The following is a short review I wrote of discourse.cpp (pdf available here) by O.S. le Si, ed. Aurélie Herbelot, published by the Berlin-based Peer Press in 2011. The review was just published in the December issue of Computational Linguistics.
discourse.cpp (Peer Press, 2011) is a short collection of computer-generated poetry edited by computational linguistics scholar Aurélie Herbelot, produced by a computer called O.S. le Si mainly used for natural language processing, and named after a program which tries to identify the meanings of words based on their context. In this case, Herbelot inputted 200,000 pages from Wikipedia for the program to then parse and output lists of items whose context is similar to words such as “gender,” “love,” “family,” and “illness;” for example, Herbelot explains that content in the opening piece titled “the creation” was “selected out of a list of 10,000 entries. Each entry was produced by automatically looking for taxonomic relationships in Wikipedia”; and, for the piece titled “gender,” she chose the “twenty-five best contexts for man and woman in original order. No further changes.” (47) The collection is, then, as we are told on the back-cover, “about things that people say about things. It was written by a computer.”
Poets – or, for the sake of those still attached to the notion of an author who intentionally delivers well-crafted, expressive writing, “so-called poets” – have been experimenting with producing writing with the aid of digital computer algorithms since Max Bense and Theo Lutz first experimented with computer-generated writing in 1959. The most well-known English-language example is the 1984 collection of poems The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed by the Artificial Intelligence program Racter (a collection which was, it was later discovered, heavily edited by Racter creators William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter). discourse.cpp is yet another experiment in testing the capabilities of the computer and computer-programmer to create not so much “good” poetry as revealing poetry – poetry that is not meant to be close-read (most often to discover underlying authorial intent) but rather read as a collection of a kind of linguistic evidence. In this case, the collection provides evidence of the computer program’s probings of trends in online human language usage which in turn, not surprisingly, provides evidence of certain prevailing cultural norms; for example, we can see quite clearly our culture’s continued attachment to heteronormative gender roles in “Gender”:
man love — — win title
— marry man — love woman
— give birth — claim be (18)
More, this linguistic evidence also draws attention to the ever-increasing intertwinement of human and digital computer and the resulting displacement of the human as sole reader-writer now that the computer is also a reader-writer alongside (and often in collaboration with) the human.
As Herbelot rightly points out in the “Editor’s Foreword,” to a large extent this experimentation with the computer as reader-writer also comes out of early twentieth century, avant-garde writing that similarly sought to undermine, if not displace, the individual intending author. Dadaist Tristan Tzara, for instance, infamously wrote “TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM” in 1920 in which he advocates writing poetry by cutting out words from a newspaper article, randomly choosing these words from a hat, and then appropriating these randomly chosen words to create a poem by “an infinitely original author of charming sensibility.” Tzara was, of course, being typically Dadaist in his tongue-in-cheek attitude; but he was also, I believe, serious in his belief that the combination of appropriation and chance-generated methods of producing text could produce original writing that simultaneously undermined the egotism of the author. However, insofar as discourse.cpp comes out of a lineage of experimental writing invested in chance-generated writing and, later, in exploiting computer technology as the latest means by which to produce such writing, it also comes out of a certain tradition of disingenuousness that comes along with this lineage. No matter how much Tzara and later authors of computer-generated writing sought to remove the human-as-author, there was and still is no getting around the fact that humans are in fact deeply involved in the creation process – whether as cutters-and-pasters, computer programmers, inputters, or editors. The collection, then, is a much more complex amalgam than even Herbelot seems willing to acknowledge as discourse.cpp is evidence of the evenly distributed reading and writing that took place between Herbelot and the computer/program itself.
Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound
(forthcoming University of Minnesota Press, 2014)
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Indistinguishable From Magic | Invisible Interfaces and Digital Literature as Demystifier
1.0 Introduction | Invisible, Imperceptible, Inoperable
1.1 Natural, Organic, Invisible
1.2 The iPad | “a truly magical and revolutionary product”
1.3 From Videoplace to iOS | A Brief History of Creativity through Multitouch
1.5 Making the Invisible Visible | Hacking, Glitch, Defamiliarization in Digital Literature
Chapter 2: From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly
2.0 Introduction | Digging to Denaturalize
2.1 Open, Extensible, Flexible | NLS, Logo, Smalltalk
2.2 Writing as Tinkering | The Apple II and bpNichol, Geof Huth, Paul Zelevansky
2.3 Closed, Transparent, Task-oriented | The Apple Macintosh
Chapter 3: Typewriter Concrete Poetry and Activist Media Poetics
3.0 Introduction | Analog Hacktivism
3.1 The Poetics of a McLuhanesque Media Archaeology
3.2 Literary D.I.Y. and Concrete Poetry
3.3 From Clean to Dirty Concrete
3.4 bpNichol, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Steve McCaffery
Chapter 4: The Fascicle as Process and Product
4.0 Introduction | Against a Receding Present
4.1 My Digital Dickinson
4.2 The Digital/Dickinson Poem as Antidote to the Interface-Free
4.3 The Digital/Dickinson Poem as Thinkertoy
Chapter 5: Postscript | The Googlization of Literature
5.0 Introduction | Readingwriting
5.1 Computer-generated Writing and the Neutrality of the Machine
5.2 “And so they came to inhabit the realm of the very unimaginary”
Just as the increasing ubiquity and significance of digital media have provoked us to revisit the book as a technology, they have introduced concepts that, retroactively, we can productively apply to older media. Interface, a digital-born concept, is such an example. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Bookbound to the Digital probes how interfaces have acted as a defining threshold between reader/writer and writing itself across several key techno-literary contexts. As I outline in the chapter summaries below, my book describes, largely through original archival research, ruptures in present and past media environments that expose how certain literary engagements with screen- and print-based technologies transform reading/writing practices. To borrow from Jussi Parikka’s What Is Meda Archaeology? (2012), my book “thinks” media archaeologically as its analyses undulate from present to past media environments. More specifically, I lay bare the way in which poets in particular – from the contemporary Jason Nelson and Judd Morrissey back to Emily Dickinson – work with and against interfaces across various media to undermine the assumed transparency of conventional reading and writing practices. My book, then, is a crucial contribution to the fields of media studies/digital humanities and poetry/poetics in its development of a media poetics which frames literary production as ineluctably involved in a critical engagement with the limits and possibilities of writing media.
My book works back through media history, probing poetry’s response to crucial moments in the development of digital and analog interfaces. That is, the book chapters move from the present moment to the past, each also using a particular historical moment to understand the present: Reading Writing Interfaces begins with digital poetry’s challenge to the alleged invisibility of multitouch in the early 21st century, moves to poets’ engagement with the transition from the late 1960s’ emphasis on openness and creativity in computing to the 1980s’ ideology of the user-friendly Graphical User Interface, to poetic experiments with the strictures of the typewriter in the 1960s and 1970s, and finally to Emily Dickinson’s use of the fascicle as a way to challenge the coherence of the book in the mid to late 19th century. Thus, throughout, I demonstrate how a certain thread of experimental poetry has always been engaged with questioning the media by which it is made and through which it is consumed. At each point in this non-linear history, I describe how this lineage of poetry undermines the prevailing philosophies of particular media ecology and so reveals to us, in our present moment, the creative limits and possibilities built into our contemporary technologies. By the time I return once again to the present moment in the post-script via the foregoing four techno-literary ruptures, I have made visible a longstanding conflict between those who would deny us access to fundamental tools of creative production and those who work to undermine these foreclosures on creativity. In many ways, then, my book reveals the strong political engagement driving a tradition of experimental poetry and argues for poetry’s importance in the digital age.
