Thursday, May 13, 2010

What I'm Reading: Loose Sheets of Poems &Etc Torn from Journals on the Plane to AWP

73º ~ trees listless in the slightest of breezes, humidity & heat rising, much squawking and carrying on from the stupid usurper starling's nest...ugly noise

When I travel by plane, which is quite rarely, I like to take a stack of lit mag back issues to read and then to leave in random places in the airport or in my seat pocket on the plane, hoping someone who might not regularly encounter such things might pick up the issue and flip through it. I'll never know if it happens our not, but I love the possibility.

On the trip to AWP, I happened to read several poems that I felt I might want to re-read. Knowing that I'd be acquiring more books in Denver, I decided to keep my load light by ripping out the poems I wanted to keep and passing on the journals as always. This morning I went back through that unruly collection of loose leaves and reread. I ended up keeping about half and recycling the rest. However, I also found 10 pages from PEN America #11 that contained "Mimesis" by David Shields. I remember being intrigued by this essay in numbered sections but not having the concentration to give it its due. (One reason poems are great to read on planes is I can concentrate deeply during the reading of the poem and then allow for the interruptions of air travel...beverage carts, seatmates who need to use the restroom, the loud-voiced woman two rows back complaining about her seat not reclining...etc.)

In any case, I just spent a lovely bit of the morning with Shields' "Mimesis." As I said, it is an essay in numbered sections. Some of the sections are one sentence, such as #1: "Writing began around 3200 BC." Some of the sections are long paragraphs, although no section is more than one paragraph in length. One of the reasons I tore this out is because my colleague and traveling buddy on the trip to AWP, Antoinette Brim, and I had just had a conversation about the question of using other people's lines in one's own work. Section #3 in Shields' piece is this: " In 450 BC Bacchylides wrote, 'One author pilfers the best of another and calls it tradition.'"

"Mimesis" is a loosely linked exploration of the history of writing, its evolution into poetry, fiction, & the essay form, and an exploration of how advancements in technology have altered literature. One of particular interest to me is a section on the history of copyright. Along the way there are side trips into history and religion. Throughout the entire piece, the theme of reality becomes the connective tissue that holds the whole thing together. Shields examines the slippery slope of language as a signifier for reality (I think I'm using that term correctly, but if I'm not, someone who knows better, please correct me). He attempts to uncover both the intent of the author to either depict reality or fantasy and the expectation of the audience to either absorb reality or revel in fantasy. While he mostly focuses on the essay and novel as literary forms and doesn't much mention poetry, I'm still fascinated.

Section 38, the penultimate section, says this: "Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century." This struck me for several reasons. One, there is a run of longer sections leading up to it, so its brevity stands out. Two, many of the other sections are speculative; this one is declarative. Perhaps this should have clued me in to what I'd been reading, but it did not. I turned to the last page of the piece, a page entirely made up of the author's note. It begins, "This book contains many unacknowledged quotations; it contains little else. I'm trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs had but that we have lost. The uncertainty about whose words you are reading is not a bug, but a feature. Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Reality cannot be copyrighted." What follows is a series of notes that provide source information for the different sections.

Now, I'm hooked. This question of authority seems to have existed almost since the first development of the written word. I've just requested the book from which this piece is excerpted, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, from my local branch of the library. If this also piques your interest, Dear Reader, there's more info from PEN America's blog here.

Of course, I'm usually about three steps behind the rest of the world on these things...always trying to catch you all may have read, digested, and discussed already. Such is the life at the desk of the Kangaroo.


Anonymous said...

If you're three steps behind, then I'm four. Once upon a time, when I worked at the bookshop, I was ahead, but those days are gone!

Due to my recent experience with the cento, I'm in sympathy with Mr. Shields. But this:

Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Reality cannot be copyrighted.

Why is it that we believe people should be paid for their work, from CNAs to CPAs, but if you create art you're expected to give it away? Did Mr. Shields give his publisher his manuscript for free? Or did he get a contract and an advance?

And his last sentence is just inane. "Reality cannot be copyrighted"? Whose "reality"? Is art "reality" or is it the artist's conception of reality? Note "artist's," as in, possessive.

[Rant over. Happy Weekend!.]

Sandy Longhorn said...

Ah, M. I used to work in bookstores as well. Miss the days of advance copies and being on top of what's new, don't miss the days of rice and beans, as I usually made minimum wage. A 10 cent raise was the stuff of celebration (and I was in my 20's!)

As for your comments on Shields' piece, yes, yes, and yes. These are all questions I want to look at when I get the whole book. After I posted this I was wondering about how he handled permissions for his book if "Mimesis" was an example of the rest. He had an entire page of notes giving credit for anything that wasn't in the public domain; however, I can't imagine getting permissions for all of those pieces and not having to pay something for them. I plan to investigate more!

Charlotte Pence said...

Great post and analysis. I want to check out these torn pages now. Thank you for writing about Shields's work and letting us know.

Sandy Longhorn said...

C., Glad to have intrigued you! Thanks for stopping by in the aftermath of your big week. :)