Thursday, October 15, 2009

Discovery Friday: Jay Bates of A River and Sound Review

Jay Bates is the founder of A River and Sound Review, a new online literary journal based in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. The journal grew out of a project he started while attending the Rainier Writers' Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. The first issue of the journal, published in June, features the work of David Huddle, Brian Doyle, Simon Fruelund (Disclosure: I translated the Fruelund story from Danish), Peggy Schumaker, Anne-Marie Oomen, and more. But A River and Sound Review is more than an online literary journal. Periodically, Bates and the editors host live shows in the Seattle area. Imagine a northwest version of Garrison's Keillor's Lake Woebegon. That's not the best comparison, but I don't need to tell you about it. You can click here, find the podcast and go to iTunes, then download it to your ipod. It's great stuff, and definitely worth a listen. The most recent live show features the editors of Crab Creek Review. Jay's complete bio is at the bottom of this post.

What is A River and Sound Review? What makes it unique?

In its very basic respects, RSR is like every other literary journal/reading series in that it exists to showcase, publish, and promote the literary talents of emerging and established writers. But in many more respects, we're different from other literary organizations because we are the only organization I know of that began with the need to keep its audience awake during readings (or, at least keep me awake). I confess, I am a chronic daydreamer, and have been since I was a kid. My parents took me to a Lutheran church service every Sunday, and when it came to the sermon I would get as far as the preacher saying “Dear Friends in Christ,” and I’d start spinning stories in my head or blatantly fall asleep. To this day I blame my inattentiveness during sermons on preachers who were no more animated in their oratorical gyrations than a mold spore. No matter how beautiful the words on paper, they can be deadened by lifeless oral interpretation. I discovered this truth while in college back in the mid-1980s, when I fancied myself an actor and spent an entire semester calling myself a Theatre major. But it was my preference for the written word that won out, and as a result of that preference I dismissed all interest in theater pursuits and instead attended literary readings that had same effect on me as all those Lutheran sermons of my youth.

It wasn’t until I went back to school in my 40s to obtain an MFA that I followed through with the notion that I could combine the best of what the theater offered with the best what the literary world could put on paper. I designed a structure for a reading series that would keep me alert, not to mention awake: short, intense readings (around 10 minutes) combined with live musical interludes and audience participation game shows. RSR grew out of this brainstorm and has come to be known as a review that both celebrates its taste for sophisticated literature, but then turns around and pokes fun at itself for celebrating its taste for sophisticated literature.

For those readers who may shy away from online publications, what would you say are the benefits of publishing your work in an online publication like A River & Sound Review?

See, I think this is absurd, to shy away from internet journals just because they are printed on the internet. That’s like the art critic from 30,000 years ago who dismissed all paintings if they didn’t appear on cave walls. The internet isn’t the art; it is the platform for the art. Same with paper; the printing press made great literary art more accessible. “Experts” at the time may have preferred hand-printed texts in Latin, but in the end the more accessible platform (paper) won out—just like cassettes over 8-track tapes and DVDs over Laser Disks.

Nevertheless, I think the cause for widespread dismissal of internet publishing is largely due to its relative ease and affordability of bringing poems and stories to print. This has led to a vast collection of poems, stories, essays, and blogs to be published without a fine and discerning process of editorial selection, which in my opinion makes them truly not worth reading. (Most blogs are not even line-edited, for God’s sake, much less put through a second draft.) But this happens with print literature as well, in the form of self-published books and vanity presses. If we were to dismiss all print literature because some publishers are sloppy we would miss the opportunity to read some amazing work.

As for the benefits of publishing work online, they are the same as if we published on paper, provided we are particular to our voice, discerning in our selection, and consistent within our design: in short, we will find readers and readers will find us. This process is quite thrilling, like a courting ritual before a high school prom. Granted, the occasional rejection stings, but if you keep asking, there’s a chance you might get lucky.

A River and Sound Review began--as it states on the Web site--as a way to "help you stay awake during readings." Would you say your primary focus is on the live performances then?

Originally, yes. When RSR began, I didn’t intend it to be anything more than a reading series. But I also didn’t intend it to last more than a year. Funny thing happened, after what I thought was the final show, people asked me when the next show would be. So I planned another show, expecting it to be the last. Only it wasn’t. Then someone suggested I record the show and publish it as a podcast, and a few other crazy folks volunteered to join me in producing more shows, taking it on the road—to Portland and Seattle. It soon grew to a point where I could not stop it. A couple years ago, our current poetry co-editor, Boyd Benson, suggested we publish an online journal to go along with our live production. It seemed a sensible thing to do. I’d love to say this whole organization was pre-formed in my brain and I’ve spent the last five years bringing it to fruition (isn’t that how Microsoft was made?), but RSR perpetuates and grows itself, and those of us on the RSR staff simply serve as channels. In this sense, it’s like writing an epic novel: the plot of our organization develops as it grows.

How did you get involved in performing?

Honestly, I don’t recall a period in my life when I was not involved in performing. I am the youngest of four children in my family and when we were kids, my parents had us sing at church and at potlucks and at family reunions. We were like the Bates von Trapp Family singers. I was always resistant to sing, until it came time for me to perform my signature solo of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” which I sang with a bluesy bending of notes. (Think six-year-old and Hank Williams singing Gospel.) I had no idea what I was doing, but the attention I got from it (even from stoic Scandinavian Lutherans) was nothing short of addicting. As a result of growing up like this, my three older siblings are now ordained Lutheran ministers, and I’m a writer, teacher, and host of a live reading series. (People ask me, “What happened to you?” and I say, “What do you mean what happened to me? What the hell happened to them?”)

