KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Rob Poulos is a walking fragment of literature.

Tattooed on his left wrist is a single word, lowercase, followed by a comma and quotation marks – back,” – as if it was lifted from the end of a line of dialogue.

Likely it was. Poulos, himself a student of creative writing, joined a worldwide effort to help author Shelley Jackson publish a short story solely on human hide.

Appropriately titled “Skin,” the 2,095-word piece of fiction is the foundation for a project that’s as exclusive as it is obscure. Each person bears one word only, and Jackson insists that the full text will be distributed only to participants.

“I can’t write a normal book. I’m not interested in that,” Jackson said in a telephone interview while roller-skating through New York City’s borough of Brooklyn.

None of her books have been mainstream. Her 1995 “Patchwork Girl” was written in computer hypertext, full of endless mouse clickable links.

“It’s not that everything I do has to be tricked out with gimmicks and games,” she said. “I’m just interested in exploring the range of what a text can do.”

Jackson, 40, launched the project she calls a “mortal work of art” in August.

Poulos, 22, heard about it in his literature class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His professor was given: “pen?”

“I thought it was an interesting mix of genres and I liked the permanence of the whole thing,” Poulos said. “I always told myself if I get a tattoo, it better be something of importance.”

Jackson said participants want to be connected to 2,094 other people and often don’t care about the story’s subject. Some have never read her earlier work.

Poulos did know of Jackson. After seeing the rules for the project, he e-mailed her.

“I told myself if I get a word I don’t like, I’m not going to do it,” Poulos said.

A letter came in the mail with Poulos’ word – back,” – a few months ago. Possibly a character’s dialogue from the story, he thought.

Within days, Poulos got his first tattoo for $60 at Skin Illustrations, a parlor near his home in Overland Park, Kan.

Drawn in a black textbook font, back,” is small enough that it could be concealed under a watch strap.

Jackson was the first to ink the story’s title to the underside of her wrist. Its uncommon spot complements her wild hair, nose and lip piercings and the “&” tattooed to her bicep.

Initially, Jackson asked friends to become the story’s opening lines. But when BBC and others reported on her project, e-mails and letters poured in from across the United States and dozens of countries, from Jordan to Japan.

She has more than enough volunteers and could have finished the project months ago if not for an arm injury, she said. All the words – about 400 remain – will be assigned after she finishes teaching creative writing at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn this summer.

The story has no obscene words, but some can be taken more than one way. One woman, for example, refused to tattoo “use” to her curvy body.

Jackson’s “words” have replied with proof of their tattoos. A man in his 50s from Hawaii sent a photo in which he proudly flexes his first tattoo. Mother-daughter duos have consecutive words in “Skin” tattooed on their bodies. So do couples.

“I was always fascinated by the idea of alternative publications and not many authors have ever attempted alternative ways of publishing,” Jackson said. “Publishers are not interested in conceptual art.”

Author Neal Pollack has also mastered publicity stunts with his literature.

“One doesn’t do something like Shelley did to get noticed,” said Pollack, whose first book tour mocked literary conventions with readings at train stations and baseball stadiums. On his last tour, Pollack peddled his work through live punk rock shows.

He acknowledged that “Skin” could easily be seen as “pretentious.”

“But anything that even moderately shakes literature out of its doldrums is great,” Pollack said.

William Gibson was a pioneer in elevating the craft through artful self-expression with his “Agrippa (A Book of The Dead).”

In 1992, the author, famed for “Johnny Mnemonic,” sold $2,000 copies of a “read-only-once” poem. Published on a computer disk and bound by art that vanished when exposed to light, a program would scroll the six-verse poem across the screen one time, then self-destruct (the idea was spoiled when someone passed the poem over the Internet).

Jackson is debating how to present her story to her “words,” but she’s optimistic that “Skin,” in it’s published entirety, will remain a secret among her loyal subjects. She gives no clues about the story’s topic, only that it’s in the “surreal tradition of literary fantasists.”

Poulos promises he won’t share the story when he gets his hands on it. He hopes to meet Jackson someday, and there’s talk of an online discussion board for the new community.


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