robertisenberg

Archive for the ‘Pittsburgh’ Category

My Secret Life as a DIY Publisher

In Pittsburgh on March 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm

When I woke up this morning, Lulu.com was advertising a sale: A full 20% off everything on their site. Usually I delete these notifications. I’m not a compulsive shopper. Most of my friends are not compulsive shoppers. But Lulu peddles a different kind of stock: They are a DIY publisher, and I am responsible for four of their books.

Four books? you might exclaim. When did you have time to write four books?

I should clarify that I only wrote two of these volumes, although I’m very proud of them. When I discovered Lulu in 2006, I decided to dabble in DIY publishing. In the past, the world reviled “vanity presses,” both for the con artists that ran them and their clientele of desperate weirdos. But print-on-demand has jumbled the rules. Lulu’s quality is excellent. Set-up fees can be scraped out of a glove compartment. And Lulu has seeped into giant distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, just like any other publisher.

So I played around. I wanted to give handsome gifts, and I wanted to see what my words looked like as custom-made paperbacks. When my first experiment arrived in the mail, my jaw dropped. It looked like any other book. And when an actual press published a version of my first book, The Iron Mountain, in 2007, and I frowned, because I preferred my own (except for all the typos, the downside of line-editing one’s own prose).

I’m not the only author who’s fond of Lulu. When one of my Pittsburgh heroes, John Edgar Wideman, used Lulu to publish his short-story collection Briefs, the site gained an acclaimed new champion. Lulu may not replace larger publishers, but experimental authors have found a powerful new tool.

My Lulu Books

 So what are these four titles?

320

The first is The Legend of Pangkor, one of my favorite early achievements. Pangkor is a collection of stories and essays I wrote in my mid-twenties, about all kinds of things—a heroin-addict I dated, a massage in Vietnam, a rare game of golf, life as a bike messenger, and the resplendent landscape of Iceland. The title essay is, and may always be, my very favorite story, about getting lost in the Malaysian jungle on my 21st birthday. They’re clearly the works of a young, self-edited writer, a Pittsburgh beatnik with many roommates and lots of half-baked dreams, but as my Mom said, it’s full of surprises.

320-1

The second volume is Light, and Other Plays, and I absolutely love this collection. IfPangkor is a fun experiment, Light is much more serious—these were my best one-act plays, at least the time of publication. I have since written and staged several new one-acts, but these are the formative pieces, the stuff that really defined me as a playwright (I know, who but an Arthur Miller says “the stuff that defined me as a playwright”? Just go with it). I absolutely love how this turned out. I even love the cover. When I showed it to my publishing professor, Mike Simms, at Chatham University, he described it as “beautiful.” Six months later, Simms published my actual book, The Archipelago.

320-2

The other two projects are a little more eccentric: I put together a collection of my friend’s plays, Purgatoriography, for that same publishing class. Let me put it this way: Joe Lyins is, without question, the funniest man I have ever personally known, and his plays are sheer joy. With titles like The Unbearable Lightness of Eating, these plays make me want to vacation in Joe’s head. The fact that we’re veteran comedy partners and he’s one of my closest friends biases my opinion, but not much.

320

Finally, there’s A Moment in Time. This book helped save my sanity, for unexpected reasons: I had to take an intro-to-journalism course in 2011, because it was the only class that fulfilled my final MFA requirements. Because I had already worked as a freelance journalist for 10 years, I felt that an “intro” class was a little superfluous. Luckily, Abby Mendelson is a really cool guy and a fun instructor, and my classmates were all wonderful people. To keep from nodding off in class, I offered to collect their nonfiction features into an anthology—a kind of post-class gift. No one was more enthusiastic than Abby, who bought several copies for friends and colleagues. A Moment in Time is no contendor for the Peabody Award, but it was fun to put together. And I’m fond of the cover photo, which (a) I shot in Phipps Conservatory, and (b) flaunts the Steelers’ black-and-gold, which is always a nice wink-nudge to Pittsburghers.

There were other works as well, smaller and less presentable, and I have since taken them down. Even a DIY publisher must be choosey. But I’m delighted that some still float around the internet, waiting to be read. Sometimes I think of them as cute little projects. Other times I think, These aren’t half bad.

Especially at 20% off.

Word Circus

In Pittsburgh on February 18, 2012 at 9:29 pm

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Prologue

This entry ends happily. But first, some bellyaching.

