Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Looky-Touchy-Feely - The Atomized Bombs of Jessica Smith [Part II]

Part I (The Book)
Organic Furniture Cellar is a self-published work of 95 pages, 7 3/8"x9 1/4", a dimension whose scale is very similar to the old Wesleyan University Press poetry series design. It was printed by McNaughton & Gunn [Saline, Michigan]. The cover design fabric freize is an adaptation from a William Morris design. The covering wrapper is printed on matte sheen finish, and Smith-bound (trim & glue). The text stock is cool greyish-white. The text font is distributed Garamond, with titles in Arts & Crafts Hunter by P22 Type Foundry. I mention all this because the design of the book is by the Author, for whom the form of the presentation, and the implications of the design principles employed, are clearly important to the meaning of the work, and how we are to judge its effectiveness and ultimate significance.
Since I also self-published my first collected poems, Stanzas For An Evening Out [L Publications, Berkeley: 1977], as well as a later collection, Metro [Privately Published, Kensington, 2005] I am sympathetic with the Author's impulse to control the form of the presentation of her work, and would recommend the option to other writers seeking to disseminate or realize their texts in forms appropriate to their intention. 
Historically, since the inception of moveable type printing, Authors have relinquished their texts to printers, book-binders and designers, as well as distributors and marketers and advertisers, causing an alienation of the artist-writer from the material text, and encouraging a separation of the maker from the object-product. This separation, aggravated by further mechanical sophistications over the centuries, has tended to reinforce the dependancy of the maker upon the machine, (and) upon the commodity production-system which controls the "publishing" of nearly all printed matter in the world today. 
I have advocated an alternative system, which might return the maker of the text to the condition of an original artist role, where the choice of the "final" form of the text might be closely monitored, and in which the production of the text itself might be incorporated into the creative process, side-stepping the oppressive (and traditionally regimented) concepts of standard publishing procedures of materials and distributions, to explore the actual relationship between medium and inspiration, and facilitating a more creative connection between maker (artist-writer) and a probable "audience" (one conceived out of a revised and renewed sense of participation and interaction). 
As the traditional "press" model of material text production has declined into obscurity, "fine press" production has continued to thrive, albeit modestly, at a tiny, marginal, "crafts" level. Too, fine press has continued to be governed largely by historically timid departures from "tradition" and the previous technologies of mechanical printing. 
Thus, Jessica Smith's choice to self-publish, though admirable on its face, nevertheless encounters concepts of available alternatives, which bear substantial resemblance to pre-existing cliches of "book" production: I.e., the short-run university press prototype of the cheaply bound paperback book, limited by cost and mass market-driven choices of materials and forms (paper, type-fonts, length, and so on). Her choice to compromise her ambitious ideas of textual expression by delivering them in the pre-ordained material designed forms consistent with the clichés of the contemporary book production, bring into question the degree of her commitment to a really challenging vision of an expanded realization of the text. I would encourage Ms. Smith to think more about the potentials of a truly committed compositional methodology, if she is truly serious about seeing beyond traditional concepts of the generation of text and the relation to audience. Her presentation here is not nearly as opaque or obdurate as she may suppose.
My main complaint, aside from the issue of traditional presentation versus espoused interest in novel presentation, is that the choice to present the whole text in a tiny font (size 6?)--even the very lengthy "Forward"--is difficult to read. I can understand that many of the poems, printed at a larger scale, would require a much larger page size, but the choice of a larger font size printed on a larger page--say, 8"x10"--would yield a much more comfortable read, and might emphasize the dramatic atomization of effect which seems to be part of what she is striving to achieve. I mention this, again, because Ms. Smith makes a point of wishing to challenge, or "subvert" the traditional approaches to reading procedure, and because she had the freedom to determine such parameters of presentation.
The title of the work, Organic Furniture Cellar, is derived from the name of a small, second-hand used furniture store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "For me the store name evokes an exploration of memory, of mnemonics, of the organic cellar of the mind and its structures. What stirs one's memory--the precise color of an autumn leaf, the smell of a city, the repetition of dates, the retracing of a well-known path--stirs an entire mnemo-topological system." Here is a photo of the shop in question--

The choice to conflate the "furniture" of the title, with the fabric design on the cover may not be altogether fortuitous. There is a certain connotative craftsmanliness which is either too obvious or too trite to bear emphasizing, in context of the very serious, and ambitious Forward. But this is just a quibble.   

