From April 7 – 10, Drunken Boat will at at this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Denver. We will have a table at the bookfair and many of our editors are on panels and giving readings. Be sure to check us out for an opening night performance at the Dikeou Collection that will include Counterpath Books, Guernica, and POOL and Persea Books. Our lineup:
IRINA REYN is the author of the novel What Happened to Anna K. She is also the editor of the nonfiction anthology, Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State. Her work has appeared in publications such as One Story, Tin House, Post Road, Poets & Writers, and many others. She is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
ROBIN BETH SCHAER is the recipient of fellowships from the Saltonstall Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her poetry has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Barrow Street, our own Drunken Boat, and Washington Square, among others, and recordings of her work are featured on From the Fishouse. She has taught at Columbia University, Cooper Union, and Marymount, and worked as a deckhand aboard the HMS Bounty.
PETER STRANGE YUMI is an artist-musician who lives somewhere in the American west. His work is inspired from the works of contemporary poets and his love of cowboy culture, including whiskey, cigarettes, transcendental meditation, and rodeos. He is an MFA candidate at Mass Arts in Boston. More of his work can be seen and heard at his internet home peteryumi.wordpress.com.
The Dikeou Collection is located near the conference site at 1615 California St., Suite 515. The performance begins at 7pm. For a map and to RSVP, find us on Facebook!
Don’t forget to check out our Kay Ryan folio in DB11!
“Okay, well, I guess I’m having too much fun.”
—Kay Ryan, speaking at the JCCSF
This past Monday the 22nd, current U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan came to speak at the Jewish Community Center here in my adopted hometown, San Francisco. The Californian native, now a longtime Marin resident, spoke of her Southern Californian upbringing, read from new and selected works, and charmed the full house with her rollicking stage presence. Creative and scholarly accomplishments have not precluded a refreshing candor. Kay Ryan is a poet you can kick back with.
Before attending the reading, I took another look at our Kay Ryan folio to re-brief myself on the fundamentals of her aesthetic. As an example of Kay Ryan’s approachability, she dutifully remembered both Drunken Boat and the Jane Collins interview that opens our folio. I had quoted my favorite bit from that interview: “Start hard.” Kay Ryan nodded. “Ah, yes,” she told me. “Always start hard.”
But I’ve always been a bit of an awkward case around celebrities. When Billy Crystal appeared for a book signing at the dearly departed Cody’s Books, I gushed my way up to him. And then as I was leaving his table, autographed 700 Sundays in hand, I tripped over myself and landed flat on my ass in front of Mr. Crystal, his entourage, and the long line of fans who had been waiting all morning. When I met Jane Smiley at the San Francisco Writers Conference, my starstruck silence and woozy grin prompted this response: “So, you’re a little shy.” It doesn’t get any better with Connie Willis at Comic-Con. At a discussion panel for her novel Passage, I sputtered out a question that resulted in this grumble from the audience: “Gee, thanks for giving away the ending, kid.” At the book signing that followed Kay Ryan’s lecture, I wasn’t courageous enough to force my way through the unspoken policy of no photographs. Though I did get a chance to briefly speak with Ms. Ryan, here is my only collected evidence from that night (click the image for a larger size):
Start hard. Probably more than her magnificent poetry, those two words have stuck with me as the mantra for the unfortunate profession of writing. Dive headfirst into the roughest waters. Embrace hardship. But if Ms. Ryan’s two-word advice inspires the will to soldier onward, then her poetry and her delivery at the JCCSF provide a kind of meaningful comic relief. When a poet muses about flamingos, you know you’re in for the ride of your life. When a U.S. Poet Laureate jokes about sleeping with the Librarian of Congress, you know that her writing is a talent that isn’t reserved for a narrow few. Reminiscing about her early career, Ms. Ryan mentioned the existence of an unpublished work based on each card in the Tarot deck. She had intended for it to be a simple writing exercise, but then she got the idea to turn it into a book. It even had a title: Face Up. “I sent it to the Tarot company. I thought they’d be amused,” she recalled. “They turned out to be less excited.”
Though comic, I thought the anecdote inspiring. “I didn’t know how to write,” Ryan said of her beginnings. She also described herself as someone who is completely unteachable. Calling herself an autodidact, the Tarot card exercise was her method of teaching herself how to write.
How serious does a poet have to act? Should a poet walk around with a scholarly and impenetrable air? Kay Ryan’s poems are as serious as they are witty, and to that end, many critics have described her as an outsider of “mainstream” poetry. I’m not sure if this is an academic way of saying that Kay Ryan is fluff. It’s really an unfortunate assessment, because her nuanced handling of rhyme and meter is spectacularly educated. Her work is written as a devotion to form as much as it is written to be read.
