Au­thors Think­ing Out­side the Book

Poets and Writers - - Trends - –ADRI­ENNE RAPHEL

Charles Theo­nia’s lat­est book looks noth­ing like a book. In­stead it is a col­lec­tion of twenty-one tiny glass bot­tles, each one with a poem in­side. When Theo­nia, a trans­gen­der writer who goes by the pro­nouns they and them, was be­gin­ning hor­mone re­place­ment ther­apy, they rubbed a saw-pal­metto tinc­ture into their scalp to pre­vent hair loss; while they sat mo­tion­less un­der the drip­ping ex­tract, they wrote po­ems about hor­mones, com­mu­nity, and ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions of iden­tity. Saw Pal­met­tos, pub­lished by Con­tainer in 2018, is a se­ries of tinc­ture vials ar­ranged on a wooden stand, each clear bot­tle hold­ing a poem printed on thin vel­lum. White oak tim­bers were milled, joined, cut to size, smoothed,

and pol­ished by hand by to cre­ate the stand. Twenty-one shal­low wells were drilled into the wood, and each vial is etched with the num­ber of the poem en­closed. Jenni B. Baker and Dou­glas Lu­man, the founders of Con­tainer, did all the work by hand.

Baker and Lu­man founded Con­tainer, a small press ded­i­cated to cre­at­ing books that “aren’t, in a quo­tid­ian sense, books at all” in Fe­bru­ary 2017. In ad­di­tion to Theo­nia’s bot­tles, the press’s cat­a­log in­cludes work com­posed of origami gem­stones, Rolodexes, lunch boxes, a doc­tored Op­er­a­tion game board, and View-Masters with cus­tom reels. When read­ers insert a reel into the View-Mas­ter, in­stead of see­ing a panorama post­card of Saint Louis or Ni­a­gara Falls, they find a ghost of a woman float­ing above a sen­tence or a poem frag­ment snared in a col­lage.

In the decade be­fore they founded Con­tainer, Baker and Lu­man, who are both po­ets, be­came in­creas­ingly drawn to maker cul­ture. Print-on-de­mand ser­vices had made self-pub­lish­ing more read­ily ac­ces­si­ble, and with bet­ter tech­nol­ogy and the rise of maker spa­ces, artists could more eas­ily pro­duce their own works. The pair re­al­ized that the codex—that is, printed pieces of pa­per stacked and bound to­gether, a book in the most tra­di­tional sense—was not the only pos­si­ble form a text could take. Tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from books by artists such as Jen Bervin, Jill Magid, and Julie Chen, they de­cided to turn tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing on its head.

Con­tainer isn’t meant to re­place tra­di­tional books, the founders say, but rather to ex­pand the un­der­stand­ing of what it means to be a book. “We co­ex­ist with tra­di­tional book pub­lish­ing com­pletely am­i­ca­bly,” Lu­man says. “We think of the forms that Con­tainer takes on as the ap­pro­pri­ate man­i­fes­ta­tion of that project. These projects could not be con­ceived of as codex books.” The pub­lish­ers team with au­thors to cre­ate works in two ways: by build­ing ob­jects based on pro­pos­als (the first pitch Baker and Lu­man ac­cepted was a se­ries of po­ems pub­lished as a min­eral col­lec­tion) or by giv­ing au­thors ob­jects that

they can build into pieces them­selves. Con­tainer pro­duces many of its books in Open Works, a maker space in Bal­ti­more that pro­vides ac­cess to a wide va­ri­ety of ma­te­ri­als and tools, as well as mas­ter classes on how to use var­i­ous me­dia. One rea­son Baker and Lu­man were drawn to Theo­nia’s project was that it would give them a chance to take ad­van­tage of the Open Works wood­work­ing stu­dio. Sev­eral au­thors have cho­sen to cre­ate their own pieces: Poet sam sax, for in­stance, gilded a Scrab­ble set, and poet CACon­rad turned a metal Grem­lins lunch box into a “por­ta­ble crys­tal grid.” When Baker and Lu­man handed poet Lil­lian-Yvonne Ber­tram a vin­tage Rolodex, ask­ing her to fill the cards with any­thing, Ber­tram was daunted at first: “Oh Lord,” she thought, “I have three months to do this, and I don’t so much as own a col­ored pen­cil.” But Ber­tram soon found that the constraint freed her to try things she wouldn’t nor­mally at­tempt. “It com­pletely changed my prac­tice,” Ber­tram says. “It added some­thing to it, or ex­posed a realm that maybe had been ly­ing dor­mant.” Ber­tram’s Rolodex en­gaged the diaries and note­books of artist Paul Klee; she cast sev­eral of the cards in wax and hand-stamped quotes and phrases let­ter by let­ter. She be­came ob­sessed with the phys­i­cal­ity of the work. “What do I have to do to my body to make this text hap­pen?” Ber­tram says she found her­self won­der­ing. “What’s the phys­i­cal process?”

The project in­spired Ber­tram so much that she cre­ated a class at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts in Bos­ton, where she teaches in the MFA pro­gram, based on the ex­pe­ri­ence. “Be­yond Genre: Not Oth­er­wise Spec­i­fied (NOS) or, the Shape of Con­tent” in­vites stu­dents to ex­plore the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween art and po­etry. She and the Con­tainer team work to­gether on the class’s fi­nal project, in which stu­dents make art books that be­come part of Con­tainer’s cat­a­log.

Look­ing for­ward, Baker and Lu­man are ex­plor­ing other classes and col­lab­o­ra­tions to help en­cour­age peo­ple to think out­side the book. They hope to de­vise in­ter­est­ing ways to dig­i­tize their cre­ations and to ex­plore part­ner­ships with tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers to cre­ate ob­jects for pre­vi­ously pub­lished books. “We’re not a sub­sti­tute for books,” Lu­man says. “We think there’s room for con­cep­tual think­ing to be­come a skill we can help oth­ers cul­ti­vate.”

Charles Theo­nia’s Saw Pal­met­tos is a col­lec­tion of po­ems in glass bot­tles.

Dave Dray­ton’s E, UIO, A, con­tains thirty let­ters, a satin scarf, and as­sorted ephemera.

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