Publishing as Performance: On As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry
As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry combines the work of poet, playwright and fiction writer Vivienne Plumb with illustrations by artist Glenn Otto. Launched earlier this year at the LA Art Book Fair and published by split/fountain, the publication brings together texts produced over Plumb’s twenty-year career. Rather than taking a chronological approach, these collected works are loosely arranged around particular themes or places. Spanning different genres, formats and temporalities, Plumb’s writing weaves together the tragic, humorous and mundane in ways that are unexpected and incisive.
When I first heard about this book, I was intrigued not only by Plumb’s work, but the nature of the collaboration with Otto, which was ‘initiated by split/fountain as part of their ongoing engagement with publishing as a performative act’. Based in Auckland, Otto produces minimal black-and-white line drawings that have an improvised, cartoonish quality. For As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, these are further reduced to abstracted swishes, squiggles and strokes that look as if they’ve been done with a fat marker pen. Resembling deconstructed signatures, they glide across the cover and pages, over and between Plumb’s words—playful gestures that draw attention to the construction and contrivance of each page of text. These forms are subtly mimicked by an italic serif typeface, which features on the bright yellow dust jacket and titles throughout the book.
If the title sounds familiar, that might be because it’s a near direct quote from the Grimm fairy tale The Three Children of Fortune, where ‘as much gold as an ass can carry’ is demanded in exchange for a magical rooster. Like many Grimm stories, there’s an element of humour but also cruelty and suffering implicit in this transaction: the poor donkey surely ends up lame after carrying all that treasure back home. Plumb’s contemporary body of work often plays with a fable-like structure or premise. In The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep (1991), Honey, a retired housewife, starts speaking in Japanese—a language she can’t understand—during her sleep at night, only to find that she’s prophesying and lending inspired wisdom while totally unconscious. Word spreads about Honey’s talents and she becomes a celebrity, but as she’s caught up in the limelight and possibilities of her own gift, her marriage changes course before her husband disappears altogether. Honey’s exceptional situation throws a spanner in the works that disrupts typical understandings of the relationship between ageing, marriage and fidelity, but despite the setup, the nugget of moral wisdom we’d expect from a fable is decidedly murky or absent altogether.
Plumb was born in Sydney before moving to New Zealand, where she studied at the Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington, before completing a Doctorate in Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong, Australia. Poems such as motels in Taupō, Sulphur City, the cheese and onion sandwich (all 2010) and the intercity (2009), are funny, bleak and affecting reflections on New Zealand’s cultural context and vernacular. In Sulphur City, an alternative name for the popular tourist town Rotorua where Plumb undertook a residency in 2007, she writes:
Rotorua, light of my light, pale dawn of my dusk
mist across the valley of ponga and piwakawaka
Rotorua, you are an empty STUDYLINK envelope
lying in the gutter of Old Taupo Road.
Other passages are more cutting:
Rotorua, baby, I love you
But when I heard that local woman say
we don’t have to pronounce Māori
until they learn to speak English
I wanted to cry into my hot soda springs.
Plumb writes about her relationships and life with a similar mix of humour and discomfort. In On Using People You Love in Your Poems (2000), she reflects on the peculiarity and ambivalences of this position:
she says / everyone knows it’s me in the poem and it’s really embarrassing. My face feels sad and saggy thinking I’ll have to change it … but inside the clocktower belltower mechanical ticking turning and flicking polished mechanisms on my brain I know I love the poem more / fuck you she says / than her.
Plumb’s poems Goldfish (1996) and Before the Operation (1994) were written during her son’s battle with cancer and Something Trivial (2014) after his death in his early 20s, capturing both the raw and mundane aspects of grief and illness. There’s no correlation between the mood or content of each page and Otto’s illustrations, which take the same approach throughout without discrimination.
Founded in 2009 and directed by graphic designer Layla Tweedie-Cullen, split/fountain has established a reputation for developing speculative, artist-led projects that often engage with the production and distribution of printed matter. Based in Auckland, the initiative operates as an imprint, design studio, bookshop and venue for curatorial projects and happenings. Split/fountain’s editorial role in facilitating the collaboration between Plumb and Otto gives the book a deliberate point of difference. Illustrated literary works are a part of an established genre, but in this case the relationship between text and illustration is more irreverent and less legible than usual. This publishing strategy places Plumb’s oeuvre in a different—and quite expansive—context, pairing her with a new collaborator and introducing her to an audience of new readers.
As Much Gold as An Ass Could Carry demonstrates both the rigor and breadth of Plumb’s writing practice and potential of small-scale niche publishing as an activity that embraces design, collaboration and physicality. Pairing together this body of work with Otto’s drawings draws attention to the abstractions of Plumb’s words, which unfurl on the page and become ‘live’ through the act of reading, their familiar themes and genres taking up fresh inflections and possibilities—not unlike the process of recalling a well known tale.
 Vivienne Plumb with illustrations by Glenn Otto, As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry (Auckland: spit/fountain, 2017)
 Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm(trans. Margaret Hunt) Houshold Tales by the Brothers Grimm  (The Floating Press, 2011), p.373.
 As Much Gold as as Ass Could Carry, p. 85.
 As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, p. 50.