Thursday, September 26, 2013

Indie Bookstore of the Month: Guide to Kulchur

Have you noticed that the lovers, makers, and sellers of print culture refuse to give up on print and its continued relevance? In 2010 it was Atomic Books and Quimby's call for The Revenge of Print. In recent months, it's been the thriving indie bookstores of Bushwick, Brooklyn; the used booksellers of Khartoum, Sudan working to revive reading and restore the city to its former literary glory; The Taksim Square Book Club; and reports from Mexico City's Under the Volcano Books that the paperback fiction business is booming, as their Mexican readers hunger for stories and become increasingly disenchanted with "Face" (their nickname for Facebook). Add to this list Guide to Kulchur, a Cleveland new and used bookstore that arrived on the scene in June 2013. A combination curated bookshop, zine-making co-op, meeting and reading space, small-press friendly store, and zine archive, Guide to Kulchur was invented by Riot Grrrl historian Lyz Bly and her husband, poet/DIY entrepreneur RA Washington, who want to put the means of production into the hands of one west-side rustbelt neighborhood while showcasing both the local and national zine and small press scenes. Here's what they told me:

Karen the Small Press Librarian: In addition to selling books and zines, your shop (which opened in 2013) is aggressively promoting print culture, offering the means of production for zines and chapbooks. What do you have to say to the naysayers who tell us the e-book is the future, and print is dead?

RA: There will always be folks that want to read in the physical, the issue is whether we can get these printed materials into their hands, into their field of vision. I think that the e-book has seen its rebuttal, for more and more people are printing, looking for ways to print, to fine print. If you can make it something that new writers and readers covet, then we can have a communal success. Small press have advantage over the big ones, but only if folks like you build alternative media outlets to help them get the word out.

Karen: You and Lyz want to create a zine archive that will amass evidence of "resistance" in rust-belt Cleveland, and start a dialogue with other dire-straits cities whose zinesters have left a record of similar resistance. While some point to social media phenomena like "The Twitter Revolution" as proof that we've "moved on," what part do you think print culture still plays or can play in grassroots movements and politics of the people? Do you think Twitter and zines address people at different levels in the business of consciousness-raising?

Lyz: I would put a zine in their hands and then ask them to look at one online. It’s a completely different experience. Through my research for my dissertation and soon to be book (Gender and Generation X: Riot Grrrls, Slackers, Sex, and Feminism), I studied thousands of zines at the Sallie Bingham Collection at Duke, the Sophia Smith Archives at Smith College, and the Riot Grrrl Zine Collection at Fales/NYU Library. There is nothing quite like picking up a zine and having a bit of glitter land on your lap, or noticing coffee stains or yellowing paper from a particularly loved and read zine. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been organizing the zine collection we’ve amassed thus far at Guide to Kulchur. The tactile experience of holding something that someone created out of love or desperation—whether it’s haphazardly stapled together or meticulously ordered—is not something that you can match digitally.

RA: I do think that print that is designed well, written well will always be a tool of dissent. Twitter can be too, but its a sound bite tool. I think the speed [at which] it moves can be off-putting to folks. Progressive people just have to step our game up with trying to counteract these huge media selling tools. We just have to have better content and not be afraid to say it is better.

Karen: When you began inventing Guide to Kulchur, what made you want to open an indie bookstore in 2013? What audience did you imagine would embrace your shop? Or are you looking to create an audience that wasn't yet there?

RA: We wanted to create a curated reading culture, for us this meant making sure that the books were essential, that there was diversity in the offering and a strong small press presence. We also wanted to provide the public with a store that had a real good eye and was fairly priced. We give a bulk of the sales to all independent bookmakers, small presses and authors. We were making a statement with this obviously, but we wanted A. for people to value the work of the independent /D.I.Y. makers, and B. to say to other bookstores that there are business models that can be created where we do not have to take a huge cut out of the small pie. So we chose to stay away from the large distro vehicles. We chose to not have a credit account with the huge media sellers, mainly because folks can get those books cheaper on Amazon than we can sell them. This allows us to exist without having a debt relationship with the companies that won’t even consider distributing small presses because those presses don't print in higher quantities.

