The Traveler’s Vade Mecum 2017-04-13T15:33:12+00:00
The Traveler’s Vade Mecum

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What would happen if you excavated telegrams written in 1853 and sent them to poets working today, asking each for a poem using the telegram as title? The Traveler’s Vade Mecum is a unique collaboration, the first crowd-sourced poetry anthology consisting of new, unpublished poems from 67 poets all over the world, well-known to new voices.

This book project began with a tweet that linked me to the original The Traveler’s Vade Mecum; or Instantaneous Letter Writer by A. C. Baldwin. Available today to anyone with a computer, thanks to the miracle of Google Books, it is a compendium of 8,466 numbered sentences created for travelers. The idea was, a whole sentence could be communicated by merely telegraphing its number, thereby saving the traveler time and expense.

Using communication advances that Baldwin could only dream of, I approached poets and asked them to write a poem with a title consisting of a telegram I’d chosen for them. Some of those poets recommended others and I chose telegram titles for them, too.

Contributors include not only Bollingen Prize winner Frank Bidart, former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Best American Poetry arbiter David Lehman, but poets like Huang Fan whose work is known mainly abroad (in his case, China) as well as stars of a new generation of poets like Sandra Beasley, Denise Duhamel, Emily Fragos and Eva Hooker.

Here are lyric poems, language poems, prose poems, found poems, haikus, pantoums, ekphrases, epistolatory poems, acrostics, sonnets and mirror sonnets. This book isn’t only an anthology, it’s a compendium of poetics.

The original Traveler’s Vade Mecum provides a rare and fascinating glimpse into the habits and social aspects of 19th century America. It is my hope that this “sequel” offers equal measure of enlightenment on how the culture has evolved 159 years later. The book is just out from Red Hen Press.

The Technology Behind this Book of Poems

The invention of the telegraph in the nineteenth century paved the way for today’s communication technologies like Twitter. The last telegram was delivered in the US In January 2006. Twitter, the micro-blogging platform built on a telegram-like brevity of 140 characters, was invented and launched a few months later.

Twitter is how I discovered the 1853 Traveler’s Vade Mecum, thanks to a tweet from David Horvitz. (@davidhorvitz) This was 2011. David was calling for tweets hash tagged #VadeMecum. I followed his link, and learned that he was doing an art project in which he’d print out #VadeMecum tweets and carry them from San Francisco to Washington DC, following the route of the first transcontinental telegram. David posted a link to the original Vade Mecum, along with a link to Google Books’ digitization of it.

As soon as I saw the 1853 document, I was smitten. Baldwin had tried to imagine all the things—every single thing—that anyone living in the mid-1800s might want to say, urgent questions like “Do You Know Of A Person Going West Soon, Who Would Take A Lady Under His Protection?”, news alerts such as “A Sad Accident Has Happened”; benign assurance that one is alive, the equivalent of today’s status update, “We Abound In Good Cheer.”

The idea behind the book was that a whole sentence could be communicated by merely telegraphing its number, thereby saving the traveler time and expense. For instance, “I am on board a steamer ship bound for Paris” could be abbreviated to “45-Paris”, provided the recipient of the message owned (and carried) a copy of the reference manual that would contain its translation. Likewise, “4205” would be all it would take to ruin someone’s Grand Tour with “Your house is at the present moment on fire.”

Like Horvitz, I was moved by Baldwin’s ambitious attempt at humanizing technology. My first attempt at paying homage, was to make a found poem out of some of the telegrams. The poem didn’t work. It bore nothing of the richness and range contained in the original document and I realized what was missing was a complexity of language and syntax that could only be achieved through a multiplicity of voices. This multiplicity was the very idea behind the original book.

I began reaching out to poets via technologies Baldwin could never have imagined: Twitter, email, Facebook and the advance that eventually made telegrams obsolete–the telephone.

Telegram Titles of some of the Poems

I AM AGREEABLY DISAPPOINTED IN THIS PLACE

SYMPTOMS ARE UNFAVORABLE, AND ALARMING

THE ENTERPRISE IS ABANDONED

BUSINESS IS DULL ON THE CANAL

THERE WAS A GREAT WANT OF CIVILITY

THE CHILDREN WISH TO BE AFFECTIONATELY REMEMBERED

THE HEIRS WILL NOT CONSENT