Flatmancrooked: Tons of cash + one robot = modern literature

Sacramento’s Flatmancrooked publishes with style

Left to right: Flatmancrooked executive editor Elijah Jenkins, publisher Jim the Robot, associate editor Deena Drewis and senior editor Kaelan Smith.

Left to right: Flatmancrooked executive editor Elijah Jenkins, publisher Jim the Robot, associate editor Deena Drewis and senior editor Kaelan Smith.

Photo By dominick porras

It’s Second Saturday and the streets are flooded with human beings, most of them doubling back in various stages of disbelief. Maybe it’s the hazy nighttime air, or the Capitol glowing white like an insignificant planet, that makes the stretch of road by Java City look like the set of a bad science-fiction movie.

Or maybe it’s the 7-and-a-half-foot-tall robot stomping down 18th Street. Yeah, that makes more sense. The robot, shining silver, moves slowly, methodically—clomp, clomp, clomp.

“What? Look!” says a man with a small girl in tow. The girl—filled with curiosity, boogers, slobber, unidentified brown stuff all over her face—takes in the magnificence of the mechanized monster. Her father wipes off the crud that’s collected all over her head; the girl points with her forefinger and musters a weak, “Wobot!”

It’s true. The mechanical wobot trudges northbound, barely noticing the families, as if to say, “Outta my way, you fleshy, ridiculous pricks!” Arms swinging, the robot moves past Midtown’s Crepeville, where diners seated outside watch in unison.

Lookit!” says a boy, tugging on his mother’s tennis shirt. Like a true sportswoman, Mom turns her head and smiles indifferently. As the metal beast passes, she tries to decipher the lettering on his cape without looking too interested. “Flat-man … Flatman-croos … Flatman croosed?” she says, not quite making it out. She starts in on her gigantic bowl of Asian noodle salad.

“Flatmancrooked!” her husband yells, ecstatically, like he’d just won an all-expenses-paid trip to the BunnyRanch.

“Ah, I wonder what that is?” she says.

At that very moment, a beautiful girl following the robot hands the sporty mom a flier, which looks like the front page of a newspaper with the headline “Capital Martyr.” The main story reads, “Robot Starts Bookhouse,” and under it is an article about Jim, a robot/entrepreneur with a love for literature. In the story, Jim is quoted as saying, “Books aren’t out of fashion, and neither am I, as a robot.”

What does all this mean, you ask? It means that it’s time to welcome Flatmancrooked, Sacramento’s first large-scale literary journal.

The men behind this strange and unorthodox literary endeavor with the off-kilter marketing campaign are Kaelan Smith and Elijah Jenkins. Smith is a creative writing master of fine arts grad from Boston University who works as a journalist. Jenkins works at a nonprofit firm.

Their story goes something like this: While working at a local social-work firm, Jenkins, a tallish, portly man with a literary beard and tattoos, had a habit of chatting about his love for the written word. He spoke openly to anyone who would listen about his dream of one day starting a publication. The publication would be in the vein of McSweeney’s, which publishes the work of many young writers, as well as established authors like Michael Chabon and Stephen King.

It just so happened that the mother of one of Jenkins’ clients took notice of his passion and expressed sincere interest in his ideas. And this lady wasn’t an ordinary woman: She was an independent business owner—a very rich independent business owner. And she invested heavily into Jenkins’ idea—thousands of dollars, in fact—all because of a big, slightly goofy man with a literary beard, tattoos and a heart full of passion. Just like that, Flatmancrooked went from zany idea to serious reality.

Perhaps she’s thinking: “You may be a menacingly powerful robot publisher, but still you have no fingers!”

Photo By dominick porras

Enter Smith, a muscle-bound kid with a baseball cap whose sneaky-looking eyes tell you he might have put something sharp onto your seat while you weren’t looking. Smith, a contributor to The Boxing Herald and to the Los Angeles-based art monthly Bedlam Magazine, responded to Jenkins’ February 2008 Craigslist ad, which said something to the effect of Jenkins needing help with a literary magazine. The two met, clicked and worked out a deal with their new benefactor.

“It’s our own virtual-arts endowment. And [the benefactor] likes our ridiculous and sometimes mildly offensive ideas,” Jenkins said.

