When New York University graduate students Alicia Beale and Joe Vallese were among classmates introducing themselves during a writing course three years ago, both found themselves defending their homeland, New Jersey, to the rest of the class and the professor.
As time went on, the pair began discussing Jersey-based authors and their works, until they decided to put together an anthology of Garden State writers.
One thing was certain: “We sought not a gimmick but a gift,” they write in the introduction to their new anthology, “What’s Your Exit?,” published this month by Word Riot Press. In other words, their compendium would contain great writing, not just paeans to “The Sopranos” or the shore.
The thick 325-page tome contains fiction, memoirs, and poems from writers both famous and new. Some of them are New Jersey’s most prominent authors (novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Perrotta, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky) as well as up-and-comers and even an actor (Jersey-born Jason Biggs from “American Pie”).
There are also local authors, including an essayist from Hoboken and a poet from Guttenberg.
The editors and the publisher are planning an opening party and reading on May 15 in Jersey City, and other events will follow.
The two editors note that while the volume is chock full of talent and has dozens of authors, it’s not meant to include every author or only the most well-known. It’s a mix of fresh and more recognized talent, and they’re glad about that.
“We didn’t set out to say, ‘We’re going to adjudicate what is literary and what is not,’ ” Beale said last week. “We solicited Janet Evanovich, Kevin Smith, Judy Blume, and a great many others who did not respond. Junot Diaz responded that he did not own the rights to his seminal short story collection ‘Drown.’ ”
When they first had the idea, Vallese and Beale’s attempts to shop the idea to big publishers failed, with one agent saying that while Jersey was “in fashion,” their idea was not “sexy.” But smaller publishers expressed a keen interest.
Vallese and Beale really liked Word Riot Press, a prolific, well-respected Middletown, N.J. outfit run by fiction author Jackie Corley. The press publishes a literary magazine as well as three to four original books per year.
The new anthology doesn’t just focus on the usual suspects in terms of locations. There are the expected references to Hoboken, Princeton, and Atlantic City – but there’s even a nod to a typical suburban commuter hamlet in Stuart Greenhouse’s poem “The Guinea Hen of Manalapan.”
“Jersey has a thriving literary culture, and there’s something wonderfully literary about the place itself,” said Joe Vallese, who is now a language lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at NYU. “It is such a contradiction on so many levels, it just begs to be looked at in a million different ways, deserves to be described and reckoned with and played with and used as backdrop and as character.”
Beale, who teaches writing at Hudson County Community College and Brookdale Community College, said, “People should read the book because it is good literature. Also, the pieces in the anthology are Jersey-centric but they are not odes to NJ or histories of small NJ towns. It is literature, which in itself holds various life themes.”
Perhaps one of the most riveting pieces is an essay by a Hoboken woman. Resident Louise DeSalvo describes the story of her infanthood: the time during World War II when her mother endured post partum depression and her father, a worker at the Keuffel & Esser drafting supply factory (now Clock Towers), got permission from the Navy to avoid the war in order to take care of her.
DeSalvo describes her father’s desperation, both to feed her and to attend to his depressed wife, and she paints a detailed photo of wartime Hoboken and nearby towns: “The smell of the coffee from the Maxwell House Plant … never went away; the racket from rivet guns at the shipyards never stopped, day or night….”
The story includes portraits of his parents’ courtship, mentioning familiar places like Schnackenberg’s Luncheonette and North Hudson Park, as well as some unique facts. Did you know that Keuffel & Esser kept black widow spiders in the basement during the war because “their webs provided filaments for the crosshairs of range finders”? Or that some Hoboken Italians were furious when Gen. Patton told Italian-Americans on the eve of the invasion into Sicily that they should consider it a privilege to kill Italian-born soldiers who never left their homeland for the freedom of America?
“It’s just intricate and tight and beautiful,” Vallese said of DeSalvo’s memoir.
Guttenberg resident Laura Boss, in her poem “Jersey Diners,” mentions several North Jersey eateries. She describes how “We would sit in red plastic booths/ holding menus with 400 items/ and 18 customers.”
Vallese mentions a few pieces that show the eclectic range of the volume: Ed Valentine’s short play “A Brightness Over New Jersey,” which “has aliens hovering over a family watching their stars in a parked car in a Fort Lee park.” He also mentions “Bullet in my Neck,” which he describes as “Gerald Stern’s harrowing reflection on being shot at point blank range on his way home from a poetry reading. It’s one of those pieces that makes you hold your breath and exhale because of its beauty.”
The editors say that despite the book’s literary feel, anyone should feel comfortable toting it to the shore this summer.
“Sitting on the beach flipping through the pages of ‘What’s Your Exit?’ was one of the first images I had of the anthology,” said Beale, who currently lives in Neptune. “Being from the shore, I’ve read many great books on the beach.”
Jackie Corley, the publisher of the book, was moved by the theme. “I wasn’t considering unsolicited manuscripts or new projects at the time Joe and Alicia came to me with ‘What’s Your Exit?’” she said last month. “But their query letter expressed such passion for doing justice by New Jersey’s rich literary tradition that my Jersey pride was aroused. I think, as New Jerseyans, we’ve constantly got our backs up against the bad jokes, against the disdain coming from New York and Philly, and that makes us a stronger lot.”
“What’s Your Exit: A literary detour through New Jersey” can be purchased at wordriot.org or Amazon.com, and you can also ask your bookstore or library to carry it. For upcoming events, see the sidebar below.
Readings, events for ‘What’s Your Exit’
Book Release Party at The Warehouse, Jersey City
Saturday, May 15, time TBA
140 Bay St., Jersey City – (201) 420-8882
Readers: BJ Ward, Sung J. Woo, John Hennessy,
Timmy Waldron, Susan Briante
NYU Reading – Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House
Thursday, May 27, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
58 W. 10th St., NYC
Readers: Louise DeSalvo, Paul Lisicky, Sung J. Woo, Jeffrey Ethan Lee,
Josh Goldfaden, Dave Della Fera, Lorraine Doran, Mary DiLucia
Thursday, June 10, 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Passaic County Community College Poetry Center
Readers: Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Joe Weil, Laura Boss, Mark
Hillringhouse, Jeffrey Ethan Lee
Symposia Community Book Store, Hoboken
Saturday, June 19, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
510 Washington St., Hoboken
Readers: Dominic Preziosi