In March of this year, Alex Gallo-Brown sent me an email about a book of poems called The Language of Grief, with a link to a Kickstarter page and [in part] this message:
[I]mportant to the publication of my book is the development of a gift-giving community: the idea of giving around the corner, people’s artwork, their gifts, moving through the world to places they cannot yet conceive. Many of you are poets, writers, artists, whether you are published, whether you show your work or not. Many of you make things other than traditional artwork in your spare time — spoons, sweaters, etc. Others of you have access to knowledge that is unusual, that is valuable. I hope that you will pledge to give this secret knowledge, this artwork, this poem, to someone else. In return, I will provide the name and contact information of another person in the community in addition to a copy of my book. In the event that it costs you money to deliver your gift — to transport a painting, say — I would be happy to apply some of the money raised to offset that cost.
As an enthusiastic fan of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, I wanted to know how and even if this would work, so I asked Alex a few questions about the book and about the gift-giving community.
Gabriel Blackwell: How did you come by this idea of “a gift-giving community”? Could you explain it a bit more fully?
Alex Gallo-Brown: The short(est) version was that I was lonely. I had been living in an ex-mining village in northeast England with my partner, who was doing a year-long master’s program, and for the first time in recent memory I had very few responsibilities (other than to my writing, my partner, my self, etc). Northern England was a really interesting place to be (read George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier for insight into the previous lives of those kinds of communities), but it was also alienating, wearing, in a lot of ways. The weather alone was difficult to bear. The community was very closed.
Around that time, I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which had a profound effect on me. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty,” Emerson apparently wrote (I get the quotation from Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, another monster of a critical work), and I guess that’s a pretty apt description of what I felt after reading certain sections of The Gift. The notion of art being a gift to the artist, first of all, a gift that must be given away again, lest it become a poison that precludes the possibility of new work, struck me with a psychic force. Now, that may not be true for everyone, for all artists, but the idea certainly had a powerful effect on me.
I had been writing poems for years and years before that without seriously trying to publish them. Many of them felt too precious, in a certain way, to submit to the tawdriness and impersonality of the publishing process. After reading The Gift, though, I decided that was ultimately a stupid, self-important, and even cowardly attitude toward the work I had produced. The poem comes as a gift. It needs to be given away again. At this point, I see it almost as a duty, an obligation, to put my work (when it is ready, of course, after I myself have put in the requisite work) out into the world.
At the same time, though, I was trying to reconcile my sociopolitical beliefs with my identity as an artist. I had been working as a union organizer in the States; I thought of myself as a leftist, a democrat with a small “d.” I was devastated by the course our culture was taking, the state of our country. The barbarism of the economic system, the intensifying social and economic stratification, the feelings of powerlessness, despair, and disillusionment that even many middle class (economically privileged) people felt—I was very sad about where we were.
GB: And then what was the actual response? Did people take part in the community?
AG-B: They did. I gave people two options for helping me put my book out into the world. Either pledge some amount of money to my Kickstarter campaign, or, alternately, give something non-monetary to another person in the “community.” Either pledge guaranteed them a copy of my book. (Some people pledged both.) The campaign ran for about three weeks; in total, 90 people pledged money to the Kickstarter, with amounts ranging from $1 all the way up to $250 (the reward was the same regardless of the contribution: one copy of my book), while about 20 people took part in the gift giving community.
I think it was a successful endeavor. One woman, a friend of a friend who I had never met, told me she had been very inspired by the project; she had been working at some kind of advertising job and felt very “stuck” creatively before she got wind of the project. She pledged a packet of handmade cards. One man from South Africa, someone who found me online, sent someone else a hand-carved knife handle. I connected a high school student in Tacoma, Washington, with a friend of mine in London. The student sent a print he made of Bob Marley, while the Londoner sent someone else in the community a mix CD.
Just recently, a woman in St. Louis who found me on Kickstarter wrote and said she is thinking about doing something similar as a way promote her writing about women who have gone through miscarriages.
GB: You say that “the notion of art being a gift to the artist, first of all, a gift that must be given away again, lest it become a poison that precludes the possibility of new work, struck me with a psychic force,” so that this gift-giving was in some way not only a method of getting your work out into the world but also somehow a part of the writing of that work, something essential to you. What has been the result? Has publishing the book helped you move forward with new work?
AG-B: I think it has. I feel calmer now. I had been working on this “book” (writing these poems) for something like seven years, and I think, on some level, I was resigned to them never seeing the light of day. The stuff I read in literary magazines, or acclaimed collections of poetry, didn’t bear much of a resemblance to the stuff I was writing. I felt it was pretty unlikely that anyone would want to publish them. And there was some grief in that, I think — some sense that my work wasn’t worth anything. So that has changed.
Ironically, however, I am now thinking more about writing fiction than poetry. I just started an MFA at Georgia State with a concentration in fiction writing. I feel much less confident writing in fiction than I do in poetry, but I am excited to learn. I want to learn how to tell better stories.
But, yes, I am still writing poetry. I have this little “poetry notebook” I bought after finalizing the grief manuscript that try to open every week or so. So far, I have just been letting the poems sit there. It feels good to be able to do that, let the work kind of accumulate. I guess I have some faith now that eventually there will be another book.
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Alex Gallo-Brown is the author of The Language of Grief, a collection of poems. His essays have appeared at The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, The Brooklyn Rail, Salon, and more. He lives in Atlanta, where he is a M.F.A. student at Georgia State University. You can find him at www.alexgallobrown.com.