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Samuel Peralta here…

A New York artist and sculptor, Nana Katchadourian works in a wide variety of media – including film, paper, mixed media, and – unusually – books.

In 1993, she began what she called the “Sorted Books” project – in which she culls through a collection of books, pulling a selection, and grouping them into clusters so that the titles can be read in sequence.

Katchadourian shows the results either as photographs of the clusters, or in the stacks themselves, re-arranged in the selected order.

While the clusters form a snapshot of the particular idiosyncrasies of that library, sometimes they form a subtle poetry.

"Kinds of Love" by Nina Katchadourian

“Kinds of Love” by Nina Katchadourian

Sorted-book poetry, also known as spine or stack poetry, wasn’t invented by Katchadourian; but hers is one of the most sustained expressions of an art that borders on poetry, making up more than 130 compositions.

In 2013, Chronicle Books published her monograph “Sorted Books” in commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of the project.

"Primitive Art" by Nina Katchadourian

“Primitive Art” by Nina Katchadourian

In essence, a sorted-book poem is a found poem.

You can think of the poem as a cento made from the titles of books.

It’s an exercise in poetry under severe vocabulary and phrasing constraints.

And writing one is an amazing experience.

Barnes & Noble bookstore

Barnes & Noble bookstore

If you want to put together your own, don’t do this in a bookstore.

It isn’t going to make a good impression when you’re at a Barnes & Noble or at a W.H. Smith, pulling books from shelves and piling them onto a table.

A library is more ideal, one with all the books you might want. Choose an appropriate section – the business section isn’t likely to yield much in poetic titles.

Main reading room at the  U.S. Library of Congress

Main reading room at the U.S. Library of Congress

With a pencil and paper, walk around your section and make a list of some interesting titles.

As you review your list, some of the titles will start to click together into some amazing combinations.

This will be your poetic brain at work, building a collage out of the material at hand.

Finally, pull out the corresponding books onto a table.

Having the books physically in front of you can help you find the arrangement that feels right, by letting you move around them around, much like “magnetic” or “refrigerator” poetry.

And yes, it’s fair to use the card catalog to see if there are any titles that might help you form a better poem.

Librarian working

Librarian working, perhaps on a spine poem

It’s a little more difficult – but much more fun – to do this in your own library.

In addition, the assemblage can become truly personalized, because you’ve already pre-selected these books, based on your own reading preferences.

(By the way, if your library is mainly in German or French, that’s fine. Assemble your poem in whatever language is most comfortable – but please remember to provide a translation!)

It’s a little frustrating at first, but if you persevere, you get that flash of inspiration – and may amaze yourself.

This is where I started.

A view of my library

A view of my library

After about an hour of pulling books, sorting, and re-sorting, I finally came up with the following, including books from Justin Cronin, Geoffrey Moore (yes, he’s a business book writer, but what titles!), Amy Tan and John Trenhaile.

I selected another book to form the title for the composition, for good measure, and used other books to indicate the spacing between stanzas.

I’ve also arranged it so that the actual titles are aligned along an imagined left margin, for an easier read.


And here’s the transcribed poem:

     The Passage
     by Samuel Peralta

     Only the sea keeps
     crossing the chasm

     Inside the tornado,
     the conjuror’s bird
     the possible past:

     the hundred secret senses,
     the gates of exquisite view

Chinese gate in the Wudang Mountains

Chinese gate in the Wudang Mountains

Tonight, I invite you to contribute your own sorted-book, stack, or spine poem, as described above.

Snap a picture, if you can, to document the actual book assemblage.

If you can’t snap a picture, refer to the authors in a footnote somewhere, just to document where the titles came from – and as evidence they’re real titles.

When you’ve finished, have a look and see what others have come up with!

I hope you’ll join me in writing and sharing tonight. Thank you.

Samuel Peralta – on Twitter as @Semaphore – is the award-winning author of five titles in The Semaphore CollectionSonata Vampirica, Sonnets from the Labrador, How More Beautiful You Are, Tango Desolado and War and Ablution – all Amazon Kindle #1 Hot New Releases, and best sellers, in poetry. The Semaphore | Art & Craft newsletter shares useful observations on writing, giveaways, and book news.

Copyright (c) Samuel Peralta. All rights reserved.

Images public domain / via WikiMedia Commons or as attributed.