from The Free Cuisenart, No. 14 (June 1997)
Meet the Editor: William Slaughter, Mudlark
Mudlarking / Cavafy / Learning How to Read
The O.E.D. suggests several possible meanings for Mudlark, the title of the electronic journal of poetry and poetics that I edit and publish. Mudlark is a name given to various birdsfor example, a black and white Australian bird, the magpie-lark, Grallina cyanoleuca, which builds a nest in the mudbut it has other meanings that are more relevant to my project. For example, a gutter child or street urchin is a mudlark too, as is one who dabbles, works, or lives in mud. Metaphor is what interests me here, but metaphor always has its roots in the literal or real.
In London where Ive lived and worked, the real mudlark, the historical one, was a child who lived in the gutter, as it were, and kept himself alive by working the mud-banks of Thames River, Down Greenwich reach /Past the Isle of Dogs (The Waste Land) where Englands own and the worlds ships plied their trade. The mudlarks job description, if he had one, would likely read: scavenger. His survival, outside the political and economic systems that governed the official life of his time, depended on whatever he could findempty bottles, sandwich papers, / silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette endsthat the river had left behind. Anything on which he could put a price, anything that had value on the street.
Editing a poetry magazine on-line, singing the body electric at the end of the 20th century, is like that. Among the other testimony of summer nights, in the language mud of the World Wide Web, one occasionally finds something that has value on the street and deserves to be called by the name poem. I take my mudlarking seriously. What sustains me in my work is knowing that the real thing is down there, beyond metaphor, and that I will find it if only I dig deep enough. But when I dosee Frances Driscolls Rape Poems or Joe Ahearns Five Fictions, for exampleI dont put a price on it, I give it away. In Mudlark poetry is free. What is the coin of poetry's realm? Poetry is a gift economy.
If C. P. Cavafy, the Greek poet who lived his life and died his death (in 1933) in Alexandria, Egypt, were alive, where would he submit his work for publication? Rather than asking that question of another poet, I ask it of Cavafy because of the method he developed for publishing and distributing his poems, which endlessly fascinates me.
The moves that a career poet makes, over time, are predictable enoughpoems in approved magazines; chapbooks and books from approved presses; reviews by approved reviewers; the right readings, the right prizes, etc.but were of no real interest to Cavafy. Instead, he had his poems printed, periodically, at his own expense as broadsheets. He called his work room at home the bindery. There he would put together different collections of his poems, looseleaf in folders, and send them off to the readers he most wanted them to have. He actually kept a list, a very short list that was always changing, with the names of those readers on it. [Rae Dalven and Robert Liddell are my sources here.]
Poetry was an intimate occasion for Cavafy. His mode, in the love poems that have captured me, is direct address, special pleading. Cavafy figured that the shortest distance (and straightest line) between himself and his chosen readers was either the Egyptian postal service, which he distrusted, or his own special delivery servicethe private couriers he employed to see to it that his poems, personally inscribed, always arrived at their destinations.
If he were alive, Cavafy wouldnt submit his poems anywhere... is my answer to my question. Not to Poetry or APR; not to Mudlark or The Free Cuisenart. I imagine Cavafy getting himself a computer and a modem, changing the name of his work room at home from the bindery to the cockpit, doing away with paper, publishing himself in ether (never in and never out of print), and distributing himself to his short list of readers by e-mail, thus accomplishing his purpose. Intimacy with and in language. He might even design a home pageCavafys Tea Room, a favorite venueand put his poems up on the World Wide Web. Even Cavafy / had to have an address, / if he wanted to be / found, and he did. (My Cavafy Poem) That would be to risk everything by inviting strangers in.
Even as I write this, the great migration from page to screen is taking place. The journal and the book are rewriting themselves. The paradigms for publishing and distributing are shifting. How will poets and poems credential themselves in the electronic medium? For those readersIm not one of themwho still prefer their poems pre-read, stamped by an Inspector at one of the Poetry Custom Houses, Mudlark and The Free Cuisenart, Switched-On Gutenberg and Rif/t, for example, will serve as transitional spaces until theyre not needed anymore. At which time, perhaps the remarkable sanity in Cavafys approach to the poetry market, which has never really existed, will point to itself, as I have done here, and suggest one possible way of renegotiating the terms on which poets and readers will transact the business they have with each other in the new dispensation.
3. Learning How to Read
Mudlark is both noun and verb, whence I take my mudlarking seriously. As a verb, mudlarking requires certain things of me. The poets who submit their work to me and the readers from whom I hear back remind me just what the requirements of my job are. What is your editorial policy at Mudlark is a question they often ask me. And the word policy always makes me nervous. It sounds too much like government to me. I hesitate to state any editorial policy publicly, or even formulate the terms of one in private, if there is any chance that doing so will steer poems away from me that might violate my own policy and prove themselves necessary to me at the same time. I have promised myself to keep Mudlark open.
As our full name, Mudlark: An Electronic Journal of Poetry & Poetics, suggests, we will consider accomplished work that locates itself anywhere on the spectrum of contemporary practice. We want poems, of course, but we want essays, too, that make us read poems (and write them?) differently somehow. Although we are not innocent, we do imagine ourselves capable of surprise. We read and answer our mail.
Theres no disputing taste; we all know that. But there is disputing principle. If an editor erects his own taste into a principle, and then edits on that principle, he will edit a closed journalhaving hung out, for all to see, his version of a members only sign. So the spectrum of contemporary practice, representing it over time, is important to me. I will not define any band, narrow or wide, on that spectrum as Mudlarks band, to the exclusion of all others.
Poets whose work I have rejected, suggesting, as I did so, that I didnt want to lose them as readers of Mudlark and possible future contributors to it, have responded by submitting their work again, often accompanied by a note in which they say something like this: Ive been reading what youve been publishing in Mudlark and I think youll like these poems. To which I typically reply: Youre looking in the wrong place. You wont find what I want in the next issue of Mudlark in the previous issues of Mudlark. [Cavafys poem The First Step is, by the way, my favorite rejection slip.]
Thats what I mean by surprise. The relationship between innocence and surprise is neither causal nor dependent. In a poem of mine called Dear Franz... (Kafka), I have a line: Last love, not first, is the great surprise. More than halfway through the wood of my language life, Im not an innocent reader (or writer), but I havent made up my mind and taken a position on everything having to do with poetry. And I do imagine myself capable of surprise, even great surprise. Im still learning how to read. The poets I publish in Mudlark are among my many teachers.