Seditious rumblings from the tip of America's wang . . . tweaked out ravings from the lunatic fringe, wading on to shore to wander angry amongst the thongs and oily tans of South Beach, nerve endings corroded by salt and fried in the blazing sun. A sojourn in the Big Apple. Gathering strength . . . Scuttling with the rats and other back-alley creatures of Brooklyn. Thrusting forth a literary impetus! A litany! A screed! A howl in the night to wake us all up from our opiate-overdose American dream! Sounds pretty romantic, don't it?
I discovered Expat Press through the network of radicals - punk rockers, anarchists and artists - that I've been lucky enough to have come in to contact with throughout my years touring in a doomed rock band and endeavoring to become a 'writer'. My only regret is that it took me so long to get hipped to Expat's gnarly groove. They've been doing good work for 8 or so years now, providing a voice for artists that would otherwise be wailing in the streets. Exclusively, I mean. Over the next couple weeks, I aim to give this fine institution of the weird arts its due.
Here at Joyless House we are big on getting the "Straight Dope", right from the horse's mouth, if you will. In this case, the horse in question is Manuel Marrero, the man most responsible for Expat's birth and continued existence. Manny agreed to enlighten us on Expat's origins.
JH: Expat Press was whose brainchild, exactly? Describe the birthing process.
MM: The name "Expat" was on the tip of my tongue since summer 2010 when I moved to New York City. Originally I only had designs of doing a literary journal like Esquire in the 70s while Gordon Lish was editor in chief, with the critical inversion being the pursuit of non-academic writing. I was bored with the MFA crop. I felt they were essentially a cottage industry of uniformity, that the principles of consecution and so forth had been taken to an excessively rigid one-size-fits-all standard. This is not to preclude many fine alumni from my sphere of influence, teachers like Beth Nugent and Sam Lipsyte. I was somewhere in the middle. The polar response to this in "elite" cities was the now justly reviled Alt Lit, which essentially made good writing uncool and unimportant, overshadowed by the online persona.
The original incarnation of the name was expatlitj, which morphed through those maiden years into ExpatLitJ, ExpatLitJournal, etc. I didn't truck with any literary "scenes." Rather, I hung out with people who made music. Kevin Failure was the first person who was nice to me in NYC. He introduced me to Theresa Smith and Eric Cecil, the first two writers I found any commonality with, and whose forthcoming volumes of short fiction I'm ecstatic to be publishing. The fact that I was into records and punk 'zines like MRR, etc. informed what was to be the mischievous, somewhat obtuse nature of our earliest aesthetics and web presence. I say "our" because even though I'll take credit for naming it and getting the gears shifting in its infancy -- forging the entity, so to speak -- there are many people, including every contributor I've worked with, who shared in its development. It's always been an open forum and I've always treasured the intimate connections and back-and-forth. I was interested in the non-careerists, the workers.
My childhood friend Dan Brat moved to NYC shortly after me. He was the first person to join me in the initiative, starting what was then our first "blog," at expatlitj.com, which no longer exists, though a fair amount of work from from that period (2011-2012) was salvaged and is still viewable on our site. It was a shambling, fledgling endeavor. 2010-2012 were the first years I was serious about writing and publishing, culminating in our first print 'zine. The solidarity I felt with Theresa and Eric endures, but Dan Brat and I fell out over personal/artistic differences and irreconcilable ethics shortly after issue 2 came out in 2013. At that point, Arturo took his place with the designs, and expatlitj became Expat Press. I self-published my first novel and Atticus Davis' collection Your Aeon, and we've since been focused on single author volumes. I guess that's the birthing story in a nutshell.
JH: Is it hard to reconcile the rejection of academia with the continued pursuit of intelligent ideas and quality in prose, quality writing? For an example, I think pursuing simplicity and succinctness is noble, but it can be taken too far. Is objective observation always worth writing down? Are inane text messages poetry? I feel like 'literary' has become a dirty word to a lit of writers/readers.
