by Karl Young

Click here to go to essay,
or read on for introductory note.


It has been gratifying and instructive for me to read the comments by Dale Smith and associates on Slow Poetry in the past several months. Part of this comes from the fact that they have been dealing with ideas that I have worked with for decades. In the instance of this gathering for Big Bridge, it was amusing and instructive to note the similarities between Smith's introduction and my introductions to Stations magazine, particularly vol 2, and to the general introduction to my retrospective here at Big Bridge. The most important aspect of similarities has nothing to do with Smith or others deriving anything from me, but the perennial nature of what I've advocated. Not my originality and influence, but my ability to see what other people have seen, see now, and will see in the future, despite the nature of changing cliques and alliances, fads, and the "deer in the headlights" effect on individuals of the too-fast environment of discussion lists.

I have avoided the practice of plagiarizing myself in order to try to get something in every issue of every magazine I could to develop name recognition and to make of it a saleable brand. At times, this has meant going for periods of years without writing anything, and instead cultivating, promoting, publishing, and commenting on the work of others. This has, to me, been a hedge against the over-production that has choked the scene with too much material for anyone to comprehend and hence promote attitudes as distinct as reductionism for ease of assimilation, nihilistic, glib, or sarcastic attitudes to avoid admission of ignorance, and the wild exaggerations of such initially pleasantly insouciant larks as flarf or the newest exhumation of the most trivial forms of conceptual art into major events, while ignoring whole genres and even cultures.

Fortunately, there have been a few pieces which have been reproduced multiple times: not enough to get in anybody's way, but enough to gain extra circulation. "Notation and the Art of Reading" has been the most important of them. It has been officially reproduced more than 27 times since I wrote it, including in translations into mega colonial languages such as Spanish and Russian and such smaller demographic languages as Hungarian and Slovene. It has appeared on the web for classroom use several times, and disappeared when the class was over. Perhaps most comic, an Anarchist group produced it as a bootleg pamphlet. I would have granted permission had its publishers asked permission, but they were apparently having too much fun playing pirates to do anything so dull. It's interesting to note that their actions have parallels in the practice of poets and professors. The former have a tendency to "suck up and kick down" in making acknowledgements. That is, acknowledging those with some sort of celebrity as a means of currying favor and as a form of name dropping. It's usually accompanied by the ignoring or suppressing of more important sources from less well known people. Academicians may be scrupulous in footnoting their colleagues, while ignoring any sources outside their own professional parties. As time has passed, however, I have become more aware of the importance of acknowledging people whose assistance has helped me get things done as well as possible, and I have become more concerned with acknowledging their contribution whenever possible, even in simple essays and reviews. Paying attention, and making acknowledgement, of sources and precedents gives me a better sense of how I've come to the conclusions I have and it has been a way of keeping notes on how my ideas progressed. I believe that such acknowledgement (which slows things down a bit) could help encourage a more cooperative and less competitive scene, in which those who give advice or assistance can remain in the eyes of readers without the need to over-publish. A recent example of acknowledging peer review readers can be found at the end of one of my essays on d.a.levy. first published in d.a.levy and the mimeograph revolution and reprinted here at Big Bridge. "Notation" owes a profound debt to bpNichol, who commissioned it at a time when I was overwhelmed by having too many projects in progress and needed a gestalt breaker. My conscious sense of the need for acknowledging sources began with him, and, using the terms I have used in acknowledgments, is yet another example of "his ability to bring out the best in people." The positioning and explicitness of my crediting him has evolved with new opportunities to reproduce the essay. It's probably impossible to acknowledge every detail of all sources, and doing so in a way that isn't awkward or distracting to the reader may be difficult, but it seems worth the effort, and may evolve forms of notation that go beyond standard footnotes. John Solt and I tried some alternative methods of inserting notes in our edition of oceans beyond monotonous space: selected poems of Kitasono Katue. These are reader-oriented in the poems; more professionally oriented in the dense interview at the end of the book. Working with acknowledgement itself could present a newer and richer dimension of critical writing.

