Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Small Press Publishing (English 713): The Material Text from Emily Dickinson to Albert Saijo

In the reader for my Small Press Publishing course, essays by Jerome McGann and George Bornstein hammer down the materiality of the text. McGann shows how Yeats's "rag and bone shop of the heart" refers, in large part, to the rags gathered to make paper. While McGann considers the rag-picker to be like Wordsworth's leech-gatherer, a figure of nostalgia, I'm more inclined to think of the rags as the origin of the poem, precisely because they compose the paper the poem is written and then printed on. McGann's essay considers Emily Dickinson's manuscripts vis-à-vis what happens when they are printed, however "faithfully." Bornstein discusses the ways interpretation alters when the text moves from manuscript to journal to book to Norton Anthology.  Anyone who's taught out of one of those Nortons knows to what extent the poem disappears into the apparatus of the canon, the literary history that is only implied by the heft of the volume itself.

Years ago, when we visited Albert Saijo every so often on the Big Island, I mentioned Dickinson's manuscripts, the Franklin edition of the fascicles, to him. His handwritten pages reminded me of hers; nothing was normalized into lines, straight or not! I ordered the two volume set for him (he paid me back). When I went to see Laura Saijo a few weeks ago to talk about publishing his Woodrat Flat, poems from the 1980s and early 1990s in northern California, she suggested I take some of his poetry books. I asked only for the Dickinson volumes, but of course ended up taking others, mainly books with some sign of Albert in them. There were at least two lovely Joanne Kyger inscriptions to him in books of hers.

Yesterday I prepared some class time for moving backwards from the final versions of Saijo's poems in Bamboo Ridge #100, from his Bamboo Ridge book of the late 1990s, from the edited typescript of his forthcoming Tinfish book (edited by Jerry Martien), from the original pile of poems and scatter that Laura sent me, and--finally--with all its Benjaminian aura intact, several manuscript pages. But how marvelous to realize that there was a further "poem" by Saijo that led to all of these. In the first volume of the Franklin Dickinson fascimiles, one page was dog-eared.  I went there and found that Saijo had written in his own pencil above many of Dickinson's words; he had translated her handwriting into his. Here's a photograph of that beautiful moment:

Here is Dickinson, interpreted by Saijo, both using pencil.

This is how Bamboo Ridge Press renders Saijo's writing
This is a screen shot of the Tinfish manuscript, Woodrat Flat, which our intern Kailana Kahawaii is scanning in.
There's a shock in looking back from these all-caps pages dense with print to Saijo's original page (below). It's the shock of losing something, of seeing blunt force where so many tones seem to have been intended, of seeing mass produced product where the workshop had been. This is more than nostalgia; there is something lost in translation from pencil to type.

What I wonder most is how to preserve some of the manuscript in the book. Bamboo Ridge uses occasional scanned pages in amid the caps, but that's only a gesture at the motivation of the writer, the odd grace to his handwriting, the "authenticity" that I usually abhor except here--I'll be asking our designer, Allison Hanabusa, if there might be a third way. Part of me thinks not, but Julia Wieting, a member of the class suggested that alternatives of someone else's handwriting (a form of mimicry that sounds wrong to me, but it may simply be my lack of imagination, or attachment to Albert himself); others suggested a book that might include a sheaf of these pages, or a set of two books. We do not have enough manuscript pages for that, but perhaps a few individual pages slipped into the book? That takes me back to the strong feeling I have when I touch these old pieces of paper of his.

I'm not usually one to coo over manuscripts, though I recall seeing a typed page of an odd Wallace Stevens poem in a case at Yale's Sterling Library and feeling a strange chill. That piece of paper made it clear that someone actually HAD written that odd poem, in a way that seeing the poem in The Palm at the End of The Mind never could. Still, that was typed, and Saijo's work is printed in pencil on smudgy pieces of thick paper; one of these manuscript pages has a tiny round burn mark. The book is, in part, about being a marijuana farmer in California, after all! Perhaps because I knew Albert, albeit not well, these few pieces of paper seem, if not quite sacred, then imbued with his presence, two years after he died, several decades after his pencil wrote on this piece of paper.
Here is the Saijo poem in manuscript

Charles Alexander, who joined us on a laptop via Skype, talked about how much small press publishers love when they do, and at moments like the one last night, I felt that rush of joy in making books (or, in my case, making it possible for them to be made). To the left is a photograph of the class huddled around Charles's head on the computer screen. The room is cold. The weather outside so blustery that the building's louvers have taken to singing; they sound like the wax-paper covered combs we used to "play" as children.


George Bornstein, Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page, Cambridge UP, 2001.

Emily Dickinson, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, Volume 1, edited by R.W. Franklin, The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1981.

Jerome McGann, "Introduction" to Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism, Princeton UP, 1993.

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