Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Envelope Please

R:  Dear (r), I have a multiple original for you, & it's true, too!

(r):  Say on.  Oh, do say on, dear R.


21 East 2nd

I dreamt I wrote an article:

"Lighting My Windowless

Our supper was very warm,
& we are very wonderful.

That's a poem on a scrap of paper--perhaps it was a postcard--in Ted Berrigan's hand, dedicated to Helena Hughes and signed Ted Berrigan/James Schuyler/Tom Carey.  I found it a few years ago, when I was looking around the TAP archives at the University of Michigan.  I took a photo and made some copies, and gave one to Alice Notley when I saw her that summer at the Kerouac School.  "Oh, I remember this!" she said.  Was that another multiple original?

(r):  What a marvelous story!  Maybe we ought to explain what the TAP archives are for those who might not be familiar.  Then we can talk more about these mysterious "multiple originals!"

R:  Indeed, dear (r).  Sometimes I forget that we are being "overheard."  Care to introduce today's topic of discussion?

(r):  (Eavesdropping is an old art.)  I would be pleased to.  TAP stands for "The Alternative Press" and was a project of the Detroit Artists' Workshop, a group of artists of all kinds--language workers and otherwise--active in Detroit in the 1960s. A very unusual periodical to say the least, TAP was a kind of magazine in the form of quotidian objects--subscribers would receive mailings of postcards, bumper stickers, bookmarks, and other items that, when examined, proved to be delicate letterpress poems and works of art.  Emily Warn gives a wonderful, succinct summary of the project in her recent blog post.

R:  Indeed, she does!  But beyond a summary, the article is a bit of a call to arms, is it not?

(r):  In its way, very much so.  Warn is particularly concerned with a subset of the TAP project that we've already mentioned: “the Multiple Originals project, a poetry and visual art postcard project that was a brilliant, all-but-forgotten subset of the TAP endeavor. It began in 1971 when Ken Mikolowski and his friend Gordon Newton, a Detroit visual artist, were kicking around ideas for another way that the writers and visual artists of the Artists’ Workshop could collaborate. The idea seemed simple enough: Poets were asked to write 500 original poems, one on each of a numbered set of 500 postcards. The postcards were blank except for a poet or artist’s name, which the Mikolowskis stamped on the back—they were like 500 three-by-five-inch canvases. Poets could collaborate with anyone they wanted to, or work solo. When poets finished a batch, they sent them back to the Mikolowskis, who would let them pile up until they’d printed a bunch of the other stuff—ever more fanciful, elegant letterpress and offset poetry in all types of formats (bumper stickers, tea bags, bookmarks, broadsides, calendars). From the two piles, they divvied up the poetry for their subscribers, slipping a handful of printed poems and original poetry postcards—each written by a different poet—into a manila envelope. TAP published three or four of these “issues” every year. The playful genius of Mikolowski and Newton’s idea cartwheeled from Detroit outward, shaking something loose in American poetry during the doldrums of the 1970s. Soon several dozen poets affiliated with many different schools—the Beats, Black Mountain, the New York School, and Cass Corridor poets—began sending packets of postcards back and forth across the country, sometimes in collaboration with visual artists.”

R:  Let's linger on that title for a moment, shall we?  What might it mean for a set of 500 distinct poems to count as multiple originals?

(r):  I imagine the tension inherent in the phrase is part of the appeal. If something is original, can it be multiple?

R:  Might this go back to our invocation of overhearing and eavesdropping?  Might each original be multiple?  Or does this simply mean: original art that multiplies?  Multiples of art that are each original?

(r):  One persistent problem of epistolary work of any kind--critical, personal, poetic--seems to be the problem of overhearing. In thinking about what "multiple originals" might mean, we're also putting our own critical practice under the microscope.

R:  And so is Warn!

(r):  Shall we sum up her take on the multiple originals project in brief?

 R:  I think so.  It seems to me that Warn presents the project as having had an energizing and community-building effect on 20th-century poetry.  Writers from different "schools" engaged in the project collaboratively, communally, and competitively.  The project caused the production of new poetry and cross-genre work, some of which is still undiscovered.

(r):  Indeed. & the energy of the endeavor, which, as you point out, Warn emphasizes, seems somehow inextricable from the possibilities of the form: what the space of the postcard allowed.

R:  Allowed and implied--as tiny blank canvas, and as mode of direct communication.

(r):  I'm thinking of Warn's citation of Alice Notley, who thought of the postcards as “small pristine white spaces.”  There's also, of course, the difficulty of reproducing objects like this.  The material features of correspondence as art.  Epistolary aesthetics seem to privilege the auratic, the "original" quality.  These postcards seem to be strange two-headed creatures, part of a public campaign on one hand, intensely private and irreproducible on the other.  The problems of reading, cataloguing, or archiving this kind of poetry, which is so bound up in its physical format, seem intimately tied to the problems of how you read it.