Part II (The Poetics)
The decision to introduce one's own work with a long, discursive critical essay or manifesto--as Ms. Smith has done here, in her own Forward of some 7000 words of single-spaced text, again in very tiny type face!--as a defense of the methodology of one's (aesthetic) approach to form, strikes me as pretentious, unless what one has to claim about the value or difficulty of one's work justifies the interposition. In Smith's case, I would argue, the complexity and richness of her description of the implications and potentials of her own work, exceeds by a considerable factor, the supposed density and probable implications of the work itself. The essay reads like a slightly pretentious abbreviated master's thesis by a modestly gifted, but unimaginative, graduate student attempting to defend her poems as deliberate derivations of established Modernist canonical figures. 
The idea that one's poems might need an advanced explanation to be properly appreciated is an academic tendency which I find suspect. Poems, if they are to be appreciated at all, need to stand on their own as examples of what they might mean to anyone reading them for the first time. Attempting to lay the critical groundwork for their reception is like a premonitory warning against, or exaggerated presumption of the value of, a new work. A preliminary discussion about one's influences, or explanations about how the work itself is to be read, may constitute a confession of the failure of the work to stand on its own. One must believe, having read the text to which such a statement or manifesto is the advanced qualification, that the work itself justifies the claims that have been made for it. This is the risk that Ms. Smith takes, and having now read the complete text itself, I'm not convinced that it was justified, since I believe that the work is easily accessible and self-evidently apprehensible on its own, without any need for warnings, instructions or explanations. 
In her Forward, Ms. Smith makes a distinction between the calligraphic arrangement of words within the space of the page, using as an example Apollinaire's poem Il pleut ("It rains") from Calligrammes, in which the graphic display of words describing rain "fall" vertically down the page (what Smith condescendingly refers to as "mere ideograms"), and what she refers to as "Plastic poetry" which, rather than being only self-referential ("flat"), gives rise to "something outside of itself." 
Plastic poetry "disrupt[s] the reader's space...disrupt[s]...the virtual space one moves through when reading a poem."
Plastic poetry "draws attention to the physicality of reading."
Plastic poetry "respond[s] to a pre-existing typographical space as well as to the existing syntactical structures in the reader's mind."  
Plastic poetry "is forced to hesitate between the memories and potentialities of meaning...[and] entangles the reader in a web of undetermined syntactical relations."
Plastic poetry "problematizes the assumed relationship between language--specifically the logic of syntax--and the world." 
Whereas in traditional poetry "the organizational models of syntax we learn neither mimic real thought nor force a reader to negotiate the language," Plastic poetry "disrupt[s] the reading process, call[ing] attention to the way a reader uses the virtual space of memory to syntactically organize fragments of language into meaning." In traditional poetry "the production of meaning is constrained by the obvious relation between the poem's visual format and its regimented reading sequence."     
After noting several historical examples of alternative forms of composition in architecture and music, Smith describes the various ways in which her Plastic poems may be read. They can be read in any order, in any direction, and never in the same way twice. The possible meanings one may derive through the variously proposed processes (my italics) of reading are all genuine, and acceptable; none is the correct one, none is intentional, none is predictable. Nevertheless, Smith claims, "although these poems can always be 'read' or 'performed' differently by the eye and inner ear, the parts of each poem are made to coordinate with its other parts down to the minutest detail." In other words, the possible myriad "readings" for each of her poems is predicated on the notion that her settings/scorings anticipate all such possible variant readings, "down to the minutest detail." This is an ambitious claim. If there are no correct, or ultimate intended readings, then the Author has deliberately abrogated the essential function and the first responsibility of the modern artist: to create persuasive form which convinces through its power and suggestibility, offering new ways of looking at experience, thought and expression. As an analogue for irrationality, or for the secret logic of cognitive processes, or for random forms of organization, such an informal approach to composition creates many more questions than it can well supply answers to.
Smith tells us that she wishes to "disrupt" expectation, to cause a "hesitation" before comprehension. "Throughout Organic Furniture Cellar, all writing methods are maps of memories." These maps are not literal, but abstract maps, through which the reader wanders randomly, making connections, drawing parallels, getting temporarily "lost" or subsumed within a private "reading" made out of accidental impressions of "fragments" or "shards" of verbal matter. For Smith, memory comprises both the raw matter, and the conceptual frame through which every reader apprehends her work. We perceive syntax as the familiar or unfamiliar confrontation with expected word order, thus the act of reading is a randomized, syntactically open-ended novel reconstruction of what Smith "remembers" from her past. Putting aside the philosophical complications, and semantic and linguistic vagaries which this implies, we could say that a notational template or nimbus of separate impressions and fragments, scattered across a page, constitutes a "map" of a place that only exists in Smith's mind, and which cannot be discerned by ordinary means (grammar and logic), nor should we expect it to be.        
Since the Enlightenment, the advance of science has permitted artists to realize that nature is not a chaos, out of which the artist must fashion an "order"--but rather a highly articulate and complex system of interrelationships. The world is not divided into "wild" and "tame" but is a whole, holistic, entity, any part of which may not be imagined as standing separate and untainted by the rest. However, the power of art lies in our ability to fashion persuasive rhetorics of formal structure and organized frequencies, which then stand for what they mean, as ends in themselves. They cannot merely be windows to something else, vehicles which may or may not function, or receptacles of possible meanings no one of which the Author is willing to furnish.  
We may experience painting, or music, or architecture, or poetry, as process, but the process is deliberate, and repeatable, and persuasive, and not random, or accidental, or informal. If an artist wishes to create works which offer multiple possible means of apprehension, the danger is that the strategies by which that apprehension is facilitated may be so slack as to lack any sense of intention whatsoever. The power of poetry implies an ability on the part of the poet to make structures which are unique, fascinating, compelling, entertaining, and resistant to boredom. We admire Shakespeare because of the power of his vision, the great genius of his verbal ingenuity, the delight and pity and joy which he is able to inspire, and the insight we derive into the human condition. These are the same qualities we sense in Homer, or Milton, or Chaucer, or Blake, or Browning, or James Joyce, or T.S. Eliot, or William Carlos Williams, or Louis Zukofsky. Writers who choose to forfeit the challenge of making formal arrangements directed toward a deliberate human end, will ultimately fritter their gifts on trivial parlor-games, neither more nor less meaningful than a game of chess. 
As I shall try to make clear in a discussion of Smith's poems, there is nothing very new about either her technique, or her approach to visual form. The claims she makes for it in her Forward, are applicable only as external critical observations, since the work itself neither suggests, nor prompts the specific dynamic characteristics she describes. In other words, without her Forward, the poems may be seen as empty arrangements, fragments without a compelling formal purpose or function.       

