City Lights

ferlinghetti1965_c Tomorrow will be the last stop on my book tour. I’m going to the famed City Lights Books in San Francisco. It’s kind of a big deal for me. When I was in high school, one of my teachers turned me on to the Beats, starting with Gregory Corso, but moving on to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’m pretty excited about reading at the place where that literary movement began.

The reading is at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, June 29, 2016.

A bookseller at City Lights asked me five questions for their blog. As far as I can tell, he didn’t use my interview. Since it’s written and I still have it, I’ve pasted the interview below. I hope to see you in San Francisco.

Five Questions for Sean Carswell

If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?  If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

I’ve been to City Lights several times. I go there almost every time I go to San Francisco. My most memorable visit had to be about ten years ago.

I’d designed a book cover for Bucky Sinister’s poetry collection Whiskey & Robots. I thought of the cover as an homage to the City Lights Pocket Poets series. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters saw the cover as borderline copyright infringement. They sent to nicest cease-and-desist letter to the publisher for whom I designed the cover. I talked to Nancy and we smoothed things out. A few months later, I was in City Lights and saw a half dozen copies of Whiskey & Robots in the poetry shelves, cover out.

That was such a classy move by City Lights.

If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

I actually put one together for Largehearted Boy.

What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

The first novel I really loved was Sounder by William H. Armstrong. I read it several times when I was in second grade. I remember that we couldn’t renew books at the school library, so I’d check the book out, read it, return it, and wait the allotted time until I could check it out and read it again. I read it so many times that my brother, who’d seen the Disney adaptation of the book, took to yelling, “Sounder, come here, boy” a la Paul Winfield every time he saw me. That convinced me to find a new book.

If you didn’t have your current job, what might you do?

Become a bookseller at City Lights.

Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi). 

I’ll just talk about books. I’d bring Herman Melville’s Typee. That way, if there were cannibals on the island, I’d have a guidebook for how to live with them. I’d bring Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, because I’ve been meaning to read it. I’d probably have time to do so on a desert island. If I liked it enough, I’d be inspired to build a raft and float home, just so I could read the other books in the series.

In case I didn’t like it, I’d bring Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. I’d sit on the shores of that island and keep reading that gigantic novel until it made perfect sense to me. That would keep me occupied for a decade or two.

California Cities and the Tour So Far

I’m seventy-percent through my book tour. All the flights and rental cars and hotel rooms are now in the past. The final three readings–San Diego (6/21), Los Angeles (6/23), and San Francisco (6/29)–are an easy drive from my centrally-located Southern California home. I figured this would be a good time to pause and reflect on my adventures.

The readings started in Brooklyn, at Greenlight Books.

Tour 2016_Brooklyn Sandwich Board

It was right around the corner from Spike Lee’s studios. I stopped by to see if he wanted to adapt my short story collection into a film. He didn’t answer the door when I knocked, so I just stood outside yelling, “Boomerang is a great movie! People need to recognize!”

Tour 2016_Spike Lee Studios

My next reading was in a suburb of Philadelphia. I went into the city before the reading and visited the Rodin museum. It gave me a lot to think about.

Tour 2016_The Thinker

I felt like my next couple of readings really blew the roof off of things.

Tour 2016_Mill Museum

Minneapolis inspired people to get naked and dance in the streets.

Tour 2016_Dancing Statue

Some of the hotels I’ve stayed in have been pretty cool. The one in Seattle featured all the latest in high-fidelity stereo sound. I had a little trouble getting the record to play, though.

Tour 2016_Old Stereo System

Portland was cool, but I got into an argument with this fat guy on the street. I was like, “What do you mean it’s absurd to write a short story collection about writers and their metaphysical ukuleles?”

Tour 2016_Sea Lion Sculpture

Now, I’m down to the last three: Warwick’s Books in La Jolla at 7:30 on Tuesday, Book Soup in West Hollywood at 7:00 on Thursday, and City Lights Books in San Francisco at 7:00 a week from Wednesday. Come out and see me.

Tour 2016_Reading at Powells

Pacific Northwest

The tour continues. Wednesday, June 15 I’ll be reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest, WA. I’ll be joined by Seattle area writers Samantha Updegrave and Kristen Millares Young. If you’re in the area, come out and see me. If you’re not but you know someone who is, send them this Facebook invitation.

The next night, Thursday, June 16, I’m reading at Powell’s Books. The reading is at their Hawthorne location. Razorcake contributor Keith Rosson will join me. If all goes well, my Ig Publishing tour mate, Ron Tanner, will be there, too.

Now here’s a picture of some chairs that I saw along a bay in the Puget Sound. Below that is a piece I wrote about being on tour in Seattle in 2008.

Chairs on Whidbey Island

Seattle

In Seattle, one of the local weeklies had a blurb about my reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. The weekly said that my new book was about a “bartender [who] goes on a road trip of self-discover.”

