The Grand Piano

by on Feb.10, 2011

[Here’s a version of a talk Joyelle and I wrote for the panel “Small Presses with a Mission” at the AWP; it was performed by the Notre Dame graduate students, Carina Finn and Jiyoon Lee.]

The Grand Piano, or, the Spectre of Action Books, an Autobiography

1. We started Action Books in 2005 because we were reading a lot poetry we loved and we didn’t see it represented in contemporary American poetry. We didn’t like where American poetry was at: we did not feel part of the Official American Verse Culture, but we felt nearly as alienated from Official Experimental Verse Culture, and we certainly didn’t feel that the solution would be to hybridize the two, to get a single official verse culture.

2. We were interested in gothed-up spectacles, grotesque fantasia, unhealthy bodies, spasmodic bodies, bodies that jerked like dolls, epileptic bodies that performed their fits in strange outfits and B-movie scenarios. We were interested in art and media. We were interested in disability theory and translation theory (We wrote a manifesto of “The Disabled Text”, which didn’t win us too many friends. We lost our hearing.). We were interested in kitsch and decadence. We were interested in the energies and upheavals of the historical avant-garde, but not so much the formalist orthodoxies that they had become. We were interested in all those tasteless dimensions of art that poets of the official verse cultures seemed so eager to condemn and ridicule. We were interested in the sublime art that both these poetries seemed scared to touch. We were interested in total art.

3. Ugh.

4. We were ridiculous. We were heroic. (We were antiheroic. We were ridiculous.)

5. We enacted an ambient violence in the balloon rooms and with wreckage posters. (After Katrina, we watched refugees riding in Army buses like prisoners, and prisoners riding in school buses. Traffic stopped for these convoys as for an army of Jackie Kennedies. At the front of the white homecoming parade, a white drum major. At the front of the black homecoming parade, a black drum major. The white homecoming court wore tuxedos and gowns. The black homecoming court wore business suits.) After Katrina, we discovered stray dogs in the streets of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

6. We gave them names like Culture, War and History.

7. (The dog’s real name was ‘Corndog’. Then we went to vote in the garbage truck garage. Some of the garbage trucks were out on their routes, leaving room for the voting machines. Garbage in, garbage out. Another night, another concession speech. Kim Hyesoon’s next Action Books title: All the Garbage of the World Unite)

8. We were not interested in poetry that made us feel ethical or too refined for this world. (In labor we developed uncontrollable bleeding normally suffered during labor by cocaine users and fifteen year old girls. This complication was called an ‘abruption.’)

9. We were interested in Artaud, Genet, Vallejo, Bataille, the Beats, Plath (but the hysterical Plath, the surrealist montageiste Plath, not the recuperated Plath Craftswoman), Hanna Weiner, Jacobean revenge fantasies, (Langston Hughes the Red montageist,) comic books, fetishes, spells, Finland Swedish Dadaists, (Brazillian Swede Oyvind Fahlstrom’s board games to bring about the ecstatic society, and his invented language, Birdo, a language made up entirely of bird cries, into which he translated Poe’s the Raven; Alice Notley; Harryette Mullen;) fashions shows staged in hospitals, automatons staged in circus tents, deers shot in circus tents, hallucinations staged in the White House, televisions stages with fat bodies, bleed-outs staged in the snow, the plague the plague the ouch-it-hurts disease. We staged our parties at anti-abortion rallies.

10. We laughed.

11. We were ridiculous. (We were laughed at.) (We were the sissies on the gym bus. The punchworthy, uncanny, heroic sissies, les incroyables. We had Big Gulps and coke cans chucked at us, we were beat up for wearing riding boots, flat tops, and pink backpacks. It was Reaganomics)

12. We were interested and read a whole bunch of other poets who were part of this conversation, but not unsurprisingly (in retrospect, though at the time we found it very strange) they could not get their books published. They were the orphans and arsonists that American Poetry wanted to avoid at the party. (Meanwhile the Writers Chronicle kept arriving like the plague, sur la plage, sunny and vague.)

