At the surface and medium-depth

Theorizing a haptic poetic

“‘How can the poet reach and touch you physically as say the sculptor does by caressing you with objects you caress?’ [bp Nichols] asks, and then answers: ‘only if he drops the barriers.’” Image: Adaptation of photo of bp Nichol’s ‘Journeying and Returns,’ with permission from Coach House Books and the Poetry Foundation.

The haptic poem occurs at an extremity of communication. It arrives in the fleeting moment of contact between language, body, and object as they route their way along the skin and through the nervous system. Unlike the related expanded practices of visual poetry and sound poetry, which engage the ocular and cochlear realms of experience, the haptic poem is a more holistic engagement of body and bodily processes. It sets across the skin, embeds within muscle tissue, traverses with the movements of bone and sinew, and transmits through the nerve impulses of the body. Haptic poetry foregrounds physically based sensorial experiences: experiences of language and language’s materials as an integral part of the poem-object that play out imminently and intimately.

I layer my notion of haptic poetics by combining several terms that require nuanced delineation. These terms are compacted within a standard conception of the haptic: “Of the nature of, involving, or relating to the sense of touch, the perception of position and motion (proprioception), and other tactile and kinaesthetic sensations.” To unpack this terminology, I rely upon critical theorists Sara Ahmed and Brian Massumi. Their understanding of these terms populates my own thinking about the haptic as a possible poetic mode as I examine a small selection of poems later in this article. Before I do that, I will constellate the terminology that describes my notion of a haptic poetic. Since these three terms — touch, kinetics, and proprioception — are at the core of what follows, they bear some defining. 

Touch is the perception of an object (person or thing) through direct physical contact between the perceiving subject and the perceived object. This type of sensorial engagement (also known as tactility) unfurls as physiological sensation along the surface of the body when skin comes into contact with textures, vibrations, and temperatures. Ahmed articulates the political and affective dimensions of touch in her book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000). Ahmed writes, “The skin allows us to consider how boundary-formation, the marking out of the lines of a body, involves an affectivity which already crosses the line. For if the skin is a border, then it is a border that feels.”[1] She continues to point out that “while the skin appears to be the matter which separates the body, it rather allows us to think of how the materialization of bodies involves, not containment, but an affective opening out of bodies to other bodies.”[2] Here, Ahmed recognizes that the skin itself, as malleable as it is, demarcates the body’s material and corporeal conditions — shape, size, position, and so on. The skin, for Ahmed, is a point of interface — an opening — between body and body, body and world. The haptic poem offers a point of contact between the reader and poet, through the physicality of engaging the work of touch. The haptic poem, then, when touched, is a zone of contact or a concentration of affect which assembles reader and poet, with an emphasis on physical over semantic or paratactic communications.

Ahmed addresses touch and community in her later book The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). She maintains that touch’s metaphorical sense — i.e., to stimulate someone not physically but emotionally and psychically — creates social bonds. Ahmed traces the etymological root of “contingency,” which she recognizes as having the “same root in Latin as the word ‘contact’ (Latin: contingere: com, with; tangere, to touch).”[3] Ahmed describes contingency thusly:

the sociality of being ‘with’ others, of getting close enough to touch. … So what attaches us, what connects us to this place or that place, to this other or that other is also what we find most touching; it is that which makes us feel. The differentiation between attachments allows us to align ourselves with some others and against other others in the very processes of turning and being turned, or moving towards and away from those we feel have caused our pleasure and pain.[4

For Ahmed, contingency — as a form of physical contact or emotional touching — is what binds persons to places, things, and other persons. It is the affect from this touch that allows a person to form an attraction (personal or political) to another or, conversely, to be repelled by it. My sense of touch, as part of a haptic poetic, then, implies tactility but is not necessarily reduced to it; it involves the body without necessarily making a physical impression upon it (though physical impressions do at times occur).

