Provisional Avant-Gardes
Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital
Sophie Seita

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5

Communities of Print in the Digital Age

Movable Contemporaneity

When Ezra Pound titled his twenty-part review series of magazines in the British weekly The New Age “Studies in Contemporary Mentality,” he made a connection between periodical publishing and contemporaneity still apposite today.1 Regardless of whether critics can make good on Pound’s promise to understand contemporary mentality, the medium of the little magazine remains, long after modernism, particularly conducive to describing “the contemporary” of any historical episode, including the present moment. As ever, through their chosen publishing medium avant-gardes may be recognized as provisional and diachronic communities that offer, as magazine editors Michael Cross and Thom Donovan put it, “glimpse[s] into the emergent.” In ON: Contemporary Practice (2008– ), a print and digital magazine of discursive writing about “one’s contemporaries,” Cross and Donovan state that they are “motivated by desire, friendship, sociopolitical commitment, and discourse among one’s communities and peers.”2 It is these commitments and contemporaneities for which the little magazine acted as a barometer throughout the twentieth century and has continued to do so into the twenty-first. What is new is that digital formats and print that is informed by the digital are shaping avant-garde communities and writing, publishing, and reading today. Critical attention to these contemporary developments might, in turn, come to play an active, even transformative, part in the avant-garde and its reception.

But what is “the contemporary,” and is “the Period Formerly Known as the Contemporary,” as Amy Hungerford quips, even a period? While grouping creative works under “post-1945” or even “long modernism” might situate them more neatly, the label contemporary remains useful as avant-garde terminology because its boundaries are rather nicely undefined.3 Tired of proclamations that contemporary writing is lacking in the more radical forms of the historical avant-gardes, I have argued throughout this book that we need to instantiate avant-gardism as a contemporary concept, beyond the simple model of the original and its lesser copy. Avant-garde reprints in later magazines already raised questions of temporality and futurity: whether any “historical” object or text can become contemporary simply because it is selected for contemplation today or only when it is presented as instructive for or akin to contemporary practice. The editors of ON: Contemporary Practice aptly ask, how “can we observe a present while it is still occurring; that is, before it has ossified into events consigned to a representative past,” or, conversely, how can we observe what is supposedly ossified as something contemporary?4 Because our sense of the past and present is always shifting, the avant-gardes in this book sometimes appear more and sometimes less contemporary, more or less of one period. Contemporary publishing communities also follow the logic of a movable contemporaneity and often even make “nowness” rather than “newness” a thematic and technological focus of their work.

Traditionally, critics have declared the avant-garde to be ahead of its time based on an assumption that, as Bruno Latour recognizes, “modernizing progress is thinkable only on condition that all the elements that are contemporary according to the calendar belong to the same time. For this to be the case, these elements have to form a complete and recognizable cohort.”5 The contemporary avant-garde might in some instances form a recognizable though certainly not a coherent and homogeneous “cohort.” But when “different periods, ontologies or genres” are “mix[ed] up,” “a historical period will give the impression of a great hotchpotch. Instead of a fine laminary flow, we will most often get a turbulent flow of whirlpools and rapids.”6 While Latour excludes the avant-garde (as traditionally defined) from such an assessment, this very “hotchpotch” and the “whirlpools” have characterized magazine communities, past and present, and heterogeneity and cross-group influence remain vital models for the contemporary avant-garde.