The underlying methodology of Reading Writing Interfaces is the burgeoning field of media archaeology. Media archaeology does not seek to reveal the present as an inevitable consequence of the past but instead looks to describe it as one possibility generated out of a heterogeneous past. Also at the heart of media archaeology is an on-going struggle to keep alive what Siegfried Zielinski calls “variantology” – the discovery of “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, especially those variations that defy the ever-increasing trend toward “standardization and uniformity among the competing electronic and digital technologies.” Following Zielinski, I uncover a non-linear and non-teleological series of media phenomena – or ruptures – as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media. That said, following on the debates in the field of digital humanities about the connection of theory and praxis (the so-called “more hack, less yack” debate) my book is more about doing than theorizing media archaeology; it considers these ruptures at the intersection of key writing technologies and responses by poets whose practice is at the limit of these technologies. Crucially, no books on or identified with media archaeology have engaged thoroughly with the literary and none have consistently engaged with poetry in particular; thus my book is also an innovation in the field in that it uses this methodology to read poetry by way of interface.
One of the most recent and well-known unveilings of an “interface-free interface” came in 2006 when research scientist Jeff Han introduced a 36-inch wide computing screen which allows the user to perform almost any computer-driven operation through multi-touch sensing. Han describes this interface as “completely intuitive . . . there’s no instruction manual, the interface just sort of disappears.” However, the interface does not disappear but rather, through a sleight-of-hand, deceives the user into believing there is no interface at all. I use this anecdote to open the introduction to Reading Writing Interfaces, first, as a way to illustrate the current trend in interface design which emphasizes usability at the expense of providing access to the underlying workings of interfaces, which in turn defines the limits and possibilities of creative expression. And second, I use the anecdote to begin a theoretical and historical overview of the notion of interface, particularly as it has played out in the computing industry in the last forty years. The definition of ‘interface’ I settle on throughout my book is one I adopt from Alexander Galloway to mean a technology, whether book- or screen-based, that acts as a threshold between reader and writing that also subtly delimits both the reading and writing process. This nuanced and yet expansive definition makes way for an acknowledgement of the decisive back-and-forth play that occurs between human and machine and it also broadens our conventional notions of interface to include a range of writing interfaces such as the command-line, the typewriter, or even the fascicle. In light of Reading Writing Interfaces‘ dual attention to media studies and poetry/poetics, I close the introduction with discussions of these two fields as they influence this project. I situate the book within media archaeology, which I take as my methodology, and explain how its emphasis on a non-teleological unearthing of uses/abuses of media allows me to proceed through my media history in reverse chronological order as I uncover media ruptures from the present through to the past. Finally, I conclude the introduction by pairing media archaeology with the notion of ‘media poetics’ as a way to account for poets’ activist engagement with the creative limits and possibilities of media.
The first chapter, titled “Indisinguishable From Magic: Invisible Interfaces and their Demystification,” thus begins with the present moment. Here I argue that contemporary writers such as Young-Hae Chang, Judd Morrissey, Jason Nelson, and Jörg Piringer advance a 21st century media poetics by producing digital poems which are deliberately difficult to navigate or whose interfaces are anything but user-friendly. For example, Morrissey and Nelson create interfaces that frustrate us because they seek to defamiliarize the interfaces we no longer notice; it is a literary strategy akin to Viktor Schklovksy’s early twentieth century invocation of ‘defamiliarization’ to describe the purpose of poetic language – except here it is deployed to force us to re-see interfaces of the present. I argue it is precisely against a troubling move toward invisibility in digital computing interfaces that Judd Morrissey has created texts such as “The Jew’s Daughter” – a work in which readers are invited to click on hyperlinks embedded in the narrative text, links which do not lead anywhere so much as they unpredictably change some portion of the text before our eyes. The result of our attempts to navigate such a frustrating interface, structured as it is by hyperlinks we believe ought to lead us somewhere, is that the interface of the Web come into view once again. Likewise working against the clean, supposedly transparent interface of the Web, in “game, game, game and again game” Jason Nelson creates a game-poem in which he self-consciously embraces a hand-drawn, hand-written aesthetic while deliberately undoing poetic and videogame conventions through a nonsensical point-system and mechanisms that ensure the player neither accumulates points nor “wins.” At the heart, then, of the most provocative digital poems lies a thoroughgoing engagement with difficulty or even failure. By hacking, breaking, or simply making access to interfaces trying, these writers work against the ways in which these interfaces are becoming increasingly invisible even while these same interfaces also increasingly define what and how we read/write. In this chapter I also pay particular attention to how writers such as Jörg Piringer are creating poetry “apps” which work against the grain of the multitouch interface that has been popularized by Apple’s iPad – a device that perfectly exemplifies the ways in which the interface-free interface places restrictions on creative expression in the name of an ideology, more than a philosophy, of the user-friendly.
