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5 Kwaidan:
Ghosts and Sleeve Pages

from Leaf Mosaic
by Karl Young

All sorts of odd currents came together in 5 Kwaidan in Sleeve Pages, and you could say that it started in a lot of places. During the 1970s, I thought a good deal about how books could be constructed of various materials in different ways. I made books out of everything from human hair to mirrors to bars of soap; and books that had multiple bindings, or whose pages contained chambers or that acted as sculptures. A favorite was a set of two books with brightly colored pages about a quarter inch high and two inches across. The covers had ear ring wires affixed to them, and when the front and back covers of the book were snapped together, my lady wore them as ear rings. This set of books made up a love poem, perhaps the best I've done. Something I had thought about, but didn't know how to do, was to slit paper along its narrow edge, in such a way as to turn its two surfaces into four. I sometimes like to tell people that the formal solution to this problem was inspired, like several other works of mine, by Gustav Mahler. In this instance, his music had nothing to do with it, but an album cover did. In the pleasant serendipity of such origins, the record was Das Lied von der Erde, a symphonic work based on highly distorted translations of Chinese poems. The inspiration came while slipping the record into the lp sleeve, and noticing that the sleeve had four sides. Book leaves constructed like the sleeve would essentially move its pages into something like hyperspace, giving each leaf four pages instead of two, without requiring that the paper be slit.

I made several dummies of books with such pages without a text in mind. The texts of Kwaidan were suggested by the form of the book, perhaps an appropriate way of working backwards - or inside out. As it had for many people before, Lafcadio Hearn's retelling of Japanese ghost stories stayed with me. Perhaps his best know collection of these stories was titled Kwaidan, from a Japanese word meaning "supernatural tale," and that was a book that I had had with me since my teens. By 1984, I associated four of the stories with several of my own amorous relationships. As part of the odd, perhaps a bit spooky synchronicities of the book, the partner with whom i associated one of the stories lived in Japan at that time. All four seemed like ghosts who lived on in my dreams and subconscious. Of the many possible associations of the sleeve pages, their vaginal character seemed particularly important. There may be something a bit disconcerting about opening such pages, and that seemed appropriate enough to ghostly love stories. At the same time, it demanded that the pages be handled gently, and further insisted that I handle the composition of the text with delicacy.

The book explores any number of other aspects of the dichotomy between inside and outside: light and dark, exposure and protection, mystery and revelation. "Aoyagi," The first of the stories to resolve itself into the sleeve pages, is marvelously symmetrical. If you divide it into three parts, A,B, and C, and put A and C together, A and C parallel B. Thus A and B appear on the outsides of pages, with B running parallel to them on the insides as the first part of the book. "Yuki-Onna" seems a dark inversion of "O-Tie," and it seemed natural enough that the second section of the book should have "O-Tie" on the outsides of pages, while "Yuki-Onna" runs beneath it on the inside pages of the sleeves.

The third part of the book presented problems on several levels, and had several oddities surrounding it. I particularly identified with "Akinosuki" but didn't know how to work with it in the sleeve pages. I also identified with "Hoichi," the story of a blind poet troubled by ghosts, though this is anything but a love story. When I first read it in my teens, it struck me as an ideal verbal narrative. The action in this story is something that you, the reader or hearer, should definitely NOT see as the story unfolds. The blind nature of the story provides some of its surprises and its depth. A number of years later, I was annoyed by a film version of it made by Akiri Kurosawa. Despite my great admiration for Kurosawa, making a movie of this story, no matter how deftly, trashes it. To me, book art and visual poetry depend on each other and shouldn't be divorced. This is definitely a story that plays with the inside/outside duality in terms of things visible and things that can't be seen. Telling the story through sleeve pages thus provides extra baffles for it - it functions simultaneously as visual poetry and a negation of visualization. I take some exception with the Toronto Communications School's sharp division between aurality and literacy, arguing that aural poetry in its full flowering depends on seeing the facial expressions of the story teller, the props aural poets use, the other listeners, etc. At the same time, one of my lines of effort has been away from the isolation of text in the modern world, and the way that everything from teaching to printing move reading toward a process of dematerialized data transference. This story works against my own arguments: it is a story that's best left to the solitary word, whether spoken or written. "Akinosuke," a story in which a dream becomes a lifetime, and the inner vision of dreams becomes more real than that which takes place outside them, asks simple but unanswerable questions about the nature of perception, unity of being, and existence. Some might see in it an echo of Chaung Tzu's parable in which he dreams he is a butterfly, then wakes up wondering if he is a butterfly dreaming he is Chaung Tzu.

