Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Vocabulary Did This to Me

When I was a kid I read a poem that began, "God is a big white baseball..." by a guy named Spicer and I was hooked. Back then, you went out and looked for books published by Black Sparrow Press -- everyone knew Black Sparrow cause they had Bukowski and Bukowski was real. Their typography was cool, and they had a uniform look, these beautifully produced paperbacks of theirs, whose covers were minimalist before critics started battin that word around -- hell, you could spot a Black Sparrow book from twenty feet away.

You wanna laugh? The Free Market Boys runnin the publishing companies now think that real readers don't know one publisher from another. That's cause they've been trained to think about
brands by Proctor & Gamble. But they don't know diddly about books. Lemme tell you something -- if the publisher matters the way Black Sparrow mattered, readers get it. They wanna be in the know.

I even bought books by writers I dint get simply cause they looked cool. Michael McClure, Robert Olson, Carl Rakosi. You had to look for 'em, they weren't on the shelves at the Womrath's in Hempstead where The Source was stacked in the window. Michener was on the bestseller list forever back then. And people all over the neighborhood talked about his big fat novel, the archaeology and the history and everything. This was only twenty years after the end of World War Two and it wasn't clear that Israel was gonna make it. Our neighbors were learnin something.

How many people read Michener now, poot?

Over the years I put aside my youthful enthusiasms and got a job in big-time publishing. You start livin off spreadsheets, you forget why people buy books in the first place. Grind it out, slim, half of it's comin back anyway. You run your company like Coca-Cola and nobody gives a damn whose name you put on the spines of your books. Rack jobbers knew what cash flow and float was all about, but back in the home office the suits were too busy sleepin off their martinis to figger it out. So everything started to bloat like a hot horse on cold oats.

I'm laid-off and out of it now, so the boom-bust dance beat don't bother me no more, but there's a lot of good people still tryin to adapt, and they ain't gettin any younger. Heroes work in the trenches, not in the corner offices.

A coupla weeks ago, I was browsin the poetry section at Three Lives, down in the Village. You could fit the whole store into the cafe at the Union Square B & N. So what? At Three Lives you can see the individual books and you can see that they're allowed to breathe. If you feel like it, you can talk to Toby and his crew, and they'll sic you on something you never expected to find, or like.

There it was. My Vocabulary Did This to Me, the Complete Poems of Jack Spicer in a beautiful new hardcover edition published by Wesleyan University Press. I thought to myself, after all these years, the feeling is comin back, the goose-bumps when I open a well-made book and run my eyes over the type and shape the words silently in my mouth. Jack, I murmured, sleep well in your music. Thanks to you, and Black Sparrow, and now somebody at Wesleyan, "I know I was not the only one who felt these things."

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