While touch is a means by which the body experiences a plethora of haptic sensations, another means for the body to experience these haptic sensations is kinetics. Etymologically, in the Western tradition, the word “kinetic” comes from the Greek word κῑνητικός meaning “moving,” and is defined more precisely as that which pertains or relates to motion. The term itself is commonly associated with the sciences, namely kinesiology and physics; however, as Massumi reminds us in his introduction to Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (2002), the study of movement as it relates to cultural issues is necessary. For Massumi, the lack of attention given to movement as a key element of cultural studies privileges “ideological accounts of subject formation,” which results in a grid-like structuring of the subject’s identity: “an oppositional framework of culturally constructed significations: male versus female, black versus white, gay versus straight, and so on. A body corresponded to a ‘site’ on the grid defined by an overlapping of one term from each pair. The body came to be defined by its pinning on the grid.”[5] The static, grid-like structuring of the subject does not account for the fluidity of identity nor the subject’s ability to move between positions on the grid itself thus — as we see often in the work of the poets — the grid and its structure must be challenged. Haptic poetics can engage the various physical and moving aspects of the literary experience, attending to the reader’s body as it engages a text or endures a literary performance. Each of these kinds of works — both codex-based and performative texts — foregrounds a linkage between language, language materials, movement, and participatory interaction as integral parts of the literary object’s composition and the way the object-subject relationship is formed.   

With movement comes another important conceptual consideration, which is the individual’s perception and awareness of their own body in both position and movement. This sense of awareness is commonly referred to as proprioception. Proprioception is similar to touch in the way that both terms describe the registration of sensation, a feeling or awareness that is external to language. Like touch, proprioception requires an engagement with the perceiving subject’s body, but is distinguished from touch by the fact that the actual interface of the perceiving subject and the perceived object need not actually make surface-to-surface contact. Referring to it as the unrecognized sixth sense, Massumi provides a succinct definition of proprioception; he suggests that proprioception is “defined as the sensibility proper to the muscles and ligaments as opposed to tactile sensibility (which is ‘exteroceptive’) and visceral sensibility (which is ‘interoceptive’),” and further that it “folds tactility into the body, enveloping the skin’s contact with the external world in a dimension of medium depth: between epidermis and viscera.”[6] In other words, proprioception is a person’s inner sensibility of their body in relation to its surroundings and movements — a person’s ability to sense the place or movement of a limb or digit, as well as a person’s ability to sense the body as it moves through space. My interest in proprioception is founded in the way it, as part of a haptic poetic, makes an audience aware of the position and movement of the body in the same way that touch makes us aware of sensations at the literal zone of contact.

Each of these experiential constituents — touch, kinetics, and proprioception — and all of the nuances that accompany these terms form the basis of a haptic poetic. Haptic poetry attends to how language can impress itself upon the audience’s body (touch), encourage the audience’s body to move (kinetics), and impresses an awareness of the audience’s body and its movements upon the individual (proprioception). This is a type of poetry that centers on a different type of output: the output of a feeling that sends sensations to the surface of the skin, to the muscles, and relies upon specific positioning and movements as the core of interaction with the literary work. It can purposefully subvert standard literary conventions such as grammar, syntax, spelling, narrative, and, at times, language itself by directly engaging the somatic realm of haptics, embedded within the materials and space in and around the poem. Further, haptic poetry is embedded within the poem’s materials to produce tactile and embodied sensation; it is located within the movements and velocity that a poem requires of a body; it is in the awareness of a body and its muscles, tissues, and ligaments as it engages the literary object, performance, or space. Haptic poetry is a poetry that directly impacts the body’s relationship with language, materiality, and space. Haptic poetry offers the poem as an open interface. Language here is pushed beyond its function to communicate distinctive semantic and paratactic meaning and yet, haptic poems still effectively communicate, especially in their capacity to generate, stimulate, and transfer affects from one body (human or nonhuman) to another. In the haptic poem, textures, ambience, and muscle movements become literary.[7]

