Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review of Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm from 30.2

Percy Carey and Ronald Wimberly. Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm. New York, New York: Vertigo, 2008. $19.99 hardcover (ISBN 978-1401210472), 128 pages.

Reviewed by Marcus Wicker

In the graphic novel Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm, underground rap artist Percy Carey recreates the gripping story of his life. Carey’s “blow by blow” storytelling joined with Ronald Wimberly’s artwork results in a high speed joy ride, even if the joy is not always obvious. This joint-production is filled to the brim with urban superheroes, struggle, pain, and triumph over deadly circumstances.

The book opens with a bit of dark humor as young Percy, a reoccurring extra on Sesame Street, informs his childhood buddies that Big Bird and Oscar are actually adult actors dressed in costumes, yelling, “It’s all bullshit. Big Bird’s just some man in there, an’ I saw him, an’ he wears pants that look like Big Bird’s legs, an’ Oscar ain’t real, an’ Snufulupagus, he ain’t real neither.” From the very first scenes, Carey establishes himself as a conflicted character: an individual who treats his friends like family, but refuses to sugarcoat his feelings towards even the most trivial subject matter. As the story progresses, this sense of conflict evolves into hyphenation in high school, where Carey finds himself terrorizing the underbelly of New York and reading books like To Kill a Mocking Bird for a little pleasure on the side.

The characterization of Percy as a conflicted person often yields serendipitous encounters. For instance, both his moral backbone and grandiose ego trigger a house party altercation where the young man takes on a pack of thugs to defend the women attendees’ collective honor. The hellish beating Percy endures motivates him to lay low and focus on his aspirations to be an emcee. This turning point spawns likeminded friendships and razor-sharp rap rhymes: “Yo, my rhymes filled with protein / addicting like ice cream or morphine or caffeine / but choke you like chlorine.”

Throughout the book, M.F. Grimm (A.KA. Percy Carey, the narrator) strings together unlikely comparisons, like the ones above, in cadences reminiscent of his 2006 triple disc release, American Hunger. His multisyllabic word play requires jumbo-sized speech bubbles so that, spatially, Grimm’s rhymes are often at the forefront of each panel. Wimberly’s life-like graphic treatment of studio recording sessions, packed concerts, and emcee battles add layers to Carey’s narration. The effect is a world where lyricism and life-experience work in concert with one anothera combination which illuminates the reality of Carey’s mind-boggling story.

Percy’s lyrical prowess then takes him on a journey to the West Coast to work with companies like Geffen and Epic records as a ghostwriter. It is in Los Angeles that the reader realizes Grimm was an unseen presence behind the music of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and M.F. Doom, producing/co-producing beats and writing lyrics. It is also in LA that the reader recognizes Percy’s Oscar Wilde-esque syndrome: he can resist everything but temptation (temptation, in Percy’s case, being shoot outs, drug deals, and general violence). This affection for hip hop and street life ultimately leads Grimm back to a growing fan-base in New York to sign a record deal, but this never happens due to a shooting that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. Carey’s book slightly falters here, as the author begins to tell more than show. Whereas the first half of the book is drenched in non-stop action, the second half is invested in Grimm’s change of lifestyle. Although his voice maintains a gutter register, this sluggish recollection of events renders Carey’s bullet point style of narration slightly monotonous. The graphic format of this book seeks to redeem this oversight though.

Gritty shading, dark shadows, and exaggerated facial expressions consume the quickly portrayed but dramatic “back alley” moments of this book in a way that speaks volumes when Carey does not. Ronald Wimberly’s panels are as compelling as the work of a world class jazz drummer: they remain ever present without overpowering but create distinctive, enriching layers when necessary.

At its best, Sentences is a story of hope, a story of promise. Carey’s compelling tale chronicles the emcee’s pinnacles and plateaus without falling victim to the stereotypical tropes that plague mainstream hip hop, that is, rented rides, video vixens, and pricey jewelry. His precious jewel is a unique brand of diction—a sort of asphalt talk that feels as swaggering and street as the world he inhabits, embodies, and critiques.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Address Unknown

We shipped issue 30.2 out in mid-December, and now, finally, we are just about caught up with address updates on all the magazines that have been returned to us. Indiana Review has a pretty small administrative staff, which is almost always the perfect size for meeting the magazine's needs. However, when people move and forget to send us their current address, it can really add a lot of pressure to the staff: processing returned magazines, updating all those addresses at once, and re-sending those magazines that were returned to us (which means at least twice the postage costs!).

