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Interview with Donald Breckenridge

by on August 30, 2017

Donald Breckenridge is the author of four novels and the editor of two fiction anthologies. He has also served as the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail for the last sixteen years, and is the co-founder and co-editor of InTranslation, and the managing editor of Red Dust Books. His most recent work, And Then (David R. Godine), is a haunting novella and taut meditation on the people that pass through our lives. The book sees Breckenridge announce himself as an exciting and original prose stylist, and should undoubtedly make some “best of” lists by year’s end. We recently talked to him about the intersections of music and literature in his life.

Angel City Review: Did your passion for music precede your passion for literature?

Donald Breckenridge: I don’t remember which one came first but some of my earliest memories are shaped by music and also having my father read to me before bed. When we lived on the Naval base in Philadelphia when I was around four I had a portable turntable in my room with some Disney records, also those Viewmaster reels with their accompanying records—Spiderman, Yogi Bear and the like—and a copy of Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits, which had “North to Alaska” on it and now, whenever I think about living there and playing alone in my bedroom, it is almost always accompanied by that song.    

ACR: Who were some of your musical and literary heroes growing up? 

DB: In elementary school I would have said Jimi Hendrix—who I still adore—and in junior high I would have said Lou Reed—I still listen to the Velvets all the time—although when I was in junior high in ’81-’83 hardcore was immensely popular. Albums by Channel 3, Black Flag, GBH, Circle Jerks, that This is Boston Not LA compilation and that Maximum Rock and Roll compilation, Not So Quiet on the Western Front were constantly changing hands in my remedial math class, in study hall (that I took so I could read novels during school without getting yelled at) and on the back of the bus. I didn’t really embrace hardcore until the Bad Brain’s Rock For Light came out although I first heard it through a post punk filter of mainly English bands as I was really into: Joy Division, Gang of Four, The Fall, Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, PiL and The Cramps by then. In high school my musical heroes were Mark E Smith, HR, John Lydon, Ian Curtis, Richard H Kirk, John King and Lux Interior. It was around this time that I moved from Virginia Beach to Alexandria and began going to punk shows just across the Potomac in DC. I saw a ton of great music then—lots of DC hardcore (although ’85 turned out to be the twilight for hardcore) and bands from NYC, LA and also English groups were constantly blowing through town so I was really in the right place at a great time for new music. In high school I was reading a lot of Huxley, Mailer, Kerouac, Kafka, Burroughs, Celine and Genet.   

ACR: Would you say the DIY ethos / the aesthetic of punk inspired your creativity early on? Or did you get your creative inspirations from elsewhere?

DB: The DIY ethos of that era absolutely, and to this day, not just with writing but also how I present my work to the world. Whereas the punk aesthetic at the time was extremely important, and anger is something that you should never lose your capacity to embrace. However, beauty, love, and emotional honesty will enable you to thrive in the world because anger cannot sustain itself for very long. For me and for many other people, punk was a compass that enabled us to find a singular path. 

ACR: Did your creativity initially manifest through writing or were you driven to start a band like so many kids immersed in post-punk, hardcore at the time?

DB: I was far too aloof to try and form a band, although that’s not to say that I didn’t have a few friends who could have made music together if we had put an effort into it but we were seriously invested in making art: photography, painting and later performance art. We would critique each others work, consume the same authors, loved the same bands, immersed ourselves in galleries and for a time it was a secure and nurturing bond. I wanted to be a photographer before I started writing. My creativity initially manifested itself behind a lens and soon after through the theater yet I couldn’t afford to make the art that I wanted to here so gradually, glacially, I found the courage to begin writing fiction.   

ACR: In an interview I’ve read from a few years back, you mention that you wrote your novel This Young Girl Passing with music and certain films on in the background to immerse yourself in the era. Do you still write this way?

