These poems come from Bernadette Mayer’s long-unpublished early book, The Old Style Is Finding out Something about a Whole New Set of Possibilities, which was written mostly from 1966 to 1970, when Mayer was between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five. Unlike the majority of the poems in the book, they were never published in any form until their appearance in Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer (Station Hill Press, 2015), which we coedited. When Mayer began The Old Style, she was a student at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, taking poetry classes from Bill Berkson. She had met or at least seen many of the New York School poets, including John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. She was launching the journal 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci, who was married to her older sister, Rosemary, and who had known the orphan Mayer sisters since the late 1950s. The first issue of 0 to 9 was printed in April 1967, not long before Mayer graduated from the New School. During the next two years, she continued to edit 0 to 9 with Acconci and lived with the filmmaker Ed Bowes in the East Village and Soho, according to a series of interviews with Mayer in 2013–2015, as well as the partially fictionalized timelines that Mayer included in Studying Hunger (Adventures in Poetry/Big Sky, 1975) and Studying Hunger Journals (Station Hill, 2011). Mayer said that she discussed both poetry and her own poems by far the most with Acconci, who lived nearby with Rosemary during the 0 to 9 years.
Discussing Acconci’s poetic influence on her work, Mayer said, “Even though I had my differences with Vito Acconci, I really thought that he was correct in the sense that you don’t see poems as this thing that’s surrounded by white space and is a precious object.” One thing that appealed to her in Acconci’s work was “using a source … that was already there.” Partially contrasting her writing to his, she suggested that she was more interested than he was in “thinking about letters and … how words look and sound.” In addition to her relationship with Acconci, Mayer became very close poetically with Hannah Weiner and Clark Coolidge by 1968.
The first poems here, “Auditoriums” and “The General,” come from the initial section of The Old Style and appear to be among the earlier poems in the book, written before the launch of 0 to 9. They are short, like almost all of Mayer’s very early poems, and impersonal, unlike the poems preceding them in Red Book in Three Parts, which was dated “1965–66” on its original copyright page. “Auditoriums” shows an almost obsessive interest in “how words look and sound.” The second stanza of “The General,” a quotation from Leonardo Da Vinci, shows Mayer’s interest in “using a source … that was already there.” The next five poems, beginning with “Split Decision,” come toward the middle of The Old Style, in the section appropriately titled with the letter “A.” Some of her earliest “thinking about letters” is evident in “The Sun’s in my eyes …,” and the interest in “how words look and sound” is strong in the repetitions of “Here’s Gold,” “Day,” and “15 Times.”
After writing these poems, according to a chronological notation on the handwritten contents page reproduced on page 88 of Eating the Colors, Mayer wrote her first long poem, Story, which soon became her first published book, coming out as a special issue of 0 to 9 in 1968. Story is one of Mayer’s most extended uses of sources. She seamlessly weaves together preexisting writing from Native American myths, “a recipe for true sponge cake, a 19th century letter about etiquette, quotes from Edgar Allan Poe,” according to the author’s note in Eating the Colors. Around the same time, Mayer submitted an early version of The Old Style manuscript for the inaugural Frank O’ Hara Prize, which was awarded to Joseph Ceravolo’s Spring in This World of Poor Mutts in 1968.
When Mayer returned to The Old Style manuscript after writing Story, she embarked on a series of longer poems, beginning with “One Thing,” published in 0 to 9 in June 1968. Asked whether writing Story freed her up to write long poems like that, Mayer said, “Yeah. But I was working, at that point in time, in a total vacuum. I had never had any idea that anything I was doing would be interesting to anybody else. I mean, who would it have been interesting to? Certainly none of the poets that I knew.” The next poem here, “Drivers Dividers,” comes among a group of poems “using a source,” notably the encyclopedic poems “One Thing” and “Anthology.” “Drivers Dividers” is visually similar to the poem that immediately precedes it, “Bus Stop,” and similarly built out of signs in the environment, as well as the repeated word “divider” and pairs of letters beginning with “u u” and cycling through the alphabet to “t t.”
Left to right: the covers of Story (1968), Moving (1971), Memory (1976), and Studying Hunger (1976). Photos courtesy Craig Dworkin.
