In the long distant, burning moss-covered ’80s in Baltimore it was extremely rare that anyone got out. Even by the costly route of Death. Those who somehow found themselves here - MICA grads/dropouts, Hopkins grads/dropouts, seekers of cheap rent, those who spent too many long drunken nights at The Marble Bar and forgot how to get back to the suburbs - seemed bound to the grotesquely beautiful streets that often raged.
But in the ’90s arts scene that began to change. There was also the old saying “they always come back”. That too changed. Gavin the Gelding started up a wonderful small press, publishing Mok Hossfeld’s Dona Juana, then loaded up the family and left for Albuquerque. Standing in the parking lot of some faceless housing division as they drove off is a bittersweet moment of heartbreak that will never leave me.
Then Mok Hossfeld, a mainstay of early Shattered Wig Nights, readings at the old Cultured Pearl, co-creator of the BAUhAus, himself left, a toasty crumb after pulling double shifts with Louie’s Bookstore and the short-lived Bow Wow House (whose old space the Charles Theater expanded into). Eventually Pappy Mok would come back, but only long enough to say, “No, I’m really gone still.” Choosing wild dysentery filled adventures teaching in rural provinces of China over sweating out the grim economy of Baltimore.
Now it is the 21st Century and my head is a near hairless imploding pumpkin and the Baltimore writing scene builds and collapses like a box of marvelous interplanetary snow globes in the hands of a ten foot baby.
Our collective eyes were barely dry from the departure of Adam Robinson, whose dynamic Publishing Genius first sprouted in our strange city, when a final reading date was set by Artichoke Haircut to be held at Normal’s. The AH collective, originally (still?) composed of three drunk lads and one drunk lass, graduates of the University of Baltimore, was active for around 4 years and published five volumes of their small well designed perfect bound oblong paperbacks.
Their reading series nights, held at Dionysus, then the Yellow Theater, were warm, energy-filled, receptive bacchanalias. Yes, there was a touch of frat to the readings, but a cosmic frat dedicated to the word and its permutations. And no matter how pickled the readers or crowd or both were, ears and minds stayed focused on the writing.
(Michael Kimball, reading from his brand new book Galaga)
I had a great time reading for them and felt loved, plus I discovered new writers that blew me away like Cort Bledsoe and Lily Herman. Lily escaped Baltimore for a while, but was pulled back in. She has now shaved her head and is working on a stage play with Patty Hearst and Joaquin Phoenix. Cort pretends he has left Baltimore by living in Alexandria, VA, where even bowel movements are strictly regulated and come with an enormous fine if they are not solid.
(C.L. Bledsoe, author of Riceland and Sunlight.)
The final reading was a blast as always. Cort Bledsoe in particular was a lightning rod. Eleanor Levine, a writer who had been published in multiple issues of AH, but whom none of them had ever met, drove down from Philadelphia to read. Slim matinee idol and part time William Faulkner impersonator Michael Kimball read from his brand new book Galaga while fiction writer Timmy Reed moaned and cried out in man crush agony.
It was a treat to finally get to hear Melissa Streat and Justin Sanders, two of the AH editors who are even more shy than Adam Shutz about presenting their own work. Justin did a sharp staccato-paced reading of a short story, based on the “Black Aggy(i.e.?)” horror myth, giving it more sociological resonance. Melissa read two poems, one of them about her father and his lack of borders. Of course I had to corner her outside after the reading to get the lowdown on him. The endless permutations of parental weirdness and parent-child relationships always fascinating for me since it’s been said mine might be on the more Addams Family end of the scale.
Also no stranger to emptying a devil-filled bottle is writer Timmy Reed who was the grand finale. He has finished a novel that he read from, but he wanted to only to read to us of the haints in it, not the humans. Here in the photo, thanks to the camera blanking his eyes and his petite frame, he looks like “The Fish Mask Haint of Holly High”. I first saw Timmy read at a WORMS night in the beloved Metro space, but he is also an Artichoke Haircut regular and his liver is most likely more swollen than theirs.
I used to see him at many readings butt scooting on floors, swooping like a bat over the stage, peeping through holes in bathroom doors, then I heard his tale of the family waiting on an apocalyptic storm and read his wonderful book Tell God I Don’t Exist, which is a big seller at Normal’s. Turns out he is also quite the history buff. He spoke at great length on Record Store Day about Anne Frank and the uncensored edition of her diary that came out containing the entries that dealt more with the universal sensual side of a teenage girl. At the Artichoke Haircut finale he dipped a little into Maryland history and how his family fits into it.
Adam Shutz and Melissa Streat will be heading out to Texas in less than a month, Justin Sanders will turn his back on literature and become a maker of virtual reality software, Artichoke Haircut placing a lead hat over its pulsing wig to forever silence transmissions. But the Baltimore stew of a writing scene will continue to simmer with alien spices. Insh’allah!