Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Editing as collage: Tinfish 19 in the making

Given the right manuscript (complete) and the right designer, Tinfish can publish a book promptly; such was the case with Paul Naylor's new Jammed Transmission. I could say more about the way in which the design's strengths bring out those of that text, but for now would like to think about putting together our annual journal issue. We're up to 19 issues, not including the half-issue that turned into a book, namely 18.5. While we never announce theme issues, #18 turned into a long poem issue, and so was relatively easy to put together. Non-themed issues that develop themes; non-coordinated art and poetry that coordinate; poets who don't know each other locked (sometimes happily) in conversations they would not otherwise have--these, along with the recycled materials used to create our covers, are what I think of as signatures of Tinfish's journal. Accident and randomness cohering into a "still yet moving" anthology (to wrench Hart Crane's bridge utterly out of context), that is what we do. Cohering and yet not necessarily coherent, suggesting and yet not insisting, these are our trajectories.

There are many ways to organize accidental anthologies of poems; some editors place poems in alphabetical order, by poets' last names. This is an arbitrary and in many ways unsatisfying means of conveyance, although it does allow poems to stand on their own, not infect one another with the editor's machinations. I will confess that Tinfish's agenda is very much on my mind as I put together sequences of poems by poets as different as Emelihter Kihleng and Daniel Tiffany, Kenny Tanemura and Mandy Luo. As my assistant editor for this issue, Jade Sunouchi, remarked, this issue is "weird"--so are many of them. Part of this weirdness comes out of the difficulty in finding conversations between poets. Take Kihleng, whose Tinfish 19 poem is a Haunani-Kay Trask-like anti-tourist screed, and Tiffany, whose selections from a longer piece use Middle English lyrics to generate songs in our vernacular. Sit with these poems a while and you realize they do talk to each other. Here is the end of the Tiffany excerpt from our next issue:

I am for wowing al forwake
Lest any reve me my make

Eyes shining through
Like she was
Who-whooin somebody
Leave us all alone

which is to be followed by Kihleng's Don't come to my island, which includes these lines:

and if I, a native of this island, still haven't convinced you
really, you don't want to come
it's so hot and humid
simply miserable it is

In his note, Tiffany tells the reader that the Middle English passages come from a volume that attacked the use of the vernacular; he is appropriating its quotations toward a more positive purpose, the creation of a poem many centuries later that celebrates the vernacular--its and ours. Kihleng also celebrates the vernacular in her attack on "the Mexican woman from Texas" (an unexpected imperial tourist):

the island is surrounded by mangrove swamp
or naniak, we call it
naniak full of elimoang
mehn wai who come to visit
are fond of eating these giant mangrove crabs
(but the crabs alone shouldn't make one want to travel all that distance)
they don't taste that good

Kihleng distances herself from the tourist even as she sarcastically agrees with her that things just aren't that tasty or beautiful on the island. But to anyone with an ear for local language, she is also celebrating its powers to name, to claim, to distinguish between speaker and listener, if that listener is not listening or cannot understand the words.

The poem that will follow Kihleng's, Jill Yamasawa's The Kona Coast, invokes a different kind of conversation, one between a Micronesian writer and a writer from the Big Island. In this poem, Yamasawa takes material off a Kona resort's website and lineates it as "free verse." With a deft use of italics, not found in the original (or so I'm presuming, as I have some trouble "navigating" it), Yamasawa casts doubt on the seeming reverence of the resort's PR:

Hokuli`a reflects the same reverence
to the Island of Hawai`i's historical
and cultural legacy,
clearly embracing the native saying,
Nui ke aloha no ka`aina
(Our love for the land
is without limits).

The italics here are not used to mark the Hawaiian saying (as words from a "foreign" language); they are used as scare quotes to mark precisely the lack of clarity in the relationship between resort and the `aina, or land.

In this sequence of three poems from the many in our forthcoming issue, I've tried to do several things at once. I've tried to create contexts out of juxtapositions that suggest the opposite of context. Middle English lyrics and Kihleng's angry anti-tourist words hardly form what we might call a "natural" context. Yet I would argue that there is context, that even as Tiffany's words (through their sound and their hidden context, in a history that is lost to most of us) mitigate the roughness of Kihleng's, they participate in a move into the vernacular, away from the standard American English that characterizes most of the work in the issue. The move from Kihleng to Yamasawa is more direct, and yet their methods are different. Yamasawa damns the resort simply by parroting its PR; Kihleng turns tourist rhetoric on its head by seeming to agree with the tourist that her island is nothing to pay a steep airfare to visit.

I make such sequences knowing full well that I have added my voice into the mix, a voice that is different in many ways from those of the authors whose work I am organizing, putting in sequence, asking to talk. What I hope is that our readers realize that they too have the power to play with the poems, either by leaving each be on its own, or by reading them in a different order (or dis-). I am reminded of the Cortazar novel whose title I can't remember that included a key in the back to all the many different ways you could read the book, switching chapters around. [Editor's note: must have been this one.] This was before the age of the computer, when such playfulness comes without saying. Yet Tinfish is resolutely a paper production, so it's harder to rearrange our intentions (or even our lacks thereof, since we thrive on accidents). The editor's job is to quote, but to quote out of one context and into another. It's one reason I love the job more than I ever imagined I would. Editing is "writing" in the way that collage is. And collage is a form of appropriation that is always aware of itself as such, ever attempting to undercut (sometimes with scissors!) its own authority.

Other conversations we discovered as we leafed through "accepted" poems: Kenny Tanemura's "On Mao's Indigestion" with Mandy Luo's "The Silk Road" (h/t to Jade on that one); Yamasawa and Gajelonia on Wallace Stevens, Gajelonia and Oishi on TheBus; Janna Plant, Barbara Jane Reyes, Jody Arthur and others on oral traditions and mythologies from the Bible to Samoa; Oscar Bermeo and Deborah Woodard on landlords; Paul Naylor on place and parenthood; Michael McPherson in a good-bye (he died this past year).

The verbal material of the issue has not yet been successfully transferred to a designer (though I did fail miserably at the file transfers last evening). Chae Ho Lee will do the graphic design. Maya Portner is making the covers, and another artist will be doing a centerfold. The final issue will have both centrifugal and coherent force to it; centrifugal because ideas and images will be flying outward unpredictably, coherent because we do not want to escape the force of our limitations. We are not the resort, claiming its own lack of limits by quoting from a Hawaiian saying (and thereby attempting control over its words). And so there is a lack of ambition in all this, as well. We do not aim to cover a territory (bad metaphor, that!) but to open up the torqued and untorqued spaces of the poems we publish. That said, these journal issues involve the most labor of any of our publications. The covers (500 0f them) are hand-made and then stapled onto the books. Many hands are involved, from mine and Jade's to Gaye Chan's, a graphic designer, an artist (or two or three). When I get complaints that our issues cost good money, I think of all these unpaid hands, to say nothing of the costs of distribution, mailing, advertising, and so on.

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