Wednesday, February 22, 2006

ULA Mailbox

I. n+1.

I received the first two issues. The journal is important enough that I intend to devote more than one post to it. Two things stand out during quick scanning.

First, that n+1 is many times better as an intellectual journal than The Believer; maybe a hundred times better, because The Believer is about in-crowd posturing while the n+1'ers know how to think and communicate.

Second, it's curious that the two journals have been linked together in articles, though n+1 spends a lot of time in its first issue attacking The Believer and strongly asserting their differences. The editors didn't assert their differences strongly enough! Still, to use an article about n+1 to grovel to the Eggers crowd, to chain-link the two journals together, as the N.Y. Times did, is unfair and goofy.

About n+1 itself:
It's soundly constructed. It presents itself well. What the writers say is often thought-provoking. One can nod at the accomplishment and admit, "Yes, this is the best the present system of literature can give us."

But that's the point. What quickly becomes noticeable, then starkly obvious, hit-you-over-the-head obvious, is the sameness of the writing. Is this a collection of many minds-- or of one? The writers are interchangeable; the lack of individuality fills most of the pages; you check who wrote something, seeing the initials MG, MR, BK, KG, or whomever, and you're still not sure of the writer. The first few articles in each issue list no author, nor is one needed, as they're of one piece, with the same voice, the same premises and perspective, the same education, same reading list; the same masks of learning and touchstone name-dropping. (James Wood is assumed to be an important critic. The Corrections is assumed to be an important work of fiction, "a monumental renewal of the critical social novel." I'm reminded of the Yale prof a couple years back who would debate me only if I read the books he'd designate; clearly uncomfortable with the idea of a writer from a different American culture, a different American society, with a different reading list, within his own country.)

What n+1 is not is anything new. There's no attempt to create a new structure of literature, as the ULA is doing. The castle walls are cracked; water leaks from the ceiling; the floor is cold and the air damp, yet inside the castle the well-trained editors remain, unwilling to give up the tenuous safety of the walls for the unknown dangers of an unruly world of thought outside.

Don't think I'm attacking them! I'm simply discussing what makes the ULA different from them. They're locked within a rigid hand-me-down mindset and are unable to see themselves amid the waves and changes of history. Their wave, their cycle, is ending-- the vehicle carries forward toward a finish line of exhaustion, with fumes in its gas tank. At the same time a new cycle of energy is being born. A wholly new vehicle is being built.

They're polished music critics discussing Mantovani while grubby pioneers beneath their recognition named Presley or Berry or Holly or Dylan in smoky clubs or on tacky stages create the relevant music of the day.

For the n+1 critics literary history is that which is handed to them by the professors of the moldy institutions they've dwelt in. History isn't something they can renew, replace, create, or re-create. Literary history to them isn't a series of waves or clash of forces: it's a straight line. They've gotten in line and assume history is with them. For this instant it is, but the funny thing about history is it's in a state of constant turmoil.

Most obvious of all, despite their good qualities (and they have many), is the narrowness of their perspective. The window in their castle room is small. Their own words state this. Their first Editorial Statement refers to "the best people in our intellectual class." Whatever truths they speak, whatever insights they convey, this is n+1's subject and audience.


Also in my mailbox was #5 of the zine authored by Ammi Emergency. She's not trying to be the best in anyone's intellectual class-- she's taken on the long-time task of the true writer to plunge herself into life and experience; has deliberately chosen the UNtrod path which has led the last several years to tough jobs, rough episodes, and poverty. She encounters the world not through the filter of reading lists, or someone else's ideas, French, postmodern, or otherwise. Her ideas are worked out through living in a community of misfits; she's been a steady dweller in anarchic corners of zinedom.

I'm not objective on the subject. The ULA's roots are in the zine community. Our founders were from this place. As we expand and bring in new people, we should never lose sight of our beginnings. We should retain regard for writers of the authentic zine community; this is where we've found our difference and our authenticity.

"Writing zines is like giving blood for practice. No real reason. Like sleeping on the floor when you have a bed, or riding your bike in a blizzard for money. No good reason at all to risk so much pain and stupidity. Except to see what it feels like. And because writing's like blood in that once it's out you can't put it back in. A puddle of bad spirits and liquid iron on the paper, and you give it away at shows."

