Making a Zeppelin

Then I picture myself among the airmen and mechanics,

imagesThe construction of a Zeppelin was an amazing undertaking, evocative both in terms of the scale of the thing and of its structure—the making of a complete skeleton over which a metallic skin would be stretched. In several of my poems, I bring up the interplay between our memories and our records. It’s interesting to me that photography has now existed long enough that there is often extensive documentation of times that we treat as bygone and mysterious, as they are when considered in terms of  human memory and experience. For example, in “Song: City, Mirror, Moon”, the second last poem in Zeppelin: “the coffee table book, Lost Landmarks of the City“. We quickly forget vanished buildings from the greatest cities, however monumental or important, to the point where the book that collects photographs of such places is a genre unto itself. In Crown and Ribs, the narrator of the poem “I’ve Found a Real City”, challenged as to his knowledge of the city (literally Chicago), claims in the end to know “everything”:

There are photographs of everything, every state of the city,
every vanished structure, photographs of the devastation the morning
after the city’s legendary calamity.

This poem is patterned in part after Milosz’s poem, “A Legend”:

Who knows the beginning? We live in this city
Without caring about its past

But we end up caring about the past, wishing to return to it, only to find, unlike those who went before us, that a growing portion of our past is there, detailed in a form, photography, that we acknowledge as a factual record. When I wrote about picturing myself among the airmen and mechanics, it was a creative, fanciful thought, as if such an experience was inaccessible except to imagination. Since then, partly through my search for that photo that first gave rise to this poem, I’ve found that we have easy access to a tremendous record of images of Zeppelins under construction, often eerily beautiful images. The images in the slideshow below are taken from an amazing page on the USS Akron at the French site La boite verte.

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Of course, there’s more than one way to make a Zeppelin.

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Howling Zeppelin

Listen to my conversation with Nancy Bullis about Zeppelin, including readings from the book, part of the May 7th, 2013 instalment of Nancy and Nik Beat‘s long running poetry and spoken word show, Howl, on CIUT 89.5FM, University of Toronto radio.

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What is Steampunk?

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its antique tones, its steampunk

I won’t compete here with other sources of general info about Steampunk. In brief, it is a sub-genre within science fiction, one that finds expression not only in literature, film and art, but also in a subculture and lifestyle. Its hallmark is the combination of futuristic and vintage elements: airships are a frequent reference.

You can follow the link above to learn more, which I recommend in the sense that the labyrinthine tracery of Steampunk’s many tendrils is part of what makes it a mot juste for me quite apart from the specifics of its style.

The term “steampunk” has a canonical moment of origin. Search and you’ll find it credited repeatedly to novelist K.W. Jeter, one of whose novels features H. G. Well’s Morlocks using his famous time machine to terrorize Victorian London.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.
—K.W. Jeter in a letter published in the April 1987 issue of Locus, a science fiction magazine
Steampunk is also thought to be a riff off the more familiar “cyberpunk”, a link supported by the influence of a 1990 novel co-written by cyberpunk hero William Gibson, in which Babbage’s speculative difference engine is realized bringing early onset to the information age.  (Babbage is also referenced in Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s book of poems, Mausoleum: 37 Ballads from the History of Progress.)
The word came info this poem late and not as a result of any passion for the genre. It sounds pleasant in conjunction with “surrealism” in the line, and the two terms expand on the charm of the image’s “antique tones” possibly representing “high” (surrealism) and “low” (steampunk) dimensions of such charm.
In looking into steampunk now, more closely than I ever did before, what strikes me is the “archeological” depth of the term. Gibson’s novel is from the nineties, but the term turns out to be coined in the eighties, but by an author one of whose quintessential works is from the late seventies, but it turns out that the early seventies featured works about alternative airships and chunnels. Perhaps Michael Moorcock, author of The Warlord of the Air (1971), also had seen the 1968 airship episode of Spiderman cartoon series (“Criminals in the Clouds”). But my father often told me about being fascinated in the early sixties by a movie based on the works of Jules Verne that began as an engraving that seemed to come to life (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne by Karel Zeman.)

In 1995, I flipped through a remainder bin at an art bookstore, a heap of handomely produced German pocket editions, picking out a selection of Albert Robida‘s illustrations. The picture at the beginning of this post is his. Robida meant nothing to me at the time except that I liked his work. Now it turns out he’s a touchstone for Steampunk. Affection for Robida takes right back to Jules Verne. (A more mainstream example of the same effect: Scorsese’s film Hugo, which has a Steampunk feel in the context of taking us right back to the reality of Melies’ time and of his inventions.)

