On the visual poetry of Judith Copithorne
A reading journal:
Letterforms turned to smoke or swirl. Letters become flame. Fire. Perhaps the almost image of a face?
Vowels: a hoop, an O. The water-shimmer of another O, like a tree reflected in a lake. Perhaps a Hebraic glyph.
Blue flame in the centre. An O, a droplet, a throat, a thought cave. The rippling of water is the flicker of fire. An O and an O and an O: round vowels enclosed in this squared frame.
A square vowel: pronounced with digital lips. And this a digital image. Chopped, refracted.
I can read the signs of digital manipulation. The cutting, the rippling, the superimposition. This to me is like a form, like a poem which emerges through the sonnet form. Like reading brushstrokes and the story of paint in a Van Gogh or a Pollack.
Layers: overlays. Three dimensions reaching back into the frame. Contrast between the round O in the middle distance with the rippling square-based O in the foreground. The blue flame O behind. And beyond, a squared and fragmented red O. And flickering in between, the orange broken fire-flame O.
I want to speak these vowels. Perhaps pronounce them as they ripple or flicker or flame. Can my mouth assume these shapes? My mind? The interplay of glyphs, of movement, of imagined sound.
Now: an orange flame that resembles a small bird. Something about this akin to Native Canadian art. And all that blue: water, or near-dark dusk when the fires are lit?
But there are signs of the images’ making. Chopped digital collage. Overlapping. Not as fluid or flame-like as I first imagined. I’m taken in, turned round with the movement, the whirling, rippling, lured away from seeing these cut edges, the slicing, fragmentation, the digital. Then, my reading pulls out for a long shot, seeing again the notation of movement, the painterliness, (sound-) waving of vowels.
Judith Copithorne has been creating visual poetry for over 45 years. We recently spoke about her work:
GB: Like many of your visual poems, this piece has an intense spiritual attentive quality to it, a kind of unpretentious mysterious quality, and a kind of joyful shout-out to the delight that one can experience with forms and expression. I’ve given some of my reading notes above, how do you imagine reading this poem?
JC: What you have to say about the individual portions of this piece is gorgeous and I am very impressed and honored by this but this in not quite how I was working in this piece as far as I remember. I was working in a more physical manner with the actual visual reactions to the various physical attributes of the piece. Not too much red, just a little bit of straightening here and so forth. And so especially when working such a nonliteral area I am basically pretty intuitive although if I attend to it I can usually come up with conceptual referents. And also in general I would characterize my attention as being a combination of left and right brain attributes. In fact a balance of these processes feels, and seems to be important to me.
As to the first question I can really only answer thank you to you and not much else. These pieces are all gifts. I have very little control over them although I have strong feeling and ideas the actual expression of them is thanks to things I really can't control. And maybe my usual inability to do things any other way may actually is in itself be a boon in that it forces me to depend of the kindnesses of the rest of universe. But it makes it pretty fraught if anyone wants me to commit to producing anything. In fact I simply don't agree to produce any actual visual poetry or written creative work unless I actually have it already in hand and I always only offer work that I have already produced. That way when I get something new on the page it is a delightful surprise.
And this piece that you chose really was a surprise to me when it was finished which happened very quickly as I remember. Firstly I have very seldom used color in my work for a variety of reasons. But sometimes especially since I have been using a computer program, I get grabbed by the excitement and richness of the color available on it just as I sometimes get swept away by the variety of fascinating “tools” available although I only have a black and white printer so I only get to see the color on screen. I quite often print up the color pieces, which I have recently started doing, in black and white. If they work well in black and white I feel less extravagant about them. I haven’t tried to print this one in black and white actually and when I have finished with this interview I will try this and see what the result is. I am afraid that it may not have as much contrast as it should have to work well in black and white but it is always interesting to see.
And also in answer to your questions specifically about the piece "Squared Vowels" I should say that part of my project with this piece was simply to fill effectively fill the whole page, square the vowels and the piece as a whole, as I quite often don't do that.
This piece is a bit of an anomaly to me as I have not used that form of composition, and as well, I hadn’t much used the function on the computer that produced the outlining and modulating of the shapes and colors. And as I said I have not usually used so much color as I have used in these pieces that I have done in the last couple of months. So I had several quite happy surprises when I saw the final result of these actions.
I can't really imagine at this point orally "reading" this poem out loud. This maybe because I haven't had time for a long time to work on oral expression or maybe it really just is visual. I think that if I had time to work on this I might be able to expand it into the oral realm. I sometimes do read some of my visual poetry out loud when pressed but it is always pretty surprising to me and it has been years since I felt as if I had any handle on that.
Now here I guess I should clarify the nature of my pieces on vowels. They do not usually have the same literalness or linguistic qualities for me as the pieces I do that are built out of, or around, or with linear, linguistically derived language-oriented or even literal and transparent word-formed writing. Usually I simply let the vowels be either sound pieces or, more often, abstract visual objects to be worked with as that.
So what I was involved with here was likely a simple combining of vowel shapes into what would hopefully become an interesting gestalt. And here, as elsewhere, the operation of chance was a huge motivator for me. Here, I was mainly, I think, learning about how I could make these various "layers" (each letter is a separate "layer") interact, work with each other without cutting across each other too much and so on. I have always been interested in "layers"—that is what the Illustrator program calls them and that seems a good word for them. I have always been interested in the layers of an onion, of clouds, of the skin and the mind. These words and ideas, which may appear at first to be quite simple, are actually gigantic in their reverberations as words, as physical phenomena, as ideas, as physical and conceptual processes and visual representations or references, which can be fascinating I find.
GB: You’ve been involved with visual poetry since the 1960s. How do you think it has changed—not only the work itself, but its place in literature and in the arts in general? How would you say your work has evolved over time?
