Charles Bernstein Provisional Institutions: Alternative Presses and Poetic Innovation [Originally Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association on December 29, 1993, in Toronto, at a session of the institutions of poetry, organized by Robert von Hallberg. First published in Arizona Quarterly Review 51:1 (1995) Revised version in My Way: Speeches and Poems.] In our period, they say there is free speech. They say there is no penalty for poets, There is no penalty for writing poems. They say this. This is the penalty. -- Muriel Rukeyser, "In Our Time", The Speed of Darkness Imagine that all the nationally circulated magazines and all the trade presses and all the university presses in the United States stopped publishing or reviewing poetry. New poetry in the United States would hardly feel the blow. But not because contemporary poetry is marginal to the culture. Quite the contrary, it is these publishing institutions that have made themselves marginal to our cultural life in poetry. As it is, the poetry publishing and reviewing practices of these major media institutions do a disservice to new poetry by their sins of commission as much as omission -- that is, pretending to cover what they actually cover up; as if you could bury poetry alive. In consistently acknowledging only the blandest of contemporary verse practices, these institutions provide the perfect alibi for their evasion of poetry; for if what is published and reviewed by these institutions is the best that poetry has to offer, then, indeed, there would be little reason to attend to poetry, except for those looking for a last remnant of a genteel society verse, where, for example, the editor of The New York Times Book Review can swoon over watered-down Dante on her way to late-night suppers with wealthy lovers of the idea of verse, as she gushed in an article last spring.<1> Poetry, reduced to souvenirs of what was once supposed to be prestige goods, quickly gets sliced for overaccessorizing, at least if the stuff actually talks back. If poetry has largely disappeared from the national media, nostalgia for poetry, and the lives of troubled poets, has a secure place. One of the cliches of the intellectual- and artist-bashing so fashionable in our leading journals of opinion is that there are no more "public intellectuals." The truth of the matter is that writing of great breadth and depth, and of enormous significance for the public, flourishes, but that the dominant media institutions -- commercial television and radio, the trade presses, and the nationally circulated magazines (including the culturally upscale periodicals) -- have blacklisted this material. Intellectuals and artists committed to the public interest exist in substantial numbers. Their crime is not a lack of accessibility but a refusal to submit to marketplace agendas: the reductive simplifications of conventional forms of representation; the avoidance of formal and thematic complexity; and the fashion ethos of measuring success by sales and value by celebrity. The public sphere is constantly degraded by its conflation with mass scale since public space is accessible principally through particular and discrete locations. Any of us teaching college will have ample proof of the frightening lack of cultural information, both historical and contemporary, of even the most searching of our new students. These individuals have been subjected to cultural asphyxiation administered not only by the barrage of network television or MTV, but also, more poignantly, by the self-appointed keepers of the cultural flame, who are unwilling to provide powerful alternative programming, prefer to promote, as a habit and a rule, a sanitized and denatured version of contemporary art, debunking at every turn the new and untried, the edgy or the cutting, the odd or unnerving; --that is those works of contemporary culture that give it life. Could I possibly be saying that the crisis of American culture is that there is inadequate support and distri- bution of difficult and challenging new art? Does a tire tire without air, an elephant blow its horn in the dark, a baby sigh when the glass door shatters its face? The paucity of public funding for the arts has done irreparable damage to the body politic. Arts funding is as important as funding for public education. It's time for our federal, state and local governments to consider linking arts funding with education budgets: a percent for the arts! & if that seems farfetched, it goes to show how far afield our educational priorities are. Every dollar spent on the development and distribution of new art will save thousands of dollars in lost cultural productivity over the next fifty years.<2> At the community ("free") clinic I worked for in the early 1970s we sold T- shirts that said, "Healthcare is for people not profit." Not that we were ahead of our time. Times are just behind where they could be. Whenever I go into a Barnes & Ignoble Superstore or Waldaltonsbooks (If we don't have it it must be literature!), I'm reminded that our slogan for healthcare applies to poetry too. Does anybody wonder anymore what the effects will be of the consolidation of publishing and book distribution companies into large conglomerates? Let them read cake. This month's bestseller list contains the perfect symbol for the current state of affairs as the two top slots are occupied, in effect, by the publicity machines designed to promote "cultural product".