I Dropped Dead

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Last night, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philly hosted a wake for my thirteen year-old pen name, Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy. My friends Ben Warfield, David Kessler, Laura Baird, and Jesse Sparhawk contributed music and animated projections of fantastical terrariums. Over 600 people attended, many of them dressed as various creatures. After giving three readings throughout the evening, I reclined on the funereal plinth by the front door, gave a short reading of a selection from my old book, and then received the commiserations of mourners as they left. Happy to say that the morticians did a nice job on me. (Photo: Addie Métivier)

“Unreadable”

For the most part, Whitman Illuminated was enthusiastically received. I think most readers intuitively understand that my book is asking them to approach Whitman’s poem in a way they hadn’t before–there wouldn’t have been any reason to make the book at all, otherwise. Nevertheless, there was a small number of people who have declared it “unreadable”. So I thought that I should explain why I made Whitman Illuminated in the way I did.

First of all, I took liberties with Whitman Illuminated because it was merely an interpretation of a classic text: It’s not the iconic first edition by which all other succeeding editions will be compared. Whitman Illuminated supplements rather than rivals other editions of Whitman’s work. Whitman’s legacy will never rest solely on my own rendition of his work, so there’s room for some experimentation.

Whitman Illuminated is going to vex readers who expect the same reading experience as a typeset page because all 256 pages of Whitman Illuminated are drawn by hand: every comma, every period. This was my way of keeping Whitman’s lines raw, supple, and wild. The words flow around hundreds of images. The book is meant to be both viewed and read, because it’s both a book and an art object.

Whitman himself upset quite a few readers when Leaves of Grass was first published because he too was breaking away from convention. To the nineteenth century mind, the torrents of rhymeless, ragged lines, clusters, and lists in Whitman’s original 1855 edition were not poems at all, but 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.

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 elliptical kind of treatment of “Song of Myself” is not that radical: Whitman spent years compiling notes during his wanderings through New York, whether he was traveling by foot or by ferry. He was among the first American writers to compose on the go: many of the jottings in his notebooks are shaky from the bumpy omnibus 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 a major 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 more conventional 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.

The ideal approach that I’d imagined readers of Whitman Illuminated 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.

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.

I believe that there should be a spirit of exploration in the act of reading itself, not just in the subject matter. 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.

It would be nice if we readers embraced more experimentation. Of course, some experiments are gratuitous or, for whatever reason, simply don’t work. But do we really need yet another conventional book? As in Whitman’s day, the old traditional forms have once again become stifling. Even a flawed experimental book format will contain more vigor and interest than the well-crafted yet stale poem or novel. And how exciting for the eye to see fresh new configurations of text on the page! Imagine what a thrill it was for readers who encountered the typographical stunts of Tristram Shandy for the first time. It’s amazing that readers can still be nonplussed by unconventionally-designed texts, three centuries later.

I like to think there are many ways one can present a text to a reader. 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.

To me, a text–be it a poem, a novel, or a short story–is sheet music for the mind. Sometimes it’s time to sing an old song in a new way. It’s how great works stay vital.