May 17, 2019KR BlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiterature

“Some Assembly Required”: Les Figues Press, Artistic Community, and the Printed Book as an Occasion for Dialogue

Introduction

For the past few decades, readers have witnessed a proliferation of small feminist presses run by women. These publishing projects, which include Leslie Scalapino’s O Books, Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, and Les Figues Press (edited by poets Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place) have garnered an increasing amount of attention from literary scholars. Much of this critical work focuses on the role of women as cultural gatekeepers, particularly the ways that they have shaped, and offered provocative alternatives to, existing literary canons. This type of scholarship certainly remains vital and necessary. Yet feminist presses have also challenged prevailing ideas about the book as a cultural object, its limitations, and its possibilities.

With that in mind, Les Figues Press offers a unique glimpse into the ways feminist editors and publishers have renegotiated the boundaries of the printed book. Frequently pairing poetry with visual art, performance, and music, as well as other printed literary texts, the editors of Les Figues Press offer an expansive vision of what’s possible within a poetry collection. The book as a cultural object becomes more inclusive. Perhaps more importantly, the editors of Les Figues Press have re-imagined the relationship between the book and its audience. Rather than expecting the reader to passively accept meaning as given by the author, he or she is placed in a more active role. The reader is asked to forge connections between disparate voices, texts, and artistic mediums. What’s more, the reader is asked to participate actively in the process of making meaning from the work. The editors, writers, and artists affiliated with Les Figues Press envision a more egalitarian relationship between artist and audience, in which the audience creates alongside the poet herself. The text appears in as many incarnations as there are readers. The work is never finished, but rather, is constantly in process.

In this essay, I will discuss the innovative definition of the book that is set forth by the editors, writers, and artists at Les Figues Press. I will examine the relationship between these books and the existing means of distribution, focusing on the ways in which this publisher has circumvented traditional ways of disseminating knowledge, thus creating alternative models. I will argue that Les Figues Press not only challenges prevailing definitions of the book, but also reveals the channels of distribution as being predicated on the assumptions of a dominant literary culture. By offering an alternative definition of the book as cultural object, and the ways books can be distributed, Les Figues Press strives to democratize the book, an ideal that is largely made possible by twenty-first century technology.

 

The Book as an Establishment: Renegotiating Boundaries

In their mission statement, the editors write, “In America, in this time, which is the early 21st century, we have inherited the clap of our fathers, i.e., applause sought and received for culture which is clotted.” This statement underscores many of the motivations behind starting a press like Les Figues. Contemporary female poets have been born into a longstanding literary tradition in which women’s texts are underrepresented. Perhaps more importantly, the existing means of dissemination make it difficult for these voices to gain inclusion in existing literary canons. In many ways, the editor’s description of culture as “clotted” suggests the difficulty of rendering cross-disciplinary feminist projects compatible with a system of distribution that operates on outmoded assumptions about the book, its limitations, and its possibilities.

For many editors working within feminist tradition, the book represents a mark of cultural legitimacy that has proven elusive for feminist artists working across artistic disciplines. These structures of cultural and institutional legitimating represent not only respect, but an economic sustainability that has remained inaccessible to many feminist writers who question the boundaries of existing genres, including the printed book. Les Figues Press presents a particularly striking example of how feminist editors, artists, and writers have strived to expand what’s possible within the existing structures of cultural legitimacy. As Stephen Fredman explains, “The very need to invent, to attempt a new cultural grounding, has become one of the very hallmarks of poetry, which is always trying to explain to readers or find analogies to other cultural practices that will grant it legitimacy.” Fredman’s argument is useful for understanding the necessity, and even the inevitability, of these cultural markers of legitimacy within poetry. The editors at Les Figues Press have not chosen to accept these existing power structures, but rather, to work strategically within them, thus expanding what remains possible within culture.

