Goodbye Public and Private
BlazeVOX Books 2008
Reviewed by Rachel Daley
“Like Public but Fluffier:” James Sanders’ book is unreadable. (And I mean that in the nicest way.)
Goodbye Public and Private is James Sanders’ first full-length publication, published on BlazeVOX Books out of Buffalo, NY in 2008. It is also, I will argue, basically unreadable.1 Unreadable, I will argue, in the sense that it is a collection of verbal assemblages intended to function for the reader (who is in this case, I will argue, more of a user in relation to the book) as instructions for or templates of or guides to performance, or as literary records of pictures or portraits constructed in or by the records’ oral performances. It’s not really possible to read the book from cover to cover, from page to page experiencing the lyrical subjectivity of James Sanders, although the book is certainly an immersion into a particular vocabulary and inflection and universe of things and foods and colors and friendly relationships. It’s true for many of the poems, though, for example the “Days” series, that to attempt to read them in the get-across-and-down-the-page-like-Gutenberg style would be silly. In using or doing this book in the manner in which it guides you to use or do it, in reading it, you actually get to participate in the making of poems, in real-time, in the activity of putting language together rhythmically and thematically and experientially to create what we generally understand and recognize as poems.
The following is a list of descriptors of what Goodbye Public and Private is, given that I’ve simply decreed its status as an unreadable thing to read. (I should note that these descriptions are based solely on how this book has actually been used – by myself, either alone or in the company of my one and a half-year old son.)
1) It’s viewable.
And I don’t mean that poems in the book paint unusually vivid images or settings or scenarios for the reader. I mean that many of the pages are to be viewed as projections on a screen are viewed. Many of the poems/pages are constituted by “lattices” or words or phrases which are linked to other words, phrases, or footnotes. Several of the poems include actual graphics, either hand-drawn or photographic pictures. The “Days” series (comprised of 21 poems), the “Autobiographies of Klimchak” and the two “Meta” poems are all accompanied by instructions or guidelines for how to proceed with them, for how to go about doing them. I realize that the mere presence of instructions for how to use something doesn’t make it viewable (usable ? viewable). What makes them viewable is that the poems are constellations laid on top of the pages, and are not meant to be windows into the life and/or times of James Sanders. They aren’t windows inviting you to look into the mechanisms of James Sanders’ brain; in Goodbye Public and Private, you’re not asked to become voyeuristically engaged in how one person makes sense of experience of in or with the world. This is not a record of how someone orders experience. The book is more or less 138 pages of opportunity for the creation of experience. And the first experience in coming to many of the book’s pages is that your eyes have to go all over the page. So, you view the page and, really, you view yourself viewing the page, because this experience strikes you as so very unlike almost all other experiences in coming to a book’s (or other printed matter’s) pages.2
But, this issue of being an un-voyeur, of being confronted with the surface of the book’s pages, is additionally significant – is not just a novelty – because the experience mimics that bestowed by another kind of page-looking which is quite popular as of late: viewing web pages. The reality of viewership on the web goes something like this: as a viewer, you are among hundreds of millions of people looking with fluttering attention onto images very conscientiously constructed for viewership by any one of hundreds of millions of people who have the capacity to produce and post pages for viewing. Despite the sense you get when using the internet that you are alone and are conducting your business in the privacy of your home with the bodily commiseration only of your computer keyboard and monitor, you are also actually quite publicly sharing each keystroke, also sharing your eyes, with the rest of the internet-inhabiting world. And since the internet was born, it’s been a habitat that was and is there always, waiting for you to get back on board.
And this goes directly to the issue of the book’s title: in using Goodbye Public and Private, as when using the internet, the clear demarcation between your life in public and your life in private breaks down. It’s not that one or the other is lost, so much as one’s involvement in both can occur simultaneously. When using the internet, and when using Goodbye P & P, you’re not only not getting someone’s record of inner experience, but you are actually, in real-time and in actual bodily presence, doing the book, i.e., you are going through your own inner and outer experiences by way of partnership with the book . In accessing or using or doing or reading this book, you mutter or speak the poems and plays out loud, under your breath or fully-voiced – publicly, to yourself, in the privacy of your own home, or else maybe privately in the confines of a public institution.
