Download the pdf here.
This lovely oddity arrived in the mail yesterday – Bob Neill’s Book of Typewriter Art (with special computer program) from 1982. It’s so difficult to capture its lovely oddness is just a few sentences or images so I decided to scan the entirety of the book and make it available here (pdf). Inside you’ll find line-by-line instructions for creating charming portraits of everything from the British royal family to siamese cats and even Kojak.
I’ve long been interested in the way writers in the 1960s and 1970s were – once the typewriter had thoroughly become commonplace – finding ways to play with the limits and possibilities of this machine as a writing medium. I’ve also thought that we can look back on typestracts such as Steve McCaffery’s Carnival and see it as informed by a D.I.Y. and hacking sensibility. While this book of typewriter art is clearly invested in representationality and not particularly experimental, its content is entirely a D.I.Y. guide to creating typewriter art and is very much like computer magazines from the early 1980s such as Byte that would include BASIC programs. Here, instead of computer code, we’re given typewritten letters as code. And in fact, the book includes an appendix with a Microsoft BASIC program for creating a “Prince Charles Portrait”, programmed for the Commodore PET. And since the second appendix is a chart showing “sizes of paper required for each picture on different kinds of typewriter,” I can’t help thinking this book is a unique artifact in that it’s entirely framed by the appearance of the personal computer – a book on a soon-to-be-outdated technology framed by its impending replacement by a new technology.
Below is the introduction that Derek Beaulieu and I wrote for Writing Surfaces: Selected Fiction of John Riddell that Wilfred Laurier University Press is generously publishing in April 2013. Please do pre-order a copy through your local independent bookstore. The collection is, I think, a perfect instance of literary experimentation with media archaeology.
Introduction: Media Studies and Writing Surfaces
Writing Surfaces: The Fiction of John Riddell brings an overview of the work of John Riddell to a 21st-century audience, an audience who will see this volume as a radical, literary manifestation of media archaeology. This book is also, in the words of the promotional material of Riddell’s 1977 Criss-cross: a Text Book of Modern Composition, a “long-over-due debut by one of our most striking new fictioneers.”
Since 1963 John Riddell’s work has appeared in such foundational literary journals as grOnk, Rampike, Open Letter and Descant as part of an on-going dialogue with Canadian literary radicality. Riddell was an early contributing editor to bpNichol’s Ganglia, a micro-press dedicated to the development of community-level publishing and the distribution of experimental poetries. This relationship continued to evolve with his co-founding of Phenomenon Press and Kontakte magazine with Richard Truhlar (1976) and his involvement with Underwhich Editions (founded in 1978): a “fusion of high production standards and top-quality literary innovation” which focused on “presenting, in diverse and appealing physical formats, new works by contemporary creators, focusing on formal invention and encompassing the expanded frontiers of literary endeavour.”
Writing Surfaces: The Fiction of John Riddell reflects Riddell’s participation in these Toronto-based, Marshall McLuhan-influenced, experimental poetry communities from the 1960s until roughly the mid- to late-1980s. These communities, and the work of contemporaries bpNichol, Paul Dutton, jwcurry, Richard Truhlar and Steve McCaffery, give context to Riddell’s literary practice and his focus on ”pataphysics, philosophically-investigative prose and process-driven visual fiction. While many of his colleagues were more renowned for their poetic and sound-based investigations, Riddell clearly shared both Nichol’s fondness for the doubleness of the visual-verbal pun and Steve McCaffery’s technical virtuosity and philosophical sophistication. In his magazine publications, small press ephemera, and trade publications, Riddell created a conversation between these two sets of poetics and extended it to the realm of fiction (exploring a truly hybrid form that is poetry as much as it is fiction). Riddell’s work as fiction works to explore the development and accretion of narrative in time-based sequence, a fiction of visuality and media. Writing Surfaces is the documentation of Riddell pushing his own writing to the very limit of what conceivably counts as writing through writing.