13. It was a slaughter party. Slumber party. Party on the remains of Frank O’Hara’s body: slender, covered with sand, wearing a rubber mask that is supposed to look like the president. Or the pauper. Or Andy Warhol. (It’s so hard to tell because the mask was melting in the sun!)

14. We wanted to publish these unpublishable books to widen our conversation, to create a space for inquiry into this aesthetic realm; not the “sincere” space of the quietists, or the ethical space of the experimentalists, or the refined space of the “hybrids,” but the cha-cha space of hungry dancers, the shangi-la space that cant’ last through the night, the necropastoral space, the ugly space where hooded figures are photographed as portraits of the abu-ghraib generation (and for school IDs that could double as mug shots or posters for a post-Columbine highschool musical. Mug shot, bank shot, rat a tat tat. We shot all the way to the blood bank.)

15. Not the timeless space of the quietists or the progressive, futurity-based chronological space of the experimental poets, nor the alternative, pious space of the hybridists, but an anachronistic space of sleepwalkers and writhing performers of the skin tango. (Sleepwalkers who could not be trusted, having been seduced by Art. Having gone all the way.)

16. Many of the poets we were interested in – Swedish poet Aase Berg, South Korean Kim Hyesoon, Chilean Mapuche Indian Jaime Huenun – wrote in other languages. Wrote in many languages. Or wrote through languages. Or were possessed by languages, possessed by media.

17. We had noticed that American poetry presses very seldom published works in translation. And the presses that did publish works in translation were usually “translation presses,” presses considered ethical but seldom considered part of the conversations of American poetry. We wanted to create a press where the conversation crossed linguistic and ethnic boundaries., (revealed them to be neither boundaries nor a free market but a convulsive, ecstatic, irrational, folding, mutating membrane.) We did not want our translation titles to be ghettoized; they would be as important to our press as our American titles. (We wanted, at the very least, a seance).

18. One of our pet peeves: The common practice of presses to claim to be “looking for the best poetry, no matter what style.”

19. Gross. What you consider the best poetry is your style. Claiming you want the best no matter what style merely means you don’t want to elaborate on your ideas, you don’t want to stick your neck out, you want your aesthetics to remain hidden.

20. One of the great things about the explosion of small presses is that it is making visible aesthetics. There is NO NEUTRAL aesthetic. Just an institutionally supported aesthetic that for too long has been able to hide behind that institutional clout.

21. [I’m not sure how I feel about this one, so I censured it.]

22. [And this oen doesn’t make sense without #21]

23. We have much work to do.

24. [And this one made me feel tired so I took it out too.]

25. I have a very poor sense of time. I had a very poor sense of time. It seems like we just started Action Books. It seems like ancient history. Being telegraphed out from the Eifel Tower. (Eating the milk and honeydew in Paradise, that terrible dive, that autopsy, that cadaver, that drop-body.) Using a little match box full of needles and the femur of a saint.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Amish

    I still have the email from November of 2004 saying you two were starting the press.

  2. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    I wish snow had not prevented me from seeing this performed, especially now that I have met Carina.

  3. Corey

    From afar, I can say what seems most successfully done so far is point #19. It is a dissimulation the gatekeepers of taste perform when they allege a humble, “just the best work”, without supposed aesthetic expectations. Well done pursuing intensities, rather than “quality”.

    Point #2, partly your doing, seems to be an overarching topos of much small press American poetry now. I only hope you guys continue to lose yourselves in translation.

  4. m kitchell

    this is terrific. i am, of course, intensely curious as to what could lie behind the veil of 21 & 22, because it is the embarrassing and the unsure that i like best, maybe.

  5. Carina Finn

    21 was one of my favorite parts!

  6. Laura Mullen

    I love this so much: wish I’d been there for the performance, but thrilled to be able to return and return, yes especially to #19 (on Jan 19th 2014), but just for the fierce pushback against the AWP (is it true it stands for A White Penis?) culture…