The following interview was conducted via email exchanges between Jan Bowman and A River & Sound Review Founder, Managing Editor, Humor Editor & Live Show Host, Jay Bates and Michael Schmeltzer, Poetry Editor & President of Operations.
Background Notes on A River & Sound Review:
As impressive as it would be to say A River & Sound Review is an arts organization that grew out of one man’s vision to promote the literary arts in a rural community with an undernourished appreciation for belles lettres, that would not be completely true. The truth is it’s the product of a grad school assignment whose sole purpose was to help its founder, Jay Bates, stay awake during readings. Having attended too many readings where the entertainment value competed with watching rocks erode, Bates designed (as part of his “Outside Experience” at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop) a program that could appeal to book lovers with short attention spans.
In February 2006, A River & Sound Review held its first live performance and quickly showed itself to be a one-of-a-kind, literary entertainment program that blended sophisticated readings with music and tongue-in-cheek literary game shows. All of the early productions were performed in Puyallup (pronounced Pyoo-AL-up), Washington, home of the world famous “Puyallup Fair,” the Daffodil Parade (fifth largest floral parade in the nation), and exactly one bookstore (a Borders that has since gone out of business). The nice thing about Puyallup is that its inhabitants don’t trust anything that reeks of too much pretension. Ergo, the show was a perfect fit. Its combination of resonant voices with a self-deprecating humor made it endearing as well as engaging. Designed initially to remain in existence for only the year that its founder had to complete the assignment for grad school, RSR (as it came to be known) quickly gained a following that refused to let it fade away.
And it hasn’t faded away. In fact, it has substantially grown. After that first show, RSR soon started producing a recorded podcast of its live shows so bibliophiles outside the Puyallup city limits could enjoy the program too. And with the growth of the podcast, the live show, too, has grown and gone on to be performed in other locales, including Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and on the San Juan Islands.
Now an online journal has been added to further publish the best in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and humor for the world to read. What’s next? Well, for one thing, we’ll continue our stated mission: To showcase and support the talents of literary and musical artists from the Puget Sound region and abroad, and enrich readers with a diversity of established and emerging voices. For more about our live shows, visit our live show link, or email Jay Bates to schedule a live production in your community.
Jay Bates (Founder, Managing Editor, Humor Editor & Live Show Host) grew up an innocent in Puyallup, WA during the 1970s and ’80s. He was so innocent that when a girl asked him in the eighth grade if he was a virgin, he said, “No, I’m a Taurus.” As a grown up, he teaches English and writes fiction, humor and sub-par doggerel poetry. Beyond that, he has been known to use a Sharpie to correct the language on the “Ten items or less” signs found at the grocery store. He still makes his home in Puyallup with his wife, son, daughter, and dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Ulysses. His work has appeared in The Southeast Review.
Jan Bowman: As Founder of A River and Sound Review, what led you to decide the world needed another journal?
Jay Bates: To be honest, I’m not convinced it does need another journal. In fact it doesn’t. But it also doesn’t need any more MFA programs, or reality TV shows, or social media outlets, or Justin Bieber albums—and yet we continue to find people willing to give their time and attention all of these things and more. Frankly, I don’t get it. I’d just as soon spend my time running or curling up with a copy of Updike. But occasionally, I’ll be sitting in my reading chair in my den, sipping on my favorite 12-year-old single malt Scotch, and hot damn if I don’t get the sudden urge to Google something about the Kardashians or parasitic twins. The curiosity is just too much, and I can’t stop myself. Same thing with this journal. I know for a fact the world doesn’t need it. Who am I kidding? So every so often I think to myself, “Well, this will be the last issue,” but then I go out and re-open submissions to another reading period for no other reason than to see what the hell is out there. And sometimes, when I open a submission, I wish to God I’d never looked. But that’s the thing—I do keep looking. I keep surfing through submissions the way I do Wikipedia articles, jumping from link to link, and then suddenly something stops me. That’s when I send an acceptance. And the cycle starts again.
Jan: What are the greatest problems you encounter in your efforts to blend a magic elixir of serious literature with humor to create a journal with an unpretentious soul?
