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Gunpowder, urine, & the post-production of the long poem

In “The Longing of the Long Poem,” Peter Middleton notes that long poems “resist the support institutions of poetry” since such texts, lacking the easy iterability of lyrics, are “[e]xpensive to print; tricky to handle digitally; too long to be read in their entirety at poetry readings; too big for anthologies; much too big for little magazines to be able to publish anything but short sections; almost always too long to teach within the constraints of a timetable; [and] exorbitantly demanding of a reader’s time.”  While, at 40 pages, my long poem, The Philosophy of Decomposition/Re-composition as Explanation (Delete Press, 2011), is not nearly as long as the works that Middleton discusses, I’m thrilled, nevertheless, that Delete Press decided to give my extended project, a mash-up/re-mix/collage of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” and Stein’s “Composition as Explanation,” its wonderful and creative support.

I was extremely happy with all aspects of the book’s editing and fabrication–from the drop caps in the text to the Xylene ink transfers on the cover–but I was especially blown away with the uniquely burned interleafs (two are pictured above) that the book designer produced with the help of a batch of homemade gunpowder.

There was a time when bookbinders placed a tissue interleaf between frontispiece and title page in order to prevent illustration and text from rubbing together…The transitional space between image and scripture is often a zone of contention.  Here we must separate…Tissue paper for wrapping or folding can also be used for tracing.  Mist-like transience.  Listen, quick rustling.

(from Susan Howe’s The Midnight)

If a conventional tissue interleaf is a liminal divider between text and image–what Howe calls “a zone of contention”–then the interleaf of The Philosophy also doubles as a frontispiece in its own right as it opens the book with an illustration of absence, a literal image of charred decay.

Rather than acting as a “pale or wanly yellow” veil “approaching transparency” (to use Howe’s words again), it’s more like a corroded peephole that, in the case below, fortuitously frames the word “And”–highlighting the fact that the text is, indeed, a radical conjunction of unlike components.

When I first saw a copy of The Philosophy, I wrote to Jared, my editor, who did a tremendous job with the book’s mise-en-page, about how much I liked the overall book-object, and he replied, “You MIGHT like to know that the homemade gunpowder used for the covers involved a wee bit of human urine —- it was literally a necessary part of the recipe, not just a crass introduction. But I assure you the raw ingredients have been thoroughly rendered away —- it is completely safe and cultured and nothing icky remains.”  I then got from Crane, the book designer, a more detailed description of the making of the black powder.  It’s so incredibly beautiful that I feel compelled to quote most of it below:

In building your book I wanted to pursue my own process of decomposition.  I began to think about the ways in which paper degrades.  Rotting in the ground, exposure to rain, chemicals (I used Xylene, a paint thinner, for the image transfers on the cover), and fire.  Although rain or burying paper in the ground would have created unique and unpredictable patterns of ruin in the paper, these seemed like passive processes, whereas burning paper could achieve some level of stochastic design but in a more involved, active, and risk-exposed situation.   I followed the traditional recipe for Chinese blackpowder: 75% potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, 15% carbon, 10% sulphur.  You can buy potassium nitrate and sulphur in garden stores.  Potassium nitrate is used for removing tree stumps ( tree cellulose is often used in the papermaking process, and I just loved this connection) and sulphur is sold as a soil acidifier.  Or you can purchase these two ingredients in their pure form at online chemistry/chemical websites.  Or you can prepare them yourself, which I would have done however the sulphur takes months to ferment and I didn’t have access to a large amount of land or the equipment used to extract sulpher from feces.  For the carbon, which acts as the fueling agent, I used charcoal.  An ex-marine helped me identify willow wood growing on the banks of the Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Willow wood makes a fine grade charcoal because it is low-density and high resin, ideal for the charcoal process.  You do not want a hardwood, it creates too much ash.  I made a gasifier using a 40lb gasoline barrel with the top and bottom cut out and a few slits drilled into the sides to circulate air.  I bought a few paint cans, cut the dried charcoal into small pieces, placed them in the can, sealed it, punched a hole in the top, and threw it in a fire contained in the 40lb barrel.  The process that occurs once the willow wood/paint can is set in the fire is called pyrolysis, which is basically a decomoposition and carbonization of the willow wood in a near oxygen free environment.  Once carbonization happens, the willow wood in the paint can will cease to burn, and so you avoid the risk of burning the wood down into pure ash.  The willow charcoal was them crushed caveman style in a mortar with a pestle, and combined with the sulphur.  On a hot plate, outside, the potassium nitrate is usually dissolved in a pot of water, however instead of water I poured into the potassium nitrate a jar of my stale, sunbaked urine since it accelerates the burn process.  It’s a foul smell.  Next the finely ground charcoal/sulphur mix is stirred in the pot until there is a strikingly beautiful silver-black sludge, of dough consistency, at which point I strained the mixture through coffee filters.  The black powder is now soft like wet sand and can be pressed through a strainer to create a uniform series of pellets  I didn’t want this uniformity.  I chose to break up the gunpowder dough into random, haphazard shapes and sizes (evident I feel in the wild patterns on the Japanese rice paper interleafs) and then set it outside for a day to dry in the sun.  The burns were made on the second story balcony of my attic apartment, with occasional glares from the accountants working in the neighboring building.

Crane’s process truly was a lovely extension and elaboration of my procedure of smelting two familiar texts into something new.  I was struck by how much the “stochastic design[s]” created by the burn patterns greatly resembled the Oxidation Paintings that Andy Warhol executed (with much more direct employment of urine) in the late 1970s.

Warhol had invited friends and acquaintances, such as Victor Hugo and one of his studio assistants, Ronnie Cutrone, to urinate on canvases prepared with copper-based paint.  The uric acid would oxidize the metal to form mineral salts, creating a variety of patterns and textures.  Even if Warhol was merely “taking the piss” out of Jackson Pollock’s style of gestural abstraction, he created a series of extremely beautiful paintings, and I’m delighted that Crane’s use of urine as a burn accelerant can be read as an oblique reference to the Oxidation Paintings.

In any case, each interleaf of The Philosophy is truly a work of art.  My thanks to all the good folks at Delete for their tremendous effort and vision.


For some online excerpts of The Philosophy, see Otoliths and So and So Magazine.


About Michael Leong

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4 thoughts on “Gunpowder, urine, & the post-production of the long poem

      1. Thanks, Greg, for the comments! I’ve been told that the mash-up–at least the very beginning of it–sounds like Ashbery.

        Stein + Poe ≈ Ashbery?

        By the way, this is the reaction needed for the gun powder process:

        2KNO3 + S + 3C = K2S + N2 + 3CO2

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