blackbirdonline journalSpring 2012  Vol. 11  No. 1
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The Magic Book: Why I Thought Publishing a Book Would Change Everything
a lecture from Scribbling on the Ether: The Changing Nature of Writing and Publication
2010 Prague Summer Program Lecture Series

One brisk Saturday morning, in Norfolk, Virginia, mid-autumn 1965, I wandered through the parking lot of the Giant Open Air supermarket, a few blocks from the projects. I wore a tattered black leather jacket I’d procured from the local Salvation Army church, where my family acquired all of our clothes. It just so happened that the Salvation Army was conducting a used-book sale in that parking lot and, without thinking, I grabbed two books from one of many piles lined up on folding card tables at the rear of the lot and ran like hell. I was more than halfway back to the projects when I pulled up, gasping, and studied what I’d filched, stolen for no other reason than the thrill of doing so. Both, ironically, I would years later notice, were Taiwanese pirated editions: Louis Untermeyer’s Treasury of Great Poems and The Complete Poems of Robert Frost.

What if I’d stolen books about high finance, architecture, or landscape gardening? Would my life have taken a different path? Would high finance, architecture, or landscape gardening have saved my life? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I think I’d have found poetry one way or another. I think that one way or another I’d have found my poet fathers to slay and poet mothers to long for. I’d have found my poet brothers and sisters, my tribe, my spiritual home. But that moment of puzzling over those books—as I stood beside the huge drainage ditch between Comstalk’s Drug Store, where I bought and stole my DC and Marvel comics, and the projects where I lived—I knew I held in my hands something truly marvelous. I’m not sure I’d ever even seen a “poem,” words lined up like that, words sounding like that. At first, as I read randomly and shuffled homeward, I was puzzled, yet intrigued. I would soon fall in love with those books and seek others. Poetry was my secret for years. Within months of that same year, I somehow got my hands on A Coney Island of the Mind, and so, poetry closer to my urban experience, and something gloriously tainted by popular culture, became available. I “understood” so little of the poetry I read as a boy, but I wasn’t bothered by incomprehension. I took in stride, even relished, the mystery of what I could not fathom in poetry.

In 1976, a guy who’d picked me up hitchhiking south of Dallas woke me up and told me to get out of his little truck. I’d heard of the French Quarter, recalled that the previous evening the guy had told me the French Quarter would be the end of the road. As I’d drifted off, I’d recalled that I had a buddy, Bernie Gallant, who lived and worked there in the Chart House Restaurant. Public phones were a nickel. That evening, I was scrubbing pots and banging racks of dirty platters into a dishwasher.

Soon after taking up employment at the Chart House, I met the woman I would live with in her apartment on Dumaine and eventually, ludicrously, marry. After my adventures in three graduate programs, interspersed with gigs at several French Quarter upscale restaurants, Betty and I moved into what our landlord claimed—on one occasion swore—was the original House of the Rising Sun, on Saint Louis between Bourbon and Dauphine, across the street from Al Hirt or “Jumbo,” as he insisted we call him.

It was there, at the age of twenty-nine, in the early autumn of 1983, that I received, in the mail, the package containing two hardback copies of my first book, Green Dragons, winner of the Wesleyan University Press New Poets Series. I can look back now over the almost thirty years and realize how silly I was as I ripped the envelope open and held my book, gazed into the image on the dust jacket with a soulful intensity I’d never felt before and would not feel again until eight years later when I’d gaze into the crinkled face of my swaddled newborn first daughter.

I’m certain that every published writer in this room can tell a similar story of that first moment of clutching that first book, turning it over again and again in one’s hands, opening it and flipping rapidly through the pages, lifting it to one’s face and breathing it in, all but inhaling it, indeed all but eating it, of feeling that the thing is magic, will magically transform human existence. That feeling is a narcissistic idiocy that soon passes, or at least ratchets down in intensity. And at some point one feels, at least I do, a kind of shame for having been so self-consumed, for having invested so much ego into such a simple, even humble object.

