How to Draw Tornadoes

How to Draw Tornadoes
Michael Darcy
2021

8.5 × 10.75 × 1 in. closed
116 pages
Case-bound, sewn on tapes
Laser printing

Front cover of How to Draw Tornadoes, with a school portrait inset into a full-bleed photo of a tree

“Tis education forms the common mind, Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.”

Alexander Pope, Epistles to Several Persons

In How to Draw Tornadoes, Michael Darcy explores his early education through the longstanding analogy between the growth of a tree and the development of a child. All puns intended, the memoir is rooted in two incidents from elementary school and then branches out into a reflection on community, diversity, and epistemology. Education, it seems, has not evolved as much as tree science since the time of Alexander Pope. Darcy wonders what education might look like if it reflected how we now know trees flourish — by cooperating and communicating rather than competing. How to Draw Tornadoes adopts these values in form, content, and structure. It demonstrates how artists’ books can produce knowledge that challenges binaries and embraces diverse perspectives and modes of expression. Perhaps Darcy’s progressive vision is a return to an earlier time, before Alexander Pope and the Enlightenment, when John Heywood first warned us not to miss the forest for the trees.

Darcy begins How to Draw Tornadoes by recounting how an elementary school teacher objected to his scribbling and taught him the “correct” way to draw a tornado. This absurd intolerance for individual expression is, ironically, part of a hyper-competitive, individualistic education system where students compete against one another on daily multiplication quizzes. It is against this competitive, intolerant, shame-based pedagogy — in school but also in family and society more broadly — that Darcy poses his alternative. Now free from narrow-minded schoolteachers, Darcy transgresses all manner of boundaries in How to Draw Tornadoes. The case-bound book’s relatively strait-laced cover gives way to colored papers, fold-outs, hidden flaps, die-cuts, collaged elements, and sewn designs. Most notably, tornadoes are scribbled into pages with a sewing machine.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: sewn, scribbled tornadoes cover a photo of a tree (verso) and a collage of cut-out football players doing push-ups (recto)

Alongside his own stories, Darcy borrows from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and a Radiolab episode about the ways trees cooperate to benefit the forest. The imagery is also largely appropriated. Family photos accompany Darcy’s opening reflections on his childhood while a variety of found photos of trees illustrate the latter half of the book. Other found visuals, from family trees to diagrams of linear perspective, speak to the long entanglement of education, art, and rationalism. Darcy’s tissue of texts embraces multiple authorship, even as his sewn embellishments assert an expressive individuality. Acknowledging the forest does not mean neglecting the tree.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: botanical illustrations and text printed on goldenrod paper (verso) and violet paper (recto) with die-cuts revealing alternate colored paper below

Recognizing the community around the individual means more than crediting collaborators. Darcy paints a stark picture of the white, religious, masculine milieu in which he was raised. In family photos, men tote guns, wave flags, and play football. Perhaps the family trees, Catholic school ephemera, and handwriting guides call for an in-depth psychoanalytical interpretation, but it seems sufficient to note that Darcy’s chosen medium of the sewing machine is itself a rejection of heteropatriarchal gender norms. He also quotes Sabrina Imbler’s article on “botanical sexism,” which explains how USDA guidance to plant only male trees in cities backfired and worsened allergies since there were no females to absorb the excess pollen — literally toxic masculinity.

Darcy leverages the analogy between people and trees to erode boundaries between nature and culture more broadly: human perspective and bumblebee vision, classroom hierarchies versus rhizomatic root systems. Such connections are more than metaphors, they reveal deep structures that shape how we perceive and understand the world. The book itself is biomorphic. Spreads are composed to highlight its bilateral symmetry, and an image of hexagonal honeycombs echoes the book’s coarse halftone screens. Darcy’s wit emerges in these playful visual sequences and juxtapositions, though there is a hint of humor in his otherwise earnest writing. The point is not to correctly decode every reference but rather to see the interconnectedness of things and the value of multiple perspectives. The written narrative drives the reader forward in a linear manner, but the imagery prompts additional readings in no such order.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: almost life-size pair of hands play cats cradle with string that is sewn loosely through the book, pulled tight by the reader's hands

How to Draw Tornadoes doesn’t just tell the reader to embrace diversity and cooperation, it shows the benefits of doing so. The artists’ book is polyvocal, multi-modal, non-linear, and interactive. Its narrative is personal yet relatable, educational but entertaining. It appeals emotionally and intellectually and engages multiple senses and ways of knowing. This flexibility is not because the book is an empty vessel. It is because Darcy understands how the medium fits into the systems he studies. Books can create and communicate — but also limit — knowledge. Darcy harnesses the affordances of the book, but also works against its conventions to convey his message.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: a full-bleed black and white photo of a forest with sewn roots embellishing the surface

Fittingly, Darcy’s sewing proves especially challenging to the medium. The book’s sewn binding and expressive stitching erase the boundary between structure and content. So too does it abolish the page as a surface; sewing makes marks in and not on the page. The turn of the page no longer conjures a blank slate but highlights the continuity of the thread, integrating the verso and recto. This emphasis on the material presence of the page sharpens the irony of paper printed with photographs of trees. To celebrate the wisdom of forests, How to Draw Tornadoes has had to kill a few trees. Does this discredit the book? If we take Darcy seriously, it shows how deeply nature and culture are entangled, and how indebted we are to those other beings who make our work possible.

To My Unborn Child

To My Unborn Child
Wen-Li Chen
2018

7 × 9 × 1 in. closed
296 pages
Sewn hardcover with exposed spine
Digital printing
Edition of 5

To My Unborn Child, front cover. Black bookcloth with not text.

As the title implies, To My Unborn Child is an epistolary work ostensibly addressed to Chen’s then-unborn child. It addresses concerns shared by many expecting parents as well as some particular to Chen’s own inheritance as a multi-ethnic Taiwanese (Kavalan and Sakilaya) and Han Chinese woman living in the United States. The stakes of these personal and political concerns are deeply felt, from the pangs of guilt and loss that come with the slow cultural erasure of assimilation to the threat of sudden political annihilation that characterizes Taiwan’s precarious existence as a democracy. To My Unborn Child corresponds with a 2018 exhibition of the same name, but the book is very much a cohesive artistic expression in itself. Indeed, Chen shows how well suited the book form is for exploring identity — fragmented, contradictory, always in flux.

To My Unborn Child is, in fact, a version of an existing genre: the Zupu, or genealogy book. It may also, following the exhibition, include elements of fiction as well as memoir. In Chen’s handling, this family book weaves together text, image, and material from a variety of sources. Family archives (photos, correspondence, family trees) are paired with a primer on the history of Taiwan and the text from a public monument commemorating the Kalyawan Battle, in which indigenous Taiwanese rose up against Han occupiers during the Qing Dynasty. In this regard, the epistolary framework is a clever conceit, allowing Chen to introduce readers to the history and geopolitics of Taiwan in a way that is didactic but not condescending. And addressing the reader in second person makes the more personal content especially powerful.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: timeline of Taiwan history. Recto: excerpt from a Kavalan song.

