Saturday, October 18, 2008

Review of Bicycles, Canoes, Drums by Dan Sklar

Review of Bicycles, Canoes, Drums

By Dan Sklar

Ibbetson Street Press 2008

25 School St. Somerville, Mass. 02143

Fans of European 19th century verse, thick with symbolism and multi-syllabic, will find little to love in Dan Sklar’s Bicycles, Canoes, Drums. Sklar’s poetry could be characterized as American Primitive, clean and bracing as creek water. Like Whitman, Sklar celebrates the mystery and profundity of the everyday. This is “guy” poetry, muscularly chronicling the days and to-do list of the contemporary American male, helplessly and joyfully committed to the challenges of raising a houseful of boys, teaching sleepy-eyed college students, and handling the ignominies of manuscript rejection letters.

In Teacher, My Son is Not a Robot, Sklar tackles a standardized-test-obsessed school system: “So his math is not perfect/and he writes some letters backwards/but man can he read and his poems are poetry/and they made the teachers cry/that was all I needed to hear.”

Sklar takes on the mid-life heavy-lifting for us all in The Importance of Sweat:

“It is important to sweat//to be in a union//to spend time wandering the streets//to let yourself go to hell and get in fights/and lose a job and lie on the floor//and listen to old Thelonious Monk records/and smoke cigars and stare blankly and/regret everything you ever did/even the good things.”

Sklar unerringly sights a target and brings it down at our feet, gutting it of all extraneous parts. He strips middle-class life, its complexities, its fears, to the basics, into an ecstatic distillation. The last line of What I Think About Sometimes is: “When your bicycle is stolen, walk.” A timely reminder that that we must “repo” our happiness back from those who may hold the state of our 401k’s, but not our lives, in their hands.

Sklar’s poems tumble and sing with enormously universal appeal.

Reviewed by Lisa Beatman, author of Manufacturing America: Poems from the Factory Floor (Ibbetson Street Press 2008).

Friday, October 17, 2008



By Doug Holder

John Amen is the founder of the well-regarded online magazine “Pedestal” that was launched in 2000. His most recent poetry collection is titled: “More of Me Disappears” that was praised by the prominent American poet Thomas Lux . I talked with Amen on my Somerville Community Access TV Show: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Why did you start an online literary magazine like Pedestal. Are online lit. mags as important today as print journals?

John Amen: In terms of starting the magazine I guess I have always been interesting in doing something like this. I always thought it would be a print publication. Around 1998 or 9, I started to explore the Internet more. I noticed that there were a few literary magazines online like: PIFF, THREE CANDLES, etc… I noticed a few science fiction online zines as well. When I encountered this it seemed like a very interesting way to go. But there was, and still is, some prejudice against online publishing.

DH: Yeah, but some say Pedestal is as good or better than most print magazines.

JA: Yeah. I think so. I think we have come a long way. We have been around for eight years. We have managed to create something that is well regarded. It is gratifying to see how things evolved. We have brought together the tradition of poetry magazines with the technology of the time. I think we have traditional literary values in a modern setting.

DH: Are you a nonprofit?

JA: Yes. Going nonprofit helped us a lot. The first time we went nonprofit I would open letters and see checks from readers, and it was kind of mind blowing. It was a mark of approval, validation.

DH: How are you going to adjust for the economic straits the country is in?

JA: October is usually our fund raising month. We held off sending emails to readers. I thought that this would be the worst time to ask readers for money. Fortunately we got a grant. We do pay writers. Right now we are going to publish the same amount. But we would modify it if need be.

DH: In an interview with poet Gloria Mindock, you said that you like being an editor because they are on: “ …the firing line of creative endeavor.” Can you expand on that?

JA: I am exposed to a lot of poetry, manuscripts. You see such diverse work, and you get a sense of what’s going on. What are the collective mindsets? Are the timeless themes still there? etc… You can see how things evolve…you have a sense of connection.

DH: Do you think you have seen more of your own work published because you are the editor of a well-known magazine?

JA: I think it helps more with speaking and reading engagements. I see it primarily in that area, but it may be true in publishing.

DH: I notice you publish such well-known small press poets as Jared Smith, A.D. Winans, and Eric Greinke. What do you look for in a poem?

