VISUAL POETRY FORUM
with K. Lorraine Graham, Robert Grenier, Jessica Smith, Peter Ciccariello, William R. Howe, Derek Beaulieu, and Johanna Drucker
K. Lorraine Graham
Why did you start making/writing visual poems? I know that some of you, for example, began as visual artists only and some of you began as poets who became increasingly interested in visual art. I’m curious about how you contextualize your own work.
Well, when did I start (“why” I don’t know!)(being interested in arrangement in space?) “making/writing visual poems” ? I don’t know. I do love doing it ! When or why or how, I could care less ! As long as I can exercise & sleep (& dream!) & ‘wake up’ enough to ‘confront phenomena’ w/ my whole attention/’being’ in my lifetime, I profoundly hope to be ‘given opportunity’ to draw ‘letters’ (only ‘marks’ on a page?) wch I’m convinced have ‘some relation to’ (& may actually be capable of ‘participating in the conjuring of elements into’) ‘life’ ! !
I do remember the thrill of getting OFF the Selectric typewriter (wch had been my ‘absolute instrument’/’norm’ throughout the Sentences period (c. 1970-78) & on through almost all poems in Phantom Anthems (but the (‘precise’) Selectric image had already/absolutely been ‘a visual poem’, made by then contemporary industry!))—if you look at the beginning section of what I call ‘the black box’ (“WHAT I BELIEVE” etc.), you’ll see the delight I then took in the (‘escape’) return to my old/manual highschool typewriter (another ‘unconscious factor’, I hope!) wch w/ doubly struck letters produced (at that time) a much more engaging & attractive situation of writing/’image’ (the ‘machine’ didn’t ‘hum loudly’, nor did it ‘hurt my eardrum’!), so that I cd concentrate much better on words letters might make!
The “why” ought to ‘go back’ at least as far as watching water fall over Minnehaha Falls (many times) in Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota when I was a boy—“why” is that particular ‘pattern’ of water falling ‘interesting’ enough to cause a ‘boy-like-me’ to stop my everpresent wandering/’running around’/’exploring’ w/ dog Joe in the park ‘to see & look at’ ? ?
And to hear the water falling beneath (where behind the Falls the icecave was, in later wintertime—blue/green !) Minnehaha Falls was ‘obscurely significant’ to me !
Much more so than the Statue of Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha over Minnehaha Creek (wch ‘even I’ might have done, since the flow was ‘so insignificant’ in 2001, wch I as a ‘grown-up’ visiting Minnehaha Park cd see) ever could ‘mean’, to me ! !
I don’t really think about the separation between “visual poetry” and any other kind of poetry. All written language is visual, has a visual component, affects one’s eyes, the muscles and synapses of the way one crosses the page, the way one processes the information. With my work I just emphasize that a little bit more than usual to draw attention to the fact that it’s all visual all the time.
Essentially, I see word as visual. I write horse and see horse. From an early age, I had trouble with the abstractness of language and the incomprehensible ability of one thing to stand for another. I remember having a great deal of anxiety taking those achievement tests in elementary school where you match the word to the picture, or the picture to the word. I would stare at the words until they became the pictures then I could draw the line linking the two. Sometimes the word would have a life of its own and become another unrelated picture. This was very disconcerting and made for poor performance on my part. Later, the poem became painting or more specifically, poem became drawing because nothing is ever finished, and is instead always the beginning of the next. Andre Breton remarked that “Words make love with one another.” I find this to be quite true, a poem is a sensual panoply that is the catalyst of jealousy for other forms of writing.
Here again, is where word becomes thing, raw material, becomes tabula rasa, I like to introduce word to image in a way that it can express the ambiguity of its own self. Word or poem can re-create itself when it is stripped of historical context and the confines of reference.
Additionally, there is an element of automatic writing in my process. The obdurate self needs to be invaded by the other to reveal creation. This occurs most easily in dimming evening light or in the hours between midnight and 4 am. Art/poem reveals itself under these conditions most easily. It is the osmosis of interiority escaping into exteriority, the subconscious world announcing itself in the conscious sphere.
William R. Howe
From the very beginning of my creative practice, I was working with language in a visual mode. The reason behind this is both a simple one and one that is hard to completely explain and come to grips with. I am dyslexic. That is the simple answer. Written language is always already a visual problem for me (both in the sense that resolving letters into words is problematic at times, and in the sense that text/textuality to me has always been a site of finding solutions to visual problems). My creative practices started with this kind of notion in mind.
