Monday, 29 October 2007

'Slowly in October / Rain the transient structures the'

At the Small Press Fair this year (12/13 Oct.), from Reality Street clearance stock / backlist: John Seed, Interior in the Open Air, with images by Bronwyn Borrow (1993, when the imprint was Reality Studios). Designed bespoke as ever by Ken Edwards (presumably), the book is unusually wide (200 x 153 mm.) to allow that Seed's work 'at times utilises the shape of abstract structure' as Ralph Hawkins remarks in the blurb, as well as for Borrow's soft fluttery things -- birds? fish? 'Snow Flurries'? litter scraps ('Rust edges // Already flaking' or 'Torn into new forms // England's derelict / Archive 1990') in the 'Chaos small' of an urban wind vortex, 'Almost in spirals the blown dust'? -- swirling from far to near, or dancing with their reflections, light or shadow.

In this book Seed starts each new line with a capital letter, which looks very odd in modern free verse. Is it (for instance) a debunking of that 'free', poetry being subject as everything else to habitual regulation? Contrary to floaty parataxis it fragments harshly: 'Between stones in an empty square the // Connectedness of things'. Or a manifest continuity with history of/in English poetry? I was at a study day last week at which (among much else) I learned that it was Hazlitt (1818) who first made the polemical (and perhaps not entirely accurate) connection between political and typographical 'levelling', in respect specifically of capitalisation within sentences (other than for proper names) (it having been established by canonical typographer Moxon in 1683 that capitals 'lend dignity'). The speaker (Gavin Edwards, U. of Glamorgan) proposes that Edmund Burke did not give the French Revolution its capital 'R'.

Adorno, from whom Seed takes his epigraph (and I think at least one other allusion) is fantastic on the writer's 'predicament' of punctuation and orthography:
The writer cannot trust in the rules which are often rigid and crude; nor can he ignore them without indulging in a kind of eccentricity ... But if, on the other hand, he is serious, he may not sacrifice any part of his aim to a universal, for no writer today can completely identify with anything universal; he does so only at the price of affecting the archaic. The conflict must be endured each time, and one needs either a lot of strength or a lot of stupidity not to lose heart.
Seed does allow some play within the line, away from the margin, which looks then like a protected aesthetic 'interior', but then it too can be invaded by the dominant order:

    Approaching the dreamless the
Roots reach down

against the whiteness the mirror the
smouldering ground

unrealities of human speech

what is it?
Unwrites these places Words
Blown away like mist
-- and there's yet another image to which Bronwen Borrow's delicate decorations respond. (I falsify though: this passage is interrupted by a page turn. Also it's not in fixed font. See snap.) Amid scattering, toppling, blur, drifting, flickering, 'Fading and shifting', one stands, potentially, 'Sharp, clear-edged'.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Learn (not) To Read (the handout)

