Ian & me: A collaboration

Ian Tyson, “Three Friendly Warnings,” Realization from the Seneca Indian with Ri
Ian Tyson, “Three Friendly Warnings,” Realization from the Seneca Indian with Richard Johnny John & Jerome Rothenberg

I have tried an altenstil
& dropped it.

— J.R., A Book of Witness, 2003

“Ian Tyson reads us” — or so I wrote a number of years ago when the question first came up.  He is illustrator of the work not as subject or as mood per se but as structure.  The rest comes out of that, a play between the poet & the artist, where the poet’s words are taken, not for what they say at surface but for the directions they imply — the rules or inner structures that are there for him to read & follow, or evade.  I am a poet with some feel for content, for signification, that may sometimes act to hide the structure.  I began to come alive in poetry with a series of polemics arguing the primacy of image (“deep” or “surreal” or otherwise) as a concern to be explored anew in the awakening of the later 1950s.  That part, the image part, had no need for picture as a form of illustration.  And even later, when I used photos & other images to let the physical eye catch a glimpse of a mythical Poland disclosed through words, said photos were sparing & personal, my additions, often ironic, to a work that was proceeding as a whole by means of an already evident collage.

            I was working in the middle 1960s on a group of poems called Sightings — a form of poetry that challenged continuity & organic flow in favor of a rigid demarcation between the fragments or perceptions that composed the poem.  If my images remained “soft,” the structure was no longer flowing but sharply cut (by visual “bullets,” aural silences).  In that sense I was already approaching Tyson’s world, coming to a first meeting circa 1967 & a friendship & sometime collaboration down to the present.  The result for me was an immediate re-cognition of the structural side of my own work.

            The poems of mine to which he first turned his attention were those in Sightings.  As I conceived of them, they made up a single poem divided into nine numbered sections, & each section subdivided into smaller “fragments.”  His translation into abstract visual images bore a close but by no means slavish relation to the structure of the poems, less evidently to their content, tone, etc.  For this his first move was to generalize the numbers in the subsets — or as he later wrote about it:


Carefully considering the text I found that each section had an average of

nine lines so I devised a grid of 3 x 3 large squares subdivided into 12 x 12

alternating black to color. I used the grid to form the pulse or ground base

of the images & as a structure for the typography [the poems printed en

face]. The colored squares were thematic relating to each part of the text

but once having established it I improvised freely until I arrived at what I

felt to be a satisfactory counterpoint of typographically correct text & page.

From that reading — the best in any sense that my work had had up to that point -- & from a feeling for his work, which was then new for me, I made another poem, “Red Easy A Color,” that followed Gertrude Stein’s steps into a common meeting.   And this one he translated into a rich & glowing, almost monumental image that sealed up that book.

           I had begun by then a work in ethnopoetics that would bring me into the experimental translation of American Indian poetry, largely but not exclusively derived from song texts.  The first collaborative piece to emerge from that was a large pamphlet/broadsheet derived from an Aztec description (a lexical definition, in fact) of the ceremonial & private uses of flowers.  The verbal piece, which I in turn had mined from Bernardino de Sahagún’s sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, was a cataloguing of repetitive & parallel declarative sentences that rose at times to crescendo.  In the resultant piece, Offering Flowers, the words on the left are pulled toward the image on the right by cross-bars of a large “F” taken from the title, & the image itself (in orange, black & white), while it’s still composed on the grid, is allowed dramatic bursts, like clusters of squared-off flowers, pathways, stairs, in a manner reminiscent of pre-Columbian design or, as he writes of it, “rather like an embroidery pattern.”
            From the “more explicitly illustrated,” almost fluid flower image, he went in The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell to a group of much more austere, more minimal pieces.  The poems here were “total translations” of four of the seventeen Navajo songs, which I took as sound-poems & to which his images related in a more general way than before — an accompaniment rather than a mapping of the infrastructures.  The principal response to the structure (this time of the songs over-all) was in the choice of color (white & blue) suggested by the alternation of blue & white objects (turquoise, whiteshell [abalone], etc.) in the systematically paired horse songs themselves.  Tyson’s designs kept an American Indian feeling, akin to Navajo sand painting & even closer — as with the Aztec flowers — to native weavings.  And along with this there was also a sense in which the form of his images might be thought to represent, in line with the underlying mythological narrative,  “a ‘going through’ portals to the sky, to obtain and bring back the horses.” 
            A more extended & more collaborative work was Songs for the Society of the Mystic Animals, a series of poems derived from Seneca Indian ceremonial sources.  I had already translated these into “concrete poems,” transformed them in that instance since the originals were purely oral.  What I now sensed, along with Tyson, was the possibility of driving them still further, incorporating color & significant typography, plus (in line with Tyson’s vision) a greater adherence to the structure of the grid.  This would take us, I thought, toward the creation of a meditative visual field — as the tantrist yantra is the classic visualization of the chanted mantra.  At the heart of that linkage was the fact that the songs — qua mantra — contained not only words but vocables (“meaningless,” non-lexical sounds: highyohoweyehhey, etc.) to which the words related as with figure & ground.  Color & position could both reveal & conceal such distinctions, however we chose to handle them, & this became the basis of much of the collaboration between us.  His own words cover this far better — the care given to each work as an event, an action triggered by the field, the way the words are set before us:

