An Interview with Guy Pettit of Flying Object
About five miles as the prompt, executive jay flies from Emily Dickinson's window, there is another essential home for poetry and creativity, a place called Flying Object. A year ago, I had the good fortune to read there, and to meet the dreamer behind it, Guy Pettit. Recently, I got back in touch with Guy to discuss the origins and ideas behind Flying Object.
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The space of Flying Object has a wonderful, genre-defying feel to it. It definitely feels like a home to literature and art, but with a unique combination of coziness and energy. You've described it before as a laboratory, which seems a great fit, because so many different things happen there. Also, the name itself seems to somehow capture the spirit of the place. Can you elaborate on the name and beginnings of Flying Object?
It was almost a year and half from the time when the idea took hold until we actually opened the doors. There were small-town politics at play (according to one man, the bookstore, which was originally going to be at a different location, would endanger the lives of his children) and complicated zoning laws, as well as renovations that had to be made. We're in a volunteer fire station now. But there's no pole. There never was a pole.
I really only had a vague idea of what it was we were (or are) beginning. Flying Object began because of the fact that places like Machine Project in Los Angeles, Ugly Duckling Presse in NYC, AS220 in Providence, and Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee exist. Pilot Books in Seattle, which closed last year, was another inspiration.
We are intentionally only the approximation of a "non-profit arts organization." Rachel Glaser, who teaches a fiction workshop at FO, said to me recently that some of what excites her about the place is that everyone involved is "learning on a curve." I think she's absolutely right—I know that I'm on that curve. Accepting that not knowing makes me more enthusiastic. The potential for discovery that I think we're allowing ourselves with FO is more fulfilling than following some predetermined set of parameters. We have a mission, because that's required and sometimes useful, but part of that mission is to encourage "chance encounters." And a public physical space and presence is what makes those encounters possible.
Sometimes I have to use words like "bookstore" or "letterpress" officially (and we do have those things) though I'm trying harder to avoid those categories for the sake of the thought-experiment, hoping that that thinking promotes more creative ideas and action. It might sound evasive or obtuse but I know, like several other people engaging with FO, that fighting against pressure to define activity is central to the spirit of the place. And I know I don't want the space to be reactionary.
So part of my job is to ask people I meet: "Hey, you, do you want to be on this curve, too?" And it just so happens that a lot of people say "yeah."
I will say that books are especially lively things to me—hard-working, charming, necessary—and will hopefully always play a central role at FO. Books hold us together when they're at their best.
The name came unnaturally. I made scattered lists and sort-of agonized over it for months. It was hard naming something that had only the tiniest morsel of an identity. Was it going to be a bookstore? A collective? An INSTITUTE? There was a lot of misled logic: How easily pronounced or meaningful should the potential acronym be? What's cool? Flying Object, the name, actually just emerged from one space and space-exploration themed list I'd made. It was for a moment going to be Unidentified Flying Object. But only for a moment! I enjoy thinking about aliens and spacecraft and now more than ever Star Trek but of course I couldn't take UFO seriously. Getting rid of "unidentified" made it all magically click. I was excited by "flying object" feeling very active and undefined. Plus everything is a flying object, right? Or on or in or made up of little flying objects. It's also been fun to discover similarly named bookish organizations (Specific Object, Solid Objects) and the endless references to, or expressions and dreams and examples of, objects and their relationship to flying. See Joseph Ceravolo's "The Green Lake is Awake" for starters.
What are a few of your favorite objects that inhabit Flying Object, how did they get there, where are they from, or what have they been used for since they arrived?
Favorite objects (today's list):
Broken Gear: from an old Golding-Pearl platen letterpress that we used to have in the space: we didn't break it and it has absolutely no use: this gear is over 100 years old: it's about the size of an orange: a good-luck charm.
Hermes 3000: a typewriter I've seen scores of people use since we brought it to FO: it was in my mother's barn when I found it: last used to make an ambitious poster designed by Nathaniel Otting for his First Only Flying Object Festival Of: Paul Legault helped with that one.
Belfry: a practically inaccessible space on the top of the building: the bell was taken by a former fire fighter and is resting somewhere in Hadley: it was built in 1916: come visit this fall and we'll venture up there: it makes our building look dignified and vigilant.
Vandercook 4T: the letterpress we all use: it's giant and beautiful and 60 years old: came to us from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on a trailer: the machine we use to print record jackets, broadsides, dvd cases, chapbooks, book covers, posters, exhibit catalogs, to name just a few: this one is alive—you look at it and it looks back in a very charming way.
jubilat 20 release party: not an object in any traditional sense: an otherworldly auction with prizes like a tour of Peter Gizzi's private library, a dinner with Dara Wier, or a walk in the woods with James Haug (a grown-up) in which you learn how to be a grown-up. Emily Pettit, my sister, runs jubilat and worked really hard to create this beautiful night.
