This month, author, international DJ, small press veteran, and ex-New Yorker Bart Plantenga launched a "simultaneously serialized" novel on 44 websites (including this blog) located across cyberspace and across the world. Perhaps more exciting than the new media format is the news that Beer Mystic: A Novel of Inebriation & Light (set in a gritty, downtown, late-80s New York) contains absolutely engaging storytelling. A founding member of the New York writers' collective, The Unbearables, Bart graciously agreed to answer some questions about the novel, being a writer in the age of internet publishing, and what it means anymore to be "underground."
Karen: Tell us a little about the formation of the Unbearables.
Bart Plantenga: The short tale is a bunch of writers already disgruntled with the state of publishing in the 1980s started to form a black humorist scrum and armed only with our wits and wit we began to not take it any more. We could groan and drink with the best of them. Despite other accounts, the group was formed by Mike Golden, Ron Kolm and myself. We used to meet at Tin Pan Alley, a legendary bar run by a lesbian socialist with beautiful but tough barmaids and a jukebox that included the Butthole Surfers and Mack the Knife sung by Bertolt Brecht himself. Here we would just hang around with no agenda other than to exchange writer’s war stories, complaints, near seductions, observations, suggestions for improvement of the deaf, dumb and blind world of editors and publishers.
The group expanded quickly; within weeks, British poet and scallywag Max Blagg, [tattoo] artist-DJ Matty Jankowski and Hakim Bey, president for life of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, had joined. Purpose totally evaded us – was it our way of avoiding the Spectacle, the value of being useful or were we just lazy? – or maybe we transcended purpose. It was only as the group reached a critical mass of a dozen in the later 1980s that we combined drunken kvetching with doing. We did produce one reading at TPA that went really well considering we were playing in the middle of Times Square in the shadow of Broadway theatres, strip clubs, and other distractive venues. With gaping hole in the ceiling and the drip of rain water in a bowl keeping time, the Bass Boys [Al Margolis of Pogus and Dave Mandl of the Coolies] had offered to serenade me with jazzy upright bass a la Kerouac atmos but showed up with 2 suitcases of toy instruments and noisemakers instead as I read and stumbled through the earliest ur-Beer Mystic tales ...
K: Did you write Beer Mystic knowing that it would appear in serialized form? What led to the decision to serialize it all at once instead of making us wait for intervals in between?
BP: BEER MYSTIC [original title: Confessions of a Beer Mystic] was conceived as a series of humorous-inebriated kernels of poetic approximate truths vaguely in the style of Baudelaire’s PARIS SPLEEN via Lord Buckley or someone like that. But this quickly went awry as a combination of factors – long-windedness, my love of frivolous detail [Kerouac said something like “detail is the essence”] and a many-splintered love life – wedged their way into the initial haiku-ish-ness. So, yes, it was serialized in the beginning but that quickly went nowhere making my admiration for Dostoyevsky all the greater – he wrote Crime and Punishment in serialized form. Each week another chapter, which meant he had to have internalized the entire book in his head from the start to keep it all straight...
I decided to serialize it online out of frustration with the straight world of publishing – a frustration that seemed frighteningly similar to the one felt back in the Tin Pan Alley days. Think of it as the guy who has just struck it rich, no one believes he actually has. So he shows up in the Klondike Tavern with a few leather pouches that he bangs on the table. Everyone grows quiet as he opens the pouches and spreads the gold nuggets across the clammy table. That is what I’m attempting here. Or maybe I am buying a round for the whole bar in the hope that this will lead to something, strangers conversing, collaborating, a furious infection...
That it has been called many nice things by many people [tongue-in-cheekly “the greatest novel never published” by eds. Al Vitale & Joe Maynard] and that agent after agent quickly dispensed with it, as if they were handling a soiled diaper, while editors simply never bothered to respond – did they reuse the return postage for their own personal use? Nah! I have absorbed my share of rejection, enough for a lifetime with this book alone. Making me a sort of humbler hardass. I used to keep a scorecard of all the rejections by magazines, editors, and agents ... But that’s all just tears in my beer now.
That is not to say that it did not see the light of day: before this delusional gesture of global grandeur it had been published in many esteemed mags like Frank [Paris], Vokno [Prague], Smoke Signals, Urban Graffiti as well as anthologies like Semiotext[e] SF, Up Is Up But So Is Down... Which, of course, is like snuggly, furry pets licking your wounds. It helps.
So, yes, it was out of frustration – and curiosity. I wanted to know what you could do with new and less-new internet resources and media. And the BEER MYSTIC strategy was to take it around the world city by city, URL by URL based on a blend of personal criteria: personal connection, admiration for the site, exotic place that would help string it around the world... And then have it neatly wind up at some wonderful editor’s doorstep, its esteem and preceding it down a red carpeted hallway. But let me just say that I NEVER in 6 million beer years ever thought it would take so much effort over so much time [1.5 years] to get this thing rolling.
