I. Many people will not, of their own accord, look at a poem.
II. Millions of people will, of their own accord, spend lots and lots of time looking at photographs of cats.
III. Therefore, earlier this year, I concluded that the best strategy for increasing the number of viewers for poems would be to print them on top of photographs of cats.
IV. I happen to like looking at both poems and cats.
V. So this is, for me, a win-win situation.
VI. Fortunately, my own cat is a patient model, and (if I am to be believed) quite photogenic.
VII. The aforementioned cat is Tisko Tansi, small hero.
VII. Thus I present to you (albeit in digital rather than physical form) an Endearments broadside, featuring a poem that originally appeared in BlazeVOX spring 2011.
VIII. If you want to share a copy of this image, please ask first. If you want a real copy, you can ask about that too.
The endearments lend themselves particularly to the world of things. At least, I have found it easier to work with them visually than with other poems of late. I’ve printed them on top of old photographs, and on the pages of old natural-history textbooks. And I’ve printed them on top of newer images too. These objects, even the digitally created ones, are of the physical world rather than the virtual one. This is important. In an essay for Fringe, “On Poetic Objects and Poetic Economies,” I consider the advantages and challenges of bringing poems into the visual world:
If I could think of the poems as objects, I said to a friend, a visual artist, this past spring, they would take up as much room as objects do in my mind, and then I would need fewer things in my life. Fewer artifacts waiting to become art.
After exploring cheap art, poems on cards, broadsides, I allow myself a bit of exhortation on these objects’ behalf:
After it’s had the chance to live online a while, affix your poem to a page. One you can give out, or barter for snacks or a drink, or sell for a few bucks. . . . And if you are one of the fine folks who are doing something like this already, for your own work or for that of others, in your living room or in a letterpress studio, I applaud you. Don’t stop. . . .
Make it. Allow it to exist in time, and try again. And try new things, and get better.
It’s easier to get away with such imperatives if you’ve followed your own advice. In the case of poetic objects, though, the physical evidence necessarily has a smaller audience than the html-encoded call to action. So I am offering a partial fix. Shortly I’ll post the digital iteration of a broadside I made of the “beloved” endearment. I printed it on pale grey, textured paper, and I handed it out at the 2011 West Chester University poetry conference. Now it will live here too, but it is better in person.
When my brother was little, four or five, he had a collection of action figures. “Cave-mans,” he called them, and he loved them. He sat at the bottom of the stairs, on the subdued, 1990s blue and cream of the round braided rug, leaning on the first step and enacting a fight between two of these figurines, which were small enough for him to hold around the middle.
“And he pkoh, and he pkoh,” he said, banging them into each other. The noise he made was a really good pow noise, the consonants a p and something like an aspirated ch, followed by an o sound that had a little u in it, like the vowels of “foe” and “true” combined. This sound was the verb. He told himself the story they were acting out.
Not all, but some, of the Endearments are like action figures. The anagrammed words suggest a story, an idea. As I revise, I move the words around to enact it, change the story to work better with the words. This supplies shape to something that might not always offer clear choices for what will sound and look best.
As the pkoh is not inherently visible in the action figure—it requires my brother to make itself known—the stories I tell with the poems as part of making them are not necessarily visible in the finished poem. But they give shape to the thing I’m working on.
The poem ending “beloved” came to be in this way. When I think of it, I think of a couple who are making a house (N and C, for instance). The never-ending decisions to be made about what fixtures to order, what to build and what to pay someone else to build, how audacious to be in choices of paint colors; the encouragements and frustrations of doing something big with a partner. . . .
So, “be bold,” I imagine one saying to the other. “Bevel, vee.” As I made the poem, this helped me choose what words to use and in what order to say them. The act of moving the words around, either with a pencil on a printed sheet or (less preferably) on my computer screen, is like playing with action figures also. A humming, quiet, thoughtful playing, punctuated by sudden exactitude—the right place found for a word, two words saying just the right sounds.