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Pulitzer Prize Winner To Read At Book Fair

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Aired 10/1/10

San Diego's largest book fair boasts readings by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rae Armantrout and by the fair's founders, local professors Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew, each of whom have new books.

The San Diego City College International Book Fair takes is currently underway on the campus of City College. Our guests will both read on Saturday, October 2nd.

Maureen Cavanaugh: A celebration of books, the people who write them and the people who read them, is underway at San Diego City College. It's the school's 5th annual International Book Fair.

Authors are on hand to read from and sign their books, and lots of local writers are being featured. Paul Vanderwood, who wrote the history of Tijuana's Agua Caliente resort "Satan's Playground" will be reading and signing today. And this year's recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Rae Armantrout, will also be there. Both writers have been guests here on These Days. And it's a pleasure to welcome two more writers as guests today. Kelly Mayhew is one of the founders of the San Diego City International Book Fair (sic). She's the editor of a new anthology of essays on parenting called "Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting." Kelly, good morning, and welcome.

KELLY MAYHEW (Co-founder, San Diego City College International Book Fair): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Jim Miller is also here. He’s the founding director of the book fair. He's the author of a new novel set in San Diego called "Flash." Jim, good morning.

JIM MILLER (Founding Director, San Diego City College International Book Fair): Good morning. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Talk first to us about the reasons for starting this book fair and how much it’s grown over the five years since you did start it.

MILLER: Well, San Diego City Works Press started actually the year before that on City College campus and it’s a collective of writers who work at City College but then also writers from the community who don’t work for the district, and it’s 100% nonprofit collective that features mainly unpublishing local writers but we also publish writers – we have a contest that, you know, publishes a First Book Award.

CAVANAUGH: Ohh…

MILLER: And then President Terry Burgess at City College really admired that work of the Press, you know, that we were able to get it going and we’ve – now, this is our sixth year of the Press and he said, hey, why don’t we start a book fair to help support the Press and then we’ll build on what you guys are doing and bring in others from all around the country, from all over the world, and that’s really the birth of the San Diego City College International Book Fair. So it was sort of a combination of the work we did with City Works Press and then, of course, Terry Burgess’ idea of saying, hey, why don’t we support this but do something even bigger and, you know, we brought in, you know, local venders and writers from all over the world, and it’s been successful and I’m happy to say we’re surviving even these horrible economic times and we hope to, you know, flourish into the future. And now I’m no longer the director but my colleague Virginia Escalante is the director.

CAVANAUGH: Now, if someone is new to the fair and they just are trying to figure out, well, do I want to go, what will they see? Will there be books available to buy? What’s the atmosphere there? What are they going to see when they go?

MAYHEW: Well, it’s a glorious celebration of literature in all its guises. So when you go, you can go see an author do a reading, you can go to a book signing. There are book vendors that are going to be set up in the lobby on Friday night and on Saturday all day. We generally, as Virginia has done this year as well, have had all sorts of events scheduled the week preceding the big weekend of the book fair. Generally we mix in film and music. There was a film shown on Wednesday. There’s going to be music on both Friday and Saturday night. Friday night is Perla Batalla, who’s going to be performing with Luis Rodriguez. And then on Saturday night actually performing with Jim is going to be Gregory Page. So it’s a celebration of literature and the arts all really nicely centrally located in downtown San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And in addition to you and Jim, who are the featured speakers this year?

MAYHEW: Well, on Friday night, as I just mentioned, Luis Rodriguez is going to be doing some readings from his latest work, “My Nature is Hunger: New and Selected Poems 1989-2004.” And from “Always Running” and “La Vida Loca” and “Gang Days in LA.” He is going to be on with Perla Batalla. They have done this before where they do a kind of collaboration. They go back and forth between reading and music. Then on Saturday, it’s a full slate of authors, beginning at 1:00 p.m. with Rae Armentrout, Pulitzer Prize winner for Verse this year, her collection of poetry. She’ll be followed by Danzy Senna, who’s going to be reading from her memoir, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History,” which is her kind of discussion of what it was like to grow up as a biracial child. And then we have the City Works Press, AK Press release extravaganza, which we’re very excited about. From 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. we’re going to be having Forrest Hylton, who was the winner of the Ben Wrightman Award which was the award that Jim talked about on our press. And the cool thing about “Vanishing Acts,” Forrest Hylton’s book, is that it’s got a Spanish version and an English version. It’s kind of a flip book.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s interesting.