<3> What sells, in this purest form of hype-omancy is the apparatus of publicity itself: for here we have self-consuming artifacts par excellence -- no external referent need apply. Meanwhile, in the upscale journals that condescend to the truth bared by H. Stern and R. Limbaugh, no book has been more attended to than a memoir by one of the originators of this phenomenon, Willie Morris, formally editor of Harper's: for what better subject for promotion than promotion? There is a world outside this semblance of culture. In poetry, its institutions go by the name of the small press and the reading series. Along with small press magazines and books, poetry reading series are the most vital site of poetic activity in North America. Readings provide a crucial place for poets not only to read their new work, but also to meet with each other and exchange ideas. Readings provide an intimately local grounding for poetry and are commonly the basis for the many regional scenes and groups and constellations that mark the vitality of the artform. Despite the fundamental importance of readings in the creation of North American poetry over the past forty years, very little attention has been given to this medium either in the press or by scholars and critics. While reading series are more concentrated in New York and the Bay area, many American cities have long-running local reading series. The best source of information about readings in New York City area is The New York City Poetry Calendar, which has been publishing a monthly broadside of poetry events since 1977 (60 E. 4th St #21, New York, NY 10003). The calendar lists about 300 different readings each month, has a printrun of 7500 and a readership of well over 10,000. Poetry readings range from small bar and cafe and book store and community center series, with audiences ranging from ten to a hundred to poetry center readings that can draw from twenty to several hundred people. Community reading series differ in several crucial ways from university- sponsored series. These series often offer a forum for new and unpublished local poets through "open mike" and scheduled readings. The organizers of these series rarely receive any compensation for their work -- and often can run a series for incredibly little money: the money from the door going to the poets plus a few hundred dollars a year for publicity. State and local arts agencies will sometimes provide such series up to a few thousand dollars for featured readers, which allows for some out-of-town poets to get travel money or a small fee of fifty to a few hundred dollars. Poets & Writers, Inc., is particularly helpful in these contexts, providing matching money for poets's fees. A community reading series can run a year of readings on less than many institutions spend on a single cultural event or speaker. That effects the spirit of the event. The atmosphere at a local reading series is often charged and interactive. In contrast, university series often suffer from a stifling formality. Unfortunately, English departments have been slow to include and support local readings series in their areas -- despite the fact that these series can often provide a lively point of entry into poetry for students new to its forms and formats. Despite the striking vitality of poetry readings, readings are never reviewed in any of the nation's daily or weekly newspapers, even though these papers routinely review theater and dance and art events whose scale is comparable. I suspect the reason is that cultural editors, like most literary critics and scholars, wrongly assume that the book is the only significant site of a poet's work. Contemporary North American poetry is realized as significantly in its performances in live readings as it is in its printed forms. Critical response to contemporary poems that fail to account for its performance are, for the most part, inadequate. For the scholar, the audio archive of poet's performance has become as fundamental as manuscripts, publication history, and letters; indeed, it is equal in importance only to the published text. Yet studies of the distinctive features of the poem-in-performance have been rare. In contrast, the drift of much literary criticism of the past decade has been away from the auditory and performative -- and therefore material -- aspects of the poem, partly because of the prevalent notion, commonly attributed to Saussure, that the sound structure of language is relatively arbitrary. In contrast, cognitive linguists such as Reuven Tsur, following Roman Jakobson, have recently emphasized research that demonstrates the expressiveness of sound patterns, at the same time, the "phonotext" -- or acoustic dimension -- of the poem has begun to receive some scholarly attention. This work, combined with the range of new work on performance theory, suggest a crucial new direction for literary studies. The past thirty years has been a time of enormous growth of small press publishers. According to a Loss Pequeno Glazier's statistics in Small Press: An Annotated Guide, the number of magazines listed in Len Fulton's International Directory of Little Magazines & Small Presses has gone from 250 mostly poetry magazines in 1965 to 700 in 1966 to 2,000 magazines in 140 categories in 1976 to 4,800 magazines in 1990, of which about 40 percent were literary.