“Complete Music of Webern (A Movie)” is one of the longer poems in The Old Style. “It was based on this box set that I had of Webern,” Mayer said. Each section begins with the alphabet spread horizontally across the top of the page. “The line begins under the letter that it begins with.” In the poem, Mayer weaves together a number of sources, just as she did in Story, but on a smaller scale and less seamlessly. The most common thread, phrases such as “9 min., 56 sec.,” presumably a track length, highlights the importance of time in Webern, legendary for his brevity. Another common thread is fragmentary descriptions of people on a bus, people getting off the bus, which fulfills the title’s cinematic promise. There’s the suggestion that everything happens in small increments of time, or that all of experience is broken up into small increments. Another strand is “first avenue goes uptown,” “second avenue goes downtown,” etc. — useful knowledge for anyone in New York. Asked if she had an impulse to transmit useful knowledge in poems, Mayer said, “Well, in Moving, there’s a recipe for pound cake. So I mean it’s all over my work … For a person who has a certain amount of knowledge, to impart it is an appropriate thing. So this is my job. I get together all this knowledge and I try to impart it to people. It’s not a complicated issue.”
Some of the other obvious repeated strands are quotes from artists and philosophers such as Donald Judd, Marcel Duchamp, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; descriptions of the weather; a thus-far-unidentified piece of hyperbolic writing; and a couple of factoids about Webern, culminating in the apocalyptic “anyone / going by the name of Anton Webern, / Mittersill, Austria, please stay inside,” which resonates with the great composer’s end, shot to death on his front doorstep by an American soldier in Berlin in 1945.
“Complete Music of Webern (A Movie)” is very similar to the long poem that immediately precedes it in the book, “A Moving Boat Is a Squeezed Boat: 52 Cards,” where each roughly one-page section begins: “Jack explained that the moving boat was squeezed as it floated by the pier,” a line that Mayer in an interview linked to Einstein’s theory of relativity. One of the sources that Mayer uses is lines from her own poems, which helps us date “A Moving Boat …” and suggests that it was written after the companion Webern poem, though, of course, they could have been written simultaneously. Lines appear twice from “Definitions at the Center of the Newspaper June 13, 1969”; and twice from “Family” and once from “untitled,” which were both first published in 0 to 9 in January 1969. In the second section, there’s a line from the companion Webern poem: “7 min., 50 sec.” Some of the other threads are the repeated Jack line, references to Walt Whitman, and quotes from Buckminster Fuller, whom Mayer mentions in Moving.
Among the last poems in The Old Style, “Design What Design Does” appears to be an improvisation loosely exploring repetitions of a series of words: design, devoted, what, why, do, want, spaces, put, has, what, covering, over, rectangle, spaces, done, them, you. “From the point of view of four-dimensional space-time …” and “The Invisible Structure,” and even “Minnesota,” with its outside-the-body travel, continue the scientific vein of “A Moving Boat …”
In October 1969, Mayer moved from New York to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she lived alone in the country until the following May, and worked on the book-length poem Moving, which was published in early 1971. Moving was followed in quick succession by her New York epics Memory, written in 1971–1972, and Studying Hunger Journals, in 1972–1974. Meanwhile, Mayer didn’t succeed at finding a publisher for The Old Style, which was assembled in its final form after she wrote Memory, according to the handwritten contents page. In 1976, she was able to publish less than half of the poems in the first section of Poetry. The majority of the poems were either never published, such as the poems here, or published only in 0 to 9, a collector’s item until Ugly Duckling Presse republished the magazine’s issues in 2006, and they still aren’t very well known.
Why Finland? Why visual poetry? Why Kokoomateos?
There’s a stir going on, a textual free-for-all, a visible shift in how language is being handled in response to the machines in our lives. This is not unusual. We have seen it before: the way in which technology affects the environment that created it. In Finland, visual poetry, in some way, sprang up almost fully formed. There are few antecedents that point to its appearance, yet here it is. The fully mature mingle with the nascent and in so doing form a new constellation of visual poetries. And so an anthology, a kokoomateos, is born.
You are backed into a corner of a dark room. You try to figure out what the history of that corner was before you entered the room. Finland is not where you would consider coming to for visual poetry. There are very few landmark works and poets that tie the past to the future of Finnish postmodern poetry. There are even fewer that stick out and lead the way toward a Finnish visual poetry. An incomplete list of influences would include names like Aaro Hellaakoski (1893–1952), creator of some of the earliest examples of pictorial typography; Eino Leino (1878–1926), considered a pioneer in Finnish poetry; Tyyne Saastamoinen (1924–1998), who used elements of concrete poetry as early as 1962; Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983), an important poet in the ’60s and ’70s who translated Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses into Finnish; Eino Ruutsalo (1921–2001), a pioneer in visual and kinetic arts who made visual poetry; and Väinö Antero Kirstinä (1936–2007), who published concrete and visual poetry in the 1960s. More history must be there awaiting discovery. Perhaps this little anthology of Finnish vispoems will motivate the reader to find it.