DB: Absolutely yes, with And Then I wrote most of the late 70’s era section with Television’s Marquee Moon and the 1st Gary Newman and the Tubeway Army album playing constantly in the background. I was really going for something cold—blithe yet psychedelic and angular, haunting and brittle. While writing out the late 80’s era section I spent a lot of time listening to Malcolm Mooney era Can, Captain Beefheart’s Doc at the Radar Station and mid-60s era Coltrane. I was searching for something haunting and spontaneous while at the same time it had to be completely visceral and kaleidoscopic. While much of the autobiographical section was spent listening to the post-punk from my teens as well as lots of records by the Television Personalities. Ultimately I was trying for something nostalgic that would sound and feel like every guitar solo Daniel Treacy stole from Roger McGuinn… and also a ton of Gamelan recordings from Java and Bali.         

ACR: How much does the music you enjoy inform your narrative style? If at all?

DB: Music immensely informs my narratives and it has since my first attempts at writing plays nearly three decades ago when I would have Coltrane Plays the Blues on repeat whenever I was writing dialog. So much of writing well is in listening and if you cannot hear what your characters are trying to convey then you will never be able to present them convincingly on the page. Listening to music and constantly seeking out new sounds enables you to hear and respond accordingly to your character’s motives and objectives as they continuously evolve throughout the narrative.

ACR: What are some albums that are inextricably tied to New York City for you?

DB:  John Coltrane: Crescent

Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde

Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus: Money Jungle

The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat

Archie Shepp: Attica Blues

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

Cabaret Voltaire: Red Mecca

Can: Tago Mago

Compound Eye: Journey From Anywhere

Albert Ayler: Spirits Rejoice

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

John Cage & Kenneth Patchen: The City Wears a Slouch Hat

Valis l: Destruction Of Syntax

The Fall: Perverted By Language

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: With Thelonious Monk

Alice Coltrane: Ptah, The El Daoud

Miles Davis: On The Corner

Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Funhunt: Live At CBGB’s and Max’s 78/79

The Ramones: The Ramones

Johnny Thunders: So Alone

Luc Ferrari: Electronic Works

The Clean/Great Unwashed: Odditties 2

The Stooges: Fun House

ACR: You have mentioned that you are an avid record collector. Is there a record that started it all for you?

DB: My mother recently sent me her Elvis Presley albums from when she was a teenager. In the box she also included the 1st album I ever bought which was a copy of You’ll Never Walk Alone, that Elvis recorded with The Jordanaires in ’71. It’s a full-on unapologetic gospel album so many would argue that my first attempt at buying music was a proper swing and a miss. I guess that purchase taught me to be a bit more careful with my limited funds. When I moved to NYC when I was twenty I made the mistake of bringing all of my records with me and soon afterwards I had to sell them in order to eat, although I got next to nothing for them, so for a number of years I subsisted on cut-out bin cassettes and listening to WKCR, as that station is an absolute blessing and introduced me to jazz and classical music. I began collecting records again in earnest about 15 years ago and now I have a few thousand albums. 

ACR: Some people argue that New York City lost its “edge” years ago. Some people believe this has had an affect on the arts scene there as well (music / lit / etc). Do you believe this is true? 

DB: I think the city is constantly changing and no scene in NYC has ever remained in the same place for a very long time. It might have been cheaper to live here in the late 80’s when I moved here but if you have absolutely no money after making rent it is next to impossible to survive anywhere. Trust me on that because getting by here on a few dollars a week is no fucking joke and carving out enough time to create your art while working 40 hours a week takes nearly inhuman sacrifice. I’m sure that is true everywhere and yet art frequently happens anywhere because it absolutely has to. I think some people who claim the city has lost its edge are nostalgic for their loft dwelling twenties in that now misty golden era before Brooklyn became a global brand name. Or they never lived here in the first place. However getting older while watching your neighborhood change to the point where it is hardly recognizable from when you first moved in can be soul crushing. And having to move every few years to find cheaper rent sucks. I moved eight times in my first decade here. I lived in a really beautiful African-American neighborhood with a solid civic foundation during the height of the crack era and watched as a dwindling lack of social services; affordable supermarkets, reliable public-transportation, horrific schools, dysfunctional hospitals, daily shootings and a community-phobic police force drove nearly all of the long-term homeowners away before the banks and realtors swooped in to re-brand the neighborhood for a more affluent group of people who themselves were recently priced out of wherever it was they were coming from. The neighborhood where I live now is rapidly gentrifying and while the property values are soaring it isn’t getting that much better for the families who have lived here for generations. Every week I get calls from aggressive realtors with their all cash offers to buy our house and I positively relish the opportunity to tell them to fuck off.       

