The Apostrophe Blog
A number of years ago—maybe eight or nine now! 2014?—I entertained myself greatly with a poetry book project I called Miss Scarlet in the Library with a Rope, a celebration of the wonder that is the book. This collection grew to become a gathering of poems whose predominant constraint is that they were all “prompted” by book titles from prose authors I had loved and read voraciously over the years. The book I ended up cobbling together consisted of twenty-six poems ordered A to Z, one title for each letter of the English alphabet. This abecedarian was then “bookended” by poems at the beginning and the end. In addition, there was a “spine” in the middle, a trio of poems to mimic the backbone of an actual book. Oh and the poem beginning with X? Well, I had to get a wee bit creative with that one.
Why this project?
First, I should say I am not a Luddite, not anti-digitalization; in fact, I have been using electronic mail since 1984, ages before the words Facebook and Twitter had crossed any lips. But I will confess I have been slow to embrace a world where every activity is mediated by one gadget or another. I still like to think for myself, rely on my own eyes and handwriting hands to make my way with words and text, whether it’s an address book or the latest novel by Louise Erdrich.
And I was very slow to warm to the universe of the e-book. Oh I know—that iPad or Kindle would mean I wouldn’t have to have a separate backpack for all the books I took on our 2010 trip to France and the Basque country of Northern Spain. The many boosters for these e-readers tell me I could load all my travel reading onto a device (no big deal that it requires electricity and periodic charging) and travel much, much lighter indeed. But then I wouldn’t be able to leave the Vintage paperback of The Great Gatsby (re-read while we road-tripped through the Medoc wine country) on that park bench in San Sebastian for someone to stumble upon, wonder about, and maybe even take home and read. Or pass along my copy of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise and Fall of Disaster Capitalism to the couple we met in that café in St. Malo.
So the book then as gift, as an item sharable and freely shared. An item that can easily and freely be shared and re-circulated rather than purchased, held onto, privatized (if you will) and consumed. Something that libraries remind us, again and again, is part of the socialized, greater good. The book was on my mind…
In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde talks about the importance of a gift economy and the ways that any gift exchange is responsible for establishing both connections and emotional ties between people, thus serving as a necessary basis for community and social cohesion. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall but rather a book, the physical artifact with its jacket art, binding, paper pages filled with its serif or sans serif imprint that may raise up just a bit from the surface, pages of incidental information about the typeface chosen, the printing press particulars as well as dedication, epigraph, and acknowledgments. It’s all of a whole. A three-dimensional, easy to hold, open/close/open again whole.
So I was thinking about books—the thrilling row after row of them, their very physicality in a place like my hometown two-room public library above the borough police station. Or what I’m sure would be miles of stacks if laid end-to-end, the ones that filled Olin Library when I was an undergraduate student at Cornell. And the humble pleasures of the long-obsolete card catalog with its drawer after drawer of index-card records alphabetized by author, title, and subject.
I guess I just couldn’t stop thinking about the utter wonder that is a book.
I wanted to step outside the hyperlinked universe of Google and the Internet for a bit, hearken back to the analog nature of that very card catalog as physical artifact itself. Where there was often surprise, the serendipity of what came before and after the book you were looking for, the accidental findings you’d maybe pore through on your way to what it was you thought you were seeking. Where there might be even be a conversation between what you sought and what you found in that process of “looking for.”
What I then decided to do:
One day when I was feeling particularly frustrated by the state of contemporary poetry and poetics, I remembered how much joy I (still) take from reading prose. And I thought—how can I pay homage to my love of so many writers who never break their language into line and stanza? And re-invigorate my poetry at the same time?
I made a list of titles from books of contemporary literature that had influenced me—whether it was because of their language, lyricism, structure, characters, plot, or information relayed. What kind of poetry would get written if I began with the titles of some of these books? If all the titles were in place before poems got written? And what resonance might then be discovered or revealed if the poems themselves (written from the constraint of that book title) were to appear in alphabetical order by title (like a card catalog) in the manuscript itself? What conversations would then be noticed, detected, able to be explicated between and among such a group of poems?
In his 1999 article about organizational strategies for books of poetry or prose, the poet Alberto Rios calls alphabetizing “a strong but deceptive organizer, both whimsical and efficient at the same time—while being neither finally. Related to Objective Ordering…it simply offers an effective foundation for letting the manuscript speak for itself.”
So those were the leaps: from the alphabetical order of the card catalog to the book-as-artifact to what each of those artifacts was then named and the significance (if any) of such naming. The first poem I wrote was “Housekeeping” after the still-so-exquisite novel by Marilynne Robinson. Next came Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing” then on to “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. And so the shelf of books that would grow into Miss Scarlet in the Library with a Rope, each poem opening as its own exploratory volume, had begun. The other authors whose work ended up in the line-up? T. Coraghessan Boyle, Edwidge Danticat, Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Kazuo Ishiguro, Henry James, Jack Kerouac, Colum McCann, David Mitchell, Joseph Mitchell, Walter Mosley, Alice Munro, Thomas Pynchon, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Norman Rush, Wallace Stegner, Shunryu Suzuki, Amy Tan, and Virginia Woolf.
When I had all twenty-six poems done (and I got very creative about the entry for the letter X), well, I submitted the manuscript to a few contests. It actually made it to finalist in the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. That news came via a lovely and encouraging letter from the series editor, Jon Tribble, noting that many of their semifinalist and finalist manuscripts over the years have become published collections.
But, after a while when the manuscript seemed to not be going much of anywhere, well, I started to cannibalize the various poems in the manuscript, recycling their language and their ideas into revisions that morphed into other poems.
A number were published in some form or other in my 2015 collection, Every Door Recklessly Ajar. Another handful were published on their own in assorted journals and anthologies. Others have, amazingly, all these year later ended up making an appearance in my newest book project, Brief Campaigns of Sting and Sweet. So while the collection itself went (so far) pretty much nowhere in terms of publications, I still think that the ideas behind my book title project were more than interesting. And yet another reminder that no language is, in the end, wasted in the world of poetry.
In the coming months, I plan to go back through Miss Scarlet in the Library with a Rope and catalogue which ones have been published as well as which ones have mutated into a different poem and share some of those discoveries here on the Apostrophe blog.
The public domain photograph above is by .جبريل