Next Post:  Part III (The Poems)


Conrad DiDiodato said...

"I have advocated an alternative system, which might return the maker of the text to the condition of an original artist role, where the choice of the "final" form of the text might be closely monitored, and in which the production of the text itself might be incorporated into the creative process..."

Curtis, the writer as artist engaged directly in the process of production is a new idea that's, in fact, quite old. It's sort of reminiscent of a pre-print culture of illustrative texts, each page consisting of images and specialized typography, the work a joint labour of specialized skills unique to authors,editors, etc. Of course, the "illustrative" is replaced by its contemporary variant (the text as whatever the author wants it to be).Are you advocating then a return to the age of "scribes" but with all the conveniences of contemporary printing conventions?

The more multidisciplinary,variegated approach to publication in which book making is returned to master printers and artists/writers revisit their old chanceries and courts is maybe a bold way to preserve the integrity of the text.It seems to me the 'small press' runs very much in the spirit of that collaborative model, with digital graphics and advanced font & page layout designs (of the kind that a program like InDesign offers)within easy reach of just about anyone.

J said...

Any person has the right to publish whatever the f**k they want, in any format, style, chapbook, jackbook, jokebook whatever. And everyone has the right to ignore it completely-- except perhaps when in the wilderness, or some desolate coast and in need of some kindling, or....toilet paper....wow... in the bottom of ye olde rucksack Jessy Smith's collected works...and a large chunk of Silliman paper...comfort n relief! Bible, or Moby Dick or collected schackaspeare--that's not just literature, but fuel, brooder .

