So what might a conceptual, print-on-demand artist's book look like?
Several contemporary writers are using the form of pre-existing books as a container for innovative publishing experiments that they can make available at a reasonable price thanks to POD and affordable printing options. Like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, these new books resemble their sources externally, but diverge dramatically in content, which involves erasure and writing-through. They are also facilitated by the availability of digital editions of these books which provide a searchable, scrapable, alterable source.
The following are not all print-on-demand publications, but they take on trade paperback form in ways that intrigue me:
This fall I am co-organizing a symposium through the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington called “Affect and Audience in the Digital Age.” A collaboration between researchers in poetics from the Bothell and Seattle campuses of UW, our event explores the impact of digital mediation on contemporary poetry. Here is how my co-organizers Sarah Dowling, Brian Reed, and Gregory Laynor and I describe it on the conference website:
Audience in the Digital Age is a one-day symposium exploring emergent modes of creative public scholarship. Specifically, we are interested in scholarly, pedagogical, curatorial, and creative practices that attend to the digitally mediated character of contemporary poetry.
Back in February, when I started this column, I wanted to interview Fernando Diaz about his sound art projects and also — because he's a computer scientist — about algorithms in poetry. The word "algorithm" appears often in critical analyses of conceptual writing, so I had been wondering what, if anything, conceptual writing and algorithms had to do with each other. I wanted to believe, but Fernando was skeptical about this metaphor. After 2.5 months of meeting, discussing, questioning, and haggling, we have only just begun to work through the chasm between our fields, our different values, histories, vocabularies, etc. Latour would be proud. It's been challenging and fun. And I'm grateful for Fernando's patience, generosity, and humor in working with me towards this provisional document.
Kristen Gallagher: So this started because we were talking about how we wanted a more historical understanding of the lyric. And so I made you a copy of this essay by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young summarizing Friedrich Kittler’s revolt in German literary criticism, his move from hermeneutics to discourse-analysis, because it leads him to some provocative conclusions about lyric poetry in Germany as a disciplinary effect.
The tension between the book as individual copy and as mass reproduced object is reframed and even collapsed in samizdat literature, the illegally copied and circulated typescripts that created an entire world of literary and intellectual life in the late-Soviet period. Samizdat texts were reproduced, four or five copies at a time through the act of retyping and the use of carbon copy. In these works, the acts of writing, copying, and publishing effectively fuse.
Beginning in the 1970s, conceptual writer and artist Dmitri Prigov sought to investigate the relationship between text and copy in laboriously reproduced samizdat texts, which in spite — in fact because — of their poor quality became fetishized objects for members of the Soviet samizdat community. Prigov exploited the nature of the samizdat text to produce singular works in which the materiality of the book plays a key role. At the same time, he stressed the relationship between the writer and copyist, between unique work and reproduction in samizdat book culture.
Sometime around late August/early September, I had lunch with one of the young women writers I see often in New York. She told me she had recently been to a reading in Philadelphia where Holly Melgard had, as she described, “performed childbirth, not actual childbirth, obviously, but just like made noises like she was in labor, and it was really loud, and people were really upset by it.” This performance apparently caused a great reaction. A number of people were furious, some felt insulted; why would some young girl who has never had a baby do something like that? That's what it seemed to boil down to, according to my friend.
Well, only Holly Melgard can answer that. But let's not pretend the WHY question is really just about explanation. Discussion about a controversial choice made by an artist opens up opportunities for all kinds of analysis. And with the sharp increase in people choosing to not bear children, emotions on this issue seem to be running high in our culture. From what I'd heard, Melgard landed herself squarely in the middle of it when she performed in Philly.
Angela Genusa is someone I have only known from afar, via Facebook and email, but I’ve been excited about her work as it engages the relationship between computer programming and writing. This, as other pieces in this column will reveal, is an in-mixing of generic aptitudes I’m excited by. Genusa is one of many writers producing works that would otherwise be impossible without the computer. She’s also the author of a statement (as a facebook status) we like in my household, “from now on people will have to be more interesting than my iPhone,” or words to that effect. Her focus on, knowledge of, and artistic uses of technology have continued to interest me, and I think poets working in that direction are opening up all kinds of possibilities for writing, even for those of us who are less tech-savvy. Genusa’s latest project, which she describes below, is a bibliography of her spam box. I could have asked her about bibliography as a formal choice (and that’s a topic people like she and Tan Lin are interested in, so maybe one day I’ll stage a forum on the topic) but what is there to say about spam? So I asked her: Why spam? Here’s her answer:
Walter Benjamin is perhaps the writer we most commonly associate with the recognition of the changes induced in the work of art by the “age of mechanical reproduction” in the modernist period. In that essay, Benjamin’s focus is primarily on visual and auditory reproduction, but he begins the essay with “The enormous changes brought about in literature by movable type, the technological reproducibility of writing.” He then goes on to state:
Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it had also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.
Benjamin has in mind here phonography, lithography, photography, and cinema. But, as a quotation from Paul Valéry immediately prior to this passage suggests, these changes––along with those directly bearing on print, such as the rise of the typewriter––affected the way writers like Stein, Valéry, and Benjamin approached the printed book’s already established place among literary processes.
In “Miss Scarlett,” Place appropriates Gone with the Wind in a more overtly discomforting way than in her “White Out”:
Dey’s fightin’ at Jonesboro, Miss Scarlett!
Dey say our gempmums is gittin’ beat.
Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen ter
Maw an’ Poke? Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen
ter us effen de Yankees gits hyah? Oh,
Gawd—Ah ain’ nebber seed him, Miss Scarlett.
No’m, he ain’ at de horsepittle.
Let’s note (with Brian Reed) that a poem like “Miss Scarlett” is written for our digital world of searchable copies. Because of these digital copies, readers can type a phrase into Google and quickly locate the source text: in this case, all the words spoken the maid Prissy in a section of Gone with the Wind.