Thursday, July 28, 2011

Steve Englehart

(This is an excerpt from Steve's most recent novel The Plain Man. He will be reading and signing at the store on Wednesday, August 3rd, at 7:30pm.)

           The next thing she knew, she was standing on the desert plain beside Scorpio Rose. Twenty feet away, Max and Diana were lying beside a huge boulder. The two women were in shadow, but Pam stepped back instinctively.
            “They cannot see us,” said Scorpio Rose.
            In truth, Pam could hardly see herself. She seemed to be, if not a ghost, then something made of fluid light, now visible, now not visible. And Rosa, though clearly more substantial, was just as hard for her to see.
            “I am here physically,” said the gypsy witch. “But Diana cannot pick me out. You are here only as a shade — an astral, Max would say — and neither one of them can see you. Let me repeat: Max cannot see you.”
            “Where’s my body?” Pam asked, surprisingly calmly. The unfamiliar still felt familiar.
            “See for yourself,” Rosa said. And Pam did. Without even turning her head, she looked back at the campsite, at least a mile away. She saw the site clearly, with her unmoving body sprawled in the dust.
            “In the future, you will want to lie down before flying,” the witch said.
            “Am I hurt, there?” Pam asked.
            “A few bruises, no doubt.”
            “I didn’t know I could do this,” Pam said, staring at her ghostly hand.
            “No, but I did,” the witch said placidly. “Now look.” She raised her own hand and pointed with a long, slender finger at Max and Diana. He was now on top, pounding between Diana’s wide-spread legs.
            Pam felt the blood rise in her face, even though her blood and her face were astral. “Why are you showing me this?” she demanded raggedly.
            “Because you need to see it,” answered Scorpio Rose. She was looking hard at Pam, but Pam was looking harder at her boyfriend. She could tell, because she knew him so intimately now, that Max was a little withdrawn over there. But only a little. He had to be into it, by the nature of the thing. More than Pam liked.
            Connecting with Humanity. Living our animal nature, Pam thought. And then Fuck Humanity!
            But she realized Rosa was still talking to her. “I know what Max tells you, because all masters tell their apprentices the same thing. He says to apply your logic to your experience, so as never to take anything on faith, no matter how famous the master may be who tells it to you. But that is not just advice for times when you are calmly meditating. You need to apply logic even when your emotions are raging — especially then. Until you can do that, you can never be a master.”
            You can say that!” Pam snapped, not even bothering to hide her displeasure. “But I’m not like you.”
            “Oh yes, Pamela — you are.” Rosa fluttered a hand. “Despite my affliction, we are both women. All women know that there are two worlds, that of the God and that of the Goddess. All women are by nature magick, and can channel their magick more easily than can a man.”
            “All women are individuals. Especially that one over there.” Diana was beginning to make little moans of rhythmic pleasure that really grated on Pam’s ears.
            “She channels it downward; thus, she is a threat to you. But some channel it upward, and among those are the ones you must truly fear, for Max’s sake as well as your own.”
            “Like Aleksandra?” Pam asked.
            “Like Aleksandra.”
            Pam stiffened, suddenly aware again that she was a disembodied spirit standing open to the universe. Watching her lover screw another woman. Just as he’d screwed Aleksandra twenty-nine years ago, when he was five years younger. Despite herself, Pam was beginning to see a larger dimension to her situation, like the vast, dimly-lit darkness surrounding them, the two women who knew they were magick. Pi…
            “I have met Aleksandra,” said Scorpio Rose, quietly.
            Pam was brought back to earth. “You have?”
            “Yes. It was in the fall of 1963, when she was 14 — as the nights were growing longer…”