JC: I started imagining how to combine visual and written work pretty early on. I loved the illuminated pages from the Book of Kells that relatives sent at Christmas. And I wished to have the skills to produce political posters as I felt strongly about some of the problems in the 50's and posters seemed a possibility for dealing with the frustrations and pain that the McCarthy era and other parts of the surround too various to mention were producing. I had also had a chance to see some of the Constructivist work from the early 20's, although before the Internet, this sort of material was much harder to access. Then around 1961 I got to visit City Lights Bookstore and saw a small amount of some work by Henri Michaux and Brion Gysin.
So, I had been given a lot of clues but there seemed to be a quite strong feeling at that time here in Vancouver that to do anything that might represent that might seem to be disordered was at least a foolish thing to do and perhaps crazy or at least not “proper” and perhaps even “bad.” I don't know how far to go in talking about this. There is so much that might be mentioned.
So yes, things have changed a lot and have moved toward a more open view of the possibilities of art and literature and life itself although the forces of reaction and greed are also everywhere and physically getting more powerful and less ashamed of their own behavior.
I am not sure that my work has actually changed that much except that I have gradually become surer and clearer about what I want to, or at least, like to do. The computer has certainly given me a huge amount more power and access which I love, although in the end, who we are doesn't change that much, or so it seems. Not that I know much about any of this.
GB: Your work has always closely engaged with materials and the opportunities those materials inspire. derek beaulieu writes that your, “suggestion that [your] pieces are drawn and not written and are hyphenated poem-drawings speaks to a textual hybridity which places looking on the same plane as reading.” And more recently, you have been using computers and so I think about the digital drawing and manipulations that you do in relationship to ‘drawing’ vs. ‘writing’ How do you conceive of the difference between drawing and writing, reading and looking? Does the computer change this?
JC: The statement that, "Your work has always closely engaged with materials and the opportunities those materials inspire" is such an excellent statement to start off with, although I won't be specifically answering it, except to say that when I learned about art and literature in the 50's, that was supposed to be a very important approach to making artistic or literary work.
Having been so interested in the interface of the verbal and the visual since the 50's, ten years before I knew there was such a thing as concrete poetry, has perhaps made it easier for me to work in a variety of mediums which can be much more difficult for people today [particularly] if they have learned about these ideas especially in schools which were more prescriptive than descriptive or experimental. But then sometimes such people will produce very clean, clear and tight work which is well worth studying. And at the other end of the spectrum there are also some brilliant, wide-seeing and wild innovators working today, some of whom started quite recently. And then there are other of this grouping who have been around for what seems to me to have been a long time.
So perhaps what you originally know and when you start isn't so likely to direct you as your inborn disposition. However this [could be so] if you conceptualize a whole range of existence being made up both of inert substances and then also energy—from the deep sleep range of 1 or 2 hertz per second up to beta waves at 16 Hertz per second through the speed of light waves, x-rays, gamma rays, the speeds of electrons and photons and even up beyond that to that which we have not been able to visualize the extent of—then many shifts of thinking and perceiving become easier to entertain.
And then there is the perception that [we] detect and respond to literary material in a variety of places in the brain, most of which are fairly removed (as space in the brain might be considered) from where the brain processes visual perception. But it isn't completely cut and dried. Sometimes when one part of the brain is damaged, another part has been known to take over. Then there are the cases of people with various forms of synesthesia. And then there are the times when people are scanning a "transparent" document, that is to say a very literal and fascinating story for example, and at those times, they will quite often hold in their minds images sometimes in a similar form to how we are sometimes aware of a dream for a short time after we wake up.
This then could be seen as an example of visual perception which occurs due to stimulus in the language oriented parts of the brain. We speak of ‘conceptualization’ but we haven't yet identified the actual nature of the physiological events which occur through the medium of the mind, brain, hand and finger movements of a draftsperson or collagist or through the lips of a sound poet although such people as jwcurry or gustave morin are working on this.
And when I say a draftsperson, I am also referring to those people who may be drawing on a computer. Thus much of this is another attempt to point out some of the multiple bases of "textual-hybridity," mixed media, working in several media at once or concurrently, and/or interdisciplinary collage which was quite common in the 20th century and has become more so in the 21st century.
And then there is the rise of digital media particularly in the last 20 years which has given rise to more ways to think about this. So basically, to skip the next three pages of my answers to your questions, I will answer that generally I find that the computer is a great boon and an economic annoyance. And in fact, I find that all media have similar good and bad sides.
GB: Much of your work was published in small press editions distributed to a number of artistic communities. Your work now frequently appears online (via Facebook, Flickr, as well as in online publications.) How do you think of community and publishing in terms of readers and fellow artists these days?
JC: [To] answer about communities of art and literature, particularly in regard to the computer, I guess my answer would be similar [to my last response.] Homo Sapiens is an extremely mutable species. So adaptation is not particularly unusual. Whether I interact by mail, phone, face-to-face or on the computer doesn't seem to make a huge amount of difference in the end.
I do feel that the community of people interested visual poetry, surprising writing, experimentation in art and literature and in general discovering what is possible in order to open out the world of the mind and support the needs of the world is growing and it feeds me. I worry about some health concerns, our very precarious political and environmental situation, getting old and having to find another place to live when rents are so high, but I also feel support from some very important places including the very kind and generous interest of this community.
It is very important to me to have people to talk to. It would be lovely if we all lived nearer to each other but comprehension, attention, intelligence, support are each made up primarily of non-physical things and they can be transmitted by letter, magazine, email, phone and book as well as by face-to-face contact. And it seems that life goes by very, very fast, and the faster it goes, the less boring it gets. So this visual poetry activity I started doing back in 1961 has turned out to be an entry into a very exciting world.
And I also wanted to add that what I like best about visual poetry is the possibilities in it for surprise. I like literary and artistic speculation. I want to speculate on ideas rather than on land. I'd like creative endeavors be our future instead of fracked gas. I like all kinds of visual and concrete poetry and many other kinds of art and literature, but what I like best is seeing something that surprises me in a way that opens up hopefully satisfactory possibilities even if only to a small extent.
