In 1977, when I self-published the above book, I'd been working for the U.S. Government Department of Health and Human Services for three years. I was trying to figure out how to pursue a literary career on the side, while earning enough money to support my family. I was also uncertain about how my life, the workaday world, and the aesthetic choices (alternatives) I perceived, could possibly fit together.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
STANZAS FOR AN EVENING OUT
Putting together a book of poems then seemed like a good way to define what it was I had accomplished, and to present a "version" of myself that was a combination of who I thought I was (as a writer), and--pertinently--what kind of writer I thought I would like to be. I think I realized, even then, that art--writing--is to a large degree a self-fulfilling projection of an idealized identity (persona). Who you are and what you say (show) to the world is to some degree a promise, or a wish--of who you imagine yourself to be, and how you imagine that will be received. This is hardly ever addressed in discussions with writers, perhaps because it's an embarrassingly private matter, and perhaps because it may seem self-evidently obvious. But it isn't, by any means.
Much literary ambition is expressed as a projected determination to succeed. It is assumed, I think, that the creation of a public persona, through one's poetry, happens naturally. Of the poetry which I admired in my early twenties, it seemed to me that the qualities I most enjoyed, and might emulate were: Rhapsodic thrall, stylistic economic precision, and a perspicacious curiosity in mystery.
I was also interested--always have been, actually--in books, their feel, their qualities. Some writers pretend not to care much about how their work appears, as if the "container" was somehow irrelevant to the contents. I always knew that I would never be satisfied with someone else's "translation" of "me." Some writers only care about how much esteem they can garner through inclusion into a system of book production, i.e., winning the sweepstakes of acceptance by a major, or recognized, publishing house.
In 1976, I was sending my work out to magazines, counting my rejection slips. I was confronting the inevitable fact that unless you have connections--people who know you and your work--or are very lucky, your work will seem irrelevant and invisible to anonymous readers. The kind of work that interested me, the kind I wanted to write, wasn't what editors of major periodical venues were looking for.
During that same period, I was editing a little poetry magazine, titled simply L, and was also publishing, with the help of some grant money, books by other poets. Without perhaps realizing it, I was setting up as a sort of "anti-publishing" entity, along with dozens of other underground writers and publishers. This was a revolutionary period in the "little magazine" amply documented in A Secret Location on the Lower East Side by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips [Granary Books, 1998]. I was isolated from most of the rest of this other activity, but I was aware of it, and was, perhaps involuntarily, becoming associated with its aims and intentions.
Most of all, I liked books, and dreamed of becoming a part of the phenomenon of authorship. While attending the Writer's Workshop at Iowa in the early 70's, I'd come into contact with Harry Duncan and K.K. Merker at the University printing lab. The fine printing/letterpress tradition was very much alive and well there. I could see how the presentation of a work of literature was determinative of the significance of the work--the two weren't separable. Olson's admonition not to allow your work to simply be meubles, or furniture inside a pre-fab room, led me to the realization that a poet's relation to his/her audience is perhaps the first priority in addressing the enterprise of writing. It needs to be foremost in a writer's mind.
Who is your audience? How does your work migrate from your desk to someone (the reader's, the listener's) else's attention? How do you "package" yourself? How do you package your work? Is a poem, a book of poems, a commodity, a product to be marketed? What is the difference between grafitti, and a page of typed lines? What is the difference between making a mimeographed pamphlet, and a hardcover book published by Alfred A. Knopf? Is there an "official verse culture" which represents the power center of the cultural empire?
What I realized, in 1976, was that what you believe about yourself, as a writer, is largely a fantasy, built out of your imagination of what books and literature mean. Writing is an imaginative act; but so is publication, book design, readings, as well as the whole superstructure of teaching, foundations, grants, prizes and rewards. It's all an enormous projection devoted to defining and refining the canons of taste and "value." How any given writer responds to the imaginative challenge of being in this environment may perhaps be the crucial, decisive act of his/her life.
I published Stanzas For an Evening Out [L Publications, 1977, 203pp] because I had a clear vision of what I wanted myself to be, as a writer. Its limitation as a piece of writing, derived from my own immaturity as a writer; its meaning, as a piece of book design and layout, was my preferred version of what I loved as a consumer of (poetry) books as things. I could not have been happy with an editor's or publisher's version of my work, or myself. If I had been offered the opportunity by a major publisher to publish a book of poems, I would certainly have accepted. In the intervening years, having abandoned the possibility of an active identity as a writer in the "real" world, I came to realize that my frustration as a would-be writer had its roots, first, in the nature of my personality, and, second, in my resistance to being defined by an external agency of the cultural marketplace.
While at Iowa, I could see how my peers would succeed, through a single-minded determination to adapt themselves to the demands of the literary marketplace. For them, in many instances, accommodating oneself, in one's work, to the expectations and priorities of the prevailing modes and cliches of form and social relationships, was the main task. In this respect, it bore almost a complete resemblance to the careerist model of any other middle-class job-track, securing degrees of competence, competing for honors and rewards, currying favor, leveraging advantage.
In retrospect, I'm happy that things turned out the way they did. Publishing my own book taught me much more than I would ever have learned by trying to fit myself into the mold of an ambitious young poet meekly shopping around for a willing publisher. My attempt to imagine myself into the role of poet was a more honest approach to the process of learning what it might mean to write deliberately, as Thoreau said, than of passively adapting my work to another definition of writing, in obedience to a false necessity.