The lucid design and construction of books requires more than choosing an “appropriate” typeface in an “appropriate” size/leading combination. The key is to motivate the design [design = methodology of construction] of the book through a principle that shares a common structural route with the text, but is also different enough (from the text) to reposition both the text and the design to begin new, multiple, unpredictable, and (hopefully) productive chains of oscillation between signification and non-signification. To wobble between the symbol and the thing, to shiver, shimmer.
While working out the design of What You Will I sent the author, Kyle Schlesinger, a group of observations and questions about the poems. My goal was to allow me to see the poems differently, and to understand how Kyle sees them. What follows are the questions and answers, slightly edited, mostly for grammar and brevity.
NewLights Press: So, the first thing I noticed was the shape of the poems. Which makes sense, as that naturally is the first thing that a reader sees. But I dwell on it, as I’m reading them to think about how to design and print them. It brings to mind William Everson’s “poem as icon” idea, or the concrete poetry “constellations.” How much does the overall visuality of the poem play a role in the composition? Is that something you consciously decide or think about as you write, or are there other factors that influence it? Do you see a relationship between the internal structure of the poem and its visual shape? Not so much in a shaped poem, “Calligramme” sort of way but more of in an abstract correspondence sort of way, like Frank Stella’s stripe paintings. Is the shape an after-the-fact consequence of the internal structuring, or does shape play an active role, influencing the structure?
Kyle Schlesinger: Everson’s “Poem as Icon” is a provocative lecture; he claims that Olson ruined poetry because he thought that the typewriter allowed him to become his own typographer. Of course, the era that we now call the “mimeo revolution” was the direct result of the empowerment and aesthetic consequences that came with the domestication of publishing, i.e. there was no longer a need to bring one’s work to a printer possessing specialized machinery or a trained commercial designer; “having a press” and “being a publisher” were synonyms in everyday speech. Some poets, like Robert Grenier and of course all of the “typewriter” poems of the day, embraced the monospacing of the machine, which makes it difficult to replicate using the sophisticated software we use today. Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse web archive is very much concerned with preserving these publications as facsimiles, suggesting that the materiality is in fact part of the composition, if not reader reception.
My writing certainly comes out of a Black Mountain tradition (three of my most influential teachers were graduates) and Olson was one of my first real affinities as a mature reader. My first book, Hello Helicopter, possesses a number of poems that deliberately use the page as a score (a field of composition if you will) but lately I’ve had a hard time reading poems that make such abstract use of the page. At times I find the poetics that address the “space of the page” a little too mystical or flimsy for my taste. Perhaps this is part of the curse of being a poet and a typographer? The title of the book sort of nods to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or What You Will insofar as it invites humor, lets readers “do what they will” with words by getting away from the paradoxical rigidity of “free verse.” The other side of the slice refers to the elite who do what they will, the hegemonic control over what we see, how we read and think.
NLP: The individual lines of the poems are very spare, which causes me to pay a great deal of attention to the individual words, but even more so to the line breaks, what determines them, and how the lines of the poems accumulate.
Some of the poems seem to read straight through, like “Lost Wall.” While others, like “Groove With” defy the line breaks, stretching over the gap and breaking (partly) in the middle of the line. And still others, like “Panchronic Pantries” seem to accumulate, to build line by disconnected line (I mean “disconnected” in a “making sense” kind of way—sometimes the lines seem connected through common aural or visual elements. Written poems or spoken poems? Or both?) Do you see these different choices of how to break the lines as a single or several constants running through the manuscript, or do you make the decisions of line breaks on a poem-by-poem basis?
KS: The poems in this book are primarily composed of shorter lines, flush left, with very little punctuation. You also may have noticed that the words are primarily monosyllabic—not a formal exercise like Kit Robinson’s The Dolche Stanzas, but there is an informal restraint at work at work in the poems, a desire to strip down to what sticks. How many times have you been to a reading where the author struggles to read the poems aloud? I edit for sound, for music, and the visual aspects of the writing must follow. They need to look right in order to sound right and vice versa. In a way, it’s highly formalized, I want something solid and polished, but I’m not looking to impart with a particular “message” or prescription for an audience real or imagined.