Haptic poetry is historically affiliated with the ready-made sculptures of Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp, the “avant-gardening” of Ian Hamilton Finlay, avant-garde movements like poema processo explored by Moacy Cirne, the poetry of “interactive signs” developed by Fernando Aguiar, the intermedia objects of Fluxus artists like Ben Vautier, and the participatory and instruction-based works of conceptual art by Yoko Ono. In the Canadian context, I look toward bpNichol’s extremely rare and delightful Journeying & the Returns (1967). The publication consists of a perfect-bound book of poems also entitled Journeying & the Returns, a 7-inch vinyl disc entitled Borders, and a variety of poem-objects on sheets, pamphlets, chapbooks, and flipbooks. The “Statement,” which accompanies the text, situates Journeying & the Returns as a haptic work: “how can the poet reach and touch you physically as say the sculptor does by caressing you with objects you caress?” he asks, and then answers: “only if he drops the barriers.”[8] To do so, Nichol has explicitly created a work wherein the barriers between reader and poem are made apparent, primed to be engaged by a reader. Each of the works in Journeying & the Returns requests a specific engagement from the reader that breaks down the barrier between poem-object, reader, and poet wherein the actual materials of the poem are part of the work. In other words, Journeying & the Returns is a collection that anticipates Ahmed’s notion of “borders that feel.”[9

Poem-objects by bpNichol. Image courtesy of Coach House Books and the Poetry Foundation.

In Journeying, Nichol includes “bp,” a minimalist poem-object consisting of Nichol’s first two initials, “b” and “p,” joined together to form one simple cutout. The poem seeks to break down the barrier between reader, poet, and poem. The cutout is made from cardstock with a reflective, mirror-like finish. On the one hand, the piece looks like a celebration of the author — a bold and literally flashy signature that accompanies the other texts in Journeying to announce the author’s presence in the work. In this way, perhaps the piece is a reminder to the reader that there are a body and person intimately related to the text that they hold. Conversely, when looking directly at the cutout, the reader’s face is hazily reflected back at them in the mirror-like finish. When I look at the work, I can see my nose, mouth, eyes, and glasses. I am seeing what I recognize as myself in “bp” but I am also seeing myself as I am shaped by the cutout of the letters “bp.” Within the piece, both Nichol (signified by “bp”) and myself are intricately and fleetingly connected. In so doing, the work becomes reflective of the interlinked relationship between the poem, poet, and reader; and, further, how a person’s body and image, in that moment, is formed by the intersection of these three elements. “bp” is a gesture toward a community between reader, poet, world, and poem — all are simultaneously present within one another in the moment of the haptic encounter.

From Amaranth Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen. Image courtesy of Amaranth Borsuk.

Perhaps Nichol’s reflective “bp” anticipates the selfie and the smoothness of our current digital culture. Today, the processes of poetic mediation are increasingly located within emergent haptic codes, comprised of pressures upon keys and screens, the drag of the fingertip across flat glass, and vibratory alerts encased within smooth plastics that warm with touch. These newer modes of mediation — like any technology — offer new possibilities for art and poetry, and poets are seizing upon these in various ways. Amaranth Borsuk’s digital pop-up book Between Page and Screen, a collaboration with Brad Bouse, is situated between the two surface technologies of page and
screen.[10] The book is wordless, consisting of markers meant to be read by a computer camera, which activates a series of animations that appear on the screen. To work, Between Page and Screen requires an alternative positioning of the book-holding body and is augmented by kinetics. The actual book must be positioned away from the human eye and toward the eye of the computer camera. When the book is successfully positioned the animated poem appears upon the screen to then be watched or read by the human eye. Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen is not only a timely example of how poets can seize upon new technologies of mediation, but it is also a study of the body and its movements as it navigates the intersection of print and digital interfaces. On the computer screen, the reader’s body is symbiotically fused with the poem’s animations. Once the poems appear on the computer screen, they can easily be moved and pivoted to make the text readable to the human eye (or just to play with the poem’s positioning); likewise, the poem can be disappeared with quick and simple movements of the hand that cause the words and letters to burst across the screen. In Between Page and Screen, the body is always a present and key component of the poem, a crucial reminder for these mediums that tend to keep bodies at a distance.