And your presence, in real-time, has been anticipated by this book. There are suggestions for the amount of time you should spend with many of the poems, and suggestions for how to use them. The poems and plays in Goodbye Public and Private are very much aware of being used or viewed. And this brings us back to the instructions or guidelines in accompaniment. Finally, it’s the presence of these guidelines and instructions that force the would-have-been reader to be more than simply a viewer, as one might simply view the Weather Channel or the French Open results on ESPN.com, and to become at the very least a user of the book. And this is really an important point to understand about Sanders’ book. He’s not just hoping you might be able to sense theoretically that in a more poetically-enlightened land or time, presumably forthcoming, you the reader might feel inspired to give voice to these lyrics. The structure of his poems actually necessitates that you do something with them, with your actual body (at the very least, with the movement of your eyes) and/or your voice.
(Note: I won’t attempt to reproduce the “lattices” of the above-cited poems, which I would try to reproduce here if I wanted to give examples and generally explicate in more-referenced depth what I’m talking about , but here is a sample of the words and phrases by which they are constituted: erased somehow, stick Oreos about, our felt of, again, municipal funbags, as with tenet, we reject so little, instead of stop, evidence of, unrubbed chocolate, you alone, Jedi quarter pound er with cheeks, as stage out, almost none left, bats or birds, in him, handrails made out of handrails and shouldn’t the gloves, the plants of usable English, whipped teen chow, certainly is a curve, from the exit. However, to get a taste of what the lattices do, or what you can do with the lattices, you would only need to print/cut out the above words and phrases and then arrange some or all of them however you wanted to all over a table, and then read some or all of them in order of the words’ adjacency to each other, within a certain time frame – say, 33 seconds. )
2) Who’s zoomin who.
So, the poems and plays know you are out there, and they ask you to do things with them which you might not normally do with your poems and plays, like construct them, in real-time, aloud, and this really up-ends one’s usual relationship with a book. In short, this book distinguishes itself from other consumable media in that it is actually manipulate-able. The fact that the poems tell you what to do with the words and phrases on the page means, for the most part, that they are not telling you how or what to think about them. James Sanders is interested in the creation of activity, not spectacle, and this approach to poetry-making results in a book that does not subject you to it and which you are not subjected to. You are not presumed to lie prostrate while a bunch of poems and voices pour out all over you. You are in fact charged with performing much of the book, with your own voice or what have you. So, the book is not so much something you get through and put back on your shelf. It’s more Slinky™-fun than that:
“Guidelines: Even though these guidelines are at the beginning, feel free to skip them.
This piece is designed for three voices (numbered) and one percussionist (P). If two people are performing this piece, then I suggest that one person take voice one, the other person take voice two, and both perform voice three. If only one performer is involved,...”
(from “Autobiographies of Klimchak”)
3) Got A Great Beat.
and yes, you can dance to it. Sure, some of the poems are actually dubbed “Muzak For...,” but it’s the still-lifes and the portraits – e.g., “ SelfStillife with Another Person,” “Portrait of Spanky,” “Ed Ruscha/Portrait of Jeff Dahlgren,” “Portrait of Anonymous with Baked Potato and Landscape,” “Portrait of Mark Prejsnar as a Woman” – that are actually highly sonic. These poems are overwhelmingly characterized by chants, stutters, repetitions, interruptions of one voice by another, restatements and rewordings, all of which give the poems existential/categorical status as transcriptions or scripts of things said, to be said, and heard (or overheard).
Portrait of SpankySomeone is surely thinking something about the possibility or impossibility of using indoor voices in reading this poem, but I won’t spell it out. Suffice it to say that it’s more fun to read
meat rainbow hash marks indoor meat rainbow voice. hash marks hash marks soaked. aim indoor voice. indoor voice soaked aim I am alive to.
