Hands-On Poetry: Self-Publishing, Book Arts, and the Dusie Kollektiv

Over the last few months, a curious parade of poetic artifacts has been arriving regularly in my mailbox: fifty chapbooks written by poets who are members of the Dusie Kollektiv, each produced by another poet in the Kollektiv. This remarkable force of poetic self-determination was started by the poet and editor of Dusie Press, Susana Gardner, and is now in its third year.

At once postmodern and traditional in its ethos and aesthetic, the Kollektiv is organized on simple principles. Each of the fifty poets is randomly assigned someone else's book to publish. We make 100 copies and mail one to each member of the kollektiv, with twenty for the author and the rest for review copies.
I have to admit, I was nervous about doing this. I hadn't physically created a book since self-publishing my very first book of poetry in 1982. But I still remembered the thrill of producing that little volume, and the way the poetry seemed somehow more "itself" in a book that I had had a hand in making— as if the poems' physical body were at once more arbitrary and more full of soul than the commercially-produced equivalent. Each copy carried some of the deeply meaningful pleasure I now get from home-baked bread and hand-knit hats. Combined with the intensity of poetry itself, the effect bordered on sublime.
So I dove in and started making my chapbook, adding my own choices of color, size, shape, paper textures, format, and conception to the truly remarkable variety of chaps that was starting to pour in. Mine was simple to produce in many ways, challenging in others (I let a copy shop do the cutting and stapling, but my daughter and I hand-stamped each volume individually between half a dozen and a couple of dozen times with animal-shaped ink-stamps . . .). As with so many arts, there is nothing like trying book art yourself to appreciate the full complexity and difficulty of what others have done.
Though I am still waiting for my own volume to be finished, participating in the Kollektiv has already been not only fun, but empowering. Not only does the kollektiv remind us that a book is an object we have the power to produce, but it also reminds us that a literary network is a group of writers we have the power to organize. The kollektiv is a powerful alternative model to the often-alienating po-biz world of blurbs, book contest entry fees, impersonal editorial responses, and the rest. As a step towards po-biz self-realization, the equivalent of a rustic retreat, I would recommend the kollektiv model as a po-biz tonic to any aspiring or, for that matter, established poet. Gardner and the Dusie Kollektiv are creating an inspiring new kind of literary reality not only on their own terms, but with their own hands.
Pictures and flash reviews of this year's Dusie Kollektiv chaps are here:

Originally Published: March 23rd, 2009

Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...

  1. March 24, 2009

    Yes! The democratization of poetry through DIY communities. Somewhere Uncle Walt is smiling...

  2. March 24, 2009
     Juliet Cook

    Thank you for this article, Annie. Very enjoyable. Viva la DIY publishing!

  3. March 24, 2009
     Brian Salchert

    Only one of my books was originally published in the traditional manner.
    At the moment--because I cannot find where I hid copies of two books
    (two chaps that is)--the only way to read my books and books-in-progress
    is by visiting my blog. Plan to make free downloadable PDF copies once
    I learn how. I've heard of Dusie, but never investigated it. So this is
    useful information. Thank you.

  4. March 25, 2009

    This is a fascinating account of the Dusie Press project. Everything you describe here: the physicality of the process, collaboration between poets, the idea of empowerment, and the notion that there is and that there can be an alternative to poetry officialdom.
    Of course calling it Kollektiv, the German for “collective” reminded me of a tradition which faded with the end of the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall: Samizdat (the anglicized version of the Russian word самиздат. For starters, the article on Wikipedia is excellent. “Etymologically, the word "samizdat" is made out of "sam" (Russian: сам, "self, by oneself") and "izdat" (Russian: издат, shortened издатеьсство, izdatel'stvo, "publishing house"), thus, self published.”
    As Vadimir Bukovsky defined it: "I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and [may] get imprisoned for it.”
    The conditions in the United States are of course much different than they were in Soviet Russia, and no one would dare risk analogies between the lives of poets there and our lives, or the Soviet Regime and the American poetry industry as it has evolved, as you say, into “the often-alienating po-biz world of blurbs, book contest entry fees, impersonal editorial responses, and the rest.”
    But there are many similarities between the Kollectiv’s methodology, spirit and even ambitions, as you describe them.
    I myself have direct experience with this, as my only collection published to date was published in 1992 with a Samizdat Press in East Berlin, Edition Maldoror. Initially, among East German intellectuals there was some resistance to the unification of the two German States. Misha, a painter friend took it to the extreme. While East Berliners were pouring through the gaps in the wall, he immediately got on the train and headed for Moscow. My editor Maximilian Barck took what had been a necessity before the wall fell, and continued to publish in the same format as a protest against the encroaching materialism of the West. I was the first foreign poet that he worked with and I was astonished at the beauty, the love for the book and his conception of book-making. My friend Pontus, the Swedish Painter, and I started to work with Max around 1990. During the “old times” as they called them, they were permitted to make editions of five hundred books without having to submit them to censorship. It hadn’t always been so easy, but in the latter days of the regime there was some relaxation and in East Berlin there was a thriving cultural scene. Max’s formula was to combine poetry with painting and lithography. Hence, my collaboration with Pontus on the book which is called “Stundenglass” (Hourglass). There are very few copies left as they were quickly bought up by Museums around the world anxious to get their hands on an object from what was already a dying medium.

  5. March 25, 2009
     james stotts

    vivas for the samizdateli!

  6. March 25, 2009
     james stotts

    also, thinking of samoderzhavie--самодержавсе--these things allow us to be auto-crats of our own poetry. i think that was part of the empowerment bukovsky was talking about. i wonder if a samizdat press isn't a contradiction in terms, though. it's not the same thing as indie-publishing, at least.
    here in america, it addresses a totally different kind of despair that writers potentially face.