Ben Franklin’s Backyard

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Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Science Festival

Last week, I had the pleasure of showing some fourth grade students—lots of and lots of fourth grade students, actually—how to use a letterpress machine. As part of a daylong event called Science in the National Parks, several area artists and scientists put on demonstrations for the students who visited with their families and on class trips. Since, in Philadelphia, much of the national park is comprised of urban historical sites, the event took place right downtown, in the courtyard behind the building where Benjamin Franklin had his print shop. (They call it Franklin Court, but I can’t help but think of it as Ben Franklin’s backyard.) This is the place where he published The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack, and it’s a block away from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. These two things are connected; without the printing presses of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense wouldn’t have found its readers—and without his ideas, we might not have had a revolution. The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library was invited to teach the students something about printmaking, so we carved a linoleum block with a charming design, packed up our tabletop Signmaker press, and spent a sunshiny day in late April helping hundreds of kids pull prints in bright-colored ink.

Growing up in Philadelphia, you hear a lot about Ben Franklin. He was one of our country’s founding fathers, of course, but he also started a lot of important stuff right here in Philly, like the University of Pennsylvania, where I went to school, and The Library Company of Philadelphia. His name is on everything—like the Ben Franklin Bridge and the beautiful Ben Franklin Parkway—and his image is everywhere, from commissioned statues (including this one, which commemorates his work as a printer) to the sign attached to a disused water tower advertising the Electric Factory, a concert venue where I’ve spent many hours of my life having my hearing damaged by bands I loved. Several years ago, I visited a friend who lives on the West Coast, and we made a road trip down the coast of Oregon. When we stopped in the small, picturesque town of McMinnville for breakfast, I was startled to see a bronze statue of Ben Franklin sitting on a park bench—a lot like the one on Penn’s campus—and I joked that I couldn’t get away from the guy.

Even still, this know-it-all Philadelphian found spending time in the space where he once worked surprisingly stirring. All day long we told the students a very abbreviated  version of the story of what went on inside Franklin’s print shop, and showed them how to use a printing press that operates using the same principles as the one he used. We asked them to consider how difficult and time-consuming it would have been to place every letter of a sentence—and paragraph, page, newspaper, or book—one at a time in order to print it … and not only that, but you had to spell them backward! We helped each kid ink up the block and pull the metal bar across the press bed, applying the pressure that would print the image onto the page. They smiled brightly each time we peeled the paper back to reveal the picture they had made. Mechanical reproduction of this kind produces results that are reliably consistent, of course, and yet no two prints are ever exactly the same. Most of the kids kept a close watch on the prints as they dried on the table because they wanted to be sure they took home the one they themselves had printed. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press took written communication a step away from the intimacy of handwriting, but today, these old-fashioned printing technologies show the artist’s hand in a way that digital communications can’t. (Not yet, at least.)

The Soapbox is proud to participate in a long tradition of printing in the city where Ben Franklin worked, a city with a rich and colorful—and incendiary—publishing history. If you get the chance to use a letterpress printer, take it. There’s a power in printing your work with your own hands—in pulling that heavy metal contraption over the words and images you placed there—that you can really feel.

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Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Science Festival

 

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The year in review

Happy New Year, everyone! This might be my favorite time of the year to be alive, this week right here. True, being cold (and getting colds) is kind of a drag, but I like taking stock and I like making plans, and I feel that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the right time to do both. I’ve spent the last few days working on my year-end review, and yesterday, by happenstance, I discovered the writer Ksenia Anske and her beautiful website. I was inspired by her year-in-review blog post—and its accompanying photo grid!—to share my own, so here goes: a list of things I did and learned in 2016.

