Archives for category: irresponsible acts of imaginative license

OK, turn the clown off. This is who was in the White House. This is the, uh, this, this is what I’m giving you an example of what the Obamas have done to America ah culturally and socially. They bring a tenth-rate clown like this in who boasts about that he teaches his children how to, uh, his students, so to speak, at the once ex University of Pennsylvania. It’s become a cesspool, uh, what’s happened there. And talks about uncreative writing and how to plagiarize, you hear? Now, when you have a, uh, uh, plagiarist in the White House you would think having a plagiarist pretending to be a poet in the White House in a poetry event … what is this, like, Abbie Hoffman 2? I mean, this is what I’m talking about here, this is not poetry; this is the debasement of our culture. It’s part of the Marxist class warfare. This is what he does and this is what he does and this is how he does it. You say “what are you going on about?” All right, bring it on, I’m showing you who he had there. It wasn’t just the rapper, he has this putz there talking about teaching children, uh, you can’t write anything creative and original, you have to plagiarize everything you turn in. This is a teacher in a college. This is what’s going passing now for a college teacher. It goes back to Obama inviting a so-called college teacher who teaches children to te- to write uncreative writing, where you’re not allowed to write anything original you must plagiarize. It’s the same mentality. It’s the destruction of western civilization. In that sense Obama is acting in a rather s-schizophrenic manner to have a poetry event and invite someone who teaches children that that they must plagiarize. You follow where I’m coming from here?

Right. Yeah.

Alright, it’s a little too esoteric, I get it.

Steven Zultanski’s Pad (Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2010) hilariously foregrounds the propensity of masculinist experimental writing.

Zultanski builds on the work of Georges Perec (in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris in which he describes everything he observes from a café window over 3 days in October 1974), Tan Lin (in Bib in which he obsessively enumerates all of his reading materials and the length of time spent on each) and Daniel Spoerri (in An Anecdoted Topography of Chance in which he maps the histories of every item spread across his kitchen table).

Perec, Lin and Spoerri catalogue the random assemblages of the mundane, creating a level of significance simply through their application of choice. The resultant manuscripts are both socio-historical mappings of possessions, habits and behaviours and conceptual novels in which the authors abandon narrative intention in favour of compositional intention. The act of recording behavior and observation borders on the obsessive and yet frequently yields observations of strikingly tender quiet contemplative moments.

A frequent criticism of books of this style (and conceptualism as a whole) is that it is a male-dominated field, where author’s works are judged not by grace or subtlety but by muscular exertion and literary “heavy lifting.” Zultanski fully embraces the masculinist trope of conceptual “heavy lifting” and takes it to an absurd new extreme. In Pad Zultanski not only obsessively catalogues all of the items in his pad; he also lists the items according to whether or not he could life the items with his penis:

My dick cannot lift the small Holmes rotating fan sitting on the windowsill facing the bed. My dick cannot lift the windowsill. My dick cannot lift the bookcase filled with mostly unread books. My dick cannot lift the pile of mostly unread chapbooks sitting on top of the bookcase filled with mostly unread books. My dick can lift the cat postcard from Bob. My dick can lift the 2006 Turtle Point Press catalogue. My dick can lift the book A Little White Shadow by Mary Ruefle. (2-3)

Much as Kenneth Goldsmith’s colleagues pored over his Soliloquy in search of details on how they were discussed behind their backs, Pad includes an obsessively detailed list of all the books in Zultanski’s pad which he can lift with his dick. I imagine that Zultanski’s coterie will similarly search Pad in hope for evidence that their book was submitted to his phallic sorting. Zultaski’s reading list is catalogued by whether or not he could dislodge books from its shelf (and implicitly, from a canonical position) through the muscular force of his own phallocentrism. This canonicity uncannily echoes most libraries own retention criteria:

My dick can lift can lift the book The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson. My dick can lift the book Collected Poems by George Oppen. My dick can lift the book The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen by Wilfred Owen. My dick can lift the book Notes for Echo Lake by Michael Palmer. (120)

Zultanski gives overt voice to the masculine in Pad by literally associating everything he owns, everything he touches, with his penis. In Pad, the phallic is not implicit it is explicit. Everything in his apartment is included in Zultaski’s tome, and thus he (and his cock) lay claim to everything in his purview. Zultanski surveys his empire and all within it; his schlong becomes the embodiment of the male gaze, and all that it can touch it can own and define. Zultanski’s girlfriend’s possessions are treated to the same disturbing taxonomy:

