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Books In Conversation

Brian Kim Stefans with Mónica de la Torre

Photo of Brian Kim Stefans by Rachel Szekely.
Photo of Brian Kim Stefans by Rachel Szekely.

Mónica de la Torre (Rail): The first time I heard about /ubu books was after a reading by Mike Scharf at the Bowery Poetry Club. I paid $5 for Verité, a printout of the pdf on UbuWeb. It was only later I realized that all books could be downloaded for free—I felt like an idiot for spending those five bucks!

Anyhow, knowing your work and a piece like your Flash poem “The Dreamlife of Letters,” I thought that what I would encounter at /ubu Editions would be cyberpoetry, or works exploring the full potential of the computer medium—animation, sound, stuff like that. I was struck by the fact that all the works that I downloaded as pdf files had a book format.

Brian Kim Stefans: The whole idea of so-called digital poetry is broad. You could think of the computer as a medium such as paint, where people do individual artworks using a standard set of identifiable tools, and certainly innovative poems are taking full advantage of new digital technologies to make words do hitherto unknown, acrobatic things.

People are always making a big deal of how things on the Internet are free—poetry on the Internet used to be seen as the second coming of the mimeo-revolution in the ’70s, when people started publishing their own poetry in staple-bound “dittos.” The St. Mark’s Poetry Project was key in that, if only because they owned a machine, and mimeo zines were influential on the DIY aspects of early punk. Ted Berrigan’s sonnets were published like that—25-odd years later, they’ve been republished by Penguin. The Internet, even back when it didn’t permit images and was strictly HTML, was seen as something comparable to this.

The problem with HTML is that scientists designed it, not poets, and it doesn’t have such basic functions as a tag for a tab key—you could do it, but only as a laborious work-around. A lot of poets work with both left and right margins, like Olson did, and HTML doesn’t really lend itself to that use of white space. On HTML you also have a limited set of typefaces. Things are different now, of course, but not so much.

So distribution has always been key to Internet culture, yet no one until recently ever thought of it as central to a creative process.

Rail: So do you think that’s the key to what you’re doing with /ubu Editions?

Stefans: Let me step back a little. Kenneth Goldsmith initially devoted UbuWeb to “concrete” and “found” poetry, stuff he found, literally, on the streets and scanned in. He would scan in jpegs from out-of-print concrete poetry books—even in their heyday they didn’t get published very often; they were of limited interest and also very expensive to produce because the images would often be in color or on page sizes that were much too big. Concrete poetry books could be read very fast, and they didn’t have the kind of cachet that art books have—in any case, as a print medium, you couldn’t say it flourished, but a lot of good art came out of it.

So Kenny’s idea—and it’s part of the key to this whole philosophy—was to just give it all away, and there were very few complaints since the medium and the art—the Web and the concrete poem—seemed a perfect match. The faint whiff of criminality links this idea with all sorts of “creative” but hardly productive art practices like those of the Situationists.

Rail: Will you edit the /ubu e-books on an annual basis?

Stefans: Yes. I think what we want to do is five seasons, and have it stop after that, maybe move on to something different.

I want to keep dipping into the past for interesting out-of-print work, but this pool will start to shrink eventually. I want to stick to stuff that’s probably from about the ’50s up, more often since the ’70s.

Rail: But wait—a lot of the books are not reprints. Don’t you commission new books?

Stefans: A lot of them are quite recent, yes. I’ve asked people to give me stuff, and occasionally I get a really great piece submitted through e-mail.

Actually one of the books that started the series was by a guy named Peter Manson, a Scottish poet who sent me a long prose run-on poem out of the blue—I’d never heard of him before. This is one of those ur-moments in the history of /ubu. Peter was writing a long poem called “Adjunct,” a collection of lines, kind of in a “new sentence” way, but a little sharper, more formal and tonally incisive, kind of like David Markson’s Reader’s Block. He sent me an e-mail saying that he’d been reading my book Free Space Comix and that it reminded him of his own poem. He had put a line in his poem that said, “This sounds exactly like Brian Kim Stefans,” kind of flattering coming from around the world. A few months later he sent me the huge finished poem, and I looked at it and thought, Oh my God, what can I do with it? I felt like I had to do something, but I wasn’t in the position to petition publishers to print it.

It sat on my hard drive for two years until, oddly enough, I discovered that Microsoft Word—never known for being great with HTML—had vastly improved its conversion process, especially in regards to verse. I saved the poem as HTML and it looked great.

Rail: How come? Did the text gain something?

Stefans: It turned the screen into a page of words running from left to right and fully justified, with decent leading, in a really serif font. It’s the kind of impression conceptual word artists would have to spend hundreds to achieve on a gallery wall—even Kenny’s gallery shows are usually based on letter-size printouts—but even better, this was interesting writing. I got a kick out of how the writer’s relentless pursuit of tedium was fully expressed by this visuality—it begged for your eye to move along it, meanwhile taking concrete into a whole new level. It seemed perfect for UbuWeb, even though it wasn’t a concrete poem, which usually just has one or two visual puns animating it.