From these variegated sources, the book is organized into five sections: (Your) people, (Your) culture, (Your) family, (Your) name, (Your) future. While the content of each section differs, they follow a similar pattern. Each begins with a single word or phrase to set the tone or context; however, some words are transliterated not translated, leaving an English-speaking reader to research or go forth without guidance — either of which reflect the fragmented, discontinuous nature of memory, inheritance, and identity. Having studied foreign languages and literature, Chen understands the feelings of distance or belonging that come with language and uses these devices to modulate the book’s level of intimacy and emotional register.

Each section also features a pair of paragraphs in English and Chinese. The English texts are prose with a memoiristic, almost confessional tone, while the Chinese side is more poetic. The Chinese writing is untranslated and the relationship between the two is not always linear. (For the sake of reviewing the book, I relied on a friend, Kaixi Burns, to translate the poetry when it became clear that Google Lens wouldn’t do justice to the quality of Chen’s writing.) Family photographs, faded and distressed to anonymize their subjects and perhaps speak to memory and loss, and other family documents also appear in each section. Text, especially handwriting, also operates as an index of absent presence (and further demonstrates the feeling of connectedness that language can produce, even untranslated).

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: English memoir with Chinese poem, side by side. Recto: A flying seagull casts a shadow on the beach below, the image is rotated 90 degrees.

The book’s five sections are separated by spreads of full-bleed black, but there are also elements that carry through and lend continuity to the reading experience. These throughlines are contemporary color photographs with oblique connections to the main text. For example, what appear to be stills from a video of a seagull flying along a beach repeat throughout the book in different configurations and orientations. These eventually coalesce in a grid on a single spread, radically collapsing their timeframe. Playing with timescale is a key feature of To My Unborn Child, which leaps from a history lesson beginning in 1632 to a line-by-line transcription of a mundane phone call. Never mind the sense of futurity, the unborn baby, which underpins the project.

This temporal play makes the book’s own timing critical, and here Chen displays impressive sensitivity to the formal devices that pace the reader. Some spreads feature perfectly balanced typography that invites the reader to sit with a text, while others propel the reader forward with dynamic fragments that require resolution. The result is a book where the turn of a page is never predictable, but nor is it random. Chen advances the narrative and introduces new ideas using variations on central themes, unifying the reading experience without tying a bow with each thread.

However, on the subject of timescale, I must confess I have buried the lede. What distinguishes To My Unborn Child is the overwhelming majority of the book’s 296 pages belong to an extended cinematic sequence, where Chen’s interest in film and photographic theory is on full display. Not quite a flipbook, the motion-blurred interlude shows a single family photo of three figures dancing, with the hand holding the photograph visible. It is not clear whether the hand or the camera is moving — perhaps both. At times the viewer relates more to the original image in the photograph, other times to the photograph as an object (a physical record in someone’s hand), or even to the hand holding the photograph.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread: a full-bleed image of a hand holding a photograph. The photo shows three figures dancing.

This strategy of reanimating the photograph as more than a representation, with a keen sense of its experience in the book form, illustrates what Chen calls moving from, “medium into material and back into becoming another medium.” By harnessing this transformation, the artists’ book can integrate disparate materials and temporalities, like installation art but within a single object. This allows Chen to enact the transformation that is also inherent in photography itself. As her artist’s statement notes:

“The moment of taking a picture is also the evidence of its passing. Image making attempts to reengage the trace left in an image, the plasticity found in reorganizing memory and intention. However, no amount of altering can completely erase that initial sense of passing, death as a picture.”

In To My Unborn Child, heritage is always haunted by loss. Whether political, cultural, or personal, no inheritance is complete. Nor can one predict what gets handed down or how it might manifest in the future. Against this uncertainty, Chen embraces multiple modes of memorialization — monuments, names, family trees, photographs, letters, stories, and poems. The result is an intimate look at the artist’s complicated relationship to her language(s), culture(s), and family. No doubt this examination was sincerely motivated by her immanent motherhood, but it is ultimately the reader who plays the role of Chen’s unborn child. Thus, we can add art to the list above, another way to process and share one’s cultural heritage. At the same time, art carries forward a piece of its creator, not unlike a child.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: a distressed black and white photo shows two children. Recto: English memoir and Chinese poem, side by side.

The need to keep alive connections to family and culture is all the more important at a time of overlapping refugee crises and cultural erasures. Some of the most poignant moments in To My Unborn Child center on the profound disconnect that accompanies emigration, on trying to keep in touch with an aging grandparent, on worrying about visiting because of travel restrictions, on feeling guilty for leaving in the first place,. Chen uses the artists’ book to convey the ambivalence of her experience, its multiple timescales and layers of history. As stories like hers become even more common, the need for representations that embrace complexity and specificity will only grow. To My Unborn Child is a model for synthesizing personal and political histories, even as it acknowledges the inevitability of loss and change.

a story, the truth, and a screenplay

a story, the truth, and a screenplay
Ruby Figueroa
2017

5.125 × 8.25 in.
96 pages
Long stitch softcover
Offset insides with letterpress covers

Cover of "a story, the truth, and a screenplay". Metallic title text on a colorful abstract background.

I’m a sucker for a character that breaks the fourth wall. The camera shifts, eyes meet through the screen, and we are brought in on real-time reactions and feelings. That slicing of time — cut! — interjected with an aside, a quick quip or snide remark shatters. It can also transform: morphing into a dreamy Vaseline-on-the-lens flashback … or better yet, a reimagined fantasy of what could have been. These tropes of teen-driven movies and sitcoms? We get them all in the memoir-as-artists’-book, a story, the truth, and a screenplay, by Ruby Figueroa.

Inside spread of "a story, the truth, and a screenplay" with conventional typography in black ink.

Figueroa delivers a poignant narrative in four sections, woven together by a keen aesthetic treatment of photographs and screenplay interjections. Overall, the book bears markers of a trade paperback in its production and scale: tidily bound and offset printed. Unique letterpress-printed covers usher the reader in with roller-washy, lakeshore lapping tidelines in hues of magenta, peach, teal, maybe even hints of Chicago common brick (at least on this reader’s copy) and pink, directed towards the use of color in the interior.

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a conventional layout; on the recto a typewriter-style screenplay in magenta.

