Poetry for Southern California
Nelson Gary Guest Editorial
by Nelson Gary
A poet can survive everything but a misprint.—Oscar Wilde
Twin Volumes, my newest poetry book, took my life, but left me breathing. My writing process has almost always involved smoking cigarettes: paper bones stuffed with tobacco marrow. I’ve been working on the chain gang, but I do not continuously draw smoke from the burning bones. After taking two hits and brightening up the cherry, a drop of burning blood, beneath the snowy ash, I let the coffin nail release Lady Death as a whirling, tall, and curvaceous dancer from the corner of my lips or the round of the ashtray—smoke swirling ghostly as a Heraclitean strange attractor’s fractal follies—then I take two more drags, snuff it out, and spark up another bone, composing the symphony of the skeletal system, which now threatens my life with emphysema. “The psyche,” according to Heraclitus, “is a smoke-like substance of the finest particles.” Though this part of my process threatened to become the author of my death from the start to end in the creation of Twin Volumes—and continues to do so today—I was, as I am now, unafraid of my bodymind career coming to a premature end. I was, however, full of fear about achieving my objectives when I began to edit Twin Volumes. This included letting the results of my experimentation work without letting the laboratory or any of its activities show in the text, which is the unfortunate hallmark of experimental lit. The word was a higher priority to me than my own hide, but this has changed now that TV has a spine.
Before I wrote my way to even the first round of editing, I had composed far more pieces than the number that actually came to fill what is now TV. Every piece in the book and all of those that were cut from it had multiple versions. I can be won over to “first thought, best thought,” but, in the main, I believe in the discipline of revision. This does not meaningfully account for all of the versions of the poems, major sections, which form the twin epics. The numbered sections within poems are subsections. Perhaps, the differentiation between parts is best understood as major and minor chords. I believe that poetry, without instruments and/or singing, is the purest music. Without music, poetry is nothing as an art and quite little as a literary form.
I was inspired by the musical revolution of the DJ’s turntable becoming an instrument. This led to engineers and producers taking the studio over and away from musicians playing traditional instruments to create the period of electronic music that gave as much definition to global rave culture as jazz had to the culture of a past age. One of the characteristics, which typifies this era of electronic music, is that there are as many recorded versions of a number as there are in jazz, maybe more. As much as I love rave music/electronica, I love what killed it with a gritty, messy rawness. I gleefully embraced the lo-fi, do-it-yourself, garage rock revival. The White Stripes, who spearheaded this movement, placed the emphasis on individualism, especially their early albums, which have the production values of quality home recordings, whereas rave period electronic music, through sophisticated technology, placed it on the group at clubs where people could dance or chill. As a rhapsodist, while I theorized about what it would sound like if Mozart went punk in order to address these discordant times, which hold a cracked mirror to the Great Depression, I wanted my verse to bridge the qualities of these two musical forms: rave wave electronic music and garage rock.
The musicality of the poetry was far from my only concern as an editor. The book has a central plot that twists to turns of phrase delivered by multiple speakers with their particular points of view, which come from places of interest to the two main characters, hence subplots abound. The poetry contains an encyclopedia in and of itself, even without the allusions. In addition, TV is one book in an interrelated series of eight novels, two autofictions, and fifteen other poetry volumes, so its action had to be consistent with the other manuscripts. TV can be easily understood in full without knowledge of these other books. Of course, I had to edit grammar and spelling, too. As an editor, I did not become a character as I had through negative capability in the book in order to write the dramatic monologues of its speakers, who are definitely not me, even the adult males.
What I became was another person, a sharply dressed, gay samurai with a medical degree, so, from the beginning, I was more than a mere hunter bent on only survival while killing all the big game the poet had brought into the text. The content’s basic need for food was fulfilled by editing. I stripped the fur from all the caught wildlife, then I designed clothes. I sewed the material together one line at a time, sometimes, one word at a time—even one punctuation mark at a time. I made reading an individual poem like walking through a clothing boutique. Through the succession of pieces, the reader is transported to the cosmopolitan fashion district with its eateries at the throbbing heart of the city, which is Twin Volumes. Nevertheless, it’s a rough city; to say I wasn’t scared while editing—killing, weaving, and performing surgery—would be a lie.
Even though I had the desire for the text to possess a strong element of messy vitality, I became so terrified about making an error during the daunting task of editing that I fell into the abyss of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I had seven, highly qualified proofreaders for whom I am grateful, but their work did not stop me from burning in OCD hell during the first and second rounds of editing. I am blessed not to have a classical, clinical case of OCD, which is ongoing. I no longer have any symptoms of the hellish disorder characterized by fear and control.