The following is a lyrical book review soon to be published in the upcoming "New Orleans" issue of The New Orleans Review. The finished product is heavily edited down; here is the longer, unedited version.
Sleeping With Poppy Z. Brite
Sitting here in Austin in the shadow of great change. It feels almost the same way it felt the very early spring of 2002. I wrote about this feeling on a day back in New Orleans, a day when the weather had taken a turn for the better as a cool front had broken the growing humidity. It was a day when people in New York were still exhuming a mass grave in Lower Manhattan, using bulldozers, buckets, and blowtorches, and the war was on (when was it ever off?). The image of that second goddamned plane hitting the building is still too fresh, even now; I saw it happen live that morning, an infernal apparition rising out from the national campfire of television. But only months later, I was writing about how things were pretty good, even though the Super Bowl was still scheduled for the Super Dome, and I had wondered, does that make us a super target? What kind of a world has it become?
It was still winter, technically, but winter ends early in New Orleans. Spring is too insistent. I wrote how New Orleans orbits anarchy and flirts with chaos, and how perhaps this is related to the weather somehow, I don’t know. On that cool day in 2002 I almost saw the city as New York’s idiot savant little brother. Then-Mayor Morial was pushing for re-election despite term limits, just as Mayor Guliani had considered doing. Close your eyes in some parts of town and you’d swear you were in Brooklyn; the same ethnic mix that stewed in New York City stewed here too. I used to drink with friends in the revolving bar that sat atop the World Trade Center building, right off the French Quarter. And then there’s that word that we share: “New.” Of course, back then, we needed a New war to avenge New York; even a hopeful case like me, sitting dazed and drunk in New Orleans, could see that, could see that the shadow falls down and west and all the way to the end.
And now this current business, this hurricane business. This bad, bad business. I’m in Austin, dazed, etc, and things don’t look as clear anymore. I almost feel that New Orleans way, but not quite. Mayor Nagin could have been a Guliani. Federal aid could have arrived sooner, as quick as fighter jets in the forenoon sky.
Maybe it’s because I’m not in New Orleans now that I feel the shade of the shadow a bit more. Which leads me to think about how, despite our grim recent days, the city can still party. I am looking forward to Mardi Gras this year, the first since the storm. It will be sad and glorious; we’ll all be skeleton dancers there, aware and alive.
I missed the Krewe de Vieux parade back in 2002. I wrote about that too. I had three sets of friends who were in the Krewe, and who had all invited me and my girlfriend to parade with them. We also had a friend in town who we were entertaining. I even had a costume.
But no. Sometimes, things just don't work out the way you want them to. Certain persons couldn't handle the chill wet winds that were blowing that late January night. Others imbibed too much smoke and drink to move much beyond the couch and Saturday Night Live (with Jack Black hosting, it was a good’un. Some measly consolation).
The Krewe de Vieux’s Marigny and Bywater street parade kicks off Mardi Gras season. It’s the head parade, the satire parade. The freak parade whose goal is the Quarter . And in 2002 (that year’s theme: “Depraved New World”) it's royalty included a famous New Orleans author, the famous New Orleans author in some people's opinion. Like New York, we have quite a few literary types historically associated with our heathen town, too. Quite a few still living here, right now, in fact.
I’m not writing about Anne Rice. However, I will admit at this juncture that I have a collection of photos of Poppy Z. Brite in the nude. I culled them from several magazines over the years, which isn't hard to do really, since Poppy likes to get naked. But I am always looking for more photos. Poppy, if you're reading this, please send more! You don't even have to sign them!
See, I remember that back in '95, Poppy gave me a salacious look at a booksigning in Austin. Oh yes. It may just be my engorged ego doing the talking, but Poppy! Surely you remember me! You signed my copy of Book of the Dead at Adventures in Crime and Space Bookstore on Sixth Street, signed your story, "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" all saucy-like, remember? You entreated me to praise Kali. That look we shared…surely it meant something. But no. I left that signing, and later that town, without knowing the carnal delights of this smart and sexy woman. Now I’m back in Austin, and New Orleans has survived it’s own kind of zombie apocalypse. And still my collection serves as poor substitute.