MAYHEW: And so one half of it has the Spanish untranslated and the other half of it has – is all in English. Where Forrest is actually flying in from Bogota, Columbia today. He’s the author of “Evil Hour in Columbia” and so we’re just thrilled that he submitted his novel to our press. Then my reading with my co-editor, Alys Masek, we have a full slate of authors from our book “Mamas and Papas.” We’ll be on from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. And then from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. Jim is going to close the fair with Gregory Page and he’ll be doing readings and – from “Flash” and Gregory will be performing all sorts of fabulous music to go with that.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. That’s a really nice rundown of what people are going to find if they choose to go to the book fair. Now, I want to talk about Jim’s book in a little while but you mentioned the anthology, “Mamas and Papas.”

MAYHEW: Right.

CAVANAUGH: What led you to work on this collection of writing on parenting?

MAYHEW: Well, I became very interested in writing about parenting or – when I became a parent.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

MAYHEW: So Jim and I have an almost seven-year-old little boy named Walt. And I’m, you know, I – my background is in women’s studies and cultural studies and so I’ve never gone through any part of my life without also sort of thinking about it and researching it. So my co-editor, Alys Masek, and I have been friends for 20 years. We happen to have gone through the whole mothering process right around the same time. Alys was also one of the co-founders of City Works Press and the San Diego Writers Collective, and is a poet herself. And what we had discovered separately and together is that there’s a lot of writing about parenting but it’s all these how-to books. There’s not a lot of literature that gets at the kind of heart and soul and ache and triumph of parenting. And so I had done a sabbatical project about a year and a half ago on child development and the politics of parenting and out of that interest grew my kind of desire to put together an anthology of literature where people could read poetry and fiction and creative nonfiction on the wide breadth of what it is to be a parent, both in terms of choosing not to or not being able to, choosing to and having glorious moments, choosing to and having hideous moments and then also how ones relationship with ones parents changes after you become a parent yourself.

CAVANAUGH: That is the hallmark of this – of the book that you’ve edited, “Mamas and Papas.” It has a wide range. It’s not just, if I could be so bold, a ‘mommy’ book. This is…

MAYHEW: No.

CAVANAUGH: I mean, this has some really tough things in it.

MAYHEW: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And also the styles that you’ve included. You have very short stories, some that don’t even fill up a whole page.

MAYHEW: Right.

CAVANAUGH: And poetry and that – that was your aim then, just to make it this real mix and to go from the highs to the very lows of…

MAYHEW: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …everything it means to be about a parent.

MAYHEW: Yeah, and we also wanted to have men’s voices in there, too, because that – you’re use of the term ‘mommy book’ is precisely right. So much of parenting is aimed at mothers and while there are what we call ‘daddy blogs’ out there, a lot of the books don’t include fathers’ voices. And for fathers, I mean, I know from – Jim’s got a poem in this book as well. I know from his experience, you know, it’s a – it’s as profound for men, obviously, as it is for women. But, yeah, so we – You know, we have all sorts of pieces in there to kind of represent the vast amount of experiences people have with it.

CAVANAUGH: Can you pick out something from the book, just an essay or a poem that I think – that really speaks to the kind of difference this book has?

MAYHEW: Well, actually I have two that kind of get at the spectrum. The first one – and I also wanted to mention, we had 800 to 900 submissions. We put out the call and we were inundated. So this is a paring down of a huge amount of writing. So people are really, you know, crying out to get in there. So one of my favorite pieces when I opened up the envelope and just read the first paragraph, it’s called “Once Upon a Penis,” and it’s about a woman coming to terms, Amy Yelin is the author. And it’s a creative – it’s a memoir piece and it’s about her coming to terms with having a boy. She writes of growing up kind of, you know, being very empowered by a certain kind of feminist thinking and that she’d always expected she would have a girl and, instead, finds herself pregnant with a little boy. And the piece opens with her sort of meditating while watching her son playing with himself while watching “Clifford, The Big Red Dog.” And I was just – I laughed all the way through that piece because I had the same experience. I have always done work on women’s writing. My Ph.D. is in – partially in women’s studies. I just assumed when I had a child that it would be a girl and I would raise another empowered woman in the world. And when I got the results that we were having a boy, I actually asked the nurse to repeat it. And so I just – I really responded to that one. So that’s on the – you know, we have pieces, laugh out loud pieces. Neil Pollack writes about his son learning how to text in the backseat. And Sam Apple writes about going to Mommy and Me yoga class with his son, which is also hilarious. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Thea – a piece about trying to have a child, not being able to. We have Wanda Coleman’s incredible – We have two pieces by Wanda Coleman. But one of them is called, I have it here, “’Tis Morning Makes Mother a Killer,” which is a depiction of poverty literally knocking on the door of this mother’s house and her trying to keep it away from her children. And so it’s, you know, it’s such a broad spectrum and we’re just so happy with how it turned out.