Canadian poet Judith Copithorne has been actively creating and publishing concrete poetry since 1961. She is also the author of several books of prose and textual poetry. An excellent discussion of her work by derek beaulieu can be found at LemonHound. More of her work can be found at ubuweb and at ditchpoetry jwcurry’s 1cent #400 “for Judith with Love” (2009) 1 cent #400 contains an extensive bibliography and is available from Room 302 Books: #302, 880 Somerset W., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1K 6R7.
On lines from Walker Percy
sky over Gentilly
it is easily overlooked
the slightest interest
sags like rotten lace
behind high walls
a week before Mardi Gras
and bearing it
the street looks tremendous
commencing to make a fire
the very sound of winter mornings
streaming with tears
an evening gown
against the darkening sky
so pleasant and easy
gone to Natchez
a houseboat on Vermillion
into her upturned face
a soundless word
ample and mysterious
a litter of summers past
a fresh wind
stray bits and pieces
a peculiar thing
in yellow bars
of those summer afternoons
the islands in the south
such a comfort
a corner of the wall
shallow and irregular
the happiest moment
the oddness of it
Carrollton Avenue early in the evening
like a seashell
her fingers on the zinc bar
cold and briney
like a boy who has come into a place
inside the wet leaves
the smell of coffee
Negro men carry children
the flambeaux bearers
whole bunches of necklaces
toward us on horseback
loose in the city
the entire neighborhood
simulacrum of a dream
like a sore tooth
commoner than sparrows
celebrating the rites of spring
thumb-smudge over Chef Menteur
the bright upper air
the world is all sky
a broken vee
the tilting salient of sunlight
glowing like rubies
over Elysian Fields
who really wants to listen
in the thick singing darkness
in a streetcar
an accidental repetition
her woman’s despair
a little carcass
a kiss on the mouth
the earth has memories of winter
the sidewalks, anyhow
fog from the lake
seeing the footprint on the beach
a queer thing
new green shoots
the very words
full of pretty
connive with me
down the levee
a drift of honeysuckle
forget about women
along her thigh
the tiny fossa
facet and swell
tilting her head
far away as Eufala
WRITING SOUTH LOUISIANA, A NOTE ON THE PROCESS
Nomad, belonging accidentally and always at some remove to the places I find myself inhabiting, how root into these places, shift from being outside or between? Neither here nor there. After living eleven years in south Louisiana, drawn to the richness of its cultures, landscape, and history, painfully aware of the human brutality and environmental crises comprised therein, the sustained, willful political short-sightedness, I sought a language of place that could complicate as well as deploy the contradictory experiences of attachment and alienation without falling into the tropes of “awe/wonder”—othering the world of which we are inevitably, inextricably a part—and angry didacticism. I turned to extant texts: Florula Ludoviciana, an 1807 flora of the state first published in Paris by C. C. Robin and then in English with emendations by Constantine Rafinesque,EPA reports, reportage from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the BP Oil Macondo blowout (2010), oral histories, and novels written and set in south Louisiana, among many sources. Of the latter, I drew upon Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, perhaps the quintessential novel of New Orleans, or at least white New Orleans of a particular moment, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, from which these pieces are derived. Attending to passages in which particulars of place were most evident, I isolated these as source-material. Cutting and juxtaposing short phrases (each line-break is an intact cut from the original) to create texts that afforded a means of writing about place, healing to a degree the otherness of my outsider status and perhaps in other ways, highlighting it, while also foregrounding language. These cut-ups move sequentially forward in the source texts and juxtapose an urban experience with a rural one. The cutting technique gave permission to write about south Louisiana, affording a way in to this place, which is simultaneously mine and not mine at all.
Temporal Flux in the visual poetry of Karl Jirgens
OK, let’s keep this moving. I want to discuss the traditions of visual poetry with Karl Jirgens as well as his own work, and his poem, Heraclitus, seems a perfect place to start. Everything flows.
What is here? How should we read? Let’s start from the top.
I + I = H
Visually, two I’s joined together with a plus sign become an H. The ‘I,’ the subjective self, becomes H, the Heraclitean changeable self. I is another: I is a river and the self is the ever-flowing water. Or vice versa: The self is a river and “I” i-dentifies with the flow. “I me a river.” Eau-de-vie.
But language shifts. Signs shift. The flow of the name: Heraclitus and the French form of this Greek, Heraclite, skid through time, down the page, become liquid: rivers which are both I’s (I-lands) and the vertical arms of H. The H which begins Heraclitus. The movement of names Mesmer I’s our two eyes. Motion on the page is time. Time is a blur of objects, names, or signs.
Joined by Greek in English. Plato recounts Heraclitus in Cratylus: τὰ πάντα ῥεῖ…οὐδὲνμένει (“Ta pantarei…ouden menei”) Everything flows, nothing stands still. The I’s have it. Become an H. (And BTW, Jirgens removes a word from Plato’s Cratylan recounting of Heraclitus’s aflowism—καὶ / kai: ‘and.’ He’s nonplussed about the “and.”
Even words flow from one orthographic system to another. From one set of signs to another. I-is-another. Me:ander. H is breath. Panting. Ta Panta. Voweling. The EIOU in the center of the Heraclitean quote. Like breath or tide in quotidian.
And it’s hard to read H in visual poetry without thinking of bpNichol’s H which is also an I turned on its side.
Greek to English. And now to French.
Je bois cette [sic] eau brulant [sic] comme ma vie
Ma vie que je bois comme un eau-de-vie
I drink this burning water (alcohol) as [I drink] my life
my life that I drink like a water of life/fountain of youth/alcohol.
It’s from Apollinaire’s Zone, changed from the second into the first person. The continued play of the self. You are another ⇔ I is another. Nothing stands still.
