Making a Book By Hand: Curtis Smith Interviews Erin Dorney

Erin Dorney is a writer and artist based in Pennsylvania. She is the author of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems After Shia LaBeouf (Mason Jar Press) and her writing has appeared in various publications including Hobart, HAD, Passages North, and Juked. Erin’s literary artwork and installations have been exhibited at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art; Hennepin Theatre Trust; the Minnesota Center for Book Arts; and Susquehanna Art Museum. She is a co-founder of Fear No Lit, home of the Submerging Writer Fellowship and Notebooked.

Curtis Smith: What a beautifully packaged collection. I could feel the love behind it. I’m guessing you produced these yourself—can you talk about that process—the physical making of it and the motivation behind it?

Erin Dorney: I made 100 copies of Accept/Reject by hand, all during the month of January 2021. I had been working on these poems for a few years, and I needed a social media break. I planned this project specifically to keep my hands busy and get offline, something that’s been difficult for me to do during the pandemic. I had learned about zines, handmade books, and artist books a few years ago, but this was the first large, editioned project I have tackled.

I think all writers should experience making a book by hand. There’s a self-publishing stigma we’re up against, but zines (and historically, pamphlets) are one of the most accessible forms of publishing. The creator has control of every aspect, from the content to the typography, cover design, number of copies, assembly, and distribution. It can be done cheaply (or expensively), with a lot of forethought or relatively little. To look at a book and know that you did every step yourself—to remember that feeling of pushing a needle through paper—is an incredible thing. I value Accept/Reject just as much as I value my full-length, perfect-bound book of poetry (perhaps more, even).

CS: So not to give too much away, but these are erasure poems—and the structure is a split zine—one half acceptances for your own work and the other half rejections. Each side starts with its own epigraph from Anne Truit—and each ends in the middle where you have an author’s note. Can you tell us about the content? Were you already writing these poems and the idea came to you to bring them together in this way? Or did the idea of the whole project come to you first?

ED: This idea was actually sparked by the Kickstarter Fear No Lit ran back in 2019. We were fundraising for the Submerging Writer Fellowship and one of the rewards we offered was called “Fear No Poem.” For $50, I would write backers an original blackout poem from the source text of their choosing. Two people picked this reward, and one of them asked me to write an erasure poem from an acceptance or rejection email I had received. I loved it and just kept on writing them.

I didn’t know until much later what the final form would be, but I did keep the acceptance poems separate from the rejection poems as I worked. As every writer knows, getting a rejection email feels drastically different than getting an acceptance email—I was curious to see if that energy would carry through into the poems. Accept/Reject really helped me transform that gut-punch of a rejection. I printed them out, re-read them a bunch of times, and tried to find something of value inside them. Some people might consider that masochistic, I guess, but for me it was more motivating than anything.

CS: What about the erasure form intrigues you? In the form you use, there’s a single word on each line—but there are other forms of erasure that use blackout—so it looks like a redacted document. Have you used that form before? If so, what about the form you use in this collection appeals to you more?

ED: I tend to re-write most of my erasure poems, but they always start on paper. My process is to print out the original source text, and then use a pencil to circle words, draw lines, and make notes. If I go right in with a Sharpie to redact, I mess it up right away—going over a word I need or something like that. Retyping the poems after I’ve gotten messy on the page gives me a little more control over the poem—I can add line breaks, punctuation, etc. It also helps get me off of my computer. Once I have the source texts printed, I also bring them places with me to work on, compile them in a folder. It’s very hands-on.

CS: I read this in one sitting—I’m guessing that’s your intention—and then I read it again—and I don’t know if I can properly explain it, but there’s a certain feeling in experiencing it back to front in its totality—almost like I’m overhearing parts of a conversation—or like watching boulders in a stream. I’m not explaining it well, I’m afraid—but I’m wondering if that was in your mind from the start—creating a kind of overall mood when the pieces were read together rather than just reading a piece here and there?

ED: I like the image of boulders in a stream. I’m so glad you said this because it makes me feel better about something I find extremely difficult—ordering pieces in a collection. I had a really hard time ordering in my full-length collection, and ultimately left the final decisions up to my (amazing) editor Michael B. Tager. Since then I’ve been trying to get better at creating that overall mood through ordering. What helped with Accept/Reject was that I had a lot of poems to choose from. I had upwards of 30 poems and ultimately picked 16 that I thought worked best together for this collection.

CS: May I ask about the erasure process? You don’t change word order, correct? As you go through, are you looking for certain kinds of words in a certain sequence, or are you playing it by ear and seeing what strikes you?

ED: Correct—all of the words are still in the same order that they showed up in the original source text. There aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules with erasure (beyond the very important ones of citing your source text and considering your privilege when erasing other voices) but I find that many of us adopt certain stylistic choices. This is one of mine. What I’m always looking for when writing erasures are interesting word combinations and unique language. That’s the beauty of using a source text—you never know what you’re going to find.