This desire to make American print culture more inclusive remains especially visible in the editors’ renegotiation of the boundaries of the printed book. The Les Figues Press catalogue includes what one might consider “traditional” manifestations of the printed book, which include anthologies (such as I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women and The /N/Oulipian Analects, a collection of essays about constraint based writing), as well as translation projects. Yet these more conventional manifestations of the book are presented alongside collaborative, multidisciplinary, and participatory versions of the printed book.
Consider the Trench Art Series, in which three separate texts by individual writers are not only juxtaposed, but grouped together. The book becomes a collaborative endeavor, in which an writer’s work is curated, then situated within a broader artistic conversation. One such pairing, the Trench Art maneuver series, presents Lily Hoang’s Aesthetic Statement, This is by Teresa Carmody, and Harold Abramowitz’s Selected Writings, Four Maneuvers by the VD Collective, I Statement by Paul Hoover, and Matthew Timmons’ the old poetics. These texts, unified by their authors’ attempts to situate themselves within a literary landscape, together suggest the myriad forms that this type of engagement may take. By presenting creative work (such as Harold Abramowitz’ Selected Writings) alongside Timmon’s more critical piece, as well as work that problematizes this distinction between “critical” and “creative” work, the editors ultimately complicate the texts they’ve published by grouping them in such a way. Indeed, this juxtaposition suggests that all writing, whether creative or overtly critical, is a theoretical act. Approached with these ideas in mind, the Trench Art series, in this case study and as a whole, presents a definition of the book as intertextual. The book is no longer presented in isolation, but rather, the editors underscore, for the reader, the artistic conversations in which the authors take part. The editors of Les Figues Press note that “The best known trench art dates from World War I, when silversmiths in the trenches scavenged mortar shells and rifle bullets and warmed and wrought them into grand vases and radiant cruciform, as regular Smiths tapped out matchbook covers in scrap tin.” Here aesthetic engagement arises in unlikely circumstances, from unlikely materials and unlikely individuals. In much the same way, the creation and dissemination of the book becomes an unlikely process of discovery, for writers, editors, and readers, all of whom are called upon to participate in the creation of the cultural knowledge associated with the book.

Such projects not only challenge the power structures associated with the printed book, but work within their confines to render the book more inclusive. One observes a similar impulse in the editors’ forays into visual art and performance pieces associated with the printed book. More often than not, their events demand some form of participation on the part of the audience. An upcoming event, “Big City Forum: The Hub at WUHO,” a literary reading featuring Allison Carter and Amina Cain, is described as “investigating liminal space and the articulation of experiences.” In many ways, the event’s structure forces the audience to articulate the experience of existing between existing boundaries between forms and genres, as well as the ways in which art is experienced through the senses. Poems are heard, whereas visual art is seen, and in such an event, what one sees frequently complicates what one hears, and vice versa. This event, like many others, suggests that the most productive artistic spaces exist on the periphery of existing modes of communication, engagement, and dissemination.

In short, the work curated by Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place presents an expansive definition of the book as cultural object. By doing so, the editors work to expand what remains possible within cultural exchanges, ultimately rendering the power structures associated with the book more inclusive for women, as well as individuals whose project falls outside of established genre boundaries.

 

The Poet as Editor: Vanessa Place and Teresa Carmody

This concern with the boundaries between texts, discourses, and modes of dissemination remains one of the most pressing concerns of both editors’ own creative work. For both Carmody and Place, the poet’s task is to question, challenge, and problematize the power structures reflected in these demarcations. In many ways, the press itself affords a place for dialogue, in which the editors can explore this same problem in ways that are not possible for a poet working on a single-author project. The press becomes a unique collaborative space, a source of discovery and possibility for both author and editor.

Vanessa Place, for example, has frequently explored the connection between appropriation and critical thinking, suggesting that the idea of “ownership” of a text reflects larger power structures within society and the academy. In many ways, Place challenges the idea that texts retain discrete boundaries, that one individual’s ideas can be neatly separated from those of a collective. She writes in an interview for Bomb that

This shifts the locus of the work to its recipient, necessarily embodied, necessarily affected. What is boredom, after all, if not maximal minimal affect? The question of materiality is closer here to a medieval notion of materialism in which the highest form of materiality is that which is transformed by nothing but the divino spiritu—such as the Eucharist. These categories are no longer so discrete as each becomes not inherent in the stuff, but one of its categorical imperatives.