While most of the book is set in a black serif typeface with a traditional book page layout, the addition of fluorescent pink ink in the typewriter face Courier, formatted like a screenplay, and vivid full-bleed photographic images in duotones of that same fluorescent pink and a peachy-orange ink activate the jump-cut of flashback or fantasy. Memory and nostalgia are described bluntly by the author throughout, with a hazy honesty of knowing what was, remembering it another way, and wishing it to be. These interjected pages, both the photographic images and the pink screenplay texts, feel like they’ve been applied with a swipe of the finger — a uniform Instagram-style filter through which to process disparate information.

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a pink and peach duotone photo of the artist and sister as children. The recto reads, "part one: la embajada"

Figueroa breaks these aesthetic decisions down in what was, to me, the most self-aware and least compelling part of the project. In this last, most reflective and experimental section, there is a concerted effort to explain the reasoning for the duotone and the pink that feels like a heavy-handed artists’ statement. Up to this moment, the reader is generously left to connect with and follow the sentimental narrative of Figueroa’s coming-of-age story with those interjections as guiding signposts. The didactic explanation of intent is understandable considering the book, presented alongside a series of monoprints, was Figueroa’s thesis project as a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Interdisciplinary Book, Paper, and Print Arts from Columbia College Chicago.

With or without pointed direction from the artist, the day-glo filters over the screenplay skits and images are key to appreciating the book. These photographic images act as stages: cinematic in their dimensions, and I hold them in my vision with a Ken Burns effect, panning and zooming as I read the corresponding sections. This parallax view, the images as still-shots and visual echoes that resonate, joins the duotone images in a list of duos, pairs: Figueroa tells us this is a story about Ruby and their sister, about Ruby and their mother, about Ruby’s mother and father, the dichotomy of growing up in Humboldt Park and moving to a Chicago suburb, about Ruby as a first-generation Mexican-American person, but ultimately it is a story about Ruby-then and Ruby-now. 

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a pink and peach duotone photo of a rainbow over a Chicago intersection. The recto reads, "part 4: summer 2016"

Am I brushing past the very meat of the story? Maybe so. The ways that Figueroa shares, divulges, confesses, dishes, and leads the reader through their evolving understanding of self (selves?) is so intimate and generous that to sum it up in any way feels reductive. We follow Ruby reflecting on childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood through the lenses of family, sexuality, relationships, home, and community. The screenplay snippets speak to the underlying presence of media geared toward teens and tweens from the late-1990s through mid-2000s, and the prescriptive ways that it set expectations for “coming of age,” gender norms, and sexuality. Comedy of this era was, at its worst, gag-driven with a gross-out vibe, but at its best delivered with the dead-pan, eye-rolling attitude that Figueroa carries throughout. When the diaristic qualities of Figueroa’s memoir narrative become too saccharine, mistily rose-tinted, or deeply shrouded in regret, Figueroa is the first to interrupt themself with a clarifying parenthetical, sometimes a direct apology to the reader or just a quick “(barf).” 

It’s these moments of levity that bring me back to the on-screen character who breaks the fourth wall. Figueroa’s angle is less a coddling “Dear reader,” and more an elbow jab at your side, “Get a load of this, reader…” This gesture of familiarity allows the reader to become entangled in the project, yielding one as of yet overlooked duo: Ruby and the reader. From the onset in the book’s preface, we are led into the narrative with a tight grip from Figueroa delivering a warning that most of what we are about to read is true, but some stories are victim to “false memories and dramatization. With this awareness, Figueroa actively cultivates a relationship between Ruby and the reader built upon trust. That trust is reflected in a genuine gratitude extended to the reader for participating in this project. Like a healthy relationship, there is a balanced exchange here between all parties: Figueroa, Ruby, and the reader.

The Circus

The Circus
Tara Homasi
Pinsapo Press / Publication Studio
2019

9 × 12.25 × 0.7 in.
190 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing

Front cover of The Circus; a line drawing of an archer below the title text

Tara Homasi coaxed The Circus out of an existing book, The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album. If Tom Phillips’ seminal redacted book, A Humument, is impressive because the original book is mediocre, obscure and visually bland, The Circus takes on the opposite challenge. The Circle of Life is a large-format, color photobook of rituals from around the world. The text that accompanies these emotionally charged images is peppered with quotes from the likes of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, the introduction is by Gabriel García Márquez and the afterword is by Peter Matthiessen. Homasi’s challenge is not making something of nothing, but rather making something new and deeply personal from this wellspring of universal themes.

The Circus, inside spread; text and image of a circumcision on verso, text and image of baptism on recto

She takes on this enormous task (scratching her work into existence with hundreds of blades) during a period of isolation and malaise. In the book’s introduction, she describes witnessing the world without being able to act in it as “the aquarium,” and turns to redaction as a way of removing layers of mediation and reconnecting outside the glass. The book chronicles this process with handwritten date stamps and occasional commentary that mix the artist’s real life into the narrative she creates. By documenting its own creation, The Circus draws a parallel not only between Homasi’s practice and the reader’s experience but also many of the rituals in the original book.

The Circus, inside spread; finger paint obscures the full-bleed spread

By retaining a close relationship with the original book, The Circus is able to examine its own book-ness. Homasi is especially playful with the book’s peritextual elements. She manipulates the original page numbers while preserving their actual order, declares in the front matter that “no part of this book may be used whatsoever,” and awards herself “the National Boo.” She also cleverly brings peritext into the main text. For example, she can use the repeated word “photograph” to address themes of mediation and memory, since it appears in image credits on almost every page of the original book. Even her mode of redaction, a combination of scraping ink off the page and adding her own media to the surface, demonstrates an interest in the material book. The three-dimensionality of each page is as important as their combined sequence.

Of course, working by redaction results in one major difference between The Circus and its source text: The Circus has less text. This shifts the balance between text and image and results in a number of possible reading experiences. As a continuous narrative, the text carries the reader from page to page quite quickly. The images flash into the reader’s subconscious like the dreams and memories they pair with. Focus on the images though, and the text fragments into cryptic captions. The book merits both approaches; each of its complex images would hold their own on a gallery wall, and the text is varied but cohesive.

The Circus, inside spread; partly-redacted quote from C.G. Jung with image

Their individual strengths aside, Homasi seems most interested in using the book form to orchestrate the interplay of text and image. She disrupts edges and margins from the original book, sometimes fusing photographs across the gutter or covering an entire spread with full-bleed imagery. Elsewhere, she relies on the minimalist impact of redaction: a stark white page where only “the removal of the clitoris” remains. Homasi also plays with spoken versus written language. She extends a “woohoo” across two pages of the letter O, with a result decidedly more haunted than celebratory. Later, she encourages the reader to “read this out loud in front of two adults” and promises “things will happen.”

