Let us, for a moment, judge a book by its cover. The title of Jennifer Karmin’s debut poetry collection, aaaaaaaaaaalice, stretches across the span of the book in hollow, clean, orange typeface. Several blue keywords wrap around laterally. The front cover, mostly white space, is modestly embellished with three inky bunnies in the bottommost corner. The astute typography and layout design reflect the accomplishments of the book, which experiments with space and presence in an unpretentious and, frankly, perky way. It is at once socially generous (the keyword “hello” is bolded in salutation), intellectually inquisitive, and aesthetically tickling. aaaaaaaaaaalice is a generous book that innovates its own space in which to breathe and invites the reader to do the same.
The design of the text inside the book reinforces a collaborative mode. The pages are butterflied, designed like a choice fillet. The left-hand page bears a recognizable, left-side justified column. Part of the section titled, “yes but I grow at a reasonable pace,” reads:
thumb and index
fingers on your
Stanzas on this side are couplets, tercets, and quatrains. They boast a diversity of pronouns. They’re packed with anecdotal snippets, descriptions, biographies, and the occasional imperative. They reflect observations of the world around us, our lived-in environment.
Indeed, we are informed by a note at the back that much of the book’s composition took place during a three-month solo journey that took Karmin across Taiwan, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia, and Russia. We’re presented with scenes (“rush hour / bicycle traffic / in beijing”), as well as reenactments (“teach / the hokey pokey / in exchange / for a handful / of nuts”) of pleasant peregrinations.
The travelogue quality evokes another female protagonist and her bewildered but receptive reaction to a wonderland of the imagination. And in fact, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is cited as a primary source for collage appropriation within the text. Consequently, quotidian experiences are imbued with fantastical potentialities, and not without humor (e.g., “your shoes / are weird”). As with Carroll’s tale, the effect is marked by an excess of potential delights and meanings rather than lean logic.
This form faces a radically different right-hand side, a field of language doubled-spaced and splashed across the page. Phrases are spun with slight alterations, such as this selection, adjoining the abovementioned text:
it’s not very
it’s not a
not at all
it’s really not high
it's ordinarily not
Here, spatial delay heightens the pleasure of semantic unfurling. The words resolve into a syntactically proper cascade, feeling like comfortable realizations. The tone is overwhelmingly bright and positive at the end of such word-whirls: “instead / of nothing / we had / everything,” “there’s / awfully pretty / snow,” “thanks / for / the time.” The utterances feel less ex tempore than elegantly groping towards saying the right thing, gracefully stumbling on to the arrangement of words for accurate expression.
The other major source for aaaaaaaaaaalice is a Japanese language textbook, which functions to remind us that we are constantly retranslating our thoughts and sentiments.
Quite literally, one of the objectives of the book is biomorphic. It is encouraged to breathe. Karmin encourages us to consider her poetry as a “word score for polyvocal improvisation. Performers are encouraged to equate the style of each text with imagined tones, rhythms, voices, etc. Any number of performers may participate and any number of pages may be used.” And in fact, I’ve seen aaaaaaaaaaalice performed twice, in starkly different yet equally generative modes.
During an independent press event at AWP 2010, in a Denver gallery, Karmin distributed slips of printed paper—later revealed to be ribbons from her book—to a crowd of about a hundred people. She invited the group to interject with their given words at any volume, at any interval. Then, she began to recite evenly and energetically. Thoroughly unruffled, her voice seemed to absorb the intrusions that eventually evolved into enrichments. Participants started patterning their words, anticipating rhythms, completing punchlines of strangers across the room, and generally altering the predictable. The second time I saw aaaaaaaaaaalice performed was in Iowa City. Karmin had enlisted several local companions to read with her, simultaneously. Each participant took a markedly unique stylistic turn. Some whispered, some elided certain words, some pronounced sassily, some prophetically. In short, all manner of utterance was represented.
I’d recommend aaaaaaaaaaalice to anyone bored with his or her reading practices. I’d recommend it to experimentalists, humorists, and linguists alike. Welcome to a strange new world.
Erika Jo Brown is from New York, where she founded Stretching Panties magazine, an annual collection of poetry, design, and drawing. She is the co-host of Talk Art, the reading series of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her chapbook, "What a Lark!," was published by Further Adventures Press in 2010.