Textual production is a place to solve problems both linguistically and visually at the same time for me because to a certain extent I can never escape the materiality of the letter. This was further complicated by the fact that through a large part of my education (up until my final year or so as an undergraduate), I just did not get poetry. By this I mean that I just didn’t understand what the point was of all of this pretty language being used to tell a narrative. I had a hard enough time sometimes just reading prose. It was only when I started to read Language Writing that I realized that poetry was really about foregrounding the kinds of material parts of language that are peripheral at best to narrative and prose: sound, shape, rhythm, logophilia, etc. Poetry is about calling attention to the materiality of language while producing something that holds together through an internal structure. Language Writing showed me that language, its material parts, could be the subject of writing, and could form this internal structure using its own shape and sound. I suddenly got poetry, and not just Language Writing, but poetry in general. I understood what was so neat about Swinbourne or Bunting. I suddenly could see the games that H.D. was playing and was floored. In any case, my work proceeded from what I was seeing in visual work by Bruce Andrews, Marshall Reese, Kirby Malone, Hannah Wiener, and others.
What I got from Language Writing was an awareness that my preoccupation with the materiality of language wasn’t necessarily the hindrance that I had always thought that it was. By making poetry and writing about that very materiality, the Language Writers made it possible for me to see how I might be able to take my own engrossment in the visual nature of letters and the written word and turn that directly into a poetic investigation. I could, in a sense, write poetry that was about the physical aspects of language that my brain finds difficult to ignore, thus playing with the parts of language that up until that point had made writing difficult for me.
Though my own sense of language is one that is inherently visual (I read by looking at the outline of a word rather than looking at the letters themselves), things like Concrete Poetry didn’t make any more sense to me at the time than more normative verse. There was something about how the Language Writers were using the space of the page that just clicked with me and made me think “Oh, That’s it! Now I see what needs to be done.” Now, looking back at that moment, I think it had something to do with how the Concrete work that I was seeing, of say Dieter Roth or Hansjörg Mayer, was primarily investigating just one issue about the surface qualities of language (i.e. just the shape/visual texture of letter forms and words) that put me off. I was looking for something more to it. Poetry is supposed to be deep isn’t it? Well, in the Language Writers, I could find a depth that wasn’t apparent to me then in Concrete Poetry. This is not to say that depth isn’t there in Concrete, just that at that time I missed it. Maybe the implication is that Concrete Poetry is more subtle, more sophisticated than Language Writing. I don’t know.
When I began to explore language as an aesthetic practice, the visuality of written language was at the forefront of my thinking. Any use of the page is a visual one, so why not consciously incorporate that fact into my practice? Visuality, materiality (here, a better word might be “objectness”), sound, and semantic content all need to work together organically for a piece to be successful. Sometimes this means emphasizing one over the other three for a certain effect, but I do that consciously as a choice.
William R. Howe
w8ting (dedicated to Karen Finley)
While I formally started working in forms I would define as concrete poetry or visual poetry around 1997, I have from early childhood been drawn (no pun intended) towards the visual arts and comic books. So I think that my current work does work on a continuum which, while including earlier apprentice work, draws upon visual arts, graphic novels and sequential narratives as well as more typically concrete poetry.
Certainly the greatest influence on my work was the poetics and publishing of bpNichol (1944-1988) who was a gateway into other work, other concrete and visual poets – especially the work of Bob Cobbing, Dom Sylvester Houedard … but I’m also influenced by a great number of Canadian visual poets like Darren Wershler-Henry, kevin mcpherson eckhoff, Billy Mavreas, jwcurry. More and more I’m interested in the intersection between poetry and other artistic forms, like conceptual and landscape art, architecture.
As my work is moving towards the more conceptually-driven I’m integrating the aesthetics of visual poetry with the more conceptual concerns of visual artists like Tom Phillips, Sol Lewitt and conceptual poets like Craig Dworkin, Simon Morris, Kenneth Goldsmith, etc. Conceptual writing as it stands today can, in my opinion, be largely grouped into two sub-genres or streams which echo similar groupings in conceptual art: the conceptual document and the conceptual documentation. While these sub-genres are intertwined, there is enough difference to separate them into distinct discussions. I propose these working models with categorizing attributes, in order to further dialogue. Marc Lowenthal, in discussion of the work of Francis Picabia, refers to writing in a way which is quite apt for conceptual writing as well—he suggests that Picabia’s writing deals less with language than it does with experience[…t]his is not language ‘transformed’ into art of literature […] or even a language that is experienced […] but rather, experience as simply experience—something that is private, amusing, serious, abstract, unpoetic. […] Language does not have to communicate to affect, to be ‘touching’.