The Circus, inside spread; altered image on verso and recto plus redacted text and handwritten note on verso

Deconstructing visual and verbal communication is key to overcoming the existential isolation that motivated the book. Homasi writes: “Language is my second language, imagery is my first. When I combine the two, I connect to the world.” If Homasi’s problem is disconnection, language is both cause and cure. The Circus grapples with whether we can overcome cultural and individual difference and whether what we have in common is something to be celebrated or feared. This plays out on personal and political terrain. Homasi alludes to her own divorce throughout the text and refers to specific family members. Yet the date stamps on every page remind the reader that the then-US-based, Iranian artist’s time in “the aquarium” coincides with Trump’s presidency and Middle East travel bans.

Reading today, it is hard to believe The Circus wasn’t created in response to Covid-19, but Homasi isn’t prophetic so much as strategic. The Circus retains enough of the universality celebrated in The Circle of Life to assure a connection with readers (Jung and Campbell weren’t wrong about everything, after all). Perhaps most telling are the parallels between Homasi’s own practice and the rituals she redacts. From photographs of people around the world painting bodies, shaving hair, cutting skin, and telling stories, Homasi paints and scrapes and cuts her own new narrative. Homasi shows how individuals cope, through redacting and amending, with the scripted lives they inherit.

Terra Nullius

Terra Nullius
Christopher Kardambikis
2020

7.5 × 10.25 in. closed
50 pages
Binding: Plastic strip fastener
Risograph

Terra Nullius front cover. The title and artist are centered in a black and gold geometric abstraction.

I try not to talk about William Blake. I love his work, but I find his outsized role in the genealogy of artists’ books to be of little use for contemporary criticism. So, when I opened Terra Nullius by Christopher Kardambikis, I shuddered. Its cosmological motifs and inky, atmospheric pages are positively Blake-esque. Flipping through, I came to a spread with a pair of dividers on the verso; perhaps just this once there is a good reason to invoke the dubious originator of artists’ books. Sure enough, the recto opposite folded out to reveal a hidden image – Blake’s Newton – rendered as a mural on the side of a building. But what does Isaac Newton, or William Blake for that matter, have to do with the decline of rust belt Pennsylvania?

In Terra Nullius, Kardambikis returns to his hometown of New Castle, PA. He weaves together family and local histories in short sections of prose, interspersed with two modes of image-making. In the first, spreads of noisy black ink recapitulate Blake’s innovative printmaking in Risograph. Against this grainy night sky, line drawings of mysterious symbols pop with overprinted colors, not unlike the watercolor on Blake’s print. These drawings seem elemental, invoking ice, water, fire, and electricity, but without an indication of scale that would pin them down as specific objects. Other drawings in this mode seem like sketches and leftovers, not the building blocks of the universe, but of Kardambikis’ own process.

Terra Nullius inside spread, depicting a glowing filament/firework symbol against a grainy black background.

The second sort of images are photographic, and, together with the book’s structure, unlock the connection between Terra Nullius and Newton. Kardambikis’ photographs are presented as straight documentary shots of New Castle. Each black and white image is printed with a black border and centered on a recto. Yet these conventional, almost banal images, conceal a wondrous explosion of speculative weirdness. The book is bound with folded fore-edges, and only the rectos with photographs are cut short to unfold further. Each of these hidden scenes is grounded with a repetition of the photograph above, but distorted, printed in wild colors, and augmented with a collage of more mystical elements. Once the reader has the pattern down, the drawings opposite the photograph offer a hint of what might lie beneath. And so, we return to the dividers, the building, and Newton.

Terra Nullius inside spread. On the verso a drawing of dividers, on the recto a photo of a building.

For Blake, Newton stood for the myopic rationality of science. The motif of the dividers repeats in Blake’s character, Urizen – the bearded, old man who stands for reason and law. Urizen is a Satanic figure who abstracts and constrains humankind through law and convention, disconnecting us from spirit and imagination. It is this dissatisfaction with the reality that has been imposed, and a belief that art can overcome it, that Kardambikis shares with Blake. He writes:

“The town of New Castle, Pennsylvania circumscribes several spaces simultaneously … The space of the small town, worn thin but cut with well worn grooves by daily rituals. Grooves that carry a flow of memory and people that, in turn, carry a weight.

The second space is speculative. A site in which one can rearrange and examine the component parts to conjure, if however briefly, possibilities.”

Terra Nullius, three-page spread with dividers on the left and Blake's "Newton" in a mural on the right.

The phrase “daily ritual” shows the ambivalence of the grooves Kardambikis sees. Ritual can rekindle the spiritual, but it can also lapse into convention. He returns to New Castle with fresh eyes, seeing a story beyond – or beneath – the dominant narrative of rust belt decline. This alternate reality manifests literally in the drawings and distortions unfolded beneath the book’s conventional photographs. Such a reimagining is not reserved for artists, though. Kardambikis recalls cruising the town square, “the diamond,” as a teenager, driving around with the hope that something new might happen. Nothing ever did, but cruising as a ritual is a powerful shared exercise in imagining another reality.

In fact, Kardambikis seems ambivalent about the role of art in such an endeavor. The dividers that symbolize conformity are also the tool of a bookbinder. And it is in a book of brass that Urizen inscribes his laws for humankind. Even today, when we “throw the book” at someone, we invoke the full force of our legal system. Terra Nullius itself is a legal principle, although the book does little to explore the term’s colonial connotations. Like the grooves of daily ritual, a book is a site of freedom and restraint.

Terra Nullius three-page spread, with a fireball on the left and a distorted traffic circle on the right.

Terra Nullius keeps these aspects in tension and demonstrates that neither is absolute. The documentary images that serve as a foil for the speculative scenes they conceal are themselves highly mediated. Their grainy Riso printing is emphasized by the noisy halftone patterns that encroach on the fore-edge of each page. It is only by convention that the black and white images seem somehow more realistic than the bright colors beneath them. Thus, the binary built into the book’s structure is blurred by its print production.

Rather than critiquing the book form, these complications remind the reader what we are capable of. If we can read – and enjoy – a complex book like Terra Nullius, then we already know how to rearrange and conjure new possibilities. The New Castles Kardambikis imagines are his own, and so too will each reader bring their own interpretations to his narrative. Reading isn’t so different than driving through a small town. There are rules to follow, and structures to guide us, but we can choose to cruise the diamond and see if something else is possible.

Convalescence

Convalescence
Grant Evans
Adversary Editions
2020

6 × 9 in. closed
110 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital offset

Front cover of Convalescence: torn title text over a background of torn and sewn Xerox transfer prints

Convalescence is the first book by musician and visual artist, Grant Evans. It is far from the only artists’ book about grief, yet it stands out as particularly dark and gritty. Not only because it grapples with addiction and murder, but because Evans metaphorizes the process of grief itself in such visceral, embodied ways that the book could easily be classified as horror. Death is more than simply gruesome, though. The book begins with two epigraphs, one from The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the other is the haiku, “Bashō’s Death Poem.” This Eastern perspective is baked into the structure of the book, which works through intermediate states and cycles of repetition rather than linear development. With this intentional approach to non-linear narrative and Evans’ commitment to analog processes and found materials, whether audio or visual, Convalescence engages more deeply with the book as a medium than its paperback production first suggests. The resulting insights extend beyond the book, illuminating media, memory and mourning.

