Occasional Work

The Concrete Element

Donato Mancini & Michael Nardone


[2/11/16, 12:34 PM]: Ok, so we’ve been talking about this a little already. There’s a phrase that recurs in your responses so far. When you’re talking about poetry you say that it has a “concrete element.” It’s pertinent to this show “Future Concrete” because several of the pieces included have that concrete element – whatever it is – without looking very much like concrete poetry, nor even being particularly visual. What is this concrete element? Is it located in seeing? In an ethos? A politic? A materiality?

[2/11/16, 12:42 PM]: I think the concrete element has to do with, of course, the visual appearance of a text always in a specific context – platform, format, and social situation – and their articulation. So, for example, how a text is arranged upon a page so that the visual layout signifies in a specific way. I mean, it always signifies specifically, but in this instance I mean it gestures toward the possibility of an outside to more normative textual practices. And then, often, there is the way that an articulated text signifies outside of a literary field to other information genres or mode of writings.

[2/11/16, 12:44 PM]: Would you agree that it is something incipient or lurking in all texts?

[2/11/16, 12:47 PM]: Yes. I think part of making the concrete element function successfully is having a fully realized sense of what media or instruments one is writing with – recognizing the means and the publics in which that text will circulate and be read, and also playing at the more allusive qualities that the text is attempting to signify and incorporate in its particular articulation. Here, the political contexts and conflicts always exceed the aesthetic situation.

[2/11/16, 12:49 PM]: I see what you mean – but isn’t the concrete poet often kind of a drop-out poet? Nico Vassilakis emphasises a phenomenal “staring” above any sense of publics or discourses.

[2/11/16, 12:51 PM]: I like this idea from Vassilakis, but I’m curious about the “above” in that statement. I mean, I can think of it in terms of, perhaps (on a structural or discursive level) staring at relations on a supposed “macroscopic” level. Or I can think of it in terms of intersecting with and moving through various discourses but always moving outside of the practices and concerns and modes of making statements. Lately I have been thinking about this a lot through discussions around conceptualisms.

[2/11/16, 12:51 PM]: “Above” maybe should have been “instead.” But ok, well, conceptualism. Is concrete a “conceptual” writing? Let me say I generally prefer old-timey terms to “conceptual.” People use that term now whenever there is any kind of “concept” at work organising the writing act – now anyone’s sonnet-a-day-project would be a “conceptual” project. Any form whatsoever. Any idea at all. Older terms specify practices: text-montage; collage; assemblage; found poetry; meta-mecha; psycho-metalogy, procedural poetry, accumulation texts, etc. Even *merzbild* – or concrete itself.

[2/11/16, 12:55 PM]: Yes, I think “conceptual” is a tired referent. I am certainly more interested in the descriptors of compositional tactics you name above. To those I would add the serial poem.

[2/11/16, 12:58 PM]: Serial poem, yes. But I was trying to quote names for processes that I see in the broad range of concrete. Serial may be that, but I’m not sure. Isn’t serial poetry more about form as memory? To shift a little, Jed Rasula writes something in The American Poetry Wax Museum that I think helps fill out the relation of an idea of voice to the concrete element: “To dream of a centred, autonomous voice as the innate sign of selfhood is assuredly ancient – the concept of divinity seems inseparable from it, in Greco-Hebraic cultures – but it may be only in our past half-century that poets have submitted to a vast delusion that voice is simple and *precedes* technical intervention.”

[2/11/16, 1:02 PM]: I am interested here in the “precedes”, because one of the things about the concrete poem is its relation to performance, to being installed or published in numerous contexts in which order may or may not be important. Rasula, here, is stating something like: Voice is always situational to the various material articulations of a text. Am I correct? It’s a funny thing, this question of voice. I’ve just finished re-reading Lesley Wheeler’s book about voice and USAmerican poetry – it is a book that is often cited as being the major text on voice and performance in poetry – and it is an awful book. It suffers from the essentialization of voice via Ong and McLuhan, positing a complete division between orality and literacy that is exceptionally problematic for not only its roots to Christian mysticisms but also for the fact that is emerges from settler-colonial white supremacist ideology. Yet, this superstition about voice as pure and simple is everywhere in poetry and criticism. It’s bewildering.

