The Trickle-Up Theory

Signal to Voys: Audio journal editors and German radio fans Erik Belgum and Brian West
Teddy Maki

More Tree Frogs, Less Commercials

OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES, there is more to radio than corporate-controlled stations churning out 12 hours a day of the same dozen songs, and another 12 hours of commercials. In Germany, freeform radio stations regularly blast their audiences with a mix of subterranean noise, international spoken-word recordings, and such oddities as field recordings of chirping tree frogs. Here, a half-hour spent with an ear pressed to a receiver might make anyone believe Neil Strauss's deliriously hopeful intro to his seminal collection of essays about the radical possibilities of radio, called Radiotext(e). "You'll find radio is still as dangerous and mysterious as a call to arms on a quiet Athens night," Strauss writes. Naturally, the Germans have developed a word for sound recordings that fall somewhere outside easy definition: Hörspiel, or, roughly translated, "soundplay."

Fans of Hörspiel listening to Bayrisch Rundfunk radio in Munich recently heard the entire run of a six-part series produced in the Twin Cities. Titled Voys, the recordings are, in essence, a small-press literary zine put out on a CD. For Voys, radio play in Germany represented something of the closing of a circle. As explained by Erik Belgum, who co-produces and edits the CDs with fellow St. Paulite Brian West, the inspiration for the project came from a similar audiotape journal that originated in Germany. Called S Press, the project began in the Sixties.

"They put out recordings by William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, an interview with John Cage, sound poetry, plays, oddball things in the literary world," Belgum says. "Their cassettes were amazingly expensive--like $30 for a tape. I don't know why they cost so much!"

Voys began four years ago when Belgum and West decided to release recordings of noted poet, author, and translator Raymond Federman reading his novel The Voice in the Closet, which had originally been broadcast on Bayrisch Rundfunk. Since then, the journal has included varied material such as recorded adaptations of plays by Gertrude Stein and a fascinating aural memoir by Brenda Hutchinson in which she explores her mother's gambling addiction and her aunt's senility. "We're looking for stuff that has an edgy, experimental quality," Belgum explains.

The editors, who share backgrounds in fiction writing and electronic music, discourage submissions, preferring to approach authors and performers they already know. Often Belgum and West ask that contributors produce their own 60-to-70-minute DAT tape, although they have gone into the studio with writers for several issues of the audio journal. Hutchinson produced her own tape, blending her narration with sound effects and recordings of her mother to form a complex tapestry of sounds. Hutchinson's rambling, spoken memories intersect with, and sometimes contradict, her mother's. "She's a gambler, a compulsive gambler, and she's been doing that since I was a child," Hutchinson declares at the beginning of the CD, to which her mother, recorded separately, retorts, "I don't know how you could think that I had a gambling problem on three dollars a week!"

The most recent issue of Voys, which can be purchased (along with all of the back issues) at Ruminator Books, is a strangely charming fable by author Alvin Greenberg, formerly a professor of English at Macalester College. Called "The Power of Language," the story tells of the narrator's decision to remain on a small, New England island after it begins to float out to sea. Abandoned by its human population, the narrator is left alone but for a pack of feral pigs, one of whom the narrator suspects of having scratched the word love into the ground near where he lives. "I would not have thought the pigs were familiar with such a word," Greenberg intones, "let alone able to spell it correctly."

This CD is minimal, consisting of nothing but Greenberg's droll storytelling, and there is great pleasure to be found in listening to a narrative that is so meticulously underproduced. "The Power of Language" relies entirely on Greenberg's voice to propel the listener's interest--there are no tree frogs chirping here--and it turns out to be enough. (Max Sparber)

Poetry for Mature Audiences

OUTGOING ARTWORD QUARTERLY editor Carol Robertshaw is struggling to remember the contents of the Winter 2000 issue--a struggle she is losing. "My short-term memory is shot," she explains. "But whatever was in it, I'm sure it was excellent." After a pause, she adds, "I'm not modest."

With Artword, there doesn't seem to be much call for false modesty. This 40-page collection of poetry has, in its five years of existence, received two Pippistrelle "Best of Small Press" awards, and in 1999 a poem first published in its pages won a Pushcart Prize (which Robertshaw calls "the Big One.") Artword has assembled a national, and even international, following despite its tiny print run of a mere 200 copies. The audience for small-press poetry magazines is generally other poets and writers; sometimes it seems that, whether they want to or not, poets write nearly exclusively for other poets. And the upshot of this is that readers of these magazines can be unusually critical; several years ago Matt Groening published a cartoon in which he claimed that the best way to piss off a poet is to be "another poet."  

But Artword has inspired such passion in its small but devoted readership that when Robertshaw recently announced she would no longer be editing the magazine, readers inundated her with letters asking how they could help to keep the magazine going. Eventually, two readers offered to take over editing--returning to Robertshaw a considerable portion of her total waking hours. In the meanwhile, though, this editor is still hard at work on the current issue, the source of both exhaustion and, according to her, the loss of her short-term memory.

"For each issue I have to read about 500 poems," Robertshaw sighs. "I have a proofreader come in to look over the issues, but otherwise I do it all myself. I don't know how familiar you are with small-press magazines, but they rarely make a profit and they are very difficult to sustain." As far as I can tell, Artword, like most small presses, operates at a slight loss, although the cost of printing 200 issues would seem minimal. Robertshaw refuses to speculate as to the total cost of each issue so she doesn't really know how much money she might be making or losing--and she has never much cared. "They're usually a labor of love," she explains.