The second chapter, “From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly,” uncovers the shift from the late 1960s to the early 1980s that made way for those very interfaces I discuss in chapter one which are touted as utterly invisible. Based on original archival research I undertook of historically important computing magazines such as Byte, Computer, and Macworld as well as handbooks published by Apple Inc. and Xerox, I bring to light the philosophies driving debates in the tech industry about interface and the consequences of the move from the command-line interface in the early 1980s to the first mainstream windows-based interface introduced by Apple in the mid-1980s. I argue that the move from a philosophy of computing based on a belief in the importance of open and extensible hardware to the broad adoption of the supposedly user-friendly Graphical User Interface, or the use of a keyboard/screen/mouse in conjunction with windows, fundamentally changed the computing landscape and inaugurated an era in which users have little or no comprehension of the digital computer as a medium. Thus, media poetics prior to the release of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 mostly takes the form of experimentation with computers such as the Apple IIe that at the time were new to writers. Digital poetry from the early 1980s by bpNichol, Geof Huth, and Paul Zelevansky does not work to make the command-line or Apple IIe interface visible so much as it openly plays with and tentatively tests the parameters of the personal computer as a still-new writing technology. This kind of open experimentation almost entirely disappeared for a number of years as Apple Macintosh’s design innovations and their marketing made open computer architecture and the command-line interface obsolete and GUIs pervasive.
In the third chapter, “Typewriter Concrete Poetry and Activist Media Poetics,” I delve into the era from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s in which poets, working heavily under the influence of Marshall McLuhan and before the widespread adoption of the personal computer, sought to create concrete poetry as a way to experiment with the limits and possibilities of the typewriter. These poems – particularly those by the Canadian writers bpNichol and Steve McCaffery and the English Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houédard – often deliberately court the media noise of the typewriter as a way to draw attention to the typewriter-as-interface. As such, when Andrew Lloyd writes in the 1972 collection Typewriter Poems that “a typewriter is a poem. A poem is not a typewriter,” he gestures to the ways in which poets enact a media-analysis of the typewriter via writing as they cleverly undo stereotypical assumptions about the typewriter itself: a poem written on a typewriter is not merely a series of words delivered via a mechanical writing device and, for that matter, neither is the typewriter merely a mechanical writing device. Instead, these poems express and enact a poetics of the remarkably varied material specificities of the typewriter as a particular kind of mechanical writing interface that necessarily inflects both how and what one writes. Further, since they are about their making as much as they are about their reading/viewing, if we read these concrete poems in relation to Marshall McLuhan’s unique pairing of literary studies with media studies – a pairing which is also his unique contribution to media archaeology avant la lettre – we can again reimagine formally experimental poetry and poetics as engaged with media studies and even with hacking reading/writing interfaces. Further, this chapter also draws on archival research to uncover not only the influence of McLuhan on concrete poetry but – for the first time – to delineate concrete poetry’s influence on those writings by McLuhan that are now foundational to media studies.