As one reaches the point when Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” becomes something like the National Anthem of the Inner Life, of course all the remembered manifestations of youthful narcissism become a source of great shame; and yet, such shame is not the same as regret. I can never regret feeling so marvelous as I did holding in my hands for the first time my first book. I did not yet fully fathom how lucky I was not to be in prison or swabbing the deck of an aircraft carrier; nor did I yet fully fathom how blessed I was to have published a first book with such a prestigious press. A decade earlier I’d moseyed, my nerves sparking, through the Coronado Public Library, coming down from half a hit of Windowpane, and spied three thin books at odd angles on a table in the stacks. I paused to touch them and read the titles: Not This Pig by Philip Levine, Saint Judas by James Wright, and Helmets by James Dickey. Wesleyan University Press had published all three, though at the time I didn’t notice such things. At nineteen I fancied myself a poet, would get stoned and listen to LP’s, in the tiny booths of that library, of Dylan Thomas declaiming “Fern Hill” and T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men.” But, with the exceptions of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, I hadn’t read any contemporary poetry. Feeling as though I had battery cables clamped to my ears and someone was revving the engine, I sat at that table and read those books, and when I’d finished reading every single word of all three, I felt God-smacked, transformed. A window was opened, and I crawled through, and the first thing I saw on the other side, ten years later, was a little book with my name on it. The fact that my moment of narcissistic glory was tethered to the wonder I first felt as a thieving boy, and that that wonder coalesced into an all but selfless love for those qualities of affection and vision and truth-telling that I first encountered as a nineteen-year-old kid in a library on acid, renders my self-congratulatory moment of utter self-consumption forgivable. That is, I forgive myself for having been so happy that moment I held my first book and for being so happy about it for so long after. I was probably insufferable to my new colleagues, especially my fellow junior faculty who had not yet published books. I was probably insufferable, not because I bragged or passed among them with a swagger, but because I was so happy. I’d spent the last decade climbing through a window, and I was finally on the other side.

But where was that?

Who has roamed through a university or big-city library and not felt profoundly humbled? Who has not contemplated the sheer volume of information contained in books, the unfathomable range of information, and not felt infinitesimal? What information did my first little book contain? What information have any of my little books contained? Well, mostly info about me, how and what I’ve thought and felt over a range of circumstances. Hardly world-rocking stuff. Whitman yelped, “Who touches this book touches a man!” and the floodgates were opened to a century-and-a-half of ego spew, Romantic self-consciousness with an American zest, a radical egalitarianism that is uniquely American.

It took me ten years to climb through a window, and once I was on the other side it took me a long time to realize that I’d not climbed out but rather in. I’d broken into the House of Art, but not to burgle, not to snatch, bag and escape. I was there; remain there, because outside is pain and despair. Outside, suicide is an option, and love is only chemistry.

Holding my little book almost thirty years ago, I held my own life, my life affirmed, my life transformed from lead into gold, or shiny copper at least. I became a published author; my name was surely destined to become a household word in dozens of homes across America! I was skinny and kind of pretty back then. I had one chin, so did not require facial hair. I gave lots of readings to promote my little book, and actually sold a bunch, relatively speaking. During readings, I’d stare into my book, glancing up to make fake eye contact every few seconds. My “reading” was really a recitation, because I had the whole book memorized. Of course I wanted the women in the audiences to really like me. I gave readings at colleges and universities that never would have admitted me had I applied to them. I was a young man telling his life story in ragged verses. Many of my poems were about the suffering of others: my family; hookers in Sasebo, Japan; doomed Marines on their way to Vietnam; wretched winos passed out on gas-lit French Quarter stoops; young gay men desperate for love on the balcony of Laffite in Exile. I referenced their sadness, their suffering with a goofy joy. Though I’d composed the poems of Green Dragons in a state of empathy, I performed them, gazing into the book, a commodity no one really wanted to purchase, full of pride in that object, that fetish, that catalyst to my transformation, that prize I’d climbed through a magic window to acquire, that very source of magic that had opened the window, had placed the open window in my path.

