Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Paul Naylor's waste of paper in Jammed Transmission

Yesterday evening I took Paul Naylor's gorgeous new Tinfish Press book to my in-laws to show off; as I was telling my mother-in-law that she could keep the book, my daughter Radhika (age 7) burst forth with "it's a waste of paper!" It seems she'd glanced at the book and seen that each page has more white space than print on it. For a girl drilled at school with the mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle," the quotient of white space to print was simply too large. When I talked to her about how in poetry the white space is as important as are the words, she looked at me with the expression she wears when she whips out her air/scare quotes to indicate sarcasm. She is not alone. A couple of years ago, I asked one of the department secretaries to xerox Harryette Mullen's Trimmings (it went out of print a long time ago). Not only did she xerox the book, but she then cut out the short prose poems and stuck them together closely, as many as she could fit on a page. When I asked what she'd done, she replied that she'd saved paper. (I just hit the "save now" button on blogger, which of course does save paper, even before the saving.) Who can blame her for trying to save paper? Perhaps only an English professor who wants more space and less print. Her practical goals and mine were at (ever more necessary) odds.

Tinfish Press publishes "experimental poetry," a vexed and vexing term, and for what? I once witnessed a colleague explode in a thesis defense over the word; sounds like science, sounds like your poetry fails. I noticed just the other day that Barbara Jane Reyes insists she is not an experimental poet. I happen to like the word, and even some of the failures that come of the process of putting elements together in unexpected ways. Odd word choices make good neighbors sometimes. Naylor's book is not experimental in a strict avant-garde sense; no Language poet is he. What I take to be experimental in his work involves a temporal and a spiritual playfulness best elucidated by Norman Fischer in his preface to the book. Naylor has written a dialogue with a 14th century Japanese text by Keizan Jokin, translated as Record of the Transmission of Light. That these transmissions are "jammed" already invokes the possibility of failure on the 21st century American poet's part. It's an honest admission, but it opens up spiritual meditation to a process of fits and starts rather than those rarer completions. In that sense, spirit and poetry are firmly allied.

"Jammed" is a good word, as is "transmission." Both are polyvalent, and jam only when the live internet stops functioning and my university's Oxford English Dictionary disappears for a time. The internet is but a step or two past the radio, whose frequencies sometimes jam or are jammed by saboteurs (like the monkey mind, though I jump ahead here). Many of the definitions of "jam" have to do with violence--pressing, squeezing, making fast by tightening, blocking, bruising, crushing, and so on. What is broken can often be said to be jammed. How do we get from there to the sense of a "jam session," where the jamming is improvisational, freeing, a conversation between instruments without the confinement of the written text (which may yet be there as a guide)? A musician cannot self-jam; he or she requires another with whom to jam. The jam is dialogue, as Fischer makes clear about this book. "Transmission" is likewise a volatile term; according to my OED, it involves "conveyance from one person or place to another." Outside the secular bounds of the OED, "transmissions" can be spiritual, as a spiritual guide or master can transmit teachings to his student or disciple.

While Naylor performs zazen, he is not what one calls a practicing Buddhist. He does not study zen, but he reads and reads about it. His dialogue with the 14th century text is hence prone to jams and to jamming transmissions. If the poet is a radio, as Spicer famously remarked, then Naylor's radio is short-wave, self-consciously noisy with static. "Impeded / by all that // surrounds // the mind persists," he admits on page 44. "Why this / insistent / resistance?" he asks on 22. But Fischer's preface helps here, too: "DOGEN sees Zen enlightenment not as opposed to words and thought but as a profound possibility within words and thought. . . NAYLOR'S text can be understood as an instance of what DOGEN would call 'the practice of enlightenment'" (11). Practice is an act of improvisation within the strictest of limitations. That Naylor has chosen to perform an act of call and response with Jokin's text, answering to each chapter of his book, offers him at once the discipline and the opening in which to jam, and to admit to his being jammed by that monkey mind.