Four original 'Typings' by Christopher Knowles were on the wall at Tate Modern (London) in 'Learn to Read', an exhibition of work by 'artists who play with text and erasure'. Knowles, a prodigy best known as theatre director Robert Wilson's teenage collaborator in 'Einstein on the Beach' and other stage pieces, only came into my ken last year through wonderful performance readings by Chris Goode. They are copious and highly patterned rotes and transcriptions of conversation, radio patter, song titles and lyric fragments, couples' names, a family slide show, verbs with their gerunds ('so to do is as the e and the ing thing to do of the words'); very dynamic and rhythmic, and somehow, despite (or due to?) a apparently complete absence of acquired sophistication, delightful to New York school-influenced sensibilities. I hadn't fully appreciated that on paper they are also immaculately designed typestracts, making full use of coloured ribbons etc. (Can't find any images on the web.)
Nothing else in the show seemed really exciting; one or two were (imo) conceptually feeble, daft, or badly executed; most were at least slightly intriguing. NB someone with more knowledge of the fine art field would doubtless have found far more to admire. There was evidently a lot of allusion and citation to earlier conceptual art. The interpretative text in the handout seemed generic and banal -- is it me?? -- and may have jaundiced my view of the work. (I know it's not easy to write about this kind of art.) Those I liked most, generally due to their material aesthetic (often on paper directly tacked on the wall), were as follows:
By Sue Tompkins, sheets of newsprint with one or two very brief, almost unassociable, textual fragments typed on. With irregular and partial folds, presumably due to the process.
By Vittorio Santoro, phrases of ambiguous but perhaps vaguely ethical import, in pencil in childlike handwriting and odd spacing (reminiscent of Cy Twombly), e.g.
with the same words in a single line and cancelled, beneath, so the whole sheet was a kind of minimal landscape.
Lia Perjovschi's mind-maps as wall drawings. At one level I think these are really 'not art', but I do quite like the way they look, variable disks constituted by handwriting.
Anne-Lise Coste: apparently enlarged doodles, airbrushed.
The non-linguistic aspects of Simon Evans's collages on paper were pleasant: one included a circular relief in pencil-sharpenings, the other a constellation of cigarette burns. The words were autobiographical indices ('weaker friends want their sympathy back'; 'It's winter now and the trees are pretending to be dead').
Jonathan Monk sent a sentence in English to a translation service, sent the result to another, and so on and so on, ending with a transformed version back in English. One or more poets (especially Harry Gilonis) have been playing the same Chinese whispers with free online translators for quite some time now. Monk's output was the series of versions, on the letterheads of the various firms. There were unresolved things about this work: the set of languages was that found along the Edgeware Road, yet the selected text had nothing to do with that location but was a macho aphorism about the art impulse by Carl Andre, that had its own problems. Still, it was all quite nice ...
Two little collages by the Scottish artist Kevin Hutcheson used torn-off bits of magazine print, including text ('islands of ... aspects of' ...), like very minimal Schwitterses. These were potentially the most interestingly poetic, least resolvable pieces I saw. Or else just the emptiest ...
In other media:
Peter Coffin's big white neon scribble, especially as placed to create a whole reflection in the front window of the Level 2 gallery, was charmingly spectacular.
A little animation by Mario Garcia Torres (possibly a re-make of someone else's work??): in small handwritten capitals, jiggling about, a bit hard to read, "until it makes sense". Ah. Walk away now, stop looking/thinking. Very true.
I quite liked Shannon Ebner's photographs, despite being completely unconvinced by her scenarios as significant engagements with language.
Key work: Bethan Huws used a black signboard system with white moveable letters, reminiscent of those found in greasy spoon cafes, to mount a couple of texts, especially:

*substitute 'exhibiting'.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

'On 28 July [1967] Allen [Ginsberg] drove to Wales with publisher Tom Maschler to spend the weekend at his country cottage in the Llanthony Valley in the Black Mountains. They stopped en route at the magnificent ruins of Tintern Abbey, the inspiration for Wordsworth's ode. That afternoon, feeling relaxed in the tranquil setting, Allen took an acid trip. While on LSD he wrote 'Wales Visitation', a nature poem ...' (Barry Miles, Ginsberg: a biography. Rev. ed. London: Virgin, 2000, pp. 393-94).
The ode (dated actually '1967 July 29 Saturday') was published in 1968, in a not-for-sale edition as 'an offering for a peaceful summer from Allen Ginsberg and Cape Goliard'. It is a small landscape-format pamphlet (12.5 x 17 cm.) with title page and colophon printed in blue, sewn with white cord, with a dust-jacket of handmade brown (Japanese?) paper with 'bits' embedded in it, and title and publisher device printed in red. Today I saw it on dealer Bob Date's stall at the PBFA book fair at the Holiday Inn, Coram Street, London. I'm not all that keen on Ginsberg but this is a nice poem, full of real Romantic rhapsody, undoubtedly but subtly responding to Wordsworth as well as alluding to Blake (possibly even Dylan Thomas ('the force that through the green fuse drives the flower' ...?), and the text beautifully printed and designed to the width of the longest lines (eleven lines per page). It was £35, expensive, especially in the context of a fair full of knock-down bargains, but in the end I had to have it.
On Friday 27 July 2007, I drove to Wales with poet Hugh Epstein to spend the weekend with a group of other poets (old friends) at Leona Medlin's home in Cardiff Bay. We considered diverting up into the Black Mountains, where I spent childhood holidays (in the Olchon valley, the one east of Llanthony, but the other side of Offa's Dyke, i.e. in England), but stopped instead more sensibly at Tintern Abbey, and walked the wooded hill above the steep Wye valley there.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Two from Sheffield (transatlantic)

