Friday, May 27, 2011

Discussion between Dobby Gibson and Ben Weaver

The following conversation took place via email between Micawber's customers Dobby Gibson and Ben Weaver. Gibson is a Minneapolis-based poet whose most recent book is Skirmish (Graywolf Press). Weaver is a Minneapolis-based musician, cook and poet. His most recent album is Mirepoix & Smoke (Bloodshot Records).
Dobby:Hey, Ben. It seems fitting to have this conversation here, since Micawber's first connected us. Hans handed me your book and said, "You should be friends with this guy." And he handed you my book and said, "You should be friends with this guy." Just like that, a great friendship was born. It is in this way booksellers function as village priests as much as bartenders do, don’t you think? They know what everyone in the local hamlet reads and writes, and hopes to read and write. They know our secrets. And the good ones know exactly when to share them.
Ben: I agree.I think it’s similar to good cooks and chefs. My favorite is going into a restaurant and having food sent out to you that you didn't ask for,because the cook knows your taste better than you.It's a surprise and an exploration that comes from this trust rooted in taste. Maybe it also has something to do with looking in the nooks and crannies? I think Hans has a pretty good observation for what peoples’ nooks and crannies are. My girlfriend says I’m too abstract when I explain things and that I often repeat the same thing five times in order to make my point. Maybe I’m doing that here. Either way, friends that connect friends through food and books and anything else are certainly a blessing. Usually after you and I hang out I go buy at least one new book or CD. For example the Matthew Rohrer, Destroyer and Preserver — that I picked up after we had breakfast this week. And for some reason every time I see a copy of a Charles Baxter’s Gryphon I think of you. Have you been riding your bike to work? Or are you still waiting for spring?
Dobby: I’ve been biking more lately now that it’s 40F when I wake up instead of 30F, which makes all the difference to me. I’ve also been riding my old motor scooter, which lends our loveable cow town a little air of la dolce vita, even when I have to ride in mittens and snowboarding pants. Incidentally, since we’re presumably here to talk about books and art making, I think: for me, “getting around” can be fertile time for working out poems. I prefer betweenness as an art-making state in general: between wake and sleep, trying and not caring, after I’ve read something but before I’ve made up my mind. A cafe is a good place to write a poem, because I’m at some level aware I’m about to leave. I’m curious what your relationship is between your art and all of that moving around you do. And how is your new job as a butcher for Chef Mike Phillips changing your art, if at all?
Ben: “Betweenness as an art making state in general." I guess that’s why I am thankful for knowing people like you. To remind me of those things. I spent so many years thinking that I needed to sit by a window and contemplate the world going by all day in order to make good art, or to make art in general, but the truth is I was always most productive when I was doing other stuff, like working a real job. It keeps me in that constant state of betweenness and anything I write is kind of like a dream outside the rest of my life, which is what it should be. I like to write on airplanes. I feel like I’m nowhere and that’s when my ideas are most clear. I like writing on my way to work or in the locker room when I’m changing. In places of transit. Strange how we need impermanent situations to create words that will be stuck on paper or behind music permanently. Strange how in general people’s attention spans are deteriorating yet we still go on sticking words in books and songs to last, hoping to gain someone's fleeting attention. When is the last time you spoke to a stranger? Working with Chef Mike Phillips is great. He is total hero. I feel honored to be a part of his Green Ox Endeavor.
Dobby: Your work in the kitchen and your music and writing are blending together in ways that are really interesting to me. I mean, there's the mere title of your new record, Mirepoix and Smoke. But more than that, there's the way this record is unadorned, and uses only the most necessary "ingredients," so that each sound or note or word has more value. These are the same principles that are used in the kitchens you have worked in. Well, anyway, I should leave this kind of thing to Ruth Reichl. I do want to ask you here: what was the last book that you bought at Micawbers, and why did you buy it?
Ben: i just Googled Ruth Reichl. I am not very good with names and people, but now I know who is behind Gourmet magazine at least. Were you being sarcastic?

