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The Publisher 23

Curiosity And More Than A Little Obsession Drove Doug Mowbray To Start Putting Out Books

Michael Northrup
ARTS AND NUMBERS: Douglas Mowbray’s various obsessions led him to start his new imprint.

By Brooke Hall | Posted 4/11/2007

Viviparous Blenny

Douglas William Mowbray, publisher and founder

Submit work by July 23:

Douglas William Mowbray, publisher and founder of Baltimore publishing imprint twentythreebooks, discovered the driving force that moved him out of doubt and into meaningful action. Oddly enough, it was a fixation on the number 23 that had the power to inspire or destroy him. In 2006, he transformed from a guy with good ideas and a peculiar fascination to the founder and publisher of twentythreebooks. But it was his own search--his quiet, private mission--that harbored his cause.

Over coffee at a bustling café, Mowbray divulges the secrets behind his curious endeavor. He says he jumped right in, speaking of his enigmatic plight and how his new company earned its name. Before you understand it, it becomes an obsession, an unseen force--unseen because Mowbray comes across as your conventional academic, with an amiable demeanor and comforting smile. He speaks excitedly, but not wildly, about his influences, about a fascinating fetish with symbols and meaning.

Last year, while working as assistant editor at BrickHouse Books, perhaps Maryland's oldest small press, Mowbray came upon a manuscript that refused a publisher's usual sense of ennui. The book was Omar Shapli's The General Is Asked His Opinion and other sad songs 2002-2005. But the publishing world exists on harsh tundra, and BrickHouse passed on the book. Mowbray couldn't let the book slip away--he would find a way to crank it out. And he did: Shapli's book of poems midwifed a new publishing company, Mowbray's twentythreebooks.

But this publishing company "was not about me," Mowbray insists. He just wanted to see Shapli's book on the shelves. "That was the impetus." But there was another impetus: a longstanding engagement with a seemingly arcane number--a number that he found everywhere, a number that he saw in everything and drove him to motion.

As he sits speaking softly about his unusual curiosities, he points out that his blue-collar background didn't elicit intellectualism--or even the act of reading books. Despite that, in 2002, Mowbray took a creative nonfiction class at Towson University as an undergraduate. He became intrigued with the number 46, finding it written all over his life, and tied it to his personal losses amid other literary legends, among them biblical and Shakespearian ciphers. The number appeared in the calendar dates of his father's death and the death of a young, close friend like a ghost, reminding him that "we look for patterns, signs, and the like because what we know about life, the universe, our place in it, is really minute, and we cannot accept that," he says.

At this time, he wrote an essay whose thesis would walk with him for years to come. He began writing about how the number affected him. He recorded every instance in his life where the number grabbed him: Digital clocks, license plates, dates when death or life ensued all became his template to unravel the power in numbers. He began to mock his own search. Mowbray's conviction wavered, and yet he had the strength to find comedy in it.

It didn't take long for him to realize that the number he was truly finding significance in was 23. Countless hours of research on history and theories revolving around the number 46 led him straight into the web of 23. And soon enough, Mowbray realized that he wasn't the only one pulling meaning from this number. The internet is a near wasteland of old and new conspiracies, and his search turned him on to countless others intrigued by numerical language (see also: Darren Aronofsky's Pi). And five years after Mowbray's suspicion of 23 set in, the movie The Number 23 hit the big screen.

It's common to have a number or symbol that reveals itself frequently, laughing, hinting at some deep meaning, answer, or profound solution to the human condition. In the face of this smirking joker, Mowbray kept digging. "How would I know where to draw the line if somehow I believed I was on to something in my findings?" he says. "How would I operate normally? I'm on thin ice as it is tolerating the cubicle career, tolerating traffic--what happens when my mind finds all this to be unbearably mundane and decides that an obsession with the number 23 is its only salvation?"

It is this powerful question that gave birth to twentythreebooks. Mowbray confides he had partially abandoned his dedication to the search when he found himself branding his own publishing company. And he needed a name. It was too obvious--twentythreebooks. "We look for meaning in everything," he says. "We see faces in mountains on Mars. We suspect that life is meaningless and we crave story lines that wrap up nicely. I have never looked for God, but I hear the name invoked quite frequently. If I wanted to, I could spend the rest of my life chasing this number, chasing its significance, but the chase would end up destroying me."

Destroy him it didn't. It gave life to a venture (for which City Paper contributing writer Raymond Cummings is an honorific "assistant editor") that would print its first book of poems this year, Shapli's The General Is Asked His Opinion. And Mowbray's investigation into the number 23 is much like Shapli's relationship to poetry. It's an attempt at unlocking some magnificent code, a cipher that could explain this world. "Poetry is a messy business that demands precision," Shapli writes in his preface. "It can founder in an instant, but caulking the leaks can proliferate the messiness. Sometimes a leak needs to expand, become a grotto, draw the impulse into space utterly unexpected: a coaxing on this side betrayal of mystery into language."

Shapli comes from a theater background and has an innate command over language. Born in Egypt , raised in America , and now living in Massachusetts with his wife, the poet has written, directed, and acted in numerous plays and continues to teach his craft.

With undertones of politics, war, and a sly critique of the current White House administration, The General somehow refrains from being overt propaganda. Mowbray, having served in the Army himself, notes that Shapli is "not choosing a side, he's just a person with thoughts"--albeit a person with extraordinary thoughts. The playful, internal rhythm in this excerpt from The General's "Agony of an Oracle" speaks utterances manifest in power:

    Might there have been a
    better way? That question
    freezes all motion, stops
    choice in its tracks, sends
    waves of terrified GIs back
    to their ships in the choppy
    waters off a tomb called
    Omaha. Action's incumbent
    upon us. There must be Cause.
    Not religion please, though like
    electroplated crusaders we do
    have our old man of the mountain
    squinting at our doings through
    cracks in the crags. He and we
    have come to share that ancient
    dingaling: only in one way can
    we mean what we say and that
    way's the ripping of flesh and
    bone. Small matter whose.
    Certainly not our own: no,
    we've both found the trick
    of selling to others the
    finer delights of selfdemise:
    either dulce et decorum or the

    Prophet's paradise.

What makes Shapli so unique is that he speaks for an older, wiser generation that is questioning the present political condition, giving permission to young and old alike to perceive the war in another, less-forgiving light. "It's a reflective book of himself and the country he lives in," Mowbry says of Shapli's poems. "Once you get to his age, you become the country."

Mowbry and twentythreebooks are now in the early stages of publishing a second book from Shapli, THEM: Poems 1999-2002, due out hopefully within the next year. Meanwhile, Mowbray keeps plowing through the written word with an upcoming venture, a new literary journal called Viviparous Blenny, which he hopes to debut in the next few months. Naturally, the theme of this anthology is synchronicity. Nevertheless, twentythreebooks has found its path and its leader--even if he's still feeling his way around. "I'm still walking, though," Mowbray says of his latest adventure. "I am still on this walk."

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