Term Paper: Reading Poetry in its Publishing Context (due 10/29)

Coterie, issue 1. Index of Modernist Magazines.

This paper will encourage you to read some the work of a single poet in the context of literary community, not merely in terms of the “individual talent.” Rather, I want you to explore how poetry develops in spaces created by small press publishers and magazines, in conversation with other poetries, rather than in a vacuum.

For this paper, you will independently research a selected contemporary small press (via Entropy’s Small Press Database) or Modernist journal (via the Modernist Journals Project).

Your six- to eight-page essay will be a critical analysis of the work of one poet (if you choose a contemporary small press, and your chosen poet has not published more than one book with your chosen press, you may expand the area of focus from “one writer” to one literary sub-context, such as “Korean poetry in translation”). Your paper should spotlight this poet’s contributions across issues/books, exploring, in turn: how is this poet’s work framed by the overarching mission/aesthetics of the publisher; and, how does this poet’s contributions influence/expand this publisher’s mission/aesthetics?

To narrow down your options, I offer the suggested topics below. If you would like to suggest your own topic, please email me for approval.

Suggested Topics for Researching in the Modernist Journals Project

  1. Select a poet whose work appears in one of the first few issues of your chosen magazine and trace that poet’s work through at least two later volumes. Then, consider:
  • How frequently does this poet’s work appear in the magazine?
    • What are this poet’s typical forms and themes?
    • How does the poet’s work reflect the editorial vision of the magazine (see any letters from the editor, essays published, etc.)
    • In what ways does this poet’s forms and themes resonate with those of other poets in the issues? In what ways does it stand out as distinct?
    • What is this poet’s present reputation? What depth or nuance might reading this poet’s poems in their original context add to that present reputation?

(Suggested periodicals: Poetry, The Little Review, The Crisis, and others. Authors: W.E.B. DuBois, T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Mina Loy, Francis Picabia, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, or Amy Lowell.)

  • Imagism—As this “movement” defined itself, there were serious debates about this word and the kind of poetry associated with it. Who were the players? What were they arguing about? What was “Imagism” or “Imagisme,” anyway? One way to begin investigating this topic is by way of a “full text” search on the MJP site for the word “Imagism”—or, even better, search for “imagis*”–. The latter will find all words that begin with “imagis” no matter how they continue. This search should produce hits in several periodicals and anthologies of the time. Enter the thick of the debates. Periodicals to account for: Four Imagist Anthologies, Catholic Anthology, Poetry, Criterion, and others. Poets: Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), William Carlos Williams, etc.
  • The Harlem Renaissance—Explore how The Harlem Renaissance took shape in the pages of The Crisis. In particular, how did the poetry enter the broader conversation, alongside politics and the other arts. Choose a major poet in that movement, such as Langston Hughes or WEB DuBois, and trace his poetry’s role in that conversation: How do the themes in his poems respond to, and influence, the larger body of discourse, over various issues/numbers? 

2. Suggested Topics for Researching a Contemporary Press

By researching in the Entropy database, and on the webpages of the presses, choose a poet-press pair.  (Your chosen poet should have more than one book with your chosen press.)

Reading these books, consider: How is this poet’s work framed/informed by the overarching mission /aesthetics of the publisher (as stated in the Entropy interview, and perhaps on the press’s website, and elsewhere). In turn, how does this poet’s contributions expand/help to establish this publisher’s mission/aesthetics?

I would like you to do your own digging, as that is part of the fun. But, for the hesitant, here are some suggested presses (for which you can find interviews and commentary on Jacket2 as well: Action Books, Black Ocean, Oomph Press, Wave Books, Noemi Press.

Excursion Response: Conversation with Garth Graeper (due 10/22)

This week we have the privilege of chatting with small press poet and former editor Garth Graeper about his work with Ugly Duckling Presse, as well as his later stints with Penguin Random House and Knopf. It is a small world of small presses: Garth worked on Jeannine Pitas’s first Marosa DiGiorgio translation, The History of Violets, and we had the pleasure of meeting Jeannine through her work with Eulalia Books this semester. In your response, list the question that you asked and talk about why you asked it; also, freely reflect on moments of the conversation that interested you the most.

Creative/Critical Response #1 (due 10/1)

The Philosopher’s Stone, 1992, Barbara Fahrner and Daniel Kelm. Cardboard, steel pins, colored ink, pencil, watercolor, approximately 6 × 8 × 6 in. The Getty Research Institute, 94-B18918. © Barbara Fahrner and Daniel E. Kelm.

Make a book object. Your “book” may draw from traditional forms, such as tablet, scroll, or codex, paperback, hardback, or e-book. You must use, however, some kind of untraditional material (such as wood, cloth, scrap paper, leaves, your own skin, windows, etc.), and you may take very playful liberties with form.

Photograph it from a few angles.

For content, you may use poetry of your own creation, poetry in the public domain, or poetry for which you have secured the appropriate permissions (i.e., from a teacher, acquaintance, or friend). Yes, poetry. As long or short of it as makes sense.

Then, in a 400- to 500-word discussion of your object, address the following points:

  1. How is your object a “book”? (Or maybe: how is it a “non book, anti book, pseudo book, quasi book, concrete book, visual book, conceptual book, structure book”; cf. Carrión).
  2. Reflect on your choice of materials. How do they reflect that the world that you live in/what is available to you?
  3. How does your object anticipate the desires of your imagined reader? Who is your imagined/desired reader?
  4. Discuss the language and its relationship to all of the above.