JA: Jared’s work has evolved and changed…I like his work a lot.

The poem has to have that intangible magic that grabs you buy the balls. Of all the poems you’ve read, what poem do you remember? And after all the things you read only a few things really stick.

At Pedestal we are open to a lot of work that others might not be. There are a lot of poets I have connected with that I am not sure other editors have. I am not afraid to go with them.

DH: Does the buck stop with you?

JA: It varies. Sometimes I am more involved. If my editor is given full judgment over the work—then I usually sit back.

DH: In your poems there is mention of time in NYC and drug abuse. Is this autobiographical?

JA: Loosely. I did live in New York for a while. I have experience with ”substances.” The details are modified.

DH: There are a lot of late night diners too.

JA: I always loved diners. Diners at 2AM, with bad coffee.

DH: I had a disagreement with Rebecca Wolff the founder of Fence Magazine. I had asked her if any of her books were Print-On-Demand. She told me that she would never use Print -On-Demand…she never saw one that looked like a real book. Do you feel there is an elitist attitude toward POD? How do you feel about POD as a method for publishing books?

JA: I emailed somebody, and asked him : “What does it matter if something is POD? He said the potential problem is that people put out these books but they are not invested in them, so there is a surplus of books with no backing.

However most people I know who are involved in the business of publishing poetry are pretty invested in poetry.

DH: I mean the publisher has to buy the books from the online printer, he has to edit them, select the poet, design the book, etc…That’s an investment.

JA: Financially it seems that it would be to the advantage of the publisher to be invested in his project.

DH: Do you have an MFA?

JA: No. I majored in English and Philosophy as an undergrad. I took creative writing classes as part of the degree and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the space to explore and interact. I suppose, a lot of people go to an MFA to get a teaching job and to get published.

DH: Do you teach?

JA: I tutor high school age kids. I have taught four-day workshops at Colleges, etc…

DH: What would you tell the readers about submitting to Pedestal?

JA: Send us your work. We are always open. Pedestal is doing well and we are going to be around.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Harp All Made of Gold (Thunderstack Production, 2006) by Klyd Watkins

Harp All Made of Gold (Thunderstack Production, 2006) by Klyd Watkins with Family and Friends

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

Klyd Watkins with Family and Friends’ Harp All Made of Gold CD has been produced three times: 2000, 2004, 2006, always by Thundershack Production. This experimental piece combines traditional myth telling with concrete to abstract and abstract to concrete music and poetry. It’s a country Nashville music style of the 1960’s gone wild, so wild that it takes the listener two or three tries before he can understand what’s going on. But once the listener comprehends the purpose of the far out, almost drug-like state of the music and the eerie repetitious chorus and speaker who often says lyrical phrases with veering off with the use of improvisations, the listener almost laughs at himself for not catching on the theme of the text more quickly.

Basically, Harp All of Gold CD is a story tale about what happens to Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk fame and to his cherished golden harp after the falling of the beanstalk and the mean Giant. The whole piece is composed to be sensed as a dream-like state, like the Greek mythological sea journey that Odysseus took when he and his sailors had to fight the music of the Sirens on their way back from Troy to Ithaca and their loved ones. Actually, Watkins makes a lot of references to Greek mythology in Harp All Made of Gold. At one point, Watkins has Jack kiss his own reflection in water, reminding the listener of Narcissus who did the same thing after a maiden cursed Narcissus to fall in love with himself because he rejected her advances. Then, as an effective, though sometimes irritating, musical technique, Watkins has created a chorus that echoes the speaker’s words and phrases, sounding like the choruses found in Greek tragedies like Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex. The chorus singing on Watkins’ CD is, in reality, family members and friends of Watkins from Nashville, Tennessee.

There are nine tracks on this CD, and each track glides smoothly into the next. Even the final track (Track 9) runs back onto the first track (Track 1) as though the story never ends. It’s circular. And through the use of echoing repetitive phrases and improvisations of words on the CD, Watkins catches the listener’s attention. The spoken words sometimes are different from the written words inside the booklet found in the front plastic CD cover.

