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Home Story Delivery Service

Faith Adiele reading in the home of Susan Ito.

Faith Adiele reading in the Oakland home of Susan Ito.

On a cool weekday night, I rushed home from my job in San Francisco to my Oakland bungalow to quickly arrange chairs and put out cookies and wine before the guests arrived. They weren’t coming to see me, but rather were going to be there for a reading by an author/actor they had heard me rave about. I copyedited John Mercer’s 2013 collection of memoir pieces, Swearing in English: Tall Tales from Shotgun (a reference to Shotgun Players, the Berkeley theater company he belonged to for 10 years), and his second, The Long Arm of Lunacy: More Swearing in English, which came out in November, both published by 125 Records.

By the time his latest book came back from the printer, it was too late to secure nights at most bookstores in the busy fall season. So Mercer came up with the idea of a Home Story Delivery Service. He asked various friends to organize a crowd in their homes and he’d come deliver a reading—and bring a box of books to sell and sign. He ended up moving more books at my house than he had two weeks before at a retail gig.

Taking art directly to the people is a trend that’s growing among writers, musicians, and even fashion industry folks, who stage trunk shows in people’s homes. Without the support of deep-pocket publishers, authors these days have to do what they can to get their books in the hands of readers.

“Unless you’re in the 1 percent [of sales] at the publishing house,” says P.R. and lifestyle guru Susan MacTavish Best, “little marketing goes to your book, so authors need to be way more creative than before.” Best has been hosting writers and musicians in her homes in San Francisco and New York for years. “Fortunately,” she adds, “with social media and whatnot, they can be.”

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Hanging in the Balance, Like a Puppet on a Hand: Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

“This is really a drag—and a bore,’’ the doomed jazzster Chet Baker tells director Bruce Weber in Let’s Get Lost, in response to (sympathetic) inquiries about his drug habits. The same could be said of the recent controversy over the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.

In a certain sense, it all makes sense: the high-minded indignation from select members of the literary Establishment (though, some, like Salman Rushdie and Joyce Carol Oates, welcomed the decision), and disgusted repudiation of boomer nostalgia (we get it, Irvine Welsh) in other quarters. It’s of a piece with the kind of responses the hillbilly from Hibbing has received—and invited—throughout his career, amid his dizzying changes from folk prophet to insolent rocker, country crooner to Christian preacher, callow courtier to spurned lover and husband.

But it’s a category error—ironic for someone who’s made a career out of blowing up categories. Like Whitman, Dylan is large, and his work contains multitudes, including a multitude of complaints about his creative choices. Since fanboy prose famously comprises so much of the writing about Dylan, let’s dispose of the objections first.

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Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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A Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays One-Two Punch (Update: And Now a Pushcart: We Hit the Trifecta)

ZYZZYVA95_Fall2012_CoverFINAL_PrintIt looks like the Fall 2012 ZYZZYVA (No. 95) has some sort of magic working for it. Earlier this year, we were thrilled to learn that a story from that issue, Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Horned Men,” would be included in the 2013 Best American Short Stories. And today, we received a call informing us that Dagoberto Gilb’s nonfiction piece from the same issue, “A Little Bit of Fun Before He Died,” will be included in the 2013 Best American Essays.

We offer our warmest congratulations to Dagoberto Gilb and Karl Taro Greenfeld. And if you don’t have the Fall 2012 issue already and want to know what all the fuss is about, you can order a copy here. (Just scroll a little bit down on the page.)

Update: A letter arrived from the Pushcart folks informing us that W.S. Di Piero’s poem from the Spring 2012 issue (No. 94), “There Were Such Things,” will be published in the Pushcart Prize 2014 anthology. (Di Piero has had an essay appear before in the Pushcarts. This would be his first poem to be honored by the anthology.) Our congratulations to W.S. Di Piero.

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The Outlaw Barney Rosset

Because my brother Howie and I collected comics as poor kids in the Bronx, hoping to score a prized first edition of, say, Avengers #4 (which heralded the return appearance of Captain America) or Amazing Fantasy #15 (containing the origin of Spiderman) we haunted the sleazy second hand bookstores around the Bronx of the 1960s, dark moldy storefronts stacked with boxes full of lurid paperbacks and stag mags.

In such a shop, I found a wooden grapefruits crate containing back issues of a magazine called Evergreen Review, edited and published by one Barney Rosset.

Fred Jordan, the other name prominently displayed on the magazine’s masthead, bore the intimidating title of Managing Editor. The small print somewhere described the review as an offshoot arm of a publishing house: Grove Press.

