Monday, November 10, 2014

Lunch: A Look at How We Read Now

My writing life changed because of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Not the poems, though I love them, but the title. Lunch Poems. Poems to read while you’re eating lunch. Maybe you’re at a diner or on a park bench. Maybe you’re out back, by the dumpster, with a Coke and a cigarette. That's okay. Nothing fancy in Lunch Poems. No need to put on your suit or sackcloth and brace yourself to confront the sublime. These are just lunch poems. Read one more while you’re finishing your falafel.  

Evoking a specific experience, Lunch Poems alerted me to all of the wonderfully messy ways we read. Sure, our reading might involve a perfectly overstuffed couch or cozy bed, where we make bargains with ourselves about how many more pages we’ll enjoy before we really have to go to sleep. More often, when I read and when I look around and see others reading, the experiences are less ideal. We’re on buses and treadmills. We’re in waiting rooms and cubicles. We’re at lunch. O’Hara’s title reminds me, as a writer, to take into account how we read now.  

I’m aware that the likely inspiration for O’Hara’s title came from the fact that he supposedly wrote many of them on his lunch break. There’s also the story that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, O’Hara’s publisher at City Lights, kept pestering him to finish the book. “How about lunch?” Ferlinghetti would write. “Cooking,” O’Hara would reply, with a promise of the meal to come. And yet Ferlinghetti himself put out Lunch Poems in City Lights' Pocket Poets series, books small enough and light enough you can hold them in one hand while you maneuver a fork with the other. 

And now, as ever, reading involves a lot more than just words writers craft. It involves the whole scene of reading, from the time and place in which we read to our very mood as we read. Now, however, reading also involves the medium in ways that remain relatively new. We read not only newspapers, magazines, journals, paperbacks, and hardbacks, but also tablets, smart phones, laptops, and a production line of other electronic devices. We read words, yes, but the majority of them are made of 1’s and 0’s.

“Reading” may not even be the best verb for reading, since the words we encounter on screens large and small usually come interwoven with images, videos, and other media. Do I read my Twitter feed? It feels more like I use it or consume it or maybe absorb it. And even if I’m reading E.B. White’s essays on my iBooks app, do I stop reading and do something else when my wife texts me “Again!” and includes a video of the kitten playing in the toilet? Reading—if it’s still reading—has become capacious, fragmented, distracted, deliriously digitized.  

These are becoming familiar observations, but we have yet to resolve the questions that arise from them. What does it mean to read in the digital age? What does it mean to write? Even now, almost two decades since the rise of the Web, we’re still finding our way.

For those of us interested in the essay, we might have a slight advantage. The essay, at least since its embrace by the periodicals in the 18th century, has been a genre that thrives amid the bustle of everyday life. Since the time of the Tatler and the Spectator, essays have traveled, often in pockets. And this history might help the essay as it adapts to the digital world. The genre, to say it another way, may be primed to thrive amid all of the Web's kitten-in-the-toilet videos.  

For today’s post, the folks at Essay Daily kindly asked me to write about my new collection of essays. How did the demands of the print and electronic mediums change the work? Some of the book’s essays were originally created for digital platforms, and I had to adapt them for paper. Others were created for print and had to go digital.  The result was three versions of the book: a print book, a standard e-book, and a multimedia “book” with video and audio material. There’s also a website, to house the book’s interactive material. The upshot is that most of the essays exist in two or three “final” versions, with these versions offering significantly different experiences of the essay depending on the medium.

The assumption, I think, is that this variation—this lack of any fixed or definitive version—should be troubling. A reader of my book can never have the literary experience I might have intended, because one person is reading words, while another is reading the same essay, but also listening to me read it or maybe watching the vintage cartoon that I paired with it and not reading at all. This concern has troubled me from time to time.

In the end, however, I tend to think: Lunch Poems. Even in some Platonic world, where I could imagine a perfect version of the collection, some electronic Library of America app that ran across platforms and transformed into a leather-bound book on command, there’d be those messy, unwieldy, unpredictable readers. (I'd still hope that someone would thumb through it on break, by the dumpster.) That is, even if I could control the book-object, I could never control the book’s readers.

Nor would I want to.  My experience of creating essays to be listened to, essays to be watched, essays to be played, all alongside essays to be read, has led me to love the big mess of how we read now. I certainly don’t want to lose the overstuffed couch or the midnight page-turner, but I want to embrace the iPhone and Android, the audio book and Twitterbot, all of the various ways in which we, as writers, might reach our readers. I want to see what artistic possibilities the new (and old) media offer us. And if that means that essays, poems, and stories, are no longer one experience, but many experiences, then, when it’s time, I’ll pick the one that’s right for lunch.

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton  
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun  
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets  
in Ghana are doing these days
                                                     I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)  
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life  
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine  
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do  
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or  
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and  
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue  
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and  
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

The images in this post are used through a Creative Commons license courtesy of photographers on Flickr. For attributions please see go to this link. You can find multiple versions of Eric LeMay's book here.

1 comment:

  1. My favorite from In Praise of Nothing is the difference between the print and the digital "Losing the Lottery." Segmentation on the page versus manic, interactive collage on the screen.