Literary Arts

Alex Caldiero is an Idiot: Performing the Chapbook

Alex Caldiero is an idiot.

That’s not my assessment, but the judgment of the “frendly naybohood Sonosopher” himself:


wiser folk have said as much

could I do anything less? I’ve also

been called an asshole, which

designation I’m not willing to

accept. I’d rather insult my

intelligence than my innocent

buttocks. . . .

and all this because this morning

I dared to waken from a decent

nite’s sleep and first thing I had

an idea and that was a mistake

I’ve been doing my best to avoid

. . . and it was

the expression of the aforesaid

idea that set into motion all sorts

of catastrophic emotions whose

consequences I must live with &

which further evince & prove that

I am undoubtedly an idiot, & if

you are not yet convinced I must

point out that you are worse than

an idiot – but I take it back – it’s a

bad idea as all ideas are bad,

even the so called good ones,

like the one that Alex Caldiero is

an idiot.

27 Dec 09

Yes, I’ll have to agree. Alex Caldiero is an idiot. He’s my kind of idiot. And if the ideas I take up here are “bad ideas as all ideas are bad, / even the so called good ones,” then maybe I’m worse than an idiot and the better for it.

The word idiot stems from the Greek for a private person, a layman without professional skills or public standing. Years ago I wrote about an exhibition of Caldiero’s works on paper and wood and concluded that, “if Caldiero were a better painter he would be a worse artist.” Open, inventive, searching, and a bit raw—the paintings surprised and inspired me. My thoughts about the possibilities open to an untrained artist were echoed in 2014 by Austrian writer Peter Handke just days before he accepted the Norwegian International Ibsen Prize. He claimed that he didn’t know how to write plays and argued that “in no case can an artist be skilled, art is a matter of working without skill.” Good artists are idiots.

Caldiero arrived in Brooklyn at the age of nine and began to learn English and unlearn Sicilian in a series of strict Catholic schools. One day his father received a book from Sicily; Alex’s Aunt Letizia had published her first novel. His father read it respectfully. Caldiero says he personally took no interest other than to think how nice of his aunt to send him the book. Nonetheless, Caldiero’s youthful fascination with the arts led him not to college but to a multi-year apprenticeship with Michael Lekakis, the New York sculptor who was a friend of e. e. cummings and Ezra Pound. Caldiero began a lengthy correspondence with poet Cid Corman and, years later Bob Arnold published an exquisite edition of 10 of Caldiero’s poems at Corman’s suggestion (Islander, Green River, Vermont: Longhouse, 2007). At a reading/performance of his own early work in Brooklyn, Caldiero met polyartist Richard Kostelanetz, who printed Caldiero’s “foam and sand” in his anthology Text—Sound Text (along with work by Emmett Williams, Jerome Rothenberg, Allen Ginsberg, and others). He also included Caldiero in his Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, writing that “Sicilian-born, New York-reared Caldiero has created distinguished sound poetry and performance, as well as visual art. . . . OrBook o’ Lights ranks among the most imaginative and ambitious visual-verbal books of the 1990s.”

The final image from Or, Book o’ Lights, produced in a numbered, signed edition of 25, asserts that human beings are linguistic animals . . . and that language is a human animal.


Practitioners of the avant-garde are idiots.

Despite his New York roots and literary connections, in Utah Caldiero slipped into a kind of regional exile. He lays out the dilemmas of this self-imposed condition in At Home with the Cannibals (2007/2015): “It occurs to me just how much I want to disappear. Too famous for some, too local for others, too this too that, & the work goes on & on for the most part unnoticed, & I want it to disappear along with my bones. Not enuf of a national reputation, not enuf publications, not enuf—as if enuf was enuf to explain & justify one man’s bleeding. . . . and the work, what about the work? The day to day work?”

Photo by Ryan Trimble

There has been plenty of day-to-day work, one aspect of which is embodied in books published by Signature Books (1998), Dream Garden Press (2010), Elik Press (2013), again by Signature Books (2015), and by saltfront (2016).

People also know Caldiero as a performance artist, as a visual artist, as the Senior Artist in Residence at Utah Valley University, and as the subject of and contributor to Travis Low’s and Torben Bernhard’s brilliant film The Sonosopher. And there is more, it turns out, much more.

