Transitory Poetics is a monthly review series by Toby Altman focused solely on current and upcoming chapbooks. You can read the introduction here.
This month I reviewed three chapbooks from Projective Industries: Kate Schapira’s Someone is Here, Leora Fridman’s Obvious Metals, and Linda Russo’s picture everything closer visible. Based in New York and Chicago, Projective Industries has published about twenty-five titles over the past eight years, and its authors are consistently among the best poets writing today—Lucy Ives, G.C. Waldrep, Stacy Szymaszek, to name a few. The press produces beautiful and unusual books, which combine digital and letterpress printing techniques. “As objects,” the editors write in a recent interview here at Entropy, “the aesthetic of our chapbooks lies happily between the DIY aesthetic of zines and the gorgeous history of book art and fine press.” They shift formats to match the verse they contain—sometimes tall and slim, sometimes wide, sometimes tiny squares of text. In this sense, Projective Industries builds books which are not just vessels for poems, but are themselves extensions of the poems and poetics they embody.
I offer these details about the press’ history and practices as a way of entering into its project and aesthetics—though it resists any programmatic statement of its own priorities. “Projective Industries is breathless waiting for you.” That’s all they say about themselves on their webpage. There’s no ‘about’ page, no mission statement. Rather there’s an invitation to interpretation and collaboration, to a kind of readership that crosses into authorship. Each of the chapbooks under review here takes up that challenge. In different ways, they establish a collaborative poetics: a poetics that makes the poem a labor shared across histories and voices. They work to reinvest and reinvent avant-garde forms and histories for contemporary political struggles. In Linda Russo’s picture everything closer visible, for example, Emily Dickinson becomes a partner in contemporary ecological struggle. Or in Leora Fridman’s Obvious Metals, a studied set of appropriations from Carrie Lorig’s poems becomes the ground upon which Fridman articulates a feminist poetics. As I’ll argue, the collaborative character of these chapbooks provides a strong suggestion about how avant-garde writing might move forward—despite the weight (and often the injustice) of its history.
By supplying a couple of detailed sketches, thumbnails of an expansive publishing project, I hope I can give a sense of the scope of this particular press—its ambition, its aesthetics, and its accomplishment. I plan to make this a regular part of this series. In addition to reviewing the best chapbooks that cross my desk, every now and then I’ll step back and focus on the exceptional work being done by a single press, describing its work through detailed readings of some of its publications.
Someone is Here by Kate Schapira
Projective Industries, 2015
Kate Schapira’s Someone is Here begins with a failure of containment. Its cover illustration, “Things That Resist Containment IV” by Rejin Leys, pictures a bottle, outlined in thick brown ink. The bottle is broken or porous in the middle: streams of airy grain hang buoyantly at its sides. One thinks (or, anyway, I thought) of Wittgenstein’s famous quip about the fly bottle: the aim of philosophy, he joked, is “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” Leys’ drawing suggests a slightly less carceral relationship between the bottle and its contents. Here, the bottle cooperates with the philosopher; it resists its own containing function. Schapira’s poems are somehow like that: they tend to spill beyond their boundaries. They point, through their own construction, to the apertures in language, through which its flies escape. In the second of four poems titled “Utterances,” for instance, Schapira writes,
when to move or rest or eat or what
to light up or cry out
as words reveal themselves just a few
at a time walking on one step
and then another as is the custom
each opening partway a little further
The lack of punctuation makes the poem porous, pliable. How do we read the interrogative that ends the first line? Is it an alternative to ‘when,’ revising the questions which precede it? Or does it introduce a new set of questions that begin in line two? Reading these lines, one feels syntax as a mobile and uncontainable force, which pulls in many directions at once. In a sense, then, the poem belies its own description of language as a linear, progressive action: “walking on one step / and then another.” Each step in this poem is an opening. Should we plunge in or keep going? And why not both? As Schapira writes, later, “the climb fills up the person climbing.” So too, the poem fills up the person who reads it, so she becomes “more like a fragrance or gesture,” unbound by the ordinary, binary rules of syntactic performance. In this sense, language is both the bottle and the aperture in it.
