Open Your Mouth, Close Your Eyes, I’ll Give You Something to Make You Wise…
by Maura Snell
The TFH ANONYMOUS CHAPBOOK PROJECT was part of an
augmented-reality piece with Alaska-based artist Nathan Shafer
for his project / installation, Wintermoot 2014–which was part of Fur
Rendezvous, the largest winter festival in the state.
TFH is currently editing chapbooks 4 and 5, due out in early 2015.
There’s something cozily and evilly decadent about the idea of the anonymous chapbooks that are coming from Josh Medsker and his team at Twenty-Four Hours. Of course, I think I’m a bit partial to the whole concept of anonymity since we here at The Tishman Review choose to read all submissions blind. Anonymity lends so much to the work as we read the submissions. I like reading just the work, not considering an attached bio, a pedigree, a connection, so much so that I don’t think, as a publisher and editor, right now I would do it any other way. I also like what the anonymity represents, what it allows, and what it offers the work when it comes across my desk. Being written anonymously, a writer might and should feel more able to tell what it is that is really on her mind. Also, being anonymous, the writer does not have to worry about many of the traditional things we writers worry about when submitting–things like bio content, current professional roles and standings, previously published works, who we know, where we live, who we are. I know you might think I’m getting ahead of myself, but I think you’ll find it true. With my peers, I’ve often discussed the pros and cons of the anonymity we seek in the submissions process, and we often wonder how many Big Names are published in the Big Journals simply because they are a Big Name. I can think of one incident off the top of my head (writer and journal to remain unmentioned) where the writer wrote a piece that was in extremely poor taste, and my hunch is that the journal chose to publish the piece because, yes, it was topical, but it was also from this Big Writer, who might possibly be immune to the subsequent backlash because of the Big Name Writer’s Big Name. Needless to say, there was backlash, there was hub-bub, and in my opinion both the credibility of the writer and the journal did drop a notch. I have often wondered whether if the name had been detached from the piece would the piece have been published at all. Or, better yet, if the piece had been published anonymously, would it have gotten the backlash it did? Ah, the mysteries of life!
All that being said, TFHs Anonymous Chapbook Project is about the work, which is refreshing, inspiring, and, I think most importantly, it brings us back to the basics. The general thought behind the project is that no person is their actual self when everyone can see who they are. I know it’s confusing, but stay with me. The editors at TFH ask submitters to “be brave”, to “make us feel something” and if not, “it’s back to the drawing board, bub”. They also ask the submitters to trust them, the project, the work, to the extent no writers have been able to do up until now. I think the whole point of being a writer is not just to tell a good story or make the readers feel something, but more directly, to make the reader feel my something, to connect my singular, lonely, myopic existence with the existence of the whole entire world. It’s a big calling, and very hard to do. I think that in a strange and wild way the anonymity of this project allows that to happen.
The first Chapbook, Number 1, subtitled “You Are My Anti-Spam Hero,” leads with just the thought, a quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Critic As Artist: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” The chapbook is a conglomeration of the ridiculous: the spam emails, the syntax and subtitles and footnotes from every online diatribe/invitation/call of desperation we’ve all received in our inboxes innumerous times since the invention of email. SPAM. But what of it? As I read it, I get the odd sensation that I’m listening, actually listening, to those little voices that come through the static in my head when I get these emails. In this, they become guttural and human. All the crazy-weird thoughts I normally ignore and delete from my head as I hit the delete button on the screen when I open an email like this rush forth, and become part of Art. I think of real people behind these texts. I let my mind wander. Illicit, random noise becomes human, voice, face.
Chapbook Number 2, subtitled “The Use Of Travel,” in the same or similar light as the first chapbook, illuminates. In this case the anonymity allows the raw emotion flicking about on the pages to become the Art. Without a definitive author, the poems are allowed to breathe and to take up space. They almost become human themselves. These poems are beautiful in their simplicity, and go where such jottings rarely succeed; in their unknown-ness, they are the inevitable true vocal DNA of us: the collective and the singular. Anonymity heightens the tone in this chapbook and reading these poems in this capacity makes me want to pick my head up from my smartphone and look around me when I’m riding the train into Boston, or when I’m buried in my list as I dash around the food market, or most importantly, when I’m in the world and feel totally alone, they make me want to seek connection, hunt for that voice so prevalent on the page. It’s powerful stuff.
Chapbook Number 3, quite perfectly subtitled “The Time-Traveler’s Ass And Other Moderately Alaskan Situations,” is a blithe spirit when grouped with its predecessors, but it still holds true to the portents offered by the first two chapbooks. Anonymity again serves the book well. I had to look up about half of the words the writer uses because I wasn’t sure if they were real or just made up amalgamations of words that sounded accurate or cool. Each piece reads like a funky journal of some other-world-sci-fi-uber-traveler vastly different from ourselves, but in the most basic and obvious ways so very like us. The speaker could be me or you, just moved to Alaska. The sense of “time travel” is an odd but accurate way to depict relocating from one culture and climate to another. I remember feeling a bit like this when I went for a semester in Australia: so much was the same but so much was completely strange to me. I had to learn a new vocabulary, catch on to the cultural undertones, learn what it meant to “root for a team”. The weather was backwards, and, yes, I did check to see if the toilet flushed in the opposite direction.
In “The Time Traveler’s Ass And Other Moderately Alaskan Situations,” the “Ass” in question is definitely an Ass, as in naked butt, rather than the small donkey sub-species. Other things I can confirm after reading Chapbook Number 3 include: a Cheechacko is a person newly arrived in the mining districts of Alaska or northwestern Canada; emotion is actually a time-dimensional sensory experience, individual manifestations of which are called chronotes, which non-time travelers experience in myriad ways; ookle-rotch is a really disgusting kind of hair-like dairy product from the year 3189 AD that people would use to induce astro-bulimia; Hairy Man is the Arctic version of Sasquatch, and yes, there really are shoes called Xtra Tuffs and I want a pair.
Twenty-Four Hours has something going on here and it’s good. I am not saying that the poetry, muses, writings, etc., on each page are amazing pieces that should be declared the new foundation for all contemporary literature and art, but the manner in which these writers and editors are going about collecting, producing, and publishing this literature and art anonymously is something important. Read these chapbooks. Read them because they’re whimsical and fun. Read them because they will make you think. Read them because they will make you feel. Read them and you will understand what I’ve been trying to explain. It’s like playing that game: “Open your mouth and close your eyes, I’ll give you something to make you wise”–don’t look, just taste and see. And for God’s sake read them because, well, I said so.