Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer have been doing some globetrotting lately. The literary couple (she’s a Joyce scholar; he’s a poet) hails from Krakow and is noted for collaboratively exploring the concept of liberature—a newly invented genre that focuses on the material form of a text. This fall, Bazarnik and Fajfer toured the US, including a stop here in the Bay Area, where they were artists in residence at Mills College. More recently, they spoke at the Taipei Poetry Festival and were guests at the University of Tokyo. Their travels have increased global recognition of what has now become a movement: Liberatura. Bazarnik and Fajfer release liberatic titles—both their own and others’—under an eponymous imprint for Korporacja Ha!art publishing house, and also operate the unique Krakow-based Liberatura Reading Room. The couple, who defines a liberatic book as one that has forged an “indissoluble bond” with its text, elaborated on their theory recently for me.
Matt Runkle: Could you start by explaining the philosophy behind the Liberatura movement?
Katarzyna Bazarnik & Zenon Fajfer: When we started working on our first book, Oka-leczenie, which was at the end of the ’80s, we didn’t think in terms of “a movement.” We didn’t think about any special name for our writing, there was no specific ideology or philosophy behind our work. In the beginning was writing; it was an intuitive search for the most adequate form. But it was changing all the time, including the story that was also changing, as what happened in our life also influenced it to a great extent. So large parts of what we wrote then ended up in the dustbin. That was a continuous search, a quest, and continuous discovering and finding.
In our writing form has always been important. We felt that some things had to be expressed through form rather than spoken about directly. So all that finally led us to invisible texts, which we invented in order to express states that cannot be perceived by the senses, and that, in turn, made us go beyond the traditional form of the book, which is why we came up with the triple-codex. That was necessary to tell the story we wanted to tell. It was only after we had written Oka-leczenie when we realized that it was a book that didn’t fit into any existing categories. There was no good term to describe it. So in 1999 Zenon wrote an article called “Liberatura. Aneks do słownika terminów literackich” (“Liberature. Appendix to a dictionary of literary terms”), which later turned out to be perceived as the manifesto of the movement, and in fact became its foundational text. We felt that with liberatura critics and readers were given a tool to handle Oka-leczenie (it was around that time that we managed to print the first 9 prototype copies) and other literary works informed by a similar philosophy. The term we coined for this kind of writing points out that it is nothing else but literature in the form of the book (one meaning of Latin liber), liberated from any literary and editorial conventions (another meaning of Latin liber)–it is a kind of “book in freedom.”
MR: The rise of the Internet made it so that texts began to leave their containers (books) and start to exist more ephemerally. At the same time, there seems to have been an increased interest in the book as an object. I wonder if this interest is a result of people seeing texts begin to exist in the ether as opposed to a more tactile-ly interactive medium like the book. What are your thoughts on this? In other words, has the Internet shed light on the “indissoluble bond” you’ve claimed exists between a text and its book? And in so doing, make us more fully appreciate it?
KB & ZF: In the majority of cases—that is, in the majority of literary texts—there is no indissoluble bond between text and its container (i.e. book), there has never been such a bond because their authors never assumed there was one. With the only exception being liberature, which is this kind of literature in which there is this authorially engineered interrelation between the text and the book. Consequently, to speak about text and its container in liberature is a misconception because they aren’t separated. They constitute an organic, total, artistic message. So we can agree that the rise of the Internet has heightened the awareness that most texts can exist in any environment, they can be inscribed in any kind of medium, the bond between text (as an expression of thoughts and ideas) and its medium is loosened or arbitrary.
Taking about this awareness, it seems to us that it is not entirely new. McLuhan had already stated that “medium is the message,” so he noticed this bond and suggested it should be studied as part of meaning, since traditional views ignored it as non-existent or accidental. But we have a feeling that McLuhan’s adage is highly adequate in reference to liberature, in which the medium of the book is indeed the message. It’s only that artists, writers (such as Blake, Norwid, Mallarme, Wyspianski, Joyce, BS Johnson, and so on) have always known that, well before any theorist noticed this.
When it comes to us, the appearance of the Internet had no influence on our thinking because we got to know it quite late, already when our first books had been finished and the concept formulated. Though the Internet reached Poland in the mid ‘90s, the access to it was very limited and we started using it only about 2000. But this may explain why quite a few young people are interested in liberature. Perhaps the Internet makes us (in general) ponder on the relation between text and its carrier in the first place, and this reflection enables those young people to capture and appreciate this bond as a constitutive feature of liberature.
MR: Can you talk about the book as a container? Liberatura publications tend to celebrate the way a book’s contents might physically spill over (Ga(u)ze, Looking Through the Ozone Hole, The Unfortunates, Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm). In what ways does the book serve as a constraint and in what ways is it actually liberating? How might these constraints and liberties be wrapped up in one another?
KB & ZF: Again, as writers we don’t see the book as a container. The shape of the book, the way it opens, the way text covers the paginal space are all a part of the content. These are non-verbal gestures that shape the represented world as much as it is shaped by words. Since writers are free to create this world as they like, they take various liberties with it just as they do with language. If we accept that the book is the writer’s medium just as language is, it can be shaped in any way. Besides, trespassing boundaries and limits seems to be one of the characteristic features of liberatic writers and poets.
