Narrow House Recordings Puts Poetry On Plastic
Jamie Gaughran-Perez is disappointed in the total absence of zombie-on-zombie poetry in his life. “I’ve gotten haikus from zombies, about zombies, about zombie pets, about zombie love relationships, killing zombies—but no love letter to zombies yet, though there’s still time,” he says as he mentally scrolls through the upward of 50 submissions he’s received for a June poetry contest he sponsored. “And no zombie-zombie action.”
“Really?” asks Justin Sirois. “I’m going to have to start writing.”
Sirois—a congenial 27-year-old with a close-cropped skull, black-rimmed glasses, and tattoos on the rebar arms of a bricklayer—is entering for the creative buzz, not to win the prize. He made the prize. A graphic designer at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn by day—the main reason he chose his home in the verdant West Baltimore Gwynn Oak neighborhood, where he and Gaughran-Perez sit at the kitchen table—Sirois started his Narrow House Recordings poetry CD label in 2003, and passed Gaughran-Perez a copy of his most recent release, Buck Downs’ Pontiak Fever, to pass along. Gaughran-Perez—a dark haired, quick-witted, lean 32-year-old graphic designer in Washington who lives in Lauraville with his Rock-N-Romp Baltimore organizer and Sweetney.com blogger wife, Tracey, and their daughter Mina—also maintains the artsy blogzine Rock Heals. And rather than just give away Pontiak, he decided to have a little fun with it. A contest—a zombie haiku contest, to be exact.
And so far the submissions are as madcap as you’d expect. “Zombies are just one of those pop-cultural things that make people think about ideas—zombies as slaves, zombies and consumerism—and yet are always funny as crap,” Gaughran-Perez says. “Shotguns, dismembered things, eating brains. Zombies are just funny. I even taught my daughter to say, ‘Brains, brains,’ just last weekend.”
The pair have only known each other for a couple of years and decided to combine their individual side efforts but six months ago, with poetry being the uniting thread. Maryland Institute College of Art graduate Sirois didn’t study poetry but always had an interest in it. He started investigating Baltimore’s then-scant visible poetry community in the two to three years leading up to starting Narrow House, eventually venturing to Washington for its more established weekly readings and series during the school year. He met Gaughran-Perez, a University of Virginia graduate who also saw poetry as more than a hobby, and discovered they appreciated many of the same poets and styles. And Narrow House Recordings Inc.—the organization Gaughran-Perez and Sirois formed with their creative partners Marianne Amoss, Lauren Bender, Andrew Miller, Kevin Thurston, and Aaron Cohick—is how they hope to foster a poetry community in Baltimore.
Sirois has already organized a few readings at the Talking Head using the format employed at this week’s Narrow House and PEEKreview benefit: half poets, half bands. If it sounds rather indie-rockish, it is. Both Sirois and Gaughran-Perez admit that, like indie rock, the poets, audience, and aesthetic of the poetry community they’re involved in is very DIY.
“It’s just a natural extension of [indie rock],” Gaughran-Perez says. “I was into poetry before that, so it just kind of merged into this thing that is really wide open and really welcoming.
“But if you call somebody up and say, ‘Hey, you want to go to a poetry reading?’ it’s click,” he continues, miming a disinterested hang-up. “We try to find formats that are more enjoyable so that it’s not somebody going on for 15 minutes about their dead cat or grandmother. That’s just boring as shit.”
Of course, as with 1990s indie rock, the potential danger is that when trying to help art find an audience sometimes the social aspects start to overshadow the art itself. “I always feel like I’m putting too much marketing on it—How are we going to make people want to hear it?” Gaughran-Perez says. “But I think that’s what has to happen. I think poetry has spent 30, 40 years making people not understand it—for whatever reason. Getting pretentious about it or just putting up a wall against the unwashed. And so I think there’s a lot of work to do to turn it back around. Russell Simmons managed to get a whole lot of people going to see poetry, and I think it’s time for this poetry to do the same thing.”
What “this poetry” is, however, is hard to pin down. Contemporary American poetry since the 1970s—and, really, since the early-20th-century eruption of modernism—has created a fragmented swarm of styles, ideas, and spheres of influence, even as poetry writ large is arguably approaching a visibility it hasn’t enjoyed since the 1950s and ’60s. It’s just that “poetry” is populated by myriads of tightly knit niches—from spoken word and slam poets to back-of-magazine popular contest hopefuls.
Narrow House’s five releases to date are the best introduction to Sirois and Gaughran-Perez’s poetry universe. Among the releases are Fear the Sky from Rod Smith, the poetry buyer at Georgetown’s Bridge Street Books and co-organizing force behind its monthly reading series, and Pontiak Fever from Washington’s verbally agile Buck Downs. Smith is the more nationally recognized name—Gaughran-Perez calls his comically astringent, politically acute “Ted’s Head” Smith’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Downs’ rapid-fire, comically anarchistic snapshots are some of the more instantly accessible abstract writing around.