Your neck of the woods boasts a relatively high poet-per-square-mile number. Can you talk a bit about tradition and the contemporary community in Amherst-Hadley-Northampton that makes Flying Object possible?
I think one important thing about tradition is that it can help us to avoid our tendency to forget much of what we experience. That's a frustrating thing for me. In part, FO is trying to encourage us to not take one another for granted. Those people might be strangers or family or friends or admirers or admired artists or musicians or whomever.
Most important of all is to mention that FO is striving to be that place. It won't ever get there. I'm very wary of calling anything a solution. I have seen no solutions to anything so far.
But it is definitely a place to be together. Not for the sake of products or successful performance or publication but for the sake of filling our lives with experiences worthwhile and strange and maybe magical enough to remember them and the people who were there.
This is all to say that I think FO could happen anywhere so long as there are people who want it to happen. I don't know—we are very lucky here. Emily Dickinson comes to film screenings occasionally. Peter Gizzi doesn't invite her but she shows up anyways.
Sorry I mainly avoided the question!
That sense of community must be wonderful for you, as a poet yourself. Can you talk a little about how your work with Flying Object, as curator, bookseller, emcee, and bookmaker, informs your art and aesthetics, or vice-versa? Does Guy Pettit have a unified field theory?
This question is very hard for me to answer. My aesthetics must inform FO and vice-versa though I'm not sure exactly how.
I know that I admire adaptability or at least optimism in our ability to try out new ideas with the world. I mean, honestly, not giving up easily. I know I appreciate when, in poetry or art or space or people,there is an underlying quality of generosity. Style is important to this idea because style is what we tend to see first. I'm tempted to send us off to poems now so I will, for no other reason than I wanted to read poems when I read this question.
Michael Earl Craig
Aesthetic inquiry into my own work is not my strong suit. My head just brushed the leaves of a tropical plant. I'm getting hungry. Because I'm around people performing their art so often, I have become more interested in the performative aspect of, let's say, poetry. I like to see what choices writers makes when they read: their focus; their mood; their relationship to the audience; any attempts to reconfigure or destabilize conventional performance; their expectations; the audiences expectations; how well they manage the element of surprise. And on the page, probably because I am printer, I love to see text and image set together. Images can often launch our imaginations into their distant worlds more rapidly than text can and that power is something I like to explore. Images can have a primary quality when appearing next to text, which shouldn't be taken lightly!
For the readers who don't know, you grew up amidst some amazing poets, didn't you?
Yes, I did. Dara Wier and James Tate I grew up with especially and they are amazing poets. So is Emily Pettit. There were always poets in my house growing up. Here is an extremely general timeline of my relationships to poets being in my house:
AGE 1 >>> [not consciously aware that these people were, in fact, poets, or that they were in my house, or that I was in my house] >>>
AGES 2-8 >>> [still not consciously aware that these people were poets despite the fact that I heard the word poetry often and may have even used it. mostly played with legos. attended many readings.] >>>
AGES 9-14 >>> [took it for granted that poets were constantly in my house. honestly didn't understand why my friends made fun of the fact that my parents were poets. tried not to make fun of their own parents professions. read very little poetry, continued to attend readings, developed an obsession of the American Civil War] >>>
AGES 15-19 >>> [began understanding who these poets were and that some of them had published books and won major awards but really were just people. read some poetry. had probably attended more readings by this point than most people ever will. except if you're a poet currently living in nyc. those poets have a chance to catch up] >>>
AGE 20 to present day >>> [poets in the house still seems normal except that now I have to explain this to friends who get really excited about it. and I get really excited about it, too. can actually talk about poetry with the poets in the house. and feel lucky to have had this poetry world washing over me for so long]
Do you have any recollections from your youth of poetry spaces? Or do you remember where you might have had any transformative experiences in which poetry and space collided?
One transformative experience happened over a long period—that period being my entire life—of going to readings at Memorial Hall on the UMass Amherst campus. This room is one big rectangle and used to have portraits of what I assume are trustees and persons held in high regard by the University hanging on every wall, surrounding whatever audience might be there. All these men were painted after they had aged dramatically. There have been incredible readings in this room and in some ways it should be considered a holy place for poetry, considering everyone who has read there, but it is also poorly lit and poorly carpeted and rigid and then there are all those men staring at you and some of them are smiling. It is disconcerting and rude. It taught me that I wanted to be part of a place that supported and hosted great poetry and also that all these wonderful writers and their audiences deserve a much more exciting space to experience the work.