Artist and poet Ryan Stark has just unleashed Slander House, an independent book label highlighting Reno writers. It’s not for everyone, but it’s honest.
There’s a customer lull at the coffee shop where Ryan Stark is working. Standing behind the counter, towering at a lanky 6 feet 9 inches over the register, he picks up a weathered copy of an old book by Maupassant, tosses it up in the air a bit, and flips it open indiscriminately to its middle pages. None of the stories in it are much more than a page or two—short enough to get his book fix even while working in the middle of the day, and he loves that about it. He loves French writers. He just plain loves books—so much so that the 25-year-old has started his own independent book label, Slander House.
The label aims to publish Reno writers who Stark thinks more people need to know. He describes the writings—which range from fiction to journal-like entries to poetry—as “documents.”
“There’s a separation to me of a book and a document,” says Stark, who’s also a painter, spoken word artist and the vocalist for the band Guns Down. “A book to me is like Farewell to Arms or Black Spring. I look at Slander House as an archive—people getting to witness what was happening at that time in that person’s head.”
Slander House’s first publication is Stark’s own book, Arguments Against Humanity, which he’s releasing July 8 at the new all-ages venue, 14th Ward. The book, written between 1999 and 2002, is not for everyone. Its writings and poems are no longer than two-pages long and often no more than four lines. It can be offensive, afflictive and intellectually elitist. It makes you think. It’s honest, cynical, critical and doesn’t flinch at sex, deceit, fear or exploring the darker thoughts most people would rather bury. And no one is safe: Stark pounces on what he loves as well as what he hates. One writing flies a big “fuck you” to construction workers, open mics (which he’s run for many years), slam poetry (which he’s performed), rappers, Henry Miller and Franz Kafka (two of his heroes), “GW Bush for making open mic poets look good” …
“Fuck Artown. Fuck the sheep. Fuck people that are still upset about the
sheep but didn’t say shit when they first came out.
Fuck Riverside Artists Lofts and all of their trite art of Nevada landscapes
congratulating everyone about how good it is what they do. Let me tell you
that the best painters didn’t get congratulated on shit until they fought hard
for what they did. Fuck irrelevant art.”
He even reserves a fuck-you for his own poem “for being repetitive.”
There’s more of the angry young man in that writing than in many of the book’s other pieces. The ending to one poem: “That French toast she left half eaten/Seems colder/Than anything/I’ve felt.” Or another, “There is no silence like the sound of someone trying to find the right words.” But the fire he unleashed in the example above represents much of the tone of Arguments Against Humanity.
After reading his work, it may be hard to believe that Ryan Stark is a nice guy. Really. He speaks in a calm, measured, soft voice interspersed with smiles. In his room in Reno’s Old Southwest, he’s surrounded by much of what he loves: The walls are lined with books (Miller, Anais Nin, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Louis-Ferdinand Celine) and CDs (Lead Belly on the floor next to Sonic Youth). He talks excitedly about music, books, art, friends. “I’m excited about people who are excited about things,” he says. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be the same guy who wrote a book called Arguments Against Humanity. But passion and intelligence—both of which he has—have a way of giving way to anger—and to good writing. He’s angry at the suburbs, at war, politicians, television, Pepsi commercials, fakery, fear, any stripping away of authenticity, any hiding of grime in plastic bubble wrap.
Stark admits he was angrier when he wrote the book than he is now. “Most things that are angry just to be angry don’t do a lot for me,” he says, using Eminem and Insane Clown Posse as examples. “But you put anger at the most specific and accurate place that you can. … You don’t get to throw your anger at some random person who you stereotype.”
Stark says his anger is not about hate but about paying attention.
“The more you learn, the more you see there’s so much to be angry at. There’re so many people that would love to sell you a Pepsi and let you watch your commercial and forget about how many people, Americans, died that day in Iraq—that’s something I look at every day.”
Truth through slander
Slander House gives Stark an opportunity, in some small way, to fix part of what he sees as wrong with the world. He plans to follow ethics similar to that of Dischord Records, a label started by Minor Threat (and now Fugazi) band member Ian MacKaye, who responded to Stark’s e-mails asking for advice. Stark plans to charge no more than necessary for a book, release it only through independent book stores like Sundance Bookstore and Dharma Books, rely on word-of-mouth rather than PR and advertising, and not worry about making more money than it takes to stay afloat and keep publishing.
Of course, Slander House was also created because some good Reno writers weren’t getting their work out there—people like J. Lee Vineyard and Tim Dufrisne (both of whom are putting out books with Slander House). These writers met about five years ago at Java Jungle open mics. They started touring together in the Bay Area, doing poetry slams and whatnot. Somebody mentioned that someone should start a Reno label. A few years later, Stark did.
He knew nothing about book publishing when the idea first took hold. He was just a young 20-something with a roommate who bailed on him and stuck him with about $2,000 of back rent to pay—funds he was saving to start the label. So he saved again, started looking for local writings he wanted to distribute and began learning about business licenses and bulk ISBN numbers.
In addition to Stark’s book, Slander House plans to reprint Tim Dufrisne’s Nosedive, as well as Romance Novels and Ransom Notes by Jim Williams and a combination book/CD from J. Lee Vineyard called Early Works from Purgatory—all scheduled for release this fall.
Vineyard, 25, was recording an experimental album in his room for his band the Schizopolitans during the same time period he was writing his book. So both the CD and book will be sold together. Early Works is about 90 pages of short writings, which Vineyard calls “sudden fiction.” His work is humor-based yet cynical, and he points to David Foster Wallace and writings in McSweeney’s as influences.
“It’s more of a document of where we were in 2002-03, post 9-11, going into Iraq, a lot of paranoia, a lot of cynicism—not only from myself, but feeling that things were becoming apathetic. That people were uncomplicating things on purpose,” says Vineyard. So Early Works from Purgatory is laid out to accentuate the complications. A footnote goes on for pages (Wallace’s Infinite Jest influence) or just a handful of words takes up a page swimming in white space (inspired by Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves).
“It seems that apathetic American culture wants very easy definitions to store away and compartmentalize what’s in their head,” says Vineyard. “That’s not what I’m about.”
Vineyard doesn’t expect to profit financially by publishing through Slander House, but that’s OK with him. “The word ‘profit’ is not in there from the get-go—it’s how do we get it out, and how do we get it out truthfully,” he says.
Aside from highlighting Reno writers, the idea for Slander House came about, in part, as a rejection of the big-business model of book publishing—of treating books as “units,” as well as the cutthroat competition of just getting published. “Why wait for someone else’s approval?” says Stark. “I’m not out to destroy big labels—I just don’t want to ask their permission.”