Narrow House’s coup was debuting with 2003’s Pictures for Private Devotion from New York’s Anselm Berrigan. The son of 1970s-’80s poetry forces Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, Berrigan is one of the few under-40 poets with name recognition. It helps that he is a deft writer. On Devotion he engages in some good, old-fashioned generational strip-mining, riddling “My Babysitters” with such deadpan spleen as “My dad said he’d fuck anyone who thought he was terrific/ Prageeta advises against becoming a man who uses poetry to prove he still has sex.” Or the near genius “Sometimes I’m not sure that becoming cynical about sexual transgression before reaching puberty was such a good thing for my development/ The idea of me and Bowie sleeping together was such a gas we laughed for days and he painted my nails.”
Elsewhere, he dabbles in traditional poetic agitprop, as in “A Poem for Patriots,” read in a clearly enunciated mantra, piped in from the Beats:
my most modern free trade zone has a legal hate gesture
to send in seed bred in the good will tube
I know I can’t afford this style
without protectionist policies
can I pay you to read this more dead there than
here story pinned to my name like a good
little fucker of the times
The confluence of humor and politics is one of the marks of “this” kind of poetry. “I call it lefty poetry, experimental poetry, whatever,” Gaughran-Perez says. “I say ‘lefty poetry’ because it’s, for the most part, a bunch of leftist kind of people, from center to left.”
Discussing the poetry is difficult because so many “schools” or “styles” have come and gone that are and aren’t informing what Narrow House is doing today. “Experimental” poetry could be language poetry, what has grown to be a rigidly academic strain since the 1970s. Or it could refer to a post-New York school of poets—John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and Ted Berrigan—that reacted to the confessional bent of the Beats and, say, Robert Lowell. Or it could refer to the experiments with form of Black Mountain poets such as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov.
Admittedly, all of the above is reductive, but such calcified stratification in popular consciousness is what Narrow House has to fight through to find an audience. “You have this tradition that’s based somewhat in the death of the author, and language poetry is really taking the ‘I’ out, nonconfessional,” Gaughran-Perez says. “But then you have [contemporary] people who are utterly didactic, utterly cross-type, and maybe not even knowing it. It’s people who have read a lot of language poetry.”
“A language poet trapped in a confessional poet’s body,” Sirois clarifies. “That’s a dilemma that some people are always fighting—being noncommercial and really blending a lot of styles.”
“It’s people like Anselm Berrigan, one of the stars for people our age,” Gaughran-Perez says. “They’re the people that came right after the language poets, and that’s the people we are, I guess, too. As in, ‘I’ve understood what you’ve said about confessional poetry, I understand the traps of it, but we’ve learned from you, and now we’re back. You went too far to make a point, so we’re going to take your point and incorporate it into some personal poetry or some political poetry or what have you.’”
That can be a load of intellectual doggerel to wade through; luckily, the poetry itself isn’t as oblique. Downs, especially, hits the ears with a conversational, streetwise cadence, Smith agilely sketches complex rhetorical scenes out of everyday language, and Berrigan can march through heady thoughts only to set up a serrated comic curve ball.
And with any luck, Narrow House’s future endeavors can expose such accessible thoughts to a wider local audience. Gaughran-Perez and Sirois are both looking forward to the fall debut of Michael Ball’s reading series at i.e. in Station North (Ball previously organized series at Red Emma’s and Clayton and Co.). Narrow House will soon release a CD from hip-hop critic Garrett Caples, Ordinary History America (For John Ashbery). And the imprint’s next project is a sound/script collaboration from Ric Royer and John Berndt, which Sirois plans to be the first Narrow House release to combine book and CD to make a more desirable original object, the direction he wants to see the label go.
It also signals that Narrow House has tapped into Baltimore’s already established underground poetry community, doing readings and endeavors with such local fringe dwellers as Chris Toll, David Franks, and the Normals crew (which includes sometime City Paper contributor Rupert Wondolowski). In fact, Gaughran-Perez says Toll has become the most successful component of one of his other poetry projects: drop-lifting eight-page booklets into books on store shelves for buyers to discover post purchase.
“Chris Toll is the best drop-lifter around,” he says. “He send me e-mails every few days: ‘OK, I put them in these books at Barnes and Noble.’ I like those booklets, and I’m trying to put out one a month—so when somebody buys a book, there’s a little extra. I have text from Daniel Nester, the guy that did God Save My Queen [blog], and I have stuff from Mark Wallace, whose just a real lefty poet kind of guy. And I’m now thinking about doing a zombie haiku one.”
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