Jay: My biggest problem is trying to find someone who will give a shit about it. As a staff, we take a self-deprecating sense of pride in our lack of social and literary pedigree. For instance, I come from a town called Puyallup (pronounced Pyoo-AL-up), Washington, where (and I’m not kidding here) we take pride in being the alleged birthplace of chainsaw sculpting. Yes, we are that sophisticated. Where I come from, there is a strong distrust of the highfalutin. So it’s no surprise how lost I feel when I go to an AWP conference. People climb over each other in a desperate attempt to showcase just how serious they are about their craft, or about what they publish, and to show proof of their seriousness, people draw upon the thick syrup of pretentiousness. The competition is fierce, and I’m not suited for it. I’m better fit for a farting contest. (Which I would win.) Pretentious people don’t listen to me because it’s not in my personality to pretend that anything I do or say will make much of a statement in the world. That may sound sad, but the truth is it’s pretty freeing. I was born a nobody. I will die a nobody. But in between, I’m having a hell of a lot of fun.
Jan: What does humor look like these days? How do you know it when you see it and why do you think so many writers have trouble writing humorous pieces?
Jay: Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography by saying “I know it when I see it.” So I’d say these days humor looks an awful lot like pornography. Most of it I’d just as soon not know about. But then I come across something so outrageous and wacky—the literary equivalent of two people without arms or legs getting busy—and I find that I can’t stop laughing. And I think that’s the problem with people who struggle to write humor—there is a hesitation to be irreverent. Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy act (not his TV show) ruined good humor writing for two generations, because now so many people think they can get a laugh from making a coy observation. (“Have you ever noticed that…blah blah blah?”) Or people try resurrecting Erma Bombeck with their latest stories about their four-year-old child’s shenanigans in the grocery store. News flash, people: Erma Bombeck is dead. She’s as dead as her prose was when she was alive. If you want to resurrect someone, resurrect Dorothy Parker, or E.B. White, or even Nora Ephron (whose body has not decomposed yet). Peruse the work of these writers and you’ll see that what makes their humor timeless is their reverence for their own time’s lunacy. They are jesters in the court of public opinion. The greatest of all American humorists, Mark Twain, knew how to uncork a line that would get laughs from one third of the population, boos from another third of the population, and dumb fucking stares from the final third of the population. What makes humor so hard to write is the fear of doing this. So my advice is simple: Let your writing be a fart at your grandmother’s funeral. Be counter to common modesty. It’s a good sign if you are nervous about what you write. It’s a bad sign if you aren’t.
Jan: I think your journal IS the future with your range of online work: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, humor, podcasts, music and more. So what are you looking to accomplish with the podcasts and what do see happening in future podcasts? And what does the “and more” suggest about the future for A River and Sound Review?
Jay: Oh gosh. I have no idea. This is why we have Michael. As for me, I’m making this up as we go along. We’d like to do more live shows, and I think we will, but it’s taxing just to do one of them. I had no idea the venture would be so time-consuming when I started it. At first it was like having in-laws over to the house for a few days, insisting they won’t disrupt anything. It was very nice, but then one day I noticed they were getting their mail delivered. The whole organization has made itself permanent in my life. And my goal with it at any point—past, present, future—has always been to have fun with it. If I’m having fun, and nobody listens, well, at least I’m having fun.
Jan: I promised you a weird question: Do you see your review as an online Prairie Home Companion or do you think PHC requires too long an attention span so you’ve come up with something better?
Jay: I keep having dreams where Garrison Keillor dies and I take over his show. But in all honesty, Keillor is among the greatest (if not the greatest) living humorists. And for the sake of clarity, I believe his show already is for those with short attention spans. (Shows like The Bachelor are for those with no attention span.) Although he isn’t vile with his language, he is fearless about telling truths that expose the virtues and vices of social norms. He is pretentiously unpretentious. His program will end when he retires from it. (Remember Noah Adams’ failed attempt to replace him as host when Keillor went off to Denmark for two years?) The show is so definitively an extension and expression of his aesthetic as an artist, writer, and humorist—and an extension of his very person—that it cannot be copied or followed. So I’m not trying to be the next Prairie Home Companion, but I’d like our live shows to be known as the first River & Sound Review.
Jan: Which famous author does your dog, Ulysses most resemble in word or deed?
Jay: I’m not really sure. Which famous author was known to spend all day licking the hair on his penis? Uly is really good at that. I’d qualify him as a master. I’ve had two dogs in my adult life, both yellow Labs, and both of them named after literary characters. My last dog was Duncan (named for the king in Shakespeare’s MacBeth). His ashes are stuffed in a cardboard box and tucked away on my bookshelf—the short fiction section, wedged between my collected works of Faulkner and Nabokov. Sometimes Uly and I talk to him. He was my muse when he was alive. Uly is too busy licking himself to be my muse. But he’s still a charming dog. He doesn’t hump the leg of strangers when they come into our house. My wife insists that we’ll have no more dogs after Uly, but I think she is joshing. I can’t imagine my life as a writer without a dog. A dog, especially a big dog—small dogs are really cats—bring comfort to a room. I need that comfort. It helps me write. Because every time I suffer bad thoughts and insist I’ll never finish my novel, there is my dog who looks at me with eyes that remind me that glory does not matter. Only love matters. Love, and licking your penis.