While it’s true that the title “writing surfaces” carries with it the doubling and reversibility of noun and verb, reminding us how the page is as much a flat canvas for visual expression as it is a container for thought, the first title we proposed for this collection was “Media Studies.” The latter, while admittedly too academic-sounding to describe writing as visually and conceptually alive as Riddell’s, could still describe Riddell’s entire oeuvre; the term not only refers to the study of everyday media (such as television, radio, the digital computer and so on) but it can—in fact should—encompass the study of textual media and the ways in which writing engages with how it is shaped and defined by mediating technologies. In other words, Riddell’s work is a kind of textbook for the study of media through writing, or, the writing of writing.
The best-known example of Riddell’s writing of writing is “Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters,” initially published in April 1969 with mimeograph illustrations by bpNichol through Nichol’s small but influential Canadian magazine grOnk. It was published again, with more refined, hand-drawn, illustrations, once again by Nichol, in the Governor General’s Award winning anthology Cosmic Chef: An Evening of Concrete (1970, the version included here) and in a further iteration in Criss-Cross: A Text Book of Modern Composition with illustrations by Filipino-Canadian comic book artist Franc Reyes (who would later pencil and ink Tarzan, House of Mystery and Weird War for dc comics and was involved with 1970s underground Canadian comix publisher Andromeda). “Pope Leo” relates a stripped-down comic-strip tale of the tragic murder of Pope Leo; the narrative unfolds partly by way of frames within frames, windows within windows, telling a minimalist story in which the comic-strip frame is nothing but a simple hand-drawn square with the remarkable power to bring a story into being. The anagrammatic text is an 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, always moving back and forth along the spectrum of sense/nonsense: “O POPE LEO! PEOPLE POLL PEOPLE! PEOPLE POLE PEOPLE! LO PEOPLE.”
With a/z does it (1988), Riddell’s writing of writing focuses even more on the investigation of the possibilities of story that lie well beyond the form of the sentence, paragraph, the narrative arc. Rather than playing with the visual story structure of the frame and the verbal structure of the anagram as means by which to create a narrative, with pieces like “placid/special” Riddell first creates grid-like structures of text with the mono-spaced typewriter font and then uses a photocopier to document the movement of the text in waves across the glass bed. The resultant text is the visual equivalent of his earlier fine-tuned probing of the line between sense and nonsense in “Pope Leo.” These typewriter/photocopier pieces record both signal and noise as columns of text waver in and out of legibility. Semantically, these mirage-like texts focus on the words ‘placid’ (the lines of text reminding us of the symmetrical reversibility of ‘p’ and ‘d’ which begin and end the word), ‘love’ (with just the slightest suggestion of ‘velo’ at the beginning and end of each wave), ‘first,’ ‘i met,’ ‘special,’ ‘evening’ and ‘light’ (appearing as a hazy sunset moving down the page), and conclude with ‘relax’ and ‘enjoy.’ The paratactical juxtaposition of the two pages in “placid/special” creates the barest suggestion of a narrative about lovers enjoying an evening together while at the same time each page is in itself an even more minimalist story told through experiments with the manipulation of writing media.
Riddell’s writing of writing that is simultaneously sense and nonsense, verbal and visual, self-contained and serial—that demands to be read at the same time as it ought to be viewed—nearly reaches its zenith in later work such as E clips E (1989). In particular, “surveys” is writing only in the most technical sense with its Jackson Pollock-like paint drippings and scattered individual letters, all counter-balanced by neat, hand-drawn frames.