In the fourth chapter, “The Fascicle as Process and Product,” I read digital poems into and out of Emily Dickinson’s use of the fascicle; I assert the fascicle is a writing interface that is both process and product from a past that is becoming ever more distant the more enmeshed in the digital we become and the more the book becomes a fetishized object. Otherwise put, her fascicles, as much as the later-twentieth century digital computers and the mid-twentieth century typewriters I discuss in chapters two and three, are now slowly but surely revealing themselves as a kind of interface that defines the nature of reading as much as writing. More, extending certain tenets of media archaeology I touch on above, I read the digital into and out of Dickinson’s fascicles as a way to enrich our understanding of her work. Such a reading is a self-conscious exploitation of the terminology and theoretical framing of the present moment which – given the ubiquity of terms that describe digital culture such as ‘interface,’ ‘network,’ ‘link,’ etc. or even of such now commonly understood terms such as ‘bookmark’ and ‘archive’ which previously were only used by the bookish or the literary scholar – is so steeped in the digital and which, often without our knowing, saturates our language and habits of thought.
Finally, in chapter five, the postscript to Reading Writing Interfaces, “The Googlization of Literature,” I focus on the interface of the search engine, particularly Google’s, to describe one of conceptual writing’s unique contributions to contemporary poetry/poetics and media studies. Building on the 20th century’s computer-generated texts, conceptual writing gives us a poetics perfectly appropriate for our current cultural moment in that it implicitly acknowledges we are living not just in an era of the search engine algorithm but in an era of what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls “The Googlization of Everything.” When we search for data on the Web we are no longer “searching” – instead, we are “Googling.” But conceptual writers such as Bill Kennedy, Darren Wershler, and Tan Lin who experiment with/on Google are not simply pointing to its ubiquity – they are also implicitly questioning how it works, how it generates the results it does, and so how it sells ourselves back to us. Such writing is an acknowledgement of the materiality of language in the digital that goes deeper than a recognition of the material size, shape, sound, texture of letters and words that characterizes much of twentieth-century bookbound, experimental poetry practices. These writers take us beyond the 20th century avant garde’s interest in the verbal/vocal/visual aspect of materiality to urge us instead to attend to the materiality of 21st century digital language production. They ask, what happens when we appropriate the role of Google for our own purposes rather than Google’s? What happens when we wrest Google from itself and instead use it not only to find out things about us as a culture but to find out what Google is finding out about us? “The Googlization of Literature,” then, concludes Reading Writing Interfaces by providing an even more wide-ranging sense of poetry’s response to the interface-free.
After studying and writing poetry under the guidance of Douglas Barbour at the University of Alberta, in the late 1990s I made my way to the University of Victoria to do an M.A. with Barbour’s long-time sound poetry collaborator Stephen Scobie. I went there to write a thesis on bpNichol and sound poetry and, in my last year there, I decided to publish a small, free literary journal which included sound poetry scores, visual poetry, drama, and criticism.
I’ve only recently realized that there are some real gems in the two issues of Laughing Gland that I published and so I’ve decided to make a pdf of these two issues available here on my blog – download issue 1 here and download issue 2 here.
Issue 1, published in Fall 1999, includes a sound poetry score by Scobie and Barbour called “THE SUKNASKI VARIATIONS: a performance piece for Re: Sounding”:
In all fairness to any readers out there, I should also say that this issue includes some graduate student essays—
Issue two, published in Spring 2000, not only includes a handful of early concrete poems by the very accomplished visual writer Derek Beaulieu and the poet/publisher rob mclennan, but it also includes a previously unpublished sound poetry score by bpNichol titled “BUIK: Glasgow Dialectics” from October 1982:
And hopefully you’ll get a good chuckle out of the other graduate student essays in this issue as well – enjoy!
Along with a nearly complete set of grOnk magazine, Nelson Ball also generously sent me other bpNichol ephemera including this second issue of Nichol’s “Greaseball Comics, featuring Milt the Morph as Lonely Fred” from June 1972. You can download the pdf here.
