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Dr Nasser Hussain on books...

Thursday 1st October is National Poetry Day – and, in this blog post, Dr Nasser Hussain talks about his latest poetry project and his love of books.

Dr Nasser Hussain on books

When I ask people about their favourite books, it’s very seldom that they name a book of poetry. Which is a little sad, but I suppose I’m a bit biased. Poetry is books, too! And all poets love books.

Any avid reader (and I am surrounded by them, here, in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities here at LBU) knows a secret. We readers are lucky, in a way. We have a chance to spend our days in pursuit of knowledge, understanding – and our primary tool in that pursuit is the book, printed, bound, and stored in libraries, bookcases, piled haphazardly on our desks, in our studios, covering our kitchen tables. Everywhere, books, books, books. 

There are more books than I can possibly read, and each one of them contains within it the potential to change my outlook, my mind, my world. The secret we keep to ourselves is quite simple: there are too many books. 

Readers are gluttons for punishment

Readers are gluttons for punishment. Sisypheans, all, we trudge through thousands of pages of dull prose, uninspired sentences, half-baked poems, self-indulgent screeds, superficial recollections, downright offensive ideas, always in search of that moment that set us going in the first place – that ineffable, elusive sense that what we are reading is directly speaking to us. 

My partner has an excellent memory. She can recite long poems from obscure writers at length, word-for-word. I cannot. But I’m not sure that a photographic memory is the mark of a good reader. 

For me, it has to do with the depth of the impression made in the moment that the text and the reader meet. I can distinctly remember the imaginary taste of Turkish Delight when I first read CS Lewis. Much later, I felt the value of a scene in Salman Rushdie’s Shame, in which a character embroiders a white shawl with white thread, even if I didn’t completely understand what Rushdie was trying to say at the time. 

Reading about how Fredrick Douglass taught himself to read by tricking his childhood companions into sounding out letters for him on the docks of Baltimore taught me to never forget the absolute privilege of having had a formal education, and the infinite gift of literacy. 

Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The image of a man in a room with 1369 light bulbs in Invisible Man. The knife-like poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. Danez Smith’s howling verses in Don’t Call Us Dead. Laughing so hard at the jokes in James Joyce, or Thomas de Quincey. 

Oh, Hanif Kureishi, even though I don’t agree with everything you’ve said about teaching creative writing, you gave me the gift of The Buddha of Suburbia, and I’ve never been the same since. bpNichol’s hilarious and heartbreakingly simple pictures in language. I could go on. And I will (but perhaps not here and now).

Lines from a bpNichol poem carved into concrete

We are all writing books that we pull from our deepest interests

I am lucky, these days, to be part of a system that makes new books. Every year, more books for a world already swimming in books. I had the immense privilege to edit a wonderful collection by a new writer from Montreal in 2020. Just when I think I’d seen it all, this writer made a poem that forces you to hold the page to the light and see that the text on the reverse side of the page is laid out so that it can be read through the paper itself. It’s a remarkable poem in a book full of remarkable poems. 

In 2021, I’ll help usher another book into the world – this one, a book of erasure poems that erase the text of an eraser advertisement. 

I’m writing a new book. My colleagues are writing new books. We are all writing books that we pull from our deepest interests, a ton of labour, months of patient reading and sometimes angst, and we offer all these new books to you, the reader, over and over and over again. We do this so often that it feels like a job, and perhaps we forget that we are engaged in the most joyful and hopeful of projects – to make our ideas known, public, and understood.

The books I intend to produce will outlast this civilisation

My newest poetry project has just begun. I’ve bought a small letterpress, and am assembling a dozen writers to give me short texts which I will print, one page a month, to be published in a short twelve-page book at the end of the year. 

I know that doesn’t sound very exciting, but the value lies in the material of the book itself. My books will be printed on real parchment (a very early version of paper, made from animal skins). There is one last producer of parchment in the country, maybe one of a few remaining in the world, and his ‘paper’ will last for five thousand years. I’m also sourcing my ink from a man in Toronto who makes the kinds of ink that they used when the Magna Carta was committed to print (and which we still have, intact). 

The books I intend to produce will outlast this civilisation, if they are not actively destroyed. The material of my books puts a great deal of pressure on me and my writers – what book would you make, what poem would you write, if you knew it was going to survive for millennia? 

A series of letterpress wood blocks

Poetry is real

As I initiate myself into the printer’s art, I find my hands covered in ink, my shoulder tired from pressing the paper to the type, my eyes watering from squinting as I arrange tiny lead type into lines of language. I’ve come to appreciate the jargon of the bookmaker: forme, quoin, furniture, punch, oak gall, signature, recto and verso and margin and gutter. 

I’ve also found a whole community of printers out there, and they’re some of the nicest and most generous people I’ve encountered; everyone is eager to share their experience and knowledge with a complete stranger and novice like me. 

This post may seem off topic, considering the day, but I really am talking about poetry, essentially. Poetry is all about handling language, and remembering that it’s hard work, and messy, and made of actual material. Figuratively, perhaps, but certainly literally: poetry is real.

I hadn’t really appreciated it until now, but books are such complicated and simultaneously simple little machines. Today, take a moment, hold a book in your hands, and wonder – because wonder is the precondition for all good readers, as well as their reward. 

bpNichol poetry image courtesy of duchamp

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About the Author

Dr Nasser Hussain

Nasser has a variety of writing and research interests, revolving around contemporary poetry and poetics, embodiment and performance, and creative writing. Current foci include autobiography, Conceptual writing, the ethics of appropriation, and a number of writing projects that seek to find and recuperate 'lost' fragments of language, including SKY WRI TEI NGS - a work that composes poetry from IATA airport codes.

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