MIXTAPE 16: レイン
MIXTAPE 15: KL.NE
MIXTAPE 14: WUNDERWAFFEL
MIXTAPE 13: ZOND
MIXTAPE 12: MXG
MIXTAPE 11: LORD BYRON STYROPOR
MIXTAPE 10: ANNA ADAMS
MIXTAPE 09: ARTETETRA RECORDS
MIXTAPE 08: TRAGEDIJA U STEGLITZU
MIXTAPE 07: PAUL SEIDLER
MIXTAPE 06: BEN K.O.
MIXTAPE 05: KURORT SPANDAU
MIXTAPE 04: SHŌ
MIXTAPE 03: HEALTH
MIXTAPE 02: CLAIRE D.
MIXTAPE 01: SINOSC
Concrete poets endeavored to create a universal language that could be read both visually and verbally, a form of compressed communication for a new world in which language had begun to be rapidly reduced, consumed, reformed and circulated. Like all aesthetic movements, definitions mutated and evolved — concrete poems often followed strict rules or rigorous systems created by the author, but other poems were created using intuitive methods, such as those of the Japanese poet Seiichi Nikuni.1 These two approaches could be seen as rather contradictory and it appears that in the first concrete poetry manifestos,2 an expressive approach to language was seen as obstructive to the aim of creating “an object in and by itself, not an interpreter of exterior objects and/ or more or less subjective feelings.”3 However, as suggested by Mary Ellen Solt in her 1972 essay Typography and the Visual Poem, “when the constructivist and expressive visual poem are seen as two sides of the same coin, a satisfactory definition derived from the Noigandres’ Pilot Plan can be formulated: CONCRETE POETRY means VERBIVOCOVISUAL POSSIBILITIES.”4
It is this definition, “verbivocovisual” - which I will return to and use as the basis for my exploration of concrete poetry — considering the genre in relation to writing the feminine. In l’Écriture féminine it is proposed that women will find their own voices, writing from the position of a female border. Cixous insists on the impossibility of defining a l’Écriture féminine — by nature it is slippery, fluid and multiple — impossible to categorize or pin down with academic and patriarchal understanding:
It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded – which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system, it does and it will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination.5
An Exploration of Verbivocovisual Borders and Margins attempts to bring together the marginal position of the woman writer and writing the feminine, with tendencies and legacies of concrete poetry.6 In bringing concrete poetry to this discourse, I intend to investigate whether it could be considered a feminine writing and how phallogocentrism has locked women poets and their writing outside of the movement.7
Placing the strategies of l’Écriture féminine alongside those of concrete poetry, some similarities appear. Both are attempts at disrupting the organizational grid of language, and both embrace a position of multiplicity. In concrete poetry this occurs in the overlapping of the function of text, image and speech and in l’Écriture féminine through fragmentation, the use of many voices and the expression of female sexuality — which is in itself multiple and complex.8
In the process of writing this text, concrete poetry and visual/language/sound poetry has received sudden and wide attention, particularly in the British contemporary art world — with a series of exhibitions, symposiums and publications revisiting some of the key names in the canon.9 However, the presentation of marginal, and specifically female practices remains primarily outside of this discourse.10 It is my hope that this essay will assist in creating spaces for these practices to be recognized and seen more publicly.
1: CONCRETE POETRY, SOLT AND MARGINALITY
Mary Ellen Solt
Not only an important voice within the concrete poetry movement, Mary Ellen Solt was also an adept scholar and literary analyst, gaining notoriety for her intelligent examination of the modernist poet William Carlos Williams11 and his “American Idiom” — the movements of speech specific to America’s heterogeneous culture in the early 20th Century that Williams proposed could renew or refresh language.12
Solt’s first contact with other concrete poets, such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, is recorded as occurring in 1962, and from this point (and arguably before) she began to critically and creatively develop her analysis and own form of concrete poetry. Solt became a central figure in positioning concrete poetry as an international movement, editing a groundbreaking anthology, Concrete Poetry, A World View (1968),13 which brought together poems and concrete poetry manifestos from Scandinavia, Europe, North America, Brazil and Japan for the first time. Concrete Poetry, A World View was one of the first large-scale publications to mark a unity between these geographically diverse nodes of activity, creating an overview of an avant-garde writing practice that appeared to materialise simultaneously in many places and languages.
