Charles Alexander

A wing & a word

Here is the book

Forty pages

Cynthia Miller painting, used with her permission
Vase, Cynthia Miller

Here is the book. It is a place of forty pages. But look, there are pages within the pages, and there are pages within those pages, and soon there will be a flower growing from within the center of all the pages, and from the outer pages springs of green grass shall sprout, while from between the petals of the flower a variety of birds emerge, sparrows, flycatchers, cardinals, phainopepla, and above the sun emerges from a full cloud to brighten and warm the day, and we read the book in which is written our life story, but how, we ask ourselves,

Echoes listening hearing


I’m reading about hearing loss, and creative use of hearing and listening, in essays in Beauty is a Verb, ed. by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen (a must-read book!). Thinking about how all hearing is probably mis-hearing, and all movement from one source to another (poem in head to poem on page, poem from poet to poem in book by publisher, poem read in book to poem in reader's head, poem uttered in reading to poem heard in reading) involves evolution, change. Laurie Clements Lambeth, in her essay “Reshaping the Outline,” in this book, speaks of this with grace and clarity, including the creative potential of such transmission, or, if you like, mistransmission. 

I find myself reading Norma Cole's essay in the book, “Why I am Not a Translator II,” and echoing its words as I go, according to thoughts I'm developing about the book's (in a large sense) openness and impermanance, maybe the idea's openness and impermanence. From this point, until and not including the last line, I have taken excerpts from Norma Cole's writing, including that essay, and the following poem, also included in Beauty is a Verb, titled “Speech Production Themes and Variations,” and those excerpts appear first, not in parentheses, with my echoing of them following in parentheses.

Word-seeds. Sphota. (  ideas    seeds    flax    paper    book  )

one has ideas before one has words to say them. . . . No tabula rasa.  (  the book is always pre-content  )

What book?

Flags unfurling their pages

What book waits for me?

One of the best experiences I ever had with book making was a weekend in the late 1980s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, led by Hedi Kyle, who at the time was book conservator at the Franklin Mint in Philadelphia. I had begun Chax Press a few years earlier, and had co-directed Black Mesa Press before that, but my training up to that point had been by Walter Hamady, or collaboratively with others initially trained by him, or just by trying this act, or that. Thankfully no one really told me I could “not” do certain things, so I didn’t have a lot of fear about what to try. But Hedi gave me more tools. Four entirely different styles of Asian book making, as well as a box to hold sample books in. And, most importantly for one of my favorite Chax Press books ever, a book she called a “flag book,” and whose structure depends on a spine piece folded into many thin panels, the “content” (in truth, the whole of the book, i.e. shape, color, texture, binding style, words, visuals, etc., make up the content) then carefully pasted onto those panels. In our model, the pages of the book were in three levels, top, center, and bottom of the book, and in alternating directions.

Determined dared done

Outside and inside the book

Choir singing Christopher Smart, "A Song to David"
Choir singing Christopher Smart's "A Song to David"

Determined dared done 

Every time I read a manuscript that I am going to publish, before I know I am going to publish it, I am enthralled, but I am also outside the book. I am a reader, someone who receives the projection, i.e. the carry-over, as Olson put it, all the way over to that reader. I may lose myself in some sense, possibly even be close to some sort of rapture, but I am raptured by the other; it is not me.

Stein has this effect to an extreme, i.e. reading Stein is not to be included in the book or text, but specifically to be excluded, to feel the object of the work as an other, and to love it (if one does, as I do) as such. Stein may be best appreciated for texture, structure, word unfolding to other words, cognitive dissonance giving way to sensual delight. But again, reader as outsider.

When I make a book, i.e. imagine type and set that type, purchase paper, cut paper, enact design on paper, enact ongoing design in book as a sequence of multiple picture planes (as defined by renowned book artist Walter Hamady), with the intent that such planes are connected with the meaning of the book at hand, i.e. that matter and meaning are at play with each other, either in synch, or intentionally akimbo in some way. Yes, then I am INSIDE the book.  I don’t generally read the book at this stage; I have already given myself over to an understanding that allows an action; or to a less-than-complete (because isn’t it always less than complete?) understanding that initiates an exploration in materials, space, time. And then the book is finished, or, as Christopher Smart writes at the end of A Song to David, “DETERMINED, DARED, and DONE.”

At this point I am entirely outside the book again. Yet it is in part I who have released the book into the world.

Where does the book end?

Contained and/or not contained

from Aviary Corridor (printed version)
Aviary Corridor

Always a desire to un-bind the book. An early (in my work in poetry and books) exhibition created with others in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Elvehjem Museum, we titled Breaking the Bindings. One of the great early inspirations was an installation-size walk-climb-through book by Alison Knowles. When creating the book Wheel, by Gil Ott (a much-missed and most intriguing and graceful poet whose Collected Poems will soon be published), the text pages of the book are visible at top and bottom of the outer view of the book, because the cover, a sheet of handmade paper made by Tom Leech, was intended to be smaller than the text pages, so as not to entirely cover, and give the sense that the book did not end ("the wheels on the bus go round and round"). And perhaps most consistently over a two-decade period, collaborations with Anne Bunker & Chuck Koester's Orts Theatre of Dance (later re-named OTO Dance). Such works as St. Lucy/Oedipus, with a 20-page script I wrote for the dance, collaborating with the dancers, choreographer, composer, and the visual artist Margaret Bailey Doogan. Or Urban Gaits, again a multi-artist collaboration featuring my partner in life, the visual artist Cynthia Miller, as well as Nancy Solomon, Bunker, Koester, & a company of dancers. All of these works function to me as books, a term that often has nothing to do with paper and pages, and which requires a re-definition of what it means to "read." 

And possibly the most successful such collaboration, with Miller, in an urban botanical garden, Aviary Corridor -- really her work of coexistence of colorful but non-insistent rings and placards and beads of color through a walkway, that one could either notice or not. But once one began to notice, the work was transformational, i.e. transforming one's relationship with space.