Monday, July 25, 2011

Alastair Johnston

You know those old platitudes, "All good things come to he who waits," or "We serve no wine before it's time"? Well, I can't be bothered with them. However, after 35 years I have published a book that has indeed improved with age, and furthermore was worth the wait. Back in 1975 when I was a young poet in my mid-20s I met Kevin Power and his wife, Romilly Waite, wandering Britons like myself, in Berkeley. We were idealistic young writers going to anti-War readings with Ginsberg, Whalen, Kyger, McClure, Snyder and Nanao Sakaki, checking out the New York poets at Intersection or the Bolinas poets at Cody's. Kevin was doing post-graduate work at the University and his wife wanted to learn the art of letterpress so they could start a small press, Editions Braad, back in their home in rural France. Romilly is W. S. Merwin's niece and they had bought an old red-tiled farmhouse in a village high up in Templar country that had been home to Creeley and other wandering spirits. Kevin was writing about the relation of painting and other visual arts to post-War American poetry, so had come West to interview those poets he felt had a significant relation to visual art in their work. In Buffalo he had talked to Creeley and Bly (who was in town for a reading) & he had tracked down Rothenberg on an Indian reservation in Upstate New York. In San Francisco he spoke to McClure, Duncan, Meltzer and the Oppens. He drove out to Bolinas to find Berkson. I expressed interest in his collection of interviews which were beginning to appear in little magazines like Vort, Texas Quarterly and Spanner. When they returned to Europe, Kevin entrusted the typescript to me and I began setting trial samples at the West Coast Print Center, where I worked as a typesetter on the nightshift (other typesetters included Barrett Watten, Mary Anne Hayden and John McBride). But then I started working on Philip Whalen's novel The Diamond Noodle and the Power book languished. A decade later Kevin asked me if I still wanted to do it. By then he was living in Spain and teaching at the University of Alicante. I dug out the manuscript and decided, yes, it was still a worthwhile project. But by then Duncan had died and his estate were being managed by Robert Bertholf at the University library in Buffalo, after Bancroft turned down Duncan's papers because they thought they had enough Duncan material. I wrote to Bertholf asking permission to reprint the interview and he wrote back that he was planning a collected works, including interviews so therefore had to refuse. My girlfriend at the time had been a Duncan student at New College and with his permission had taped his lectures. I duplicated a dozen C-90 tapes of the classes and sent them to Bertholf, reiterating my request. He sent me a formal thank you and a second refusal. When I saw Kevin in San Francisco in the 90s we didn't discuss the book: we were both on to other things. Then last year Kyle Schlesinger reprinted Power's interview with Creeley on his blog, generating a lot of cyber heat about what a brilliant insightful interview it was. I ran into Steve Dickison of SF State's Poetry Center and we were discussing it, and I mentioned I had the manuscript of all 8 interviews that were all equally brilliant, but then told him the sad story of Bertholf's refusal. Oh, said Steve, Bertholf is no longer Duncan's executor. It's now Christopher Wagstaff, and he gave me Wagstaff's number. I phoned him, expecting the same kind of frostbitten denial but instead Wagstaff was cordial and thrilled that I wanted to print the interview. The heirs of Creeley and Oppen were also happy to see the work published in book form & so, after 35 years, like vintage wine, we can drink deep from the wisdom of these grand old bards.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

David Darlington

Now that my book An Ideal Wine is coming out, it seems like a good time to dust off my customary disclaimer: I’m not really a wine writer. Thus, one might reasonably ask: Then what the hell is the book about? Well… it’s about people; it’sabout business; it’s about culture; it’s about civilization. In other words – okay, it’sabout wine.

One of my pet maxims is that wine is a reflective beverage – not just in that it makes you ruminative, but it reflects the world around it. And by that I don’t just mean the land, climate, et al. – the amalgam of influences that winefolk like to call terroir – but, rather, human values, or the way wine exposes our preoccupations, which is a constantly shifting social proposition. I didn’t really get interested in wine until I’d been a journalist for several years, writing about things from rivers to arm wrestlers to rodeo clowns. My model was the eclectic New Yorker writer John McPhee, and one of his pieces that affected me was a portrait of a chef, which illustrated the earthiness and complexity of cooking. Not long after that, I read a profile of Robert Mondavi (by Moira Johnston – also not a wine writer), which illuminated the diversity of the wine industry, incorporating everything from farming to business to the snootiest levels of white-linen society. The catchphrases I developed in my head were: Wine is the essence of civilization, and wine is where culture and agriculture meet.

