call for work: performance|film|sound|writing responding to John Riddell

Thanks to Counterpath – an incredibly productive and innovative literary publisher and arts venue in Denver – we are looking for work in writing, performance, film, and sound that directly responds to or reads Writing Surfaces: The Selected Fiction of John Riddell, co-edited by Derek Beaulieu and myself. Our introduction to the collection, “Media Studies and Writing Surfaces,” is posted here. The Call for Work is below – please submit and/or pass this on to relevant friends, colleagues, and students.



Counterpath is seeking work in writing, performance, film, and sound that directly responds to or reads Writing Surfaces: The Selected Fiction of John Riddell (2012, Wilfred Laurier University Press).

John Riddell’s work embraces game play, unreadability and illegibility, procedural work, non-representational narrative, photocopy degeneration, collage, handwritten texts, and gestural work. His self-aware and meta-textual short fiction challenges the limits of machine-based composition and his reception as a media-based poet.

Riddell is best known for “H” and “Pope Leo, El ELoPE,” a pair of graphic fictions written in collaboration with, or dedicated to, bpNichol, but his work moves well beyond comic strips into a series of radical fictions. In Writing Surfaces, derek beaulieu and Lori Emerson present “Pope Leo, El ELoPE” and many other works in a collection that showcases Riddell’s remarkable mix of largely typewriter-based concrete poetry mixed with fiction and drawings.

Riddell’s oeuvre fell out of popular attention, but it has recently garnered interest among poets and critics engaged in media studies (especially studies of the typewriter) and experimental writing. As media studies increasingly turns to “media archaeology” and the reading and study of antiquated, analogue-based modes of composition (typified by the photocopier and the fax machine as well as the typewriter), Riddell is a perfect candidate for renewed appreciation and study by new generations of readers, authors, and scholars.

Counterpath will host an evening of approximately 5 performances of 10-15 minutes each on December 14, 2013, at 7p.m. Please send a proposal of not more than 250 words to Counterpath program coordinator Oren Silverman ( by October 31, 2013. Counterpath is a literary publisher and arts venue in Denver, Colorado. For more information please visit


Performing E-Literature | E-literature Performing

Below is my curatorial statement for the Electronic Literature Exhibit that will take place at the MLA Annual Convention January 2012. Rather than focus my statement on the works I suggested we include in the exhibit, I’ve instead focused on the notion of a reading or performance of e-literature like the one that will take place on Friday January 6th 2012 (8pm Richard Hugo House, Seattle WA).


If electronic literature is emergent, generative, interactive, kinetic, tactile; if the textual elements of electronic literature are only one part of digital version of a verbi-voco-visual complex, then how will e-literature authors Jim Andrews, Kate Armstrong, Ian Bogost, John Cayley, Erin Costello/Aaron Angelo, Marjorie Luesebrink, Mark Marino, Nick Montfort, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Strickland, and Rob Wittig “read” from their works on Friday January 6th? What does such a reading look like?

One answer is that we wanted to see if we could extend the e-literature exhibit not just into the performative – for, arguably many of the works on display are performative in their right – but into the arena of live performance. However, such an exploration has to remain open-ended and undecidable; the exploration of what it means to “read” or “perform” e-literature has to change and adapt for every text. There is no way to know once-and-for-all how Nick Montfort reads his 2009 work “Taroko Gorge” – a Python poetry generator that creates a nature poem each time it is run. But perhaps we can say this: 1) while the poetic quality of the generated text is something to marvel at, a live performance of “Taroko Gorge” likely highlights the temporal, fleeting quality of the work and of digital computer processes in general (instead of static words on a page, we have ever-changing text that reflects the underlying time-based processes of algorithmic generation); 2) a live performance also reminds us that while the use of an algorithm to generate literary texts does undermine assumptions about authorial intent, self-expression, even the literary, to some extent our interest in authorial intent can shift to the very human programmer standing before us, reading one possible result among many from his elegant script.

Our reading also highlights those works which strategically nestle themselves between analog and print as a means by which to use print to comment on the digital and the digital to comment on print. A live “reading” of Erin Costello and Aaron Angelo’s site-specific installation and performance “Poemedia” poses many challenges to the conventional notion of a poetry reading as the work originally consisted of one hundred fifty 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of card stock suspended one to eight feet above the ground with live and/or recorded video projected onto the sheets. As Costello and Angelo put it, “Poemedia” asks, “what is the role of poetry, page poetry specifically, in a digitized, information saturated world?” As such, just as “Poemedia” enacts a thinking-through of the state of poetry today that is unavoidably enmeshed in practices of remix, search, and the disintegration of clear boundaries between literary and artistic genres, a reading or performance of it will likely also enact a thinking through of the poetry reading that normally features a single author, reading predictable and supposedly original text.

Our reading will also feature game designer and critic Ian Bogost reading from “A Slow Year” – a so-called “chapbook of game poems” that consists of four slow-moving, contemplative, text-free games (“spring”, “summer,” “autumn,” “winter”) for Atari VCS and an accompanying book of related yet separate print-based computer-generated poems. “A Slow Year” joins a growing number of e-literature works that do not contain any text at all but whose inspiration comes at least partly from poetry (in this case, Bogost attempts to translate poetic principles of Imagism into the realm of the videogame). But, aside from the difficult question of what makes a work literary if it contains no text – and one possible answer to this question is that distinctions between genres in the digital are impossible, and so pointless, to maintain – what is there in “A Slow Year” to read or perform? Perhaps Bogost will stand-in as us, as readers/viewers, performing our own interpretative acts to ourselves as we try to make sense of such a work.

And of course, it’s worth pointing out that Bogost will reveal only one possible answer to the foregoing questions during his January 6th reading, a reading which overall will only suggest momentary, emergent, even fleeting “solutions” to the productive problems of reading or performing electronic literature.

Marshall McLuhan and the Avant-Garde

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.

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)