Use the Borsuk as the theoretical/critical foundation for your response, and directly quote from it at least twice, as needed. Also draw from “The New Art of Making Books,” (which Borsuk discusses in “The Book as Idea”) by Ulises Carrión and the Jen Bervin/Dickinson readings.

Excursion Response: Carnegie Library Zine Collection

“Cover of Poetree” by Jen Pilles (2007). Care of the Solidarity! Revolutionary Center and Radical Library.

Zines present a fascinating, rich case of independent publishing at its most independent. They illustrate what book artist/poet/visual theorist Johanna Drucker calls a “democratic multiple”: copies inexpensively produced and distributed outside of the legitimizing editorial system and bookstore market. How did the zines that you saw reflect the freedoms–and perhaps constraints–of this “fringe” space? In what ways did the zines play with/riff off/rip off/subvert the look, feel, and manner of traditional, commercial publications? In the archive, what was something particularly fun or interesting that grabbed your attention? Finally, how might we define “publication,” in zine-land? How does “publication” in this space differ from commercial publication in terms of the experience of the writer and reader? Begin to speculate: What does the indie poetry world have in common with zines, and what is different?

Excursion Response: Meshwork Press

Saint Vincent College students at Meshwork Press, Wilkinsburg, PA, September 11, 2019. © Michelle Gil-Montero.

In this response, consider the following passage by 20th century writer Anaïs Nin

“The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.
You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.
If I pay no attention, then I do not lock the tray properly, and when I start printing the whole tray of letters falls into the machine. The words which first appeared in my head, out of the air, take body. Each letter has a weight. I can weigh each word again, to see if it is the right one.
I use soap boxes as shelves, to hold tools, paper, inks. I arrive loaded with old rags for the press, old towels for the hands, coffee, sugar.
The press mobilized our energies, and is a delight. At the end of the day you can see your work, weigh it. It is done. It exists.

The writing is often improved by the fact that I live so many hours with a page that I am able to scrutinize it, to question the essential words. In writing, my only discipline has been to cut out the unessential. Typesetting is like film cutting. The discipline of typesetting and printing is good for the writer.”

from The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1971).

What, if anything, did your first experience with the letterpress reveal to you about the process (and perhaps the poetics) of typesetting? Why, do you suppose, a number of small poetry presses continue to hold onto the art of letterpress? Speak from your experience at Meshwork.

Excursion Response: Pressing On

I hope that the screening and subsequent conversation sparked some good thinking about the letterpress printer’s attention to the object (down to the individual letter and space) of word, page, and ultimately, book. Given the physicality, malleability, and the DIY roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic of letterpress, it is not surprising that small publishers of poetry have gravitated to the craft. Poet Katherine Case captures the pull of letterpress from a poet-publisher’s perspective:

“There is no better way to get to know another person’s poem than to set it in type and print it by hand. The other great thing that drew me to printmaking and letterpress printing is the medium’s combination of the industrial and the artistic— the hum and click of a Vandercook press, the greasy, inky smell of metal type and that lovely, decisive feeling one gets gouging a linoleum block. … I think of my poetry as something that exists in my head. Writing is a method for me to process and understand the world, so the more I write the more calm and balanced I feel. Printmaking, on the other hand, is a craft, and it exists in my body. The process of observing nature and then creating a linoleum cut or a typographical composition is a physical process, and the more I do it the more I feel present in this moment and this place.”

Harriet Staff, “Ploughshares Announces A New Letterpress” (The Poetry Foundation, 2012).

Post a 400-ish word excursion response reflecting on the film, the ideas that I raise above, and/or the questions on the worksheet that we handed out. (Remote students: your response will be somewhat different -see the “Alternative Excursion” worksheet that I sent.)

Blog Post #2 (due Tuesday, 9/10)

Image result for object book
Haim Steinback, “Object, book” (Three Star Books)

Object analysis. Choose a book of poetry, any physical book of poetry in your possession, and analyze it as an object. Use your visual, tactile, and even olfactory senses…Consider: the color, texture, and weight of the paper, the image on the cover, the size and style of the print, the thickness of the spine, the depth of the gutter, does the codex want to lay open or shut? Use sensory description, and metaphor if you like, to characterize the nature of this physical object. Describe how you interact with it. Include at least one image of the book, inside and/or outside. Quote from this week’s reading in your response (Amaranth Borsuk, The Book: “The Book as Object”).

Blog Post #1 (due Tuesday, 9/3)


This post is a response to the assigned essay, “On the Cult of Books” (1951) by Jorge Luis Borges. Choose one of the following options. Option 1) Borges connects the rise of the book to the development of silent reading and, by extension, to the concept of sacred silence. Read a page of the essay out loud, and then read the same page silently. Be attentive to the difference between the two experiences—what changes, in your relationship with the text? What is the difference between the vocalization in your mind and your vocalization out loud? Go back in time: what makes the “strange art of silent reading” so strange? Should books —or certain books, in certain contexts —be read out loud or silently? Why? In your answer, respond to St. Augustine’s comments quoted in the essay. 

Option 2) Grab hold of one conception of the book mentioned in the essay—either from the period dominated by orality or by writing (e.g., Gallileo’s metaphor of the universe as a book, Mallarme’s notion of the world existing to “end up in a book,” Plato’s idea of the book that doesn’t respond to questions, or the conception of Francis Bacon or the Jewish Kabbalists, etc.). Use Google to chase that reference down, or just sit and think hard about it. Expand on, interrogate, and bring your own example/s to, that idea of the book.