Tuesday, October 17, 2006


In 1979, Michael Andre – perhaps best known now as the impresario of the Unmuzzled Ox listserv (technically it’s a Yahoo group) – published a special issue of his journal by that name devoted entirely to The Poets’ Encyclopedia, which was exactly what it said it was, “the world’s basic knowledge transformed by 225 poets, artists, musicians & novelists.” I’ve always been fond of that edition, perhaps because I had, literally, the last word, Zyxt. Part of what made the encyclopedia work was its irreverent tone throughout. Here is Hugh Kenner’s entry for Encyclopedia:

A compendium (using the alphabet for a filing system) of statements that seem not to depend on other knowledge. Aardvark is independent of Mammal, Angel of God. The unit of the Encyclopedia is the Fact. A fact is a corpsed deed; from L. factum, done, but with the residuum of accomplished action subtracted. Facts lie there pickled and are generally wrong, scribes’ minds having swerved from the continuum of action. Guy Davenport notes that the Britannica “has Waley sending Ez off on the trot to translate Cathay, unruffled by picturing an event of 1917 causing an event of 1915.” Shun all encyclopedias but this one.

Nor is this the sole entry on Encyclopedia in Andre’s volume, the Canadian poet A.M. Fine also offering his own in a font that mimicked a schoolboy’s printing. Under Sex you will find two entries by Jim Quinn, one of which reads, in its entirety, “The clitoris is found in all Carnivora,” plus an entry by Anne Waldman, along with a couple of photographs of Ms. Waldman mostly au naturale by the late Joe Brainard. You will find entries for Barf by Kenward Elmslie and Baseball by Senator Eugene McCarthy. It is, in short, a document of its time & an excellent encapsulation of what was going on in the arts scene, especially in & around Manhattan, in the 1970s. The lengthy piece – a poem really – on B-Girls by Jackie Curtis, perhaps the most famous of any of the Encyclopedia’s entries, seems remarkably in place. Underneath, however, it wasn’t just a 1970s compendium, as such, since many of the entries in Andre’s collection were co-authored by Armand Schwerner & Donald M. Kaplan, taken directly from their 1963, Domesday Dictionary, Schwerner’s one commercially successful publication from a trade press.

All of this comes back to me today, as I thumb through the first volume – of a projected five – of Encyclopedia, the first publication of the Encyclopedia Project: as Yogi Berra would have put it, it’s déjà vu all over again. There are a few differences between Andre’s Poets’ Encyclopedia and this, tho it’s worth noting at the outset that both volumes clock in at just over 300 pages. For one, this first volume of the new Encyclopedia goes only from A to E – thus the last word here is Morgan Adamson’s entry for Exposition. Unless you consider a portfolio of more than 30 color plates, illustrating many of the earlier entries, Competition and Domesticity most of all. Another is that the 8.5 by 11 inch page size of the new Encyclopedia offers twice the area of the page in Andre’s book, and thus is printed in two columns with an impeccable page design.

Like Andre’s book, this new Encyclopedia is a superb time capsule of current perspectives in the arts, although if the earlier volume was NYC-centric, this one tends more toward Providence, RI, where the editors – Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, Kate Schatz and Joanna Howard – all first met,  and immediately beyond to that ring of elite academies known at the B-Schools:Brown, Bard, Boulder (Naropa campus), Buffalo & Berkeley. Contributors include (but are not limited to):

Susan Bernstein
Rebecca Brown
Barbara Christian
Jaime Cortex
Brenda Coultas
Brent Cunningham
Samuel R. Delany
Rikki Ducornet
kari edwards
Mikhail Epstein
Thalia Field
William Gillespie
Michael Gizzi
Robert Glück
Laird Hunt
Carol Maso
James Meetze
Talan Memmott
K. Silem Mohammad
Eileen Myles
Kofi Natambu
Alice Notley
Akilah Oliver
M. Nourbese Philip
Deborah Richards
Lisa Robertson
Jocelyn Saidenberg
Carolee Schneeman
Gail Scott
Prageeta Sharma
Christopher Stackhouse
Fred Wah
Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop

