Sunday, March 21, 2010

METRO - A Day in the Life

In 2005, after almost a 30 years hiatus, during which time I was largely preoccupied with pursuing a career as a bureaucrat with the U.S. government in San Francisco, I published a collection of short poems which I had written during the preceding several weeks. I had discovered there was a printer working in Marin County who possessed a Heidelberg Cylinder Press, one of the few still in working order in the world. He used an automated technology for the preparation of polymer plates (instead of metal moveable type in a bed) made directly from computer file font programs, which enabled the efficient production of traditional mechanical impressions. I had wanted to do some letterpress publications for a long while, and I was also curious to see how this new technology performed.  

Self-publication has traditionally been a suspect activity, regarded as an indulgence, since there is no "jury" of taste which oversees the suitability of publication, which "warrants" the right to enter the marketplace of literary commodities, which "authenticates" the value and privilege of formal approval. 
Certainly, the act of (the humility of) petitioning another entity--a publisher, a printer, an editor--to publish one's work, is a justifiable relationship: After all, "publication" involves a number of complex steps, none of them "free" for the having. A publisher--whether commercial, academic, non-profit or official--takes a financial risk, or makes a "gift" of the costs associated with a contract or agreement for publication. That bargain involves the acknowledgment of a long tradition of print media in which any printed matter is assigned a certain quality. 
Departures from this historical relationship between writer/artist, and material text have been relatively obscure, and infrequent. The idea of an engagement of the writer/artist with the material production of a work--either as original artifact, or as a direct application to publish a work independently of any third party (i.e., "publisher")--strikes most people as an unjustified vanity, hence the term "vanity press."     


Inevitably, in the course of cultural development, canons of taste and judgment arise to fill the space between the writer/artist, and the possible public or audience for a work. "Taste-makers" may include editors, critics, teachers, printers, grants & contest judges, etc. All these mediate between private production, and consumers of material texts. 
With the arrival of electronic media--particularly cathode ray tube projection screens (computers)--the concept of "material text" has become ambiguated. Is an online "magazine" a material text? Yes and no. Does an online journal, or newspaper, a "publication" or just a projection on a screen, have with more in common with a slideshow, or a movie, than with a book?
Putting aside such considerations, I should mention that I was always interested in "books" as such, before the idea of writing anything for publication ever entered my head. I began to buy books as a teenager, at about age 13, and frequently exhausted my skimpy allowance on hardcover first editions, bought at the tiny local retail bookstore in the town where I grew up.
I loved books, I loved reading them, and I loved the idea of a personal library. There was no one in those days, whom I knew, who shared such preoccupations. My stepfather thought I was nuts. When he read a book, he tended to degrade it deliberately, stretching and twisting and soiling it, spilling cigarette ash and coffee on the pages, and generally using it up in the process. 
The idea of a book as a useful object took precedence over its possible value as a work of art, or its literal value ($$), for instance, as a first edition on the antique-collectible market. 
I became a collector of rare books in the 1980's, and in due course, a dealer in collectible first editions in the mid-1990's. In addition, in the 1970's, I set up as a literary small press, publishing issues of a poetry magazine, as well as several full-length collections of verse. The design and production of books is a diverting affair, and I would rather have been doing something like this, than processing dry paperwork all those years, but we can't always choose what manner of support we get stuck with.
In the end, I'd much rather publish my own book, than have someone else do it. I like presenting my work--making it--in exactly the way it occurs to me it should be appreciated. This process brings me closer--not further--from an ideal relationship between author and text. What others might describe as vanity, to me is a more direct expression of my involvement with the actual work itself. To me, a book is something I make, not something which I bequeath to strangers to interpret and revision in their terms. The time may soon be coming when writers will, of necessity, become much more involved with the actual production of their own texts for consumption. As traditional publication--and the processes and procedures which once were expressed through it--decays, the writer's (and artist's) dependence upon these traditions will gradually fade away. Self-publication may be an harbinger of the future.     

Metro was intended to be an expression of, or experiment in, the use of a square format to present very short poems. The danger of short poems is that they may descend to the level of jokes or anagrams, tricks and toys. Any short poem which doesn't make its point immediately risks being thought of as a failure of invention, or simply a waste of time, though a short poem which is too apprehensible, risks being thought trivial or naive. Mysterious fragments or unlikely combinations like haiku, or shards from ancient papyri, often move me to meditate, or deconstruct the thought or linguistic rubric underlying their properties. 
Metro was intended to be a collection of short poems or fragments all imagined or coined in a single day, from a morning sipping espresso over a game of chess, to nightfall under a wintry moon. The idea of metro was as a transit between states of mind, as between destinations along a rail line, points along the route of existence. There have been long novels written about the events occurring in a single day's span, vast masses of ratiocination and psychological speculation heaped up against the complexity of the mind's intricate circuitry, its limitless accruals.        

The relation between the mind's apprehension of visual, aural, and tactile impressions influenced by the effect--for instance, by the effect of a gin cocktail on the consciousness of the writer--water and gin mixed, invisibly, together. 