Lyz: The audience on the near west side in the Gordon Square Arts District needs to be cultivated. There are young people who were drawn to the up-and-coming neighborhood for its proximity to downtown and emerging restaurants, bars, and shops. And artists and thinkers are always early colonizers of neighborhoods that will become eventual bastions of hip (I remember when my friend, artist Terry Durst, moved from Kent State University to Tremont in the mid-1980s—most people had no idea where the neighborhood was or that it even existed). Yes, you need bars and restaurants, but you also need art and ideas in these emergent communities. Otherwise it’s just empty capitalism packaged as “cool.” We want something authentic. You don’t get to wear the Beauvoir or Baldwin t-shirt unless you’ve read their work.

Karen: There are some impressive indie bookstores in Cleveland: Visible Voice, Mac's Backs, Loganberry Books. How do you fit in with the Cleveland scene, and how do you differentiate yourself from the others? Is yours a neighborhood bookstore or a destination shop, or both?

RA: There are some awesome bookstores in Cleveland, and I think we work well together to service a very well-read city. We wanted to be a destination and a neighborhood store, because where we are located is situated west of Visible Voice and we carry stuff that is not in competition with them. So you could go to both in afternoon and have two totally different experiences. Also we do not take a cut of small press publications. We also service manual typewriters, have an extensive zine/chapbook library, and a co-op where you can make a zine, go get it printed and spend your money on printing as opposed to the tools you need to make the master product. Glue sticks, rotary presses, Sharpies, typewriters, collage materials and paper all cost money--so our thinking was if there was a place where we could share those costs, it would be easier to produce more zines. Eventually we will have letterpress machines, old etching presses and the like so you could try new methods to print.

Karen: Do you imagine Guide to Kulchur becoming a player in the national bookstore scene, like Quimby's or Atomic Books? Do you have favorite bookstores in other cities, or bookstores or cultural centers that influenced your concept for Guide to Kulchur?

RA: Yes, we already are starting that journey, but it’s not a goal. It’s happening because some of the best writers in the world are finding out about it through other writers, and getting plugged in. And I was not kidding when I say world--we want to make a place that has a worldview, that offers respect to our backyard by displaying all of the work together. We do not have a “local section,” we have an independent book makers section, and that distinction will go very far in terms of goodwill, and building a critical mass.

Lyz: In August we took a delayed honeymoon in Europe. We spent a full week in Paris and we felt most at home at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. We were enamored with the ethos of the place and with the design and the physical space, of course. But we were also so excited to read how the owner has written about books and feeling the physicality of the paper in one’s hands—the ways in which the characters in fiction texts are as real to him (and now his daughter who runs the Paris shop) as a person standing in front of him. We are not Shakespeare and Company by any means, but we embrace the same vision and—without knowing it—we used the same kind of language when writing about our goals for Guide to Kulchur.

Karen: Is Guide to Kulchur a non-profit, a side project, a literal co-op, or a business that pays employees (or owner/s) enough to live on? Do you think the kind of bookstore that employs several full-timers is a thing of the past? Are bookstores important enough for us to create and support them even if they aren't money-makers?

RA: Guide To Kulchur is not a 501(c)(3), it’s not a side project, it is not a cost share co-op in the traditional sense. The store exists strictly from the sales of the used/new books we find and sell. We have employees and we pay a living wage, but it is not enough to live on of course. How could it be? Lyz and I know that you have to hold down multiple jobs to do this work, so we do. It’s obvious to me that bookstores are important, and they should have our support as long as the business model allows for the bookstore to pay for itself. It is not a profit type of thing. you are not going to put together a huge savings, but if you follow a creative capitalist approach--if you keep in mind that the deck is stacked against all of us that are not extremely wealthy--then you can make a difference, and stay relevant and open for a long time.

Karen: Guide to Kulchur, besides being the title of an Ezra Pound collection of essays, was a project you started a few years ago where people in different cities could print out each other's books and distribute them locally. How did this work, logistically—the book printing, the distro, or finding willing authors in other cities? And how did this work, as in how did it succeed? About how many writers or other people got involved, and how many books were distributed this way?