Well, we learn that all textuality is intertextuality, and we learn as well that there is no author, not really. There is only what Foucault termed “the author function.” I hadn’t begun my decade-long autodidact’s foray into cultural and literary theory and criticism, so on the occasion of gazing into my first book I assumed it was all mine, that every word belonged to me. A few years later, participating in a literary theory study group composed mostly of my junior colleagues, I puzzled all by standing, kicking the table leg and declaring, “OUCH! Thus I refute Derrida!” Though that group, whose intellectual candlepower was formidable, had read a ton of theory between them, none, it seemed at that moment, had read Boswell’s Life of Johnson (of course they got the reference; they were simply stunned by my tethering of subjective idealism to deconstruction).

Well, somewhere a tree had fallen in a forest and, whether or not anyone had been present to see and hear it fall, it was eventually processed into paper, and those pages spattered with ink arranged into shapes that were letters I’d pressed into patterns, grammatical units forming sentences, my texts, my ragged verses. Whether it existed because I perceived it, or whether it and I were merely projections of the glorious mind of God, that moment I first held it I knew that I would never climb back through the window, out of the House of Art, a condition of heart and mind that does not require an occupant to compose and publish a book—it had simply required that I compose and publish one.

But what if I’d been born in 1993 rather than 1953? That Richard Katrovas will not turn twenty-nine until 2022. I imagine him receiving an email congratulating him for being chosen, out of more than two thousand young poets, to have his book published online by a prestigious university press. It will be immediately available, of course, for downloading onto the ubiquitous reading pads and will even be available through print on demand; though, even over so relatively short a period of time, the book as a fetish, as a magical object, as a thing that an ego may attach to, be anchored or buoyed by, will likely be past. When that Richard Katrovas is my age now, the year will be 2048. Will the atrocious nostalgia that this talk is wafting from pertain to that writer’s life? His first book will never, none of his books will ever, “go out of print”; they will always be available. Of course the internet will, by then, be littered with tens of millions of poetry books, if it isn’t already, but most of the ones that actually get read by discerning audiences will have been vetted by respected publishers, thoroughly peer reviewed, and this will be true of all types of texts.

So much of lyric expression, especially pastoral lyric expression in its various manifestations, is about loneliness. Reading, at its best, is an exquisitely lonely endeavor. As a kid in the projects, my old man in the joint and my mother dying, I read to escape in the most profound sense. We lived on a hundred and sixty-five a month from welfare—not a hell of a lot even in the midsixties, especially given that our rent was sixty a month. Our end of the projects, the white end, butted up against a lower middle-class neighborhood of black homeowners. I knocked on doors and asked if I could do odd jobs, even mow lawns with a crappy push mower I’d extracted from a junk heap. I’d earn a quarter to fifty cents mowing a lawn, and some Saturdays I’d earn as much as three dollars, more than half of which purchased comic books. Among hundreds I’d collected, kept in the third drawer of a battered chest of five drawers, were Daredevil one through eight in pristine condition. Oh that I had sealed just those eight in plastic, then encased that bundle in something enduring and buried it somewhere accessible though remote, I might return to the projects of Norfolk, Virginia, and exhume those comic books—which are neither “books” nor particularly funny—sell them on eBay and pay off my 2006 C-class Mercedes! The exquisite loneliness of all pastoral expression and all passionate reading is simply that angst rooted in adolescence that, if we’re lucky, never withers. With a stack of new comics and my two filched books, I’d sit half-lotus in the little field across a dirt road from the left bank of the Elizabeth River, and give my life over to a summer day filled with that exquisite loneliness, that holy anonymity.

Well, I’m no longer anonymous in that same holy sense. Indeed, I am ashamed to confess that I am an inveterate Googler of my own name, a form of midlife onanism that may not cause blindness or hair to sprout from one’s palms, though perhaps the jury’s still out regarding its long-term deleterious effects. Suffice it to say that a fair chunk of the items associated with my name that get dredged up by that omniscient search engine has to do with people trying to sell used copies of my books. Terse descriptions of the books are always included, such that I know a hardback copy of Green Dragons exists somewhere on this planet with only a coffee-cup ring marring the otherwise perfectly preserved original dust jacket.