You can also download the eighth issue from bpnichol.ca
This sixth series of grOnk magazine – at this time, edited by bNichol with Steve McCaffery, bill bissett, dave uu “with an assist from rah smith and david aylward” – is devoted to the work of McCaffery. All but two issues (2-3 was published in 1970) in the series are undated but I’m guessing they were all published in the early 1970s. Every issue was published as single sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper stapled twice.
Issue one (download the pdf here) features five abstract concrete poems by McCaffery using typewriter, dry transfer lettering (I believe), stamp, and copier machine.
Issue two-three (download the pdf here) features McCaffery’s “TRANSITIONS TO THE BEAST” which he calls “post-semiotic poems.” On the final page of the collection, McCaffery writes:
to the beast are for me transitional pieces moving towards a hand drawn set of visual conventions that have their roots both in semiotic poetry & in the comic strip. the semiotic or code poem (invented about 1964 by the brazilians pagnatari & pinto) uses a language of visual signs designed & constructed to suit the individual desires of the poet & the needs that he as linguistic designer assumes for the poem on that particular occasion of construction.
Issue four (download the pdf here) is titled, I believe “MELON LEMON” and continues McCaffery’s investigations into the visual, hand-drawn, typewritten poem that moves to the far edge of semantic meaning.
Issue five (download the pdf here) is “COLLBORATIONS” by both bpNichol and Steve McCaffery which does manage to appear as a perfect meshing of Nichol’s own comic-strip, hand-drawn aesthetic and McCaffery’s more abstract and geometrically precise concrete poems.
Finally, issue eight (download the pdf here) features McCaffery’s “MAPS: a different landscape” in which he experiments with the page as a space for linguistic-cartographic experimentation, taking a cleaner and more legible approach to the notion of cartography in poetry than he did with “Carnival.”
I am nearly halfway finished digitizing the issues of grOnk magazine that Nelson Ball gave me. In this installment: the fourth series which includes work (from 1968 through 1971) by David UU, Hart Broudy, David Aylward, Joseph di Donato, Andrew Suknaski, and Earle Birney. Once again, given the unique materiality of all these pieces of varying sizes, shapes, colours and textures, I urge you to look at the originals wherever possible.
The first issue of the fourth series, David UU‘s (or David W. Harris) MOTION/PICTURES, was published in March 1969 in an edition of 300 copies. At this point, UU was a co-editor of grOnk along with Nichol and bill bissett. MOTION/PICTURES, sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper stapled together, is wrapped in a red card-stock cover featuring collage work by UU. Most curious for me is the copyright page which lists other books by UU, including poems published by Ganglia Press in 1966 which were “destroyed at authors request” and a collection AMERICANCROSS which was “suppressed by american authorities” in 1966.
The second issue features four gorgeous typewriter concrete poems – titled “C POEMS” – on cream coloured card stock by Hart Broudy. It’s not clear what year this was published. All poems (with the exception of the cover-art on the outside of the envelope which seems to have been made with letraset) have been constructed with the letter ‘c’, occasionally ‘l’ and a few punctuation marks.
The third issue is Earle Birney’s PNOMES JUKOLLAGES & OTHER STUNZAS which was published in November 1969 in an edition of 400 copies. As Nichol writes in the introduction to this collection of work by Birney, “this is an introduction to a section of earle’s work which has been termed ‘experimental’ by every review & critical article i’ve read.” Below is an image of “PNOME,” just one of twelve items in the envelope for this third issue:
The materials included in this envelope of work by Birney are so various that I decided to digitize them all separately. They are listed below in the order in which they are listed in the list of contents – take particular note of “SPACE CONQUEST: COMPUTER POEM” which Birney created in February 1968; “lines chosen from 1066 5-syllable lines supplied by a computer programmed to a random order of the words composing Meredith’s ‘Lucifer in Starlight’ and Macleish’s ‘End of the World.’ Printed on an IBM/360 Computer.”
