Books In Conversation
BEER IS TWO SUBWAY STOPS AWAY FROM MYSTICISM: SHARON MESMER with Bart Plantenga
Novelist/essayist/journalist Bart Plantenga was a cofounder of the Unbearables (originally the Unbearable Beatniks of Light, from a story by Mike Golden), the miscreant literary enclave based mainly in New York beginning in the late ’80s. The Unbearables met originally at the legendary Tin Pan Alley bar in mid-Manhattan, and then at the Shandon Star, a classic 8th Avenue steam-table joint, to drink, rant, and plan readings (the “Night of Unbearable Séance” where members “resurrected” their favorite writers in mad literary fashion, and the annual declamation of erotic poetry on the Brooklyn Bridge) and events (the storming of the New Yorker offices, to protest the quality of the magazine’s poetry). During that time, Plantenga published Wiggling Wishbone: Stories of Pata-Sexual Speculation (Autonomedia, 1996), containing meta-essays and fictions on Andy Warhol and his hair, prosthetic sex organs, Hitler from his dog’s point of view, and sexual malfeasance in the Vatican. Evelyn McDonnell, writing in the Village Voice, compared Wiggling Wishbone to “cryptic Phillip K. Dickian sci-fi stories full of gruesome detail delivered hard-boiled style.” Plantenga’s work has always explored the permeable boundary between illumination and inebriation, and what treasures and treacheries are found there. He is regarded as the world expert on yodeling with his books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge, 2003) and his forthcoming Yodel In Hi-Fi (VOX). His radio show, Wreck This Mess, has been on-air since 1986, first on WFMU (NY), then Radio Libertaire (Paris), Radio 100, and currently Radio Patapoe (Amsterdam). He lives in Amsterdam with partner Nina Ascoly and daughter Paloma.
Sharon Mesmer (Rail): Your novel, Beer Mystic, is being “published” via a network of interlinked websites. A map of the sites and pub-crawl route at “Beer Mystic Map” lets readers access individual sections of the book, or follow the path of URL-hosts from beginning to end. It’s a kind of global pub crawl … like those we got sucked into in the heady late ’80s through mid-’90s. Reading it brought back piquant memories, notably of the Lower East Side as it was then. It got me thinking that “publishing” Beer Mystic via the vast temporary autonomous zone of the Internet was correct, as the story itself speaks to ideas of permission, borderlessness, questing, confusion, beauty, and fun. What role did nostalgia play in the creation and delivery of this “book”?
Bart Plantenga: No nostalgia in the initial scratchings, but certainly some winsome (lose some?) nostalgia during the 33 rewrites—once during an extended psilocybin-driven weekend. Beer Mystic initially emerged as a line of six-packed, haiku-like impressions strung together that first appeared in WFMU’s Lowest Common Denominator in 1987—nothing like the much liposuctioned, lip-augmented glamour puss of today. By the way, October 1987 is when the last boom and bubble went bust in the form of Black Monday, totally capturing today’s gloomy mid-crisis despair.
Yes, the idea to send it out URL by URL came in response to the lack of response I’d gotten from conventional agent-publisher-editor types, in an aha moment when you’re under the shower with no paper or pen and you trick your mind by saying aloud (memory going deaf with age): “I’m not going to forget this!” Because you remember the countless times you’ve thought brilliant thoughts and decided “I’ll remember this,” only to draw a total blank later. “I will not forget this idea,” I pretty much yelled to my bewildered self, which was to stretch the Beer Mystic out so that I can share its misery/joy with people I know, admire, or don’t yet know. I tend to be hopeful about newer tech (Twitter, Facebook, e-readers) as a way to disseminate lit smoothly, especially when I’m dealing with old gimme-the-printed-word naysayers who believe the printed page is somehow holy. But when I meet a technogeek utopian who hypes every tech bubble as a way to enhance the reading experience, I instantly become a cynical Luddite.