How are critics to write about the contemporary hotchpotch, then? A contemporary avant-garde can be theorized, like avant-gardes before it, as a provisional model of necessarily heterogeneous and dynamic practices. Contemporary avant-gardes in the making are to be found in little magazines, many of which address self-reflexively the politics and hospitality of small-press publishing. Yet scholars of contemporary literature tend to focus not on magazines but on the novel. For the Post45 website, Sarah Chihaya, Joshua Kotin, and Kinohi Nishikawa survey the proposed topics they received for a conference on contemporary literature at Princeton University in 2016.7 A total of 43 percent of all submissions focused on fiction, 7.4 percent on poetry, another 7.4 percent on digital media. Across all submissions, the majority chose well-known authors and theorists. That fiction would top this (admittedly very small) list of conference topics is not surprising, as it matches the novel’s dominance in the contemporary marketplace. When contemporary critics discuss magazines, they often focus on mainstream or at least widely popular periodicals, like Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, edited by Dave Eggers (author of the best-selling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius).8

One exception to this dearth of scholarly attention to contemporary magazines is Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz’s recently edited collection The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, which includes chapters on Bomb, n+1, Callaloo, Fence, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (which is no longer running), Poetry, McSweeney’s, and other similarly established, well-known, or not exactly “little” magazines. As with many avant-gardes, scholarship often lags behind the more immediate responses generated within a poetry community itself. Contemporary criticism by poets themselves increasingly finds expression via the responsive interfaces of blogs, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, of which the latter two are usually limited to short commentaries, quotes, photographs, or the sharing of a text, photograph, or link. The effects and longevity of these sometimes semipublic forms of reception and taste-making are hard to assess, but they point toward an almost entirely unexplored reservoir for future criticism.

The next few decades will clarify the changes in small-press and avant-garde publishing today, in what media scholars call the “late age of print.” But to speak of the book or print as an anachronism is to forget that “there are no anachronisms, only ways of seeing things as anachronisms.”9 That print is anything but anachronistic is evident in the sheer quantity of newly produced printed matter and the symbolic value attributed to it; writers are still routinely asked if they are a “published author” (meaning print publishing), and readers still proudly display their bookshelves to visitors. During the process of “mediamorphosis,” or “remediation,” a new medium is often conceived and explained in relation to a previous one.10 Online publications, for example, are often produced and read as if they were print, and specifically as if they were made for a codex. Design features, too, are often skeuomorphic: that is, they look like an analogue version of a different medium (such as paper) but no longer function the same way. Despite ominous remarks by critics that “the period between 1980 and 2015 will be seen as the end of the ascendency of print periodicals,” a focus on digital media need not imply a belief in the supersession of the supposedly obsolescent medium of print.11 Intermediation is a better description of contemporary creative engagement with materials and techniques than post-print, because it accepts the ongoing coexistence and mutual transformation of print and digital technologies.12 Post-digital, in turn, might refer to print within a digital media environment. Indeed, digitality now informs nearly all the processes of production, distribution, and reception, whether a work is printed or not.

In a digital publishing space in which magazines are easier and cheaper to launch and to maintain, in which the “now” is often published faster, have the politics of inclusion shifted toward greater diversity and hospitality? How does the virtually infinite expanse of the digital commons with its overabundance of data affect contemporary modes of reading? Since digitization and availability tackle the scarcity attached to avant-garde materials, approaches to distribution and reception of little magazines need to be revised. This does not mean that avant-garde publishing communities are now only to be found in digital form or in digitally inspired print forms. Many avant-garde print magazines continue either the DIY cheap-print and photocopy mentality or, conversely, the letterpress tradition. This chapter therefore examines what it means for an avant-garde to engage inventively with the digital medium today and how that engagement affects avant-garde socialities and identities.

Thinking the Unprintable

In a 2013 interview, poet and publisher J. Gordon Faylor jokingly remarked that the American publishing collective Troll Thread, which publishes PDF files and print-on-demand (POD) versions of those PDFs, “exploit[s] [the print-on-demand platform] Lulu’s bookmaking technology in more diversely insidious ways” than his own Gauss PDF, another Tumblr-based project that publishes PDFs and multimedia works.13 These contemporary uses of online or POD publishing are so “diversely insidious” not because they bypass carefully calculated and often handmade print runs, or because these presses publish work that might not otherwise appear elsewhere (which has become an avant-garde truism in itself over the last century); rather, the artful exploitation lies in Troll Thread’s and Gauss PDF’s publication of works that seem out of place in a codex, that cannot or should not be printed, but that insist on printedness, even if only imagined, all the same.

