psychedelic spasms, and societal finger waggings. Having his picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone probably robbed him of his thunder more than all the LSD he ate. His first two books hold up better than he does, especially Cuckoo's Nest.

MT: I guess that's always one of the dangers of getting caught up in or associated with any particular movement or cultural phase, be it the Beats or the Sixties or whatever. Look what happened to Kerouac. An exception is Burroughs, who transcended all the side-shows and retained his integrity while remaining hip from the beginning to the end. Bowles is another one.

What about your CD, Rug Burn? How did that come into being?

JB: Rug Burn? The Hip-Hop group LogHog ran into a book of my shards--Domestic Violence, I think it was. It touched a nerve. They came knocking at my door. They have a recording studio, they call it the Bomb Shelter. They got me down there, night after night, reading shards into a microphone. Later they put the beats and the licks, the music behind what I read. Presto--a CD.

MT: What about present and future plans? How much can you tell me about your book about the drug cartel without revealing too much? Are we talking about fiction or nonfiction or creative nonfiction or something else altogether?

JB: Can't say anything about the drug book, except if I pull it off, it will be epic, reaching back into the smuggling world in the late 1800s (opium, whiskey and human cargo) and lunging ahead through Prohibition and straight into the present. Epic, ambitious, different--it will go beyond Blow and Traffic. I'm dealing with people on both sides of the fence who are active in this world. There's a mild degree of danger involved, which will increase once I start making trips to some out-of-the-way places ...

Future plans? Is this the end of the interview? That's the question that always comes at the end. I don't make plans. Doors open, I walk through them--after checking for trip wires and Bouncing Betties. I've always lived on the outside, and I'm more there than ever. I'm more at ease there than ever. Prolonged illness is my biggest fear. But it's astonishing how good my health is considering how I've lived my life. Good genes, I guess. Hoka-hey, say the Sioux and the Cheyenne. A good day to die. The only mind set that leads to freedom.

MT: One more question. What was the context in which Bukowski said to you "You've fought a harder, cleaner fight than anyone I know."? What kind of fight are we talking about?

JB: It was in a letter written in the winter of 84/85. Our correspondence had picked up again after a long lull. I was living in a one-room shack north of town with my dog Sundance, a bucket and a squeegee, and a 63 Ford Econo Van that wouldn't start--winters get cold east of the Cascades, 20 below is not uncommon. I was out there in that shack sobering up from 25 years of non-stop drinking, going through a divorce, my son in prison, no money, 46 years old. I was cranking out my trilogy Survival Song on the old mimeo and living out of my steamer trunk again. Those were the circumstances, a letter was the context.

What kind of fight? I think he was referring to my entire life. Also, I'm not much for ass kissing, and I think he appreciated that. I don't network and cluster, and I didn't publish what I didn't like in Vagabond, as Bukowski well knew--I sent back a lot of his poems.

I ran Survival Song in an edition of 500 copies. It was the final installment in a series of books that broke me out of the standard poetry/short story/novel mode and set me up for shards a few years down the line. Last week a Korean publisher contacted me about translation rights--a Korean publisher, 17 years later! How the hell did they ever get hold of it? And why the hell are they interested in publishing it?

It's amazing how organic life and writing are if you hang in there, don't force things, and "follow your bliss," as Joseph Campbell used to say. Bliss is a little too bland a word for my money, but things evolve as they're meant to if you're willing to free fall off the edge of the cliff. I had someone e-mail me recently and say, "I think I'm going to start writing shards." Just like that. I wrote back and asked, "Have you paid your dues?" He didn't know what I was talking about.

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Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

Our Posthuman Future by Francis FukuyamaFrancis Fukuyama
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux ($25)

by N. N. Hooker

We, however, want to become those we are—human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves. To that end we must become the best learners and discoverers of everything that is lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be creators... (Nietzsche, The Gay Science)

In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama brilliantly examined the paradoxes produced by humanism and the individual's need to be recognized. The displacement of religion by health, the culture of self-esteem, and the spiritual weekend were set against a background of historical dissipation. In his new book, however, Fukuyama is unwilling to tolerate such moral ambiguity. Think of it: Biotechnology has trumped philosophy. Scattershot experiments with the stuff of life are driving history, ideas are not. Nietzsche's genealogy of morals has mutated into a genetic revolution. What was once an attitude is becoming an attribute. The future is not for "free spirits and thinkers" but creatures who can be engineered to be more than equal. Natural law is no longer debated, it is rewritten. The implications are mind-boggling. Unfortunately Our Posthuman Future fails to reestablish a philosophical framework in which to contextualize our rapidly changing selves.

