Jessica Smith, "The Page is Not a Neutral Surface"

In the 1970s, many poets broke away from the linearity of classical poetry by making “typewriter art”—Steve McCaffery’s Carnival, for example, is a series of standard sheets of paper put through the typewriter, cut and pasted, and stamped to achieve a terrific revolution against the normal left-aligned typewritten page. Before McCaffery, poets like Marinetti rearranged the letterpress to make poems with words of varying weights, fonts, and sizes, adopting techniques from the advertising industry to illustrate how varying ways of writing words (the depiction of a word) made for different paths of reading and emphasis across a page.

It is time for the next revolution in printing. There are a number of things that word processing software needs to be able to do (unfortunately, the lovely people at Microsoft are probably not reading this). Even after the experiments of McCaffery, Marinetti, and countless other poets and poet-artists, we have not escaped the linear. Linearity is so inextricably built into the writing process, and into the printing process, that even when we have the resources to make nonlinear objects by using atypical materials such as glass, stamps, wood, ribbons, and other ductable items, we constantly create linear objects. Look to Charles Bernstein and Jay Sanders’ Poetry Plastique, which purports to collect three-dimensional poetry. Nearly all of the poems in the collection involve, imply, or base themselves on flatness (for practical purposes, a two-dimensionality). Although they may aspire, as the Constructivists did, to “move away from the line and onto the plane,” the planes presented are merely compounds of adjacent lines.

There are exceptions. To reveal the differences I will go through all of the exceptions. Then the reader may discover what is essentially linear about the poems omitted from the following list.

1. John Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel. A stack of page-like glass rectangles, Not Wanting allows words to fragment and accumulate in turn—depending, in some cases, on the reader’s physical relation to the stack—and never allows one to take for granted any unit of meaning. No phrases exist. Words fracture. Partial letters slip into the murk of transparency. In the flatness of the pictures included in the Poetry Plastique exhibition catalog (Granary Press), one can see or imagine the three-dimensionality of the object, which itself takes advantage of all three dimensions to allow words to hide behind each other or escape from their strata depending on the viewpoint of the reader.

2. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget. Drawing would be linear, except that there are so many white letters running across the white page at varying heights that the line is decentered. For a linear writing to exist, one needs a starting point and an ending point, which implies that there is a midpoint in every line from which one can see each end. To destroy the line, one must merely destroy the idea of a center. Imagine that you are in a flat, featureless place, like New Mexico. If you are on a road, and you look “down the road,” you understand that there is a “down” and that you can follow the road to some endpoint or other feature. If you are not on a road, any travel is directionless. Any motion points to a circumferenceless center. In disguising an easy beginning, Goldsmith’s poem allows a constant re-reading, re-centering: the constant question, “If I were to start here, what sense would it make?” To some extent this decentering and Cage’s stacking also occur in Nick Piombino’s collage poems.

3. Jackson MacLow’s "A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore." (as well as similar poems by Mike Basinski, which are not included here) again creates Goldsmith’s decentering effect. Like Goldsmith’s poem, it is still limited by linearity within the word (which is not the case with Cage’s poem). Each word makes sense on its own, even though the words’ relative weights and scattered locations make a more complete sense of the work difficult to acquire. In the end, the piece is little more than a scattered list of words—which is why it is titled “Vocabulary”—but it should be noted that although each word is linear, no line extends very far, and thus reading involves so many nonsensical stoppings that a greater mental image of the poem’s motion and spatial sense cannot stretch much further than any single word. The performance space of the text is likely very similar even with the presence of multiple voices; it is the sense that is responsible for the halting linearity.

What makes a space transcend the linear, even when one uses language that is considered essentially linear? In the Poetry Plastique exhibit we see two mechanisms. First, stratification: words that fracture, cover one another. Shearing and torsion. Plate tectonics of the flat space make flat spaces occupy dimensions. Imagine a transparent piece of paper with words written on it. Roll up the paper so that it cannot unroll into flatness again. One can still read the words, but—however linearly they were first inscribed onto the page—they occupy a dimensional space, and can thus be physically read in many ways. Another example: think of Time, a quality often associated with poetry (words are often assumed to be durational, and many experiments with poetry-in-space are intended as experiments with reading “delays” or other interruptions of Time). We often assume that Time is linear, like a string from the past to the future. Take the string and knot it. Where is the future? Where is the past? Location of things along a line is thwarted as soon as the line enters the next dimension. Overturning the assumptions that the page is flat and words run linearly along it can easily make revolutions in poetry. Even a seemingly “flat” page need not be featureless or new. A page may have built-in gravitational pulls, topological features, remnants of dimensions, folds, and history without being a palimpsest (there need not be meaningful traces) and without attending to the “plastique” as such, the three-dimensional space.

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