From Kate Siklosi’s “Study in Fragility.” Image courtesy of Kate Siklosi and Poem Brut.

Three Letraset poems, from a series entitled “a Study in Fragility” by Kate Siklosi (recently published in 3:AM Magazine), eschew the digital to invoke a different type of hapticity. These poems are not printed on smooth surfaces, but on the coarser surfaces of organic materials: shells, branches, and oak leaves. The process of dry-transfer lettering requires quick repetitive movements of the poet’s hand across the letter sheet to deposit each individual letter onto the receptive surface. This process foregrounds hapticity in the friction needed for composition. Furthermore, if you are to hold these poems, they cannot be held like the poems we find in books. Your eyes do not move across a smooth surface, but rather twist and turn along the objects themselves. You may need to rotate or pivot the poem-objects in your hand as you follow the trajectory of Siklosi’s wordplay. The third image of Siklosi’s series on 3:AM, for example, depicts language printed across three leaves to be read either as three individual poems or one poem across three leaves. These poems could so easily tear or disintegrate without extreme care. A careful reader touches and handles these texts with respect for the delicate nature of each poem — perhaps cupped gently in the hand or lightly pinched between the thumb and index finger, feeling the limited pliability of dry plants. The feel of this poem’s material is as much part of the poem’s content as its language. The language itself draws attention to this haptic aspect; the topmost leaf in the photograph can be read in at least two ways: “thin dreams of ending” or “the dream of ing / in send.”[11] In the first configuration, the line invokes the finitude that undergirds the series: the thinness of existence, a nod to toward any body’s temporality. However, the suffix “ing” in the second configuration is sonic, invoking the familiar sound of digital devices as a message is sent and received, transmitted across vast distances through a network that most of us can only dream of. Siklosi’s “a Study in Fragility” turns away from this network, and instead privileges the immediate, tactile, and material in her poems of careful handling.

Nichol’s, Borsuk’s, and Siklosi’s works offer three possible manifestations of haptically focused poetries. The poetics of hapticity, however, is an expansive mode that most broadly engages the physicality of text and the physicality of producing and consuming it. The haptic mode presents an entanglement of body, language, and object. It is a specific type of poetics of encounter. The possibilities for such encounters are infinite, and could emerge as performance, game, installation, puzzle, object, and more — modes which formally exist at the outermost layer of what is commonly recognized as literature. The haptic poem is rich with formal possibilities, but it is also a poetic mode that invites bodies across borders and into the folds of feeling. 

1. Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge, 2000), 45.

2. Ahmed, Strange Encounters, 45.

3. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 28.

4. Ahmed, Cultural Politics, 28.

5. Brian Massumi, Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Sensation, Affect (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 2.

6. Massumi, 58.

7. It is important to pause and consider issues of ableism and abilities as these issues relate to the poetics I am situating here. Some works of haptic poetry, for example, assume mobility on the part of the audience and give little consideration to persons who have specific mobility needs. I acknowledge my position as an able-bodied person. I have approached the notion of a haptic poetic with issues of ableism in mind. I have thus tried to maintain an expansive definition of the haptic poem that also considers a range of other bodily experiences that includes movement and proprioception as important ways of engaging these works with hope that this discourse can be as inclusive as possible.

8. bpNichol, Journeying & the Returns (Toronto, ON: Coach House, 1967), np.

9. Ahmed, Strange Encounters, 45.

10. Amaranth Borsuk, Between Page and Screen (Denver, CO: SpringGun, 2016).

11. Kate Siklosi, “A Study in Fragility,” Poem Brut / 3:AM Magazine, December 13, 2017.