Issue 35, Final Fringe

On Poetic Objects and Poetic Economies

by Anna Lena Phillips Issue 28 10.31.2011

I hesitated to open the packet for a long time after I got it. It seemed too perfect, too exactly like the kind of treatment I’d dreamed of for poems. What if it wasn’t as I’d hoped? But now I pull the paper ends apart. The sound they make is luxuriant, slow—no tearing, just moving parts. I lift up the two folded sides, like unfolding a shirt. Centered inside this printed 11-by-14-inch sheet sits a little stack of cream-colored 5-by-7-inch cards. Most are letterpress printed with a single poem, the text slightly embossed. A few have images also. A thin strip of paper binds them all together. They rest in their neat stack on my desk, each a physical fact. Asking to be picked up, one by one, and read.

Since I first learned about them in college, I have loved broadsides. I heard about them first in their early context—single printed sheets distributed around 16th-century London, say, with gossip or news or a ballad. People still did this for poems, I read, except now they were more fine-art than news rag. The idea of making such a visible place for a poem, a beautiful, portable one, appealed to me. Not that I had seen one in person, or knew where one might find such things. Far away, letterpresses in Alabama and New York were rolling out text objects, but I dreamed in North Carolina, and the Internet was young.

Is a book like a room and a page like a meadow, a spot of ground? Fifteen years later, I still want a place for poetry that’s out in the open like that. My bookshelves burst with volumes of poetry. But when I think of how I’d like to be given a poem, I think of a page, a card, a sheet: something that reveals itself immediately, and is all of one piece, and that therefore demands all my attention.

As do the poems in Tuesday; An Art Project, which I’ve described above. I asked Jennifer S. Flescher, its originator and editor, what she thinks are the differences between poetry between covers and poetry on a flat sheet. “I feel like one of the things art publishing can and should do is offer a resting place for a work—a book or a poem or an image,” she wrote. “Poems are complex and need time and space. I hope that a card gives them a little more of that.” And: “My idea, too, was that they would be more easily shared. The poem is the same, of course. But isolated. Held up. Held.”

I hold a card that holds a poem. It is cradled and it is entirely visible. Holding a book, I don’t know what its contents are. It is a repository of secrets, a structure whose rooms can be viewed only one at a time. And holding a computer or other such device? The secrets multiply, and not always according to a good algorithm. But a single page reveals the poem’s single self.

Because poems are stored in two-dimensional space, they can quickly become invisible—especially on a desk that is also home to other, nonpoetical sheets of paper, especially when one has another desk at a day job that occupies most of one’s waking hours, which I do. Maybe this is why the biggest challenge I encounter as a writer is actually sitting down to do it. It is about paying attention. If I could think of the poems as objects, I said to a friend, a visual artist, this past spring, they would take up as much room as objects do in my mind, and then I would need fewer things in my life. Fewer artifacts waiting to become art.

For finished poems, my own or otherwise, this imagined objectivity can be made physical: The medium in which the poem is presented can escort it into the world of things. Over my writing life I have tried this repeatedly. Because I am not first a visual thinker, and yet have a discerning and particular sense of what I like, rendering poems visually is always time-consuming for me. Which medium, what colors, which image, which font? The results are like poems themselves—some better than others, all linked to a particular time. If they are not perfect, they nonetheless exist.

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Anna Lena Phillips

Anna Lena Phillips

Poetry Editor

Anna Lena Phillips’s  writing appears in BlazeVOX, Open Letters Monthly, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and others. She is the recipient of the Southern Women Writers Conference’s 2012 Emerging Writers Award in poetry, a 2012 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Contest award, a 2011 Emerging Artist grant from the Durham County Arts Council, and 2008 and 2009 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prizes. She has been awarded residencies at Penland School of Crafts and the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities. She received an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in 2006. Her projects and pursuits are catalogued at One such project, a letterpress-printed, pocket-sized guide to poetic forms, is slated for release in 2013. Anna Lena is a founding editor of Fringe.