Dwayne Hayes is a thoughtful, meticulous fellow with two silver hoops in one earlobe. On a recent night in his spotless Farmington Hills condo — the unlikely home to the nation’s singular journal of contemporary European writers — Hayes carefully pours from a Czechoslovakian bottle of The Green Fairy, otherwise known as The Green Devil, or, plainly, absinthe, as I watch with piqued curiosity.
Though illegal to sell in the United States, absinthe (the real stuff, made from the wormwood plant) can be purchased over the Internet, and is undergoing an American renaissance thanks to its hedonistic and hallucinogenic charm.
Hayes places a sugar cube atop an antique slotted spoon and pours the chartreuse liquid over it and into a glass. When he puts the sweetener to flame it bubbles and crackles before dissolving into the bitter liquid below. With a coy smile the editor hands me the glass, and Oscar Wilde’s admonition springs to mind: “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
As I’ve no wish to reach this final abysmal stage (one said to have fueled Vincent Van Gogh’s ear-lopping low and to cause a petulance upon the tongue and face), I sip the anise-flavored tonic gingerly.
Since Hayes launched his literary journal, Absinthe: New European Writing, he’s become quite an absinthe connoisseur, as he is of all things European. The literature in Absinthe — fiction, nonfiction, essays, poetry — is produced in its authors’ native tongues, such as Russian, Polish, Croatian and Finnish, and translated into English.
The 108-page journal, glossy and finely put together, is filled with literature celebrated in Europe but rarely if ever available for American consumption. Hayes wants to change all that.
A romantic at heart, Hayes, a self-described “massive” Ingmar Bergman fan, says he was inspired in his quest by the 1920s avant-garde literary maestro Eugene Jolas, whose vision was to bring the best of American literature to Europe through his journal, transition. Jolas was the first to publish James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
“Wouldn’t that be amazing, if Absinthe was the first to publish a great author, a Proust, a Joyce,” says Hayes, a far-off sparkle in his eye.
Clifford Landers, administrator of the literary division of the American Translator’s Association, says such a venture is rare indeed.
“Americans in general are loath to read translations,” Landers says. Yet translators are the literary heroes who, for centuries, have ensured that such great books and great authors as Dr. Zhivago, Ibsen, Dostoyevsky and the Bible, no less, are available across borders and languages.
“Translators are the invisible men and women of literature,” Landers says.
Quite miraculously, Hayes’ glossy journal was picked up recently by a national distributor and is making its way across the country.
Our Father who art in heaven you are the iron stake as I on earth am the cow tethered to you by the rope moo.
So starts Absinthe’s inaugural edition, in a piece called “VACCA~” by Emilian Galaicu-Paun, a poet from the Republic of Moldova. Galaicu-Paun’s piece is as much a play on the written word as it is a tale of growing up amid history, religion and cows. The piece ends:
As if we all were born to one mother, as if the mother gave birth to us one night in which the black cow calved a heifer and the newly calved heifer calved a heifer and that heifer calved a heifer from which — turned away from the tit — we sucked.
It’s a perfect start for a journal that gives you a little of everything and not much you’d expect. It includes abstract, minimalist writing and as well as fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry.
Some pieces are elegant, such as Romanian Saviana Stanescu’s evocative poem, “Questions and Answers to Herself,” which chronicles a woman’s departure from her mother’s protection to the more dangerous embrace of a man.
Another notable piece is “Lynching in the Air,” by Pèter Zilahy, originally from Budapest. Zilahy, a poet, artist and editor of JAK BOOKS, writes an oft-humorous essay about the months-long student protest in 1996 against fascist Serbian leader Slobidan Milosevic. Beautifully, Zilahy creates photorealistic illustrations with words, focusing on small moments during the demonstration. He talks about how protesters eat peanuts for sustenance, fingering the shells like they would a rosary. He talks about the “fashion trend” of the riot police, with differing gear accessories such as fancy riot vests. The riot cops are cockier these days, in Zilahy’s opinion, because they’re entering the European bourgeoisie:
As fashion dictators, the public servants turned mannequins have become part of the rising social strata. No longer grim guards, they seem to be strolling even as they stand.
In another passage, he tells of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blasting as priests march shoulder-to-shoulder, beard-to-beard, with the students.
Zelahy’s piece could have been edited for organization and concise word-use, but the content was strong. I learned more about the conflict and people of Belgrade from the Zilahy’s essay than I have in years of following American mainstream political journalism. And I laughed out loud in the process. That’s a feat.
In all, Absinthe is a great read, and once it overcomes the challenges of editing across languages, it could become a leading force in foreign contemporary literature.
Seed of a dream
Unlike the dark haze created by its moniker, the story of Absinthe is one of clarity and perseverance.
Hayes always dreamed of starting a journal, but his friends and advisers warned him against it. There are hundreds of lit reviews and little market for them. When Hayes got burned-out working as a counselor for Wayne County sex offenders six years ago, he got a gig as assistant editor at Gale Group, a publisher of reference books located in suburban Detroit. He says he took the job, “because I wanted to learn how books are made.”
He began to manage the editorial group that puts out Contemporary Authors, a compilation of bibliographies and biographies of modern writers.
Not willing to give up on his literary journal dream, Hayes investigated and found there’s not one single American lit journal dedicated to modern European writers — creating a perfect niche for Absinthe.
The title popped into Hayes’ head as he was looking for a word that would elicit thoughts of Europe. Famously, for great turn-of-the-last-century artists such as Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, among countless others, absinthe played the role of seductive muse, cultural stimulant and artist’s subject.
Once his idea was set, he got a lot of positive feedback, Hayes says. “Everyone thought it was a great idea, because nobody was doing it.”
Hayes says he’s still amazed that writers all over Europe and translators, who didn’t know him from Jack, helped him to find the best of writing from their countries. Eventually working with nearly 50 writers and translators, Hayes came up with his current selection.
Unfortunately for Hayes, he’s not the only one to tap The Green Fairy for a lit compilation — the online-only Absinthe Literary Review is a hot spot to check out new and racy poetry, short fiction, book reviews and the like (www.absinthe-literary-review.com). Hayes says the online, mostly American review is different enough from his that he doesn’t worry about it.
His major concern now is that with 1,000 copies of Absinthe in print, he needs to raise money to keep it going. He paid for the first edition himself.
“I don’t happen to be wealthy,” Hayes says, so the journal will survive “as long as there’s financial support for it.”
On that note, he’s lined up a pretty enticing crew for the journal’s release party on Thursday, Nov. 20 (see below).
The journal is to be published biannually and is available at Book Beat, The Print Gallery on Northwestern Highway, Xhedos Café and Shaman Drum bookstore in Ann Arbor, for $7, or $5 at the release party. Go to www.absinthenew.com for more.
The release party for Absinthe: New European Writing begins at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 20, at The Buddha Lounge, 21633 W. 8 Mile Road. The $10 cover includes a shot of (fake) absinthe and snacks while supplies last. Entertainment includes tunes by WDET-FM 101.9 host Liz Copeland, Jimmy Ohio (formerly of the Ultimate Lovers), Terror at the Opera, All Right Tokyo and Magnificent Bastards.Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org