Black bookstores in the spotlight

With the BLM movement sweeping the world, Black books and bookstores have been in the news for months for both providing urgent reading and for simply existing in the first place. Admit it, many of you had never heard of most of these places. I’ve been ordering through various stores here and there and they’ve been doing the best work they can getting titles in my hands. Oprah Magazine has even released a lovely map of 123 Black-owned bookstores in America.

Marcus Books, one of the country’s best-known and oldest Black bookstores, was cofounded in 1960 in San Francisco by two African American doctors, husband-and-wife team Julian and Raye Richardson. Rising rents forced Marcus Books to close its San Francisco store six years ago, but it moved to Oakland.

The pandemic hit a few weeks after Raye’s death, at age 99, on February 11. “We closed briefly due to the death of our mother,” said Blanche Richardson, Julian and Raye’s daughter, who now runs Marcus Books. “Then the Covid-19 rules came down and we had to cancel plans for her memorial as well as our 60th anniversary celebrations and events. We stayed ‘open’ to receive book deliveries and take phone and mail orders. Later, we instituted curbside pick up, then allowed customers to come into the store as long as they followed the Covid safety guidelines.”

Richardson had taken down the store’s website in early February in order to make upgrades. “We did create a temporary method for online purchases but were overwhelmed with 200–300 orders a day,” she said. “We shut it down in order to fulfill all of the orders.” The new site is expected to be up in September; in the meantime, Richardson is taking orders over the phone.

On libraries we’ve lost

I hate seeing violence and destruction, but the armchair revolutionary in me knows it is often necessary for change. Fuck the statues, and flags, and buildings, and institutions of oppression; but please, everyone lay off the libraries. Yes, they’re often filled with misinformation and oppression-enabling texts, but the best way to discredit and destroy those thoughts is with new ones. Leave the words alone so the future worlds we build can track how we got to this point and see where we went after. This book on burning books outlines what we’ve lost.

A third of the way into his rich and meticulous 3,000 year history of knowledge and all the ways it may be preserved (or not), Richard Ovenden casually mentions that he and his wife once had to clear the house of a family member – a job that involved deciding which letters and diaries should be saved, and which, ultimately, destroyed. As he notes, such decisions are taken everywhere, every day, with few consequences. But occasionally, the fate of such documents can have profound consequences for culture, particularly if the deceased person had a public life. Think of Byron’s publisher, John Murray, tearing up and then burning the manuscript of his memoirs at his house in Albemarle Street; of Philip Larkin’s secretary, Betty Mackereth, feeding his diaries, sheet by sheet, into a Hull University shredder.


Monday, August 31, 2020 is best represented by this image. (Don’t look at anything but this site until at least Wednesday, unless you want to turn into a flaming pile of puke shit…)

Poetry Magazine is doing some difficult, necessary work

A letter from Poetry to its readers lays the situation bare: there will be no September issue (the first missed issue ever) so they can concentrate on “reckoning with the deep-seated white supremacy of our organization.” That’s a very hard decision-to-make/thing-to-say and a very responsible one. Good work and good luck, Poetry!

This September, Poetry is breaking from its legacy of continuous publication and will not print a monthly issue for the first time since its founding by Harriet Monroe in 1912.

Magazine staff made this decision to put people before production. We are acting in part out of necessity, and in majority out of respect to our community, poets, and staff. The manifold violence of our world demands more from us. The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine must be agents of antiracism to build a more loving, supportive, and inclusive community.

We cannot escape Poetry’s history, which we have exalted and continue to profit from. We are committed to understanding that history better in order to dismantle its structures and reparate the magazine’s debt to Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, disabled people, and other marginalized groups of people who have been exploited, sidelined, and tokenized in support of white dominant culture. This pause is a necessary part of Poetry magazine’s reckoning with the deep-seated white supremacy of our organization. 

ACTUAL Friday news

So, imagine my horror yesterday evening when I realized it was not in fact Friday at all, but a meagre, mocking Thursday, and I was forbidden by my own declarations-of-need-for-more-restraint from drinking an entire six pack of beer. But I have consulted with the horologists and they assure me that, yes, today IS “Friday, bitches,” as my friend Shannon says. Have at it, weekenders.

Book folks pushing for diversity throughout sector

It’s a lot of work to do more than talk, so here’s hoping it takes. Publishers’ Weekly looks at what’s afoot.

Diverse agents and editors as well as open-minded allies are key, Dennis-Benn noted, recalling that her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun (Liveright, 2016), was “a hard sell” due to its exploration of race, class, and sexuality in a Jamaican setting. “”If there’d been more Black people at the houses who ‘got’ my work, it would have been easier,” she noted, giving a shout out to her publicist, Michael Taeckens of an eponymous marketing and publicity firm, who is white.