[And BTW, what the H? bpNichol quotes this poem in his famous Translating Translating Apollinaire.]
What burning waters does the “I” drink: the changeable waters of time? You can never drink the same brandy twice. Life is intoxicating. You see double: the before and after. The now and then. You slur your words as the tongue furs and time unfurls. Go with the flow. Of time. Of words. Of signs.
GB: Karl, I’m very interested in how this poem locates itself in literary time—in a stream of references. Could you speak about how you engage tradition through quotation and paraphrase and how you alter the context of the sources? I know you’ve been interested in Dada, Surrealism, and the early avant garde.
KJ: Thanks very kindly for asking. Yes, both literary time and time itself are depicted in this piece. I paraphrased Heraclitus’ “Panta rei, ouden menei” (Everything flows, nothing abides). I deliberately removed the “kai” (“and”) from Plato’s recounting of Heraclitus’ maxim because there is no need for a conjunction when speaking of a continuous flux of time. There is of course an irony in the piece, because the only thing that does continue or “abide” is change itself. I combined the quotation from Heraclitus, and another from Apollinaire’s Zone (from Alcools), to gesture towards self-destruction combined with creation. Apollinaire’s line has a double-edge, much like the “H” because it speaks of drinking the waters of life, but with each sip of that burning water one inexorably moves towards death. And so, the quote from Apollinaire is deliberately divided, separated into two parts by Heraclitus’ statement on the flux of time. Simultaneously, the two “I” figures in the “H” with its typographic sine-waves are joined by Heraclitus’ statement about the flux of time (I + I = H). So, the piece speaks of both joining and division by virtue of temporal flux.
In addition, we have the actual “I” (the self, the author, etc.) and the “I” represented in textual format. But this second (represented) “I” alludes to the fact that the signifier is not the thing itself. The (implied) actual “I,” and the “I” represented both allude to the “Treachery of Images,” as exemplified in Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” So, there are indeed two “rivers” that flow in any representation or artistic expression. I could add to this by saying that the piece’s construction exploits Duchamp’s Dadaist principle of re-contextualization (i.e., moving a thing from one context into another, thereby altering its meaning). So, I re-contextualized statements by Heraclitus and Apollinaire. Also, the piece also adopts a neo-Cubist strategy in that it strategically juxtaposes several spatio-temporal reference points simultaneously on a single surface.
GB: One of the goals of this commentary series is to explore how one might ‘read’ a visual poem. I’ve unfolded one way to possibly read your poem above. Could you comment on how you see reading the visual poem and what strategies one might bring to such a reading?
KJ: Yes, when shaping this piece, I did have an imagined audience in mind. In a way, you are an ideal reader, Gary, because you’ve astutely identified a range of nuances. Walter Ong once said that “the audience is always a fiction,” and in a sense I had a fictionalized readership in my mind, when shaping the piece. So, the I + I = H was intentional. And we have the “eye” who creates, and the “eye” of the reader. Also, I wanted several “windows” of thought to open up in the piece. The quotations from Heraclitus and Apollinaire, the combined I + I = H format, the sine-wave typography, and the physical placement of the elements all gesture to the flux of time and life. There is a connection to liquid imagery generating a sense of rhythmic flow. So, while there is a kind of narrative disjunction in the piece via the different “voices,” there is also co-relative integrity through the network of liquid images, alluding to the ancient idea that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” The reference to Apollinaire’s Alcools, and the computer-assisted typography help connect to the present day.
GB: Though you play with the visual representation of words, in this poem, you maintain several conventions of textual reading: reading from the top down and left to right, and an alignment against an implied vertical/horizontal grid (the words of the text are presented ‘right-side-up’ and relatively normatively in terms of size, font, spacing, and indeed the fact that they form words.) How do you see the relationship between the visual and the textual in this piece and in writing in general?
KJ: Great question. The sine-wave like typography used to compose the H itself, the reference to Apollinaire’s burning water, and the Heraclitian idea of flux, are all juxtaposed, whether in conventional textual format, or through modified typographic stylistics, towards a single purpose. So, all of the elements in the piece are in a dialogue about the fluid pulsations of what we think of as “time.” Through the juxtapositional strategies this piece transcends conventional textual modes because it incorporates several different ways of talking about the cycles of time with gestures to the rhythms of days, years, and human life-spans “ma vie que je bois comme une eau-de-vie”). But in other ways, it deploys conventions of textuality with standard format left-to-write composition. However, much of the piece arranges itself in the mind after one reads it, particularly when one recognizes the inter-connections between the elements (sine-waves, Apollinaire’s burning water, Heraclitian flux, etc.).
GB: You have had a longstanding interest in time and its representation in your work. Indeed one of your fiction collections is entitled A Measure of Time. Could you speak a bit about this?
KJ: Of course, time is probably an illusion if one adheres not only to contemporary understandings of physics but also to perceptions of indigenous peoples, such as the Hopi, whose language is confined to the present tense. And, if linear time as such, doesn’t exist, and instead we are all part of an ever-expanding moment that arises from what we call the “Big Bang,” then, that moment is omnipresent and universal. So, while things metamorphose, fundamentally, they are still the same things, composed of the same atomic particles. The juxtapositional strategies that I deploy in this piece simply offer several angles or perspectives on the idea of flux, and that’s why I like to think of it in neo-Cubist terms. In a sense, the piece is both analeptic and proleptic, simultaneously scanning the past and the future, which are both part of a single moment. The ancient Hindus call the duration between one Big Bang and the next, a “Kalpak.” Now, imagine a series of Kalpaks which are nothing more than a musical beat in the dance of Nataraja or Shiva, as part of a rhythmic cycle of universal destruction and re-creation; a musical pulsation. Such pulsations are evident on the tiniest sub-atomic levels, and are integral to the immense patterns of “all that there is.” One could use fractal theory to expand on this topic.
