robertisenberg

Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

The New Yorker Mention

In Uncategorized on August 28, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Autumn Foliage 038

Fifteen years ago, I picked up my first New Yorker in an optomotrist’s office, shortly before the doctor dilated my eyes and I had to wear sunglasses for two days. My Dad was the one who introduced me. “This might be right up your alley,” he said. “It caters to the literary crowd.”

Indeed, it was love at first sight. The challenging language. The gentle sense of humor. And so many cartoons!

Last year I cancelled my subscription, because there is no way to keep up with a weekly magazine that boasts 10,000-word articles. Also, the stacks of old volumes were moldering in my basement. So I sadly donated them to my local library’s “free” bin and began reading the magazine online. Sigh.

I have two major goals in life: To be interviewed by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” and to somehow contribute to The New Yorker.

Yesterday, my friend Seàn called me and said to check the New Yorker‘s online edition, specifically the “Book Bench” blog. A year-and-a-half ago, Seàn and I started an online literary magazine called Ophelia Street. From co-editing this journal, we discovered that (a) I’m a really lousy editor, and (b) it’s hard to get people interested in cool literature (as opposed to, say, stuff on cats, or hot chicks with douche-bags, or awkward family photos). Few people seemed interested, and our journal turned anemic. As we lost steam, we also lost interest. Today, Ophelia Street is a monument to a happy year-long experiment.

But when I took Seàn’s advice, my jaw dropped: There, in my precious New Yorker, was a mention of Ophelia Street, along with a dozen other established Pittsburgh journals (most of which I considered far, far out of our league). You can read the blog here.

So now I’m just waiting for a call from Terry Gross.

The New Yorker Mention

In Pittsburgh on August 28, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Autumn Foliage 038

Fifteen years ago, I read my first New Yorker. My Dad introduced my to it, at an optometrist’s office, shortly before the doctor dilated my eyes and I had to wear sunglasses for two days. It was love at first sight: The erudite language. The gentle sense of humor.

Since then, I’ve had two goals: To be interviewed by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” and to somehow contribute to the pages of The New Yorker.

This is part of the reason I co-founded Ophelia Street, an online journal I edited with my friend Seàn. I wanted Pittsburgh to have a literary magazine that was updated daily, offered quality writing and multi-media, and had a good sense of humor to boot.

What I learned was twofold:

(1) I am not a very good editor.

(2) Nobody actually likes lit journals, except people who want to be published in them, and most of those people are too unmotivated to actually submit.

So after a year, Seàn and I decided to take a permanent hiatus (this affected him more, since he was a much more responsible editor).

Yesterday, Seàn called me and said to check out The New Yorker website. He didn’t explain why, and I sensed a surprise. And then, under “Book Bench,” I found it: Ophelia Street had been mentioned, along with a dozen other Pittsburgh journals. Somehow, we had attracted the attention of Macy Halford, a New Yorker writer. My dream had come true. You can read it here.

Now I’m just waiting for a call from Terry Gross.

Pogopalooza:3

In Pittsburgh on August 27, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Random Pittsburgh 028

See the story in Pittsburgh’s City Paper.

Pogopalooza: 2

In Pittsburgh on August 27, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Random Pittsburgh 047

See the rest of the story in Pittsburgh’s City Paper.

Pogopalooza: 1

In Pittsburgh on August 27, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Random Pittsburgh 050

See the full story in Pittsburgh’s City Paper.

The Fall of Castle Isenberg

In Germany on August 26, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Arkipelagos Castle Isenberg

The following is an excerpt from The Iron Mountain, now available by Sabella Press. The photograph above was taken in the ruins of Burg Isenberg.

A small army arrives at Castle Isenberg. If there is anyone left inside the structure, they find a way to leap down from the walls, or escape through the sally gate. The Castle is empty, abandoned. When the army arrives, warmed against the bitter cold by woolen tunics, they dismount and chop at the door. Or they cut down a tree and ram it into the door until it finally falls open. It’s frightening, how empty the castle is. Only chickens peck at the frosted ground.