In his 1995 Salt Lake Art Center exhibition “The Food That Fits the Hunger,” Caldiero displayed a twine-wrapped pine bookcase with some of his notebooks crowding the shelves.

Photo by Jim Taylor

For the exhibit catalog, I mused that “the books on the shelf are performed as unperformed. They are ordered there in a library’s obedient temporal line, the material history of the poet’s makings. . . . Source Book is the quiet study before the explosion.” More than two decades later, the anticipated explosion is well underway.

A few weeks ago I attended a reading by Caldiero from Where is the Dancer, What is the Dance, a book written, drawn, sanded, and soaked while floating down Utah’s Cataract Canyon. The event was sponsored by 15 Bytes and featured the winners of the magazine’s annual book awards for poetry: Katherine Coles (Utah’s former Poet Laureate) and Caldiero were finalists and Paisley Rekdal (Utah’s current Poet Laureate) was the winner. After the poets read, someone asked about forthcoming work. The prolific laureates described books scheduled to appear in the coming months. Caldiero answered simply that he was “cooking with gas.” The modesty is typical. He might have pointed out that a second volume of Sonusuono is being readied by Elik Press. And he might have explained just what it is he is cooking with gas.

Over the last couple of years, Caldiero has produced several dozen chapbooks, some running to more than 100 pages, many of them pictured here:

Caldiero designs the chapbooks himself and prints them in editions of 20 or 30. They are ingeniously laid out reproductions of his notebooks, with typed poems inserted where the handwriting is difficult to decipher. The books are laced with drawings that often include words (or is it the words that include drawings?).

The chapbooks fall into chronological sets, like this one from his 2007 notebooks:

Caldiero explains the production and dissemination of chapbooks in a letter accompanying a package that included the three volumes called It rains even on who’s wet: POMS 2005.



I’ve spent the greater part of a life in three pursuits: raising a family, struggling with the material question, and making language. These activities left me little or no energy to pursue a career as writer or artist.

Consequently, the main venue for circulating works has been thru performative means. In addition, I’ve self-produced chapbooks to circulate as gifts or distribute thru select bookstores. These circulations are inspired by mail art and the poetry & art zines of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, such as SeminaBeatitudeOrigin, and Clown War.

Today I find myself in a self-made quandary. For every work formally published, piles of archived work never reach anyone. Recently, I decided to magnify my efforts by circulating various notebooks from this hoard in the guise of chapbooks. Intermittently, you may receive chapbooks via snail-mail or by hand.

Of my many hopes, the only sure one is to share with my fellow humans these documents of our common presence. . . .

Holographs display for all to read the improvisations of writing. In a further sense, an improvisation is an “improvvisata”: a surprise. In this way, the interplay of holographs & typed texts bears witness to the mutability of these word-image-sound activities. Suddenly and at once they mark, speak, extend, and live the very being that made them. . . .

. . . the gifted object, whereby TO GIVE IS TO BE, is vital in the development of a “gratis currency”, that is, an exchange of “currents” without bond or obligation.

In closing, I send you my best wishes, and do remain yr frendly naybohood sonosopher,

(Alex) F. Caldiero

Although Caldiero distinguishes between performance and the production of chapbooks, I see the chapbooks themselves as a kind of performance, a re-creation of the original performance on the notebook page.

Why, I ask Caldiero, this sudden and prolific performance of your notebooks?

“The impulse is complex,” he answers. “I wanted to reach out, to create a current and a currency, a gratis currency to exchange what I call documents of our common presence. Inspired, as I say in my letter, by some vital zines that asserted their independence from the normal avenues for publication, and goaded by the sheer quantity of my work that remains unshared, I turned to chapbooks as a medium for dissemination. And, I should add, a death sentence lent impetus to the project. In 2014 an acute attack of diverticulitis nearly killed me. They removed a foot-long section of my colon, which prompted you, wag that you are, to note that now I had only a semi-colon. I didn’t die, but the event brought me face-to-face with my mortality. And I realized I had work to do.”

And thus the multitude of improvised texts that constitute a gratis currency, of chapbooks that “mark, speak, extend, and live the very being that made them.”