I subsequently asked a friend of a friend – a partner in a wineselling company – how I might learn more about wine in order to write about it. Very cogently, he said: “Go to work at a winery.” I subsequently lucked into a harvest job at Ravenswood when it was still a 5,000-case boutique (as opposed to the million-case household word it is today), which not only taught me the nuts and bolts but imbued me with hands-on appreciation of the realities, which was also enhanced by making wine in my garage.

Sometimes, when not-very-wine-savvy friends appreciate one of my homemade wines, they suggest that I sell it – i.e., become a commercial winemaker. They don’t know what a joke that is, though they might if they read An Ideal Wine. I would never want to be a real winemaker for some of the same reasons that I wouldn’t  want to be a filmmaker (even though I love film at least as much as I love reading and writing): I couldn’t handle the pressure of pouring investors’ dollars into a product that has to pass muster for mass consumption. I’d rather interview winemakers, who tend to be intelligent and articulate, and interpret their work in a social context. Having made a fair amount of wine myself, when I interview winemakers I feel like I can relate to them, which I hope fosters rapport that results in realism. But they don’t always see it the same way, and it makes me uncomfortable when I get the (not uncommon) feeling that a winemaker is hoping I’ll help him or her in the market. That’s just not the kind of writing I do, any more than a reporter interviewing a politician is necessarily aiming to help them or a sportswriter interviewing an athlete is necessarily hoping to help them. In other words, this is journalism, not public relations – which means I hope to write about wine as it exists in the real world, not in a photoshopped, soft-focus ad selling “the spirit of place.”

I don’t mean to imply that most wine writers are flacks, doing the bidding of winery owners in order to get free wine. (Not most of them.) Truth to tell, I don’t have the genetic gifts of real wine writers – specifically a palate capable of parsing pear, sage, cola, nectarine, mineral, dried cherry, yah de yah de yah. It often embarrasses me to taste wine with winemakers, because I don’t usually have much to say – I can detect broad stylistic characteristics, but I can’t smell angels on the head of a pin. As a general rule, when it comes to that most vaunted of wine phenomena – terroir – I confess that I can’t really perceive it. I wish I could – it sounds fantastic – but I just don’t have the chops, or maybe the imagination. In my new book, there’s a chapter where Kermit Lynch and Randall Grahm attempt to educate me in the perception of terroir, with moderate success: Under their tutelage, I can tell the difference between wines grown in limestone and wines grown in schist. Could I do it by myself? I could probably perceive the difference, but probably couldn’t identify what’s responsible for it; I might not even be inclined to call it “minerally.”

The first column I wrote for Wine & Spirits (where I’m now a “special correspondent”) portrayed a dialogue between a psychiatrist and a patient who feels inadequate because he can’t perceive things in wine that he reads about in reviews. It never ran, because the magazine’s editor and publisher, told me it “felt like an attack.” Jeez, such defensiveness – and coincidentally from a person who once wrote that an Edmunds St. John syrah “grips, but with a lazy give.” I’ve heard about food porn, but I thought it had mainly to do with pictures; since you can’t do much visually with wine, though, I guess the heavy lifting here (so to speak) has to be shouldered by words – i.e., writers.

Somehow, in the wake of that disagreement, Josh Greene went on to become my good friend. Eventually he put me on the Wine & Spirits masthead as a regular contributor, though I think we both know that “special correspondent” means “not really a wine writer.” Why does he feel that way? Well, let’s see. I have an article in the August issue about the Sonoma coast, but it’s written from the point of view of a cyclist. And one of my Wine & Spirits stories won a pretigious award for wine writing – but that was on a technicality. I mean that literally: It was about technology – or, more specifically, a crazed technologist. Just so you know, most of its contents are contained in An Ideal Wine.

Which proves my original point: The book isn’t really about wine.

David Darlington is the author of An Ideal Wine: One generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California.