GB: Anything else you’d like to say further about this piece? Or visual poetry in general?
KJ: I do enjoy visual poetry very much because it appeals to different parts of the brain when compared to more conventional forms of textual expression. Right lobe. Left lobe. The old cliché; there’s nothing right in my left lobe, and there’s nothing left in my right lobe. Hah. And, I guess, it might help to know that this piece was first published in Quebec City’s exciting contemporary art periodical, Inter (edited by Richard Martel and company), upon invitation for a special issue on Heraclitus. However, it also happened around the passing of bp Nichol, so it ended up being an homage to bp, whose favourite letter, the “H,” is a partial palindrome if read from left to right or right to left (although not a perfect palindrome, like an “O”). So, it is also an homage to Nichol. I think one of the strengths of visual poetry lies in the initial visual impact of such expressions, and then, one needs to look at them again, because there is often more going on than immediately meets the eye. If it’s effective, then, visual poetry should make you think, get you on a different wavelength.
Karl Jirgens is the author of both fiction and scholarly studies. His scholarly articles on postmodern and postcolonial literature appear widely in international journals, His theatre/performance works have been presented nationally and internationally. Jirgens has edited Rampike, the international literary journal of post-modern art and writing, since 1979. He is an associate professor in the Dept of English Language, Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. He is currently writing a novel as well as a scholarly study on the interface between literature and digital technology. Jirgens is also a grand-master of the martial art of Tae Kwon Do.
Cultural polymers in the visual poems of Adam Dickinson
Gliding over crystals, deking around the cool surface. The sibilant shriek of skate blades: SSS. A choreography of improvised play. Sidthetic molecules, bonded by a fan's-eye view of hockey sticks, fond frond-shadows Family-Circling over the ice-white page.
Open rink poetics. Not the path of the breath, but the darting, deking movement of thought, culture, NHLanguage. Meme will rock you. We shinny through refereeing referents, referencing the nervous (plas)tics of culture, the polymurmurs of process, pro sports, Prospero's magicking and puckish hex-agonists. Language's ludic overtime. The lingual powerplay where there seems to always be one missing.
Poetry is a series of passes converted. Signs signifiers signified. He shoots he scores. Axons to dendrites: Sidnapses Crosbying an airwave to heaven. Meanings 'and in glove before we drop them.
But materials are a game, also. A set of rules, relational paradigms which guide their formation and interaction. This abstracted diagram of the microscopic seems to be missing elements. Erasurefooted. Shouldn't there be more letters at the lines' junctures? The negative capability of science. What the fragmeant, making a fractured meaningchain out of a molecule.
GB: Your notion of the polymeric plastic nature of culture—and of language—is fascinating. (Indeed, the title of this piece seems to be a kind of molecule, a kind of polymer.) You write about how plastic 'mimics' the natural—and here, your language appears to both mimic and create the world. Its iteration is a proof of concept. Could you extrude some thoughts about polymers, plastics, language, representation, form and structure?
AD: Let me extrude: polymers are giant molecules made up of numerous repeating units. They exist, we might say, as both biological and synthetic plastics. I think of polymers as a form of writing. DNA, proteins, and carbohydrates, for example, constitute the chemical language with which living bodies are written. Similarly, polyester, polyethylene, and polystyrene constitute the material language with which we build our environments (clothing, food packaging, furniture, civic infrastructure).
If polymers are a form of writing, then how might we identify them in the semiotic systems that already envelop us? When I started to look, I saw polymers all over the place in language and rhetoric (puns, polysyndeton, anagrams, anaphora) as well as in cultural formations (obsessions, anxieties, memes, fashions). I saw them in line-ups, in traffic, in the chains of logic that make up arguments. I saw them in the contagious fandom of spectator sports, and in the way our behaviour is disciplined in subtle and repeated ways by the persistence of stereotypes and reductive relationships with difference.
My aim was to come up with a science/poetry project that would reveal what I call the cultural polymers or social plastics that predominate in Western petroleum culture. I want to think of plastic as not simply an unfortunate industrial decision, as bad policy, as a consequence of the pervasiveness of oil, but also as an expression of contingent polymeric formations essential to seemingly varied and reiterative human activities.
What do cultural polymers look like? What are they made of? How might they help us understand our relationship with plastic differently? These were the sorts of questions I was interested in exploring. It was important that the compositional procedures and structures of the poems reflect the chain-like dynamics of polymers in different ways. I make use of anagrams, collage, all kinds of invented procedures (some more fanciful than others).
The visual poems in the first part of the book are an attempt to incorporate polymer writing (molecular diagrams) right into the book itself. In the last section of the book, the visual poems are imagined molecules that I created through some elaborate procedures. I wanted to see if I could find the repeating units that form of the basis of some significant cultural documents—texts that as a result their very controversy have been subjected to polymeric repetition through history. I chose Darwin’s The Origin of Species and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as my examples. I manipulated the texts according to various sorting procedures (letter, word, sentence frequency and distribution) in order to determine these fundamental repeating units. From there I devised a method and worked with a chemist to produce a model of an imaginary but functional molecule.
GB: In the visual poems in The Polymers, you title a number of illustrations of what I take to be molecule-related diagrams with surprising language drawn from polymer-like chains of reference. It's a delightful and witty juxtaposition/disjunction of types of language. The reader has to make an associative or interpretative leap in order to parse the pieces, in order to try to connect the words with the image. How do you imagining a reader 'reading' these visual poems?