On the level of poetic technique, Naylor's jamming occurs most frequently in the way he uses enjambment. Not only are his lines tightly enjambed, but they often halt, pause, stop breathing, in the middle of a short line. Let me cite one of my favorite of his poems because just this morning I laughed to see from our lanai an egret chasing a golf cart, before it flew up against the mountains, moving from ridiculous to sublime in one easy motion.


Saw two white egrets
in early morning fog

where their feathers
end the opaque air

begins to seem it
might just be one. (53)

This is set on the right side of the right page, so:

The poem is only deceptively simple; part of this simplicity is the way it is set so cleanly on an otherwise white page, with designer Sumet (Ben) Viwatmanitsakul's circles floating, as they do on other pages, in different patterns. The poet is saying that he saw two white egrets; that they seem only to be one egret where their feathers end; that this occurs in an opacity of air. And that's really only a literal translation. There's so much activity on the level of the phrase and in the lack of punctuation (both literal and metaphorical) in these six lines. There are moments in the book where I think Naylor may use this technique too often, but mostly he uses it to enact his sense of wonder(meant). And his sense of being jammed. Sentences come in parts, jammed together, but the opening riffs into something new and the two parts start jamming. Naylor may have gotten some of this technique from Robert Creeley, who was so enamored of enjambment and of jazz. But his practice of it, the transmission from him to us, is his--in league with the preceding Zen Buddhist text.

To be honest, I like Naylor's poems more in this book than I did in manuscript. Over the past few days, I've been trying to figure out why. Paul says it's the preface, Norman Fischer's deft explanations of the method. But that's not it for me. I think my response comes out of what Radhika termed "a waste of space." These small poems, in a small font, placed to the left side of the left page and to the right side of the right, are given enough room in which to breathe. They're not jammed together, but released to float with Ben's circles (the page numbers are also circled at the top of each right hand page). The page offers us permission to read slowly, to pause, to jam along with the lines. I will save my paper elsewhere.


Ross Brighton said...

Hello again.
Just followed the link to Barbara Jane Reyes' blog, and am happy I did. On the topic of reviewing, if you want to try and get stuff reviewed in New Zealand, I'd be keen to help. Feel free to chuck me an email.


Janet Holmes said...

Hearty congratulations, Susan, for stating the situation so beautifully. I had similar considerations when setting Sandra Doller (née Miller)'s book ORIFLAMME -- in fact, when some of my own erasure poems were printed in Notre Dame Review, they were condensed because of the perceived waste of paper when entire lines were omitted. Design is part of the art, interdisciplinarily, when a poet intends meaning in omissions, pauses, and "field"-like layout.

Christopher said...

I hate to argue with Radhika - I've seen her "burst forth" with valid critiques on many things - but the the white space poetry demands is very small, when you consider the print runs, and very necessary, when you consider all the noise the fully printed page makes.

susan said...

Like I say, Chris, I do my best, and then Radhika just turns that odd look my way and I know it's all for naught!

slarry said...

Ah.. Radhika!
Sharp, pure mouth, mind and non-pretentious critiques.
She reminds me of Tortilla. : ) Wise beyond her years.

hank said...

i, too, have been re-reading paul's new book. yes, i blurbed it... in returning to the book, it is "the real deal" - ie it absolutely repays the investment of repeated re-reading. definitely not the fortune-cookie homily-wisdom version of zen. in fact, susan, i think that with norman's charlotte's way & paul's jammed transmission, tinfish has helped to make discernible a new zen poetry/poetics. i hope to expand on this thought in an essay/review (time permitting). the design of paul's book is absolutely gorgeous. congrats!

jpc said...

This gets to one of my beefs with Collected books--they often jam poems together. That makes me a little anxious, as if I'm in a crowded, noisy room. The Franklin collection of Dickinson's poems or Spring and All in the two volume New Directions--that's what I'm talking about. A poem's simple assertion of itself on the page can have a powerful impact, as in that sliver at the end of Howe's Souls of the Labadie Tract, or here in Paul's book. That whiteness, openness, has a welcoming, inviting quality of assertion: "here I am for your attention." This resonates for me with the experience of Zen poetry, as in Basho's famous one about the frog... a simple thing, a plop, in quiet/space with its spreading ripples.