Thursday, November 09, 2006

It was the Russian Formalist critics who first noted that one of the historic roles of art – and one of art’s inexorable drivers toward incessant, ongoing change – is to incorporate new aspects of society into the art itself. Without which any genre would very quickly lose much of its connectedness with the life of the community from which it springs. Indeed, in poetry, the refusal of this function in favor of a defensive conventionality is perhaps the most serious weakness of the School of Quietude, the fundamental absence, even a form of denial, right at the spot where a heart should beat.

One clear instance of poetry bringing in new language into the place of the poem was Ed Friedman’s 1979 project, The Telephone Book, which presented, verbatim, a month and a half of transcribed telephone calls by the then-director of the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church. The culture of phone etiquette – this was before you could actually who was calling before they identified themselves – combined with the elements of Friedman’s life – not just poetry, but also his participation in the controversial do-it-yourself therapy movement called co-counseling – to yield a text that edged up against, say, Bernadette Mayer’s works of memory & reconstruction on the one side, and social codes so banal that they were all but “invisible” because of being “too boring to notice.” The result was a brave & wonderful book & consciously a challenge to read, at once formal & painfully intimate.

All of these same elements, save for the co-counseling, are invoked again in a new work, Inbox (a reverse memoir), by Noah Eli Gordon, forthcoming from BlazeVOX books. I’ve been asked if I’d blurb it, but I think this book is too important to let pass with just a few words for a rear cover. Inbox is exactly what its title suggests, a work of art that includes email received by the author, albeit written entirely by his correspondents, over a period of time. By way of introduction, Gordon uses his permission letter, which reads (in part):

Dear Friends,
I recently completed a book project that includes
some of your writing and wanted to both tell you
about it and ask your permission to [attempt to]
publish the work. I’m currently calling the manuscript
INBOX, which should send up the requisite bells and
whistles, 55 pages of uninterrupted prose that
constitutes a kind of temporal autobiography, well
conceptually anyway. I thought it would be interesting
to see what would happen if I were to take the body-
text of every email that was addressed specifically to
me [nothing forwarded or from any listserv] currently
in my inbox [over 200] and let all of the voices collide
into one continuous text. The work is arranged in
reverse chronology, mirroring the setup of my email
program. I removed everyone’s name and any phrase
with which they’d closed their email; additionally, I
removed any specific address mentioned. I’m really
pleased with the results, as it sculpts the space
between the every detritus of dinner plans to
discussions of fonts and notes from long lost friends.
To be honest, as I’m a person pretty free of drama,
the bulk of the work is boring, but intentionally so, in
the generative, ambient way that Tan Lin writes
about, well, one would hope anyhow. It’s the collision
of voices that makes the work compelling, at least to
me. The only thing is… I didn’t write any of it; you did!
Of course there’s something awfully self-aggrandizing
to a project like this, and I’m fully aware of it, which is
why I’m thinking of it as an autobiography. I don’t think
it would be right for me to show any of the
manuscript to anyone until I’ve received everyone’s
permission to share the work. Let me just say this:
there’s not really anything all that incriminating in
here, and most of the gossip is pretty bland. I still
have many of the emails from which the text was
created [although not all] so I’d be willing to send folks
copies of whatever they’ve written that I do still have,
if need be. Although, to be honest, I think the integrity
of the project is kind of dependant on folks NOT being
aware of the make up of their contribution, as the
voices dissolves into one another without any
transition. Also let me say that if I do end up doing
anything with the text, it will not include anyone’s
name, outside of those mentioned in the body text of
messages; besides my name, there is no author
attribution within the manuscript. Most of the text is
dinky pobiz stuff, me hashing out the shape of
chapbook manuscripts I’ve published, or will publish,
directions to readings, etc. It is not at all my intension  
to take advantage of or disrupt anyone’s confidence.

This is a remarkably accurate description of the book itself, tho, like The Telephone Book, inbox somewhat fetishizes its source material by printing it pretty much verbatim from start to finish whereas I think you would get a truer picture of the actual language of email (or of phone conversation) precisely by breaking it apart – sentences seem an obvious point – and scrambling them, so that you look primarily (if not only) to the language & not all these miniature narratives. Will Noah accept this invite? Will the proofs for that chapbook be adequate? Etc. I’m reminded that when Kathy Acker decided to focus on the juridical language of the courts system, she didn’t adopt the dramatized fictive canon of Perry Mason et al, but used the actual language of in re van Geldern as her source material, while also substituting in the names of friends (and by that fact, characters from other sections of the same novel). Acker’s strategy is not unlike Harry Partch’s music composed on a scale of his making on instruments he invented from materials & objects that already exist in the world. Friedman & Gordon more or less give you the raw objects instead.

Sociologically, Inbox is fascinating. As reading, it’s a tougher go, and I think one finds it possible almost primarily because of the “guess the writer” roman a clef element in the work. Who wrote, for example, on the very second page of the work:

I’m writing to invite you to read in the Poetry Project 2004-2005 Monday Night Series at St. Mark’s Church in NY on January 24, 2004, 8 p.m. I know the New York audience is eager to see you here – and to course I’ve seen your work quite a bit, and admire your range (among other things). In short, I’d love to have you read! Details: You would be paid $50 for the reading itself, and unfortunately we can’t afford to cover travel costs (something we’re hoping to work on in the future), but I hope you can make it (it’s not too much from Amherst, yeah?). Additionally, your reading time can run from approx. 20-40 minutes, up to you. Your reading partner will be Barbara Cole. If you’re not available for 1/24, let me know as soon as you can, and we’ll work something else out. I’ll also need a full address from you, so we can send a “contract” out. The Poetry Project’s archaic and long-winded way of welcoming. :) Thanks very much and hope to be in touch soon.

My own sense is that the material works best to the degree it is most mysterious, most turned toward the language, most disjunct:

Have you worked as a DJ? What relationship do you see, if any, between the worlds of publishing books & putting out music? Silliman’s Blog tells me today that you just won the Sawtooth Poetry Prize. What manuscript is in the works on that front? Can you talk a bit about your chapbook venture?

That, I presume, is all one correspondent, but the jump-jump-jump between sentences gives it an urgency the passage above lacks.

So my sense here is that the “more aesthetic” approach that, say, Linh Dinh takes toward the discourse of instant messaging in his most recent work, writing in that discourse rather than mere replicating of the always already written, ultimately makes more sense to me in terms of how best to bring a previous absent (albeit all-but-omnipresent) layer of language into writing. But this doesn’t cancel out the importance of Noah Eli Gordon’s Inbox. It presents the highest order of conceptual poetics just by being itself.