The Gist

Last night, I attended the Word Circus reading at Most Wanted Fine Art. The basic idea is that Word Circus is a free monthly event that showcases Chatham MFA students. I am beholden to Word Circus, because I helped create it, along with fellow MFAer Sarah Leavens and gallery owner Jason Sauer. We wanted to host something free, open, hospitable, and, above all, fun to attend.

I finished my program last May. I no longer emcee Word Circus. And the reading was scheduled for a Friday night. Not ideal circumstances.

Plus, I’ve been going through a minor crisis lately. Minor, but a crisis nonetheless. The last thing I wanted to do was relive grad school memories when I could be watching “Downton Abbey” with my cats.

Yes, PBS with cats. This is what winter does to me.

A Controversial Note About Readings

As a card-carrying member of the Pittsburgh literati, I’ve started to dread “readings.” The more I attend, the more frustrated I become. Writers can be a cliquey bunch, poets in particular. Granted, I say this as a part-time thespian—I know there is no pastime more socially unforgiving than theatre. But writers can be an awkward, hang-wringing bunch, and their secret alliances and backstabbing insults can seem particularly passive-aggressive.

Mischief aside, there is something particularly miserable about a bad poetry reading.

To start, most people attend because they feel they have to. They are obligated, by friendship or by class assignment, to show up at some auditorium and listen to writers read aloud. As a rule, Americans don’t read much, and they’re fatally allergic to poetry. Writers know this, and they respond in one of two (inadvisable) ways: They clam up and get embarrassed, or they get arrogant and hostile.

A bad reading is fairly predictable: (1) The microphone doesn’t work, and nobody knows how to fix it. (2) The emcee does not introduce him/herself. (3) The emcee mumbles, makes inside-jokes that nobody understands, says “Umm” very loudly to make up for a derailed thought, goes off on some personal tangent that nobody cares about, and generally “wings it” as if the audience isn’t there. (4) The writers arrive at the microphone and tell some longwinded, unrehearsed anecdote about a mentor or ex or extremely controversial political agenda, alienating anyone they don’t personally know. (5) The writer reads in that “poet voice”: They READ… as IF… the LAST… syllaBLES… are THE… most imPORTant… PART… in the SENTence… and ALways… END… in a question MARK? (6) At the intermission, most people knock back a cup of cheap wine and leave. (7) For the open mic, each writer gets up and stumbles through a long and hackneyed introduction, mostly apologizing for how terrible their poem is going to be, because they “don’t think it’s very good.” They make statements like, “Don’t worry, it’s short,” or “You can hate it if you want to,” statements that make me want to break the face of whoever made these people hate themselves so much. (8) Everyone sits there, bored and exhausted, wishing that the whole experience would end. Some assholes start whispering and passing notes, or even (I’ve seen this a lot) holding conversations in the back in a normal tone of voice, as if no one else is in the room. (9) Everything abruptly ends. The emcee says, “Okay, that’s it.” (10) Just as everyone has grabbed their coats and headed for the door, desperate for fresh air, the emcee runs to the microphone (which is already turned off), and adds, “Oh, and SIGN OUR MAILING LIST!”

A Controversial Note About “Supporting the Arts”

What makes matters worse is that people feel obligated to “support the arts.” Don’t get me wrong: People should support the arts. They should donate to Public Radio, they should attend gallery crawls, and they should read local literature. This should be obvious to anyone. But artists should also make it worth their while. If gold-hearted patrons show up to 10 lousy readings, and they grudgingly smile through one mumbled, self-involved poem after another, they will think that lousy readings are normal.

Artists need to earn their place. They must engage. They must make these people grateful that they took the time to come out. I live for the phrase: “Wow, that was actually really fun.” They say this with surprise. “I’m actually going to recommend this friends.”

The “actually” says it all. Like they can’t believe they’d recommend art to friends. For fun.

Makes me giddy all over.

