NOTES from the COMMITTEE by Catherine Kasper
Reviewed by Scot Siegel
NOTES from the COMMITTEE
Noemi Press, 2009
Perfect Binding, 37 pages
I first came across Catherine Kasper’s writing in Caketrain. It was by happenstance that I found it while flipping through a copy of Volume 6 at Powell's Books in Portland. Somehow my thumb stuck on a piece called “The City.” As an urban planner by vocation, I was intrigued by the first few lines, which seemed to call out to me personally.
“We like to call our city a town in order to emphasize our fond-
ness, our affection for its concrete divisions of insulation and ven-
tilation, its labyrinthine systems of bureaucracy, and its refutation
of human character” (page 1)
The above passage is typical of the dry wit, creative diction, and attentiveness to sound in Kasper’s NOTES from the COMMITTEE, of which “The City” is the first entry. NOTES contains twenty-one pieces of flash fiction and poetry, which range from six lines to a little over three pages. With the exception of two list-style poems, the pieces are justified and indented like prose.
Although the publisher classifies NOTES as fiction, much of the collection reads like poetry. Even in the pieces that stretch out over two or more pages we find alliteration, oblique rhymes, enjambment, and metaphors. Some of the writing feels metrical, despite the text being justified throughout. Even many of the line breaks seem to work like line breaks in poetry.
Clearly, NOTES is a different kind of writing. The book straddles an imaginary fence between genres as it takes the reader on a tour of a cityscape that seems at once familiar and alien. In “The Country,” NOTES blends nostalgia and satire in addressing current events, including our own economic and health care crises:
“In the heart of our city is a well-maintained parcel of green-col-
ored land, dotted with specimen trees, and planted with deep beds
of wildflowers and mowed hay. After the last surge in building,
followed predictably by the last depression––one accompanied by
a plethora of abandoned shops, strip malls, apartments, condo-
miniums, and office buildings––a committee was established to
do a bit of planning to pacify those recently laid-off without pen-
sions or health insurance. It was remembered from ancient myths
that a great deal of distraction was achievable by sending citizens
to the country…” (page 19)
“The Country” does not stop there. The narrator also points an accusatory finger. But who’s really to blame -- the market? government? consumers? That, of course, remains an open question:
“In the end, the Membership of Merchants didn’t see the use of
investing more than the minimum amount possible, as was their
budget for every single expenditure. Indeed, this policy led to
the manufacture of artificial and unappetizing foods, the replace-
ment, not only of the country, but natural areas with: factories,
offices, board members’ elaborate estates, and land held for exclu-
sive use for the Membership’s recreational meetings.” (page 19)
Where “The Country” provides an aerial view of a soulless city, “The Doll Makers” magnifies and dissects the power structure that created the city. “The Doll Makers” reads like a surreal prophecy, an Orwellian vision of a future military-industrial complex. Here we visit a factory run by an army of suited men, the high priests (the “chosen ones”) of consumerism. They manufacture dolls in a windowless factory. No one ever sees the raw materials arrive at the factory, and no one ever sees the dolls leave; though we are told there are several doll varieties, including:
“an enchanting whimsi-
cal child whose future, like gender, is a designation imposed upon
it by future owners.” (page 24)
Kasper is at her best when she deconstructs things and shines her halogen flashlight on the absurd. In one of this collection’s two short list-style poems, the truth is illuminated in this way. The title of “Phrases from Meetings Taken Out of Context and Arranged Here to Evoke Alternative Meanings” speaks for itself.
The overall structure of NOTES works well for its theme of absurdist surrealism. The table of contents, with its curiously illogical numbering of sections and subsections, reads like a warped code of ordinances. Even the typesetting enhances the book; for example, “Procedure I: Certified Documents” and “Procedure II: Compendium,” are set in a small, sans serif typeface, making those sections appear more official.
“Procedure I” describes a kind of administrative purgatory. We can almost hear the ghost of an evil city clerk explaining the city’s zoning permit (or dog registry) procedure:
“Procedure 1 requires two to seven weeks for completion. It begins with any
document that must be certified to be an actual document. The document
is taken by hand to the document certifiers, unless it is sent by mail, in
which case, this adds an indefinite two or three weeks of extra time. The
document must be handed off without any words; if words are spoken inad-
vertently they will be ignored, as will hand signals and facial expressions.” (page 3)
Where “Procedure I” puts bureaucrats on trial, “Theater Spectacular” takes aim at everyone. It begins with a description of artists making things from recycled materials (“animal bones,” “ping-pong balls,” “painted fishing floats”, etc.), and then it deftly expands into the realm of international trade and labor issues. This piece plays on the West’s suspicion of China, while reminding us that America, too, has a checkered past (and present) and we are all complicit.
