Media Studies and Writing Surfaces (introduction to Selected Fiction of John Riddell)

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.


women dirty concrete poets

I would be blind indeed if I didn’t notice or acknowledge the fact that these dirty concrete/typewriter poets – Steve McCaffery, bpNichol, bill bissett, John Riddell – I’ve been writing about here and in my book project are all men…and nearly all them reference or acknowledge other like-minded men (though of course not always – I gather McCaffery has written on Beth Learn). I’m not entirely sure whether it’s my own unintentional bias. But I can say for sure that in many of the collections of typewriter/dirty concrete poetry I’ve looked at the vast majority of contributors are men. I asked Judith Copithorne, who has written a small book of dirty concrete called Horizon, to speculate on the absence of women and she replied to me something to the effect that back in those days, dirty concrete was considered pretty ‘out there’ and women were already having a hard enough time getting noticed for less ‘out there’ work.

However, thanks entirely to the assistance of Darren Wershler and Judith Copithorne, below is a short list of women from Canada and the U.K. who are or were dirty concrete poets. Perhaps this can serve as a kind of bookmark to myself and others about the archaeological research and writing that has yet to be done on these women:

  • Bettina Adler
  • Mirella Bentivoglio
  • Jennifer Books
  • Paula Claire
  • Jennifer Pike Cobbing
  • Jo Cooke
  • Judith Copithorne
  • Patricia Farrell
  • Maxine Gadd
  • Beth Learn
  • Peggy Lefler
  • Maggie O’Sullivan
  • Sylvia Ptak
  • Betty Radin
  • Rhoda Rosenfeld

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.

media studies and the typewriter poem

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.”

history of the term “dirty concrete”

Earlier today I wrote a long-ish blog post on netpoetic (a communal blog on digital poetry/poetics and e-literature) on my (not-over-yet) search for the origin of the term “dirty concrete.” I have been trying to figure out who first came up with this term for an essay I’m working on, “Marking as Meaning: Reading Steve McCaffery’s Dirty Concrete as Digital D.I.Y.”; in it I’ve tried to delineate a history of the term “dirty concrete” – a term which is frequently used to describe a messy, typed-over aesthetic of concrete poems by McCaffery as well as bpNichol and bill bissett. I thought it worthwhile posting some of the bits and pieces I’ve picked up along the way on this strange, long journey to discover the origin of the term – “the origin of the term “dirty concrete poetry” (en route to digital D.I.Y.).”