Who's Afraid of Belinda Blurb? & A Bad Case of Epigraphilia

(click image to enlarge & read text)

publisher b. w. huebsch wasnt. in fact, he wanted to include "the picture of a damsel--languishing, heroic, or coquettish — anyhow, a damsel on the jacket of every novel" (The book above is gelett burgess's "Are you a bromide?"--1906). poor belinda blurb.

someone asked me the other day what i was working on: "i'm writing a blurb," i replied. ("i'm blurbing." just sounds dirty.)

this is the third blurb i've ever been asked to write. the last blurb i wrote was for kaia sand's REMEMBER TO WAVE (tinfish press, 2010). we'll see if the one i just finished will be accepted by the editors.

q: why are blurbs so hard to write? does anyone out there have any advice on how to write a blurb? what is the purpose of a blurb? what do writers who ask for blurbs look for?

whenever i am asked for a blurb, i offer to send a languishing, heroic, and coquettish picture of myself (i have a new author photo that kinda resembles this one) but no one ever accepts my invitation. poor belinda blurb.

*

in "Lazy Bastardism: A Notebook," Carmine Starnino writes:

Lately it seems no book of Canadian poetry can be put to bed without an epigraph to tuck it in [...] It’s hard to know what to blame for this. Until Eliot and Pound, epigraphs were rarely associated with poetry. [...]

Whatever the reason for its popularity, the epigraph’s spell has never been stronger. Poets use them to seed sub rosa themes, to create theoretical contexts, or to nudge readers toward moods around which their collection has been structured. As an editor, I’ve seen poets drive themselves crazy in their search for the “perfect” epigraph. The device is regarded as the nub of the matter, the absolute condensation of a book’s intellectual and emotional intent.

The truth, as is often the case, is a little less dramatic. Epigraphs are the poetry world’s emoticons: quick-fix inflections. Poets overestimate their necessity and significance. What they think is a tiny profundity engine is nothing more than a curio, a found object charged with private associations. This is why so many epigraphs appear undigested and attention-begging. [...]

Epigraphs emphasize poetry-making as a thing of touchstones. They solve our anxiety of influence by flattering it. But poets are getting carried away, like Borgesian scribes compiling an infinite commonplace book. Not to say gems aren’t being unearthed [...] But these are exceptions. As a rule, our collective well-readness is withering away into name-dropping.

I’m not calling for an outright ban, just a little more judiciousness. Like any choice quote, a good epigraph whets a reader’s appetite by sharpening their curiosity. Simple and unpreening, it brandishes a let’s-cut-through-the-cant suavity. [...]

is suavity a word? i've been thinking about epigraphs mainly cuz people tease me about how many epigraphs i use in my books. my first book contains eight epigraphs; my second book (forthcoming this year) contains ten. i love emoticons ;)

my favorite epigraph of all time comes from geraldine kim's POVEL: "Beginning texts by quoting someone else." attributed to "--ME."

q: do you have a favorite epigraph?

for me, i philia epigraphs for two reasons that can be labeled 'genealogical' & 'pedagogical.' epigraphs give me a chance to point towards my poetic genealogy--to pay homage to those poets who helped shaped my work. my first book contains quotes from vicuna & oppen, cha & oswald de andrade, celan & cesaire--to name six.

also epigraphs give me a chance to teach others about writers they might not have heard of. in my second book, i quote two pacific islander writers that i hope folks will be interested in checking out. i quote alfred arteaga & myung mi kim & nathaniel mackey for those who might want to explore 'ethnovative writing.' i quote muriel rukeyser.

but perhaps starnino is right, perhaps i overestimate & flatter myself.

q: do you epigraph? why? what do you think of starnino's claims? are epigraphs really that bad? who do you blame?

*

Originally Published: January 18th, 2010

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent (Hawai’i Dub Machine, 2011), and author of three collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008), from unincorporated territory [saina](Omnidawn, 2010),...

