IN THE GARDENS OF THE AVANT-GARDE

28 Apr

BY QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO

This Sunday, I was delighted to don a dress and attend the Los Angeles garden party for Les Figues Press, a visionary literary vehicle ably driven by Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place. When both Bloomsbury and Kathy Acker were invoked within Mistress of Ceremonies Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum‘s first welcoming breaths, I knew the day was made…and not least of all a joy was seeing Sarah herself preside throughout…she who authored the fabulous fabulist novel Madeline is Sleeping.  And the spooky sweet churchly organ stylings of Laura Steenberge were transporting (rather like the faery iron archway in the garden corner, where I saw a hummingbird fly in, and a pomegranate come out). I want to hear more of Mme. Steenberge, and as soon as eerily possible.

At a loss for summer reading? Start with the fine folks above and the Les Figues list, and the frying months will become scrying months, and inscribe themselves happily within your mind.

But back to yesterday afternoon, which included several readings by other favorites of mine whose new books await multiple re-readings.

Kathy Acker, Queen of the Pirate Words

Following other readers including Janice Lee and Matias Viegener, Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman shook the dusty air from out the very clouds above with her reading of several selections of her work featured in Les Figues’ collection Feminaissance: A Book of Tiny Revolts.  If a shamanic breath blew through our forsaken city around 5pm last night, thank Wanda, for it was in part her doing.

And from my MFAlma-mater SFSU came San Francisco poet Paul Hoover (I include the link to Paul’s blog, because I quite like his essay on memorability: “the Poetry of Forgetting”), who read from his often-merry, very textually elastic new collection Sonnet 56 (fifty-six variations on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56), including a recitation of one of my very favorite pieces, in homage to one of my very favorite literary schools: Oulipo, founded by  Raymond Queneau, amongst others who include Italo Calvino. Paul’s piece uses the S+7 method, where each noun in a given text is replaced by a noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary.

Raymond Queneau, Let Us Reincarnate You!

I use this opportunity to highly recommend another summer reading gem: Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. It sits alongside Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, and Jean Toomer’s Cane as lifelong beloved companions that broke boundaries in between words and witchcraft.

Seated nearby Wanda for much of the afternoon, it was lovely to see her hold the familiar spine of an old Black Sparrow Press edition of her work – a publisher long beloved by both admirers and practitioners of experimental text (Charles Bukowski and John Fante were bookends in their house of writers). Like Bloomsbury, Black Sparrow was the original home-on-paper of many artists who – were they alive today – would struggle to find a place in print in today’s corporate bookmarket.

The honor to sit in the garden yesterday was significant, because all us writers working on anything the slightest bit odd owe much appreciation to the fortifying vision and valour of independent publishers, and a growing handful of other journals and collectives of their ilk and kin and stripe and kind. (May the nascence soon transcend, amen!)

Time and again, conversations begin with the prices charged by the big chain bookstores to even stock books at all – those books featured at the end-displays of a row? the books shown face-up instead of spine-out? That’s a surcharge, please. Commercial bookstores are not as much bookstores, as bookshelves for sale to the highest bidder.

These bookstores remind me of cemeteries, where you must pay rent on your burial plot.

We enter an era where the art and wisdom of literary curatorship has vanished from bookstores, who once upon a time could be relied upon for recommendations, guidance, and navigational tools to facilitate discovery of latent treasure. Those days are gone, and many feel adrift in a vast and treacherous sea – awash in a plastic island of chick-lit and diet guides and hot pink word porn.

I look at unsuspecting Americans departing those corporate chains like the whale who died on Seattle’s beaches last week, its stomach full up with human garbage: bits of plastic beer hats, anal suppository wrappers, and the dismembered arms of action figures.

whale prostrate with grief at state of american publishing industry. Oh, I mean, as a result of human greed. Well, every desecration is pretty much a result of human greed.

Conversation rages on about the efficacy and potency of independent presses in re-shaping the empty-caloried American literary diet – a pursuit similar to Alice Waters’ whole food revolution (we hope it all works out, for how could it get worse?). It’s a David-and-Goliath enterprise.

But regardless of the rise and fall of stones and slings, presses like Les Figues keep alive the art of curating words. Providing leadership of eye and ear in the finding of writers and readers from lost corners. The orchestration of reunions, communions, collusions, collisions, and productive rendez-vous.

The Rise and Fall of Stones and Slings

Sunday’s garden party was a joyous sail in a rebel ship on the high text seas, capably crewed with madcap insurgents, theorists,  barricade-builders, clowns and jugglers and cockeyed saints and martyrs and ragtag bunch of heroines…with cucumber sandwiches, an electric organ, and quite a thrilling cascade of hummingbirds.

GO BUY SOME BOOKS!!!!!

thanks for the cucumbers, getty images, and LES FIGUES!

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