I wish I had the money to buy both The Best of It and The Jam Jar Lifeboat and Other Novelties Exposed, both of which were available for purchase at the lecture, courtesy Green Apple Books. The former is Ms. Ryan’s newest collection. (In fact, you can find ‘Star Block’ in our folio.) She also brought up the latter during her lecture, in which she explained that the collection was inspired by, of all things, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!. This was enough of an enticement for me to buy Jam Jar, but to tell you the truth, I was also stricken by how the layout appealingly resembles a children’s book. I do love my children’s books, and one day when I’m filthy rich, I want to collect them like Sarah Michelle Gellar, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress who has apparently used her celebrity earnings to fund an admirable hobby like collecting children’s books. In the meantime, would someone be willing to extend to me a long-term loan of The Best of It? The venerable San Francisco Public Library system doesn’t seem to have it in circulation… yet.
By Joe Ramelo, Social Media Assistant.
Immediately after I finish any serious relationship with a woman, I always make a mad dash for Las Vegas, Nevada, which means I’ve visited that fair city several times over the past two decades. Solo. It doesn’t matter where I’m living when the breakup occurs—California, New Jersey, Rhode Island—I’ve got the trip planned weeks before the bond’s actual demise.
Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m a particularly sturdy person. Terminating even the most meaningless fling liquefies my innards, dispatching me to the nearest cut-rate psychiatrist to beg for meds. It has simply been my experience that nothing heals a broken heart like twenty-two hours of single deck blackjack at Binion’s Horseshoe, where mobbed up dealers with pock-marked faces dourly flick cards across the green felt and scantily clad, fortyish waitresses shout cocktails (!) over your shoulder.
For a casino, the place used to be ominously quiet, exactly what you need after discovering that your live-in girlfriend despises trade unions and practically wretches whenever she encounters a striking worker. (I don’t understand how I could end up in the same room with such people. And there I was living with one of them. From then on, I decided to include a question about labor history on the entrance exam — wait, that’s Match.com’s job. Actually, the failure of the relationship was mostly my fault anyway.)
Anyway, since I’m the type of individual who never sticks to his own protocol, I decided, after my four-month post-breakup grief regimen, to bring a date to Las Vegas, a potential disaster for the serious card player. At best, you’ll wind up lollygaging on the roller-coaster at New York New York and nibbling overpriced Caesar salads at the Venetian; at worst, your date will stand behind you at the blackjack table and gasp every time you increase your bet by ten dollars. Nevertheless, I wanted to take a chance.
Phoebe (not her real name) and I had only been seeing each other for about two months, but we had this partners-in-crime thing going on; therefore, Vegas seemed like the perfect vacation. We were both finishing Ph.D.s in English at — don’t laugh — Oklahoma State University. She had short hair; she was thin, and she was always smiling and sort of squinting. This was in the late-1990s.
I thought we might just hop on a plane — my sister worked as a mechanic at United Airlines, and she would send me these cheap stand-by tickets — but all the employees at United were about to go on strike (they might have been engaging in a bit of the old sabot, if you know what I mean), so we chose to drive the nearly five-hundred miles to the City of Sin and hole up downtown at the Horseshoe for three days.
The drive itself was grueling. If it hadn’t been for the immense blue sky in Arizona (my Saturn had a sunroof) and the Dramamine, the crossing would have proved unbearable. And somewhere near Kingman, Phoebe announced that she wanted to “suck me” while we sped down Interstate 40 (I say this now because I’m basically an old man eating stewed tomatoes out of a can).
That type of thing always made me feel guilty, especially when Phoebe did it. The entire time I was thinking, I don’t deserve this, I don’t deserve this. (I imagine it has something to do with my lousy kidhood. After my birth, I should have bribed the infant in the next incubator to switch places with me.) Furthermore, if I smashed into the back of an S.U.V., I didn’t want guilt to be the root cause, so I declined the offer. As a result, the conversation turned to masturbation.
“Do you think guys ever masturbate when they’re driving?” said Phoebe.
“Uhh, yeah,” I said.
“You mean they can do both at the same time?”
I raised my eyebrow in mock-pride and said, “Men can masturbate while they’re masturbating.”
When we arrived in Las Vegas and checked in at the Horseshoe, we dumped our suitcases in the room and Phoebe lay down for a nap. I splashed some water on my face and headed straight for a ten-dollar minimum blackjack table, bought in for two hundred, and asked the floorman to fill out a rate card for me.
As a migrant academic, I didn’t have much cash to throw around, but I always tried to buy in for at least two hundred dollars, so the pencils (pit bosses) thought I had a lot more money in my wallet than I actually did. Then they’re more likely to fork over the free coffee mugs and dinner buffets.