Solt did gain recognition for her poetry, yet remains somewhat undervalued; her work trampled under the macho weight of Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Eugen Gomringer, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Öyvind Fahlström amongst others.14 As mentioned in the introduction, I have found that there is very little recorded of women writers’ contributions to this genre. Solt appears to be one of the only acknowledged examples of a woman writing concrete poetry and I have many questions about why there are so few female voices — whether they were omitted from history or muscled out by the didacticism of the male manifestos.
Emerging in the post war years, with influences as varied as Futurism, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Guillaume Apollinaire, the concrete poetry movement galvanized and gained momentum in the 1950’s. A number of poets published manifestos concurrently across the world, including the Noigandres group (Brazil), Eugen Gomringer (Switzerland), Öyvind Fahlström (Sweden/Brazil), Pierre and Ilse Garnier (France) and Bohumila Grogerova and Josef Hirsal (Czechoslovakia), all of whom appeared to share the common (and utopian) aim of creating a ‘new’ poetry. Emphasis was placed on spatial and structural relations, in which verbal signs performed pictorial tasks — a “tension of things-words in space-time”.15 Developing from this very specific moment in modernism, concrete poets strove to create a poetry in which form became content and content became form:
Concrete poetry: total responsibility before language. Through realism. Against a poetry of expression, subjective, hedonistic. To create precise problems and solve them in terms of sensible language. A general art of the word. The poem product = ‘useful object’.16
Taking place at the interstice of visual, textual and verbal elements in space, concrete poetry attempts to exist simultaneously between these registers. Exploring the possibilities of a new, reduced language, concrete poetry places equal importance on visual and mimetic properties in the composition of text on a page, as it does to speech movements and rhythms, with a resistance or reconsideration of traditional syntax and grammar.
In some ways, this practice enabled a leveling of hierarchies between design and literature/art, referencing text from vastly different contexts (similarly to Pop Art) and lending itself to the condensation of language and images in consumer culture and advertising. For this reason it has often been sidelined as experimental only in graphic design and typographical representation, its interrogation of linguistic structures overlooked.17 Yet, looking back with the lens of a digital era, concrete poetry has had a renaissance — with renewed interest in the genre. Reconsidering the poem within the space of the screen and in the context of the Internet, concrete poetry’s hybridity — its use of appropriation and emphasis on the ‘ideogram’,18 appears fresh and strangely contemporary.
Kenneth Goldsmith19 has written extensively on this matter and suggests that concrete poetry’s ability to reconcile the flatness of the page and “the implied dynamic (and often sequential) movement of the language used” has been waiting for the Internet as its medium — “a dynamic, almost cinematic frame-based experience that occurs on a flattened stage (the screen)”.20
My employment of the term ‘phallogocentricism’ is aligned to the writing of Derrida and Cixous. This neologism brings together ‘phallocentricism’ — centred around the phallus or male; and ‘logocentrism’ — a preference of speech over writing as a signifier of meaning. The portmanteau of these two terms is used to describe the privileging of the masculine in the construction of meaning and discourse. Central to deconstruction and poststructuralist thinking, phallogocentrism alludes to a “system of metaphysical oppositions”,21 within a dominant western philosophy of determinateness, which itself is gendered by a patriarchal agenda. Cixous argues that all Western languages are phallogocentric — dominated, constituted and engendered by men. Language revolves around the phallus as its power source, prime signifier and supposed ground (or logos). The phallus is dominant and inescapable both in terms of linguistic structure — vocabulary and syntax but also in its exacting rules of logic, linearity and emphasis on classification, oppositions or dualisms and need for ‘objective’ knowledge.
When revisiting the historical concrete poetry movement, this term is an integral tool in my understanding and exploration of the lack of known female writers. Using Cixous’s reading of phallogocentric nature of language, I will explore the ways in which it was controlled and dominated by the masculine but also some of the tendencies of concrete poetry to be a transgressive form of writing that could be seen as l’Écriture Féminine.