ACR: Your prose style (dialogue in particular) is incredibly unique to me in the way that it breaks up the narrative line. It creates a really vivid experience, especially in your new book And Then. Is style something that is self-conscious to you or is it something that you don’t think about much?

DB: I write very slowly—if I get five lines in a day that is a great writing day—and then spend weeks cultivating the spaces around the sentences. Narrative switchbacks, visual displacements and dialog that breaks through the lines—like weeds coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk—gradually overtake those spaces. I am always trying for vivid while keeping things present, so thank you very much for saying that.   

ACR: What are you currently working on?

DB: I’m working on a retelling of Sophocles’ Theban Plays. A short version of Antigone was published over at Fjords Review in the spring of ’16 and I am currently working on a longer version of Oedipus right now. What I’m attempting is a novel length triptych of King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone

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Purchase And Then on Amazon.

 

Interviews Music

Interview with Thomas Moore

by on May 24, 2017

Thomas Moore is a UK based writer whose most recent novel In Their Arms (Rebel Satori Press), follows the spiraling life of a queer art critic as he numbly navigates a life of cruising apps and locales. In Their Arms dabbles wholeheartedly in the kind of erotic and depraved narratives that feature despairing males, made notorious by writers like Dennis Cooper. In Their Arms evokes a vague horror and routinely works to dull the reader’s senses. Stylistically, the book also features a detritus of pop music and cultural allusions.  In our next installment of writers talking about the music that has played a part in their creative lives, we talked to Moore about the role music plays in his writing and the importance of tone and style over narrative.

Angel City Review: Your most recent novel In Their Arms features several references to music pop culture – from Alice Glass of Crystal Castles to Wu-Tang Clan – juxtaposed next to images of violence and other pop culture artifacts. How big of a role does music play in your life and the art you create?

Thomas Moore: Music is a huge part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I listen to a lot of stuff and try to keep up with things as best as I can. In terms of the references in In Their Arms, a lot of those were more linked to the idea of popular culture now, and the mish-mash of things that the Internet throws up, and what different things signify and how they link together nowadays.

ACR: What came first, your love for literature or music? 

TM: I honestly can’t remember, but I suppose I probably heard music before I learned to read…so maybe it was music first? Sat in the back of my parents’ car, listening to their ABBA cassettes and my dad’s Glen Campbell tapes. Although honestly, I tend to try and not really separate things too much – I like the idea of seeing literature, music, film, visual art as kind of the same thing because I like the idea of all of those things being treated with the same amount of respect as each other. In my head I like to think of a new book and a new record having the same kind of weight and importance as each other.

ACR: I’ve read in a previous interview that you are really interested in mood and tone regardless of the medium. Is there a musical artist out there that you feel captures the tone of your works? 

TM: Yeah, mood is really important to me and tends to be the thing I respond to the most in art. It’s about the feeling that something invokes. There are lots of musicians who I feel a kinship with in one way or another. When it comes to artists who share the same tone as my stuff, I suppose it changes a lot depending on what I’m working on at any given time. When I was starting my first novel, I really felt that the first Crystal Castles album, and the Deerhunter record at the time, and Stars of The Lid had tones that I felt were similar to things that I was trying to work with. Then when I wrote my novella, GRAVES, in 2010/2011, Salem and some of the related Witch Haus thing seemed to reflect the tone that I was aiming for. With my most recent novel, Angel Guts: Red Classroom by Xiu Xiu felt like it had some similarities in tone and mood.

ACR: Would you say that mood, tone, and style are more important than a formal plot in your writing? 

TM: Yes, absolutely. Books that are mainly led by formal plot and character development don’t really do it for me. Which isn’t a criticism of people who do that kind of thing – it’s just a personal preference. It’s the same with films – I respond way more to a David Lynch film than something with a more clearly defined plot-driven narrative thing. I like it when things make emotional sense rather than narrative sense. I also think confusion is really important and shouldn’t be dismissed or used as a pejorative. Things don’t have to make sense. There doesn’t have to be a reason for everything in art.