  • I wrote and completed edits on my book Cats I’ve Known, to be published in 2017. Completing this work was my biggest accomplishment of the year—that and surviving the appendicitis that tried to strike me down just a few weeks after I finished the first draft. Nice try, body! I’m still winning, for now.
  • I completed Magical Thinking, the zine my pal Mardou and I made by emailing back and forth with each other on topics including gemstones, herbal healing, and dreams. We then published our dialogue, accompanied by the illustrations Mardou drew. (She is a talented comics artist whose work I really enjoy.) I brought the zine with me to the NYC Feminist Zine Fest at Barnard College, an annual event that I tabled at for the first time. It was a long, hectic day, but I had a few interesting and memorable conversations with visitors to my table, which is the measure I use to judge all zine fests. Frequency and quality of chats.
  • I also tabled with my zines at the Scranton Zine Fest, the Philly Zine Fest, and a Winter Market at the Germantown Kitchen Garden, and all three events were fun and very rewarding.
  • I continued to benefit from keeping this blog. Having a place where I can explore my thoughts about the things I’m reading has been good for me. I like writing about books, but I don’t always like books-writing jobs, if ya feel me. In this space, I can write what I want, at whatever length suits me. So thank you for taking an interest in my blog, gang; it means a lot to me.
  • I finally visited Haegele’s Bakery in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. As far as I know these folks are not my relations, but they have operated a German bakery in the same city that I’m from for nearly 90 years—and I never got around to visiting it until last month. Whatta jerk! Joe and I went there with friends on the damp, chilly Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it made me so happy to see how pretty and old-fashioned the shop is, sitting right there on the corner of a residential street just a few blocks away from the one where my mother lived when she was a teenager. I ate a Stollen AND a Bienenstich, and they were both gorgeous. Planning on getting myself a Grosse Neujahrsbrezel on New Year’s Eve, too.
  • I got two new jobs this year, contract gigs doing editing work, which is just a mundane thing that I needed to do to make more money and wouldn’t ordinarily mention. But my job slog has had an unexpected and happy result (besides the more—but still not enough!—money): I discovered that I love editing other people’s writing. What’s more, I’m not bad at it. There is something deeply satisfying about taking a piece of writing and making it tighter, cleaner, smoother, and better all around, while preserving its original spirit and without imposing my own voice or attitude onto it. It’s like being a tailor, an invisible mender: I leave things looking better than I found them, and if I do my work really well, you won’t be able to tell I  was ever there.
  • I redesigned my website. Go take a look!
  • I raised a black swallowtail butterfly, which was an incredibly beautiful experience that happened half by accident. In September I attended a meeting of the garden club I used to belong to, and a friend there gave me a bunch of cuttings from her herb garden. I put them in a vase on the kitchen table and enjoyed them for a week or two before Joe noticed two minuscule caterpillars on their leaves. We watched them both get bigger fairly rapidly, then put them inside a small aquarium to keep them safe. Over the next week one of the caterpillars kept escaping, so we released it into the wilds of our backyard and wished it well. The other we kept, feeding it carrot greens from our garden because we read that’s what they like to eat. This guy went to TOWN eating them and got bigger and fatter by the day, until he made his chrysalis. Then that gnarly looking thing lived in our kitchen for 2 more weeks before it burst open, behind us on the kitchen counter while we sat at the table one morning, talking and drinking coffee. We were lucky to see the creature’s black wings when they were still all wet and soft and crumpled; the whole event happened so fast, if we’d been in another room for even an hour we would have missed it. We brought the new butterfly outside, and Joe went into work late that day so that we could sit in our yard and watch it spread and flap and dry out its wings in the sun and fresh air, carefully but quickly, before it flew away.
  • My good friend Nadine Schneider and I made a zine together, and I’ve been selling it at the Wooden Shoe. She wrote about making and using herbal body care products, and I wrote about how you can clean your house without nasty neurotoxins. We called it Kytchyn Witche and spelled it that way because that’s the way it’s spelled in an account we read about the good luck “poppet” that English people kept in their homes during the Tudor period. And because it looks cool.
  • I street-protested the Trump presidency and the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist, and I plan to keep on doing so because these people are really bad news, and protesting is democracy in action.
  • I saw a fuckton of bands play. I celebrated a significant birthday this year and while I don’t really want to tell you my age, I will tell you that in honor of it, I set a goal to see 40 live shows this year. I achieved the goal and had a lot of fun doing it. Highlights include: discovering the industrial/punk band Uniform when they opened for somebody else, then seeing them again later in the year (are you familiar with the phrase WALL OF SOUND); seeing another act on the Sacred Bones label, Blanck Mass, who turned the tiny space at Johnny Brenda’s into a cathedral with his majestic noise; enjoying the heck out of ourselves at RuPaul’s Drag Race Battle of the Seasons, which had about 100 clever acts packed into one show (plus Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon LIVE AND IN PERSON!); watching Philly band Remote Control (pictured above) channel Peter Murphy; being transfixed by the sight of weirdo genius Jenny Hval bopping around the room; and Shopping. We got right up in front of the stage and danced at them, and they danced back. Such a good-natured, high-energy band, and those post-punk melodies do something really nice to my brain chemistry. If they don’t get big I’ll be a little surprised.
  • Joe and I hosted three shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room this year, which wasn’t as many as last year. They were good shows though, featuring the chiptune musician Sloopygoop, folk singers Potential Gospel, video artist Cory Kram, postpunk band Rabbits to Riches, loony tunesters Yoga Dad, and memoirist Ashton Yount.
  • Joe and I also toured twice, up north during the summer and down south in the fall. In New England we did readings at the Papercut Zine Library in Boston, a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, and one in Woodstock, New York. On our Southern tour, I was pleased and frankly really proud to perform with our friends Kishibashi, his wife Mocha, and their daughter Sola (all three of them on violin) at a wonderful bookstore called Avid in Athens, Georgia. The artist and adorable human Missy Kulik read from her comics at that show, too. We also performed with the one-man band who is Tall Tall Trees, at a fine bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina called Downtown Books & News. Then we went to Savannah and did a show at Starlandia, a charming creative reuse shop, with the inimitable Dame Darcy, a comics artist whose work I have admired for a long time. (She read from her books and, accompanied by her friend Skippy on guitar, she played sea shanties on the banjo. It was a special night.)
  • I participated in Fun-a-Day last January, and even though I was lazy about it I managed to write a little something almost every day that month, which was an undertaking I took to treating like a diary. At the end of the project I made a handmade book collecting the month’s meditations and exhibited it in the group show. I plan to participate again this year—just one more day till it starts!—and I’ve got my idea ready and my pencils sharpened. They are metaphorical pencils.
  • I hosted a Pop-Up Zine Reading Room at Amalgam Comics in the Kensington neighborhood Philadelphia, which means that I took a bunch of zines and books from the collection at The Soapbox and sat at the bookstore with a sign inviting people to join me and read them. It was sweet. I also ran a zine workshop for the high school students in the after-school program at the Lutheran Settlement House, also in Kenzo, and in November I cohosted a letterpress printing and book-binding workshop for some undergraduate writing students. Those events were sweet, too.
  • I started a zine about Christmas, which I have historically hated, with my friend, the talented artist Nicholas Beckett. His witty, warm, and sweetly grouchy drawings helped me hate Christmas just a little bit less.
  • I started a new writing collaboration with Eliza, a lovely new friend I met at the Philly Zine Fest. I look forward to seeing where this project takes us in the new year.