The conceptual document is largely centered around the author herself—the embodying of memory, dialogue or experience in a way which generates a text outside of traditional poetic discourse.
LeWitt’s statements on mechanical procedurality are also vital for conceptual writing, as “[t]o work with a plan which is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity”. LeWitt and Robert Smithson’s statements on mechanical procedurailty and resistance to humanist subjectivity seem even more relevant. LeWitt and Smithson wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s; a generation of writers later, these statements have taken on new weight. In his 1968 statement “Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth projects,” Robert Smithson proclaims that “poetry being forever lost must submit to its own vacuity; it is somehow a product of exhaustion rather than creation”.
The experience of hand-setting metal type brought me into a direct awareness of the physical and material properties of language. That was a determining event in my work. The insight came quite early. I was 19 years old, a student at the California College of Arts and Crafts, taking a class that combined creative writing with studio work in printing and printmaking. Betsy Davids had acquired a Vandercook proofing press and some cabinets of type for the print shop. The first time I set a paragraph of type and printed it, my sense of language changed. I saw the writing. I don’t know that anything can substitute for this experience. Remember that in 1971, which is when I took that class, only professionals had access to print media and typesetting technology. The idea that you could print your own work, or that type was something you could have access to as an integral part of the composition process of text, was not in common currency. Seeing language on the page as a result of choices I had made about picking the letters from the case, laying them out, and proofing them, combined with the equally novel experience of holding language in my hands, opened me to a new set of possibilities. Weight, heft, bulk, size, shape – the actual physicality and materiality of words became real. I had written poetry from my childhood through my teens, ignorant of forms in the earliest efforts, attentive only to conventional structures of rhyme and meter, and focused like most adolescents on content. In spite of exposure to increasingly sophisticated works, particularly those of French symbolists (thanks to enlightened high school French teachers), I scribbled without a hint of insight into the material or visual fact of language until that experience in the print shop. The writing I was doing was dense, figured, and abstract, full of double metaphors and complex alliteration, sound patterns. I was into syntactical morphing and genre bending prose. I had plans for elaborately parsed works, and did some handdrawn sketches for some pieces that looked like diagrammed sentences, hinged at points where the meaning split or syntax changed. These were too difficult to set in type, and between that realization and the exercise of setting other work I began to understand the way layout could emerge from arranging proofed elements of text and making a paste-up that let the words talk to each other differently because of the space they occupied and relations they formed when lifted out of the normative line. That was the beginning of my typographic visual work. Though my first books, Dark (1972) and As No Storm (1975) are fairly elaborately designed, I think my first fully visual book was Twenty-six ’76 Let Hers (1976). All of these books are available to be looked at online, in page facsimiles, at http://www.artistsbooksonline.org.
K. Lorraine Graham
What do you think of legibility/illegibility in your work—the term “visual poetry” suggests a way of engaging readers in a way that requires a different way of reading and seeing.
Wow, yr question abt “legibility/illegibility in your work” might make the ‘backbone’ of a whole high school-college seminar/semester ! Meanwhile, I had vowed to keep this answer ‘brief’, & so I can only say that I don’t think of my drawing poems in that ‘light’ at all. It’s not easy to ‘read’ anything-at-all wch asks-to-be-read (somehow, by a ‘fundamentally foreign’ person like me—from 1950’s Minnesota)—when ‘something occurs’ wch ‘requires my attention’ (if I’m in a ‘happy state of mind’/have ‘my equipment’ & ‘opportunity’), there’s chance to ‘write it’ (& what “’writing it’” might mean, might be a possible future question of yrs?)—if it’s ‘written adequately’ (in whatever medium it’s enabled to ‘shine forth’!), question of “legibility/illegibility” is strictly a ‘problem’ for every new (‘reader’/’viewer’) anyone who (somehow) is ‘motivated’ to ‘try to read’ any new work—WHAT IS/DOES THIS FUNNY LOOKING STUFF DO/SAY ? ? (After that ‘answer’ falls away, what’s left of the ‘material form’ in wch the artist/writer ‘attempted to make or say something’ is entirely a matter of time & destiny ?)>
I don’t generally work with illegibility in my work, although sometimes I do. Even when I do, however, the work isn’t really “illegible.” I always try to keep my work “legible” in the sense that with a little work, even the most seemingly visually complex work can be parsed and will “make sense,” will convey a message of some kind. I prefer to keep the play between legible and illegible relatively light, because I do actually have messages to convey. As a poet, I still have something to say.
