Review by William Taylor Jr.: St. James Infirmary by Steven Meloan

      St. James Infirmiry – a Review by William Taylor Jr.

St. James Infirmary,  a new collection of stories by Steven Meloan, is an engaging and pleasantly unpredictable read.  The opening piece, “Googies,” does a solid job of setting up themes that are revisited throughout the book. What begins as a nostalgic first-person narrative of a family’s cross country road trip out west ends on a sour and slightly sinister note, with the destination of Los Angeles offering the disillusionment that comes with experience in the way only a big city can.

“Hold Me Tighter” follows, in which a chance encounter in a Redondo Beach Dive bar begins with the hope of romance but the Hollywood ending proves elusive. “The Swan” is the first story in the collection that caught me a bit off guard, moving from the seemingly autobiographical fiction of the first two pieces to a story from a woman’s point of view that begins as a tale of two lonely people getting to know each other in the distant world that existed before the internet, before drifting into something like magical realism.

The pieces are of varying length, and most are concise snapshots of a lost America, generally spanning the 1960s-80s. The stories are filled with quirky, well realized characters, and unadorned writing with a solid sense of place. The varying subject matter and length keeps things lively and the fast moving prose always left me ready for more when I reached the end of any given piece. A good number of the stories are set  in California’s Bay Area and the city of Los Angeles, and occasionally fittingly dabble in noir, such as in “The Apartment,” a creepy tale set in 1980s San Francisco.

The title story presents an evening with a dysfunctional family that I imagine will ring true with many readers of a certain age, as it did with me. The narrator’s household hosts a business faculty party, and family members, younger and older alike, end up in various stages of inebriation and secrets and resentments that most any family holds rise to the surface as the evening unfolds.

Much like the America of the late 1960s that they bring to life, many of the stories here are breezy on the surface but eventually reveal a darker underpinning. “The Ranch” in particular, one of the more memorable pieces in the collection, begins as a teen-age horse riding trip before taking a number of dark turns to an unexpected and sobering ending, capturing the essence of a tumultuous and paradoxical time in American history.

“The Dancer” is told from the point of view of a young addict doing what she does to get her daily fix. It’s a hard and honest look, but not unsympathetic. “Naked Popcorn” is a humorous story of life in a house with hippie film students in the late 1960s. Meloan is adept at bringing these times and people from years gone to a vivid life and he creates engaging characters and situations with relatively few words.

The final piece finds the narrator and his brother busking about Paris and Berlin in the early 1980s. They immerse themselves in the punk/new wave scene in the local dive bars, make brief connections at the Berlin Wall, and there’s another romantic encounter that never has the chance to bloom.


Review by Laura Novak: St. James Infirmary by Steven Meloan

St. James Infirmary
by Steven Meloan

This collection of essays might have been called Postcards From the Edge, had that title not already been taken. As a child of the 60s, a young adult in San Francisco in the 80’s, and a transplant to California, and ultimately LA, I can say with certitude that St. James Infirmary captures the zeitgeist of each time and place with stunning and riveting accuracy. The writing is so clean, tight, and evocative, I felt like I was on each journey with the author. It’s not so much the details of the era or area, though Meloan was spot on with his writing, as much as the aura, the feeling, the sensibilities of the characters involved that he nailed with evocative prose. To wit, this was the way frustrated mothers talked. This was the way teens sassed. This was the way young men navigated love, lust, and loss. Lies, loneliness, even the restless energy of youth, are captured in technicolor with sharp, precise prose and pitch perfect creativity. I wasn’t ready for St. James Infirmary to end. I wanted more—more stories of Meloan’s life, but also more memories for myself of what it was to be in those places at those times of life. As writer Westley Heine notes in the book’s Foreward, the collection is about a rock and roll attitude and some pangs of regret. My only regret is that the collection ended too soon.

Laura Novak
Author of Finding Clarity and Murder at the Mailbox

Review by Westley Heine; Michele McDannold, Roadside Press, Gutter Snob Books, and her latest book of poetry By Plane, Train, or Coincidence

Independent, but not alone

Michele McDannoldRoadside Press, Gutter Snob Books, and her latest book of poetry By Plane, Train, or Coincidence.

I have come to realize that no one is going to save us. We have to save ourselves. I was never charmed by religion or politics, but Hollywood has chewed me up and spit me out twice. Also, I’ve spent years sending my writing to what’s left of the big publishing houses in New York. They are merging or crumbling, and refusing to take chances just like the record industry did after illegal downloading. Now big publishers are only interested in celebrity memoirs, political tell-all books, cookbooks, and the occasional kids book.

Despite the thousands of channels the truth still isn’t on TV. It’s not even in the news because they too compete as a form of entertainment. The truth isn’t in pop music. For me it’s at the blues jams in Chicago and Memphis, or in the garage band playing in backyards and dive bars. The truth can be heard at your local open mic from that poet, rapper, or singer songwriter. If your community doesn’t have an open mic then start one yourself. Your neighbors are wise.