Writing the Feminine
By (un)definition, the feminine is impossible to pin down. For the purpose of my investigation however, it is useful to attempt to draw a momentary constellation of thinking around the feminine, in order to examine Solt’s poems and concrete poetry in this context. In her experimental essay, RE: THINKING: LITERARY: FEMINISM (three essays onto shaky grounds), (1995), Joan Retallack presents a potted history of properties attributed to the feminine and the authors of this thinking. It is with this cartography in mind that I will consider the feminine in concrete poetry:
… it is open, diffuse, multiple, complex. Decentred, filled with silence, fragmented, incorporating difference and the other, (Cixous, Irigaray, et al.); undefinable, subversive, transgressive, questioning, dissolving identity while promoting ethical integrity (Kristeva, Butler); materially and contextually pragmatic, employing nonhierarchal and nonrationalist associative logics – “weblike” connective patterns (Carol Gilligan); self — and other interrupted, tentative, open/interrogative (Sally McConnell-Ginet, Mary Field Belenky, et al.); marginal, metonymic, juxtapositional, destabilizing, heterogeneous, discontinuous….(Genre Tallique, Craig Owens, Page duBois, Janet Wolff)22
Following feminine writing back to some of its analytical roots, I will pay particular attention to two writers, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva — who were amongst the first to establish and draw attention to its importance and need for space within literary and philosophical thinking.
Cixous’s l’Écriture féminine is a writing of insurgency — of the body, fragmented and nonlinear. As mentioned previously, Cixous (as did Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva) drew attention to the phallogocentric constraints of language, calling for the need to write from a female border, away from reason/passion, body/mind binaries – utilising autobiography, stream of consciousness and women’s experiences. Cixous stipulates the importance of writing from a feminine border, not from ‘between’, which she believes is too ‘masculine’ a position.23
Whereas Cixous believes feminine writing should be outside of phallic discourse, Kristeva questions whether women should aim to create an alternate discourse at all, suggesting marginality could be a potentially liberating position. In being marginal, women avoid producing fixed, authority claiming language, allowing their writing to be in flux — to exist in a space of the in-between and constant becoming.24 Kristeva suggests that women should persevere in challenging existing discourses rather than formulating separate ones:
If women have a role to play ... it is only in assuming a negative function: reject everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with meaning, in the existing state of society. Such an attitude places women on the side of the explosion of social codes: with revolutionary movements.25
It is important also to add that for Kristeva and many others, the label of ‘woman’ refers not necessarily just to gender, but also to many marginal figures — to those not represented or to those enacting a resistance to accepted patriarchal systems and culture.26
It is this notion of marginality and the complicated nature of a marginal position as something both potentially powerful, liberating, but also negative, silencing and problematic, that simultaneously creates possibilities for feminine writing while also ensuring it remains outside of the historical canon of experimental writing and art.
2: SOLT AND THE FEMININE
The first flowers of spring, often violently yellow in colour, can appear aggressive against the browns and greys of winter. These blossoms seem to operate as a call to arms for Spring — the eye cannot fail to notice them, to be startled, chromatically surprised by a crude representation or placeholder for the prismatic flora to come.
It is after one of these forceful blooms that Solt titles her poem, Forsythia. Perhaps the flower and its vivid colour could be seen as metaphor for the potential of a female concrete poetry — a protest against structure and control, jagged fragments of rude colour, startling and sprawling. Forsythia was first printed on bright yellow paper, thin, black serifed type on a garish ground. In this simple gesture, Solt immediately brings a confrontation to the white space of the page, presenting something else, something urgent. The letters ascend in entangled branches, clear and defined at the roots, becoming more abstract as they grow outwards and upward — radiating chains of letters. The small shift of rotating the text requires the reader to perform a physical action, either a turn of the head, or the page, to engage with horizontal and vertical planes.
Each branch is linked by what appears to be punctuation marks, explained by Solt as the corresponding signs in Morse Code for each letter.27 Bringing together these two languages or forms of communication adds an element of decoding/recoding to the poem, playing with rules of communication and the space between symbol, letter and picture. In this process of ordering and the creation of a code, Solt is able to playfully span a space between linguistic and non-linguistic communication.
I would argue that rather than unification, the ideogram enables a multiplicity of responses and readings and not one unified whole, or truth. I see Solt’s work in particular as inhabiting a position of simultaneous plurality — there is something fractured or fragmented about Forsythia — a bodily or organic desire for resistance to order. The strands and letters seem to rejoice in their expansion, and when followed with one’s eye from extremities to base, the poem’s regulated and geometric roots seem bunched, oppressed or forced. This reading of the ideogram also seems to be in line with my understanding of both Derrida and Cixous’s exploration of a deconstructive writing that rejects phallogocentrism. In this sense, concrete poetry could be a writing not of one meaning or determinate, but of many possible readings, spun together and transecting in web-like formations, made only bigger by the overlapping of the functions of image, text and speech.