No. Actually, the royal parader I'm talking about is Andrei Codrescu, one of New Orleans’ literati and editor of a terminally hip pub called Exquisite Corpse, which you can find online by appending .org to that name. His distinctive Romanian accent can be heard on NPR, where he is a regular commentator. He has a regular column in The Gambit Weekly (the weekly news/arts/entertainment rag in N.O.). I think he’s in the Ozarks now. He’s written several books of fiction and essays, including Road Scholar, the mandatory haywire roadtrip book which takes him across this oh-so kooky country. It was the first thing of his I ever read and it was quite a bore, actually (I’m enjoying The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape more).
Back to September 11. On the day of the attacks, I thought to myself, as I watched the TV, that this day, September 11, 2001, is the day the 21st century began. I thought it up all on my own. No talking head thought it up for me, no spin crews wheeled it out as the slogan of the hour. I was struck by the brutal, self-centered honesty of the thought; I considered how, perhaps, years from now, scholars and other such disreputable people will speak of this event as having begun a new era, much as we speak of World War I as having kicked off the Modern Age. I thought about how, no matter what power the thought held, I would keep it to myself. Why? Maybe because I was afraid I would come off sounding like a soundbyte jock or half-assed academic myself, distilling the inexpressible into an idiotic little catchphrase. Or, maybe I’d gleaned the truth it held and deemed it too powerful for mere me to wield.
Oh well, it’s too late now, either way, isn’t it? The twenty-first century denies our existence, but we will scream until we are heard.
The week after the attacks, Codrescu, in his Gambit column, wrote, “On September 11, 2001, the 21st century began in earnest” (this in-between requisite Romanian references, too). That scurvy little fucking bastard, I think as I read it. Here’s a guy who thinks a Temporary Autonomous Zone is actually possible and not metaphor only, that we’re not actually in the Matrix and they only made the first movie. How dare he say it! How dare he scoop me! One of these days, I prayed, intellectual property law will mutate and avenge me.
Codrescu sat in on a panel discussion at the Hotel Monteleone in the Quarter a few years back, a panel composed of writers who discussed literary bohemianism. He was the only one who took the time and effort to look the part, slouch and all. Poet, editor, and City Lights Bookstore founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was also on the panel, should have and would have kicked his ass, if given the chance—but I digress. I guess I should just accept that I am plugged into the über-mind whether I like it or not, just like Codrescu and every other American who gives a damn. Poppy! Where are your soft thighs and hard words to comfort me!
At least he got one thing right on that panel. There was still a bohemian element alive in this town. There is one alive today. There will be tomorrow. It's hardwired into the city. The genuine article is there. Witness the following, two books published by local small DIY presses prior to Katrina, a post-Katrina website of wit, and an online archive of street-level articles exploring the city. Writers worthy of note even though they never got mentioned on NPR.
New Mouth From the Dirty South has an interesting little book in circulation called Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing. Written by Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schweser, both principles in New Mouth, this book was originally sold, according to the authors, on the street before being appended with a very un-punk bar code and ISBN number and sold in local bookstores. Good for them I say.
Tales is like a miniaturized Invisible Man for punk scenesters. The story revolves around Elliot, a dissatisfied kid fresh out of high school living in Bumfuck, Tennessee. Eager to avoid college and get out of town, Elliot heads to Washington D.C., where he falls in with a local straightedge punk collective. ‘Zine making, hellraising, low-job working, punk show arranging, political activism engaging, sex-pursuing, guitar playing, Foods-Not-Bombs helping, and angst-having ensue. This is happening in ‘91, mind you, so we’re talking about an organized scene...but life is, as usual, depressing and strange. Eventually, Elliot comes to realize the inherent hypocrisy of the scene; although punk is all about denying and destroying the status quo, he finds that the issues of the world at large can and do infiltrate and contaminate the new world he’s entered. Seems that what others think about you is important, after all.
This is, essentially, the classic high school journal raised to the next level of twenty-something self-awareness. The story covers three years in Elliot’s life, and the gimmick is the story’s heteroglossia. The book is composed of Elliot’s journal entries; issues of Elliot’s ‘zine, Mindcleaner; letters from Elliot to Maureen, the hometown girlfriend who went to school instead; and letters to Hannah, Elliot’s younger sister, who has written the actual preface to the book as Elliot’s literary executor and “half of the Hannah Rosenberg Doesn’t Run Away in 1995 Treaty.” It’s a clever book with some truly funny parts, especially the Mindcleaner portions which read as a kind of alternate text to the proceedings, and those parts where Elliot wrestles with his Jewish faith within the punk context.
