Burning Down the House: True Story

The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.

–Russell Baker

I’ve been “a writer” since the 5th grade, when the combination of praise I received for a plagiarized homework assignment and fear of getting caught, pushed me to start writing my own stories, and I quickly discovered that I both liked it and was pretty good at it. Over the years, I’ve published poetry and articles in school papers, magazines, journals, and anthologies; performed my poetry in slams, and featured at various bars, coffee shops and the occasional college gig across the country; finished the prerequisite, semi-auto-biographical screenplay (that I even tried to film myself at one point!); and even cranked out 15,000 words of a “novel” during NaNoWriMo in 2004.

Arguably my “biggest” publishing credit is co-authoring Burning Down the House: Selected Poems from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s National Poetry Slam Champions (Soft Skull Press, 2000), and while I am both proud of and eternally grateful for its publication, its existence has more to do with timing and opportunism than the quality of the work therein.

Besides my own attempts at zines and chapbooks, it was my first real introduction to the world of publishing, and it left a permanent mark that partly explains my cynical passion and/or pragmatic idealism for the publishing industry.

NOTE: The blank pages on 141-142 in the book are probably my fault.

I’d never heard of Soft Skull Press back in the Summer of 1999 when my Nuyorican teammate, Steve Colman, approached us with their offer to publish a book. It was a totally opportunistic move by Sander Hicks, Soft Skull’s founder, capitalizing on our having won the National Poetry Slam the summer before, the first (and still only) team from the Nuyorican to do so. There’d been a lot of media coverage that year, and the following summer in Chicago, our coach, Roger Bonair-Agard, won the individual title (while representing the team I’d formed after splintering from the Nuyorican; read Words In Your Face for that true story) and appeared on both 60 Minutes and the front page of the NY Times Arts section.

It was kind of the equivalent of Chesley Sullenberger’s book of poetry, except with 14 fewer minutes of fame and no advance, and since it was poetry, SLAM poetry at that, no one could call Hicks a fraud, or claim he was killing the publishing industry.

I didn’t have a real relationship with him at all — if I passed him on the street tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t recognize him — but I liked his energy; his punk/DIY/zinester/steal-from-Kinkos vibe. For all of his faults, primarily financial, Hicks was driven by the kind of passion that attracts a real community of “true fans”, and it’s unfortunate that there’s not much, if anything, written about him on the Soft Skull site or their Wikipedia entry, though his own page is an interesting read.

When we all (except Steve, I think) ended up in his “office” (I believe he was working as the super of a building on the Lower East Side, and he ran Soft Skull out of its basement) the night the manuscript was due, and I ended up on his Mac after winning the debate on how to order and credit the poems; writing the Foreword; and adding in an Afterword — it didn’t seem odd or unprofessional; it was pretty much the way I was always used to doing things: myself.

So, in all likelihood, the blank pages on 141-142 in the book are probably my fault.

But that night confirmed what I’d already known to be true for a long time: as much as I loved to write, I was absolutely enamored with the idea of being a publisher, and with the act of publishing itself. There’s something special about having a direct hand in a crafting a book that would freeze a moment in time, capture the embodiment of an idea, and put it in a format that would allow it to be shared with people the authors would never have an opportunity to meet.

This was long before Facebook and Twitter, when AOL ruled the Internet and having an email list was cutting edge.

I firmly believe that publishers should be idea advocates and that publishing is a community service, and while the pay sucks, much like the royalties I got for Burning Down the House (mostly via more copies of the book!), there’s no other industry I’d rather work in.

And eventually, I’ll get around to writing that novel I’ve dreamed of since the first time I read Stephen King’s The Stand back in 1986, and possibly publish it myself, on my own Soft Skull-inspired imprint.

True (if kind of random) story.

10 thoughts on “Burning Down the House: True Story

  1. Special insight, Guy, and a good share. One of the greatest benefits of The Writer's Affliction is that we are never truly unemployed, nor can we ever be forced to retire.

  2. All of which is exactly why people like you should be leading publishing companies instead of execs who could just as well be selling doughnuts or widgets. People who really care about books and writing (like you Guy) should rightfully be the stewards of the industry.

  3. >>>’ve been “a writer” since the 5th grade, when the combination of praise I received for a plagiarized homework assignment and fear of getting caught,

    LMAO!! My first writing was really first grade. My realization that I was a writer came in high school.


    Damn. Another thing I could have had in my post today.

  4. I'd be happy following in Nash's footsteps and sidestepping the industry completely! Til then, it's “be the change you want to see” mode from the inside. 😉

    PS: Thanks again for the Mashable nod!

  5. Crap. Nothing but crap. Was also writing in grade school. But the HS realization happened when I made up a story around an argument I heard on the subway and I wound up with a grade of 110%(!!) for it. I think my use of the semi-colon helped there too. Anyway, that's when it hit me: Holy damn. I. Can. Make. Stuff. Up.

  6. That's the best feeling! Have you ever read Matt Ruff's Fool on the Hill? One of my all-time favorite books, and it's all about power of making stuff up. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, especially for writers.

  7. I love your invocation to publishers at the end, Guy. I absolutely wish they would be idea advocates as well as (instead of is too much) businesses (and that they wouldn't pretend to be such when actually they are just businesses). I think that's what collectives CAN do (I'm still inspired by a TV drama i saw based on the founding of the Virago Press) – they can have that energy and passion for one or two key ideals – and then push that towrdas bringing books that embody those ideals into being. They can also be breeding grounds for exciting ideas that ferment into books.

    Sometimes I wish I didn't enjoy writing so much because I agree absolutely – I would love to be a publisher – and the excitement I feel finding new excitnig writers, and bringing their books into being through Year Zero is – especially at teh moment – utterly exhilarating.

  8. Publishing is a too stressful and low-margin business to not be truly passionate about it. As Maria noted, books aren't widgets or doughnuts, though it sure does seem that way sometimes when you browse the newest releases.

    Honestly, there's times when my passion for publishing feels like a smokescreen for my lack of self-discipline for consistent writing. It was the same way in my poetry days, when curating and hosting the series took priority over my own writing. 🙁

    I've convinced myself that the time will come, though, even if it's after my kids have grown up, that I'll be able to dedicate a couple of hours/day to writing fiction and finally finish a novel or three!

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