Our Posthuman Future, in fact, should have been titled "Yesterday's Humanism." Unlike Nietzsche, whose ubermensch was a projection of a posthuman existence, Fukuyama retreats, admonishing us to stay within our "natural" selves where a true sense of good and evil will save us from self-destructive activities like cloning and genetic engineering. Fukuyama avoids sentimentality while posing this argument, but he remains at a curious distance from his subject. Although he summarizes science quite well—I finally understand telomeres—his analysis of longevity, for instance, lacks the poetic weight of Bruce Sterling's "Schizmatrix," which finds the mortality in Shakespeare banal and morbid. Likewise, in analyzing the legal hypocrisy separating Prozac and Ecstasy, Fukuyama tries to distinguish marijuana from alcohol by arguing that the latter is more conducive to social interaction. His reliance on third-hand sources might explain his ignorance of Rastifarians, but history is replete with cultures organized around substances like peyote, yage and mushrooms. At what point do substances or the state they induce become non-natural, non-human? Of course, Fukuyama needn't smoke a spliff to philosophize about drugs, but it might have saved him from using a cloistered phrase like "normal social functioning."

Most disappointingly, Fukuyama never really answers the big question: even if there is natural law, and even if transgressing it is bad, how can we stop from doing so? Against the decentralized march of biotechnology, Fukuyama proposes state control. Anticipating the obvious problem that regulation has never stopped anything, Fukuyama tries out a truly bizarre argument: "People get away with robbery and murder, which is not a reason to legalize theft and homicide." No, but it is why we have insurance and funerals, punishment and forgiveness. Societies are constructed around the fact that people do kill each other—war is a sanctioning of such. Laws are less for prevention than structuring our response to inevitabilities we can't cope with otherwise. As a friend of mine used to say, locks are for keeping honest people honest. Having unlocked genetic codes, it is ridiculous to think we won't suffer the advantages and disadvantages of such technology. The question is not how can we stop it, but what "aesthetic" should we employ? To what end?

The first publicly acknowledged cloned person is supposedly due this fall. Some are probably here already. We don't know what effect this will have on any of our legal institutions. We are still mired in debates about the rights of fetuses and stem cell research. We have no idea what our ingestion of growth hormones or genetically altered corn will do, let alone the increased radiation from a depleted ozone layer. I sympathize with Fukuyama. His intense concern is commendable. But Fukuyama has no ubermensch—only last men. He speaks not to the future but to the past. In the end, he forgets the line from Nietzsche quoted in his earlier book: "Who would go to the madhouse voluntarily?" As long as people want to live longer and leap tall buildings, as long as they are unhappy with their biological fates, they will exercise that all-too-human prerogative: improved existence. Even if it means becoming less human as a result. As this posthuman History begins, humanists need a period of mourning and eulogies, but we also need to move on.

Fukuyama implores us not to succumb to pessimism by accepting mutation as inevitable. But why pessimism? History is loss and gain. Against what natural law is Ancient Athens or modern Cleveland better or worse than tomorrow? Fukuyama does not have Hegel's Geist or any other natural truth to assert such comparisons. He cannot resurrect a priori values such as God or natural law (which would be a bargain at $25). Nietzsche also felt the ensuing madness, yet he greeted the daybreak with a gay science. The ubermensch did not salvage humanity, rather he contextualized a more profound sense of change. The Last Man is a tourist, the humanist mourns, but the ubermensch creates. Our Posthuman Future made me return to Nietzsche in search of a way of thinking that confronts the dilemma of being between beast and god. Nietzsche encourages the reader to become who one is and love such (amor fait). For us it means taking on materials like artificial intelligence and copyrighted bacteria. Would it have been easier a hundred years ago? Perhaps. Would such be better or worse? That is open to historical interpretation.

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Everything You Know is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Secrets and Lies

Everything You Know is Wrong Edited by Russ Kickedited by Russ Kick
The Disinformation Company Ltd. ($24.95)

by Christopher Luna

Have you ever read a book that contained information so revelatory that your perspective underwent a complete transformation as a result? The kind of book you want to buy and give to everyone you know? The Disinformation Company's Everything You Know is Wrong is such a book. It collects a wealth of articles similar to those that can be found on Disinfo.com, a website that features information on counterculture, occultism, conspiracy theory, "deviant" sexuality, underground art and music, and government wrongdoing. Since its launch in September 1996, Disinfo has earned several awards and has expanded into other media; a censored version of the company's "Disinfo TV" series aired on the BBC's Channel 4, and will soon be released in unexpurgated form on DVD.

Everything You Know Is Wrong, the follow-up to Disinfo's successful anthology You Are Being Lied To, is a provocative and startling collection filled with persuasive, extensively researched articles on a plethora of subjects including religion, politics, pornography, the "war on some drugs," and youth culture. So much of what is said runs counter to traditionally accepted American history and media-perpetuated stereotypes that, for a person raised with a Western education, the experience of reading the book is tantamount to deprogramming. The conscientious reader is forced to face tough philosophical dilemmas, question preconceived notions, or rethink comfortable ideological positions. While this process can be painful, confusing, even life-changing, I submit that in today's climate of information overload coupled with willful ignorance, one cannot afford to miss such a wake-up call.

