Commentaries - August 2013
The bookworks of Ragnhildur Jóhanns
READING AS TOUCH
Icelandic artist Ragnhildur Jóhanns’ work exists in the liminal space between book and art, between reading and looking, but perhaps, most significantly, because much of her work is so tactile, between looking and touching.
But doesn’t the experience of reading books always involve touching? We touch with our eyes. We look with our fingers. Books are also anthologies of touch. Their bindings, pages, paper, print. Holding a book. Turning its pages. We feel the paper – its texture and thickness. As my niece once exclaimed, “Wow! Its pages are paper thin.”
When we engage with written language, we feel each curve or angle of letter. Some books are the size of a sparrow, some are eagle-sized.
READING AS AMBIENCE
In Jóhanns’ work, we examine text, reading the words, but also looking at them and not searching for each individual meaning or the relationships between them necessarily, but as a collection of words. A collection of tones and modalities of language.
The little strips of paper drawing the voices out of the book—the crowd of words speaking. And like listening to a crowd—are they saying ‘watermelon, watermelon’ or reciting their own Ur Sonatas—we listen to the overall profile rather than the individual words. We don't listen to each cicada, but rather the swarm.
Meaning is ambient. Perhaps reading is ambient, also. We often read without really noticing. Words surround us, like leaves surround squirrels as they go about their daily leaps. (I think of a conversation I had with derek beaulieu about his notion of ‘ambient poetics,’ though I’m not sure if this is what he means.)
COPY/ PASTING THE PHYSICAL WORLD
Jóhanns’ bookworks often feature little strips of paper sprouting from the book, the words, like plants growing through cracks in the sidewalk, escaping, seeking the outside. Instead of “Copy/pasting” the digital representation of the words, the actual physical contents of the book were moved. We feel the tactility of the book. Its objectness.
What is the sum of a book, what is its content? Its paper, its lines, its words on paper and lines? Our usual notion of a book is that it is one imaginary long paper segmented then bundled into the separate sheets of the codex.
In Jóhanns’ work, the words on distant pages can speak to each other across pages like residents in an apartment building on their balconies looking up, looking down, passing grammar between them.
Jean Cocteau says, “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order. And what if that ‘out of order’ masterpiece were itself out of order? And what about the dictionary or the book considered as a form in itself, as a ‘masterpiece’ of its own? What happens if you take apart the book itself? When we read a book, we read so much beyond the words. So much beyond the grammar that the author presents.
WAITING FOR THE ELVES
I’m particularly intrigued by the presentation of these bookworks.
Framed photographs of images of books.
Photographs of treated books themselves pictured on a page within a book.
Shelves of books.
And in the image at the top of this post (Book II – Vulcano), the moody grey texture of the photography. A romantic image of a treated book. The gloaming light of reading. We don’t need Heathcliff glowering over the moor. We have this dictionary of English to Icelandic.
Northern. Fur. Petal. Piety. Harum-scarum. Through his sleeve. Glove. Pour.
æ ligatures and eths.
Does that say “waiting for the elves?”
And we can look things up on the internet:
Sterkur. Strong, as in strong coffee or alcohol. And this: “Sterka. You have strong arms, girl.”
GB: How do you imagine someone 'reading' your work? How would they engage with the text as text, or the relationship between the printed word and the book object? These texts are not collaged, but instead their usual relation to the page and to the book has been changed. They still are connected to their source: the book and page. And the texts have different kinds of belonging. To the source book, to the language, to the tradition of books. To the narratives or poems that they create together with the other fragments of texts.
RJ: I always like the fact that there is no narrative in these texts and it challenges the reader to find a different way to read. One of my most favorite parts about people reading my work is the fact that every reader reads a different story because they grasp a sentence here and there and make up a new feeling for the text.
GB: These texts and the little blades of paper that they are printed on seem to me like they have grown from the books. Or that they are escaping. Or are they are somehow the books' (or the text’s or story's) auras, its energy. They bring out the sensory nature of the book as object. There is movement, rhythm, and tactility. They recontextualize words and printed material. The books become sculptures. They become three dimensional objects-in-the-world as opposed to books that can only be open or closed. And these altered books don't appear on shelves, but in galleries. (Unless, like in Semsé, the books appear in another book.)
How do think of these works in relationship with the traditional book and with the readers’ traditional engagement with reading a book?
RJ: I love the object book, it´s such a beautiful thing and since I was very young, I have read a lot so it has had a huge impact on me. I liked the idea of turning the books in a different way and making the text sort of like growing out of them because that is sort of what normal books can do for us who read. It´s also a way for me to make up a new poem and to transform old objects that are not wanted any more into something completely different. It might something like a homage to the book.
GB: How do the texture and design of the original book relate to the chosen text and to the 'readers' experience of your work? You seem to choose a particular kind of book—older books of a certain size. What are your thoughts about such books and the reader/viewer's experience with your work?