A Minor Crisis

As a professional writer of many years, and now an MFA-holding professional writer, I’ve been grumbling about whether anyone even reads anything I write, or anything anyone writes. I’ve been spending time with more filmmakers and musicians lately, and it’s astounding how popular these media are by comparison. I’m not saying it’s easy to be a musician or filmmaker; all arts are tough. I’m just saying that, if the TV is turned on in a sports bar, half the people are passively watching it. Even if these people are drunk or in the middle of conversation, and the TV’s are playing an old episode of “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” and there’s no sound or even captions, people will still watch the moving images. In contrast, most people will buy a book only if they’re in an airport and their iPhone fell in a toilet.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I am exceedingly grateful. I love being a writer, and I take great pride in my work, and if I’m in the doldrums, it’s largely seasonal. Pittsburgh winters are positively awful; a Steel City February is kind of like Siberia, without all of the adorable sables or Dr. Zhivago or leaping horsemen or even occasional sunlight.

But writing continues to be a tough business. My novel has been read and rejected by five agents, as of last December. I recently arranged a reading at Awesome Books, a wonderful local bookstore, and of the 25 people who said they would come, and the 40 people who “maybe” would come, a total of 10 people actually showed up, all of them very close friends. The irony is surreal: As an amateur photographer and videographer with remedial equipment and experience, I have been receiving interesting offers left and right; as a writer with several books and numerous awards, I’ve been getting the same assignments from the same publications for a while, or else my queries are rejected or ignored. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

This was the kicker: I queried Bicycle Times with an offer to contribute. Usually a writer submits a specific idea, but I wanted to introduce myself and start a conversation about future assignments. After all, I have written about cycling, travel, solo sports and the environment for over 10 years. I have produced video and shot photo essays on these topics. And Bicycle Times is headquartered in Pittsburgh, like seven miles from my front door.

No response. Not even an automated response. Not even a rejection. Nada. It was like I hadn’t even written them. This is a company that actively seeks freelancers. I really, really want to write for them. The marriage of skills and interests is absolutely perfect. Still, only silence.

Panacea!

So I went to Word Circus.

And it was awesome.

There is nothing in life so sweet as (a) expecting the worst and (b) finding the best. Lorena “Lo” Williams, the new emcee, was full of vim and good humor. She had nice things to say about all her readers, but she didn’t waste any time. Meanwhile, filmmaking students at Chatham had the chance to show their short documentaries; each film was beautifully shot and covered an interesting topic, from an Iraqi-veteran-become-firefighter to a couple of competitive pinball players. I am friends with every reader, and I have never heard them read so well, nor present such excellent work.

A fold-out table was pregnant with snacks, and each reader was introduced by a favorite Eighties song (well, that was the idea, but there were some technical issues). At intermission, buskers in elaborate outfits wove through the crowd.

And, might I add, the place was packed.

At times like this, I feel like George at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life—full of life and warmth and happiness, suddenly bashful about his doubts. Yes, most readings suck. Yes, the writing biz is brutal. But at Word Circus, everything was going right. And although I hadn’t invented Word Circus on my own (even the name was coined by my friend Sarah Grubb), I felt a proprietary pride. Indeed, I felt rejuvenated. People actually cheered when the readers finished. They stood up and whistled, clapping their palms raw. The reading lasted nearly three hours, but nobody seemed to mind. And incredibly, most people stayed until the end.

I had been asked to take pictures, and I gladly did so. It was nice to use one art-form to celebrate another—what’s more, to use my secondary passion to celebrate my primary. Whatever happens this year, I thought, I hope to keep encouraging my colleagues’ work. One night of Word Circus added a little fuel to the fire. In a discontented winter, such fires burn twice as warmly.

Guided Tour : HKAN

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on September 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

Because of my loyalty to The Sphinx Café, I was reluctant to frequent HKAN—at first. Later I learned that shisha culture in Pittsburgh is extremely tight-knight, and proprietors went so far as to help each other out. The Sphinx is more authentic, HKAN is more like a lounge that happens to serve shisha.

Photograph of shishas for sale, Khan al-Khalili, Egypt.

HKAN is like no other place in the city: The brick walls, the tasteful Arab-fusion paintings, the bar offering strong teas and coffees – it’s like walking into a secret Middle Eastern speakeasy, where college kids and young professionals gather in smoky antechambers to discuss life, the universe, and their favorite flavors of tobacco. HKAN is the first major hookah bar to hit the city, and boasts packed tables long into the night – even after the bars have closed. The family-run business was an instant success, dedicating its fifty brands of tasty tobacco and its wide array of tall, elegant-looking shishas (the proper Egyptian word for hookah). The place harkens back to the streets of Cairo, where businesspeople of all classes gather in small shisha lounges and enjoy a siesta in their billowing clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. A relaxing late-night alternative to the anarchic drinking binges of Southside, HKAN demands that you arrive early: Come midnight, the waiting list is daunting.