I have come to realize that there are no proper channels, because what is left of the proper channels don’t want us. They don’t want the truth only sex appeal and distraction. As artists we have to do it ourselves. I know the value of DIY punk art. I know that punk rock is folk art. That folk music is totally punk rock despite the stylistic difference. I know that real art comes from the people not from the streaming services. Young people know this instinctively every generation start doing their own thing. The counter-culture has always been there. It’s a thin almost invisible line that has kept American culture from becoming a plastic dystopia. Someone has to tell the stories of the poor. Someone has to help us relate about how fucked up life can be. Someone has to say the wrong thing the ugly thing to remind us that the right to do so protects us all despite that it may be triggering or more offensive than sticks and stones.

How can an artist be both sensitive and tough? Poet Michele McDannold is a great example. In her latest collection By Plane, Train, or Coincidence the poems come out of thoughtful still moments but suddenly scream with angst of the recent years, of restless travel, and of heartbreak. These poems will sneak up on you and sucker punch you. She knows that life, real life, is not on the screen but out there on the road, in the mountains, or at the shore. Life is to be lived. Roll the dice. Don’t just go through the motions. That it’s very possible to leave your hometown but never forget where you’re from. She knows when the muse is visiting and how to catch those moments like lightning in a jar.

Michele also knows the frustration of any poet who puts their work out in public has to suffer clichéd career advice. Why aren’t you on Tic Tock? As if we have to explain that what we have to say isn’t for the short attention span. In her new book she has a poem called Friendly Advice that reads, “Find another way to make money. Invent new ways to stalk your lover. Start a diet fad. Marry a rich man. Kill’em with your good looks and big tits. Don’t take a penny. Dig graves for a living. With your fierce competitive attitude sell, sell, sell. Aim high. Shoot low. Find an airfield saturated in hair spray. Tell the whole world about the mood you’re in. In other words lie, lie, lie.” Such free advice costs people their souls. Some of us don’t want to lie. Get those filters off my face. Perfection is boring. We want to be our real selves not the idealized digital footprint. I can’t believe we have to keep saying this but we do. It’s important that we do.

In an earlier volume Stealing the Midnight from a Handful of Days there is a poem called “Nothing to Lose (or Freedom)” where she writes: “I will keep on gathering great poems, sharing the news about great poets, new ones, old ones, killer ones, fucky ones, we’ll call it the ‘didn’t make it to twitter because it had too much character’ book. I want to drive down the great river road. I want a reading right now in bars, bookstores, and bowling alleys. I want to read/scream at bikers and rednecks, housewives and whores. I hope they throw stuff and spit on me, chase me out to the car yelling ‘We don’t like your kind round here,’ but they will secretly worship me and my freedom and my hoard of poets from the suburbs, the city, the farm. They’re multiplying like gremlins… I want them all (not to make them famous) to make them infamous. To spread their disease of think, of cut out the bullshit, and get to the point. I want America in her glazed over Red Bull eyes to really wake the fuck up.”

As I’ve traveled across this country I’ve learned that it takes time but eventually you will find your people. Those you can conspire with. I am lucky to have found Michele and a legion of underground writers who like rats are patiently chewing at the support beams of the brainwash machine. I am proud to be one of her “multiplying gremlins,” one of her not famous but infamous poets. Michele has created a platform where we can express ourselves without compromise. Take a look. And if you don’t like it, write your own book and show us how it’s done. Because like I said we can only save ourselves.

—Westley Heine, author of Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician & Squatter

Review by Sandra Feen: Unknowable Things by Kerry Trautman









Unknowable Things is an evocative language feast where sensory imagery is omnipresent.

We see this throughout Kerry Trautman’s masterful collection, from the accessible first lines of her opening poem, “Drop,” He closed the screen door, stepped/into rain that smelled like worms to the engaging first lines of her concluding poem, “Marblehead:”

The lighthouse lamp is dark,

     and the caretaker’s shack – their insides locked,

     shattered from thunder, mayflies,

     and the always, always




Readers are equally challenged and routed to the layers of their own psyche, experiencing deeply universal conflicts through Trautman’s poetry where language is so deft the harsh and difficult seem almost casual and effortless. In the poem “Pretty,” Pretty is not just pretty, but beautiful pathos … the day she wore her hair in a high high ponytail… hung beside her… boys cat-called toward her face in the shut bus window, made sex gestures, flicked their tonguesShe knew she was supposed to be shocked, pissed, roll her eyes, pretend she didn’t see them, but it was her first taste of pretty.