Richard Metzger's preface functions as a manifesto for those who have suffered from the "widespread angst that something is very wrong with the barrage of information and advertising that we are bombarded with, not just daily, but during virtually every moment of our waking days." He claims that the growing popularity of Disinfo.com reflects a growing distrust among not just left- and right-wing conspiracy theorists, but middle-of-the-road Americans as well.(The recent success of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and Noam Chomsky's 9-11, both of which offer a decidedly critical assessment of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, would appear to support Metzger's contention.) According to Metzger, consensus reality died sometime in the mid-'90s, when the Internet became more widely utilized by citizens seeking alternative sources of information. "All of a sudden there were places—hundreds of them—where you could find high quality 'alt' reporting on a variety of topics—foreign news, investigative journalism, health, and yes, even conspiracy theories, UFOs, fundamentalist Christian doomsday prophecy, and niche sexual perversions." Metzger suggests that it is the perfect time for "what's left of the left, progressives, and everyone willing to fly their freak flag high to stop complaining about the media and become the media."

In his introduction, editor Russ Kick also expresses a desire to oppose the status quo, even as much of the country blindly rallies behind the president's so-called "war on terrorism." Despite the rise of nationalist fervor, Kick believes that "dissent is never more needed than when conformity is at an all-time high. When the fewest questions are being asked is when they're most needed." He promises that the book's contributors were chosen in an effort to avoid the "intellectual balkanization" that results in essay collections that "typically are either academic or alternative, leftist or rightist, atheistic or religious, or otherwise unified in some similar way." This dedication to egalitarianism is part of what makes Everything You Know Is Wrong such a disturbing and persuasive read. The current attention being paid to the failure of the government and its intelligence to prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks renders Kick's 16-page article "September 11: No Surprise" the centerpiece of the book; the author provides one damning example after another of warnings unheeded by both past and present administrations, up to and including the day of the attack. Like many of the essays in Everything You Know Is Wrong, Kick's article systematically presents such an array of facts that it appears virtually irrefutable.

The book begins with "Lucre," a section devoted to the effects that the free economy and globalization have had on people around the world. Jonathan Levy's "The Vatican Bank" takes a look at the financial dealings of this powerful and secretive organization, which has been infiltrated by the Mafia and which allowed gold that had been stolen from the victims of the Nazis to be transferred into Vatican accounts during World War II. In another essay, Dominick T. Armentano claims that antitrust regulation was never intended to help consumers; his "The Antitrust and Monopoly Myth" attempts to demonstrate that such laws have primarily served "to bludgeon aggressively competitive firms that innovate and lower costs and prices." Lucy Komisar's "Dirty Money and Global Banking Secrecy" examines the lengths to which businesses and nations will go to avoid paying taxes: "Between 1989 and 1995, nearly a third of large corporations operating in the United States with assets of at least $250 million or sales of at least $50 million paid no US income tax."

"The High and Mighty" contains essays which question Senator Bob Kerrey's claims about the massacre of civilians by a group of Navy Seals under his command during the Vietnam War; the myths surrounding the industry that runs the Olympic Games; the European Union, which hopes to destroy the autonomy of individual nations in order to fill the coffers of the rich and powerful men behind the scenes; and watchdog organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the Southern Poverty Law Center, whom Cletus Nelson accuses of exaggerating the influence of hate groups in order to keep their organizations viable. The following section, "True True Crime," takes a closer look at the myths that result from the public's fascination with murderers and serial killers such as Charles Manson and Henry Lucas, whom Brad Shellady claims confessed to numerous murders that he did not commit, allowing crooked law enforcement organizations to close cases, gain publicity, and cover up their shoddy police work. In Kick's incredible "Witnesses to a Massacre: Other Participants in Columbine," the author selects excerpts from over 11,000 pages of documents related to the infamous school shooting in Littleton, Colorado. Witness after witness told investigators that they saw more than just two shooters on that day, and others claim to have heard shooting in the building more than an hour after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had killed themselves. Kick's essay includes descriptions of a third man who was seen throwing explosives onto the roof of the high school, as well as a sketch of the third gunman by one of the witnesses.

"Mind and Body" contains informative and sometimes sickening articles about mad cow disease, the benefits of veganism, and long-held misconceptions regarding mental illness. The most important piece in this section is Dr. Peter Breggin's "Psychiatric Drugging of Children for Behavioral Control," which speaks out against the use of stimulants such as Ritalin to manage children who exhibit behaviors that are quite normal. According to Breggin, parents are being "pressured and coerced" by schools to give their children drugs that result in a host of side-effects including psychosis, mental impairment, and aggressive behavior. He also blames the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture such drugs for over-exaggerating the prevalence of attention deficit disorder (ADHD). Breggin further demonstrates that the ADHD diagnosis itself was created primarily "to redefine disruptive classroom behavior into a disease."

"Social Distortion" contains articles that present alternative views of social problems. In "The Whole Truth about Domestic Violence," Philip W. Cook debunks the myth that women are the only victims of spousal abuse, pointing to studies which found that nearly as many men are abused by their female partners. Lucy Gwin's angry and sarcastic "Postcards from the Planet of the Freaks" rails against the ways in which people condescend to the disabled. Gwin reveals how the handicapped are exploited by sheltered workshops, companies not unlike sweatshops who pay them as little as $4.15 a month to do degrading and dangerous work such as taking apart used hypodermic needles. Annie Laurie Gaylor's "Why Women Need Freedom from Religion" demonstrates how all patriarchal religions oppress women and consider their "inferiority to be divinely decreed."

