This post starts an intermittent series of brief essays on poetics and on the practice of poetry. Look for other essays under the series title The Querist of Forms.
THE MANY LIVES OF A TEXT
One piece of writing can have many lives. In commercial or academic culture it's been traditional to see the book publication as the end goal--and somehow the "realest" form--of any text. But even the form or version of a text that is printed in a book is not necessarily the final version. Furthermore, even if no printed revisions or edits are made to that text after its publication, it is changed repeatedly in the processes of being read and of being spoken. That holds true no matter who is reading or speaking it; even if the author gives a public reading of the piece, there is no guarantee that the author will read it just the way it appears on the page. Is it really that important to have a single, definitive version of any "literary" text?
I'm just as prone as anyone (possibly even more than most) to fetishize the printed book. But one particular set of my own poetic texts has really been forcing me to ask the above question. I refer to the short collection of experimental prose poems titled Gorgeous Hybrids, a grouping that has become quite significant to my overall body of work. As important as Hybrids is, however, it has not yet been published as an intact collection. So far, its component texts have had a more complex fate.
Two of the poems have been published in the journal Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, and some others are slated for inclusion in the forthcoming TransAnthology from EOAGH Books. But the bulk of the collection has actually been performed rather than published. A series of texts from Hybrids was performed as "Red Umbrellas," after which audience-participants wound up taking home the umbrellas used in the performance. Each umbrella bore a different poem-text inked onto its dome. And a different set of text from Hybrids was performed as part of "Restrictive Andragogies & Ex-Citation" with Nicholas Alexander Hayes (documented in Emergency INDEX 2011).
So is there a "real" version of Gorgeous Hybrids? The one that may eventually become a print chapbook available for sale in various venues may not ultimately be as memorable or as interesting as the excerpt performed as "Red Umbrellas." It may not be as meaningful as the selection performed in the context of "Restrictive Andragogies." And it may not be as "collectible" an object as, say, a copy of the issue of Sentence in which two of its elements appear--or one of the handful of actual umbrellas featured in "Red Umbrellas!"
By what categories would a particular version of this text become the "real" one? Why should a "real" version be necessary? These questions and their answers reveal our conflicting ideas about the role of art and poetry in life, and the sorts of forms that our conceptions of art empower--and disempower--in the imperative to make, share and live.