I was walking down Philadelphia streets one wintry day and saw a homeless guy on the sidewalk scribbling in a notebook. I was reminded of a scruffy young man at the 2004 Zinefest who handed me his hand-written photocopied zine about vagabonding and squatting through West Philly. I was reminded of Urban Hermitt Aaron Cometbus Bill Blackolive a host of great writers scribbling crude zines in diesel buses rural shacks ratty cars flophouse rooms greasy bright pizza shops on bar stools cold sidewalks: everyplace.

What distinguishes the underground writer from the approved kind is that we're hopeless misfits. How many times have I been called a failure by the ULA's critics? Yet failure may be second nature to us; in this mad technological competitive world, an essential part of our being. I'd argue that it's what gives us our soul. I know for myself that only after I was knocked down by life several dozen times was I dispelled of last illusions about myself and the world, to see things not as they were constructed and presented to be seen but as they were.

Underground writers are the table of delinquents and retards everyone else ignores at the back of the school cafeteria; way back, behind the class officers and letter-sweater jocks and preppies and cool people, behind the computer nerds and a.v. people, so far back you can't see them.

Our fashion-punk zeen babe in the ULA's early days became angry when we invited the misfits of zinedom to join our ranks at our first big reading. In reality she was the biggest misfit of all of us, but couldn't see this.

If any current young writer has soul, it's Ammi Emergency, because she writes with searching honesty.

"In the town without sidewalks, I walked the street. . . ."

"It's hard to make a mess in middle-class suburbs. These places are like self-cleaning ovens, the kind people don't cook in for fear of dirtying them. Us punks, we try to make a mess. We try to make a warning. But the suburbs are a self-replicating regime. They make you, they made you and all you can do is make them again. Everything you do becomes them, goes back into the systems you intended to dismantle. Zines on bleached paper, borne of computers, exchanged for dollars that then sink themselves into corporate copy shops and fast food on the strip. Your skate shoes have gasoline on the soles and there's a new punk cd in the changer because it isn't, it isn't, what everyone else is selling."

"They have eaten our language and we have only our discontent. We have only our best friend's parent's car charging up the hill at 2 am, punk band on the cd player, volume 40. The church is enormous and luminous at the crest, where the night sky also begins again. It is coming at us, fast and silver, this monster older than the cave in which it sleeps. We have only, fuck religion fuck religion fuck religion fuck religion. Only yelling, only singing, the everything we know into the world that refuses it and by extension us. We have only our truth: that we wanted to do something right and good, something whole and beautiful. We just didn't know how."

Questioning is on every page. Ammi questions her world-- this world; this society, the structures and systems which enclose us, which she's rejected with all the complexities and contradictions this entails. If writing has a future it's here, in this zeen's simple pages.


II. Ammi Emergency, $2 cash c/o
831 Elysian Fields
P.O. Box 259
New Orleans LA 70117.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Mis-Education Scam Part II

Meanwhile, as hundreds of billions are spent on "higher" education-- a way to determine where people fit in a stratified caste economy-- the nation's urban k-12 schools are in horrendous shape. It's a marker of the widening gulf between rich and poor that while U of Penn expands and builds by catering to society's most privileged darlings, a mere couple miles away in North Philadelphia students struggle in crumbling prison-like high schools of guards, gangs, and metal detectors not to become educated but to SURVIVE.

Little investment in basic education but massive spending post-high school after the social classes have been sorted.

Whatever the good intentions of liberal leaders, the lip service they pay to progress and change, the existence of this disparity guarantees there will be no equality of opportunity in this country in the coming decades.

What's most amazing to me is the blindness of the participants of privilege at the elite academies to what exists right in front of their eyes.

Ever been to Yale's campus? In one part of the town are the well-protected best and brightest. Several blocks away loiter the underclass. Ditto even for a school like Rutgers, much farther down the scale of hierarchy, where the downtown area is filled with dark-skinned non-English speaking recent immigrants working low-wage jobs serving middle-class students who wander away from the campus bastion of education to spend money.