In Nineteen Nights in San Francisco Christine Kennedy takes a series of guidebook asessments of hotels (or rather, bed-and-breakfast places -- the caste of facility doubtless subtly determining the resultant linguistic register) and transforms them, by extraction and typographic embellishment, into, what? models, or portraits, anyway verbo-typo-visual pieces which bring these addresses to life in the imaginary. Reconstituted out of banal, uncommitted prose, they become suffused with human presence and quiddity, intentional art experiences distributable like poetry (rather than, for instance, merely 'documented' as installation -- though Kennedy does too sometimes derive and re-inscribe her work in situ). Alongside these is a set of pictorial images derived from one relevant symbolic object, a hotel desk bell, somewhat Warholian but rendered through several different techniques. Another analogue and possible influence might be Ed Ruscha's serial photobooks (Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, etc), but the artist proposed by Christine as the chief inspiration for this book is Joseph Cornell, many of whose assemblages evoke European hotels. Some of her pieces propose objects that could be incorporated in such a collage, and often there is a breath of the surreal in her refractions:
While you sip / your complimentary evening wine / fills the rooms ...
But she has thoroughly transmuted what she derives from forerunners. Christine is one of relatively few real artist-poets active in Britain today (as far as I'm aware), and I greatly admire her rather original syntheses. As well as part of what I see as her ongoing project in -- what to call it? intermedia poetics (pace Dick Higgins)?, Nineteen Nights is also an enjoyable and amusing book. Here's a picture.
The Salt Campanion to Geraldine Monk is out!! at least it will be within the next couple of weeks. I have an essay in it on various kinds of visuality in Geraldine's poetry, and am gratified to find that her latest book, Raccoon is all about seeing and not seeing things, on a real trip in North America (not, like Des Esseintes and Christine Kennedy, a travel in a book). In the 'Ode to a Nightingale', Keats's sense of 'what flowers are at my feet' and 'what soft incense hangs upon the bough' is achingly redoubled precisely when, in the dark, he 'cannot see' them. When Monk fails to see whales, raccoons, elks and even mountains, sometimes she responds sardonically ('O you're so big / invisible mountain'; 'I looked everywhere ... Nada'); sometimes she defiantly delights instead in things that present themselves unlooked-for: a humming bird, 'the old moon / in the new moon's arms / in Idaho' (cf Coleridge's epigraph to the 'Dejection' ode), even a non-native faunal specimen: a giraffe in the shape of a brooch. But in 'Never Seeing Raccoon (I eat its words)' the poet undertakes a ritual invocation of the evasive beast in language, including native-American words ('magic one with painted face ... weekah tegalega / gahado-goka-gogosa'). Monk has been sparing of this kind of thing before: I can only remember it in 'Beacon Hill' in Long Wake, the very beginning of her acknowledged oeuvre. I look forward to a performance. It seems to be in some way efficacious, as the sequence ends with some dubious sightings or sensings: 'shadow-beasts' in the dark; 'another scent ... a zip of bones and ginger'. And all that is only the half of this book.
Christine Kennedy, Nineteen Nights in San Francisco. Sheffield: West House Books & The Cherry on the Top Press (from SPD in U.S.), 2007. ISBN 978-1-904052-22-7.
Geraldine Monk, Raccoon. Free Poetry, vol. 2, no. 2, March 2007. For distribution contact mcsmith(at)

Monday, 25 June 2007

painting reading versioning ...

Dmitry Gutov is a Russian artist, making his second Venice Biennale showing, in the second half of Robert Storr's keynote exhibition, in the Corderie (rope-shed?) of the Arsenale. (I hadn't heard of nearly any of the names here, whereas the first half of Storr's show, in the Padaglione Italia in the Giardini with the other national pavilions, features many better-known artists). Two weeks later my memory of the work is shamefully vague, but it was a set of paintings of, as I recall, texts and front covers of books by Marx & Hegel. I thought images would be easily come by, but I can only find this, which shows perhaps more sketchy versions of similar work. The labels explained that in his Moscow studio Gutov hosts a reading group, the 'Karl Marx School of the English Language', which has the double purpose of developing the members' English and studying canonical Marxist texts, a minority interest, to say the least, in today's Russia. The English 'instructor' in the group describes it here.
An over-riding impression from the whole of Storr's assembly was that much of today's art consists of documentation, sometimes of personal crises (cf in their very different ways, Tracey Emin and France's Sophie Calle) but more especially of political ones. Gutov's engagement seemed both less sensationalist and more complex and intellectual, than the visual narratives in war-torn cities, etc.
Sophie Calle's main installation is a huge collection of responses and versionings, by over 100 different people (women) of an email apparently received by Calle from a boyfriend, breaking off their relationship. It was hugely enjoyable to go round, but not (imo) massively profound art. An obvious precursor -- though limited to the page -- would be Raymond Queneau's Oulippian Exercises du Style (1947), which tells the same small narrative in dozens of different ways.
Funnily enough I was in John Calder's bookshop in Waterloo (London) this afternoon, at a discussion on Stefan Themerson, and there are still a couple of copies of Barbara Wright's translation of the Queneau, published by the Themersons' Gaberbocchus Press, with Stefan's illustrative initials, in 1958! Tempting at £30, and Barbara Wright was actually present ... but I do have a copy of the pbk reprint by Calder ...