- cover art on envelope holding all materials for third issue
- list of contents (8.5 x 11 sheet of paper)
- mobile version of “like an eddy” (designed & executed by andrew suknaski) (8.5 x 11 sheet of paper)
- FOR MAISTER GEFFREY (8.5 x 11 sheet folded in half; double-sided)
- introduction (by bpNichol) (8.5 x 11 sheet folded in half; double-sided)
- SPACE CONQUEST: COMPUTER POEM (15 x 11 computer print-out)
- collection of visual & sound oriented poems in purple folder (8.5 x 11 sheets of paper stapled three times; double-sided)
- handwritten version of “like an eddy” (8.5 x 11 card stock)
- CAMPUS THEATRE STEPS (8.5 x 11 card stock)
- PNOME (1970 calendar) (8.5 x 11 card stock)
- COUNCIL/CONSEIL (8.5 x 11 card stock)
- ALASKA PASSAGE (8.5 x 3.5 sheets of paper stapled twice; double-sided)
- ARCHITECTURE (two sheets of 14 x 8.5 sheets of paper folded twice and stapled along middle crease; double-sided)
The fourth issue is David Aylward’s concrete poem(s) THE WAR AGAINST THE ASPS, published in 1968 on sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper folded lengthwise.
The sixth issue features visual work (on single sheets of 8.5 x 11 card stock stapled together three times) by Joseph di Donato – work that is simply titled on the cover “gronkreadingwritingseriesnumber6.” I am speculating the work was created with a combination of drawing and letraset.
Finally, the seventh issue features Andrew Suknaski’s ROSE WAY IN THE EAST – hand-drawn, ideogram-inspired poems that were published in 1971 as single sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper in an envelope.
After taking a brief hiatus from digitizing the issues of grOnk magazine that Nelson Ball so generously donated to me, I’m happy to present to you here the rest of the third series of grOnk, published by bpNichol mostly throughout 1969. While there are eight issues in this series, I only have issue 1 (available here), 3,4, 7, and 8.
Issue 3 consists of Phone Book, by Gerry Gilbert, with a found prose insert (I assume also by Gerry Gilbert but, as jwcurry points out in a comment to this post, it could just have easily have been included by bpNichol. The Gerry Carrier was a brand-name for, of course, a carrier). Phone Book is a typewritten book of poetry published in association with Nelson Balls’ Weed Flower Press in 1969. The cover design is by the painter Barbara Caruso, with whom Nichol worked collaboratively on a number of occasions (the most stunning, beautiful example is, in my opinion, The Adventures of Milt the Morph in Colour).
Issue 4 is another typewritten, concrete poetry-esque collection: Nelson Ball’s Force Movements. The digitized version I’ve made available here is actually a second edition, slightly revised, that Curvd H&z published in November 1990. It was first published by Ganglia Press as grOnk 3:4 in July 1969.
Issue 7 is a long, narrow, typewriter-concrete poem Sprouds and Vigables by D.R. Wagner. It was published in an edition of 250, also in July 1969. Note that the text of the first poem echoes a later Four Horsemen sound poem, “In the Middle of a Blue Balloon,” from their 1973 album CANADADA.
Issue 8 is a short, untitled piece by John Riddell – like the others in the third series, this too is typewritten concrete but with the difference that here Riddell also explores, or explodes?, geometrical shapes and patternings which intersect and break up the typewritten language.
Finally, for the first time I’m also making available a pdf of the “BIG MID-JULY GRONK MAILOUT” – a kind of newsletter that accompanied third series issues 3 through 7. The “mailout”, three sheets of different coloured paper stapled together, includes an announcement about the third series, details on how to order copies, as well as bits of news about forthcoming pieces not only from Ganglia/grOnk but also Coach House Press, an issue of Stereo Headphones – a small journal published by Nicholas Zurbrugg in England that was about “THE DEATH OF CONCRETE” – and a series of cassette tape recordings by David UU. These mailouts are fascinating to me because they read as a bookbound version of an equally community-driven blog or twitter feed about contemporary, non-mainstream poetry and poetics.