If one takes the book (its most common, typical form of the codex) as a kind of constraint, diverting from its traditional shape is an expression of freedom. But there can be a different motivation behind using unconventional book forms, namely the need to find an adequate form to suit one’s content. In this case the traditional codex is not seen as a constraint but as an inadequate form that does not go along with the content, which is why a different shape is chosen for it.
It is very interesting for us that you have drawn our attention to the “spilling out of the content.” We haven’t reflected on different liberatic book in these terms so far, but we think that by ‘the spilling out,” these works demonstrate that they are only a section of a larger world. They testify to the existence of a large expanse going far beyond them, perhaps an infinite (hence, unlimited) universe (by, for example extending the print to the edges of the page and leaving no margins). So they are not self-contained reflections of a whole universe, but only its cross-sections. In this sense they may represent fragmentariness and limitations of our human perception and cognition.
MR: Could you talk about your collaboration process? You’ve mentioned that writing as a duo has an influence on the space of the book. I’m curious about the way in which these spaces are conjured.
KB & ZF: Oh, we are always arguing and what you see is the outcome of our rows.
KB: But seriously, I think we wanted to join our writing but preserve our identities at the same time.
ZF: On the other hand, the effect is paradoxical because the identities are merged so no one is able to distinguish them, to tell them apart.
KB: Except for that moment in Oka-leczenie, where our two handwritings are distinguishable.
ZF: In the process of constant intermingling.
MR: The titles that Liberatura has published really play with the way works of literature are reproduced. Part of Liberatura’s ethic is that its books are both mass produced and inexpensive. Do you have any practical advice for small presses who’d like to publish large editions innovatively?
KB & ZF: Yes, we have always wanted to make these books as available as possible—that is to publish them in as many copies as we can afford and to distribute them as other “ordinary” books (though sometimes our authors specify the number of copies in a print run to invest it with meaning, too). We don’t think about them in terms of one of a kind, unique items. Also the authors we publish want or wanted to reach ordinary readers, rather than collectors. Only in this way could we demonstrate that the book can have various forms and still be considered literature.
As for practical advice, we are not sure how our experience translates into American conditions. We suppose we are in a fortunate situation that the Polish Ministry of Culture offers a decent grant system, and our publisher, Korporacja Ha!art, applies regularly for their support. The European Union also has a very good program for supporting translations of works written by European authors. We can certainly recommend this to any publisher who would like to bring out European literature. These grants do not cover all the costs, but at least this is something we can start with. Also, a lot of work is done on voluntary basis, but personally, we treat this work as a kind of mission. Honestly, we don’t know why this has come off. We have always worked hard believing that this is valuable literature so we should let people know that liberature is worth reading, that it is exciting, special, and offers its reader a unique experience. We love it and want to share our love with others. That’s all.
And this “no-strategy” seems to be working. It’s taken us some years and hard work but we started traveling to present liberature not only round Poland, but Europe, and now the US, and even Asia (we’ve just come back from a poetry festival in Taipei, and the University of Tokyo), and to spread the word about it!
MR: Do you have any thoughts on the US in general? You’ve just completed a visit during a time when the country appears headed toward crisis. Your homeland has been through some very difficult times, and I was wondering if you could give some perspective—framed as bookishly or un-bookishly as you’d like—on the way you perceived this country’s current political landscape.
KB: When an American friend of ours, who’s been living in Poland, told us that he liked it here because everything was so unpredictable in political life, that in fact anything could still happen (our conversation was connected with some upcoming elections), we wished we had a more stable, more predictable political situation in our country. We wished for the kind of stability we saw in the US. Now, after we have visited and experienced a little of your country, we understand him better, and see that what we had perceived as stability may be felt as stiffness and limitation that makes any real change hardly possible. Everything seems to be fixed, what’s more, everything seems to be regulated and controlled by rigid law, by money and by shortsighted yearning for profit. A lot of Americans we talked to felt very pessimistic about any possibility for change in this respect.
But what surprised us most was the fact that the American media are not as independent as we had expected. In fact, our arrival coincided with the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street protests, Sept. 17th, which reached a kind of climax on the day we were about to leave, Oct. 15th. When we got to Wall Street on Sept. 25th, little aware of what’d been going on there, we were surprised that the media weren’t covering it. The way the mainstream media reported on OWS reminded us of the media manipulation in covering the anti-communist protests in Poland. The protests were belittled and protesters and their cause ridiculed.
ZF: One of my most vivid and dearest memories is secretly listening with my granddad to the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe, the two radio stations providing Poles with reliable information on the situation in communist Poland. Those two radio stations were the most important sources of information unavailable in the official, state media. So I associated America with freedom. Freedom of information, the right to information, freedom of speech. And you can only imagine how shocked I was when I realized that my free America does not have free media, that instead of informing people, journalists withheld information or manipulated it. That impression only deepened when I learned that your only independent medium is National Public Radio, that this is what Americans listen to whenever they want to get reliable information. It was highly ironic to me. So here I was, someone who grew up with the American radio station, encountering American people, who just like me long ago, can listen only to the radio to find out what’s going on. At that moment the dream of freedom transformed into its caricature.
