I'm working on a chapbook-length collection that uses 30 local city papers (a.k.a. art zines) from 30 different cities, all collected from the week of my 30th birthday. Here's the process: take a phrase from the cover and make it the piece's title; take a phrase from every single interior page, and one from the back cover, and use these phrases in the order they were found to string together a narrative. Particular challenges are those sex ads/classifieds at the end of all the city papers (a lot of my pieces have to work in a weird fetish sort of thing toward the end), as well as the nature of the constraint leading to many of the pieces sounding like first-person dramatic monologues from narrators who share the same bizarre manner of speaking. Oh, fireworks (because of July 4th events) tend to pop up frequently as well. Not to mention the Air Guitar Championships and the movies Bad Teacher, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, Midnight in Paris, and Tree of Life.
I was asked recently to articulate why this collection matters, what makes it important to me, and I thought about that a lot. Several years ago, when I was a fiction student in the MA program at the University of Cincinnati, Porochista Khakpour came to deliver a lecture and said that she'd always wanted to have a book by the time she was 30. She'd just squeaked by, as her first book, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, had been published before her 30th birthday. I was 26 at the time, and I thought I'd never be able to make a book happen by the time I was 30. But I was wrong. We Take Me Apart was published in December 2009/January 2010. I was 28.
But time passes. I'm 30 now and haven't written a book, much less thought of publishing one, since WTMA. This is why "30 Cities, 30 Years" (working title) matters to me, then, because it is commemorative. It is the first collection I've worked on since WTMA. To be honest, I had no intention of working on a manuscript right now; writing has taken a back seat to other interests, like publishing. Cow Heavy is getting a complete makeover and Lit Pub is being redesigned at this very moment! I didn't think I wanted to be writing. I thought maybe I'd pick it up again in the winter, or maybe next summer. I remember talking to Michael Kimball about this in a bar not too long ago. I said something close to what I was getting at, something like: "I'm waiting until I have something to say again." I feel like you hear writers say stupid shit like this a lot. That statement smacks of self-everything. But I meant it. WTMA got at some real things for me, at that time when I wrote it, and I haven't really FELT anything since then. But when I was asked if I could come up with about 30 pieces for a chapbook, I said yes. Practical reasons aside, I said yes because it was the right time for my 30 cities, 30 years project. The solicitation and the timing of the deadline gave me the perfect excuse to start and finish this project.
I'm starting now to really warm up to this collection. The pieces that are emerging from these city papers document the events of one week all over the U.S., from major cultural hubs like NYC, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Atlanta, as well as cities like Des Moines, Nome (Alaska), and Fort Collins. People all over the country were going to see the same movies, were all getting ready for July 4th events, were all being sold the same products (Bud Light and American Apparel, most commonly), and were also, more interestingly, dealing with issues relevant to their own cities. For example, some of the smaller city papers run Obituaries and Missing Person announcements; other, more liberal cities, seem to advertise five, six, seven different stores for medicinal marijuana, almost all of the advertisements using a busty blonde or brunette in a sexy nurse's costume to entice you on down to the clinic for a free sample with purchase of $50 or more. What's especially great to see, again and again, in all of these papers, is how they celebrate the arts. Music, from symphonies to rock concerts to local open mics; film, from artsy to blockbuster; literature, local poetry slams and open mics, mostly, but also some author events at local bookstores; museums and gallery openings of all kinds; as well as libraries, gardens, pet grooming, face painting at the farmers' markets, etc.
I'm becoming, in the process of writing these pieces, to really feel, in my own way, patriotic. Not flags and booming cannons but, like, hot dogs and cable TV. I mean, every day, every week, every month year moment, lives are happening. People are living struggling dying loving fighting going to all-night dance parties and horses-welcome patios. They're going to Broadway and '80s night at the local roller rink. They're inspiring these little pieces, these made-up voices, these other people who are beginning to collectively represent us all. In short, lest I continue to ramble on and on about the glory of the U.S. of A., it's gratifying to be working on a book again, albeit a small one, and it feels special, commemorative for my own personal reasons (e.g. birthday) but also because of the larger picture of America that seems, with every new piece, to grow clearer and stronger, filled with the voices of so many individuals living so many unique lives. It is, surprisingly, turning into an emotional writing experience, and I'm grateful for it, if for no other reason than it seems to prove that I have something to say after all this time, after all, and because the release is living up to the buildup of all that pressure to write something that would matter, if not to anyone else then at least to me.