By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Despite battling local skepticism, nightclub antagonism, and the lack of respect from national industry promoters, the Parliament--through its own alliances--brought such major artists as Biz Markie, Black Moon, and Showbiz and A.G. to anchor four Microphone Check Showcases. Following the UPOHH's lead, local groups such as Abstract Pack, Black Hohl and Phull Surkle have formed a coalition called Headshots to keep the music community working for the larger good.
In addition to Underground Railroad, UPOHH has also linked up with KFAI's crucial hip-hop show Strictly Butter (Saturday, 11 p.m.) and KMOJ to spread the word about the showcases. They recently hosted a showcase of graffiti works at Intermedia Arts, and the yearly UPOHH-sponsored basketball events show their dedication to the community to be more than one-note: After every high-school season, UPOHH spotlights scholastically successful senior athletes in a community game to increase the peace and nurture the next generation. (The Wolves' J.R. Rider was an underwriter and coach for last year's finale at Richard Green Gymnasium.) In 1996, UPOHH hopes to host a national convention of hip-hop artists and activists, "a meeting in the middle," to discuss cultural and political issues in the music and beyond. Says Sayers, "A lot of people don't understand that hip-hop is a culture, and a way of life. If all this work had been about just putting ourselves on the musical map or getting paid, we would've stopped a long time ago."
"WE'VE tried to quit smoking before," Marta Dieke nearly barks, directing her nic fit toward a nearby bag of sunflower seeds--one of various little remedy stations (hard candy, gum, licorice, etc.) set up around the tight one-bedroom on Grand in St. Paul where Marta and Gary Sullivan run their ambush operation. This is experimental writing Minnesota, ground zero--a site as much in the imagination as on the map, home to Detour Press and two thirtysomething West Coast transplants with enough obsessive-compulsive tendencies to keep the place jumping.
"We survived the '89 earthquake in San Francisco, we survived a '90 subway fire in New York, and in '91 we threw a dart at the map, hit the Twin Cities, and bolted out here," Marta says. "We thought we'd blow into town, stir the joint up about the avant-garde, wild writing, you know--guerrilla the place. We figured there was an experimental writing niche to be filled. And that we could fill it."
"Right," Gary fires back from the rocker. "It was like an escape from the Bay Area poetry Mafia, which is claustrophobia in the extreme. But we figured out fast that the same rules apply here, with the grant machine and the clamp hold the four major presses--Milkweed, Graywolf, Coffee House, New River--have on the literary scene." He stifles a yawn and reaches for a Twizzler. "If there's an avant-garde poetry diaspora out there--hello?--we haven't managed to get it off the fringe and happening yet."
What the two have managed to do is establish a new publishing enterprise, Detour Press, which has smuggled into print a brand of experimental prose and verse no big-name press would touch, including work by such national-caliber talent as Johanna Drucker and Eric Belgum. The work itself is tough to categorize, but New Yorker material it ain't--no conventional narratives, no in-praise-of-clipped lawns plotlines, no "poetry as a vessel for grief" aesthetics, no morality tales, none of the conflict-climax-denouement equations Americans learn to memorize in school. In an age saturated with commercial packaging and sound-bite linguistics, Detour's experimentalists insist on close readings and avid engagement.
Take, for instance, stories in Stephen-Paul Martin's Fear and Philosophy, which peel away a TV-and-synthetics surface to reveal, like a writhing snake pit, all the motives and malice beneath a couple's chance encounter at an art gallery. Sparks fly from the language: The man's face is likened to a tapeworm in a hologram, a rock star jerking off with the Book of Job in bed beside him, the latest set of Pentagon lies. The woman's voice is alternately described as a broken walkie-talkie in a graveyard near Manila, a urine test in Capetown, a bi-plane losing altitude in the Rockies. Miss a line and you've missed the point: The language itself, not as a means to meaning but for the pure sake of its descriptive, invigorating powers. As in all of Detour's offerings, the experimental aesthetic is embedded in the eccentric, blindsiding prose and poetic utterances--which is exactly what gives these writings their chest-thumping force. A cursory read of this work would be an absurd exercise, like scanning a Jackson Pollock painting for literal representation.
But Detour's editors are all too aware that the tag "experimental" has acquired unfortunate connotations in the current literary market. "It's somewhat ironic," Gary says, "that, while we bill ourselves as supportive of 'experimental' writing, what we publish is really only innovative by mainstream standards. Mainstream literature begins, essentially, with the so-called realism of Flaubert and Chekhov. But if you consider the whole 3,000 to 4,000 years of Western lit, what we're putting out is part of a much older tradition, that of imaginative literature. Readers might assume that experimental means a few loose quacks, but in history they're all over the place, a huge population of brilliant oddballs like Cervantes, Rabelais, Lawrence Sterne. All total fucking weirdos. That's the vein we're tapping into--it's hilarious, it's rich, it's all about complex language that doesn't numb out or mesmerize the brain."