Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Entitled Interview with Alessandro Porco

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Alessandro Porco (photo credit Rory Laverty)

Alessandro Porco is a poet, critic and scholar and is currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

His latest collection, Poems by Gerard Legro (BookThug), is an annotated edition of previously unpublished work written in 1949 by two teenagers named Jerrold Levy and Richard Negro. Alessandro's exploration includes a critical introduction, explanatory notes and rare photographs sourced from archival documents and historical materials.

Today, Alessandro speaks with us as part of our Entitled Interview Series. This series allows us to speak to writers we love about their process of selecting and brainstorming titles, their favourite titles and just what function a title ought to serve.

Alessandro tells us about his affection for willfully exaggerated titles, how his conscience guided choosing the book's title and his currently untitled new project.

Open Book:

Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.

Alessandro Porco:

I am the editor of Jerrold Levy and Richard Negro’s Poems by Gerard Legro (BookThug, 2015), a long forgotten work of prank poetics in the tradition of Ern Malley’s Angry Penguins, The Sokal Affair, and Araki Yasusada, among others. This edition includes an introductory essay and explanatory notes, as well as rare, archival photographs of the authors. The bulk of the poetry was composed on the Black Mountain College campus in the spring and summer of 1949, while Levy and Negro were students. They completed the book circa 1952-53 in New York City.

The book’s title introduces the authorial heteronym: “Gerard Legro.” (The portmanteau is always the paraph of the trickster!) Levy and Negro composed a faux scholarly introduction that describes the “real” life, times, and works of Gerard Legro, an obscure mid-century poet and novelist. The heteronym gives Levy and Negro permission to compose heterodox poetry that satirizes, for example, the pedagogy of Josef Albers and poetry of Charles Olson— or, put another way, Levy and Negro gleefully participate in the time-honored sport of students complaining about their professors.

The book title’s heteronym also indicates the collaborative process of composition (e.g., cadavre exquis and bibliomantic flaneuring). Levy and Negro participate in call-and-response, creating poetry that is “divided against itself to the very end.” Mid-century American poetry has plenty of similar works: Spicer’s collaboration with the ghost of Lorca in After Lorca comes immediately to mind; or, there’s the great 1961 issue of Locus Solus, which is devoted entirely to collaboration.


What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?


The history of books suggests it’s almost impossible to think of titles outside of a marketplace. That’s important to remember. Authorial control over a book’s title dates to the eighteenth century, generally speaking. Before that, the publisher — who sometimes doubled as bookseller and printer — determined the title. (This division of labour didn’t necessarily sit well with authors, as you might imagine.)

In an essay titled (what else?) “Titles,” Adorno — as only Adorno can — writes, “The title is a memorial to a defeat in the permanent contest between the work and the author.” He also recommends spontaneously naming your work and selecting titles that show “respect” for and preserve the secret alcoves of art. Otherwise, you risk the dangerous seduction of a masochistic search for the right title that does not, in fact, exist. Good, principled advice.

In the prankster spirit of Levy and Negro, I would add that I do have affection for those early publishers and booksellers who willfully used exaggerated, sensational, or misrepresentative titles to lure in readers.


What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?


One of the wonderful novels of the modernist period is Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. The narrator, John Dowell, who means well but isn’t especially bright, attempts — without much success — to make sense of the series of small disasters that add up to his life. “I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us.” Dowell and his wife, Florence, are bumbling Americans living abroad in Europe. They are caricatures of the kinds of characters that populate, say, the novels of Henry James. (Florence, for example, speaks with astonishing authority about the history, art, and culture of Europe by simply memorizing sound bites gleaned, without much effort or intelligence, from commercial travel guides.)

The Good Soldier is published in March 1915. Yet, mentions of trench warfare, artillery shells, or mustard gas are nowhere to be found. There’s plenty of emotional warfare, though. The only allusion to WWI is this: every major event, for well over a decade, in the lives of Dowell and his “roundtable” of friends and lovers (i.e., enemies and cheaters), inexplicably takes place on August 4 — the same day England declares war on Germany.

Ford originally titled his novel The Saddest Story. That makes perfect sense, of course, given the omnipresence of infidelity, madness, and suicide in the book. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” — the famed first sentence. In fact, early advertisements for the novel circulated with that very title. However, Ford’s publisher, John Lane, ultimately believed The Saddest Story would be a tough sell to English readers in the midst of a devastating war. Who wants more sadness? Ford, in turn, jokingly suggested (from the front, no less) The Good Soldier as an alternative. Lane accepted the suggestion without catching a hint of the tickle (or prickle) of Ford’s thick, mustached irony — much to Ford’s surprise and chagrin.


Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?


As editor, my responsibility is to Levy and Negro’s manuscript, which the former deposited in the State Archives circa 1971. My job is to make corrections, as necessary (e.g., obvious spelling or punctuation errors); at the same time, I want to preserve — based on contextual information — the manuscript’s formal curiosities, including idiosyncratic capitalization and bizarre puns (e.g., there/their).

With that in mind, the title on the MS is Poems by Gerard Legro, and I couldn’t in good conscience change it, even though I recognize (perhaps) it’s not exactly eye-catching to prospective readers in 2016. However, the book’s cover more than compensates: the image, titled “The Lonely Metropolitan” (1931), is a photomontage by Austrian-born graphic designer, painter, and photographer Herbert Bayer, who also happens to be Levy’s step-father.


What are you working on now?


I continue to do research on twentieth-century poetry. I have a grant to spend three weeks this summer in Atlanta working through the archival papers of painter and poet Mary Parks Washington, one of the first African American students at Black Mountain College in 1946. This project, I should say, is currently untitled.


Alessandro Porco is a poet, critic, and scholar from Toronto, Canada. He earned his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His research focuses on twentieth-century poetry and poetics. Porco lives in Wilmington, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at UNCW.

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