I Read Back to Front and Bottom Up, Says Prize-Winning Poet Djelloul Marbrook

Reading right to left, bottom to top

I like to read articles from the bottom up and back to front. Sometimes I even start books from the last page. I haven’t been diagnosed with dyslexia, I’m just a contrarian. I seem to absorb things better by reverse-engineering.

Being a makeup editor back when newspapers were set in hot lead affirmed me in this perverse habit. Union rules required I read sticks of type set in metal frames from the bottom up so as not to get in the way of the compositor. I learned to make last-minute changes that way. Today it’s all done on a computer screen by people sitting down. If I happened to touch the type the compositor could call a chapel meeting, a kind of work stoppage. It usually only happened when compositors didn’t like an editor. Some of us editors were pukes, some of the compositors were smart asses, but most of us were nice people who usually got along cheerfully.

I’d like to say I have my reasons, but I’m not sure they’re very persuasive. Still, the habit does give me a different if not quaint perspective. Take a rather scary story by Dexter Filkins in The New York Times last September 2. It ended saying the Western press has panicked Afghans into thinking their central bank was failing. But the story began by saying Afghans had withdrawn $180 million from the bank in the previous two days.

This is what the wildly funny press critic A.J. Liebling called the ademonai-kademonai approach to reportage. On the one hand this and on the other that. It’s the way most stories are written. It’s called balance. There really isn’t a completely objective way to report something. Dexter Filkins is a great reporter and excellent writer. There was nothing wrong with his story. But reading it from the bottom up gave me an entirely different sense of it. For one thing, it’s not for nothing that the Afghan government’s reassurances were at the bottom of the story. In the old days the bottoms of stories were routinely snipped off to make room for something else.

Indeed there is something called the pyramid style of writing a news story. The important information goes at the beginning and as the story “descends” the information becomes increasingly expendable. The style evolved to accommodate hot-lead and teletype journalism and is being reconsidered in cyberspace. I think this is exciting.

Once when I was a copy editor I told a famous Washington reporter that his budget story didn’t make sense when read from the bottom up. What did you do that for? he asked irritably. I always do, I said. What he had done was tack on a lot of fairly extraneous stuff that called into question some of what he said earlier in the story. When I pointed this out to him, he said, It’s called journalism, proving my long-held contention that in every newsroom there are those who are good at getting ahead and those who are good at their jobs.

Poetry is fun to read right to left and bottom up because it tells you something about scansion and it’s rather like tracking a poet’s thought. I don’t recommend it as a substitute for reading left to right and front to back, but it can be revealing to start where the poet got and get where the poet started. I’m not sure I would like to be read that way, so I regard the habit as mischievous. I don’t write about writing I don’t like, so you won’t find me being naughty at anybody’s expense. I happen to think mischief is an essential ingredient in poetry (see Arthur Rimbaud). And turnabout is fair play; the reader can be mischievous too.

There’s something about reading from back to front and bottom to top that strips whatever sanctimony there is in a writing. Blocks of type take on an appearance of authority to which they may not be entitled, rather like Roman numerals, which are often used not because they’re more elegant than Arabic numerals but because they convey an imperial stolidity. It’s one thing to make writing attractive to a reader, it’s another thing to bluff the reader. Newspapers used to invariably use Gothic mastheads because Gothic is an authoritarian script. That’s why movies about Nazis often use the script.

Having grown up in a boarding school and witnessed many an abuse papered over with politesse and disingenuous certainty, I naturally distrust institutions. I distrust any institution that depends for its mandate on excluding anybody. So I was predisposed to read things the way they’re not supposed to be read to protect myself from abusive authority. When I discovered that the way we read things is a convention as opposed to a biological imperative my distrust seemed rewarded.

Somebody once told me mine is a deconstructivist technique, but that sounded too hifalutin to me. “I’m just an abused child,” I said, “and all abused children read things funny.”

I’m sure it has to do with the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy as well as some learning disabilities of which I’m unaware. Our minds are wired variously and I’m sure we coax impulses along different paths. I remember the late Nelson Rockefeller had trouble remembering names but always remembered faces. I remember the sense and demeanor of poems but not necessarily their exact language. I can identify many paintings by their painter’s characteristic style, and I often stand in the middle of museum galleries doing just that. Similarly, I recognize the style of many poets even if I don’t remember the poem.

I’m not sure any of that has to do with my reading backwards, as it were. But I’m sure it has to do with the way I approach writing and the plastic arts.

We will be reading even more bank stories than we’ve already had to read in the last few years, because the way feudal leaders loot their people and their countries is through the banking system. Bernie Madoff has said from his prison in North Carolina that the banks knew he was running a Ponzi scheme. Well, the banks also know those guys are stealing their countries blind. It will be fun to read these stories backwards to see how little sense they make, because piling up facts is not the same thing as context. That was my problem with that budget story. The more facts the reporter piled on the less sense the story made and the more likely the reader was to get lost in the forest. We need context. How does a leader loot a country? Do you know? Damned if I do, but I’d be very interested in knowing. After all, in my next life I may get to loot a country or two. Seriously, what happens? Do they carry money out in suitcases?

I like to strategically bomb a poem. I target something in the middle of it and then survey its environs. Well, maybe it’s more like parachuting into a strange terrain and having to forage. In this way I learn how the poem was made. It doesn’t glitter so much, but if it has real character I’ll discover it because I’ve gotten past its affect, its intent. Sometimes you can take a thing so seriously that you’ve given up your best chance to understand it, which is your humor, your sense of nonsense. We take our leaders entirely too seriously. They’re usually nonsensical, and we ought to remind them.

By reading things backwards I stir up the essential madness of things. You’d be surprised how many books and poems read backwards even better than forwards. Or would you?

Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm

New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/

His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com

His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com

His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com