Laura Moriarty’s books include A Tonalist , Cunning, Ultravioleta and A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975 – 2007 came out from Omnidawn in 2007. She is the Deputy Director of Small Press Distribution.
LOGOGISTICS or WHAT IT TAKES
[Poetry] makes a lot happen in terms of the reflection of the order or the agency or the, quote, experience it gives people involved with it. People who are affected by it are paradoxically affected forever. It brings relief or a recognition in situations where almost nothing else can. It reveals aspects of language that, again, nothing else quite serves to measure or even to apprehend. So it’s powerful.
Robert Creeley, Interview With Robert Creeley (by Brent Cunningham) Hooke Press 2007
Early on, I thought that whatever constituted one’s art practice – words, lines, images -- emerged as the result of something like fate, rather than because of the will of the artist. Your life (I thought) made your writing inevitable. To some degree, I still think so. The challenges of how to do the work, get it out and allow other people to get to it in the context of this fated, difficult life are the problems to be solved. The activity of coming up with these solutions is what I am calling logogistics -- what it takes to write and live in a world where a writing practice can be nurtured and sustained.
When I was in Tom Parkinson’s class as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, he brought in Robert Duncan who took that opportunity to rail passionately against academia in a typically wide-ranging talk about poetry, the war in Vietnam , the government, one’s ways of life and how to write. Parkinson just laughed off the attack, not bothering to argue. Duncan went on, drawing on the board, talking about “the field,” military strategy and poetics. This tiny exposure to the Spicer/ Duncan Circle was transformative for me, causing me to make decisions -- like not pursuing any formal graduate studies -- whose implications would ripple through my life forever. Here was a real poet – this was during the time of Duncan wearing a black cape – stating very clearly that the academy was anathema to poets. Duncan identified problems in one’s own life and the life of the state and found solutions to these problems in the activity of the writing and thinking about writing. I resolved to do the same.
At this point I hadn’t heard of the Death of the Author or Language writing and didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to tell little stories -- which I occasionally did and occasionally still do or now they are bigger stories – but I was very interested in how what I did would determine what I wrote.
I wanted to be independent or, more precisely, I wanted to have independence of mind. Autonomy. My idea was that I would have this independence of mind if I took a part-time job that consisted of mainly physical work. (Bare with me here.) Such a job, I reasoned, would not require me to think a certain way. It wouldn’t be an identity, leaving my only identity to be that of “writer.” I didn’t have any money and few resources in the form of family or contacts who could find me a job or, at least, wise me up to the ways of the world. I didn’t feel entitled, inclined or able to be supported by anyone else. I wanted to come up with the nut, the cost of doing business, every day of my life and did. I wanted this even though I was bad at it. It is possible that I believed I needed to be an “outlaw.” Actual crime seemed counter-indicated because then any storekeeper or cop had the right to interfere with my autonomy. However, I did want to be outside of the academy and I was. At the time, there were a lot of people out there with me. My anti-academic notions were common.
Events were occurring all around. Readings, publications, talks, performances, goings to the bar after. Eventually I became aware of New College of California and the classes in the Poetics Program there, none of which (blessedly) were workshops. You could go without signing up. I thought I might eventually earn my keep by teaching in such a place. Sometimes, I still think so.
Meanwhile the service industry jobs I was doing wore me out. I admitted to myself that they were boring and that I wanted a job with more meaning. I liked the random personal interaction and the practical physicality of what I was doing and the money wasn’t bad. Still, I decided to quit and, fortuitously, got a job that had been passed among various poets running a rug business. This “management experience” allowed me to get hired at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University to manage the video archives. I almost quit when I got my first paycheck because it was so ridiculous but then my salary was adjusted slightly upward so I stayed. It was still ridiculous but at least I had benefits for the first time in my working life. I was 34.
There was a lot about working at the Poetry Center I liked. It became the thing I was doing for the community besides my writing. It was illuminating to meet writers from many communities. I helped to run, record and catalog Poetry Center readings, sold the video and audiotapes, edited a newsletter, and put together a catalog. The videographer, Jiri Veskrna, and I, produced several videotaped anthologies of readings. We made a short tape ourselves called Before the War. I enjoyed saying I was an archivist. The job appeared in some of my poems, especially L’Archivist. A cacophony of voices and an array of talking heads surrounded me every day in the archives. The sense of what was left of the performances of writers who were dead and what comprised the history of their times was important to my work and to my thinking.
When my job as Archives Director was defunded I was intentionally unemployed for about eight months. It remains the longest period of not having a job in my adult life. I got a lot of writing done but was surprised to find I wasn’t that happy. Later when I began at Small Press Distribution and was working very hard, as often happens at the beginning of a job, I realized in retrospect that I had been happy but just didn’t know it.
My job as Assistant Director, Sales & Marketing Director and finally Deputy Director of SPD has been chock full of logistics from the get-go. After all, it is all about distribution. The position has been rife with logogistics as well. Following the book from the first idea to the final product and then being aware of the life of the book once it is produced, including all of the economic aspects, has been illuminating. I am happy to be working with readers, writers and producers of books, along with those who facilitate access to books whether they are booksellers, librarians, teachers or programmers. I am lucky to be very fond of the people I work with. However, sometimes the job is repetitive and exhausting. I find most of my intellectual satisfaction in writing itself and in related activities like writing essays, reading, blogging, founding literary movements etc. I have retained, in all this, a fair amount of independence of mind and have written a few books. How poetry can be used to carry ideas, things and people forward is the focus of my science fiction novel Ultravioleta, a book which can be said to be very much informed by my experiences at SPD.
What it takes to write and live in a world where a writing practice “can be nurtured and sustained” (the last part is a steal from SPD’s mission statement) is the opportunity and then the determination to make work and the desire to find or create a structure, frame, stage, launching point, context, conduit, platform and/or a power supply that allows you to get the work out, share your ideas and find readers. Lacking the built-in structures that exist in the academic world -- which can, should be and are, occasionally, but not always successfully, appropriated on behalf of writers -- we must (and do) create our own structures. Small presses, including print and on-line journals, are excellent examples of such structures. Classes outside of the academy are another. They can be hard to find unless you are already in the know but many of us have taken and taught them. They are not better in any way than college classes, the point being simply that they exist. Convocations occur less frequently but are occurring now (thank you) and could usefully occur more.
It’s part of our independent thought, part of our autonomy, that we can characterize the work we make and these presenting structures as important and central -- “powerful,” as Creeley said. This action of taking them seriously helps to mitigate the problem of non-institutional achievement being seen as having less value than achievement within the academy or any other part of the mainstream. You could worry here about exploiting yourself and others with a culture of volunteerism that takes advantage of those who participate, who are often those who can afford to. Or you could go out there and do it without whining.
But why do it? What’s the point? What do you do with all this expensive, difficult to maintain, laborious autonomy? ” According to Bob Creeley, in the passage quoted above, poetry (we could call it writing) “makes,” “gives,” “brings” and “reveals.” The most important part of the logistics I have been talking about, the logogistics, is what the writing does for both writer and reader. The wildy speculative dissonant thought engaged in by our community questions many systems on many levels. The work we do enacts this questioning in the writing and in the actions we take to make and support the writing. The work works. All we have to do, and this is a problem that has to be continually figured out and refigured out, is to find a way to do it.