Tag Archives: erica baum

Sarah Kelly’s ‘cables / to the telescopes’

This has a number of disclaimers. Last year I wrote about Sarah Kelly’s work in the ‘Better than Language’ anthology and made these pertinent observations:

In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.

The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.

Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:

  • short lines;
  • absence of titles;
  • absence of big or foreign words;
  • a satisfyingly sparse intensity
  • exceptional word choice;
  • great endings.”

The next part of the disclaimer (before we get to the digression) relates to the fact that we have corresponded fitfully since the first piece was posted and I remain of the view that Sarah’s work is essential.

The bad news is that I might have to start writing ordinary / normal poetry again instead of culling sketch maps and set lists because Sarah’s work has taken a new direction which means that there is now nobody writing the kind of poetry that I would write if I believed in poetry. The good news is that this new direction is stunning and shows to the rest of us (me) that our thinking is really one-dimensional even when we’re trying to be original.

Set out below are three images from a series currently entitled ‘cables / to the telescope’-

page 3 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 4 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 8 from the cables series sarah kelly

This is what Sarah has to say “which is a collection of around 35 poems called ´cables/to the telescopes´ using collograph too and the same technique of putting everything inside the paper rather than inscribing it upon the surface. Here are some of the images, the plan had been to turn them into a kind of artists books, but we´ll see. For now, it´s hugely rewarding and pushing me in different directions which feels like movement, and movement for me is at the very crux of it all”. Sarah has been learning to make paper and these pieces have come from that, the key thing for me is the idea of putting text inside the paper as part of the process of making the paper which sets off a whole range of thoughts related to good wrongness because text isn’t supposed to have three dimensions, it isn’t supposed to be tactile and it should exist on the surface of things rather than within them.

In the earlier post I identified Sarah as a co-conspirator because I seemed to grasp at an intuitive level what she might be ‘about’ and this remains the case, the possibilities from this new work are certainly making me think again about text as image and about text as thing.

I now need to digress, artists are better at putting poetry in pictures than poets are at putting pictures in poems. Anselm Kiefer and Cy Twombly both incorporated lines from poetry into some of their more famous works, books have been written about Kiefer’s use of Celan and books will be written about Twombly’s use of Rilke. Poets have made pattern poems and concrete poems and have written poems about paintings and to accompany paintings. Some time ago I was of the view that poets should steer well clear of the visual, that what mattered where the words on the page and what they meant and that anything else is just distraction. Then I came across the work of Erica Baum which seemed to suggest that image and text (or image of text) can function as a viable (whatever that might mean) alternative to the poem on the page. I then had a look at Caroline Bergvall’s work and decided that I want to be Caroline Bergvall so I thought I was reasonably au fait with this corner of things poetic. Sarah’s work has thrown this into doubt because the text-as-thing within instead of on the page seems to reconfigure my assumptions and remind me of how little I know and how deeply unoriginal my thinking has been. This reconfiguration seems to have caught some of the Whitehead notion of process.

Digression- I spent some time yesterday recording a layered reading of a poem, I did this with two friends who own the equipment. What was interesting / satisfying for me was the way in which we were able to work together to get something from out of my head and into the real world. I was pleased that this process (which was deeply tentative) worked but the ‘doing’ seemed as important / interesting as the audio file.

Sarah’s new work is about process and showing that movement through to final object which can be seen and felt across the contours of the paper and the text and what’s just becoming additionally interesting is how and when you decide that the object is ‘finished’ / ‘complete’ and I am fighting the opportunity to take this too far down the Whitehead route.

Unusually, I haven’t discussed the words and this is in part because of the brilliance of this particular conceit but also because I think I need to find a different way of writing in order to do justice to the material and it seems that conventional enthusiasm isn’t going to be enough.