[2/11/16, 1:06 PM]: “Concept” is made to appear, falsely, as the antithesis of “voice.” It is relevant also for the close relation of concrete poetry with sound poetry. Sound poetry, especially in its early articulations, was often avowed as a kind of deliberate regression to whatever “precedes” intervention – of discourses, of society, of literacy, etc. Whether that is true or not, it tells us a lot that the poets doing sound poetry have often believed this to be the horizon of their efforts. I don’t want to dwell on this, but Rasula in that aside is pointing to the fallacy of that absolute division between an unmediated orality and literacy.

[2/11/16, 1:07 PM]: This is necessary critical work.

[2/11/16, 1:12 PM]: ‪In this sense the concrete element maybe only points to an awareness of, or is a *making aware of*, intervention and mediation. I tend to agree with Gabriel’s suggestion that concrete asserts itself as a “thing made by people” – the material presence of the *labour of writing* is part of what interests me in concrete poetry. But *seeing of reading* is equally important. Your poem “Vancouver” is about seeing and doing – verbs of tourism are “see” verbs and “do” verbs: choose, wake, see, lose, safari, zip, unwind, sunset, overlook, sail, visit, etc. Is the concrete element somewhere in there, in the sense that the concrete poem as “meta-mechanical” imitates the doing of mechanised labour, while highlighting the seeing done in reading?

[2/11/16, 1:14 PM]: Yes, this is great. Let me think about it for a moment–

[2/11/16, 1:15 PM]: “Vancouver” registered as concrete-ish for me in those ways.

[2/11/16, 1:19 PM]: The concrete is in there, I think, in the way that these things are immaterial and perhaps inconceivable for a majority of people in terms of actually being able to see or do these activities. But they are always there: in commercials, upon newly built high-rises with lots for sale, lining airport corridors, on every screen. They are omnipresent in our visual cultures. In places where exceptional excessive wealth is accumulated, these verbs are all available *for rent*.

[2/11/16, 1:21 PM]: Thinking of difference as graduated rather than absolute, is it possible to locate the point on a continuum when a piece really becomes “concrete”? I mean, perhaps your poem “Vancouver” tends towards concrete, and thematises it, while another poem of yours, “[ACIVILELEGY]”, made up entirely of thin lines implying redaction, is actually of the species.

[2/11/16, 1:21 PM]: That’s a great question.

[2/11/16, 1:21 PM]: I always like concrete that is an implicit or explicit, or even accidental, critique of the conditions of labour and social reproduction in language. Let’s say I prefer “critical” concrete to “stoner” concrete.

[2/11/16, 1:23 PM]: Ha. Yes, I prefer that too – though fwiw I often do critical concrete stoned.

[2/11/16, 1:23 PM]: Most concrete is probably “critical-stoner.”

[2/11/16, 1:24 PM]: I want to return to this question of when a work *becomes* concrete. I mean it’s interesting because any materialization of language will be concrete. And this includes strictly “oral” forms – there is a lot of interesting work I think coming out of Indigenous practices and techniques for disseminating knowledge that one would categorize traditionally as “oral” but there are all sorts of material inscriptions involved in their telling: whether it is the land, or beaded works, in tanning, etc. I find it super interesting to think of how the oral is inscribed in all kinds of contexts and techniques. So, thinking of when something becomes “concrete” in the sense of being a work of concrete poetry – that’s always an ideological or discursive function.

[2/11/16, 1:28 PM]: Olivia Whetung is doing concrete bead pieces.

[2/11/16, 1:29 PM]: Her beaded works that are digital/sonic visualizations of traditional songs are amazing.

[2/11/16, 1:29 PM]: Wave-forms of Indigenous words and songs turned into bead-work.

[2/11/16, 1:29 PM]: Yes.

[2/11/16, 1:30 PM]: It’s a good anti-McLuhan series. With reference to that spurious division of the written and the oral. Whetung’s work I think argues against that essentialism of simple voice.