K: Have you made sense of the latest publishing revolution yet? Do you think authors need to stay up to the minute with “the biz,” or do we just need to grasp enough to make something work for us?
BP: I have made some sense of it. It has its good and its bad. The good is the pantheistic reach and access. That is also its Achilles heel probably. New media is only effective for as long as it takes before everyone else is using it.
The edge is somewhat gained from its exclusivity not its massive democratic dissemination. So Twitter has maybe already reached its apex as far as effective media. Unless it begins to add new apps I guess. But think of it like this: you discover a great bar an interesting, fascinating and influential clientele – people just like you – and you love going to it, to hang, discuss, harangue, make deals. Then Time Out and The New Yorker discover it and suddenly the place is overrun by tourists taking photos and fashionistas who want to be seen with people who may or may not be TV stars where and suddenly the place gets too crowded, too loud and annoying and so you move on. This happened to Soho, to Greenwich Village, the East Village, Williamsburg, to the Cedar Tavern, to Email, to many online forums and lists...
But I do like the hypertext aspect of it: getting Facebook to communicate with Twitter and Word Press to interact with Weebly and LinkedIn is like a voyage through your brain. But ultimately these channels are all based as much on hope as on strategic interconnectivity. You hope that liking someone or some group will earn the favor in return. You follow someone and they will follow you, although, thus far, I see that most Tweeters are following a lot more people than are following them.
Many of these social media remind me of the boom in fashion restaurants in the 1980s and through to the present – places you read about, saw featured on TV and you go there not to eat the food – which is all prop and besides the point – but to be seen spending money and to see whose presence you are in. The contact high comes from this perceptual proximity to celebrities or at least people behaving like celebrities. And today, we can even quantify that in hard numbers.
But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a naysayer, I like many aspects of Facebook, for instance. Anyway, the fascinating still outweighs the frustrating. I see it as positive: you pepper the audience with scattershot FB images of yourself hoping that one out of a thousand will recognize you or connect with you.
K: Is Beer Mystic an e-book? Do you think that a story can BE an “e-book,” like, existentially?
BP: My second novel OCEAN GROOVE, OCEAN GRAVE uses the early version of hypertext [footnotes] as an alternative, parallel text. The notion of online novels is not bad in the sense of embedded links and rhyzomic straying from the strict well-worn path of the novel. E-readers seem fine to me and the idea of carrying a bunch of books on a piece of plastic seems great and if there are good search functions it might be better for the way I read - thumbing, scanning, pausing, going back, looking up references, footnotes leading me astray and eventually coming back to the main thread. If the backlighting makes it easier to read then I am all for it. My daughter is dyslexic – and through her behavior I discovered that maybe I am too – and I see the e-book as positive for people like us. She has trouble with italics, with lines and cramped leading and line spacing and loopy fonts so if text can be adjusted to meet these kinds of needs I see them as good alternatives especially since the old-fashioned book industry, with its bloated structure has meant books have become incredibly expensive. If e-books are ultimately cheaper then why not. I mean, books will not disappear – the intimate relation we have nurtured with them [curling up with a book] is a Darwinian adaptation that will not quickly be erased from our DNA. The jet plane did not lead to the extinction of the bicycle.
But, ultimately, reading is enhanced by hypertextuality. And yet, it can also be a pain, to be so easily distracted and led astray. There is something to be said for going to a park, just you and a book, no smartphone, no wifi – luxury or satisfaction or success will probably eventually be measured in how easily we can unplug our connectivity, how we regain our identity or sanity even through inaccessibility.
K: What do you make of today’s “webmag” small press environment? (Besides a serialized novel….) Do you think there are interesting differences between online mags and the little magazines, small press journals, or zines of yesteryear? What were your favorite literary periodicals in the New York 80s?
BP: I am a veteran and fan of zines [see Nice #4] but they – like cassette culture, like punk, like all DIY culture – have this inherent David vs Goliath heroic quality to them, which probably bloats their myth far beyond their actual reach. Producing them was great, reading them was challenging fun, selling them was, however, an incredible investment in frustration and disillusionment – capitalism sucks especially if you are the last fish in the food chain. Now that the notion of selling zines has all but disappeared there has been a renaissance in zines. Although, to save their sanity in a world of rampant democratization where everyone is a writer and no one a reader, editors have had to take undemocratic, elitist-like measures to stem the overwhelming tide of submissions. I can sympathize although it's irritating when you yourself are a submitting writer.
I think that the zines of yore had a clan-ish feel to them, like you could be part of an emerging subculture, which is, of course, a kind of [necessary] elitism, making it all the more titillating. Everything is now grand, cross-border and international – many ezines don’t give any indication of where they are located geographically, for instance. I still like the geographical aspect. This was important when I was choosing hosts for the BEER MYSTIC pub crawl. I wanted to know where they were. I think by becoming everything to everyone in an effort to be international you are at once everywhere and nowhere. The best is a local zine with roots, which is also open to the international.