CS: What’s next?

ED: I’m looking forward to attending some zine fests, where I can share Accept/Reject with other people who make their own books. It’s also available for sale on my website. This summer I’m working on the first draft of a creative nonfiction book about the Goo Goo Dolls and I’ve also got a hybrid project that relates to Adriene Mishler of Yoga By Adriene (some poems from that manuscript can be read at HAD). Ultimately, I’m always accruing more acceptance and rejection emails (usually more rejections than acceptances, as my personal policy is that everything is worth a shot), so maybe there will be another installation of Accept/Reject someday.

Seeing, Believing, and Other Things

In Seeing, Believing, and Other Things, PC Scheponik employs eager pen and abundant heart to explore the sublime interstices of quotidian existence. Whether pausing over the beautiful brutality that makes us sigh the moment the truth bleeds into consciousness or losing himself—and us, his readers, along with him—amidst the helixed emptiness that all living species share, the poet approaches not only the world but the universe at large with a curious blend of wide-eyed wonder and world-weary experience. Evoking shades of Whitman, Scheponik’s poetic eye spots the divine majesty in all of creation as he sings of the delicate balance between life and death with joy and reverence. Here is a poet with humor and heart, at home among the silken protein notes of a spider web as he is partaking in the beautiful dance of the galaxy across the field of infinity. His poems are self-described love letters to God, family, and all of creation, and although—spoiler alert—everything falls to pieces in the end, we are fortunate to have the poetry in this collection to shine a light on all that is beautiful and wondrous in our universe until then.

Albion’s Secret History

In Albion’s Secret History, Guy Mankowski offers what he describes as “snapshots” of those he deems the outsiders of English pop culture. “Snapshots” is certainly an apt term, as the book moves through a wide range of figures at a fast clip: Oscar Wilde, Shelagh Delaney, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, David Bowie, Ian Curtis, Gary Numan, Paul Weller, Robert Smith, Morrissey, and PJ Harvey to name just a few. Stylistically, Mankowski’s approach to discussing his subject matter echoes that of Greil Marcus in works like Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of 20th Century America, and The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. What emerges is a dreamlike parade of personalities whose efforts to speak their own minds, follow their own muses, and be what we might call in contemporary parlance their “authentic selves” reflect a larger, arguably unconscious, yearning within English culture to break free from otherwise stifling social norms and, in so doing, to steer English history into uncharted waters. This struggle comes to fruition in the book’s final chapter when Mankowski turns his attention to contemporary English political figures whose antics, for lack of a better word, bring to life (and to light) many of the tensions the author has described throughout the volume.

Aliens, Robots, and VR Idols

Full disclosure: I tried reading some of HP Lovecraft’s fiction when I was in grammar school — a collection of short stories that included “The Call of Cthulhu,” if I remember correctly — but I found it fairly alienating and also kind of depressing. Similarly, I never really got into Isaac Asimov (despite Will Smith’s best efforts), and though I vaguely recall reading and mostly enjoying William Gibson’s Neuromancer as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I failed to finish reading a subsequent Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, because I didn’t know what was going on and didn’t especially care to find out.

None of this is to disparage any of the above writers. I’m told by several friends and colleagues — and now by John L. Steadman, author of Aliens, Robots, and Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson — that their works are classics not only within their genre but of literature in English more broadly. Likewise, the profusion of Cthulhu-themed bumper stickers and tee shirts among steampunk hipsters alone has, over the past decade or so, made me wonder whether I am, in fact, missing out on something. Fortunately for me and others of my ilk, Steadman’s book does an excellent job of summarizing much if not all of each author’s oeuvre in loving detail. Think of it as the Rough Guide to Lovecraft, Asimov and Gibson Countries.

While much of the volume is given over to valuable summary, Steadman’s larger purpose is to explore, in his words, “the interrelationship between alien and humankind.” This examination reveals the limits and limitations of what Steadman describes as “the belief that humankind is at the center of the cosmos — the most important element in the cosmos, in fact.” This critique of what might broadly be described as Humanism resonates with the Inhumanism or Antihumanism of figures like Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry does much to undermine the notion that humans are the center of existence, and it also calls to mind the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who look upon humanity with a mix of curiosity and bemusement.

One question that Steadman returns to repeatedly is that of motive: What do the aliens in the authors’ works want? Curiously, the question itself reveals the limits of humanity’s ability to conceive of and understand the fully alien insofar as asking what aliens want assumes that they do, in fact, want as humans do. Perhaps this explains Steadman’s conclusion that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal” and that “when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers,” we are left with the disturbing vision of “humankind, short-lived and insignificant, alone in a vast, indifferent cosmos.”