Three people sat at the table: one very pure old man with incredibly tan skin; a middle aged woman with obscenely thick glasses and a mangled rabbit’s foot; and this absurd greenhorn who kept blathering on about the different rules at his basement game back home in Indiana.
As a player, I’m loyal to Edward O. Thorpe and Julian Braun’s Basic Strategy and Hi-Lo Count System. These guys are the Marx and Engels of 21. Something that always mystifies me about playing blackjack in Vegas is how many people don’t know anything about the Basic Strategy. They think blackjack is a game of chance and not mathematical formalities. They’re just throwing their money away.
I sat for about forty minutes, and I was up fifty-five dollars when the dealer’s shift ended. During that initial session, I placed several bets on her behalf, and she repaid me by “accidentally” exposing the burn card after each shuffle, which made my card counting more accurate. Picking the right dealer is one of the most important factors in winning blackjack. When you find a good one, stick with her, follow her from table to table, and tip her when you win. If she takes a break, you take a break.
So I was standing at the bar, drinking bourbon and cokes and depositing my winnings into one of those stupid video poker machines. (I have to remember to STAY AWAY FROM THE SLOTS. Video poker is still a slot game, no matter what anyone tries to say. Free drinks cannot possibly compensate for the loss of capital.)
About that time, Phoebe came downstairs, and we did the tourist thing: up to the Bellagio to check out the blown-glass flowers in the lobby; over to Paris to drink mimosas at the bar and then take the elevator to the top of the imitation Eiffel Tower; we even changed into our swimsuits and sneaked into the pool at the Tropicana to play swim-up blackjack, which is where I invented the concept of “Bedside 21.”
Pretending to be staying at the Tropicana, I asked the water pit boss if he would ever send a dealer to someone’s room, so he could play blackjack in bed. With a smirk, he looked at my three-dollar bet and said, “If your wagers are big enough, the Trop’ll provide you with any service you require — within reason.”
Between the roller-coaster at the top of the Stratosphere, the Liberace Museum, and the Penn and Teller show at the MGM Grande, I never made it back to the tables at the Horseshoe for any serious gaming. I did, however, teach Phoebe to count cards while we ate breakfast in the coffee shop on our second day in town.
All afternoon, she lay by the roof-pool and practiced counting with the deck of cards I bought her in the gift shop. Face cards and aces are minus one; 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, and 6s are plus one; 7s, 8s, and 9s are zero. You keep a running count of all the cards as they’re turned up on the table, altering your bets and your strategy accordingly. If the count is positive, the deck is ten-rich, an advantage to the player. If the count is negative, the deck is ten-poor, an advantage to the house.
That night Phoebe stood behind me in Binion’s Horseshoe at a twenty-five-dollar table and counted the cards for me. She could see the entire playing surface and had no problem keeping accurate numbers. After every hand she tapped out the count on my back, finishing with an affectionate little scratch whenever the number was negative. It was beautiful. The floorman never suspected a thing. He even let Phoebe drink for free just for standing behind me. The pencils assume any man playing with his girlfriend or wife is a sucker. Sexists.
In an hour and fifteen minutes, we won three hundred and forty dollars, a great session. Even though the video poker machines made eyes at me after we walked away from the table, I resisted. Phoebe and I went up to the room and poured the pork to each other (old man, stewed tomatoes, etc., and I’m so happily, happily married now that it’s deranged). I threw out my shoulder trying to attend to her clitoris while screwing. I should probably have had it looked at — my shoulder. Bottom line, though, the blackjack cure worked. Until Pheobe later, well, cheated on me. Think of that montage in Snatch when Dennis Farina keeps flying back and forth between New York and London. That’s my old breakup life.
Photo credit: Licensed purchase ©iStockphoto.com/RealDealPhoto.
Writers seeking international study opportunities may want to consider pursuing a low-residency MFA at the Department of English at City University of Hong Kong. The innovative 45-credit, two-year program will accept a limited number of students in creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. The degree in Creative Writing specializes in Asian writing in English, and is the first program of its kind in the world. The nascent English Department has the advantage of being “dynamic and innovative”, according to Professor Kingsley Bolton, Head of English at the University. Though based in Hong Kong, the University aims for the Department to be an epicenter of writing for the Asian region. The first residency is scheduled for summer 2010. Applications, which are available at the Department website, are due on April 15.
