The space was decorated with glossy prints of some of the poems from the book (as well as a taxidermied fox and a two-headed pigeon). My dear friends Noah Falck, Alana Kelley, and Gerry Crinnin read from their own work before I cracked open OI and read these poems to an audience for the first time.
About the Book
Organizing Isolation began with an initial act of theft. Emboldened, I embarked on a stealing spree that carried me from September 2016 through January 2017, a feat possible only, I think, because I was “lightly employed” as an adjunct professor at Canisius College during those months. In August, I was designing my HON 101 and ENG 101 courses for the coming semester. For ENG 101 I had decided to teach the work of local poets, poets living and writing in and about the world my students knew. I chose Janet McNally, Rachelle Toarmino, Justin Karcher, Max Crinnin, and Gerry Crinnin. Of those five, Gerry has the largest body of work; in part because of that, I spent a few weeks reviewing all of the Gerry Crinnin poetry I could find and compiling a “Selected Works” anthology for my students. Because the title of the course was “Frontiers of Form,” I chose mostly works that played with traditional poetic forms in ways my students weren’t likely to have encountered before. Two books from which I drew were an enigma should be able to blitz, and Tell All Your Navy: A Half-Life of Letters. The former contained only visual poetry, the pieces made from headlines cut out from newspapers and rearranged in startling ways. The second was not a visual collection, but it began with a visual “violation” of another form of language: Gerry spilled coffee on a sheaf of letters he’d received while in the Navy, and this left only the right halves of the pages legible. Gerry took the legible “halves” of these letters and worked them into poems.
I’m not as prolific a letter writer as Gerry Crinnin, but I did keep up some important correspondences during my time in Scotland, and after. It was with Gerry’s works in mind, then, one lazy August afternoon, that I took a newly arrived letter bearing a Queen Elizabeth stamp out to my porch, along with an Ice Pick, and began to read. And as I read, alarming phrases started to call out from the page. I remember which ones they were: “broken pigeons,” “brash, vulgar & triangular,” and “cheese snail and quassant-munching bastards.” These seemed to exit their context so violently that I decided to make visual what seemed to me to be audible. I scanned the letter in full color, printed this out, and took a pair of scissors to the copy, ruthlessly. When I was done, I arranged the scraps, short phrases and individual words, on my dining room table. I took a fresh piece of computer paper and some Elmer’s glue. I began to “organize.”
I describe the process and what it meant to me in a few paragraphs you can find in the back of the book:
There is no more “high stakes game” than one person attempting to communicate with another. We are not often capable of saying just what we mean; when we can say a thing, it is often not what we mean. And most of our waking lives, we don’t know what we mean, if we mean anything at all. This transmission of specific significance from one person to another, then, usually fails — but when it succeeds, there is no mistaking it. The right words make us — briefly — permeable, and not alone.
But once encountered the written or uttered words decay. We forget commas and then contexts, phrasings and meanings, even feelings. Organizing Isolation has been an attempt to play with that radioactive decay — glad that the results are subject to the same forces that scattered the materials of their construction.
I scanned most of the letters I received between 2013 and the end of 2016, printed them, cut them up, and glued some of the words, phrases, and redactions onto fresh paper. While this book collects some poetry, it is not, really, a poetry collection. Neither is it a scrapbook. It might be a novella in nine voices, or it might just be a paper-trail.
There was something monkish about the work that followed that initial August inspiration. I realized that I had saved a suitcase containing scores of letters, many of the most substantial coming from about nine people and spread over 2013-16, three years when my weekly schedule invariably involved a few hours spent at a coffee shop with nothing to do but read and respond to letters, using a rotating lineup of fountain pens and inks. I scanned, printed, sliced, and reorganized all of these letters. Each one became a poem. I added nothing to these poems, limited to the words my friends and family had used. The work took a sort of concentration that was new to me, and different from any other writing I had done. I “edited” many times before gluing the pieces down — an act of horrifying finality. I found that in this state of concentration, half the table covered in a random sprawl of scraps, and the other half empty save for a white sheet, a space in which I could command a few of these scraps into varying postures of relative discipline, I could “escape” my own “voice” — and, by extension, my identity. I’d found in poetry something I only knew from fiction. This was polyvocal, heteroglossic — carnival.
As such, the collection became a sort of “fiction.” The nine voices were not “mine,” but neither did they belong to the original letter writers. They were unruly bastards, half-willing, half-aware collaborations that always managed to take on a life that belonged to no one. The process was more one of listening than writing. I rearranged and rearranged until I heard a voice. Then, like Mohammed’s scribes, I tried to take down what I heard.
TONIGHT: 7pm at 25 E. Huron St. If you’re in Buffalo, this is the place to be. Celebrate the release of #OrganizingIsolation , a book of poem-things. If you can’t make it, buy one from Linoleum Press. . . . . . . . . #poetry #buffalo #mail #letters #envelopes #writing #pen #scraps #cut #art #visualart #visualpoetry #publishing #smallpress #indiepub #writersofinstagram #memories #loneliness #love #forgiveness #words #death #deathoftheauthor #imdead #itsarebuildingyear
When I was done, I realized I had a story, nine voices, 38 utterances, 60 pages. But I didn’t yet have a book. Luckily, I had a perceptive friend.
My ENG 101 students brought great, challenging questions for today’s poetry panel. The group — which will some day be as legendary as the time Ken Kesey met Jack Kerouac — was comprised of Justin Karcher, Rachelle Toarmino, Janet McNally, and Max Crinnin. Poets don’t recieve much fan mail, I heard once. That might change after today.
I brought Rachelle, Janet, Max, and Justin to my ENG 101 class for a panel discussion, and Justin and Rachelle retreated to my office in Churchill Tower afterwards to keep the discussion going. This was in October — it was still warm — I’d been working on OI in my office, and Justin and Rachelle examined some of the original paper-and-glue pieces. Because Rachelle is a visual poet — the publisher PressBoard Press put out her chapbook Personal & Generic, which contained pictures of poem-fragments she’d stitched in needlepoint — I asked for her advice, and she immediately told me to contact the photographer and book artist Joel Brenden, who operates Linoleum Press. I don’t know anyone who takes Rachelle’s recommendations lightly. I know I don’t. I was far from finished then, but it wasn’t long before I sent Joel a .pdf of my work-in-progress.
Joel is an extraordinary artist, teacher, and publisher. He took the germ of my idea for “a, like, letter poem book thing,” and made it into a reality. Organizing Isolation exists because of Joel; and now, “Organizing Isolation” denotes not just the poems in the book, but the art-object of the book itself, letterpressed and riveted, a thing more beheld than opened and read.
If you’d like to purchase Organizing Isolation, you can visit the Linoleum Press store on Big Cartel.
Below, you can find some videos of me reading the OI poems at the launch.