With slightly less than half the number of contributors as Andre’s Encyclopedia and twice the amount of content – spread out here over five letters, not all twenty six – the actual feel of this new Encyclopedia is quite different. Here, for example, the primary entry for Encylopedia is Jorge Luis Borges’ eight-page parable, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” There are no entries for either Barf or Baseball, but Padcha Tuntha-Obas has a great entry on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, editor Schatz has a great one on Celebrity (as 2006 a concept as you can get), balanced by Diana George’s entry on Bondage & Kasey Mohammad’s on Authenticity. It’s worth noting also that there is a broader range of genre forms at play in these entries – George’s piece is a narrative, Schatz’ a play of sorts (albeit one scripted for some version of poets’ theater), Mohammad’s is an essay I think, tho written in long lines with hanging indents and numerous lines or bars at the end of paragraphs (or stanzas).

Carolee Schneeman is the one contributor I could find who is in both books.

Thus this new Encyclopedia is much more multi-cultural than its predecessor, and generally less satirical – or at least its humor is not the pratfall mode of the NY School at its most flamboyant, which is pretty much what you find in Andre’s volume. Both volumes are transgressive in their own ways, but the new one will give you an essay by Talan Memmott on Georges Bataille where the earlier book offered Anne Waldman’s tits. The new volume includes an entry on Kathy Acker – a delightful rebus/narrative by Anna Joy Springer – where the earlier volume had an entry, Slavery,  by Acker herself. From such differences one could surely articulate a history of the evolution of the arts over the past 27 years.

The new volume, regardless of its wit & its transgressiveness, is always much more serious in its tone. The web site even offers a teaching guide for use of this book in classrooms (Like that’s gonna happen!), which begins:

The Encyclopedia Project is at once an international literary journal, an anthology, a reference book, an art book, an art object and an educational tool. Its hybrid identity is a boon to educators, as it encompasses many forms and functions, and reflects the rapid cultural blending and transformation of our times. This gives Encyclopedia all the more versatility as a teaching tool in English, literary criticism, creative writing, modern culture, and contemporary arts coursework. 

Ultimately, this push-pull between straightforward seriousness & post-avant impulses comes across as a mode on uneasiness. If Andre’s collection is perhaps a little too self-satisfied with its relationship to the world, this new book seems always a little uncomfortable, a little unhappy. Perhaps it’s because of the difficulty of getting together such a massive hard-copy project as this in the age of Wikipedia, which, before long, is going to dispatch the Britannica itself into the dustbin of history, let alone all these mockers thereof. This is one encyclopedia you can almost bet will never see the letter Z. This uneasiness comes out everywhere here, in articles, in its too perfect portfolio of color plates, its too exact seven-point reading guide at the beginning –

TITLES are centered, in small caps, and italicized. In some cases, the entry name is the title.

– as between the almost pornographic contrast set up by Jim Meetze’s elegant page & type design and Jason Pontius’ spectacularly ineffective cover, pink & teal, a combination fit for a child’s nursery (but only if you have mixed gender twins) that renders the typesetting on it all but illegible. The design of the Encyclopedia website, also Pontius’ work, is so much more effective that I’m driven to conclude that the cover is intentional.

Discomfort, like a bad conscience, like writing poetry while contemplating Adorno’s admonition that lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, is integral to certain states. If there is a thesis that inscribes Encyclopedia, I think that’s it. I’m not quite sure what to make of this, whether or not, for example, it’s like the aggressive abdication of editorial perspective Chain used to demonstrate by organizing issues around themes, then leaving everything within to the accidents of alphabetical order. My gut sense, tho, is that these phenomena are linked.

For what it’s worth, both encyclopedias contain entries for Anxiety, a word worth noting given this editorial stance, but both strike me as dodging the question, Andre’s version reprinting Schwerner & Kaplan’s entry from the Domesday Dictionary, a volume that was a clever way to pose an anti-nuclear tract with a Freudian tone, while the new book has a jokey piece by Praba Pilar that reads, in part,

“A” is for Afro-Geeks, the mind meld meeting of cyberloving media masters spewing forth on technophobia and the technophilia of the left out, knocked out, or dropped out. All they really want to know is: Are you in, or are you out?

The new Encyclopedia is out now, at a cost of $25 for the first volume or a subscription of all five for $300 (these are not math majors here). It’s available online or from a list of exactly eight bookstores, six of which are in Providence.


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