Guided Tour : The Sphinx Café

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 30, 2011 at 12:00 am

This description is about the original Sphinx, in South Side. The revamped Sphinx, in Oakland, is far more interesting: It’s built into a converted church. Photograph of the original Sphinx during a “son et lumière” show, Giza, Egypt.

Stepping into the Sphinx Café is like stepping into the Giza bazaar: With its small tables, cushions on the floor, colorful wall hangings and traditional Egyptian art, the Sphinx is like a crash course in Mediterranean culture. There isn’t a Starbucks brew in existence that could rival the warm rush of Arabic coffee; and the teas, both cold and warm, are delightfully bitter, and even more delightfully sweetened with a squirt of honey. But baklava and imported juices are mere aperitifs to the true connoisseur: The real deal is the authentic Egyptian hookah – or shisha – flavored with rose, cappuccino, strawberry or mint tobacco. Groups of friends gather on the floor to converse, sip a glass of warm milk, and relax in the haze of incense-like tobacco smoke. This family-owned establishment is a key gathering place for shisha fans and novices, far away from the crowded HKAN hookah bar, and Friday nights often yield Middle Eastern pop music and authentic belly dancing.

Guided Tour : Future Tenant

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 25, 2011 at 12:00 am

Photograph of my one-man show, based on The Archipelago, which took place at Future Tenant as part of its Trespass Series. Taken by Don DiGiulio.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has boomed in recent years, and Downtown is now flooded with galleries. The most unique specimen is Future Tenant, a dusty, cave-like arts space that bears exposed ceilings, punched-through walls, and no restroom. Working in an office that looks much like a bomb shelter from the London Blitz, the Future Tenant staff attracts dozens of artists a year to its rugged space, showing paintings, murals, installations and live bands – an ambitious revue for a gaggle of twenty-something MBA students. Future Tenant’s odd gimmick is its temporiness: If another proprietor promises to rent the space, then Future Tenant will vanish. But until someone decides to pay the hefty rental fee, the gallery remains, under the guidance of the Cultural Trust. Now a requisite stop during the Downtown art hops, Future Tenant is a hospitable host, serving wine and crackers to anyone who ambles in. The gallery has also broadened its artistic scope with the Future Ten Play Festival, and more ambitious theatrical events are pending.

Guided Tour : The Cathedral of Learning

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 23, 2011 at 12:00 am

Obviously, the Cathedral cannot be summarized in 150 words. But it’s amusing to read the attempt. Photograph of wedding, Phipps Conservatory.

Pitt students have a saying: If you ever get lost, just starting walking toward the Cathedral. The 42-story building, constructed at the height of the Great Depression, is both a towering monument and a colossal schoolhouse, entertaining thousands of students visitors every week. From the basement studio theater to the ground-level computer labs and Chick-Fil-A, all the way up to the top-floor Honors College, the Cathedral of Learning is renowned as one of the most stunning collegiate landmarks in world. The view from the upper echelons is staggering, including a panorama of Schenley Park, Flagstaff Hill, Carnegie-Mellon Campus, and even the ever-mist-enshrouded Downtown. Visitors can peruse the dozens of Nationality Rooms (constructed by diverse local heritage organizations) and then laze in the grass of the Cathedral lawn. The lights in the Cathedral never go out, owing to the nonstop nocturnal activities: Night classes, Movie Night at the Honors College, plays in the Heymann Theatre, and Friday Night Improvs every week. Long considered the pinnacle of Pittsburgh architecture, the Cathedral of Learning is a Homeric tribute to higher learning.

Guided Tour : Hemingway’s Café

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 16, 2011 at 12:00 am

Photograph of Oakland business district. Like Hemingway’s, this corridor has changed dramatically over the years. These storefronts once belonged to The Beehive, an epic bohemian coffeehouse and cinema.