Text and the manipulation of text on a page, on the screen, in the air, is one way of traveling through the realities of our experience. The fascination with the visual disassembly and reassembly of textual language material is another. This rises to a compulsion for some. The alphabet drives us forward and into endlessly new and shifting templates of communication. This collection of visual poetry from Finland pushes the drapes back and throws light on these myriad directions. The examples of work made available here support the final idea that text has moved past its familiar boundaries into a future of potential and disparate intentions. Contemporary visual poets create work using a wide array of media. From analog to digital, from formal alphabet to unintentional markings, from static to moving screen, from nature to machine, we expect our visual poets to alter the way we read seeing and see reading.
The ten visual poets in this collection are the here and now, the current Finnish wave. They are engaged and primed to explore and exercise the musculature of language. They adjust and reassess any available materials in an attempt to reach new results. They seem to have succeeded. This is a stepping-stone toward their future.
Cia Rinne constructs aerobic sonorous textual scores; her juxtaposing delights and her concision alarms. J. P. Sipilä offers text accumulation, throbbing moments of alphabet. Jukka-Pekka Kervinen both obliterates and repurposes, making text a new place to be. Mari Laaksonen draws us onto a ghost screen where sound and text bubbles through. Mikko Kuorinki alters the ordinary into a fluxus text. Reijo Valta blends the organic sign with intentional markings. Sami Liuhto presents the asemic found inside writing by way of cursive waves. Satu Kaikkonen delivers problem-solving photographic elements into her composition, into her writing. Tero Hannula gives us variety, a painterly scrawl verging on meaning. Tiina Lehikoinen tells us how a drawn idea can be another form of writing.
This anthology of ten poets is an exhibit of what is currently happening. It shows strong, flexible, and stunning work, and provides a range of potential — a visual poetry platform from which future poets can embark on a Finnish vispo experience. I am excited to present these poets’ works, to raise the vispo flag from a new location, and am pleased this work is part of the global visual poetry fabric.
Over the past year, many of us have written into, thought through, lashed out against, and endured polarizing discourses about North American and transnational poetics. Some of us have participated in these discussions carrying flags of myriad colors, some have been dragged through unwillingly, some have watched from the sidelines anxiously wringing hands or studiously taking notes. These discourses have polarized writers and critics on aesthetics, ethics, and politics, sometimes producing useful questions about the intersections between these realms, sometimes enforcing reductive homologies between them. While polarity has often characterized these discourses, it is hard to pin down even contingent names for the resulting dichotomies: Conceptual Writing vs. Lyric Poetry? Conceptual Writing vs. Political Poetry? Conceptual Writing vs. Positivist Representation? Avant Garde Aesthetics vs. Activist Poetics? To speak in the idiom of Maestro Ilayaraaja, my muse while I edited this feature: How to name it? How to, indeed?
In documenting the contours of contemporary poetry, an attempt to map any such binary becomes immediately fraught with all kinds of methodological and historical burdens, and is immediately complicated with a simple problem: polarizing discourses do not always tell us the story of practitioners and critics who labor as “emerging” or “international” or “unanthologized” and who are never fully included or drawn into debates that are, essentially, very much about them too.
Sometime in February 2015, I became interested in asking poets, editors, publishers, and critics questions that didn’t result in polarizing reductions, but instead revealed the contradictory and complex truths about their disparate processes, political motivations, and communal concerns. It was important to create a forum in which they would ask better questions about their own methods and concerns; where they would stage and rehearse their own ethical, aesthetic, and political attempts to work through problems of medium, market, form, and language within the institution (rather than the genre) of “poetry.” This moment, like many significant moments in literary history, requires better questions: questions that do not demand denouncement, do not enforce allegiance to a certain aesthetic, do not automate categorical definitions; questions that challenge how writing is institutionalized, incorporated, or made hegemonic and complicit; questions that clarify and document the contemporary moment as it is, rather than answers that produce easily instrumentalized narratives.
So, instead of asking practitioners who they are (i.e. the questions of inquisition), I asked writers why and how they work (i.e. the questions of exposition). They told us, in return, how they lean and how they work through, beside, outside of, and within what we’ve come to understand as Conceptual writing. They told us how they have grown into, grown from, outgrown, or forborne its possibilities. To pluralize prepositional relations to the thing seemed like the best way to counter polarizing discourses that focus on select individuals in an otherwise highly diverse, striated, and divergent network of poetic practitioners.