There is no way to calculate the intrinsic value of any book. What value may we place upon a novel or collection of poems or history or philosophy or scholarly study, or comic book, even, which changes or sustains an individual’s life? What confronts us now is the bifurcation of “book” along the conceptual fault line of content and form. We may now have purchase on the content of any book sans that very form which defines it. The extrinsic value of a book is purely a matter of market imperatives. I love it that the first poetry books I ever read were pirated Taiwanese editions, that international copyright lawbreakers, Chinese ones at that, had calculated that Untermeyer’s anthology and Frost’s Collected might actually fetch some coin. I thought nothing of this as a kid, of course, but now I am mystified. Surely people who publish illegally are savvy about product. Those books were illegally printed in the late fifties or early sixties. What in God’s name were those Chinese people thinking?

I would be delighted if one of my poetry books was thus disseminated across Anglophone Asia. I would love it if my name was a household word in more than a dozen homes across America even if there was no monetary compensation. It’s not as though I have actually made a living as a writer up to this point.

Intrinsic and extrinsic values merge in the enterprise of book collecting. When the content of a book has achieved an unquantifiable, though very real, transcendent value in the hearts of a coterie, or in the larger culture, that manifest content’s “original” form may be assigned an extrinsic, dollar value. In other words, such books enter the realm of visual art and baseball cards.

To lessen the book-buying burden on my students, I often cobble together reading lists that are wholly, or almost wholly, accessible online. It is easy enough to download everything from Huckleberry Finn and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to the poems and essays of T.S. Eliot onto one’s laptop. Soon, virtually all the world’s books will be virtual, accessible, if the content is newly published, for a fee. Amazon will continue to trend towards the iTunes model, I suppose.

But my guess is that even as books become obsolete as the form in which verbal content is delivered, that form, the physical book, as an art object, will enter a protracted period of renaissance. Authors will seek to have fine, limited editions even of their best sellers produced by artisans. Indeed, to a much greater extent than is true today, many fine boutique printers, artists in their own right, will seek to print limited editions of the very best books in all fields but especially in the literary arts. The best books will have two lives in mass distribution, or at least mass accessibility—in the virtual world, but also in small fine editions for small discerning audiences of the writer’s friends and loved ones, as well as inveterate book collectors, a category of human endeavor that will grow exponentially but only up to a point.

On a flight home this spring from Prague, I met a couple of guys, roughly my age, who happened also to have Kalamazoo, Michigan as a final destination. One of them was a colleague from another department at Western Michigan University whom I’d never met and may very well never see again. I chatted up the Prague Summer Program, which he vaguely recalled having heard mentioned, and this year’s theme. He talked about his Kindle, about subscribing to the likes of Sports Illustrated, and how the “cover” now features not a static photograph, but rather a video stream. “Just like Harry Potter!” he finished, chuckling.

My second daughter, fourteen, spends many hours on her computer, mostly on Facebook and on exclusively Czech-language social networking sites. When she is not exchanging cryptic, terse, misspelled messages with her posse of girls, her only other reading, usually, is of fashion and pop culture magazines. When we stand in line at the supermarket, in Prague or Kalamazoo, and she tosses a magazine on the pile of groceries, I will often pick up the magazine and page through it. My response is usually, “But, Annie, there’s nothing here but pictures!” She’ll protest that there’s plenty of text, snatch the mag from my fingers, leaf through, and triumphantly point to a quarter column of print, a caption to a photograph in which Brangelina is hauling clingy children through an airport.

The blending of image and text, in which the text is secondary to image, certainly did not begin with the internet. It is the very nature of print advertising, and I wonder if the graphic novel, haughty offspring of the comic book, will not, in a generation, supplant the traditional novel. The technology by which even a visual illiterate, such as myself, may produce vibrant, original and complex images will surely be available. Indeed, the technology by which anyone may produce quite incredible cinemagraphic narratives will be available. Any schmuck will have the tools to out-James Cameron James Cameron. Isn’t it the case that one of the reasons there are as many “writers” as there are today is because it’s a cheap form of self-expression? When other more exotic forms of self-expression become not only available but also easy to access, won’t there be a great migration toward such exotic forms of storytelling? The migration away from strictly verbal texts has, of course, already begun in the form of ever more complex and narratively rich video games, and some of the cheesiest sci-fi has already pointed toward a world in which alternative, virtual “realities” will be available, presenting quite staggering moral and ethical issues. The very nature of human intimacy is the ultimate issue. I am not one who believes that Facebook is a flash in the pan; rather, I believe that it is just a primitive beginning.

