In April, 2015, a heterogeneous group of writers, artists, chapbook makers, and small press publishers gathered at the NYC/CUNY CHAPBOOK FESTIVAL, held at the CUNY Graduate Center under the auspices of the Center for the Humanities.
The book fair exhibited a vast array of chapbooks whose quality ranged from the rough and practical to the refined and rare. Their contents were equally varied. Poems and poetry predominated, but artistic prose and visual art were in evidence. An afternoon of panels allowed individuals of this creative community to share their experience as writers and publishers as well as to discuss the ideas behind their work.
A neophyte may perhaps be forgiven for overlooking this or that particular instance of what, generally speaking, proved to be refreshingly original work. The diversity of talents was remarkable. By far the most intriguing, however, were the ideas and chapbooks of the two young women from Organism for Poetic Research (OPR), whose PELT stands out for its coherence, finesse, and experimental quality.
Rachael M. Wilson and Ada Smailbegovic´ spoke persuasively about the event and the process embodied in a chapbook. They pointed to the temporality of the form, analyzing what kind of time it captures and produces. And they were intrigued by the technological challenges that arose when they tried to incorporate different forms of media and experimental writing into the chapbook format. It occurred to them that the object they produced, PELT, was incredibly specific, going through several possible variations in the course of printing and distribution, and operating according to a logic of non-monumentality. The chapbook format allowed them, they said, to test out an idea by probing its potential with a flier meant to provoke responses from known and unknown collaborators. It was through the collecting and publishing of these responses that the idea acquired consistency, with the end-product PELT representing the momentary slowing-down and framing of a creative process.
OPR’s latest installment is PELT No. 3, Sci-pulp Poetics. It is 80 pages of “the tissue of sci-fi without the story” (“Dispatch from the Organism for Poetic Research,” p. 5): an assemblage of pictures, drawings, prose, poems, screen shots of text messages, and stills from a work of stop motion animation (whose kinesis is restored on OPR’s website). It is impossible to do justice to such a glorious, luxuriant specimen. One must hold it in one’s own hand and thumb the vellum pages to have any notion of its tactile pleasures and cerebral thrills.
Particularly enchanting are the color reproductions of Adam McAlpine Clark’s pictorial collages next to a poem typed on a yellow piece of paper. The contrast between the poem’s simplistic presentation and the collage’s eerie complexity haunts the intellect by eluding direct understanding. Like a dream, the textual and visual themes are for the most part recognizable, while a secret relation holds them together: “a kind of uncanny valley of nostalgia” (“The Minotaur in the Anthropocene,” p. 64) where language and images are atavistic traces of extinct natures, human and non-human.
Johannes Hélden’s “The Garden” deserves equally high praise. It is a kind of experimental essay that uses photographs, captions, and footnotes to mix disparate discourses: scientific fact and fiction, description as from a naturalist’s notebook, excerpts from a personal journal, etc. Again, the complexity of relationships between the segments eludes a simple, straightforward explanation. The reader is certainly invited to participate, making connections in his or her own way. One’s partial understanding, however, in no way diminishes the pleasures of wonder experienced while trying to decipher this beautiful enigma.
Indeed, while mostly adhering to the stated theme with carefully chosen diction and imagery, much of the writing in PELT No. 3, Sci-pulp Poetics, defies the understanding. Meaning has become just one more esthetic choice, like rhyme or punctuation. But many of the pieces offer solid poetic pleasures in the form of spontaneity, disjunctive majesty, and exuberance.
I personally enjoyed all the poetry—and I keep returning to it. Let me just mention Adam Veal’s “Forbidden Planet,” a poetic sequence governed by a diagram that could be a flowchart, a blocking scheme for a play, or any kind of abstract machine. The lyrics are tight, enigmatic, and compelling. The scenarios running through one’s mind oscillate between the abstract and the pornographic.
Given the elusiveness of most of these texts, their joyful machinic quality, indeed the machinic orgy of PELT No. 3, Sci-pulp Poetics, it would appear that these artists are committed to experimentation and to the re-invention of what is possible. While their originality is not in question, they do seem to join an illustrious tradition that began with dada—if a tradition of ruptures is not a completely incoherent notion.
There are only 125 copies of PELT No. 3, Sci-pulp Poetics. So I will not tease you by telling you to go out and get one (copies may still be available). But I will urge you to pay attention to Organism for Poetic Research. Visit their website—organismforpoeticresearch.org—to see what they are up to.
Posted by Michael Taormina