NLP: Would you group the poems into different classifications? What would those classifications be?
KS: I like the relationships you’ve observed in the question that preceded this one, and agree very much with your thinking, but no, I wouldn’t try to classify my own writing beyond the unit of the book. I like collections of poems very much, and although it’s unfashionable these days, I don’t feel that books need to be defined by a single idea or “project” that predates composition. Historically, I admire many works that do so, but as poetry becomes more and more professionalized, I think that many writers could benefit from thinking carefully about what goes into print and what falls on the cutting room floor. Catchy concepts will do much for a book’s identity, but sometimes this comes at the expense of the writing itself, or as Mallarmé reminds us, “poems are made with words, not ideas.” All of my work has a conceptual foundation, but when I put together a manuscript, I put the object before the concept to arrive at a subject. No two books that I’ve written are alike, so in that sense, the books are their own units of composition.
NLP: This is related to the idea of accumulation, it’s the dialectical partner of accumulation actually, the dispersion of the poems. I think dispersion when I see the table of contents, which is another poem made up of the titles of the rest of the poems. Did you order the poems based on how they made sense in the manuscript, or did you order them according to how the titles worked as a poem in their own right? Are there any other poems that pull their lines from a source text? (Something about “To The Letter” strikes me that way.)
KS: Reading the table of contents top to bottom and back again is almost the final test of a manuscript, but long before that, I look at the relationship between the last line of a poem to the title of the poem that follows:
The long goodbye
Wear pajamas again
I’m always being
For seven minutes today
Just a thought
There’s nothing more
When the shit hits the fan
A furrow for sure
Stands to reason
Everything at once
Etcetera. Not a narrative, but a line of thought that gets you from the bottom of the page to the top of the next. There are a few lines from other sources in a very literal sense, like “The Long Goodbye” is the title of Robert Altman’s terrific film from 1973. “Casa de Lava” is the title of an unpublished poem by the magnificent Gregg Biglieri. He used the phrase in a letter to me and I put it in the poem long before I realized that he was referring to his own work, so it seemed natural to dedicate the piece to him (elsewhere Gregg wrote: “when I think about you, I quote myself”). Several lines from “Stands to Reason” come from conversations with Miles Champion.
NLP: But I guess this idea of dispersion always works in concert with the idea of accumulation. The poem “Stands to Reason” exemplifies this idea in its structure: the lines of the first stanza are repeated, in their respective places, in all of the subsequent stanzas, and then are gathered back together in reverse in the final stanza. This is the poem with the most obviously patterned structure. Is that a pre-existing form, or did you build it along with the poem?
KS: I wrote a poem called “Shedding” that appeared in The Pink (Kenning Editions, 2008). It was dedicated to Thom Donovan and the first strophe is an excerpt from one of Thom’s poems. I used that form again in that poem for Miles, but the lines in the first strophe came from talk, not writing.
NLP: I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I’m preoccupied with structure. I find that responding to the structure of the poems will yield a more interesting book. For me the design of the book is not a question of illustrating (or even complementing) the poems with images, or of finding a design that somehow “reflects” the character of the poems, but to construct the book, visually, materially, procedurally, in way that builds off of the text. So that’s what I’m trying to get at here, to go back through, or underneath, the finished text, in order to build a book from the same, or a related, point or idea.
KS: I’m with you entirely on that point. It isn’t a question of finding the shoes that match the suit, but a prismatic reflection on the text’s relationship to the book as a while. That said, I want this to be your book as much as it is mine (it that’s agreeable to you). The poems need not necessarily appear in this order, nor do they necessarily need to read the particular way that I’ve set them here, intact, so to speak. I’m up for as much or as little collaboration as you see fit, so long as the conversation is an “open book.”