from The Free Cuisenart, No. 14 (June 1997)

Meet the Editor: William Slaughter, Mudlark

Mudlarking / Cavafy / Learning How to Read

1. Mudlarking

The O.E.D. suggests several possible meanings for Mudlark, the title of the electronic journal of poetry and poetics that I edit and publish. Mudlark is a name given to various birds—for example, “a black and white Australian bird, the magpie-lark, Grallina cyanoleuca, which builds a nest in the mud—but it has other meanings that are more relevant to my project. For example, a “gutter child” or “street urchin” is a mudlark too, as is “one who dabbles, works, or lives in mud.” Metaphor is what interests me here, but metaphor always has its roots in the literal or real.

In London where I’ve lived and worked, the real mudlark, the historical one, was a child who lived in the gutter, as it were, and kept himself alive by working the mud-banks of Thames River, “Down Greenwich reach /Past the Isle of Dogs” (The Waste Land) where England’s own and the world’s ships plied their trade. The mudlark’s job description, if he had one, would likely read: scavenger. His survival, outside the political and economic systems that governed the official life of his time, depended on whatever he could find—“empty bottles, sandwich papers, / silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends”—that the river had left behind. Anything on which he could put a price, anything that had value on the street.

Editing a poetry magazine on-line, singing “the body electric” at the end of the 20th century, is like that. Among the “other testimony of summer nights,” in the language mud of the World Wide Web, one occasionally finds something that has value on the street and deserves to be called by the name poem. I take my mudlarking seriously. What sustains me in my work is knowing that the real thing is down there, beyond metaphor, and that I will find it if only I dig deep enough. But when I do—see Frances Driscoll’s Rape Poems or Joe Ahearn’s Five Fictions, for example—I don’t put a price on it, I give it away. “In Mudlark poetry is free. What is the coin of poetry's realm? Poetry is a gift economy.”

2. Cavafy

If C. P. Cavafy, the Greek poet who lived his life and died his death (in 1933) in Alexandria, Egypt, were alive, where would he submit his work for publication? Rather than asking that question of another poet, I ask it of Cavafy because of the method he developed for publishing and distributing his poems, which endlessly fascinates me.

The moves that a career poet makes, over time, are predictable enough—poems in approved magazines; chapbooks and books from approved presses; reviews by approved reviewers; the right readings, the right prizes, etc.—but were of no real interest to Cavafy. Instead, he had his poems printed, periodically, at his own expense as broadsheets. He called his work room at home “the bindery.” There he would put together different “collections” of his poems, looseleaf in folders, and send them off to the readers he most wanted them to have. He actually kept a list, a very short list that was always changing, with the names of those readers on it. [Rae Dalven and Robert Liddell are my sources here.]

Poetry was an intimate occasion for Cavafy. His mode, in the love poems that have captured me, is direct address, special pleading. Cavafy figured that the shortest distance (and straightest line) between himself and his chosen readers was either the Egyptian postal service, which he distrusted, or his own special delivery service—the private couriers he employed to see to it that his poems, personally inscribed, always arrived at their destinations.

If he were alive, Cavafy wouldn’t submit his poems anywhere... is my answer to my question. Not to Poetry or APR; not to Mudlark or The Free Cuisenart. I imagine Cavafy getting himself a computer and a modem, changing the name of his work room at home from “the bindery” to “the cockpit,” doing away with paper, publishing himself in ether (“never in and never out of print”), and distributing himself to his short list of readers by e-mail, thus accomplishing his purpose. Intimacy with and in language. He might even design a home page—“Cavafy’s Tea Room,” a favorite venue—and put his poems up on the World Wide Web. “Even Cavafy / had to have an address, / if he wanted to be / found, and he did.” (My Cavafy Poem) That would be to risk everything by inviting strangers in.

Even as I write this, the great migration from page to screen is taking place. The journal and the book are rewriting themselves. The paradigms for publishing and distributing are shifting. How will poets and poems credential themselves in the electronic medium? For those readers—I’m not one of them—who still prefer their poems pre-read, stamped by an Inspector at one of the Poetry Custom Houses, Mudlark and The Free Cuisenart, Switched-On Gutenberg and Rif/t, for example, will serve as transitional spaces until they’re not needed anymore. At which time, perhaps the remarkable sanity in Cavafy’s approach to the poetry “market,” which has never really existed, will point to itself, as I have done here, and suggest one possible way of renegotiating the terms on which poets and readers will transact the “business” they have with each other in the new dispensation.

3. Learning How to Read

Mudlark is both noun and verb, whence “I take my mudlarking seriously.” As a verb, mudlarking requires certain things of me. The poets who submit their work to me and the readers from whom I hear back remind me just what the requirements of my job are. “What is your editorial policy at Mudlark” is a question they often ask me. And the word “policy” always makes me nervous. It sounds too much like government to me. I hesitate to state any editorial policy publicly, or even formulate the terms of one in private, if there is any chance that doing so will steer poems away from me that might violate my own policy and prove themselves necessary to me at the same time. I have promised myself to keep Mudlark open.

As our full name, Mudlark: An Electronic Journal of Poetry & Poetics, suggests, we will consider accomplished work that locates itself anywhere on the spectrum of contemporary practice. We want poems, of course, but we want essays, too, that make us read poems (and write them?) differently somehow. Although we are not innocent, we do imagine ourselves capable of surprise. We read and answer our mail.

There’s no disputing taste; we all know that. But there is disputing principle. If an editor erects his own taste into a principle, and then edits on that principle, he will edit a closed journal—having hung out, for all to see, his version of a “members only” sign. So “the spectrum of contemporary practice,” representing it over time, is important to me. I will not define any band, narrow or wide, on that spectrum as Mudlark’s band, to the exclusion of all others.

Poets whose work I have rejected, suggesting, as I did so, that I didn’t want to lose them as readers of Mudlark and possible future contributors to it, have responded by submitting their work again, often accompanied by a note in which they say something like this: “I’ve been reading what you’ve been publishing in Mudlark and I think you’ll like these poems.” To which I typically reply: You’re looking in the wrong place. You won’t find what I want in the next issue of Mudlark in the previous issues of Mudlark. [Cavafy’s poem The First Step is, by the way, my favorite rejection slip.]

That’s what I mean by “surprise.” The relationship between innocence and surprise is neither causal nor dependent. In a poem of mine called “Dear Franz...” (Kafka), I have a line: “Last love, not first, is the great surprise.” More than halfway through the wood of my language life, I’m not an innocent reader (or writer), but I haven’t made up my mind and taken a position on everything having to do with poetry. And I do imagine myself capable of surprise, even great surprise. I’m still learning how to read. The poets I publish in Mudlark are among my many teachers.