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Poem: Poor May! The Ballad of Ramcat Alley


s regular readers know, I have taken a brief hiatus from bawd. I spent the past month laboring at an insurance company outside downtown Omaha, doing the office temp version of assembly line work. Specifically, I was put to work updating policies, which involved removing papers from one file and placing them into another, and nothing else. As is always the case with temp work, I received scant instruction, and so I was never sure whether I was doing the job right or not. This being an awfully dull job, I didn't much care either. But, while a thousand little papers slashed their way through my hands with a thousand little paper cuts, an old friend was preparing to publish her own weekly newspaper here in Omaha. Called Pulp, it is intended as an alternative to Omaha's already existing — and relentlessly mediocre — newsweekly, The Reader (now the Omaha Weekly Reader, as it recently merged with another competitor). I am once of a handful of former editors-in-chief of this sad little rag, and have spent the past three years obsessing about the subject of newsweeklies. What could I have done differently when I edited The Reader, I ask myself. What could I have done better.

I was excited by this new publication, Pulp, and spent a little while jotting down ideas and writing a few stories for it. And then, all at once, I went all hissy. As it turns out, along with my friend, Pulp is being edited by another former Reader editor in chief, a fellow named Tim. I was never very happy with Tim's work as editor — I found The Reader under his tenure to be semi-competent but uninspired. There was no clear editorial agenda or process. The Reader has its share of good writers, but, because there is no give-and-take between writer and editor, none has really improved much over the years. The writers, in fact, are desperate for feedback, and have always been desperate, and it is one of my failings as an editor that I never created a process for this. Developing a complex dialogue between editor and writer is common practice, by the way. During my tenure as theater critic at City Pages, I was endlessly rewriting stories at the bequest of my editor, which I found invaluable, and now miss. But editors at The Reader have always simply rewritten their writers work, sometimes radically changing the content in the process, which now strikes me as deeply disrespectful.

Under Tim's stewardship, The Reader regularly published awfully bad writing — one writer, in particular, a film critic, should never have been allowed to set pen to paper. But there she was, week after week, turning in ill-formed film reviews written without a hint of wit or intelligence. I had started on the film page of The Reader, as critic and then as editor, and found this particularly galling. Tim also started on the film page, and I could not believe that he did not feel the protectiveness toward its contents that I did. But instead I sensed a lack of concern, and once that seemed to seep into the rest of the paper. It was as though Tim didn't really see the paper as being all that important. He seemed to flip through it every week in the same manner that I flipped through insurance policies last month, not really caring if he did it right or not. I don't know how Tim actually felt about the paper, and, in all fairness, I am the most critical man I have ever met, and have virtually no patience for semi-competence. Tim put out an okay paper, and I am driven mad by things that are simply okay. I might never be the best at anything, but I always strive for a basic level of competence, and, failing that, strive to be the worst ever. Tim's Reader fell below what I considered a basic standard of competence, and, worse still, never achieved so transcendent a condition as to be among the worst newspapers ever published. It was merely there, never doing much of anything or saying much of anything, and what is the point of a newspaper that does and says so little?

When I found out Tim was involved in Pulp I pulled my support. As much as I would like to encourage my other friend, the paper's other editor, she endlessly places herself in a subservient position to Tim, meaning that this would be, ultimately, more a product of Tim than of her, even if she did most of the work. While I harbor no ill will toward the man himself (in fact, Tim is quite a decent fellow in general), I did not especially wish to be a part of his paper. If I was to do an awful lot of work of my own — and starting a new paper is a preposterous amount of work — I might as well do it for my own newspaper, where I set the editorial agenda. Especially if I was to get no pay for my work, and, at this moment, Pulp has no money to pay anybody for their work.

So, in this righteous hissy, I started my own paper. It is a little discouraging to discover that my motivations are so petty, but, then, they are always petty. The only reason I write plays, as an example, is to show up people I think are bad playwrights. There used to be a local fellow who wrote quite awful plays, and he had friends in New York who would produce them in some picayune way or another. This set me into such a jealous frenzy that I immediately set to writing plays that I too could get produced in New York, just to show him a thing or two. And I was quite satisfied with that — after all, one of my plays received quite a glowing notice in The New Yorker, along with an exquisite illustration. And then an Omaha band called The Faint received a similar notice in The New Yorker. And then local musical wunderkind Connor Oberst was the subject of a New York Times Sunday magazine cover story, penned by zine superstar Pagan Kennedy no less. So I am back to square one, in terms of my jealousy. I don't begrudge The Faint or Mr. Oberst their hard-won minor celebrity status, but both have, at one time or another, attended birthday bashes for yours truly, and nobody who comes to my birthday parties should ever be more famous than me. As famous as, yes, certainly. But I have my pride.

So, in a related tizzy, I decided to say to hell with Tim, and to hell with my friend, I was going to put out a newspaper of my own and show them all. And this is what I have been doing, cruelly neglecting my Web diary, which, in all fairness, has been doing its own work to make me famous in my absence. (I found out tonight that Seth Godin, author of numerous very popular books on marketing, has included bawd as a short chapter in his latest offering, a quote from which can be found at the top of this page.)

Last Thursday, which was, by the way, my 35th birthday, I wandered around Omaha selling the first issue of my new newspaper, which, in truth, should probably be called a zine. It is, after all, 32 photocopied 8 1/2 x 11" pages, folded in half and stapled down the middle. But I am awfully proud of the thing. In fact, in my pride at having made something beautiful, I have lost sight of my original mission, which was to show up pretenders to the throne of my editorial greatness. This was a pretty crappy mission anyway, and even I know it, but sometimes decent things can spring from questionable motives. And I think that my zine, titled Ramcat Alley is a decent thing.

I will not drone on much longer about the zine tonight, as I have already been accused of writing Russian novel-length missives, jeremiads, and philippics rather than diary entries. I will simply explain the title, and, next time I write, I will detail a little about the zine itself. And then I will return to my obsession with bad poetry, which I have continued to research, and write, during my hiatus, and about which I still have much to say.

But Ramcat Alley is really special to me. In part it is because it is a thing I made, and made carefully, and made to look as good as possible, and made to be as full of grand contents as I could. But I am also proud of the name, which comes from a lost bit of Omaha history that I unearthed, and I am unduly pleased with myself for having unearthed it. Ramcat Alley was a street in Victorian Omaha, you see, that was then-famous, both for its multiple saloons and for an Amazonian criminal named May Allison. May would lurk in wait in the alley, waylaying passers-by, clobbering them, and stealing their belongings. Until I dug up some ancient articles on the alley and on Ms. Allison, they both were completely forgotten, and that seems like a goddamn shame, because both are great stories. So, in my first issue of my new zine, as one of my first articles, I told those stories. And there you have it — an example of my skewed idea of an editorial mission. I also composed a little ode to May Allison, and I will close this diary entry by quoting it in entirety:

Poor May! The Ballad of Ramcat Alley

O! O! For May Allison!
Poor May! O poor May!
You can offer up your ready pate,—
She won't fracture it today.
Kneel down before her unafraid;
She will not split your head.
Those furrow and wells in poor May's scalp
Mean May Allison is dead,
Men rub their battered, knotted skulls
And speak in mournful tones
And tell grim tales of poor dead May
And the bones, the broken bones.
They recall May's club and recall her axe
And recall her swinging fist.
It's not Ramcat Alley without poor May,—
May Allison will be missed.


© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.

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