Lara Durback is not a book artist and is sick of being called that. She works with the book form and lots of old equipment in order to understand and constantly be mindful of the process of the making of anything. She will teach at Naropa University's Summer Writing Program this year.
I hate money. I really do. I like labor. I like working. I work hard. I always have. I've been working with this organization MISSSEY. I'm a poet, but I usually don't say that to people. In the MISSSEY Community Collective, I am called Fundraising Team Leader. "But you hate money!" you say.
I say, "I fell in." I met these people and I couldn't leave because they face human darkness every day with a radical love for others. It seems to be the only way one can work on these things. (Well it requires a lot of self-care on the people doing the working too.) I was pissed off at someone else on my Fundraising team, and I complained to Nola, the founder of MISSSEY, who responded by email saying, "I hear you. ...[addressing my concern, but] love conquers all." I wanted her to be my Ganesh, to move away my obstacle, to be "the boss." But she was like, "just love." I grit my teeth to myself for a few days, want to quit everything, and then things clear and I can work on things again.
I hate asking people for money. I don't want money for anything except trains and beer and photocopies and books. I needed things for a while, now I know that everything I need I can find in the trash. I grew up thinking I would be on the street everyday. I was told that. I ate cold hot dogs from the fridge while he talked on the phone. But I'm big now.
I hate asking for money but today I went into a schmoozy Temescal restaurant and asked for money. I usually think of my work with MISSSEY as curating...I only ask for things from businesses that have been a dear part of my life for a while, people who have some sort of relationship with communities and employees that I respect, like Oakland Community Acupunture, Pizza Pazza, Full House Cafe, Rooz Cafe, Laura Camp Yoga. Friday is my day off, and I dedicate about 4 hours to MISSSEY usually, and this particular morning I was working on me & Greg Turner's chapbook for Dusie, Garbage Research #1: Hoarders. We'll see if it makes it as a chapbook, it's pretty ziney.)
So anyway, that morning I had been at a mindful pilates class in which I just lay on a roller and think about my spine for an hour, and I felt radiant and focused and clear for the first time in two weeks. Despite the scary tsumnami and earthquake news, it was inner peace. I biked up the street and got a number for a sandwich at Genova, #78, and they were only on #50. So I thought, I'll go across the street and try to get a gift certificate for MISSSEY's raffle fundraiser. I sort out one of the copies of the letters asking for money and try to write a personal note. A gust of wind comes and knocks all my papers around. Someone helps me. I thank them and say something self-deprecating and walk into the empty restaurant. At the back, 4 men are prepping food. I am intimidated, start getting dizzy. "Hi, I'm here to s-see if you have a would uh give a uh g-gift certificate for a fundraiser." They all grin at me kind of condescending.
They are cutting meat. I don't eat meat. I don't mind it, but it's really gross alone, and with people all touching it. The main guy is very good looking, and is grinning sort of smugly. "What's it for?" "It's MISSSEY. Motivating Inspiring Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth." I stumble over that too. I kick something on the floor accidentally. I have 2 braids, yoga pants, an overstuffed bag weighting me down, I feel about 1 foot tall. I feel like they are looking at my body. "Sexually exploited? That's kind of a clumsy term." "It's another way of saying teen prostitutes, but they are not prostitutes because they are not making any money. And people don't have much sympathy legally for the term prostitute."
"I love prostitutes." He says. My hips feel like they are going to fall off. "Don't talk like that..." I say, but I am crumbling, "Did you get our letter we sent?" "Probably not," he says, and I feel like I just want to run, run, run.
"There are a lot of girls on the street near where I live. I have smokes with them and stuff when they're outside," he continues. "Where?" I asked. "63rd and San Pablo." "Are they young?" "Some of them." And he sees me still giving him wary psycho eyes, and says, "No seriously, the first girl I dated used to be a prostitute. I had a kid with her. [He walks around from the other side of the counter.] She's an amazing human being. She wasn't like on the street though....of course I'll give you a gift certificate."
"So she was making money, huh? Well these girls aren't making money. The new trend is that long time drug dealers have switched to dealing girls. It's less risky." He starts writing a gift certificate with meat hands.
He shakes his head and gives me the gift certificate. I shook my head. " I really thought you were just going to be an asshole." I said. "Thanks." And I got back over to Genova when they were only on #76.
Sometimes I wonder how I have time to work on this stuff. This is work. I am on my way to the office to make phone calls and use Google docs and edit letters and plan meetings. I can ask for money for this because it's not for me. If it was for me, I would hate asking even more. I fell into working here, and I have a 2/3-time job at Mills College Book Art Program the rest of the time. And then the rest of the time, I write (and the writing of course overlaps with everything whenever it can).