Portrait of Spanky
some meat rainbow hash marks some indoor but meat rainbow some voice. hash marks but some hash marks soaked. aim some indoor but voice. indoor some voice soaked aim but some I am alive to....
rugs subtitled bright rain seat cushion or not bright rain loaded baked potatowhen sitting, as I do, on a bouncy ball (with or without a baby on my lap). And what about the fact that these are pictures (still-lifes and portraits) made out of words that when you look at them/say them make music? The overall effect is visceral, palpable, corporeal in the doing of things simultaneously aural, oral, and visual. Maybe this is all a meticulously-choreographed experience of the distinct components which comprise the very basis of what it means to be verbal.
rugs startling elasticized scans in which way should I turn or not subtitled seat
(“Portrait of Anonymous with Baked Potato and Landscape”)
But basically, it’s a very friendly and familiar universe of things and sounds which allows you the freedom to view, use, do, perform, and/or voice this book. What I’m considering to be GP&P’s universe is the composition of essential stuff of the book, the words and phrases that to me and me alone were emphatically resonant, felt like they had been written particularly for me, but for me in the sense of me as All of Us. I’m thinking about things like the “ice cream truck you never hear or see,” or “the human figure in tuning and per[you the of juice perspective]spective,” or “a growing of little slows,” or “The national nagging has data fondness/lensing us out in the world.” The creation of a record of his highest thoughts is not among James Sanders’ concerns, I don’t think. But his attention to language and what one can do with language, including the cobbling together of experiences and emotions, bestows on this book a profundity that looks rather gracious.
And there’s a lot of fun theoretical stuff I thought about while reading this book: like how the whole book enacts and represents a space between the life processes of oral tradition-making and -preservation and the kind of innovation that open-source programming invites; and how the book’s copyright status (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike) makes you suspect that James Sanders really does hope that you use this book for your own purposes; and that how in doing the poems, you start to get a sense that you really are a participant in the world of poetry-making, and that if you used GP&P enough, you could really get a sense of what kind of poet you would be. You get to see not only your own reading patterns, but you get to see your writing patterns too. But all of those potential-critical-essay topics are kind of boring compared to what fun you can have in just going through the book, with someone or by yourself, in public or in private, preferably a little bit at a time.
Someone once suggested to me that a good rule of thumb in writing is to write things that you would actually like to read. This advice doesn’t really work out for me on a day-to-day basis, when I’m just trying to harness enough time and energy to write something that I like to write, but I was reminded of this when James Sanders answered, in a round-about way, my question as to how he would sell his poems, if called upon to do so: “i guess the poems i enjoy are the ones that provide as much material interaction with the least amount of labor possible.” GP&P is actually not that of-the-moment; it’s not terribly concerned with economizing. It’s actually quite generous in its ingenuous extension of arms and hands and probably legs too, welcoming participation. And it’s obvious that a lot of work went into the creation of a variety of methods for bringing the reader in. But the hospitality of GP&P, its charm, rests in how it has negotiated its frank interest in making things with language – an interest that when expressed to the exclusion of other interests gets poets tagged as solipsistic or narcissistic or (gasp) rather too language-poety – with a to-the-core desire to connect up with actual people doing actual things. In this case, this drive to hook up is translated as a user manual for, dare I say, dialing up into a set of song and story and portrait prompts that will be accessed by, dare I say, thousands of other people. It’s neat to think of yourself sharing an act of creation with anonymous others if only for 33 seconds, by way of the same 33 words and phrases appearing in this book. It hardly matters that “hotel eyes at the motel pool, your source, demano, who Porcine Claus, grasses over duration since in the stickers, handrails made out of handrails and shouldn’t gloves, and which.”
1 One must ask oneself, of course, if one really knows how any reader, including oneself, reads. For example, am I confident that the experience of reading is grounded in some shared physical experience (obviously this could be researched), one which becomes habituated to the extent that there are texts that enable this experience and others that can so distinctly not enable this experience that they represent what amounts to a new genre of writing? I don’t think it’s going out on treacherously shaky limb to suppose that my reading habits, indeed significantly rocked by this book, resemble the reading habits of many others. And anyways, duh, it’s a book review.
2 I’m not really using much of his work on voyeurism vs. viewership in this essay, but I feel I do owe a debt to David Foster Wallace’s discussion of teleholic addiction and contemporary US fiction in “E Unibus Pluram,” published in A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
Rachel Daley is a poet, teacher, and mother living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first poetry collection, Plasmos, is forthcoming from 3rdness Press in 2010.