[2/11/16, 1:32 PM]: Yes, I agree.

[2/11/16, 1:33 PM]: Specifically in the context of Indigenous languages and their mediation, their multiple mediation through non-Indigenous technology of the waveform analysis, then re-mediation back through Indigenous beadwork. So it is a constant congress between the different states, there is no true barrier, except insofar as that barrier is asserted by colonial ways of knowing.

[2/11/16, 1:34 PM]: Thinking more about sounding out concrete works: I’m curious how you read or perform your poem “Ligature.” How do you vocalize it, as it has such specific materialities in the two forms of it that I’m aware of: the electronic text that is scroll through (and to my mind perfect in terms of that articulation) and the codex form across pages. How it is sounded – do you select words as discrete entities, or are the sounds of words elided?

[2/11/16, 1:41 PM]: I really just read it as clearly as possible. I divide it into sentence-like lines or units. In each of those, I make a decision as to which words will be treated as verbs. In the line “urethane anemone moneyed edge genie nieces cesspit spitball ballast last staff,” “ballast” can be the verb, and “staff” the thing ballasted by the “cesspit spitball” of “genie nieces.” Then I shape the inflections so that it sounds like I think I’m making perfect sense.

[2/11/16, 1:44 PM]: So you pull the words out from their conjunction or elision. Because it is written as: urethanemoneyedgeniecesspitballastaff – no?

[2/11/16, 1:44 PM]: Each time it is presented or published, it is in a different form. In the book titled Ligatures the words are separated. On Eclipse and at the Western Front the words were runalltogether. I’ve also published it as a prose block, allruntogether.

[2/11/16, 1:45 PM]: I often have the scroll-through version in my mind.

[2/11/16, 1:48 PM]: The versions are relative, not definite. Each time I have an opportunity to present it, I change it a little or a lot. There are quite a few more variations I would like to present.

[2/11/16, 1:47 PM]: I think that relativity between versions – and that emphasis on VERSIONS – this is perhaps one of the most important critical interventions into poetic practice, and I always think of it as a critique that has been initiated in concrete practices.

[2/11/16, 1:48 PM]: I wrote about this early on. “Ligature” takes the metaphor or concrete as fully as possible – writing a piece that could be, like concrete, “poured” into a lot of different moulds. Molds. Mods. Mos. Ms. M. .

[2/11/16, 1:49 PM]: That’s great.

[2/11/16, 1:49 PM]: It’s also about making the writing process into brute labour.

[2/11/16, 1:50 PM]: It’s a site where, I think, one can establish a critical emphasis on praxis as opposed to the individual poem. Praxis and labour.

[2/11/16, 1:50 PM]: Yes, and the poets I am most interested in work that way.

[2/11/16, 1:52 PM]: I had this kind of magnificent realization about it when I was in the midst of writing about Jackson Mac Low last year. For me, Mac Low embodies exactly this emphasis of poetic praxis that is constant and ongoing. Out of that practice various materializations or articulations that are (versions of) works emerge.

[2/11/16, 1:52 PM]: Mac Low is the best. That ethos or praxis is also very present for me in Dada. And I am doing more work lately to discover Dada as my ancestry.

[2/11/16, 1:52 PM]: Ha, I’m curious how you might discuss your “DADA SUICIDES” poem in relation to your statement in about how you prefer “implicit or explicit critique of the conditions of labour and social reproduction.”

[2/11/16, 1:53 PM]: Well, the product of an anticapitalist praxis can become an object of capitalist financial speculation. And suicide can add value to an artistic corpus. Die young, leave a beautiful corpus.

[2/11/16, 1:54 PM]: !

[2/11/16, 1:54 PM]: Dada suicides become part of the value of market-recuperated Dada.

[2/11/16, 1:54 PM]: I want to see this poem as a stock market ticker.

[2/11/16, 1:54 PM]: Exactly. It’s designed to look like that. For me these recuperations don’t have to destroy the meaning of the praxis that produced the text. That’s what I mean when I say I’m trying to discover myself in Dada, trying to listen to the record of art history backwards.