I bought a pile of Evergreens for a dime apiece, hauled them home in a shopping bag and stretching out on the cot that served as my bed poured over the black and white pages, little understanding what I read, mostly impressed by  the authors’ exotic high-sounding names—Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, William S. Burroughs, Vladamir Nabokov.

I aspired to write and  would have given at least one eye, possibly an arm, to appear in the pages of such a periodical. But, published in Manhattan, the distance between the offices of Evergreen/Grove Press/Barney Rosset and my Last Exit to Bronx neighborhood was like that between Cape Canaveral and Venus.

Nevertheless, decades later, and despite enough misadventures to fill the pages of several books (which in time they would), somehow I found myself sitting as an invited guest in the Fourth Avenue walk-up loft of the very same Barney Rosset (and his lovely wife, Astrid) whose magazine I had held in my hands as a child.

The journey to the Rossets has been one fraught with improbabilities. My anthology, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, had just appeared, containing a poem from Barney, as well as his picture. And just days before, Fred Jordan—the very same whose name had appeared as Managing Editor of Evergreen Review (and now, decades later, head of his own house, Fromm International, an imprint distributed by FSG) had acquired my memoir Jew Boy for hardcover release, which Barney later published in paperback on his Foxrock imprint.

I had by these and other weirdly karmic routes, arrived on Barney’s sofa, and now sat directly across from the famed publisher.

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ZYZZYVA Makes Best American Short Stories 2012 Notables List

We’re happy to announce two stories published in ZYZZYVA last year—Tom Bissell’s “Love Story, With Cocaine” and Andrew Foster Altschul’s “The Violet Hour”—made the Notables list for Best American Short Stories 2012.

Bissell’s story (you can read an excerpt here) appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 92 (Fall 2011) and Altschul’s story in ZYZZYVA No. 93 (Winter 2011).

Among the other stories named to the Notables list are pieces from The New Yorker, Harper’s, Tin House, and McSweeney’s and work by such authors as Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, and T.C. Boyle.

Of special note to our readers: ZYZZYVA will be publishing or will have published work from six other writers named to this year’s Notables list: Will Boast (Fall 2011), Ron Carlson (Winter 2012), Jennifer Dubois (Winter 2012), Karl Taro Greenfeld (Fall 2012), Peter Orner (Spring 2012), and Don Waters (Spring 2012).

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Margaret Weatherford: 1966-2012

Margaret Weatherford (photo by Mary Weatherford)

When I met her at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1989, Margaret Weatherford was the California girl the Beach Boys never imagined: a black-haired, amber-eyed bombshell with her own professional pool cue and a dude’s tolerance for rail whiskey. I was her fan before I was her friend, because – if the first rule of writing school is to write what you know – it was obvious that Margaret knew things no one else could have possibly dreamed up. Her stories were populated by melancholy children, oracular father figures, animal grotesques and obsolete muscle cars. Like me, she had just graduated from college, but to read her you’d have thought she’d been circling the canyons and freeways of Los Angeles for centuries, honing a hawk’s omniscient view of its dive bars and roadside alliances, its secretive, peripherally glanced creatures and its inexorable undergrowth, which always seems poised for imminent, impersonal takeover.

As it turned out, Margaret was the rare guys’ girl who was also a steadfast friend to a certain kind of woman, and over the years I was lucky to be around to watch her become a bride, a mother, a published author, an artist’s muse, a first-time novelist: a self-deprecating success at everything she put her mind to. Less than two weeks ago I sat beside her in her canyon-top home as she named me her “literary executrix,” a title she’d scarcely pronounced before she dissolved in laughter, dropping her usual unflappable monotone to shout, “I feel like such an idiot!”

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Shig Murao: The Enigmatic Soul of City Lights and the San Francisco Beat Scene

Shig Murao at Caffe Trieste (photo by Allen Ginsberg, courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust)

On October 3, 1957, a judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was not obscene. It was a decision that would pave the way for publication of works from Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, and others. A key  figure from the Howl trial was Shig Murao. His life and legacy has been documented in a website that launches today, This essay is adapted from a much longer biography with multiple supporting documents published on the website created by Richard Reynolds, a longtime friend of Murao’s.

Shig Murao was the clerk who on June 3, 1957, was arrested and jailed for selling an “obscene and indecent” book—Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems—to two undercover San Francisco cops at the City Lights Pocket Book Store. City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was subsequently booked and charged with publishing the book. While Shig is primarily remembered as the clerk who was arrested for selling Howl, he was much more than that. He managed City Lights for its first 22 years and crafted the unique atmosphere that made the legendary San Francisco bookstore into the institution it remains today.

