I spend a lot of time thinking about economies: my own, the world’s. I’m fascinated by the workings of things that seem to defy the logic of late capitalism; they’re a bit like benign growths appearing unexpectedly, or like heterotopias (in the medical sense of the term)—normal tissues that are displaced, misplaced, or in abnormal locations within the body. More to the point, it seems that the more material obstructions there are to establishing a dialogue that bypasses commercial transactions, the more vehemently we adhere to our desire to exchange ideas for the mere sake of a vital, and sometimes even uncomfortable, conversation. Who would think, for instance, that at a historical moment in which books have been pronounced endangered species and successful businesses are those that emulate the Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, and Wal-Mart model, there would be a fervent resurgence of near artisanal, micro-publishing initiatives? Some of the most dynamic presses to appear in New York City recently have embraced marginality, capitalized on its most liberating aspects. Among many others, I’m thinking of Futurepoem Books and Ugly Duckling Presse (which has gone through different metamorphoses since its inception over a decade ago.) Some examples of their books: Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science in Imperial China, published by Futurepoem Books in 2005, and Jen Bervin’s Nets, published by Ugly Duckling in 2004. Both are on their way to becoming classics and I doubt that they would have found an established publisher had they gone through the traditional circuits involving contests and the stamp of approval of the ever-elusive boards of academic and independent publishers. Despite its conceptual succinctness, Nets—a series of poems written within 60 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets—tackles some crucial issues in the realm of poetics concerning authorship, appropriation, and art as process. It is potential literature at its best: one can never be done “reading” the book because as one reads, one is persuaded to find new poems within Shakespeare’s sonnets and Bervin’s own verbal constellations. What she manages to do is one of conceptual art’s highest achievements: her premise outlives the actual consumption of the work and haunts one’s approach to things beyond it.

Wang’s book, on the other hand, defies poetry’s parochialism by collapsing genres in an effort to recover a self, through memory and the acquisition of a new language, in the aftermath of the trauma. The poet had to leave China following the massacre at Tiananmen Square. His writing in English, inflected by Chinese and his training as an engineer, can’t ever be severed from the experience that launched him into exile. Echoing Pierre Bourdieu’s dictum that no word is ever innocent, consider the following double-edged questions in the poem “Probes of Near-Field Optical Microscopy”: “How long is a long sentence? / What sentence are you referring to? / What’s the law dictating the sentence? / So he died? / What’s the point of repetition? / What exactly happened? / Did you see the carnage? / Are you still shaking? / When did it start? / Where is the price tag of freedom?” There isn’t an ounce of exploitation of otherness or cultural difference in this book. One wonders if it would have received attention at a mainstream press, where the implicit mandate is to represent those authors of diverse cultural backgrounds who willingly accept to represent themselves in the terms favored by the establishment, and hence contribute to increase niche consumption.

The Subpress Collective, founded in 1998, is another good example of an anomaly according to capitalist logic: members are committed to donating 1% of their income to the press in order to support the publication of poetry books chosen by its participants on a rotating basis. The stunningly eye-catching War, the musical, by Rob Fitterman and Dirk Rowntree, is its most recent release. Four hundred pages in length, in part a lettriste flipbook with dozens of blank pages and an alphabet turned on its head, no economic rationale justifies its lavish design in radical defiance of, among other things, the industry’s standards.

Predominantly of a collective nature, these and many other small presses here and abroad defy the paradigm predicated on the author as marketable genius discovered or backed by a famous judge or an equally talented editor. The “genius” economic and cultural model is either dead or a zombie, except for believers in MacArthur grants. It seems to me that a major cultural trend emphasizing the value of collective action—both at the publishing and the creative level—is thriving.

In terms of publishing, if some of the micro-presses I’ve mentioned are political, it is because they are trying out different modes of production. Other presses, though, are overtly engaged with the body politic. One such press is Factory School, which recently published Laura Elrick’s Fantasies in Permeable Structures in its Heretical Texts Series. The organization’s website refers readers to a wide range of activities including research, publishing and community service which are “concerned with public education as much as education in public, [and emphasize] the social and cultural reproductive function of the multiple media arts.” Readers of Elrick’s book might be swept by the high level abstraction of her verse, yet are recurrently jolted by the intrusion of the context in which both the poet and reader are going about their business (pun intended):

[…] (Truly, I wear my sleeve
on my heart) The Ineluctable Brat pins the tail
on to Mesopotamia. O Literature! Lost
on a commercial sea, and I a poor farcical
sailor… Infantryman Edgar Fernandez
21, son of Mexican immigrants
had been scheduled to be discharged
before the winter’s snows fell

Need I say more? Quoting Shanxing Wang again, “What is the price tag of freedom?” Of emotion and personal expression? Which brings me back to the issues I brought up at the beginning of this entry: the relationship of poets with the larger community and the poetic economy. Some might argue that it’s our duty to protect our turf from the intrusion of the most disagreeable aspects of everyday reality. In a recent interview in BOMB magazine, Mexican poet José Luis Rivas, for instance, makes a good case for a type of practice that facilitates the enjoyment of alternate, perhaps utopian, realities.

I’m afraid at this point I have more questions than answers. Readers’ comments are most welcome. Tomorrow I will write about trends in some Latin American cities and the way poets are dealing with some of the issues I’ve brought up so far.

Originally Published: May 30th, 2006

Poet, translator, and scholar Mónica de la Torre was born and raised in Mexico City. She earned a BA from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and, with the support of a Fulbright scholarship, relocated to New York in 1993 to pursue an MFA and a PhD in Spanish literature...