Trautman continues to navigate readers through more complex realms of interacting with each other, and readers comply, so engrossing is her poetry. The poem “Stray” begins Was it cruel to have lured the stray cat/ these weeks closer to my fingertips, /to teach him petting? The poem isn’t only about daring to touch a stray feline. It explores what happens when the speaker asked the older boy’s sister for his number, and she cautions that he’s sometimes not nice to girls. Trautman connects all entities with her second stanza: It was a new thing—involuntary/ joy on skin terms./ Fur can’t help that it’s reached-for.


Trautman spares no one. She directs readers to feel a conglomeration of life experiences and limitations, revealing that sometimes limitations are not readily evident or ever understood. Sometimes they thrash into our presence as in the sudden loss of a dog in a very unexpected fashion. In stanza ten of “Driving Lesson” No one wants to close a door and/ walk away knowing it will never/open again. Except when they do.


In her poem “Withholding,” she further apprises readers that Sometimes two beings are bridged only by air carrying/ the scent of browning butter. Some bodies coexist,/ appreciating, simmering from safe distance, like a dare.


All is not dark or lost in Unknowable Things. Quite the contrary. Certainly, a hopeful acceptance flickers in the final lines of the collection’s concluding poem, “Marblehead:”

…I would plant a peach orchard,

stitch a kite, allow constant wind and gulls to weave

through my clapboards, gust me

with wet sand and walleye, and wait for

the light to be restored


Unknowable Things is a gutsy balance of both tender and harrowing moments with resilience as its impetus.


Sandra Feen

2022-2024 Ohio Beat Poet Laureate

REVIEW by a.m. stein: By Plane, Train or Coincidence by Michele McDannold

Review of Michele McDannold’s By Plane, Train, or Coincidence.

“Can you tell me where the yellow brick road goes
when unaccompanied
by red sequined shoes?”

–from “cityscapes while sitting on a cold, cold stone”

Reading Michele McDannold’s latest poetry collection, By Plane, Train or
Coincidence (on the title page, on my personal, signed, copy McDannold has added “or
any means necessary”—which is also the revolutionary’s credo) I am reminded of an
interview I conducted years ago with a then prominent poet who, like McDannold, came
from economic disadvantage and whose poetry, like McDannold’s poetry, carries the
born-into-disadvantage person’s outraged sense of fairness and unfairness, justice and
injustice. “Find another way to make money / invent new ways to stalk your lover / start a
diet fad / marry a rich man / kill em with your good looks and big tits / don’t take a penny
/ dig graves for a living / with your fierce competitive attitude / sell, sell, sell / aim high /
shoot low / find an airfield saturated in hair spray / tell the whole world / about the mood
you’re in / in other words / lie, lie, lie” writes McDannold in “Friendly Advice”. This is the
outrage of the disadvantaged witnessing the corruptions that create cultural success.
(Another reviewer might prefer to call it McDannold’s “comedy”.) This is the fire out
from which dance the sparks of McDannold’s poems. (Another reviewer might prefer to
call it McDannold’s “wound”.) “Hold on only / to what’s / important,” writes McDannold
elsewhere. “Love you.” By which she means yourself.

In that same long-ago interview the (then) prominent poet also insisted she had
formally “married” her “muse,” when she was 18 years old, in a no-kidding, third-eye-
wide, sacred-ceremony conducted, impromptu, in a bus terminal, at 2 a.m., in San Jose,
California, where the mystic opportunity, in the form of mystic signs and visions, seemed
to be presenting itself. “There was a service. I made vows,” the poet declared. One does
not ask more detail from such an anecdote. At least I did not. These private affairs of the
spirit are the real stuff of our human lives and language descriptors of their
manifestations tend to diminish, rather than augment, their verity and also to open the
doors for mockery. I do wonder, however, given the intensity and devotion with which
McDannold attends every line of her poetry, has any such experience as “mystic
marriage” ever befallen her? It would not surprise me. McDannold’s poetry, whatever
else it may be communicating at any given time, possesses that constancy of ferocity
which is the mark of the zealot. “God loves the gamblers,” the Sufi mystic Rumi wrote
somewhere. “Gamble everything for love, if you’re a true human being. / If not, leave
this gathering.”

(By “love,” Rumi meant “poetry.” In mystic lexicon the words are generally

In, “the idea,” when McDannold writes,

“I forgot how to write
& remembered it is just letters
to the best in us willing to listen &
when there’s no one there
aren’t we forced then
to learn the most”

she is revealing precisely how such a gambler thinks. When you are down to your last
penny, your very last penny, bet that one too. McDannold is a gambling poet. There is a
lot riding on her every line. They tremble with what they are upholding. All
McDannold’s lived experience, to the moment of the composition, seems to be riding
upon each line. Another reviewer might call this trembling suspension McDannold’s
“poet craft.” Another reviewer might even surmise a cautious, fastidious, poet behind the
poems. I see fever and something like desperation. I see Rumi’s gambler. I see someone
willing to bet it all on just one more poem. The next one. The one that had been waiting,
all the while, on the purity of our faith, to make its glorious appearance.

