Author Archive

SSN

the book of found me

The attached PDF represents the beginning of what I hope to make a full-length book cataloging distorted, violated, and restructured presentations of  the socially constructed narratives expressed via fundamental data like Social Security, ID, and passport numbers. Unlike those ephemera we see as definitive of our personal selves, these data points aren’t tied to specific physical manifestations—they may express themselves as such to the individual, in the form of ID cards, etc., but to the state these physical forms are merely avatars of abstract data. Thus, they are best presented in digital form, divorced from their familiar physicality.

The central work of SSN, or the book of found me, is to “make strange” these data points, and the work is achieved in two ways. The first is merely via their representation: to present to the world this data we spend all our lives protecting, hoarding away like the True Names of ancient sympathetic magic, for like those old mythopoetic words they grant their possessors power over the individual. The second is to then enact the violence of obscuration and elision upon them, to slice them up, turn them on their heads, and overwrite them with more personal narratives.

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Typoetry in Emmett Williams’ Sweethearts

Nope, the book’s not upside down. Prepare to have your views on poetry, typography, and book design upended though.
NB: Reposted from one of my blogs, typoetics, at Natali’s request.

emmett williams’ sweethearts may well be my favorite book of poetry … ever. or so at least i thought upon tearing through its first un-paginated half within a couple of minutes.

(Granting, of course, that it shouldn’t take anyone more than a few minutes to complete the entire book—the average page includes no more than, say, five, six words? And yet it’s the kind of book one can easily, and with little-declining pleasure, enjoy for a lifetime. or at least, so i imagine after a single day of ownership.)

But what i can definitely affirm, after only a day of ownership, is that sweethearts is one of those books that picks you up and sweeps you off your feet with seeming effortlessness and utter composure, promising a lifetime of delights light, sweet, and yet full of meaning.

This is the kind of book we were made for, people. (Assuming, that is, that you’re anything like me. Which, I assume, is true since you are actually pausing for a moment to read a blog on typography and poetry.) Why?

Because in sweethearts there is not a moment in which typography is sublimated to poetry—and neither is the horrifying reverse ever true either. Here typography and poetry become truly inseparable, each functioning to support and fulfill the meaning of the other in a way that neither can achieve on its own.1

And that, in the end, is the only true potential meaning, aim, or justification for concrete poetry.

For all too often it ends up seeming little more than a kind of play, an occasionally witty, often visually grotesque sort of play that rarely produces any refined form of poetry in and of itself.

But enough effusions. Let’s look at what I’m talking about.

the/sweethearts/seethe/as/the/sea/seethes

Here, early in the text, the reader encounters one of the more fantastic of the books’ many ingenious collusions of type and poetics. As the lovers and the ocean reflect each other in their tidal seething, more or less bluntly recalling the metronomic rocking of sex, the type itself begins to rock and (a)rhythmically sway in time to the poem’s meaning, surging into peaks of foam as “seethe” becomes “as” becomes “the” becomes “sea”. The stranded “s” at poem’s end recalls both the deliciously satisfying yet oddly disappointing irruption of the afterglow … not to mention that last glittering wave that never quite makes it back to the sea, instead dissolving, absorbed back into the sand to leach out, hours or days later, back into the ocean. Throughout the poem the lines surge back and forth across the plane of the page, creating both visual and sonic echoes of the bodies and landscapes envisioned in the poem’s words. Perhaps the greatest function of this visual-semantic play is the fact that it manages to raise the language above even the shadow of cliché, allowing it to move unfettered by what are, in the end, fairly obvious images to let us see the echo of truth they still convey. In simplicity, discipline, and rigor, the poem manages to achieve what lines (and line breaks) dictated ad hoc by the poet himself could never manage.
To illustrate:

the
sweethearts
seethe
as
the
sea
seethes

Does it capture the same sense of motion? To an extent, perhaps. Does it make for a lovely poem? Yes.2

Does it do these things in such a visually complex and even suggestive manner as the above image? Not at all.

And speaking of suggestiveness: note the way the surging-across of seethe, the, and seethe—a recurrent visual theme in many poems here—foreshadows a later poem (which also happens to be the book’s big “dirty joke” of a poem):

Difficult to transcribe this one; to do so
would be to reduce the irreducible, for it
is by definition a typoetic work.