We certainly understand that there's a lot to think about when you move: deposits, coordinating rent for two apartments, scheduling appointments for your cable or your telephone, setting up the electric and gas, not to mention all the horrid packing and unpacking. Moving is (well, for most of us) a pretty miserable experience. So yes, we definitely understand.

But if you would remember to drop us an e-mail with your new mailing address--pretty please--it would be a great help to us, and we will think of you especially kindly!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific and well-known of contemporary writers, visited Bloomington on Monday, and a dozen other students and I had the great pleasure and privilege of sitting in on an intimate question and answer session with her. Later that evening, I also heard her read excerpts from her short story "EDickinsonRepliLuxe," which follows a couple's adoption of an android replica of Emily Dickinson. The story comes from a collection titled Wild Nights: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway.

I'll paraphrase a few of my favorite moments from the day:

1) Oates cannot begin writing a novel until she has three things: the title, the first line, and the last line. once these three form a triangle in her mind, and she can begin filling in the rest.

2) She observed that professors can no longer assign long, sprawling novels to their students anymore. Instead, everyone reads Heart of Darkness or The Great Gatsby, but the bible-thick novels of George Eliot, for instance, are neglected. She went on to admit that people don't read long books like they used to because there is so much else to do, such as the internet or texting. In the nineteenth century, people could read all day, because there was simply nothing else to do. Then she said (and I paraphrase): "If you were gay back then, you couldn't come out, and if you were heterosexual, you couldn't really come out either, so you just read really long books."

3) While she admitted that her stories often circle around themes of "love and violence," she hardly ever intends for that to happen, and moreover, people only question or criticize her use of violence because she is a woman. People rarely ask male writers about the violence in their work.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Back from Chicago, Back to Work

So we're back, and like everyone else in the literary journal world, we're tired. It was great meeting so many contributors, former editors, IU alums, and supporters of Indiana Review at the book fair. My only regret was that a dense layer of fog cloaked the city as we approached on Wednesday morning, so we didn't get the wonderful sight of the Chicago skyline rising in the distance to meet us. Also, I regret that I forgot to bring Sufjan Stevens's Come on Feel the Illinoise, so I could blast "Chicago" as I drove down the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Some of my highlights:

-The panel "Six Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens," featuring IU professor Maurice Manning's in-depth look at some of Stevens's journals, and Terrance Hayes's amazing triangular diagram of his relationship to reading Stevens.

-The IU tribute to Scott Russell Sanders. Scott's been a mentor to all of us here at Indiana Review, and though we're terribly sad that he's retiring, we all feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with him.

-The Milkweed poets reading, featuring IR 30.2 contributor Wayne Miller reading from his forthcoming collection, The Book of Props.

-Eating a giant pastrami sandwich at the Eleven City Diner.

-Helping Chad, Andy, Nina, and Jenny sell copies of IR like they were going out of style. (Which they're not. They're totally still in style.)

-Meeting the wonderful editors of Sycamore Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Hotel Amerika, The Southern Review, The Normal School, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Pleiades, and many other top-notch journals.

I imagine the other editors will have their own favorite moments to add over the week. So stay tuned. And don't worry--we'll have pictures up soon.


Monday, February 9, 2009

To the onion field!

Chicago, at least in as far as I once read, is an Algonquin word meaning "onion field." A pretty modest title for the city that sprung from this field. Born and bred Midwesterner, I think it's safe to say that those of us from the Midwest feel that, in some way, Chicago is ours. Even though it's not in our state.

Well, ours or not, the senior staff of Indiana Review are headed there on Wednesday for this year's AWP conference. We'll be at table 393. Do stop by!

We had hoped to do some blogging live on the scene, but wireless is a bit too expensive, so you'll have to wait with baited breath for our reports. Go on. Bait it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Blue Light

Hey folks,

You may have noticed we haven't been updating the Blue Light's mood very much in recent months. For that, we apologize. We get so busy around the office most days that we neglect our 40 watt friend. We're currently preparing like maniacs for the AWP Conference (it's Feb 11-14. We hope to see you there!), but we promise we'll try to do better with Old Blue once we return. In the meantime, we'd love to take any suggestions you all might have concerning the Blue Light's moods or adventures. Just reply in a comment to this post. And for those of you bound to the colder parts of the country like we are, stay warm.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Special Video Poem!

Today we have a special treat for all you Under the Blue Light readers--a video version of Todd Boss's "Poverty and Paint," which appears in our latest issue, 30.2.

Boss's first collection, Yellowrocket, was recently released by W.W. Norton and Co., and four of his poems were chosen for Virginia Quarterly Review's Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry.

The video features a reading of "Poverty and Paint" by Todd Boss, design animation by Angella Kassube, and music by John Hermanson.