Commentaries - May 2013

'Compound Hibernation'

photo of Will Alexander courtesy of Skylight Press

In  March 17, 2007, reading in the Segue Series at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, Will Alexander read four poems: “Exercise is Particle Neutrino,” “Coping Prana,” “Compound Hibernation,” and “Above the Human Nerve Domain.” An audio recording of the complete reading (17:59) is available on Will Alexander’s PennSound author page, as are segmented audio for each poem. Here I’m pleased to feature “Compound Hibernation” [MP3; 2:22]. The text of the poem was published in Zen Monster.

In 1978, Tom Leonard recorded “Three Texts for Tape” at his home in Glasgow using his Teac A-3340S tape recorder. One of these three “texts for tape” was a performance piece, a chanting of another poet’s verses — a multiple reading of a half canto of Percy Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam” in many voices. Here is that recording (with thanks to the Archive of the Now): MP3 (4:37).

The visual creole of John M. Bennett

"Discipline" by John M. Bennett
"Discipline" by John M. Bennett

1.  "All human cultures are creole," John M. Bennett writes. Our language and our world view are hybrid, influenced by and adapting influences from the global village and our post-global home. They are inevitably syncretic and creole.

Absolutely. But Bennett’s use of the term ‘creole’ brings to mind the other meaning of creole. Creole as in the ‘creolisation’ of languages. How the language of a colonizing or dominant culture devolves into a pidgin and then develops into a creole, a rich communication tool with its own grammar, form and traditions, though often with a vocabulary based on the dominant language. So: Haitian Creole and its relationship to French.

So: what if visual poetry is a creole language, one that has created its own grammar, forms, and literature based on the ‘colonizing’ verbal and visual language of the dominant mode of communication/language/culture?

2. Everything is a Face 

 The vispo is pareidolic. (Isn’t everything? That potato looks like my mother. And my mother looks like Mother Teresa. Or the moon.)

The image ('Discipline,' above) appears as some kind of creature (human, monster, jellyfish) with eye-like figures at the top of its ‘face’ (though the left ‘eye’ is also mouth-like.) The image is both face and body. The red y is limb-like. Or tongue-like.  An ear? Something penetrating or escaping? Whatever it is, it seems to move toward the top of page and seems organic and full of agency. Those e’s falling from its right ‘eye’. Or flying up into it. But maybe the image is a gate. A doorway. A hat. An abstract field of markings. Engaging with the idea that we can’t help but ‘read’ into marks, into inscriptions. The piece has a powerful emotive quality. Trembling with the energy of the psyche. Vibrating with visual energy.

3. PicturesWriting

When do pictures become writing? When does looking become reading? Runes. Talking knots. Knob-sickles. Oracle bone-script. Tortoise-shell inscriptions. Marks that are pictographic, ideographic, mnemonic, hieroglyphic, or consumercapitalistoglyphic.

So: protowriting. And thus the protoreader. What would post-writing look like? The post-readerly text? Or the post-reader? (The moon, Mother Teresa, my mom?)

  john m. bennett image

4. A characteristic John M. Bennett visual.

Ripped paper, rimpled text on torn paper. Bennett’s signature curly ink scrawlings, rubber-stamped letters which often call attention to the fact that they are glyphs pressed from ink. The physicality and gesturality of making marks. The materiel of language which comes together as constellations on the flat screen of the page. Often Bennett’s work explores different textures and different modalities (registers/of text, of mark-making, of drawing). It often involves collaboration with others. A kind of multilevel polyphony or heterophony (polyglyphony? heteroglyphony?) There’s an implied sense of community, of working together, of ‘jamming,’ exploring, of taking this thing on the road and seeing what happens. And the actual images: there is an engagement with the visceral, with the gargoylesque, the “ugly,” primitive, or grotesque.  The childlike.


GB: How do you conceive of ‘reading’ in the context of your work? How do you imagine a reader approaching it? What would happen in their readerly head? What strategies would you hope or expect that they might use? Would they analyze or drool? Would they seek an overall sensory impression, or parse the visual in some way, weighing the resonance, associations, or possible associative or denotations of the images?

JMB: To respond to your questions en bloc: my "visual" poetry is on a continuum of all my work, and what people see as visual or not varies with the person. I myself don't bother trying to define where it's visual and where not; such an exercise is useless to me. In fact, ALL of my work is visual and textual and oral and performative, all at the same time.

With regard to the piece you selected, your comments on it seem to make sense; as with all my work, everyone reacts to it or sees it quite differently.

I think my art - maybe all art - is a mirror, in which the viewer/reader seems herhimself. I always hesitate to say what I see in one of my pieces, because then people assume that's "definitive," which it isn't at all. I'm really no different from anyone else, or at least in any meaningful way. My reading of a piece is just another reading, and it will be different each time I read it.  

The piece ("Discipline") was part of a series made in response to an extensive encounter with Mayan writing, and with Mixtec picture writing. In a sense the whole thing is a glyph, and a kind of picture writing which is NOT what most "visual poetry" is. It's meaningfulness, or one of its meaningfulnesses, lies in the hybridization of Mesoamerican culture with my own complex culture. It's a way of saying the world or my experience of the world in a creole visual language. How someone else responds to, and deals with, this work is not my problem; as I said, everyone will find (or not) a way with it or in it. And that's how it should be. I cannot tell anyone else how I want them to approach my work.

[T]he concept of "creolization":  in fact, all human cultures are creole; there is no such thing as a "pure" culture, and therefore there is no such thing as a non-creole literature. I suppose what most people mean by the term are manifestations of culture that have changed recently due to new or changing cultural contacts.