City of the dead

I switched off the radio. In Belfast the news was an accompaniment like music but I didn’t want to hear this stuff. Coffee-jar bomb. Yeah, that was another big craze. I got the idea that people were impressed by this new thing, this wheeze, this caper. Me, I wasn’t impressed. It was easy to do that ugly stuff.

Suddenly I longed to leave Belfast. Because of an inadvertently heard news story, the city felt like a necropolis.

—from the novel Eureka Street, by Robert McLiam Wilson

The book I’m reading is about Belfast, clearly, but that necropolis joke hits home. I am so awfully weary of turning on the news just to hear the latest tragedy from one of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Sometimes I can’t listen at all.

On public speaking

There’s reading, and then there’s readings. I do both, but I find the former much easier to do than the latter.

That being said, I’m proud to say that I do actually find it POSSIBLE to give readings these days. For a lot of my life—beginning, for some reason, in college, and lasting until around five years ago—I found the anxiety of anticipating speaking in public almost too excruciating to bear. I would always accept invitations to read—I’m too much of a huckster to feel good about saying no to an opportunity like that, and I’m always so touched to be included—but I knew that in saying yes, I was resigning myself to weeks or months of miserable worry. I just accepted this fact about them (and about myself), said Yes, thanks, I’d love to read, and coped privately with the unhappiness of it.

