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. Then I abraded the page to let some of the source text show through. A few more:
(Click on one for some up-close time.)
They toy with pareidolia, the tendency to see faces, presences that care for about or against you, in forms where no faces are. I remain fond of these creatures, though I’ve dropped them from the manuscript, which grows leaner with every revision.
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. The cost of seeing in 1s and 0s. A few more:
Most of Dumuzi makes no mention of Dumuzi. Myth has always been here and now. But for some time I’ve been working to get handwritten fragments into the book, by hook or shepherd’s crook, that do pertain to him as character. I’ve settled, I really hope for good, on aasemic script and an implied fiction – that chaosy yet somewhat transliterable fragments
(Click once, twice, for some close-up time)
have been recovered from somewhere and may illuminate, dimly, something.
Aasemic, WTF, you ask.
Someone coined the term asemic for unreadable writing. (Read about it here.) It draws all the promise of meaning-making, the whole multifoliate interpretive apparatus, into activity, w/o resolution or conclusion. Steinian indeterminacy, down in the graphemes. The made mark as blastocyst, pluripotent.
I start with a blank notebook page and inscribe it with a projective hand. Plunging descenders, adventurous cross-strokes, messy loops and purls. Then I take the page and wave or tremble it over the photocopier as its light bar slides evenly under the glass, taking the data in. Tongue half in cheek, I’ve called the result aasemic – writing you neither can nor cannot read. (Read more about it here.)
Six of these aasemic poems are set to appear in a special “multilingual writing” issue of Asymptote, a translation journal I admire lots.
One scan code, as I worked with Dumuzi, stepped out from the mass as especially elegant. Potent, majestical. With her flame-feather cap on she looked – divine. I knew it was anthropomorphism but I didn’t care!
For a long time, I thought she was part of Dumuzi’s book, but just now she broke out to become her own text – electronic and multi-modal, I think. The first panel:
“When they tire of riding the holy hard-on, Inanna gathers up her me for a road trip.”
“Those are her powers.”
I know the text sounds crude. My effort at the sacred profanity radiant in the source. I imagine a page responsive to touch or mouse-over – that’s how you’d have the aasemic text read to you. (More on that here.) The second panel:
“Won from her drunken father Sweetwater back in the day”
Playing with linear perspective there – depth to suggest infinity, infinity for the godrealm Inanna leaves to tread the earth and fall through the crust to the underworld. Knowing heaven earth hell are no places but modes of perception.
Third panel, the third dimension is a memory, for she and her faithful friend, Ninshubur in the old texts, are self-consigned to flatness –
“Her faithful friend.”
The rubble they confront, busted-up starred-eagle and winged-head postmarks, is the same image laid once over itself akilter, thank you GIMP for that, depth compressed to a slight blur.
All of it’s from the daily mail. Inanna and friend are the codes the P.O. prints on our mail to send it right. The backgrounds are security envelope linings. The blocky little creatures, galla from the kur, underworld demons, are meter codes blown way up.
And why junk mail? Because commerce and interchange. Inanna and Dumuzi are grain deities, and from the roots of the grain springs trade, flowers writing, spread cities, all our gorgeous disasters.
Aasemy in Motion
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 distended forms look like demented psychedelic sperm. I work the same mojo on the photocopier as I told you of before.
Aasemy again. 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 a given moment is unintelligible. And yet something happens, beauty bears toward verb, when you relax 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. Two summers ago, 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 it all in a swoop, 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 life, a light and sound installation in a gallery space. This iteration of SCRO will be 24 one-minute videos like this one:
and this one:
The images are stills from the pages. And during my image-making marathon I was also harvesting ambient sounds: 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.
I make the poem in iMovie whose limitations I let be my formal constraints. Each video one minute long. Duration of each still decided by chance ops – some number of seconds that goes evenly into 60. (I go on a bit too long about that here).
But these aren’t meant for YouTube. I mean them for casting in a physical space where persons in bodies can move in their bodies among. A large maybe labyrinthine space. Each of the 24 movies set separate. A big one here, a small one there. Each cast on its bit of wall, far enough from all others for its companion sound to attach to it. As you move round the space, the sounds admix, and you can feel the form you are occlude the images cast onto the I hope pocked and streaky white walls. Overall effect, a colloquy, democracy of light and sound, making no claims on you, but invitations to joy, plural and transient.
So far, videos from SCRO have shown at an exhibition of asemic writing at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and at a national juried drawing exhibition at the Whatcom Museum in my home town of Bellingham, WA.
For a while I was working on a book called Overject, title from
Prover bia Disject a. It was 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. I think it’s been set down long enough, it may be abandoned. I learned some techniques from doing it though, and got a few neat visuals from it.
Rather than conventional semantic translation – diplomatic transcription, homophonic translation, wayward elaboration. Notes on process became part of the poem:
The single greatest adventure (and timesuck) was inscription. Handwriting. The embodied gesture. Whether and how the energy moving through me as I make the mark, makes it across, from hand to page, page to eye, into the body of one who sees the mark. Cross-stroke as jailbreak. Olson’s high energy–construct.
The blog is littered with the husks of my failures. Here’s maybe the single one I’m happy with, a projective transcription of folio 88v:
Something in it of wildstyle graffiti, something of wild grass calligraphy, though I’ve not made a study of either – I only mean the break-out-of-it quality. Honestly I haven’t figured out what to do with this inscriptive energy yet.
A few other things that came along with Overject I sorta like. A phrase wouldn’t let me go as I worked became what I worked on, in.
Two phrases, actually, in collision:
(Again, click on one for some revelation time.)
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.
The erasure practice that got me to the glyphs I opened with developed further. 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.
The streakiness is cellophane, four layers of it. A few more:
I still like these but they look now like a cul-de-sac.
Odds and ends
“Affect and Audience”
A couple winters back 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, transmuted however, for a chapbook gathering the proceedings, since published digitally by Essay Press and found here.
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.
In untroubled English it says,
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.
At the Photocopier
The first time I taught The Art of Compost, I asked my students to make photocopier poems, which I’d never done any of myself. Figured I should. The best came from rolls of paper towels in my department’s mail room. One made a psyche,
two a drama.
I toy with the idea of a wordless comic book, the story of these two, parent and child.
Later, at another copier, an elegy for my dear friend Elise Partridge,
loved by so many.