GB: Could you say more about how you view the 'creolization' of the visual, of the written, of multi-media language, about how we must negotiate this creolization/hybridization of multiple inputs, traditions both through time and space?

JMB: Creole [as I use the term, denotes] a mix of sources, yes.  With regard to language that can involve the retooling of everything; not just grammar, but lexicon, metaphors, images, puns, particular expressions, pronunciation, and so on. As I said, I don't think there's such a thing as a "pure" language: all are creole, ultimately.  

With regard to multi-media literature, I'm inclined to think that the above is the case as well.  That is, people are referring to what seem to be new wrinkles or emphases in something that has always been there. From the very beginning of writing, there have been visual elements, for example. Glyphic and picture-writing processes are being used by some today, myself included, but those are not new processes. Very old ones, in fact.  Perhaps there is a new explicitness in how they are being used today in some new writing; perhaps a new and greater frequency of use than in the recent past. Perhaps also they are being used in what might seem at first more jarring and intimate relationships with semantic and alphabetic writing. But they've always been there.


John M. Bennett has published, exhibited and performed his word art worldwide in thousands of publications and venues. He was editor and publisher of LOST AND FOUND TIMES (1975-2005), and is Curator of the Avant Writing Collection at The Ohio State University Libraries. Richard Kostelanetz has called him “the seminal American poet of my generation”. His work, publications, and papers are collected in several major institutions, including Washington University (St. Louis), SUNY Buffalo, The Ohio State University, The Museum of Modern Art, and other major libraries. His PhD (UCLA 1970) is in Latin American Literature. His website is a treasure trove of his many works and projects.

Among the readings for the graduate seminar in black philosophy and theory that my students and I completed not long ago were the collected writings of philosopher and artist Adrian Piper, in which, among so many other projects, she reproduces the calling card she had printed up for use in one of her on-going projects from the 1970s.  Because Piper is, as we so deftly put it in America, a light-skinned black person, she has had the experience of being in a group of white people and hearing one of them tell a racist joke.  She had cards printed up that she would present to the tellers of such jokes, cards that explained that she was in fact a black person and that she found the telling of the joke objectionable.  This was not merely a personal campaign, you must understand, but was a sort of philosophical theater, for the presentation of the card was not simply a means to carry out a personal fight with racism.  The reporting of the event and the circulation of the card as reproduced in Piper’s writings and exhibitions as well as in the writings of others was an extended event that brought insufficiently reflective people to a reflection upon the workings of race in consciousness.  My students and I had the discussions you might expect regarding the transformations brought about in the presentation of the card, those moments in which the recipient had to make an immediate ontological and epistemological shift as a person previously seen as white became, in the moment of reading the card, perceived as black.  Then I presented my students with an additional conundrum.  We had been reading texts by Charles Mills and Tommy Lott in which those philosophers proposed a number of mind-boggling thought experiments regarding race.  I asked my students to imagine a situation in which a white-appearing person, a person much like Piper herself, presents the teller of a racist joke with a card announcing that the presenter of the card is “really” black.  Then I asked my students to consider what difference it might make in their understanding of this situation should they subsequently learn that the white-appearing person presenting the card was in fact a white person.

Adrian Piper was/is a central figure in an earlier era of American conceptual art.  Her day job for many years has been work as a philosopher specializing in Kantian aesthetics.  In both worlds, American art and academic philosophy, she has had to contend with a larger discourse that doesn't recognize her presence, has difficulties with the merest fact of her being as a black person doing these things.  Her art has often taken that fact, the ways that our conceptions of race frame our conceptions of art and philosophy, as the reconceptual core of her works.  In one extended work she created a male persona complete with side burns and mustache, seemingly of mixed race, which she inhabited in the streets and public places of New York.  Responses to her (as him) were part of the work.

I think of Piper and that work a great deal while listening to the arguments surrounding conceptualism in poetry in the present.  There are questions I would enact if I had her knack for embodying them.  Why is the public face of conceptual poetry so incredibly white?  Is today's conceptualism a sort of white masque?  Is the enlisting of poets such as Harryette Mullen, Claudia Rankine and others in the anthology Against Expression a mask for that expression of whiteness or an act of acknowledging black conceptual poetics? If the latter, then why is the public face of conceptual poetry so incredibly white?

From Jacket #11 (April 2000)

Stephen Burt (left) and Michael Scharf at the symposium discussed in this article

A response to the conference titled “Poetry Criticism: What is it for?”— speakers Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Stephen Burt,and Michael Scharf, moderated by Susan Wheeler, at Wollman Hall, Cooper Union Engineering Building, 51 Astor Place, New York City, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, early in 2000.

ACCORDING TO a recent article by Ian Hamilton in the London Review of Books, Randell Jarrell's descent into madness, and his speculated suicide, were in part provoked by a negative review in the New York Times accusing him of “doddering infantilism.” Jarrell, who was hailed on the Poetry Society of America's panel “Poetry criticism: What is it For?” as being the model poet-critic, apparently could not take the blow, after having dished out a fair share of them for so many years as “poetry's high-purposed body guard.”

Marjorie Perloff, meanwhile, encouraged young poets to critique each other, putting themselves and their friends in the line of fire. She clarified that she did not mean that poets should trash each other — just to take risks and engage in critical dialogue.

Michael Scharf pointed out that Perloff underestimates the extent that this is already happening, in journals such as Shark, Rhizome, and Tripwire, and on-line in the various poetics lists and their sub sub spin offs. Scharf exclaimed with great bravado that the exchange between Brian Kim Stefans and Standard Schaefer was a model example of this kind of cross fire, to which Perloff replied “and how many people actually know who Stefans and Schaefer are?” Twenty hands, not bad for an audience of 200, went up. This was the most interesting exchange of the evening.

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