RJ: I started out with working with books that the owners didn´t want to have any more, so they were being thrown away, unwanted. At first I wasn´t thinking about the size that much but they do come in different standard sizes so they can easily be matched together.
What I was aiming for is to make a romantic poem out of the books and what interested me in this is the fact that you can pull out certain sentences and when you take them out of context you can make a new context and that means that whatever kind of a book you have this is still possible, even if the book is a children’s book, autobiography or a novel of whatever kind—they don´t have to be romantic novels for this to be possible. So what I try to create is this feeling of a romantic/erotic poem with carefully chosen words and sentences and form my experience [so] the reader gets this feeling.
More about Ragnhildur Jóhanns and images of her work can be found at her website.
[In advance of publication September 2013 by Black Widow Press, co-edited by Heriberto Yépez & Jerome Rothenberg]
A Re-Vision of Jerome Rothenberg’s Poetry and Poetics
Jerome Rothenberg’s poetic work began in the late fifties. It was after his stay in Europe that his writing took the form of what would become a life-long program. His first published book, New Young German Poets (1959), already showed his characteristic interest in translation, poetics, avant-garde writing, and their relation to the human condition as a deeper presence restructuring the poem. Although his work can be associated with that of his early group—David Antin and Armand Schwerner, among others—Rothenberg’s work is unique. He shares techniques, contexts and a literary/cultural field with others, but his ends are sui generis.
In this first period of his work, Rothenberg saw image and emotion (however suspect) as primordial dynamic—and daimonic—forces giving life to the poem and as powers capable of introducing and re-producing a non-visible dimension. The interaction of this visionary aspect of his poetry and his commitment to experimental writing, which came from his international outlook and from aspects of the North-American avant-garde, is the force that gives shape to his poetry as a whole.
Rothenberg’s poetics of vision follows the Romantic tradition. Blake was a strong influence from the start. But if we want to understand the newness of Rothenberg’s position we need to take into account that—in contrast with many other American poets of the post-war period—he developed his literary work in wide-ranging communication with other traditions. He took Charles Olson’s interests in ancient cultures in a new direction and energetically researched and translated from other languages and texts. Rothenberg was one of first innovative North-American poets to develop in the context of a contemporary multi-national poetry community across the Americas and Europe. He is both American at core and as post-American as possible in practice.
Rothenberg was not the only one interested in Lorca or Neruda, for example, or in early avant-garde and post-war European poetics—though this spectrum was not at all typical in the U.S.—but his approach was very different from previous ones. Where Olson, say, was only interested in ancient Mayas, just one decade later Rothenberg, like Paul Blackburn and Margaret Randall among others, entered into an active relationship with a number of contemporary Latin American writers. And most importantly he decided to construct his own work strongly bolstered by a growing network of transnational contacts. This participation was not simply a matter of a pioneering effort to reach out and establish bridges between writers from different national literatures and languages but was also an element that triggered and permanently altered his literary practice.
This international context may well be one of the factors involved in the somewhat marginal position he was given in the “New American Poetry” that was then emerging. Rothenberg was not just one more important “American” poet appearing to readers in the sixties. He was a pioneer Pan-American writer, with a profile different then from those of the Beats and other counterpoetics movements and still separate today from those of the mainstream poetry and post-language-poetry scenes.
But again, this emergent global aspect did not appear by itself but in tandem with Rothenberg’s belief—explicit at the beginning of his career and implicit later in an almost semi-secretive way— in an underground reality for which poetry is a door or window. And this is where his “deep image” poetics takes on full meaning, as is best seen in the small but very significant collection of poetics, translations and collaborations in his Poems from the Floating World (1959-1963), both a mini-magazine and a cross-cultural anthology, that was, in Foucault’s term, a heterotopia.
Although it may not be obvious, Rothenberg’s first poetry collection White Sun Black Sun (1960) was born out of this same interaction between an older visionary paradigm and a new post-Western and radically innovative approach to writing. White Sun Black Sun’s title, for me at least, reflects the encounter of Western (“white”) critical poetics and other cultures and dimensions (“black”). This combination of a powerful and conscious technical interest and an underworld vision quest, results in a verbal structure increasingly ruled by parataxis, collage, disjunction, assemblage, juxtaposition, enantiodromia, but also an enterprise based on egalitarianism, collective creation, and an ongoing search for new centers.
With the expansion of the experimental, international and historical aspects of his poetics, some of the early Romantic elements lost their centrality. Emotion gave way to a full exchange between vision and experiment, in which the logic of entangled sightings (entries into the other world through poetic percepts) and “deep image” as such disappeared from Rothenberg’s main vocabulary, making his poetics go from a search for a mystic source out-of-and-into darkness to a decentered poem and (perhaps more importantly) a decentered subject. Rothenberg suppressed his original visionary “I” only to engage in a range of experiments with multiple “I’s” and eyes.