Rail: The inclusion of the “BM map” seems to “locate” it as a template, a kind of how-to/history of literary pub-crawling circa ’80s –’90s ...
Plantenga: I guess it’s be-peopled with familiar roman à cleffy-types but it’s not nostalgic because New York City causes much distress/stress and disillusionment. It’s in bipolar opposition to the writer. We must overcome the baggage that we take to New York: hopes, dreams, misgivings, prior reputation, family detritus, stubborn habits. We attempt this through the cleansing effects of overindulgence, drinking to excess, living in extremis—which, hopefully, reorients you to new paths. The Pub Crawl keeps it local (NYC) and connects the dots to recognize that it’s a universal, global tendency.
Rail: Via disorienting you from your old ones. There was a lot of personal myth building that went on then, with everyone moving here from somewhere else and/or beginning anew. A distilling process. There’s a freedom in getting rid of things, trying to eliminate something. Maybe mortality.
Plantenga: The early Beer Mystic scratches and my early DJing days at WFMU were marked by my genuine attempt to eliminate sleep. I was down to two hours. Thought I could overcome sleep, go beyond sleep ... Idiotic, but it did take me beyond norms, reason, work schedules, playlists, beyond responsibility into a new realm usually accessed by meditation, opium, absinthe, asceticism, loud music, or excessive beer consumption. The Beer Mystic was born in this hazy, almost supernatural New York City where nothing’s set in stone, where reality is a negotiable, flexible state. Exhaustion, self-denial-indulgence, plus inebriation allow us to traverse the porous border between truth and fiction. Misapprehension becomes heightened awareness.
Rail: Do I sense an acceptance of impermanence? Considering you left NYC, how do you find it—funny way of saying that, I know—when you return?
Plantenga: I turn left. But seriously, I’ve been returning regularly to NYC since moving to Amsterdam in 1996. The first years you rail at all of the changes: legendary drinking holes gone, landmark clubs bulldozed, unfair rent hikes, friends migrating to new affordable edges, NYC handed over to the moneyed Disneyfiers. But to think it was different for us back then—hip then, passé and touristic now—is part of our egotistical knee-jerk lunge to personal mythmaking. It’s our nature; it’s Facebook—always a perfect pose, no halitosis. NYC has always been changing, is always under construction, under duress, and has never been kind to history, memory, charm, value, etc. I realize that now, so I no longer lament the loss of Downtown Beirut or an Indian restaurant because I now return as a tourist in my “own” backyard. Letting go of false moral indignation has been liberating.
And I just realized that Beer Mystic was born around the same “heady” period as the formation of the Unbearable Beatniks of Light [Mike Golden, circa 1987] or at least a sheet was thrown over this ephemeral, ghostly, drunken vapor to identify it as a group. “Formation” is used advisedly here: We were just a bunch of underachieving, undervalued writerly types with many doors slammed in our faces, which led to enlightened kvetching, black humoristic relativism, doomsday scenarios for clueless editors, and post-existential drinking. This miraculously led to the building of our own doors to our own houses. Simply naming us was a call to arms of sorts. At least it justified a kind of noble contrarian, shoot-self-in-foot stance in a world that’s become overcrowded with savvy C.V. manufacturers (pragmatic is the new hallucinogen as food—or writing about it—has become the new sex) … I realize now that the Unbearables were unique—like fun-loving, self-despising monks in reverse—because we overwhelmingly came from working-class backgrounds. This is interesting in a culture addicted to status-fame, which is usually steeped in entitlement and the ability to purchase the proper delusions. While the top half percent of Americans control some 30 percent of U.S. wealth, we go on hoping beyond hope, with shit-detectors skewed or was it that our eyes were poked out during youth (what would 12 years of obligatory reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance be called in other societies?). The haves keep, while the exhausted are too tired and so, Beer Mystic attempts to forge a third way—not rich, not poor, but otherly endowed.