“It gets easier the more you do it,” everyone said, and I always smiled and nodded and thought, “But not for me!” I really believed I was the one exception to this very human rule. But as it happens, I’m not. I made myself do more and more readings even though I found it hard, because I felt it was worth it. I wanted to be a writer who gave readings, not a person who didn’t do things because they scared her. I’d get up to read and my voice shook, my legs shook, my hands shook. I’d speak quickly and apologetically, then blaze through an awkward reading from a marked-up copy of one of my zines (though I tended to sort of go blind with anxiety, so couldn’t really see my notes). I once threw up in the bathroom of an art gallery, then splashed a little water on my face and came out and read, hoping no one could smell my breath. I don’t think the readings I gave back then were very entertaining to sit through. They may not even have been audible. But I did them, dammit, and the relief I felt after sharing my work in this way I found difficult was so good, it was physical. I almost miss that feeling. ALMOST.

I’ve had a few break-throughs here and there, and the more successful events gave me a confidence I could carry with me to the next time I got up to read. At Ladyfest Philly in 2013, I was miked and professionally lit, which was a new experience for me, since I’ve most often read in bookshops, classrooms, record stores, and little show spaces in people’s houses. There was a chair and I sat in it, made myself comfortable. As I started to speak I looked out to the audience—a much bigger one than I usually read to—and found that with the bright lights in my eyes, I couldn’t really see anyone. The joy! I read so easily and comfortably on that occasion that I actually enjoyed myself, and I could feel the power in what I read. I KNEW there was a reason I kept doing this!

Over the years I have read the piece I shared that day—the essay that served as the introduction to my first book, White Elephants—as well as some others, again and again. I’ve found that with practice I can nail the rhythm and flow of a piece, make it sound as good as I know it is.

The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Now I give readings often. My partner Joe and I both write and publish zines, and over the past few years we’ve enjoyed organizing and hosting readings as well as going on tours to other cities and towns. We’re on one now, sorta, having returned from a road trip to New England last week and with one reading remaining: The Philly Zine Fest Preview Gala, tonight. First we read with friends and strangers alike at the East Falls Zine Reading Room, the small DIY space we started last year. We called the event Sad Fest and everyone read sad-sack writing and played sad-sack songs. It was great. Then we hit the road and shared some of our poems with an engaged and interested group of poets at the Golden Note Book in Woodstock, New York. The next day we drove to Boston and read our zines to a lively bunch of zinester pals at the Papercut Zine Library. And before coming back home to Philly, we did a reading at a lovely, cool bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island called Ada Books.

We never remember to take good photos of ourselves actually doing the readings, but here are some pictures from the “Dog Days, Cat Zines” tour. That’s J. fiddling with the kaleidoloop he uses to make noise-music to accompany some of his poems.


Once we’ve read at the Zine Fest Preview tonight and tabled with our zines and books at the main event tomorrow, our tour will be over, and so will the summer. That’s how I’m thinking of it, anyway. I’m ready for the fall to come so that I can indulge in some of my quieter, more private pleasures for a while: needlework, long walks, and lots of reading—rather than lots of READINGS, ya dig? But I have loved doing this tour, pushing myself and growing, meeting new people and some cats, too. It’s been a long summer but a good one, exhausting but worthwhile.

See you in the fall, folks.

 

Love’s Old Sweet Song

Well hey, June 16th was a good day for reading. It started first thing, for me, with a perfect little essay about junk shops by Luc Sante for the Paris Review, and it ended in the evening with Bloomsday, which is one the best things that happens in Philly, thanks, in my eyes, to Drucie McDaniel’s Molly Bloom.

For those who don’t know, Bloomsday is a yearly celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, so called because the whole big brick of a book takes place over the course of one day in Dublin—June 16, 1904— with the character of Leopold Bloom at the center of it all. Bloomsday started in Dublin, naturally, where people can walk through the city and visit the sites mentioned by name in the book, but these celebrations take place all around the world now, usually in the form of readings. That’s what we do in Philly, every June 16th; for the last 20-some years, the Rosenbach Library and Museum has hosted readings from the book, right out on their beautiful street of brownstones and window boxes, Delancey Street, downtown. Folks from all walks of life—many but not all of them Irish by nationality or descent—are invited to read a portion of the novel, and there’s lots of singing and other music, too. As Rosenbach Director Derick Dreher reminded us this year, the novel and the day are about the sung word as much as the written and spoken word. This is a novel that’s meant to be heard, and hearing it outside, in the city, feels right. That is God, Stephen Dedalus says in the novel. A shout in the street.