AD: I hope that any prospective reader will feel compelled to mess around with potential associations and alchemical solutions. I recognize that most people will have enough understanding of chemistry to know that each image is a molecule. Whether or not they understand the image to be a repeat unit within an oligomer or a longer polymer chain is another question. Nonetheless, I hope the polymeric context of the title is used as a point of reference for reading any dramatic or thematic links to the image. All the images are in fact real substances (outlined in the “Materials and Methods” section of the book). Therefore “reading” the poem with all of this in mind enacts a (polymer-like) chain of associations that I hope draws attention to the very materiality (and plasticity) of the act of associating (the self-conscious juxtaposition of seemingly disparate objects and contexts). The realization that the images refer to actual substances is not meant to be a solution to these poems but a frame of reference from which to jump into other associations with the title and the image.
GB: These visual poems appear in the midst of (mostly) purely verbal texts. How do you see this relationship between different types of texts and different kinds of reading?
AD: The idea of “different kinds of reading” was very important to me with this book. Part of my research involved immersing myself in polymeric situations in order to “read” objects or circumstances, to hear what they had to say, to treat seemingly none expressive phenomena and situations as forms of media. For example, I spent a great deal of time studying line-ups. During one memorable occasion I spent an entire day circulating through the line-up for the “Maid of the Mist” tourist boat in Niagara Falls. I would put on the plastic blue rain-slicker just like everyone else; but, instead of getting on the boat, at the last minute I would duck out and circulate back to the beginning of the line. The whole time I was recording what people were talking about, listening to the line-up expressing itself, reading its excitement and fatigue as the day wore on. The tour boat attendants were initially suspicious of what I was doing, but after I explained it to them they started to regale me with fascinating stories about past line-ups, about the antics of people waiting.
Reading polymers in culture required me to think of literacy and literature differently. Conventional reading, it seems to me, is a polymeric activity that involves encountering a chain of text that goes on and on in a way that formally, structurally barely registers (except at the ends of pages or at the breaks in words). On the one hand, I wanted to exploit this polymeric instinct in reading by including a number of prose poems and poems presented as fully justified, molecular blocks of text. The visual poems, conversely, are in the book to counteract the complacency that comes with this kind of reading. How do you read these images? Perhaps in some of the ways I have suggested above. The materiality of reading becomes evident when it is defamiliarized and deterritorialized into other generative forms like chemistry.
Adam Dickinson's poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in Canada and internationally. His collection, Kingdom, Phylum was a finalist for Ontario's Trillium Book Award for Poetry. He teaches poetry and poetics at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. The Polymers (House of Anansi) was published in Fall 2013.
[The following excerpt from a longer work by the Paris-born Brazilian scholar Marcel de Lima Santos gives a capsule view of the role played by Alcheringa & its contributors & predecesors in the early development of a workable ethnopoetics. (J.R.)]
Arising out of the 18th century’s rationalism was a counter current of fascination with what went beyond reason, and seemed to express the inexpressible and the sublime, but it is only in the Romantic movement that a crucial dimension of the modern conception of the shaman is developed, namely that of artist. Indeed artistic creativity and imaginative capacity take on a religious and transcendent coloration. Such a view of the artist as isolated seer and healer for society aligns him closely with our figure of the shaman, so that it is in the 19th century’s exploration of the higher reaches of the imagination that we find a rekindled interest in primitive religion, past and present.
In order to achieve the required altered states of mind, the shaman has to undergo a ritual. The ritual is a magical performance, as defined by Sir James George Frazer, himself the heir to this Romantic tradition, wherein the shaman “mimicks the doings of divine beings in order to arrogate to himself the divine functions and to exercise them.” By doing so, the shaman performs a sacred drama that was originally carried out by mythical personages who controlled the operations of nature in order to “wield all their powers.”
Therefore, the shaman becomes a living link between the magical reality of the mythical beings and the course of nature. Frazer contrasts the myth as figurative language with its magical correlate in the ceremony of mimicry:
We shall probably not err in assuming that many myths, which we know now only as myths, had once their counterpart in magic; in other words that they used to be acted as a means of producing in fact the events which they describe in figurative language. ... The principle of mimicry is implanted so deep in human nature and has exerted so far-reaching an influence on the development of religion as well as of the arts.
That is why outsiders often regard the ritual as something barbarous and coarse. Behind the brutality and the bloody sacrifices performed in a rite lies a meaningful purpose perceived only by those who know the mysteries. The magical flight comes about through a ceremonial performance in which the shaman acts as an artist of ecstasy, who performs like a madman in a trance. Usually, a shamanic ritual involves artistic expressions such as dance, theatre, music, and poetry as a means to help alter the shaman’s state of mind. Therefore, one can see the shaman both as a healer or medicine man and as an artist.
In fact, as Joan Halifax declares, the multifarious roles of the shamanic figure have also undergone under some transformations as a means to adapt the archaic technique to the world’s changing cultural practices:
The lifeway of the shaman is nearly as old as human consciousness itself, predating the earliest recorded civilizations by thousands of years. Through the ages, the practice of shamanism has remained vital, adapting itself to the ways of all the world’s cultures. Today the role of the shaman takes many forms – healer, ceremonialist, judge, sacred politician, and artist, to name a few.
It is argued here that special kinds of artists may also express themselves in shamanic forms, i.e., they bring to art a sacred meaning, often entering themselves into other layers of consciousness in their search for artistic expression. Claude Lévi-Strauss makes the connection between art and the primitive, giving it an enclave-like capacity that is present even today: “whether one deplores or rejoices in the fact, there are still zones in which savage thought, like savage species, is relatively protected. This is the case of art, to which our civilization accords the status of a national park.” In addition, of all the artistic expressions sharing primitive roots poetry arises as one of the closest forms to the venting of man’s primal utterance. As explained by Ruth-Inge Heinze, “these individuals [shamans] bring problems to the surface so that they can be dealt with, and they translate ineffable messages of the sacred into secular language.” Thus, one can understand certain artistic expressions through a shamanic perspective.