My dick can lift the girlfriend’s green Gap t-shirt from the plastic bag of clothes. My dick can lift the girlfriend’s navy blue Suzy jeans from the plastic bag of clothes. My dick can lift the girlfriend’s red belt from the plastic bag of clothes. (34)

Interestingly, while Zultanski categorizes all of his possessions according to his own penile acrobatics, he avoids grammatically claiming his girlfriend as ‘his’, preferring the definite article ‘the’ – and while the text opens with Steve’s dick lifting all of “the girlfriend’s” clothing from a “plastic bag of clothes”, by the end of the book he declares

My dick can lift the plastic bag stuffed with the ex-girlfriend’s clothes. My dick cannot lift, all at once, the entire pile of the ex-girlfriend’s clothes. My dick can lift, one at a time, each article of the ex-girlfriend’s clothing (164)

Which suggests that while there is a great deal that Zultanski’s dick could lift, it “cannot lift the doorknob on the front door […] the front door lock […] the eyehole” and ultimately “still cannot lift the door” (165). The litany of products and items that Zultanski’s dick struggles to lift closes with a castrated moment, where Zultaski and his dick are left alone and his “dick cannot lift the floor.”

Zultanski, with Pad, is a phallic King Midas: all that he touches turns to dick.

In a column for Sina Queyras’ Lemon Hound blog I discussed poets and novelists who used previously published texts as palimpsests for new writing. These books—as exemplified by Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, Jen Bervin’s Nets, Elizabeth Tonnard’s Let us go then, you and I and Janet Holmes’ The ms of m y kin—treat other writers’ texts as the raw material for their own work. Each of those books—and the key texts in this genre, Tom Phillip’s A Humument and Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os—look to “compose the holes” and create a new text from the already present. They suggest that embedded within any text is a myriad of latent texts.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (London: Visual Editions, 2010) is the latest entry in this sub-genre and has become an Internet sensation. Foer has executed the logical extension of these projects by literally excising unwanted from his source text leaving each page a lattice-work. The book is visually stunning—when I’ve shown my copy to friends it has elicited gasps of surprise (first by its incongruous lack of weight considering its page count, then by the pages themselves)—and the production values are exceptional.

The publisher, London’s Visual Editions, has released only one other title, a beautiful new edition of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and has seemingly spared no expense in the preparation of Tree of Codes.

As radical as Tree of Codes may look on the surface, it belies a traditional sensibility which undermines the project as a whole. Foer has chosen as his source text Bruno Schultz’s short story collection Street of Crocodiles, his “favorite book.” This selection reflects not upon a latent text within Street of Crocodiles, nor upon a potential commentary upon Schultz’s biography or bibliography, but rather simply upon Foer’s own personal aesthetic. Tree of Codes is, then, Foer’s love letter to Schultz’s oeuvre. An excision text like Tree of Codes is based entirely on the quality of the writer’s choices: her ability to choose an initial text and style of writing / creation which is both uncanny and self-contained. In the best examples in this genre the resultant text is dictated by, and comments upon, the source text. There should be some awareness, some commentary, some self-reflection, on the process of moving the source text into the recombinant resultant text. Tree of Codes, sadly, is not an example of (as Craig Dworkin defines Conceptual writing) “a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself: in which the instance of writing is inextricably intertwined with the idea of Writing: the material practice of écriture.” Foer has merely mined one straight-forward narrative for yet another straight-forward narrative.

The litmus test for writing is, as Craig Dworkin argues, “no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” Tree of Codes has claimed this form of excision writing as squarely its own and prevents other writers from undertaking a project with similar execution; sadly it does so without engaging with the content as solidly as it has the form of the novel. The entirety of the first page of text in Tree of Codes reads “The passerby / had their eyes half-closed / . Everyone / wore his / mask . / children greeted each other with masks painted / on their faces; they smiled at each other’s / smiles” [8] and while the excisions and textual absences does create a sense of foreboding and melancholy, they do not meaningfully add to the story itself. Tree of Codes is not explicitly tied to its means of creation; there is no reason that the book was composed in this manner instead of a more traditional means of composition.