CAVANAUGH: I’m talking with Kelly Mayhew and we’re talking about the new anthology of essays she’s the editor of, essays on parenting called “Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting.” Jim Miller is here. He happens to be Kelly Mayhew’s husband and also the author of a new novel that really couldn’t be more different. I mean, it’s a novel, it’s set in San Diego. It’s called “Flash.” And what is it about?

MILLER: Well, “Flash” is the story of – it’s kind of a mystery, which I won’t give away here.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

MILLER: But you have a contemporary journalist who’s in an archive and he finds a wanted poster for this guy named Bobby Flash who is from the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW. And he sees this wanted poster in there and Bobby Flash and Gus Blanco are wanted for stealing a horse out in Holtville just after the Maquinista revolt. This is during the Mexican Revolution when there was a revolt. The Maquinistas were a kind of anarchist revolution in Tijuana and these guys – And he goes, hmm, who is this guy? So the narrative goes on with then the journalist—his name is Jack Wilson—going and researching and discovering who Bobby Flash is. So you start with the wanted poster and you’re sort of thrust into that world and you both follow the story of Jack Wilson, this sort of journalist who’s sort of – it’s sort of a noir narrative. He’s sort of, you know, bouncing from job to job, trying to…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MILLER: …struggle to help support his son who’s in a different city, you know, and you get the story of his family and how he grew up, you know, in Los Angeles and kind of banging around and had kind of a, you know, life with a lot of hard knocks while he’s trying to discover the mystery of Bobby Flash. And then we delve into the Progressive Era in San Diego, Los Angeles, you know, northern California. So it’s a kind of a dual narrative, both the contemporary narrative of Jack Wilson in Southern California and his life growing up in, you know, not just Southern California but also LA and, you know, the Bay Area, and way further – northern California, and then this deep sort of historical exploration of…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MILLER: …the IWW and the free speech fights and that whole sort of hidden secret history of Southern California.

CAVANAUGH: As you say, secret history. I was just about to say in your novel “Flash,” you’ve just explained to us how you sort of go back and forth in time and you explore what is, I think, a kind of a little known aspect of the history of San Diego, this unionization, the free speech fights that broke out in the early 1900s. Can you tell us, without giving away what – can you tell us the historical context of this?

MILLER: Sure. And this is something I got interested – I did a kind of muckraking history, alternative history of San Diego with Mike Davis and Kelly Mayhew called “Under the Perfect Sun,” and in the process of doing that historical research, you know, I did a big chapter on the free speech fight in San Diego. And essentially, the IWW was a very small, radical union in San Diego at the time. It had about fifty-some members but they decided to start a free speech fight and at 5th – Next time people are downtown in the Gaslamp at 5th and E, think of people standing on soapboxes and giving speeches denouncing Spreckels, you know, and, you know, and uniting the workers. And this, of course, horrified the power elite at the time, and there was a brutal repression of the free speech fight and, of course, they were joined by less radical folks, reformists and people who just supported free speech in San Diego and it was a very bloody struggle over the right to public space and free speech in San Diego which, I think, is centrally important to the history of the city in many ways. And this is also the time when Emma Goldman tries to come to San Diego and is driven out by vigilantes and Ben Wrightman, you know, is, you know, ridden out of town on a rail and tortured, you know, somewhere in North County. You know, so it’s a bloody history, a very interesting history, a lively history and a history that people don’t know much about, you know, and it was all centered in the Gaslamp, which was – This place was called Heller’s Corner and it was all about, you know, the right of working people to stand on a soapbox and give a speech in San Diego. And we’re just about, in 2012, coming up on the 100th anniversary of the San Diego free speech fight and the free speech fights in all of California, Fresno, you know, all the way up to, you know, Seattle, there were…

CAVANAUGH: And as you say, unfortunately, it’s largely a secret history as well. Now, as Kelly was telling us, when you do your reading on Saturday, you’ll have some music accompaniment, San Diego singer/songwriter Gregory Page is actually going to sing some old labor songs. Tell us about that.

MILLER: Right, it was a great collaboration, you know, I pitched it to him and I said, hey, would you like to learn some old IWW labor songs. And he says, well, actually I used to like to sing a lot of old labor folksongs. And so I gave him the book of Wobbly folksongs and he studied – he’s learned about five or six of them. You know, there’s a couple that are about San Diego. You know, out there in San Diego where the western breakers beat, they’re beating men and women for speaking on the streets, right, you know, so he’s going to be singing that one, you know, and some of the older songs like “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” and, you know, some other songs like people…

CAVANAUGH: We have…

MILLER: …might be more familiar with.

