going going by Jen Hofer
(Dusie 'e/chap, 2007; available free as a .pdf -- just click on link)
Poetry chapbooks and zines are similar in a few ways: they are often assembled by hand and posted through the mail as gifts, they both exist outside the larger economy of publishing. But culturally they come from different places. I want to look briefly at these categories, chapbook and zine, as a way into thinking about Jen Hofer's going going, and how it came to fall out of an envelope onto my desk.
Most histories of zines see them as a patchwork of political samizdat, mail art, and the networks created through punk and science fiction fan publications. In many of the zines I remember reading in the 1990s the paper itself was like a hold-all container, a desperate missive to the outside world. Photocopying was relatively expensive (20 cents a page at the local 24hr store, as I remember) and the aesthetic that developed from this was of denseness: tiny web-like type, often handwritten, intricate arrangements of word and image. As much as possible was crammed in. There was, in the best zines, a kind of devotion to the page. When the cheap photocopy barns like Officeworks and Kinko's opened, more white space was suddenly available. Literally, you didn't have to write to the end of the line anymore. This change had as significant an effect on those self-publishing as the change from dial-up to broadband had for those working with online media. People could explore the aesthetics of the photocopier itself. Hybrid, experimental forms of writing and art were tried out, and became native to the form. Zines stopped looking like small versions of magazines and became their own form.
The term chapbook, at least according its Wikipedia entry, originally referred to the cheaply printed books of stories or lyrics that were hawked around English towns from the sixteenth century to working class and trades people -- those who couldn't afford proper books. The traces aren't hard to spot in contemporary uses. Chapbooks are the publications that poets release before or between their real books, hawked, perhaps, to bookshops and punters. But it seems there is a hesitation to experiment with form and shape in the way that zines do naturally. Generally I like art that has an awareness of the media it uses. At the same time I believe it is the words that matter. What I'm getting at is that poiesis does not end with a finished manuscript. I'm interested in what is happening between the two modes of zine and chapbook.
The idea that Poetry (as rarefied, dusty) is on one side, and zines (as hip, media-literate) on the other-always way off mark, in any case-is harder now to maintain. Too many things fall between: instances of an emergent poetic practice that is more in key with ephemerality and objecthood; something between a chapbook and a zine. Dusie's series of e/chaps gives us plenty examples of this. Their idea to gather limited edition poetry chaps together online isn't unlike the way that independent record companies will now give a key to download the same album when a vinyl LP is purchased. The domestic work of self-publishing is patched into the speedy possibilities of the internet; analog and digital are integrated.
Jen Hofer's going going is one part of this. It is a chapbook of poems, a durational project, and has a strong sense of handmadeness and idiosyncracy often associated with zines. Hofer wrote one poem a day for thirty-five days in Buenos Aires and Puerto Iguazú. The poems are, in a sense, one long poem which passes itself forward like a baton by way of repeated, remixed, phrases from the previous poem. The formal exercise seems to be to construct the first line of each poem by taking one word from each line of the previous poem. Over time this gives a sense of branching out like a tree and becoming more complex. The writing is impressionistic rather than rhetorical -- 'things singe calmly'. The poems see city life at street level, recording sense data or field notes in swarms of phrases. The have a 'Dali Atomicus' sense of different elements photographically frozen by the poem's presence on the page. One poem reads:
A quick googling locates some examples of Jen Hofer's writing and shards of a biography. Hofer works makes a living as a Spanish-English translator, and her article 'Suspension of Belief: Some Thoughts on Translation as Subversive Speech' gives one insight into her approach. She writes:
Literally, English needs to hear differently. And thus to speak differently, to think differently, to act differently. English as it functions in the normative political and social spheres is a language out of which we must translate all the time, refusing vigilantly, energetically, to be seduced or coddled or dulled or defeated by the willfully deceptive misnomers of an Orwellian system that frames not just our actions but our frames (language, thought, relation) themselves.
The kind of hearing Hofer calls for isn't necessarily achieved by the kind of efficient bilingualism proposed by language colleges ('English is Sexy!' read an advertisement for one I saw at Florenc bus station in Prague last year). The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is fluent in Mandarin yet handles language as if it is a virus he needs to contain. We learn to hear, as Hofer tells us, by constantly translating ourselves out of English so as to tune ourselves more finely to its strangenesses. Others have located the beginnings of American Language poetry in the context of the absurdisms that were being used to justify the Vietnam War. There is a strong strain of anti-militarism in the street scenes of these poems, but the attack lies more in the refusal to resolve the poems into individual aesthetic objects than the refusal to refer.
A sheaf of thin pages is bolted to a postcard cover: a 1960s desert, warm blunted rocks pointing off in different directions. The poems as they appear were typed on Hofer's grandmother's Olivetti Lettera 22. The work as a whole was composed 'as a gift, incantation and promise for jp', as a note at the back indicates. These notes activate the work's aura: as both as poetry and object, going going is analogous to places it was made. It is like something a child might find in a box, years from now, and wonder about.
Tim Wright lives in Sydney, Australia. He is one of three behind the journal When Pressed and blogs occasionally at