The book is absolutely not about that.

I happened to be standing on the Seattle waterfront when I read the weekly, a bit south of the famous fish market but still surrounded by a tourist district that I’d taken a wrong turn into. I paused for a second to remember a time when the independent weeklies that you found in every city used to actually be independent and actually cover events in those cities. In the next second, I wondered what happened to this imaginary bartender’s “y” on his road trip of self-discover.

I wandered as far away as I could from this little tourist district, gradually forgetting that stupid little blurb and remembering, still, that this was my nineteenth and final city on the summer tour I did to promote Train Wreck Girl, and, while it hadn’t been the road trip to self-discover that the Seattle Weekly billed it as, I had seen some things crisscrossing this continent.

Calling Twin Cities

I’ll be in Minneapolis this week, reading at Magers and Quinn on Friday night (June 3, 7:00). Bizarro author, Razorcake contributor, and part-time drag queen MP Johnson will read with me. I’ve never had a dull event in Minneapolis. Hopefully, this one will be as fun as readings in the past. Here’s a link to the bookstore’s events page.

Scroll below the picture to get a Replacements song in your head and read a vignette I wrote about reading in Minneapolis in 2008.

MPLS Skyway

Take the Skyway, high above that busy little one way.

Minneapolis

After I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.

The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.

One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.

My Favorite Kind of Madness

Illustration from Razorcake #59 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #59 by Brad Beshaw

There’s this moment: late July in the Zane Grey Ballroom. Flagstaff, Arizona. Every seat has a butt to warm it. Three of the four walls have shoulders leaning against them for support. Somewhere around seventy-five or eighty people have come out and squeezed into this room. It’s a Sunday night and most of them have to work the next morning. And what are they here to see? A poet. In 2010.

The poet is James Jay. This is the release of his book The Journeymen. He’s reading the first poem, “Time Trapped in Light.” It’s about another moment frozen in time: a picture of Jack Kerouac. He’s tuning a radio to the perfect frequency. But the poem itself is a picture of James Jay tuned into the picture of Jack Kerouac, and right now it’s me in the front row of the Zane Grey Ballroom tuned into a frequency powerful enough to hold me, James, and Jack. There’s something about this moment.

You could say it’s a moment of vindication. After all, I published The Journeymen. James sent the poems to me individually and we talked about them. He sent me the collection and I edited it and he revised—often with enough good sense to ignore my advice. I typeset the words inside and designed the cover outside. I slapped cash on the barrel to print a couple thousand copies and moved those copies into bookstores and distribution warehouses and storage spaces. I even brought several here to sell later. And I could look around the packed house of Flagstaff locals—drinking their beers and hanging on James’s every word and looking like anything but a crowd for a poetry reading—and say, “This is why I did it.” But it’s not why I did it. That’s not what this moment is about for me.

It’s something else.

 

In a weird way, poetry and punk rock have blended together in my mind. Both came to me when I was still an adolescent stuck in small town Florida, hoping like hell that there was a bigger world than what I’d seen in my life. Hoping like hell that there was some form of rebellion, some meaningful way to, if not change the world, at least change my life. So, like most of you, I stumbled across bands that expanded my world. Maybe like a few of you, maybe like none of you, I stumbled across poets who did the same thing. Specifically, a teacher loaned me an anthology of hers that had poems by Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. The poems exploded the walls that I once thought were built around me. They invited me into a world of intense experiences. They inspired me to seek out my own.

All these years later, I still spend a lot of my time (maybe most of my time) with books and music. I read poetry the same way I listen to my favorite records: focusing mostly on new stuff, always looking for the latest releases, always stoked to find a new favorite, but also going back to the ones that invited me into this new world to begin with. The Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, the Clash, the Ramones on the punk rock side; Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the poetry side. Watching James Jay read in the Zane Grey Ballroom to me is tantamount to seeing the Riverboat Gamblers at Alex’s Bar. It means something.

 

But I also think about that time trapped in light, because there’s another aspect to this. Back in real time, the time when I write this column (which is a couple months before you read it), I’m still thinking about that frozen moment in Flagstaff, still trying to make sense of what’s significant about it. And I’m a little uneasy because, a couple of weeks ago, some college kids were playing around in a nearby park. They were dressed up as knights, doing battle with foam swords. Maybe you’ve seen these societies for creative anachronism reliving the middle ages at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Maybe, like me, a mean little man inside of you wants to make fun of them and the nice little man inside of you has to say, “Dude, they’re just having harmless fun. Let ‘em be.” For me, though, watching these kids play pretend made me think about the anachronisms I’m playing with. I wonder sometimes about poetry and punk rock in the twenty-first century. I wonder if they’re both part of a past that I pretend to live in even though their time has come and gone. I helped start this here punk rock magazine twenty years after punk was declared dead and two years after the smart money said that magazines were done and readers had moved electronic. Now this fucker is almost ten years old. On top of that, I just published a book of poetry in 2010 as it were 1956 and I were Lawrence Ferlinghetti trying to put the poetry renaissance into print. Then, I went to the reading in the Zane Grey Ballroom as if I were living in the Gallery Six scene of Dharma Bums. I wonder what’s next for me. Will I dress up in rusty armor and sally out onto the Spanish plains like Don Quixote, without even a trusty Sancho trailing behind on his mule? Will I get my own cloak and foam sword and join the kids in the park who at least acknowledge that they’re living in the past?