RA: Wow, how did you know about that? It's something we still want to do, and it worked on a small scale. I think most writers have this notion that some press is going to swoop down and offer them the Bukowski deal, and its not going to happen. The way you make it as a writer is you write, and you read, and you print, and you meet, and you collaborate and you distribute. It's work, and it's very rare that someone will do all of that for you, so you have to do it for yourself. If a press publishes you, you have to get out and help them sell the book. So many times you have writers who are not willing to hit the road, beat the pavement and get out and sell their work. It doesn't happen magically, but if you do that for long enough, if you honor your commitments, you can build a readership and you will die published. That's the only way. there is no shortcut. I don’t even know if I answered your question!

Karen: Tell us how many cities participated in Guide to Kulchur, the publishing/distro experiment.

RA: We had sixteen cities across the world participate, and we were able to distro some limited edition broadsides and even did some group translation work where a poem in, say, French would be in Spanish, Russian, and English. Some really interesting new writers across the globe, so many that I'm trying to bring the program back. The counties involved outside the US included France, Belgium, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, and Ireland. We lost money, all of us did, but for me it was an awesome project.

Karen: What's the significance of the Ezra Pound book or title for you?

RA: I love that book, I found a copy at Mac's Backs when I was 17, thinking I was a writer. It opened me up to so many aspects of literary thought/critical and how zany Pound is. The myth is he said that the book was a blueprint for writers looking to avoid the corporate college and that if you read it, you would have all you needed for a life in letters. I think it's true.

Karen: Are zines important to literature, to publishing, to information dissemination, or to culture at large? Does literature get created on a Trickle Up basis, but is perceived to work as Trickle Down? Or is that using someone else's terms to describe something more complex?

RA: I don’t know about the terms, but it makes sense, and it’s a good question.

Lyz: In a democracy, all voices are important. There are some zines that may seem silly now—documenting your thrift store finds (as in the writers of the well-known zine Thrift Score once did) may seem superficial and about reifying consumption, but as a historian I can tell you that there’s something to glean about culture from any zine you pick up. And the U.S. has a history of self-publishing Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the National Woman’s Party published a radical (for its time) newspaper on women’s rights while they were fighting for suffrage and even the Declaration of Independence was initially published as a Dunlap broadside and read widely before it became the document we know today.


Visit Guide to Kulchur on "Face":

Monday, September 16, 2013

Writer on Writer: Part Two, Alex Kudera Interviews Dave Newman

Following up on last week's Writer on Writer interview, this week Alex Kudera interviews Dave Newman. Alex is author of Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books, 2010) and Dave wrote Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books, 2012). Each novel looks at the struggle of one writer trying to pay the bills by adjunct teaching. At my request, Alex and Dave read each other's books and came up with their own questions.


Alex Kudera: Winning an award named after Andre Dubus is an amazing accomplishment. Are you a Dubus fan? I like almost all of his novellas, the story "Townies," and many more. Do you have any favorites among his writings?

Dave Newman: I love Andre Dubus. I’m a huge believer in the American small press, and I read all his books on Goodine, which was one of my favorite presses at the time. Dubus was one of the first writers I fell in love with, and his stories and novellas meant so much to me when I first started reading. I’m glad he’s so revered now, but I wish he would have had more success when he was alive. Both the movies based on his work, which I’m sure steered readers back to his books, came out after he died. My favorite Dubus’ books are actually his essay collections. Some of the best writing about being a writer—and the morals of being a writer—are in those collections. I love that he was committed to writing as a spiritual pursuit. I love that he was honest about writing and money and how those two mix. He knew that the important thing was to write the best book you could write and to have the book reach the world. It’s obvious that he cared deeply about his characters, and from things his son and last wife have said, it’s obvious that his love of writing sometimes distracted him from his familial obligations. I love his wife’s letter to Poets and Writers, where she says, basically, “Quit fucking saying I took Andre’s kids away from him.” I thought that was badass of her.

Alex: I also recently read his son's memoir Townies, and it was illuminating to get that side of Dubus as father. I didn't love the memoir in every way, but one tidbit I loved is how he tells his son it's okay to write about his parents, that he should do it if he is compelled to. To me, that's refreshing and quite writerly. From what I've read of your novel, it seems like you are very much in favor of this sort of honesty. Is that possibly the main trait we look for in writing?