In this discussion of conceptual writing, Vanessa Place questions the distinction between artist and audience, suggesting that the reader retains a crucial role in creating meaning from a given text. Just as “the locus of the work” is “shifted” to the reader, Place ultimately problematizes the idea that the author retains ownership over a given work. Indeed, this idea that the boundaries of a work remain porous and permeable seems to be one of the unifying ideas behind Place’s curatorial decisions.

Teresa Carmody’s work, too, reflects a concern with the ownership of literary texts, and a desire to render the boundaries of a given poem more permeable. Her book, Eye Hole Adore, explores relationships, which seem at first to be personal, but quickly introduce questions of literary, cultural, and artistic legacy. She writes in an untitled prose piece,

Sometimes she became sullen, and I tried everything to make her stop, frivolous, sullen, moping, angry, affected, dishearten’d, atheist. I’d massage her, accuse her, blame her, kiss her. I’d yell and tell her what to do, beg, please please, cheer up. Change the attitude, that’s all. Here, let me listen. If it was Friday, I’d make her favorite red beans with Bhutanese red rice and red velvet cake, and if it was Wednesday, I’d make her blue potatoes with rosemary, blue corn muffins and spicy chokeberry sauce. Thursdays were easiest: pink lemonade with Mother’s iced animal cookies.

Here the speaker’s voice is revealed as socially constructed. The voice is no longer singular, but rather, is permeated by history, culture, and the discourses to which one has been subjected. As in Place’s work, Carmody questions the idea of ownership of a literary text, suggesting that all work is collaborative in nature, and authorship never takes place in isolation. When considered in light of her editorial work, Carmody’s poetry reflects a similar concern with the boundaries between texts, mediums, and modes of dissemination. Indeed, both Carmody and Place call upon the reader to recognize the porous and permeable boundaries between literary/artistic texts, and to account for them in the ways that literary works are disseminated to readers.

 

Redefining the Function of the Book: The Poetic Text as Fascinating Community

In many ways, the editors’ renegotiation of the boundaries of the book as a cultural object implies a re-envisioning of the function of the book as well. For the editors, writers, and artists associated with Les Figues Press, the book is not a static object, but rather a forum for dialogue and exchange between members of a given artistic community. The book, its parameters, its meaning, and its participants, remain constantly in flux.

This impulse remains especially visible in the press’s performance projects, which are frequently organized to promote new titles. Consider the book launch for I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women. The editors describe the event as requiring “some assembly” on the part of the audience, as authors included in the anthology are “distributed” across the city at three alternative venues, allowing readers to choose the order in which they experience the work. Just as the anthology itself offers an alternative cannon of women’s writing, which problematizes and supplements existing bodies of work, the book launch allows the reader to participate in shaping the cannon. The spectator may choose to omit, include, and re-order the writers selected for inclusion. The book launch effectively democratizes the process of constructing a literary cannon. Approached with these ideas in mind, the book itself serves as merely an occasion for this conversation about power and authority within the literary community and in the academy.

Along these lines, Les Figues Press’s Not Content series, a “year-long series of text projects” curated by the editors, challenges the audience to participate actively in the creation of the text itself. The project problematizes the idea that a book is static object with a single fixed meaning. For the editors, these assumptions about the book ultimately foreclose the possibility of creating and fostering literary community. Projects like “Not Content” serve not only as a corrective to previous models of the relationship between reader and text, but rather, they open new possibilities for conceiving of the book in a changing literary and artistic landscape. Consider the “Explanation as Composition” Audio Opening, which included such participants as Kate Durbin, Aimee Bender, Allison Carter, Mark Z. Danielewski, Janice Lee, Harryette Mullen, Janet Sarbanes, Anna Joy Springer, and Stephen Van Dyck. The project offers “six narrative experiences,” from which participants can choose “story,” “geography,” “ekphrasis,” “provenance,” “nature,” or “confession.” In many ways, this gesture suggests the difficulty of extricating writer and reader, artist and audience, book and consumer. The text itself is shaped by the expectations of an audience, whether it anticipates, conforms to, or problematizes them. The boundaries of a literary text, then, are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated. A text is never a static object with a single fixed meaning, but rather, offers a proliferation of meaning. This impulse also remains visible in the TrenchArt series, in which the text becomes an occasion for recognizing oneself as part of an existing artistic conversation.
For the editors of Les Figues Press, this multiplicity of meanings, participants, and possibilities within a literary text is not a novel concept. Rather, voice has always been a social construct, and the means of cultural production and dissemination should account for this. Their innovative definition of the book, then, calls for a renegotiation of the ways books are distributed to readers.