  1. January 18, 2010
     Bhanu Kapil

    The epigraph is a chance to cut out whole sections of a poetry manuscript: to suggest the relation between body and text without feeding whole plates of meat to a young child. "Here you go, darling, have some more. For dessert, I've got us some nice meatloaf. Eat up!" Because I write things that function as prose-poems in one context and creative non-fiction in another, I run the risk of narrative. Thus, editing always as a poet and not as some kind of failed novelist, I have come to adore the epigraph as an opportunity to reduce a book by half: to put my money where my mouth is. That said, I have to overcome my obsession with Alphonso Lingis, whose books are stuffed full of sickeningly perfect one-liners. I tried to use him just a week ago, and forcibly had to turn to the experimental biological sciences instead. Pathetic. Am thinking of taking up crocheting.

  2. January 18, 2010
     Wendy Babiak

    I love crochet. It's like magick, making something out of almost nothing, one little hooked stylus wiggling in the space between your fingers.

  3. January 18, 2010
     Wendy Babiak

    Craig, it's generous of you to write blurbs, and to devote so much thought to it. I just blogged about how difficult it is to ask for them here:\r

    http://wbabiak.wordpress.com/\r

    And I do use epigraphs, though I didn't choose one for the whole book. But for certain longer poems, I did. I think they can be really useful (and fun) to bounce one's consciousness off of. Really, it's not like we're writing in a vacuum, and displaying such intertextuality gives a nod to that fact, and helps us align ourselves with those writers with whom we feel intellectual or spiritual kinship.

  4. January 18, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    It's interesting when "blurbs" become something more than mere paratextual addendums and are perversely integrated into the very poetics of the "work proper."\r

    I'm surprised that more "experimental" poets, older and younger, haven't explored the creative possibilities of blurbs. And it's strange, really, that the blurbs on all the books by, say, Rae Armantrout or Ron Silliman have exactly the same meaning and function as the blurbs on all the books by, say, Mary Oliver or Billy Collins.\r

    Though maybe it's not so strange, really, after all...

  5. January 18, 2010
     Colin Ward

    is suavity a word? \r

    Yes.\r

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/suavity\r

    -o-

  6. January 18, 2010
     thom donovan

    just wrote my first two blurbs this past fall. for Eleni Stecopoulos and David Wolach, whose books Armies of Compassion and Occultations shld be out in the next couple months. the challenge, I found, was to say what their books were 'about'/'doing' without being totally incoherent (so much was there I had to say abt both these bks). I also wanted to avoid the trap of being simply celebratory/promoting. who needs that! as for epigraphs, I am told I use too many. using too many seems symptomatic of poetries in which a reading practice is very active (which is how I imagine it is for you and I alike Craig). but epigraphs can be very busy, so if ever I come out with a full-length book I am keeping this in mind. how not to distract the reader too much thru epigraphy. esp when many of my poems already include a hefty amount of intertextuality--quotation, citation, uncited sources, appropriations...

  7. January 18, 2010
     Mark Mitchell

    Does anyone buy books based solely on the blurbs? Or will anyone admit to it?

  8. January 18, 2010
     Daisy Fried

    There are certain poets who make me more likely to look inside if they blurb a book. But I won't say who...

  9. January 18, 2010
     Bhanu Kapil

    Kevin Killian?

  10. January 18, 2010
     Peter Greene

    @Craig: When you say I philia I feelya but do you mean you love in many ways the epigraphic function or are you merely being linguistically phickle?\r

    Not even phickled yet myself.\r

    I think the real difficulty with blurb writing is a bit like the condition artisits who work on movie blurbs get: EVERYTHING becomes a blurb of itself, and the need for the real fades...\r

    PG

  11. January 18, 2010
     Peter Greene

    Oh Lord I really will have to start proofreading before I hsit sdends. This lirtle tiny keyboard is too much. Anyway, by artisits I meant artists in post previous, not the dilettantish equivalent of a whatsit.\r

    Who you calling whatsit, bub...oh, wait.

  12. January 18, 2010
     Bhanu Kapil

    My mum once crocheted little hats for my sister's parrots.

  13. January 18, 2010
     Wendy Babiak

    Too much! I hope she still has them. (The hats. I'm sure the parrots have perished by now?)

  14. January 18, 2010
     Javier O. Huerta

    I just googled "ethnovative writing," and this was the only hit. Awesome.\r

    In his essay on blurbs, Howard Nemerov says, "If 9 out of 10 books are exceptional, what does that make the 10th one?"\r

    I'm going to have it in my contracts that the press not publish blurbs on my books. Or any author photos.\r

    Happy MLK Day.

