Sunday, November 04, 2007

J’Lyn Chapman, "BlazeVOX & the Post-Avant"

J’Lyn Chapman
University of Denver

BlazeVOX and the Publishing Practices of the Post-Avant

Joseph S. Cooper. Autobiography of a Stutterer. Kenmore, NY: BlazeVOX, 2007.
Amy King. I’m the Man Who Loves You. Kenmore, NY: BlazeVOX, 2007.
Jared Schickling. Aurora. Kenmore, NY: BlazeVOX, 2007.

Geoffery Gatza, the chief editor at BlazeVOX, has clearly made the press and its online magazine a “refuge” as its subtitle claims. The press exerts an incredible energy about its writers and what it calls “post-avant poetries and fiction.” Gatza and his crew make creative work free and conveniently accessed because they want the work to be read widely and taken seriously. What distinguishes BlazeVOX is not only the ease of procuring a book—whether by purchasing it or downloading it—but that BlazeVOX proudly advertises itself as part of a literary vanguard in both the books it publishes and through the modes of their production. Most small presses use print-on-demand (POD) practices; BlazeVOX suggests that such practices are commensurate with the post-avant-garde. This review might begin to speak of the kind of attention BlazeVOX hopes to construct and the attentions it challenges by looking at three recent poetry titles from the press: Joseph S. Cooper’s Autobiography of a Stutterer, Amy King’s I’m the Man Who Loves You, and Jared Schickling’s Aurora.

While it’s not clear how BlazeVOX defines “post-avant,” we might assume something about the experimental nature of the work, that it challenges the dominance of bourgeois art through both the practice of making art and the production of it. The BlazeVOX website works as a hub for several different poetic routes, routes that offer different modes of engagement. There is the BlazeVOX “blogoscope,” which produces more immediate conversation, links, and notes from Gatza; the free PDF issues of the BlazeVOX literary magazine; and a link to the Podcast, which features one of the press’s authors reading his or her work. The press is only one facet of BlazeVOX. While BlazeVOX offers some free titles, downloaded directly from its website as PDF files in the “Mobilis in Mobili Series,” most titles are purchased, including the ones under review, through Amazon (with the exception of Schickling’s book, which can be downloaded for free or purchased as a book). Whether by going to the Amazon website or by purchasing the book directly from BlazeVOX, the book is printed and sent to the customer.

POD, used by small presses and some university and academic presses, publishes books digitally when they are ordered rather than in bulk. It is important to note that POD assumes digitization, but print-on-demand might also include books made the old-fashioned way—hand bound or letter-pressed. The value of such books lies in what amounts to their inconvenience, in their object-ness; thus, the mode of their production determines in part how the book is cared for as well as how the work within it is read. (This fetishism in the so-called age of mechanical reproduction is very much at stake in a discussion of POD and, if not for space limitations, would be taken up here). While POD is a common practice among small presses, it also seems to be a point of debate. The aspersion realizes itself in two understandable contentions: that POD books are of poorer quality; and that POD potentially gluts the small-press, experimental-poetry world and that this glut is made possible by the ease of publishing that comes with POD.

In a recent post on the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative blog (Sunday, July 1), Shanna Compton offers a series of rebuttals to those attitudes that view POD as a lesser form of publishing. The blog post serendipitously intersects with this review of BlazeVOX by addressing the very assumptions and values that BlazeVOX uniquely forefronts and demonstrates—that POD is a practice worth reckoning with if not only as a mode of production but also as a discourse through which to discuss art.

The method coincides with the other kinds of POD publishing—like the New York Public Library’s “Espresso Book Machine.” Beginning on July 2, 2007, library patrons have access through the internet to physical, bound and cut reproductions of the 200,000 titles in the public domain, within 6 to 10 minutes. The machine looks a little like a prototypical computer from the 50s. Couple this (soon-to-be obsolete) bulk with the book machine’s name, and it is no wonder why one angle of reproach comes from the fear that convenient publishing and the impending obsolescence of other kinds of printing produces off-handed work and consequently off-handed reading.

Compton addresses such a fear in her DIY post: not only do some mainstream presses use POD strategies, but also POD maintains a responsibility to the book and the work that mass production cannot. Compton’s reasoning is compelling. POD produces less waste, saves warehouse and shipping costs, and enables a single person or a small group of persons to make books they care about because it is cheaper from the start. Given these attributes, it makes sense that BlazeVOX would tout itself as a refuge for writers whose work demands careful attention (partly because its experimental nature garners little attention from traditional publishers) and for those who already value the ethics of small presses—such ethics being a commitment to innovative writing, to involving the writer with the production of his or her work, and to encouraging risky behavior/ideas that might otherwise have poor economic repercussions.

All three of the BlazeVOX books under consideration in this essay enact these values. These are Cooper’s and Schickling’s first books, both of which demand open spaces—generically and formally—through which to read. King’s is one of four of her titles available on BlazeVOX, suggesting that the writer and her work have found a harbor—not only a place of refuge but a space in which to cast off.

