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.
Today I present a guest post from Gerald Janecek, who has contributed so much to our understanding of the visual, verbal, and sonic breadth of Russian avant-garde poetry from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. Jerry’s and my shared interests include the work of the conceptual artist and writer Dmitri Prigov, whose iterative practice spanned a vast range of genres and media from sculpture to performance, poetry to theatre. Some time ago, Jerry shared with me an extraordinary video of Prigov performing with the musician Vladimir Tarasov in the apartment studio of Ilya Kabakov in Moscow in 1986. Below, I present part of this video: Prigov and Tarasov’s performance of the 49-aya azbuka or 49th Alphabet from Prigov’s Alphabet series (you can read the Russian text here). Jerry’s commentary on the work and its performance follows. Together I hope they will serve as an introduction to a writer and artist who deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world.