McDannold herself says, in “the science of breaking up”: “A worked-over poem can
be good / but can it be honest.”

Notice there is no question mark. For McDannold (at least unconsciously) the
question is rhetorical.

Commenting on a romantic disaster I had recently endured, a poet friend dryly
observed I should have told my prospective romantic partner I was already spoken for.
“A poet’s primary relationship is with their poetry. Between the inspired artist and their
chosen art, a wedding has already taken place. Perhaps even before birth. In the other
place,” my pedantic friend clarified.

I didn’t deny this observation when my friend made it and I don’t deny it now.
Poetry fills the space in me which for many others is filled by romantic love. I rush to say
it does not fill the space which is filled by sexual congress but sexual congress is not
love, is it? Sexual congress is not even, always, intimate. Poetry, though, is every bit as
deep and consuming and rewarding as romantic love and for that reason, those who are
inhabited by poetry may struggle to find room in themselves for the more traditional sorts
of romantic relationships (boy meets boy, girl meets girl, and so on) so deeply prized and
commended in our culture. The romance of life itself, the romance of language, the
romance of inspiration and of ideas…those become “the beloved”…fair warning to those
foolish enough to fall in love with a poet…

Nonetheless, a number of the poems in McDannold’s collection are (or seem to
be) girl-boy love poems, or poems of yearning for that girl-boy love. But are they, really?
In “what a fucking life, right?” McDannold writes, “Reduced to the / communications /
over wires / across time zones // I cannot find / the map / that says // you / are / here.”

Is this a poem about a human lover gone far away? Out of reach? Too far to
touch? It seems so, superficially. But really, isn’t it a poem about an understanding gone
so far from one’s pen? Isn’t it a poem written in longing for a muse? “Where is the muse
of my poetry?” the poet is asking. Does the poet realize this? Whether the poet does or
does not realize, does not matter, presumably. Only what the poem realizes, matters. That
is how the most estimable poetry is written. Probably, this is how McDannold’s most
estimable poems are written. With the poet formulating earthly matters and the poem
revealing spiritual ways. (“watched a flower slowly bloom / from the front porch / it takes
a long time /it’s still not done / i felt, once again, / the blooming of heartache / surround
my lungs / and settle in. // it takes a long time / it’s still not done.”) This is called synergy
in the board rooms but in poetry it is pure scintillation—if and when one is lucky enough
to stumble upon it. Michele’s love poems meander, idly, flow on, idly, then suddenly
tumble into lyrical turbulence, same as a meandering river flows to the lip of a falls then
tumbles suddenly over.

“the filthiness comes so very
inside his mind
and manifests via text
she is the only thing that is bad about me
we’re so good at delusions”

declares the narrator in the opening six lines of, “thanks for finishing it for me.”
Meandering, as I said, river-like, the poem flows to the ledge of a falls than, whoops,
takes a sudden plunge into the psychological turbulence, the underwater language (the
dream language) of “we’re so good at delusions.” One could almost suggest the meandering
ways of the river had been a wile meant to help realize maximum psychic impact from
sudden tumble over the falls. A neat trick of crafting, if only one could craft it over and

Here is a truism courtesy of the spiritual masters who brought us the poetry of
Rilke and whom Rilke called his “angels.” (“We are not angels, but we are bound to be,”
one messenger told him.) The insight of a poem, when the poem has been written by a
“real” poet, is inevitably more acute than the insight of the “real” poet who writes it.
Since the poem is being emptied onto the page from the dark of the unconscious. Since
the knowing of the poem arises, in a sense, from the unknowing of the poet.

This is the understanding one comes to in reading McDannold’s poems. They are
fighting to emerge from unconsciousness. They still have one toe in that deep, dark pool.
As the poet Robert Bly once remarked of the poems of someone or other, “they are still
wet with birth fluids.” They are struggling to extricate themselves from chaos. They are
born in chains so the poet can unchain them. In “Curious Things,” McDannold writes, “I
find curious connections / in strings / words / the dog / licking his paws / the way his
head moves / bugs / these things make me / love / these things make me / sick.”

McDannold writes that she “finds” something behind these connections. Things
that make her “love,” things that make her “sick.” What she could also say is that she
“feels” something behind these connections and what she feels are the deeper connections
being forged by her own unconscious that will create the poetry (which IS the “love”, or
which IS the “sick,”) the poet must offer the world. The deepest of what there is in the
poet to offer. Their innermost experience. That is what a poet does. If need be, to their
dying breath. They feel their way to the poem that is trying to be written. That is what
McDannold is doing every time she lifts her pen and drops its point on the page of her
notebook. She is feeling her way to the poem that wants to be written.) “Find limits by
pushing past” McDannold writes. Searching for “the kiss that linger[s] longer than it
lasts,” McDannold writes—a perfect description of the poem as captured
inspiration—caged bird—time’s body…

“There is a home in the heart of every traveler,” writes McDannold. Poetry is
that home for McDannold. A strange sort of domicile, poetry, with its shifting
foundations, and its trap doors falling open beneath one’s feet. But, at least the roof’s
been blown off, so you can see the stars at night, the shifting cloud formations by day.