<4> The importance of the small press for poetry is not restricted to any aesthetic or indeed to any segment of poets. According to a recent study by Mary Briggs, independent noncommercial presses are the major source of exposure for all poets, young and old, prize winning or not.<5> The staple of the independent literary press is the single-author poetry collection. Douglas Messerli, publisher of Sun & Moon Press, a high-end small press comparable to Black Sparrow, New Directions, and Dalkey Archives, provided me with representative publication information for a 100-page poetry collection: Print-runs at Sun & Moon go from 1000 to 2000, depending, of course, on likely sales. Messerli notes that print-runs of less than 1000 drive the unit cost up too high and he encourages other literary presses to print a minimum of 1000 copies if at all possible. Sun & Moon titles are well-produced, perfectbound, and offset with full color covers. The printing bill for this runs from $2600 to $4000 as you go from 1000 to 2000 copies. Messerli estimates the cost of editing a 100-page poetry book at $300: this covers all the work between the press receiving a manuscript and sending it to a designer (including any copyeding and proofreading that may be necessary as well as preparation of front and back matter and cover copy). Typesetting is already a rarity for presses like Sun & Moon, with authors expected to provide computer disks wherever possible. Formatting these disks (converting them into type following specifications of the book designer) can cost anywhere from $300 to $1000, one of those variable labor costs typical of small press operations. The book designer will charge about $500. The cover will cost an additional $100 for photographic reproduction or permission fees or both. Publicity costs must also be accounted for, even if, as at Sun & Moon, no advertising is involved. Messerli estimates publicity costs at $1500, which covers the cost of something like 100 free copies distributed to reviewers, postage and packing, mailings and catalog pages, etc. The total cash outlay here, then, for 2000 copies, is around $6800. (For the sake of this discussion, overhead costs -- rent, salaries, office equipment, phone bills, etc -- are not included; such costs typically are estimated at about 30 percent more than the cost of production). If all goes well, Sun & Moon will sell out of its print run in two years. Let's say Sun & Moon prints 2000 copies of the book and charges $10 retail; let's also say all the books were sold. That makes a gross of $20,000. Subtract from this a 50 percent wholesale discount (that is, most bookstores will pay $5 for the book) and that leaves $10,000. Subtract from this the 24 percent that Sun & Moon's distributor takes (and remember that most small presses are too small to secure a distributor with a professional sales force). That leaves $7600. Now last, but not to be totally forgotten, especially since I am a Sun & Moon author, the poet's royalty; typically no advance would be paid and the author would receive 10 percent of this last figure, or $760. That leaves $6840 return to the publisher on a cash cost of about $7000. As James Sherry noted years ago in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: a piece of paper with nothing on it has a definite economic value. If you print a poem on it, this value is lost. Here we have a vivid example of what George Bataille has called general economy, an economy of loss rather than accumulation. Poetry is a negative -- or let's just say poetic -- economy. But of course I've stacked the decks a bit. Many small presses will eat a number of costs I've listed. Copyediting, proofreading and design costs may be absorbed in the overhead if they are done by the editor-cum-publisher, proofreader, publicity department, and shipper. Formatting and production are commonly done on in-house computers. But these costs cannot be absorbed away -- 600 dpi laser printers and late-night "poofreading" can cause some serious malabsorption problems for which your gastroenterologist has no cure. Then again, if a book generates enough of an audience to require reprinting, modest profits are possible, allowing the publication of other, possibly less popular, works. The situation for the independent literary magazines is similar to presses, and indeed many small presses started as little magazines. o.blek, a beautifully produced magazine edited by Peter Gizzi and Connel McGrath, was started on borrowed money in 1987. One thousand copies of the first 148-page issue cost $1000 for typesetting, $2700 for the printing, and $400 for postage. That cost has remained