Monday, December 03, 2007

A Test of Poetry Bookstores

No, peeps, no, you've got me all wrong. I admit the image above might lead you to believe I consider the availability of Old Milwaukee a significant criterion in the assessment of a bookstore's quality. But that's not why the image is up there: it's there to commemorate my recent trip to the Woodland Pattern Book Center up in Milwaukee, where I read with a group of poets from The City Visible anthology of Chicago poetry. Not that I'm against the bookstore/bar fusion, which is surprisingly hard to come by. About the closest thing I can think of in my neck of the woods is The Heartland Cafe, which is a kind of vegetarian-friendly cafe with a theater and a bar attached and a big outdoor terrace and live music, and a kind of hippy general store which includes a few books and a really good periodicals section, especially if your politics skew toward the Z Magazine world-view. But it's really more of a good place to hang with your former students than to buy things to read.

But I digress. We're here to address that ever-new question, "how do I know the bookstore I'm about to enter is going to be worthwhile, poetry-wise?" Ah. I propose a simple test:

1. As you walk in the door, do you see a big stack of free issues of Rain Taxi? If so, give the joint 2 points.

2. Is there more than a single shelf of poetry? That's worth another 5.

3. In fact, add 1 point per shelf of poetry, and an additional 2 points per shelf if that shelf is devoted to local poetry.

4. If there's a section devoted to chapbooks, that's worth 10 points. I mean, come on — how often do you see that?

5. If there's a large color photo of Lorine Niedecker over the cash register, add 2 points. Add an additional three if the clerk knows can name one of Niedecker's books.

6. Are there more titles by Clark Coolidge than there are by Khahil Gibran? Add one point per copy.

7. Deduct one point for every copy of Jewel's A Night Without Armor. Ah, hell. Make that two points per copy.

8. Add five points for any of these three volumes (my test books for any promising looking poetry section): John Matthias' Pages New Poems and Cuttings, Dennis Cooley's Bloody Jack, and Mark Scroggins' Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (no, not Louis Zukovsky: The Poem of a Life — you can get that one at Borders, or Barnes and Nobel. I hear it's going to be one of Oprah's picks in '08, too).

9. And throw in another couple of points if they stock titles from Salt or Bookthug.

10. If you're giving a reading there and you blow the majority of your fee on books before you leave, add another 5 points.

Okay. By this reckoning I figure Woodland Pattern, with 66 points, has got to be one of the all-time great poetry bookstores. There's nothing like it in Chicago, and it leaves the Grolier bookshop in its dust (it has all the Helen-Vendlerized content of the Grolier, and a whole phalanx of Marjorie-Perloffery too).

It's got to be the best bookstore for poetry in ... well, let's see. In Milwaukee? For sure. In Wisconsin? No doubt. In the Midwest? Yeah. I can say that with certainty. In fact, we can extend that to "between the coasts," and I'd say that, unlike the hapless Milwaukee Brewers, it has a fair shot at a national title. If you know a place that rates higher, let me know and I'll cash in my frequent flyer miles in two shakes of a performance artists' prosethetic tail.

Did I mention I had a great time reading at the WP? (I'm hoping that'll stick as a way of talking about Woodand Pattern). Roberto Harrison's ink drawings in the attached gallery were a revelation, and talking about Nigeria and Brazil with Ed Roberson on the way home was a blast.

The WP's a ninety minute train ride from Chicago, and worth the trip if you're in town for the MLA.