Sunday, 24 June 2007


The Mechitarist monastery on San Lazzaro is viewable by guided tour. This is a bit taxing on a very hot day with a very large group, but worth it. It contains a miscellaneous collection of art and objects, of which, aside from the religious artefacts, the most important are the collection of 4,000 Armenian manuscripts, stored and displayed now in a new rotunda room.
There are also Armenian gospel manuscripts, among many others, in a fantastic exhibition currently on at the British Library. 'Sacred' (not a record by Madonna) is an extensive comparative display of beautiful and curious religious texts and other artefacts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The diplomacy required to bring this off at this time is hard to imagine, likewise the cost: a considerable amount of material is loaned, there are art commissions, plenty of IT, and a high level of design and a a free gallery guide, and yet there is no charge for entrance. Great website too, with 'turning the pages' access for 16 items.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

neon, etc.

Aldus Manutius, Rio TerrĂ  Secondo, San Polo 2311, Venezia.
The letter Z has a high frequency in the Venetian dialect. So, you catch a vaporetto no. 20 from the eastern-most of the stops at San Zaccaria, and chug across the Lagoon to the tiny walled monastery island of San Lazzaro to the south-east, and as the boat approaches you notice a yellow fuzz along the whole length of the sea wall, and over the sides of two visible square buildings, and perhaps in a narrow band too on the bell tower, and this is a beautiful neon installation by Joseph Kosuth, one of many events is association with this year's art Biennale. The texts are in Armenian (it is an Armenian monastery), Italian and English (the latter in an italic style), and seem to consist of, or be based on, dictionary definitions relating to water, and then stages of association away from them. Ideally, you would have your own boat, or hire one, and be able to sail slowly along the sea wall, the only way you could read it all. But the texts on the buildings are legible from the island itself. There is an image and some information here A catalogue will be published later in the year. Here is a not-very-good closer-up picture

Tracey Emin is in the British pavilion of the Biennale proper this year, as everyone knows. (It's on till November.) She has some neons too, including a nice wordy one in pink. The associations of the medium with tawdry adverts, emergency directions, cheap cafe shopfronts glow around the fixation of these cris de coeur in her inconsistent handwriting and spelling. The one I thought strongest is 'I KNOW I KNOW [erased], I KNOW', with the erasure in blue. Here's a picture of it, thanks to one Beat_Nik.
A couple of months ago there was an exhibition of neons by Ian Hamilton Finlay, at Victoria Miro's gallery in London. They were attractive, in different colours and scripts. The calligrapher who executed the designs from Finlay's ideas, Julie Farthing, said that she adapted her hand intuitively by meditating on the texts. Sometimes Finlay indicated a preference. Many are versions of works done also in other media, and might be considered glamourisations; however the very glossy catalogue has an essay by Stephen Bann, arguing the centrality of the neons in Finlay'e oeuvre. A few specifically allude to aspects of light: the twinkly orange 'Diamond-studded fish-nets', and the more obscure white 'parheliacal marble', the subject of a fine interpretative essay by Harry Gilonis, in Angelaki magazine, vol. 5, April 2000 (which seems to be available online to institutions with a subscription). Some text and images are here. Many of them were displayed in a dark room, which seemed too obvious: neon in daylight is a / great pleasure, at the hub of a city, or across green water on a hot June afternoon.