Yikes! My favorite zines from the 80s-90s are zines that were often very personal and yet magnanimously open to strange and exotic work from outside their comfort zone. I name only a few that I remember because I was in some way connected to them: Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts [and all other Tuli Kupferberg & Ed Sanders productions], Ins & Outs [Amsterdam], Smoke Signals, Not Guilty, Beet, Rant, Massacre [London], Exquisite Corpse, LCD, Murtaugh, but also small presses like Low Tech, Little Caesar, Tomboctou, and especially Top Stories, which published mostly short fiction booklets by women, which I only realized after submitting stuff to them more than once... But I could name a hundred others.
K: You now reside in your native Amsterdam, after many years in New York. What’s it like for you to write about New York from afar? Is a writer in self-imposed exile full of a certain clarity? Does the setting of “New York 1987” create a specific inspiration for you?
BP: I have a gestation period of 10 or 15 years anyway. I need this so that the distractions of a very loud and imposing reality don’t get in the way of creativity. I wrote the earliest remnants of BEER MYSTIC on the spot but it took a good 10 to 15 years before the stuff worked its way through the synaptical guts of my brain to become something like a finished book. I just recently had the urge to start writing about my years in Michigan – college, factories, cab driver – while my years in Paris are 75% documented in the unfinished novel Paris Sex Tete. Time allows memory to do its work. The 1987 setting is when the actual drunken dowsing of streetlights occurred. The year 1987 presages 2008 in that it hosted Black Monday in October, the day the stock markets collapsed as a result of some investors’ bubble popping. The result was that in no time hundreds of small and intrepid NY art galleries and such who catered to the trashing-it nouveau rich vanished. Probably not as dramatically tragic as what happened in late 2008 but, in some ways, a mirror-image specimen of today’s depression-like ambience. Thus it resonates as something beyond the period. The good thing back then was that the less monetarily endowed no doubt suffered but that was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the mighty often fell harder and further and so suddenly the loud bravado of raucous yuppies throwing fistfuls of dollars at waitresses, assuming everything and everyone was for sale met its pleasant denouement. That small satisfaction is altogether missing from the circumstances of the less-well-off in the current crisis.
K: What distinguishes your Mystical Beer from Bukowksi’s beer farts, Jean Rhys’ lonely drunks, Guy de Maupassant’s cafe absinthe, Hunter S. Thompson’s Puerto Rican rum, or Truman Capote’s late-morning martinis?
BP: The main difference is that Furman Pivo originally sees beer as an escape from disappointing reality, a workingman’s soma, which, if quaffed with enough style or attitude will begin to act like a lifestyle. This changes irrevocably to something more serious – both utilitarian and poetic – when beer and its modus operandi leads to an entirely new level of interdependence between self and beer. Mike Golden [ed. Smoke Signals] has astutely noted this in his preface to BEER MYSTIC: “Though all similarities between Furman Pivo and Carlos Castaneda's journeys end with the discovery you've been transported to the next level of mutant cognition by Pivo's ballsy, yet elegant, street-wise hops, if you're stoked to the gills when that realization hits home, it won't help you hold on to what's right in front of your nose without drinking liberally from the language on a regular basis.”
Convivial escape gains a higher purpose as a result of his communion with beer.
K: What does “the underground” mean now that so much artistic output is instantly available on the internet?
BP: Underground continues to reverberate, make things rumble and continues to be appropriated and then instantly dashes away to new warehouses, enclaves, codes, sounds, always just out of reach of the appropriators. You know when the New York Times has discovered something that it has already long ago vacated the premises. The New Yorker now writes so reverentially about the Black Mountain Poets, the Beats and Punk – with a safe buffer of myth-making time and commodification between them – because they have become museum fare, entered the canon, part of the Spectacle. These very movements were the target of hundreds of snooty cartoons and articles in their heyday – I saved a clipping inserted into my original paperback copy of On The Road, which summarized some the opinions of some of the bastions of proper culture at the time inc. The New Yorker, which back then described it as a “forlorn heap of images of America... [which] is simply unintelligible.” But, hell, straight culture eventually “gets” or at least learns to consume most “underground” culture.
That is partly why The Unbearables in the mid-1990s organized a sit-in at the New Yorker, to demand that they “free verse” from its snooty confines. That is why the Unbearables protested the commodification [ultimate legitimization] of the Beats, when Ginsberg and Co. lectured and performed at Town Hall in Times Square where for a regal sum you could witness the Beats perform for exorbitant prices. This, of course, led to the scathing Autonomedia-published anthology called Crimes of the Beats, which did not savage the Beats personally so much as their commodification. Maybe we were just fed up with being compared to them, with the Beats being the only literary group most people could name. Ultimately, the best of their work continues to resonate beyond any attempts to appropriate it. After all, it was the ultimate Beatnik, Gregory Corso himself who, during the Town Hall proceedings, ventured outside to join the Unbearable picket line and yell his own anti-commodification couplets.
*****Find Beer Mystic on the web here. Recommended reading!