If we can re-envision the premises, techniques, and theoretical presuppositions of Conceptual writing as provisional rather than monolithic — which is to say, if we can effectively observe that these are rooted in both contingency and subjective experience (rather than in universal principles of aesthetic norms) — then we will be able to challenge Conceptual writing’s supposed orthodoxy, intervene into narratives of its dogmatism, and discuss its social effects. If Conceptual writing is everything we’ve hoped/dreaded it to be, it will also be a generous host for the occasion of its own destruction, just as it will be open to fabrications of refusal, regeneration, reshaping, renewal. In other words, it will be monstrous and alive, its existence, like any invention, bound with “slight ligaments to [both] prosperity and ruin.”
The resulting feature here is a collection of thirty-five responses, from thirty-seven practitioners and critics of diverse method, intent, and position, that carry forward the goals of the original call for writing:
1) To expand the field of critical influences and frame its discourses through the lenses of anti-imperialism, postcolonialism, spirituality studies, disability studies, ecocriticism, and critical race theory.
2) To create records of aesthetic and political genealogies which resonate as true and lived for practitioners.
3) To articulate the critique of dominant and hegemonic genealogies or histories associated with contemporary conceptual and conceptual-like writing.
This feature suggests some important approaches to the poetics of Conceptual writing and its critique:
That we must acknowledge the identitarian and ideological diversity of practitioners and critics interested in Conceptual writing as a discourse across racial, sexual, class, dis/ability, immigration status, and national categories.
That we must account for a growing number of players in this field well beyond the figureheads who have become instrumentalized into rhetorical shorthand for polarizing discourses. Our contributors are graduate students, independent and institutionally affiliated scholars, teachers, activists, freelance artists, established writers, and emerging voices. In this way this feature converses with an important earlier editorial effort initiated by Caleb Beckwith and Tom Trudgeon in Evening Will Come: Conceptual Issue over at The Volta, and it builds on Caleb Beckwith’s Essay Press collection of interviews with conceptual-leaning writers.
That we must constantly push beyond the regional peculiarities and cultural privileges of the United States. Our contributors are from Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Philippines, the UK, and Germany, and from across the US. And in this way, this feature converses with the significant documents of Global Conceptualisms curated by Vanessa Place at Jacket2.
That we must seek a more intermedial and interdisciplinary approach to contemporary poetry so as to challenge the institutionalization of the genre as a fact rather than a fiction. Many contributors describe Conceptual writing as a discourse with implications for other disciplines: material culture; dance theatre; athletics; religious philosophy; hip-hop, electronic and avant-garde music; and visual, video and installation art, among others. And in this way, this feature continues to answer the critical question asked by Katie L. Price in “What is the relationship between Conceptual Art and Conceptual Writing?” at Jacket2.
The feature is organized below into clusters to help readers navigate the essays. These clusters are provisional and practical, rather than determining, and they showcase many possible positions from which we may describe and critique a significant artery in the circulation of contemporary poetics. If Conceptual writing is indeed “dead,” as some have suggested, it will be necessary, after this feature, for those critic-morticians to account for the bodies and lives of these living practitioners and their vital and thriving practices.
Of theology, forms, and absence
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Repetition and revulsion
‘Swims’: Body, ritual, and erasure
Gossip as method
Jake Reber and Jon Rutzmoser
Notes toward an anthropological process
Concept: Constraint and construction, body as page
’Corpaphysics, Conceptualism, and dualism
A pale Usher
On ‘Area Sneaks’
Rita Gonzalez and Joseph Mosconi
한 :: Concept : Spirit : Break
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
The blackness of Holly Melgard’s ‘Black Friday’
Angelo Suárez’s ‘Philippine English’ and the language of Conceptual writing
Messing with the beholder: Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ and embedded Conceptualism
On dakim’s ‘34 Fragments’
J. Gordon Faylor
On Weiner, Acconci, Perreault, and Graham
Software as lip service: Jennifer Walshe’s Snapchat scores
Logan K. Young
Marco Antonio Huerta
Disaster and revival: On Cha, Goldsmith, Pendleton
Critical color theory: On Angelica Dass and Divya Victor
Rachael E. Katz
Nice dream? Allegory and radical mimesis in Heriberto Yépez
Alejandro Crawford, Sophia Le Fraga, and Shiv Kotecha
Selections from ‘The Beginning’
Feliz Lucia Molina
I’M A REAL ARTIST