Leevi Lehto: Nothing That Is Initially Interesting To More Than Seven People Can Ever Change The Counciousness Of the Masses
Based on presentations given, during Spring 2007, in Tallinn, Estonia, Jyväskylä, Finland, and on May 11, in the Seminar on Alternative Publishing in Biskops-Arnö, Sweden. To be published, in translation into Scandinavian by Susanne Christensen, in issue 33/34 2007 of OEI. Se also: Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, "You are a pipe".

Nothing That Is Initially Interesting 

To More Than Seven People

Can Ever Change The Counciousness Of the Masses


1. Three ages of publishing poetry

Let me start with a short parable. It's about "three ages of publishing (poetry)". In Finland - but could be elsewhere, I think, with different dates, and emphasizes,perhaps.

My thee ages, or models, of publishing are:

First: what the poet Risto Ahti once called "the trinity of poet, editor, and critic". This is the model of the Finnish 1980's and before.

Second: Poets as a group, school, or movement. This is the model of Finnish 1990's, of Nuori Voima, the Living Poets Club.

Third: Poets and Poetry as a (Utopian) Community. My ideal. Or the model of the possible present or (near future).

In the first model, the editor is the king. Once or twice a year, the poet leaves his or her small wooden cabin in the countryside, heading for the Capital, carrying a plastic bag full of new drafts, which the editor will read; together they will shake out the contents for the poet's next book, to be then offered to the "general reading public". In this model, the critic stands primarily for the latter, as a "pre-reader" ("esilukija"), as we say in Finnish.

In the second model, things start to change. The editor ceases to be the primary reader, to be replaced by fellow poets. The "general reading public" of the first model also starts to change - to organize itself, or to be organized by poets. This is the time of "poetry societies" and large readings, of poetry reading as a hip thing to go to.

When we move beyond these two "historical" models, what I see as happening is that the "readers" in the second one start to write - or rather, to publish their writing (for it may be that through all these ages, there has been more writers of poetry that readers of it: a paradox that I will return later on). Not only "everyone writes poetry", much of it (more than we often realize) is "good" - at least by the standards of the two preceding models. In fact, dozens if not hundreds of poets in each Scandinavian country, say, who in my view can easily top what used to be thought of as "the threshold of publishing", yet cannot even dream of getting published via the traditional presses (the interest of whose tends not to be geared toward quality, but toward "selling power" instead). On the other hand, with "readers writing" - and especially with all the new ways for them to publish (the Internet - and cf. what I will have to say of my own new on-demand print, ntamo) there's a lingering question of "who", if anyone, "reads", something that I will also return to later on.

Let me stop to consider these models as for what comes to be written in each of them. In the first one, the editor's taste is omnipotent. He is the taste, the embodiment of the "general taste", so to say. The quest is for "talents", for people who will write in a way that will both satisfy the general taste, and present it with pleasant surprises. This model also incorporates an idea of the poets "personal growth" which the editor is supposed to foster and act as a guide for. To a limit, this model favors innovation: it is felt that the reading public should continuously be offered something "new"; however, there are strict limits for the experimentation (it should not be conducted "for its own sake"). The reading of the poets - where they get their ideas of how to write - is geared to the canonical masters, like the 1950's Masters Haavikko, Manner, Saarikoski at the national level, and the big names of the Twentieth Century Modernism internationally. Poetry is seen to exist for the advancement of national goals - like fostering (even "safeguarding") the national language. Translation activity, at least that by the poets themselves, also tends to center on great canonical masters (Homer, Pound...)

Let me also note that this model tends to emphasize the poet's separateness, loneliness, the editor being seen as "his sole supporter". While this kind of support has perhaps been more important for the careers of many individual poets than is often realized, in practice there are limits to the support offered. The three Finnish poets whose work, to me, stands as the greatest achievements in the frames of this model - Jyrki Pellinen, Arto Kytöhonka, and Matti Tiisala - all found them "thrown out" at certain points of their careers, for various reasons. The case of Pellinen, three-time winner of the National Literature Price and a uniquely talented virtuoso, is illuminating: he found himself ousted from Otava, one of the most prestigious publishing houses, immediately after his founder and "sole supporter", the Arch-Father of all the Model 1 editors in Finland, Tuomas Anhava, died in 1999. Later on, Pellinen has found his way back to the public sphere in the framework of my Model 3. - All in all, in Model 1, there's a strict separation of roles, and the poet in particular is not supposed to speak for (even think of) his work. His is the "I don't know, I only do this my job" attitude.