What I would like to call the “imagined printedness” in the digital and POD publishing projects of Troll Thread, Gauss PDF, and Triple Canopy allows these publishers to escalate definitions of “poetry,” the “magazine,” the “book,” and “publishing” within their overlapping contemporary small-press and avant-garde communities.14 Born-digital publishing and what Lisa Gitelman terms the “near print” technology of the PDF enable new experiments with the production, distribution, and reception of avant-garde work.15 An online Tumblr that publishes PDFs and/or other file formats, often single-author works but also collaborations, might not immediately look like a magazine, but Troll Thread and Gauss PDF can be considered metaphorical extensions of avant-garde little magazine communities. One reason is that they display their contributions in ways that resemble the table of contents of a magazine issue, with content added and distributed periodically. Aesthetically, too, there is a clear sense of seriality. In this way, these digital publishers follow the practice of some earlier magazines, such as the proto-Language magazines QU or A Hundred Posters, in their publication of generally one author per “issue.” Moreover, like avant-garde magazines in the twentieth century, Troll Thread and Gauss PDF have established a small community around their publications with several contributors in common.

Historically, many little magazines also doubled as a small press. Others had an imprint for books by its contributors, as did 0 to 9; Roof began as a magazine and continued as a press; Chain was a magazine and had the spin-off book series Chain Links. But for the avant-garde in the digital age, the distinction between individual work, book, small press, and magazine becomes even less clear-cut, changing how avant-garde communities and their publishing projects work inside and outside of this differently networked online environment. So what does it mean to think printedness in digital avant-garde publishing? The following publications often highlight their medium of composition and distribution (each with a specific materiality) and make processes of mediation their investigative focus. We are invited to read these digital materials as akin to print even when analogue printedness is only imagined or simply impossible. If, as Jerome McGann writes, “literary documents bear within themselves the evidence of their own making,” the remainders of print in a never-printed document complicate that trajectory: they show traces they can never quite have.16 I will now turn to these imagined remainders.

Holly Melgard’s Black Friday was released by Troll Thread, the publishing collective she co-edits, on Black Friday, November 2012, as an 8.5″ × 11″ print-on-demand book. Of its 740 pages, 734 are entirely black except for their white page numbers. As the poem’s dedication page specifies, it is a book “for BLACK INK ON WHITE PAPER.” Though couched in the language of the printed book, a PDF like Black Friday also invokes the antecedent of the codex: the scroll, a form that lends itself to compendious and sequential reading, bringing it closer to oratory and time-based media. Troll Thread was started in part, as co-editor Chris Sylvester puts it, “to make massive quantities of text or data or whatever available all at once and in the same place . . . as ‘one thing.’17 This generically indefinable “or whatever” is an apt rallying cry for a publishing project intent on troubling literariness and on differentiating the book from the codex. Melgard similarly describes Black Friday as an experiment with her medium: “poems can exploit what it is in books that makes texts appear as ‘text’; how their distributions and multiple frameworks of production may play a material role in their composition, their poetics.”18 These “material” frameworks include Melgard’s computer, her word processing and publishing software, and the specifications of Lulu’s book-making facilities, as well as the project’s monetary value, or lack thereof. Indeed, Black Friday probes its existence within a small-press print economy that in monetary terms often costs more than it returns, and its entirely digital circulation invites readers to reflect on the circulation of money. Ostensibly an attempt to “break an industrial printer,” Melgard literalizes the conventionalized avant-garde trope of rupture, testing if or how poetry could actually, and not just metaphorically, break things.19 But, judging from the error messages the author receives from the POD platform Lulu whenever someone attempts to purchase a copy, the breaking remains only a thought experiment. Rather than a demonstration of the end of printed matter, Black Friday demonstrates the specific possibilities of POD publishing: since Lulu charges a publisher the same for blank or black pages, at least hypothetically, and since 740 is the maximum number of pages Lulu allows for a perfect-bound book, Black Friday attempts, like its inadvertent twin Jean Keller’s The Black Book (2010/2013), “the lowest cost and maximum value for the artist.”20

