San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego


Performance Publishing

I finally got around to reading issue 4 of Tripwire (on "WORK") and that put me in the mood this month to work on some poems.

Writing poems is all "work," obviously, and a particular kind of work that I've affectionately decided to label "the work of generating poems." It's a very guild-like way of talking about poetry, and I'm sure some of my more visionary friends (in the guild even) will balk at the idea, but let me explain (and defend) it first by calling up something a poet recently said to me about the status of poetry book publishing in the U.S. these days.

He said, to paraphrase, that most poetry books don't sell, let alone garner much interest, beyond the first year after release. Poetry books, he argued, enjoy a marginal shelf (or half) life of about 6-12 months during which they are buoyed by the cult of the newest/latest -- assuming the book attracts any attention at all -- before sinking into obscurity. There are exceptions, to be sure -- hot tickets that hold their initial heat for a few years or more, becoming perhaps mini-classics in a world generally devoid of such things. But in most cases, this poet argued, the poetry book is a temporary holding pattern and starts to look more and more like a single issue of a journal or magazine -- a locus of attention (if lucky, acclaim) ever shifting in response to the emergence of new books, new "issues," new installments in the series.

Anyone who grew "into" rather "up with" computers and the Internet will probably admit to harboring a certain faith in the artifactual authenticity of the printed text. We like to think that to author a book is to enter the stream of literary output and, as they say, to contribute a verse to the long-winded song of the codex. I even suspect that most post-web Gen Y-ers, while keen on the emerging efficiencies (not to mention aesthetic advantages) of digital production and distribution, still hold out for the thrill of binding, acid-free paper, and three-tone color covers. Their understandable (and much appreciated) eagerness to hand over crisp new copies of their latest books suggests that this faith is alive and well.

There are key cultural/political (not to mention career) advantages to book production, of course, and my poet friend, while never acknowledging these advantages directly, would have to admit that the theory of poetry book half-life tells only half the story. Humans are notoriously bad at giving up old habits even when the evidence (of early-onset obscurity, for example) is so strong. We don't always (or always willingly) do the work of post-millennial production/distribution just because the technology says we can. We invest in a much broader production narrative whose plotline we've inherited nearly whole from those who have come before us. We may tweak an event in the story here or there, but for the most part the larger arc stays the same. The book, for most, is the best way to "make it" -- literally and figuratively -- as a poet.

If we're experiencing something of a "transition" lately from one economy to another, then the story of poetry book production is a rather sad one if my poet friend's theory has any truth to it. Raised on the myth of book publication as a process of cultural authentication, we face (in most cases) the rapid erasure or displacement of that authentication in the progressive renewal of poetry objects. In other words, the myth of "making it" meets the radical competition of "outdoing" each other in the collective project of authentication. Poets do "survive" their poetry books in ways that trouble the basic thesis here, but I think my poet friend nonetheless had it right with regard to the books themselves. Books are one-hit wonders, high-water marks, mementos, keep-sakes, or calling cards, and while some (in the past especially) enjoy an after-life in the museum of canonical accreditation, most drift willy-nilly on the winds of casual taste and passing trends. The most popular books at any given time might thus suffer the most misfortune in the observable loss of status. Held aloft for a time they must sooner or later give up their perch to the newly-duly-noted. The less or un- popular, on the other hand, stay on the ground, untroubled by delusions of perpetuity, blissfully decomposing.

The work of generating poems, then, begins with a question about the nature and purpose of the work with regard to an anticipated publishing outcome. I can't speak for others, but I'll say that in generating my own poems -- using, in each case, very deliberate and time-honored protocols for working out the details of material production -- I had in mind the idea that, far from potential components in a larger poetic work (or book), these poems would function collectively as phase-indicators for a poetic activity going on, in many real ways, elsewhere from the locus of activity defined by the individual poem. Much like business cards or informational pamphlets, these poems would point to a wider array of discursive practices whose range is only sampled in the textual records evident on the printed page. The poems, quite simply, would function as evidence for a more elusive poetic regimen only vaguely recognizable in the actual material "poem."

My "anticipated outcome," therefore, began to look like a managed reversal of what poetry writing had been, for me, in the past. I had and still have every intention of sending these poems out to magazines and, perhaps eventually, compiling them in a book of poems. However, I have few illusions about the object-status of these works (this work) regardless of whether or not (or especially IF) they are ultimately published in a magazine or book. I see the magazine/journal, in fact, as a higher-order instance of the phenomenon described above. If poetry books function at best "like" magazine/journal publications, then the magazine/journal publication (in print or online, I would think) enjoys an even more dubious status in the realm of literary performance.

As performance, in fact, the magazine/journal starts to look more like an occasion for the collection and interpolation of scattered poetry actors vying for rights to limited air-time. I love poetry journals (and books), don't get me wrong. I have a vested interest -- like most of my friends -- in that economy and recognize several good reasons (many I've neglected to include here for sake of rhetorical effect) for engaging in all sorts of print-publishing activity. But I also like this idea of publication-as-performance, which may in fact suggest a way out of what seems a rather desperate and discouraging state of affairs. If books are instantly obsolete, disposable mementos, and journals/zines a sort of record or document charting the course of planned obsolescence and disposability, then why not embrace the artifice and etiquette of poetry "generation" as a calculated reinvestment (from the other side of the abyss, as it were) in publishing in the so-called "late age" of print.

In fact, I'm convinced there are ways in which a poetics of planned obsolescence can save a poetry publishing world stuck in the mud of inherited habits. I wouldn't be so foolish as to name names, but there are some already leading the way in publishing not "books" and "poems" but something like serialized "splash-pages" (in ink) whose frazzled, kinetic energies self-consume at the moment of distribution. Some writers as well have taken the hint and deliberately (and beautifully) built obsolescence into the frameworks of their books. These products are easy to recognize, since the result is an astounding loss of status (as artifacts) but a profound emergence (perhaps entrenchment) in the conditions of their own un-doing. Documents like these bear the red-shift mark of infinite regress, but they are in fact more "approachable" than their blue-shift cousins. Assuming their own half-life, they burn a little brighter. To catch one is to experience a startling collision with light.

What to make of a poem that works deliberately to defy its own status as a poem? How read (and why publish) a poem (or a book) that sets out on that course of self-acknowledged self-erasure? Can anyone tell the difference, finally, between a poem written to function as a poem and one generated to "point" elsewhere, beyond the boundaries of the page, the zine, the book -- beyond its own inevitable obsolescence? Is there really any difference, after all, between generating a poem and just plain writing one?

It's all work, anyway, and maybe I'm trying to figure out a way to play the market for the sake of that work at the heart of that poem, if not that "poem" itself. Otherwise, much ado... and time to go home.


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