Now, this musical story tale begins with a man named “Jack” who simply “walked up a dry creek bed…” The listener knows nothing more about this man “Jack”, except he has “walked up a dry creek bed…” This concrete statement gently eases the listener into a very creative, abstract and experimental work. The next line suggests the journey to follow “… was/ /easy traveling…”, so the listener expects a clear and concrete music and poetry experience, although the background music reminds the listener of Nashville tunes. Then, the tone changes, as soon as in the fourth and fifth lines which read, “where the bank/was deep/enough to keep tree limbs/
from flapping /in his face…” Suddenly things get abstracted as if the listener is entering a dream-state of the speaker, as read in the lines that follow: “among the pathless / forest hills/ deep enough…”

In the next few lines, Watkins uses colorful, articulate description and a concrete simile to develop the story line:

that his staff carved over with
oval emblems of frogs and owls and
dancing ladies—the ball
on top—could be seen by Squirrels
beside the creek bed
bobbing above the bank top
as he hiked upward and eastward—
calluses on the bottom of his bare feet
so efficient—so dense—like those
on the tips of a bass player’s fingers — the skin
looks nearly normal and does not deaden
that feel.

The listener understands that Jack’s staff is a special one, craved so ornately with animals and “dancing ladies”. His journey hasn’t been an easy as the “calluses on the bottom of his bare feet/so efficient—so dense—like those on the tips of a bass player’s fingers….” But he is confused as to who Jack is and what the purpose of the journey through the creek and the increasingly abstracted music is. Watkins has combined concrete ideas with abstracted ones to make the listener feel a little dizzy and uncertain about the trip he is about to go on.

Watkins gets more concrete and informative toward the end of the section when the speaker reveals that “On [Jack’s] back a harp he carried,/ a harp all made of gold.”
Now, this harp turns out to be rather unusual. Not only is it made out of gold, but is a woman and sings to Jack during the nighttime when he sleeps. Jack only wishes that the harp sing to him while he is awake. Watkins cleverly writes, “the songs she played made him dream things She teased him/with choruses/about her giant—…” Now, the listener is becoming aware the whole composition of the CD – the music and the actual spoken poetry – is imaginary. Since when is a harp a woman? Since when can a harp actually sing? And since when does a giant actually exist? The answers to these rhetorical questions are all the same: “Probably never” – except through the assistance of a very creative poet/musician’s imagination.

Watkins is slowly letting the listener in on the meat and potatoes of the story line. The listener does realize that three characters exist in the story: a man named “Jack”; a singing female harp; and a mean giant. But where these three characters are headed is still abstract, still unclear. Finally, Watkins lets the listener in on another tidbit about the relationship between the harp and the giant and Jack:

She teased him
with choruses
about her giant—
track 3— choruses about her giant
teased him with choruses
Fee Fi Foe Fum
Dread so hungry
got to smell him out some
Englishmun Some Englishmun…

Now the listener has been informed that the harp was once owned by the Giant “Dread”,
and that “Dread” wasn’t a kind giant. Where “Jack” fits in at this point is unclear, except that the harp is flirtatious with her new owner.
In Track 5, Watkins clarifies things in words, though the music is still dream-like. The listener is informed that “Dread” is

The very ogre
Who’d tried to sniff out old Jack
For supper— who chased after Jack
Fleeing with the stolen treasure
But Jack made it back down
And grabbed his axe
And chopped down the bean stalk
As Dread tumbled out of the sky
Behind them…

This point in the CD and in the booklet is where the listener probably has figured out that Watkins’ Harp All Made of Gold is an experimental poetic version of “Jack and the Bean Stalk” – mostly after the falling of the bean stalk and of “Dread” the giant. A breath of relief for deciphering this complicated CD both musically and poetically most likely occurs. And the rest of the story line falls easily into place.

The ending of the story tale is interestingly left ambiguous. The question remains: Did this “Jack” really experience the climb of the bean stalk, rescue the singing gold harp from the mean giant, chop down the bean stalk and thus kill “Dread”, journey along and through a creek to a campsite where “He hoped they would listen/to him tell about the giants”? Or is “Jack” dreaming or fantasizing about this whole journey?

Klyd Watkins’ Harp All Made of Gold is a CD to listen to if you’re willing to open your mind to experimental music and poetry combined. If you are flexible enough to accept things differently, then you will enjoy Watkins and his family and friends’ work on this CD.


