Passion of the Slighted Chapbook

Once we become aware of something, we start to see it everywhere. The long-ignored thing, which existed but meant little to us, asserts itself with a vengeance, a passion of the slighted and overlooked.  

Thus my relationship with chapbooks, small book-objects, often handmade, that slide in your pocket, call to you whimsically because they’re cheap and they can.  

A panel at AWP literary conference sparked my appetite, reminding me of my days when I preferred indie records to corporate labels.  Last week when I uttered the words aloud – “How can I get into this world?” – it seems the chapbooks heard me and said, let’s give the chick a ride.  I sparkled to wonderful names such as Carrion Bloom, Eulalia, Small Orange, Sibling Rivalry, Ethelzine and my favorite name, Rinky Dinky.  

Immediately afterwards, I fell into a Webinar about the role of Jewish artists in Dada and Surrealism.  Jean Khalfa, professor at Cambridge, gave a wonderful lecture about outsider artists whose contributions and agitations were central to European modern movements.  In the First World War era, Romanian artists Samuel Rosenstock (Tristan Tzara) and Marcel Janco mocked and disrupted traditional art in small editions, disposable ephemera, etc., With ferocious wit and steely eye, they made Dada an underground force that shocked those stuck in a single language – “a minority wakes up a majority language.”  Isidore Goldstein (Isidore Isou), Moïse (Maurice) Lemaître, Benjamin Wechsler (Benjamin Fondane), and Salman Locker (Gherasim Luca) followed later, in the ‘40s, restlessly inventing vocabularies in the trenches of Surrealism, Surautomatism (Luca), existentialism (Fondane), Lettrism/Situationism (Isou). The work of these artist/thinkers has been rediscovered, visited with scholarly and public verve – I encourage anyone to go beyond this truncated listing to discover more.  

Finally– Paul Celan.  A little vellum popped up from Small Orange Press that recreates the world of Pierre Joris’ translation of “Todesfuge/Deathfugue,” Celan’s most famous poem.  (The recommendation came from Aviya Kushner’s “Being and Timelessness” substack.) Yet another example of a cultural migrant who was fierce about the recomposition of language (in this case German), leaving dominant linguistic forces in the wake.  

One quote floats from the lecture: “The totality of what is to be known allows anyone to create anything.” It’s scrawled in my notebook, separated from its “author,” a watchword of creative faith.

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