A few years ago, I got curious as a poet about forms in space, and space in forms, and how pictorial meaning can work at a slant to the sorts of meaning words make. In other words I started doing vispo. Here’s a portfolio with some of my explorations, roughly chronological.
– Christopher Patton
The adventure started as I worked on my second book of poetry, Dumuzi. I’ll spare you my first efforts. Let’s just say there was a lot of learning. In time I came to visual poems in several different registers.
A LOW PATH
A path down it.
Low beautiful cry ways
land to a point. Branches
branch tiny white branch to flood
sudden tell a fragrance.
I got to the poem by erasing a source text (a transcript of a dream). I got to the glyph by elaborating the erasure marks. A few more images:
(Click on one for some up-close time.)
These ones toy with pareidolia, the tendency to see faces, presences that care for about or against you, in forms where they actually aren’t.
Another sort came with the day’s mail. In my Art of Compost course I’d been teaching Jen Bervin and Marta Werner’s gorgeous Gorgeous Nothings, a sheaf of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems. One day that ferment crossed, in a dim and grainy flash of light, with my interest in Dumuzi in marketplaces – in commerce, fungibility, all the ways we thing each other daily.
Junk mail bricolage was born. I was specially interested in effects got by data loss and degradation. Dumuzi’s the story of a god’s hell journey, after all. The first one I did looks awful clumsy to me now, but also, it has an innocent fervour I wouldn’t be able to recreate now.What do I mean by data loss, degradation? The grainy bleary edges. The way forms continuous “in nature” become discrete, broken, when thrown to the digital. A few more:
Now, one scan code stepped out from the mass as especially shapely. Elegant, potent, majestical. With her flame-feather cap on she looked positively divine. I knew it was anthropomorphism but I didn’t care.
Goddess Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Devastatrix of the Lands.
My love. Why she goes to hell, my love, why she feels she needs to, accounts vary, but she does go, yeah. Nested in Dumuzi, story of the god’s ascent and descent, is a story of his lover and commander’s journey to and from the kur, along the road “on which no traveller returns,” as the old texts put it.
The first panel:
A few more:
The backgrounds are security envelope linings. The galla are her demons. The sequence to be published as a chapbook, Inanna Sent, by Little Red Leaves.
You’ll see I’ve been mucking around with handwriting. Each successive draft my hand got looser, freer, less legible. A convergence here with wildstyle graffiti and wild grass calligraphy though I’ve not made a study of either. For me it’s about embodiment of gesture: that the energy moving through me as I make the mark, make it across, from page to eye, into the body of the one who sees the mark. Cross-stroke as jailbreak. Olson’s high-energy construct.
Handwriting gave me a way to do, in prose, the bits of Dumuzi’s story I needed to. It’s not a narrative project; it kaleidoscopes his narrative; I just needed scraps of story here and there. Here’s one:
And one last sort. (The manuscript’s a hodgepodge.) Dumuzi is not, for me, other than me. Everything mythological here is a dimension of my dreaming self. To make that manifest – to make sure myth stays pointed at inmost – I’ve brought into the text handwritten journal pages from my own hell passages.
You can’t put that stuff in a book unaltered tho’. You just can’t. Art isn’t blurt.
So an active aesthetic question for me has been, how to alter such in a way that doesn’t dim it. Of course, there are all the usual ways we tell our students to transmute the raw stuff of emotion into art. Show don’t tell. Sink your feeling in an image. Ironize the eff out of it.
None of that was working for me. All of it felt falsifying.
How I put elsewhere the demand I was feeling:
I want to work with the language I speak in when I’m speaking just to me and maybe in difficulty. I’m interested in dailiness, inner sounds, outer sounds.
I want to bring the banal into the lyric in way that doesn’t sink my practice but ballasts it. I know some of the known ways: irony and pastiche in written lyric, cadence and insistence in spoken word. But those don’t come to me so natural. So I’m stumbling towards a chimerical way with proprioceptive foreparts and digital hindquarters.