The mix of fictional, “fictionally altered,” and real references to the scene lead me to think that the book is autobiographical. The earnestness of our youthful narrator in experiencing and writing about the world may turn off more jaded readers who’ve been there and done that, but it does have a charm all its own nevertheless. Hardly punk, I still broke out in the early nineties the same as Elliot, and so I kinda know the guy, y’know? I just wish that there was more of a story here, told in action, not in the angsty punk critique of society and “this is what I did today” journal-style recollection that dominates the book.
Spectres of bohemia gone by still linger in this city of ghosts. There's a press here in town called Surregional Press, run by poet Dennis Formento, who’s inspiration comes from the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain poets. The journal he edits, Mesechabe, reflects these inspirations, publishing folk like Gary Snyder and other nature poet holdovers (bohemians, if you will—yes, Mesechabe has published the much-maligned Andrei Codrescu, too).
Portraits from Memory: New Orleans in the Sixties by Darlene Fife, published by Surregional, reflects this countercultural bent (the book was originally published over the span of two editions of the journal). This book is essentially the story of NOLA Express, an anti-war newspaper published in New Orleans in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and the circle of people associated with it and the larger counterculture scene happening at the time. The story is told circuitously, however, which may turn off some readers. Fife, a physics major and English grad student who came to understand the unjustness of the American war in Vietnam while studying in Ireland, relates the story in a casual memoir style, using as touchstones several colorful individuals who ran in the French Quarter-based counterculture. Fife wanders from year to year, moving back and forth as the memories dictate and lead, recounting bits of long-ago conversation and snippets of scenes. Most interesting were her accounts of the in-fighting between the SDS-affiliated publishers and anti-war activists, and the ideology-mad Sparticists and Progressive Labor members. Fife also spends time discussing the informers and moles who infiltrated the groups, the harassment meted out by the N.O.P.D. against vendors of the newspaper, and the final court injunction against the cops. Included are several photographs of those being discussed, as well as many drawings, poems and pictures that graced issues of NOLA Express (including a letter from Charles Bukowski, a regular contributor, and the photograph that landed Fife and company into hot water with the feds—they eventually beat those charges).
Altogether these compose only a loose mosaic of memory which hints at a history. However, I’m prone to think that Fife is smart enough to know that one person’s recounting of events that occured so long ago will be hazy and one-sided, and so, in a way, the roundabout method serves her purpose well. Her own life runs throughout as a kind of constant point of reference, but she is certainly not egotistical, and focuses attention on other matters. This book certainly does evoke the spirit of the Sixties revolution, and is a worthy contribution to the primary source material on the era. It also places New Orleans, and the French Quarter ofEasy Rider, into a revolutionary context, although one need not be familiar with all the place names to appreciate the book.
Interestingly enough, I discovered this work at a fundraiser for the publishers who were, at that time, embroiled in a lawsuit brought against them by certain parties mentioned in the book, parties who apparently felt that they were sorely misrepresented. “I guess it depends on which of us writes the history,” Fife quotes Mike Higson, a civil rights worker and Express writer as saying, and that still holds true. I found this book to be interesting and entertaining, and particularly resonant, as we sit through another period of prolonged military action with questionable moral grounds.
Some of those living New Orleans writers still in New Orleans that I mentioned earlier? Some of them are writing for a post-Katrina website called NOLAFugees.com. Taking a laissez-faire, fuck-all fatalistic stance (rather, slouch) on life post-Apocalypse N.O., the brief pieces by such writers as Sarah Inman, Adam Peltz, David Dykes, and Joel Dailey offer tragicomic commentary, black humor insight, some Onion-esque wit—stupid fun for stupid times. A highlight is the regular society column “Starfucking With Cookie” in which the famous Muppet monster, somehow now out of New Orleans, disparages Times-Picayune columnist and sometime-performer Chris Rose (“Me see where Chris Rose took Lower 9 tour with Dr. John and now he think they are friends. Me know Mac from the days we ran train on ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’ backup singer bitches. Me and Mac spend two days in clinic from bitch who sing fourth ‘till me murder’ response. Chris Rose never get that close.”), opines nonchalantly on the literary scene in New Orleans, or lays out his NFL playoff hopes (don’t miss Cookie’s Quicktime movies, either). Writer Jack Moss has a couple of essays arguing for secession. A write-in column entitled “The New Morality” even answers philosophical and ethical questions brought up in the storm’s aftermath. How, exactly, should “DMB Fan From the DMZ” ask his friend Clive, who lost his new house in the storm, and who is now staying with DMB Fan, about compensation for the rare Dave Matthews Band bootlegs that were also lost while under Clive’s care? The advice begins with “stop giving and start taking,” and ends with guidance on how to steal away Clive’s wife Stacy (“All’s fair in post-Apocalypse NOLA anyway”).