"Not on the Nightly News" contains frightening articles about nuclear power, the Waco incident, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, members of the caste of untouchables known as "Dalits" in India, the increasing power wielded by China, and the stolen 2000 presidential election. It also includes a compilation of statements about the futility of the drug war by political officials from all over the world. After a series of essays on the terrorist attacks which took place in New York and Washington on September 11, the book concludes with "Hidden History." This section includes articles by Jack Niedenthal on the testing of nuclear weapons on Bikini Atoll, and Howard Zinn on the Ludlow Massacre, in which men, women, and children were murdered by strikebreakers. Educator/activist John Taylor Gatto's "Some Lessons from the Underground History of American Education" provides evidence that following the Industrial Revolution, business leaders and the so-called elite conspired to transform the education system from a focus on literacy and independent thinking to the creation of generations of conformists whose primary value was as cheap unskilled labor. Gatto includes unbelievable quotations from the men who engineered the mass psychological conditioning of forced schooling in order to contain "the menace of overproduction." Consider this statement from a speech that Woodrow Wilson made to businessmen: "We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." The book's appendices contain a number of shorter articles as well as brief book reviews to facilitate further reading.

At the time of this writing, power-hungry men are taking advantage of the fear caused by recent terrorist attacks on American soil in a deliberate attempt to strip citizens of their civil liberties and preciously guarded freedoms. Books such as Everything You Know Is Wrong, though not always pleasant and reassuring, are a much-needed attempt to lift the veil from our eyes.

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East Toward Dawn

NaEast Toward Dawn by Nan Watkinsn Watkins
Seal Press ($14.95)

by Carrie Mercer

Nan Watkins was hardly a novice explorer when she decided to go on a trip around the world to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. At sixteen she spent three months in Europe and kindled a lifelong love for travel. As an adult, she and her former husband hosted more than twenty international college students, and many of these students now host Watkins as she makes her way through Germany, Switzerland, Nepal, India, and Singapore before returning home to North Carolina.

The enthusiasm with which Watkins often immerses herself in local custom shows through in her writing, as when she insists on eating with her hand (instead of a fork) in Nepal. Undeterred by initial clumsiness—"it feels cumbersome and sloppy; rice grains and sauce fall into my lap"—she persists, enjoying the experience of "feeling the warm sauces on your fingertips, the different textures of the food." Such sensual descriptions are a major strength of East Toward Dawn.

Where Watkins fails to convince is on her soapbox. She's probably right that "American indifference to geography reflects our modern urban culture's disregard for the natural world and lack of understanding for our fellow species' habitats," but such platitudes feel like tacked-on political correctness. Watkins also has a habit of gushing romantically at the end of many chapters: after touring a 500-year-old fort in India, she longs for the Good Old Days, that she might "don instead the silk sari of a striking courtesan . . . waiting to be summoned to the Pearl Palace to lie next to the beating heart of my maharaja."

Part memoir and part travel essay, East Toward Dawn is saved from its occasional banality by Watkins's powerful curiosity about other cultures—the less comfortable and familiar, the better. When she passes out after eating some especially spicy Indian food, Watkins is unfazed. Likewise, she gamely learns to spot "rhino trees" (good climbing trees that will provide escape from charging rhinos) on a jungle safari as if it were a natural and indispensable part of the adventure.

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The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult

KThe Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten by Karlene Faitharlene Faith
Northeastern University Press (24.95)

by Meleah Maynard

Karlene Faith met Leslie Van Houten in 1972, when the warden at the California Institute for Women asked Faith to expand her teaching duties to include the "Manson girls," who were being housed in a separate unit designed for those awaiting execution. Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel had all been sentenced to death three years earlier for their roles in Charles Manson's two-day murder spree "Helter Skelter," in which seven people died. Since then, however, the California Supreme Court had abolished the death penalty, effectively sending the three young women to prison for life. The warden thought they should at least have the opportunity to take classes like the rest of the prison population.

Faith was immediately struck by how intelligent and well spoken the young women seemed. The media had made them out to be brutal killers and here they were doing needlepoint and offering her a cold glass of grape Tang. She was especially taken with Van Houten, who was only 19 when she and several other members of the Manson family broke into the California home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca and stabbed the couple to death. A different group of Manson followers had murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others the night before. The plan was to make it look as if the seven wealthy white people had been murdered by blacks. This, Manson reasoned, would spark the race war that would ultimately free black people from their oppression by whites. Twisted as that logic sounds, Van Houten and the others believed it—they were under Manson's spell. It's been 30 years since that spell was broken. Van Houten is 52 years old. And she is still in prison—a fact Faith finds so unbelievably wrong she has written an entire book telling us why her long-time friend ought to be released to live a normal life. She's reformed, Faith writes. Keeping her in jail any longer is just cruel.

You see, Van Houten didn't actually kill anyone. Charles "Tex" Watson murdered Rosemary LaBianca and then asked a distraught Van Houten to stab the body, presumably so they would all be equally responsible. Van Houten took the knife and, as if in a trance, plunged the blade into the dead woman's lower back and buttocks more than a dozen times. Later she would tell the court that she felt like "a shark with its prey," "a primitive animal, and "a wildcat who had just caught a deer." It's a horrible scene. But it isn't murder, Faith contends, insisting over and over again that if it weren't for the hype and publicity surrounding this crime, Van Houten would have been a free woman a long time ago.

