Bay Area Lit Scene: SPD Beast Crawl

Review By Turner Canty, Omnidawn Features Writer

Who: Clay Banes (Host), Meg Taylor, JTH, Ben Mirov, Amanda Nadelberg, Joshua Edwards, Lynn Xu
What: First Annual Beast Crawl: Leg One, hosted by Small Press Distribution
Where: Awaken Café, 1429 Broadway Oakland, CA 94612
When: Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Poems from the readers follow the feature.

This year something new and exciting happened one Saturday, in which certain aspiring go-getters started a literary pub-crawl in downtown Oakland. What followed was an amazingly well-rounded night of high-jinks and literature that somehow managed to revive me from my usual forlorn state. This relatively straightforward, but brilliant idea was named Beast Crawl, and although I attended a few of the night’s events, I’ve chosen to write about the Small Press Distribution (SPD) reading that occurred at Awaken Café.

To clarify, the Beast Crawl took place in three rounds, each round consisting of a dozen or so readings hosted at different venues in and around downtown Oakland. It’s also important to note that this event was free, and organized simply by a group of poets with no collective agenda, or profit-seeking motivation; not to mention, the performances were totally killer.

Clay Banes served as the curator for SPD’s portion of the Beast Crawl, and chose a wide array of talents to perform, including his own. Since there were seven readers, things flowed at a brisk pace, beginning with the curator himself. Banes, who was subbing for Peter Van Kleef, read three mirthful poems. Each was gastronomically entitled, beginning with “Frozen Pizzas,” then “Barbecue Flavored Potato Chips,” and finally “Toast Sandwiches.” The first two poems were simple lyrical self parodies in homage to their titular items. I was drawn to a line in “Barbecue Flavored Potato Chips,” in which Banes proclaims “They bring me pleasure / My only pleasure / It is sick I love them so.” Banes’ final work, “Toast Sandwiches,” was a bit more complex, as Banes lead us through a narrative of further self-delusion: two sparrows (who are ambiguously related to each other) debate the merits of toasted sandwiches filled with toast. The accelerating absurdity of Banes’ work made each of these poems more hilarious than the last, and left me with a strange, almost pastoral, hunger.

Next to read was Meg Taylor, who wanted us to know that she “wished she could be as funny as Clay,” but had chosen to read about hearts, which are of course not funny at all–ever. Taylor read a long work containing an interrogative personal narrative with a strong focus on the metonymy of hearts. Initially Taylor’s prose seemed intentionally flat, with talk of a store where hearts are so under-valued that “if you spend over thirty dollars, you get a heart for free.” Yet as Taylor included more of her character’s personal struggle with her family and hometown, her lines began to expand in scope and color. What emerged was a battle between attachment and the desire to define oneself. Taylor illustrated this conflict most beautifully in a scene in which the protagonist of the work confronts her parents: “It’s not them after all, they are only hearts, it’s your need to get away from all the boxes. You’re not ready to destroy the past, but you explain, holding their forehands in your two, that if you stay another day, you’ll burn their house down.”

After Taylor, Banes introduced the enigmatic JTH. JTH began his poems with little introduction, and spoke with a soft steady voice. “There is a means towards forms, to see through forms / drawn out of thin air, produced into existence by the memories they excite / through thought,” JTH’s initial lines began. As JTH continued to read, I began to feel as if he was investigating a sort of personal lexicon, maybe even mapping it out in phrases. Later I found out the poems he read were spatially based, and had neither stanzas nor linear constructions. In their ruminations these poems touched on widely different subject matter including the relationships of sparrows, spatial dimensions, light, human association, and many other systematic concepts. It was hard to decipher JTH’s imagery at times, but that may have been his intention, and I really enjoyed JTH’s more ambitious proclamations, such as “Beyond salvation in its call / time is echoed by a sounding form / by the projects of solid interpretation between distinct objects / a gaze into it’s event horizon.”

Ben Mirov was next to read, and came to the mic with an intensity that changed the quality of the reading right away. The poems Mirov shared came from a series entitled “A Few Ideas from My Void Box.” Mirov delivered these numbered works from about a foot away from the mic, and spoke in an elevated tone like a history teacher who has lost touch with reality. However, instead of history, Mirov’s focus was mostly on himself, or at least his lack of dignity. “I am the duke of failed ideas / I stand idly by, as storm troopers raid the panty-shack, in distant parts of the world immense pain radiates outward, like a pack of unthreatening weevils,” Mirov avowed. After sharing with us a poem about getting high with the ocean in a dorm room, Mirov vehemently apologized for reciting his poems out of order, although I suspect he was making the numbers up as he went along. Mirov finished with a poem numbered “000… doesn’t matter,” in which he exclaimed “I’m going to travel to a distant point in space, step out of my idea wagon and plant my gasping flag in a mound of trash.” At this point I began to see Mirov as a sort of 21st-century Tennyson, trapped in the frivolity of his own time, and baron to a country estate too quaint to be taken seriously but still totally enjoyable.