“If I told you,” writes McDannold,
“you wouldn’t believe me,
so I just poem it.”

PR: Book Release: Busking Blues by Westley Heine


Novel Relives Chicago During The Great Recession

From squatting in a West Side practice space to performing at Blues Fest, the tales of misadventure compiled in Heine’s Busking Blues capture a street musician’s journey and a unique time in Chicago’s recent past.

CHICAGO, IL, 9/9/22— Westley Heine’s Busking Blues is about giving up everything for the muse in the midst of economic failure. Subtitled Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician and Squatter, Heine’s new novel, to be published by Roadside Press in September 2022, relays tales of a singer-songwriter’s survival in the street full of pedestrians, workers, graffiti artists, bike messengers, homeless, hipsters, hustlers, punks, drunks, poets, grifters, and gangsters during the Great Recession of the early 2000s.

In the engaging autographical novel, Heine recalls the Chicago of 2010 as the first wave of millennials faced post-graduation during economic fallout. Through surviving off plasma donations, grocery clerk wages, and street performing, Heine encounters characters from all walks of life on the streets of Chicago. Descriptions of the city’s neighborhoods, late-night diners, and music open mics bring to life snapshots of the city’s ever-changing landscape. Busking Blues is a slice of time in an ever-changing city. In a place where flesh and souls are sold, Heine sees the cosmic beauty haloed by streetlights at the frontlines of America. This is a meditation on karma, superstition, classism, race and inequality, heartbreak, disillusionment, and freedom. He waxes philosophically from the highs of freedom to the lows of the gutter, while pounding the pavement until it cracks.

With media outlets predicting a looming recession, publication of Busking Blues couldn’t be timelier. The events of Heine’s past, both gritty and inspiring, reflect the hopefulness of youth and in equal proportion the bitter reality of sustaining artistic dreams when the economy breaks down. At the height of the late 2000’s recession, a singer-songwriter throws himself at the mercy of the streets. A panorama of pedestrians, workers, graffiti artists, bike messengers, homeless, hipsters, hustlers, punks, drunks, poets, grifters, and gangsters—Busking Blues is about giving up everything for the muse.

Westley Heine’s poetry has appeared in The Wellington Street Review, Gravitas, Heroin Love Songs, and numerous others. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Beatdom. This will be his first novel length release following 12 Chicago Cabbies and Other Streetwise Stories and The Trail of Quetzalcoatl. He graduated from the now closed and maligned Illinois Institute of Art, which made national waves for defrauding students, with a degree in filmmaking. Heine lived in Chicago from 2002 to 2015 where he worked primarily as a taxi-cab dispatcher. He now resides with his wife in Los Angeles. Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician and Squatter is published through Roadside Press and available for $15.00 at the following link:

Interested parties will receive a complimentary copy of the book and a small stipend for published reviews.

REVIEW by a.m. stein: Busking Blues by Westley Heine

Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician and Squatter by Westly Heine, reviewed by
Alex Stein

            “When writing what would be considered gritty realism it is important to remember that even gritty realism is as subjective as anything else. It’s a sliding scale. Humans have such different perceptions of reality. This accounts for the vastly different tastes in art and entertainment. What seems more poetic? The fantastic images from our dreams? Or the stark truth of the street that few are brave enough to acknowledge, but when someone does it rings true?” –‘Busking Blues’

            It is difficult for me to decide where to begin praising Westley Heine’s highly praiseworthy Busking Blues or how to stop myself from making inflammatory comparisons. For example, between Busking Blues and the 2010 National Book Award winning memoir by Patti Smith called Just Kids. The prose in both books is magnetic and hyper-lucid. The narrative voice in both books is thrillingly tender and acute. Both books are filled with accounts of fascinating people and complicated circumstances and heartfelt conversations. Both books document the struggling, unconventional, lives of creative personalities possessed by fervent personal conviction and ferocious personal integrity. Angel-headed rebels fixated on creating an art that is born from psychological freedom (not borne-under by what Blake referred to as our “Mind Forged Manacles”). Angel-headed angels fixated on creating art that is an antidote against the poisons of our outmoded and pedantic and limiting cultural norms. Angel-headed dreamers fixated on creating art that is reflective, also, of that ceaselessly renewed purity of heart (that un-put-down-able spirit of uplift) which is not everyone’s birthright (at least not in every lifetime) but which is, seemingly, handed out at birth (by the fairies, some say) to a few, presumably, deserving souls—for example, to Patti Smith. For example, to Westley Heine.