[2/11/16, 1:57 PM]: Ha.

[2/11/16, 2:01 PM]: Well, now what about Gabriel’s question and the frame of the show? “Future Concrete”? Does concrete have a future? Gustave Morin’s new book Clean Sails is an interesting intersection of concrete pasts and futures.

[2/11/16, 2:02 PM]: How so?

[2/11/16, 2:05 PM]: Very complex typewriter poems, on old non-electric machines. The project would have been materially possible when typewriters were actually part of the corporate world and the daily life of writers, but perhaps was inconceivable until long after their utilitarian obsolescence. (Although some of them are like Henri Chopin’s heavily overlaid typewriter poems – but even denser. And like Dirk Krecker in that sense, but without Krecker’s designy, artworld slickness.) Morin’s poems’ complexity is future-bent, in the sense that it implies concrete will live on. I mean, they exhibit this intense sense of historical “ambition,” if I can call it that, as well as everything else we’ve mentioned: labour, praxis, visuality, mediation, intervention.‪

[2/11/16, 2:07 PM]: Yes, the historical-contextual element there is important: the using of computers when they are a central mode of communication, and when they are obsolete – it changes the meaning significantly and also how one might use typewriters in an interesting way in the latter situation.

[2/11/16, 2:07 PM]: But early computers already could be used this way.

[2/11/16, 2:07 PM]: Yes, that’s true.

[2/11/16, 2:09 PM]: Dot-matrix printers would be great for making concrete. My “Starfield Series” poems in Ligatures – the white-on-black poems – were done this way back in 1999. Just by using Word – out of ignorance, really, that I could have done them any other way – and putting the same piece of paper through the printer multiple times. Later laser-photocopied in negative. Sabotage. Against the grain of the tool itself. Morin, Krecker and Chopin also put the paper back into the typewriter carriage multiple times.

[2/11/16, 2:10 PM]: That’s great.

[2/11/16, 2:14 PM]: Are word processing programs viable platforms for concrete? Is the web viable for concrete?

[2/11/16, 2:16 PM]: Oh, yes. I definitely think so. I don’t specifically do these kinds works – though I guess I am deeply interested in the form of the PDF and what that allows for poetry in terms of the genre of a work, length of work, and its circulation.

[2/11/16, 2:15 PM]: It’s a range of practices that bring the problems of the tools and the dissemination to the forefront of the encounter with the work itself. Usually “the literary” functions instead to cloak those things.

[2/11/16, 2:17 PM]: Yes, I agree with that last statement very much. The poetry PDF opens up all kinds of new scenarios for poetic works in terms of the circulation and discourse that becomes attached to the work as it circulates. I’m thinking here of the Volume 1 Anthology. Also Josef Kaplan’s Kill List.

[2/11/16, 2:18 PM]: Viral chapbook. Instead of the 30-copy chapbook, you have the 30,000-downloads chapbook.‪

[2/11/16, 2:19 PM]: They are works that were perfectly articulated as PDFs in that they were distributed exactly in the way that a PDF is optimally circulated. People could search for their own names or the names of their friends, and then right with the links to the text itself are all the little textual spaces for reacting to and commenting upon it. Volume 1 is, I think, the first perfect PDF work of poetry. It showed what was possible in terms of the PDF – that it could be written in that way, disseminated in that way, and gather so much discourse around it so quickly.

[2/11/16, 2:21 PM]: And do you think the PDF will become obsolete, and by consequence retroactively aestheticized, like a typewriter? The poetry PDF could survive the utilitarian death of the PDF.

[2/11/16, 2:22 PM]: Yes, perhaps, but I think the PDF won’t be obsolete for a long while. I imagine that we’ll be existing in this particular digital milieu until it becomes impossible to sustain in terms of expenditure of energy resources – which, come to think of it, is not that far away.

[2/11/16, 2:23 PM]: The obsolesced PDF may be a place where concrete lives in the future.

