Foreword: australian poetry journal 3.2 #concrete

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 10.05.39 amIn everyday scale, a letter of the alphabet is usually no bigger than a freckle or an iris, and a word is not much wider than a thumbnail. The tiny components of written language are rendered almost invisible to us in our race to extract all-important ‘meaning’. But in concrete poetry, language stands in our way: letters and words fight – through scale or arrangement – for visibility. As Roberto Simanowski puts it: ‘concrete poetry deals with the relation between the visible form and the intellectual substance of words’. It is visual, he says, because it ‘adds the optical gesture of the word to its semantic meaning’. As a consequence, concrete poems ask readers to look simultaneously ‘at’ and ‘through’ language.

Some poems make a performance of typography. John Warwicker’s design for ‘In the Belly of Saint Paul’ – replete with stylish ornaments, discretionary ligatures and mimetic kerning – would seem to validate psychologist Kevin Larson’s 2006 finding that an aesthetic typeface can elevate our mood (it can also increase creativity and cognitive focus for a period after viewing). Jordanian calligraphic artist Ibrahim Abu Touq depicts a poem by 12th century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi; while the late Cornelis Vleeskens (whose work has rarely appeared in editions greater than a handful) appears to reference Japanese calligraphy, though the spill of Roman letters doesn’t quite add up to a word. Extracted from his series of concrete anagrams, Christian Bök’s ‘Odalisque 02’ employs the 21 components of letterforms – serifs, spurs, ascenders and so on – as brushstrokes to evoke the female figure within a fractured alphabet; while Ken Kempson’s ‘Saint Poet Quoted’ uses the single inverted-comma to illustrate a field of infinite quotation.

Chris Edwards, Toby Fitch and Pascalle Burton reveal that quotation is frequently the stuff of concrete poems. Edwards’s After Naptime, an extract from a 12-scene ante-narrative about a trip to a haunted lighthouse, retains traces of Dickens’s David Copperfield and Bleak House and Dennis Cooper’s ‘The Anal-Retentive Line Editor’ and snips images from Ward, Lock & Co.’s Great Inventors and Lawrence Lessing’s DNA: At the Core of Life Itself. Fitch’s ‘Missing Scène(s)’ presents as a redacted poem but is, the author says, a mistranslated inversion of Rimbaud’s ‘Scènes’. In contrast, Burton’s poème trouvé makes no mystery of its source: the physical object of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon.

Not surprisingly several of the poets here are also practitioners in the visual and plastic arts. The original artwork for Angela Gardner’s ‘A Quiet Voice’ is a watercolour on Chinese concertina-folded paper, and Nancy Campbell’s ‘How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic’ is made from hand-printed pochoir and letterpress. Campbell’s full sequence comprises 12 words: one for each letter of the Greenlandic alphabet, although here we present only six. (In case you are wondering, ‘asavakkit’ is how Greenlanders declare their love.) Visual poems by pete spence and Eryk Wenziak explore a zone of indeterminacy but retain an affiliation with language that prevents their work from stepping over into objects. Elsewhere Cecilia White and John Selenitsch eschew ink and paper to sculpt poems out of marble, wood and Perspex for the gallery floor.

In criticism, π.o. shines the spotlight on legendary performance-poet Jas H. Duke – a big-boned fan of rounded sound, who reportedly once ate a page of Yeats while reciting a poem, and whom π.o. says is Australia’s only Dadaist poet of any note. Alison Clifton looks at recent poetry collections to flirt with text and image: Marionette: A Biography of Miss Marion Davies, Jessica Wilkinson’s biography of silver-screen siren Marion Davies, and Fitch’s Rawshock, accompanied by homonymic Rorschach inkblots. Selenitsch gives a fascinating run-down of the development of concrete poetry from an Antipodean perspective and identifies Alan Riddell – Townsville-born poet and editor of the classic anthology Typewriter Art – as a precursor to the art form in Australia. To accompany his essay we offer a selection of classic Australian concrete poems, courtesy of the 2013 Born to Concrete exhibition (which inspired this special issue) curated by the Heide Museum of Modern Art and University of Queensland Art Museum. In ‘Heartheart’ poet and installation artist Richard Tipping contributes an essay that chronicles his 40-year fascination with circle poems and poem squares, while Martin Duwell rounds out the issue with a look at Clive James’s new translation of Dante, paying his respects to the Inferno’s resplendent architecture and dramatic portraits and noting that the sign above the Gates of Hell has been changed.

