Review: Flashcuts Out of Chaos by Charles W. Brice – “Stretching for Earnestness”

Flashcuts Out of Chaos.* By Charles W. Brice. Cincinnati, OH: WordTech Editions, 2016. $18.96 (pa.). 97 pages.

reviewed by Mike Good

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Alcoholic figures move from home and into churches, from a therapist’s chair to the tabernacle. Brice’s work recalls a blend of the Beat, confessional, stand-up schools of poetry. As a collection, it reads as an act of unburdening through narrative: a recognition of the past to catalog it, recognize it, learn from it, and to understand the present. To contrast somber content, Brice splices humor into the heartbreaks that populate the collection.

 

What I enjoy most about Brice’s work is that he stretches for earnestness, while being aware that, perhaps, no poem can fully transfer a memory or experience to the reader. Failure is always on the tails of its sincerest efforts, and sincerity occurs in droves throughout this collection. Poems appear in free verse; lines and stanzas break to reflect content and narrative; most layouts are conventional; and most poems dwell in first-person. The book is arranged chronologically and falls into three distinct parts, “The Inverted World,” “Wild Pitch”, and “Milliseconds of Mystery.”

 

“The Inverted World” follows the speaker throughout a caustic and interrupted childhood, highlighting a tense relationship between his mother and father. Catholic school authority figures fail to embody the morals they preach to the young speaker, whose faith is often tested. The section ends with the speaker having grown into a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War. The final poem of the “The Inverted World,” “Shave,” offers an intimate picture of helping a homeless man to shower and shave. The poem stands out from preceding poems in its style as Brice omits punctuation in favor of extra spacing:

the teeth of the comb were moving    
We both had to shower           not together of course

with Quell soap           the only soap that
filled the lice and the eggs      that moved
across the comb

Then I shaved him

The poem earns the speaker additional credibility as he relays an uncomfortable and intimate gesture of kindness.

 

Playful and more present-tense scenes appear in “Wild Pitch.” Initially, the second section appears to shift gears, leaning on humor to contrast to the heavier confessions found in “The Inverted World.” While a Nietzsche epigraph opens the section, the second poem “Three Blatherskites and You’re Out” begins with an epigraph by former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Charlie Morton, (often referred to by Pittsburgh announcers as “Ground Chuck” due to his pitch’s tendency to earn outs with opponents hitting ground balls). However, levity quickly gives way to intense subject matter. For instance, after “Sartre and Simone Get Married” offers a hyperbolic satire of the philosophers entering wedlock; the next poem “In Memory of August Kittel, Jr.” cuts to an elegy for the great playwright, August Wilson. In the elegy, Brice works to portray segregation and discrimination, while paying homage to Wilson, repeating the refrain:

In this ocean of white,
he was Pittsburgh’s black gem,
its king, the train we loved to ride;
our eighth guitar, our shining man.

I feel that it is to his credit that Brice exhibits determination to explore racial inequity from a white perspective (and he does so bluntly and pointedly throughout the collection). However, due to the poem-order and content, the tones clashed. The elegy reads more like a distant aside than the personal and intimate tribute I hoped to experience. The use of “we” in the refrain also made me inwardly squirm along with the person-riding-person-as-train metaphor.

 

The third section, “Milliseconds of Mystery” closes the book. While it is the shortest section of the book, it is also, perhaps, the most tender. Love poems like “Asparagus” explore the joys of a long and intimate marriage. The poem concludes, “Our eyes, our words, float/on the slow tip/of time—and we know years—we too/thickandthinners,/ hurtling towards the inevitable blur of us.” In the final section, Brice’s occupation as a therapist becomes more evident. This had the effect of further humanizing the speaker, who has had to stumble through difficulties throughout the collection.

 

Flashcuts Out of Chaos, is, as the title implies, a book with jagged edges that swerves through humorous, somber, public, and personal registers. While the book may have benefited from additional sections or some excision, Brice’s debut collection is filled with heart and provides a charged experience for its readers. The poet’s humanity and willingness to explore happiness, sorrow, discomfort, and disparities in equal and muddy intervals elicit joy, pointing towards a poetry that is messy, hopeful, and celebratory.