Other Troll Thread titles likewise thematize the economics of poetry publishing and the long history of avant-garde unprofitability. Melgard’s REIMBUR$EMENT (2013), subtitled on its dedication page “For Work,” features images of lottery and scratch-off tickets, the cost of the book amounting to the money Melgard lost to gambling during graduate school to make up for her unpaid labor, thus turning the avant-garde gift economy on its head (“A Gift Economy is a Debt Economy in my book”).21 MONEY (2012) by “Maker” publishes cutouts of hundred-dollar bills, avouching cheekily that the responsibility concerning counterfeit law lies with “the document’s printer,” who is the work’s “maker.”22 Joey Yearous-Algozin’s recent HOW TO STOP WORRYING ABT THE STATE OF PUBLISHING WHEN THE WORLD’S BURNING AND EVERYBODY’S BROKE ANYWAYS AND ALL YOU REALLY CARE ABT IS IF ANYONE IS EVEN READING YR WORK (July 2016) is a half-serious, half-ironic instruction manual in the form of a two-page lineated “poem” in large type that practices the cheap DIY and POD publishing it preaches.23 What could be called Troll Thread’s POD manifesto, HOW TO STOP WORRYING demystifies the publishing business by showing how easy it is to self-publish and start a small press, reminiscent of the many paeans for the small press put forth by earlier avant-gardes. But Yearous-Algozin’s “how-to” document lacks the utopian tinge associated with that genre of avant-garde writing and is in fact quite pragmatic:

don’t worry about making it look good, gutters,
paratext, etc.
that’s all just marketing
leave that to “editors” who can pay “designers”, i.e.
bosses
or until you learn more about laying out books, which
you never need to learn
save yr cover as a .jpg & upload it in the cover
designer or use the default settings
whatever
set the price at zero revenue
that way you can buy more copies when lulu has coupons
for free shipping
also, this is poetry, you shouldn’t be making a profit
don’t be an asshole24

That poets do not usually make a profit—there are, for instance, far fewer “professional” poets than novelists—is a realistic assessment, but it also ironizes the widespread avant-garde imperative for poets to position themselves outside capital. Although Troll Thread borrows its house format and approach to media from 0 to 9, 8.5″ × 11″ is also simply one of the default sizes available in Lulu’s bookmaking facilities. It is worth noting that several Troll Thread authors work with such default settings as constraints for creative production, letting the default determine the work. Within a history of print publishing dominated by an esteem for craft, manual skill, the intricacies of typographical design, and the time and expense required for the production process, Troll Thread’s labor and rationale for publishing the “books” in their catalogue (or in Melgard’s case, the labor of “composing” Black Friday) is much harder to determine, and deliberately so.25 The form and content of Black Friday and HOW TO STOP WORRYING think of “the book” as a (failed) commodity and as a (failed) material object.

Notes

1. Ezra Pound, “Studies in Contemporary Mentality,” New Age (August 1917 to January 1918).

2. Michael Cross and Thom Donovan, “About,” ON: Contemporary Practice, https://on-contemporarypractice.squarespace.com/about.

3. Amy Hungerford, “On the Period Formerly Known as the Contemporary,” American Literary History 20, no. 1/2 (2008): 410–19, 418.

4. Michael Cross, Thom Donovan, and Kyle Schlesinger, “From Center to Margin,” ON: Contemporary Practice, no. 2 (2010): 7–8, 7.

5. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), 73.