relatively consistent, although a switch to desktop halved the typesetting cost. That first issue, with a cover price of $5.50 (and with the distributor taking 55 percent), sold out in a year and a half. After one year, o.blek had about 75 subscribers; after six years, that number is 275 (a figure that does not include libraries, who mostly subscribe through jobbers). o.blek's most ambitious publication (edited by Juliana Spahr and Gizzi) is just out: 1500 copies of a two-volume set, 600 pages in all, collecting poems and statements of poetics from mostly younger poets, many of whom participated in the Writing from the New Coast Festival held at the University at Buffalo last spring. Compare this to Sulfur, edited by Clayton Eshleman, who reports that there were 1,000 copies printed of the first issue in 1981 -- "maybe 50 subscribers at the time the issue was published, with perhaps 300 to 400 going out to stores. Now, 2000 copies per issue; around 700 subscribers, with 800 to 900 copies going to stores."<6> Of course, many small presses and magazines produce more modest publications than Sun & Moon, Sulfur or o.blek. Indeed, the heart of the small press movement is the supercheap magazine or chapbook, allowing just about anyone to be a publisher or editor. In this world, marketplace values are truly turned upsidedown, since many readers of the poetry small press feel the more modest the production, the greater the integrity of the content. There is no question than many of the best poetry magazines of the postwar period have been produced by the cheapest available methods. In the 1950s, the "mimeo revolution" showed up the stuffy pretensions of the established, letterpress literary quarterlies, not only with their greater literary imagination, but also with innovative designs and graphics. In 1965, 23 percent of little presses were mimeo, 31 percent offset, 46 percent letterpress, according to Fulton's Directory. By 1973, offset had jumped to 69 percent, with letterpress at 18 percent, and mimeo only 13 percent. As Loss Glazier notes, the mimeo in "the mimeo revolution" is more a metaphor for inexpensive means of reproduction than a commitment to any one technology. Indeed, poetry's use of technology often has a wryly aversive quality. For example, as offset began to dominate the printing industry in the early 1970s, letterpresses became very cheap to acquire, so that presses like Lyn Hejinian's Tuumba and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop's Burning Deck could produce books with little other cash expense than paper costs and mailing, given the editors willingness to spend hundreds of hours to handset every letter and often enough handfeed each page. In the metaphoric sense, then, the mimeo revolution is very much alive in the 1990s, with some of the best poetry magazines today -- such as Abacus, Witz, Mirage #4 (Periodical), The Impercipient, Interruptions, lower limit speech, Letterbox, Situation, lyric& and Object<7> -- consisting of little more than a staple or two holding together from 16 to 60 sheets of paper that have been xeroxed in editions of 50 or 100 or 150. Yet the new mimeo revolution for poetry is surely electronic. Because the critical audience of poets, mostly unaffiliated with academic institutions, does not yet have access to the internet, attempts to create on-line poetry magazines remain preliminary. & technical problems abound; computers actually make reading and writing harder than previous technologies -- but it's just the difficulties that make for poetic interest. Still, the potential is there and a few editors have started to propose some basic formats for creating virtual uncommunities. In 1993, the first three electronic poetry magazines I know about were founded -- We Magazine, collectively edited in Santa Cruz, the Bay Area, New York City, and Albany (c/o cf2785@albanyvms) -- which in its active periods sends out one short poem per post to a list of subscribers; Grist, edited by John Fowler (email@example.com), which has produced two full-length issues so far<8>; and Rif/t, edited by Ken Sherwood and Loss Glazier (e-poetry@ubvm), which produced an ambitious array of material for its first issue a few months ago: the main body of the magazine featuring poems by 16 poets (the equivalent of 50 pages), plus a series of associated files of translations, poetics, a set of variations on a poem, and a chapbook. Also online is Luigi-Bob Drake's, and friends', Taproot Reviews (firstname.lastname@example.org), an heroic effort to review hundreds of small magazines and chapbooks committed to "experimental language art & poetry." Experiments with poetry and poetics "listserve" discussion groups have also begun, with Joe Amato's pioneering Nous Refuse (Jamato@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu), but as yet the intriguing mix of newsletter, group letter, and bulletin board has not yet found its place. It seems certain, however, that the net will be a crucial site for the distribution of works of poetry, especially out-of-print works, as well as for information on obtaining books and magazines, and, I suspect, for long-term local, national