That's probably true, but unfortunately readers won't care much about what happens to Van Houten because we never really get to know her—it's as if Faith invites us to meet Van Houten and then never lets the woman talk. What's memorable about The Long Prison Journey is Faith's detailed history of the Manson clan and her retelling of how the sweet-talking ex-con managed to ensnare so many trusting young people. With this writing, Faith may well have purged some of her pain and vented her indignation at the system that has kept her friend behind bars for so many years, but she has succeeded less in her stated purpose—to "humanize" the book's subject.

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Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries

Digital Poetics by Loss Pequeño GlazierLoss Pequeño Glazier
The University of Alabama Press ($24.95)

by Joel Weishaus

"Thus, I would argue that the task ahead is one of placing hypertext in the correct context, by working toward a more useful definition of e-writing, and of establishing a newly envisioned canon of e-literature...to engage a broader understanding of digitally based emerging literature."

I begin this brief critique of Loss Pequeño Glazier's Digital Poetics with the above quotation, agreeing that the standard definition of hypertext has grown too narrow. "Hyper" is typically defined as "existing in more than one dimension," which heralds a broader potentiality than its traditional role as linkage between Web pages. But I would go on to suggest that a "useful definition of e-writing" is not so desirable, as electronic writing needs less use-value and more uncommitted imagination. Nor is "a newly envisioned canon" helpful, as a canon is an academic weapon that fires from a prejudicial (and usually defensive) standpoint.

Much of Glazier's canon seems to consist of Language Poetry, a movement spawned in the 1970s in step with the poststructuralist linguistic theories coming out of France at that time, as well as Russian Formalism and Neo-Marxism. Needless to trudge through this thorny field here, but why is Langpo, or any school of innovative writing, more relevant to the electronic medium than other discourses? The author explains this by evoking its doctrine of "materialism," a track similarly being run by some cybernetics theorists. For example, N. Katherine Hayles, author of How We Became Posthuman, says that "materiality is a selective focus on certain physical aspects of an instantiated text that are foregrounded by a work's construction, operation, and content…(that) emerge from the interplay between the apparatus, the work, the writer and the reader/user." And in Cybertext, Espen Aarseth describes text as "a material machine, a device capable of manipulating itself as well as the reader." Glazier gets this down to a succinct formulation: "Materiality is important because writing is not an event isolated from its medium but is, to varying degrees, an engagement with its medium." Obviously. A pen is an engagement with paper, as is a typewriter, or a brush.

The computer itself is outwardly material—its discarded entrails now threaten the health of people in Third World countries who are paid to pick through middens of our poisonous cybertrash—but the e-writer's physical engagement is mainly with its keyboard, providing even less contact than with a typewriter, into which the writer had to roll a piece of paper, and sometimes come away with ink-stained fingers when changing a ribbon. But is digital text, as Glazier and other theorists contend, materialistic? My take on cyberspace is that it is more like the mind than the brain. One's mind is continually creating and manipulating words and images, in "real" time and in dreams; thus cyberspace is more ethereal than material, as are texts created in it.

My contention is not so much with the claim that language is, in a sense, material, a notion as old as hexes and prayers, but with how this applies to a medium which the author admits operates in "conditional space," and cautions, "All your text may not be received." Doesn't this pronounce electronic text as provisional? Of course there is "engagement with its medium," but until it's saved, electronic text only exists photonically; if one pushes the delete button by mistake, it vaporizes. An additional trope of digital text that needs to be elaborated is emergence, a property of a complex system that arises out of simpler constituents of that system, but is not reducible to, nor predictable from, its lower-level characteristics, just as digital text is not reducible to the computer, but is "genuinely novel."

Another procedure that makes electronic writing different than writing with a typewriter is that the computer can be, and usually is, seamlessly connected to a larger contingency called the World Wide Web. Many e-writers are regularly downloading information, uploading texts, and responding to e-mail from around the world. One is connected, but this is not a physicality, as attested to by the amount of theory that's been published on "disembodiment," but a dynamic. Which is why I found the author's litany of "material/materiality," from first page to last, extremely limited in imagination, especially in developing a poetics.

A subsection of Digital Poetics, entitled "ABC's of Coding," begins with lines from Walt Whitman:

There is something that comes home to one now and perpetually,
It is not what is printed or preached or discussed… it eludes
discussion and print...

Two pages later, Glazier lays down this HTML code:

<a href="http://epc.buffalo edu/authors">Authors</a>
<a href="http://epc.buffalo edu/e-poetry">E-Poetry</a>
<a href="http://epc.buffalo edu/ books">Books</a>

He comments, "These lines of code appear almost like a Whitmanesque catalog stanza (see Whitman epigraph above), the concatenation symbol acting as a repeated lexeme invoking variations on a string." I suspect Walt would have hooted, as did I, when reading this. Indeed, codewriting is something that had to happen. It extends naturally from software conventions, more so than from, as Glazier claims, pre-cybernetic innovative writing, such as that of John Cage's and Jackson Mac Low's chance operations, or Oulipo's constricted procedures. Codewriting does display a kind of semiotic elegance, but the author's unfortunate juxtaposition of an erotic poet like Whitman with website addresses of the Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY, Buffalo (where Glazier is a professor) shows how it suffers from a lack of moisture. It also bears the markings of another fetishization of language.