One can see the gradual change from a Romantic American Deep Image to a post-Romantic plural vision in the transition from Between 1960-1963 to The Gorky Poems (an edition which by the way involved binational and bilingual work). Although Rothenberg himself seemed to have completely abandoned “deep image” and even came to see his work there in a self-critical way, there is certainly a continuity between the understanding of this earlier period and the new period in the making.
A new dimension in Rothenberg’s work began in the second half of the sixties. The key concept now was ethnopoetics—a continuation, among other things, of Olson’s travels into Mexico, of Pound’s explorations in global collage, of his own readings of anthropological sources, and with that too he brought a logical conclusion to the project of European avantgardists like Tristan Tzara (and the European avant-garde in general), to bring to light a heterogeneous range of poetries from other geographies and with an opening as well to other, often occluded levels of consciousness. In Rothenberg’s case, there was also a systematic impulse to build a new image of poetry worldwide and to subvert Western poetic understandings using materials from other strains and cultures.
One can easily bypass the heart of Rothenberg’s poetics—especially once ethnopoetics appears and attracts attention—not only because Rothenberg does not openly insist on the metaphysical nature of his poetics (he is in fact skeptical about it) but also because so much contemporary experimentalism (at least in its post-sixties phase) has a strong connection to positivistic, post-modernist and anti-metaphysical tendencies (from analytical philosophy to deconstruction), according to which language is a cultural surface or network, with a consequent lack of any real sense of depth. As time passed, Rothenberg’s work came to be understood in the context, for example, of Language Poetry, most of whose poets (but not all) define their poetics in opposition to any metaphysical or religious claims. But Rothenberg’s poetics does contain metaphysical premises: ethnopoetics is not only a poetics of multiculturalism and a post-colonial mapping but also a search for a primal poetics, an investigation into the relation of the non-conscious mind and its cultural forms of expression.
Rothenberg has been very careful in establishing parallelisms between shamanism and contemporary poetry and art. He doesn’t want to draw premature conclusions, but putting the relation of shaman and poet into discussion was a frontal part of his ethnopoetics project—though he later preferred the trickster figure as a closer model for comparison, probably because of the more ambivalent and absurdist nature of the trickster’s cultural function. His assemblage Technicians of the Sacred (1968) opened our historical consciousness to the range of poetries across the globe and shattered for some of us the basic Eurocentric beliefs that still dominate the literary domain, “a concerted assault,” as Charles Bernstein described it, “on the primacy of Western high culture and an active attempt to find in other, nonwestern/nonoriental cultures, what seemed missing from our own.” And yet it was at the same time a more than 500-page-long manifesto on the skills and epistemic possibilities of ritual/performance and of oral and visual image-making, wherever found.
His famous appropriation of Eliade’s phrase “technicians of the sacred” takes on a new meaning when viewed in the light of Rothenberg’s Janusian writing. As another example of Rothenberg’s contradictory pairings, “technicians” here means experimentalists concerned with cultural invention and transmission, while “sacred” refers to whatever may be taken as the hidden domain. Technicians of the sacred then means experimentalists of the invisible. But the “total translation” that Rothenberg’s poetry frequently asks for also instructs us not to subordinate either of the elements of the implied dichotomy, not to kill the paradox. Technicians of the sacred, experimentalists of the invisible, are those agents occupied with renovating form and at the same time investigating the bottomless. (Please note that this is the same conceptual and secret play of opposites active in other key Rothenberg titles, like his 1960-1970 anthology Poems for the Game of Silence, where “game” refers to the reordering of the poem’s formal-cultural aspects while “silence” may refer to a kind of crypto-mysticism.)
Ethnopoetics thus seen is at least triadic: experimentalist in literature, multicultural in politics and esoteric in religion. To read his poetry fully, we need to understand that the changes his work has gone through do not follow a linear order in which prior discoveries or principles get pushed aside for newer ones. Rothenberg’s work is braid-like.
Poland/1931 (published in 1974, but in preparation since the late sixties) is an experiment in an altered ethnopoetics, a turn from the early primitive, archaic and indigenous explorations (first in Technicians and then in Shaking the Pumpkin) to a playful investigation of his own immigrant and Jewish imaginaries. At this point in his work, Rothenberg is using different voices to recall fragmentary memories that re/dis/cover image and sound legacies coming from disparate (and desperate) archival and phantasmagoric sources.
His ethnopoetic assemblage projects continued in the seventies with magazines like Alcheringa and New Wilderness Letter and the anthologies America A Prophecy and A Big Jewish Book. At this point in his career, Rothenberg was centrally linked with “ethnopoetics” though I think few thoroughly understood that ethnopoetics as a form of poesis is a collage including cryptohistory — a call for the simultaneous renewal of cultural forms and a reconfiguration of consciousness, a matter of making new cultural and spiritual constellations available.
