Friday, February 10, 2006

Gian Lombardo’s Quale Press is nothing if not hardy & independent. Holly Iglesias’ volume on women’s prose poetry is calculated to deliberately piss off a lot of people, and the number of readers clamoring for a reprint of Arturo Giovannitti’s English-language poems can’t have been large. Lombardo obviously does what he thinks is important, which is exactly the way to go about publishing a small press.

Unfortunately, real small presses – one-person operations in particular – are prone to inconsistency, learning by doing (sometimes the hard way), and serious resource constraints. One older Quale Press publication is one of the most frustrating anthologies I know. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad book, or that the poetry inside isn’t interesting – it is, for the most part – but that the press missed an opportunity to make an okay book a great one.

The culprit is When the Time Comes: A Selection of Contemporary Belgian Prose Poetry edited by Lombardo himself. It’s a relatively slim collection of nine prose poets spread out over 68 pages – fewer really, since left-hand pages at the end of selections are left blank & each poet has his or her own title page. One, Karel Logist, has two selections, one right after the other, so that there are three pages (one blank one at the end of each section, plus the second title page) that could have been given over to more of his work. But what really underscores this underutilization of pages is a sequence of eight blank pages at the back of the book.

This is important, because what the volume lacks is context. There is no introduction, no afterword, not a word of biographical data on any of the poets. Only one, Michel Delville (pictured above), who has published three books in English that I’m aware of – all critical in nature – can be expected to be familiar to an American audience. Another contributor, Eugène Savitzkaya, does have a more recent volume of his own work out from Quale.

The lack of context here is maddening, at least to me. Are these poets representative of current work on the prose poem in Belgium? Do they represent a particular trend in prose poetics, a school or a group? Are they the first generation of Belgian prose poetry? If not, how might they differ from their predecessors? How about how they differ from French or French-Swiss or Canadian prose poets who may use the same language, but come to the genre out of different literary contexts and traditions? In a book of 50 or so prose poems, several of which appear to be serial in nature, how is it that not one of the poems or sections ever goes more than one page? Only a few even go up close to that. How do any of these poets feel about the relationship of their work to Nicole Brossard, Francis Ponge or St.-John Perse? On the surface, at least, it looks like they’re all suffering from Max Jacob Syndrome, the misimpression that the word prose is French for short.

Larry Fagin is always suggesting that one ought to be able to read poetry without reference to such information – in a way, Larry’s carrying the old New Critical notion to an extreme, publishing issues of magazines in which the poets remain anonymous. But an anthology like this disproves the presumptions of this position – it’s true that you can read what is on the page, but that is not all that is in, of, or around the poem – it’s simply not the sole dimension that is engaged. In fact, for my money, the most interesting poet here, at least in these translations, is Savitzkaya, whose excerpts from Rules of Solitude push shortness toward an extreme, at least for the sentence:

It would be necessary to be passed through the mouth of a lion, to have been digested, then vomited, or in some manner expelled at last, to feel a bit of pride in exhibiting one’s face.

Nine poems, every one of which has something to do with the concept face. When Quale decided to publish Savitzkaya’s entire book, it’s worth noting that Lombardo (translator here as well as publisher) chose a small, custom size, 4.5” high, 6” wide, 11.5 point type over a 15 point line, with the French originals on the facing page, giving the 29-poem sequence enough heft to warrant the book format. (When it was originally published in Belgium, the volume included German translations on the facing pages, so this format in some way is more “authentic” than one might imagine for this volume.) You can find an interview in French with Savitzkaya that touches on the question of genre – right click here to download the PDF file – tho what he has to say is biographical rather than formal.

I resist the notion that an anthology like this really is a shopping list for one’s next tour of Google, attempting to ferret out details that should be there already. It would really be useful if this collection is ever republished – I think the work here warrants it – if Lombardo or Delville or someone would step up and use all those extra pages effectively.