Throughout this book Glazier argues against narrative, a traditional Langpo target, saying "The old 'I write because I have a story to tell' offers neither an engagement with the materiality of new media nor with a society that needs to increasingly accept plural and non-egocentric viewpoints." By demonizing story, does he mean to cast out the humanities as relevant to digital poetics? No doubt we need "plurality and non-egocentric viewpoints," although, to highlight the many inconsistencies in this book, Glazier quotes Jerome McGann: "Poetry is language that calls attention to itself, that takes its own textual activities as its ground subject . . . ." While the poet should have a non-egocentric practice, his or her poems should be solipsistic? Although the Internet lends itself to collaboration over distance, we also need writers who stand behind their words, even with the knowledge that all language is virtually provisional. In fact, not materiality, but the development of an aesthetics of nonlocality, is the challenge that a poetics of cyberspace offers.

Inevitably, several important innovative writers have been left out of this book, which the author acknowledges. Also, as is intrinsic to the Internet, some referential links have already disappeared. Glazier's strategy seems to have been to publish a pedagogy, and, indeed, for students and faculty in Creative Writing departments, Digital Poetics is undeniably a valuable introduction to "the making of e-poetries." However, for writers already working in the field, this book tends to foreclose more than it opens.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Burning the Sea

Burning the Sea by Sarah Pemberton StrongSarah Pemberton Strong
Alyson Publications ($13.95)

by Rebecca Weaver

Sarah Pemberton Strong's debut novel Burning the Sea explores the idea that all politics originate in the physical and personal body; despite our protests to the contrary, we cannot separate the events of our lives and bodies from the larger social, linguistic, or geopolitical contexts through which they move. Strong blurs the line between what constitutes a political body—be it land, language, or voting bloc—and what constitutes the political body, as the two main characters move in (and sometimes against) their bodies and the stories that make up the body of the island of Santo Domingo.

Michelle and Tollomi meet in the Santo Domingo airport after Michelle's bags are confiscated and Tollomi tries to help her. She has just arrived from Germany, after witnessing both the collapse of her own love affair and the Berlin Wall. Her reason for travelling to Santo Domingo is to find the house and land her grandparents bought (and soon deserted) before her mother was born. Tollomi has arrived from Guatemala, where he was monitoring media censorship, and comes to Santo Domingo to research a revolutionary group there called the "Quisqueyas."

Aside from these ostensible reasons, neither Michelle nor Tollomi can articulate to each other why it is they persistently leave each place they visit. Michelle has no memories of her childhood (except those told to her) and her mind often drifts away. As these lapses intensify ("as I watched from a distance, the woman who was me dropped the tea cup she held . . ."), she leaves lovers, jobs, countries. Tollomi was born to a shipping magnate's wife and a Cruzan sailor. Torn away from his home in neighboring St. Croix by his father and thrust into boarding school as a young boy, he can't quite recapture his young identity and the language that gave it to him. Michelle and Tollomi begin their journey together by splitting a hotel room, and soon they are travelling around the island together, working on the house, and visiting revolutionaries. They are not bound by familial or romantic ties—their strong bond develops out of the instinctive knowledge that each of them live in bodies they don't completely own.

Narratives of destruction, colonialism, and revolution are layered in and through Michelle and Tollomi's own stories, but what's most compelling about Burning the Sea is that the narration is split between the alternating voices of Michelle and Tollomi, which underscores the fluidity of identity and culture and memory they experience. Strong's beautifully written intersection between the body politic and the political body does what all good literature does; it resonates simultaneously on a number of levels, be they political, linguistic, historical, personal, etc., without having to grandstand.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

False Positive

False Positive by Harold JaffeHarold Jaffe
FC2 ($12.95)

by Mark Tursi

In False Positive, "doing violence to a text" takes on new meaning. Each "story" in the collection is a newspaper article that Jaffe has "treated," which is to say, blasted, uncovered, ruptured, expanded, exposed, scrutinized, and/or fictionalized to reveal an often insidious subtext, or, in Jaffe's own words, a "terrorist" one. In the author's note preceding the stories, he writes, "I enter the article, and by various stratagems expose the host text's predictable but obscured ideology, in the process teasing out its most fertile . . . subtexts."

From the Columbine High School massacre to a man accused of sexually abusing livestock, Jaffe unabashedly forays into the world of journalism to reveal a variety of often hidden or nuanced ideological agendas, or blatant cultural assumptions and political objectives that are so often overlooked by most readers. Jaffe dives into these "true" stories, and emerges with an unsettling almost Baudrillard-like vision of America; i.e. a horrific veil of simulacra replete with image upon image of startling, darkly comic, and nightmarish human behaviors.

