On Poetic Objects and Poetic Economies
I hesitated to open the packet for a long time after I got it. It seemed too perfect, too exactly like the kind of treatment I’d dreamed of for poems. What if it wasn’t as I’d hoped? But now I pull the paper ends apart. The sound they make is luxuriant, slow—no tearing, just moving parts. I lift up the two folded sides, like unfolding a shirt. Centered inside this printed 11-by-14-inch sheet sits a little stack of cream-colored 5-by-7-inch cards. Most are letterpress printed with a single poem, the text slightly embossed. A few have images also. A thin strip of paper binds them all together. They rest in their neat stack on my desk, each a physical fact. Asking to be picked up, one by one, and read.
Since I first learned about them in college, I have loved broadsides. I heard about them first in their early context—single printed sheets distributed around 16th-century London, say, with gossip or news or a ballad. People still did this for poems, I read, except now they were more fine-art than news rag. The idea of making such a visible place for a poem, a beautiful, portable one, appealed to me. Not that I had seen one in person, or knew where one might find such things. Far away, letterpresses in Alabama and New York were rolling out text objects, but I dreamed in North Carolina, and the Internet was young.
Is a book like a room and a page like a meadow, a spot of ground? Fifteen years later, I still want a place for poetry that’s out in the open like that. My bookshelves burst with volumes of poetry. But when I think of how I’d like to be given a poem, I think of a page, a card, a sheet: something that reveals itself immediately, and is all of one piece, and that therefore demands all my attention.
As do the poems in Tuesday; An Art Project, which I’ve described above. I asked Jennifer S. Flescher, its originator and editor, what she thinks are the differences between poetry between covers and poetry on a flat sheet. “I feel like one of the things art publishing can and should do is offer a resting place for a work—a book or a poem or an image,” she wrote. “Poems are complex and need time and space. I hope that a card gives them a little more of that.” And: “My idea, too, was that they would be more easily shared. The poem is the same, of course. But isolated. Held up. Held.”
I hold a card that holds a poem. It is cradled and it is entirely visible. Holding a book, I don’t know what its contents are. It is a repository of secrets, a structure whose rooms can be viewed only one at a time. And holding a computer or other such device? The secrets multiply, and not always according to a good algorithm. But a single page reveals the poem’s single self.
Because poems are stored in two-dimensional space, they can quickly become invisible—especially on a desk that is also home to other, nonpoetical sheets of paper, especially when one has another desk at a day job that occupies most of one’s waking hours, which I do. Maybe this is why the biggest challenge I encounter as a writer is actually sitting down to do it. It is about paying attention. If I could think of the poems as objects, I said to a friend, a visual artist, this past spring, they would take up as much room as objects do in my mind, and then I would need fewer things in my life. Fewer artifacts waiting to become art.
For finished poems, my own or otherwise, this imagined objectivity can be made physical: The medium in which the poem is presented can escort it into the world of things. Over my writing life I have tried this repeatedly. Because I am not first a visual thinker, and yet have a discerning and particular sense of what I like, rendering poems visually is always time-consuming for me. Which medium, what colors, which image, which font? The results are like poems themselves—some better than others, all linked to a particular time. If they are not perfect, they nonetheless exist.