Summer is a time to leave NYC and reconnect with the rest of the world, to remember porches and yards and gardens without rat snouts gumming up the raised beds. Here I’ll be creating a context to some extent for specific small press publishing (inclusive of journals and reading series) practices and obstacles.
Manifesto on permission, clarification, etiquette, empathy, institutional critique, mothering and what it needs, accusation of conservatism, defining risk, problems of disability, how my mental health is an obstacle to social climbing, public speech, separatism, not activism necessarily, against public marriage.
One day a big art website publishes a poem about having sex with me. Another day a lit blog publishes a critique of something I wrote about a poetry reading. The blog says men are nice and my report from the field is a freak incident. Another lit blog defends a known blowhard’s right to remix misogyny. Later, somewhere around the fifth email to a university librarian who claims not to have received the invoice attached each time, I pause to ask myself why I bother. Why do I spend my free time volunteering (mostly) as an editor, publisher and press manager and why do so many others likewise work for small presses, journals, or websites in addition to writing poetry, reviews, essays, interviews? Particularly if I sometimes feel attacked by members of this so-called community. Why am I in this conversation and why do I want to be?
In a class I was teaching yesterday, I trotted out Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book I find to be a useful tool for writers, and read a few lines from the entry for class-based language, which provides charts of high-class and low-class phrases from several sources. For example, Emily Post (as cited by Garner) defines “lovely food” as a phrase that is low-class while “good food” is upper-class. My five students are from five different countries, grew up speaking five different mother tongues. They thought this whole idea was weird, though they said British English is more formal than American. I tend to identify closely, genetically, with low-class language. Garner writes, “Most usage guides are silent on the subject of class. If they serve as useful guides, they typically reflect upper-middle-class preferences, as this book generally does. For that is the class into which most even modestly intellectual achievers fall, and the class to which the ambitious members of the middle class most aspire.” So you’ll have to excuse me—as a class-jumper who speaks of lovely food and adult beverages, I struggle to fit in with poetry’s didacticism since, according to Garner’s definition, I am unlikely to be even a modestly intellectual achiever. My English is euphemistic, idiomatic, low.
Manifesto on rhetorical proofs, fatigue (outrage and surprise), passive-aggressive micro-economies, branding, irony, discretion, generosity, power, need, luxury, community, curatorship, diversity, radicalism, reading series with roofies and/or one woman and/or one person of color, the disappearance of key grande dames.
As David Graeber argued in The Guardian this March, the labor of caring generally falls to the working class. We (of) the workers are trained (by dint of our socioeconomic position in U.S. society) to perform in the service industry or, if we are lucky, in air-conditioned office complexes assisting professionals, and to anticipate the needs of others. Graeber writes, “Working-class people may be, as we’re ceaselessly reminded, less meticulous about matters of law and propriety than their ‘betters’, but they’re also much less self-obsessed. They care more about their friends, families and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer.” In the poetry community, too, those who have less power perform unglamorous labor and do so with aplomb. The interns, volunteers, and long-term editors and curators who package and mail review copies, write endless emails and social media posts, and lug boxes to post offices to get the books and journals into readers’ hands do so in the spirit of caring and generosity. It is, in some ways, a calling.
So, oh no, groan, here comes another blog post and here come more people to find me annoying to my face and behind my back. So be it. Adding another cached page to the internet adds notability, according to Wikipedia’s standards (increasingly acceptable, to the chagrin of mainstream academics). If here I cite small press labors that usually go undescribed, it makes them more real.
But it is important to be careful not to find ourselves too saintly. Publishing others feels selfless, but it isn’t. For those of us who do this work, who are obsessed enough with poetry to take a rung in the pyramid scheme and work it, seeing a great book published and greeted joyfully by readers can be a pleasure. Yet it is a self-interested act because as editor I choose work to publish based at least in part on my own aesthetics and politics. When a book I’ve edited succeeds, I am proud of myself, for having my labor and my sense of what deserves success confirmed. But we ought none of us be using the word deserve. Here’s why.
In May I saw a comment on a friend’s Facebook page: “hope you enjoy a well-deserved Mother’s Day!” Must a Mother earn her Day? I’m sure the person meant to be positive and supportive, but “well-deserved” is so sticky and yucky it sounds sarcastic. First, even “you deserve it!” is a value judgment. The speaker has judged the news to be good, and announces that. Then, tacking on “well-” means ‘you earned it in style’ or ‘you earned it in a way that gives me extra pleasure’. Or like a bank, evaluating you in ways you didn’t ask for: you’re pre-approved for a special offer. You have been well-behaved. It reorients the news or the achievement to be about its buzz, and people throw “well-deserved” around casually.