            There are, however, two significant differences between Busking Blues and Just Kids. Firstly: Smith’s book claims to be a memoir. Was published as a memoir. But, let’s be real. Given what we know about the fallibility of memory, about the limits of self-awareness, about the unconscious trickery of our own egos, and about of the demands of good story telling (in terms of concision, in terms of pacing, in terms of clarity and readability) most any memoir, especially any memoir dealing with experiences decades old, is almost certainly a work (mainly) of imagination and wish-fulfillment. Heine’s book, modestly, claims to be a novel. Is being published as a novel. In fact, Busking Blues (IMHO) is every bit as much a memoir as Just Kids was a memoir. But because Heine is being scrupulously honest with himself about the problematic nature of memory, and about the problematic nature of good story telling, Heine has called his book of memories a novel. Fair enough. But, at least let us call it an autobiographical novel.

            Most likely, Heine was not consciously addressing these issues of memory and ego when he wrote the following passage, but it is a passage distinctly apropos of those issues. (It is, also, an example of the kind of energetic paragraphs out from which this energetic book is constructed. Energetic paragraphs running one upon the next like energetic jazz riffs—but we will come to that in a moment.)

            Streetwalkers in sweatpants? Branded ladies with face tattoos? Waitresses drawing fake black eyes with eyeliner? It’s all too much. In this town when you hear a crazy story it’s hard to tell if what you’re hearing is some real crazy goings on, or if the person that’s telling you the story is crazy. There may be a kernel of truth to every hip tip, but each time a story gets repeated it gets distorted like the schoolyard game of telephone. Multiply that by three million people in Chicago you have quite a yarn. It’s hard to tell what is urban legend and what is that hidden knowledge, that straight dope, which everyone who thinks they are streetwise wants to know.

            The second, significant, difference between Just Kids and Busking Blues: When Patti Smith published her book of New York City memories she was already a world famous punk poet rock and roll icon and many of the characters she wrote about, by the time Just Kids was published, Sam Shepard, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Fred Sonic Smith, were also world famous. A lot of important eyes were bound to fall on Smith’s book. And they did. Whereas Heine is not a world-famous figure and the Chicago characters he encounters and engages in this book might have ended up entirely forgotten, outside their families and friends, except Heine has rendered them indelible in his sterling, joyous, dancing prose.

            Shanghai Mike is stout, has calculating eyes behind his spectacles, and curly hair. Mike got his handle because he lived in China for a spell playing his harmonica and belting out the blues in the clubs of Shanghai. “Funny thing is,” he tells me, “In China they called me Chicago Mike. So I only know who I am by whatever town I just left.”

            Sterling, right? Sterling prose? And this next bit? I’d call it joyous. I’d call it dancing.

            Nate Marsh knows my situation. He’s been there. In 2006 when he got back from serving overseas he hitchhiked to Chicago from Kansas. He slept under a pussy willow in Lincoln Park. My folk singer friend Nathan Xander found him playing on the street. Once he slept on my floor in Uptown when I was still in school. Like a drill sergeant he barks his advice from behind his thin mustache, “Out on the street you gotta be a soldier. You gotta know where the clean water is. You gotta know where the public bathrooms are. You gotta see a storm before it comes. You gotta remember Wes. You’re a soldier.”

            And here are a few of Heine’s engaging lines recounting an especially tricky interaction with a gifted, perhaps insane, street musician named Tommy James who, in performance days past, “has gone by half a dozen stage names. TJ Jamal. Timmy John. Jimmy James…”

            He claims he knows all of Charlie Patton’s picking secrets and some of Robert Johnson’s. He tells me he brought a pair of opera glasses to the Lyric Opera House when Honey-boy Edwards played there so he could spy on his picking techniques. Likewise he says when he performs he turns away so no one can steal his secrets. In fact one of his band mates was peeking at his fingers during a show and it came to blows on stage. He got kicked out of the band. Yet despite all this, and despite the fact that he doesn’t even know my name, after just a few minutes he offers to teach me everything he knows.