This is your chance to prepare for a lifetime career of writing: the low-residency model promises individualized learning and intensive feedback that approximates the professional editor-writer relationship. During the semesters, students work via distance learning with writing mentors on a one-on-one basis. Then these semesters are followed up with brief residencies that occur at the University two to three times a year. Although the program is based in Asia, with study catered to an Asian focus, the student body often includes Western writers of non-Asian descent, particularly in a time when many Westerners and other non-Asians are drawn to countries such as China and India. In the U.S., the low-residency model is commonly applied to creative arts studies. City University’s program promises the same benchmark of learning alongside a contemporary and historical perspective on Asian literature, creative writing, drama, and overall cultural studies.
Internationally-renowned novelist Timothy Mo will be the program’s visiting writer. The faculty writers for the 2010 class span Hong Kong, India, the U.K, Canada and the U.S., with connections and roots in China, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, among others. Drunken Boat‘s own Ravi Shankar is part of an international cast that will include Tina Chang, Marilyn Chin, Luis Francia, Robin Hemley, Justin Hill, Sharmistha Mohanty, James Scudamore, Jess Row, and Madeleine Thien.
Deadline: April 15
Jerry Williams has published two collections of poetry, Casino of the Sun and Admission. He is also the editor of the anthology, It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Break Up. He lives in New York City and teaches Creative Writing at Marymount Manhattan College.
Belated Valentine’s Day Torture Chamber
by Jerry Williams
The publication of my anthology, It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Breakup, constructed a whole new roller coaster in my life. When asked to participate in events to promote the book I always said yes and, as a result, I have learned that it is impossible to be in two places at once. For Valentine’s Day, I agreed to write blogs for Best American Poetry and Drunken Boat; I agreed to go on the Joe Milford Poetry Show with the peerless Amy Gerstler; and I agreed to sit in with the Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, an improvisational theater, dance, and jazz troupe. Mobile Libris was unable to obtain copies of the anthology to vend at the Strike Anywhere event because the first print run is virtually sold out. They did manage to find copies of my own new collection of poems, Admission, my second, but no one purchased a single copy from the wonderful intern sent over to sell books. Do I smell?
I know these represent what people call “good problems,” but I am a physical and emotional wreck most of the time. I had no idea Valentine’s Day was such a gargantuan holiday and that I would turn into a human lightning rod. Mainly, I don’t want to let people down, and I feel like I let you down, dear reader, by not giving you both barrels right in the guts on February 14th. So here it is, not long after the fact, and I’m finally doing my job, even though my anthology is moaning about how I’m not spending enough time with her and how I must not be attracted to her anymore. We need to go to couples counseling — It’s Not You, It’s Me and I. But I love her more than she will ever know and, in her honor, I’m loading the shotgun. The anthology started with the cartoonish agony I sustain at the end of any romantic relationship that lasts longer than a few months, and I’m offering it all up right now. Both barrels. Nothing to promote here but an invitation to a torture chamber at Lack of Imagination Central: “Can I help you?”
I have endured four major breakups in my life. Each one nearly killed me. Without a two-month grief-regimen of unintentional dieting, weightlifting, sofa catatonia, and benzodiazepines, I might never have survived. What’s more, a number of lesser disintegrations have compromised my brittle nervous system.
I have been the dumper as well as the dumpee, and neither role obtains. I have cheated and been cheated on. (Once, I pulled a reverse cuckold.) I have relocated, disappeared, or simply faded away, and I have found myself on the receiving end of these same sad protocol.
I have split up in person, over the telephone, via e-mail and the United States Postal Service — even on cassette tape. The means did not always justify the ends; the reasoning was not always sound.
I have retracted pronouncements, negotiated for more time, and confessed all my sins in a convulsion of jealousy. I have wept uncontrollably and inspired uncontrollable weeping. I have begged for mercy and demanded apology and been denied both. I have pleaded and fallen silent. I have ignored or been ignored. I have wrapped myself in a red flag for comfort.
I have heard the words I can’t do this anymore and I don’t want you to go, and I have spoken them myself. I have packed up all my belongings or helped someone else pack. I have driven away in trucks and vans, checked into motels, and slept on friends’ couches.
I have assessed blame and remembered fondly and felt unable to let go. Telephone calls for years. I have borne grudges and, no doubt, provoked worse. I have destroyed all trace evidence or hoarded every shred of proof. I have taken a picture of a photograph after lighting it on fire in the desert.
I have let meaningless flaws and differences of opinion ruin an otherwise sublime relation. I have assumed that I was doing the right thing or I have known for a fact that I was making a huge mistake. I have tried to believe that everything happens for a reason, though I deem this philosophy to be craven and malevolent. I have pined and I have languished, and I am convinced that I have been in love.
I cannot speak for anyone else, and I cannot even imagine how much an airline would charge these days to check all that baggage.