THEIR WORK IN PRINT: Kristina Grinovich dedicated her right arm as a tribute to the words of Kafka.
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was sitting down for a meal at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, when she found herself under critique.
"I sat down in the cafeteria," the Jamaica Plain writer recalls. "One of the famous poets who was there to teach sat down next to me and read the first line of the Sexton poem off my arm, and he said, 'That's a terrible poem! That's not one of her good ones!' "
The eminent bard — she wouldn't name names — found fault with Anne Sexton's "Curse Against Elegies." That poem, along with Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Dirge Without Music," wash over each other to form the outline of an orchid on Marzano-Lesnevich's bicep.
She didn't take offense at the poet's criticism. "I just let him talk," she says. "How often do you get to hear a famous poet rail against another famous poet?"
At that same conference, the tattoo led to another, more fortuitous encounter. "Amy MacKinnon [the Boston-based author of the novel Tethered] saw my tattoo and said to me that a woman in her agent's agency was putting together a book of literary tattoos."
That book, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide (Harper Perennial), comes out this week. The idea for the book came about in the spring of 2009, when two friends realized that two of their respective roommates had three literary tattoos between them. If this number seems high, consider that editors Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor both have MFAs, are under 30, and live in Brooklyn. Talmadge, 29, is the aforementioned literary agent and writer; Taylor, 28, a novelist and currently a creative-writing teacher at Columbia University.
The book's participants skew heavily toward literary professionals. "There's a lot of people in the book that are affiliated with publishing or books in some way," says Taylor. "A handful of librarians, a lot of people who work for publishing houses, magazine journalists." There are a few famous writers, too, like Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody. There are also a number of independent bookstore employees, whom Taylor tried to shoot in their natural habitat. "I wanted to make it a thing about bookstores and about the places where literature is consumed," he says.
Still, Taylor estimates that literary laypeople comprise the majority of his subjects, proving that literary tattoos are far from the exclusive province of MFAs and those who work in publishing. (For further evidence, check out the Harry Potter neck tattoo that immediately follows a two-page spread of Twilight sleeves, one of which features the word "Believe" in Edward Cullen's "handwriting.")
With any luck, the book will be used as a primary source by anthropologists of the future who have set out to understand what happened to bibliophiles when physical books began to disappear. At the very least, they'll learn that literary passions ran broadly, and deep, and weren't readily digitized.