As the first page of Joseph S. Cooper’s Autobiography of a Stutterer reads, “The purpose of the text is to give readers the opportunity to experience a speech impediment firsthand.” Cooper makes a legend of diacritical marks that instruct the reader to read as if she were stuttering. What results is not only a forced failure of orality, so to speak, but also a jettisoning of the lyrical poem back to its pre-literate roots via its visual structure on the page, a visual structure made possible by type symbols that become phonemes (as when one symbol instructs the reader to repeat or prolong the sound of a word or a syllable). For example, the following lines from the “Uvula” section of the book:

"His tongue was never the same; it grows thickens d←←etaches and dies. The structure it builds is d←←←oomed to collapse. Digital manifesto. There are at least two d←←←ifferent ways of doing this. The mouth as project incarnated as utterly inexpressible."

The collection of prose poems opens with an anatomical diagram, identifying the parts of the body that produce speech, the tongue, soft and hard palates, the teeth. Each section of the book is titled after one of these features of the body, and in some ways, this very important image becomes the self of the autobiography as the voice in the poems shifts pronouns and experiential distance, bites its tongue, making the body abject, and at the same time signifies something in its resistance to totalization. Autobiography becomes not a genre, as Paul de Man writes in “Autobiography as De-Facement,” but “a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts.” Cooper’s poems continually deface themselves, risking, even beckoning the anonymity of the anatomical diagram. This diagram should be primary; rather, the image is pixilated and somewhat indifferently printed. If this diagram became the cover image, how would it affect the already smart and lyrical work?

Despites its rather large size, measuring 10” x 7.5”, and faint and fuzzy text, an obvious result of digitally printed pages, Amy King’s book, I’m the Man Who Loves You, features a striking cover, another kind of defacement—this time of animal and bride painted over and, thus, stripped to their bones, making anatomy a common denominator of the human and animal. The poem “Animals Elsewhere” corresponds and speaks to the threads of desire and gender that weave through. King’s first book, Antidotes for an Alibi, came out on BlazeVOX in 2005 and was a finalist for the Lambda Book Award. Her work has a commanding presence in the avant-garde poetry community because of its quality and her commitment to contribution.

The title of the book comes from a Wilco song, and, in part, follows the structure of the Wilco album titled Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in that the poems in her book are arranged in alphabetical order. The book strains under its own bulk, and because of this the poems that dissipate stanza structure by allowing the poem its buoyancy feature King’s language beautifully, as in the poem, “I Prefer Not”:

"As an absence
in the hand that holds
no chalk
swims out through the eyes
of shuttlings
sore with blank

and cannot know
the underlined breeze,
a masterpiece,
the palm’s undusted words

such as
this careless violin,
more easily a cello,

a leaving sound
to part the presence,


In the poems that use traditional stanzas, there are those whose syntax and lineation draw attention to the singularity and aurality of words in a way that recalls Stein. Stein is evoked specifically in the poem, “Gertrude for Girls,” but resemblances show up elsewhere. For instance, the title of the poem “One Bright Thing” recalls the experiments of Tender Buttons, and the lineation of “We tiny parasites of the relatively unseen feel / this looks like yesterday and not the day / I challenged it to be” disjoints the declarative statement. But the rest of poem is characteristically King’s in its strange images that stop just short of anecdote, actually suspending such linearity.

Finally, the poems of Jared Schickling’s Aurora are distinguished by their parenthetical titles, titles which serve as interludes as in “(war in the street) / (or, Note To Self)” or as digressions, suggesting that the poem functions beyond or without its frame, this frame of the title being ancillary rather than constitutive. In this way, the parts might be read as a long poem, split into three parts and these “titles,” lines of the poem.

There is a bird’s-eye cohesiveness to the book in that even the visceral moments of the lyric “I” or the attentiveness to others and the banality of the everyday are situated on the earth. The title suggests a kind of cosmic order. Aurora is the dawn or the Roman goddess of the dawn, a figurative gesture at keeping time. Yet, “aurora” can also be read scientifically as the luminous phenomenon of emissions of light excited by the planet’s magnetic field. Science and poetry, cosmic order and the quotidian bear a resemblance to new science; Schickling greets such a resemblance not by expounding on order or ideas of order, as such, but by focusing on the relationship of nature and civilization as in the poem “(unnumbered)” that begins, “when I passed through a populous city”:

"tongue concealed, dissolving voice, where are these shifting riverbeds / of rainbow light, human skin and their crystal industry / what is that vague reflection of glass / and above, the steel sky glinting"

The poems have an eye toward geography, place names and places, and time, the way it is marked by human behavior as in “(lunch hour)” and “(a day at the lake).”

These books read like explorations of style, like the writer’s personal experiment, and, with the exception of King’s work, like beginnings (but not necessarily like beginners). BlazeVOX seems to be the place for such beginnings; its editing offers a kind of faith in the work and what seems like a commitment to making a place for it in the world, and in this way it does not glut the poetry world so much as broaden it. (As Shanna Compton writes, if a book isn’t good, then don’t read it. POD actually makes such discrimination possible by making books cheaper and more accessible.) It is fitting, then, that BlazeVOX and its publishing methods should also be at the beginning of something, progressive in its modes of production and in its promotion of work that might otherwise go unnoticed. The progress POD will surely make as an activity and process should also be tempered and challenged by shifting considerations about the production of poetry in both the small-press community and in a larger consumerism.

J’Lyn Chapman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver. She is working on a dissertation that investigates text and image in the novels of W.G. Sebald. Her own exploration of text and image can be read in the forthcoming issue of Conjunctions.

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