And it is at this level that ethnopoetics — as the creative research on how culture produces poiesis — involves an ethopoetics — how poiesis in turn produces communities and subjectivities (ethos). Each of Rothenberg’s successive books of poetry can then be read as an increment in voices and memories, a present that never stops uncovering new pasts. From A Seneca Journal (1978) to That Dada Strain (1983), Rothenberg saw a new transition coming (and again marked it with a retrospective gathering of his work, New Selected Poems ). It is at this ethopoetic level, that Rothenberg’s can be read not as a project mainly occupied with exterior entities — other traditions, composition techniques, etcetera — but as that of a poet undergoing a process of metamorphosis through different phases. The movement from Deep Image to Ethnopoetics was part of an ethopoetic desire to construct a post-Romantic — but still visionary — poetry.
During the ethnopoetic stage, Rothenberg made adjustments — which again let us see more clearly the ethopoetical aspect of his becoming — going from an ethnopoetics centered on the other(s) to an ethnopoetics centered in his own Jewish-Western imaginary. Accordingly the new 1985 edition of Technicians of the Sacred included European materials, and in the nineties Rothenberg’s translation work would concentrate on avant-garde figures like Lorca, Schwitters, Nezval, and Picasso, and his new big project in the 1990s would be a global reordering of modern and post-modern poetries in the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium (with Pierre Joris).
But none of this can be fully understood only at the level of books and texts. Performance is a crucial part of Rothenberg’s poiesis. As in other cultural contexts, in his work as a poet the strengthening of performance can be seen as a sign of the birth of new forms. Performance is not “form” — a closed or at least recognizable form — but an unsettled form-process, a form-in-becoming or even a form-that-will-not-accomplish-itself—a kind of ephemeral or liminal transition between one form and another in which culture goes through a crisis to transform and make sense and non-sense during the struggle, an interplay of resistance and emergence.
This is why performance is so important in Rothenberg’s poetry, and one can see that many of his transformational peaks are located precisely around those series of poems that most clearly involve performance: the Navajo and Seneca “total translations” (chants), for example, and the poems dedicated to the older Dada poets. These high performance works from the 1970s and 1980s announce a change in Rothenberg’s poetic subjects and his (conscious and unconscious) writing methodologies. If performance is how we go from one form to another, without the need or help of rational means — and with body as a catalyst — it is not the individual poet who performs but who himself becomes the subject of performance.
Performance occurs when the body enters into a strong field of non-standard language. The eye of performance is the eye of the hurricane: the central ego disappears and is replaced by the void produced by the intense movements of energetic language around it. Performance is also used by Rothenberg to make texts come into living material conditions — a fulfillment of the verbo-voco-visual-soma. With Rothenberg, performance gives full life to poems through the revival of voices coming, he seems to tell us, from the elsewhere — as the performer’s body and identify are altered by the very action of performance.
In a related sense Rothenberg’s use of the word “Pre-Face” is yet another turn of phrase that signals ethopoetical transformations. The word itself became idiosyncratic in Rothenberg’s work starting with the now classic pre-face to Technicians of the Sacred (which also included a post-face). Pre-Face here implies a change of identity, and it is no accident that Rothenberg’s prose frequently takes the form of prefaces or postfaces. His poetry collections use them further as a kind of explanation or commentary on the circumstances, procedures, intentions and ideas behind the writing. The presence of these pre/post-faces is an unequivocal key to understanding the whole of Rothenberg’s work, poems and poetics alike, as a series of experiments in trans-forming the poetic subject and per-forming the language inside of which the poet becomes an-other.
Through these pre-faces — as in his other essays and even in his commentaries—Rothenberg became one of the most persistent practitioners of “poetics” as a literary, even a poetic genre of its own. Probably no other North-American post-war poetic movement — with the clear exception of various feminist tendencies — had the potential to become a field of study in its own right as did ethnopoetics. Ethnopoetics as a proto-social-science opened a hybrid discourse that freely merged poetry and anthropology, and in a more subterranean way implied something like a psychohistory, that is, a discourse on the manifestation of forms and contents belonging to the dead in the embodied consciousness of the living individual, a pairing that was best captured in the poems and title of Poland/1931 — where “Poland” can be read as a sign of past, of the dead and others, and “1931” (Rothenberg’s birth year) as a sign of the personal: a collaboration between a ghostly otherness and a private body by means of an unconventional language that blends the communication between the two sides of the equation. Vision and perception mediated by a gatekeeper who refuses to simply translate.
The dead are the portal into our own identities, the undercurrent of memory, of the past flashing into our current imagination, self, and senses. We lack the proper skills to understand the activity, “the presence of the dead,” as Rothenberg once put it, in our daily lives. The individual is not a single entity, but an indivisible congeries of others. In the search to better understand this, some form of art and poetry may serve us as a kind of speculative speech, a playful and uncanny set of representations on the impossibility of a language exclusively created by a single entity. Rothenberg’s persona (that is, the mask through which all speech emerges) grew in voices, sources, archives, traditions, techniques, forms, audiences, both on the page and in performance. Then, after That Dada Strain, his poetry took yet another turn.
