"I know, I know. I publish too much. I hear that from friends."
That's Corey Mesler, co-owner with his wife Cheryl of Burke's Book Store, speaking, and he has a point. In addition to the nearly two dozen story and poetry collections and novels published over the years, Mesler has a book of stories called Notes Toward the Story and Other Stories due this summer. He's also got a couple of chapbooks that may appear before then. But for the time being, there are these: Before the Great Troubling, a career-spanning collection of Mesler's poetry published by Unbound Content (with a cover illustration by Memphian Rebecca Tickle), and the anthology Good Poems, American Places (Viking), selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor and drawn from Keillor's daily radio show, The Writer's Almanac.
That show is where one could have heard Keillor reading Mesler's "Sweet Annie Divine," a prose-poem dedicated to the memory of the title character — born in Rooster, Arkansas, in 1925; singer on Beale Street in the 1940s; composer of the rocking "Lemme Get Up First" (which was covered by the Rolling Stones); and dead from drink in a Memphis boarding house in 1976. You never heard of Sweet Annie Divine? Musicologist Alan Lomax had. "She could have been one of the greats," Lomax claimed, "if not for the hooch."
Look for "Sweet Annie Divine" filed by Keillor under the section in Good Poems titled "Never Expected To Be There." Nor, I'm guessing, did Corey Mesler ever expect to see his work alongside the work of the other poets Keillor includes under that heading: among them, Charles Bukowski, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roethke, and William Carlos Williams.
"The poem in the Keillor anthology is from a cockeyed Beale Street book I am working on," Mesler said in an email. "But I'm surprised that out of all my poems he chose 'Sweet Annie Divine.' It seems to me to stick out in the book like a thumbprint on a painted canvas. I do write in the style that goes by many names — prose poems, flash fiction, sudden fiction, short shorts. Most aren't as freakish and funky as that one, though."
"Freakish" and "funky" you would not use to describe "Before the Great Troubling," the poem that gives title to (and closes) Mesler's collection of nearly a hundred poems, the earliest, "Sortilege," written, Mesler said, "way back." (He was in his 20s.)
Most of these poems are previously unpublished, but readers will recognize Mesler's subject matter: his wife and children; former girlfriends; literary lights (the Beats; Thomas Pynchon); rock-and-roll royalty (John Lennon); his late father; small moments with his daughter Chloe; larger matters of life and death; and the practice of writing itself. Included too: a Zen look at the perfect jump shot, plus a patient's lament in "Bell's Palsy 1" and last, not least: "Before the Great Troubling."
"That poem is about agoraphobia," Mesler said, a condition he has wrestled with for years. "But I feel like it could speak for anything that bifurcates your life into 'before' and 'after.' I wrote it as a way of bridging my past and present. I've made some peace with a few things."
And it shows.
"I hope the collection has a gentle 'arc' to it," Mesler said. "One that travels from 'Opening' [which opens the book] to optimism" — optimism being welcome territory among Mesler's signature concerns. And perhaps that's partially a function of his taking a less active role in the daily running of Burke's:
"That was a kind, good idea of my wife's. I could expound on this at length, but maybe that will be my next book."
After, that is, Corey Mesler's short story collection appears this summer. After those two chapbooks, which may or may not appear sooner. And after that self-described cockeyed book on Beale.
Signature concerns: Twenty years ago, Burke's Book Store hosted a signing for a little-known author who became a big-name author when his second novel hit the very big-time. The author was John Grisham. The novel was The Firm. And since then, Grisham has been good about providing Burke's with autographed copies of his works.
To celebrate that signing from two decades ago, the store is running a special promotion during the month of May: Pre-order one or more autographed copies of Grisham's latest title for young adults, Theodore Boone: The Abduction (due out in early June from Dutton), and you'll get a 20 percent discount on Grisham's forthcoming adult thriller. That book, so far untitled, is scheduled to be published in November. Also on tap for May at Burke's: a drawing at the store for additional autographed Grisham memorabilia.
To pre-order signed copies of Theodore Boone: The Abduction (sorry, signature only; no inscription), go to burkesbooks.com or call the store at 278-7484 before May 31st.