The Encyclopedia Project, Volume III L-Z
(Publication Studio Hudson, 2017)
The Encyclopedia Project Volume III L-Z is the latest and last volume in a series that seeks to create a new kind of encyclopedia by implementing a new kind of editorial process. The brainchild of Brown MFA alumni Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, and Kate Schatz, The Encyclopedia Project began over a decade ago when each editor contributed a unique roster of potential authors. The editors offered each contributor a short list of words tailored to their interests, for which they could write one or more entries, and stipulated only that these entries range from one sentence to 4,000 words and address the question, “What occurs under the sign of fiction?” The result of this editorial process is three volumes of entries defined by experimental writing and artworks by authors—a web of artists, poets, novelists, and experimental writers—who represent various ages, races, sexualities, and gender backgrounds.
The third volume’s editor’s note is an entry itself, titled XENOGENESIS. The entry’s title references Octavia Butler’s sci-fi trilogy of novels, Xenogenesis (more commonly known as Lilith’s Brood), and clarifies the editorial team’s motives for including a variety of genres, styles, and authors. Much like Butler’s series, in which a human woman conceives a child with an alien species, creating an offspring markedly different from both parents, the editors wanted to create an encyclopedia that did not resemble them (a majority white team) and that combined the forms of literary journal, reference book, and art book into a hybrid publication. As the entries are organized alphabetically, as in a traditional encyclopedia, the XENOGENESIS entry arrives late in the volume. The resulting lack of a traditional introduction leaves the reader with a great amount of independence, and uncertainty, in navigating the encyclopedia. After reading a few entries, it is clear that what you have before you is both an artwork and a functional tool, something of a poet’s inventory.
In my first approach to reading, I kept Volume III L-Z at work and Volume II F-K at home. At work, I read the entries in alphabetical order and at home I randomly opened the book, an experience that often felt like having my tarot read through experimental writing. Occasionally, a word would come up in everyday life, and I would flip through the encyclopedia to read its take on the term. Soon, reading alphabetically began to feel forced and I started to follow the cross-references provided at the bottom of each entry. Unlike a traditional encyclopedia that suggests words obviously linked to one another, The Encyclopedia Project takes poetic liberty with its connections. For example, in Encyclopedia Britannica, the cross-references for SKIN include hair, aging, and freckles, whereas Rebecca Solnit’s entry for SKIN invites references to ACCIDENT, KNUCKLE TATTOO, MATLIKE, NEURON, and WAR. In addition to this experimental tool, Volume III L-Z provides two indexes compiled by editor Katie Aymar, who joined the project in 2013. Similar to the editor’s note, both indexes are included as entries whose contents perform the essence of their titles. ZED appears near the end and is a complete catalog of the three volumes’ themes, aesthetics, and references. VOLUMES boils all of the entries down to only 63 subjects (including Pain, Pedagogy, Performance, Plath, Sylvia, Police), while touching on the various notions of “volume” as one part of a series or the space inside of a container.
In the compiling of these entries, the editors’ guiding question feels like a riddle with no definite answer, and each entry grazes the prompt with its own approach. What occurs under the sign of fiction? The question seems to quietly point to fiction’s ability to not only tell us something factual about a subject, but to show us its manifestations. Eileen Myles’s answer takes the form of one-sentence quips that reveal her own self-reflexive narrative style with subjects like BUTCH and ANECDOTE. For DEATH OF THE AUTHOR, she writes, “This is a stupid modernist idea invented by men so they could once again justify the absent rule of their penises,” instead of citing Roland Barthes who coined the term. Samuel Delany provides journal-like entries that exemplify qualities found in his titles. For example, in EPIC, he showcases the mundaneness embedded in the genre by accounting for an entire year, through activities such as reading, eating in diners, having a friend visit, and interacting with his companion, Dennis. Simone White expounds upon LOTION with paragraphs on her hygiene, the evolution of her regimen from her and her families’ stories, and how she fills in crevices (literal and metaphoric) with self-care. And for Anna Joy Springer, rebuses that literally illustrate the subjects ACKER, KATHY and THIEVES are the answer. Each of these authors provide more than an objective definition; they wield fiction with a unique style, employing narrative as a tool to exhibit a subject’s social, political, and emotional implications.
While some entries consist of canonical texts (see VIOLENCE, which is a Sartre quote, or ENCYCLOPEDIA, which is a reprint of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius), others situate the encyclopedia more explicitly in its contemporary moment. For the word OCCUPATION, Sean Labrador Y Manzano writes an entry from the site of the 2011 Occupy Oakland movement, giving the word multiple contexts: occupation as the situation of those under military force; as the task of those who secure control of an area; or as how one spends one’s time, and what one’s job is. The entry for LANGUAGE features Antena’s guide How To Build Language Justice, which offers step-by-step instructions on how to create multilingual social spaces. And under GRAPHIC NOVEL, you’ll find Jaime Cortez’s powerful and humorous comic Sexile, which illustrates the real-life story of Adela, a transgender woman who decides to leave Cuba after facing homophobia and transphobia. These entries are in conversation with issues we are facing right now: police violence, wealth inequality, immigration, and transgender rights. They mark The Encyclopedia Project as a contemporary survey that provides definitions written by those who understand the topics on a personal level.
The Encyclopedia Project is a well-rounded and gripping record of information, because it assembles a slew of esteemed and emerging authors defining some of their favorite subjects with genre-blurring poetic and narrative texts. The entries for LESBIAN and MERCURY RETROGRADE give summaries of their subjects’ histories, written by none other than Michelle Tea, known for autobiographical narratives that often feature lesbian identities and astrology. The same goes for the entry OIL, which follows the thoughts of an experienced but exhausted protester, written by Juliana Spahr, a poet who regularly draws from climate change discourse and her experiences as an activist in her work. And in WHITENESS, Naima Lowe, a black queer artist and educator who recently resigned as a professor at The Evergreen State College after receiving backlash for speaking out against racial issues on campus, asks a series of 39 questions for white people. With each author’s unique lense and approach, this series refuses the traditional encyclopedia’s goal of compiling a universal compendium of knowledge. The Encyclopedia Project is a freshly minted map of language featuring loosely drawn borders, circling around words and their lack of fixed meanings.
ELI HILL is an artist and writer living in New York.