Rothenberg’s first poetry period had occupied itself with the descent into darkness, a vision that he kept exploring: the abyss, wilderness, hells, flower-worlds, paradises, mystical dimensions, and all sorts of underworld characters and scenes, using a complex collection of avant-garde and post-romantic methodologies to call them out. His journeys into new regions have continued from the eighties into the present century through his masterful explorations of new times and places: from the death camps of Khurbn (1989) to the openings and furtive glimpses of Gematria Complete (2009); from his scattered poems derived from travels into old geographies and cultures to the surge of fresh translations in A Paradise of Poets (1999) and the darkened worlds and rooms embedded in Concealments and Caprichos (2010). These multiple landscapes are “cruel nirvanas,” imaginal space-times of suffering. As such they call us to become many, an other or a series of others, of voices coming from all roles, levels and directions.
If after Deep Image came Ethnopoetics — with the former not so much going away as merging in the helix of his total project — after this Deep Ethnopoetics came a poetics of witness. Where “testimony” as an act of witness was present almost from the beginning, the figure of the witness as such has only slowly emerged as a new conceptual center in Rothenberg’s work: a plural-I that describes the world at the same time that it intervenes in it. The witness here is as much an ethnographer and historian as a survivor and magician; he still belongs to the oneiric dreamworld but is plagued by the human capacity for cruelty. The witness wants to portray the world in words that include the activity of the occult and occulted in the “real” world. He uses the “barbaric” precisely to write “poetry after Auschwitz.” He does not peacefully contemplate the world or merely name it — the many voices that the witness includes are often mean, obscure, cruel. Witness is wizard and warrior, executioner and victim, trickster and tyrant. And is always paying the price of pain. He is from elsewhere but belongs to this world. He participates in History. He is Many. He likes to incorporate the mouths, the voices and the words of others (not only in his poems but also in the form of otherings, variations, transcreations and appropriations, even of words from his own poetic past). And he is almost always speaking “on borrowed time.”
Poet-as-witness is post-shamanic. It is no accident that this figure-function gains importance after That Dada Strain, whose last poem (in the book of that title) is dedicated to the rise and fall of María Sabina, the Mazatec shamaness, a kind of rite of passage to separate from the shamanic dream she symbolized. Rothenberg knows that late poets cannot be shamans. (There’s no visible tribe, pure Myth does not exist in a world after Hollywood, nor can the shaman holistically heal because he or she is historically wounded.) But Rothenberg refuses to accept that a poet is just a plain writer and that language is merely cultural. The I and spirit that a certain post-modernism dismissed reappears in the mud. Psyche is undeniable. Language is vertiginous. Poetry is soul-re-making — if only by chance.
Poet-as-witness is still in the making, and it may well be Rothenberg’s main contribution to poetics, though a more subtle one than ethnopoetics as an open field and Deep Ethnopoetics as a project still to be understood in its complete scope. Probably we will have to become “post-post-modern” (G. Oppen) to understand the importance of Rothenberg’s version of the “witness”, a mode in which poetry is neither neo-shamanism nor pure artifice, neither Romantic nor Post-Romantic. The witness, besides, throws light on the previous stages of Rothenberg’s poetic past, showing the nature of his own experiments with North-American experimentalism, an experimentalism in which discontinuity is not just an aesthetic technique but also a way to call up the presence of death, and parataxis a way to aesthetically render the superimposition of this and the other world.
Rothenberg’s witness is the marker of a new kind of poet — its pre-face —in which two apparently opposite drives coexist: an acknowledgement of poetry as a perpetual and radical change of form — and thus the willingness to not retain any-thing — and a desire to construct a total poetics, or — to use a recent word of Rothenberg’s — an omnipoetics: to say in every form possible what cannot possibly be said.
In a recent review of new collections by Corey Wakeling, Pam Brown and Lisa Gorton, Peter Kenneally identifies ‘a Justin Clemens appearance’ in Wakeling’s "Walk the Plank!". Pondering the inclusion, he writes:
Justin Clemens, in case you are wondering, is an academic, secretary of the Lacan Circle of Melbourne, and recently has published a book titled Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy. Now that’s what I call an allusion.
Clemens is also a poet, and name-dropping has been ‘a thing’ in poetry ever since – and no doubt long before – Aurelius and Furius first dissed Catullus. Conversely, we’re all familiar with Pound’s advice to Eliot to replace the citation from the work of one of his contemporaries with a less-threatening classical reference. Elsewhere, poets work their poems so that they ‘tolerate a state of namelessness’, in the sense meant by Derrida. In “Unreading Kinsella: Dropping names and Revolutions of the Word in Syzygy,” Michael Brennan views the language of Kinsella’s text, with its resistance to simulation through the use of ‘enjambment, echolalia, coinings, parenthesizing and cacology’ (169), as that which unsettles, unnerves, even ‘unreads’ the reader (174). Many other Australian poets – Ken Bolton, Pam Brown, Duncan Hose, Ann Vickery, John Forbes, Laurie Duggan and dozens more – name-drop with a frenzied decisiveness. One of my favourite name-dropping poems is “Adventure at Sadies” by Ann Vickery for the way it hyperventilates the name:
Oscar remonstrates with Shklovsky and finds a
substitute in Ken Brown: what a gambler!