  15. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    hey bhanu, i love the idea of an epigraph as cutting & reducing!

  16. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    hey wendy,\r

    congrats on the blurb for your book! i completely know how you feel. \r

    you know, i totally didnt even think about epigraphs for individual poems. def a great difference between epigraphs used for the whole book--or for sections--or for individual poems! seems to me like the power of an epigraph changes depending on where/how it's used. \r

    c

  17. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    seriously tho, 'suavity' takes all the 'suave' out of it.\r

    thx colin!\r
    c

  18. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    @ peter, i really do philia the many epigraphic functions. tho i dont pretend to know all its functions. \r

    everything becomes a blurb of itself? i dont know about all that. i think blurbs can help crystallize the real. \r

    c

  19. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    no blurbs! no author photos! your book is gonna feel pretty naked. \r

    so what's the punch line?\r

    “If 9 out of 10 books are exceptional, the tenth one is...your next book?"\r

    ...by a writer of color?\r

    ...commemorating the inaugural poem?\r

    tell me the punchline!!!\r

    c

  20. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    i've bought books based on their blurbs...influenced by who writes the blurbs and what they say. \r

    haha kevin killian convinced me to buy this new DVD about the dalai lama. curse him: http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A30TK6U7DNS82R/ref=cm_pdp_rev_title_1?ie=UTF8&sort_by=MostRecentReview#R233M6EG852868

  21. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    indeed not too strange afterall kent. apparently, "they dont hate blurbs" as much as "they hate speech." \r

    i think of eileen tabios' blurbed book project (http://blurbproject.blogspot.com/). but yeah, i cant think of anyone else who experiments with the blurb. i'm sure they're out there tho...

  22. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    hey thom,\r

    wow--great writers to blurb! \r

    i had a similar difficulty with having so much to say but only having 50 words! tho it was a fun challenge. a kind of criticondensary ;)\r

    & great point about reading practices & the possibility of distracting readers! something i have not thought about. and how interesting to connect the "epigraphic moment" with other moments of intertextuality--some more visible than others (perhaps the epigraph as the most visible ex of intertext). \r

    c\r

    just wrote my first two blurbs this past fall. for Eleni Stecopoulos and David Wolach, whose books Armies of Compassion and Occultations shld be out in the next couple months. the challenge, I found, was to say what their books were 'about’/'doing’ without being totally incoherent (so much was there I had to say abt both these bks). I also wanted to avoid the trap of being simply celebratory/promoting. who needs that! as for epigraphs, I am told I use too many. using too many seems symptomatic of poetries in which a reading practice is very active (which is how I imagine it is for you and I alike Craig). but epigraphs can be very busy, so if ever I come out with a full-length book I am keeping this in mind. how not to distract the reader too much thru epigraphy. esp when many of my poems already include a hefty amount of intertextuality–quotation, citation, uncited sources, appropriations…

  23. January 19, 2010
     csperez

    oops--not sure why that copied your comment! sorry, c

  24. January 19, 2010
     Wendy Babiak

    I definitely check blurbs, esp. if I don't know the author from previous works, though I'm not sure I can cite an example when I bought a book solely based on the blurbs. But I asked my 13 yo son last night, after a trip to the bookstore, if he had read the blurbs on the back of the book he had ended up choosing. He had not. He says when he's in the store, if a friend has said they liked a book, he'll take THEIR word for it, but not another author's on the back. If he's attracted by a cover (and not a friend's rec), then he simply reads a few pages and forms his own opinion.\r

    Is that one of the differences, then, between children and adults? Do they listen to their friends, while we listen to the "experts"?\r

    And just what is the etymology of the word "blurb"? Could it sound more like a mildly noxious bodily release? "Blurbing." If you didn't know its actual usage, what would you think that meant?

  25. January 19, 2010
     Peter Greene

    @CSPerez: I think my real fear around blurbs is that they could displace all other forms of textual expression, the way starlings drive out chickadees and other little pretty birds.\r

    Still, raccoons creep up on the garage roof and slip into the rafters and eat the starling babies, who scream. There is some comfort in that on a dark and blurby night.\r

    Maybe one day I'll have a blurb of my own. Sigh. As long as it's safely leashed and neutered.\r

    PG