Monday, 28 May 2007

typography matters

Spent part of this holiday weekend making up a little pamphlet insert of my five poems in the latest Angel Exhaust magazine. This issue came out a few months ago (dated Autumn 2006), and I am delighted to have work in it for the first time; however, along with one or two other errors, my layouts were somewhat mashed in the typesetting. Some people might consider this merely cosmetic, or even a weakness if it matters that much. I could imagine that at least one of the AE editors might well hold such a view. Not for the first time, 'Pierre Le Saboteur' is acknowledged as 'typographical consultant'. But the issue includes plenty of poems with more or less distinctive layouts (i.e. more than simple vertical divisions between groups of lines) by other contributors including Adrian Clarke, Jesse Glass, Giles Goodland, Marianne Morris, Kevin Nolan, Peter Philpott. (Though I understand that some of these too have been less than perfectly rendered.) Sent a grumpy message to the editors, and received a very nice card back from Charles Bainbridge, apologising and agreeing to distribute my corrections. Pressure of work means it's taken ages to prepare the inserts; however they will be sent off tomorrow, so if anyone owning AE 19 cares to see my poems as they were meant, in a format that fits neatly inside your copy, please apply to Charles (or to me).
(Just at the end of making up 100 copies, I noticed that I have myself introduced a new minor spacing error ...)

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

touching base

I meant to write about the excellent free exhibition recently on at the British Library, on Migrant, the little Press founded in 1957 by Gael Turnbull and Michael Shayer. But I completely failed to do so ... Here's the BL's press release on the subject.

Sunday, 4 February 2007

My best Christmas present

Kenneth Patchen, Sleepers Awake (NY: Padell Book Company, 1946). I saw it for the first time a few months ago (at Red Snapper in Cecil Court) and must have mentioned it to H, who braved the high-caste book dealers Bertram Rota to acquire one (at a brave price, lacking dw but vg) and gave it to me for Xmas, a complete surprise. I knew nothing about the book (as will be apparent), and next to nothing about Patchen, and it's been intriguing and enjoyable to make it out from this point of ignorance. It's a beautifully designed book of prose ... fiction? perhaps a series of connected short stories, printed very black in a bold sans-serif typeface, plus some red on tp and caption title; but also with lots of visual and display-type layouts, and non-verbal elements. Lists and diagrams and pictures, parallel sequences through pages ... It's a slightly disturbing read though: a surreal, drug-influenced? and sometimes violent picaresque, set in a dystopian near-future, or indeed present (wartime?), with a motif of shootings marked by hardboiled epithets -- 'the head of a crimson mouse working out of his cheek'; 'Thane's shirt was growing a big red rose', etc etc --. Things transform grotesquely, or seem hallucinated; characters morph into others with similar names. There are also passages of obscure soap-box fulminations and exhortations on alienation, God, love, possibly attributed to the unstable narrator. It's a very weird book, but I'm excited to have found it. 1946! amazing. Pre-Concrete, etc. Here's a picture .
Last week, H in the Charing Cross Road carried away for me a New Directions paperback (ca. 1966?) 'doubleheader' (i.e. printed head-to-tail with two title pages) of 2 Patchen books (first pub. by Jonathan Williams's Jargon Society), 'Poemscapes' (put together with 'A Letter to God') and 'Hurrah for Anything'. The latter consists of very small poems with drawings, with a strong whiff of Edward Lear cum Stevie Smith, some really limericks ('There was an old bronchobuster ...', 'There was a forgetful litle commuter ...'). The drawings are great actually. And here's a page of quite recent (1996) fully integrated 'picture poems'. These outsiderish works help situate the strangeness of Sleepers Awake; but I much prefer its visuals, predominantly rendered in type.
A couple of weeks ago we went up to Highgate, ostensibly for a walk in the woods, but ended up spending most time in Sound 323, the purveyor of advanced and experimental music and sound art, just over the road from the station. I bought a CD of 'The City wears a Slouch Hat', the 1942 radio play written by Patchen, with music composed by John Cage for an orchestra of radio sound effects ('organiz[ed] ... with their expressive rather than representational qualities in mind') together with frequency oscillators, buzzers, marimbula, coil of wire, contact-mic'ing etc. etc. I remember hearing this first on that marvellous first pilot season of Resonance 104.4FM, in fact it's certainly somewhere among all the unlabelled cassettes I recorded during those weeks. It's great, a bit chaotic; lots of crunchy noises and bells. More slightly uncanny narrative, a semi-psychic looming 'Voice'; more preaching: 'I think we need more love in the world ...'.