And as we drive back south, we become
part of the Great Tradition. Thanks Mum, thanks Dad,
thanks Pam, Ken, Laurie, and the whole damn gang—
Rae, Denis, Tom, Barbara, Micky, Kelen, Alan, Erica,
Kate, Leigh, Sal, and Kurt. (Ella, make a note!)
All of this would seem to indicate that in certain transient forms poetic communities can and do appear. When Justin Clemens appeared ‘near the Pelham Street renaissance’ recently, I persuaded him to share his thoughts on Australian poetry communities and the imminent release of his mock-epic, The Mundiad:
In a recent blog post for Australia’s longest-running literary journal (“Community: networks, nepotism and exclusion”), Ali Alizadeh wrote that ‘my experiences of our cherished ‘poetry communities’ ... suggest that the term is more often than not a warm and fuzzy euphemism for the signified of self-serving scenes, gangs and cliques which – in addition to being nauseatingly nepotistic, incestuous and partisan […] operate on the basis of what philosopher Jacques Rancière has described as “the problematic remainder that [the community] terms ‘the excluded’” (115-6).’ How does this accord with your understanding of the various Australian poetic communities you encounter? Could they operate in any other way? Is exclusion always a bad thing?
Well I basically agree with Ali’s description, which is constitutionally the case for community groups of all kinds. As such, we’re all in accord with Elias Canetti’s description of such groups as ‘the increase pack.’ I make a helpful guzzling sound here, like so: gugglegugglegugglegugglegargh. But actually, perhaps the biggest problem today is inclusion, not exclusion. Once you’re included today, you’re susceptible to a permanent escalating carrotization – in the sense of the ass-carrot-stick machinery – which is gonna rot your carotids, aesthetic or whatever, in a festival of total corruption. As for exclusion, I would therefore like to see more of it, extended everywhere to everybody: to date, I’m not convinced that anybody anywhere has actually ever committed themselves to enforcing a genuinely universal exclusion from all and any community whatsoever. Perhaps we all now need to get together to organise the universal exclusion of everybody? But this is where a variant of Russell’s paradox might cause us further problems. Take the community that excludes every community. Does it exclude itself or not? If it does, then it doesn’t; if it doesn’t then it does. Logical inconsistencies regarding the possibility of the exclusion of exclusion aside, it’s also true that there are many different kinds of community, which, if they do always entail the exclusion of others, don’t always simply do so on contemptibly low-grade forms of paranoid-schizoid splitting.
When I think of the various poetic communities that I know of and the ways in which they seem to convene and disperse along a series of circuitous trade routes, I think of the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, and his remarks on theatre – ‘There are moments of great melancholia when the fraternity involved in performing and staging breaks up.’ He likens this to the ongoing issue of separation in love in that ‘The community of love is also precarious, and you also need much more than a telephone number to sustain and develop it.’ Given that Badiou thinks that ‘every philosopher is an actor’, do you think it's possible also to say that ‘every poet is an actor’ and that a particular flaring up of poetic activity can be thought of as communal in the theatrical sense that Badiou is talking about?
This example from Badiou is particularly interesting in this context. Why? Because it gives a model of community that is based on an initial positive encounter, a structuring of the group in accordance with the necessity to live up to the challenges of that encounter – whose implications go beyond every individual concerned and by whose principles each seeks to change themselves and work together in a new organisation – with every participant knowing from the very beginning that an inevitable distressing dissolution is built into their practice in advance! So, the group of actors/director/technicians/assistants, etc., all meet; they discuss the text/performance in different ways; they rehearse together relentlessly, producing something new in that very rehearsal; which they then present publicly and repeat for the duration of the season (which may be very restricted in all sorts of ways, but no matter); they then depart on their separate ways. What’s crucial here is that the ‘meaning’ of what they did is unfixed; yet, even if the performance itself vanishes absolutely in a searing melancholy kind of way, on the basis of its having-happened (Badiou’s ‘great melancholia’) there are always now new possibilities for departure, encounter, transformation that have been opened up, new futures for all ... It is here that one might also add that a community is possible on the basis of the problematic excluded remainders of others.