So as a gesture of liberation we are leaving you our “Liberty Poem,” the action we carried out in New York (25 Sept) and in Chicago (3 Oct):
But we do differentiate between the defective state, and the beautiful country and wonderful people. Americans are great, open, friendly and kindhearted people, and the country is absolutely amazing.
MR: I saw you speak at Mills College in October about Polish underground publishing in the 1970s and ‘80s. You explained how due to government censorship, there was a lot of influence by visual artists. Can you talk a little about this visual influence, and how it affected underground publishing in Poland?
KB & ZF: Publishing and printing in communist Poland was subject to numerous restrictions. First of all, no individual could buy paper, printing equipment, etc., there were no privately owned publishing presses and all publications had to be approved of by the state censorship agency. Access to state-owned printing equipment was limited and had to be officially approved (e.g., photocopying machines were officially allowed into the country only after 1989!). Only editions of less than 100 copies could be published by individuals. Another thing is that no one who was defined as a writer or a poet could get a permission to buy paper, only visual artists could do that. But the kind of paper available to them was usually of low quality. So that situation must have influenced people who decided to publish independent, limited editions, and that aesthetics of poverty must have been partly unavoidable, and not necessarily pre-planned and intended by the authors. Some of them, however, could have made a deliberate use of that and exploited the “poor look” for artistic ends. But the very fact that they were defined as “visual” or “conceptual” artists must have shaped reception of their work in terms of “visual” or “conceptual” art rather than literature.
Possibly, some writers felt tempted to publish outside the censorship even if it meant only 100 copies, but by the ‘70s, underground publishing had begun to flourish so those authors published with underground presses. In fact, we think that Polish underground publishing at that time was the largest in the Eastern bloc and contributed considerably to the fall of the system twenty years later. Some of those underground publications from Gwido Zlatkes’s collection, including Polish Solidarity documents, were presented along with our liberature in Mills College Library. We think it was a fantastic idea on the part of Kathleen Walkup and Janice Braun to juxtapose these two kinds of “liberatures:” one liberating from political oppression and the other liberating from constrains of conventions.
MR: How concerned are you with narrative? I know that Katarzyna is a Joyce scholar, and Joyce was a writer who took narrative seriously, all the while making the reader dig for it. Zenon’s poetry also, while focusing on the visual space of its words, seems to be telling some sort of story. What sort of narrative potential do you see in the space of Liberatura, this area where text and texture and image meet?
KB & ZF: Liberature cannot be classified simply as narrative fiction or lyrical poetry and it encompasses all modes of writing. But it seems to us that the very physical structure of the book offers the readers a kind of path(s) that leads them through the text (be it mere text, or text and visual elements). This implies or suggests a certain sequence (or a selection of sequences in the case of books that offer several alternative paths), and we tend to associate a sequence with the narrative structure. So in a sense you can even perceive a book of poetry as a kind of narrative. Besides, in the case of Zenon’s poetry volume ten letters the sequence of the poems is deliberately arranged to form a kind of meta-message, which again can be perceived if not as a narrative sequence then at least as a kind of philosophical argument. It reminds us of an effect achieved, for example, by a cycle of sonnets, which can also be perceived as a kind of story. But one should bear in mind that the narrative we are talking about is a modern kind of narrative, so a lot of linking, of sense-making (“the digging” you mention in connection with Joyce) is vested in the reader.
MR: I’m going to suggest an overly simplified dichotomy: Artist’s books, as a rule, are coming from the world of visual art yet strive for the realm of text. Conversely, experimental writing can play with the page in ways that reach for the realm of the visual. I think these are really exciting areas that are critically under-explored. Do you foresee a critical expansion into this sort of borderland? Or is this a space that’s too liminal to ever be legitimized?
KB & ZF: Yes, we are convinced that this liminal area will be further explored critically. And this is exactly what we have been doing by first identifying and then disseminating liberature. We feel that a part of this borderland has been named, that it has gained identity. We hope this will foster research because now there is an object that can be examined, analyzed, critically explored. And this is also a message to so-called ‘ordinary readers” that these books can be read like any other literature.
MR: Any upcoming Liberatura publications you’d like to discuss?
KB & ZF: We are dreaming about the Polish edition of Finnegans Wake. In the meantime we’re bringing out another of B.S. Johnson’s books, House Mother Normal in my translation (i.e., Katarzyna’s), as well as a collective work we prepared in collaboration with Kathleen Walkup and her students from “Visible Language” seminar at Mills College. This is going to be Sonnet of Sonnets, in which we revive the stale form of the sonnet in a liberatic way. We did much work on that during our visit there in October. It’s a very exciting experience to see how students respond creatively to an idea. It was an experiment, but the students were absolutely terrific, and Kathleen is a brilliant coordinator, so we are very much looking forward to seeing the final effect. Hopefully, the book will be out in Winter 2012 as Volume 18 of Liberatura imprint, a joint project of Ha!art and Mills’ Eucalyptus Press.