Just as Riddell’s compositions challenge how writers and readers form meaning, the original publications of many of the selections in Writing Surfaces, and Riddell’s larger oeuvre, were also physically constructed in a way that would demand reader participation. Riddell’s original publications include small press leaflets (Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters), business card-sized broadsides (“spring”), chapbooks (A Hole in the Head and Traces) and pamphlets (How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs). His work also extends into books as non-books: posters which double as dart boards (1987’s d’Art Board), novels arranged as packages of cigarettes (1996’s Smokes: a novel mystery) and decks of cards to be shuffled, played and processually read (1981’s War (Words at Roar), Vol.1: s/word/s games and others). Inside books with otherwise traditional appearances Riddell insists that his readers reject passive reception of writing in favour of a more active role. While outside of the purview of Writing Surfaces, 1996’s How to Grow Your Own Light Bulbs includes texts that must be excised and re-assembled (“Peace Puzzle”); burnt with a match (“Burnout!”); and written by the reader (“Nightmare Hotel”). Copies of the second edition of Riddell’s chapbook TRACES (1991) include a piece of mirrored foil to read the otherwise illegible text.
Riddell’s compositions do not just question the traditional role of the author; they attempt to annihate it. With “a shredded text” (1989) Riddell fed an original poem into a shredder, which then read the text and excreted (as writing) the waste material of that consumption. The act of machinistic consumption creates a new poem—the original was simply the material for the creation and documentation of the final piece. With “a shredded text” Riddell acts as editor to restrict the amount of waste that enters the manuscript of the book. The machine-author becomes a reader and writer of excess and non-meaning-based texts while the human-author becomes the voice of restraint and reason attempting to limit the presentation of continuous waste-production as writing. If, as Barthes argues, “to read […] is a labour of language. To read is to find meanings,” then the consumption and expulsion of texts by machines such as photocopiers and shredders produces meanings where meanings are not expected by fracturing the text at the level of creation and consumption—an act which is simultaneously both readerly and writerly.
Riddell’s oeuvre is almost entirely out of print and unavailable except on the rare book market. Working within the purview of 1970s and 1980s Canadian small presses means that Riddell’s writing proves elusive to a generation of readers who have come of literary age after the demise of such once-vital publishers such as Aya Press (which was renamed The Mercury Press in 1990 and has also ceased publishing), Underwhich Editions, Ganglia, grOnk and the original Coach House Press. As obscure as his original books may be, Riddell’s work remains a captivating example of hypothetical prose; dreamt narratives that have sprouted from our abandoned machines. With no words and no semantic content, we are left to read only the process of writing made product—a textbook of compositional method using writing media from the pen/pencil, the sheet of paper, the typewriter, the shredder, photocopier, to even the paintbrush. The medium is the message.
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.”
In honour of the exhibit “Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry” and the accompanying symposium on concrete poetry hosted by the University of British Columbia’s Belkin Gallery, I’ve digitized the fifth series of grOnk magazine (issues 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8).
I’m afraid most of these pieces are undated, including the newsletter (“END OF AUGUST GIANT grOnk MAILOUT”) which accompanied the package of grOnks bpNichol mailed out along with the first four issues of this fifth series as well as the fourth issue of the fourth series, David Aylward’s “WAR AGAINST THE ASPS.” Most fascinating to me about the newsletter is the brief editorial by bp that appears on the second page which makes the argument, once again, for how most of the wonderful oddities and ephemera published by Ganglia Press as part of grOnk magazine were intensely invested in the materiality of writing, publication, as well as a kind of distribution that acted much like a social network does today: it attempted to connect an international community of like-minded readers/practitioners as quickly and immediately as Canada Post could deliver the mail-outs.
The first issue of the fifth series (pdf here) – also the second issue of the other journal project, synapsis, bp was involved in – is titled the “runcible spoon special CANADIAN international number.” It includes small, typewritten poems and prose by Paul Dutton, Hart Broudy, Nicholas Zurbrugg, Scott Lawrence, Andrew Suknaski, bpNichol, Barry McKinnon, Gary Fogarty, Belgian writer Ivo Vroom, Dezso Huba, and Dave Phillips.