Manifesto on the neighborhood, the alumni network, bubbles, duties, citizenship, collaboration, consent, coercion, awards, crowdfunding, feminism, intersectionality, reading fees, finalist lists, denunciation, recusal, divestment, friendship, vulnerability, tenure, energy siphoning, epidemics, choice, streaming video.
Poets could all stand to back off from evaluating each other’s accomplishments.
Could we simply remember, please, that as Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven says, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” The internet echo chamber of congratulatory chatter leads to staking claims IRL that we haven’t thought through. Once, someone I was dating told me a story about an older male professor speaking harshly and condescendingly to a female student and I said, “god how paternalistic.” He said, “I don’t think he was speaking to her like he was her father.” Like the social media deployment of “well-deserved,” this person’s mistake is evidence of a basic vocabulary problem, whereby language is considered without context, evaluated at a glance because the ego trusts its past literacy experiences as primary and essential. The term misogyny often gets the same treatment—a Manichean yay/nay, i.e., “I don’t think he hates gynecology!” It’s a careless mistake.
Editing and publishing poetry for a small press and a literary magazine has provided me with mentorship relationships and a kind of intimacy with texts I would not have been likely to encounter otherwise. I joined Belladonna* Collaborative in 2010 and one of the first projects I agreed to was working with Rachel Levitsky to see Theory, A Sunday through to publication. Originally published in Quebec in 1988 as La theorie, un dimanche, the book collects theoretical and experimental texts by six Québécoise writers. From 2009-13, five translators were involved in the project, each taking on a portion. The book came together in 2013; Lisa Robertson wrote an introduction; Rachel and Gail Scott co-wrote an afterword; our designer completed the book object while becoming a parent and moving from NYC to Chicago; and then we were done! The book debuted in October 2013, after five years in progress with Belladonna* and 25 years after its original publication in French.
Aside from corralling and coordinating via one million emails, my specific task for this book project was the transcription of France Théoret’s prose piece “This Is Not A Lake.” I sat in the sauna that is Outpost Café on Fulton Ave in summer 2012, in the oonts-oonts of the house music their daytime staff favors, and typed from a photocopy sent to me by the author, a translation by Luise von Flotow.
This brief text mirrored my suppressed feelings on teenage girlhood in suburbia. Growing up, for me and most girls I knew, the path to being taken seriously was through having a boyfriend. Relationships were like a cigarette break—a universally accepted excuse for getting away from home or work. Though I tried, I did not flourish on this path. The common goal was to get engaged as quickly as possible (or get a promise ring! which was pre-engagement!). To lock it down and become currency. Théoret writes about her mother’s advice to keep out of small town gossip regardless. “If a girl in the neighborhood gets married at sixteen, it is my business,” she writes. “To my great shame, I secretly disagree with my mother.” I am a girl, and the world is my business. Retyping these words, I felt I had discovered proof of a right to my anger over the pressure on us as teenagers. The homecoming queen and the prom queen followed their boyfriends to college; the latter married hers. The valedictorian married her algebra teacher.
We had to create our own worlds, my friends and I, or we wouldn’t have survived. Now, for me, volunteering or working for a small press or a journal provides a chance to begin again with each new project. To be clean even as I categorically fail to mind my own business. To have a pure purpose without being a child bride. When I was 17, I thought I would grow up to be a secretary until I died. What a relief, then, this circuitous route.
- KRYSTAL LANGUELL
Krystal Languell was born in South Bend, Indiana. Two chapbooks and a full-length collection of poetry are forthcoming: LAST SONG (dancing girl press, 2014), BE A DEAD GIRL (Argos Books, 2014) and GRAY MARKET (Coconut, 2015). FASHION BLAST QUARTER was published as a poetry pamphlet by Flying Object in 2014. A core member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, she also edits the journal Bone Bouquet.
 Gail Scott, Nicole Brossard, Louky Bersianik, Louise Dupré, Louise Cotnoir, France Théoret
 Erica Weitzman, Popahna Brandes, Luise von Flotow, Gail Scott, Nicole Peyrafitte
 Jack Henrie Fisher
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