His was a seemingly innocent question. I was prone in my dentist’s chair about to wait ten eventless minutes in the process of having a crown put in when Brian, my dentist, asked, “Did you bring a Kindle?” He was offering to retrieve it from the waiting room so that I’d have something to read. Brian knows I own a bookstore, often he asks questions about the business. It was a thoughtless question he fairly quickly tried to make disappear by saying, “Oh, of course you wouldn’t.” A little embarrassment on his part. On my part? Nothing. My Amazon-piercible skin has grown pretty damn thick over the years.
But oh my, aren’t there so many, many darts with Amazon’s smile/smirk painted on them! I feel them almost daily. The first time I took a customer’s Amazon-issued credit card for a purchase in my bookstore I had a kind of core spasm and couldn’t make eye contact when I handed the card back. Now it’s a common enough occurrence I am only slightly chilly during whatever’s left of our interaction. I bet only I feel the temperature drop.
I told Brian I had a book bag on the coatrack which he then brought me. He seems like an overly sensitive soul and I bet he was still regretting his question. I had registered it but wasn’t about to launch my anti-Amazon rant. I feed and groom that rant but rarely trot it out for others anymore. I admire the rant’s markings and its passion, but I’m tired of showing it off.
Those darts. Even if they don’t touch a nerve I feel the thunk before they fall off. There’s an Amazon Fresh truck that drives past my store what feels like twenty times a day, ostensibly delivering groceries. There’s a grocery store seven blocks up the street but it’s comfortable in the realm of dominating mega corporations, being a Kroger property, so I give it no particular affection. My peeve is with Amazon the bookseller. That’s how they began and still, when most any book is mentioned favorably in the media, even on NPR call-in shows, the odds are very good the phrase “You can get it on Amazon” will come into play. And at least once a month we will be contacted by an author hoping to place his or her book in our store who tells us we can get the book from Amazon. It’s amazing how that company has taken hold in our cultural landscape, like the English Sparrow has. There’s an apt simile since those birds take over native birds’ nests and drive them off. Oh-oh, the rant is growing restless in its pen. Calm down, friend.
There was a copy of an uncorrected proof of Ed Skoog’s second poetry collection, Rough Day, to be published in June of this year in the book bag Brian brought me. It’s a great book of poetry by thoroughly delightful character, one I look forward to selling. And there was a copy of one of the pamphlets in the New Directions Poetry Pamphlet series, Number 3, The Helens of Troy, NY, by Bernadette Mayer. The title is taken from the musical Helen of Troy New York and each of the biographical poems bears the name of an actual Helen from Troy and is accompanied by a black and white photo of the subject. The poems are funny and interesting, with the overall feeling being of a delicious comic wistfulness. “Helen Hypatia Baily Bayly” begins “besides not being from ancient troy / helen bailey hails from australia / her middle name is hypatia, her mother / thought if her first name was helen / her 2nd had to be the greek mathematician / stoned by st. cyril whom she pissed off.”
If I wasn’t a bus rider with several blocks to walk I would have brought along Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer, a compelling hardcover from Graywolf Press. I guess if I owned a Kindle the weight would not have been an issue, but each real book has physical requirements which I am pleased to accept in order to completely own the work in all its distinctiveness. Books, bless each one, have character beyond their two dimensional data. To be allowed in on the correspondence of those two poets via text on paper, each of them a crucial component in the development of poetry in latter half of the Twentieth Century, is a pleasure and the opportunity for a wondrous education.
But back to the darts. This winter I was asked to join a committee judging books of poetry in translation. When I was invited I was told that Amazon provided the organizing entity money for the award and ceremony. I thought that that wouldn’t matter to me. It didn’t during our deliberations, and I was quite pleased that the winner, which I can’t name now because it isn’t public knowledge yet, was my favorite book from all those we considered. But then I saw my and my bookstore’s names in the press release that led with Amazon’s participation and I felt a considerable thunk. I thought about associating with Amazon professionally, about accepting the stipend from their money judges were offered, and realized I couldn’t do it. I wrote to the fellow in charge of the contest and told him I wouldn’t judge next year, explaining why. The rant was glimpsed in that e-mail, but only briefly.
Thank you, books by Bernadette Mayer, Ed Skoog, Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer, for your contributions to my life. Thank you books in general, you darling, transporting objects. You make it easier to get around in this strange culture with all these darts littering the ground. You make it easier for me to hold my head up. You give me something to look at I want to see.
John W. Marshall, along with Christine Deavel, co-owns and operates Open Books: A Poem Emporium, the seventeen-year-old poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. He publishes poetry under the name J.W. Marshall because the late, lamented Seattle Post Intelligencer had, as its book editor, a John Marshall whom this John Marshall was not. He won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, and his first book, Meaning a Cloud, was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press.
2 responses to “Keeping the Rant in its Pen”
You were a BTBA judge this year? The longlist for that prize always provides ample fodder for months of reading, but the sponsorship does give me pause. I console myself by remembering that the creators and promoters of the award (not to mention the publishers of almost all the nominees) have stalwart independent hearts.
These days I restrict my anti-Amazon ranting to polite correction. Whenever I hear someone in my store mention a Kindle, I just say, “You mean an e-reader.” I’m surprised by how often that turns into a real conversation, and by how many of those customers have never realized until that moment that it’s possible to read (and buy) ebooks in other ways.
I always thought it was those nasty starlings who’d invaded our shores and stolen native nests. I never would have suspected the meek-looking sparrow of such depravity. Live and learn, I guess.
I was on the poetry committee of the BTBA this last year. Less reading than the fiction side, for sure. It was an interesting process and I would have gladly done it again but for the company I was keeping, meaning corporate. And I am a bit of a fan of the starling because they have stunning vocal range and, I think, are sharp mimics. Several years ago I watched one on a roof taunt a cat in a driveway with what seemed to me to be flawless feline.