Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In Praise of Blurbs

I've long been a fan of those parts of a book that aren't the book itself, but situate themselves in the book's suburbs. (Yesterday, in talking to graduate students about Ashbery's Three Poems, I found myself in a long digression about Ashbery's use of the trope, the ways in which his poems are almost inevitably suburbs of a city that cannot be mapped.) Among the suburbs of a book of poems or criticism are the acknowledgments, awkward testimonies to professional debts, previous publications, friends, lovers, and children. Never have I felt so strangely happy in opening a book as when I saw a scholar dedicate his book to himself, with thanks to himself for all the hard work he had done on it. Must have been that I was writing a dissertation at the time, a thankless task if there ever was one. I have not yet had the courage to thank the pharmaceuticals that make my work possible, but those too belong in these testaments to literary non-solitude. Then there are the indexes, governed by alphabetical order, that guide us through books and--if we read them on their own--offer myriad juxtapositional jollies. Janus and Jesus. Teabagger and tempest. Derrida and deep image. Bernadette Mayer's exercise, mandating that you write a poem as an index, is a brilliant prompt.

When I first began composing blurbs, I assumed that the only rule was to use the word "brilliant." My first blurb, as I recall, contained that word (as an inside joke, as well as praise for Michelle Murphy's work). The book is Jackknife & Light, published by Avec Books in 1998. But I quickly realized that the blurb form was to criticism as haiku is to the epic poem, or a tweet to a blog post, a blog post to a vetted essay. It was the jar in Tennessee that claimed to order the wilderness of the text that (usually) preceded it. It was a see-through containment principle. And so I fell in love with the blurb form. I only wish Ron Padgett had written one of his down home, pragmatic descriptions of "the blurb" in his handbook of poetic forms, because blurbs can be poetic (if you leave out tired words like "brilliant"). Such a Padgett definition might read as follows:

"According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the blurb is 'said to have been originated in 1907 by Gelett Burgess in a comic book jacket embellished with a drawing of a pulchritudinous young lady whom he facetiously dubbed Miss Blinda Blurb. (D.A.)' The blurb is very like a definition: short, active, exacting, if also necessarily a song of praise. An extension of the marketing arm of the publishing house or office or small room (the latter devoted to small press work), the blurber (or blurbista, as she is often under the spell of caffeine) seeks to seduce a jacket reader into opening the book to gaze upon the naked words within. The blurb writer's name is crucial. It ought to be recognizable, crisp, a blurb in and of itself. Often, the blurbist's name will be followed by something of their own that is blurb-worthy--a book, a journal, a department, an institution, some prizes. How do you write a blurb? Imagine yourself privy to writing no one else has seen, but ought to read. Look in your heart and write. Make it snappy."

Late in the process of putting together Kaia Sand's new book Remember to Wave, we realized that, while Lawson Inada had sent us both delightful letters, full of riffs on Tinfish and the book, he had not come up with the requested blurb. He does not do computers, so I pushed some buttons and informed him that I was "calling in his blurb." His blurb came in much less satisfying than the letters, so Kaia had him agree to present letter copy as the blurb, which came out this way:

"Woooo weee!--this book is really something! It's both "too much" and the "total package," and then some--sort of like an "All You Can Eat" site--a "smelter"--in a rock-alcove below petroglyphs. "Sand" plus "Wave" plus "Tinfish"--that's the cool combo, combined with Vision, Heart, Smarts, Reach, Diligence, Direction, and good doses of downhome, downright Whimsy! Are you ready? Step lively now. Be on alert. Keep up with Kaia. And REMEMBER TO WAVE!"

Lawson Fusao Inada, Oregon Poet Laureate

Let me append some of my recent blurbs, with links to where the books can be bought. I've never signed a blurb, but why not begin now? Buy the book, send it to me, and I'll sign the blurb. Appropriation has its place.

Bartleby, the Sportscaster, by Ted Pelton

Ted Pelton has written an allegory about an allegory about real life. The memoir of the end of his first marriage, sandwiched between chapters about a fictional sportscaster and his silent colleague, Bartleby, offers us a sober frame for interpreting the fiction (his and Melville's). More importantly, perhaps, fiction gives us access to the life. Bartleby is real; marriage is allegory. Vice versa, too. Neither life nor art can be imitated in Pelton's novel, for they are one and the same. For an avowed Mets fan, Pelton's a pretty savvy writer.

