R-E-S-P-E-C-T in Baltimore & D.C.
“It’s about respect.” That’s the common refrain from writers I’ve met on this road trip. “I want to be respected by writers I respect.” An understandable position—no one wants to be disrespected (by anyone, I imagine)—but is this sound motivation for writing and publishing, i.e., living “The Literary Life”? To my mind, writing to publish to earn respect from other publishing writers feels like placing too much power in the hands of others, who all bring a host of personal issues to each of their reading/writing experiences. Do I need to measure the value of my work, and by association my self-worth(?), per the whims of other writers? No, I don’t. And yet of course I want mutual respect.
Thing is, it doesn’t have to come from fellow authors. If Mary Gaitskill doesn’t like my work, that’s OK. (I’m not saying she even knows my name. I’m just saying…) If Sally DeVinney does, that’s OK, too. People are people. There is no unfiltered hierarchy in the human family. We’re all beautiful. We all suck. Wanna read my book? You’re a beautiful person. You think it’s what? You suck. None and all of this is true. Que sera. Whatcha gonna do?
One love and real live words in Baltimore.
Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (in league with Cyclops Books & Music) is bringing The Word to The People with the Poets in Preston Gardens lunchtime reading series. This is just one of the veteran non-profit’s many public-service projects that aim to raise quality of life and economic growth in the city. The gig takes place on a small patch of green across from Mercy Hospital. Not unlike Is Reads, another Baltimore grassroots effort, Poets in Preston is guerrilla lit: Yo, urban dwellers! Real live words here, now!
1. Bawlmer people meet real live words.
The audience turnout on the Tuesday after Fourth of July was small. East Coasters tend to hole up for at least 48 hours after Independence Day. It might be an original Thirteen Colonies thing, or proximity to our nation’s capital, or perhaps there’s a greater sense of patriotism here than on the West Coast (patriotism meaning drink so much cheap made-in-the-USA beer that you can’t get out of bed for two days). Either/or, don’t tell the jihadists. We don’t want them to catch us with our pants down.
1. Betsy Boyd remembers her mom’s saucy days. 2. Holly Morse-Ellington on a kind of brotherly love of sorts.
No worries on that at the Preston show. Free drinks from Wheely Good Smoothies—an art student’s entrepreneurial combo of installation art, stationary biking and not-unhealthy beverage-making—kept us cool-ish with our clothes on despite the brutal Maryland humidity. Co-readers Betsy Boyd and Holly Morse-Ellington presented slice-of-life pieces about family and judgment. I was invited to go first, and thinking I was supposed to do 15 – 20 minutes, I presented two excerpts from “badbadbad.” I should have read one. There were a dozen listeners on the lawn. Shorter is always better (No One Cares About Your Reading).
The audience response was respectful, the surprise $30 stipend more so. Along the DIY route, it’s not about the number on the check but the kindness of the gesture: Thank you for coming. Here’s some beer and gas money. I know it’s not much. Oh, it’s more than you know.
Different story in D.C. the next day.
Happy hour reading at a popular Dupont Circle watering hole. Co-conspirators Nevin Martell, Amber Sparks and Mark Cugini, the Big Lucks managing editor who helped organize the event. Top calendar picks in Washington Post Express and DCist. A decent confluence of forces for high times, no? Well, yes and no.
After unloading my gear, I asked the bartender about parking. He laughed. “This is D.C., hahahahahaha!” Miracle on Connecticut Ave, a spot opened up right in front of the venue. The Lit Gods, it seemed, would be on my side tonight. Then I met one of The Big Hunt owners I’d been corresponding with. He was pleasant enough but seemed out of it, like I had roused him from a two-day snore. Blame Obama. Said owner offered me coins for the meter then backpedaled: “We’re not giving out free money here.” He next proceeded to lose one of a limited number of DVDs I’d burned to sell on tour by flipping his DVD player upside down while the disc was inside. He didn’t apologize. He didn’t offer recompense. An accident, alright.
He didn’t publicize the event offline: not a flyer on the walls or the windows or the door. Weeks ago, by request, I had sent him artwork. Now: nothing. Not a mention on the sandwich board outside either. Lots of drink and food specials, no special event listing. An oversight, OK. It happens.
The show was set up in a room off the side of the main bar. There was a narrow closed door between the two spaces. A tiny chalk sign on the door read: KEEP OUT / EMPLOYEES ONLY. I had to ask them to change the sign, feeling like a bum at a bus stop. I wanted to sing them this song, the Otis Redding version. An inauspicious start to what turned out to be an inspirational evening.
1. 2. & 3. Much R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Nevin Martell, Jesus Angel Garcia, Amber Sparks, Mark Cugini.
Nevin, Amber and Mark are world-class writers and readers. It was an honor to share the mic with them. Their material traversed moods—hilarious, contemplative, provocative—and they each read in a unique way that compelled attention. Nevin regaled us with a true tale of puking on tiptop-shelf tequila at a Hootie and the Blowfish PR party. Amber gave us a prose meditation originally published in Unsaid, one of the must-read literary magazines in a very crowded litmag universe. It’s called “Tour of Cities We Have Lost” and is heir to Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” without being derivative. You can read it here. You should read it now. Just come back, por favor?
Mark is a provocateur whose dirty Staten Island accent comes out when he reads, he said. He was wearing a pink T-shirt with a picture of a dildo and some dirty saying about dirty sex. He read a short piece on plowing and being plowed. It was a tribute to faggots, I believe. He used the word “faggot” a lot, as I recall. I used the word faggot, too. It appears three times in the opening scene of “badbadbad,” which I read. I never say fag or faggot in my personal life, and it’s not easy saying it out loud at these events in front of friends and strangers, some of whom may be gay, some of whom certainly have gay friends. But it’s the right word choice for this prostitute character in the novel. It’s also the right setup for the protagonist who’s struggling with identity and what it means to be a man. It was the right word for Mark’s story as well, something about all the ways to be a faggot, maybe. (I’d remember more if I took notes, but I want to experience this tour as a participant not a reporter. Apologies for the misinformation. I promise to fill in the blanks with lies.)
Faggot is a loaded word. It unsettles listeners. When it’s used for comic effect, it’s even more unsettling. Is it OK to laugh? Once, maybe twice. Three times? Now it’s uncomfortable. I like creating that effect then moving elsewhere. But I also want to be respectful. I don’t go out of my way to offend people. There’s a difference between the author, the narrator, the work, the meaning or intention of the work, and the person behind all these constructs. Some folks don’t understand. That’s inevitable, I guess. Nevin, Amber, Mark and the enthusiastic audience (if not the bar owner) in D.C. did. That’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
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Playlist highlights: The Last Picture Show, Monkeyspank & Lovage, oh… Lovage:
Next up: Video presentation of Lit Love from the Lonesome Highway & Literary BBQ in Cambridge.
—Jesús Ángel García is on a worldwide U.S. summer tour sponsored by First Church of the Church Before Church. He’s well aware that updates to this tour blog post weeks after the actual shows. If you’ve got a quiet place for him to write between all the drinking and driving and sex, please get in touch here. The last chance to see Jesus in New York is on Wed, 7/27 (Guerrilla Lit) and Thurs, 7/28 (Inspired Word). Details on The Map.