            Patti Smith’s memoir is best read as a love letter to the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, that angel headed man-child whose avant-garde genius would cause a national scandal. Heine’s novel, too, can be read as a love letter, but to the city of Chicago, itself, and to a life he led there and to the many people who made that life vibrant. A love letter to Shanghai Mike, Guitar Mike, Mr. Sunshine and Roxy, Sid Yiddish, JT, Nathan Xander, Mr. Blue, Cowboy Charlie and Art the Grey Ghost…can’t name them all…it’s the teeming city itself beloved…sweet home Chicago…

            But, I do want to go back, for a moment, to the categorization of Busking Blues. Like sexual identities, literary identities (in Western culture) in the 21st are, generally, more fluid than they had been in recorded centuries of Western culture past. I earlier referred to this novel as an autobiographical novel but shouldn’t there be a category for “lyric novel?” If there was one, that is where Busking Blues could be slotted. Lyric from the Greek work lyre (the musical instrument). Because, what Heine has written is more like a song. Jack Kerouac frequently spoke of his writing using the vocabulary of a jazz musician. He talked about phrasing, intonation, improvisation, “the power of now” (of just losing your mind and blowing, man, and letting the music happen). Heine’s writing lives in that same territory. (Tell me how On the Road is not a lyric novel. Tell me how Visions of Cody is not a love song. Tell me how Kerouac is not a poet because he wrote novel after novel after novel.)  That Heine’s writing is musical stands to reason since Heine’s early creative aspirations seem to have been music oriented and since Busking Blues is literally a book about a character (Westley Heine, named after the author) trying to survive on the streets as a Blues singing street performer. A “busker,” as street performers are formally known.

            The lessons for this Westley Heine come hard and fast. The street noise, the traffic, the general melee, drowns out Heine’s early musical efforts. No money, or only the occasionally pity-dollar finds its way into his hat. He is living on couches at friend’s homes, or hiding in the attic above the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, or sleeping out of doors. He can’t let the police catch him busking either because he hasn’t made enough money yet to pay for a street performance license. He takes on brief stinking jobs, he finds a warehouse in which to sleep. He is mugged. His face is damaged but it heals. Then it is damaged again. His guitar is lost then found. He meets Chicago musicians, and street people like himself, and slowly learns to make his way.

            Back in the nineties I wanted to play the angst ridden chords of punk and metal. The thundering guitars and industrial drums called me to the cities. It took years of living in the city to appreciate real country, real folk, and most of all the blues. There’s an eternal haunting quality to roots music. That twang of the guitar rings through the mind in a tunnel of nostalgia for the agrarian life.      

            Heine has a gift for capturing natural conversation. He is a patient, sympathetic writer. His characters begin as shadows and slowly reveal themselves more fully. One finds oneself pulling for the narrator of this novel. And aching a little with his setbacks. The writing, that is to say, draws one in. One begins to identify oneself with the narrator and his circumstance, alien though it may be to one’s own experience of the world. Your humble reviewer, for example, is a lifetime library worker with a particularly cautious sensibility who worked in a quiet library basement, quite happily, for more than 25 years. Yet, there your same reviewer was—that very Alex Stein—myself—sleeping in a windowless room, on a mattress of dirty clothes, on a mouse-droppings covered floor, in a storage warehouse, afraid the landlord will catch me living there and I will be back on the street again. There is the guitar I so excitedly won, in a raffle, of all things, then suddenly, heartbreakingly, lost during a drunken night touring the Chicago streets from bar to bar to house party to bar.

            The indubitable mark of a good writer is that the reader, for a moment, reading that writer’s good writing, forgets, for a moment, who they are. The reader become, wholly, the words they are reading. That is the experience every reader loves and craves (the only thing that makes reading worthwhile IMHO).

            I awake to the sound of distant explosions. Getting dressed I open my door. With no windows in my lair it could be any time of day. A soft summer sunset glows red through the window above the front stairwell. The neighborhood sounds like a war zone. Guns mix with fireworks. Failing to realize it is already the Fourth of July I head to the men’s room to throw some water on my face. The murder rate always spikes on America’s birthday in a city that usually holds the number one spot for that statistic. The Second City has to be number one at something. On the Fourth a haze rises above the hood. Parts of Chicago seem more like the Iraq War. The setting sun hits the smoke like a bloody fog. The streetlamps are haloed in pink mist.

            The hook of author Heine’s lyric novel is the character Heine’s brilliant idea, encapsulated onto a sign he crafts in a Eureka moment after a particularly devastating day of playing his music on the streets and making hardly any tips. Tell me your problems and I’ll write you a Blues song, his sign says. Some of the best conversations in the book come about in result of (the character) Heine’s interactions with the strangers who approach him upon reading this curious signage. The very first of these interactions is not even the strangest or most daunting. But it is one of the most touching.

            A middle-aged man strolling with a tall lady stops about twenty feet away from me. He points at my sign. He has wispy brown hair and sad eyes. She is lanky and has dirty blonde hair… “Howdy young man,” he greets with a southern accent. “I’ve got more problems than I can shake a stick at.”

            “Sorry to hear that. Music always helps. You want a customized song?”

            “Fun, fun. How much do blues songs cost?”

            Nervous, I don’t want him to sense this is my first time. At a glance I size him up: white tennis shoes, pastel colored shirt, kaki pants. He’s probably from out of town. “Just ten dollars,” I tell him as I whip out a piece of paper from my pocket and click my pen. “Go ahead, tell me your troubles.”