Once a hotbed of angry poets and chain-smoking bohemians, Hemingway’s has transformed in recent years, veering away from its titular reputation as a “café.” Ever since the management installed large overhanging TV’s – which are perpetually tuned to sports channels – and introduced really, really cheap beer, Hemingway’s has become a touchstone for the University of Pittsburgh’s fraternity crowd. Public readings, which were once a famous occurrence in the backroom, have petered out, leaving room for enormous drunken birthday parties and post-midterms revelry. The antique wooden finish remains intact, as well as the English-style pub menu, which becomes half-priced after 11PM. In a way, Hemingway’s is now a less pretentious locale, providing $1 Molsens and heaping plates of pita chips to the University’s more casual crowd. And it’s not uncommon for regular guests to find photographs of themselves on the back wall. Hemingway’s is also known for celebrating aspiring bartenders – some lucky students have found their liquor-shot concoctions printed in stand-up menu, one of the few traditions that have remained intact.

Guided Tour : The Rock Room

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 11, 2011 at 12:00 am

Words can’t describe my relationship with The Rock Room. I once lived around the corner in Polish Hill, cavorted there often, and I even attended a wedding between two of its bartenders. Plenty of drama unfolded there, but I am deeply nostalgic for that neighborhood pub and all its shenanigans.

Because I didn’t really take pictures back then, I have no photographs of Polish Hill—except for this one, of my old apartment, which pretty much summarizes my mid-twenties.

When it was known as the Warsaw Tavern, this place was dark, dingy, smoky, and full of drunken locals. Renamed the Rock Room, the Polish Hill bar is slightly brighter, slightly less dingy, not quite as smoky and is still full of drunken locals. But the pool table’s ready for playing, the back room is dressed up nicely, the women’s room is completely refurbished, and the graffiti has been painted over – plus there’s a brand-new digital juke box and daily specials on drinks and food (Monday is 20-cent wings night – watch out!). While the crowd can be rough, almost every regular at the Rock Room is a hard-working, gold-hearted feller with a strong handshake and an evening’s worth of stories. The Rock Room is the classic neighborhood pub, with a faux-stone façade and bright neon lights – an electric mixture of old and new styles – where neighbors meet and share a few tales and opinions, and after a couple visits, everybody knows your name.

Guided Tour : Peoples Restaurant

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

Photograph taken in Mamalapuram, India.

Pittsburgh is home to a lot of Indians – arguably the largest concentration in the U.S. – so it’s no wonder that everybody has a different favorite Indian restaurant. If it didn’t have such spicy competition, Peoples would win hands-down: The one-room, family-owned restaurant is cozy and comfortable, a surprising escape from the run-down sidewalks of Penn Avenue. The fare is traditional, with puffy garlic nan and steaming vindaloo, but Peoples is renowned for its humble, hospital service and sprawling vegetarian options. Following the newly progressive route of Garfield, Peoples is a favorite for hipsters, hippies and college grads, who enjoy its off-the-beaten-path location and quiet atmosphere. A much-loved dining option for couples on a third date, Peoples is romantically lit and the tables are respectfully spaced – a remarkable achievement for such a small business. And for globe-trotting students aching for a ticket to Bombay, the staff at Peoples provides an authentic Hindu environment – after a couple hours sipping chai, guests can almost imagine that it’s an overnight home-stay.

Guided Tour : Redbeard’s

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh on August 4, 2011 at 12:00 am

When I wrote this description for DigitalCity in 2004, I had already spent umpteen evenings playing darts and sucking the marrow out of BBQ wings. Note that Redbeard’s used to be officially known as “Redbeard’s Mountain Resort & Yacht Club.” Photograph of the Incline, which lifts commuters from Station Square to Mountain Washington.

Mt. Washington isn’t exactly a mountain, and Redbeard’s isn’t exactly a yacht club, but nobody seems to mind. What Redbeard’s lacks in 30-ft. wave cutters, it makes up for in good tunes, good people, and lip-smacking Buffalo wings. A dark, two-room pub with a long bar and plenty of tables for groups, there’s no better spot for some dart-throwing, pitcher-swilling, and the traditional guys’-night-out. This is the kind of dive where friends meet neighbors for a midweek drink and play some aggressive Led Zeppelin songs on the juke box. Redbeard’s rakes in the crowds every night of the week, but especially on Wednesdays, when 35-cent wings draw visitors from miles away. Other menu items include burgers and club sandwiches – some of the best bargains in a bargain-driving neighborhood. And while Redbeard’s serves a wide array of brews, including some tasteful European imports, Iron City and Yeungling remain house favorites.