Media studies is commonly associated with the study of digital media structures and related phenomena. But the more media theory I read (and lately I’ve been voraciously reading everything by Marshall McLuhan that’s outside of the well-worn Understanding Media) the more drawn I am to thinking through the defining effects of earlier analogue and digital writing interfaces as instances of media – from paper/pencil to typewriter to command-line. As such, I’ve been pursuing my interest in dirty concrete poetry – poetry I’ve written about here that courts illegibility and a kind of non-representationality as a way of drawing attention to the limits and possibilities of the typewriter as a writing medium. In that very small world of people who write about dirty concrete, Steve McCaffery’s “Carnival” is as well worn an exemplar as McLuhan’s Understanding Media. But, partly as a result of reading work by derek beaulieu (a contemporary Canadian visual poet who identifies with dirty concrete), I’ve stumbled upon the typewriter poems of John Riddell – a figure known, it seems, only to a handful of poets and critics in Canada.
Of Riddell I only know that he was McCaffery’s partner in his airport limo business as well as his housemate for a brief time; I believe he is now a lay therapist. Of his work, all I’ve so far seen is E clips E (Underwhich Editions 1989) – a startling book of concrete poems that reads like evidence of Riddell’s hell-bent mission to push writing media from xerography to the typewriter, the lettraset, stamps, cut-outs and cut-ups to the breaking point of legibility and interpretability. But that’s not to say they’re not comprehendable or meaningful – they are meaning pushed to another register, that may defy close-reading at the same time as they court a reading more properly sensitive to both its marks and the process of marking.
“coda” is, for me, one of the more intriguing pieces in the book – perhaps because it gives me more of an interpretative foot-hold than a piece such as “in take” does:
“coda,” on the other hand, has much more of what I can only call “alphabetic patterning”. Below is a scan just of first of this four page poem:
Still, it’s appropriate that the definition of “coda” is most firmly tied to music – an art, I learned from R. Murray Schaeffer, of notation as much as sound – not literature. I can’t help feeling the point, the meaning, is purposefully just a little out of reach. Yet, at the same time, I also feel sure there’s a pattern in those columns of text – on the upper left of the first column on the first page, ‘t’ and ‘f’ appear side by side yet it has clearly been written on a typewriter, on which ‘t’ and ‘f’ are diagonally stacked on top of each other, ‘t’ up and to the right, ‘f’ below and to the left. Likewise ‘b’, ‘u’ and ‘j’ are similarly slightly mis-aligned on the page versus their placement on the keys.
Surely this is a media-studies-inflected poem as I’m forced, for the first time since I learned to type in grade 8 (when I was punished for paying too much attention to the keys), to scrutinize the visual arrangement, the alignment of the typewriter keys in relation to their written characters. It’s typewriter poetry that rejects Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” declaration that the typewriter can “indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends” while it relentlessly courts Olson’s claim that “For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had.”