Paper Darts, vol. 4
October 11, 2012
She does that, though – the kind of musician whose name just icepicks its way into your head the second you hear one of her songs. It’s always when you least expect it. Once, I was standing around in the video bar at one of our city’s more vapid establishments, when “Big Time Sensuality” began thumping its way through the room. When I looked up, Björk was already making all her adorable, time-lapsed faces. Nobody knew what was happening, and for me that was glorious.
Not that you wouldn’t expect such strangeness and delight from the ladies of Paper Darts. They’ve proven, since 2009, that delightful strangeness is their thing. Sometimes I think of their style as Midwestern David Lynch (more cheerful, actually coherent) – a mix of surprise, wonder, and feisty resolve that together turn everything they touch into art. It really is just like them, now that I think about it, to start their fourth launch party with a burlesque rendition of “Oh So Quiet!” – Shannon McCarville in librarian attire as she belts out notes high and impossibly high, and the performance troupe Dykes do Drag in full school uniform, leaping into each other’s arms behind her. I don’t want to be judgmental or shaming or anything, but when was the last time this happened at your neighborhood literary event? Say what you will about the quiet, thanks-for-coming-tonight-please-drink-more-wine-and-give-it-up-for-our-author-who’s-about-to-read-quietly-and-occasionally-say-something-witty-enough-to-elicit-a-slight-tremor-of-chuckles literary reading, but it never hurts to make an impression, and McCarville’s THIS IS IT in that high, true-to-Björk screech is now etched into whatever’s left of my ear drums. I’ll never forget it, and for that I’m grateful.
This is how Paper Darts works. They have a preternatural instinct, both in their editorial selection and art direction, for knowing what will demand, and keep, your attention. Last night’s party at Icehouse in Minneapolis is testament to that. In celebration of their fourth volume – 96 pages of fiction, poetry, illustrations, interviews, and book cover mock-ups – they offered a stunning lineup. Onstage, introducing the magazine, the PD editorial staff came across a little shy, a little squinty in the lights – Editor in Chief Meghan Murphy reading notes she’d previously inked on her hand, Senior Editor and Community Manager Holly Harrison thanking everyone for coming out to “Meatspace. Or, Icehouse” – but once they got rolling they couldn’t fool you anymore: these ladies know exactly what they’re doing.
Odds are, if you’re reading this, you already know what a stellar organization Paper Darts is, but it never hurts to be reminded once in a while – especially when they take that art direction off the page and into a live venue. And let’s be clear: it’s not all for show. The night’s first reader was award winning novelist Peter Bognanni, who challenged himself, he said, to finally write something short, and gave us a moving and hilarious story wherein a father’s growing disconnect with his daughter threatens to send him plunging from the Minnesota State Fair’s Skylift cables into the land of unwanted stuffed animals below. Behind Bognanni was novelist, musician, and journalist Dylan Hicks, grooving with a piano piece he’d written for the story. Its slow, jazzy feel mixed with Bognanni’s melancholic humor made it feel like Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” in all the right ways. Hicks played again for Eric Vrooman, whose story gave the audience a cold, let’s say hoofed, look at dysfunctional fetishism through the lens of a couple trying to copulate in deer outfits. Hicks then took the stage himself and read from his own fiction – because he can do that, almost like it’s nothing to leap from one medium to another. And all of this brought us only to the night’s first intermission.
By Opaque, I mean the readings at which you’ll never run into anyone who says, “Yeah, I read about it online and I was in the area and, well, I thought, you know.” Nobody drops in, is what I’m saying. These are the readings for readers, you could say – the insular events where every single person loves literature. The audience listens, enrapt, as the authors take the stage one by one to read their work, followed by a reception during which those same authors can’t even make it to the bathroom without being pressed to chat about his or her brilliant/life-changing/inspiring work. The magazines are gone before intermission, the room’s dry enough to make your nose bleed, and there’s usually a plate of cookies or crumbs that used to be cookies. This audience is trained well: they know when to chuckle and they know when to vibrate silently and they know when to utter a short, to-the-beat “mmm” like a punctuation mark added just for the event.
Translucent launch parties, on the other hand, are the ones you hear about outside of the literary machine. Courtney Algeo punching Sarah Moeding in the face, for example – the Revolver launch party was such a media phenomenon that over half the people who attended, according to one anonymous sampler, hadn’t previously heard of the magazine. Literary Death Match – Adrian Todd Zuniga’s famed traveling showdown – blows up on City Pages, Vita.mn, and MPR days before the event, bringing in a larger and larger audience with every recurrence, most of whom have never heard of the authors Zuniga insists they go home and read. This, obviously, is a good thing: the book industry’s biggest non-secret is its constant attempt to trick people into reading, to get readers hooked when they’re young, to make reading look cool. All your friends are reading – you should, too. But attending literary events, like the act of reading itself, is a learned skill. You can tell by the mixed audience at these “translucent” events as they listen to wonderfully-wrought pieces like Bognanni’s “Skylift.” During certain moments in the piece, this strange sense of discomfort wafted from certain corners of the room, something like, Wait, I thought this piece was funny – why is it getting serious all the sudden? It’s a balancing act, on behalf of both author and curator, that’s hard to predict. Sometimes people wander in just for entertainment while they drink, and when a reading errs too close to the downright hilarious it’s hard to pull it back. Partygoers can grow resistant to emotion, to vulnerability. They can lock themselves into an expectation and they’ll do what they can to keep themselves safe. But what else can you expect, and what else could you want? It makes the genuine reactions, peppered throughout the crowd – the little gasps of wonder at this inevitably doomed relationship, written without melodrama or slapstick – all the more precious. Just as that first measure of Björk seems primed for you, the lance of a well written story swung quietly through a crowded bar has never felt so personal, and so welcome, on your heart’s flesh.
But that’s what literary events are for isn’t it? Opaque or translucent as you like, that’s what literature itself is for. There’s something ecstatic about being ripped in half or torn limb from proverbial limb as you struggle to make sense of what’s happening. That’s how I’ll think of it now, art – no different from being eaten by a pack of wild animals. Sure, you can struggle to fend them off, but they’ve already torn you open and made off with half of what used to be yours. You might as well enjoy it.
Fortunately, Paper Darts had the last laugh of the night. Algeo took the stage once more and recounted her initial move to Minneapolis from Philadelphia. She began going to literary events right away, she said, and it wasn’t long before her husband asked her, “Does every event end with a sing-along here in Minnesota?” Yes, she assured us, yes it does. She introduced, once more, Shannon McCarville, whose lounge version of “Baby Got Back” (originally arranged by Richard Cheese) might have comprised the most confusingly erotic moment of my life – and I can’t forget that. Again, I thought I was here, in the emotional landscape, and with a simple tweak of atmosphere a handful of my favorite editors wrenched me way over here. That, any writer can tell you, takes talent.
Order Paper Darts, vol. 4, before they’re gone.