So I e-mailed this to Kenny, saying it was great. He agreed. Then he just dropped it into Quark and turned it into a pdf. We were both shocked by how fantastic it looked, and it was so easy—all of this happened in about twenty minutes on the boss’s time!

Rail: Is there something to the books that you choose that make them suitable for /ubu Editions as opposed to another publishing venue?

Stefans: Certainly, most if not all of what I’ve put up can be done in print—it’s drawing that shadow of the print industry that’s kind of interesting to me, as if I were a millionaire like James Laughlin (of New Directions fame) putting out books with Monopoly money and betting on them being more interesting than what everyone else is doing.

What I want to publish are things that are anomalies, stuff that seems to fall through the cracks of people’s thinking—even though, taken together, my books might present a complete image of what’s going on right now. An anomaly would be a book that seems totally contemporary but that I don’t expect ever to be in print again, like Madeline Gins’s What the President Will Say and Do!!—she’ll probably never do a book as simple and lively as that because of her work with Arakawa. First books by “mid-career” poets that may never again be published, such as Kevin Davies’s or Juliana Spahr’s—a lot of people only know them through their most recent publications—and also Deanna Ferguson’s The Relative Minor. Are these poets ever going to reach the Charles Bernstein stage where a publisher says I want to put all their stuff in print? Probably not.

There are also books out of the American continuum, like obscure books from England—Nicholas Moore’s translations of Baudelaire are hilarious, for example. Also books in color, and Hannah Weiner’s book Little Books/Indians, which was a feat of typography on Susan Bee’s part and now is a feat of typography on my own. We’ve done drama, like Mac Wellman’s The Lesser Magoo and a play by Richard Foreman. We complain about poetry publishing, but playwrights never get published!

In general, I like to construct constellations with the series, having different books interact with others—Aaron Kunin’s Mauberley Series, for instance, is echoed in some poems of my own Gulf. Toadex Hobogrammathon’s “novel” called Name resonates with Peter’s long poem, but also with a lot of what poets are doing with weird schizo-spam text these days.

Rail: Do you think that at any point you will want to start using hyperlinks and animations?

Stefans: No—we have to come up with constraints; otherwise we risk being intoxicated by the possibilities and starting to create experimental art Web sites, rather than exploiting distribution for its own sake. To do that once a year with fifteen or more titles is crazy.

I want the pdf’s to be individual and printable, treating UbuWeb as a sort of transporter beam magically bringing this paper-bound book from the outer galaxy to your bedroom. I do want this to be a version of publishing in the conventional sense—again, this idea of being a shadow to the publishing industry.

The hyperlink has become fetishized, though you get a sense of a lot of people pulling back from their initial enthusiasm. My sense of it is that it’s kind of meaningless if it’s utterly random or utterly obvious. If you’re totally indifferent to what you click on how could the result be of interest to you? The only really scary hyperlinks you could possibly click on, are those that will challenge your set of beliefs. That would have to do with clicking on issues dealing with religion and sexuality, for example—a click unleashing something complex but not predicted.

In early cyberpoetry, hyperlinks were always hard coded: you clicked on the word peace and it would bring you to some image that fortified it. Now you can actually program a hyperlink to set off processes, for instance, that collect information based on that day’s postings or what it has been reading from Reuters that day, and base the new page on that. There’s a Web site called that takes any Web site and replaces all the nouns and the verbs with antiquated but still potent pornographic language, so you can conceivably go into the New York Times Web site and use this “service” and pornolize the whole thing. It makes something far more censor-worthy than Naked Lunch out of the most mundane programming and source texts.

Rail: In Fashionable Noise you write this great line “Cyberpoetry will produce no martyrs, only houseguests.” What do you mean by that?

Stefans: Basically, what I mean is that a lot of the stuff you can do with digital poetry is actually quite easy to do—it’s no secret that avant-garde effects are created quite quickly by spam and funky programs that mash everything up. What does this mean for all of the efforts of our predecessors? Everything and nothing, of course!

But poems that were written using programs and search engines don’t have to wear their glitches on their sleeve. Sure, there’s a funky carnivalesque aspect to spam text that some poets think is worth preserving, but driving all that out can throw up other effects as well. Rob Fitterman’s prose poem “This Window Makes Me Feel” does this—it’s all from Google searches, but it’s actually quite mournful in tone, which is fitting since he dedicates it to the World Trade Center victims.

That’s the interesting question: can you use processes that involve non human actors to create resonant works? Cyberauthors are a bit focused on getting machines to do things for them, like garage alchemists, but it’s not obvious that the results will be very interesting literary works.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

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