You were invited to read your poems at this year’s Queensland Poetry Festival and for a number of years you’ve been one of the judges of the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize run by the festival and Arts Queensland. These and other poetic appointments would seem to figure you as oriented towards the mainstream in the world of Australian poetry and yet, to me, your poetic works operate as a number of differently positioned rheotaxic organisms in relation to just about any poetic stream I can think of – Ten Thousand Fcuking Monkeys, The Mundiad, Villain, Me ‘n’ me Trumpet, a series of mathematically generated works, and now a ‘massively expanded’ six-volume return to The Mundiad. What is going on?
The problem here is that I actually do still maintain some respect for all kinds of poetry, even the really lamentable conservative kinds; as long as I can really see that they’re working at it, I love it. That’s not so problematic in itself. What’s problematic is that, when I write, I end up twisting so spinelessly in the wind, my poetry may as well be by no-one. I may also have been over-influenced by Marcel Duchamp, who said: ‘I force myself into contradiction in order to avoid following my own taste.’
Why have you returned to The Mundiad? And what drew you to the mock-epic in the first place?
Recently I came home with my daughter from kinder. As we approached the front door, my daughter said: ‘That’s a funny smell.’ And it was. My daughter described it as ‘cooking meat but not really.’ Upon entering the house, we discovered my partner scrubbing the walls. ‘Whassup?’ we asked her. Apparently the cat had had explosive diarrhoea on the rug, and the splash-back had ricocheted up the wall to above head height. Later we let the accursed animal back in to the house, and it returned immediately, unchastened, to the spot at which it had previously unleashed its demonic bowels. I feel a bit like that about my poetry: returning convulsively to the scene of the crime, but without really knowing what it is I’m doing there or why I feel so unwell.
Narrative in the visual poetry of Satu Kaikkonen
Satu Kaikkonen is a prolific and protean poet from Finland. She writes that “I'm a storymaker and this is seen in the narrative aspects of my vispos. Each series is like [one] continuing poem and the individual vispos are its verses.”
In this commentary, I’d like to focus on two ‘verses’ from her Grey and Yellow Series: “Sisters” and “A Grandmother.”
The images are two vignettes or mises-en-scène. Chekovian tableaux in abstract space. A subdued grey background. A chair or two. One chair remains in the identical place. One is added or removed. Each image represents the same abstracted room-space. A poem–or verse of a poem–is a scene. A stage.
Each of these poems represents a sense of interpersonal relations as well as aspects of recalled personality. Bright yolk-yellow glyphs occur as elements within the scene but also serve as relational or framing devices. The images convey a pervasive mood or emotion. The sense of potential interaction: past or future. The images are both the schematics for dramatic scenes and hieroglyphic representations. Monochromatic glyphs and the photographic representation of simple objects on the same plain plane.
"Sisters" (above): Is this the portrait of two sisters, two sisters gathered together by parentheses as if in a locket, or in a single round room, each sister represented by the dot–each egg-like period sitting on a chair as if in conversation. Do these two dots belong to a set of three ellipses? Are the dots the actual sisters or do they stand in for the missing people? Is the notion of sisters metaphorical or is literal sisterhood being represented? The two ‘sisters’ are gathered together by the embrace of the parenthesis. They form part of a set. They fall within, are intimate or held together, bounded. Sisters within the same parenthetical womb.
And the comma? Is it an apostrophe: a possessive: “I’m”? Or does it represent a contraction, something missing or unsaid, unspoken: “Can’t”? Are the two items part of a list, two clauses? Whatever is happening, it’s relational. The two ‘sisters’ contextualize it. It is understood, unsaid, missing, elided, actively connective.
What is happening here? What story or interpersonal song is unfolding between the sisters? Is this before or after the important events? What happened/will happen/is happening?
And now, like playing a Tarot card in Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, we move to the next scenario, the next stanza. It is not specified which image is next. Any card may be played.
"A Grandmother": There is only one chair. Is this the eponymous grandmother? The chair is empty. Perhaps she is gone. This was her chair when she was alive. A bare lightbulb hangs balefully, not providing any light. It is surrounded by an O. An antique window? An old fashioned oval portrait of the Grandmother? A locket? A reminder of the past, of memory, of ancestors? Indeed, the entire scene appears within quotations. (Plain and homely quotation marks not ‘curly quotes’; exclamation marks without the exclamations.) Is the scene a quotation? A memory of the Grandmother, or something the Grandmother said? Does the Grandmother quote old sayings? Are the sisters reminded of this? Is the Grandmother one of the sisters and she thinks of the other sister(s)?” There is something lonely about this poem, the plaintive arrangement of visual elements: the grey, the barelight bulb, the empty chair. The matter-of-fact quotation marks–compare it to the zaftig apostrophe which hangs between the sisters.). Is there regret here? There is no warm world-like, womb-like embrace of parenthesis and their nourishing crescents of golden-yellow.