Dave: I have Townies but haven’t read it yet. As I said above, Andre the Dad seemed like a difficult person but he was conscious of that, so it makes sense that he would encourage his son to pursue honesty in his own writing. I think honesty is the main trait we look for in writing, and I think that’s why we sometimes forgive writers who have stylistic lapses. I want to puke on the sentence people who feel like lines can be separated from characters and narrative. That’s a fashion show. It’s literature as pornography. It always pisses me off when people include Ray Carver and Barry Hannah in that discussion. Both Hannah and Carver wanted to tell stories, and they did so in a language that served their narratives. Carver wrote great poems and stories after he broke from his editor, Gordon Lish, who is a sentence asshole. When Hannah went too far with language, when he failed in storytelling, and when he was criticized for it, he admitted to fucking up and losing control with language. He wasn’t proud of it. He didn’t want to be someone who was known for writing sentences. He wanted to tell the truth about the world. So yeah, me too.

Alex: I am aware of the writer as bad father, and there are too many great writers to name in this regard, literary superstars with multiple wives and children, guys who walked off the job early and often. I see your awareness of this in your novel, and it sounds like you very much are intent on staying in one marriage, of making your family life a success. Is this something you were thinking about from a young age, or something you became more aware of once you became a husband or father?

Dave: I didn’t ever plan on marrying. I figured it was an either/or situation. You either wrote, which required hours of reading and writing, or you got married, which required hours of marriage stuff, whatever that was. Then I found myself in Vegas, getting married to a woman I barely knew, and I was unbelievably happy about it. My wife is awesome, and she’s a great writer, and we support each others’ writing in every way possible. It really speeds up the process to know you have someone in the other room who wants to read your writing, not is willing to, but wants to. We both have three published books now. We had a combined total of zero books before we were married. I think a lot of people perpetuate the myth that you have to be a shitty person to be a writer, or that you have to be a terrible spouse to be a writer, but as I got older I started to realize some of those myths were coming from shitty people who were also shitty spouses. My wife and I both want to be successful parents, more so than successful writers, but we’re both conscious that writing makes us better and happier people, which makes us better parents, so we strive for that balance. There’s a lot to give up, some hard and some not, if you want to be a parent / writer / decent person. Don’t watch junk TV. Don’t see terrible movies for the distraction. Don’t hang out with your neighbors just to be a good neighbor. Don’t hang out with anyone you don’t want to hang out with, unless it impacts your kids by not hanging out. Vacation exclusively for your children. Eat cheap. Go to elementary school open houses, smile a lot, and get the fuck out as fast as possible. I never go and see the same writer read from the same book twice. I never flew to New York to read to four people in a bar just to say I was on a book tour and read in New York. I try to be productive when I’m not being productive. When I drink beer, I will often spend the first hour cleaning the house with loud music playing, so I’m not just drinking but cleaning and catching up on tunes. Only watch sports you love. I only watch the Steelers now, and I usually fold clothes while the game is on. If my kids want to hang out, we hang out. If my kids want me to play with them and their friends, I politely decline. They can amuse themselves. I make time for my wife to write because she gets more easily swallowed into the world than I do. When I need to write, she puts the bubble around me and keeps the world away. I still do shitty things all the time, but they’re usually on accident, and I try to learn from my shittiness. One of my goals is to be less shitty, to help more people. That’s how I want to be in the world as a parent and husband and writer, all at once.

[The interview continues]

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Writer on Writer: Dave Newman Interviews Alex Kudera

Several months ago, I asked small press authors Alex Kudera and Dave Newman if they would be willing to read each other's latest novels and interview each other about them. Each novel features a protagonist struggling to make ends meet (and keep a writing life) while working as an adjunct professor: Newman's novel, Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books, 2012) follows instructor Dan Charles, a family man with one published novel under his belt; Kudera's Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books, 2010) is narrated by the unpublished Cyrus Duffleman.

I'm posting the resulting interviews in two parts. Stay tuned for Part II: Alex's interview of Dave, which I hope to post later this week. Without further ado, Dave Newman interviews Alex Kudera about Fight For Your Long Day.


Dave Newman: How scary was it writing a book about a frustrated adjunct instructor while working in the academy?