The choice of color was determined subjectively where appropriate to the

elements described; e.g., earth, smoke, fire, water, etc., or objectively to

separate out the textual changes between the sensible & chant elements

& to punctuate any accents as they occurred. The shape of each song

was indicative of its subject matter [“but in a non-illustrative way,” he points

out earlier] so that in the Song about a Mole, or Was It a Dead Person? the

shape became long to support the idea of burrowing or traveling through

whereas in the songs about Acting Like a Crow I kept the format to an

approximate square to engender the notion of performing within a limited


            The Mystic Animals series was done by 1982, & since then we’ve engaged in a range of individual publications, something like half of which involve a process of composition based on a form of traditional Jewish numerology called
gematria.  While the texts for these works resemble my earlier Sightings, the process by which they’re composed is much cooler, more hard-edged than what I had allowed myself in the 1960s.  As a form of process-generated poetry, the gematria poems play off the fact that every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is also a number & that words or phrases the sums of whose letters are equal  are at some level meaningfully connected.  For myself — as for Tyson — these coincidences / synchronicities function not as hermeneutic substantiations for religious & ethical doctrines, but as an entry into the kinds of correspondences / constellations that have been central to modernist & postmodernist experiments over the last century and a half.
            Where Mystic Animals had brought us to a place in which the components of the visual image were themselves letters & words, the works thereafter were, as he describes them, “typographically [un]interpretable other than the choice of type face and the careful placing on the page, i.e. they are not translatable into visual poetry.”  What moves the work forward, then, is a mutual interest in numbers (“as opposed,” he points out, “to mathematics”) that can function for both of us as an opening for “specific compositional doors … less as systems than as philosophical speculations.”  In the most complex of these collaborations, Delight/Délices, five gematria-derived poems are set in units that include the English text, a translation into French by Nicole Peyrafitte, & a visual extension that places strikingly colored squares on a black ground, disposed according to their numerical position — determined by the gematria number — on an imagined grid.  In another collaboration, Six Gematria, my selection of poems assures that each will include reference to a primary or secondary color, & Tyson follows with a single image made up of 26 “lozenges” (for the 26 letters of the alphabet), which changes color as he moves from poem to poem.
            In other, still more recent work, the strategy varies from piece to piece, with a tendency for the visual image to attenuate by stages: a series of thin, variously dispersed lines in A Case for Memory, or an arrangement of colorless intaglio squares, embossed so lightly as to hint at their own disappearance, in The Times Are Never Right.  Here, if I read him rightly (& I think I do), he follows my own struggle with time, both personal & cosmic, & with the sense of “loss and desolation” that the struggle implies. “In making the visual corollary to these,” he tells me,  “I put forward my own image of time, gained and lost.  A very abstracted conception which I tied together in the general design.
            It is something of this kind that informs our most recent work together: In Memory of Paul Celan: Three Death Poems.  My own contribution to this was to pull together a series of words & phrases drawn from Celan’s poems or reminiscent of his texts or textures.  To meet these, Tyson turns to an image, he writes, that “comes from a gradually developing structure first encountered when I took another (very oblique) look at cubism and started to deconstruct the grids in [a series of his] drawings.”  Working for the first time with computer, he transferred the ideas onto QuarkXPress, “where I could cross reference the text and image on the screen.”  The result, as he saw it was “a gradual seeping away of the colour filigree — there and only just there — paraphrasing the Three Death Poems. …  Perhaps a metaphor for my state of mind although the possibilities it opens up for me are immense.”
            For me as well the openings are now extraordinary.  We may have entered — both of us — into an altenstil or a series of such as a place of reflection — not, I would stress, of rest — that neither of us could earlier have imagined.  Here all possibilities are equal & we can descant, like the ancient figures evoked by Yeats or Duncan, on art & song, or on Stevens’ presentiment, maybe, of “a colossal sun … like / a new knowledge of reality.” (If only the world allows it … & of course it never does.)   
            For this I will let Tyson have the final word, glancing back like me at our long-shared musings: John Christie has said that my work ‘seems to withstand the vicissitudes of daily life.’  This may be but I can't help thinking that of late there are some undertones of angst creeping in and reflecting themselves, however subtly, in our recent works, which only seems natural given the times.  As for the future, we haven't even started talking of it.”

[NOTE. Visiting recently with sculptor & book artist Ian Tyson in the village of Saint Roman de Malegarde in the Vaucluse, I thought again of the nearly fifty years of friendship & collaboration that have bound us together, & I felt that I wanted to reprint this homage to him written a decade ago & included also in Poetics & Polemics, the book of my prose writings published by the University of Alabama Press in 2008.  Ian’s work has been crucial for me, & I mean to reiterate his importance here for anyone who cares to read it — a reminder too that for those of us fortunate enough to share their work in this way, that the life of poetry can open up as here to become a work in common. (J.R.)]