ACR: Is there anything to be said for listening to music while writing? Do you find any inspiration directly within music that translates to your writing? 

TM: I often listen to music when I write – depending on what I’m working on. Sometimes a project has required silence, and other things have required super loud black metal records in the background. Yeah – going back to mood and tone – I think there are often feelings or atmospheres that I hear in music that I respond to, and I like to try and experiment and try to find how writing can correspond to that. I have sometimes tried to play around with text until I feel like it matches a certain tone that I’ve heard in a piece of music. It’s something that I’ve tried to do a lot.

ACR: There’s a line from In Their Arms where the narrator says that “there’s no music vague enough to fit the mood I wake up in.” This really resonated with me. Do you believe there are feelings that music cannot accurately convey, and can perhaps only be conveyed though literature / language, or vice versa? 

TM: Oh I don’t know. I don’t think that I’d like to give a definite answer on something like that. I guess it depends on the person who has made the art and the person who is listening/reading/watching/looking at the art. I think it would depend on interpretation, you know? I like the fact that one person may go away from a record or a book feeling a totally different way to someone else. Who knows what someone else is going to feel?

ACR: You’ve recently had one of your works anthologized by KiddiePunk (Collected 2011-2015). In addition to publishing Dennis Cooper’s GIF novels, KiddiePunk also has some esoteric forays into music (including a reverb edition of Hanson’s “Middle of Nowhere” album). How did you originally connect with KP? 

TM: Yeah, two of my works were included in that book – my 2011 novella, GRAVES, and my 2013 book of poems, The Night Is An Empire. I first got in touch with Michael Salerno, the filmmaker and artist who runs Kiddiepunk in 2007, mainly just because I saw his stuff and realized he was a complete genius and because his work blew my head off. I think we first hung out in person in 2008 in Paris and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s been really generous and cool in releasing my stuff and I think of him as a very important friend and person in my life. But aside from all of that, his work is like no one else on earth. Complete genius and inspiration. Yeah, Kiddiepunk has done some musical releases. A personal favorite is the Milk Teeth album, which you should check out. I’m extremely proud of my association with Kiddiepunk, because I think that Michael has and continues to do so many amazing things with it.

ACR: What are you currently working on? 

TM: I’m in the editing stages of a new book, which I’ve almost finished – it’s shorter texts – some poems and some strange prose bits and I’m just trying to get everything to click into place. And then I’m in the very early stages of working on my third novel, which I’m feeling very excited about. An idea just kind of came out of nowhere, and I’ve begun obsessing about it and thinking about it all the time, so I’ll see where it takes me.

ACR: Top 5 favorite albums of all time?

TM: I feel like I need to put a disclaimer in and say that this is just what I’ve come up with at the time of writing this answer. If you ask me another day then I think you’d get totally different answers … OK, so I’d have to have something by Morrissey, so I’m going to say The Smiths by The Smiths mainly because it starts with the song “Reel Around The Fountain,” which is one of the most beautiful things ever recorded. But really, I could probably just fill this list with Smiths and Morrissey Solo albums (like Vauxhall and I which contains the best Morrissey song ever – “Speedway.”) But yeah, I’ll go with the first Smiths record. Then I’d probably pick Angel Guts: Red Classroom by Xiu Xiu, which just feels like such a complete and self-contained piece of work – totally beautiful and fucked up in equal measures. But again, I’m obsessed with Xiu Xiu so I could have picked any of their records. Then maybe I’d pick the second Le Tigre album, Feminist Sweepstakes. Everything Kathleen Hanna is involved with is awesome and I saw Le Tigre play a bunch of times around the time of that album and they were completely stunning, and played some of the best shows I’ve ever seen – I came out buzzing. I’d probably pick a Hole album, so I’m going to say Live Through This. And then I’d want to pick something kind of experimental so I’d go for Happy Days by Jim O’Rourke, which as a writer I feel like I took a lot from, in terms of how the record is composed and repetition and drone and loads of stuff like that. 

The Smiths by The Smiths

Angel Guts: Red Classroom by Xiu Xiu

Feminist Sweepstakes by Le Tigre

Live Through This by Hole

Happy Days by Jim O’Rourke

ACR: Any favorites or influences from 2017 thus far?