“Those who have never visited the Theater Spectacular are
forced to confront a plethora of rumors: that the building is com-
posed of sponge cake and goose down and operated by orphaned
children, that its pulleys and steel cables were hoisted by the same
laborers who constructed the Brooklyn Bridge, that the suspen-
sion mechanism is composed of African elephant intestines bound
in threads spun by silkworms in China…” (page 5)
One could easily burnout on this sort of thing. Fortunately, Kasper knows when to ease off the throttle and work the torque in a lower gear. “The Library,” which is part aubade/part polemic, begins like a bedtime story:
“At one time there were libraries situated in every minor town-
ship affiliated with our city. These were fascinating places where
one magically became anonymous just by walking through the
door.” (Page 14)
I found “The Library” to be the most stirring piece in the collection. It is not about bricks and mortar; no, it is much larger in scope:
“…Disallowed public funds, libraries were
gradually extinguished, disappearing until there was only one
library left. Given that all books were deemed “derivative,” this
library has only one book as its foundational holding; this book
is said to contain all books.” (page 14)
NOTES has some light moments as well. In “The Committee Concerning Time,” “a select group of citizens” fears that the future is coming up too fast, so they form a committee to slow the passing of time:
Into the late hours of the night,
each member would take pains to list the various mechanisms
that had been employed in robbing them personally of time…” (page 33)
I appreciated the placement of “The Committee Concerning Time” near the end of the book, as it serves as a pause, encouraging the reader to consider whether time is indeed running out; whether we have time to save our selves from ourselves.
In the final piece, “Incremental Dissolution,” the narrator describes the final downfall of civilization. In heart-wrenching detail, we hear about the incremental loss of natural resources, the contamination of drinking water supplies, the rationing of life-support systems through market pricing, and the inevitable paralysis of individual expression and thought. But all is not lost. Kasper offers a glimmer of hope in the final line, the third to last word to be precise, just in the nick of time.
Overall, NOTES is well crafted and provocative. Kasper challenges our thinking in terms of accepted literary forms and, more importantly, she questions how we plan our cities and live our lives in an increasingly dysfunctional world. She does not offer any solutions, but she asks all the right questions.
An Interview With Catherine Kasper
Catherine Kasper directs the creative writing program at the University of Texas in San Antonio. NOTES is her first book of flash fiction. She has also authored a full-length book of poems entitled field stone (Winner of the 2004 Winnow Press First Book Award in Poetry). Scot Siegel interviewed Ms. Kasper via email during the week of April 26, 2010. Her responses below each question are verbatim from the interview.
SS: Hi, Catherine. Please tell our readers a little about yourself and your primary interests as a writer.
CK: First I’d like to say that I love Powell’s Books in Portland. I’m also pleased for this serendipitous meeting. As for my background, I have traditional training in canonical literature, but also love non-canonical texts, graphic novels, book arts and alternative lit. I’m interested in the areas of science and literature, the visual arts, (including typography and letterpress printing), architecture, cityscapes, and language in all its manifestations. I tend to pick up and read whatever catches my interest at the time.
SS: I really like the structure of NOTES with its architecture of "City" and "Country" and the twisted bylaws, procedures, administrators, and subjects that inhabit this warped world you've created; it is a strange world that looks all too familiar. I also appreciate the way you apply the diction and syntax of bureaucracy, the way the language turns against itself in revealing the white elephants in the room. How would you describe "the big idea" behind the book, and what inspired it?
CK: There was no “big idea,” and I think I rarely, if ever, work from one. Usually, as with this book, I write a few sections of “something,” and as I edit and revise, I figure out more of what is needed to expand it. Writing is a much more organic process for me. I’m interested in uncertainty and the unknown, the subconscious and the unexpressed. Certainly, I was influenced at the time by the political situation, by political double-talk and manipulation, and by my own experiences as a worker in this country, one who has held a vast number of occupations.
SS: The prose poems (if that's what we should call them) in NOTES lean toward absurdist surrealism. The writing is far different than the poems in field stone, which are much more introspective and, at times, lyrical. Which mode do you prefer? What was your writing process for NOTES?
CK: I was influenced by Kafka’s short fiction, like “The Bucket Rider,” and by Borges’s many Ficciones. Today, we might call this flash fiction. I don’t have a preference of genre. For me, the work determines its mode, so as I’m exploring or processing ideas or questions I have about the world, a form or hybrid form emerges from the exploration.
SS: I noticed that Noemi Press classifies NOTES from the COMMITTEE as fiction, but much of the collection reads like poetry. Even in the pieces that stretch out over two or more pages we find alliteration, oblique rhymes, and metaphors. Much of the writing feels metrical, despite the text being justified throughout. Even many of the line breaks seem to work like line breaks in poetry. Did you set out to write a cross-genre book?
CK: My work doesn’t tend to fit neatly into boxes, although I don’t begin with a specific “intention.” I think all language is based in sound and rhythms.
SS: What is your next project?
CK: I have a book I’ve been trying to get published that is a “graphic poem,” or my poetry with illustrations by the artist, John Dermot Woods. For a long time now, no one has been interested in this kind of text and image work, but I think that’s changing. I’ve done a few sketches for a journal in Japan and I’m very interested in doing more of this text and image literature. Right now, I’m working on a few other things, trying to see what takes shape.
SS: Thank you for your participation in this important study; err, I mean literary review!
CK: Thank you so much for doing this, and for reading!