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Foreword: australian poetry journal 2.2 #art

Not surprisingly – poets being aural creatures – the #art issue of Australian Poetry Journal thrums with music. In Philip Hammial’s ‘Walk that Walk’ Afro-Cuban jazz-king Machito (Crowded Fingers) Smith thinks, along with Zelda Fitzgerald, that ‘Al Jolson is greater than Jesus’. In Philip Salom’s ‘Counterpoint with Red’ Glenn Gould guns through Bach in a triptych of waltzes showcasing the pianist’s architectural tics and copious pharmaceutical predilections. ‘The purpose of art’, Gould wrote in 1962, ‘is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity’. Always more concerned with the effects of art than the product itself, Gould argued that art’s ‘justification’ (should it need one) is ‘the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men’.

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issue 2 volume 2 2012

Not surprisingly – poets being aural creatures – the #art issue of Australian Poetry Journal thrums with music. In Philip Hammial’s ‘Walk that Walk’ Afro-Cuban jazz-king Machito (Crowded Fingers) Smith thinks, along with Zelda Fitzgerald, that ‘Al Jolson is greater than Jesus’. In Philip Salom’s ‘Counterpoint with Red’ Glenn Gould guns through Bach in a triptych of waltzes showcasing the pianist’s architectural tics and copious pharmaceutical predilections. ‘The purpose of art’, Gould wrote in 1962, ‘is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity’. Always more concerned with the effects of art than the product itself, Gould argued that art’s ‘justification’ (should it need one) is ‘the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men’ – a fire that Peter Lach-Newinsky’s poem, ‘Ode to Joy’, extends to the hearts of women who hummed, in solidarity, Beethoven’s ‘bright other half of humanity’s dream’ in Tiananmen Square and outside the gates of Pinochet’s prisons.

‘Phrases hungering for another’s art’ – as Kevin Gillam calls the ekphrastic impulse in ‘Figue’ – stand at the heart of many poems gathered here. In ‘Gallery’ Mike Ladd wants to step into a painting by Camille Pissaro, circa 1901, to walk through a foggy morning, pink and blue, along the Seine. He’d warn women in black shawls that ‘the Wars were coming’ but ‘no one would listen’. Dispensing proprieties Brenda Saunders plonks herself inside Edward Hopper’s Room in New York and ‘tinkles a few notes’ on the piano, while Mark Tredinnick settles behind Matisse’s eyes to study ‘the lazy phrase’ of his model displayed across the sofa: ‘Every piece of the carnal world’, he observes, ‘takes the shape of a question’. Meanwhile in ‘Schmerz: An Exhibition’ Susanne Gannon interrogates the artsy idea that ‘pain builds community’ as she walks through a Berlin gallery housing, among other horrors, Marina Abramović’s ‘cutting edge’ performance in which she carves a star into her belly. Interleafed among European greats, the shock of the local arrives in Caitlin Maling’s ‘At the Ballarat Art Gallery’ – yet even Nolan’s Leda, it must be said,has its origins in the elsewhere.

As for the state of our art form – poetry – it appears to be marked, at least by these poems, by a sense of absenteeism: Davina Allison laments the absence of poets in her distressed address to the abused boys of St Joseph’s Industrial School in Ireland’s Letterfrack; Rosanna Licari finds Umberto Saba locked in silence on a footpath he once walked in Trieste; and Andy Jackson’s ‘Edith’ shrinks poets to something we talk about when ‘the dreadful silence’ presses in. With ‘The Perfect Malware’ Christian Bök returns to the pages of APJ with a tour de force that splits the nucleus: ‘What can poetry imagine’, he asks, ‘when poetry itself has gone extinct?’ But Bök’s black view gleams in the dark – ‘Let the death of verse be dated by the half-life of uranium-238’ – advancing a calculation that grants the poem another 4.47 billion years.

In ‘Francis Webb at Balls Head’ Robert Adamson constructs an arresting portrait of one of Australia’s greatest poets, whom Sir Herbert Read also deemed ‘one of the most unjustly neglected poets of the [last] century’ – an unhappy charge Adamson is bent on remedying in his ‘Spotlight on Francis Webb’ here and his criticism beyond these pages. In ‘Framing the Scene’ Kate Lilley looks at new books by Julie Chevalier and David McCooey; while in Stuart Cooke’s ‘Bright Nodes of Colour’, Lilley – through an unavoidable reshuffling – finds herself under review alongside Peter Rose. APJ’s resident critic, Martin Duwell, returns with a study of the ‘towering’ if ‘uncomfortable’ presence of John Shaw Neilson and finds Australian poetry’s most famous orange tree as luminous as ever.