It’s certainly an interesting story, but it’s even more ridiculous if you condense it, then say it aloud:

Once upon a time, Americans were so self-absorbed, they thought Oprah was their personal friend, lord and purveyor of books. But two young punks with a love of literature shared a dream to start a real literary publication. At the time, citizens were too poor to buy gas, let alone a journal of fiction, but these whippersnappers didn’t care. They came across a woman who was willing to shed several thousand dollars from her fortune for the sake of their literary dream. Together, they inhaled the smog-drenched ozone and exhaled with a collective “fuck it.” And presto, Flatmancrooked was born.

But Smith and Jenkins don’t want to overthink their fortune; they just want to act on their circumstances and see what happens. “People don’t buy lit journals,” Smith said. “Since we don’t have to worry about money, we figure the best business idea would be to do something relatively radical and something that is more than just a lit journal.”

It’s working. So far. For starters, the right people are paying attention. The duo will be guests on Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour on KDVS 90.3 FM (on Wednesday, October 8). Then they’ll appear on Capital Public Radio’s Insight (90.9 FM on Friday, October 10) to talk with host Jeffrey Callison about the anthology. Plus, they’re already on Shepard Fairey’s Obey Giant Web site with a link to an article written by Smith. With all the hype, both planned and unexpected, surrounding Flatmancrooked, it seems that the actual point of their operation—which, of course, is literature—might become lost.

After all, when the marketing high jinks blows over, all that’s left is the book—a simple book. It doesn’t do much: The pages turn manually, and you have to look at it for quite a while to get what’s going on. But the book is something that Smith and Jenkins believe in. It’s the core, the reason, for all the madness they create. And “FlatmanCrooked—First Winter,” the first anthology of writing from Smith, Jenkins and Jim the Robot, features some very interesting fiction; it’s a spectacular read.

Of the two higher-profile stories is a new piece of fiction from National Book Award winner Ha Jin, “Children Like Enemies,” a fascinating portrayal of Chinese familial hierarchy and a story of immigrants struggling with integration. There’s also a story from the deceased Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges titled “Gradus Ad Parnassum,” which is a brief, heavily footnoted, close (if tedious) study of language, translated by Christopher Robinson. The story begins, rather beautifully, with the line: “At my return from a brief, but not unmerited holiday through western Colombia, awaiting me in the picturesque bar of our airfield of Ezeiza was a piece of news with dolorous intonations.”

Eight more pieces from lesser-known authors—varied in theme but all edgy and thought-provoking—round out the collection, making it an impressive first effort from a very strange company. And, thankfully, the literature is just as edgy, fresh and fun as the gimmicks that bring us to it. Unlike the glitzy ad campaign, the fiction relies solely on the talent of the authors who have contributed to the journal, which is exactly what Smith and Jenkins are going for.

In a recent move to expand their base further, Smith and Jenkins hired Joe Wenderoth (author of Letters to Wendy’s, No Real Light, It Is If I Speak) as poetry editor, giving even more shape to this interesting project. In a short amount of time, Flatmancrooked went from being a hazy dream to becoming a beast that’s quite real—and feisty.

Just like Jim the Robot, who, a couple hours after beginning his journey through Midtown, is tired, sluggish and visibly weak. He wanders with a staggered gait into Bows and Arrows, a vintage boutique on L Street, where collective smirks greet the machine. But he’s too exhausted to put up a fight, posing for pictures, even letting a few people touch him. After a few minutes, he bit by bit leaves the store, Jenkins not far behind. In the parking lot next to the shop, the robot strips off his boots and removes his body plating.

A Vietnamese girl with a camera watches closely as the robot removes his parts. As he dismantles, she looks mildly disappointed that the fourth wall is being broken before her very eyes. It’s like she would have rather seen a giant robot attacking the city than a robot stripping off its metal to reveal human flesh—that is, until the robot takes off his mask to reveal Scott, a handsome 20-something with a close-cropped hairdo, dripping with sweat.

“Hmm. He’s kinda cute,” She says, snapping another picture, eyeing the half-man, half-robot with a lusty smile.

Surely there’s a story in there somewhere.