Alex Kudera: Writing it wasn’t scary at all. It was thrilling and cathartic for the first summer when a whole draft came out, and then there was a lot of painstaking work to improve it, and the fear of failure is always lurking in the background, yes, and then toward the end, there was doubt, but I didn’t have actual fear until I was waiting for the reporter at Inside Higher Ed to call. My first interview was by telephone, and I had no idea what he would ask or how I would respond. Despite my own ten years of adjunct teaching, I was ignorant of many different aspects of the national situation. Publishing the book has gotten me in touch with a full range of concerned academics, struggling adjuncts and tenured professors, and I’ve learned a lot about higher ed since the book came out.

It’s important to recognize that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of indebted students and low-wage adjuncts and contract workers, folks just like us, families with children, are scared. Their legitimate fears are about how to put food on the table, how to afford utility bills, gas, and rent. Maybe the new healthcare laws will help in one important area; I hope so. But overall, if you think about it, the capitalist system can reward hard work, but it can also reward connections, ass-kissing, and greed, and the work, whether hard or “crafty,” is typically legal, but with occasional outright malfeasance, and sometimes the laws themselves can even be bought and changed to favor the wealthy or connected, and many folks who gravitate toward the top in order to save their own fiscal asses seem barely sentient enough to recognize the extent of the problems, never mind care enough to do something substantial. You look out and see what goes on, and you wonder how they ever came up with the idea of actually referring to us collectively as “humanity”; that’s one of the all-time great sales pitches, I’d say.

So whether I write this book or another book or don’t write anything at all, I’m going to be scared sometimes—scared for my kid, scared for your kids, and scared for little ones throughout the country and around the world. But sometimes, we have to put aside our own fears to try to help others.

DN: Have there been any repercussions?

AK: I believe that there have been, and yet I’m uncertain I’d be able to prove it. Academia also offers a lot of opportunity for paranoia, both individual and collective, so it’s all hard to say. Overall, it seems some tenured professors have reacted quite favorably to Fight for Your Long Day (one assigns it to her graduate students in English education, and I know that at least two professors have assigned the novel; the other was for graduate students taking a course in ethics in higher education), and there are other academics, including adjuncts, who are somewhat uneasy with the novel, possibly its conflicted look at class and race, find it dull, or just aren’t able to read a book unless the main character is perfectly sympathetic in the most stereotypical ways. And, yes, I’m scared of “repercussions” too, and in academia, they are difficult to label as such because there so many factors that can be introduced as a reason why any hiring or other decision is made.

Dave: There are some big buzz phrases in the academy right now — community, literary citizenship, collegiality — but universities run on adjuncts and tuition doubles at twice the rate of inflation, and the machine keeps acting like a job is a gift. Can you talk about how (or if) the language of the academy — the Orwellian nature of it — fueled Fight for Your Long Day? Orwell would have loved your title, as I do.

Alex: Yeah, universities are full of “success centers” and slogans like “students first,” and we’ve come to call that all Orwellian and in some ways, it is. Did Orwell have much on nations jacking up the price of air and water? I suppose jacking up tuition every year and buying leather couches for top administration is not the same thing. In fact, I’ve never read 1984 although I’ve read Animal Farm and Down and Out in Paris and London and I enjoyed the latter very much. It’s a writer’s book, and I read when I was bussing my own dishes in Paris during a semester off from college.

On the other hand, sometimes it seems like things are changing for the better though. They’ve kicked the private lenders to the curb, and for government loans, there are forgiveness programs that aren’t publicized as well as they should be but base repayment on a graduate’s earnings and even forgive them outright if payments are made on time for 20 years (or even just 10 for careers that qualify as “public service”). It’s a strange game we’re in, and, frankly, where I am right now, the students seem to love the college experience and they seem barely cognizant of some of the ideas broached in my novel. That makes it seem all the more bizarre, and yet it’s pleasant here. The students seem happy.

True to my long-winded nature, for a long time, the working title was Arise Adjunct Duffleman, and Fight for Your Long Day. I didn’t snip off the front half until very late in the process. I think FFYLD was the title when I queried Atticus and a dozen others. That was a query several months after a failed round. In the Atticus round there was one other small press that seemed to be giving it serious consideration, and, well, as everyone knows, all you need is one “yes,” and that is usually all you get. I like a line from a Roberto Bolano story where he is describing Chilean exiles desperate for work in Europe, and he says the highest bidder was invariably the lowest one as well. It is tough out there.

[The interview continues:]