I think work was a lot worse before I decided to completely shape and curate my life. I never had energy to do anything. I was constantly anxious and thinking that every thing I wrote or did wasn't good enough. (I mean, there were meds to surrender to, also.) Many of the people I admired in high school and early college were poets, knowing them in a book, or knowing them in life and also in their writing. I chose to go to college because I needed to get away from my family. I did not have academic goals. I did not have money to move anywhere on my own without choosing a dorm. The poets that I found as I studied had one foot in academia and one on the ground. I met Jena Osman. Her advanced poetry workshop was the most challenging course I took in college. Plus there were others I had found on my own, in libraries. I was exposed to poets that were working very hard on things that other people would puzzle over to understand why they were working so hard. Poets that I encountered generally studied things other than their own line of work. (I cannot say this about people I knew who "officially" studied finance, or linguistics, or sound design. It seems like the line for others was often between study vs. fun. Or study vs. responsibilities such as children and jobs that make rent [a restaurant job/office/store job]. So a poet is not separating that. Yeah?) Was I lucky? Were other poets elsewhere not like this? From people's perceptions of poetry that i've heard outside of poetry scenes, poetry is perceived to relate to depression, love, laziness, or tragedy (as in all the 9-11 poetry attention), perhaps it's not true that poets are the way they say they are. But I always thought, real poets studied the world. Real poets lived like something like Ed Sanders' Investigative Poetry narrates, though I'm not exactly sure I'd want to be Ed Sanders. Real poets had knowledge of all the art around them, current events, consciousness, word origins, urban planning, labor organizing, indigenous peoples, alternate histories, psychology, biology, sociology, and they all have theories about everything. Real poets were multiple. Real poets were secret philosophers but not as annoying, just flakier and more late.
When people in Full House Cafe where I waitress on Sundays ask me what kind of art or writing I do, I say, "investigative poetry." If I don't say that, they will think I write about love and hide in my room. I write about love sometimes, don't I?
Once I can start allowing myself to have the space to learn other things besides poetry, forcing myself to be with people other than poets (it's not that hard), then I am more of a poet.
The labor of printing chapbooks by letterpress washes over me now. I'm supposed to talk about that here, I think. I enjoy the mechanics, the rogue printers I met who will tell you how to fix any problem cheaply once they trust you. I also enjoy spending time researching how to buy the least amount of things possible to run a whole print shop and bindery. How much can we reuse with things like Freecycle? How can we find things made locally? How do we balance between making art more sustainable and not buying into greenwashing marketing?
I print only sometimes. It can be extremely frustrating to work with individual metal letters and spacing, and the long sessions are hard on the body. Vandercook presses (flatbed cylinder proofing presses) were not intended for production work. People would run one print and take a photo of it. (But Vandercooks are easier to learn and there is less risk of smashing your hand than on a platen press, such as a C&P, a press that is intended for production.) I have experienced a rip in the cartilage of my sternum that I'm almost positive was related to printing on a Vandercook (cranking the heavy carriage back and forth hundreds of times with the same arm, with an odd torque to my torso).
People know what I have access to in terms of presses at Mills, and unlimited art crap lying around, but they don't generally know the complicated system of space and power I need to navigate in order to make my day-to-day operation of Mills peaceful. And that means I can't just print all the time. I also have such problems with overextending myself I have ended up in the hospital in the past. (But that's how you get a part-time job in Book Art that 24 people all over the country applied for because people just love access to that stuff so much. You gotta be an overachiever, a go-getter. Little did the applicants know it would be 2 years of planning six equipment moves involving cranes and trucks and also moving carts of things alone, and bringing your boyfriend in to help you because it couldn't get done otherwise and sweeping out cabinets of mysterious powders left over by the chemistry building the program moved into BEFORE it became a dream job.)
I cannot count the times I have been asked by people to print something for them or with them, even though I barely know them, and for a long time, it made me feel like it was all they wanted from me, sort of like something else I always thought people wanted from me. I mean, I'm not against doing free work at all, but...
Nola said at a MISSSEY Community Collective training, "It's a classic abuse thing, people always go back to, 'that's all they want from me.' "
Like sex. Like sexy letterpress.
But you can heal, and have pleasure again, and print again, and write again.
I give honor to a lot of the poets who do a lot of things. I'm so happy to hear of poets as urban planners, performance artists, doing graphic design, social work, protesting, working with youth, enmeshing the world they have in their poetics with the rest of the world, making it one fluid curation or stream of energy that matches an intention. Because what is a poetics if it doesn't do anything that gets it out of the house.