The second issue (pdf here) features “a reduced & somewhat modified version of an early section” from Steve McCaffery’s tour de force typestract, Carnival. This is the only place I’ve seen McCaffery describe Carnival as a “random purpose construct at present of an unspecified size” whose total idea is “for a phonetic semantic allegory.”
The third issue (pdf here) is a small, stapled booklet of minimalist typewriter poems, Wourneys by David Aylward:
The fourth issue (pdf here) is Something in by Martina Clinton, who Nichol describes on the back-cover as “one of the foremost radicals in the early stages of the Vancouver poetry Renaissance.”
The fifth issue (pdf here) is, as Nichol puts it, “an attempt at integration and keeping in touch…..consisting of this special one shot issue devoted entirely to new notes and featuring excerpts from books mentioned plus a peek at coming attractions.”
The sixth issue (pdf here) is a tiny, funny booklet (that progresses from back to front) simply titled “CAT” with cartoon-like sketches of “cat from behind” (appearing on the back-side of the first page, it is as if the booklet is the cat, moving from position to position), “cat from side,” etc.
The eighth issue (pdf here), “REGARDEZ LA REVOLUTION en MARCHE: a collection of documents from France” consists of two double-sided sheets of poster-sized paper, folded in half and stapled. It is, I assume, a record of some of the street-based poetry work that was being done throughout 1968 and it includes a fascinating announcement by Juliene Blaine that the “Night and Day Awakeners” have decided “1) to give up the book and its family: record, tape, photograph, film, etc 2) to give up the object and its family: painting, sculpture, machinery, environment, etc 3) to give up the show and its family: theatre, circus, event, happening, etc…and to apply to reality the new methods of transformation formerly situated at the language level.”
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.
I’m starting to understand that part of the reason why few people, if anyone, has a complete run of grOnk is because it appears the print runs for each issue varied vastly (from 20 to, say, 200 copies); some Nichol simply gave away to friends, others he distributed through the Village Bookstore in Toronto, and others he mailed out to an international mailing list. More, while Nichol intended to have eight issues in each series, after the mid-1970s it seems that publication became more erratic and some series are missing issues while other series had issues published later alongside issues from a different series altogether. grOnk is, then, a bibliographer’s nightmare. To complicate matters further: Nichol published separate but parallel mini-series of chapbooks, pamphlets, postcards etc alongside grOnk. As you can see in the “Ganglia Press Index,” there was also the Ganglia Concrete Series, the Singing Hand Series, the 5¢ Mimeo Series, Tonto or Series, and the 35¢ Mimeo Series (just to name a few). Some of these series were then later absorbed into certain grOnk issues (for example, John Riddell’s “Pope Leo: El Elope” was published in 1969 as part of the 35¢ Mimeo Series but then later absorbed into grOnk Series 2 issue 6.
The Singing Hand Series is particularly interesting as it was published from 1965 to 1966 and so pre-dates grOnk by several years. Nichol used this series to publish work by David Harris and d.a. levy as well as a couple works by himself. The piece I have and which I’ve digitized here is “COLD MOUNTAIN” which Nichol has annotated in the “Ganglia Press Index” by writing “burnable mimeo edition (never ordered & thus never released).” The piece is undated but it was likely published (though not distributed) in 1966 and would have sold for 10¢.
I’ve created a pdf of “COLD MOUNTAIN” but, as it’s a kind of flip-book – a resolutely bookbound genre whose materiality does not translate into the digital – my description here will hopefully augment the digital version. The piece is about 3 x 3 inches, with four strips of paper folded in half and a single sheet inserted in the middle – all of which are stapled together. It has clearly been written with a typewriter and while the structure of the poem doesn’t necessarily depend on the typewriter, the precise distance between letters no doubt helped to visually create words that ascend and descend as along the contours of a mountain. Opening the small pamphlet we read, “MOUNTAIN / COLD / TO / GO”; flipping to the back page we read, “RETURN / FROM / COLD / MOUNTAIN.”