Western thought has long considered “primitive” peoples as a minor representative of literary culture because of their reliance on oral rather than written representations. Many recent poets have sought to change this view based on a new poetics that would represent more fully human cultures the world over, including those peoples whose works have been marginalized by an exclusive range of Western traditional literary culture. This movement has been concerned with a complex redefinition of cultural and intellectual values involving the idea of an ethnopoetics. This new poetics, which paradoxically can be traced back as far as the Paleolithic, is concerned with experimental works ranging from the Romantic period up to modern poetry. It is my contention that shamanism is itself a phenomenon that can be best represented under the light of this new conceptual idea that brings together poetry and ethnography. Hence I will now present a general outline of ethnopoetics, and then include my own presentation of poetic experimentation stemming from Romanticism into modern poetics, in order to contextualize it into my argument and to articulate it in preparation for the presentation of my three cases of study. An ethnopoetics can indeed allow the artistic representations of shamanic practices to reflect more fully the worldview of cultures to which art, as culture in general, is intrinsically linked to religious values as a whole, revealing the complexity of “primitive” as opposed to civilized.
Jerome Rothenberg proposes to formulate a poetics in the context of the revolutionary cultural countermovement that took place in the West as a reaction against “the official ideologies that shoved European man to the apex of the human pyramid.” This artistic movement, which stemmed from cultures “described as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ – a stage below ‘barbarian,’” was born out of the work of “some thinkers and artists who found ways of doing and knowing among other peoples as complex as any in Europe and often virtually erased from European consciousness.” Rothenberg calls this poetic discourse, or rather “ a range of such discourses,” ethnopoetics, which he defines thus:
The word “ethnopoetics” suggested itself almost too easily, on the basis of such earlier terms as ethnohistory, ethnomusicology, ethnolinguistics, ethnopharmacology, and so on. As such it refers to a redefinition of poetry in terms of cultural specifics, with an emphasis on those alternative traditions to which the West gave names like “pagan,” “gentile,” “tribal,” “oral,” and “ethnic.” In its developed form, it moves toward an exploration of creativity over the fullest human range, pursued with a regard for particularized practice as much as unified theory and further ‘defined’ […] in the actual discourse.
Ethnopoetics has been around for millennia and should not be “confined to the modern world.” As Rothenberg points out, in being “maybe as old as human consciousness itself,” ethnopoetics represents a search for the primary need to know what it is to be human, and to explore the human potential to its fullest.
The explicit discourse around ethnopoetics, as Rothenberg explains, “involved the magazine Alcheringa (founded by Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock in 1970) and included the 1975 gathering, at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies in Milwaukee, of the first international symposium on ethnopoetics.” A successor magazine, New Wilderness Letter, was founded by Rothenberg and Charlie Morrow, in order to recognize “poesis in all arts & sciences, all human thoughts & acts directed toward such ends: the participation in what the surrealist master André Breton called a ‘sacred action’ or what Gary Snyder defined as the ‘real work of modern man: to uncover the inner structure & actual boundaries of the mind.’”
The interest in ethnopoetics, and the coining of the term, which Rothenberg had introduced in the second issue of George Quasha’s magazine Stony Brook, developed out of writers who drew not only on the Romantic poets and their concern with the irrational and primordial, but also on anthropology, which helped them to flesh out the Romantic idea of primitive. Jerome Rothenberg spent time with the Seneca Indians, and Gary Snyder’s M. A. thesis in Anthropology was a study of Northwest Coast Indian myths. His early book of poems, Myths and Texts, is actually a reference to Boas’s work, while also raising the crucial question for ethnopoetics of the relation of the oral performance, taking place in a specific tribal context, to the written text which represents and misrepresents it. It is as an attempt to address these textual limitations that Rothenberg develops his theories and practice of “total translation” which involves using sound and stretching words to the semantic breaking-point in performance. The Journal Alcheringa included sound recordings and drew on an eclectic mixture of poets and ethnographers, as did their conferences. Hence, in their effort to redefine the range of primitive poetry and insert it into the traditional Western discourse of the written word instead of excluding it, these writers presented not only words of songs and chants, but also picture poems, sound poetry, dreams and visions inserted in scenarios of ceremonial events. The emphasis was thus given on performances in which the singing voice gave way to ritualistic poetic narratives including laments, prayers, prophecies, etc.
Rothenberg, and Snyder, though taking different paths, with Snyder developing the ecological implications and Rothenberg the aesthetic connections with experimental modernism, represent, together with the work of Nathaniel Tarn and Dennis Tedlock, a nexus of ideas which interrogate not just the relation of the written to the oral, but the authority of the West and of scientific objectivity over the primitive. Drawing on Stanley Diamond’s reconceptualization of the primitive, they are able to avoid some of the more simplistic use of Indian culture, though their work has still been criticized for cultural expropriation.
Another convergent aspect between the poetics of shamanism and ethnopoetics is their search for communal living and environmental protection. These issues, which have been neglected, if not obliterated, by the agenda of the search for comfort in modern civilization, have, on the other hand, as Rothenberg reminds us, been of primary concern for “primitive” cultures despite their growing vanishing status in Western societies:
Our belief in this regard is that a re-viewing of “primitive” ideas of the “sacred” represents an attempt – by poets and others – to preserve and enhance primary human values against a mindless mechanization that has run past any uses it may once have had. (This, rather than the advocacy of some particular system, seems to us the contribution of the “primitive” to whatever world we may yet hope to bring about.) As a matter of history, we would place the model in question both in the surviving, still rapidly vanishing stateless cultures and in a long subterranean tradition of resistance to the twin authorities of state and organized religion.
Borrowing the title of his anthology from Robert Duncan’s concept of “Symposium of the Whole,” Rothenberg is in a way proposing the “dream of total art,” that is, a complex “redefinition of cultural and intellectual values,” by means of a new reading of past and present poetic representations. Robert Duncan in fact advocates a new artistic totality that will include many of the areas that have been consistently outcast by Western society at large:
To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.