The opening scene, which repeats throughout the book, places two characters – a narrator and their interlocutor – in a spare, concrete room that recalls the setting of Beckett’s Endgame. The narrator recedes after prompting their companion’s long, vivid reflections, until the reader nearly forgets that the unnamed man is not speaking directly to them. Even in this strange liminal space, where it is quite possible that both characters are dead, the primary narrator feels less embodied: a visitor rather than an inhabitant. The nested structure distances the narrator (and reader) from the horror of each story, but the line between characters blurs in the dream-like environment. After all, it was Scheherazade, not Aladdin, who was really in danger, suspended between life and death by nothing more than a story.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso conventional paragraphs are interrupted by blank spaces. The recto includes a black and white photo of a decaying dock and text redacted by a black rectangle.

Indeed, each time the reader returns to this concrete room, it feels less able to contain the stories that are told there. The room continues to ground the reader between forays into dreams or drugs or memories or the supernatural, but the safe space slowly crumbles. The passage literally erodes through redaction, its meaning and emphasis shifting with each new cycle. The repetition begins to feel like a feature of the protagonists’ nightmares, instead of a respite from them. Haunted hospitals, unending roads, and uncanny humanoids recur more in the mundane manner of bad dreams – or grief – rather than the revolution of some karmic wheel. Nevertheless, a progression emerges from this cyclical, entropic structure. Convalescence, after all, implies healing. Returning to earlier incarnations of the repeated, redacted scenes is rewarding, though Evans avoids a neat resolution.

Instead, Evans revels in the physicality of his narrative. Redacted text leaves gaps in the space of the page, as do the silences transcribed from found audio. Elsewhere, the audio transcriptions are typeset to recall their origin on tape. A twisted loop of magnetic tape makes an appearance as well, further emphasizing the material qualities of memory and storytelling. Blank pages and black pages remind the reader that the whole book itself is a physical information technology, not unlike the tape it contains.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso a photograph of a magnetic tape forms a twisted circle in the middle of an otherwise blank page. The recto contains a poetic text with large gaps where a longer text has been redacted.

Evans also takes the opportunity to play with the slippage between these modes of recording. Flies are a recurring motif, sometimes appearing in a transcribed, “[buzzing].” These interjections visually interrupt the reading just as the sound might on a tape. Sometimes, though, the flies appear as “[dead flies]” arranged in a tape-like band. Their incessant buzzing rises above the hiss and pop of the tape before one realizes that, of course, dead flies make no sound. Convalescence achieves a messy synesthesia that immerses the reader deeply in each nested story and pushes the limits of how ink on paper can activate senses beyond vision. Clearly, Evans is interested in the book as a medium, but Convalescence is concerned with the idea of a medium in nearly every sense.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso a vertical band of bracketed text repeats the phrase "dead flies" over a background of fragmented typographic elements. The recto features a sparse poetic narrative spread over a mostly blank page.

Medium: The material or form used by an artist. A book, for example.

Medium: The middle quality or state between two extremes. As in the state between life and death, between sleep and wakefulness. As in a reader seamlessly drifting between dreams and reality, memory and hallucination. As in the flat feeling between a high and a low.

Medium: A person claiming to communicate between the dead and the living. As in a séance with a Ouija board. As in a narrator in conversation with a deceased interlocutor. As in the very book that brings a reader in contact with that narrator.

Medium: A form of storage for information, such as 35mm film or magnetic tape, found and transcribed and redacted and embellished in a book. The information – such as Muzak, the buzzing of a fly or a desperate voicemail – may be recorded in the medium by almost any sort of energy.

Medium: Agency; a means of doing something. As in grieving, apologizing, or driving endlessly without moving forward.

Medium: The substance in which an organism lives or is cultured. As in language. As in addiction. As in trauma.

Convalescence inside spread. Conventional book typography is heavily redacted beneath black rectangles. The recto is almost entirely blacked out.

The media in Convalescence are finite, imperfect and unstable modes of recording and accessing information. From the slow decay of a cassette tape to the destructive process of toner transfer print, Evans complicates the line between inscription and erasure. Such considerations are perhaps inherent to the book form, but Convalescence address memory itself. Evans posits healing as a process of both remembering and forgetting. The two are linked inextricably in a cycle of return and redaction, progress and loss.

By combining highly specific, immersive details with chance operations from found materials and destructive processes, Convalescence shows that the universal dimensions of loss transcend the particularities of any one circumstance. The details change, but the structure – the process – remains. Of all the media Evans investigates, it is the book that is able to hold all of this together: content and structure, linear and non-linear progression, erasure and inscription. The book is a blueprint for processing grief, and the timing couldn’t be better.

The Marathon Poet

The Marathon Poet
Åke Hodell
Translated by Fia Backström
Edited by Kira Josefsson
2020

Ugly Duckling Presse
5.25 × 8.25 in. closed
150 pages
Perfect binding
Offset

The Marathon Poet front cover, with a black and white image of the author in a racing bib.

Åke Hodell (1919–2000) was many things: poet, pacifist, anarchist, visual artist, composer, razor-sharp satirist, and one-time fighter pilot. In The Marathon Poet (Maratonpoeten in the original Swedish), first published in 1981 and newly translated into English by Fia Backström, Hodell presents every side of himself in a heady blend of self-mythologizing and self-deprecation.

The Marathon Poet is a difficult book to describe or categorize because it steadfastly refuses to do only one thing. It could be called autofiction in verse or an artists’ book focused on photography and collage, but it also offers up various pseudo-historical accounts, a dinner menu, and an opera composed primarily of the names of cars. With this crush of ever-changing forms, Hodell presents us with both an unconventionally intimate self-portrait and a vicious dissection of cultural myths: this book is the overflowing stream of his funny, inventive, and righteously angry consciousness.

The Marathon Poet pages 90-91, featuring a "poetic menu"

Fia Backström’s facsimile translation provides not only the text, but also the original imagery and layout of Hodell’s book, and gives some context for the English-language audience with a thoughtful introduction and a glossary explaining Hodell’s intertextual references. Her contextualization also makes apparent her reasons for translating an obscure avant-garde Swedish art-poetry volume from the early eighties today: the poet’s “lifelong militant commitment against white supremacy in all its forms, whether it be the Nazi[s] … or Nixon’s ‘law and order’ administration.” The resurgence of overtly fascist ideology creates an unfortunate parallel between the world Hodell lampooned in 1981 and the one we’re currently living in.