“We are the degenerate descendants of fathers who in their turn were degenerate from their forebears,” proclaimed Horace more than two thousand years ago, and this degeneracy is particularly true regarding memory. The great storytellers of prehistory committed vast language constructs to memory, and so, many of the conventions of “traditional verse” are but vestiges of oral traditions, the mnemonic devices that facilitated memorization of—literally—epic proportions. Textuality in preliterate cultural contexts is a matter of physical proximity, intimacy even. The presence of at least one other human being is necessary for the aural exchange to occur. And what we may call oral traditions did not, do not exist within a simplistic, linear historical context. Clay tablets, papyrus, wax tablets, and parchment scrolls held records of practical and cultural information in the midst of thriving oral traditions. The illuminated texts emanating from the scriptoria of medieval monasteries were the rarefied products of isolated labor occurring in the midst of a bustling cultural life animated by folktales, superstition and rumor, and likewise the more or less secular scriptoria that serviced the burgeoning university libraries of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. Even as Europe transitioned from manuscript culture to the printed book following Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press mid-fifteenth century, the vast majority of people, through the Renaissance right onto the cusp of the nineteenth century, were not only unaffected by book culture but were illiterate. And even as we contemplate how truly rarefied authorship was as a social niche up until only a couple hundred years ago, it is also interesting to note that authorship only relatively recently conveyed authorial rights. For many centuries, any text could be copied and sold or otherwise disseminated with impunity. Authorship that occurred outside systems of patronage offered little more than unremunerated glory. Even as today we observe the music business transforming as a business, becoming increasingly more diffuse, less profitable, more ad hoc, less secure in its mechanisms of exchange, so the ebook industry, as it evolves, will surely return us to that era of unremunerated, or under-remunerated, glory.

In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin mourns the loss of “the aura,” what he characterizes as the moment of awe experienced by an individual witnessing a work of art for the first time. He argues that commercialization has subjected “the aura” to a grotesque warping of value, and the result is a cheapened “cult value.” Of course, his emphasis in this formulation is on visual art, and throughout his groundbreaking essay his focus, when looking back, is on the visual and plastic arts, and on photography, cinema and performing arts generally when speculating about the future. However, I think that his formulation regarding “aura” is more broadly applicable to include the literary arts: in this sense, the manifestation of aura has less to do, I think, with that rarefied moment of discovery in the exchange between an “original” work of visual art and a discerning witness than with the very nature of the relationship between “author” and consumer of language texts. Quoting Benjamin:

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers – at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.

Well, notwithstanding the fact that this passage seems prescient regarding our own time’s burgeoning blogosphere, who doesn’t find the “about to” in the sentence, “Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character” just a little grotesquely charming, emanating as it does from the year 1936 and from central Europe? We have all viewed the film clips from Nazi Germany of gargantuan piles of books ablaze against a night sky, and Nazi citizens feeding those flames in a bacchanalian frenzy.

The “aura” of all books is a reflection of those flames and has everything to do with a history in which people have given their lives to the meticulous copying, husbanding and preservation of secret and forbidden texts, and of texts that were the very touchstones of ethnic and cultural identity. “The People of the Book” survived thousands of years of persecution and diaspora in no small part because of their reliance on and faith in the written word, and their faith in the books, sacred and profane, upon which they have built their fundamentally alienated yet indestructible identity. The book as an object to preserve, to keep, to cherish, even, goes to the heart of civilized life in a way that its disembodied information, preserved and disseminated electronically, never will. The soul/body dichotomy comes to mind. The book is the word made tangible, made flesh, if you will. Who touches a book, indeed, touches a human body. When I held my first little book, I held the body of my dead mother. I held the body of a child I would not know for eight years. I held the body of a woman I would love in twenty-five. I held the body of tragedy, and the body of comedy. I held nothing less than my own corporeal humanity.

Or so I felt for those first blissful, self-loving moments as I pulled my leg through the window and set both feet squarely upon the floor. As I stood there, in the House of Art, my little book was every book and I was every reader and every writer. My narcissism shaded to a profound humility, and I was happy.  end

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