“I hear that a lot, and it’s total bulls••t,” growls Keith Flynn in a voice of crushed gravel and strychnine.
I’ve just offhandedly repeated the rumor that Asheville Poetry Review has stopped being about representing the locals in favor of catering to the big names — and Flynn’s having none of it.
“I’ll bet you that there are 25 North Carolina authors in there! Twenty-five represented among 140 poets from 22 countries,” Flynn goes on.
“Now, s••t, that speaks for itself.”
Big in Belfast
Flynn is the founder and managing editor of Asheville Poetry Review, but for all purposes you should think of him as its front man — its lead singer, if you will. It’s easy to see Flynn as a rocker, his trademark leather jacket and headbanger-long hair still a remnant from the days he fronted the band Crystal Zoo. For a poet, he’s very heavy metal.
But today, Flynn fronts a very different kind of group — one that rocks out not with drums and guitars but with fountain pens and iMacs. His band plays all the hits — from Alexie to Yevtushenko — and they’ve got an ego-stomping mosh pit you wouldn’t believe. And for 10 years now, they’ve been on their own kind of non-stop world tour.
“We’re distributed in 35 states, and five countries in Europe,” says Flynn in his honed rocker’s swagger. “We don’t have non-profit status or university affiliation, and we subsist entirely on retail sales and subscriptions. That, in and of itself, is almost unheard of for a literary journal.”
The Review‘s list of contributing authors includes big international names like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Bly, Ciaran Carson and Gary Snyder. Poets that Flynn grew up admiring — and who now regularly send submissions. Over the past decade, Flynn estimates he’s published close to 1,100 poets, essayists and authors. (Check out the 10th-anniversary issue, Best of Asheville Poetry Review 1994-2004, for a list of contributors worthy of any modern wordsmith’s cream-dream.)
Even more impressive than the name-dropping, however, is the longevity. By almost any standard you can apply, surviving the five-year mark is an undeniable success for a poetry publication. Making it a full decade is beyond rare. (At least that’s the word from Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the NEA-funded Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, who says that Asheville Poetry Review turning 10 is a “very big deal.”)
But with success comes doubts. Like so many of the big acts, Flynn and his crew are finding themselves at that strange turning point in their careers: No longer the rebellious upstart, Asheville Poetry Review now finds itself being the stony edifice upon which the graffiti of the new generation is written.
Flynn has heard it all before.
“It comes with the territory,” he says of the nay-sayers. “These are people who don’t like the Asheville Poetry Review because they’re from the ‘street’ and ‘real.’ To me, that’s coming from somebody who doesn’t have a clue about the significance of what we’re doing.”
And what they’re doing is keeping the mid-’90s Asheville literary movement alive.
“It was a record,” says Flynn about the start of the Review. “When I came back here from New York in 1993, there was a definite renaissance taking place. The downtown area was exploding. I felt like, ‘Somebody’s got to make a document of this time.’ If the least I could do was publish something for two or three years to record what was happening, then at least somebody had done it. Of course, we’ve gone way beyond that.”
Call it a comeback
Some history: When Asheville Poetry Review started, Asheville was smack in the middle of a creative boom. This would be back in the days when Malaprop’s women writers were at their most kinetic, Warren Wilson’s now-celebrated MFA program was first finding its feet and the Asheville poetry slams were standing-room-only events. Like the debris from some literary pipe bomb, talent was scattered everywhere, and the whole thing was bordering dangerously close to a movement.
It was not Flynn’s idea alone to commit some of this creative maelstrom to paper. In fact, self-published poetry journals and chapbooks of all sorts were commonplace at readings and poetry events. But, in the great cold wash that came after all the poet’s-Mecca hype died down, the only publication to last beyond those first few easy years was Flynn’s.
Ten years later, it’s still standing.
“It has exceeded all my expectations,” says Flynn. “By our third and fourth issue, we were being distributed in the United Kingdom, and by our fifth and sixth issue, we were national in the States.”
Of course, it hasn’t all been easy. Never mind the constant financial woes surrounding the dirty business of keeping a magazine afloat — an office fire in 1995 destroyed one issue’s entire collection of submissions. A few thousand Crystal Zoo CDs, hundreds of copies of Flynn’s own first poetry collection and an unfinished manuscript for his second were also lost. He even broke his arm trying to save his stuff from the blaze.
“That was a tough lick, man,” says the poet. “It’s the lowest point that I can think of. That issue [ended up being] the only black-and-white issue of the Review we’ve ever had, because I was struggling to get back up on my beam.”
But Flynn and his staff continue tromping through an estimated 7,000 submissions a year — just to publish a comparative handful of poems most readers will simply pass by on their way to the latest John Grisham tome.
Arena rock it’s not. Then again, filling up a good-sized listening room has its own rewards.
“Anytime you take anything as important to our culture as a language, and you try to create something that is a distillation of that language in its purest and most musical form,” says Flynn, “that’s worth doing.”
[Freelance writer Steve Shanafelt is based in Asheville.]
Asheville Poetry Review‘s 10th-anniversary celebration and fundraiser takes place Friday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.). Featured poets will include Ron Rash, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Keith Flynn, Emoke B’Racz and Jonathan Williams. $20 cover includes a copy of the Best Of issue. 254-6734.