Autonomous Publication & the Internet

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 10:00 AM
In 1998 an exhibit at the New York Public Library (“A Secret Location on the Lower East Side”) celebrated three decades (from the mid-fifties to circa 1980) of autonomous, largely poet-generated publications in New York City & elsewhere. The following from my introduction to the exhibition catalogue begins an histrical account of such publications & ties them in conclusion to similar directions then emerging on the internet. The original catalogue was published by Steve Clay’s Granary Books in 1998, & the complete introduction will be reprinted in my forthcoming book, Poetics & Polemics 1980-2005 (University of Alabama Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series) later this year.

Since everyone loves a paradox let me start off with this now familiar one: the mainstream of American poetry, the part by which it has been & will be known, has long been in the margins, nurtured in the margins, carried forward, vibrant, in the margins. As mainstream & margin both, it represents our underground economy as poets, the grey market for our spiritual/corporeal exchanges. It is the creation as such of those poets who have seized or often have invented their own means of production & of distribution. The autonomy of the poets is of singular importance here -- not something we’ve been stuck with faute de mieux but something we’ve demanded as a value that must (repeat: must) remain first & foremost under each poet’s own control. And this is because poetry as we know & want it is the language of those precisely at the margins -- born there or, more often still, self-situated: a strategic position from which to struggle with the center of the culture & with a language that we no longer choose to bear. Poetry is another language, as it is another orientation, from that of the other, more familiar mainstream, which has, in Paul Blackburn’s words, “wracked all passion from the sound of speech.” For many of us, so positioned, it is the one true counter-language we possess -- even, to paraphrase Alfred Jarry (& to be almost serious about it), our language (& our science) of exceptions.
The model figure here -- a hundred years before the Lower East Side works presented in these pages -- was surely Walt Whitman, whose 1855 Leaves of Grass, self-published, was the work of his own hands as well as mind, from manuscript to printed book to first reviews ghost-written by the man himself. And contemporaneous with that, our second founding work was that of Emily Dickinson, who never would be published in her lifetime but, more secretly & privately than any, hand-wrote & stitched together a series of single-copy booklets/(fascicles) as testimony to her own experiments with voice & line. Along with William Blake before them, she & Whitman are the poets of our language who first brought inspiration & production back together as related, undivided acts.

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At the present time, then, the lesson of the works presented here is the reminder of what is possible where the makers of the works seek out the means to maintain & fortify their independence. It seems possible with the new technologies now opening -- computer-generated publications & the still wide-open possibilities of internet & web -- that the great tradition of an independent American poetry will stay alive & well. Toward that end the contents of the present exhibition with its attendant book may prove to be a guideline & an inspiration.

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