The poems themselves mimic the containing form of the bottle. They are often short and plainspoken, even epigrammatic. They are rarely longer than a single sentence, though that sentence often torques across many lines or explodes into a run-on. Their diction is plain and straightforward: they accumulate strangeness and precision through twists and knots in syntax that disturb the otherwise even flow of the lines. Schapira’s poems call to mind Susan Howe at her most compressed, or Keith Waldrop, or, for that matter Emerson and Dickinson: they are linked to the deepest tradition in American literature and yet they manage to embody it without nostalgia or anachronism. “One plucks and shares a phrase / and this is a language,” she writes, in the third of four poems called “Intimations,”
an ecological niche between people
being a place and not a feeling
it pours back into itself
as a toast or civic mutuality
Should we read these lines with a period after “people”? In other words, are the “people / being a place”? Or is language “being a place”? In its very ambiguity, the poem suggests the fruitlessness of a definitive answer to these questions: the point, surely, is that both language and people are part of an environment—and that language does not belong to us, that “it pours back into itself,” blurring the boundaries between past and present. In moments like these, Schapira’s poems tempt us to reread the history of American literature against its usual linear, historical grain. Just as they pull apart the linear flow of language to discover openings in its orderly flow, so too they discover an underlying circularity, “a civic mutuality” in its historical uses. As she writes in “Plans, Projections” (the fifth of that name),
if speakers believe in time
they’ll need ways to indicate if something happened
and when in relation
the call went forth
and if this is missing
there’s an infinite ability to retrieve action
which may take the form of going
forth and coming back
These poems are constantly “going / forth and coming back”: they stage the possibility of containment in order to transgress it.
Obvious Metals by Leora Fridman
Projective Industries, 2014
Obvious Metals is a long, narrow chapbook—its spine is almost twice the length of its horizontal sides. The length of the book gives Fridman’s poems a literal kind of stature. They descend down the page from impossible heights in tightly organized couplets and tercets. At the same time, they often leave a broad margin of white space, which frames the poems and gives them a monumental visual character. One thinks, for instance, of the way H.D. uses white space to bind her poems together into a single, composite body. In Fridman’s verse, the emphasis should be on the composite. With the colloquial mysticism of poets like Bernadette Mayer or Eileen Myles, her poems work, stanza by stanza, to combine the mundane and the magnificent. In “After Objects I’m Showered Out,” for example, her writing moves between the aphoristic and the diaristic, building a dialectic between the two:
I could quote forever—the next few lines are just as weird and exciting: “Each people / are producing / saliva // for their / own sake.” I love the way this poem happens. Each piece of it seems like its own poem, a well-formed wedge of lyric brilliance. Yet each piece of it is indispensable to the whole. I say ‘the whole’ as though the poem becomes, over the course of its extended trajectory, a singular object. But part of what makes this poem so exciting is the way it resists such singularity, the way that it arrives at unity without sacrificing complexity or plurality. This poem is many poems while still being one poem. “Uncommitted / brilliance / is my kind,” she writes, “A pleasure / spreads/ about.”
Fridman’s poems reappropriate the most basic formal and stylistic tools of historical poetry—the couplet, the tercet, the aphorism—in order to insist on their foundational uncertainity; their multiplicity: “We speak again. / We speak again,” writes Fridman in the chapbook’s opening poem “Tokyo Drift,” as if to announce the programmatic multiplicity of speaking in her poems. With their elisions, juxtapositions, and gaps in syntax, many of the poems in Obvious Metals feel like partially completed conversations. Indeed, most of the poems in the chapbook take their titles from poems by Carrie Lorig. Fridman doesn’t mention this until the last page of the chapbook, in the acknowledgments section. It’s the kind of acknowledgment that compels you to reread the poems you’ve just read with a retuned ear. These poems are partially located elsewhere. That ‘elsewhere’ is plural, impossible to specify. Sometimes they’re in conversation with Lorig’s poems (as in poems like “Poem for Carrie Lorig” which explicitly address her); sometimes, they converse with themselves. For example, the title of a poem in the first section of the chapbook, “What’s Fatty,” reappears mid-way through the second section, at the end of “I Write to Carrie in the Morning”:
I will all of this
to pass me
talk like the road
to sound like
a good bird
knows what’s fatty
By repeating Lorig’s line through her chapbook, Fridman blurs the boundaries between the three poems where it appears—and the two poets who use it. Moreover, she gradually dismantles the misogynistic discourse that the line quotes and critiques, unpolicing the policing of the body. In this sense, Fridman’s chapbook may be said to imagine collaboration as a feminist act, an act which multiplies the voice in order to make it an organ of critique.