MM: It's not a blanket rejection of academia. It's a categorical rejection of all specious generalizations and in doing so forging our own diffuse identity. It's about unpacking the normative expectations of the MFA school, the enfants terribles nourished on text messaging as literature, and in effect, seeing what is there and what is not. More importantly, the pursuit of intelligent ideas and quality in prose falls on the publisher, and sometimes we are found, but much of the time we find them. A consummate publisher and by extension a consummate writer is a voracious reader. Anything substantive enough to want to be found will be found by those inclined to find it. In other words, there's no such thing as art that nobody likes. The stuff we put out I'd like to think runs the gamut.
Bad writing is bad writing, and if we think of the health of writing as a whole, I agree with you that the recent climate is rife with the egotistical, the inane, the unliterary. It should always be about the work, and the personalities are separate. When we first started, we used to put the authors' names at the end. We stopped doing it because it's honestly obtuse, but our hearts were in the right place I think. We seek to elevate good writing of any background, untethered to the social media surfeit as humanly possible.
Education is important. Writers who don't read are almost uniformly bad, just like musicians who don't listen to music, etc. I think the contempt for the 'literary' is a misplaced reaction to the institutional dogma of the big 5 (now 4?) and McSweeney's and all that. These kinds of responses almost always become facsimiles of the entities they seek to oppose. They're false revolutions. The only thing that matters now is content. Not clicks. And yet, so few are humble and true. Which makes the ones who are more special.
JH: On that note, the trite but essential question. What are some of the books and/or writers who have influenced you most deeply?
MM: I'm gonna have a hard time not overthinking this one unless I just jump right in. There's Proust and Beckett, to start. The former a seminal stylist who could wrench emotion from a lengthy internalizing of a mother's kiss. The latter; friends and I used to joke about Molloy. That it sounds like the author never rolled out of bed to write, that it's like swallowing a cinder block. Beckett popularized fiction as the sound of thinking more audaciously than any author I know. Pauline Kael would say about his pauses: they make us listen more intently to every granular, grainy detail.
Then there's Virginia Woolf, all her writings but for the sake of concision, To the Lighthouse. She's the most underrated of the postmodern school of Proust and Joyce, et al. Her inner world is as vivid and captivating as how she turns it inside out to examine, to paint, these understated characters in very loud contexts of emotional turmoil, as deceptively and quietly grand as anything ever written.
The Beats, specifically Burroughs was quite formative, and I think of him and Nabokov as two of the funniest writers, with nothing else in common but that subliminal thread. But it's the unofficially "Beat" style of Richard Brautigan that best endures for me. Especially his most underrated semiautobiographical So the Wind Won't Blow it All Away, a non-tedious exercise in metafiction because Brautigan wrote from the hip.
Thomas Pynchon is big for me. The way he blends science, histories, maths and psychedelia, sci-fi etc. I'm sentimentally attached to the way his characters scribble math equations as love notes. "Fuck the war, they were in love." That was huge for me. His commitment to bellelettrism in Mason & Dixon. To his weird vision of America. Vineland is his most underrated and best novel.
I love Flannery O' Connor. Her short stories are the best there are, and her novels are chilling in these unspeakably profound ways. Wise Blood takes the cake.
I may take heat for this, but I believe Infinite Jest is currently the apex of novel-writing. I could go on forever with authors I like. I haven't even mentioned pulp like Charles Willeford, sci-fi like PKD and Gibson...there are a lot of writers who are vital to me. And this answer will seem inadequate no matter what.
JH: (No heat from me on Infinite Jest, or any of the above) What do you mean to accomplish with Expat? Frame it as your wildest dream realized vs. the most modest success you would abide, if you will.