Pilot Plan also declares concrete poetry as a means for creating “a sentient ‘verbivocovisual’ totality”, and Solt employs this term in her critical analysis of concrete poetry.28 When used to describe the interstices that concrete poetry operates between, it seems to offer more possibilities for a feminine writing than the over arching mantle of concrete poetry. Solt uses ‘verbivocovisual’ to tie together intuitive and systematic approaches to writing, something that seems to be at odds with the masculine image of concrete poetry. It is my claim that a feminist reading of verbivocovisual would be not of “a sentient ‘verbivocovisual’ totality”, but a constellation of potentials, which can never be considered whole or complete. In this case, rather than verbivocovisual embodying “two sides of the same coin”;29 it could be represented as an object with an infinite number of sides, readings and registers — an ideogrammatic apeirogon.30
It is the possibility of the ideogram to be a simultaneous multiplicity and not a unification that appeals to me as an artist. There is an exciting potential for a work to exist on visual, textual, aural registers, for these elements to overlap, be confused, interrupted, corrupted, exchanged; remaining multiple rather than as one fixed completeness. In my recent video work, Un Waive Edge Ground (2015), concrete poetry is translated into the space of the body. Words appear vertically printed onto leggings, worn by bodies navigating a rocky landscape. Text appears on moving limbs, contorted, cut and edited by the wearers’ movements, creating momentary phrases with other legs — intersecting and combining.
I would propose that this process of translating text onto the surface of a body in space, is similar to my reading of the ideogram — viewing requires constant revision. As the space between image and text become blurred, letters and legs form abstract compositions in the landscape. My intention is for no singular reading/or viewing of the work, but a conversation back and forth between these elements and registers.
It seems almost parochial when considering Solt’s Flowers in Concrete and perhaps concrete poetry in general, to focus too heavily on its mimetic properties. Although Solt wrote of creating “visual equivalents”31 of flowers, concrete poetry is often too easily categorized and sidelined by its mimetic habits. It is for this reason that concrete poetry has lost some of its potency in art and literary history — misread merely as a practice of ‘shape poems’, or visually arresting experiments in graphic design. In fact, perhaps mimesis acts as a decoy for a far more interesting play on the materiality of language — subtle explorations, spatial disruptions and relations not just between words but phonemes and morphemes, word play and double entendre, speech rhythms, disruption of linguistic structures, an interrogation of language. Mimesis enables concrete poetry to operate on the plane of the ideogram and verbivocovisual, creating tension between form and content, but should be considered a small element in a much larger game of play and disruption of accepted styles of writing.
For example, Forsythia’s composition invites the eye to read from the middle outward, resisting any linearity. Although it resembles its namesake, visually the text performs other functions — insistent strings of interwoven letters, tensely resisting to be ordered. The first syllable of Forsythia becomes elongated — ‘Fors’ - which could be pronounced as ‘force’, adding to the urgency of the poem. Words such as ‘Race’ ‘Insists’ ‘Action’ suggest protest or change, alluding to race riots happening at the time in the USA, which formed the topic of Solt’s later work, The Peoplemover.
The Peoplemover (1968 - 75) takes its title from the conveyor system used in Disneyland to transport “hoards of fun-seeking Americans around a world of fantasy and fake history.”32 Enraged and frustrated by the climate of violence and hate in in the late 60’s, Solt proposed the poem to be a site of protest:
All over the United States there were equally angry, frustrated and sorrowful people exercising their right to protest. There were demonstrations against the war. Demonstrations against the Republicans. Demonstrations against the Democrats. Demonstrations against the universities. Demonstrations against the Establishment and the ways things were going in general. Why not a demonstration poem?33
Initiated with the students of an experimental design class and members of an informal art collective, Fiasco,34 The Peoplemover evolved over several years to include graphic poster works and a libretto of voices and utterances that was performed several times and later published as a poem in 1975.