TM: 

Pharmakon – Contact

Divide and Disolve – Basic

Arca – Arca

Xiu Xiu – Forget

Xiu XIu – Gone Gone Gone

The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir

William Basinski – A Shadow In Time

Anohni – Paradise EP

Brian Eno – Reflection

Blanck Mass – World Eater

The Mountain Goats – Goths

Antony Braxton/Miya Masaoka – Duo (DCWM) 2013

Jarvis Cocker Chilly Gonzalez – Room 29

Diamanda Galas – All The Way and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem

Slowdive – Slowdive

Perfume Genius – No Shape

Gas – Narkopop

Sleaford Mods – English Tapas

Oxbow – Thin Black Duke

Teengirl Fantasy – 8am

Run The Jewels – RTJ3

Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

Wolf Eyes – Undertow

Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism

The Necks – Unfold

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Follow Thomas on Twitter: @thomasmoronic

Interviews Music

Interview with Vermin on the Mount founder Jim Ruland

by on May 17, 2017

Angel City Review is proud to present the first installment of an interview series that will feature exclusive interviews with writers and musicians about the literature and music that moves them. First up we have Jim Ruland, author of the award winning novel Forest of Fortune and the short story collection, Big Lonesome. He recently co-authored Angeleno punk rock icon Keith Morris’ autobiography My Damageand is the man behind the Vermin on the Mount reading series. We talked to him recently about his love for punk rock, Los Angeles, zines, and the future of VOTM.

Angel City Review: What were your first encounters with punk rock and literature? Did your affinity towards both happen simultaneously or at different points in your formative years?

Jim Ruland: The worlds of punk rock and literature seemed very distinct to me and didn’t collide until I started getting involved in zines. A friend in grad school was a lifelong subscriber to Flipside, which was based in L.A. He wanted to move to L.A. and work for Flipside. I told him I thought this was a realistic ambition and put him in touch with my friends in North Hollywood where I’d lived for an exhilarating year after finishing my undergrad. He got the gig and soon I was writing reviews, interviewing bands, and penning my own column for Flipside. Writing for zines gave me access to the music I loved and I quickly figured out that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I was raised Catholic and had served in the Navy, so I was a rule follower by nature. Having the freedom to write in a space where there weren’t any rules was huge for me.

ACR: How much has punk rock informed your style as a writer?

JR: Punk zines are where I cut my teeth as a writer and learned how to write for an audience. There was a time when I wanted to be Kickboy Face but thankfully that was a short-lived phase I outgrew a long time ago.

ACR: Many people feel like music criticism (or criticism in general) is on the decline. What do you think the role of the music zine or blog will become in the next five years?

JR: Zines can be critical but they aren’t criticism. I wholeheartedly endorse the fanzine approach: embrace, document, and share the things you are passionate about. The world is full of weirdoes. Find your people.

ACR: First punk rock show?

JR: The Ramones at the Wax Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1985 (I think).

ACR: At what point did you realize that there were tangible ideological and aesthetic intersections between punk rock / DIY culture and the literary scene in LA and SD?

JR: When Flipside folded, two friends from grad school, Todd Taylor and Sean Carswell, started a new zine called Razorcake in 2001. They kept everything they liked about Flipside and got rid of the rest. We started doing readings around L.A. and found that if we asked people if we could read at their café or record store the answer was usually yes. I had this ongoing series of stories about a punk rock band that was perpetually on tour told in the style of a medieval manuscript. So I went around dressed like a monk’s robe with studded leather Birkenstocks reading these weird hyper stylized stories. In 2002 I set up an event at Track 16 in Santa Monica to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Damned playing for the first time in L.A., and Keith Morris and Brendan Mullen read. We were even invited to open for X at the Knitting Factory. It was all very strange. Todd asked me to set up a reading for the Chicago writer Joe Meno, who was a columnist for Punk Planet at the time, and I thought it would be cool to expand the audience beyond the two or three dozen L.A. punk rockers who were amused by what we were doing and Vermin on the Mount was born.

