from concrete poetry to the poetics of obsolescence: an interview with Derek Beaulieu

LORI EMERSON: Thanks so much Derek for being willing to talk about your concrete poetry work with me. I’ve long admired your experiments in concrete but recently, since I started to research the origin of the term “dirty concrete” and to think about Steve McCaffery’s Carnival in relation to what I call “digital DIY,” your work has taken on new importance for me. Would you mind starting by giving me a sense of your relation to dirty concrete? What do you think dirty concrete means and when would you say your work started to move in this direction?

DEREK BEAULIEU: I would actually say that my work is growing increasingly clean over the last few years. The way I understand dirty concrete (tho I have yet to use a definition per se) is concrete poetry which foregrounds the degenerated, the broken and the handmade – so for instance, photocopier degeneration (bpNichol’s Sharp Facts), broken letterforms or semantic pieces (McCaffery’s “demiplosive suite” or “punctuation poem”) or some of the collage-based or graffiti-based poems of Bob Cobbing. Clean Concrete on the other hand, I think, is closer to the Russian Suprematists and would be exemplified by the typography based poems of Pete Spence (Australia) and the typestracts of Dom Sylvester Houedard (UK). To overly simplify matters I could say that clean = blocks while dirty = crumbs.

So while I did have quite a bit of dirty concrete in the “calcite gours” series in with wax (Coach House, 2003) and some in fractal economies (Talonbooks, 2006), my work has become cleaner and cleaner with emphasis placed less on the mark and more on the letter and is now best exemplified in my Prose of the Trans-Canada (Bookthug, 2011).

EMERSON: First, what did the dirty offer you or your writing and why would you say you’ve moved away from the mark to the letter? Are there limits to the illegible, do you think?

BEAULIEU: What dirty concrete offers a lot of poets is, in my opinion, a freedom from structure – the style tends to be much looser, much less informed by constraint. That said, it is by no news a less-evolved or less rigorous form of poetry by any means; just a form which attracts some poets more than others. As I said, there are some poets who have decided to dwell in that style – and I think that Bob Cobbing is a prime example. I don’t think there are limits to the non-semantic. In fact, while I think there are some limit-cases – specifically the Codex Seraphinianus and to a lesser extend, Michael Jacobson’s The Giant’s Fence – neither of these examples are dirty concrete whatsoever, but they both are exemplary examples of nonsemantic writing. The illegible also is an area which deserves increased exploration (as poetry has basically slipped into a position of cultural illegibility as an artform).

EMERSON: Your mention above of Prose of the Trans-Canada (which, incidentally, to me is utterly dirty but you’re right to point out how flexible this term seems to me) gives me the opportunity to let you know I think this piece is absolutely gorgeous – in size, scope, execution…I could go on. But, speaking of execution, I wonder if we could shift our conversation to talk about particular writing media. Prose of the Trans-Canada was created entirely with Letraset, correct? What exactly does dry transfer lettering offer you? Is it the hand-craftedness of it or the tactility of the letters?

BEAULIEU: Okay – would you mind offering your definition of dirty concrete for the sake of the conversation? I tend to see Prose of the Trans-Canada as quite clean, especially with the conceptual framework and am fascinated to hear how you disagree.

Prose of the Trans-Canada (and my previous volume of poetry, Chains) was created entirely using Letraset and other forms of dry-transfer lettering. I am fascinated by the combination of hand-craftednesss (each letter is applied one at a time, by hand) and the uniform nature of the letters themselves. Dry-transfer letting was created for use in graphic design, drafting and other commercial and business applications. Initially its price was prohibitively expensive for artists, and only once it has become antiquated in its intended field has it dropped in price and become more accessible by visual and text-based artists (like Kelly Mark and myself). Much of my artistic practice is based on obsessive acts of reading and writing (Flatland was the hand-traced transcription of an obsessive reading practice, how to write contained every single piece of text in all of Roy Lichtenstein paintings) – and the obsessive placing of individual letters fits well within that practice.

EMERSON: Well, I’m not at all convinced my definition of dirty concrete is correct but I can’t help thinking of it in terms of illegibility and a non-Swiss, less orderly and geometrically precise sense of design – a less graphically neutral use of language, I suppose, than, say, work by Gomringer. As you say, there’s an element of the hand-craftedness to your work that I don’t see in Swiss and Brazilian concrete poetry from the 1950s and 60s. Which brings me to ask: how do you think of your hand-crafted work in relation to the digital, where material evidence of writerly labour is so easily effaced? I also am curious to hear about whether or how your work engages with obsolescence? What does it mean for you to use obsolete writing technologies? This is something I’ve been thinking about lately as it comes up frequently in Marshall McLuhan’s writing – for example, in The Mechanic Muse, he seems to be saying that obsolete writing technologies undo the cultural tendency to render machines invisible.

BEAULIEU: The digital I think is the future of concrete poetry (as Kenny Goldsmith has frequently argued, most recently in the introduction to Bessa’s Mary Ellen Solt: Towards a Theory of Concrete Poetry), but I have rarely seen any concrete which adequately deals with the media. I think that concrete poets – like many poets – struggle with two major issues: editorial acumen and learning new skills. Too many visual poets churn out work without a quality-control filter (like many poets), and that if the form is truly going to move forward then the idea of learning new skills can not be an anathema to poetry. That said, most of my work engages with either obsessive practice (like Flatland and Local Colour) or obsolete technology – like Prose of the Trans-Canada. With my concrete poetry I have to become very aware of every letter I place – each letter is placed individually, scratched down with a stylus or pencil from a sheet of plastic. Each vinyl letter is suspended on the sheet until placed by rubbing it into place and once the letter is placed it can not be moved, removed or replaced. Each letter can only be used once. I have to become very aware of obsolete technology, as dry-transfer lettering is no longer made, and every letter I place (and some of my work uses thousand of characters) I will never be able to use again.

To an extent it’s a metaphor for poetry, each poem written is another step forward into obsolescence.

EMERSON: Do you foresee yourself using digital technology in the near future as a way to continue your engagement with writing technologies and obsolescence? I ask because I’m interested in how old technology such as dry transfer lettering, approached from the perspective of the digital, has the unexpected result of making the digital more visible to us – and in being more visible, it also opens the digital up to tinkering and the production of new modes of writing.

BEAULIEU: I have used technology as a means of dissemination – especially in terms of email and Pdfs. Both Ubu and Eclipse include full-text Pdfs of my work – Flatland is at Ubu, Local Colour at Eclipse as a means of circumventing yet another supposedly obsolescent technology: print. I continue to have a print fetish, but believe that the readership is, in many ways, better served by posting work online for free.

I am also just starting a tenure as Ubu’s new visual poetry editor. My aim is to develop Ubu’s holdings of visual poetry through a series of Pdfs of historic and contemporary visual poetry manuscripts…

from Derek Beaulieu’s Flatland (Information as Material, 2007)

Derek Beaulieu’s Prose of the Trans-Canada (BookThug, 2011)

3 thoughts on “from concrete poetry to the poetics of obsolescence: an interview with Derek Beaulieu

  1. Pingback: ABC: the aleph beth book and Dirty/Clean Concrete | Amplab

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