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Poetic difficulties

Looking back over the last eighteen months I’ve become a bit of a ‘difficulty’ snob. There have been times when I haven’t read something because it seemed insufficiently obdurate. Writing some of the content for Arduity has helped to maintain this stance which isn’t terribly productive. This does not mean that I’m going to spend the rest of my life reading Fleur Adcock and Anne Stevenson but I does hopefully mean that I’m going to be a bit more tolerant of those poems that say straightforward things in fairly direct ways.
This has led me to think a bit more about difficulty in poetry and especially what I would describe as ‘cognitive’ difficulty. It seems to me that people describe poetry that resists interpretation as difficult but there’s also subject matter that can be difficult to read. The wedding reception scene in ‘Stress Position’ is difficult for me because it is an accurate description of an aspect of mental illness that I have experienced. The detailing of rapes in Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is particularly grueling because of the objective way that terrible events are written about.
The there’s the difficulty presented by the use of proper nouns and foreign phrases. Geoffrey Hill, John Matthias and David Jones are the biggest culprits in this department and it is only with the advent of the internet that some of this stuff becomes reasonably accessible – I’m thinking of ‘The Anathemata’ in particular.
Straightforward difficulty, the kind that thrives on ambiguity and allusion, has been written about at length on this blog with particular focus on Prynne, Hill, Sutherland and Celan. I’ve been a bit carried away with notions of meaning and intention and this is certainly satisfying but I want to turn my attention now to those things that are physically difficult to read, those things that are presented in a way that deliberately challenges our reading practices.
I’ve alluded to this in the past with regard to Keston Sutherland and I now want to contrast this with John Ashbery but first I’d like to explain the background to this. Following a recent George Steiner review in the TLS, I felt goaded into re-reading Richard Rorty on Derrida primarily to check out one of Steiner’s more sweeping generalisations. This was mainly about ‘The Post Card’ but also described ‘Glas’ as “unreadable”. So, I then looked at the first few pages of ‘Glas’ and realised that Rorty was referring to the fact that the text is divided into three or two columns with the intention that we should work out the relationship between each. I then recalled something similar going on with text, spoken word and image in Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’ which also deliberately makes things difficult for us.
As I’ve said in a previous post, Jacket2 are featuring Erica Baum whose ‘Dog Ear’ can be said to be cognitively difficult in that we can’t see all the words and they also have Hannah Weiner’s “The Book of Revelations” which also ‘hides’ parts of words and phrases. I’d never come across Weiner before and I will be writing about her stuff in more detail in the near future. Incidentally, the Jacket2 site now has an index page which makes things much, much clearer, I still don’t understand why they didn’t think about usability prior to launch.
Keston Sutherland’s “The Proxy Humanity of Forklifts” has a long prose section which is punctuated by numbers like this:

“……it was in that case the point of that different from nothing sixteen point three I was out for no points seventeen point eight dead eighteen eaten nineteen if uneaten twenty if not fucked twenty one point four eight if a can on seeing only that denied me twenty two point one four one…..”

This is a short extract from a much longer section but it does illustrate this particular kind of difficulty which comes from not knowing how to follow the numbers sequence and the ‘sense’ of the text at the same time and whether the effort required to do this will be worthwhile. There’s also the ambiguous use of some terms, is ‘points’ in “out for no points” to be read as part of the text or is it some kind of bridge to the numerical sequence?
Then we come to John Ashbery- “Litany” is a long poem first published in the “As We Know” collection in 1979. “Litany” starts with this author’s note: “The two columns of “Litany” are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues.” This of course throws down a gauntlet to the attentive reader- how can we grasp this simultaneity when we can physically only read one thing at a time? The poem itself isn’t much help, these are the first two stanzas from the left hand page:

For someone like me
The simple things
Like having toast or
Going to church are
Kept in one place.

Like having wine and cheese.
The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The
Snapdragons consumed in a wind
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end.

And this is the first two stanzas from the right hand page:

So this must be a hole
Of cloud
Mandate or trap
But haze that casts
The milk of enchantment

Over the whole town,
Its scenery,whatever
Could be happening
Behind tall hedges
Of dark, lissome knowledge

I’m not about to undertake a lengthy exposition of either of these poems but I would like to point out that they are doing the same thing in presenting us with a set of words that are difficult to get hold of and present an additional barrier before we can begin to make some kind of sense. I’ve made the observation before that Sutherland does seem to go in for a kind of deliberate damage but Ashbery (after Skaters) has always appeared too mannered for his own good. So the question would appear to be- is this stuff worth persevering with or should we, like Rorty, simply consign it to the ‘unreadable’ bin?

Jacket 2, Vanessa Place, Erica Baum and Caroline Bergvall

Jacket 2 is now live and continues the excellent work of John Tranter and co. I considered the original incarnation to be fairly essential for those of us who take an active interest in contemporary poetry and criticism even though I have ranted in the past about some of the more pretentious contributions on Prynne.
So, I approached Jacket 2 with a mixture of trepidation excitement. The launch issue dispels any concerns that I may have had. There is an interview with Caroline Bergvall whose “Meddle English” I’m currently reading, a feature on Erica Baum’s “Dog Ear” which I wrote about last years and an exchange between Divya Victor and Vanessa Place which features “Statement of Facts” which I wrote about on arduity last month.

My relationship with Ms Place is becoming more complex which is a good thing. I first came across her stuff in the last issue of the Cambridge Literary Review and didn’t like it much but liked the idea (conceit) behind it enough to work out the reason for my dislike. I then came across “Statement of Facts” on Ubuweb and was staggered and thus goaded into writing the ‘conceptualist’ page on arduity. I was then alerted to the recording of her reading at last year’s cross-genre festival and became a complete convert- as in this woman can do no wrong and even when she is wrong it is still a wrong that I’m happy to defend.

The exchange in Jacket2 embodies much of what I disliked about the earlier version. There is mention of Bataille, Arendt, Kant, Adorno and others as if to add some notion of academic credibility but which has the effect of deterring most interested readers. The exchange isn’t as revealing as other interviews that Place has given mainly because this has all the insiderist smugness of the conceptualist coterie. There are some interesting points made about appropriation and about the function of text and speech that give me further food for thought and anything that brings Place’s work to a wider audience has to be a good thing- even though I would have been deterred by this without some prior knowledge.
Place makes some really good points and then makes some others that sound good but aren’t – arguments about authenticity and appropriation aren’t the same as ‘lies and truth’ and I’m not sure that lies are the opposite of truth in this particular context even though it sounds right.