Oh, but the immigrants are following the American dream! But are they-- when the public school system is broken and little attempt is made to bring their children up to speed? When reverse assimilation is practiced (the ethos of the politically correct) to ensure not one in a thousand will have the skills, standing, or money to enter the hallowed halls of places like Yale?

The new immigrants are here to be what they are in Cali-- helots; a permanent class generation-after-generation of economic slaves.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The MFA Education Scam

First of Three Parts.

Associated Press ran an article 12/31/05 by Eileen Alt Powell explaining that college tuition rates are skyrocketing so high that middle-class families are foregoing saving for retirement in order to pay for their children's education.

Why is this happening?

It's because this society has constructed a narrow gate through which individuals must pass in order to have any kind of approved success; increasingly, in order to survive. To practice medicine or law one has to pay the bill and obtain the degree. This regulated monopoly mindset has spread to other fields. Is there anyone working for a mainstream newspaper who doesn't hold a journalism degree? This wasn't always the case. (See the 1958 movie "Teacher's Pet" for an interesting take on this.) Construct a gate, hire gatekeepers, and once people have control they can charge anything they like. The sky's the limit.

Doubt this? Look at the surging wealth of universities around the country; continually expanding; gobbling up adjacent neighborhoods; new construction projects everyplace as the money rolls in; hapless individuals desperate to survive in a rat-race system paying the bill.

In the 1990's when I began my examination of the literary world I scanned through scores of literary journals. In many of them, if not most, EVERY contributor was an MFA grad. I asked, what's going on? Does one now need proper certification in order to write-- the fundamental marker of freedom in a democratic society; able to be accomplished (or should be) by anyone after, at the latest, the eighth grade?

We see the professionalization of literature; the hiring of gatekeepers and construction of gates.

It's not as if these many thousands of certified MFA grads are producing great or interesting writing. Examination of their works leads to the expected: thousands of robotically polished homogenized stories and poems which look produced by well-regulated factories.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


There was an excellent article in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer by Frank Wilson discussing a new translation of War and Peace, the second greatest novel ever written. Wilson ably explained what makes Tolstoy's immense classic a great read.

I encountered the work 20 years ago when working the night shift in a huge railyard in the industrial heart of Detroit. In a spartan office of stone walls and a steel desk on an upper floor of a narrow tower, I would look out across a barren gray landscape and take in its silence. A sole light from a reading lamp shone on the desk upon which I scanned the train consist, manifest, and invoices when trains arrived direct from Canada through an ancient underground tunnel under the Detroit River. I'd hear the three yellow diesel "pullers" roaring and straining with their train of 100 cars. As the glowing yellow light of the front engine approached, with tremendous power, the window and entire sooted stone tower itself shook from the passing thunder as I checked off the cars. I'd walk the mile-long train after it was yarded.

Back in my office, with time to kill before the next puller, I'd return to the novel. The mood of the railyard in winter, snow sweeping across it, in the brooding city of Detroit, perfectly matched the expansive Russian tone of the book.

Wilson's article caused me to think about Tolstoy and why novelists today can't achieve what he did. Could the answer lie in Tolstoy's essay "What Is Art?" in which he mocks the schools and salons of his day which cranked out not original free-thinking artists but well-trained slavishly sycophantic copyists?

Literature today is corrupt and decrepit, irrelevant to the overwhelming bulk of the populace. It's a sad statement that a novel written by a Russian dude 100 years prior had far more to say to an ordinary guy working in a Detroit railyard than any contemporary work produced by his own culture.

Our literature is beyond redemption; it's built on weak ground, with a crooked foundation; we can only tear down the house and start over-- which the ULA is doing. While surveying the landscape and designing the new home, we can at the same time pay attention to neglected novelists of our day (Philly writer Lawrence Richette has a new book out) who write with ambition, fire, clarity, and intelligence, as once did Leo Tolstoy.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Are YOU Bohemian?

Bizarrely, this is a question which was raised by a yuppy lit-blogger about the ULA.

I hope Chris Robin's Monday Report, and my post below, help answer the question regarding ourselves. (It's obvious the feckless idiot who made the remark never met ULA poet Frank Walsh! who lives amid typifies embodies epitomizes real bohemia-- as do other ULAers.)

To help discloud the fog of confusion of our enemies, I've put together a simple checklist to be used as a starting point.