All the content of the libretto is appropriated — first person accounts of political struggles, historical speeches and statements from the public domain, with sources marked clearly throughout. Solt removes any hierarchy between the voices, creating the same status for famous political speeches and unnamed accounts of police brutality. This fragmented structure, with small bursts of text, creates a disorientating web of sound bites and slogans. Removed from their original context, the triteness of political speeches and slogans is placed alongside harrowing descriptions of violence against protesters and responses to the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Solt’s recognition of the importance of drawing attention to statements of political struggle, rather than installing her own authorial voice reaffirms her position more generally — suggesting the feminine is very much present in both her writing and life practice. Solt’s method appears always open and in this case extremely collaborative, allowing a range of voices and interpretations. In questioning her authorial voice and position as poet, she embodies an open attitude to the potential of concrete poetry.
Solt writes of The Peoplemover that her “intent was not to explain or to proffer solutions but to weave a series of tapestries of American words — some in a new context of time — that could hopefully serve to illuminate to some degree tragic events that occurred during 1968, a year of great crisis in our lives and in our history”. The comparison to tapestry sets Solt’s work outside of accepted definitions of concrete poetry (as industrial process) and brings into focus the multiple voices she attempts to present. This analogy could be extended as a reading of Solt’s wider oeuvre — a complex gathering of many threads which can be read as deeply feminine yet adheres to specific structural parameters and is both a flat surface and a three dimensional object.
The Feminine and Concrete Poetry
As soon as it is categorized, does concrete poetry cease to be a place for l’Écriture féminine to exist?
Cixous describes female writing as something that should:
wreck the partitions, classes and rhetorics, regulations and codes…take(s) pleasure in jumbling the order of space, in disorientating it, in changing around the furniture, dislocating things and values, breaking them all up, emptying structures and turning propriety upside down.35
Many aspects of l’Écriture féminine could apply to concrete poetry — its radical approach to space-temporal relationships and letteristic materiality, a questioning of the organisational grid of language and rebellion against existing rules of grammar and syntax. Concrete poetry’s contradiction is that in its desire to break codes and boundaries, its (male) protagonists created a whole new structural system, actively defining, claiming and creating borders around their genre. In writing a range of manifestos, concrete poetry was enclosed and territorialized by male voices.
Cixous argues that all institutional and academic structures are inherently male biased, fundamentally operating in a phallic way, creating binaries and linearity. Linda Nochlin reinforces this point in her 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?”, highlighting the impossibility of the notion of a “great” female artist. Nochlin argues that historically, patriarchy has not afforded women the position and conditions required to become “great” — such as the time and space needed to succeed, resources and independence. She also pays interesting attention to the amateur female artist, an acceptable role for women — to be skilled but not be gifted, to spend time on an “accomplishment”. As the amateur, a woman’s achievements can be belittled and categorized, reaffirming the divide between “real” work (male labour) and relegating any activities other than women’s enforced roles as mothers and wives “under the rubric of diversion, selfishness, egomania, or at the unspoken extreme, castration.”36
Nochlin and Cixous both draw attention to the myth of the exclusively male ‘artist genius’ as a fiction implemented by Patriarchal institutions (such as Art-historical monographs):
..the notion of the Great Artist as primary, and the social and institutional structures within which he lived and worked as mere secondary “influences or background”. This is still the golden nugget theory of genius. On this basis, women’s lack of major achievement in art may be formulated as a syllogism: If women had the golden nugget of artistic genius it would reveal itself.37
Perhaps the proliferation of the mythical male figure, dedicated to his practice and nothing else could be one explanation why many female concrete poets held other roles despite writing poetry. Solt was an acclaimed scholar and is most often referenced not for her poems, but as the editor of Concrete Poetry: A World View. Similarly, the very few other female figures in the movement, such as Ilse Garnier and Bohumila Grögerová, were also instrumental in writing about or documenting the genre. Both these women also wrote ‘collaboratively’ with their husbands, enabling them to partially enter the canon, yet still remain the property of a man. Nochlin argues that an art of sexual difference favoured by Cixous is problematic, as many male artists/writers have engaged in the feminine. Similarly, Joan Retallack proposes the ancestors of feminine writing are men — that many of the great male experimental writers should be read, rather than separated by gender, for the ways in which they broke codes and rules in order to deconstruct an institutionalized ‘masculine’. Retallack suggests that rather than seeing this as a betrayal of the small number of known experimental women writers from the past, it would be much worse to negate the existence of a feminine in language by insisting it can only be embodied by women. Re examining the evidence with this hypothesis, there are numerous examples of male writers embracing multiplicity, fragmentation and silence: “the Russian futurists, Velimir Khlebnikhov and Alexei Kruchenykh; Apollinaire, Artaud, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Marinetti, Cocteau, Tzara, Jarry, Schwitters, Breton, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Sterne, Whitman, Joyce, Beckett, Pound…Jackson Mac-Low, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Augustos de Campos, Bob Cobbing…” it seems stranger to continue analysing experimental writing from a gender binary.38 However, this does not excuse the marginalisation of the many magnificent female experimental writers who did have radical writing practices, many of whom gained some recognition but never on the scale of their male counterparts.