In all of the stories, Jaffe attempts to locate the kernel of the narrative and reveal the grotesque, comic and absurd character of American culture. In stories like "Carthage, Miss."—in which a young, nine-year-old boy fails to report the death of his mother and presumably lives with the corpse in a trailer for days—Jaffe comes close to revealing what's beneath the veil of media discourse, i.e. real families and real people. In the final piece, "Dr. Death," a faux/virtual Internet interview with Dr. Kevorkian, the doctor responds to the talk show interviewer by saying, "Think for a minute. Because you're an Internet host in a shiny suit with surgically repaired features and a hair weave shouldn't prevent you from thinking." Later in the same story, in a somewhat didactic but poignant moment, he writes, "You say 'scientists' as if it's a privileged category. Scientists, like lawyers and corporate managers, and Internet hosts, tend to be cowards. Afraid to deviate from the culture that rewards their cowardice. When challenged, they justify their cowardice with lies and character assassination."

In the story "Mad Cow," the author weaves and juxtaposes numerous vignettes that range from agricultural terrorism to sex with livestock to what seems like a pre-9/11 glimpse at bin Laden. What emerges is a comic/tragic view of human kind's relationship to animals and to each other. Jaffe's deadpan humor and candor, in lines like, "Several ranchers reported that their horses behaved 'strangely' after what they described as Milhous's trespassing late-night visits," demonstrates his ability to joke as well as disturb, and his sardonic wit often buoys the text. However, his "treatments" too often do not explore deeply enough; they rarely uncover the disturbing "reality" or human quality that lies behind the news stories.

Still, the conceptual framework for this collection of altered found-texts is an intriguing glimpse at the ways in which journalistic language is never completely objective, and in fact, how all texts are political configurations in one way or another. Jaffe is acutely self-conscious about the way in which these new "prosthetic texts," as he calls them, are "rearmed," to work a different kind of audience manipulation—one that he hopes will prove to be more insightful and enlightening than the original. Though he doesn't always pull it off, the more effective of these pieces engage the reader with a dark sort of laughter.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Ghost of a Flea

Ghost of a Flea by James SallisJames Sallis
Walker Books ($23.95)

by Kris Lawson

There's a painting hanging in the Tate Gallery in London: "Ghost of a Flea" by William Blake (1757-1827). It's dark and frightening, one of Blake's visions. Blake believed that fleas are inhabited by the souls of bloodthirsty men, and here he depicts one such spirit: a muscular figure stares avidly into an empty cup, its tongue flickering greedily, its eyes bulging. For Blake, a spirit this thirsty for blood had to be confined to a flea's size and limits—if it were within a man, for example, that man would be driven to consume the world. Blake's painting conveys this horrid sense of energy; the figure with its arms and legs poised for action, looks ready to rip out of its crackled paint skin in search of more blood.

Lew Griffin is searching for that thirsty ghost, among others. In Ghost of a Flea, Griffin becomes involved with a series of mysteries, the primary one being the search for a stalker who sends elliptically threatening letters signed William Blake. Griffin, a private detective, is also a writer who hasn't written in years, a teacher who doesn't teach, and a book reviewer who never finishes reading his assigned books. For Griffin, the thirst within, the ghost of a flea, represents the urge to create, to make something that lasts, to want life. And somehow, he's lost it.

Days of the week and hours of the day seem to mean little to Griffin, for whom a typical day might include sitting for 12 hours in a bar drinking coffee, then falling asleep on a bench in the front hallway of his house—or meeting a sweaty, shouting man in an alley who delivers imaginary babies from invisible mothers. After a few pages it becomes clear that Griffin's elusive style is his art form: combining observation with investigation, Griffin drifts through this grim world, trusting to his instincts for guidance. As an African-American in New Orleans who has seen the sour side of human nature, he isn't surprised when he sees more and worse evil-saddened, yes, but not shocked. He dulls his own pain with books and alcohol, quoting others to distance himself. Musing about Whitman and drinking, Griffin says that "things, objects are a coherent world to themselves, the 'dumb, beautiful ministers of reality.'"

Certainly they become that when you're drunk. You watch for hours as shadows from a palm or banana tree toss heads, sway and sweep wings across the wall beside your bed, doing all the creative things you should be doing. Towels tossed on the floor by the tub suddenly seem to harbor both great beauty and codes never before suspected, kennings just beyond reach, the towels' folds and convolutions catching up, as a phonograph record does sound, those of your own mind.

James Sallis has written five other Lew Griffin novels, as well as criticism, biography, and collections of poetry. Sallis's prose reflects his character's thoughts: skimming the surface of a bright day, skipping from one face to another, an old, sad memory overtaking his narrator's mind. Griffin, in fact, moves through New Orleans like a poet (which he is, in addition to his other occupations): every sight, sound and action has a meaning and emotion attached to it, seemingly unrelated things are part of a bigger pattern.

Sallis wisely doesn't spend a lot of time dwelling on hardboiled tropes. As an African-American, a southerner, and a detective with an unhappy childhood and a lost love, Lew Griffin has seen it all so many times that the drinking and the investigations are simply parts of his life. He couldn't function without them. For Lew, the imperative mystery becomes, what happened to his life? At the beginning of the book, he is in a room with a body, and he's looking out the window, thinking about the path that led him and the body to that room. Everything outside that window seems like it's in a dream.