“Proprioceptive foreparts.” Start with the embodied gesture, the mark on the page whose arc and texture convey emotion and momentum.
“Digital hindquarters.” Then to distort the material, to render it to some degree illegible, loosening the hold of the traumatic occasion, letting a maybe new emotion through.
To put it more plainly? I took a page of journal writing, edited it lightly, and then manipulated it on my home photocopier, shivering the page up and down on the glass as the scan light moved underneath. Making a traumatic legible text less intelligible but maybe more beautiful.
while some become nearly un-so:
Dumuzi is out in the world now, looking for a home.
As Dumuzi wrapped up, I began work on Overject, title from
Prover bia Disject a. It’s an exercise in “total translation” – translation of every feature of a source text, in this case a minor didactic Old English poem I came across towards the back of the Exeter Book.
So, rather than conventional semantic translation – diplomatic transcription, homophonic translation, unforeseen eruption, wayward elaboration. Notes on process became part of the poem, too, to wit:
A phrase that wouldn’t let me go as I worked became what I worked on, in.
In this case, two phrases, in collision:
(Again, click on one for some revelation time.)
Or if aspen leaves interposed between the sun and the page their shaky frames, that became the moment of the poem for me, and entered the field of translation. The photocopier’s good for translating an interpolation of flat surfaces. The black-and-white setting on my scanner’s good for translating the lossiness of translation.
Other experiments underway in Overject are prospering or not so much. Just one here, a development of the erasure practice that got me to the glyphs I opened with. So that from this source, a semantic translation,
Moving among the company,
everywhere always, house throughout,
greeting her lord, she pours his cup first;
in greatness gives and keeps counsel,
they make a house, two
of one mind.
You see how tame the handwriting is. Gotta redo that. The streakiness is cellophane, four layers of it. A few more:
Overject‘s on hold for a bit because a project more pressing came along.
SCRO began after a visit to my father, 84 years old, in California. I wrote pages and pages in my journal unloading my worries and fears about his health and state of mind, our relationship, my childhood memories of him. With some reworking the first page looks like this:
My base text is 24 of these handwritten pages. One for each hour of the day. Wandering off in time and space, thought and feeling, the text comes home time and again to my little Bellingham house, which my father, cosigning a loan, made me able to buy.
“SCRO” as a truncated form of escrow. Also of scroll – one form the poem is to take. Also the title can’t not call to mind scrotum. The poem’s a study of father and son, and whatever manhood is, and continuity and rupture. (Scroll and escrow both derive from a Germanic root meaning “shred.”)
Also the characters in their aasemic forms look like demented psychedelic sperm. Because I work the same mojo on the photocopier as I told you of before.
Aasemic, WTF, you ask.
Someone coined the term asemic for unreadable writing. It calls your meaning-making apparatus into play without letting it resolve on any given meaning. (Read about it here.) I’ve in turn coined the term aasemic for writing you neither can nor cannot read. (A bit more about that here.)
I want these texts to hang right on the threshold between signal and noise. Why? Because of how hard it is to understand each other, or oneself, or to parse all of what’s coming in. Most of any given moment is unintelligible. Something happens though, beauty becomes a verb, when the mind relaxes into not getting it.
SCRO will have 2 lives, one as ink on paper, one as light and sound on the air.
One, a scroll built of 24 aasemic panels like the one above, flown seamlessly together. Last weekend, in a marathon session, one an hour over 24 hours, I made the images and cut and trimmed and affixed them to make a mockup.
Did so, aside from for funs, because time of day, angle of sun, light or dark flowing into the room, owned the look of the page, making the diff between
The wavy dark areas are my hands on the page, abstracted.
A small gallery of the construction:
I picture the scroll published in a run of 100 or so. Each held close by one of those blue produce rubber bands, you know, for broccoli or asparagus.
The other is a light and sound installation in a gallery space. Been making HQ (1200 dpi) scans of the pages so I can grab small close-up details from them:
For honesty, the circle is something WordPress does I wouldn’t, otherwise. Kinda like it though for here and now. Click for rectilinear. They’re all 16:9, a movie ratio.