Publisher Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, of which The Marathon Poet is the thirtieth publication, was created to bring the out-of-print, forgotten, and never-before-translated to a wider audience. Between Hodell’s status as a relative unknown in the English-speaking world, his frequent allusions to the Swedish experimental poetry scene and the country’s history and culture more generally, and his penchant for blending fact and fiction, Backström’s remarks are essential to making the work as accessible as it is. She does not overexplain or heavily annotate, which might go against the confrontational spirit of the work; she gives readers only what they need to experience The Marathon Poet for themselves.

The main narrative of The Marathon Poet centers on a fictional foot race between Swedish poets, in which Hodell finds himself the sole competitor after a sobriety test disqualifies all of his fellows. During the race, the poet forgets to breathe, undergoes several hallucinatory out-of-body experiences, visits a couple doctors and restaurants, and encounters figures from throughout history and myth: Virgil, Aphrodite, a stuffy politician named Napoleon, and several of Hodell’s friends and contemporaries.

The Marathon Poet, pages 34-35, with lines from “Episode Three” and a photograph of Hodell

This absurd story, presented in nine “episodes,” is intercut with brief, apocryphal creation myths for some of Hodell’s earlier works. In “From the Memoirs of Cerberus,” Hodell’s earlier poetry/“verbal brainwash” book presentarms is said to have been written while Hodell was in hell. He only returned to our world because his fellow sufferers “begged Cerberus to throw me out of hell and never again let me back in” (59). By the end, the eponymous mythological beast not only releases Hodell from damnation, but agrees to become his publisher.

While Hodell’s ideas and delivery are funny, heavily influenced by vaudeville theater and often possessing the same raucous energy as the best Monty Python sketches, he is interested in more than making the reader laugh. A major throughline of The Marathon Poet, and his body of work as a whole, is a radically anti-militarist and anti-nationalist stance. While the stories, poems, collages, and photographs that make up the book vary in content and composition, they almost all attack the military, imperialism, and conformity more generally.

This near-constant focus on war, violence, and the greed and social structures that cause them drives drastic tonal shifts throughout the work. “Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s Military Hat,” the partially-true tale of another Swedish poet living briefly in the United States, begins with a fantastical and relatively cheerful letter from Almqvist to his wife back home and gradually devolves into a cruel, frenetic argument between Almqvist and the owner of the boarding house where he resides, interspersed with brutal depictions of the violence upon which America was built: 

Eighty bloodied heads
were displayed as a spectacle
on the streets of New Amsterdam
where the governor’s mother kicked them like footballs.
These events will recur. Go home, stranger.
There is no hope for this country.

Like much effective satire, Hodell’s pieces sometimes make for difficult reading: just behind or beside each witty observation is a more fundamentally disturbing truth. Even the comparatively lighter sections of verse on the fictional marathon confront existential dread, the limits of the human body, and the influence of militarism and violence in everyday culture. It is in the uncertain space between the joke and the tragedy that Hodell is most at home.

Just as he balances a variety of tones and uses them to create meaning in conjunction with and in opposition to each other, he juxtaposes and blends the visual and textual elements of each piece. Hodell regularly worked in collage both before and during The Marathon Poet, irreverently and effectively mashing up not only disparate images, but various art forms. In one section, a musical score calling for ever-increasing amounts of human snoring runs alongside a prose narrative which is itself frequently interrupted and incomplete.

The Marathon Poet, pages 106-107 with musical score above and narrative below

Hodell also uses the text itself as a sort of collage-space. He keeps the reader off-balance by deviating from the left margin in poems and standard paragraph structures in prose pieces, utilizing found text and pseudo-documentary, writing in a variety of languages and dialects, and constantly shifting his diction from formal to informal and back again.

This impulse toward collage allows him to directly comment on the ways in which a conformist, militaristic ideology has come to influence so many disparate areas of art and everyday life. Revealing the various building blocks and cast-off pieces of European and American culture, sometimes bluntly and sometimes hyperbolically, he forces us to think about the unconscious assumptions and desires underlying many social norms.

The Marathon Poet, pages 78-19: Spirit of Ecstasy Racing Car Opera. Photos on verso, text on recto.

On another level, his approach toward structure and genre simply reflect his personality and beliefs: why would an artist who so despises authority and convention confine himself to any traditional notion of what a book should be?

This wild creative impulse, along with Hodell’s ever-present humor, lend the volume an air of hopefulness despite its bleak subject matter: it is not only an account of the various destructive forces extant in the world, but a creative one in its own right.

When the fictional Hodell is taken to a doctor after the first few miles of his race nearly kill him, the diagnosis is bad: a pages-long list of the various maladies afflicting the poet’s body. When an observer offers to call an ambulance, the doctor responds:

“No, refrain from doing any such thing,”
says Dr. M.C. Retzius
with a quiet smile. “Humor is a state
where the four cardinal fluids of the body are well mixed.
In other words: The Poët is perfectly healthy.”

Eulalia #3

Eulalia #3
Hope Amico
Gutwrench Press
2020

4.25 × 5 in. closed
32 pages
Binding: Dos-à-dos sewn with a 3-hole pamphlet stitch
Letterpress cover and laser insides

Eulalia #3 front cover of Before side; title reads: if i could tell my then self something now...

Eulalia #3 is the third in a series of zines which center on the generative constraint of Amico’s practice – the content for each themed issue is completed in a single sitting. In reality, the series is less rigid than it sounds. Issue two came out twenty years after issue one, and this third issue is a double issue. The zine’s dos-à-dos structure accommodates two themes, a Before side dealing with grief and healing and an After side about new love and friendship. Although these two sections were produced in two different sittings, Eulalia #3 retains a key feature of the series – a stark yet complicated division between the initial content creation and the subsequent production of a publication to carry that content. This manner of production, in concert with the zine’s form and content, speaks to the importance of storytelling as a way to make sense of life.

Amico works to emphasize the division and juxtaposition inherent in the dos-à-dos structure. Though each section has its own title, the colophon refers to them as Before and After, which clarifies the sequence for the reader and connects the spacial and temporal functions of the book form. Both sides feature a framed 2.5 × 3-inch composition of text and image on each page, but they are visually opposite. Before is printed in black and white, After is printed in color. Compositions in Before are framed by white borders, while the pages in After are black. Both sections use hand-written text, but the image-making varies from mainly drawing in Before to collage in After. The decision to gather these two sequences in a single publication only to then play up the contrasts between them calls attention to the role of the author, to the way Amico’s reflections on themes and events construct the narrative that is ultimately available to the reader.