I later developed my skills as a performer entirely on accident. I was blessed as a kid to not have many friends, so I spent a lot of time playing baseball alone in my back yard. But I didn’t merely throw the ball against the house; I acted out an entire game—the pitching, the hitting, the fielding, the play-by-play announcing. I learned to perform the same way I learned to write—by doing it. Sometimes the games I acted out were so epic I went directly to my bedroom and recorded their events on paper.

Sure, as I got older, I learned a bit more about the craft of acting, just as I did the craft of writing. I was in a few plays in college—Romeo & Juliet (Gregory), The Miser (Master Jacques), Death of a Salesman (Bernard)—but I failed to understand that just because I wasn’t an ingĂ©nue didn’t mean I wasn’t an actor. The same translation goes for young writers: just because you haven’t been published doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. True, it’s easier to brag when you attend a cocktail party with a six-figure book deal in your pocket, but the real product of our work as actors and writers is accomplished by letting our imaginations be at play.

You published my translation of Simon Fruelund's "Phosphoresence" in the first issue, and that was cool of you. So you're looking for international work & translations as well as work from the Puget Sound region. What kinds of submissions--translated or otherwise--are you looking for?

Oh, golly. I’m going to give you an answer I heard several editors give me a few years ago when I asked this question, and it’s an answer that pissed me off because of its vagueness. But despite its lack of specifics, it’s an answer that speaks the truth.

I’m looking for submissions that surprise me, that show me what I was looking for but didn’t know I was looking for. I’m looking for submissions that make me laugh and make me cry, that hold me rapt and make me forget I am breathing, that impress me to the point of insane jealousy. Unfortunately, I have no idea what kind of submission will do any of these things until I come across a submission that does it. It’s what happened in our first issue with Brian Doyle’s humor piece, “Chino’s Story.” I sent him a note asking if he could send me something funny, and what I got back was a little monologue in the voice of Chino from West Side Story, confessing how he’d not meant to kill Tony at first, but only “wing him.” I read the piece and nearly shat myself from laughing so hard. Your translation of “Phosphoresence” had a similar effect on Julie Case, our fiction and translation editor (without the shitting, I mean): it so captured her attention that she could think of no alternative but to accept it for publication.

Where it gets difficult as a staff is when fellow editors don’t share the same enthusiastic reaction to a submission—but this is hardly a problem that exists only at RSR. When this occurs, we engage in that difficult debate about artistic integrity and authorial vision and grapple over those intangibles of literary merit that, quite frankly, I’m too stupid to understand.

Last year, Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy called American literature "insular." What is your response to that? If it's true, how can we make it less insular?

Hmm. That’s the same thing I say about journal editors whenever they reject my work.

But honestly, it seems to me this statement is composed with the assumption that “American literature” is the creation of a single mind, that it isn’t a collective as much as it is the product of a great literary sorter determining what does and doesn’t qualify as American or literature or both. In this sense, I don’t think it is capable of being insular any more than it can be intentionally inclusive. All literature is a mass collective incapable of intention, one way or another.

On the other hand, this collective does say something about us as creators and consumers of literary art—just as our behavior as world tourists says something about our shared assumptions as Americans. I went to France when I was 20 but didn’t bother to learn French. I depended on Parisians to be accessible to me because it would have required more effort than I had time to put forth to be more linguistically accessible to them. There are many reasons why so many Americans do this, one being that the North American continent is isolated from Europe, Africa, and Asia, where there is a greater variety of tongues spoken. Still, that strikes people as an idle excuse because I still hear so many other voices, like Engdahl’s, say, “Why do you Americans expect everyone to adapt to you?” It’s interesting, when I was in France I asked for help from many people who could speak English but refused to do so. I ended up asking, “Why do so many French expect me to adapt to them?”

This is why I think the work of translators is so powerful and imperative in the Twenty-first Century. It is the translator who makes the foreign accessible to the local, and the local accessible to the foreign. As an English-only speaker, I confess I want the language of the story I’m reading to seem as if English is the story’s language of origin; this is the linguistic equivalent to Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief. It isn’t that I’m uninterested in stories coming from a different language as I am interest in getting lost in a good story, period. The first time I read Dostoevsky (one of my favorites) I lost interest because I believed his prose was witless and pedestrian. Turns out, it wasn’t the author whose words were witless and pedestrian, but the translator’s. Sometime later I read Ignat Avsey’s translation of The Brothers Karamozov and fully believed the illusion he created—that Dostoevsky had written the book in English, full of wit and humor and with a tone of human angst that only he could speak.

So thankfully, the “insular” characteristic that Engdahl speaks of, if it exists, consciously or not, is dissolved by the work of translators such as yourself, without whom I would not have had access to A Hundred Years of Solitude, a book of such profound influence on me as a writer that I might not continue to write without it.


Jay Bates (Founder, Humor Editor, & Live Show Host) grew up an innocent in Puyallup, WA during the 1970s and 80s. He was so innocent that when a girl asked him in the 8the grade if he was a he was a virgin, he said, "No, I'm a Taurus." As a grown up, he teaches English and writes fiction, humor and sub-par doggerel poetry. His work has appeared in Dog Fancy Magazine, Elysian Fields Quarterly, and The Edgerton Elementary PTA Newsletter. He still makes his home in Puyallup with his wife, son, daughter, and dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Ulysses.

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