Despite being a celebrated contributor to Canadian art from the 1960s through 1990’s, Greg Curnoe’s reputation among the literary community is limited to the generation of writers who knew him personally or who were active within his community (see, for instance, George Bowering’s The Moustache: Memories of Greg Curnoe (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1993) and the ‘We are not Greg Curnoe’ issue of Open Letter (11.5, Summer 2002)).

The majority of Curnoe’s visual work, highly celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s, has become a cultural artifact, a time capsule of the Centennial / Expo ’67 period in Canadian art. His work in little magazines Region and 20 Cents Magazine has faded from view (although, the be fair, the Forest City Gallery and the Nihilist Spasm Band, both of which he co-founded, continue).

Greg Curnoe (1936–1992) was a constant advocate for celebrating the regional arts and literary communities in southwestern Ontario (especially around London). A pair of posthumously published books which link to his passion for the local deserve more attention and should be of interest to conceptual writers. Conceptual writing centres on the ideas of transcription, selection and choice as informed by the archival, the echoed and the highly personal. I’ve written elsewhere on Emma Kay’s personal history of the world, Worldview, and Craig Dworkin’s rumination on the construction of libraries and archives, The Perverse Library.

Curnoe’s Deeds / Abstracts: The History of a London Lot (London: Brick Books, 1995) and Deeds / Nations (London: Ontario Archeological Society, 1996) are both examples of conceptual anticipatory plagiarism.

Initially begun as a means of settling a property-line dispute (a non-poetic issue retrofit to a poetic exploration), Curnoe’s Deeds / Abstracts: The History of a London Lot is a meticulous mining of the historical record for commentary on every person to have interacted with his property at 38 Weston Street, London, ON, or the surrounding community. Presented without editorial commentary or contextual remarks (beyond an introduction, as edited by Frank Davey), a typical entry reads:
April 9, 1894:

William Weatherhead [gardener 1829-1916] and Eliza Jane Weatherhead [1830-1905] to Ellen Knowles [married to Joseph Knowles {lithographer 1867-?}], sub-lot 6, Registered Plan #32 [30 Weston Street]. Bargain and sale #733. (Middlesex County Registry Office) [112]

Positioned between Benjamin’s The Arcades Project and an amateur genealogist’s recounting of a family history, Deeds / Abstracts is a curious anomaly in Canadian poetry. Many of the long poems that preceded Deeds / Abstracts similarly used archival documents and histories as found and manipulated objects, forming the backbone from which the poetic text grew. Kroetsch’s The Ledger (1975) and McKinnon’s I Wanted To Say Something (1975, 1990) both typify this long-poem trope. Curnoe has not poeticized his language or the material, in any way—he has simply gathered and transcribed the entries and reported them in chronological order.

Deeds / Abstracts attempts to trouble the Eurocentric sense of Canadian history by extending its scope to include a recording of every aboriginal and first-nations person who had interaction with the area around what would be come 38 Weston Street. Because of the nature of the documents that Curnoe draws upon for his cataloguing, Deeds / Abstracts lists only the aboriginal and first-nations people who had interaction with Europeans. Documenting a decidedly European perspective on presence, “personhood” is defined here, as having interacted with Europeans:

Nigigoonce [fl. 1843], Ojibwa Nation, possibly a relative of Ne~gig (1)?; lived on the Upper St.Clair reserve [Sarnia], January 20, 1843 (Canada 1847: no.20). [83]

Too often, to my eye, Deeds / Nations becomes a 238-page catalogue of names, and reading a European-Canadian listing of every Aboriginal person who interacted with a piece of land becomes an uncomfortable inventory. Curnoe was well-aware of this issue, and did attempt to mitigate this cultural lens by interviewing descendants of Surrender No.2 (1790) and Surrender No.6 (1796), and incorporated issues of voice into his “I am OUY” series of rubberstamp visual art.

Curnoe’s artistic practice was greatly influenced by collage, and the aestheticization of non-artistic and mundane items, and this aesthetic flows into his work on Deeds / Abstracts and Deeds/ Nations. Collage, as an art-form, includes both a non-discriminatory reach (anything can become art) and aesthetic of choice (but only those items chosen by an aesthetically-aware eye). With Deeds / Nations and Deeds / Abstracts Curnoe gathers as much information as he can about every person who had interaction with “his” property at 38 Weston Street—but the results carry with it the inherent problems of voice and historical appropriation.

