Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol.21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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In 2013, Susan Silton, the multidisciplinary artist, writes from Los Angeles for permission to use my poem “On Pickiness” in Appraisals, one of their projects.


As explained in the letter, they are working with pages torn out of high-end art auction catalogues and old typewriters, which intrigues me as I once collected old typewriters and wrote ad copy for billboards.


They will extract the ribbon from the typewriter, type poems that relate to issues of labor and class over captions for works of art with an ascribed value of $1 million or more, and display the pages in metal frames.


When I wrote billboards and became aware that any language passing at more than 25 mph was not being read but watched, I worked on a 1930s Smith and Corona portable.


Like Appraisals, “On Pickiness” is a pentimento, with a conversation between classical revision and Romantic improvisation underlying an image of my mother picking cotton.


For the artist, typing a poem in stencil mode (without ink) across the caption for a million-dollar work of art is a form of activism. Not art you can see. A blind embossing.


One idea is that nature is a subset of artifice. I prefer the reverse. The mystery as the image merges from the fog. The likenesses in the steady rippling of attention.


Flaubert believed that, in order for art to work, the artist must disappear.


When Howard had cancer, and I asked him why he had flown to Texas to give a reading, he answered, “Scrounging after fame and fortune.”


My mother picking cotton was like Flaubert picking the right word, leaving no wispiness in the empty bolls of her perfect rows.


In Appraisals ten volunteers sit at a communal table, typing Grapes of Wrath on manual typewriters without ribbons. Behind them on a cobalt wall the thirteen appraisals have the burnished look of recently cleaned stained glass windows,


but where is “On Pickiness?”


When I submitted it to The Atlantic in 1995, I typed it on 100% rag content paper with the watermark, which was shaped like the earth, centered at the top, so the title would fall across the equator.  

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