Even so, Shig is in danger of being written out of the history of City Lights and of the San Francisco Beat era, too. (For instance, in the 2010 film about the obscenity trial resulting from the arrest, Shig was nowhere to be seen, even though he and Ferlinghetti were co-defendants and sat next to each other throughout the proceedings.) He was a close, life-long friend of Allen Ginsberg’s until the poet’s death in 1998. Whenever Ginsberg came to San Francisco, he would stay in Shig’s Grant Avenue apartment. And no one who frequented City Lights in the early years could miss Shig. When you walked into the store he would be on your left, a Coke can in hand, sitting on a high stool behind the book-piled counter. If he didn’t like you or suspected you had an agenda, he could be coldly dismissive. But once he knew and accepted you, he was warm, charming, and very funny.

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ZYZZYVA on KQED’s ‘Forum’

Managing Editor Oscar Villalon spoke to Michael Krasny of “Forum” about what he and Editor Laura Cogan were up to at ZYZZYVA. You can hear their conversation here.

(One thing to note: Oscar had not had any coffee before this morning interview. Had he had some coffee, he would have easily answered Krasny’s question about naming great writers from the state of Washington. He would have said, right off the bat, “Raymond Carver” — Carver whose poetry was published in ZYZZYVA nonetheless. Please forgive his lapse.)

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Just Follow the Train of Her Perceptions: “Gertrude Stein’s Reality”

Gertrude Stein’s legacy today is strangely cleft. While her work continues to earn the reverence of a strong academic cohort, most everyone else – even much of the literary community – encounters her most often as the butt of jokes, made at the expense of both her uniquely inaccessible way with words and her eccentric celebrity personage.

Take, for example, Ben Greenman’s “Gertrude Stein Gets Her New iPhone,” or Kathy Bates’ portrayal of her (this actor-role pairing is itself something of a joke) as the brusquely opinionated but unerring cultural sage in Woody Allen’s recent “Midnight in Paris.” These are recognizable as parody and caricature, respectively, but are made all the more hilarious by the extent to which they do seem to approach veracity.

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

Longtime editor and former bookstore owner Philip Turner has an essay on getting William Styron interested in a book he was editing, Dead Run: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton and Life on Death Row in America (1999). The core of the piece is really how editors become passionate about a manuscript and do all they can to get a book to succeed. As Turner writes:

“As a person, I am not overly concerned about what people seem to think of me, nor do I crave lots of personal validation from others. Yet it’s an occupational hazard of the book business; as an editor and publisher I am invariably focused on what people think of my books—by colleagues inside publishing houses and among booksellers, agents, foreign scouts, critics, and readers. … In the case of Dead Run, I was blessed with the enthusiasm of Loomis and Styron, which nourished my hopes for the book with such ardency that I was inspired to mint a quip I’m still fond of sharing about my profession: ‘Being an editor allows me to express my latent religiosity, since I spend so much time praying for my books.'”

Journalist, author and Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones has been conducting on his website “an experiment in storytelling” called Tell Your True Tale. People send in an essay, in Spanish or in English, about something that’s happened in their lives. Then Quinones will edit the piece and post it for others to read. The two latest pieces he’s posted are “Speed Kills,” by writer and fashion designer Monah Li, about a day in her meth addiction years ago. And “The Green River Camp Fire” by Carrie Gronewald, about her day hiking with her husband along the stomping grounds of the Green River serial killer before he had been caught. Gronewald writes:

“We found some red lingerie torn and cut apart. A few pieces had been burned in the campfire. Looking closer, we noticed a paperback book lying half in and half out of the ashes. My husband bent over, brushed away the ashes and picked it up. It had been partly burned around the edges, but was mostly intact. The title was ‘How to Have Sex.'”

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Poetry and Its Public: One Conversation Within A Long-Running Discussion

David Orr

The debate on poetry’s responsibility, or lack thereof, to an audience is undoubtedly as old as the art itself. Recent movements have taken noted stances on the “for” and “against” poles, from hermetic aesthetic-worship to cries for accessibility. Critic and author David Orr took up the debate via a review of several new books in Poetry’s April issue — and continued the discussion by responding to my Letter to the Editor in the June issue regarding his essay.

Using releases by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Timothy Donnelly, C.D. Wright, and Eleanor Wilner as points of departure, Orr’s original piece, “Public poetry?”, discusses the various challenges, merits, failings, and nuances of the relationship between an author and his or her readers. “All poetry is public, in the sense that every poem implies an audience,” Orr wrote. He continued: “But some publics are more public than others. Most contemporary poets, for example, address a public that consists only of close friends, professional acquaintances, and a few handy abstractions like the Ideal Reader and Posterity.”

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