I have come to more firmly believe that readers and even writers can achieve a greater appreciation of all types of literature if they balance the individuality of the author's achievement with the many strands of cooperation and suggestion that contribute to literary works. Ultimately, these nets of interrelation may be more important than the now outworn concepts of "influence" among canonical figures. Based firmly in life as lived and experienced as palpable sensations and exchanges instead of abstracted through baffles of interpretation, these acknowledgements and awarenesses strengthen community building and the evolution of capacities for enhanced cooperation and appreciation. In the contests between ever more greedy copyright battles to preserve the ownership of such essential items as the image and likeness of Mickey Mouse for longer than radioactive waste, and the casual sloppiness and celebration of ignorance in much of what runs under the artistic rubric of "appropriation," provision for the enhancement of shared efforts and building on what's already there seems more likely to benefit all concerned than quick grabs and dreams of immortality through eternal ownership. During the mid 1990s, when the web opened to a general readership, I discussed and tried to arrange for publication of some of my own work under the GNU Licensing of software instead of standard copyright. I tried to set this up so that anyone could reproduce anything of mine they wished, as long as they reproduced the original "code" or text along with it, and showed how they had altered it. Given the potentially vast space available on the web, and the unlikelihood of my making any significant money from my poetry, this would be a way of further distributing my work. I'd like to think it would also encourage both the appropriator and the reader to read what I'd written more carefully. I've made extensive use of source texts myself, and find that the more I understand the source, the better the work I derive from it tends to be. I can't help but assume that this would be the case with other appropriations. You could see a good deal of the history of literature as an exercise in appropriation, with the best work usually coming from the best understanding of sources used. Creative Commons licensing has shown important avenues for the sharing of work. If it, like my perhaps naive attempts at using software licensing practices encourages appropriators and their readers to appreciate what they use more than simple grabs which resemble nothing as much as impulse-buying in consumer culture, appropriation itself may contribute to Slow Poetry in ways so far unforseen.

What is most important to me in regard to "Notation and the Art of Reading" in the present context of this Slow Poetry gathering, however, is not simply reaffirmation of basic ideas, but assumptions and practices not stated in the essay, yet strongly present in its background. Are these ideas and practices inherent in the essay and in the Slow Poetry dispensation now and in the general constellation of my thinking decades ago? Perhaps the appearance of "Notation" in this context will give me a better idea of how tightly these ideas and tendencies fit.

At the time I wrote the essay, I had a decade's experience in running a cottage industry originally based in part on Peter Kropotkin's essays, perhaps most importantly on the readable passages of Fields, Factories, and Workshops. I had also drawn on writers ranging from Buckminster Fuller to Kenneth Rexroth to E.F. Schumacher, and practices still being tested as part of the urban wing of the communalism of an era when some of us were actively engaged in trying to build an alternate society to the one whose model and symbol was the fast food restaurant. Most of those who wrote about setting up small, "human scale" production units took environmental and ecological models into account, and Kropotkin had gone so far as to see small-scale cooperation as a factor in human evolution. In part due to the delightful (and often slow) confluence of writing, printing, publishing, and organizing readings and related events, this was the happiest period of my life, and probably the one that gave me the opportunity to produce my best work.

Perhaps most importantly, by 1972 I had begun using 100% recycled and salvaged papers exclusively for the books I published and those I printed as jobs. During this period, I explored the nature of different types of paper recycling. Many didn't do much to protect the environment. A big problem with paper recycling was de-inking, which usually depended heavily on the use of chemicals such as dioxin, the main active component in the Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War. This was also used in making paper from virgin pulp, but if a paper was to be environmentally sound, it should not just use the word "recycled" as a con, but address environmental issues in general. Many of the papers I used were not de-inked but carried the dominant tones of the inks printed on the original paper. At the time, the environmentally sound recycled papers available were miserable to print on. From the last sentences, you may get a sense of how boring this pursuit could be in itself, and how people's eyes glazed over when I tried to discuss it with them. From the beginning, recycled papers were more expensive than virgin pulp papers at the point of purchase. This was a result of the heavy subsidies given to the timber industry's lobbyists. In 1990, when I no longer could print on my own press, I explored compromises in recycled papers available, reasoning that if lesser percentages of paper were recycled but costs were kept down, I could sacrifice some of my purity to wider use of affordable papers. Soy based inks had also become more widely available. The last time I checked, Thompson Shore was most conscientious about environmentally sound paper use among the printers in the Ann Arbor area who did and still do the overwhelming majority of small print run books in the U.S. That's some time ago, and since environmentally sound paper usage changes by the minute, I simply mention them as printers to acknowledge and to check out. Print-on-demand companies may undercut a lot of what was painfully gained in paper usage between 1970 and the present, yet doing tiny runs as needed may reduce some of the waste involved in producing more books than an alternative press can sell, particularly with the demise of single proprietor book stores and all the other factors that have increasingly attacked print. The Supreme Court's 1979 Thor Power Tool Decision, may have crippled publishing in the U.S. more than any other single factor in the 20th Century. If you're a writer and don't know what this is, FIND OUT – you're still a victim of this debacle, and I'd like to think Slow Poetry would be a good place for writers to start to understand the infrastructure around them instead of hiding their ignorance in trails of Orphic glory and clouds of convoluted theory. Ecosystems gone toxic generally don't depend on a single villain such as irresponsible paper manufacture, but back-up systems that reach throughout the economy and readership on which single elements rest. I firmly believe that readers would appreciate books more if they understood how they were produced. This has extensions ranging from aesthetics to the politics of labor to the dangers of disposability-based consumer culture, in which the reader is as disposable as the printer and the paper used to make the books that seem to magically appear on store shelves or arrive in the mail from Amazon of Advance Book Exchange or the poetry they include.