At the time of composition, I was alone, and the function of the blind poet with ghosts on his mind seemed to accentuate the love stories: a solitary blind man looking back on things that can't be seen. The whole book thus hinges on this story. As part three begins, "Hoichi" appears on the outsides of sleeves, and "Akinosuke" on insides. In the middle of the section, they change positions, with "Hoichi" moving inside the pages and "Akinosuke" shifting to the outsides. The dream and the poem shift between each other, and each may be a continuation of its counterpart.

Oddly, and perhaps appropriately enough, the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation made a version of Hearn's "Akinosuke" years after I did the book. I'm not a Star Trek fan, and only caught the program by accident. The producers did a remarkably good job, actually adding something to the story in the context of science fiction. If one story proves a mistake for a great director, another may push mediocre producers to go where their kind usually do not go. I'm glad I read "Hoichi" before seeing it in a film, and "Akinosuke" before I saw it recast on television.

The quality of the verse into which I cast the first three stories reflects Japanese poetry, in as far as I could understand its methods through translation. This extends from what seems to a westerner loose sentence structure, oblique approach, understatement, something like syllogisms that depend on small surprises for their logic. In the last two stories, I worked with longer lines that suggest narration by an imaginary oral poet.

Initially, I did this work as a one-of-a-kind book art project. The book makes use of light and shadow. Paul Metcalf, a reader who regularly made insightful comments on books of mine that weren't what I thought of as his cup of tea, said that I should include a flashlight tied into the spine so that readers could see the insides of pages better. As usual, his remark comes directly to a major point: the light of the reader's environment plays an integral role in the books imaging. The type was as plain as I could make it, with as little variation as possible. The visual poetry element of the book comes from the light on pages and the shifting, ghost-like shadows the reader, the paper, and the environment create during reading. The major move out of the standard, ephemeralized nature of reading in the 20th Century takes place not by anything on the page, but by the three dimensional structure of the book, which creates a rhythm between faster and slower reading speeds along with the phantom lights and shadows which reading pulls into it. Despite the transient nature of light during reading, this is a book that demands active manual participation on the part of the reader. You can opt not to read the book, or to read only the outsides of pages, but to read the whole thing, you literally have to enter the book. There's no way that a reader can forget that reading is something that requires handling a book. And no way that a reader can sustain the illusion of passivity that has become the norm in ephemeralized reading.

My three dimensional books had so far existed only in one-of-a-kind volumes. That seems to be part of the nature of the kinds of bookforms with which I've worked. In this case, however, I had remarkably good luck. Good luck is a dimension of most ghost stories which many readers tend to miss. Charles Alexander produced the book through his Chax Press in a beautiful and immaculate edition. I can't imagine anyone doing a better job.

Ghostly echoes followed the book after Charles agreed to publish it. I was still actively writing and producing books when we made the initial arrangements to do the book. By the time it came out in 1986, however, I had stopped writing and had largely stopped thinking about books and poetry. In this respect, the timing was perfect.

The book found its way into the footnotes of the most inept book on book art the world should ever have to see. Although the author's comments show her usual inability to understand books or art or much of anything other than cult machinations, a number of people, including some of her students, have done imitations of the sleeve pages since her book came out. Some probably take their cue from the description in the footnote instead of from seeing my book or as a result of independant invention. That these ghosts should come from a literary corner of ugliness and deceit follows one dimension of traditional ghost stories very nicely.

I dedicated the book to my cousin, Kris Kondo, and her children, Jorge and Anna. During our teens, Kris and I had read translations of Japanese poetry together. After I resumed writing in the late 1980s, I worked with Kris on projects to bring Japanese poets to the U.S. to write linked verse with people in this country, and collaborated with her on a number of other Renku projects. The Japanese forms of sentence structure, oblique reference, serene decorum, and shifting point of view that I had tried to imitate in the lines of the poem seemed almost like a foreshadowing of the literary and linguistic forms I would become involved with in these projects. Hidden or unexpected prophecies make up some of the basic assumptions of ghost stories.

Charles Alexander could only do the book in a tiny edition. It went out of print relatively quickly. I don't imagine anyone will reprint it in the sleeve pages, and I would not consent to printing the texts in any other form. Although most books of poetry produced in the late 20th Century won't get reprinted, this book's structure seems to make the possibility of a reprint even less likely. Copies of the book at times appear in used book catalogs, including those on-line, where its title flickers in electrons on computer screens around the world, called up by key words that may as often as not have nothing to do with the book. Perhaps these shadows of transience and temporary availability add considerably to the ghostly nature of the work. As I write this, two copies of the book previously owned by now deceased friends, including Paul Metcalf mentioned above, appear in an on-line catalogue.

My guess is that this odd little book will have more strange adventures for some time into the future. . .

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