MM: Well, the wildest dream isn't so wild as say, ridiculous notions of payola or even major recognition. It's a long game and I'm patient. I'm also more humbled than most could imagine (perhaps other writers/publishers can, or maybe they should) when anyone reads anything on the site or in print that we put out and has nice things to say about it, or even if they loathe it. A handful of people, yourself included, I hold in high esteem and a plug or compliment in earnest fills my heart and lasts me a lifetime. Everything is ultimately ephemeral and disposable, but the memories and sense of community we foster along the way is as near to the reason we do it as any, if I may speak on behalf of the literati. Everyone who contributes is a part of it. We all do it in between work and other preoccupations, nestled there burning, a passion raging at the contours of the quotidian and mundane. To quote comrade Beth Murphy (nee Elizabeth Murphy, writer of "Blood Hunt" which you can read on the site, and a prolific artist herself), "art is a singular bitch." If it's in you, you should get it out, because as much as we may excel at "work," we could be replaced, but a work of art wouldn't exist if not for its author. The same goes for love, and that commonality is no accident. You could say my wildest dream is to supplant the notion of art as commerce with art as love, flowery as that sounds, that's what's in my heart of hearts, Ted. Beneath layers. Success is a construct, and I hope to gauge it accordingly.
JH: Damn. That's kind of beautiful. Me, I'm in it for the heaps of cash.
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So the first thing you should do is go here:
Hours of literary adventurism awaits you, dear reader. There is poetry, prose, social satire and art, reviews, ravings, and just a touch of filth. It is a hefty site and CARE has been taken here, Jack. By the contributors and by the curator. These are not writers scratching off pap to score clicks and points, these are artists sharing the work dear to their souls. And it LOOKS GOOD! The site is easy on the eye, mate. So click on through; I know you have a computer; you're on one right now.
If the site tickles your fancy, you're going to want to do some shopping. I happen to have a worthy pile of Expat publications in front of me right now. Let's take a look . . .
expatlit journals 1 & 2 feature eclectic writings and visual art from, let's see . . . 11 different writers? and . . . 4 different artists? Enough different voices to add aesthetic/dynamic variance to an output that seems to spring from a common well. The unstated theme seems to be the effects of youth on an old soul. The voices are mainly urban; fascinated with/bemused by alienation. Autodidacts dabbling skeptically with academia. They are batting at cynicism with their paws, turning it over, playing, laying it finally at the feet of the muse.
An ode to disaffection from Eric Cecil. Step right up! See the harrowing number life in the modern urban cesspool has done on this sweet-faced kid from Nowheresville, Illinois!
Bear witness to the festering anger throbbing barely beneath the surface of a tale of art-school jerk-offery by Dan Brat!
Step carefully into the claustrophobic mania of our good proprietor, Manuel.
Look, with your eyes open for once, behind the quaint lies we use as lube to excuse the crude truth about the colorful characters who act out our modern folk tales in Tiger Moody's Victory.
And for Christ's sake, Theresa Smith. Genius. A story in each of these first two volumes that will blow your doors completely off.
And much more. Everything in journals 1 & 2 was worthwhile. The reader's experience is further enhanced by lots of gritty/trippy artwork. This theme is expanded upon in:
expatlitjournal the art issue
The Art Issue is an 11X8.5 full color-glossy with 150 pages of original work by artists from New York, Miami and locals farther-flung. I'm no art critic, but this thing drips with the passion that must have been necessary to put together such a stunning book. This was a labor of love, L-U-V! The best thing I can do to recommend it is to run some of the images from the issue itself, which Manny was gracious enough to send our way.
Then there's Atticus Davis's book of poetry and prose, Your Aeon. A lot of it is pain. A lot of it is bleak. But it's touching too. The story that finishes the book, Nothing But God, is a sad but funny depiction of how easily we can become aliens to those that are closest to us. It's a frank depiction of the bizarre places we will go in search of happiness - the blinding power of eternal self-justification. Here's a nice pic of Atticus:
And that's a lot to chew on. Expat Press is a meaty metaphysical animal, my friends, fed free range on amphetamines and existentialism.
Coming up: In Making Friends With Expat, Part 2 we will get into Manuel Marrero's novel, Thousands of Lies. We'll also give you a nice taste of the REAL THING, two excerpts from Manny's current work in progress, so fresh the ink is barely dried on the pages. (it will run in a week or two)
Also, look for write-ups of two new titles from Expat Press, I Want to Feel Happy but I Only Feel ____. by Mallory Smart and Bel by Joseph Harms in the Joyless House Book Reviews section.