Amanda Nadelberg followed, and steered the reading towards an equally enthralling postmodern direction, albeit with a more somber tone than Mirov’s. Still, like Mirov, Nadelberg weaved the trivial in with the profound, or faux-profound. For instance, Nadelberg’s first poem, “Cheslov,” started with a pointed reference to the animated movie “American Tale” and somehow related the film to flip-flops that said “Just Maui’d” on the bottom, as if someone with a speech impediment had spoken “Just Married.” These things served as funny anecdotal devices, but also allowed Nadelberg to talk about subjects like anti-Semitism and exile in an undeniably original way. Nadelberg read with a soft emotional touch, speaking some lines as if on the verge of tears. Although at times her tone seemed strained, I think Nadelberg chose her words well, and seemed to have an intuitive sense of emotional complexity in her work. In her next poem Nadelberg gracefully told us: “and the people, these American people have spoken, we love your heart they say. You can have it I say to the people,” a thought that seemed at once political and formidable in the present digital age.

With Amanda Nadelberg’s thoughts on love, American Tale, and flip-flops still spinning in our heads, Joshua Edwards came to the mic and admitted that the work he had chosen to read was “kind of a downer.” Maybe it was to Edwards, but I found the work that followed to be a pretty epic downer at the least. “Days of the Bat,” a novella in verse which Edwards read from, struck me as a great modernistic ‘quest for knowledge’ kind of poem. In this work, Edwards states, “The blue sky is supported by mountains / heaven is held up by columns of sin / do I see enough of what surrounds me / I am modern / what is my tragedy.” It’s hard to say where Edwards stands in modern poetic traditions. At least from my perspective he seems perpendicular to straightforward self-referential work, but instead opts to take bigger risks by painting pictures of grandeur and contrasting them with existential anxiety. For example, in “Days of the Bat” Edwards went on to say “all Aspects of time / but hopefulness / and hope is the philosophy of birth / what is birth if not the birth of a mouth / what is life if not vocabulary / and what is death if not a final word that stretches out into eternity.” All in all, Edwards seemed to have a strong sense of direction, one which seemed too large to view in just one reading, and which I’m excited to seek out in the future.

After Edwards left us with a nice one-line poem about dying and parrots, Lynn Xu, Edwards’ wife, stood up to read. Xu perused a similar path as Edwards, but with more direct association to her subjects. For Beast Crawl, Xu choose to read from a series of lullabies, “for the wayward of spirit, mind, and body.” Lullabies for the dead perhaps, although Xu didn’t make that explicit. Each poem was dedicated to a deceased poet, with a list including Shelley, Crane, Holderlin, Mandlestam, and others. In each of these poems, Xu’s language teemed with spectacular imagery, described with a chilling touch. For instance, in her poem to Shelley, Xu shared these lines: “No crew remembers me / I felt the final inch / around my feet the sea / no more a child / did take me for its bride.” Or in her work to Crane: “Are these pillars, or are these waves slicing my cheeks like scuds of wheat, eyelid by eyelid, dividing me” (sorry for my lack of accurate punctuation). By featuring each dedication so prominently, Xu’s “lullabies” seemed to personify the dead poet, but her imaginative lines tended to blur any historical accuracy into surrealism. In the end, Xu’s manipulations created a nice aesthetic that was neither contemporary nor anachronistic, kind of like a Google image search for J. M. W. Turner in 3D.

Once Xu had completed her final lullaby, the night came to a close for SPD. I was pretty delighted in the literary powwow offered by the evening. I think the readers gave everyone a nicely varied, and enjoyably contemporary time. Ben Mirov generously gave some of his books away, and people finished the beverages in haste in order to get to the next leg of the Beast Crawl, which was set to start in a spare fifteen minutes. With the enthusiasm of the night still growing beyond the SPD reading, I would think that the organizers of the Beast Crawl will repeat their feat next year. Hopefully with just as much, if not more, Beastliness.


Clay Banes

Barbecue Flavored Potato Chips



from Distinctive Shatter


Lynn Xu

Lullaby for Guillaume Apollinaire

1 comment for “Bay Area Lit Scene: SPD Beast Crawl

  1. Paul Corman-Roberts
    August 16, 2012 at 7:38 am

    Also notable about the SPD reading at the Awaken Cafe was that it was supposed to happen at Van Kleef’s but the bar wouldn’t open for the poets, so the SPD gang shuffled on down the street to the Awaken to follow the Kelsey Street reading that night. Big shout out and thank you to MG Roberts, Kelsey St Press, Awaken Cafe, and the patience of SPD to hang through and finish the reading, and hopefully this won’t go so haywire next year!

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