In the second model, it is of course the taste of the collective, the poet's immediate peers, that counts. It suddenly becomes allowed, required even, for the poet to speak about her work, to have explicated a poetics, to explore and continuously test the grounds of her own writing. The editor, in this model, starts to dwindle, to move to the fringes, and to be viewed with suspicion, if not as an enemy. I tend to see this as an important step forward, but there's an element of conformism involved. Everybody is concerned about the "right way" of writing, there's a general obsession with "writing better" (connected the illusory revelations of what constitutes "good poetry": "It was only after I read X that I realized what poetry is all about...") - all of which feeds a certain conformism. More than in Model 1, poetry also becomes to be a generation thing: the group around the Nuori Voima magazine - Jukka Koskelainen, Jyrki Kiiskinen, Helena Sinervo, Riina Katajavuori, and others - consisted almost exclusively of poets born during the Sixties (the network of mutual support now replacing, perhaps, that provided by the editor in the first model). All this is reflected in a certain new careerism - often, being poet comes to be seen as a certain obligatory "first" step in being a writer, on the way to become a "real" writer who, ideally, ends up writing novels for the general public. This is one of the reasons why I tend to see the Model 2 even more confined to the national scene than the first one.

As to the reading and writing of poets in the second model - in the Finnish context, at least, I would risk the the following claim: while there is a certain "opening up" in regard to what constitutes "the tradition" (i.e. newly born interest in, say, French symbolism that happened to be banned by the editors-in-charge of our Model 1), and while we perhaps can say that translation as a legitimate and even necessary part of the poet's work is something that really is only introduced in this model, there is - still - also a tendency to seal oneselves off of what happens around on a contemporary basis. I like to say, a bit jokingly, that it took a long time before the Living Poets Society started to publish other that dead poets in translations. Compare this to, say, the introduction of the Beat poets during the 1960's - basically a Model 1 phenomenon in my scheme. This is another instance of the tendency toward nationalization of poetry (and literature in general) that is still very much with us: see the recent "debates" about "what is wrong with Swedish / Norwegian [to be followed by other countries, I'm sure] poetry"....

A word of group dynamics is in place in this context. In the history of Finnish literature, group formation has perhaps not been as common as elsewhere - in early 20th Century, we had "Tulenkantajat", a somewhat left-oriented group of poets and novelists; then the Fifties' Modernists, and Nuori Voima group. Groups are often seen as a healthy phenomenon: in their urge to challenge the "Old Guard" of any given period, they are supposed to effect a "cleaning of tables", and to reinvigorate the literary scene. Personally, I have come to doubt this logic and this rhetoric - the leading poets of the Finnish Nineties' generation may hold the world record in moving from the position of "challengers" to that of the main gate-keepers of the establishment... and I think I know of personal experience how effective the excluding functions of all this can be... One of the crucial tasks in what I see as the "future" (in my Model 3) is introducing a new kind of pluralism where "community" is thought in terms of radical inclusion rather than exclusion. That will also mean a new view of tradition (even the avant-garde one) as necessarily plural and open-ended...

Compared to these two phases, what I see - hope to see - as crucial in my third phase (which is a possibility) is that it carries forward the shift from the editor to the poets themselves - on to the new readers-as-writers. "Everybody writing", there may actually be fewer readers for each individual poet / work - and more competition for these readers, i.e. for attention by fellow-writers. To me, the ideal effect of this new environment is an impetus for innovation, through the felt need to differ from (in stead of being influenced by) the next guy... It is actually a tough world - but also potentially very rewarding: I' like to talk about a generalized spirit of innovation, or a tradition of innovation that is in the process of building-up. Also, there's a possibility for a new kind of internationalism: along the same lines of (small) group formation, an interest in contemporary writing elsewhere becomes possible – actually, in my view, in this new context, translation (in a new sense of radical transformation) becomes the basis of poetical activity. But let me consider these perspectives in relation to one of my own projects...

2. An extended commercial break: ntamo

Following the example of another Finnish poet, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen with his Ankkuri press, I have established my own publishing house, ntamo, which will work as a completely Net-based, book-on-demand publisher. It has it's own web interface, structured as a blog where each new book gets its own entry. For printing the book I use the well-known online service, lulu.com - when you want to by the book, you are directed to the lulu.com site where you can make the purchase like you would do at Amazon.com or other standard online bookstores. Depending on how quickly you want to get the book, you have to pay some extra (from Eur 1,5 for several week's delivery to plus our 100 for delivery next morning). Even with standard mailing costs, the price will beat the ones of most traditional publishing houses. When ordering larger quantities, the impact of mailing costs will of course go down. With even larger orders, the unit cost can come down as well.