The invaders make a sweep of the keep and gatehouse and living quarters. They make camp in the many chambers, in the cellars, anywhere they can. They have much work to do.

In the following weeks and months, they cut down more trees. They gather scraps of wood and branches from the forest, whipping them against the ground to clear away snow and ice. The piles of brush and timber grow. Meanwhile, they take picks and axes and start chopping away at the walls. They dig holes, small tunnels. They drive their tools into the stonework, digging out the mortar, chipping away at the masonry until the metal is blunted. They work day and night. The days pass slowly. Their heads ring with the sounds of banging and scraping. The tink of metal on stone grows repetitive, then maddening. But they continue with their work.

They spend Christmas and the New Year in the freezing castle. Some grow fond of it, wondering why they must chip at the walls. It seems like such a waste. After sleeping in warm beds – stolen from the former Master – after enjoying the large quarters of a nobleman, they wonder why they can’t just stay here, managing the castle, watching over the Ruhr. They drink beer at night and each morning watch the sun rise over the valley. It seems so insensible to deface such a magnificent fortress. But they continue. They have their orders. They have no choice. They must undo what has been done.

And they know, just as well as the new Archbishop, that such a stronghold will stand the test of time. Someone will steal the castle – the sons of Isenberg, perhaps – and no-one would dare besiege it. Castle Isenberg is too grand, too dangerous to be left alone. The soldiers cut rifts into the stone, breaking away the brittle rock. No ropes can pull down these walls. No catapult or trebuchet could pierce them. The stacks of wood grow, until sometime in January or February, in the most oppressive overcast of winter, when they start to move the wood.

They jam the logs into the holes in the walls. They fill the rifts with kindling and dead grass and browned leaves. They fill every nook and cranny with dry wood, anything organic – dung, oil, animal fat.

Then they light the torches.

They carry their torches to the walls. They reach over with their balls of crackling flame. The fire touches on the kindling. The fire sparks and snarls. The fire expands, spreading along the logs and bundles of twigs. It ignites, explodes. The fire leaps and vomits sparks into the air. The heat is welcome at first, then overwhelming. The fire climbs the walls, eating through the mortar. Burning stones are spit into the air, singing and whistling before they hit the ground. The fire snakes along the inner-structure of the towers, coating the ceiling, smoking through the floorboards, consuming the empty rooms (for now every possession has been stolen – payment for a job well done). The window-frames collect the fire, then fall into each other – gushing smoke, splitting into chunks of ember and glowing coal. Then the violent crash of the floors collapsing – first the roof caving into the sixth floor of the gatehouse, falling into the fifth, the fourth; without floors to keep the stonework stable, the tower itself begins to implode, sucking into itself, the stonework cracking, swallowed into the tower’s belly, betrayed by its own immeasurable weight.

The soldiers cheer – a requisite, bittersweet cry, for it is a relief to be finished, to know that they are going home, the task is complete, mission accomplished. As they ride and march away, along the lonely road, through the thick forest, the air is suffocated with smoke. Though they face away from the billowing flames, the mushroom cloud of the castle they have wrecked, they can smell their work – the chalky smell of destruction, the smell of a dynasty turning to ash.

The Iron Mountain is available on Amazon.

The Iron Mountain

In Uncategorized on August 24, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Castle Isenberg

Dear Friends,

A lifelong dream has come true: My first book, The Iron Mountain, is now available online. Thanks to my publisher, Sabella Press, and my awesome editor, Ed Parris, my three-year-old manuscript has become a real book.

What’s it about, you ask?

Murder and revenge, of course.