ACR: Much of the literary canon from Los Angeles is often painted with a sense of dread and vaguely apocalyptic themes. Nathanael West and Joan Didion’s essays come to mind. Did the LA punk scene capture that same mood for you? 

JR: Yes and no. I don’t think the early L.A. punk rock scene (or punk rock in general) was particularly literary, but it inspired some great narrative art that is full of dread.

ACR: How important is it for VOTM to be a place on the periphery of the culture where writers can read, share, collaborate?

JR: I think it used to feel more subversive when Vermin was held in a bar in Chinatown and I had not yet addressed my substance abuse issues, but I remain committed to Vermin being a space for indie and emerging writers. I’m not against mainstream writers (whatever that means) but if I have to deal with a publicist to book a writer for a show I’m probably not going to be interested.

ACR: How did the collaboration with Keith Morris on My Damage come together? 

JR: Everyone asks about that and it’s not particularly interesting. My agent heard about the opportunity and introduced me to the publisher, which is not the way things usually work, but is still not a very good story. Keith has been amazing to work with. The guy has so much integrity. When he commits to something, he commits 100%.

ACR:  So many rock “tell all” biographies tend to fall into the realm of sentimentality and cliche stories of debauchery and eventual cleanse and rebirth. In working with Keith on the book, how up front were you guys about avoiding the pitfalls of the rock bio?

JR: That’s a good question. I think there were some things we didn’t want to do—like we didn’t want to start the book with 75 pages of childhood memories—but I don’t know if we talked about how to avoid the pitfalls of the redemption trajectory. I knew that Keith’s stories would attract a lot of people who aren’t necessarily readers. So we hit on the idea fairly early to write short chapters—like a hardcore song—to keep the reader engaged and turning pages. But one of the myths of the redemption trajectory as it pertains to sobriety is that your life will get better after you get clean. Newsflash: it doesn’t. For many people, things get worse when they stop drinking and/or drugging because now they have to deal with the damage. I think Keith falls into that category. The glory years of punk rock were behind him when he quit and there were some hard years before he started to enjoy success with his band OFF!

ACR: Best place to eat a taco and catch a reading in SD?

JR: Salud in Barrio Logan has the best tacos in San Diego. On the last Thursday of every month So Say We All puts on VAMP at the Whistle Stop Bar in South Park but you better show up early if you want a seat because every show is standing room only.

ACR: Your favorite LA writer of the last 20 years?

JR: Chiwan Choi.

ACR: Favorite LA punk record?

JR: That’s a tough one but my go-to is The Adolescents self-titled debut, aka The Blue Album.

ACR: With nearly every corner of LA becoming more and more affluent these days, does that, in your opinion, affect the music scene in a negative or positive way?

JR: Punk rock has always thrived in the margins. It’s always been informed by class and power. Always, always. When Hollywood was the locus of the L.A. punk scene it wasn’t the Hollywood of stars and starlets but the Hollywood of teen hustlers and junkies. It’s ground zero, The Masque, was a bunker under a porn theater that Brendan Mullen converted into a practice and performance space. Glamorous it wasn’t. But even then you had punk in East L.A. Punk in the beach cities. Punk in the valley. Punk in Oxnard. So it’s a little disingenuous to talk about L.A. as a “scene,” which suggests some degree of homogeneity. It’s just too massive.

ACR: What are you currently working on?

JR: A novel set in near-future L.A. about a woman who works for an underground organization who breaks people out of prison hospitals.

ACR: What does the future hold for Vermin on the Mount?

JR:  I’m always looking for ways for Vermin to be a more meaningful experience for its participants. I’m presently experimenting with podcasts and planning something in the category of an anthology. I recently came to the conclusion that I was holding Vermin back by doing everything myself. I’ve basically been re-inventing the wheel with every show, which is dumb because even with the 13th year anniversary coming up I have no intention of quitting or slowing down. I recently posted a solicitation for volunteers and asked for help. I’m not interested in “taking it to the next level” in the sense where Vermin on the Mount becomes a thing that burns up the time and energy of everyone involved – like so many magazines and websites do. I just want it to continue. If anyone reading this is interested in getting involved in an irreverent, irregular reading series with a punk rock aesthetic, drop me a line.

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Follow Jim on Twitter: @JimVermin