Griffin's search for the stalker, and for his missing son David, lead him to old friends, ghosts of ex-lovers, and enemies. No matter which way he turns, he still encounters himself. "World-weary" is generally used to imply a cynical, hardened character; Lew is simply weary of his world. Everything else—his lover leaving, an old friend getting shot—fades in comparison to the detective's true search—a search for himself at the bottom of all these memories and unfinished books, quotations and large chunks of missing time. He sometimes wonders if he should be searching at all:

When I was a kid, parents would tell us not to cross our eyes because they'd get stuck and we'd never be able to uncross them, we'd have to walk around like that the rest of our lives. That's what introspection can come down to. You keep on with it, sinking through level after level, after a while you can't get back to the top. You just go on pounding out the same thoughts on the stone over and over, fitting your feet into old footprints.

Private detectives like Lew Griffin are often called hardboiled for a reason—nothing gets into their shells until they're destroyed. Hardboiled detectives muse on the scenes around them but leave them behind by the next chapter, moving on in obdurate existentialism. For them, there are no loose ends, because they solve every mystery ruthlessly. Ghost of a Flea is more of an eloquent meditation than a mystery—and the meditation is on regret, death, loss, and the ultimately unsolvable mystery.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo OeKenzaburo Oe
Translated by John Nathan
Grove Press ($24)

by Jason Picone

For those readers who have yet to discover the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is the perfect introduction to the Japanese writer's sometimes bizarre but always humanist fiction. First published in 1986, now available in English for the first time, Rouse Up is such a generous work of art that it cannot help but enlarge every reader it reaches.

Rouse Up is the story of K, a famous Japanese novelist who bears more than a passing resemblance to the real life Oe. Like Oe, K has a severely disabled son, Eeyore, whose care requires the painstaking attention of his family. As Eeyore nears the age of 20, K reflects back on a promise he made to himself, that he would define every complexity of life in such a manner that his son could comprehend him, a daunting undertaking given Eeyore's condition:

Since my son had begun to ponder with his own kind of urgency what would happen following my death, was I not obliged as his father to prepare him, unflinchingly and without falling into idleness, for his relationship to the world, society, and mankind after that inevitable moment had arrived?

The problem with this ambitious plan is that K doubts it is possible to write such a comprehensive guide; the slender text of Rouse Up is what he writes instead, and it fulfills his original intention in a manner that is both unexpected and sublime. K begins rereading the poetry of William Blake, an author who has always inspired him and served as an influence for a number of his novels. Rouse Up does not rely on plot (of which there is little) for structure, but is framed instead by numerous passages of Blake's poetry, from which all the chapters draw their title.

Like all great readers, K reads autobiographically, thrusting himself into Blake's poetry and relating it to various phenomena in his life in creative and powerful ways. K's many life lessons to Eeyore correspond to a poem or line of Blake's that K has been drawn to meditate on. This odd, almost mystical, strategy enables K to talk to Eeyore about death and other weighty topics, but K's immersion in Blake also leads him to compare his own writing with that of the master:

The sum total of my work as an author felt shallow and simplistic, not equal to a single page of Blake; moreover, it seemed to me that I had failed to accomplish a single thing I should have been doing and now time was running out. I had declared my intention to define everything in and of this world for my son's sake, but I hadn't. The definitions were for me as well, yet I was neglecting them.

But while K recriminates himself here and expresses a sense of failure, he refuses to submit to hopelessness, and keeps writing. K draws on Blake's words to voice what he himself cannot articulate, using the poet as a bridge between himself and Eeyore. In this way, Blake conquers K's fears and frustrations concerning how to best assist Eeyore, simplifying the inordinate task K has undertaken and finally enabling him to speak to Eeyore. Thus, Blake, who wrote, "The Imagination is not a State: / it is the Human Existence itself," empowers K to employ his imaginative powers to write a guide of existence for his son.

Just as K attempts to explain the complexities of life to Eeyore, so too does he gradually reveal his oddities, slowly enticing the reader with his strange and occasionally grotesque thoughts. K cannot prevent himself from sharing his desire to murder Eeyore when the boy was but five weeks old, a grisly thought that the reader cannot help but ascribe to the real life Oe. K berates himself for his transgressions, idleness, and being a poor husband and father, but, even though he thought of killing Eeyore, his ability to fight against and overcome pessimism, combined with his superhuman faith and patience, make him an admirable and memorable character.

Oe's appropriation of Blake suggests a theme of art in art, which corresponds to K's message of life in life—that is, his efforts to enable Eeyore to make a good life for himself from the lessons of his father's life, not to mention K's strong belief, despite some admitted doubts, that his mentally disabled child can have a meaningful life. The novel is powered by K's ability to make connections between his life and Blake's poetry, the benefits of which are passed on to the son. The considerable resemblance of K to Oe makes the novel all the more remarkable, since it is, according to the translator's afterword, but a few exaggerations, imagined solutions, and too-neat coincidences away from being nonfiction. The strongest addition to Oe's canon in English in years, Rouse Up is a masterpiece from a singular author at the height of his powers.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002