1.) If you carry a bag which says, "Kenneth Cole, New York" on it you're NOT bohemian.

2.) If you're a millionaire who stages readings for audiences of rich people in lavish Versailles-like palaces outside San Francisco you're NOT bohemian.

3.) If you're mentored by Professor Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton you're likely NOT bohemian.

4.) If you have a summer retreat on Fisher's Island you're NOT bohemian.

5.) If you attend black-tie affairs with $10,000 tables you're NOT bohemian.

6.) If you're a hard-nosed ass-kissing yuppie in a business suit working 9-5 at an office building in Manhattan you're NOT bohemian.

7.) If you support the status-quo arts establishment at every turn you're NOT bohemian.

8.) If you're from an approved School or Salon and disdain outsider voices you're NOT bohemian.

9.) If you think you need an MFA degree to be a writer or artist you're NOT bohemian.

10.) If you write for MediaBistro you're NOT bohemian.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

My Bohemia

I'M TOLD that a smarmy buttoned-down writer who works for the ultimate yuppie scum ass-kiss grovel-to-the-corporate world lit site, Media Bistro, has called the Underground Literary Alliance "pseudo-bohemians."

Kind of funny to me, really, as I've lived much of my life in neighborhoods which at their mildest could be classified as bohemian, notably in Detroit's Cass Corridor during some of its rough days in the early 90's.

I'd stopped down there one winter night a few years prior after getting off work at a shitty job along Detroit's riverfront, depressed over the job or a woman or wanting to hide or get fucked-up someplace as a snowstorm settled over the city pounding the streets backing up traffic fuck, I'd just knock down a few shots somewhere.

I drove slid plowed through snowy streets in the devastated heart-and-soul of the beaten-down town within sight of looming office buildings but in its decayed Dickensian reality two hundred years away in time. A neon sign amid the blizzard: "The Bronx." I hear the Bronx Bar is now a trendy place; at this time it was the ultimate dive with two customers total both wasted, and an urchin-looking skinny young black-haired large-eyed chick bartender with large hands telling the drunks at the bar how strong she was. As I downed shots the woman told me of her dream founding a rock band someday'd be famous it was all talk I nodded my head drunkenly. She stared or glared at me as if to wonder who was this man who'd dropped in during a snowstorm unexpectedly?

A few years later when needing a place to hide suddenly for real I thought of the Corridor and moved into a nearby building on the edge of the raw neighborhood.

The neighborhood: shocking; the biggest collection of druggies drunks failures urchins panhandlers thousands of homeless crashing in wretched abandoned buildings struggling artists huge prostitute population blind-pig after-hours joints; saloons everywhere; several well-known whorehouses; many other fronts for same; crack, seediness, and violence down every street. In its deepest part-- a "Forbidden Zone"-- roamed a large street gang and packs of wild dogs.

Bohemian? Not really. More like Dodge City circa 1880. Or Paris at the time of "Hunchback of Notre Dame." I'd write a Memoir of my days in that neighborhood, only no one would believe it. I'd tell of a knife fight I was in one sleepy morning when two miscreants mistook me for an easy mark and tried to give me a shave. Just a story. Maybe I dreamed it. Yet Detroit is a city few people will step in, much less live ten years in its most infamous neighborhood. Eventually the city sent a wave of cops in to round up people; wants and warrants; cat houses shut down, bars padlocked, acres of dead buildings bulldozed, the neighborhood's vast sweep of hectic life stifled, bohemian character destroyed.

The word "cathouse" enables me to tell one story anyway, which you can choose to, or not, believe. That was one word I saw everywhere when I first moved down there-- the word posted on lightpoles, trees, abandoned cars and shattered walls of the many endless blocks of empty buildings. "Cathouse. "Cathouse!" "CATHOUSE!!!"


"What is this 'Cathouse'?" I asked a cute punk girl posting a handbill outside Bronx Bar one evening.

"Best rock n' roll band in the city," she told me. "They're phenomenal."

She continued on her way. I leisurely watched her, having no place to go, no place in the world, existing in limbo in the limbo of the Cass Corridor removed from time itself; having had a few drinks. No end to time. One of the colorful flyers fell on the ground and came rolling toward me. I picked it up. "Fourth Street Fair," the flyer announced. "Music! Eats!"