* Also available at local bookstores, such as Caliban Books


Mike Good serves as a poetry editor for the After Happy Hour Review. Find more at mikegoodwrites.wordpress.com

Local Spotlight: Pittsburgh’s Long-Running Poetry Reading Series Turns 42

Group photo from Madwomen in the Attic

Back row L-R: Doralee Brooks, Lori Wilson, Anne Rashid, Lisa Alexander & Kara Knickerbocker Front row L-R: Sarah Williams-Devereux, Susan Sailer, Jan Beatty, Jimmy Cvetic & Joan Bauer Photo Credit: Don Staricka

By Jason Peck and Mike Good

Over the years, the Hemingway’s Summer Poetry Series has played host for many of Pittsburgh’s literary luminaries in addition to countless up and coming writers. Writers like Jan Beatty (just last week, in fact) have read there. Joy Katz read there, and so too did Terrance Hayes. Also, Robert Gibb and Richard St. John. Ed Ochester.

The list goes on.

The movers and shakers behind every Pittsburgh writing group, community workshop, and the heads of Pittsburgh literary magazines seem to come and go. Yet, the quiet, unsung heroes—the organizers Jimmy Cvetic and Joan Bauer—continue to excel at finding writers and offering a welcoming space, and so, the Hemingway’s Summer Poetry Series churns on. The reading series has been consistently bringing writers and audiences together in the backroom of Hemingways in Oakland, every Tuesday evening since 1975. May 2 marked the first reading of 2017.

Since 2011, the readings have been recorded and archived by Don Staricka who created a blog for the series, www.hemingwayspoetryseries.blogspot.com, but nothing can quite capture the contributions the series has made to Pittsburgh’s local literary scene. With an unassuming setting, readings quietly occur in the backroom of a bar where the smell of fried food wafts in the air, and the shot pitchers are $5 apiece and college kids come and go. Perhaps, it is not the first place one would suspect poetry to be read.

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According to local poet and a frequent reader at the Hemingway’s reading series, Kris Collins, “The thing about the Hemingway’s series is that it has provided a model for all the rest of us who have created reading series in Pittsburgh.”

Collins continued, “Jimmy and Joan gave us all a model that encouraged a level playing field. Every season they bring together an amazingly varied mix of writers – academic and street level, teachers and students, old and young – and give them the same respect and attention.”

According to Bauer, the series originated from a gap in the University of Pittsburgh’s poetry schedule. While the university ran their own poetry series from fall through spring, a neutral party was needed to foster an independent reading during the summer. Enter Cvetic, who until nine years ago, maintained the series single-handedly while holding down a job as a county police detective.

“The series has continued because Jimmy stayed committed to it, all these years,” Bauer says. “He lives and breathes poetry.”

Each reading features a cross-section of the local lit scene. Groups such as Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange, Pittsburgh Poetry Society and Carlow’s Madwomen in the Attic can often be found there, to name a few. But the organizers pride themselves on spotting the rising talent and giving them a voice, and many aspiring poet have cut their teeth during the open mic that follows.

“Jimmy always said that Hemingway’s about inclusion, not exclusion,” Bauer says.

Tonight, May 22, 2017, Don Krieger, also a member of the Hour After Happy Hour will read with the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange.

On May 2, we got to hear Lisa Alexander read a poem from Issue 6, “Over the Route 28 Guardrail Toward the Train Tracks“. Go Lisa!

We are so excited to share Joan Bauer’s haunting elegy, “On His Dresser” in the latest edition.

We salute the organizers and look forward to a fantastic summer of literature. Follow the blog and check out the audio archives.


Jason Peck edits fiction for the After Happy Hour Review.

Mike Good edits poetry for the After Happy Hour Review.

Scenes: AHHR Celebrates Issue 7!

We want to thank everyone who attended our journal release party and for being a part of Pittsburgh’s literary community.

Hour After Happy Hour Workshop Alum reads from his second novel North and Central; some chapters were workshopped at the Hour After Happy Hour. Buy it now!

North and Central

Bradley J. Fest reads from his debut collection The Rocking Chair. Get yourself a copy! Find more at The Hyper Archival Parallax

The Rocking Chair

The Hyperarchival Parallax

Brad’s poetry appeared in the debut After Happy Hour Review

If The Marianas Trench Were a Gathering of Sound

Daniel Parme reads fiction from a novel in progress, “Confluence”.

Daniel Parme helps manage the Haven, a PIttsburgh Writing Community

Celine Roberts blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction with some  captivating and devestating short shorts.

Follow Celine on Twitter @butterandbrine

Dan Shapiro closes it down with some Heavy Metal Poetry

Dan edits Pittsburgh Poetry Review! Buy his books!

If you haven’t yet, be sure to dig the newest After Happy Hour Review on Issuu!