That said, the e-book craze will probably replace hard copies of books soon, sir Faville. Even the bloody NY Times will be completely online soon. Brave new world

Ian Keenan said...

Since you are “bring(ing) into question the degree of her commitment to a really challenging vision of an expanded realization of the text” on the basis of the conventional surface of this book, you may be interested to know she has produced at least a half dozen different kinds of physical texts applying different forms of book art and sewing, such as her “Butterflies” and her magazine “Foursquare” and poems consisting of objects in boxes. The large print version of OFC has yet to be published and I look forward to seeing it at my local box store.

You seem to be confused as to whether the Plastic Poetry essay is “unoriginal” or whether it expresses an original idea that you wish to find untenable, so just to make sure, you make both claims. Your own view of the meaning of meaning in Enlightenment could have negated the interpreted meanings of Blake, Browning, Joyce, Eliot, Williams, and Zukofsky, but you list them in support of a view they oppose: consistently in most cases and in Eliot's case, in his most important work.

And you “believe that the work is easily accessible and self-evidently apprehensible on its own, without any need for warnings, instructions or explanations” but “without her Forward, the poems may be seen as empty arrangements, fragments without a compelling formal purpose or function.” You are so busy composing the antithesis to any idea of a writer you've decided ahead of time to criticize that you don't check over your work to make sure you're consistent in so doing.

Curtis Faville said...


"you may be interested to know"

Yes, but I'm dealing with the book in my hands, not another version, not her sewing or her little boxes. Stay on point.

"You seem to be confused as to whether the Plastic Poetry essay is “unoriginal” or whether it expresses an original idea that you wish to find untenable, so just to make sure, you make both claims."

There is nothing I read in her essay that I consider original, critically. It's what she THINKS it means to her own work that's pertinent. She thinks the essay's an explanation and a defense of what she's done, but I don't buy that. No one would argue that Apollinaire's rain poem is more than just "calligraphic" but her own work doesn't even make this simplistic kind of sense; it's more "complex" but also empty and unorganized. This "complexity" claim is purely gratuitous, you could say it about a handful of garden soil with the same validity.

Let's see if I can rephrase. Her work is both simplistic and confusing at the same time. If you don't give the reader adequate syntactical structure by which to impute connections, you leave it all to chance. I don't buy this "precisely arranged down the the minutest detail" nonsense. Her poems could each be jumbled up and rearranged and they'd be no more compelling than they are now, except by accident. Maybe that's what I'm getting at--happy "accidental" marriages of sense aren't good enough; the poet has a responsibility to build in more than "probable" versions of the reading experience. "All interpretations are correct; none is wrong." Bullshit.

Ian, I'd be interested to know what you think of the work, rather than what you think of my possible critical contradictions. You're defending her without making any positive statements about her poems. Do you buy her claims for her work?

Curtis Faville said...

As an example of how to make positive, demonstrable use of space on the page, I'd suggest you read the work of Larry Eigner. Blackburn, too, is very shrewd in his manipulation of the movements of the eye and the prosodic rhythms. There is nothing of these qualities in Smith's work.

Massey's simplistic applications at least show some modicum of control--though frequently awkwardly done--and modest changes and wit. They aren't particularly impressive, but at least he's trying, and not making excuses.

Ian Keenan said...

To answer your question, I don't see how a manifesto need be in a different book from the poetry until someone comes along to edit selected writings, and don't think it's difficult to find the poems consistent with the theoretical propositions. Coolidge and Eigner have been very interested in how the poem mirrors the mind's relation to time and space and Smith is being more rigorous about how time and space is represented in the poem. That the poems represent specific places and attempt to mimic the structural qualities of them leads to poem to establish where they are reflections and internalizations, just as there is no right way to proceed through space but certain laws tend to perpetuate themselves. The essay simplifies the calligraphic method a little in criticizing it but does so in inspired fashion. Instead of representing objects from which the reader is separate, the reader populates the space of what is being read, and simultaneously is and isn't remaking it. The most political of the poems, Lestrygonians, is nonetheless an extension of the enfranchisement to populate time, space, memory, and the natural world. Memory is covered more in Butterflies, but these representations of space are still units of memory, as they are a collection of the observed qualities of different places. To be open to these possibilities is to get more out of these poems than one usually gets from lyrical or rhetorical poems.