Baltimoreans know him as the man behind the counter of Normals, a used and rare book and record store at the corner of 31st and Greenmount, also the locus of unconventional and alternative performances, readings, cultural events and political organizing. Founded in 1990 by a nine-person collective (some or all of whom had been part of the “normal” control group in a study of schizophrenia!), three of the original co-owners remain today, though Wondolowski is the only one who works at the store.
This month, his fourth book of poetry, “Dreams Are My Social Life,” comes out from Publishing Genius press, the project of former Baltimorean Adam Robinson, who will be in town for the June 4 launch (details below.) The poems reflect a union of opposites — both relaxed and contained, abstract and down-to-earth, funny and piercing, language-driven and observant. Perhaps all the same could be said of the man himself.
Wondolowski, who lives in the Lauraville/Waltherson neighborhood with his wife Everly, dog Lottie and cats Moonly and Marigold, was kind enough to answer our questions about the book and other matters.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Are you a native Baltimorean? Where did you grow up?
Rupert Wondolowski: I grew up in the much disparaged burg of Glen Burnie. Though it was fated to become a giant strip mall like much of America, it was fairly rural when I was growing up – our house was built on an old cow pasture. There were claymines, acres of woods everywhere, creeks. Unfortunately, there also seemed to be an inordinate number of sociopaths wandering through these areas.
BFB: What poets do you consider yourself closest to in spirit? Your heroes and inspirations?
RW: Hard to round up all my heroes and inspirations! Of course everybody loves Frank O’Hara, Bernadette Mayer and Ted Berrigan. I love how their work feels like you are sitting in a warm room intimate with a brilliant friend enlightening you. I also love the French surrealists, particularly Robert Desnos and Apollinaire. Of late I’ve been on a James Tate, Jack Spicer and Neruda tear, particularly Neruda’s exile period where he is loaded with surprises.
Can’t leave out John M. Bennett. He put out an incredible poetry magazine, Lost and Found Times, for decades. John’s poetry is filled with electricity and movement, fresh raw imagery bouncing off the walls.
While some of the poems seem to be based on real dreams, and many seem to be fed by the unconscious more indirectly, others appear to use memoir material from your childhood. I’m thinking of “Snow, Tree Forts, and Alcohol” and also “I’m Not Listening to the Beatles, You’re Listening to the Beatles.” Is this right?
RW: This book definitely has more autobiographical elements than my others. I’ve reached the age where a lot of early events have resurfaced as if they happened yesterday. And of course I’ve been meditating on mortality even more than as a weepy suburban pre-teen listening to Simon and Garfunkel. Reviewing old decisions and paths and elements that may have put me on the present path.
BFB: There are undertones of violence in many of the poems. Do you think this might have something to do with living in Baltimore?
RW: Even though I grew up in a really middle of the middle class neighborhood in Glen Burnie – at least in my child’s eye – there were a lot of violent people within a few miles radius of me. I guess now that’s more common and unfortunately those people now have multiple guns. But at any rate it seemed like violence was around from the start and discussed a lot at the dinner table. Then I moved to Baltimore in 1984 with my girlfriend at that time who enrolled in Towson University.
I had spent a lot of time going to shows in the city before moving here and once I moved in proper I immediately felt at home as far as the arts, music, writing scene goes. I’d been living around DC since graduating from College Park and the DC arts scene felt much more cold and closed. But of course there’s always been a high level of violence here. I’ve always felt comfortable and at home in Waverly where Normals is. It’s got a long history of progressiveness and diversity. As my old friend Courtney who used to work here always said “You never know who you’ll learn from working here.” We get in an incredible amount of autodidacts who may have not even finished high school but hunger for knowledge and have read deeply in philosophy and history.
BFB: One of the poems is dedicated to the late Baltimore poet Chris Toll. Remind our readers about him.