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Photo of a Dublin street taken in 1969, from the National Library of Ireland

I went to Bloomsday toward the end of the day, as I usually do, in order to catch Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Drucie McDaniel is, as this point, a star. We’re all there for her. No one else could be Molly Bloom. They announce her with pride and pleasure and a bit of fanfare, and then she emerges, dressed in what looks like a period costume but might actually just be a really cool dress, white and formless in that flapperish way, and gorgeous white ankle boots. She takes her time reaching the podium and once she gets there, she interprets a portion of that final steam-of-consciousess speech in what sounds to my American ears like a perfect Dublin accent. (She’s American too.) It is a wonderful thing to be a part of, and I put it that way because being there feels like being a part of something, not just passive entertainment but a community, a street filled with people and shared good feeling and different types of liveliness and stillness.

As she read I thought about the time I tried to meet someone there, a new friend who I felt a special closeness to and who I’d run into earlier in the day. She didn’t know about Bloomsday but was excited by my excitement about it and said she’d try to come down and meet me there if she could. I went and stood in the back where I could see the readers and also the rest of the crowd, standing around and sitting on chairs arranged in rows in front, and waited for her, weirdly excited to see her arrive. She got there and moved through the crowd, looking for me, and I thought she looked right at me a few times but she didn’t see me. I  wanted to shout her name to get her attention but I didn’t, I couldn’t, didn’t even move, just watched her take a chair and listen to the rest of the day’s readings while I stayed standing and listened along with her.

I thought about that. I thought about the collective tension of a crowd of people all trying to be quiet and still.

I thought about a man I used to see at Bloomsday but haven’t for a few years now, how he used to wear a three-piece tweed suit that you could tell were his real, everyday clothes. I thought about the way he sat on the edge of his chair and rested his Bloomsday program, rolled up, on his knee, the way men do.

I thought about what I’d wear to the show at the record store the next day. All black, probably, here’s hoping it’s not too hot.

When they got to the Sinbad the Sailor part, I thought about taking Joe to Bloomsday last year, when they held it in the church because it was so hot outside. I thought about how we’ve taken to saying those silly words to each other at bedtime, like in the book, when we’re getting sleepy: Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailor and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer…

I looked at the lady whose cardigan had half fallen off the back of her chair. I looked at people’s hairlines and blotchy skin and interesting shoes. I shifted back and forth to try to get a better view and hoped that my back wouldn’t hurt too much, later at home. I watched people walking past pushing babies in strollers, looking either embarrassed or proud to find themselves with an audience. I looked at a black dog’s black, wet nose and she looked into my eyes, like a person. Her owner kept turning and smiling at everyone around her.

I worried that this would be the year I’d find out I’d lost it, that I wouldn’t be moved to cry during Molly’s speech the way I always have. I was thinking and shifting and I couldn’t really see. But it got me, it always gets me, it’s embarrassing but by now I’d miss the tears if they didn’t come. It’s that line—”and I thought well as well him as another”—that undoes me. Why does it affect me the way it does? I think it’s the thought of Joyce understanding the mind of a woman well enough to write a line like that that I find so beautiful; it’s such a wonderful surprise. It’s like when someone who really loves you notices something small and special about you that you never noticed yourself, something only someone who understands you could show you, that feeling of being seen.

Drucie McDaniel finished being Molly Bloom for the year, and I cried. They gave her flowers, like they do every year, and then there was a song, “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” sung by a woman named Abla Hamza. She invited us to sing along for the final verse but only the old people knew the words. And then we all left.

Irish literature, Irish rebellion, and the lost art of letter writing

On Thursday of last week, I had the great pleasure of listening to a conversation about Irish society between two of the most important living Irish writers, the poet Eavan Boland and the fiction writer Colm Toíbín, at the Free Library in Philadelphia. The talk was moderated by a filmmaker and journalist named Sadhbh Walshe, and its purpose was to discuss the legacy of the Easter Rising of 1916 on the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s fight for independence.