Rothenberg looks for a new primary scene for this dream of total art other than the “imperial and swollen mold … from Greece,” and finds it among the proto-poets/artists of the Paleolithic past. The works of these marginal artists, which have amazingly survived the onslaughts of modernity, represent, as Rothenberg asserts, “a complexity of act and vision” which merits calling their creators “technicians of the sacred.” Rothenberg’s allusive term here is only too conspicuous; he is clearly referring to shamanic practices in terms of their artistic representations, borrowing from Eliade’s groundbreaking work on shamanism. Rothenberg uses his own term as the title for a book wherein he presents a worldwide range of native texts that he parallels with the writings of contemporary poets, along with his own editorial comments, providing a vast anthology of ethnopoetical material. The idea is still that of a shamanic séance, in which all the senses are summoned to perceive synaesthetically.
Shamanic practices and shamanic art are linked to the oral tradition, which in the Western poetic tradition has been either excluded or set apart. Hence, as Rothenberg indicates, “a recovery of the oral is crucial” to ethnopoetics, which, without meaning to exclude any written form, calls for their simultaneous expression: “the oral recovery involves a poetic deeply rooted in the powers of song and speech, breath and body, as brought forward across time by the living presence of poet-performers, with or without the existence of a visible/literal text.” Rothenberg therefore calls for a fully human poetics that does not exclude the oral tradition and whose range is
the range of human culture itself, and the forms they take (different for each culture) run from wordless songs and mantras to the intricacies (imagistic and symbolic) of multileveled oral narratives; from the stand-up performances of individual shamans and bards to the choreographies of mass dancers and singers, extended sometimes over protracted periods of time.
Ethnopoetics is poetry of experimentation of the human potential in all times and places. Yet, it is not a movement concerned with the experimental qualities typically associated with modern poetry. As Rothenberg puts it,
ethnopoetics -- which looks away from the modern and experimental to focus on the ancient and autochthonous cultures (often under threat of mass extinction or long since blown away) – is the product (as study and praxis) of our most dedicated and outrageous modernism, even surviving (under fire) into that postmodernism taken as the older movement’s early and forever problematic offspring.
Hence, a poetics of archetypal representations long forgotten by the Western tradition makes itself needed:
The recovery of archetypes (as image and/or symbol) that infuse our own work at its most heated: the animal and trickster side of us; the goddess and the feminine; the sense of ‘earth as a religious form’ and of a living, even human, universe; and the commitment to imaginal geographies and journeys that lead into our own lives and minds.
By means of an ethnopoetics it will be possible, as Rothenberg believes, to “show how ethnographic revelations can change our ideas of poetic form and function.” As I will show in the texts involving Black Elk and María Sabina and in those by Carlos Castaneda, the participants, as Rothenberg calls them, are “not only poets but – in an age of intermedia works and genre cross-overs – other artists as well; not only anthropologists and folklorists but the indigenous poets and shamans for whom the others often act as conduits to the world of print and text.”
The issues present in the conceptual representations of ethnopoetics are indeed far ranging and, likewise those found in the representations of shamanism at large (some of which I have already addressed), resemble those of a human, rather than primitive, poetics:
The reinterpretation of the poetic past, the recurrent question of a primitive-civilized dichotomy (particularly in its post-Platonic Western manifestations), the idea of a visionary poetics and of the shaman as a paradigmatic proto-poet, the idea of a great subculture and of the persistence of an oral poetics in all of the “higher” civilizations, the concept of wilderness and of the role of the poet as a defender of biological and psychic diversity, the issue of the monoculture and the issue of cultural imperialism, the question of communal and individual expression in traditional societies, the relation of culture and language to mental processes, the divergence of oral and written cultures (and their projected reconciliation), and the reemergence of suppressed and rejected forms and images (the goddess, the trickster, the human universe, etc.).
As can be seen, my own dealings with the representations of shamanism and of shamanic practices have a lot in common with Rothenberg’s proposition of a “new poetics.” In fact, as I intend to show, the three cases of study presented are also part of this ongoing movement toward an ethnopoetics. Starting off with Black Elk and the poetic description of his shamanic vision, passing through María Sabina and the (re)discovery of ancient healing chants by Western scholars and poets, and culminating in Carlos Castaneda’s allegorical representations of magical thought, I attempt to insert my own work within the range of discourse, from Romantic literary representations to contemporary ethnopoetic narratives. My own case studies point toward the plurality of voices echoing this forgotten, and often marginalized wholeness of the human enterprise – voices which are vivid and ever-present in cultures worldwide thought to be primitive, as an expression of their complexity.
An ethnopoetic discourse toward a poetics of shamanism can also be found in Eliade’s writings, and his statement on the ecstatic origins of literature at large: “The shaman’s adventures in the other world, the ordeals that he undergoes in his ecstatic descents below and ascents to the sky, suggest the adventures of the figures in popular tales and the heroes of epic literature.” As Eliade explains, literary narrative dealing with underworld journeys, as well as with supernatural events, typical of epic and heroic tales as those by Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton, are borrowings from shamanic narratives, which describe the shaman’s spiritual ecstatic journeys: “Probably a large number of epic ‘subjects’ or motifs, as well as many characters, images, and clichés of epic literature, are, finally, of ecstatic origin … borrowed from the narratives of shamans … their journeys in the superhuman worlds.”
Eliade goes on to say that poetic inspiration itself finds a parallel in shamanic practices. The shaman’s preparation for entering the spiritual world suggests the same mystical freedom that pervades poetic creation:
Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom. Poetry remakes and prolongs language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that, like the ecstasy or the religious inspiration of “primitives,” reveals the essence of things. It is from such linguistic creations, made possible by pre-ecstatic “inspiration,” that the “secret languages” of the mystics and the traditional allegorical languages later crystallize.
Thus, we can say that this secret language, with which the shaman summons the spiritual beings, parallels, if not originates, the inner experience that will be translated into poetry.