I always called Chris Toll “The Emily Dickinson of Mars,” due to his love of Emily’s work (and whose temperament his somewhat matched) and sci-fi pulp. He put out a poetry magazine called Open 24 Hours for years and it was the first magazine to publish my poetry when I was still living around DC. He became a close beloved friend when I moved here and often read at the Shattered Wig Night. I published a chapbook by him on Shattered Wig. He also became every Baltimore poet’s editor when they were getting a manuscript together. He had a sharp eye for grammar and was known for his frankness, like yourself, Madame Winik!
BFB: Who is Megan? She appears in a couple of the poems.
RW: Megan is Megan McShea, a great poet and old friend of mine. Mole Suit Choir has put two poems by her to music.
BFB: And what is Mole Suit Choir?
RW: The Mole Suit Choir is a music group started by Liz Downing and myself about 8 years ago that now often also features Greg Hatem on synthesizer and electronics. Liz & I have known each other since the ‘80s and been in bands that played shows together, but we talked at a Shakemore Festival about collaborating and we liked what happened when we got together. It was around the time of the deaths of Chris Toll, Blaster Al Ackerman and Pope Croke, all important friends, all within months of each other, and Mole Suit turned into a great vehicle for processing and transforming the grief. We made songs from Chris Toll and Blaster’s writings and Liz sculpted many of my poems into song. We also have songs based on poems by Neruda and Param Anand Singh – former Fishbowl contributor. We now have three albums out.
BFB: Can you talk about the cover art, and about working with Adam Robinson as a publisher?
RW: The cover art is by a close friend of Adam’s, Christine Sajecki. The painting hangs in Adam’s home and he suggested it and I loved it. I loved the slightly abstract landscape and sky, giving the impression of possibility. The back cover is from public domain – “Image of the Black Sun,” from Splendor Solis, a German alchemical treatise, 1582.
I love working with Adam. He has a great eye like Toll and will have gentle suggestions or perceptions. The Origin of Paranoia as a Heated Mole Suit (where the band got its name) was my first book with Adam and one of the first books he put out on Publishing Genius. That book took a little more editing because many of the pieces were just finished and hadn’t been sat on and mulled over. Another benefit to working with Adam is I think he’s a much more at peace soul, a little more light in his bank versus his darkness, unlike myself. I sometimes take my dark side for granted and he’ll make funny perceptive comments about where my pieces may be going and do I indeed want to go there?
With “Dreams Are My Social Life” we talked about it and mulled it over for almost two years, so when we got to the final manuscript he really only had a few very tiny grammatical suggestions. One or two of the pieces are from years ago, three are from only months ago, but I feel like they really cohere thematically.
When I came up with the title poem I was feeling a bit more alienated than usual and feeling like I was drifting from people/friends, but ironically the book is loaded with poems about friends.
BFB: Here’s a passage I particularly love, from a poem called “Like Most Things, The Scrop Heap Has Changed.” I love how it almost feels like part of a nursery rhyme, and that it flirts with iambic pentameter. Thoughts?
My sister was mistaken for French
while standing in the Louvre
If I stand long enough in the night
will someone take me for the moon?
RW: Funny you should note the cadence of Scrap Heap. I’ve always been a songwriter and poet – and sometimes fiction writer – and sometimes the lines blur. Scrap Heap is one the few of my poems that I turned into a song with Mole Suit Choir and I feel like it works equally well as a poem and as a song.
BFB: How has Waverly changed since Normals opened in 1990?
RW: When Normals opened in 1990, our block also had The Women’s 31st St. Bookstore, Allen’s Books and The Belly food co-op, but most of the houses on the block were empty and up for sale for around $12 – $15,000. Entering the aughts, the other businesses had closed, but the houses were filling up and their prices were tripling and quadrupling. Now I feel like we’re possibly entering the neighborhood’s best era, with a wonderful community of people living in the houses and now Red Emma’s and Urban Reads are here, too, along with Local Color Flowers and the Peabody Brewery.
June 4, 2023, 4 pm, at Normals, 425 E. 31st St.
Adam Robinson, Megan McShea, and Linda Franklin will read with the author; music by 0.1 Grand.
More events at Normals are listed at redroom.org.