Idiom: A Story of Anti-Production,
or The Triumph of Sloth

by Pamela Lu


What's next in terms of publishing? This is a daunting and overwhelming question, one which many others could answer better than I. Since I've been invited to speak on this question, I'll do my best by beginning with a story (a long-winded anecdote really, but not such a bad story after all), of one San Francisco’s Bay Area publishing dramas by the name of Idiom ( In this story I will sketch a romance of the mid-1990s avant-garde, including the seduction of the young by utopian ambitions; their awakening to the logistical, fiscal, and temporal realities of the publishing world; and their eventual exploitation of and counter-exploitation by the altered reading habits and new technologies of virtual late capitalism.

The Idiom publishing collective began around 1994. Its half a dozen or so editors were intelligent, well-meaning young people who had newly discovered in themselves certain ideals about poetry. Many of us had met as students at Berkeley where we had been influenced by developments inspired by Language Poetry and the New York School, as well as revisions of canonical authorship, criticism and art. We were also interested in collective organizing, coterie movements for mutual support and promotion, and a model of literary activity more akin to the tradition of the artists' salon than that of the lonely author. We were swept away by the plethora of what we perceived to be exciting, innovative work happening around us–work by many fine verse and prose writers who had been practicing in the Bay Area since the 70s and 80s, as well as work by emerging young writers whose poetics and even aesthetics were as yet unarticulated. Some of these emerging writers, still in their early twenties, harbored "heroic" notions of poethood, but we were confident that many of them could be nudged in a more provocative, radically explorative, and tonally adventurous direction. We hoped that this would occur partly by their engagement with Idiom, which (while yet to assume material reality) would through its reckless enthusiasm and charming ways hopefully foster significant discussions and works of the next wave. To this end a reading series was organized, placing in dialogue the works of more established writers with those of the emerging generation. This was delivered before a semi-informal audience composed of listeners from both these groups and others. Serious thought was also given toward a mode of publishing which might provisionally represent the community of emergent writers from an area including Oakland, Berkeley, and the San Francisco Bay region.

There was an abundance of inspired past examples. We were drawn in particular to the chapbook series of Burning Deck and Tuumba, finding in their spare designs and expansive range of titles, an ethos of budget-conscious book circulation whose momentum and artistic currency we desired to emulate. We also admired and were stirred to action by the go-getting East Coast productions of O-blek and Leave Books. They provided standards of diligence, widespread circulation, and critical scope which we felt certain would emerge any day without warning among the twentysomethings of the opposite coast. On the other hand, the journal, Proliferation–with its cumulative insanity of erratic paper stock, illegible marginalia, diecut covers, postfeminist typesetting, and anachronistic letterpress prints wedded to toner-crazy photocopier ejectorama–deeply influenced our inchoate attraction to impracticably elaborate, fiscally draining design schemes, fetishistic juxtapositioning of textures, and nonstandard book elements. Proliferation introduced us to the idea of design as the signature of publishing, of content as an extension of excessive and excessively signifying media. Thus our personalities found confirmation, and we soon abandoned efficiency in favor of the baroque as our primary mode of functioning. It soon became not only necessary, but a principle of pride for us, to reinvent the wheel with each new chapbook project. Four years and six chapbooks later, we are veterans of desktop publishing and the scrap heap. We have developed enduring intimacies with paper cutters, letterpress ink rollers, hand stitching, woodblock prints, silkscreening, the zen of saddle stapling, docutech printing, permanent markers, velvet, acetate plastic, xacto knives, high-volume Costco film processing, office resource embezzlement, Federal Express envelopes, and a particularly beautiful silver can of almond-scented Italian archival paste.

In addition to the chapbook series, we lumbered characteristically toward the development of an online journal. This would feature the emergent Bay Area writing which we had originally solicited over many years and planned to feature in the inaugural issue of a massive print journal (also to go by the name of Idiom). By our perpetually preliminary estimates, this print journal would consist of two hundred perfectbound pages of new writing, along with visual art reproductions and book reviews, to be paid for with the nonexistent revenue we felt for sure would be earned by our reading and chapbook series. Needless to say, the print product never surfaced. Instead, we shifted our focus to producing a quarterly journal on the Web, which enabled us to bypass the formidable costs of offset printing and to churn out virtual publications at a slightly less slow pace. We discovered several advantages and idiosyncrasies of our new medium. One advantage was that it was suddenly possible to achieve international circulation in a utopic sense, at no extra cost to us. Another was the relative ease and fidelity of reproducing full-color visual art, especially art dealing with themes of visual textuality. It occurred to us that the limitations of print publication did not have to be paralleled onscreen. By reproducing multiple views of an artpiece, for example, we were able to create a kind of virtual gallery experience, and to make accessible to the public work which had previously been viewable only in the rare original. Yet another advantage was the ability to present in website form the Idiom project in its entirety. Quarterly issues could deal with special topics, and also interact with promotions for the print chapbook series. The Idiom project as a whole could exist as a coherent archive, growing bit by bit by accretion rather than replacement.

We also discovered that our electronic existence placed us squarely in a new community of readers who had developed reading habits peculiar to the Internet. In particular, we found ourselves part of a reading experience situated largely and furtively in the gaps between official, corporate or institutionally sanctioned uses of computer technology. We became part of a model of poetry that was exactly the opposite of pulling a book down from a shelf and reading it leisurely. Rather, we thrived on the culture of email breaks, procrastination, and clandestine browsing which had evolved to make the white-collar workday bearable on a minute-to-minute level by undermining its file-o-fax narrative of efficient productivity. We capitalized on the fidgety down time of working poets and readers, and our survival was in turn ensured by the workplace–by the innocuous and officiously anonymous guise of the computer monitor and by our own resourceful pillaging of the lush resources and equipment of one of Silicon Valley's corporate giants of desktop publishing. All of this typing and double-clicking helped to promote the appearance of increasing third-quarter earnings, when in fact it was only poetry which benefited from this balance of labor. Thus a sub-narrative of art found itself sponsored by the reported narrative of industry.

And so our story pauses here in midswing. We continue to champion idleness in the face of maximal productivity, and California-style lassitude in a culture of accelerating deadlines, compulsory day care, and declining sleep hours, in which even poets are not exempt from the vicissitudes and demands of the rat race. In particular, one might consider how the "SuperMom" paradigm of the 1980s and 90s has worked its way into the world of today's working writer or artist. In place of or in addition to "family," substitute "poetry" or "publishing" as the surplus yet essential term which must somehow be squeezed into a cramped schedule of high-tuition, debt-inducing classes; increasingly competitive and high-pressure academic careers; longer workdays; and long commute hours from culture-rich urban centers to job-rich exurbias. Fortunately, others more stout of heart and better organized than Idiom have moved in to wrangle the scene. Presses and journals like Explosive Magazine and Spectacular Books, Melodeon Poetry Systems, ghost-i, Tripwire, Shark, Krupskaya, Interlope, Lipstick Eleven, Double Lucy Books, Second Story, and Log, to name a few, are keeping bookshelves stocked with the latest new writing and manuscripts of our generation. It is to them that we look, eagerly and expectantly, for what looms on the horizon.

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BIO: Pamela Lu was born in Southern California and studied mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1995 she has worked as a technical writer in Silicon Valley and co-edited Idiom (, an online journal and chapbook press. In addition to a book of fanciful non-fiction, Pamela: A Novel (Atelos Press,1999), she has had prose and poetry published in a number of journals, including Chain, Chicago Review, Clamour, Explosive Magazine, Interlope, Mirage, and Poetics Journal. Lu lives in San Francisco.


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