While you’re online, please also check out Scat Magazine, another excellent venue of New Orleans writers. The digest-sized print edition, which had been distributed for free around New Orleans regularly before the storm, featured “Talk of the Town” style short essays by local writers, each offering lively glimpses into some unique corner of New Orleans living. Unfortunately, Scat did not survive the storm, but you can find back issues online at scatmagazine.com.
Finally, let me say a few words about Garrett County Press. I love Garrett Co. Press. When it was out of New Orleans (the press has since relocated to Philadelphia, a move that happened before the storm), Garrett Co. and principle G. K. Darby were instrumental in realizing the New Orleans Bookfair, a remarkable convergence of DIY publishers, presses, and authors from around the country. Garrett Co. also used to publish The Garrett County Press Guide to New Orleans, what a city guide would look like as a ‘zine. Headings included “Sleep for Cheap,” “Hospitals,” “Late Night Food,” “Sex,” and “Misc. Shit,” all biased listings geared toward travel as a means of “serious, intellectual boozing,” according to the editors. This booklet was great because, after all, if you’re coming to New Orleans and not planning on drinking, you’ve got problems. Hell, if you live in New Orleans and you're not drinking, you've got problems. Hostel info, secret taxi phone numbers, substance abuse hotlines, inside tips on what the 3-for-1 drink specials really meant on Bourbon Street and why the “Live Nude Orgies” ads are a sham—this little guidebook was freaking great.
Just try to find one now. Instead, look for fine trade paperbacks of great interest. I really enjoyed two books by C. S Walton, Little Tenement on the Volga and Ivan Petrov: Russia Through a Shot Glass, this latter being the true tale of vodka –fueled travel across the former Soviet Union (from the prologue: “I chose to become a drunk, not an ordinary, drink-up-your-wage-packet drunk, or even a flog-your-house-and-furniture drunk, but a vagabond and a beggar who became intimate with forests, garbage dumps and railway stations all over our great country. I am Ivan Pyatii-Pyanets Proklatii: Ivan the Fifth—Damned Drunkard”). Another winner is The Best of Temp Slave!, edited by Jeff Kelly, who also founded the great Nineties gripe ‘zine on temp work culture, which he calls “a strong after effect of corporate downsizing, micro-management, and the trend toward specialization… [where] every single occupation is under the gun.” Kelly does a great job of gathering together articles, art, essays, rants, and comics from the publication’s legendary run. Kathy Ocker’s The George W. Bush Coloring Book offers the perfect genre for our child-like president’s stabs at profundity. And I’ve only read the excerpt on the website (www.gcpress.com), a short bit called “Luncheon” about a visit to the iconic Galatoire’s Restaurant, but so far, Letters From New Orleans by Rob Walker seems pretty good. Walker, an editor with New York Times Magazine, writes a straightforward literature of place that seems to fairly capture New Orleans ethos. I’ll be curious to see how good a job he does skirting cliché elsewhere in the book. Some of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to Katrina-related humanitarian organizations.
Change, turn and face the strange. No more zombies for Poppy. These days, she’s writing about the New Orleans service industry. But baby, I read that obit of William Burroughs, a few years back, the one about fucking his corpse. Poppy! What has Burroughs's corpse got that I haven't got! You felt it too, I know it. Adventures in Crime and Space is no more, but I am here, again. As for you, Codrescu….oh, whatever. You get published, get on the air, get to be king of the freak parade, and get to slouch for Ferlinghetti. More power to you.
Just remember, motherfucker, that I get to sleep with Poppy Z. Brite, whenever I want to.
Inscribed by Defcon One at 6:21 PM