[2/11/16, 2:23 PM]: Definitely. On obsolete jump drives and hard drives…

[2/11/16, 2:25 PM]: People once thought things like Flash animation would be the future of concrete, but I don’t know if it has worked out that way. When you imply movement on a page it’s one thing, but to actually make letters move around on a screen – is that still concrete or is it just alphabet cartoons?

[2/11/16, 2:26 PM]: And then there is coding-based concrete works – I’m thinking of Alejandro Crawford – who creates these amazing language environments through virtual reality software/hardware, and also video-game-based works that are definitely routed through historical concrete poetry practices.

[2/11/16, 2:27 PM]: Ok – yet everything in this show Future Concrete is much more technically vanilla. We’re using architects’ printout banners, 8.5×11 papers tiled, and the print chapbook.

[2/11/16, 2:31 PM]: I like work on printout banners! ‪I really do. I think my dream is to do in the future installed textual works for billboards.

[2/11/16, 2:32 PM]: I like it too. I’m just noting the funny thing that a show with the word Future in the title is presenting no networked poetry. Everything Gabriel has chosen could have been made in 1992.

[2/11/16, 2:33 PM]: Ha, that is interesting. I mean it makes sense: those kinds of shows are only really possible in sites that have the $$$ to invest in hardware to present those kinds of works.

[2/11/16, 2:33 PM]: It’s also about Gabriel’s personal relationships: the people he happens to know who do concrete don’t work networkedly. A challenge in using billboards etc. is that advertising has become so vague, working through suggestion and association rather than information and argument. Sometimes the recipient is even drawn into a kind of game to figure out what is even being advertised. Billboard artworks can easily sink into that tar.

[2/11/16, 2:35 PM]: Yes, again why I love so much of Jenny Holzer’s work: it stands so clearly against that kind of messaging. It absorbs the mode as opposed to being absorbed by it.

[2/11/16, 2:36 PM]: I wonder how one might test whether Holzer absorbs or is being absorbed. I like Holzer a lot, sure, but I’m also trained to see what she’s doing as intervention. Is it witnessed that way by the unsuspecting?

[2/11/16, 2:44 PM]: The interventions can work on a number of scales and be effective accordingly. You know, all one has to do in pass by some sign in their commute and experience it as it passes as some kind of anomaly and I think that is interesting. Or seeing some sort of *bien-détourné* sign on the train.

[2/11/16, 2:47 PM]: And a lot of people have argued also that that is the real political locus of concrete – a *détournement* of language media that have specific political economies tied to labour under capitalism. And I must add – given the increasing amount of concrete-relevant work by Indigenous artists like Olivia Whetung and Raymond Boisjoly – under colonialism.

[2/11/16, 2:49 PM]: There are people in Yellowknife – I’ve never found out who is doing this – but during the summer they write Inuktitut syllabics all over the city on the sidewalks and on the sides of buildings. It works so well in terms of reminding us: here we are, in a land where there are around 24 different languages spoken, and ALL OF THE LANGUAGE here is visualized in English. Seeing these syllabics everywhere is just so simple and lovely and helps remind where we are and how one might position their own communications in such an environment. I think they are an open secret for the people who can speak and read Inuktitut, but also as a broadly legible statement: INUKTITUT SPOKEN HERE. There’s also the amazing renaming project that is going on in Toronto – do you know about this? The Ogimaa Mikana project. It’s a project to restore Anishnaabemowin place-names to their locations in all of “downtown Toronto.” The people who do these actually just install the Anishnaabemowin place names write over the Anglo-colonial names on street signs. It’s brilliant: I mean THIS is one future concrete.

[2/11/16, 2:57 PM]: Interestingly subtle, too. As you said, perhaps initially an anomaly – in the corner of the eye – but turning quickly into something else: Canada, the Canadian colonial state, the capitalist base, re-appears as the aberration, the distortion.



Originally published in Future Concrete, an exhibition of concrete poetics curated by Gabriel Saloman, with a chapbook edited by Gabriel Saloman and Ana Jamali Rad. Unit/Pitt March 4 – 18, 2016 (Coast Salish Territories, Vancouver).