I really enjoyed that last sentence, as the Mets have been rivals of the St. Louis Cardinals forever, and in my mind since the mid-1980s, when Doc Gooden and that catcher with a perm regularly took on Whitey Herzog's crew, and sometimes won.

Ted's book is very short; Goro Takano's, on the other hand, is a hefty piece of lumber. He wrote his novel as a dissertation and it still includes an extensive bibliography. Were I to blurb it again, I'd mention that a very fine graduate course could be made of the book and its bibliography alone. So there.

Goro Takano, With One More Step Ahead, Blazevox

In One More Step Ahead Goro Takano has composed an amazing post-national post-apocalyptic encyclopedic philosophical trans-genre literary critical untranslated novel with poems about post-war Japan, African America, Hawai`i, film, Japanese literature, television news, dementia, paralysis, a sex cult, the atom bomb, gender, race, culture, the corporate state and much more. Read this book and chant after Virginia Woolf: What a phantasmagoria the mind is and meeting-place of dissemblables!

Linking the blurb to a blog post I wrote on the book was a technical mistake, but I'll own it by keeping it there. As I said to a student yesterday, everything's intentional once you've put it down.

Bill Howe also has a new Blazevox book, Translanations:

iPod to a postmodern aeolian harp, William R. Howe projects the altered music of Emily Dickinson’s poems through our ear’s buds. His is not a lyric “I,” but the first person of a dyslexic subject at once trapped and transformed by the sounds of a language that perpetually evades him, and us. While his method is ostensibly that of homolinguistic translation, Howe also ventures into synecdoche (“sign that doc”), as when he offers us Dickinson’s line, “I felt siroccos crawl,” as “Eiffel Volkswagens – scrawl --” Like Janet Holmes in THE MS OF MY KIN, Howe discovers our present in Dickinson’s own. Her “The Soul has Bandaged moments --” becomes “These mole his Baghdad ad foments.” One could write the history of America from that bandaged moment to this Baghdad ad. Perhaps this is Howe. —Susan M. Schultz

Sometimes I'm asked to write blurbs to books by writers whose work I don't know. I was very happy to pass word of Jean Vengua's Meritage Press book, thusly:

Jean Vengua, Prau

Jean Vengua is a poet of the typo, the missed step, the happy and unhappy accident; in short, she is a poet of linguistic and global migration. Prau moves its reader from the Philippines to the Bay Area and back, "always mining past present tenses." In her aptly titled prose poem, "Momentum," Vengua links Gustav Mahler, her mother, Buffalo Soldiers, Marie Curie, Roberto Matta, and Jose Rizal in a dance of histories real and imagined. The momentum of her writing brings together what is otherwise ripped asunder: "That is to make beautiful where the dissonance begins to tear."
--Susan M. Schultz, Editor of Tinfish Press

And there, with my moniker, Editor of Tinfish Press, I end this blog on blurbs. Someday I may get around to blurbing the blog from my perch in the Ahuimanu suburbs.

[Ed. note: the critic who thanked himself was Thomas Vogler in Preludes to Vision: The Epic Venture in Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, and Hart Crane. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1971. 222pp. I remember it was a good book.]


Ted said...

The late Raymond Federman's blurb on his last novel, Shhh: The Story of a Childhood, reads as follows:

"When I turned 70 and retired from the university I decided never to write another blurb for anyone – not even for the devil – not even for my best friend Ace – and that day I also decided that I would never again accept a blurb for one of my books from anyone – and I went even further – I decided that I would write my own blurbs – and that’s what I’ve been doing since the day I turned 70 – it works believe me – don’t let others tell what they think of your book – tell it yourself – as D. H. Lawrence once put it – trust the tale don’t trust the author."

Federman broke his own rule many times, at least when it came to accepting blurbs. But now I look for his blurbs on others' books, which I assume the writers have themselves written -- it tells me what the author wants to say about themselves.

Pierre said...

One of the great blurbists of the last 50 years was Robert Creeley — & I've often thought that there should be a litle volume of his "Collected Blurbs" to go with the Collected Poems, Colelcted Essays, Collected Prose.