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Geoffrey Gatza

(photo: Rose Mattrey)

I’m eating dinner with several friends at Geoffrey Gatza’s Kenmore apartment.

This is something beyond one’s usual dinner party—Gatza daylights as sous chef at The Mansion on Delaware, recently named one of the top five small hotels in the United States in the 2007 Zagat survey. Tonight, on one of the most frigid days of the year (the high today was two degrees Fahrenheit), Gatza has fashioned a menu on a Hot & Cold theme. An introductory course of pumpkin soup sweetened with pineapple is followed by an intermezzo made of snow scooped into cocktail glasses, drizzled with an unlikely combination of maple syrup, lemon juice and soy sauce. The main course is an interpretation of kung pao chicken featuring halved baby bok choy. We finish with a beautiful, cinnamon Graham cracker crust baked Alaska, its meringue top hat singed with skill by Gatza’s blow-torch.

“The most amazing thing,” says his girlfriend Donna at the feast’s conclusion, “is that I bought groceries today, but Geoffrey was already well into cooking. He made all this with things already in the house. I didn’t think we had anything!”

Making a lot out of precious little is nothing new to Gatza. In addition to being a resourceful and talented chef, he is one of the leading figures in the local poetry scene and a national figure in today’s poetry avant-garde by way of his Web magazine BlazeVox and its associated small press, BlazeVox Books. This in spite of the fact that Gatza founded BlazeVox for less than it costs for most magazine subscriptions. Today, using an innovative print-on-demand approach and coordinating the labors of his authors to make the books a reality, BlazeVox Books has 50 titles in print and 14 more in production for release by year’s end. BlazeVox’s authors include local authors Michael Kelleher and Forrest Roth, as well as (full disclosure) my own novella, Bhang.

“Geoffrey Gatza was a godsend in the midst of too many poetry contests and the overwhelming notion that my lack of name-brand publishing credits might relegate me to obscurity for a long time,” says New York-based poet Amy King. “I can’t recall if he had published any of my poems on the BlazeVox site at that point, but I received this lovely, flattering email one day, out of the blue, from my future publisher. He explained his plan to publish a series of poetry books that would be sold online as POD with a hope to expand the project in the future. His interest in my work was informed and personal, and so in the face of his enthusiasm, I gratefully accepted.”

Gatza’s faith in King’s work was rewarded when her book, Antidotes for an Alibi, became a finalist for a Lambda Book Award in Poetry in 2006, given for the best books nationally published with gay themes.

This is only one among many books by BlazeVox that have received national acclaim, including Kent Johnson’s Epigrammititis, Rodney Koeneke’s Musee Mechanique and Noah Eli Gordon’s Inbox. Gatza’s taste as an editor was again confirmed recently when Gordon was selected for the National Poetry Series by renowned poet John Ashbery.

To say the least, Gatza does not have the usual pedigree of influential poetry publishers. He is an ex-Marine who served in the Gulf War and has never attended a creative writing program. From Kuwait he went to the Culinary Institute of America, but it was while earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting that Gatza discovered his true (second) calling.

“My first real exposure to poetry was at Daemen College,” he says. “A lit professor had an eye that I could write and, knowing my disdain for the field but desire for high marks, challenged the class to write a poem. For a month I was stuck with this twisty puzzle and couldn’t find a way to make something that wasn’t shit. And then one day it clicked and I wrote three poems. I got an A, but worse, I was irretrievably addicted to poetry.”

It’s a good thing for any number of beginning writers on Gatza’s list that this happened. More than one author looks at BlazeVox Books as the thing that brought them a coveted opportunity not available anywhere else.

“Beyond the usual writer’s esteem issue of getting that first book out, being a part of a serious, innovative literary nexus that features new and established names is something that I thought would never happen for me while I was finishing my MFA,” says Forrest Roth. BlazeVox published Roth’s debut novel, Line and Pause, this past fall. For Joe Amato, a poet based in Normal, Illinois, with three books already to his credit, BlazeVox offered a venue for experimentation at which other presses balked. “Through BlazeVox, I’ve been able to see in print an unusual collection of poetry without having to edit so as to bring it in line with more staid aesthetics.”

To be sure, BlazeVox’s approach, which calls upon authors to share the burdens of proofreading and design, not to mention advertising and marketing, isn’t for everyone. But Gatza’s project fits with a certain zeitgeist in the contemporary writing world. Lots of today’s authors are also skilled in the design and marketing possibilities of the internet.

“One-man-band publishing outfits are generally at the mercy of one-man-band resources,” says Amato. “You can’t always get what you want when you want it, but with patience and perseverance, you get what you need. You just have to figure on handling marketing, reviews and the like with minimal assistance from the publisher.”

Michael Kelleher, the artistic director of Just Buffalo Literary Center, whose To Be Sung was published by BlazeVox in 2004, agrees. “I think Geoffrey is way ahead of the curve in making new technology available to authors outside the literary mainstream,” says Kelleher. “He provides us all with a forum to publish our work and the means to distribute it throughout the world. The book becomes a kind of passport or calling card the writer can use to meet other writers, get readings in other cities, or just have a handy work sample around to exchange with other writers in friendship. These books create community, and that’s what poetry is all about.”

Gatza himself acknowledges that being an ex-Marine/chef/poet/publisher makes for a pretty wacky resume. But being a little crazy has worked for him.

“Actually, in poetry, this is considered an intangible asset. Once you accept that you see the world differently, it’s how you use that to your advantage. In poetry, I can use this kooky energy to let the outrageous person out of the nice-person-box and loose to create. I am lucky to have a large group of encouraging friends. I can let this energy out upon the world and gain new material.”

It’s this same creativity that drives Gatza in the kitchen. “I have known since I was a child that I wanted to be a chef. My mother tells a funny story that I would cry out loud when she changed the TV channel away from Julia Child. I placed myself in a war zone to get the money to go to culinary school and from there to the four-star kitchens in New York City. Now, at The Mansion, I have real freedom to create.”

It’s a creative freedom that lots of writers in Buffalo and around the country are glad that Geoffrey Gatza found various ways to express.

Geoffrey Gatza reads his work at the 2007 Buffalo Small Press Book Fair on Saturday, March 31 at 2:40pm. Don’t be late—the book fair readings are 10 minutes long. (Check buffalosmallpress.org for a complete schedule of events.) Karpeles Manuscript Museum (453 Porter Avenue). BlazeVox will have a table in the fair’s trade show, as well, noon-6pm.