Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Quest for Cover Art

Most of us grew up hearing the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover." Like most advice, we hear it, nod along, might even repeat it to others, but, for the most part, we ignore it. When most people use this phrase, they aren't actually talking about books (because who actually reads these days besides me and a few people I know?). They are typically warning you not to judge others and to look into situations before jumping to conclusions. And as much as we might want to buy into this notion, we all end up judging.

I won't lie. I'm a judger. I judge people for bad habits. For being stupid. For wearing terrible clothing. For eating the wrong things. For backing into parking spaces. For having too many children. For being Republican. For liking Twilight. For hating Lady Gaga. For thinking Glee is actually a good show. Yes, I judge a good portion of my waking hours and sometimes even in my sleep. Most of us do, even if we don't admit it.

I'm so aware of my own judging that I often over-think most of my decisions, pondering the judgments they will cause in others. I do have a point. I promise.

As I mentioned a few months ago, my first book is getting published by Sibling Rivalry Press early next year. The book is called He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I'm thrilled and can't wait to actually be able to hold my own book in my hands, but there is stress that comes with all good things.

I'm lucky that a press like Sibling Rivalry selected my book, because they want me closely involved in many of the decisions. This includes cover art, which brings me to a literal reading of "don't judge a book by its cover." The problem is that of course people are going to judge my book by its cover, and why shouldn't they? A cover has a big job. It needs to get a buyer's attention, but it also needs to convey something real and honest about the actual content of the book.

I love great covers and love them even more when the book matches the cover. Oh yes, I've been tricked. I've bought plenty of bad books with great covers. I like pretty books. If I'm buying an older book or a classic that has many different editions, I find the best looking cover and buy it. Covers are important.

I've been spending a lot of time flipping through images and trying to determine what would best fit my book. This cover will forever be the cover of my first book, and I don't want to hate it in a year. I'm leaning toward photography, because I think it fits better with the realness and honesty of the book. A lot of the book is about documenting real events.

I'm also cautious about the tradition of gay themed books putting some barely clothed or naked man on the cover. I don't want my book to look like gay erotica or an underwear ad, because its not. I like erotica and underwear ads, but that's not what I'm selling. If I have some sexy half-naked man on the cover, I fear readers will be disappointed or confused when the opening poem is about random horrible car accidents and losing one's faith. It's really not a very sexy poem. I'm not opposed to something provocative or even nudity (though, I was going to save the nudity for my author photo), but it has to be doing something more than titillating the gay viewer.

As most of my readers know, I don't shy away from gayness or even the label of "gay poet." At the same time that doesn't mean my only audience is other gay people. I already have gay in the title and if I just put a muscle boy on the cover, no straight person that I don't already know is going to buy it. My book is about the gay experience, but it is also about the lines between violence and sex and even love, and about the fear of death. These themes can connect and reflect a lot of different experiences.

I know I'll find the right image, but the journey is a complicated one. Until then I'll continue judging other people's covers.

-Stephen (Judger)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interview Series: Christopher Stephen Soden

It is hard to believe that summer is almost over and that today's post marks my 8th interview of 2011. I began this interview series with the goal of interviewing young and emerging GLBT poets. In some ways, I've felt limited by my own parameters, which is why this interview is with a poet some could call emerging, but a poet that is in his 50s. I felt his perspective and journey to his first book was worthy of an interview.

My August poet is Christopher Stephen Soden. His first collection, Closer, was recently released by Queer Mojo. For anyone interested, he is offering a free signed copy of his book. To enter in the drawing, comment on this interview and leave your name and email address. I will select a winner at random and you will be mailed your own copy of his book. You must comment and enter by 11:59 PM EST on Wednesday, August 31st. But first, enjoy this conversation!

S: My interview series has primarily focused on young GLBT poets that are classified as “emerging.” You are an older man, but, from my knowledge, have more recently emerged onto the poetry scene. Your first book, Closer, was just released and just last year you participated in the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices. How did you come to poetry? Is it something you’ve always written? Was there a catalyst for your emergence?

C: In high school I dabbled somewhat in poetry, while studying theatre and acting. In my Freshman year at SMU, I was a theatre major. My second semester (having placed out of Composition 101) I enrolled in a Poetry Workshop, taught by the late Jack Myers, where I was truly introduced to the power, depth and poignancy of contemporary poetry. Writers like Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Phillip Levine and Louise Glück left me breathless and overwhelmed. At the end of the semester Jack said he needed to speak to me in his office. With my usual self-esteem issues, I was certain he was going to banish me. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “ This is what you need to be doing with your life.” By that time I was so overcome by the possibilities of that medium, it didn’t take any more convincing. Jack became my mentor.