It’s a fascinating piece, and not simply for the visual pun (which is set up by a preceding poem’s reference to “teats”). More interesting is the way that it positions the viewer’s—the book’s male protagonist, not the reader—act of seeing as the object he beholds. In other words, the act of seeing is translated into the object seen, suggesting the conflation of lovers that other poems manage typographically in a subtler way. The word “see” here becomes the shape of the female protagonist’s breasts. His gaze and her breasts, here one and the same, seem to lean outward across the page, enacting the straining of each to each, moving forward (in terms of reading direction) but also pointing backwards (toward the joke’s setup) in terms of the book’s reading direction, which is reversed, so that one seems to read back-to-front.3

Again, we see the rhythmic back-and-forth of the ocean and the lover’s bodies translated into typography.

The poem also forces the reader to consider the question of perspective. The reader is not here presented with a full-frontal view of the woman objectified by the viewer’s gaze, as would be suggested if the letters did their double loop arrayed across the page’s center, with the e’s hanging pendulous below the s’s. Instead, arranged flush-left near the page’s edge, one can imagine that it is not only the male character who sees his lover exposed, but she herself, looking down her chest in contemplative self-regard, enacting her own body with her gaze. Thus, the lovers are conflated again, the question of perspective that floats throughout the book suspended.

But poetry and typography aren’t always equal partners in this affair. Every once in a while, letters and words bow off the stage to become what they fundamentally are: symbols, and as such, potential components of larger symbols.4 For example:

Impossibly reductive to transcribe, the text itself reads “stars”. Is there any more eloquent
argument for typoetics?

In this image we see how the typographer’s (and perhaps, the poet’s) font choice really sparkles, contributing significantly to the reader’s experience of the poem. The font (a bold Futura, I think, though I’d welcome a correction or clarification there), with its dense black color and minute, almost breathless, counters (the empty space within the A here) makes it that much easier to forget that these are letters—and thus, components of words—and see them as what they fundamentally are—arbitrary symbols, mere images that only attain more through an utterly unspoken agreement. And, in being symbols, potentially elements of a larger, equally illusory symbol: a constellation.

1 And in a way that the early greats who sought this kind of fusion—who, in fact, may have made its attainment possible—such as Mallarme and Marinetti, never truly did manage to attain. For all their efforts, the translation of poem to type created a kind of ugly amalgam, a brutish centaur that did neither form much good. Granted, in the case of Marinetti, the sort of chaotic, energetic expression he sought to encourage found a kind of ultimate expression in his poems’ messy, sprawling type. But rarely did this chaotic mess generate much of beauty.
2 And yet, there’s a certain preciousness to one-word lines that the typography of sweethearts manages to elide entirely.
3 A vital reality of the book’s self-presentation, and one which I’ll return to later.
4 Another of concrete (and visual) poetry’s fundamental tasks: to remind us that letters are in fact symbols, images. It is only by force of habit, convention, and training that we begin to read symbols as more than shapes, an important reality of the human psyche. We read and draw information from all images, yes, but written language is a system of symbols at the height of abstraction: from a few arbitrary squiggles the mind draws picturesque, cinematic scenes with a million moving parts and colors.

tangleweave: a pattern poem

tangleweave, a pattern poem

tangleweave, a pattern poem by John Moore Williams

As I contemplated the works presented for our study for the class, I noticed a pervasive tendency of the ancient pattern poems tied intrinsically to their intent and means: that the text of the poem as a whole formed a cohesive and recognizable shape. As I say, intrinsic to the form. And yet there was something dissatisfying about that reality to me: By and large, the pieces attended little to the formal qualities of the letterforms themselves, instead relying on their generally cohesive design to create the perception of a familiar form via a gestalt.

For my work, then, I decided to attend more to the letterforms themselves, employing them to create an image of a concept rather than a tangible object. Hence, tangleweave.

By intermingling  the ornate forms of a modern revival of ancient Roman inscriptions (the font, Centaur), I hoped to create a visual embodiment of the concept of tangling. To reinforce that, I decided to employ as my text the English cliche, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” which was penned by Sir Walter Scott.

Leaving out the summary phrase (“when first we …”), I aimed to shift the work’s subject matter away from lying–thereby including a kind of ironic elision. Still, I wanted to aim more at the general complexity–the tangled nature–of life itself, the myriad exigencies that arise in that essentially simple trajectory from “breath” to “dead wreath.”

Adding to the complexity, I colored particular words and letters to create alternate readings, allowing the reader to elect to read the whole text, just the colored elements, or just elements of a particular color (letters in red, orange, and a lighter orange all create their own texts).

–John