The Book as Collaboration Event: Pages from “As the City Fills You with Inside”
In 2015 I wrote a book quickly. I wanted to experience making a book in a way that was not careful, deliberative, and not subject to the regimes of submission, editing, production, distribution—in other words, not subject to the long timeline of traditional publication and the accompanying idea: “this is a special book.”
In one afternoon, I took ten years of writing notebooks and opened them to random pages, pulled out language that caught my eye, and assembled a document more than 150 pages long. For about a week I played with those pages, rearranging text here and there, cutting some things, and submitting some pages to extremely narrow margins so that words became broken up and at times splintered off into new words and shards of words. Making this work, I saw how many words of others populated my notebooks, as if the notebook was a net to catch words coming from the ether of my mind and heart, and also from the pages I was reading and things I was hearing.
I saved this work as a pdf and sent it to a local publishing service—a kind of Kinkos of the United Arab Emirates where I live. I asked for 500 copies in standard book dimensions and I got a price quote back from a man named Surendar. He asked me to come in to the shop to talk about paper stock, cover art, colors so I went and told him that I wanted very simple paper and blank white covers. No author, no title, no artwork. He made sure I wasn’t making a mistake, clarifying, “You don’t want a title? No name? No cover art? No color?” He looked at the pdf, asking, “What is this?” I said, “Poetry.” He said, “Oh—ok.” He kind of laughed a little, but not insultingly. He took the details of the job down and my books were ready in a week. I came in to inspect them, to pay, and to arrange for delivery. We finished our transaction and I thanked him, he thanked me. Surendar looked at me before I walked out the door and he said, “Next time, more words!”
In the fall of that year, I displayed these books stacked in towers on a low pedestal in a gallery. I called the installation “Last Book.” The books, stacked like this, resembled the 1970s Gulf architecture in my home city, Abu Dhabi: modular, white and beige concrete, apartment buildings placed closely together in “super blocks” with horizontal lines, indicating stories, striping the towers.
At the time, I wondered if I would ever write another book—I was questioning how and if to write in my new city. I was asking if I needed to feel some sense of “belonging” in a place in order to write from that place.
Currently, my collection of stark white books comprises a new installation: they are stacked in the decorative arched cut-outs of another gallery space in Dubai. A small painting of a bone rests against some of their spines. I am calling this installation “As the City Fills You with Inside.” In two years I have forged a poetics of this city and in fact “Last Book” will not be my last. My thoughts have turned away from the word “belonging” and toward “place-making.”
This project and its iterations reminds me that as a poet and artist I am always collaborating with my own marks, with the words of others, with time, with vendors and makers and machines, and with space itself.
First, I was so far removed from the writing in those notebooks that I could pull words out randomly, without attachment. This is a benefit of collaboration: caring less, being less attached. To seek and create distance and detachment from what I write down is to allow the words to come alive, to vibrate.
Second, there was the collaboration between the copy service, Surendar, and me. The books are “perfect bound,” but this does not mean that they are not handmade. In the waiting area of this copy shop, there is a video loop that shows their printing and book binding plant and the footage is of people at nearly every machine stacking paper, raising and lifting cutting devices, gathering printed pages, arranging bindings, stacking folios, packing boxes. This reminds me that every book published, no matter what the print run, can be traced back to human labor, human touch, and the work of the hand. And there is the moment of interface between poet and service provider. I knew that my book project might be unusual to Surendar who probably doesn’t take a lot of jobs from artists and poets in Abu Dhabi. But who knows? Abu Dhabi is always teaching me that I do not know what others know or have experienced. I do know that Surendar was the first person besides me to make contact with, to “read” my book. Maybe the sound of his name was a comfort to me—and I interpreted his teasing about the project as a moment of ever-so-slight recognition between us.
Third, I am collaborating with space: the space of this city I live in and write from, and the space of the galleries where I place these books. I am saying something about being a between person—not quite a known poet in my city, a city where venues for poetry are rare; a resident but not a citizen; a writer who both invents and compiles; a person who is a poet and also a visual artist; a pedestrian who walks in diagonal trajectories over a landscape devoid of crosswalks and clear rules that govern the relationship between those on foot and those in cars.
Now I am pushing this project into new collaborative territory by photographing its pages. I read, a while back, about the poet Jen Benka’s project of photographing pages of poetry written by others. I love this: it asserts that reading is a physical, bodily task. And it is interesting that when translated to the two-dimensional plane, photographs of an open book accentuate a book’s depth and presence—the camera sometimes focuses on the raised page, pushing the other page’s text into blurry background status. Or the camera locks on to the sharp line of the gutter, rendering the text on both sides blurry. Like photographs of the surface of the earth where, because of the photograph, we can see that the earth is not flat, photographs of book pages remind us that a text is not flat—it curves and lives in three dimensions. Our eyes, reading, move across these curved planes. Our hands hold and adjust. For Bathhouse Journal, I present the works on screen—here readers are pushed into flatness, and their hands will move in a different manner, perhaps scrolling, perhaps printing out pages that will then live on in unattached, loose, and unbound form, and will likely be tossed into the garbage and return to pulp much more quickly than a book.
This semester I taught students to crochet hyperbolic forms—frilly coral shapes—inspired by the Institute for Figuring’s Crochet Coral Reef Project, an iteration of which was made here in Abu Dhabi in the spring and fall of 2014. Donna Haraway has said, about corals, that they are “citational.” The coral reef is an additive creature, a collaborative undersea entity. If corals evolve opportunistically, like the crochet project itself where individual craftspeople don’t agree, ahead of time, what shapes or colors they will use and yet their works all come together to comprise a whole, then I like to think of books—and particularly this one that sprang up quickly—as an evolution beyond what a single person might plan. A book evolves on the side of reception also: readers read in ways and places beyond what a single author might imagine or intend. Books as collaborative, eventful, citational, morphing entities.
Jill Magi is a writer, artist, critic, and educator working in text, image, and textile. She is the author of Threads (Futurepoem 2007), Torchwood (Shearsman 2008), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse 2011), Cadastral Map (Shearsman 2011), LABOR (Nightboat 2014), SIGN CLIMACTERIC (Hostile Books 2017), and a scholarly monograph on textimage hybridity entitled Pageviews/Innervisions (Rattapallax/Moving Furniture Press 2014). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Pheobe, Rivulet, and Best American Experimental Writing 2018. In October of this year Jill blogged for the Poetry Foundation, and in the spring of 2015 Jill wrote weekly commentaries for Jacket2 on “a textile poetics.” Other essays have appeared in The Edinburgh University Press Critical Medical Humanities Reader, The Force of What’s Possible: Accessibility and the Avant-garde, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, and The Eco-Language Reader. Jill has been awarded residencies as a writer with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace program, as a visual artist with the Brooklyn Textile Arts Center, and in 2010 Poets & Writers Magazine named her as among the most inspiring writers in the world. She has had solo shows with Tashkeel in Dubai, and with the Project Space Gallery at New York University Abu Dhabi. Currently Jill teaches in the literature/creative writing and visual arts programs at NYU Abu Dhabi where she joined the faculty in 2013.