            He produces the ten spot. “Well, I have lung cancer.” My heart sinks. This is more than I bargained for. “The doctors say I might have a year. This young lady here…” He pauses to take the hand of his companion. “Well she’s my ex-wife. We were married for eight years. We’ve been through a lot together. But nothing like this.”

            “Oh wow,” is all I can muster.

            “She’s come to visit me. We’re gonna have a night in the big town. Dinner, dancing, Champagne, and song…”

            I’m taking notes.

            “The truth, if she don’t know by now, is that I want her back.”

            Her eyes well up. This is heavy. I pegged him as a well to do middle class white guy from the suburbs. Book and cover right? Everyone has problems. From Michigan Avenue to 95th Street and beyond. That’s the blues.

            That is a singularly compelling piece of poetic reportage—I mean, of fiction—if I ever read one. Heine’s gift for rendering dialog proves his musical ear. And his enviable sense of timing. In music, as in comedy, timing is everything. Here is one more bit of conversation I enjoyed reading. It occurs after Heine has taken a drunken tumble from his bicycle and wrecked his face. (That crucial piece of any performer’s livelihood.)

            As I place the cold can of PBR on my swollen eye Bjorn inspects my injuries. “Ahhhh that shit will heal,” he tells me. “That’s nothing man. I’ve lost teeth twice!” He pulls out a plate of false teeth and waves them under my one good eye. “See? No big deal.” He steps inside for a minute and comes back with a T-shirt displaying the names of dozens of bike-messengers who died in traffic. These guys are fast, brave, and tough. Mostly their suffering goes unsung.

            “The difference is,” [I tell Bjorn], “these aren’t war wounds. This is just my drunken dumb ass.”

            “Yeah that happens too.”

            “I’m twenty-seven. I’m getting too old for this shit.”

            “Twenty-seven ain’t old.”

            No, 27 is very, very young. But 27 is a good age to accrue experience and live on passion and this is what Heine gives us. Experience and passion. Every page of this book. Experience and passion. Read this one. You won’t be disappointed. Then tell your friends.

Pre-Order at

Cover Art Reveal!

Cover Art by Waylon Bacon!

Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician & Squatter by Westley Heine is NOW AVAILABLE for Pre-Order through Magical Jeep Distributing at

At the height of the late 2000’s recession, a singer-songwriter throws himself at the mercy of the streets. A panorama of pedestrians, workers, graffiti artists, bike messengers, homeless, hipsters, hustlers, punks, drunks, poets, grifters, and gangsters–Busking Blues is about giving up everything for the muse.

Down and out, but on top of the world, Heine gives a devil-may-care serenade through the underground of bad relationships, dead-end jobs, blues jams, for-profit colleges, hospitals, dive bars, all night diners, subway tunnels, back alleys, blood banks, and one ancient YMCA. This streetwise tale based on real life is in turns sympathetic, adventurous, gritty, and oddly uplifting.

Busking Blues is a slice of time in an ever-changing city. Though, some things are constant. In a place where flesh and souls are for sale, Heine sees the cosmic beauty haloed in the streetlights. At the frontlines of America, this is a meditation on karma, superstition, classism, race and inequality, heartbreak, disillusionment, and freedom. He waxes philosophically from the highs of freedom to the lows of the gutter, while pounding the pavement until it cracks.

New Acquisition! Kerry Trautman’s full-length work of poetry

Roadside Press is pleased to announce the recent acquisition of Kerry Trautman’s full-length work of poetry, currently untitled. Release date to be announced soon!

Ohio born and raised, Kerry Trautman is a founder of and the “Toledo Poetry Museum” page on Facebook, which promote Northwest Ohio poetry. Her work has appeared in dozens of anthologies and journals, including Slippery ElmFree State Review, Mock Turtle Zine, Paper & Ink, Disappointed HousewifeLimp Wrist, Midwestern Gothic, and Gasconade Review. Kerry’s books are Things That Come in Boxes (King Craft Press 2012,) To Have Hoped (Finishing Line Press 2015,) Artifacts (NightBallet Press 2017,) To be Nonchalantly Alive (Kelsay Books 2020,) and Marilyn: Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas (Gutter Snob Books 2022.)


New Acquisition! William Taylor Jr.’s ‘Room Above a Convenience Store’

Roadside Press is pleased to announce the recent acquisition of William Taylor Jr.’s full-length work of poetry titled Room Above a Convenience Store. Release date to be announced soon!

William Taylor Jr. lives and writes in San Francisco. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, and a volume of fiction. His work has been published widely in journals across the globe, including Rattle, The New York Quarterly, and The Chiron Review. He was a recipient of the 2013 Kathy Acker Award, and edited Cocky Moon: Selected Poems of Jack Micheline (Zeitgeist Press, 2014). Pretty Things to Say, (Six Ft. Swells Press, 2020) is his latest collection of poetry.