Rollerdrome and the MillionaireFred Smith's Rollerdrome and the Millionaire was the last book Black Sparrow Press published. The legendary small publisher, chiefly sustained by its lucrative promotion of Charles Bukowski, ceased all publications in July 2002, selling its backlist to several companies, including Harper-Collins and David Godine. We are fortunate, however, to have this book, Smith's first, in print, even if just barely.
Smith's poems are mechanically sound engines built with technical know-how and the life experience of his 68 years. A student of prominent New Critic poet Allen Tate, his verse is formally conscious, working primarily in lines of eight syllables. Those lines are unadorned with concerns of contemporary social analysis, mythological comparison, textual ambiguity or paratactic discharge. There's a transparency of purpose with refreshing humor instead, the language plain as the nose on your face. What we find are compressed narratives of family conflict, Japanese portraits, fifties-era catch-22 Air Force capers or sexual realization (i.e. more conflict). "These were the repressed fifties and / sixties," he writes. "Before psychiatrists / voted to drop being queer from / their list of diseases. He thought / he had to go straight in order / to be cured."
The book's major divisions of narrative show a progression of concerns, moving from family to friends and lovers. While the work here expresses great tenderness for the often awful situations and encounters one survives, there is a dread understanding also:
I believe life is a dubious
gift, a heavy burden of
ignorance and stupidity, passed
with enmity and vengeance from
one generation to the next.
What the Bible means by sins of
the parents to the third and fourth
even the last generation. (47)
The book's first section, "Children, Parents and Other Observations," casts a cool eye on fifties family dysfunction. Unlike short stories, these poems offer compressed vignettes, like looking through peepholes into other lives. Sadly, we discover through Smith's blunt but subtly humorous poems, how sexual preferences or decisions alienate families from within.
When their older son came home
from the navy, he announced to
friends and family he was gay.
Friends took the news easily enough
but his parents took it pretty
hard. After much soul-searching
and consulting with the pastor
of their church, they decided to
disown him. To kick him out of
the family business. And to rally
round their younger son. What they
didn't know was that this son, still
in high school, had asked his brother
to buy him muscle books. And was
hustling Friday and Saturday nights
on Polk Street in San Francisco. (27)
Family division broadens into disaffection for religion and other aspects of American culture. Being gay is painful for the sudden awareness it forces, but liberation from the norm also puts one at ease, permitting liberation from the past.
...After mass Father
Jeffrey asked me why I didn't
take communion. "I no longer
believe, I hadn't been to
confession, I wasn't in a
state of grace." "You should have taken
it anyway, it would do you good." (53)
Other poems continue this examination of religion, social change and private conflict with public mores. While "The Millionaire" relates the story of a man who loses his job for giving money to needy children, poems from "Robert's Book" often portray the unglamorous reality of gay liberation.
Sex was so much simpler in the
old days. All you had to worry
about then was clap and syph, crabs
and maybe scabies....
... Clean-cut young
men aren't supposed to have bugs
on their bodies, the same way nice
children don't have head lice but do.
Now there is herpes, the amebic
diseases, venereal warts,
and hepatitis B. Even
before AIDS doctors wrote articles
describing gay men as walking
sewers. No one said colons were
beautiful, only that they were
sexy. For Elizabethans
dying meant having sex. Now sex
means maybe dying when more than
60 percent of gays in San
Francisco are reported to be
HIV positive.... (160-161)
The advent of new diseases shortly after gay acceptance into mainstream American culture is an irony Smith considers closely. Instead of the adventure of illicit sex, discreet encounters and thrilling orgasms with strangers, gay men assimilated to yuppie value-systems to administer legal protections provided by a government that possibly engineered AIDS to kill them.