 

Les Figues Press and the Channels of Distribution

More often than not, such an innovative definition of the book cannot be accommodated by the established channels of distribution. The existing modes of dissemination are frequently predicated on the assumption that the book is a static entity, with a single fixed meaning. As Edward Mack argues, these “modes of book production, promotion, and consumption shape ideas of literary value.” The text that cannot be disseminated, then, becomes the “illegitimate” text, a work that has been deprived of value within the academy. Les Figues Press strives to expand what is possible within the existing modes of dissemination, allowing more texts, and a greater diversity of voices, to gain recognition within the existing structures of cultural production. In doing so, they frequently turn to alternative modes of dissemination, challenging readers, writers, and cultural producers to expand their definition of what it means for a text to be distributed, and, as a result, legitimized.

Consider the use of grassroots fundraising to finance the printing of I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. By utilizing Kickstarter, a platform that allows individuals and organizations to donate to a cause, releasing the funds once the project has met its target amount, the press was able to circumvent traditional fundraising procedures. Rather than submitting proposals to state, local, and national arts agencies, which may not recognize the expansive definition of the book promulgated by Les Figues Press, the editors were able to mobilize individuals who wanted to see change within the academy, and a revision of the power structures dictating cannon formation and cultural production. In their project statement for Kickstarter, for instance, the editors write that “Conceptual writing is emerging as a vital 21st century literary movement and Les Figues Press wants to represent the contributions of women in this defining moment. By supporting this project, you will ensure that women claim their literary space.” The editors of Les Figues Press clearly see their editorial undertaking, as well as the means of disseminating the work, as a corrective action. What proves most noteworthy about this intervention is that the editors do not simply seek legitimacy for texts, but rather they seek to expand our definition of legitimacy by offering alternative models of gatekeeping practices, cultural production, and dissemination. Their expansive notion of what constitutes a book is merely one facet of this larger project.

With that said, the Kickstarter campaign also underscores the centrality of web-based technology to this type of cultural intervention. Consider Les Figues Press’ use of social media sites like Facebook to connect with readers. The editors frequently use these technologies to mobilize grassroots support in much the same way as they did with the Kickstarter campaign. Approached with these ideas in mind, Les Figues Press offers a critique of a limiting definition of the book, as well as the power structures that dictate who defines the book. By reaching out to the public, rather than existing cultural authorities, for support, Les Figues Press calls for a democratization of the process of cultural production. Consider the following posting to the press’s Facebook page: “Did you miss the Les Figues auction? We’re having an excess, extra online-only auction this weekend only. Work by Check it out.” Here one observes a concerted effort to mobilize readers who desire change in the form of alternative models of production, dissemination, and consumption. Web-based technologies serve to democratize who can participate in these processes, ultimately affording the possibility of revising the power structures inherent in the production of literary texts.

Moreover, these alternative models of fundraising, cultural production, and the dissemination of literary texts accommodate projects that may not fit within existing definitions of the book. The items promoted through such sites as Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Blogspot, etc. frequently include multimedia text-based projects, art objects, and other items that fall outside the traditional definition of “book.” Divya Victor’s Hellocasts offers one especially striking example. Her project, a retranscription of Charles Reznikov’s book Holocaust, is described as a “poetic composition that appropriates the transcriptions from the speech of witnesses at the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials—into the shape of Hello Kitty.” Taking the form of an installation of text, which spectators literally inhabit, Victor’s project uses this format to explore notions of voicelessness, silence(ing), and personal responsibility. She writes in her artist statement,

Hello Kitty, the cat, has no mouth. Hello Kitty, the brand, always speaks for itself; is always spoken for by its consumer; is a felicific felicitation of affirmed desires. The brand is the document of a figure’s reluctance to speak for itself. What is the distinction between the event of the Holocaust and the documents that brand it?