Here are two frames from a graphic novel, two words from an abstract rebus. Two movements from a musical suite. We might understand something of the mood, of a kind of interaction, of the interplay of form but we are left to draw our own conclusions. The striking elements are presented to us, but, as Viriginia Woolf writes of Chekov, “We need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”
A conversation with Satu Kaikkonen
GB: You are a very prolific visual poet. You explore many different styles and techniques. One thing which is constant throughout most of your work is that you often create series which are variations on particular elements, for instance, glyphs, colours, techniques, or visual tropes.
SK: I usually do my vispos and asemics in series because I like to explore how the picture changes bit by bit, and how the meaning in it changes, but the main reason is that I'm a storymaker and this is seen in the narrative aspects of my vispos. Each series is like a continuing poem and the individual vispos are its verses.
I do two different kind of series: sometimes I use the same ”main background idea” (for example, the relationships between relatives like in the Grey and Yellow Series) and the vispos in the series are in same colors and they include some same elements, but every vispo is its own story. I make series that are from the same picture and I just change a little bit of something in it, so that the story continues.
GB: You use a mix of physical objects with texts. Sometimes fragments of paper, music scores, text (usually in Finnish) or photographs of objects.
SK: Although I usually work on the computer and my works are made mainly by the computer, I use music notes or concrete things like feathers, needles, shredded papers from the old books that I buy from the library's take-away shelf and all that kind of thing. And I often ”sew” or do ”crafty” things from the papers of the old books and then my husband and I photograph them and then I work with the photos and make the finished vispos with the computer. For example, "Paper Boats" ("paperiveneitä," see above) from the year 2009 is made like this.
GB: Colour is a significant aspect of your work. You create vivid images, often with an almost iconic use of colour, colours which seem very palpably present.
SK: I like to use strong basic colors at my works grey, yellow, black and red because they are visually arresting colors. I think that using only a few colors is better than using the entire palette.
GB: Many of your pieces have dedications and/or emotional content. And I don't know if you want to, or are comfortable to talk about this, but your articulation of grief, tragedy, and memory is profound. This in contrast to the delight, joy and sheer pleasure in invention and creation that is found in some other of your pieces.
SK: I'm a very intuitive and a sensitive person, and I think that you can see it from my vispos, because some of them which carry concrete memories of the events of my life. I think that my friendship with [poet and artist] Troylloyd and his disappearance has had a very large impact on me. And of course the death of my son. I'm just that kind of person–the memories and events just come to my vispos in a very intuitive way from my subconscious: I start to do something and then I notice that it became just something else other than what I first thought, because of that intuitive element of my mind.
GB: You often also explore single letters in your “letter poems,” and play with a certain repertoire of signs: large letters, a framework of polygons, icons such as pointing gloved hands, red yarn, punctuation.
SB: The letter vispoem are very important to me because through them I have tried to study those basic meaning that are hidden in the simple marks. If I change a little detail, the whole meaning changes and that's kind of fascinating thing. I think that I want to explore all different kinds of artistic and typographical terrain. I think that as a visual poet I'm a explorer of the language.
GB: I’d like to discuss reading your letter vispoem, "The Earth." To me, the parentheses form a planetary shape. The blue reminds us of the water of earth. The horizontal lines seem musical: the strings of a instrument or a musical staff, the blue dots like notes, or indications on a string instrument’s tablature. The ampersand? Currents of air or water, or representing the conjunction of life on earth. And the play of the curls of the ampersand with the blue dots and the straightness of the lines: a kind of visual analogue to rhythm. The whole thing seems like a music of the spheres with the entire image recalling a kind of zither/or ancient lyre. How do you see this?
SK: "The Earth" is a response to Stephen Nelson visual poem "Then & Now & Always." The parentheses are the Earth, they make the shape of our planet. And the things in it are we humans, and clean water and air (those most important elements which make our planet a place where we are able to live.) The blue color and the spots refer to that, and the ampersand represents the humans and the idea that we can not do things alone, we can only do things only together. That’s why the ampersand is in that position: we have failed, but not yet for ever. We have not finally failed, we will be able to make a change if we learn to do things right. The blue lines with the spots also make a musical staff with notes: the human voice, our existence, depends on how ”the nature makes its music,” how it breathes... something like that.
Satu Kaikkonen (23.8.1967) is a comprehensive school teacher, a poet and visual poet from Finland. Her works include traditional lyrics as well as visual & asemic poetry and sound poetry. She has taken part in exhibitions of visual poetry in the US, UK, Hungary, Russia and Finland, and her works have been featured in numerous poetry magazines, both Finnish and international. My works are also included in The Last Vispo Anthology 1998-2008. She has a vibrant and extensive online presence. Her visual poetry website is a good place to start.
Erin Moure spoke with Charles Bernstein in 2010 about reading, translation, and multi-lingual poetry — audio, 7 minutes long: MP3. Her long discussion with Bernstein, part of his Close Listening series, has recently been segmented. Moure also talks about her identity as a Canadian and living in Montreal, the importance of identity and nationality in reading a poem, on how sound as a texture operates in her work, among other topics.