When Heinrich Schliemann found the site of Troy, object of his lifelong quest, he immediately blasted to the bottom of the site through multiple layers of settlement, convinced that the earliest, deepest layer must be true. On a surface level, there’s much nostalgia in Zeppelin, in the introductory poem and throughout. And Steampunk is, in part, a nostalgic style. Going deeper, Steampunk seems to me to be one expression of a recurrent impulse, characteristic of many of my poems and characteristic of our time: the impulse to use our awareness of history to trace back to a place where we might find a lost turn toward a better, or at least more interesting, present.

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The Charming Image

Zeppelin at the Goodyear Air Dock

Zeppelin at the Goodyear Air Dock

immediately, I’m charmed by the image,

its antique tones, its steampunk and surrealism.

On Friday, I finally had a chance to search out a copy of Alvin Rosenbaum’s Work’s in Progress at the Toronto Reference Library. It wasn’t easy for the library staff! While the books lives in the stacks, it turns out to be improperly coded in the online catalogue preventing a library patron from making a stacks request. Thanks to Ainy, Lily and Krystyna at the Business, Science and Technology desk who persisted in tracking down the book for me.

The image is credited simply to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber company. I’ve enjoyed searching around for this image online which has brought in contact with many weird and wonderful things. But there was a special thrill both in finding the actual photo and in finding it to be a standout: for the most beautiful of all, and clearly the reference of the details in the poem.

The slideshow gives you a bit of a walk through the book, including the spread which includes the photo and also an image of the hangar under construction.

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The Goodyear Air Dock

An old photo of the Zeppelin that Goodyear flew out of Akron,

airship nose poking from massive hangar archway:

When this became the first poem in what became the book, Zeppelin, I thought that I would search out the “old photo”. I assumed I’d recognize it but found that image searches yielded many contenders. Here is one that seemed likely. B1AC24F1-9CFB-8E34-131AB232EB05D431_5 It is of the USS Akron emerging from its hangar in suitably “antique tones”, the airship enigmatic enough to evoke “surrealism” though perhaps not “steampunk”, there are “tiny foreground figures”. In part because of my uncertainty about finding the photo, I began to wonder about the reference more broadly: had Goodyear ever flown a Zeppelin out of Akron? I was glad to find this post at the wonderful airships.net, which provided the substance of the note on the first poem that is included in the book. Not only had Goodyear and Zeppelin collaborated on Zeppelins built long ago in Akron and then abandoned: they began to work together again a few years ago and as soon as 2014, it might be a Goodyear Zeppelin flying over the Super Bowl in place of aging blimps!

But I thought to poke into this a bit further. I tracked down the original draft of this poem written on November 14th, 2004. A strange convergence: according to my journal, the previous day, Saturday, November 13th, was the day that I finished the manuscript of my first book, Crown and Ribs, in the form in which it was first submitted to potential publishers. That day, I had taken my daughter out for a stroller walk on the Danforth and stopped in at a now defunct used bookstore: “…browse ‘Books R Gold’, see Works in Progress, book of photographs of monuments under construction, including the Akron Zeppelin hangar.” This book written in 1994 by Alvin Rosenbaum can be seen in part online. The online preview doesn’t include any photos of Akron, but is highly recommended for the pictures included of the Lincoln Memorial and other famous landmarks under construction. The one clue I did find was in the index: Goodyear Audock – a misprint!

The Goodyear Air Dock in Akron turns out to have a long, rich history. It exists to this day and is in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. There were even cute souvenirs made of it!

The Toronto Reference Library has a copy of Works in Progress, so I hope in the future to post the actual picture that inspired the poem nine years ago.

A closing aside: airship hangars are everywhere! My wife Roseanne‘s California years were spent close to the Tustin hangars. And in March, as I tweeted the results of online searches for Zeppelin poems and curiosities, I came across Trevor Monk’s site for his airship poems as well as his site devoted to his love for and efforts on behalf  of the preservation of the Cardington Sheds.

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Book Judged by Cover!

First in a set of supplemental in-flight safety tips. While the craft is designed to be intuitive and comes equipped with some ballast at its tail, you may find these notes helpful, or diverting, in operating your Zeppelin.

The cover is the work of Carleton Wilson. He designed the handsome typeface and adapted the Zeppelin image from Zeppelin: The Story of A Great Achievement by Harry Vissering (1922). Follow the link to view the wonderful Project Guttenberg eBook version which includes the orginal books many amazing and charming photos, illustrations and diagrams. Below is a small sampling.

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Movie Monster: The Video!

Hope you’ll enjoy and share “Movie Monster”, the lead video for Zeppelin, launching April 20th, 2013 in Toronto!

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by | April 8, 2013 · 3:24 am