I have established two important principles, or rules:

For one, we will never invest a cent in any new book coming out. Thus, there will be no free copies, not to the authors, nor to reviewers, or any other promoting purposes. The aim of this principle is to make sure that ntamo never runs out of money - and, accordingly, never has to postpone putting out a new book when one comes to production.

The other rule you could call that of "no marketing". Don't even think of asking for our books in bookstores. I will never pay anything to get a stand at a Book Fair or like. I won't even waste my time in putting up links to the (eventual) reviews at the ntamo blog - but will enable the authors to do that themselves. All the time I have for this, I should dedicate to making new books.

This is because, beside of the quality, I see the amount and frequency of new books getting published to be crucial for the success of the venture. I've presented my plan in several seminars and conferences both in Finland and abroad, committing myself publicly to the goal of publishing, during Autumn 2007, as many new poetry books than all the other Finnish publishing houses taken together will do.

I realize that in emphasizing the size of the offering I'm courting with the well-known "Long Tail theory": the print volumes may stay small, but with a large number of titles, the project could still prove profitable, if that was the motivation behind it. This association is reflected in the company's name that is the tail-part of the Finnish word for press or publishing house: "kustantamo."[1]

I also realize that, in view of my own background as someone who has campaigned for Internet as a new platform for literature, this initiative represents a sort of compromise: a way of admitting the hard-to-die importance of having actual books published. This is a curious thing: the book retains its status - you still have to have books on your records, to refer to, even if very few actually buy or even read them. Of course, there are interesting things to consider when deciding what exactly you want to publish in book form (in contrast to putting out in blog, say) - these perhaps mostly related to quality of book as a permanent - not to say eternal - storage (and of course, one of the crucial things with ntamo is that with book-on-demand, books will stay on sale for ever, whereas in the traditional book industry, they have - somewhat against their "essence" - become to be seen as seasonal products...)

From the point-of-view of individual writer, beside of the certain indispensable handicaps (no free copies, less marketing...), ntamo wants to offer the (I think important) benefits of a) better and more timely royalties as compared to traditional publishers, and b) the full copyright remaining with the author: publishing through ntamo in the morning doesn't prevent you from reaching an alternative agreement with another publisher in the afternoon for the same work.

While there will be some focus on the Finnish scene, I think of my venture as fundamentally a transnational one. I am willing to publish in as many languages as possible - and I think there will be indispensable benefits tied to this. Instead of strict targeting - as in the marketing-driving models of publishing - I want the offering to be as heterogeneous as possible. I place a lot of confidence in publishing in small or minor languages - one of the soon forthcoming books is Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl's anthology of translations from English avant-gard poetry into Icelandic, and I aim to follow up with similar projects in other languages (I also have two books of poetry in non-existing languages in the works). Of course, translations from minor languages into English and other "world languages", will be a natural extension of this approach. Third one would be putting out "native" work written in English - in view of "non-native" readerships. Over time, I believe this can create interesting cross-language audiences that will benefit the development of new "World Poetry"...

When I think back to my three hypothetical models as well as to what I have said of my own initiative, I'm struck by how they all emphasize the process of poetry as something happening in small numbers, from the duo of poet and editor in Model 1 to the lone blogger of Model 3. Actually, I am a strong believer in Walter Benjamin's idea of a piece of art never being meant for the receiver. I recently took part in a discussion where a poet friend of mine mentioned the known universal constant of poetry books sold in 300 copies. Her sense being that we should work to increase that number, I felt compelled to respond by stating an opposite goal: in fact we should strive to reduce the sales, to enable more variation, and more impetus to change and innovation. In fact, the crucial process in any art form never takes places at the level of distribution - the visual arts with their separate "Art Scene" and "Art Market" perhaps being the case in point. Who knows, maybe ntamo with its "No Free Copies" attitude will come to be part of an evolution where the process of literature is brought closer to that of other Arts.

Anyway, it should be clear now that the currently dominant paradigm of best-sellers is incapable of producing anything new - when striving to find "content" that would be of interest to as many as possible, you are bound to offer something that really isn't of interest to anyone - something which, inverted, gives my basic ntamo slogan, "Nothing That Is Initially Interesting To More Than Seven People Can Ever Change The Counciousness Of the Masses".