Eulalia #3 inside spread from Before side. Verso is a collage, recto is a drawing. Text reads: are the patterns really new? Am I a monster?

The straightforward chronology of before and after is challenged by the letterpress-printed titles on each cover. The title on the front cover (Before) is if i could tell my then self something now…, and thus reverses time as well as the roles of author and reader. The zine’s actual reader is left to eavesdrop on the cryptic confessions and consolations of Amico’s past and present selves. Yet the intimate pull of the second person address is powerful, and the reader can almost forget over the course of sixteen pages that they are not the you to whom Amico is speaking. This voyeuristic tension is heightened by the recurring theme of public displays of emotion in regard to grief, heartbreak and healing. One spread reads, “in the silence, all I had drowned resurfaced. / IF YOU’RE NOT CRYING AT WORK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY YOU MIGHT BE A MONSTER / it’s all too much.”

Eulalia #3 inside spread from After side. Verso and rectos are collages. Text reads: Obvious in its numerology / 7 7 7 25 14 42 here we go

Of course, we don’t give advice to our past selves to change anything; we do so to reflect on the trajectory of our lives, to find patterns, identify critical moments and learn for the future. We use narrative because there is a difference between story and plot, and meaning lies in the latter. The second section of Eulalia #3 references another way of doing this – Tarot. The social media sign-off of writer and Tarot card reader, Michelle Embree, serves as the title: BIG LOVE. BE BLESSED. Equally intimate, the After side is far more hopeful than Before with themes of new love and friendship. Still Amico focuses on the gap between the story (what is) and the narrative (what we notice): “Something dormant awakened. / A SURPRISE / LAID BARE IN HINDSIGHT.” Elsewhere references to numerology and life’s great questions place Amico’s personal experiences in dialogue with more universal manifestations of the same challenge, to make meaning out of events we cannot control.

The sense that the narrative is pieced together from separate moments is furthered by the consistent and self-contained compositions. The margins around each page and the undisturbed gutters between them nevertheless permit a sophisticated approach to sequence and rhythm. The visual content remains firmly on one page or another, but ideas can play out within a page, across a spread, or through the turn of a page. There is always a relationship between the verso and recto, but it is never the same. Amico achieves as much variety as the relatively short sequences can unify into a cohesive expression through simple formal devices. Among these, the timing of the writing and the sense of depth in the drawn and collaged imagery are especially effective. Together text and image create a relatable experience for the reader within the psychic space of the artist’s interiority.

The zine’s materiality however testifies to the constructedness of this experience. The juxtaposition of black and white and color printing reminds the reader that Eulalia #3 resulted from two distinct art-making events, and that its pages offer only mediated access to the original thirty-two compositions. In the After section, the dimensionality of Amico’s collages is visible but absent to the touch. Nowhere is this more apparent than the inclusion of pink thread sewn into the collages, echoing the book’s pink pamphlet stitch. This detail quite literally ties together the book even as it widens the gap between its creator and its reader, between reality and facsimile. The covers play with the same tension by placing paper and print production at odds with one another. The letterpress-printed titles imply an edition of multiples, while the pink patterned paper evokes a scrapbook, a private object rather than a publication intended for distribution. These material contradictions ultimately raise questions about what constitutes the work and who it is for. Is the finished zine the primary work or merely documentation of the durational performance in which Amico generated the content of its pages?

In either case, the clarifying power of narrative is central to Eulalia #3, for the reader and the artist alike. Just as the zine synthesizes a cohesive reading experience from two separate art-making sessions, so too do those sessions bring thematic and chronological order to the artist’s disparate memories and emotions. That Amico returned to Eulalia for a second issue after twenty years shows the value of structuring one’s thoughts through a publication. The dos-à-dos structure of this third issue elegantly inhabits the messy space between life and narrative, embodying both linear and cyclical time. Eulalia #3 fully engages the ways that grief and friendship and romance color one another despite the bargains we strike with our past and future selves.

Zines are ideal for exploring such deeply personal themes because they bridge the public and private, magazine and diary. Amico seems comfortable breaking down those barriers, whether crying at work or publishing Eulalia. Readers will no doubt be grateful for a place to turn to when it’s all too much.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon
Dennis J. Bernstein and Warren Lehrer
2019

Paper Crown Press
6.875 × 6.5 × 1 in.
300 pages
Smyth-sewn hardcover
Offset inside with foil-stamped cloth spine and paper cover

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon cover

The 1984 book French Fries by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer is a landmark work of visual literature. In the years since, Bernstein’s poetry has continued to win acclaim and Lehrer has set the bar for designers and book artists in visual literature. The duo’s new book, Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, is a masterful contribution to the genre they’ve helped shape. It is a multi-modal project, including animations, exhibitions and performances. This review will focus on the printed book, published by Paper Crown Press.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is an autobiography in poems. There are eight movements, which are organized loosely by theme more than chronology. There are a total of 225 poems, which in no way exhaust the extraordinary life Bernstein has led. He has reported on wars, taught in prisons, hosted a radio show and survived open heart surgery. Yet, Bernstein’s work is about ordinary people. As he reflects on his life, he reminds the reader that the very struggles which leave us feeling confused and alienated are part of our shared human condition.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 274-275

This collaborative work benefits from a degree of fluidity in roles. The text is Bernstein’s and the visualizations are Lehrer’s, but the process is more complex than that. For Bernstein, the material qualities of text and the page as a physical space affect writing as well as reading. He touches on this in an interview with Lehrer: “I had decided that big notebooks were too intimidating. All that blank space. The wonderful thing was, I had started thinking about visuals with some of these short poems. I even did some drawings.” Likewise, Lehrer is able to interpret the text so successfully because he approaches the poems as a writer as well as a designer. His instinct for wordplay destabilizes and extends Bernstein’s concise writing, drawing out double meanings and alternative interpretations. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon exhibits an uncommon chemistry that must surely be the result of decades of friendship and collaboration.

The book’s design provides structure for, and access to, the unconventional reading experience. Each poem takes one page or one spread, setting a steady pace for the reader as they make their way through too many poems for one sitting. The ribbon bookmark gives the reader permission to pause, perhaps using the table of contents to rest strategically between movements. None of this would be remarkable in a standard book, but in this case the straightforward paratext contrasts markedly with the visual treatment of the text itself.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 44-45

The visuals range from the purposeful placement of text on the page to the addition of patterns and marks and letters without words. Some interpretations are abstract, others representational. Some illustrate ideas, and some represent concepts. At times the reader must see text as image to complete a picture. In other cases, visual elements complete the words. Like its other paratextual components, the physical presence of the book helps with the complex negotiation that is reading. The hefty codex is reassuring and familiar. Reading the poems is non-trivial, but not in an adversarial way. The book helps the reader learn how to approach the text. Its sheer length gives the reader ample time to improve.