In 1227, Friedrich von Isenberg plotted to kidnap his cousin, the Archbishop of Cologne. What followed was a cavalcade of misunderstandings, assassinations, papal politics and 60 years of bloody vengeance. Eight centuries later, I visited the ruins of Castle Isenberg to unravel the mystery of Friedrich’s life, armed only with self-taught German and a degree in Medieval Studies. The Iron Mountain is a chronicle of that journey.

If Braveheart was mixed with Julie & Julia, it would look something like this.

The Iron Mountain is now available on Amazon and at the Sabella Press website.

Buskers : 3

In Uncategorized on August 21, 2009 at 12:00 pm

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As I crossed the square to the Acropolis, I saw a man standing alone. He wore white make-up and a white cassock and head-scarf. He moved every few minutes, modifying his pose, but still standing as still as possible. In the U.S., we tend to call these “living statues,” but there seemed a religious inspiration. Was this a saint? A poltergeist? What art thou that usurp’st this time of night?

When I snapped a picture, the Statue swiveled his head. His hand, already held in the air, extended an index finger, which then pointed downward. You take picture, you give money, the gesture said.

Ah, my nod replied.

I dropped a €2 coin into his velvet-lined box. I felt this was generous: $3 for a snapshot, twice the price for a cheap postcard. But the Statue pointed again; his Grim Reeper countenance looked even grimmer. I chuckled and shook my head. No, that’s it.

And before he could break character and chase after me, I eased into the crowd and turned a corner, into the bazaar, vanishing with my saintly icon.

Buskers : 2

In Uncategorized on August 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

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But I have some rules about buskers:

* They cannot interact with me. No magic, no hypnotism. If they talk, they must talk to a crowd. I love mimes (I might be the only American who will ever say this), but I can build my own imaginary wall, thank you.

* They must be friendly. I once met an angry magician in St. Paul — judging by his voice and timbre, you’d think he was a Malcolm X impersonator, not a guy in a top-hat who made cards disappear.

* Talent is appreciated. A pair of jugglers I saw in Greece dropped their pins three times in five minutes. Although they might have just been enduring an off-day. When my friends Brad, Fred and I went to the Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee, the resident clown, Melody, was the unfunniest human I’ve ever met. She also messed up her rope trick and blamed it on Fred.

* They can’t expect money. If they are amazing — and I mean amazing — I might drop some spare coins into their violin case. Cruel luck may also win me over: Sensory impairment, spina bifida, missing limbs. But really, if they’re playing the saxaphone all day in the sunshine; they’re perfectly healthy; they’re wearing new shoes; they’re not starving; and I didn’t ask them to play, I feel no tug of obligation. I mean, “When the Saints Come Marching In” is a great song, but seriously.

Buskers : 1

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2009 at 12:00 am

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I love theatre. And I love interacting with people. But not at the same time.

“Busking” is the industry term for street performance. They come in all varieties: Jugglers, musicians, illusionists, fire-throwers, sword-swallowers. The first busker I remember seeing was in San Francisco — a skinny African-American man standing on a box, whose arms and torso moved like a robot. Each time his body jolted into a new position, there was a zoom sound, like machines whirring. Since I was only 11, it took me a second to realize that he had stuffed a kazoo in his mouth. Even at this age, I liked the buskers because he (a) didn’t interact with anybody, (b) didn’t ask for money, (c) had a clever, inimitable shtick, and (d) made me ponder the mechanization of man.

Pondering the mechanization of man was what I did instead of collecting baseball cards. Which is why I had no friends.

My favorite busker was the Gold Elvis of Duvall Street. My Key West experience is inextricably linked to this silent Elvis impersonator, who was layered head-to-toe with gold paint and make-up. Again, this Elvis did nothing to interact with passersby; if people felt like it, they could wave him over and take a picture. When I was visiting Key West, it was both Spring Break and Bike Week; as if the Harleys and drunk sorority girls weren’t enough, Duvall Street is a kind of omnisexual mecca, where sex shops abound. Jeb Bush may have frowned on Key West behavior, but anything goes on Duvall.