The form of the installation ultimately allows for an overwhelming sensory experience of the text, something that proves less possible with a book as traditionally imagined. Just as the project itself asks us to reexamine our definition of the book, the editors’ treatment of the finished product challenges us to reconsider what it means for a text to be distributed to audiences. Does the fact that a viewer has experienced a text means that has been disseminated? Can cultural gatekeeping manifest itself, and be documented, in new ways, which may or may not encompass a permanent artifact such as a book? These questions, posed by Victor and the editors promoting her work, suggest that the answers to these questions are constantly changing. Approached with these ideas in mind, their efforts not only expand our definition of the book as a cultural object, but they suggest ways in which the channels of distribution may become more inclusive, and accommodate alternative definitions of the book.

 

Technology and the Printed Book: Democratizing the Poetic Text

In many ways, the editors at Les Figues Press strive for a democratization of the poetic text. Not only does the book become an occasion for dialogue, but the definition of a book, its boundaries, its limitations, and its possibilities remain constantly in flux. As Nicky Marsh argues in Democracy in Contemporary Women’s Poetry, the existing definition of the book remains predicated on a model of publishing that “valorizes the individual.” Presses like Les Figues reveal these assumptions as being outmoded, particularly when considering the possibilities for collaboration afforded by new technologies.

Much of the conceptual writing published by Les Figues Press exemplifies this notion of the book as being a collaborative endeavor, one that is made possible largely by new technologies. Consider Matthew Timmons’ work in The New Poetics, a title available from Les Figues Press’s TrenchArt Series. Like many of the books published by Les Figues, Timmons’ work offers readers a poetics of appropriation, in which found language is situated in a new context, thus prompting the reader to become more conscious of the historicity of language. He writes in a piece entitled “The New Emotion,”

The New Emotion is a collection of movement; Automatic Mechanical Self-Winding Movement. The key concept of The New Emotion is a multimodal presentation by a lifelike agent of emotion expression. The computing industry of the 19890s enabled significantly higher image quality, boosting diagnostic accuracy with less radiation exposure, giving us The New Emotion. Both formats were sanctioned by the child-rearing theories of the day in which the father was admired for displaying The New Emotion while still remaining a function of The New Emotions.

Here Timmons questions conventional notions of authorship, particularly the purported “ownership” of literary texts. In many ways, Timmons gestures at the ways in which new technologies have rendered the idea of authorship a problematic, if not impossible, concept. For the editors of Les Figues Press, too, any text is a collaboration, even more so in today’s technological and cultural landscape.

Rather than attempting to resurrect this outmoded literary ideal, Place and Carmody embrace the increasingly collaborative nature of the poetic text, and seek to further democratize the creation, dissemination, and analysis of poetry. More often than not, the editors have promoted work that encourages the reader to participate actively in creating meaning from the text. The reader simultaneously inhabits the roles of artist, critic, and participant, ultimately problematizing that one retains a single fixed relationship to a given book or literary text. Consider Les Figues Press’s TrenchArt Series. By pairing multiple texts, and suggesting some discernible relationship between the authors’ work, the editors encourage the reader to articulate the connection between these literary texts, and to describe (whether to oneself or one’s artistic community) the conversation taking place between writers selected for inclusion. The book becomes a collaboration between writers, but also between artist and audience. It is the audience, and their participation, which actualizes the meaning of the work, the significance of the conversation taking place in each TrenchArt set.

