Poet Albert Goldbarth discusses his 1950s space paraphernalia collection.
By Richard Siken
Poetry Media Service
Albert Goldbarth is the author of over 20 books of poetry, including, most recently, The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems; his many honors include two National Book Critic Circle awards.
Richard Siken: What do you collect?
Albert Goldbarth: 1950s outer space stuffs, toy spaceships and robots. Also, I have a bunch of homages to the manual typewriter, some old manual typewriters, some of them quite beautiful as physical objects, and lots of old typewriter ribbon tins with beautiful designs lithographed onto the covers. I've always been a hoarder, a kind of bower bird-like creator of displays from out of my hoard. By my standards, there isn't a real line of demarcation between "junk" and "collectibles." The question is: is it lovely to my eye?
RS: Do you type on the typewriters you collect?
AG: No, I just look at them and imbibe the aura they have for me. That's true for the toy spaceships and robots. For example, many of them, as you know, are meant to be wound up, or they're battery operated. Some of them are extraordinarily intricate and very jazzy performance objects--they move, they beep, they clang, they spark--but generally I just like to look at them. Sometimes, when I'm moving around my spaceships, I feel that I'm doing something similar to what Joseph Cornell did--arranging his bird eggs and feathers and clipping from magazines--although I know there is some element of hubris in saying that.
RS: How many objects do you have in your collection?
AG: I've never counted, but I've been accumulating these things for well over 20 years now. I love a certain kind of 1950s outer space look--Cadillac-finned rocket ships, bubble-helmeted space guys and gals, fantastically futuristic space guns that go zap. I also have a cornucopia of old kids' coloring books, comic books, paperbacks, pulp magazines, board games. A lot of it is just packed away--there really is no more room for display--but the brunt of it exists in what would be, in a more normal household, the dining room. After a long time in negotiations, my wife and I have yielded [this room] to the outer space collection.
RS: What's the most important item in your collection?
AG: Although it's hard to pick, that might be a Buck Rogers spaceship. It's from 1934, created by the Marx Toy Company--that was a very famous producer of American toys from the '20s up into the early '60s--and it is probably the first commercially produced toy spaceship ever. To my eyes it's just lovely, faithfully produced from the way the spaceship looked in the Buck Rogers comic strip. It's just fantastically, almost ichthyologically finned, with the most beautiful array of deco colors displayed all over it.
I suppose one of the nice things about the toy spaceships--and in some sense the toy robots, too--is that no matter how imaginative or surreal they are, they're made, by definition, out of the real material they would exist in if they existed in our actual world. You're looking at a tin spaceship, opposed to a plastic spaceship or a carved wooden spaceship. You're looking at a tin robot, and they have the look of working models, something someone might actually stumble over if they walked outside and saw this spaceship parked at the curb. So at one and the same time you have this fantasy object that never could exist, made of a material that we choose to believe has an actual existence in some other nearby universe.
RS: Why tin? Why not some other metal?
AG: The story that has come down to me, through various sources, is that after World War II, when the Japanese economy was virtually dead, due to our own intervention, the Japanese realized there were all these tin cans around that the American soldiers had left behind. They collected them, smoothed them out, and used them for the original batch, as fodder for the first generation of Japanese tin toys. There's a sort of symbolic lovely revenge that evened the economic playing field. The original tin they had at hand and was free, and to this sudden lucky windfall they were able to add new techniques in vibrant color lithography and new possibilities for windup and battery-operated mechanisms, so that long before the Japanese became the primary inventors of transistor circuits or Toyota cars, the world of American childhood was being defined by tin Japanese space fleets.
RS: Do your friends and family understand your obsession, or do they give you grief?
AG: Obsession? Who said it was an obsession? My wife understands. We've had our moments of disagreement over dust issues. On the whole, I think she's intellectually supportive, even though, on a day-to-day basis, I think she might walk through the dining room and think of other uses to which it could be put. Friends generally tend to find it pretty amazing when they walk into some of the rooms here. Often, if they haven't seen the things before, and they're at a loss for any other analogy, they say "Ooooh, it's like a museum" or "Ooooh, this is the ideal toy room I dreamt of as a child." [My favorite reaction is from] those who really see these things with the same kind of understanding of the era and the pizzazz of innocence that these toys possess.
Albert Goldbarth is the 2008 winner of the Poetry Foundation's Mark Twain Poetry Award for humor in poetry. Richard Siken's poetry collection Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. This article originally appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Albert Goldbarth, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org
© 2008 by Richard Siken. All rights reserved.