3: FEMININE STRATEGIES
Withdrawal and belonging
I have already established that a feminine writing cannot be enclosed and defined. It is also important to consider the repercussions that women writers (such as Solt) encounter when they do enter phallogocentric discourse. In her 1989 essay, Illiterations, the experimental writer Christine Brooke-Rose emphasises the dangers that women writers face in being categorized:
… perhaps one of the safest ways of dismissing a woman experimental writer is to stick a label on her, if possible that of a male group that is getting or (better still) used to get all the attention. Fluttering around a canon. The implication is clear: a woman writer must either use traditional forms or, if she dare experiment, she must be imitating an already old model.39
This appears a double edged sword — women cannot enter the canon because it is a male construct, but if they do gain recognition by the establishment it will be as means to categorize their work and align it to a male genre. Brooke-Rose adds that canonization serves the purpose of promotion of the individual artist genius (a male pursuit) and to enable the establishment (literary critics, etc.) to label authors: “women are rarely considered seriously part of a movement when it is ‘in vogue’; and they are damned with a label when it no longer is, when they can safely be considered as minor elements of it.”40
As a counter argument, Brooke-Rose advocates “more withdrawal and less belonging” for women artists — to resist categorization/canonization and remain outside.41 This seems a lonely path, but if the feminine is un-definable and if even when accepted into a canon women are still outsiders fluttering to get in, then it is the only course of action. But is it possible to withdraw together? To collectively not-belong? If the whole notion of a movement, canon or genre is phallic then what could be the alternative? A writing that is multiplicitous and can exist not just between prose and poetry, but also between the visual, verbal, linguistic, temporal — a verbivocovisuality that is open to both rational and irrational positions? A writing that defies definition yet allows and creates a space for feminine practices to be recognized, and their voices heard? These are perhaps unanswerable questions, but as a way of resolution, I would propose that strategies such as creating constellations of practices with affinities — both contemporary and historical, continuing to confront the historical erasure of women’s work from the arts and resisting the draw of canonisation are all activities that help create spaces for feminine writing.
Conversely to Brooke-Rose’s strategy of withdrawal, Kristeva would argue that it is the woman artist’s obligation to operate within, but fight against, existing discourse — to not withdraw completely but remain marginal, a position that allows the freedom and ability to change, remain unfixed, multiple. Could it also be argued that in fact Brooke-Rose’s withdrawal is similar to Kristeva’s notion of marginality — to remain active but somehow an ‘outsider’? Or is it an even more radical act of resistance — to completely remove oneself? Perhaps a reading of Brooke-Rose’s ‘withdrawal-belonging’ dichotomy more related with l’Écriture féminine would be the notion of a continual movement, a constant push and pull (in multiple directions) between withdrawal and belonging — to be simultaneously inside and outside, pushing at accepted structures and mediums — to expose, subvert, resist and confront phallogocentrism by remaining unfixed.
My proposition is to leave behind the phallic categorization of concrete poetry and consider instead an open verbivocovisuality — a practice which cannot be enclosed and defined, and instead a space in which the possibilities between visual, textual, aural, (but also sensual, psychic, rational and irrational) are simultaneously active and rubbing against each other in an infinite number of readings and combinations. A verbivocovisual writing that engages the notion of the ideogram and resistance to phallogocentric structures. In leaving behind the definition of concrete poetry there seems to be a kind of liberation, perhaps what Kristeva describes in the vitality of the margin.