S: Mentors can be very valuable. Since it sounds like you’ve been writing poetry for quite some time, how do you define where you are in your poetry career?

C: Well, I’ve been publishing all along, and writing avidly since I was 18 (I turned 53 in May) so needless to say, a first collection of poetry is a big step, and I’d hoped it would happen sooner. One hesitates to speculate about these things. I mean, we’re all on a different timeline, when it comes to our evolution as artists, and there are pieces in Closer that were written very early in my vocation. I’ve entered first book contests and queried publishers for many years, so there are times when I’ve wondered if content was a problem for some of these venues, but I guess we’ll never know. The world seems far less homophobic today than it was in the 70’s and 80’s, etc… Or maybe our proponents have become more vocal and fearless. That being said, there can be all kinds of reasons why a particular writer doesn’t catch on right away, and forces at work far beyond our control. I had been disappointed so many times, when Sven Davisson expressed interest in my work, I had to check my optimism. I pretty much held my breath until the first copies of Closer arrived at my door. Like any other serious poet, I want to publish numerous collections. (At least I have a formidable backlog.) I want to continue to grow and improve. One thing I’ve noticed about the successful writers I’ve met, none of them believed they’d reached some plateau or zenith.

S: Your prospective and journey is a valuable one and one reason I wanted to include you in this series. I’m originally from the Midwest, but after I left the area a good portion of my family moved to Texas and live in Houston. I’ve been quite a few times over the last few years. You are a Texan native and I wondered what it was like growing up as a gay man in Texas and how, or if, Texas plays a role in your poetry?

C: I suppose this won’t be a blinding revelation, but in the early 60’s , when it came to issues of tolerance and progressive thinking, Texas was hardly leading the way. Despite the fact that we have one of the largest LGBT Communities in the country, I’m not sure how far we’ve come since then. When I was a kid, gay people were only discussed in whispers, and the predominant thinking seemed to be that if you were a “homosexual” that meant you were either : mentally ill, a degenerate or both. Since I knew I was neither of those, I was in complete denial. And when I did succumb to homoerotic fantasies, it filled me with self-loathing and guilt. I had the misfortune of springing a boner in the locker room and most of my life in junior high was miserable.

I suspect that if I had been okay with my queer virility I’d have addressed other issues in my poetry. How do I explain? Some of my poetry serves as tool for exploration of queer maleness and a sense of exuberance. Some doesn’t. Because I felt so conflicted it influenced much of my work. It was an act of self-reconciliation.

S: That’s an interesting way to look at it. One of my favorite poems in your collection was one called “Little Red Riding Hood.” I love the imagery and wonderful strangeness of the poem. I’ve written some poems myself that use fairy tales as jumping off points. Could you say a bit about how this poem came into being?

C: My first exposure to Fairy Tale poetry was Louise Glück ‘s “Gretel in Darkness.” Or perhaps Susan Mitchell’s “From the Journals of the Frog Prince.” That one, especially, knocked me on my ass. I found myself intrigued and electrified. There are many interpretive pieces written on Little Red Riding Hood (Uses of Enchantment is great!) and I’d read that her cloak is a menstruation symbol. So when I wrote the poem, I knew I wanted to start with that, but I also knew I wanted to focus on the wolf’s story.

S: It’s a great poem. From reading your book, I noticed in a few poems this “piling up” of phrases or descriptions normally connected with a lot of “ands” or commas. It gave the poems an interesting effect. Could you speak about this technique a bit? I particularly noticed it in the second poem in the collection “The World in a Book of Matches.”

C: Yes, it’s less grammatically efficient, but occasionally I do that because it can create a kind of exponential energy. Playwrights will sometimes use this approach in a monologue. I like lists, and I love the way (for instance) that Gertrude Stein is able to achieve power through repetition. But she makes it look easy, and if you aren’t meticulous, it just comes off as a gimmick. Sometimes, if I get it right, using superfluous “ands” can be an informal way of cultivating urgency and (dare I say?) a kind of muted hysteria. I don’t think a poem must necessarily cleave to the rules of grammar to be effective or cogent.

S: I also enjoy listing and feel it can add greatly to the overall feel of a poem. I’m currently in the process of having my first book published and I’m thinking about cover art, so I wanted to ask you about the cover of your book. How was this image selected? What role did you play in that?

C: It’s actually kind of a funny story. Sven sent me several sample covers and they just weren’t quite working for me. I noticed the photo art website link, so I went there and started “shopping around.” Since the title poem takes place in a shower, I started with artistic nude photos of men bathing. None of them were graphic. Then I broadened it to pairs of men in general. I wound up, apologetically, sending Sven 80 different photographs. He was very good-natured about it. He narrowed those down to 6, and we both agreed on the final photo right away. It’s kind of eye-catching, no?

