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Perfect Subject: Marfa Book Company’s Tim Johnson

By Harriet Staff

Canarium Books’ Joshua Edwards has interviewed Marfa Book Company’s Tim Johnson for Poetry Society of America, and it’s aces. You might know the small town of Marfa, Texas as an art hub, but Johnson is pushing the poetry hard. He might be the Guy Pettit of the Southwest? And he certainly believes in bricks and mortar:

There’s that secular vision that looks, that shops, or passively admires, of which we’re somewhat wary. And there’s that other kind of vision, one we experience as a kind of responsibility to make things, to be active, and, consequently, to engage. It may sound like I’m paraphrasing Matthew Stadler (of Publication Studio), but it’s certainly worth repeating that bookstores occupy a curious spot in the commercial world. There is, and probably has always been, this sense that they exceed a simple commercial service and provide a kind of reflective and even generative site for cultural activity. This is what we’re investigating at the Marfa Book Co. Or, at least, that’s the way it seems to me, because that’s what interests me about what we do on a daily basis. We try and test the nature of the bookstore. And, to an extent, we even flaunt or try to confuse the commercial aspect. And we do that by hosting performances, films, music, art shows, by releasing albums, publishing books, and so forth. And some of this stuff we do for free. Or we have books that are not for sale, and we intend to have a “library” of books that you can check out but you can’t buy. At the same time, we need to pay the bills, to make sure the space exists in five and ten years.

Edwards tells us that Marfa Book Company has three poetry sections. And art books of course. They even have The Bernadette Corporation’s The Complete Poem. And they’ve hosted the likes of hosted Harryette Mullen, Farid Matuk, Susan Briante, Allison Hedge Coke, Kevin Young, Adrian Matejka, Ben Lerner, Michael McGriff, Mark McMorris, Kristin Naca, Christian Campbell, Fady Joudah, and Eleni Sikelianos. They’ve also recently entered the publishing world! The Present Order: Writings on the Work of Ian Hamilton Finlay is excitingly just out. More on that:

Joshua Edwards: You had a really interesting show up in your gallery space when I was there in late 2010, work by Ian Hamilton Finlay that sort of exists at the intersection of poetry, graphic art, and minimalism. You guys also published a beautiful book to go along with it. It seemed like Marfa was the perfect setting for Finlay’s work, although he was a Scottish gardener. Can you talk a little bit about the gallery space, and that show in particular?

Tim Johnson: Sure. Within the bookstore there’s a fairly large gallery space where we present maybe six shows annually. And I would say, at this point, the exhibition of printed works by Ian Hamilton Finlay was our most ambitious. Finlay, who died in 2006, was such an inspiring person: poet, publisher, gardener, visual artist. And his work is, for me, deeply engaging and also, sometimes, quite troubling. Frankly, the work is somewhat difficult to describe. For example, he made “standing poems,” “folding cards,” artists books, concrete poetry, “poem prints,” and a host of other kinds of work for which there is very little precedent in the literary world. The exhibition included examples of all this work. And, because we really wanted to demonstrate our respect for Finlay, we published a book, The Present Order: Writing on the Work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, which features new and newly-translated contributions by seven individuals, including Marjorie Perloff, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Stephen Scobie, a Canadian poet, friend of Finlay’s, and the principle lender to our show. It’s our first book, and we thought that Finlay would be the perfect subject, as he was really a principle practitioner in many of the fields that we find most interesting.

They also talk about Johnson’s own work:

Joshua Edwards: It’s interesting to me that much of your own work as a poet wouldn’t fit into a book and doesn’t really conform to the mainstream discourse of poetics. You’ve got sound poems, musical mash-ups, poems that depend on scale, sculpture that interrogates the idea of the book, collaborative works—all of which make inquiries into form in a very different sense than one sees on the open page. Maybe this is a leap, but this seems to be reflected in store, also.

Tim Johnson: Well, perhaps because it pertains to language, this will qualify as poetic. While arranging the shelves for the current configuration of the store, I decided that Cormac McCarthy’s books would always appear in the same place. That is to say, regardless of where the alphabet would situate them, they will always appear at eye level, on one particular shelf. Other authors’ names may appear before or after McCarthy’s in the common order, but because of where we are, the popularity of his titles, and the laws of marketing, McCarthy has trumped the alphabet.

As to my own work, I suppose I’m somewhat restless. I’m often trying to elude my own presumptions about what a poem is or does, where it’s found, the nature of its instantiation, and so forth. And I live among a lot of artists, so that has probably influenced me.

Read the interview in full here.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 16th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.