I think primitive describes a certain aesthetic or authenticity I gravitate towards. I feel a connection to things in their primitive forms and especially to things as they exist closest to their natural state in the wild. For example, with food I am not a big fan of this gastro science stuff, where half of your meal is hanging from a trapeze over the other half and you have to light something on fire and only breathe through one nostril in order to get the full effect. I am intrigued by things as they exist before humans mess with them, when they are altered from their wild state as little as possible. It’s like thinking about the way eating and people’s relationship was to food before there were farms or controlled growing and harvesting, when things grew in the wild and humans went and gathered them. I guess that pretty clearly illustrates it. The difference between someone harvesting fiddleheads or ramps as opposed to corn or tomatoes. I am not saying one is better, but I do feel that there is something more wild about the ramps and fiddleheads. And that’s where I am drawn.

Another long answer, but I guess that has something to do with why I made such a stripped down record and why I worked in restaurants with simple food.

I think the last thing I bought at Micawber's was a collection of William Stafford poems. I heard an interviewer ask him once, how he managed to write a poem every day. He responded by saying, "I lower my expectations." I really loved that. So I felt like I needed to read more of his work.

A few things I want to ask you. I love how you say in your bio.... that you live in Minneapolis where you are not an academic. How do you feel about words and your relationship to them? It seems like there are a lot of poets who thrive in academia, but you work a pretty interesting jet-setting day job. Does that affect your words?
Dobby: I don’t know about jet-setting! There’s nothing glamorous about eating a soggy airport sandwich in coach class.
I’ve thought a lot over the years whether there’s any connection between my daily vocation, as a creative director in an agency, and these books I write, which wind up in places like Micawber's. And the answer I’ve come to is: there isn’t. There is no more a relationship between my job and my poetry as there is between my job and my singing in the shower.
As far as my relationship with academe, I regret that rather sassy biographical note, which I only used once. The fact is, I’m clearly having it both ways. As an artist, there are some practical advantages to making one’s way outside of the American universities’ creative writing complex and caste system. At the same time, if I’m honest, I’m being fed artistically by that very system. I read books from university presses. I read from, and publish in, academic journals. I’m occasionally invited to read or guest lecture in university settings. Probably half of my friends are academics. So I’m only half “outsider.” I’m more triangulating, Clinton-style.
There’s an apocryphal story about the poet Wallace Stevens, who was an insurance executive by day. When he visited Yale to give a lecture, he showed a professor named Louis Martz the interior of his briefcase and said, “Now you see everything is neatly sorted out here. Over in this compartment is my insurance business with the farmers, and over in this compartment, this is my lecture and some poems that I want to read. I keep them completely separate." I can relate to that briefcase.

Dobby's most recent book can be found here and Ben's electronic home is here

I'm honored that these two guys took time to discuss their work for us.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Everything is its own reward

Every small bookstore has its pet titles that an employee handsells like crazy or uses for a book club or other promotion and puts together some pretty solid sales numbers. And we all depend on those kinds of sales along with Tina Fey and David Brooks. But recently I've been reminded of another fascinating thing--a book that really and simply sells itself.

Paul Madonna's 'All Over Coffee' runs every Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle and he had a book(with the same title) in 2007 that we had and sold a grand total of 1, I believe. Yet in the past two months we've sold a lot of copies of his newest work, "Everything is its own reward". The pen and ink drawings are good enough to allow me to use any superlative I liked but the response from customers is more telling. At least five people have said, "I have to have this book." City Lights Publishing is still mostly known for their poetry work and rightly so. But this is something different and they did it right.

Lots of people say, "What is this?" And it's a fair question as it doesn't direct the reader in one linear direction. It's kind of graphic novel, but not really. It's David Macaulay-esque but that is also not a spot-on comparison. It's an artistic collection and on his website he calls it a loose narrative. Something I didn't even realize, after looking at the book several times, is that there are no people in it. The only character is the setting. The book is $27.95 and comes with a pull-out poster that is 31x20.

We always guess at what we can sell lots of. Or we hope to find titles we can push. But there are still gems out there that we might ignore or only get a couple copies of that can move themselves if given the chance. It's something sales reps gently remind us of often and here it is in practice.