In the past couple of months, I finally got hip to a phenomenon that’s been blooming in the poetry world: micropresses. While I was busy doing things like developing my own small business, filing quarterly taxes, and shivering in my shared flat in Cambridge, a whole new flock of poets were flipping a big middle finger at the poetry establishment and publishing their own damn books.
Some folks are publishing in print, some are publishing in electronic form. It’s bizarre: the very thing that first motivated me to learn web development, back in the dark ages of Textpad + FTP + $150 domain names and annual webhosting fees, has apparently caught the attention of a whole slew of indy poets. I can’t help but feel simultaneously like a dinosaur and an early pioneer.
My own career as a poet has been full of twists and turns. I suppose I’m not unique in this way. Most writers–and poets in particular–are solitary creatures. I’m no exception. There’s a part of me that’s very comfortable with being on the edge of things. But in the past decade or so, that alienation turned to bitterness. I never found my niche in the Boston writers’ community. I never stopped writing, but I did stop reading; my own work and others’.
Just in case you think I’ve always had my head up my butt, I would like to point out that I used to run the circuit of open mics. I must have read at every venue in the mid-Hudson Valley and made some great friends that way. I was a featured reader at the sketchy poetry night at the Cosmic Bean in Hartford, until I realized that the guy running the series just wanted to get into my pants. Oh, and the owner’s sleazy comments about how great it was to hear my poem about a girl sleeping between my breasts: priceless. I’ve read in queer settings and straight settings. I’ve read in private homes, in bars, in the basements of churches, in bookstores. I was on the editorial board of my college’s first student-run literary magazine and later served as the managing editor. I sat in a candle-lit attic room with a bunch of beatniks. I was responsible for the creation of the literary section of Chronogram, based in New Paltz, NY. I’ve worked professionally as a writer and copy editor. I’ve designed shit in Quark and Pagemaker and Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve shopped around for printers and chosen Pantone colors. I know the pros and cons of digital versus offset versus letterpress printing. I know how to do this. I just got tired of it.
A confluence of events has led to a renaissance of my interest in poetry. There’s a cycle of percussion that happens with creativity; someone else’s creative expression inspires your own. And something like that has been happening for me since January. I’ve been sort of lurking around the edges of these micropresses and the online communities that surround them. I’m a bit afraid of making myself known to others, afraid that I’ll make some faux pas that will alienate me from this new community (or these new communities) I’ve just discovered. I’m easing into it, commenting on blogs, posting a lot more poetry on my own. I attended an open mic in February. I’m mulling over how to start my own press, what I want to call it, how I want to design the books, how to print them. I’ve realized I have enough material for at least three chapbooks of my own. And I’m also acutely aware of something else: that poetry is a gift economy.
This realization is like a light bulb going off. I finally get it. I was never destined to win the nobel prize or live in the groves of academe. I was supposed to live my life, and to write. I was supposed to make a contribution to a different sort of world. A world of people who live outside the rarefied atmosphere of the literary establishment, but who still care about words. Hells, if William Carlos Williams could be a doctor and Wallace Stevens could be an insurance executive and still kick ass with their poetry, why the hell can’t I be a web developer and do the same?
A lot of things that annoyed me about the literary establishment appear to exist in this other DIY community of poets, but I’ll get into that later. I feel like I need to create actual relationships and enter the community itself before I start trashing it. I need to do more research. And perhaps instead of bitching about things, I should just roll up my sleeves and pitch in. After 24 years of writing poetry, I finally get that it’s about making a contribution, not waiting for applause and a laurel wreath. You really do write because you have no other option. You write because of the fire in the belly. You write because the muse grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you if you don’t.
One book that really blew me away recently was Brief History of Girl as Match, by Kristy Bowen. Brief history of how I found this book:
3. I click randomly and find this.
Bowen’s work really speaks to me, as a woman, a sexual being, in a world that gives us conflicting messages about what constitutes a good girl, a powerful woman, a feminist.
notes to self on the female body:
1. girls who like to be tied up make terrible feminists. Also Mailer.
2. When dancing, do an awkward shuffle to the left, then vague hand
movements resembling the mating sway of swans. When he dips you,
meet the eyes of other men indifferently. Hold, then release.
3. dishabille: adjective. 1.a. archaic : negligee. b: the state of being
in a casual or careless style 2: a deliberately careless or casual manner.
4. French doors do not, under most circumstances, induce the female
5. ligature: noun. 1 a: something that is used to bind; specifically : a
filament (as a thread) used in surgery b: something that unites or connects
: 2: the action of binding or tying
6. Also thigh highs. Soap operas.
With a light touch, Bowen manages to convey the simultaneous desire to be an empowered feminist and a sexual being, both a subject and an object of sexual desire. She evokes this dichotomy through random association, through choosing words that associate and elide with each other on various levels: the level of meaning, the level of sound, and the level of connotation. That do thigh highs and soap operas have to do with the female body? Or Normal Mailer’s work? Nothing. Everything.
I greatly admire this ability to evoke meaning — to say something without saying everything. As Aaron Tieger put it, “work that invites some kind of participation from the reader in order to complete the experience of the poem.” It’s something I strive for in my own work, which I do not consider minimalist. It’s a constant tension: saying enough to make my meaning clear, but not so much that I’m banging the reader over the head with it.
Bowen always has an ability to slide her language into surprising directions, to the same sort of disorienting effect as Sexton’s work. For instance, from autobiography:
In which I am carnelian, carnal. All carnage all the time.
In which I am curator to a museum of clarinets.
In which I am Anne Boleyn or a B-movie bride.
In which my hands are like a box with two birds.
Bowen runs Dancing Girl Press, founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of women poets through chapbooks, journals, and anthologies. Atelier Women Writers’ Studio in Chicago is the home of Dancing Girl Press.