The challenge then is how to keep the book from being about itself. One effective choice is the cover design, which is bright and busy with illustrative swirls of type. The lime green book cloth, shiny blue paper and iridescent foil title are so much louder than the black and white inside printing that Bernstein and Lehrer’s exceptional visual literature seems only natural. More importantly though, is the decision to begin the book with the section “Lake Childhood,” which chronicles how Bernstein navigated childhood and schooling with dyslexia. What better way to talk about the physical presence of language than visual literature? Not all the poems in this movement are about dyslexia, but one can see how Bernstein’s irreverence, introspection and penchant for observation develop in this context. With playful and imaginative visualizations, Lehrer shows the reader just how difficult reading can be, and how that very difficulty could have motivated Bernstein’s career(s) in writing.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 88-89

As a memoir, the quantity and brevity of the poems lend a remarkable sense of intimacy. We don’t usually imagine our friends and family along some grand linear narrative. We know people through anecdotes and vignettes that reveal their character. The 225 poems in Five Oceans in a Teaspoon function precisely this way, welcoming the reader into the kind of small moments that are usually reserved for our closest acquaintances.

Lehrer’s visualizations are so effortless that they seem inevitable, and yet leave the reader convinced that he could have presented the poem a dozen other ways. Turning the page is like listening to a perfect jazz solo, then staying for the second set and hearing the same song handled differently and just as well – inevitable, but unpredictable. The restrained visual vocabulary keep the renderings cohesive as Lehrer develops novel solutions. These constraints are important, but they are not the point. The book is not about process, it is about the poetry. The interpretation never overpowers Bernstein’s text.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 64-65

The book’s sequence is driven by the poetry. There is certainly variety among the visualizations throughout the book, but the introduction of a new visual device doesn’t signal a new section of the book. The introduction of display typefaces on page 46 or photography on page 64 provide a nice surprise, but don’t change the mode of interpretation or the course of the narrative. The visuals demonstrate experimentation and innovation, but within the unit of the page or spread. This frees the poetry, and the relationship among poems, to advance the story and succeed as a memoir. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is a moving testament to Bernstein’s view of the world, and the experiences that have shaped it. Once again, Bernstein and Lehrer show the potential of visual literature as a mature field. Beyond self-reference and inter-art discourse, the interplay of text and image (and text-as-image) packs a powerful intellectual and emotional punch.

The Job

The Job
Woody Leslie
2019
Large Home Tiny Idea
woodyleslie.com

4 × 5 in.
32 pages
Binding: 5-hole pamphlet stitch
Ink jet cover and laser inside

The Job, front cover

The Job is the second book in Woody Leslie’s “Tiny Ideas” chapbook series. Through his imprint, Large Home Tiny Idea, Leslie harnesses the authority of the book form in order to examine everyday phenomena, often through the lens of language. The Job achieves this by reflecting on Leslie’s experience working in restaurants, and the familiar struggle to balance work with one’s outside interests. Tellingly, that tension never resolves. The workplace that inspires the book is, in Leslie’s words, “no place for creative writing.”

The Job, inside spread 1

Though it touches on political issues, The Job remains resolutely personal. The writing expresses a common sense solidarity with fellow food service workers (and a visceral resentment of those who profit off their work) that is more sympathetic than an ideological label. Even when Leslie uses insider slang, the specificity is relatable rather than exclusive. Many readers will have shared the experience of starting a new job and finding something funny or confusing, only to accept it and forget how weird it is until they quit or another new employee joins. In fact, the similarities among jobs – whether the author’s or the reader’s – is another powerful political point made implicitly through the observations in The Job.

Fans of Leslie’s work will find plenty of continuity with previous pieces. Considered alongside his 2011 comic, The Adventures of Super Cafe Douche Bag Man, The Job shows the evolution of Leslie’s work-inspired art. Words and Vegetables (2017) shares its highly detailed introspective style. The organization of ideas, not quite stream of consciousness, is similar to Some Definitions of Vegetables (2019) and Parsely (2016), with which it also shares an emphasis on the visual arrangement of text on the page.

The visual treatment of text in The Job is subtle, but it is enough to put this work of nonfiction into dialogue with visual poetry. In some passages, the text is treated as prose. Elsewhere, enjambment gives a more poetic feel to the few lines on a page. The conversation with visual poetry begins in earnest on the fourth spread, where a map of Leslie’s workplace is rendered on the recto. Interestingly, it’s not clear if the representation is spacial or temporal, or some psychogeographic mixture. This uncertainty is later complexified when the same layout is used to visualize Leslie’s body, mapping the aches and pains of restaurant work.

As a text in the book form, The Job does more than visual poetry alone. On a basic level, layout on a page or a spread within a codex is different than, say, a broadside. For example, a recto that says only, “Waste.” has a different meaning than the same word with the same amount of white space around it on a broadside. The page is a unit, and the word uses (or perhaps wastes) the entire unit. A similarly sparse page bearing the phrase “I quit.” highlights other features of the codex. Has the author quit writing; are the subsequent pages blank? The way the turn of a page conceals and reveals adds to the impact of The Job – it would be a different piece outside the book form.

Leslie also engages the codex as a mnemonic device. In the first half of the book, he writes:

So much of The Job is about short term memory.
Remember for five seconds to ten minutes,
and then forget.
Too many things are the same,
or slightly different, repeated over and over.
You must forget each to remember the next.

The same text, with identical formatting, repeats in the second half of the book. The self-reflexive relationship between form and content tempts the reader to flip back to the first instance. Is the phrase the same or slightly different? The codex is ideal for this sort of non-linear access.

Even with this short text, Leslie takes full advantage of these affordances to play with linear and cyclical progression throughout the book. The page as a temporal unit is disrupted to convey a quintessential experience of an unsatisfying job: the days are long, but the years are short. The opening page features the repeated phrase, “We set up the blocks, they knock them over.” Time crawls by, and the page ends with “Day after day.” Later in the book, Leslie ruminates on mopping:

Leaves.
Slush and salt.
Mud.
Grass.

A whole year flies by, just like that. The stakes are raised as the pamphlet’s bulk shifts from the reader’s right hand to the left hand. Will the author escape The Job and focus on his creative work? Or will an earlier phrase repeat and place the reader back into the cyclical existence of wage labor? The suspense of each progressive revelation is heightened in the user-determined, time-based medium of the book.

In fact, The Job’s successful marriage of form and content points to the historical role of the chapbook as a democratic form. Leslie is subverting the authority of the book to assert the importance of the personal and quotidian, but he is doing so within a long tradition. The Job is noteworthy for the ease with which book art, visual poetry and non-fiction meet and make meaning in a humble pamphlet. Perhaps it is a large idea in a tiny home.