Thank you all for celebrating with us and supporting us. Thank you to our readers for an unforgettable evening!

-AHHR Editors

From The Archives: An Interview With Bill Wolak

Open any issue of After Happy Hour Review; odds are you’ll stumble across at least one piece by Bill Wolak. For today’s From the Archives, Bill shares his thoughts – along with several never-before-published collages.

AHHR: So tell us about your background. How did you get started as an artist?

Bill Wolak: I started out as and English major, and later studied Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. The languages I studied were French and German. Later, I finished an MA in South Asian Studies at Columbia. Now I am a teacher of Creative writing at William Paterson University. Well, I guess I started tinkering with collage back around 1979. I’d already been writing and publishing poetry for about ten years. I founded The Somniloquest’s Press, and I published a surrealist magazine called Dream Helmet, as well as some chap books, and broadsides. Just at that time I was introduced to the English surrealist poet and collage artist John Digby. John became my mentor in all things surreal, and we have remained friends since that time.

John did the collages for my first book of poetry Pale As an Explosion. Now he runs his own press with his wife Joan called The New Feral Press out of Oyster Bay, NY. The Digbys remain two of the great joys in my life, we get together frequently, and they have been kind enough to publish nine of my books over the years, all collaged by John and designed by Joan and John. Now I publish my collages in magazines, as illustrations for books, and as broadsides. In addition, I participate in various gallery shows, such as Naked in New Hope.

AHHR: What attracted you most to collages?

BW: I’m drawn to the wild juxtapositions that collage creates. I love the idea that anyone armed only with scissors and glue can construct an image that’s as fresh as a dream and just as startling. Also, I’m attracted to those images that are hypnotic and hallucinatory; the ones that are striking, irresistible, kinky, and unforgettable.

JP: Who would you say are your primary influences?

AHHR: I’m so glad that you asked me that question. There’s nothing I enjoy more than discussing the artists who have had a decisive influence on me over the years. So here’s my list: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Hieronymus Bosch, Giulio Romano, Henri Rousseau, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, René Magritte, Dorothea Tanning, Yves Tanguy, Paul Delvaux, Leonora Carrington, Hans Bellmer, Leonor Fini, M. C. Escher, Méret Oppenheim, Unica Zürn, and Toyen.

AHHR: How do you start with a piece? About how long does it take to finish?

BW: To begin a piece, I select some sources — either color or black and white. If I’m using magazines or prints or old books, I cut out some images or parts of images that interest me. Then I start working on a background or some other sort of chance construction. Much is left to fleeting insights. These are tiny miracles of inspiration. Depending on whether I’m using scissors and glue or digital images, each collage could take several hours. Sometimes it takes several days or even weeks to know if a collage is finished. Much depends on the kind of collage and the size.

AHHR: What would you say is your favorite piece?

BW: Of my own work, I guess my favorite would be the piece entitled “The Scaffolding of Memory.”

AHHR: So what other projects are you working on? What could we expect to see from you in the future?

BW: I’m working on new collages every week. However, it’s impossible to say in advance how new work will develop. One can only hope for the enchantment of the unexpected.

Review: Josh Barkan’s “Mexico: Stories” – Hardboiled and Human

Barkan Capture

Mexico: Stories. By Josh Barkan. New York: Hogarth/Crown, 2017. 308 Pages. $17.00 (hc)

     Reviewed by Jason Peck

The dozen stories in “Mexico” revolve a common theme. What happens when ordinary people are caught up in the gang violence that permeates Mexican society, and how are their innermost values challenged as a result?

Josh Barkan has probably never confronted the notorious drug kingpin El Chapo in a cooking match with his life on the line. He also has probably never worked as a plastic surgeon, never been the son of a famous architect with a chip on his shoulder, and – unless his biography seriously shorts his life history – it’s fair to say that he’s never been the beauty queen consort of a rising drug kingpin.

But damned if he doesn’t make you believe every word. Satisfied readers often tell of getting “lost in a good book,” of experiencing this sensation of immersion where the spell is cast and disbelief is thoroughly suspended. Pulling this off requires a lot of ability and even more confidence, but in reading his new short story collection “Mexico,” Barkan proves he has plenty of both.