Indeed, it was Robertshaw's passion that inspired her to begin the magazine in 1995, working on old desktop-publishing software and then sending the text out to be professionally printed. A poet herself, Robertshaw had found herself dissatisfied with other small-press magazines. "Perhaps I was just not aware of what was out there," she says, "but I felt like a lot of what I read was work by young individuals. Their life experiences were not as broad as [those of] people who have had kids, who have raised families." Robertshaw, who had previously produced arts-themed shows for public radio, decided that she could publish a small-press magazine on her own, "and probably do it better."

Artword, as a result, has focused on writers who represent a mature perspective. Glancing through the Winter 2000 issue that eludes Robertshaw's frazzled memory, one comes across poems that could only be written by older writers. Robert Lowenstein's "The Marathon," for example, tells of his family of marathoners who have quit jogging over a period of years. "They think I am some kind of nut, but I am just an ancient model running on an almost empty tank," he writes.

"I want most of the classical elements of good writing: precision, clarity, balance, economy of language," says Robertshaw. "But there has to be some sort of epiphany in the poetry I publish." In fact, the word "epiphinal" appears in her writers' guidelines:" Artword is seeking poems that provide readers with an epiphinal encounter with the familiar."

Let us take a look at "Falling Petals," by Robert Cooperman, for an example of this edict in practice. Telling of an elderly woman who mourns the changes in her old neighborhood, Cooperman explores this domestic scene with unusual metaphoric phrases, effectively creating an atmosphere of melancholy without ever becoming maudlin. "Everyone she knows," Cooperman writes, "seems to have lain down in the long grass of the past tense, this church morning."

The 53-year-old Robertshaw explains that she has interests outside of publishing, such as windsurfing and snowboarding, that she has necessarily had to set aside while she edited Artword. But she confesses to some small anxiety about the future of the magazine after she steps down. "The new editors are much younger than I am," Robertshaw says. "They are committed to keeping the magazine the same as it is now, but it will be interesting to see how it changes." (Sparber)

Annihilate This Zine

WILLIAM WALTZ DOESN'T look like the kind of guy who would risk annihilation. At age 38 the poet and editor seems a study in hipster casual--an aura amplified by Waltz's loose resemblance to a young Elvis Costello. Neither does the northeast Minneapolis duplex where Waltz and his wife Brett Astor assemble the seven-year-old biannual poetry journal, Conduit, bear the mark of any past annihilations: The artwork on the walls is vivid yet tasteful, the music kinetic yet subdued, and even the back issues of Atlantic Monthly on the table have been swept up into a neat stack. And still, on the inside cover of every Conduit issue Waltz and Astor produce is the boast "the only magazine that risks annihilation." Thus far, at least, the two have managed to beat the odds, publishing their slim, wise, and fabulously unprofitable magazine while preserving both sanity and solvency.  

As the wind in the venetian blinds taps a counterpoint to the free jazz wafting through the apartment, Waltz tips back in his armchair, expounding on the Conduit credo. "The annihilation thing works on several levels. One level is that it's funny. Humor is part of our thing--not slapstick, but an undercurrent of sardonic wit. Our thing is not working within the norm.

"The other level is that poetry's entirely impractical, so anyone who does it is risking a lot. In order to make great art, you have to sacrifice the ego to get into the zeitgeist or Godhead." Waltz grins self-depreciatingly. "Or whatever."

While Conduit includes submissions from every species in the poet's genus--from the much-lauded to the as-yet-unknown to the no-chance-of-ever-being-published-so-why-bother--much of the journal's esprit comes from Waltz himself, who pens an introductory essay in each issue. The most recent, for instance, which is titled "Lady Cop: The Beat of Desire," tracks the evolution of the distaff television dick from Angie Dickinson to Helen Mirren. Elsewhere, Waltz has expounded upon "the untapped potential of static cling" as it pertains to late-stage capitalism's commodification of time, and the transformative power of substance-use in the context of TV's Underdog. If it all sounds goofily academic, that, too, is part of Conduit's charm. "For me," says Waltz, "the poetry magazine should be like good jazz; you should respond to it emotionally and intellectually. And it should be fun."

The dearth of fun in poetry journals, he continues, was what prompted him to start his own magazine while attending graduate school in Massachusetts in the mid-1990s. "There was this absence of journals I was attracted to. Everything was just so staid and dull. Plus, I knew so many writers who weren't getting published." (Waltz was among them, and, indeed, is still looking for a home for his manuscript.)

After Waltz and Astor moved to the Twin Cities--lured from the East Coast by the prospect of cheaper living and an active poetry and music scene--they continued to churn out the mag, relying on a scant list of subscribers to cover costs (Conduit advertises itself as "grant free since 1993," which Waltz views as a badge of artistic honor). These days, Conduit is flourishing--always a relative term for a poetry journal, of course. Recent contributors include luminaries like Franz Wright and James Tate, and, according to Waltz, a national distribution deal is in the works. But, he says, a bit of mainstream renown won't taint the magazine's ironic wit or antiestablishment flavor. "When we quit changing, I'm going to quit doing it. I'm not going to rest on any laurels--I mean if there were any laurels to rest on." (Peter Ritter)

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