I thought, here, of writing "Fuji" instead of "Fiji" since Fuji color film has been familiar to camera users the world over for decades--their familiar dark green boxes of 35 millimeter format film--but decided against it. The word "liner" suggests an ocean liner on the horizon ("on the sunset"), where sunset, in the South Pacific--for anyone who's been there--can be, and frequently is, a diffusion of red, orange, purple, blue and yellow hues "outlined" by the tropical orientation of the climate. 

When I showed this poem to my friend Robert Grenier, he asked "have you ever fucked a witch?" "I'm not sure," I replied, "and I'm not sure that I could ever be sure that I actually had." The "Woooo..." has two meanings for me: The Hallow'e'en cry, and an ironic bay of exasperation. 

One temptation of working with very short form, is in setting up dichotomies or balances. Two phrases which both do and do not "fit" together is a most common effect. Linguistic occasions which are unlikely partners, or unlikely bedfellows, intrigue the ear, and surprise the mind--the contrast here between an injunction to "be shown" something, and the pretense of "wanting to" appear to have a certain attitude--I find an attractive set of alternative possible meanings.   

This is a joke about Duchamp. 


The tension between words (or letters) as signs, or engravings on a surface (such as rock, or a billboard) and one's reactive commentary upon it, is one example of the tension between contexts which I mentioned above. When we're no longer here can happen in an imagined past, when, in the future, the poem is read after the poem's original occurrence, so that "I wrote that down" before I died, but we read it after I died. It's a weird notion.

The transitory or evanescent quality of waves or disturbances on the surface of water suggests the subtlety of thought, silently, ineluctably erased by change. One of my thoughts is mankind's failure to create enduring evidences of his presence. It all becomes dust, or, as in this instance, a fleeting wrinkle on the surface of clear liquid.
I spent endless hours playing "sand-lot" baseball, basketball and touch football as a kid. Sometimes one of us would bring a lively pet dog, who would think the baseball was "his" toy, and he would run after the grounders, grab them in his mouth and run around, or away from us, in the middle of the game.  

One thing I'm certain of: No one--no publisher--could or would have been willing to publish this odd collection of poems in the way that I imagined it. Is this an argument against--or in favor of--such a process? I let you be the judge.


These images were taken with a digital camera directly from the book. It's available, a limited edition of 300 copies, for $50 apiece, directly from me. Unpaginated. 87 poems.     


Conrad DiDiodato said...


you might find Ted Striphas's book "The Late Age of Capitalism" particularly instructive in your appraisal of the nature of e-literacy. Using very current examples, Striphas talks very convincingly of the transformation of the text's materiality and use- value in a very different reading market.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I got the book title wrong:it's "The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control" by Ted Striphas.

Sorry for the error.

Craig said...

I think Fiji is a better choice than Fuji, but then I'm biased. I lived in Fiji for nearly four years and even met the former prime minister on several occasions while he was still in office. The last time I spoke with him was New Year's Day Y2K. We talked about Charlemagne and the Julian and Gregorian calendars. The dateline does a little jog around Vanua Levu, where worldwide television coverage of the new millenium began. The 180th meridian bisects that island within walking or at least swimming distance of his home village. Boarding passes that served as book markers in my copy of Island of the Day Before are a clear indication that I visited Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia while reading that book.

Curtis Faville said...


We had a lay-over of about 2 hours in Fiji waiting for our hop to the Cook Islands--Rarotonga, which was our destination, where we spent a crazy week in the late 1990's.

It was our first encounter with the tropical humidity. My clothes stuck to me, and my hair felt like matted fur on my head.

But the sunsets were something to behold.

I especially loved swimming in the "princess's" pool, a small cove-like surround of rocks which created a kind of mini-bay, within which there was almost no perturbation, and the light greenish hue of the warm water seemed like--must have been--paradise.

Craig said...

My wife and I lived on Rarotonga for nine months, twenty years ago, while she trained nurses for the outer island atolls and I taught school. I flew in via LAX and Pape'ete. I read Typee while in residence there, but in school I taught Orwell's Animal Farm and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Performing arts are so much a part of the culture that teaching didn't seem like work. The best place to view sunsets on the island was the chapel at the hospital where my wife taught her classes. I flew out by way of Fiji.

Curtis Faville said...


We rented a little motor-scooter and did the circumnavigation of the island, stopping to investigate the sights. It was immediately apparent that the island was like a little town where most everyone would eventually know everyone else. I did my first snorkeling there, and was amazed at the tube fish, inside the reef. How fast they could move! And the amazing colors reflected off their opalescent bodies!

One afternoon it began to rain, harder and harder and harder, water was gushing off roofs. Then, just as suddenly, it stopped, and within 10 minutes the heat had evaporated all the puddles and pavements.

Craig said...

There are actually nine villages, each with its own distinct valley separated from the others by mountain ridges. The village that won the national rugby title that year had the privilege of playing the Scottish national team while we were there and gave them all they wanted. Figure each village has less than a thousand people and most of those are either schoolchildren or retired grandparents. People of working age, between 20 and 50 years old, are mostly away working in New Zealand and Australia. So the village drew its team from a total pool of perhaps 50 rugby players?

Rarotonga is at 22 degrees south latitude, so it's actually subtropical, same as Hawaii. Some of the northern Cook atolls are within five degrees of the equator.
I visited Tarawa atoll in Kiribati within a degree or two of the equator. If you don't wear a hat while waiting for the bus your brains will cook.