The chapbooks present abundant images drawn by the poet’s hand. They are populated by hand-written words and phrases shaped like poems, vibrant embryonic creatures scarcely differentiated from the poet himself. The word-images are both the initial and the final work, testament to and products of the creative act. Reproductions of the creations in their nascent stage, as pages of the notebooks where they came into being, offer rare immediacy of experience for a reader. The work has not been reworked, polished, edited, and fixed by publication. It appears, rather, as an improvisation performed, for example, at 6:04 am 20 Apr 09:


As is the case with all improvisation, the word-images are not created ex-nihilo but grow out of a vast store of experience—much like a jazz improvisation out of the musician’s mastery of scales and based on sequences of chord changes. Adrienne Rich delineates the repertoire from which a poet draws: “To track your own desire, in your own language, is not an isolated task. You yourself are marked by family, gender, caste, landscape, the struggle to make a living, or the absence of such a struggle. . . . Look into the images.” And that’s exactly what Caldiero does in the chapbooks. He looks into the images, and in the case of an orange-eyed self-portrait, he does so at 5 am 9 July 08:

The variations on the tune A. (Alex) F. Caldiero found in these chapbooks are improvisations based on chords ranging from an ancient Sicilian creature with lairs in Brooklyn and Orem, the Utah city where he currently makes his home, to a more modern creature shaped by Catholicism, Mormonism, and an overarching mysticism. They modulate familial scales reaching into the past and anticipating the future. They re-sound compositions of Blake and Dante and Mallarmé and Ginsberg and Cage and Utah-based writer and podcaster Scott Carrier and Salt Lake filmmaker Trent Harris, and a multitude of others.

While improvising on these chords, Caldiero is creating himself. He searches for answers to “Who Is?” (the title of one chapbook) as he draws and as he writes (although I’m loathe to differentiate between writing and drawing when writing about Alex Caldiero). He looks into the mirror with ready pen:

Surprised to see you

You stand in front of me

With your pen and notebook

And only the mirror can tell us apart.

. . .

My only hope is that

I’ve not gotten in

Over my head & yes

It’s not a metaphor

            1:30 am 11 Apr 08



As his improvisations blur the line between work and self, the books Caldiero distributes freely blur the lines of publication, acting as an exchange that generously squanders and disseminates the fruits of spirit. Scholar and essayist Lewis Hyde writes in his modern classic The Gift that, “we nourish the spirit by disbursing our gifts, not by capitalizing upon them.” Creative gift giving, Hyde continues, “draws each of its participants into a wider self. . . . Works of art are drawn from, and their bestowal nourishes, those parts of our being that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, from the group and the race, from history and tradition, and from the spiritual world.” “TO GIVE IS TO BE,” Caldiero writes, and Hyde echoes the thought: “In the realized gifts of the gifted we may taste that zoë — life which shall not perish even though each of us, and each generation, shall perish.”

As Caldiero ponders his identity as a poet/maker and explores the tensions between his desire to be read (which is dependent on publication, on being known) and the benefits of circulating chapbooks as gifts, he admits (or perhaps asserts is a better word) that “from the very beginnings, before emotion or intellect, for me writing has been a biological function. So what does publishing have to do with it? Nothing.”

Caldiero’s chapbooks, for my sensibilities, are works of genius.

Photo by Ryan Trimble


Dove Song Poetry Salon, readings from an anthology on the Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry, featuring Alex Caldiero and many others, Ladies Literary Guild, 850 South Temple, Salt Lake City, Friday, May 11, 7 p.m.

Scott Abbott’s books include Fictions of Freemasonry: Freemasonry and the German Novel (1991), Repetitions and Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, both with Žarko Radaković (2013, 2014), and Wild Rides & Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes, with Sam Rushforth (2014). His meditations on the death of his brother John of AIDS appeared as Immortal For Quite Some Time (2016), winner of the 2017 15 Bytes Book Award in non-fiction. With historian Lyn Bennett, he recently published The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire (2017). Translations include Peter

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you Scott, for what may be the best verbal outing to date of Alex as artist and okay, beautiful idiot, if you will.

  2. Nice exposé, Scott. I have felt the chapbooks (and how they are dispersed) possess a childlike quality. I’ve been fascinated with how and why Alex circulates them as he does, and I love what you’ve contributed here about idiocy and genius, about sharing rather than capitalizing, about death and desire.

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