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Poet Derrick Brown Blends Rock 'n' Poetry

Write Bloody founder gallivants into town

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Attention ladies: When poet Derrick Brown performs in Boise on Saturday, Feb. 12, he wants to make love to you while wearing ice skates. He will "do anything you ask, unless he has been drinking. Then it is opposite day, a holiday." Or so he says in his poem "Cotton in the Air."

Brown can do that sort of thing because in his vision of the future, poets are high-profile, swaggering performance institutions that make audiences squirm, squeal and swoon.

"If you ever have a novelist and a poet at a reading, you'll often see the poet sell more books because of a poem's ability to hit you in gut," says Brown. "A novel is like getting attacked with karate; a poem is more like a gun. It's fast and quick. Like a tiny gun."

It's a compelling artistic worldview and an unusual one for someone whose career arc started with being an Army paratrooper. But what sets Brown apart is the lack of poetry in how he executes his vision: Pretty words take a back seat to action and market savvy.

Brown, who calls Long Beach, Calif., home, tours constantly, performing high-energy live shows that include music and comedy. He also hosts a literary radio show called The Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour. And on top of that, he founded and runs Write Bloody Publishing, a critically lauded independent press.

"It's about mobilizing this new movement," Brown says. "I think the marketing is key. I've always come from a place where instead of making a flyer, why not pay someone who's really good to make a flyer. Then you get more gigs and more money than if you made a crappy Myspace site."

Write Bloody Publishing embodies that strategy, employing rock 'n' roll poster designers to create striking covers and luscious interiors that would demand reading even if Brown wasn't curating bold new voices.

"We're treating the company like a music company, where each author has to act like a band," says Brown. "We're not doing the traditional book model where you spend money on a book, ship it out and then make it available online eight months later."

Paul Maziar, who co-authored the Write Bloody-published What It Is: What It Is with Matt Maust--bassist for indie rock band, The Cold War Kids--agrees.

"All the writers on Write Bloody are encouraged to take the reins with most of the things that come with putting out a book: getting your own press, booking your own tours, that sort of stuff," says Maziar.

That's nearly the opposite of what Maziar experienced with the publication of his newest book, Last Light of Day. Maziar says the imprint for that book, Publication Studio, does little to no marketing of their books, preferring word of mouth or dedicated readers to seek out books on their own.

"Derrick Brown has really succeeded in creating something special, with new exciting authors and a fan base that may never have been exposed to them if it hadn't been for what he started," says Maziar.

And if you're wondering, Brown doesn't see his business strategy as a betrayal of bohemian or indie values.

"It's still DIY to hire your friends," he says. "Someone you know probably makes websites better than you. Someone probably plays guitar better than you. When you find out what you're good at, you make a team."

It's a remarkably solid strategy considering the company's fraudulent origins.

"I was trying to trick printers into giving me discounts," says Brown. "You get a discount if you're a press and print eight to 10 books a year, so I made a fake website with covers for books that didn't exist. But then other writers started sending me their manuscripts."

So Brown read a lot of books on publishing, "asked a lot of stupid questions," started a company and ran with it. In fact, he ran all the way to a review in Forbes magazine, which Brown claims was the only positive one they've ever given an indie-press. Since then, he added Write Fuzzy, a children's imprint.

Brown also started The Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour as a way to promote his authors. His goal with the show, which is performed live in a Long Beach bar and available as a podcast, was to make a literary show fun by combining readings with news, sing-alongs and oddities. A regular feature of the show is an "informationist," an expert of some sort who spends 10 minutes teaching the audience how to do anything from donating sperm to being a private detective. Brown once booked a repo man who explained how to keep your car from being repossessed: Get in. As long as you're inside, they can't tow you.

But even without all of Brown's marketing and multimedia madness, his poetry is fascinating enough to stand alone. His words and thematic framework alternate between bizarre, hysterical and representational of the zeitgeist.

In "Meatloaf" he asks insightful questions about symbolism.

"I always wondered why a diamond meant you loved somebody. / Why not a brick? / Why not a snail? / Or a wombat or a cat's brain? Why not a pair of handcuffs to show the world you'll be linked with them forever? / Why not give them a trophy full of zombie lipstick to prove you will kiss their brains out forever?"

His poem "Come Alive" is a mayoral address to the animals of Narnia, in which he says he will use his status to proclaim a day for dipping their hands in butter. That way they can practice letting go of what they were.

Scandalabra, Brown's most recent book, has a five-out-of-five-stars rating on amazon.com, as does another collection, Born in the Year of the Butterfly Knife.

But what really sells the whole package is Brown's commitment to making live poetry something worth celebrating.

"I hope that one day going to a poetry show is as common as going to see a band or to the movies," says Brown, who adds that he has "a lot of saucy secrets planned" for Boise.

"You can expect free body tackles, hand kissing, gallivanting and a laughing kind of cry," says Brown.

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