AIDS has made Kevin into some-
what of a lawyer. Or at least
he thinks he is. He brings home forms
for do-it-yourself wills, living wills,
and powers of attorney meant
to protect lovers and roommates
from family and relatives who
avoid their gay son or brother
while alive, but rush in after
death to pick the estate apart.... (162)
Smith respects the fatal boundaries ignored by the unconscious predators who peripherally plague his narrative poems. Predatory conflicts return to haunt his friends and the larger gay community. He shares Blake's ideal for brotherhood, both indifferent to the moral labels of good and evil. You are either wise to the scene, or you're a fool. "Men who like women are boring," Smith writes, "specially their cigars. I've always / felt sorry for women who have / to put up with these men, sex / and other favors." (216) Sensitive intelligence and care for others' difference makes for sane living. A sane life amidst the terror of American social forms might be a quick reduction to pin on this book.
By roughly restricting his lines to eight syllables, Smith achieves an emotional distance from his narrative content. Such formal pressure gives access to a deeper presentation of his stories, leading him to registrations free verse forms often fail to realize. A restricted form brings focus to the depth field of language, history and personal narrative while freer forms put pressure on the writer's subjective impetus, relying on that to penetrate the complex and competing components of the self and its psychic content. Smith's union of native speech patterns with a tight poetic form presents an illusion of ease and transparency. This is achieved, however, with considerable care, craftsmanship and trust in the poem to find and reveal what lies hidden in his creative matrix. His distance also registers the predatory conditions that are hidden behind a smile, an out-stretched hand or behind an office cubicle. The form deflates his anger so that he finds in these life situations the recurring patterns ripe with desire, fear and love. That practice of generous observation bestows pleasure on the reader, relieving the plainspoken but dramatic tensions of the Rollerdrome.
I wrote the above two years ago when the book first appeared. Without any sales effort on the part of the now defunct publisher, Smith's book sinks out of view from a wider public audience. A quick google of his name and the name of the book comes up with no reviews, only sales mentions by determined book sites with automated inventories. You can probably purchase it for a fraction of the original cover price.
There's no time to go on a long rant about the woeful state of poetry publishing in the US. Others detail it more thoroughly. Steve Evans, in a recent article in the New England-based print journal, The Poker (Daniel Bouchard, ed. / P.O. Box 3990408, Cambridge, MA 02139), exhaustively details the system of reciprocity and prize money that supports commercial poetry enterprises with publication, grants and awards. Most of what you'll find at Borders will have been filtered through this system, and you can find out more about it than you'd like to know by browsing the grants and awards sections in the quarterly magazine Poets & Writers. A book like Smith's, and many others, won't play a part in this system. As everyone knows, quality means nothing unless it's acknowledged by the hyperconscious machinery of award-based poetry mills, fuelled by MFA programs, private and government grants and books prizes and contests.
Evans's piece is useful enough, though it does nothing to evaluate or consider over-looked work like Smith's. That's not the point. He registers a particular moment in a market, considering a product more extensive than any purchaser can follow. Evans relates market variables in a vast impression of social phenomena. It's staggering what he finds in sheer pages of over-production. With so much available you'd think Americans would be carrying a renegade book of self-published poems under their arms to work everyday along with the NY Times. But while Evans follows the money trail of awards (Frank Bidart received "roughly a quarter of a million dollars in seven years," Ellen Bryant Voigt took home more than $150,000; Louise Glück, $100,000, Nick Flynn, $75,000, etc), I was left discomfited by what seemed a performance in part, as if measuring the depth and flow of the river of shit could somehow be meaningful.
The idea of the Significant matters. That within the broad flat of American economy, poets somehow manage to create meaningful and important work outside a system of award and reciprocity is important to realize, and is Evans' point to a large degree. My approach is to examine carefully individual authors-select the single from the many, the significant within the numerous. That said, Evans has chosen a broad field for analysis, and it's topically interesting. See his site www.thirdfactory.net for more commentary, notes and book lists relating to contemporary poetics. A University of Maine professor and critic, he registers a broad swatch of contemporary writing. His effort keeps work in mind, just one step short of the void. And read The Poker, a great new journal.
and the Millionaire
Black Sparrow Press
The Poker 4
(writers published in the first three issues of this small journal include Alice Notley, Ange Mlinko and Fanny Howe, to name but a few)