Mod Diary 1
One of the things I have to say is that the visual aspect of the poem is as important as the aural, so I like to play with visuality to draw attention to it. The visual nature of poetry in, say, a left-aligned Times New Roman poem, can become all but transparent. It is easy to overlook the activity needed to understand even the simplest poem. I want to draw attention to that magic that happens—the muscles looking over the page, the brain processing the visual information, the split-second moment of recognition. I want to do this in as light-handed a way as possible. In that sense I am not a “visual poet” in the way many other visual poets are. I am just a proponent of the idea that visual information is as important to poetry as aural information. Even this small act, this seemingly insignificant opinion, can be controversial in an art that is often likened to music. So to call attention—even in some very minor way—to the physicality of seeing, the processes of reading, can be major.
I am not sure why the physicality of reading and the visual nature of the poem on the page still engenders comments like, “it doesn’t sound like anything.” Of course it still has sound—by paying attention to the visual nature of the page I by no means want to ignore the sonic scoring aspect of the poem on the page. But I feel like the page has its own weight and thus that the visual/physical letters aren’t the only sonic element on the page. I think the white spaces have their own static, the sound of memories and meanings of the reader’s mind infringing on the “blanks” that I’ve left between words, the transparent spider-web tightropes between phonemes and meanings.
Think of the idea of the line-break as breath, and you will see that the idea of the “blank” space of the page as a non-silent space is not new. If the line-break is the place where one breathes, then the white space of a “plain” left-aligned poem is the space of breathing—hardly a silent space.
I always remember Edward Albee’s line from The Zoo Story – ““Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly” In other words, I think that the road to new meaning is through the destruction of context and legibility. New meaning requires a leap of faith, a leap that one must make to achieve a qualitative change from illegibility and ambiguity into a freshness and emergent reading.
My process for doing this is to reduce the poem/image/word to foundational form, remove or degrade context, then reconstruct with the added elements of chance and happenstance. Denude word into self-sufficiency, as Aleksei Kruchenykh’s observation “word as such”.
William R. Howe
I have been thinking through issues surrounding legibility for quite some time. Our contempoary notions of legibility are rooted in two developments of the 18th Century: the Diderot Encyclopedia’s insistence on a clarity of expressive style , and a shift from the old style typefaces based on calligraphy to modern ones designed for faster and easier reading . Thus, “legibility” depends as much on the writer as it does on the editor/typographer/printer. The result is that “legibility” has become interchangeable with “transparency”. Typefaces and writing styles were standardized in order for those two elements to recede into the background and present less of a barrier to the reader’s “understanding” the “meaning” of the text. Thus, this notion of legibility is at odds with any kind of practice that might seek to foreground material elements of textuality and writing over than semantic/informational.
Because I am interested in the kinds of moves that foreground the various materialities of textual objects, the dialectic between legibility and illegibility are very important to my practice. Like other seemingly binary terms such as “sense/nonsense,” which are used to value and normalize writing, legibility/illegibility is often used as a club on work that challenges transparency to dismiss it as “illegible” and thus poorly crafted. However, all mark making is “legible”—meaning, literally, “visible”—by its very nature : there is no such thing as an un-interpretable mark in that the mark, if nothing else, means itself. There is no illegible mark.
My work continues to explore the various interstices between what might be termed “clean” and “noisy” mark-making, spaces in which a text might be considered “clean” in one way and “noisy” in another. For example, a clean text, clearly defined and formed, using conventional textual matrices, can also be “noisy” in terms of its stylistic, syntactic, and semantic form; this is one way of characterizing poetry by many of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group. There could also be noisy marks working within more readily recognized forms, such as mixing handwriting with typography. A mark can move in and out of multiple levels of clarity, which we see in texts such as Steve McCaffery’s Carnival: The Second Panel. Finally, there can be a complete foregrounding of paratextual materiality, which only echoes or gestures towards clean, transparent textuality, and is apparent in works like Bob Cobbing’s & Laurence Upton’s Domestic Ambient Moise/Noise...