The collection opens with a bang, the memorable story “The Chef and El Chapo.” The premise is pretty straightforward; the real-life cartel king takes over the high-end restaurant of an American-born chef, and challenges him to make a dish of no more than two ingredients. On display are the musings that Barkan uses to breathe believability into the chef as his life is in jeopardy. Over the course of the story, Barkan weaves in his character’s background; we learn about his life in America, his approach to his job, why he doesn’t wear chef hats and how he figures out what kind of food El Chapo will like just by looking at him: “It may sound crazy, but people like to eat what they are. If they have voracious appetites they can’t change, they like sweet foods. If they are tight with their money, they prefer to eat bread and mashed potatoes…We are all cannibals, eating ourselves, eating the secrets we have within.”

Do chefs actually tailor their dishes like this? Maybe not, but Barkan never makes the reader doubt. In his follow-up story, “The Book of Common Names,” he likewise fleshes out a teacher with clear background and worldview, in “The Plastic Surgeon” he nonchalantly describes the details of the business with the authority of an expert, and in “The Kidnapping” he believably describes the grisly moment where he loses a finger to his kidnappers.

I found that unexpected encounters made for the book’s best stories. By contrast, stories without this sense of surprise fell short of the high standard established earlier. The self-explanatory “The American Journalist” falls into this category, despite some inspired characters. Another story “The Sharpshooter” reads like first-rate Scorsese, but pits DEA agents against cartel heads in a way the audience will recognize.

Far better are stories like “Everything Else Is Fine,” where a closeted gay man finds himself questioning his identity after a run-in with an extortionist. The conflict is far more internal, and we can more easily empathize. The collection ends with perhaps the best example, “Escape From Mexico” where a good-natured twelve-year old finds himself a gang target over a stolen watch . The experiences he and his family endure as a result will stay with you far longer than the story’s 20-odd pages, just like the book itself will stay with you longer than its 300.

This is a memorable collection. Go. Read it now.


Jason Peck edits fiction for the After Happy Hour Review.

Review: Better Luck Next Year by Ally Malinenko – “Haunting and Arresting”

Better Luck Next Year. By Ally Malinenko. Pittsburgh, PA: Low Ghost Press, 2016. $10.00 (pa)

Reviewed by Mike Good

Better Luck Next Year offers a candid first-person account of the poet’s breast cancer diagnosis and her life after the diagnosis. The speaker and Malinenko appear as interchangeable as speaker and author can be. This book represents author’s third collection of poetry and the sixth release from Pittsburgh’s Low Ghost Press.

I do not think I am alone in believing that cancer is terrifying; cancer pervades language, metaphor, and lurks hidden behind health-crazes, super foods, and antioxidant-rich fruit incessantly marketed in every aisle. However, cancer is not afraid of me. I can do little but run from it. Cancer, while especially well researched, appears to me like any number of things in our world—determined by chance, environment, a few inevitable, personal decisions, and the decisions of others. The fact is I prefer to avoid thinking about it altogether. While it has not touched me, it has touched many people that are close to me and many people are close to me no longer, as they have grappled with losses I never learned to fathom. Yet, sometimes, I am forced to reckon with cancer—especially when I picked up Better Luck Next Year.

According to cancer.gov, 1,685,210 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2016. Nearly 600,000 Americans died. As William Carlos Williams famously writes, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/ of what is found there.”

We learn, in our America, in Malinenko’s America, it is neither cheap to be sick, nor does the fight feel noble, and outcomes rarely appear to be within control. This books asserts that whatever else poetry might do, it must not look away from cancer, but rather look closer. Malinenko acknowledges the difficulty and controversy of this subject for poetry, pulling the leading epigraph from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, written originally, forty years ago, in 1977. Sontag writes in her explication, “Cancer is a rare and still scandalous subject for poetry; and it seems unimaginable to aestheticize the disease.” From there, the reader must take a deep breath and dive into the world the book creates.

In the leading poem “The Day Before”, the speaker reflects on her life and identity before the exam that leads to her diagnosis. Her identity is entwined to a poetry reading. The poem offers a farewell to her friends as it introduced the book, “…and I didn’t know it then/but I was saying goodbye for good/to all of you, yes/ but also to me/because/this me/now// is not me// I don’t know who she is…” Poems record her confirmatory biopsy and follow her through chemotherapy and surgeries, depicting the impact of cancer on her marriage, her everyday challenges, her adaptations, and her struggles. Arguably, the trajectory is like the archetypical hero’s journey—from innocence to worldliness; the writer negotiates preconceptions about what it means to be diagnosed, experiences her own reality with cancer, aims to navigate it, and to survive not only the illness, but also the unmistakable alteration of her self. However, like the speaker, we do not know if there is a happy ending, and the book’s final poem is pensive. In some ways, the book functions as a record of trauma, a hopeful prayer that hesitates to be spoken—the prayer that everything could still be fine, despite the odds, and, though hidden, better luck may be around the corner.