In the previous issue of APJ David McCooey surveyed the digital world of poetry apps: in this issue Kerry Kilner and Angela Gardner look at the more tangible and fragrant world of artist’s books – from William Blake to Chris Wallace-Crabbe – as embodying the twin concepts of the book as text and the book as object. Fiona Scotney’s interview rounds out the issue with Laurie Duggan’s frank recollection of his poetry-writing days in Ken Bolton’s dilapidated cottage in Coalcliffe, New South Wales – which links serendipitously to Iman Mersal’s gorgeous poem, ‘The Idea of Houses’: ‘Let a house be a place whose bad lighting you do not notice’, she writes making a case for poetic vision, ‘a wall whose cracks widen until one day you begin to think of them as a substitute for doors’.

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Foreword: australian poetry journal 1.1 #beginnings

‘Beginning is not only a kind of action’, Edward Said remarks in his celebrated book on the subject, ‘it is also a frame of mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness’. To be alert to a beginning is to be aware of departures and entrances: to be filled with the promise of what is to come. But to ask where a poem begins is to encounter a series of questions. Does a poem begin, thinking concretely, with its first line? Does its beginning proliferate with its peritexts: title, epigraph, dedication, subtitle? Does a poem begin the moment a body sits down to write it, or is there some other secret point at which the thought that impels the poem first came into being?

issue 1 volume 1 2011

‘Beginning is not only a kind of action’, Edward Said remarks in his celebrated book on the subject, ‘it is also a frame of mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness’. To be alert to a beginning is to be aware of departures and entrances: to be filled with the promise of what is to come. But to ask where a poem begins is to encounter a series of questions. Does a poem begin, thinking concretely, with its first line? Does its beginning proliferate with its peritexts: title, epigraph, dedication, subtitle? Does a poem begin the moment a body sits down to write it, or is there some other secret point at which the thought that impels the poem first came into being? Did Paul Hetherington’s poem, ‘A Norse Greenlander, 1450’, for instance, begin as he sat (I’m guessing) at his desk in Canberra, or did its authentic beginning manifest in the arctic circle some 500 years ago when a cold-weary woman sharpened her scythe and contemplated another frozen harvest.

Perhaps, to take an airier view, a poem does not truly begin until a human mind hits upon it and permits language to animate its neurons. The poem as a cognitive act depends on a host to arouse it from the dormancy it slips into between readings. But what then do the anarchic practices of reading – rarely do we read books and authors in chronological order – do to a poem’s antecedent beginnings? Some readers will, for example, encounter Pauline Reeve’s ‘After Akhmatova’ before reading the Russian poet who inspired it. Alex Skovron’s ‘The Attic’ enters truly uncanny territory with his idea of a translation predating the original: the unacknowledged translator in Skovron’s poem stores manuscripts in the dusty corridors of his attic, never to consult them until ‘the original, in its first language, appears / in some quarter of the city’.

Stranger still, it’s conceivable – to consider Christian Bök’s Xenotext experiment – that a poem will enact an alternate beginning beyond the human field. Using a ‘chemical alphabet’ Bök’s project is to translate his poetry into sequences of DNA he will implant into the genome of Deinococcus radiodurans, an extremophile bacterium so resilient it can live on the surface of the moon. The protein the cell produces in response will form a second comprehensible poem. This marriage of language and microbiology is not without precedent: in 2003 scientists inserted a DNA translation of ‘It’s a Small World’ into D radiodurans to demonstrate that the bacterium could be used to store information in the event of a nuclear catastrophe.

No poem, however much it might deviate or even mutate, can stand completely outside a tradition. Yet not all antecedents to a poem, it must be said, are necessarily born of literature: Brenda Saunder’s ekphrastic ‘Art of Travel’ begins inside the paintings of Manet and de Hooch; Margaret Bradstock’s ‘Bali Hai’ pays tribute to the late Margaret Olley; and Michael Sharkey grounds his ‘Ancestors’ poem in the staged grammar of nineteenth-century photographs.

The proposition that a poem’s meaning is to be found in its antecedents has long been a topic for debate in literary criticism. In ‘Questions to Answers’, Bonny Cassidy considers news books by Elizabeth Campbell, Ali Alizadeh, and Libby Hart in context of their earlier works. David McCooey, in ‘You Can’t Be Serious’, traces Ken Bolton and joanne burns’s present-day poetics to a beginning in the fight and footle of 1968. And in ‘Re-entering Bloomland’, Martin Duwell assesses Harold Bloom’s reassessment of his theory of influence in which so-called ‘strong poets’ attempt to make space for themselves by emulating and corrupting their poetic parentage.

But this is not to suppose we can do without the concept of a beginning. Moments of becoming, as moments of departure, are crucial to the construction of meaning in our lives – though at times the two might appear difficult to differentiate. As TS Eliot says in ‘Four Quartets’: ‘What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from’. ‘Beginnings’ seemed a natural topic for the inaugural issue of the Australian Poetry Journal. It enters a pre-existing world, but there is no question that it has arrived.

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