copier machine poetics

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.

6 thoughts on “copier machine poetics

  1. Douglas Barbour

    Wow, Lori, you are busy on things: this is fascinating, if way outside my expertise. Of course, I utterly screwed up the translation process when bp invited me to participate, but….

    Reading just machine mechanics then?

    I wonder if such as this should be brought up at the McLuhan conference here later this summer?


    1. Lori Emerson

      Doug, thank so much for reading! Yes, for the moment I’m obsessed with how the particularities of the machine define the kind of writing that can be produced. I’d love to write something about dry transfer lettering as well – just not sure yet where to begin.

      I hadn’t heard about the McLuhan conference – it’s too bad he mostly seems to be studied rigorously only in Canada.

  2. judith copithorne

    Hi Lori

    Good to see you taking up more on the the methods of production. There were some really interesting small books and magazines produced on the Intermedia Roneo machine at the end of the 1960’s. Maxine Gadd’s Practical Knowledge definitely fits the category of dirty concrete and even came with a piece of bread in it. This is a gorgeous book using the three color capabilities of that machine. Scott Laurence and George Heyman alos put out their magazine Circular Causation on the Roneo machine. The Roneo machine was a sort of high tech ditto machine. There don’t seem to be any copies of Practical Knowledge available although there is at least one copy in the SFU archives and Max has a copy I believe. There should definitely be a second edition I believe. At the risk of repetition how about the pen and pencil as machine I want to add them to the list of a primary means of concrete poetry production and even secondary and definitely as a part of a two step process of pen, pencil (or any other tool including awl and/or fingers etc.) then fed into a reproductive machine. etc.

    1. Lori Emerson

      Thanks so much for this Judith – I’m eagerly googling Roneo Machine to see what I come up with. I do, actually, completely agree with you about the pen and pencil as writing media – I’ve written an essay on Dickinson’s fascicles where I say as much. This chapter I’m working on, on the typewriter, seems to work best with dirty concrete as it so obviously draws attention to the typewriter as a writing machine.

  3. judith copithorne

    But perhaps if we move into the hand as primary tool,(rather than post primary tool as it is in almost all reproductive or writing processes)then we are at the edge of concrete and perhaps back into what is better defined simply as art (graphic?) or maybe that term so many love to hate, visual poetry.

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