A proposal on aleatory poetics to go soon to a conference. Developed in collaboration with poets Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel.
Dice. A coin toss. Yarrow sticks and the I Ching. Newspaper cuttings in a brown paper bag. N+7. Google Translate. There are countless ways to get chance or near-chance into the poem. Many are provocative – seem, indeed, meant to provoke. Tristan Tzara, for instance, must have provoked his first readers, as he still does undergrads the world round, when he assures you that, having cut words from a newspaper article, tossed them in a paper bag, drawn them out blind, and glued them down in the order drawn, you’ll have proven yourself “an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, … though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.” Shock, mischief, irony – maybe a little elitism, even once the irony’s accounted for. But this much seems clear: the aleatory strain in avant-garde poetry shares in the sensationalism of its century.
Without casting any aspersion on these forms of the aleatory – what is complacency for if not to be nettled – our panel will consider the aleatory in some quieter forms. Three poets will discuss projects underway in which accident is drawn into the inception, creation, or operation of the poem far enough for it to be pervasively marked by chance, though the text that results may not look aleatory in the usual ways.
Aleatory practice opens a route around the tyrant ego – a tap into the unconscious, the world spirit, the Duende, wherever you want to say poems come from – and in these projects, such practice is compounded with other methods of bypassing intention or self-expression. So we’ll investigate edges where the aleatory meets the documentary, the prosodic, the projective. Research practices where fact-checking with Google Street View yields news that transforms a poem, or a night at the theatre offers a missing link in a project that had started to close down its parameters. Divination practices in which one glance back at an abandoned house uncovers a sonnet’s path or the holy pages of ancestors are torn into new and pleasing jumbles. Visual poems where the fall of a leaf or how a torn page expresses as photocopy noise can’t be predicted or where the speed of a gesture produces spatial forms the poet feels as accidental.
When contingency is spoken of in documentary, prosodic, or projective practices, it’s usually treated as adventitious, and soon naturalized to the old story of the solitary poet expressing a coherent inmost self. Our notion is that such practices are, or at least can be, quietly more chaosy than that. The aleatory has a gift to give, a way round the demanding demeaning ego, and this panel asks whether the gift functions only in the noise and lights of a blowout surprise party, or whether it may be as quiet as a friend saying to another, Hey, I thought maybe you’d like this. Contingency in the poem as friendship not showdown.