I think of what I do as using and exploring the medium of language as an aesthetic practice, and as such I am not always trying to transmit a specific “content” or body of “information.” Language is not purely utilitarian, and I am interested in the ways in which language works outside/alongside/beside a use-value oriented economy of communication. This does not mean that I have completely rejected transparency, clarity, or legibility, only that I am interested in creating work that explores those aspects of language that are often ignored through the transparency of the text. I enjoy playing with the physical materiality of language as much as I do with the semantic. For me, language is not only a conceptual but a plastic art. Content, information, and communication are all elements of the larger work, contributing to the color, texture, and quality of light of its surface; they are not the work itself.
The concrete poetry which I endorse—and which stylistically is of most influence on my own work—is a poetic without direct one-to-one signification. It is rhizomatic in composition, pointing both to and away from multiple shifting clouds of meanings and construction, where writing, as Deleuze and Guattari state, “has nothing to do with signifying […] it has to do with surveying [and] mapping”. A rhizome is a non-centered, supportive system—an “antigeneology” resistant to the type of the modernist situating within a historical framework to which concrete poetry is so often subjected. Instead of a single, arborescent historical and critical framework, rhizomatic writing is “a map not a tracing”; and as a map it has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back to the ‘same’. The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involved an alleged ‘competence’.
The writing I foreground in these “multiple entryways” is that which focuses on excess—the leftovers, the refuse, the waste. Writing which overflows the container of the hegemony.
The 26-letter alphabet has been completely co-opted by the Capitalist hegemony as a system of materialist exchange. As “a rule of grammar is a power marker before it is a syntactic marker” syntax and grammar both reinforce the master narrative. Any movement to refuse or oppose Capitalism in writing only serves to reify it as the other, reinforcing its grip on representational language. The best we can strive for are momentary eruptions of non-meaning which are then co-opted back into representation by the very act of identification, pointing and naming.
My texts have always been legible, in the literal sense of being available for reading. The words are visible, clear, printed on the page. I am interested in using visual means either to proliferate textual possibilities, call attention to material and impede easy meaning production, or to use graphical form as part of the rhetorical force of a work, its shape and argument in presentation. But most illegible work doesn’t really interest me. Beyond the fact that it is illegible, so what? I suppose we can argue (and many will) that there are many varieties of illegibility, and that is true – the techniques of overprinting are not the same as those of erasure, censorship, collage, or palimpsests and so on. But then the work becomes an icon or record of a mode or attitude towards production, rather than a text. I think Craig Dworkin, in Reading the Illegible, engages these issues as well as anyone, though he also extends the term to include difficult work. Much of my work is certainly difficult, if by that we mean work that has unfamiliar syntactic form or uses non-normative expression. But to me legibility is a visual matter, and I’ve always like the cleanness and clarity of text that appeals to the eye with the promise of communication. This is not a value judgment on illegible work, just a very conscious choice about the kind of work and writing that I do. Even if you look at the texts composed of “sorts” – the type left over in the case after a text has been set from it – on the backs of the pages in From A to Z, where lots of substitutions of $ for S or puns and vowel-less words have to be spelled out, or look at the endnotes in that book (which are completely manic pieces), they are all texts that can be decoded and read. Nothing is nonsense. Since that book, done in 1977, was composed by taking the type in 48 drawers of type and using it all, every letter, once and only once, to make a text about poetry in the bay area that made sense, it would have seemed to me like cheating if I had not managed to put each letter to the service of a readable text. Is it easy to read? No, not really, but all the codes and cross references align into a fully legible whole.
K. Lorraine Graham
All of you work with a variety of forms, methods and materials in your poems—some of you work primarily digitally, some of you do multimedia collages, some of you hand draw your poems, and some of you use typewriters, etc. Can you talk about this a bit—about the relationship between the materiality of the poems and the material conditions you encounter as a poet?
This one I vow to answer ‘directly’—it’s entirely a matter of hand-drawing-pen-image-on-page (what else cd it possibly be?), except that that seems to ‘give onto’ (as ‘this’ drawn image/word in notebook) a public corridor of extensive ‘meaning’, into wch any old/hand-drawn image of a series of letters-into-words might be catapulted—e.g. someone might ‘read’ one of my drawing poems as ‘saying’ “VOTE FOR OBAMA!” – PLEASE DO ! !
