"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"
That’s the well-known translation Edward FitzGerald gave to a quatrain from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1889, 5th edition). But these lines could just as well serve as the ironic epigraph for an unusual publishing enterprise of the late twentieth century, Flockophobic Press. Flockophobic was started in the late 1980s by Alexander S. C. Rower, a grandson of sculptor Alexander Calder, and operated through the early 2000s. In keeping with its name—meaning “fear of the flock,” an aversion to mainstream mentalities and societal dictates—Flockophobic Press productions challenge our customary notions of the book as a material entity: it published poetry and prose in “unbook-like forms, such as maps, bottles, menus, boxes, shoes and even noodles, in order to draw attention to overlooked writers.” Flockophobic Press turns the jug of wine and the loaf of bread (or rather the strip of pasta) from poetic metaphors into actual vessels of verse.
Recently, some Hopkins’ undergraduates took on these “books” in a class I’m teaching in the library called The Literary Archive. (You’ll hear more from these students in future blog posts.) Their responses—recorded in our eponymous class blog—tell us a lot about what these unusual publications reveal about the connections between material forms and words and readers and creators.
Amanda Vakos reads the pasta—Steven J. Bernstein’s The Onion As It Is Cooked—and notes the parallels between ingesting the poem as a text and literally digesting it. Perhaps the reader isn’t meant to understand this cryptic poem by simply reading its words; maybe you really do have to consume it.
Martha Harris examines Almost All Lies Are Pocket-Sized: Excerpts from the Work of Lionel Ziprin, which takes the conventional “Selections from the Work of…” genre and turns it on its head. This work consists of a hand-carved wooden box containing small objects that carry some of Ziprin’s poems. Martha notes, “Although this small poetry sample can in no way cover all of Lionel Ziprin’s half-century career, it gives us a window into the poetic experience he provides” by offering a material analog to his “creative associations and fantastical themes.”
And Lauren Bryant attempts to make sense of a shoe. Yes, a shoe—with a roll of money wrapped around a roll of paper strips imprinted with a poem by Clark Coolidge. Several readings of the poem yield nothing but “some well-worded chaos,” and why is it stored inside a shoe with no clear relation to the text? Still, the juxtaposition calls for some kind of explanation. Lauren observes:
Perhaps then, it is the chaos that offers us an explanation for the piece. To me a man who keeps a roll of money in his shoe is careful, distrustful of the world. The soles of these shoes are worn through to the nails and the label has been rubbed off. Maybe within this careful man’s shoe is stored the calamity of the world. The physical manifestation, this oddball “book” of poetry, is careful and controlled, but rolled up inside is still that same calamity of poetry—the difference for the reader, however, is that Flockaphobic makes you physically interact with that furled up confusion.
Physical interaction as a mode of reading… we do it all the time, when we snuggle up with a thick detective novel or surf the internet with the flick of a smartphone finger. But we hardly ever think about it in the way these Flockophobic creations invite us to.
One other perennial favorite from the Flockophobic collection was created by our own Jean McGarry: Human House. Hard to ignore the physical interactions implicit here—unfold the red menu, as you have countless times before at your favorite Chinese restaurant, and order up a totally new experience.