S: Yes, it is. I was particularly moved by your poem “Propositions.” I’m a big animal lover, so that’s what first struck me about the poem, but it’s really so beautifully constructed and speaks to something very human. How did this poem come into being?

C: Well, it was inspired by our Siamese cat, Coco. When she was in heat, the tomcats would surround our house very late at night, making those enervating, ghastly, “come hither” cries and it was chilling and annoying. Of course, this meant Coco wanted to go out, and there was absolutely no way that was going to happen. It got me to thinking how, despite the danger, there’s always something a bit exciting and tantalizing about the idea of connecting with strangers, for purely sexual reasons. Certainly there were very practical reasons for not succumbing to my cat’s pleas, but I had to wonder if personal experience (or guilt) wasn’t involved in my protective impulses.

S: If someone came up to you who hasn’t read much poetry, what is the one book you would tell them they have to read first?

C: If I knew nothing else about them, I would recommend Ashes : Poems New and Old by Philip Levine. Levine does most everything right, and is very accessible and exhilarating. There is a density beyond his narratives that emerges on closer inspection, but when someone is starting out, it helps to give them something that excites them right away. If it were a gay friend, I’d probably suggest something by Mark Doty, like Bethlehem in Broad Daylight or Fire to Fire, for the sake of inspiration. Both Doty and Levine are excellent craftsman, and they’re not especially interested in being elusive.

S: You graduated with your MFA in poetry from Vermont College in 2005. What was your MFA experience like and what did you gain from it as a poet?

C: It was validating, absorbing and useful. It built up my confidence and encouraged me to believe in my scholarly abilities. I learned how to analyze poetry and write a comprehensive thesis without feeling intimidated or stymied. Most of the established poets I worked with there were forthright and genuine advocates for my ability and quite plainspoken about my strengths and weaknesses. If this sort of feedback is offered in the right spirit, it can really be tremendously liberating. Until you become part of an academic setting, you imagine it as some kind of intellectual Utopia, but it has the same foibles and blind spots as any other community. Earning my MFA is one of the best things I’ve ever done. On the downside I fell in love with a straight guy and really thought I’d never recover. Strychnine would have been smarter.

S: You participated in the Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices last year. What was that experience like and did it influence your work?

C: Well, of course, any gathering of LGBT folk in one place can be tremendously nurturing and a relief. At the time I went I was still recovering from some personal catastrophes and I was something of a basket case. I couldn’t sleep. I kept waiting for something terrible to happen and it never did. That being said, I felt very welcomed and embraced and respected and understood. As if I were entering a group of people who were already my friends. And they were. The first night we went around the circle talking about why we were there, and what we hoped to get from our experience. I was last and spoke about the cowardice and hubris of those who persecute our tribe. I didn’t get very much out before I burst into tears. Everyone was so empathetic and comforting. My time there certainly sparked vehemence and frankness in writing. Well. Even more than before. Some of my lesbian sisters there put my sexual content to shame.

S: It sounds like a powerful experience. From that experience and your others, how would you classify the state of gay and lesbian poetry in America?

C: I think we’re fortunate in the sense that we’re already perceived by so many as anarchists and fringe dwellers, that it makes it easier to be audacious and frank. And those are great qualities for any artist to possess. I think the state of gay and lesbian poetry is quite marvelous because we make room for such a wide variety of voices. You have Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery for erudition, Mary Oliver who is articulate, spiritual and rarely addresses gender issues, Gertrude Stein for the avant-garde, the late Reginald Shepherd (who made me swoon) and the trenchant satire of Edward Field. We have everything from the blasphemous to the sublime. And that’s exactly as it should be.

S: Now for some fun: What poet(s) dead or alive would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?

C: How about a circle jerk with : D.H. Lawrence, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Whitman, Frank O’Hara and Thom Gunn?

S: Sounds hot to me. What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?

C: “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath

S: Who are a few artists who would appear on the soundtrack to Closer?

C: Patti Smith, Phillip Glass, Billie Holliday, David Bowie, Green Day, Adam Lambert, Michael Stipe, Joni Mitchell, U2, Sam Cooke and Talking Heads?

S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?

C: Jake Gyllenhaal

S: I love him. Lastly, what are you currently working on?

C: Theatre and film critique, a second poetry collection, plays, including a contemporary version of Medea.

S: Sounds like you have plenty on your plate. Good luck with it all and thank you for talking with me.

-Stephen (Q&A)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Podcast 38: My Mother Calls to Say Her Bones Are Disappearing

I've slowed down a bit on the blogging in the last few weeks. Maybe it is the heat. Maybe I've been preoccupied with other things. Or maybe I've just been lazy. Regardless, I wanted to post something today and start to get back on track.