In the effort to extract images from their ‘original state’ (as color drawing poems in c. 5 1/2 × 8 1/2” blank books), so that someone might see them, there’s been engagement in recent years w/ 3 other ‘media’ (each of course opening ‘whole worlds of forms’): first, I’ve held notebooks open in sunshine in the back yard to be photographed by Ken Botto (I use slides made thereby to document what’s been written & to project at readings/slide shows in public presentation of my work—e.g., there’s to be one at St. Mark’s Church in NYC this coming October 22); second, working w/ artist Peter Turner I’ve scanned notebooks pages into computer files & edited same to produce Giclée prints for sale through the Greene Naftali Gallery in NYC (contact Jay Sanders at email@example.com )(an extensive show of a series of these prints (called 64) is currently up (through 8 November) as part of an exhibition curated by Tony Trehy called The Irony of Flatness at the Bury Museum & Art Gallery, Moss Street, Bury, Lancashire, UK (http://www.bury.gov.uk/arts); third, a variety of online ‘translations’ of my works have appeared of late (including a ‘random’ version of the 1978 typewriter-based/index card text called Sentences, produced by Michael Waltuch) & links to many of these may be found at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/grenier (e.g. there’s a recent email exchange w/ Charles Bernstein centering on matters related to my drawing poems (wch contains a number of color images of texts from 64) up at http://jacketmagazine.com/35/iv-grenier-ivb-bernstein.shtml).
I really enjoy “writing” poetry. I keep a handwritten diary and I sometimes write handwritten poems. Even when I am writing poems that will be printed in standard typefaces on standard paper, I handwrite the drafts. I enjoy the tactility of writing. I buy artists’ sketchbooks—I like the thick, textured paper. When I published my book, Organic Furniture Cellar, I printed it on 70lb paper. It is much like the paper on which I first sketch the poems.
I’m old-fashioned—I like the physicality of the book, the feel of the paper in my hands, the stitching or the smell of the glue. I like pens with a certain draw of ink.
In this context, I consider my poems as “works on paper,” like pen and ink drawings. MOMA has a collection of what we would call visual poetry—they call it “work on paper.” I don’t see a great difference between the two, especially with drafts. I like to look at poets’ journals and sketchbooks and see what the poems looked like before they were standardized by computers and printers.
There is an appeal to standardization too, of course, and there are variations within that can make things interesting. Susan Howe once said that she couldn’t write until she’d chosen the font. Choosing the font, the weight of the paper, etc. can matter even if it doesn’t seem as … important? As extreme? as choosing a pen and handwriting on specialty paper. One can still draw attention to the visual even if the fonts and paperweight are standardized. In fact, it can be more of a challenge to do so when under the constraints of standardization/publishability. How can I draw attention to the visual/tactile nature of the page when working with MS Word, Garamond 10 and 55lb paper? I enjoy this challenge.
I am working entirely in a digital environment now. I find the monitor space to be transcendent, and the format expansive, even panoramic (although I would love to experiment with a square monitor someday). The simple fact that my digital photographs are essential to the conceptualization of my poems is the only factor that gets me out into the field. This melding of the virtual and the real is analogous to the push/pull of the text and the image. It is that “space between”, that spatial and intellectual tension between the two that I find to be most intriguing and most rewarding to work with.
Bird in a Basket
William R. Howe
I think that all writing is essentially an encounter between an author/practitioner and the material conditions in which that practitioner finds her/himself at the moment and through which the writing is instantiated. By this I mean that writing is always to one extent or another about the material circumstances of the act of writing and the means of production, by which the specific text that the reader has access to at a given time has been produced. Typesetting on an old Washington style letterpress to be hand inked and sheet fed is very different from photo-typesetting for an offset machine or computer typesetting for desktop publishing via a laser printer. The paratextual elements injected into a text by these differences in typesetting are just as much a part of a reader’s experience (although normatively rendered transparent) as the words/marks which make up the text itself.
The circumstances of the practitioner during the production of the text, likewise, impact the eventual completed piece. My circumstances, of which dyslexia is a part, impact everything I write to one degree or another, just like the fact that this journal uses a digital offset printing process makes the addition of color images into this section both technically and financially possible. Some of the questions I explore in my work are: What does it mean to a text to have its production/process exposed as part of its content? What does it mean to have the production of a text rendered as content? By making the means of production and/or publication an element of content, writing and reading become blurred in an interesting way.