 R:  Yes, something would be lost if you reproduced these in a coffee table book.  And there's something formal to the moment of discovery, I think--they're designed to fall out of an envelope, to mimic falling out of a mailbox by falling out of an envelope.

(r):  Oh, I do like that image.

R:  Remember the issue of McSweeney's that was designed to look like a bunch of stuff that just arrived in your mailbox?

(r):  I do! I almost threw it away! (Which is what I was supposed to do? Probably my greatest pleasure in that issue was the moment I realized what it was and saved it from certain destruction. Not to say it was a bad issue, merely that the pleasure of saving anything from certain destruction is quite powerful. Is this what they call a "white knight complex?”)  In any case, another aspect to consider with the Multiple Originals is their relationship to the ephemeral.  Warn's piece compliments a public exhibit by the Poetry Foundation of many of the Multiple Originals.  I wonder how it's different to see them in a curated context as opposed to, as you said, "falling out of the envelope."

R:  The latter is curated too, though, right?  That's something Warn articulates beautifully: the aesthetics of the ephemeral and the affect of the archival encounter: "Looking through the Multiple Originals postcards at the library, I realized I was holding fragments of an artistic project, the whole of which can never be collected or studied. These poems had escaped the museum of literature. Many of those that remain are like charcoal smudges on a nearly completed portrait, or the hint of a form emerging in repeated sketches of a single idea. Scrawled mishaps. Such early attempts are commonly displayed at major retrospectives. Some of them are works of art in their own right. In them, we can see talent working against the pressure of time and the flux of everyday life. The sense of art being made and the presence of the person in these artifacts can be more fascinating than the finished piece hanging labeled on the wall."  After all, can something really have escaped the museum of literature if it is preserved in a special collections library & curated by the Poetry Foundation?

(r):  Yes, it's a claim that's worth putting pressure on (She's wonderfully eloquent, isn't she?).   For instance, I'm not sure that incompleteness guarantees that something can "never be studied."  Incompleteness is, rather, a kind of aphrodisiac to study. We love fantasizing about missing pieces far too much to resist a project like this. I love that she ends with poet & critic John Yau's contention that "[t]he Multiple Originals project opened a new vein for poetry that literary and art critics have yet to learn about or grapple with.”  So those are some good questions for us.  Why, as readers of contemporary poetry, should we try to deal with the implications of this project?  How, if we agree it's important to study this work, should we go about doing it?  

One thing that comes to mind is the novelty of the distribution process.  We're used to poetry that comes to us through certain approved channels--journals, contests, books put out by well-reputed presses.  This project certainly seems like one way of getting around these traditional routes.  (Though, of course, you could argue that an exhibit at the Poetry Foundation is about as traditional as it gets.)  I'm reminded of something I once heard Kenneth Goldsmith say: one condition of contemporary life is that we've become much more fascinated by how information moves than by what the content of the information is.

R:  It's an excellent point, & there's also a question of content here, I think.  There's an alternate creation myth to the project--a new answer to the question of where poetry comes from.

(r):  I'm listening.

R:  There's the idea of poetry produced frivolously--like cardio aerobics--in haste, in competition--Ted & Alice get the flu, so spend the time cranking out as many new poems as possible.  The project implies a cottage industry, of sorts.  So perhaps this is precisely the historical moment--our moment, I mean--when the Multiple Originals project might be most appealing to critics, artists, and readers alike.

(r):  Say more about that.

R:  Well, did you see the cover of Newsweek this week?

(r):  I didn't.

R:  There's an eagle holding a wrench flying in front of the sun, surrounded by red and blue stars and the words "Let's just fix it!”  I think that kind of desire for industriousness might find its poetic counterpoint in the Multiple Originals project: Let's just make lots of art!

(r): Yes, maker culture in general--it's certainly a moment for it--the rise of Etsy, guerilla gardening and knitting.  Urban agriculture.  DIY versifying seems to fit right in.  I am not, by the way, disparaging any of these endeavors.  I think the existence of maker culture an incredibly encouraging phenomenon.

R:  Oh, not at all!  I am not even disparaging Newsweek.  I am writing you a Newsweek sonnet on a postcard as we speak.

(r):  I look forward to it. Epistolary exchange is another thing I find perpetually encouraging.

R:  As is its shadow art--archival research.

(r):  ...when we glory in digging through other peoples' correspondence...

R:  & when we ask them to dig around for us.  Or most of all.  When we ask our audience what might be discovered in their correspondence--or, by extension, in the correspondence of someone else.

(r):  By which you express a common wish to know.  Do you, dear readers, have Multiple Originals of your own?  Would you ever make them publically available?  If so, how would you like to see them displayed or accessed?

R:  After all, we are very wonderful.  Wondering & full of wonder.