Fourth Street was a tiny one-block neighborhood crammed and forgotten between the crossing of two expressways. It was populated by aging hippies and their hippie-punk progeny. Extremely primitive and medieval. They lived like animals. I walked through the crowded block party holding two cold bottles of malt liquor, surrounded by hair dirt tattoos mastiff dogs tables of hand-made jewelry and food cooking on open fires. At the end of the street on an open lot (overpass behind it) had been set up a crude stage. As the red sun dropped, one punk band after another began playing. I stood near the front and smoked something someone handed me and the red sun turned violet then purple then the deepest dark most intense blue I'd ever seen. The vast dotted sky gave off a mystical feeling. The audience waited for something, or someone. I commented that the music wasn't all that great. Someone told me, "Just wait."

The stage was empty (existentially alone-in-the universe empty) then two tall skinny arrogant young men carrying red guitars and one skinny woman strode god-like onto it-- and slammed the audience with a sudden shock-blast nuclear explosion of musical energy. The girl singer in tattered clothes was wild and crazy with manic strength that echoed and screamed through the microphone through the sky across the universe as long black hair whipped around her face. Pure ambition and will unlike anything I'd seen; the young woman fulfilling every promise she'd made. They were Cathouse.
(I later learned the band's name came from the fact they lived in a dilapidated house full of cats!)

Was this bohemia?

Haven't bohemians thrown off every shred of convention control inhibition regulation, as had these people?

Who's to say? This is one of a thousand true stories I could tell about hungry artist-types I've known in my life. Only when I've told them all would you be able to judge if I know anything about bohemia.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Questions of Authenticity

Interesting to me is the fact that all these rich-guy writers like James Frey are desperate to assert their authenticity. They have to lie and become fakes to do so.

Meanwhile, a writers group whose very foundation is the authenticity of its writers and their stories is inexplicably shoved aside. (As Michael Jackman points out in his recent Monday Report up at the site.) As we've stressed time and again, we're the genuine article. (Who is more authentic than Wild Bill? It amazes me that people aren't lined-up to board planes to travel to east Texas to meet the guy.)

With us, there's no phony Dave Eggers-while-backed-by-Simon-Schuster-money pose of independence. We're backed only by our efforts and voices and the struggle of our lives.

Questions About Nasdijj

Doesn't a writer like "Nasdijj," who had a Monday Report on our site under a phony name, when attacking a corrupt society, have an obligation not to misrepresent himself? Don't activist writers have an obligation to be BETTER than our foes? I've always argued "Yes" to these questions.

At the same time, Nasdijj's words and message are necessary-- they should be heard. Would that he'd been honest to begin with.

(Re Challenges. The ULA has accepted all challenges-- the only question being the time and place. Myself, I prefer debating in person. Anyone is welcome to meet me in Philly at any time-- in a saloon or coffeeshop or open-air park if need be. We'll debate anything or you can try reading against me. We have a line-up of other ready participants. Whatever the challenge, whatever the case, things can be arranged. Just give us some days to adjust our schedules-- we don't just lounge around some coffeeshop or behind a computer screen all day. Thanks.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

McInerney on the Undercard

One-time literary wonderboy Jay McInerney comes to the Free Library of Philadelphia Thursday evening (the event isn't free) to read or lecture or wine-drink or vomit or snort or merely present himself on display as a fossilized corpse. He's not even the headliner!-- merely the opening act for the "Meelya Gordon Memorial Lecture" by charisma-challenged Brit Julian Barnes. How far the trendy have fallen.

The affair is a local attempt to demonstrate that "Literature" belongs to upper-middle-class-and-above snobs. It will be a gathering of the perpetually boring and bored. Genteel to the max. Don't expect fireworks.

Note for those who wish to attend: Giving $10,000 annually qualifies you as a member of the Dickens Circle of the George S. Pepper Society, which gets you TWO subscription packages to these sleep-inducing events. Hey, it's for a good cause. To quote John Lennon, you can rattle your jewelry in lieu of applause.

(The ULA, meanwhile, likely will be lecturing elsewhere.)