While many of the elements I look for in poems occur in droves, many are not to be found in Better Luck Next Year. Lines and stanzas are not divided by sound, stress, syllabically, or visually, and rarely add tension to the sentence or multiply meaning. Rather, margins impel the narrative forward, stanzas often break to show passage of time, and syntax organizes lines to keep the reader’s eye moving downward, often functioning as punctuation. The style suggests that is almost better to read this collection as one long poem, or as a series of flash essays, than as an arrangement of individual poems. However, it reads wholly unguarded; that alone is refreshing. Malinenko recalls Beat poets like Elise Cowen and Diane di Prima. Take, for instance, the first stanza of “Surgery #1” that occurs in the first half of the book, implicitly addressed to the speaker’s husband who has become her caretaker:

Careful, you say
stepping gingerly around me
as I shiver
half in the tub
half out
naked
my hair sopping wet
the soap running
down my back
as you wash my hair
because I cannot.

As there is no road map to write a book about illness, there is no road map to write its review. Rather, it is best to listen to it. This book will haunt and arrest the reader that embraces it, and I encourage you to do so, and to be prepared: this is an intimate book, and Malinenko is intimate with her reader. While Better Luck Next Year oscillates between memoir and poetry, all poetry must, in some way, walk this tightrope, and I celebrate this book. What other medium can aspire to tell the impossibly intimate, but poetry?


Mike Good is a founding editor of the After Happy Hour Review and edits the poetry. He has an M.F.A. from Hollins University. Find more at mikegoodwriteswordpress.com

Meet the Artist – Five Question With Issue Six Cover Artist Brad Black

brad blackAt HAHH, we’ve always prided ourselves on our colorful covers. But Brad Black’s surrealistic, black-and-whites gave us the perfect chance to break with tradition. In our brief interview below, the Pittsburgh-based artist tells us his background and answers that ever-annoying question – where do your ideas come from?

 

So tell us about your background. How did you get started as an artist?

I believe it started in high school when I would draw in class. Math was always a terrible subject for me so I’d sketch random things just to pass the time. But it wasn’t until my bike was stolen from me that I began to have time to focus on something else. I didn’t have enough money for another bike, but I did have enough for a beginner’s paint kit.

You’re based in Pittsburgh. What could you say about the local art scene?

I think everyone knows the Pittsburgh art scene is very small but I sense no community between many artists. A lot of art shows are attended by friends and the turnout is usually small. Pittsburgh is great for growing and learning your craft plus it’s one of the most livable cities in the U.S. But to actually get noticed for your art your chances are slim. I think it’s going to take a few decades for the city of Pittsburgh to fully embrace art and culture. The city is in a transition period; I think we’re still trying to find our identity. I think the future is pretty promising.

Has your art always been similar to the surreal black and white style we see now, or was there a change in style? How did you arrive at this black and white style?

I’ve been creating art for a little over 12 years and my style has developed throughout the years. When I first got my beginners paint kit I’d emulate tattoo artists that I looked up to. Then I discovered Salvador Dali which changed everything for me. I never see art created in such a way so I tried to create surrealistic images using acrylic paint. It never really worked out, the majority of the work ended up looking amateurish but I was learning.

When I went to college I took a drawing class and I liked the accessibility of a pencil along with the results. Nor was I one for color theory. During that class I discovered some important artist Francis Bacon, David Lynch, Joel-Peter Witkin and Laurie Lipton that were highly influential in shaping my style.

So walk me through your working process. From the initial idea, how do you approach your work?

Typically, all my ideas come from daydreams. It starts with a small idea but then I build upon it. I sketch my idea and begin to work out of the flaws. I then transfer the image to watercolor paper building up layers of charcoal and graphite. Some drawings have up to 15 layers and can take up to a month to complete. I focus on 3 major themes which are religion, anatomy and death. Themes that I’ve always been interested in and explored through my art.

What directions do you see you taking your art in the future?

I don’t make much money creating art to support myself but that’s never been my intention. I’m currently working as a phlebotomist at a local hospital but it can be draining witnessing the human condition first hand. I have a first account of the heroin epidemic all the growing mental health crisis but it takes an emotional toll. I’m also going back to school so I can work in a medical laboratory so I’ll most likely use more anatomy, physiology and pathol