Brooks confirmed points made by the other speakers, noting that the Association of Authors Representatives is trying to nurture young agents who are BIPOC, since agents “are the gatekeepers” to what gets published – and what does not. She pointed out that it can be difficult for people from diverse backgrounds to become agents, as access to New York City publishers is essential. Working on a commission basis can also be a deterrent to becoming an agent, amplified when the work of authors who are BIPOC “is devalued” because it often is not properly positioned in the marketplace.

How Chekhov pulled the trigger on creating the short story

See what I did there? My wit is lost on you people, I swear. An examination of how Anton got it on like Donkey Kong, and the legacy that created.

Chekhov is hardly a writer’s writer, but it might be said that short story writers believe, correctly or not, that they alone understand his true value. Carver is one of many who have learned the lessons Chekhov’s work teaches. On the cover of my copy of Carver’s Elephant (1988) a review quote describes him as “the American Chekhov”. “Errand”, the last story in the book and the last Carver saw published in his lifetime, describes Chekhov’s death. But the more important connection is his distinctively Chekhovian manner of dispersing meaning into apparently irrelevant details, and the pronounced open-endedness of his stories. Carver, however, was not the only American Chekhov: by the 1980s the appellation was threadbare with use. Addressing Cornell University’s Chekhov Festival in 1976, John Cheever told his audience he was “one of perhaps ten American writers who are known as the American Chekhov”.

The description isn’t unhelpful because it’s used carelessly, but because Chekhov’s influence is so widespread: most short story writers are Chekhovians, whether they realise it or not. Playwrights, too: asked about his influences Tennessee Williams replied, “Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!” Keeping to the short story in English, early disciples included Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, and from here his influence quickly ramifies: AE Coppard, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Yiyun Li and Joyce Carol Oates, who rewrote him with her “Lady with the Pet Dog”. This is only a sampling.

Get down, it’s Friday

You made it again. You slogged through the flaming bag of shit that is reality for another week and now you get two days to forget the the bag, the shit, and the fire by meditating on what’s important in existence, creating new art and new thought, testing the limits of your physical endurance for something other than sitting in a chair, or simply self-medicating into a state of witless catatonia. No judgement, folks. Your call. Go nuts.

Lamentable Lines

Lapham’s takes a deep dive into the life and work of William McGonagall, the worst poet to ever live (though I could line up a few challengers for him), and his penchant for disaster.

Scotland has justifiably claimed him as its own, but in all likelihood McGonagall was born in Ireland, in 1825. His family migrated to Dundee when William was a child, and like much of the city’s population, he grew up to be a weaver. The textile business was booming then, though the apogee of the mechanical revolution wasn’t far behind. And as the industry began to make workers redundant amid its collapse in 1877, McGonagall had a conveniently timed epiphany. Sitting in his room on a spring day, he recalls, “I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me…I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, ‘Write! Write!’” He complied, writing a graceless tribute to the Scottish preacher George Gilfillan (himself a poet, although the misfortune of having been eulogized by his fellow Dundonian has been the better part of his literary legacy). McGonagall sent the results to Dundee’s Weekly News, where they were subsequently published by a deeply bemused editorial staff.

What followed over the next two and a half decades was one of the most bizarre careers in Victorian letters. The Weekly News proved a reliable publisher, though it often accompanied McGonagall’s hapless texts with scathingly ironic commentary (a courtesy they were not inclined to extend to their more traditional poetic contributors). Encouraged by what he misconstrued to be rightful artistic recognition, the poet took to local theaters to read his own works and recite Shakespearean soliloquies, whereupon he was often met with raucous crowds who either mockingly encouraged him—sometimes carrying him aloft into the streets—or pelted him with garbage. (Contemporary accounts allege that among the objects he was barraged with were potatoes, footwear, rotten eggs, fish, sacks of soot, peas, snowballs, and, on at least one occasion, a brick.) His profile rising amid these riotous performances, McGonagall increasingly became the victim of a number of cruel pranks, which only served to inflate his own sense of vocational destiny. He trekked to Balmoral Castle seeking an audience with Queen Victoria after someone had passed him a sham letter of patronage; he was tricked into dining with an imposter posing as the dramatist Dion Boucicault; and in the last years of his life, McGonagall was made a knight of the fictional “Holy Order of the White Elephant,” an honor supposedly bestowed upon him by the king of Burma, and of which he proudly and obliviously boasted until his death.