 

This issue of living in the past is a tricky one. The Japanese have a word that is sometimes translated as heart, sometimes as mind, and sometimes as soul. The word is kokoro. I don’t speak Japanese, but the nearest I can tell, kokoro doesn’t exactly mean heart, mind, or soul. It’s more like the aggregate memories and feelings about those memories that construct an individual’s identity. Think about that concept for a second. Think of how useful it would be to have a word like kokoro. In American English, we have over fifty ways of saying “shit,” over a dozen words each for various genitalia and bodily emissions, but we have no word to express the beautiful and painful memories that add up to make us who we are.

Even without the word kokoro, we still understand the concept. We understand that, when we talk about who we really are, that identity is just a sum of the things we’ve done and how we felt about them. This kokoro is stuck to us like a shadow. It determines how we’re going to act in every situation that requires us to act. It creates the context for how we’ll feel about that action. In this way, we live most of our lives trapped in memories.

 

Take this moment at James Jay’s reading. Part of the power of the moment resides in my kokoro. There’s the memory of a seventeen year-old me who was so taken by the Beats that he dreamed of one day fostering a Beat renaissance. There’s the memories me as an aspiring writer, kicking around Flagstaff, drinking beers with James Jay and talking about starting my own City-Lights-style press, or driving down to Phoenix with Todd Taylor, talking about how rad it would be to start our own ‘zine. There’s the fanatic in me who loves poetry too much to write my own, who loves punk rock too much to start my own band, but who still wants to publish it and write about it. There’s also the moment that goes with this memory when I can turn to that seventeen-year-old me and that aspiring writer me and that fanatic me—none of whom are really me anymore; all of whom still live inside of me—and say, “Look, man. Look what you’ve done, not to make this moment, but to nurture it to the point where you can now just sit back and enjoy it.”

Still, so much of the meaning of that moment in trapped in memories. And, still, I feel like there’s more to it.

 

I listen to the poem itself. That’s why everyone is really here: the poem. Sure, James Jay is a man about the town in Flagstaff. He’s well-liked. He seems to know everyone. He could probably draw a crowd for just about anything, if he really wanted. And sure he has a comfortable stage presence and stories and jokes to fill in the space between the poems. But it’s like a Dillinger Four show: sure Paddy’s antics between songs are funny. That doesn’t change the fact that you came for the music and your favorite part of the night is in hearing the actual songs. Likewise, for all the pleasing madness of this reading, the real pleasure is in the poem. And “Time Trapped in Light” captures something about this frozen moment. Because it’s the first poem in the book. It’s one of the first ones he reads. And in the poem is the sense of things to come. It’s as if James is looking at the picture of Kerouac, saying, “All right, Jack. I’m dialing in that frequency of beauty and pain and lunacy and transcendence. I’m gonna put words on a page and hope they give shape to the abstract notions that can’t be put into words. Maybe it’ll all be as meaningful to the next generation of readers as your poems were to me.” It’s this optimism, this looking forward, more than the connection to the past, that moves me.

Because, sure I live a lot in the past just like everyone else, but at the core my motivation isn’t to keep reliving the past. Instead, I want to be part of the construction of a future in which new records keep me from digging the old ones out of the stacks, in which new poems keep me from reading Howl for the fiftieth time. I want a future where punk rock and poetry are perpetually valid forms for new expressions, perpetually exploding walls and opening new worlds.

 

Author’s note: This is the twenty-first chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #59.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Vermin in San Diego

verminonthemount-580x362

I guess I’ve been in hiding lately.  I haven’t done a reading for almost a year.  I’ve been spending a lot of time holed up, working on a new novel.  Now, I’m coming out of the cave to read a short passage from the new work.  It’ll be part of the Vermin on the Mount reading series.  The event will be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (the downtown one) at noon on Friday, February 6.

I know that’s tomorrow.  Someday, I’ll be better about giving advance notice.

I’m reading with some talented writers: Ben Loory, Lisa Brackmann, Steph Cha, and Heather Fowler. Hopefully, it’ll be better attended than the event in this stock photo I took from the MCASD web site.  Hopefully, you’ll be one of the people sitting on those benches.

Here’s the Facebook link to the event, in case you want it.