The corolary to this is that the reader’s physical and material circumstances play a role in textual production as well. Again, I would point to my dyslexia as an extreme example of this in my work, but also structuralist linguistics, reader response criticism, and post-modernist and post-structuralist theory all point to the fact that the text is an intersection between two creative performances—that of writing and that of reading. So, one of the reasons I tend to have haptic, more intentionally intrusive elements in many of the text/objects that I produce is that I like to remind people that there was a performance at the root of the piece they are reading, thereby focusing attention on both the material object of the writing and circumstances of its production. Sometimes this haptic intervention takes the form of handwritten letters/letter forms which are then reproduced digitally; other times, I will take digital prints as a base layer and add hand-drawn and/or hand-lettered forms onto the digital print. In other cases, I produce the object completely digitally, assembling it into a book/object that asks a reader to engage it in ways that foreground the physical act of reading. I have also used various prepared typewriters to work in much the same way. Again, the image of a typed text, physically re-manipulated through the typewriter, overtyped draws attention to the performance of writing while it is being read.
With performances like The Fifth Typewriter or any of the Symphony for Prepared Shoes pieces (there have been 4 to date), the text that is produced is very much a residue of a performance, but also a text which can be read in its own right. In my recent postcard poems like the password series the collaged elements, coupled with letra-set style lettering, again point towards a physical interaction with the text as it is being created. Similarly, in the large silk screen pieces like the Aerodrome 50/50 series that I am currently making, I am interested in how digital and analog technologies of reproduction intersect with the haptic to produce a text. The stencils for the screens are a mixture of digital and hand-lettered images, burned onto screens and then printed by hand on a vacuum table of my own design and manufacture. By allowing the means and moment of production into the text in a visible way, I am hoping to also allow for an expanded act of reading: a reading which self-consciously recognizes paratextual play—the play of our bodies interacting with physical textual objects in the act of reading/writing, the play of design elements and content, the play of font choice as content, etc.
The weakest link in the economy of poetry is the poet himself. The general economic use of a machine created for use in a restricted economy troubles the “use-value” of the machines and that of the author. The author’s role in confessional humanism, in light of conceptual writing and concrete poetry, is, as Lea Vergine states in her When Trash Becomes Art, “useless figure […] a social error”.
The author has become the voice of restraint and reason attempting to limit the presentation of continuous waste production as writing. The “cautious proceduralities” of structural poetics are discarded in favour of the documentation of a reading machine’s waste as textual production. Text fractures through “willing errors” from a single united field of meaning with accepted social value to a series of pieces increasing “the rate and momentum of […]disposal” spreading value across a larger field.
What concrete presents to the reader is a record of the waste produced by the consumption (reading) of a text by a machine. If “[t]o read […] is a labour of language. To read is to find meanings”, then the consumption and expulsion of texts by machines—or by authors working as machine, such as Goldsmith when he claims to want to be a ‘word-processor’—also finds meanings where meanings are not expected, fracturing the text at the level of the seme. In a text where “everything signifies ceaselessly and several times, but without being delegated to a great final ensemble, to an ultimate structure” even waste becomes poetically charged.
Echoing Marshall McLuhan, bpNichol suggested that in photocopier degeneration poetry “the machine is the message […t]he text itself ultimately disappears”.
The voicing of these texts, like the texts themselves, is “pulled off the page even as [it] disintegrate[s], a double thrust of text into silence”. In my own practice concrete poetry is not a score for oral performance and is not meant to be articulated in sound. This “double thrust of text into silence” then becomes another issue of the rejection of exchange in concrete poetry. While the concrete poet cannot control how the reader will approach—or even perform a text—it is my aim to step away from performance of these poems in order to further complicate the exchange value of poetry. While ‘value’ and ‘commodity’ are never completely escaped, its transferal can be troubled by the removal of the verbal from the communication equation: Communication ‘occurs’ by means of a sole instantaneous circuit, and for it to be ‘good’ communication must take place fast—there is no time for silence. Silence is banished from our screens; it has no place in communication. Media images […] never fall silent: images and messages must follow one upon the other without interruption. But silence is exactly that—a blip in the circuitry; a minor catastrophe, a slip which […] becomes highly meaningful—a break laden now with anxiety, now with jubilation (Baudrillard 13).
The performative “minor catastrophe” operates as an economic clinamen; a swerve away from the normative creation of a spoken text.
