Two books, very different. Though both were crafted replies to other writers.
The first — first in chronology as well as psychic weight — is Beltenebros, or the Beautiful Obscure. This is my first book of poetry, and it was released by Seattle's Babel/Salvage at the end of August. Beltenebros is a (short) book-length poem. It was written in direct response to Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha; I think of it as sort of "talking back" (albeit with a great deal of affection) to the novel(s).*
The second, though it got finished around the same time, is quite different. It is a very small, handmade object. Each page contains "memorabilia" from either Lemuel Gulliver's journeys in Jonathan Swift's 18th-century novel, or from my own journeys, or some of each. It took much longer than I'd expected, but I have to say that I'm pleasantly surprised by how it turned out. There are a couple of pictures in this post, but if you click through to my Instagram account, you can find images of all the pages.
I wish I could remember more clearly. Like most children, I did various art projects when I was little. And I'm sure that, also like other children, some of my experiments prompted my mother and other grown-ups to say, with a mix of pride and puzzlement, "What is it?"
I wish I could remember exactly how I felt about that question. I suspect it doesn't bother kids as much as most adults worry it does. I vaguely remember feeling pleasure. Not because of their interest, but because, in realizing the adult didn't recognize what my picture was an image of, I could tell them whatever I wanted. A dog could suddenly be claimed as a giraffe. A tree could become a boat.
I like the adult version much less. Now people say, "What is it about?"
In the last few months, each time I have told a person that my first book was published, or that I made a handmade book/art-ish object, I have heard the question, "What is it about?"
I can think of two appropriate responses. I could launch into a long analysis of all of the themes and shapes and recurring images and all the layered meanings in Beltenebros. I could talk about memory and materialism and my highly clichéd but nonetheless thriving romance with the sea in the Gulliver's Travels book. That's one way of responding that seems as least reasonable.
Or I could shrug my shoulders and say, "I have no idea." This seems most honest.
But I am just as socially assimilated as the next schmuck, so I politely say something like, "It's an homage to Don Quixote/Gulliver's Travels." Blatant relief sweeps across their face as they realize A) it's not sexual, and B) the fact that it is "about" books they haven't read lets them off the hook from having to feign interest. They (equally politely) reply, "Oh, I haven't read it."
The reason I think all of this matters is simple: I caught myself. I caught myself being more proud of having had Beltenebros published than I was of finishing the handmade book. And if I dig under that pride a bit, I realize that my pride in having a book published stems from a sense of validation. Having someone — anyone — choose your poem or novel or essay collection to send off to a printer's and slap an ISBN on it feels like "someone" — that conveniently vague notion of the rational capitalist at the back of everything — has put their stamp of approval on my work. Receiving that stamp of approval permits others to grant theirs as well.
But...really??? Have you seen some of the books to get published recently? I know I'm showing some of my elitist colors here, but "getting published" (and the passivity of that phrase should probably bug you) says nothing of the artistic value of a, um...book. What it tells you is something about its capitalist value; that Babel/Salvage and many, many publishing houses like it are so clearly labors of love, doesn't change that fact.
For the time being, I'm not going after this so much as an attack on capitalism "out there," so to speak, as I am concerned about the ways capitalism and consumerism have clearly shaped my own mind. I care deeply about human creativity, and any ideology that fucks with the underlying structures of our individual minds and the consciousness of our larger societies to such an extent that we value the approval of the market more highly than our own inner compass should disturb me. It should disturb me often enough to actually do something about it. Maybe I could start with being proud of having written the damned thing.
As I mentioned in my last post, the move to Portland has been tumultuous, and I can't currently locate my copy of Don Q. But in the next couple of weeks I should be able to put up a couple of posts that show some of what I did in working with Cervantes' text. If you're curious, you can search for "quixote" in the upper left-hand corner to see a couple of short excerpts, as well as some of my thoughts on the novel and my process in general.
As always, feel free to comment, and thanks for the patience in my transition to Portlandia!
* Today if you go to your local bookstore (my favorites being Elliott Bay in Seattle and Portland's Powell's on Hawthorne), you will find the single book Don Quixote de la Mancha. I only think it worth mentioning that it was actually two separate books written by Cervantes because the two are quite different, and writing the second book probably contributed to Cervantes' decline in health. He worked his ass off to get the book out partially because so many copycats had published spurious second volumes to his original, and he wanted to set the records straight.