More often than not, the editors turn to emerging web-based technologies in order to accommodate this notion of the collaborative text. Just collaborations are made possible by search engines, the web, and the general availability of information as a result of these technologies, these resources have also made possible the dissemination of these increasingly collaborative texts. Consider the editors’ use of a central web-site to reinforce the connection between various authors’ work in the TrenchArt Series. While major online retailers (such as Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Alibris.com) are predicated on a single-author model of the book as a cultural institution, the relative ease of creating and promoting websites democratizes not only the poetic text, but the ability to define its boundaries.
Indeed, Les Figues Press reinscribes the boundaries of the book as a cultural object, and this gesture remains especially apparent in the organization of their website. The category of the book is made to encompass not only the text itself, but its wider context (in terms of the writerly conversation to which it belongs), and its process. The fact that the site includes a “cahiers” series, or “notebooks,” within the category of the book, suggests that a book is always in process. Whether the writer revises, revisits, and repurposes the text, or its meaning is constantly inscribed and re-inscribed by readers, the book ceases to be a static object, but rather, is always in flux.

Approached with these ideas in mind, the fact that Les Figues Press utilizes social media technologies to reach out to a public readership suggests the centrality of the reader in actualizing the book. In their mission statement, the editors describe Les Figues as “creating aesthetic conversations,” and, in many ways, this ideal is made possible by technology. The democratization of the means of production and dissemination allows greater agency for the individual in defining the book, its boundaries, and its possibilities. As a result, readers may choose not only the communities in which they participate, but they may call for change within those communities, and within the culture at large. Indeed, these emergent technologies have allowed a renegotiation of the book as a cultural object, as well as its production, dissemination, and its participants. Approached with these ideas in mind, the reader is now authorized as a crucial part of the work, and the work is made increasingly available to readers through novel channels of distribution. As a result, our notion of what constitutes dissemination for a literary work is not only problematized, but rendered more inclusive, reflecting a shifting literary and technological landscape.

 

Conclusion

In short, Les Figues Press offers an alternative definition of the book as a cultural object, as well as what it means for a text to be disseminated to readers. By doing so, the editors at Les Figues Press strive to expand what is possible within the existing structures of cultural production. They work strategically within existing modes of cultural production, not only problematizing them, but working to render them more inclusive. Their vision of the book, rather than valorizing the individual author, is markedly collaborative, allowing for a democratization of the book and its participants.

Place and Carmody, through their curatorial efforts, reveal the book as a cultural institution predicated on outmoded assumptions about authorship, as well as the ownership of literary texts. Because the available channels of distribution for the book are predicated on these beliefs, texts that fall outside of this definition of the book become difficult to disseminate, and thus to gain legitimacy in the eyes of cultural authorities. A text that cannot be disseminated becomes a nonentity, an “illegitimate text.” The editors at Les Figues Press strive for an expansive definition of the book, but also what it means for a text to be distributed. Does the fact that a text has reached an appreciative audience mean that it has been disseminated? Do the channels of distribution limit what is possible within the book as a literary form? The editors do not pose clear-cut answers to these questions, but rather, ask us to become conscious of these issues, and to begin a conversation about them.

Approached with these ideas in mind, the editorial decisions of Les Figues Press posit the book as an occasion for dialogue. The book is no longer a static object, but rather, it remains constantly in flux as its borders, participants, and meaning are constantly being renegotiated. This impulse toward conceiving of the book as being in process remains especially apparent in the grouping of literary texts in the TrenchArt Series, as well as the editors’ concerted efforts (particularly in curating events such as book launches and installations) to present the book as an ongoing project, which the readers help to actualize. The book is no longer something over which the author takes ownership, but rather, something that remains inherently democratic in terms of its participation, meaning, and dissemination.

With that said, much of this critique of the book as a cultural institution is made possible by emergent web-based technologies. Social networking sites, as well as alternative fundraising models like Kickstarter, allow the editors not only to bypass the traditional means of dissemination, but to challenge conventional ideas about what it means for a text to be disseminated. Indeed, these efforts suggest that cultural gatekeeping mechanisms may manifest themselves in ways that have not been heretofore considered. In other words, the fact that readers have mobilized around an alternative definition of the book, as evidenced by participation in events, aesthetic conversations, and the texts themselves, suggests that individuals do retain a certain degree of agency when deciding which cultural texts are worthwhile endeavors. Les Figues Press, in many ways, seeks to democratize the book not only by proffering alternative models of what a book should be, also how cultural institutions like the book are defined, regulated, and maintained. Place and Carmody gesture toward the possibility of harnessing existing channels of distribution, while at the same time rendering them more inclusive.