This refusal to participate in the oral performance of concrete poetry by rejecting the idea of the visual poem as score for orality—and the composition of concrete poetry itself—relates to Sianne Ngai’s idea of a poetics where “disgust, and not desire, is our most common effective response to capitalism and patriarchy”. A poetic of disgust includes both the “the figure of the turn, or moment of exclusion […t]he movement away from the object as if to shun it” and the “negative utterance”. I extend Ngai’s formulation of the “inarticulate sound” to print-based media as well as the ‘inarticulate mark’. Ngai suggests that one of the articulations of disgust is the “inarticulate sound” where “[n]o words are used in the expression of disgust and thus the question of what words ‘mean’ is simply irrelevant to this particular type of utterance”. Concrete poetry—the ‘inarticulate mark’—treats language as “raw matter” without a reinforced referent as a means to briefly interrupt capitalist exchange-based signification by insisting on the disappearance of the referent while at the same time refusing to defer to other terms. It won’t coagulate into a unitary meaning and it also won’t move; it can’t be displaced.
The ‘inarticulate mark’ of concrete poetry ultimately expresses a poetics of disgust and exclusion, where its language “only covers a space; the reader cannot fix it metaphorically, assign a concept to it, nor send it on a metonymic voyage along a chain of other terms”.
In his famous defense of Joyce’s Work in Progress, Samuel Beckett argued that “[h]ere is direct expression—pages and pages of it” chiding the reader that “[y]ou are not satisfied unless form is so strictly divorced from content that you can comprehend the one almost without bothering to read the other.” Beckett’s defense of Work in Progress is temporally adaptable to become a slogan for conceptual work in general “[h]ere form is content, content is form [.…] this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. [… this] writing is not about something; it is that something itself”.
Letterpress, obviously, has been an enormous influence on my work. Though I tire of the feeling of lead dust on my hands (it is not always pleasant to know one has a toxic substance on the skin), I still love the process of setting type, printing it, and making work that is formed from the understanding of that medium. For me setting type is as natural as typing, and so it comes very easily. I feel like I know what I am doing when I proof a form, cut it up, rearrange it so the weight and balance work on the final sheet. Testament of Women, the last letterpress book I did (2006), is filled with page in which the disposition of the text creates dynamic tension and balance. The process is wonderfully immediate and tangible. When I was young, my mother gave me a rubber stamp set, and we thought we were “printers” when we used it. The letters were pretty, a rounded humanistic font like a Century Schoolbook or version of Clarendon, so they had more authority than if they had been stick letters. My first typewriter thrilled me with the sense of authority its output provided. Later we used press type, IBM selectrics, type set with keystroke commands for print out, type that was created from “spec” to phototype (“spec-ing” type meant taking a sheet of text and giving specifications to the typesetter about font, size, spacing, weight, etc.) and so on. We used any and every means available. It was very difficult to get hold of the technology of production, or get access to industry tools. I learned to typeset letterpress, and then phototype, and then had access to both through my work at the West Coast Print Center in 1975-77. Many writers and book artists worked in print shops and had industrial training, skills we could use to make a living as well our own work. It was the only way to really be able to afford to do what we wanted, and to be able to use the media artistically – as a production means, not a reproduction medium. Otherwise you were limited to what a shop would produce according to your instructions, and that is a long way from working yourself at the press, computer typesetter, at the case, or in the darkroom. We used copy cameras to rescale, to distort, and invert type. We used the light tables and waxed copy to make all kinds of collages and pastiche. And then in the 1980s, along came the desktop computer and then we played with the various output devices, dot matrix and daisy wheel printers, until the printers improved. I played a little with Fontographer when it was first available too, but realized I’m not much of a type designer. The ability to work in the computer is fantastic, but I still love the constraints of letterpress as well as the aesthetic effects. Somehow the idea that you actually run out of letters in a font is appealing – it forces a certain self-consciousness in the act of composing, as if language were finite, not infinite, and each choice to be measured within an economy of limited supply. That changes the way one writes, and uses language, though it is not a visual matter, but a conceptual and procedural one. Any medium has aesthetic potential and character, so the visual qualities of any and all production modes are useful and available as part of the production of literary texts. Still, it is remarkable how blind and uninformed many people are – and the appalling choices made in print production sometimes boggle my mind. It is as if someone were showing up in a pair of 1970s synthetic plaid pants and not noticing they had them on. If poets could read fonts the way they read texts they might be surprised at the fashion errors and style crimes they commit in print. They would say it doesn’t really matter, that it is the text, after all, that is the point. And what text is that, I’d like to know, looking at what is on the page in front of me…?