Linen hall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.
Linenhall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.

I’ve been to about a million talks and readings at the Free Library, which puts on an excellent authors series every year, and quite honestly I’m often one of about 30 or 40 people there. I didn’t bother buying a ticket for this talk in advance because I didn’t expect a program on this rather narrow topic to come close to selling out, but I had a surprise in store. When I got to the library the auditorium was nearly full, and I was lucky to be able to buy a ticket at the door. Even luckier to find an open seat, which happened to be next to an old friend of mine from college. All around us, and in the ladies’ room too, I could hear conversations taking place in Irish accents, from both the south and the north. It really drove home the points that Toíbín and Boland made about the Irish in America. One of the first remarks that Toíbín made was to quote Irish ambassador Barbara Jones, who said that there wouldn’t be peace in Ireland if it weren’t for the U.S. And the connection between the two countries wouldn’t exist, of course, if it weren’t for the many millions of Irish immigrants who have arrived on these shores over the last few hundred years.

Boland and Toíbín both had many wonderful, insightful things to say during the hour or so that they were interviewed. One of my favorite ideas is one they came back to several times, and which both of them have addressed in their writing over the years: What Boland described as the gap between history and “the past.” History, she said, is populated by famous names and important leaders, nearly all of them men. The past is filled with people, many of them women, whose names we never knew but without whom no “history” would have been made.

They talked about the Irish rebellion and how it had its roots in the Great Famine, and the silence and “erasure” of that tragedy. Toíbín said that he believes the earliest feeling that the English must leave Ireland came from this time. He reminded us that 1 million people died in the Famine, but 2 million emigrated away from it, most of them to America: To Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Haunted by their memories of the Famine, this “angry diaspora” began making “revolutionary noise” to fill that silence.

The two writers also talked about James Joyce, and Toíbín—always so finely attuned to the female experience—made the excellent observation that Joyce was “engaged in the politics of Ireland by letting a woman speak uninterrupted” at the end of Ulysses. Hearing this made me glow with pleasure. (And reminded me to be exited about going to hear Drucie McDaniel do the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday readings, as she does every year.)

And to my delight, they talked about handwriting. Toíbín, who grew up in Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland, told a story about the 400-year-old castle there. In the 1950s, his father raised the money to buy the castle, which was no longer inhabited and which he planned to restore and operate as a museum. The people of the town were invited to donate any antiques they had in their homes for display in the castle, and Toíbín recalled that everyone wanted to bring something, not because they would benefit financially from doing so, but because there was a woman named Marion Stokes with beautiful copperplate handwriting who wrote the name of every contribution on a placard. At home later I read about Marion Stokes, and how some 30 years before this, she had participated in the Easter Rising, helping to hoist the tricolor flag as they declared Ireland a Republic. It was clear that Toíbín was still moved by the idea of this handwriting and what it meant to people, to see their things made into pieces of history in this beautiful way by a woman who had been a part of history herself. (He tells a longer version this story in a recent article in the Irish Times.)

Moderator Walshe led this story, quite gracefully, into a conversation about letter writing. Boland talked about how important writing letters home was to the Irish immigrants who knew they may never again see their hometowns again, and who sat down to write them on “the long evenings of their leave-takings.” She read her poem “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” and it was one of a few tearjerkers that evening.

“…And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see
The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became
Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew
By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?”

***

The talk has brought up a lot of feelings and ideas for me, though I can’t see the full shape of them yet. I grew up in a very Irish-Catholic world, attending Catholic church and school in an overwhelmingly Irish-American parish, and my own ethnic background is largely Irish as well, though my name is German, which was enough to mark me as a kind of outsider in my little community. (That and the fact that my German-named father, who was at least half Irish anyway, was not Catholic: unthinkable!) My mother, who was the one who handed down Catholicism to us and who had grown up with the Irish name and background, always showed disdain for the ethnic pride the large Irish families in our parish seemed to have, and I see now that her distaste came from a kind of shame. It was another facet to my feeling like an outsider to the community I grew up in, which ironically (or inevitably, I guess) has at times made me feel desperate to understand it and get closer to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how Irish I really am.