Michael Schmeltzer (Poetry Editor & President of Operations) is ready to rumble. Some journals publish his poems (Rattle, Natural Bridge, Mid-American Review, etc.), many others do not (you’ll come around Georgia Review). He most recently has added another notch in his “close but no cigar” file by being named a finalist in the Sonora Review Poetry Contest. His honors include six Pushcart Prize nominations, the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry, and Blue Earth Review’sFlash Fiction Prize. If you want him to like you, mention any of the following: The Hunger Games, cosplay, writer/director Darren Aronofsky, Final Fantasy, Silent Hill, or simply call him pretty; he’s vain like that.
Jan Bowman: How did you get involved with A River and Sound Review?
Michael Schmeltzer: I became involved with RSR the same way you get involved in a bar fight your friend is going to lose unless you jump in.
RSR began as live shows, and for a long time it was a one-person operation. Founder and Managing Editor Jay Bates wrote and hosted the shows as part of a self-directed requirement (the “outside experience”) of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program which we both attended (and somehow graduated from). After hosting for a while he sought to expand it into an online journal and asked if I’d be interested in joining up as a Poetry Editor. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
JB: What color is your favorite hat, Poetry Editor or President of Operations? Why?
MS: Both hats (I like to imagine one of them has ear flaps) fit my head quite nicely though at times I feel the more apt term would be “Poetry Appreciator” rather than Poetry Editor. Most of the poems we publish we accept with little to no edits so to claim “Editor” seems a little presumptuous.
So, which hat is my favorite? I can’t honestly say. Both positions have unique responsibilities as well as shared ones. They both have pros and cons, but I believe my role as an excited reader, an enthusiastic advocate/encourager, is the most important one of all (and yes, my favorite). And that role falls under both arenas.
JB: What the heck does a President of Operations do? My imagination races at the possibilities of your job description.
MS: The title “President of Operations” was mainly a professional sounding way to incorporate the acronym PoO into our daily schedule. Beyond that, however, the role was created mainly for the purpose of streamlining our editorial and production processes while developing new ideas about what we can do with RSR.
Another aspect of the role is to help create a face, a daily identity for the journal by utilizing our social media (Facebook and Twitter), which we view as an extension of our live shows – plenty of interaction with the audience, engaging in the literary community, and being good literary citizens (this is all just a fancy way of saying I goof off on the internet).
But seriously, journals should make an effort to be in a symbiotic and synergistic relationship with its audience. If they are not treating its readers and submitters with respect, generosity, and having a good time while doing it, why are they around?
JB: I noticed you’ve placed in a number of contests. Welcome to the club. I think the “placed club” has a larger number of writers, by far than the “winners club,” according to my math, so do you have a plan to win that you’d care to share?
MS: I’m going to read work that inspires me, write when I can, revise as often as needed, and submit. That’s been my plan thus far, and it’s been satisfying.
Publication and winning a contest, it’s great, it’s fantastic, and I’ll always be grateful to the editors and judges who have given my work their attention. But publication and prizes are just memories of the party, not the party itself. When I’m reading a poem that drags its little pinky nail across my neck and tells me to pay attention, that’s the real party. When you are somehow able to create that magic with your own writing, you’re right there mingling and dancing at the bar with all your darlings (I prefer kissing them to killing them, but to each their own). But publication, prizes? That’s the morning after.
JB: I promised you a weird question: Okay – What’s “to like” about “Hunger Games” and tell me what I will discover from it that will make me a better writer or person?
MS: You know what’s great about Hunger Games? Not much, if anything. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good but it’s not “The Great Gatsby” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Yet, I couldn’t put the trilogy down. I read the whole thing in like a week or two.
The best thing those particular books can teach us is that it’s okay to simply read for pleasure, like most of us did as children. It doesn’t have to be great literature! that will be discussed in every classroom for generations to come. We do not need a panel discussion on it (though if there was one I would possibly go to it). What we need every so often is simply a fun story, an exciting story, and someone to tell it.
Photo By: Buridans Esel