picturing everything closer visible by Linda Russo
Projective Industries, 2013
I read Linda Russo’s picturing everything closer visible, and then I read it again, in one sitting. It’s not the kind of chapbook you just dip into. It’s an immersive poem, a fragmentary epic, which dials between the personal and the political, the ecological and the intimate, tracing the sutures and contacts between them. “here with another fence to inspect,” she writes, describing her own poetic situation. Then she commands: “climb go around.” In this poem, we watch her climb around the binaries that underlie the epistemology of the anthropocene. “lip upon leaf / as an expression / of sexual energy,” writes Russo, “animates but doesn’t separate us”: her poems discover an erotic, animating intimacy between the body and the world—and between the poem and the world. Indeed, if Russo’s scattered lines and uneven stanzas recall Robert Duncan’s open field poetics, she does Duncan one better: her poem actually becomes a field, an ecological space. “plant lines words / as in the landscape of garden,” she commands; and by the bottom of the page, the ‘as’ has fallen away, a vestigial poetic organ: “the world flowers in my dumb wordness / my effacing nearness.”
This is not to say, however, that Russo imagines a seamless integration between human and natural worlds. Indeed, her poem is at pains to emphasize the violence that human beings do to nature. “Remote sensors chatter in nearby leaves”; “a sweep of jet noise, a slash of grey.” Even as the poem imagines a magical intimacy with the natural, the opposite of such intimacy remains intimate to the poem itself. And Russo is also quick to poke fun at the piety of some environmental thinking, including her own: “in my commentary,” she writes, “I make / a pile of dirt for my day book // a crappy environmental portrait // the unrushable compost agenda.” Is their any word which has suffered more in the lexicon of American politics than ‘agenda’? It instantly summons a kind of conservative paranoia about, for example, queer sexualities and the decline of the so-called traditional family. I mention this because Russo pairs the word with ‘unrushable,’ a neologism which suggests the opposite of the hectic rush of political life; which imagines a kind of wary coexistence between natural and political processes. It’s a small moment, but it suggests the resilience of her thinking, the way her poem refuses to founder in contemplation of environmental violence or piety. “the hum of traffic leads me / into the undertone of the other world,” she writes. Her poem makes the human world a passage way into the natural; they chart her travels across that passage and back. And in these travels both the human and the natural is transformed, released from isolation into conversation, into a shared embodiment. “I’m an unsteady mimic of this plurality,” she writes, “something soft oversees the whole.” Unsteady or not, her poems often become this “something soft” which sees the whole and travels through it.
In the acknowledgments to the chapbook, Russo insists, “The author would like to acknowledge Emily Dickinson as this work is an inspired reading in which she is a participant.” She then cites thirty odd Dickinson poems as evidence. As in Fridman’s chapbook, it is the kind of note that inspires rereading, with a renewed appreciation for the historical depth of Russo’s writing, and for its collaborative character. Russo turns to the past to as a resource for the contemporary environmental struggle. Unlike much avant-garde writing, she treats the past as a source of possibility, rather than a useless residue, something to be sloughed off or suppressed. Here again, one thinks of Duncan and his ‘derivative poetics,’ his inspired plunges into literary history—as well as Susan Howe writing through and with Dickinson and 17th century American ministers and Charles Pierce. Like Russo, both have no patience for the Oedipal politics of avant-garde; both might serve as amiable alternate models as we sort out the legacies of conceptualism. In fact, all three of the Projective Industries chapbooks I’ve reviewed here make an articulated argument for collaboration—especially collaboration across historical divides—as a central avant-garde tool. Going forward may involve going backward: less clear-cutting and more of the “unrushable compost agenda.”