Verbivocovisual practices: some (of many) other voices
Gertrude Stein’s (1874-1946) influence on concrete poetry has been noted and the Noigandres Group cite her alongside Joyce as a key reference.42 Although her practice occurred far before the emergence of concrete poetry and is not an example of a concurrent sensibility, I would like to reaffirm her significance in relation to the verbivocovisual. Stein’s writing is groundbreaking and highly experimental for countless reasons, but in relation to concrete poetry, the verbal and visual patterns created in her writing through repetition and transformation of words and morphemes is a process that mirrors concrete poetry’s concerns.
Patriarchal she said what is it I know what it is it is I know I know so that I know what it is I know so I know so I know so I know what it is. Very slowly. I know what it is it is on the one side a to be her to be his to be their to be in an and to be I know what it is it is he who was an known not known and he was at first it was the grandfather then it was not that in that the father not of that grandfather and then she to be to be sure to be sure to be I know to be sure to be I know to be sure to be not as good as that, To be sure not be to be sure to be sure correctly saying to be sure to be that. It was that, She was right. It was that.43
Although typographically her writing is less obviously experimental, Stein’s ability to subvert, manipulate and fragment language into complex visual, verbal and linguistic structures, or seemingly endless loops, has a similar effect on the eye as many concrete poems. It is also argued that Stein’s ‘prose’ is in fact “a kind of concrete poetry with justified margins” by David Antin in his 1974 essay, Some Questions About Modernism, which highlights the importance of Stein’s oeuvre in relation to other modernist aesthetic movements.44
Patriarchal Poetry, perhaps not overtly a visual poem, is Stein’s treatise on phallogocentrism. Here, however, rather than a writing of reduction, Stein employs the poetics of excess. In her flood of language, she creates a new space for a feminine language to exist within. Stein cultivates a letteristic materiality akin to the verbivocovisual, and the arrangement of text on the page becomes a spatial constellation. In confronting the patriarchy, Stein creates a position of both withdrawal and belonging, simultaneously breaking accepted codes of language and creating a territory for her practice to exist.
Under second wave feminism, the reluctance to form a discourse with other female writers/artists (as in the case of Stein) is turned on its head. The Austrian/Italian concrete poet and artist, Mirella Bentivoglio (1922 - ) has worked tirelessly to create new spaces for female art and writing, rather than focusing on entering a dominant, male discourse. In her different roles, as poet, artist, curator and editor, Bentivoglio has actively confronted the historical erasure of women from art and literature, continually questioning patriarchal structures and asserting spaces for her own and others’ art. During the 1970’s, she curated a large number of all-women exhibitions, notably the 1978 exhibition, Materializzazione del Linguaggio (Materialisation of Language) at the Venice Biennale, which presented female experimental and visual poetry from across the world.45 Much of Bentivoglio’s oeuvre could be seen as ‘pure’ concrete poetry – taking place on the space of the page, creating mimetic or ideogrammatic poems, yet she is not mentioned in any of the international anthologies, despite other Italian poets gaining global notoriety.
Although Bentivoglio was an established and respected poet, her more successful works often existed away from the page, presented as sculptures and performance — a materialization of text through objects, which have in some way a relationship with the body. Io (1970) exists as a photograph of the artist standing within a large letter ‘O’, her body creating the word ‘Io’ — ‘I’ in Italian. By physically inserting the artist’s presence into language, Bentivoglio reclaims the phallogocentric pronoun, creating a writing of and from her female body.
The possibilities of a linguistic practice expanded to occupy object, action and moving image is also explored by the Polish artist Ewa Partum (1945 - ). Also staunchly feminist and active at a similar time to Bentivoglio, Partum’s practice spans performance, poetry and video, with an emphasis on investigating linguistic activities in search of a new artistic language. Although in more recent years Partum has been described as a concrete poet, her work is most often aligned to radical feminist practices. Partum preferred her own term of ‘active poetry’46 to describe a practice not just engaged with language but with the politics of public space, feminism and female subjectivity.
Partum literally takes poetry from the page into physical space, deconstructing hierarchy and phallogocentrism by employing a process of chance and intuition. In a recent symposium, Concrete Poetry - International Exchanges at Cambridge University, Drew Milne described concrete poetry as “making or revealing its own environment”.47 This statement seems pertinent to Partum’s work, particularly Active Poetry (Poem by Ewa) (1971), a short film (representing an ongoing performance) in which the artist scatters paper letters in different landscapes, letting the wind generate deconstructed poems.