and international exchanges of ideas and work in progress. The new computer technology -- both desktop publishing and electronic publishing -- has radically altered the material, specifically visual, presentation of text. No doubt a new aesthetic will emerge. But at this point, the absence of visual aesthetics in the production of many desktop magazines is discouraging. Simply having access to a laser printer does not mean an editor has any idea how to design type. Ironically, many of the typewriter and mimeo publications of the past thirty years were visually richer than some of the more poorly designed desktop products. In the case of e-space, editors have, as of now, little control over the visual appearance of the text. Distribution remains the most serious problem for the small press and one of the least understood parts of the process. While larger independent presses have distributors with sales representatives to visit bookstores, most small presses must rely on mailing lists and informal contacts to circulate their books and magazines. Small Press Distribution (1814 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702) is the most important source for alterative press titles published in the United States. With the recent demise of over half-a-dozen alternative press distributors, it is also the "sole remaining noncommercial literary book distributor left in the entire country."<9> SPD, which must take 55 percent of the retail price of a book (bookstores will typically take 40 percent or more of this), now distributes about 52,000 books a year, from over 350 presses, with net sales of $360,000. Their quarterly catalogs and annual complete catalogs are fundamental resources. From 1980 to 1993, Segue Distributing published an annual catalog that offered a curated selection of small press titles that could be ordered through a central address.<10> Segue, unlike most distributors, was able to articulate an aesthetic commitment with its choices, as well as being able to include presses and magazines too small to be handled by other distributors. In addition, Segue included selections of small press books and magazines from the UK, as well as New Zealand and Australia. Segue Distribution was discontinued this year after losing its government grant support. I suspect that in the future activities such as Segue's will best be handled through electronic bulletin boards or similar formats. One of Segue's most useful assets is its mailing list, which it makes available to affiliated presses. The mailing list keeps track of a shifting community of readers, with special attention to the local audience who wishes to receive notices of readings as well as the national and international audience who wishes to receive notices of book and magazine publications. I say community because audience is too passive a term to describe this matrix and because there is a tendency to speak of community when referring to a small press readership or, especially, the local "scene" for a reading series or a magazine. But I resist the term community as well, since it is more accurate to think of constellations of active readers interested in exchange but not necessarily collectivity. While much distribution of poetry takes place in the mail, we all owe a great debt to the few remaining independent bookstores that make an effort to keep in stock a full range of poetry titles. There is no substitute for flipping through new books and magazines in a bookstore, and such bookstores themselves are crucial sites of whatever a poetry community might be. We also owe a debt to those publications that are committed to reviewing and discussing small press publications, since one of the most involving aspects of the small press is the intensity of interchange that takes place in reviews, letters, correspondence and conversation. This is what makes The American Book Review so much livelier than The New York Review of Books. At their best, reviews and essays in the alternative poetry press are less concerned with evaluation than with interaction, participation and partisanship; in this respect, the prose of the small presses offer a refreshing alternative to the evaluative focus of newspaper and mainstream magazine reviews as well as the often stifling framelock of academic discourse. Indeed, the literary small press provides a forum not just for innovation in poetry but equally for innovation in prose, in the process demonstrating that a free press means giving writers stylistic freedom, not simply the freedom to express their opinions in mandated forms. The power of our alternative institutions of poetry is their commitment to scales that allow for the flourishing of the artform, not the maximizing of the audience; to production and presentation not publicity; to exploring the known not manufacturing renown. These institutions continue, against all odds, to find value in the local, the particular, the partisan, the committed, the tiny, the peripheral, the unpopular, the eccentric, the difficult, the complex, the homely; and in the formation and reformation, dissolution and questioning, of imaginary or virtual or