“Unreadable”

Having at last completed the Whitman book-related events on my calendar, I can now turn my attention to other projects, at least until the UK version comes out in November via Jonathan Cape.

Last Friday evening I was a guest speaker at the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s fundraiser. I felt this was a good opportunity to articulate, through my own experiences, why places like the Poetry Center are so vital to safeguarding the variety of ways in which people read. Below is an excerpt of that speech.

This book would have been a completely pointless endeavor if I was slavishly reflecting Whitman’s poem. [...] I believe that excessive reverence can stifle a great work, rendering it stale and brittle, so I wanted to give readers a fresh way to experience “Song of Myself” in the hopes that doing so might in some small way enrich Whitman’s legacy. But despite my delusions of grandeur, Whitman Illuminated will always just be an interpretation: it supplements rather than rivals other editions of Whitman’s work.

The entire 256-page book is drawn by hand: every comma, every period. I wanted to keep Whitman’s lines supple and wild. So in my edition, the words flow around hundreds of images. The book is meant to be viewed and read, and I think most readers intuitively understand that my book is asking them to approach Whitman’s poem in a way they hadn’t before.

For the most part, Whitman Illuminated was enthusiastically received. But it soon came to my attention that there was a small number of what I’d describe as “readers in a hurry” who [have] declared it “unreadable”.

I’ve taken this as a very good sign. As a rule, innovations, however small, are never universally and immediately embraced: If everyone likes it, you probably erred too far on the side of caution, which is always worse than taking things too far.

Of course, my illustrated version of “Song of Myself” is going to vex readers who expect the same reading experience as a typeset page. Approaching Whitman Illuminated with that expectation will only lead to disappointment and heartbreak. Like Whitman’s original 1855 edition, with its torrents of rhymeless, ragged lines, clusters, and lists, Whitman Illuminated is meant to challenge you to adopt a wider understanding of what it means to read a poem.

The ideal approach that I’d hoped readers of my book might adopt is the polar opposite of how most of us have grown accustomed to reading–that is to say, scanning texts on websites, gleaning the gist and quickly moving on. Instead I wanted to encourage a radical, meandering slowness: meditative, nonlinear, and elliptical. The handwritten text is designed to slow you down, the book is designed to rotate in your hands. Working through the poem slowly and thoroughly for a year forced me, for the first time, to absorb Whitman’s words rather than merely scan and register them. I can only hope that my own experience with “Song of Myself” might be passed on to a few devoted, mindful readers who might actually take their time with this book, tackling a couple pages a night over a month or two, as they traverse Whitman’s poetic landscape. This kind of deep reading offers profound rewards to those who take the entire journey.

For the sake of coherence, the structural unit in Whitman Illuminated is not the line or the verse cluster, but the page spread. Each theme, idea, or image expends itself before the reader moves on to the next page. Hence, the overall gist of the page spread is more important than the order of the lines. You can read it in a new way every time, if you like—although the maze does not allow you to leave any breadcrumbs.

This non-linear approach to “Song of Myself” is not as radical as it might sound: Whitman spent years compiling notes during his wanderings through New York, whether he was on foot, or a ferry, or an omnibus. He was among the first American writers to compose on the go: many of the jottings in his notebooks are shaky from the bumpy rides he took on his way uptown. He later compiled and organized the individual lines of “Song of Myself” in a modular way, moving the lines around, rearranging them in similar ways one might a collage. His ‘portable line’ was an innovation in the way modern poems were composed and presented. His verse clusters, which varied in length, were a bold departure from traditional stanzas like those found in the work of Whitman’s contemporary, Longfellow. Whitman’s rough-hewn lines answered to the physicality of the reader, not tradition: they were measured in breaths rather than iambs or syllables.

In doing so, Whitman [...] made quite a few readers upset–particularly in Boston, where his poetry was eventually banned. The Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier famously threw his copy of Leaves of Grass into his fireplace. Maybe this was a prudish reaction to Whitman’s frank treatment of the human body in general, but it also may have been because–to the nineteenth century mind–his poems were not poems at all. To readers like Whittier, Whitman’s poems were an ugly concatenation of words, devoid of any form.

So when I decided to take the original 1855 edition one step back and make it even looser in form, I was following in Whitman’s footsteps. [...]

But here’s my main point: Perhaps we’ve become overly invested in the idea of writing being a mere mode of conveyance, a transparent mechanism. It’s so much more than that. The pleasure of being lost in a text is almost alien to us, now. Many readers think that the author has failed them if they haven’t comprehended absolutely everything on the page at first glance. And that’s a shame. It’s also why places like the Poetry Center are so important.

I believe that there should be a spirit of exploration in the act of reading itself, not just in the subject matter. Ideally, when one opens a book, one is setting out into the unknown, learning the local customs and language. To my mind, there should be a variety of ways to read a text, a continuum of modes by which language can ignite the mind. How we say something matters as much as what we’re saying. A book or poem is not merely a road: it’s a sea, in which we immerse our imaginations. The only roads are the ones we leave in our wake.

Of course for practical reasons, we should have some sort of consensus as to what constitutes clarity in a given text, but it would be nice if we as a culture invited more experimentation. Of course some experiments are gratuitous or, for whatever reason, simply don’t work. But the interesting failures often contain more vigor and interest than the “correct” finely-crafted yet stillborn poem or novel that pretends to take chances.

I like to think there are many ways one can present a text to a reader while still retaining their interest. To read is to think, so it stands to reason that we should want many ways of reading in the hopes that they might engender many ways of thinking.

And how exciting for the eye to see fresh new configurations of text on the page! What’s the author trying to pull off, here? Are they in fact pulling it off? What strange new worlds demand such bizarre configurations? Where is my mind taking me?

To me, a text–be it a poem, a novel, or a short story–is sheet music for the mind. Let’s hope that exciting, colorful new songs continue to be made in the years to come, and that they chime beautifully when those impatient readers out there fling them at the nearest wall.

Blooms in the Desert

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I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed my stay in Tucson. The UA Poetry Center’s staff were delightful and incredibly kind. I was not only honored to hold forth at the Phoenix Art Museum and the Poetry Center, but I also got into the desert to see the flora and fauna as well as 200,000 year-old living caverns that resembled H.R. Geiger’s version of high Gothic architecture. I also had a chance to pick out some selections from the library, which was a treat. Was actually a little sad to go. Wonderful people down there. Thanks so much to the UA Poetry Center and to the Phoenix Art Museum. I hope to return soon.

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Khalsa Montessori School

Went to Khalsa Montessori School in Tucson this morning to speak with their students, who have been using my book as a way to talk about Whitman. Wow, what a great group of kids! Such great questions and comments from these students–and look at all these beautiful handmade cards! Whatever their teachers are doing is really paying off. I was very impressed.

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I’m cooling my heels in my swank neo-modernist Poetry Center bungalow/compound, grabbing some lunch and answering emails. Tonight I’ll be speaking at the Phoenix Art Museum! I’m looking forward to looking at their collections.

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Deep in the Desert

DSC07751So I’m in Tucson this week, staying at the lavish accommodations at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center (see the Event Page for links). One of the docents was kind enough to show me around the desert this afternoon before my string of events begin in the morning. It’s wonderful to be in the Sonoran Desert again, where the rocks are flowers.

New Doorstop From Communication Arts

DSC07054I don’t enter these competitions very often. I only enter when when I feel I’ve done something to the best of my ability, and for me the Whitman book qualified. It’s been over a decade since I’ve entered anything for CA. After twenty-five years in the profession, this is my first time in CA. I’m proud to be included.