CAVANAUGH: We have a clip, not of Gregory Page, but by a folksinger Utah Phillips doing one of the songs that Gregory Page is going to perform at your reading on Saturday. It’s called “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back.” Here it is.

(audio clip from “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back” performed by U. Utah Phillips)

CAVANAUGH: That is folksinger Utah Phillips with “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back,” one of the folksongs, actually the union songs, that is going to be reanimated, revivified, during the reading on Saturday of Jim Miller’s new book “Flash,” and performed by Gregory Page. You know, there’s so much resonance with that now because of all, you know, there’s so much talk in politics now against unions and unions are making too much and yet at this time, this was a cause celeb. This is where all the progressive thought was focused, on trying to give people who were working, trying to unionize.

MILLER: Right, you know, and I think interesting, when Gregory performs those songs we talked about, you know, and he’s interested in old music and he’s going to sing them in a way that has a tinge of nostalgia, you know, as the way we’ve talked about this. And I think it’s an interesting kind of period. You know, we’re talking almost exactly 100 years ago, you know, during a time of much economic deprivation where you had a kind of anger at, you know, the powers that be, which, you know, is very similar to people’s anger at Wall Street and people’s anger at the, you know, the close to criminal behavior that’s gone on in this country and really put a lot of people in suffering with regard to, you know, housing and, you know, unemployment and all of that. But so much of the reaction today, you know, is to blame unions, you know, rather than I would say aim the anger in the proper place, you know, and I think really what, you know, has happened is that, you know, people have forgotten, you know, a lot of those older workers’ struggles and I think there’s a lot of that history that people don’t know anymore. So it’s easy to say, oh, well, it’s just those union workers with vengeance, that’s the problem. When, in fact, you know, there’s a lot of similarity between the economic instability of 100 years ago and the economic instability of today. And I think there’s, you know, a lot of lessons to be learned, you know, by looking back at that history and also how many of the things we have today like weekends, basic fundamental rights in the workplace, that we could lose if we forget how we gained them in the first place.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jim Miller, and we’re talking about his new novel set in San Diego called “Flash.” Kelly Mayhew is also my guest, and she has a new anthology of essays on parenting called “Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Hearbreaking Art of Parenting.” Now, as we mentioned before, you two are married. You’ve been married for 20 years. You both have books coming out. I wonder, what’s the – is there any collaborative process? Do you edit each other’s works, Kelly?

MAYHEW: Yes, we do. We met in graduate school and so we have always worked together. We’ve taught together, we founded the Press together, we’ve co-authored books, we share our writing back and forth of a – I think I’m more insecure about my writing and I don’t do as much of it. I mean, in my view, Jim is the novelist in our household. So we do collaborate a lot and it’s a wonderful experience to live with somebody who shares that same sort of passion and works so well – we work so well together.

CAVANAUGH: You know, lots of writers and editors have very close relationships even if they’re not as close as yours, and I’m wondering, is it sometimes tough, though, to – Jim, to get – to have somebody know you so well and yet be very straightforward in their critique of something that’s so close to you as you’re writing?

MILLER: Sure. Well, I mean, first Kelly’s being too humble. I mean, she’s the first and last person who looks at everything that I write and my, you know, editor of choice on everything because she’s got a fantastic eye for detail and also has a good sense of what we’re doing but, I mean, yeah, there is because you both go through the process of kind of the exultation when you’ve got a good idea and it comes then you – and it’s coming out and you’re putting it to paper but there’s also a lot of struggle in writing, a lot of pain, you know, in editing and those processes. You go through the kind of good, bad and the ugly together, you know, but I think it’s really having a strong relationship with someone who you’re intimate with and trust, you know, fundamentally helps a lot.

CAVANAUGH: Well…

MILLER: You know, and it’s – So it’s difficult, it’s hard, it’s not like we, you know, have big fights about things but, you know, it’s hard to go through that process and we do it together well because we, I think, trust each other at a fundamental level.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to – you know, I just want to thank you both so much, not only for being here today but also for founding San Diego’s only international book fair and for seeing it through, at least its early years. I want to thank you both, Jim Miller, as I say, founding director of the San Diego City College Book Fair. He’s the author of a new novel set in San Diego called “Flash.” Kelly Mayhew and her new anthology of essays, “Mamas and Papas.” I want to let everyone know that the San Diego City College International Book Fair is currently underway on the campus of City College, and our guests will both read on Saturday, October 2nd. And you can also sing along. Thanks so much to both of you.

MAYHEW: Thank you, Maureen.

MILLER: Yeah, thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to comment, you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.

(audio clip of U. Utah Phillips performing a historical labor song)

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