--Pam Rosenblatt/Ibbetson Update/Oct 2008/Somerville, Mass.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

They Don’t Look Like Real Books: Taking A Stand on Print-On-Demand.

( Rebecca Wolff: Founder of "Fence" magazine

They Don’t Look Like Real Books: Taking A Stand on Print-On-Demand.

* With Rebecca Wolff at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (Lowell, Mass.)

I was at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival on Oct 11, 2008 to take part in the Small Press Festival. There were a number of presses and magazines represented there, such as: Godine Publishing, Cervena Barva Press, Ibbetson Street, Boston Review, Fulcrum, Zephyr Press, Zoland Books and many more. I got the chance to speak to many folks, both publishers and the general public. Ed Sanders, legendary poet, and founder of the 60’s political/ folk/art/rock band the “Fugs,” as well as “Fuck You: The Magazine of the Arts,”( to name just a few accomplishments), was there. He was in Ibbetson Street 23, and I interviewed him recently for The Somerville News, so it was nice to run into him.

As I wandered around the tables, I stopped off at Fence Books, an offshoot of the hip and influential literary magazine “Fence” I spoke to the founder Rebecca Wolff, who I met briefly years ago at the Boston Alternative Poetry Conference. Since then she has come along way and Fence has received recognition from the literati, and is now housed at the University of Albany in New York, where they are the recipient (no doubt) of institutional largess. I admired the Fence books that were on the table and innocently asked if any were “Print-On-Demand.” Well Wolff was like a wolf on a meat truck, and replied: Never! “I never saw one that looked like a ‘real’ book.”

Well perhaps Rebecca works in a rarefied atmosphere, far above the banal masses of the small press. But as an editor and reviewer myself, I see a slew of poetry books each year, review my share: good, bad and indifferent. I certainly can determine what a “real” book looks like. And these perfect-bound collections coming from Print-On-Demand printers are “real” books, and books to be proud of.

I invited Wolff to come by the Ibbetson Press table to take a look. She did after I called out her name as she passed my table. She looked over titles and said: “ Oh, I don’t know, the covers look like pictures of pictures.” Whatever. She did allow; “ I suppose they are comparable.”

There was a small press panel during the festival, and I situated myself in the front row so I could partake in the Q and A. On the panel were Ed Sanders, Geoffrey Young, Anna Moschovakis, Rebecca Wolff, and Kyle Schlesinger. Somerville, Mass. poet Joe Torra, a neighbor of mine, moderated it.

I asked the panelists about the “elitist” attitudes I face when I tell people we now publish Print-On-Demand books. I used Rebecca Wolff’s comment as an example. I talked about the history of the small press and its role in fostering new talent, its job of getting worthy poets on the margin out there and heard. For many of us, without the largess of the academy, foundation grants, big lips for ass kissing, etc…the only affordable way ( especially in the economic straits we have now) is Print-On-Demand. Because of low and non-existent start up prices, and printing geared to exactly how much we need at a given time, we don’t have books sitting around collecting dust. The books are quality productions, our own have been bought by university libraries, bookstores, for classes, and we get regular commissions. We are lucky if we break even, but you go in this for the love.

Anyway the panelist seemed to agree that Print-On-Demand is a viable option. Sanders, a veteran of the Mimeograph Revolution on the Lower East Side of NYC in the 60’s reminded us of the importance of printing poetry, even if it is a simple broadside, and has a press run of 2 or 3 copies. Another panelist said if he had Print-On-Demand in his day, all the books decaying in his garage would not be there. Wolff made some comments about her advocacy of poets and her efforts for the best presentation of their work ( as if we don’t!). At the end she said: ” I am intrigued…” or something in that vein, well, you know the drill.

Whenever a new technology, or new approach, is around there is always a lot of resistance. But now publishers like David Godine Jr., and others are starting to experiment with Print-On-Demand. We must remember what Jerome Rothenburg points out in his preface to “A Secret History of the Lower East Side” ( as noted in the program for the festival:

“American poetry, the part by which it has been and will be known, has long been on the margins, nurtured in the margins, carried forward, vibrant in the margins…”

Perhaps, now that Wolff has joined the ranks of the literati, she has lost sight of the fact. Let’s encourage not discourage.

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update