6. Latour, 73.

7. Sarah Chihaya, Joshua Kotin, and Kinohi Nishikawa, “‘The Contemporary’ by the Numbers,” Post45, 2016 http://post45.research.yale.edu/2016/02/the-contemporary-by-the-numbers.

8. See Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).

9. Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 4.

10. Roger Fidler, in Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media (London: Sage, 1999), understands mediamorphosis as the transformation of media and communication systems as a result of complex convergences, developments out of earlier or other media, as well as social, political, and technological processes and needs. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, in Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), understand remediation as the process by which old or original media are present in or remade into a new medium.

11. Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz, preface to The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, ed. Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), vii–xvii, vii; Brian M. Reed, Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 1.

12. The term intermediation comes from Ted Striphas, who prefers it over remediation. See Striphas, Late Age of Print, 15–16.

13. Kristen Gallagher, “The Gauss Interview: Chris Alexander Talks to J. Gordon Faylor,” Jacket2, March 5, 2013, http://jacket2.org/commentary/gauss-interview. Faylor founded Gauss PDF in 2010. Its name is a pun on the Gaussian probability distribution function. Troll Thread was founded in 2010 by Chris Sylvester, who was soon joined by Joey Yearous-Algozin, Holly Melgard, and Divya Victor (who has now left the project).

14. All three projects move within overlapping circles in primarily New York City, Philadelphia, and Buffalo.

15. Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 117.

16. Jerome McGann, A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 84.

17. Holly Melgard, Joey Yearous-Algozin, and Chris Sylvester, “Troll Thread Interview,” by Tan Lin, Harriet: A Poetry Blog, May 4, 2014, www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/05/troll-thread-interview.

18. Holly Melgard, “Statement of Poetics,” Revista Laboratorio, no. 8 (2013): www.laboratoriodeescrituras.cl/holly-melgard.

19. Melgard, Yearous-Algozin, and Sylvester, “Troll Thread Interview.”

20. Jean Keller, The Black Book, www.lulu.com/shop/jean-keller/the-black-book/paperback/product-21008894.html.

21. Holly Melgard, REIMBUR$EMENT (Troll Thread, 2013), 1. Melgard initially made REIMBUR$EMENT for inclusion in the exhibition “Poetry Will Be Made By All! / 89Plus” in Zurich in January of 2014, knowing that this would guarantee at least one printed copy and she would then be “reimbursed.” She was not included in the end, being born before 1989, so her “reimbursement” was delayed until the University at Buffalo Libraries Poetry Collection (which now has a standing order for all Troll Thread titles) recently ordered a copy.

22. Maker, Money (Troll Thread, 2012), unpaginated.

23. Troll Thread often publishes typographically and conceptually odd work (say, Yearous-Algozin’s own 9/11 911 CALLS IN 911 PT. FONT; or Chris Sylvester’s STILL LIFE W/ BLOG 07/12/13 04:24PM // 05:12PM // 264 PGS MSWORD // 10/18/13 // 3:45PM // 595 PGS MSWORD) that makes conventional word-by-word reading difficult or impossible.

24. Joey Yearous-Algozin, HOW TO STOP WORRYING . . . (Troll Thread, July 2016), 1.

25. Amy Hungerford discusses a similarly self-conscious display of publishing economics in Making Literature Now. For her, the breakdown of printing, shipping, and other publishing costs in several early issues of McSweeney’s is a “DIY exhortation” based in “the anticommercial DIY ethic of punk” and zine culture that McSweeney’s identifies with (26). But when compared to Yearous-Algozin’s POD PDF “poem,” McSweeney’s detailing of printing costs and revenue, which far exceeds the “zero revenue” of Troll Thread, can seem like a gimmick; there is little “punk” in the members’ benefits for donors who give $10,000 or more to the McSweeney’s enterprise, which includes a press, two print magazines, and an online magazine. Unlike McSweeney’s, which Hungerford shows has “made” the careers of several writers, Troll Thread is unlikely to—and does not even care to—do so.