3. In stead of conclusions: three loose ends

First, I see my the ntamo initiative as closely related to another, more general one: that for the literature of Barbaric English, i.e. that of English as the Second or Nth language. Seen from another perspective, this initiative again may only be an extension of what can be seen as the central crisis in both my Models 1 and 2: that of the idea of mastery of language. In a national context, the crisis is a double one: the advertising and entertainment industries, on the one hand, taking over the poets old role as "Masters of Punning", and (related to that) the fact of there not being anything to master (in the sense of unified, organically evolving language) any more. On the international context, on the contrary, there may be a unified language, what is (currently) known as "Glinglish", or the 1500 word Global English, the real vernacular of our present world: the idea of helping this language to reach its "perfection" is of course ridiculous, whereas my notion of an unlimited number of (poetic) Xinglishes, instead, presents a endless horizon for "improvement". During the last couple of decades, we've seen a general trend among poets everywhere from the paradigm of mastering the language to that of exposing it. It wouldn't surprise me to see the next step in this process to be a certain return to creativity - this time only not based on a vision of authentic language, but on the authentic experience of the strangeness of all languages instead: in the spirit in which I have proposed Finnish to be seen as one of the real world languages - i.e. marginal to the point of being able to stand for all the others' marginality...

Second, about "Nations Being Enemies of Literature". I've used this slogan to describe a special mission of ntamo to chart a new (public) space beyond and between nations, a transnational literary scene. Knowing this to be a vast subject, let me content myself here just to stress the power of the national structures to reproduce themselves, even against the intentions of those involved. I tend to see this constantly in the both ends of my current attention span: i.e. in the ("major") US scene of alternative literature and poetics, with its somewhat complacent concentration on certain "easy listening" to ones own idiom(s), and in the (globally marginal, though rather active) Finnish poetry blogosphere with its, as such sympathetic and moving, camaraderie - the "everybody knows that everybody knows everybody" spirit. Writing in his blog about nypoesi.net, Johannes Göransson recently quipped about "all those American journals who claim they are international because they once published a translation" - coming close to express my feelings about all this. I think of the Scandinavian "cooperation" (understood as something that is "based on misunderstanding", as Ingmar Lemhagen remarked in his opening speech for the Biskops-Arnö seminar about "Alternative Publishing") as a good ground to practice a different approach.

Well, if I've been able to unabashedly speak about my own venture at such a length here, one of the grounds for that is that everybody could start a similar project. There's nothing proprietary, nothing that, technically speaking, would be mine (not even my money involved). This, in my eyes, is one sign of the changes taking place around the "division of labor" between poet, editor, and critic I spoke of earlier - toward "abolishing" the said divisions. Other ways to put this would be to say that the question of poets "office" is gaining in importance, and that her or his "voice" starts to matter again.

In fact, what was the "own", "authentic" voice required from the poets in my Model 1, in the best of cases, if not also loosing one's expected, determined one? In my scheme of things, voice is something that is always socially determined, collective - as in the intonations and accents by which we (often without knowing it) signal our adherence to certain social groups and conventions. A poets voice, or office, today, may be seen as one gesturing toward a Utopian communality (beyond understanding) - a new kind of communality grounded on the misunderstandings and actual failures to communicate that, under so much talk about the opposite, go on determining the exchange between peoples, languages and cultures. A voice of dissonance, and of constant surprise, of the actual joy of misunderstanding, but at the same time, in a classical vein, necessarily elegiac.[2]


1 I might as well explain the minor joke in the name: what gets left out is "kusta", for "piss" - something we don't have and don't intend to offer...

2 In my "Preface" to the Finnish selection of poems and essays by Charles Bernstein, I came to claim that, against certain "postmodernist" appearances, it is precisely the personality of the poet that, even here, "impregnates / saturates" the work - also suggesting that it may not be so much the humor than an "intellectually controlled sorrow" that gives it its peculiar tone. Cf. also Charles himself, in an interview with him by Nie Zhenzhao, talking about his early work, Parsing: "Much of the content of the sentences is plaintive, so that is part of the pull for me. A kind of collective plaint of despair or melancholy or disappointment or separation, which is something that threads through my work and connects it, perhaps unexpectedly, to fado, blues, mourning prayers, or other forms of lament(...)" Both texts published in Foreign Literary Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 April 2007 (Wuhan, China).