I think that I’ve said all that I need to about “Dog Ear” except to note that I’m now of the view that the spectral “Card Catalogue” is probably the better work.

Caroline Bergvall takes language and the visual representation of language very very seriously but her work isn’t either sombre or portentous. Having read the interview in Jacket I wish I’d gone to see her Southampton show (I had the opportunity, it’s quite nearby and I wanted to see it…) when I had the chance. “Meddle English” is, as you’d expect an extended riff on all things Chaucer mixed in with bits of Russell Hoban and some earlier stuff that’s probably a bit too close to the dialogue from “A Clockwork Orange”.

I am however very fond of “Untitled” primarily because it uses a kind of repetition which is masquerading as notation. Here’s the last two lines of the third stanza:

piano ALL horns WITHOUT ONE GUT horns bass TRYIN horns MAKEITREAL
horns bass piano BUT COMPARED TO WHAT horns bass

There’s also an instance of repetition in “Goan Atom (Doll)” but I want to save that for the next part of the slow poetry manifesto. The interviewer is a bit fawning and doesn’t really ask particularly searching questions but it’s certainly a good introduction to the work and the thinking behind it.
One final point, before we get any further can they please fix the navigation- something even vaguely usable would be an enormous improvement on the current offering.

Erica Baum on ubuweb

I’m not normally a fan of conceptual/concrete poetry and Erica Baum isn’t a poet but what she does with photography is both stunning and poetic. As I intend to demonstrate, her work is both witty and confrontational. Some of her work can be found on the ubuweb site and I want to draw attention to two of these ‘pieces’.

‘Dog Ear’ consists of a series of images of pages which are folded in such a way so as to produce text which runs from top to bottom as well as from left to right. This sounds fairly simple but the experience of looking at these images is such that they force the viewer (reader) to question the nature of language and its relationship to communication.

What (literally) struck me first about ‘Dog Ear’ is the amount of violence that it does to the eye. By this I mean the amount of damage that is done between seeing the image and trying to make cognitive sense of it. I don’t think that this is due entirely to the fact of juxtaposition (text going in one direction, more text going in another) but also due to the immense roadblock that this simple act (the folding of paper) can create in our/my understanding of how language may be used.

We now come to the words and fragments of words (and letters) as they appear on the folded page. The first image begins on the left-to-right side with the page number (174) and then- “Yes? / Yes / How”, the first line is followed by a long gap and then “MI” followed by part of what looks like a capital ‘S’,the last word is followed by part of what may be the letter ‘l’ but this is purely guesswork on my part. The top-to-bottom side of the fold begins with the page number (175) and then- “I? I would not do that / differently. There is a huge gap between the first and second line so there may be further words that are hidden from us.

I will notice that I am writing about this image as if it was a poem. This may say far more about me than Baum but I feel as if I have to make some kind of sense of what is before my eye. These could be randomly selected pages from yellowing second-hand books but I don’t think this is the case- I’m guessing that you’d have to spend a long time in the selection process before arriving at what is presented here.

The second image that I’ve chosen begins (left to right)- “threw his elegant solution into di / red tape held thing up. Peopl / with their successors didn’t / front concentration ca / heavy snowfalls. Pow / Rail lines were b / of uncertainty / At his / His rec”. We then go top to bottom- “round sort of clearing. Surrounded / gigantic well. Sunlight shoots / illuminating the ground at / sit down in the sunlight / a chocolate bar from / ll over again how / ach second of / sness I felt / he sun’s /path”. I’ve avoided the temptation to include the letters that are partly hidden by the fold- there’s a letter after “concentration ca” that could be an ‘m’ but could also be an ‘r’. As a reader of poetry I’m fairly familiar with allusive stuff and find myself rushing to fill in the gaps with this image, putting together ‘solution’ with ‘Rail lines’ and wanting ‘concentration ca’ to be ‘camp’ when it could be anything.

As I said at the top of this piece, I’m not a great fan of fucking about with text but ‘Dog Ear’, in its own quiet way, has taught me that even tired old sceptics like me can still be jolted out of long-held prejudice and this is surely a Good Thing.

The other Baum piece that I really like is nowhere near as clever but still has a kind of grainy, spectral wit. ‘Card Catalogues’ is a series of images of library card catalogues which mostly show the index headers protruding from the files. I think it’s safe to say that this is primarily about juxtaposition which others have commented on (especially ‘Subversive activities / Suburban homes’ image) but it’s also a historical document. ‘Card catalogues’ was produced in 1997 at a time when we were beginning to move our indexing processes onto servers (which is now the norm) and these images stand as a reminder of what life was like when knowledge / information / data wasn’t readily available via the click of a mouse.  In terms of the images, there’s one shot of a open filing cabinet drawer that just has the word ‘God’ protruding and another is the front of an old wooden drawer which is labelled ‘Jersey City – Jesus’ both of which made me smile a lot.