In taking text away from the page into the landscape, Partum instigates an unlimited verbivocovisual plurality in a practice of writing which is universally accessible (but not necessarily unified); just as concrete poetry aimed to create a universal language. In its total resistance to syntax, grammar and linguistic convention, its embrace of the coexistence of textual, visual, verbal and corporeal elements, and also in the potential of a poetry that is both compressed and reduced whilst simultaneously excessive, Active Poetry exists as a temporal ideogram.
Vehemently aware of the control patriarchal structures enforce, Partum developed strategies to enable her to operate outside of phallogocentric discourse, performing in public space and using her body as a medium for communication. Similarly to Bentivoglio, Partum utilised strategies of self-organisation — founding her own art space, Galeria Adres Łódź (1971-77) as a way of showing the radical practices that established galleries refused to recognize in Poland in the 1970’s — behind the Iron Curtain. In claiming her own space, Partum was in some ways able to operate from the margins whilst performing Brooke-Rose’s ‘withdrawal-belonging’ dichotomy, embracing a non-hierarchal framework:
At the time museums and galleries refused to accommodate a new generation of artists. In Galeria Adres we wanted to create a space for truly independent art - independent also from local monopolies. That's why I started showing works by my colleagues. Also, it would have been impossible to go to Foksal Gallery and present them my ideas. They would probably have called them ridiculous.48
‘Ridiculous’ implies irrationality, something that the Brazilian artist, Lygia Pape (1927 - 2004) also strove to embrace, and which led to her rebellion against Brazilian concretism and the structures and rules that it paradoxically created. Pape renounced concretism, aligning herself to neo-concretism alongside Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica in 1959.49 Pape and her peers were driven by the desire for a practice that could enable multiple readings, spaces of resistance and that engaged with the body, urgency and intuition. Although, once again, it was a male dominated genre, neo-concretism allowed Pape and others to enter the canon, perhaps because they were able to set the terms and conditions they required.
Works such as Poemas-luz (1956-57) operate outside of binary categorization — a series of ‘drawings’ existing between text, colour field and negative space that suggests a symbiosis of sensuality and containment. This hybridity and embrace of contradictions and opposites is indicative of Pape’s (feminine) desire to operate in a space not only between disciplines but also between sensual body and rational mind, intuition and structure.
A quality that all of these practices share is their use or inclusion of mediums outside of the space of the page. A contamination with other disciplines — film, sculpture, performance is perhaps one reason these women were not considered within the canon of concrete poetry. Perhaps the reason for their trans-disciplinary nature and what ties them together is a resistance — a need to bring the work back to the female presence and the body, but also to public and social space, politics and human interaction.
The notion of a practice that makes or reveals its own environment also seems pertinent. Although Milne applied this definition to the accepted and phallogocentric canon of concrete poetry, it can be applied far more effectively to these artists. In their continual questioning of binaries and patriarchal systems, they reveal and expose dominant and oppressive structures whilst simultaneously creating new spaces for feminine practices to exist within.
I have intended to address, where possible, the dominant Anglo-centric discourses around concrete poetry – looking to the Brazilian Noigandres Group for the grounding of my understanding of the canon, rather than citing manifestos from northern Europe. However, the points of reference in my writing directly reflect how I have encountered concrete poetry, at this moment, as a mono-lingual, female artist, without the resources of a traditional academic structure, or access to translators and analogue archives. I believe it is incredibly important to continue encountering and (re)considering marginal verbivocovisual practices, particularly those from non-Western, non-White backgrounds. My reading of feminist discourse comes from a European perspective and as I continue into the future with this project, I intend to explore less dominant and non-Western discourses around feminist art and writing practices.
Nochlin suggests that simply questioning the lack of great women artists can act as a catalyst for much wider dialogue and the possibility of social change. Compared to this, my proposal for this thesis was modest — to explore the marginality of female concrete poets and consider the possibilities for concrete poetry to exist as a l’Écriture féminine. I hope to have created my own web or constellation in the practices, strategies and arguments I have outlined. Not a manifesto, but a verbivocovisual map of positions and possibilities to be explored, questioned and embodied. I will not attempt to further define verbivocovisuality but I will instead provide a poem:
Dutch Art Institute, 2015
Edited for DOCUMNT1