Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Aram Saroyan's "Four Monologues" - Not that kind of Kindle
I've always believed that an essential part of a poet's education is to become a publisher. My own first work was published in two chapbooks that I designed and printed many years ago, assisted by a very bemused print shop employee in Providence, Rhode Island, who taught me about paper size, binding, typesetting, and much else. When every syllable of a poem - and each extravagance of the imagination - costs you money, and you don't have a lot of money - you learn something tactile and real about Pound's slogan, "dichten = condensare"—"to compose poetry is to condense." I got an ISBN number, called myself The Smoke Shop Press (because I lived then above a smoke shop), and the rest was not history.
But I learned a lot. And when I cut my editorial teeth later on at such places as Partisan Review and Salamander and Harvard Review, what I knew about layout and printing gave embodiment to such fantasies I had about being an editor, let alone being a writer. Then, too, that phrase about how New Directions books were "published for James Laughlin" lingered deliciously.
Poetry has a staff of five people to put out a monthly literary magazine, and we still design, copyedit, proofread, and typeset the thing by ourselves. But obviously the mechanics of literary publishing have come a long way since I spent those many hours in the back room of a small shop with a printing press in front of me and ink all over my hands and clothes: we have all kinds of online systems to take us far away from ink, Exacto blades, paste, and dangerous machinery. Yet paper and ink, at present, is still with us, and the romance lingers. And it's not enough to live your life behind a computer screen and think of poems as consisting of printed out sheets of Word documents. (For what it's worth, I think this is directly relevant to such contemporary poetry discussions as that pertaining to the fate of BlazeVox and other one-person poetry presses; anyone who has something to say about that ought to try publishing books of poetry: seriously.)
Not long ago, through poetry, a shared love of Artie Shaw, and having a publisher in common, Aram Saroyan - one of my heroes! - and I became friends. He let me see a work entitled "Four Monologues," which he called exfoliations on the relationships among Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Nahdezda Mandelstam. The monologues, along with a translation of Mandelstam's poem on Stalin, are from a play called The Laws of Light. It kindled something in me, and I don't mean Kindle - I instantly knew I wanted to see this work into the world. I talked to my ingenious colleague Fred Sasaki, who connected me with his Printers Ball-collaborators at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book & Paper Arts. When I brought the monologues to the legendary Steve Woodall and Clifton Meador, it was just a great notion. But the next thing I knew we had a project to involve their talents and those of their brilliant students to design and produce a book. Everybody went away to think for a while. And with Aram's extremely generous blessing, the students came up with something unaccountably apt and beautiful: a handprinted, handsewn book consisting of four pockets, bound together, holding each piece of the work. The book makes tangible, as does Aram's piece, the poignant fact that these four writers were both brought together by writing and the printed page and separated tragically by the events of history.
We decided to use the imprint at the Center which also publishes such notable things as the Journal of Artists' Books: Epicenter. And now the first copies in an edition of 300 have been assembled. The pictures above cannot do the book, or Aram's writing, justice. I'll shortly provide information on how to obtain copies - and also about another embodiment of the work that will involve theatrical interpretations of it on a stage here in Chicago, and much else, besides, including a possible iPad app featuring this and other artists books. For now, I want to thank Fred, Steve, Clifton, and the gifted, dedicated crew who put their skills to work on the project: Jenny Garnett, Boo Gilder, Michelle Graves, Hannah King, Jackie McGill, Jenna Rodriguez, Christopher Sacolo, and Claire Sammons. I'm grateful to all of them for letting me be their catalyst in bringing poetry, printing, theater, and history together.
Above all, it's the history that counts. As explained in the introduction to the book, Mandelstam was arrested in Moscow in 1934 for writing that poem denouncing Stalin.
"Barely avoiding execution - thanks in large part to the efforts on his behalf of Boris Pasternak and a number of others - he was exiled to Voronezh. In 1937, he was allowed to return to Moscow; then in 1938 he was rearrested and was last seen in December of that year, feeding off the garbage heap of a transit camp near Vladivostok at the far eastern end of Russia."
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches...
This beautiful limited edition book can be obtained here.
And... I'm pleased to say that our next book together will be a very different project, thanks to another extremely generous poet, Ben Lerner - a new work of his called The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also.