Bob Cobbing's "tyger 1" (1971)

Bob Cobbing (1920–2002) was a (if not the) master of concrete and visual poetry. He began working in typewriter and duplicator monotypes (single-run prints) in 1942, sound poems in 1954 and also initiated his press Writers Forum press in 1954 (more on Writers Forum in a forthcoming column). He worked continuously in those forms (and more) until his death in 2002. Cobbing’s influence and notoriety in Canadian poetry peaked under bpNichol’s efforts in the late 1970’s (Nichol published Cobbing’s Sensations of the Retina in 1978 and shepherded his 1976 book bill jubobe: selected texts of bob cobbing, 1942–1975, as edited by Cobbing and Sean O’Huigin, through Coach House Books). His work deserves further, and on-going, exploration.

I plan on returning to Cobbing’s work with some frequency as part of this ‘an irresponsible act of imaginative license’ series, but for the time being, I want to turn my attention to a GLOUP and WOUP, a 1974 collection that Cobbing edited (Kent, UK: Arc Publications, 1974). A extremely difficult collection to find in the 21st-century, GLOUP and WOUP documents the efforts by two geographically distinct groups of visual poets in the UK in the late 1960s/early 1970s: the GLOUcestershire grouP—as represented by Dom Sylvester Houédard (1924–1992), John Furnival (1933–) and Kenelm Cox (1927–1968) and the Westminster grOUP—as represented by Tom Edmonds (1944–1971) and Cobbing himself.

Much visual poetry from the 1960s and 1970s retains a whiff of hippie-like optimism and faith in universal, liberatory, language. Most collections of concrete poetry from this period have not dated well (a problem common to much poetry: it doesn’t date well), and there is often a great deal of repetition between the major anthologies of the time (the best of which can now most easily be found, of course, on ubuweb). GLOUP and WOUP is not immune to these charges, but none-the-less does include some vital, rarely seen, work.

Published in a printed pink gate-fold wrapper, GLOUP and WOUP is a gathering of single-fold poetic statements and introductions along-side a series of roughly 7 ½” square broadsides printed black and white on lovely matte-finish cardstock.

The collection opens with Cobbing’s own 5-poem selection, each of which represents a disparate facet of his varied concrete oeuvre. Typical of his work are dense black overprinted pieces that combine repeated texts, crumpled and distorted page fields and collaged advertising lettering. Its certainly unreasonable to sum up Cobbing’s work in 5 pieces and I know of at least one visual poet who has found that as he’s explored his own practice he was confronted with the fact that Cobbing had covered most bases, exhaustively, more than 50-year prior. Cobbing’s “tyger 1” (1971) is pictured at top-left.

Kenelm Cox is new to me, and his work is machine-centred and focused on the “process of becoming, existing, disintegrating and thereby becoming something else” but wanted to “exorcize some of the machine’s terrifying aspects—and give it some charm.” My work (especially in fractal economies) has been more focused on those ‘terrifying aspects’ of mechanistic poetry—especially in light of increased automation and mechanization in correspondence and communication. Cox argues that he is open to his work being “funny, that is part of being friendly, but […] would like it to have some elegance too” and thus his contributions to GLOUP and WOUP are primarily photographs of letter-based mobiles and simple clock-like machines. Approachable, audience-friendly, Italian Futurism (which is an oxymoron if there ever was one).

Tom Edmonds was also a new addition to my reading, and his contribution to GLOUP and WOUP are, like Cox, are sculptural in tone though Edmunds display a greater debt to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s glass and text-based work. Edmunds constructs cool shadow-boxes with ordered sheets of glass, each inscribed with textual fragments. The resultant pieces have an intriguing engagement with depth, moving for the page as 2-dimensional space to a 3D conceptualization of poetry. (See Edmunds’s “compromise poem box” (1969) on the right…)

Tom Edmunds's "compromise poem box" (1969)

John Furnival is the most problematic inclusion in the collection. His work—which exuberantly overwhelms the reader with panels of hand-lettering arranged in architectural structures—sadly typifies many concrete poetry clichés. The panels, which the author admits are “still very confused, which [he] take[s] to be an artist’s privilege” centre on two overly enticing images for visual poets—the Tower of Babel and John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God…”). Placing both of these images as ejaculate from a huge textual phallus, however, quickly negates any astonishment the viewer may have towards the process of erecting these structures in the first place.

