Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lee Klein

"Philly Lit Today": Commentary from Philly Writers

#4 in a series--

Your question is about the literary community in Philadelphia, right?

First, the phrase “literary community” suggests to me something I want little to do with. Writers read and write. These are solo activities. They do not require communities.

“Literary community” also suggests a gathering of writers doing what they tend not to do so well: reading their writing aloud to writers who daydream while writers read their writing . . .

I’ve been to few readings in Philly, largely because if I’m going to leave my $495 studio in South Philly and not watch the 76ers or Phillies that night—or read, write, watch a movie, or endrunken alone with a special friend—I tend to like to attend readings of people I know, or writers I’ve read (and want to see how they talk and walk and respond to inevitable questions about their “process”).

I also like when readings are in bars or small bookstores. As far as I know, there’s nothing like the KGB Bar here. Such places create a feeling of community. As did readings at the Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City when I lived there. Almost every night, well-attended readings generally followed by open invitations to move the crowd to a bar or a house party. Frequent readings followed by house parties create community.

“Community” involves a sense that others care about what you care about, a sense that you’re not alone, which in Philly, for me, has not been the case, maybe in part because I don’t attend readings at the Kelly Writers’ House or where else? This is a major city, but it doesn’t seem to me to have much of a traditional literary culture, at least not compared with other places I’ve lived, especially NYC and Iowa City, which isn’t really a fair comparison.

I had trouble dealing with this perceived lack till I realized that my god it’s really a “literary community” in the finest way, in that it’s not so much about lazy no-talents sitting around drinking while dissing writers with book deals (and talent, and skills, and work ethics), but it’s an inexpensive city with as many serious problems as concealed beauties, mostly inhabited by people who don’t give a shit about what you think about their so-called fashion statements, unlike in NYC, where exteriors are much more impressive in part because exteriors are much more considered.

One of the things you do if you move to Philly is justify your existence here to people from elsewhere. One of the things I’ve said semi-recently is that Philly, since I moved here in July 2006 from Iowa City, after four years in Brooklyn, has been about interiors. There’s more interior psychological space to get work done (than in NYC). And more interior physical space, living cheaply alone, also enables the solitude necessary for doing what writers do: spend time alone, reading and writing, undistracted by good things happening involving literary communities. But then when you go outside to meet friends (who may also write), there’s fucked up shit to talk about (with literary stuff always waiting as a fallback topic) and the drinks are cheap (and you can afford them because you don’t pay much rent).

It’s dangerous to compare Philly to NYC, however, because NYC is the total jawn. The Bronx surely has Philly’s grit, and it’s a comparatively short $2 MetroCard ride—instead of a $10 Chinatown bus trip—from hot literary readings. But if you consider one of the other meanings of the word “readings,” as in “impressions” etc, Philly’s not a bad place to be, as long as you’re not here to participate in a sort of literary culture that doesn’t involve sitting alone in a cheap room over near a pair of dueling cheesesteakeries.

But one of Philly’s drawbacks, I think, is that many, many, many people you might meet might not be the most driven people on the planet, which is totally cool if you don’t mind hanging out with stoned folks playing Guitar Hero. But if that sort of attitude infects you, slows you down, tars the feathers of your creative soul, beware. One thing that’s energizing about NYC is that pretty much everyone’s got some sort of project going on. Lots of people are producing stuff, and not always with a sense of doing it for the least shred of success. More so, inspiration tends to occur so often it almost sort of justifies the high rents . . .

In Philly, the attitude seems entirely different. But, basically, I’d say that Philly is a great place to get work done, especially if working is your primary goal. If you want to make some connections, get exposed to a lot of things across various art forms, live with roommates, stay out in bars till four in the morning, and take on serious credit-card debt, I suggest you do what it takes to move to NYC.

Either place is good and necessary, depending on where you’re at as a writer.

Monday, February 11, 2008

CA Conrad

"Philly Lit Today": Commentary from Philly Writers

#3 in a series--

Thank you for inviting me to write something for this King. I've been living in Philadelphia since 1986, but started coming here for poetry readings in 1984. It's almost not fair to compare the times since in the end time has nothing to do with fairness, so instead of talking about the old days by way of comparison I'll just launch into what is Now.

We're living in a city which is being destroyed by millionaires and billionaires. No two ways about it. What Donald Trump did to the artists of New York City these other men will do to us here in Philadelphia. But while we're here, while we're still able to afford our apartments, and while we're all having to work harder and harder and more and more hours of work each week to keep our heads above the filth of a greedy few, THERE IS POETRY! More poetry than ever! Poetry of every kind! Poetry readings every night of the week somewhere in the city or the surrounding area, you don't have to look hard or far for it, poetry is a mighty force today in the city of brotherly and sisterly Love!

I've just recently turned 42. When I was just a kid learning to find my way to poetry, falling in Love with it, the poets I was reading at that time were mostly dead, in fact some of them dead for centuries. But upon turning 42, I find myself realizing that my favorite poets TODAY are my friends! It's a beautiful thing. My friends show me their latest poems and I'm in awe, I'm in Love, and I feel fortunate, very fortunate. I would not trade this time or this city for any other. Philadelphia taught me how to fall in Love with the world, and as corny as that may sound it's VERY true!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Wilson Out!

The big lit news in Philly this week is Frank Wilson's sudden retirement as Book Editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I may have some comments on the situation upcoming.
NEXT UP: Another great local writer in our "Philly Lit Today" series.