For – during my image-making marathon – I was harvesting ambient sounds also. Voice notes app on my iPhone which has a real sensitive mic. Skreeking gulls and jays. Freight trains going on mourningly. Megan Clint and Emerson their boy next door on the merits of hamburgers. Dogbark. Another neighbour’s AC unit. Distant traffic earblur.
Image and sound touched hands in iMovie and soonly made sweet love. No actual they ain’t met yet. But here’s a prototype:
Each one’s a minute long. How long a still lasts is decided by chance ops. Some number of seconds a divisor of 60. I go on a bit too long about that (“Phoenician”! “Babylonian”!) here (3/4 of the way down).
But these are not meant for YouTube. I mean them for casting in a physical space where persons in bodies can move in their bodies among. Can feel pleased appalled or perplexed as the masses they are occlude my images cast by tech boxes onto the I hope pocked and streaky white walls.
Here’s one installation I can imagine. These one-minute movies, set in sequence, as one 24 minute movie, thrown big to a white wall. On a second wall, at a distance, also bigly, another movie, slowly tracking the scroll from start to end. The audio there would be me reading the unadulterated text.
Here’s another. For a bigger or more labyrinthine space. Each of the 24 movies set separate. A big one here, a small one there, and so on. Each cast on its bit of wall, far enough from all others for its companion sound to attach to it. But as you move round the space the sounds admix. (Soundtracks would need to be spacious enough for the mix not to muddy.) 24 projectors! 24 speakers! This one I’d need a grant for.
I’m used to publishing wordpo, not mounting installations, but this much I know – the form it takes depends on the space it finds to inhabit.
Maybe, too, a performance dimension. Cuz I did put a lot of work and heart and some tears into the base text, the prose. I liked mussing it up and setting me free thereby of it – but a shame, maybe, to lose mostly to altogether the emotional meanings in there.
So, somewhere in the mix, a reading of it? In the company of slides passing or flashing by? A challenge would be, how would the emotional content in that reading not occlude the less directive rest of it?
Is there a way to alter the aural text, correlate to the distortion of the written text, that’s organic to it and the project, and complicates its naïvetés … ?
Finally, last winter I was part of a symposium called Affect and Audience: Translational Poetics, at the University of Washington. We were invited afterward to send our notes, however transmuted, for a chapbook gathering the proceedings, to be published by Essay Press. Just sent mine off today, so.
I sent two pages. The first:
In undistressed English it says,
Affect + Audience Symposium
“Translational Poetics” 1/29/16
Emerson. — Occupy. Here. —
Going off the grid but
having a grid off the grid.
R. Zend — “The Message” —
FIND THIS — sequential trans-
lation, 24 (?) stages round the
world, hearsay following the sun.
Abel. — “The digital is really
good for finding surfaces; +
I want to resist depths.” He
doesn’t say why; why do I
feel I know why?
Voyce. — Black bars, black
sites, black ops. “to redact
into dust.” Brown’s body, left
in the street hours, is the re-
dacted mark. Is left there
to mean. Drone shrapnel.
Postscript. I made some notes at
a symposium. Dressed a few
up artfully when I got a call
for subs. And the way it came
out, went oh my god, I’m
using that young man’s death
yet the fuck again, just add
me to the pile atop Reverend
Al + Kenny G., to mean.
I didn’t mean to, but I
did it, how did that hap-
pen, I just transcribed a
note from a talk about how
the boy’s body was put to
use to mean, + now here I
am putting it to use to
mean some more, + with no
GD right to. It stinks, it
sucks, + it isn’t the digit-
al’s fault, but dig. repro. sure
makes it easier to disseminate
the meanings weightlessly, + oh
baby when the weight catches up,
the body catches up, crash.
You get why distress, unintelligibility, is part of the endeavour? Don’t care if you’re a mountainside mystic or a reporter in on war-torn worlds, you’re gonna be asked to say the unsayable. Vispo’s ongoing research on how to.