I’ve read an awful lot of Irish writing on this journey, though, let me tell you. In Toíbín’s remarkable characters (so many of them women), I hear my grandmother’s outrageous, flippant turn of phrase; I see my mother’s thin-lipped rebellion. I understand the nature of the silence and stoicism he describes—and the unruliness beneath it. The lyricism and homegrown feminism of Boland’s poetry resonates with me too, on a deep, personal level. Her country’s troubled history won’t let go of her, but in her writing she grapples with it, and appears to have gotten the upper hand.

As I sat listening to the writers talk about Ireland I got those incredible lines from Yeats caught in my head, the ones about the fanatic heart that I sometimes like to say to myself over and over again. “Out of Ireland have we come. / Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother’s womb / A fanatic heart.” It always gets my own heart racing, which has a weird way of soothing me, like a mantra for the restless.

What a Book Is

Hey gang! I’ve been meaning to get on here and write something smart about books for a while now, but I haven’t been able to. Ya wanna know why? Cuz I got appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery! And wow did it hurt. I’ve spent the last week or so unable to do pretty much anything, but today I seem to have gotten back a bit of my old vim and zest, not to mention the INTELLECTUAL RIGOR you come here for. And since an interesting new title has recently been donated to the East Falls Zine Reading Room, I think I’ll take a moment to tell you about it.

A few weeks ago I attended the Philadelphia Art Book Fair as an exhibitor. We had a table—we being The Soapbox, the DIY print- and book-making center I belong to—and were selling prints, zines, and artists’ books made by our members and giving out information about our upcoming events. We sat next to the folks from Ulises, which is a bookshop and curatorial project that brings out publications, exhibits, and lectures on a different theme each season. They were lovely guys, and I made a trade with them: a few of my zines for a copy of their publication of Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books. (You can read the full text here.) Carrión, a Mexican conceptual artist, is their project’s namesake.

By this point you may be asking, What is an artist’s book, Katie? My short answer is,
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ! My longer answer is that an artist’s book is a book, but not in the usual way. It’s a piece of art in the form of a book. The artist may make just one of these books, or she may make multiple copies or versions. And sometimes the artist’s book won’t look much like a book at all.

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See, here’s what happens when you google “artists’ books.”

The Ulises edition of The New Art of Making Books does not have a spine and is not otherwise constructed like a book in any way except that it is comprised of text that has been printed onto paper. These prints are stacked up and stapled together at the top. This not-a-book structure helps guide us toward an understanding of Carrión’s definition of a book, which he delineates by differentiating between books of the “old art” and the new.

“In the old art the meanings of the words are the bearers of the author’s intentions. … The words in a new book are not the bearers of the message, nor the mouthpieces of the soul, not the currency of communications. … The words of the new book are there not to transmit certain mental images with a certain intention. They are there to form, together with other signs, a space-time sequence that we identify with the name ‘book.'”

About those “old” books, Carrión goes on to say,

“A book of 500 pages, or of 100 pages, or even of 25, wherein all the pages are similar, is a boring book considered as a book, no matter how thrilling the content of the words of the text printed on the pages might be. … A novel with no capital letters, or with different letter types, or with chemical formulae interspersed here and there etc., is still a novel, that is to say, a boring book pretending not to be such.” Haha! No tea no shade!

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So many layers of meaning.

Because The New Art of Making Books is not really a book, we had to get creative about the way we added it to our collection. Storing unusual publications like these is continually challenging, since we need to protect them but also want to store and display them for ease of use and reading. This hinge clip contraption from the thrift store does the job nicely, and serves to highlight selections from the library.

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Of these three, only Daniel Zender’s Escape Plans, on the left, is a “real” book. This edition of the zine You, on the right, takes the form of a photocopied letter inside of a paper bag.

In Carrión’s manifesto / essay / theory / art piece, he reminds us that in the first place, writers don’t write books, they write texts. Though The New Art of Making Books was first published in 1975, it’s even more relevant now, as I prepare this text you are reading to be “published” not as a book, but on a blog, where it can be accessed for free by anyone connected to the worldwide network known as the Internet. But that’s a conversation—about reading, literature, and the changing nature of literacy—for another day.