I've spent a lot of my time this summer writing and working on a new long poem called "A Brief History of How My Parents Didn't Die." It is a 16 page poem that documents the real events of an explosion that happened in my hometown in the 1960s. It's been an interesting and challenging project. Since, I've spent so much time on this one piece, I haven't written as many shorter works as I typically do.

Today's podcast is of one of the few other pieces I've written in the last few months. It is a poem called "My Mother Calls to Say Her Bones Are Disappearing." The poem is structured in a similar way to a few other poems of mine that use a phone call as a jumping off point. Maybe I have a series here.

I hope you will enjoy hearing this new piece, which I have just started sending out to magazines.

Listen here.

-Stephen (Boned)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Independent Bookstores vs. Amazon: Not So Black and White

In the last few months, I've seen a lot of articles discussing the closing or struggle of independent bookstores mostly due to the success of Amazon. This is obviously not a new issue. Independent bookstores have been struggling in this country for years (remember that terrible You've Got Mail movie?). Now even the big chain stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders are struggling and closing. It seems for the time being, Amazon is winning the battle.

I want to begin by saying, I fully support the idea of independent bookstores. They provide not only a place to buy books, but a place to build community. Many independent bookstores hold readings and signings. It is through many of these bookstores that certain poets, throughout the years, have been promoted and recognized. It is a vital part of the literary community.

Having said that, there aren't these kind of independent bookstores everywhere. I've never lived in a really big city or a very literary city, so I've read about the amazing happenings at independent bookstores, but I've rarely personally witnessed them.

All of the articles I have read on the topic, praise independent bookstores and demonize Amazon. This is easy to do. We love stories about the little guy or the underdog. We like to hate big business (even while most of us still support it with our money). And when I'm saying "we," I'm including myself. I don't enjoy going to big box stores. I think big business, as a whole, is hurting our country. But it is also very easy to demonize the big guy and make the issue seem very black and white.

In the case of independent bookstores vs. Amazon, the issue isn't that black and white. Amazon is a big company and they can sell items for much cheaper prices than a local independent bookstore and that, in turn, can greatly hurt these stores and put them out of business. They do seem to be wanting to control the selling of almost everything. This is probably not going to be a great thing, if they fully succeed. Yes, I understand these issues, and I know, like most big businesses, Amazon has some questionable practices.

On the other hand, I have to consider my own experience and factor this into the equation. I grew up in a small Indiana city as a gay boy who wanted to be a poet. The only independent bookstores in my town were Christian bookstores. We didn't even have a big box bookstore like Barnes and Noble or Borders. When I discovered Amazon, I felt like I had discovered the world. Amazon gave me access to books I would never have been able to find (probably in the entire state I lived in). Through Amazon, I could buy poetry books, classic gay literature, and new gay books. These books helped shape me into the person I am today and the poet I've become.

I went college in an even smaller rural town in Indiana with even less access to many books. I relied on Amazon through college to provide me with a window into a broader more accepting world. In grad school, I also relied on Amazon, partially for the same reasons. Tallahassee, FL isn't exactly booming with access to literature. I also had very little money as a grad student and Amazon gave me a place I could get more bang for my buck (besides, compared to the practices of most college bookstores, Amazon wins in my mind).

When I read these articles, I often feel that these writers forget that the middle of the country exists or that the South exists or some people live in small, rural areas. I've never lived in New York City or San Francisco. Every place I've lived, it has been very hard to find the books I want to read or need to read. In some cases, I could order the books from the presses themselves, which I do sometimes. Other times, the books are no longer available through the presses and there are few other options. When I attend readings, I often purchase the books at the reading, which helps support the author and the press. This again is not always an option.

I'm not saying Amazon is perfect or we shouldn't be concerned or that it isn't hurting independent bookstores, but I am saying that this issue is more complicated than many seem willing to admit. Amazon does serve areas where people don't easily have access to a variety of books.

The world is changing. I don't want to see all independent bookstores wiped out, but I do want some young gay teen in rural Indiana to be able to buy the books he needs/wants to read. We can demonize Amazon all we want, but it is winning the battle because it can offer a world of books to anyone in the world. I don't think the solution is simply to ignore that or to demonize that. There is some good here.

I don't have all the answers, but I wanted to write this post to continue the discussion and to gray the issue just a bit. We need to find a balance. We need independent bookstores. Those of you who live in areas with great ones, should be supporting them. We also need access to keep people reading and engaging in the literary world. Right now, these two seem at odds with each other, and I hope eventually a bridge can be built.

-Stephen (2 Cents)