Recently I stumbled upon an odd but thrilling little publication from 1966 called Astronauts of Inner-Space: An International Collection of Avant-Garde Activity which includes – according to the front cover - 17 manifestoes, articles, letters, 28 poems and 1 filmscript. The collection is so astounding that I had to make a pdf of it – available here, if you’re interested. And why should you be interested? Because it documents a rare moment when media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan are not just influencing but are actively in dialogue with artists, painters, poets, filmmakers, from the avant-garde of the early 20th century to the mid-1960s.
Look at the table of contents and you’ll see that McLuhan’s piece, “Culture and Technology,” is nestled among contributions by pioneers of Dada such as Rauol Hausmann to pioneers of computer generated poetry Max Bense and Margaret Masterman; it’s also included along with essays and poems by “typescape” poets Franz Mon and Dom Sylvester Houedard, work by cut-up master William Burroughs, and even the more bookbound Robert Creeley.
In this single collection, we not only get a sense of McLuhan as engaged with poetics but we see the poets as writing thoroughly activist media poems. They are even activist in the sense that McLuhan was imagining when he wrote in his Astronauts of Inner-Space contribution that “…if politics is the art of the possible, its scope must now, in the electric age, include the shaping and programming of the entire sensory environment as a luminous work of art.” Politics as art and poetry; art and poetry as politics.
In April 1969 bpNichol (along with David UU, John Riddell, Bill Bissett, and John Simon) published 300 mimeographed copies of the first issue of the third series of grOnk magazine. “QUOTE” by Gerry Gilbert, written in July 1965, is the most difficult, or impossible, of the grOnk issues to digitize since it consists of 23 separate slips of paper inside a standard letter-sized envelope.
I chose not to scan these slips separately and compile them in a single pdf as the tendency will be to read the slips in the order in which I scan them – which entirely defeats the purpose of this being an open-ended reading experience (since we should be able to come up with 2323 different poems). Instead, I tried to scan as many slips at once as the scanner bed would allow.
You can download the pdf of “QUOTE” at bpnichol.ca.
In August 1967 bpNichol published the last (and eighth) issue of the first series of grOnk magazine; this issue features the almost entirely non-textual, visual, comic-book-like, frames-within-frames structure of “Scraptures: Sequence Eleven.” (This work is already available on bpnichol.ca.)
The second series of grOnk was begun in September 1968 and the issues for this series were published irregularly. The fourth issue of the second series features Barbara O’Connelly’s “THERE WERE DREAMS.” The cover is a sheet of 17 x 22″ cream card-stock folded in half; inside are seven individual sheets of cream 8.5 x 11 paper stapled together. Curiously: while the first couple issues of the series were published in 1968, this work by Connelly was printed at Ganglia Press in July 1967. “THERE WERE DREAMS” is a lovely exploration of concrete poetry as a hand-drawn, hand-written art that’s resolutely not of the machinic.
The fifth issue of grOnk features Nichol’s “The Captain Poetry Poems,” published by Bill Bissett’s Blew Ointment Press and later incorporated into grOnk magazine in 1970. (This work is already available on bpnichol.ca.)
Another publishing curiosity: the sixth issue of the second series was published in 1969, a year earlier than the fifth issue, and featured John Riddell’s “POPE LEO: EL ELOPE” with drawings by bpNichol. This is an early but fascinating work by the Toronto-based John Riddell (whom I’ve written already about here) that is a anagrammatic exploration of the language possibilities inherent in letters ‘p,’ ‘o,’ ‘l,’ and ‘e’ (hence the sub-title, “a tragedy in four letters”) – sometimes using one of the letters twice, sometimes dropping one, always rearranging. It’s a remarkable meshing together of concrete poetry and combinatorial writing practices.