On the Book Arts list I came across a tiny little film by Nick Esdaile and Joe Fellows called Lennon’s Poster, a mini-documentary about the recreation of Pablo Fanque’s circus poster which inspired one of the songs on the Sgt. Pepper album. I’m always excited to peek inside the artistic process, and this glimpse is both charming in itself and amusingly meta in its particular obsessive preoccupations.
People who still lean into hand crafting objects for themselves and others to use in daily life represent the antithesis of the big box, wal-mart, discount obsessed market economy. We are a peculiar breed, anachronisms, either behind the times or ahead of them. It all depends on what sort of world you want to inhabit.
From time to time in workshop I pass around a miniature porcelain vase. It is carved in a detailed scene of Chinese agrarian life. Two inches tall, it took the artist three months to complete. At the very last step she broke the handle of a tiny basket that was to be carved free so as to slide up and down on the porch rail on which it hung. The basket itself was smaller than my pinkie fingernail. She throws her pots on the wheel, carves them with hand-modified dental tools, then glazes and fires them in the brick gas kiln she built on her property. She set about carving this particular piece over from the start, pencil-sketching and then carving the image onto a second tiny vase. Another three months. She was going to discard the first one, I happened to see it on a shelf of her studio and asked if I could use it as a teaching tool. I confess I was also sligtly freaked out to think of this little gem going in a waste bucket. When I pass it around a table of gathered poets, they are shocked to hear it’s a “second.” You wouldn’t know there was a flaw. Only the artist knows what is missing, what makes it incomplete. My question to the writers examining that little vase is this: How far are you willing to go for your art?
In New Orleans I was chatting with Chris Shipman about his ideas for new books. He wants to do another collaboration with fellow Super Poems author, DeWitt Brinson. Chris says that composing Super Poems was the most fun he’s ever had writing. DeWitt was visiting, they were playing Super Mario and Chris described his idea for a collection themed around the game. DeWitt said, Let’s go! Let’s write them right now. And they did. Sometimes making art is about living in the moment and just stepping aside enough to let the work flow through, especially when your conscious and subconscious mind have been working on something for awhile.
This morning I interviewed an intern applicant who will be joining us in a couple of months. We had an interesting conversation about the editorial process and longer books. She said, Your work always makes sense to you, so it’s hard to see sometimes when it doesn’t make sense to somebody else. I said, there is a gap in our education for writers, in the step of how to bring a book to completion, how to shape a manuscript and make it coherent to the reader. I don’t know if it’s an intrinsic gap because this canot truly be taught, or some flaw in our educational approach. The only way I’ve seen it taught is one on one, using the manuscript as the teaching tool. I’ve had some of that support offered to me and I’ve supplied it a few times as an editor. Some of it is a simple matter of experience, of being able to step back enough and ask objective enough questions. And some of it comes back to the question, how far will you go, to get it right.
Howard Norman and I had a conversation about this over lunch in Provincetown this past summer, about how people come to a workshop wanting to be handed the keys. The keys are in your studio, in your workroom, on your laptop, your notebook. You can only give them to yourself. Only you can know where your work is supposed to go next and you have to be brave enough to go. A lot of this is being willing to be alone with the work.
Then there are those beknighted moments when you stumble into a collaboration over a game box and some beers, one late night in a Baton Rouge living room–or, like John Lennon, you find your lyrics staring you in the face, already born, you just have to have your wits about you sufficiently to see.