Avant-Garde and Oprah-Free: Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget

by Kyra Ryan
Utne Reader, August, 2000

Fidget isn't destined to be a best-seller. This absurd book-length poem is an attempt to transcribe all of author Kenneth Goldsmith's physical movements one June 16, the famous Bloomsday of James Joyce's Ulysses. Goldsmith, 38, a New York City-based author and visual artist, originally created Fidget for a live performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Not for the weak of stomach, the work is filled with bodily fluids. It begins with an objective account of a waking body's motions, but by the time "the body" hits the Jack Daniel's and enters his own linguistically loopy version of Nighttown, the red-light district where Joyce's characters and prose got soused, Goldsmith's project of objectivity becomes a total fiction.

For Coach House editor Darren Wershler-Henry, taking risks is precisely the point. "The notion of populism in poetry is inherently bogus," he says. "You might as well be uncompromising about what you're doing. It's poetry. It's not going to sell like a rock album." He describes the Coach House aesthetic as "Oprah-free literature: interesting, challenging writing that doesn't target Middle America."

Based in Toronto, Coach House has a 35year history of avant-garde publishing, putting forward early works by Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje. Under the artistic direction of publisher Stan Bevington, Coach House, while committed to a tradition of quality printing, has always aimed to explore how words can be 11 poured" into different technologies. All their books are published both in print and online. Half tongue-in-cheekily referring to books as "highly efficient entertainment cassettes," the Web site asks visitors to tip authors by credit card. In another medium-savvy move, digital versions are not mere reproductions of printed text. To experience Fidget, Web site visitors choose between a text, a sound, or a java applet version in which sentences float and collide, creating a work of art that's visually . . . well, fidgety. Though publishing online has actually led to more print sales worldwide, Coach House doesn't aim to compete with the mainstream by pandering to simple palettes. Declares an unapologetic Darren Wershler-Henry, "We make taste."

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