Already its charm, not to mention the meaning behind its material structure, is lost in this kind of description as well as in the digital scan of the front and back pages – for, as we turn over each strip of paper that is marked with a single word, we find directly underneath two or three other typewritten lines which we can read along with the word on the verso, the words above, and even the lines on the next strip of paper. In other words, following on Raymond Queneau’s unreadable Cent mille milliards de poemes from 1961, “COLD MOUNTAIN” is a more modest – though still compelling in its minimalism – work of potential literature.
bpNichol’s Translating Translating Apollinaire is a series of typewriter poems, not simply poems written on a typewriter, Nichol wrote between 1975 and 1979. In its relentless exploration of homolinguistic translation, it has become something of a cult serial poem in certain experimental writing circles, spawning iterations such as Stuart Pid’s Translating translating translating Apollinaire and Andrew Russ’s Translating, translating, translating Apollinaire, or, Translating, translating bp Nichol (both from 1991). Writes Nichol by way of an introduction:
May 27th 1975 en route from London England to Toronto with Gerry Gilbert…in a mood of dissatisfaction re certain aspects of my writing (always the feeling there is more one should be learning – more limitations one should be pushing against & breaking down) i began this present series. In my mind was the idea of a pure bit of research one in which the creativity would be entirely at the level of the research, of formal inventiveness, and not at the level of content per se i.e. i recalled the first poem i had ever had published — Translating Apollnaire in Bill Bissett’s BLEW OINTMENT magazine circa 1964…& decided to put that poem thru as many translation/ transformation processes as i & other people could think of. I conceived of it as an openended, probably unpublishable in its entirety, piece. As of this date (August 29, 1978) i have elaborated 55 different systems & or results with TTA 16, 26, 27, 29, 31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40, 41, 50, 54, 55 & some other tentative ideas still not fully executed. But it seemed a good point in time, particularly when Karl Young expressed his enthusiasm & support, to issue a preliminary report on discoveries made in terms of the results arrived at. Thus this present selection from the inevitably titled TRANSLATING TRANSLATING APOLLINAIRE.
(You can find the original version of the poem here along with the rest of the selection from The Alphabet Game).
I want to call them typewriter poems instead of simply poems written on a typewriter because it’s clear Nichol understood precisely the ways in which the grid of the typewriter page and the typewriter’s non-proportional font lend themselves to investigations of form – even form freed from the burdens of content. Not surprisingly Nichol’s entire oeuvre is defined by his experiments with the limits and possibilities of different writing media – to such an extent that I have become convinced that Nichol wasn’t simply reading his fellow Torontonian Marshall McLuhan (by the mid-70s, who wasn’t reading McLuhan? but as it turns out McLuhan was reading Nichol as evidenced by his inclusion in the General Bibliography at the end of his 1977 City as Classroom). But he was absorbing McLuhan’s writing wholesale. Before this week, I had only come across a few fleeting references to McLuhan by Nichol – one in Rational Geomancy and a short 1982 memoir Nichol wrote of him titled “The Medium Was the Message.” Several days ago, however, I obtained a copy of Nichol’s Sharp Facts: Selections from TTA26 and was astounded to read this series of poems that are both typewriter and photocopier poems – given his love of the pun, a love he also shared with McLuhan, not surprisingly one of his favorite photocopiers is the Sharpfax Copier. Writing as an experienced writing media technician, a mere two years before his McLuhan memoir, Nichol declares in the introduction:
The translative system involved here entails the use of…copying machine disintegrative tendencies. Which is to say that an image fed through a copying machine over & over again (feeding the image of the image, & then the image of the image of the image, & so on) thru a great many generations, disintegrates. & it does this differently depending on which type of copying machine you’re using.
And he concludes, “In this case the machine is the message. The text itself ultimately disappears.”
These are poems of the machine – poems that aren’t so much interested in their own illegibility as they are invested in reading, vis-a-vis writing, the typewriter through the copier machine.
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.”