partial or unavowable communities and/or uncommunities. Such alternative institutions benefit not just from the support of their readers and writers, but also from contributions from government, individuals, and foundations. Recently, such large foundations as the Lila Wallace - Readers Digest Fund have committed substantial funds to independent literary presses, but they have done so in ways that are often destructive to the culture of the institutions they propose to support. Rather than provide funds to directly support the production of books and magazines, or, indeed, editors or authors, such institutions insist on primarily funding organizational expansion, for example, by providing money to hire new staff for development, publicity, and management. While any money is welcome, the infrastructural expansion mandated by these foundations -- defended in the name of stabilizing designated organizations -- makes the small press increasingly dependent on ever larger infusions of money, in the process destroying the financial flexibility that is the alternative press's greatest resource. By pushing the presses they fund to emulate the structures of large non-profit and for-profit institutions to which they stand in honorable structural opposition, these foundations reveal all too nakedly their commitment to the administration of culture rather than to the support of poetry. Literature is never indifferent to its institutions. A new literature requires new institutions, and these institutions are as much a part of its aesthetic as the literary works that they weave into the social fabric. The resilience of the alternative institutions of poetry in the postwar years is one of the most powerful instances we have of the creation of value amidst its postmodern evasions. When you touch this press, you touch a person. In this sense, the work of our innovative poetries is fundamentally one of social work. Notes Presented at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association on Dec. 29, 1993, in Toronto. 1. Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, "Hell Night at the 92nd Street Y," in The New York Times Book Review, 98:31 (May 9, 1993), p. 31. "For some" ("We lucky few" is the last sentences of the article) "there was to be a post-poetry spread laid on by Edwin Cohen (a businessman and patron of literature) back at his apartment at the Dakota, a Danteesque menu announced in advance: roast suckling stuffed pig stuffed with fruit, nuts, and cheese; Tuscan salami; prosciotto and polenta, white beans with fennel." 2. "The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, which has not changed appreciably in the last 12 years, is smaller than the Department of Defense's budget for its 102 military bands," according to an article in The New York Times, 3/13/93, p. C13. 3. Rush H. Limbaugh 3d, See I Told You So (New York: Pocket Books, 1993) and Howard Stern, Private Parts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993). 4. Loss Pequeno Glazier, Small Press: An Annotated Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), pp. 2-3. 5. Mary Biggs, A Gift that Cannot Be Refused: The Writing and Publishing of Contemporary American Poetry (Wesport, CT: Greenwoood Press, 1990); cited in Glazier, p. 38. 6. Clayton Eshleman, letter to the author, 11 January 1994. Information on Sun & Moon Press is based on an interview with Doulgas Messerli in November 1993; information on o.blek is based on an interview with Peter Gizzi in December 1993. 7. Abacus, edited by Peter Ganick (181 Edgemont Avenue, Elmwood, CT 06110) is the longest running of these magazines; in February, 1984, they published their 80th issue, Cornered Stones Split Infinites by Rosmarie Waldrop. Witz, edited by Chritopher Reiner (P.O. Box 1059, Penngrove, California 94951), is a newsletter feauturing poetics, reviews, and listings of recent publications; it is published three times a year in associaton with Avec, a magazine comparable to Sulfur and o.blek. The other magazines mentioned feature new poetry, often by younger or infrequently published poets: The Impercipient, ed. Jennifer Moxley (61 East Manning Street, Providence, RI 02906); Letterbox, ed. Scott Bentley (379 Latimer Place, Oakland, CA 94609); Mirage #4/ Period(ical), ed. Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy (1020 Minna, San Francisco, CA 94103); Situtation, ed. Mark Wallace; object, ed. Kim Rosenfeld and Rob Fitterman (229 Hudson Street #4, New York, NY 10013); lyric &, ed. Avery E. D. Burns (P.O. Box 640531, San Francisco, CA 91640-0531); lower limit speech, ed. A. L. Neilsen (1743 Butler Avenue #2; Los Angeles, CA 90025); Interruptions (a magazine of collaborations), ed. Tom Beckett (131 North Pearl Street, Kent, OH 44240). 8. In Febrary 1994 Grist announced its first electronic book, Gleanings: Uncollected Poems of the Fifties by David Ignatow, including many poems "published here for the first time." Cost is $25 on diskette; the text is also available online. 9. Letter, dated October 22, 1993, to affiliated publishers from Lisa Domitrovich, Executive Director, SPD. 10. During much of this period, I worked as editor of the catalog.