By the year 2000, I largely gave up on using recycled papers for books, in part because I couldn't afford to hire printers to produce them for me, in part because I missed printing them myself, in part because I was devoting most of my efforts to web publication. My last attempts at printing books myself were

Michael McClure's The Masked Choir and Michael Basinski's Beseechers both produced using computer printers. The last two books I published, Susan Smith Nash's Fly-Over States of Mind, (2000) and a facsimile edition of Lorine Niedecker's Paean to Place (2003, done in collaboration with Woodland Pattern) used reasonably good recycled stock, but were farmed out to commercial printers and seemed to mark the end of an era in my publishing activities. Although I hadn't planed them as such, they make a fitting close to the offset arc of my publishing activities, and seem even more so in the context of Slow Poetry. I had been making a partial living as production manager for several university presses that couldn't keep someone in that job full-time, and for people who simply wanted to produce one book. I used recycled papers as often as possible with these, but my clients sometime balked at the higher costs of recycled papers. By 2005, I could no longer get enough jobs to sustain this business. Perhaps ironically, I still produce copies of my own early books, now out of print, on recycled papers using a laser printer and binding them with wire spirals, and do copies of recent color reproductions of intermedia works in folios using an ink-jet printer. Thus the first of what I consider my mature books, Cried and Measured, published by David Meltzer's Tree Books in 1977, and the folios Stellar Dreams Above the Middle Kingdom and Punctuation Hands, my major editioned works of the current decade, for which I don't even want to try to find a publisher due to production costs, are available only from used book dealers and the de facto "cottage industry" machine I'm using to write this introduction. Is that a far cry from my first mimeo books printed on "liberated" paper in 1966?

My use of recycled papers for printing books instead of simple stationary may have set a singular record in the use of recycled paper. In the 1990s, I ordered some recycled paper by phone from a company in South Carolina. After a few minutes talking to the clerk, he burst out with something like, "Oh, hey, I know who you are! You're that guy in Wisconsin who used to print books on Bergstrom Recycle 100. I've never actually seen B 100. . . Could you actually print on that stuff? From descriptions of it, I guess it must have been miserable." That a young salesman over a thousand miles away had heard of me, and that presumably other paper salesmen had been talking about me for years, speaks volumes about just how unusual the use of recycled paper in book production had been. With more user-friendly but still responsibly made papers now available through some printers, the nature of printing on ecologically sound stock may take on new life in the 21st Century – at least if printing poetry books in editions survives.

If you're serious about environmental issues, Greenline Papers offered responsibly made stock for everybody from writers who simply need to print out their manuscripts and correspondences to those who still run cottage industries. Their practices may have changed since I last checked them out, but take a look at their website:


In co-founding The Water Street Arts Center, presiding in part over its transition to Woodland Pattern, and keeping the title of Vice-President of WP until 1990, though I had ceased active work on the Board of Directors earlier than that, I based a lot of my thinking, again, on the decentralization of Kropotkin, Schumacher, et al. The organization has changed drastically since the time I was part of it, but the last section of "Notation" is based not only on practices I picked up from sources as divers as the milieux of Black Mountain College in both the Albers and Olson phases, the Bay Area in the 1950s, Lower Manhattan in the 1960s, and even the brief flash of the Cleveland scene presided over by d.a.levy and Jim Lowell, but also what I tried to accomplish and briefly succeeded in bringing about in Milwaukee.

Is there an essential and necessary connection between what Dale Smith and associates call Slow Poetry, what I describe in different eras in "Notation" and the poetry written, made public, and read or heard in conjunction with environmental and decentralist concerns and practices? Your conclusion will probably be as good as mine. If later generations pay any attention to what we write, they will probably have a better understanding of this than we can at present.

Click here to go to "Notation and the Art of Reading"

Thanks to Márton Koppány, who acts as primary peer reviewer in most of the prose I publish for reading and commenting on this introduction. And to Dale Smith for discussing it with me as I worked on it.