Dom Sylvester Houédard (who I also plan to write on in future columns) is, like Cobbing, also a sadly under-discussed and under-appreciated master of concrete poetry. His inclusion in GLOUP and WOUP is the high point. His typewriter abstracts—typescracts—are the most technically complex examplars of clean concrete. Sadly, his work is rarely reproduced in colour (and this is no exception), as often worked with multi-coloured typewriter ribbons. As concise as Houedard’s work is, the realization that each piece was created on a manual typewriter (see Houedard’s “typestract the five buddhas” (1967) on right…).

Dom Sylvester Houedard's "typestract the five buddhas" (1967)

GLOUP and WOUP closes with a “Bibliography and Sources of Comments” leaflet which provides yet more openings for future research. I’ve searching out more than a few titles. Compared to the major anthologies of the 1960s/70’s (Mary Ellen Solt’s, Stephen Bann’s, Emmett Williams’s, etc.) GLOUP and WOUP has a very focused editorial mandate, but the 5 poets included make this collection an admirable model, exemplifying both the triumphs and pratfalls of historical concrete poetry.

Building upon my “Pulled from my Shelves” series which I recently completed for Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound site (indexed here) this “an irresponsible act of imaginative license” series will explore concrete and conceptual literary projects. These occasional columns will be a place for discussion (and I encourage comments), reviews and interviews around books that I think deserve increased attention.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
The traditional poetic impulse is a refutation of language’s inherent failures. It is the attempt to make language perform the impossible; to lucidly reconnoiter the ineffable. Metaphorical language is an acknowledgement of language’s inherent downfall. Language is too tied to thingness, to objects and gestures (as Robbe-Grillet argues) to plumb the depths of the “human soul.” This is not to say that metaphorical language does not have moments of beauty and grace, but those moments are the result of a larger failure. As poets, we attempt to bend language to our lyrical will. What results is inevitably a failure, but the poem lies in the degree to which the poem fails.
kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s Rhapsodomancy (Toronto: Coach House, 2010) explores language’s inherent failures and surveys how those failures become poetic. Through the use of two abandoned languages—Shorthand (created by Sir Isaac Pitman in 1837) and Unifon (created by John Malone in the 1950s)—Rhapsodomancy visually ties concrete poetry (a ostracized poetic form) to other marginalized spaces: slight-of-hand, comic strips, optical illusions and apantomancy (the divination of the future through scattered objects).
Rhapsodomancy’s “Disavowals: Optical Allusions” recreate traditional optical illusions with Unifon characters. Each of the fourteen visual poems playful challenge the reader to define their own poetic foreground/background relationship; the pillar of “I” warps, one of the arms of “E” falls into emptiness, the “O” is a linguistic Gordian knot. The “optical allusions” in “Disavowals” belie the illusion of poetry; strain your eyes as much as you’d like, vertigo is inevitable.
As hopeful as apantomancy (the divination of the future from astrology, palm-reading, tea-leaf reading revealing more about the reader than the read) may be, poetry is just as naïvely optimistic. Poets have become literary palm-readers, not because they can divine or influence the future (gone are the days when poets were members of the court or endowed by the ruling classes to celebrate and immortalize their accomplishments), but because they are the literary equivalent of tarot-reader in a secluded tent at a creative anachronist fair. Poetry has become Shorthand and Unifon, one more language largely abandoned to specialist and anachronists who pine for a return to an imagined poetic heyday.
Rhapsodomancy revels in the exuberant, playful poetics of failure. The meaning we have “stamped on [the] lifeless things” of poetry is merely an illusion, a “now you see it, now you don’t.” No longer is poetry the beautiful expression of an emotive truth; it has become the archæological re-arrangement of the remains of an ancient civilization. Faced with the “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” of Shorthand and Unifon (and by extension of poetry itself), mcpherson eckhoff realizes that “[r]ound the decay / of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away” and sits down to make sandcastles in the rubble.