Poetry News

On Erasure at Jacket2

By Harriet Staff


At Jacket 2, Mary Hickman takes on the politics and poetics of defacing and also, perhaps, "refacing" books with works by Jen Bervin and Mary Ruefle as two examples.

At the 2013 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Boston, I wandered among rows of bright, strange, and intriguing books piled high on independent poetry press tables. Hand-stamped, letter-pressed, spray-painted, ripped, sewn, and covered in tinfoil; poems shaped like boxes, poems printed on records, poems made into pop-ups or puzzles, or rolled as cigarettes — I even spotted a tiny book hidden inside a plastic egg. The small presses occupying real estate at the AWP book fair represent a fraction of the artistic output that marks what can be seen as a resurgence of the handmade book and the book as art object in contemporary poetry practice. The exciting variety of these book-object wares suggests a vital world of poetry, visual art, bookmaking, and communal production. In these composed book-works, techniques of production, including design, collaboration, and distribution, are part of the poem. The paper, binding, page sequence, gutter, and cover all contribute to our understanding and experience of the poetic text. Acknowledging this necessitates a reading practice newly attentive to the material nature of bookmaking in order to understand works whose compositional practices consciously incorporate physical book structures into the made poem.

Precedents for the practice of bookmaking as poetic composition include the innovative practices and ideas of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century writer-bookmakers actively creating a poetics of the book and directly engaged with the codex form and print technologies, including William Blake, William Morris, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Poetry as an art form already strives to “thicken the medium” as much as possible by using all of its visual and verbal features to create meaning and evoke sensation.[1] This medium sensitivity inherent in poetry makes it uniquely suited to self-reflexively engage the symbolic and social functions of the codex form, and poetry’s intersection with such book arts practices as collaborative construction, manual printing, assemblage, and defacement allows for the creation of poetry book-works that, taking full advantage of poetry’s linguistic play, construct a reading experience of immediacy and physicality, of interruption, irruption, and potential. The physical and conceptual potential of the codex allows poets to deploy the paradox of the book’s cultural associations of fixity, stability, and spirituality and those of its physical intimacy, ephemerality, and corporeality in order to provide an encounter with the poem that is both tactile and conceptual, disorienting and familiar, mundane, exotic, ecstatic, and erotic. The poetry book as art object thus revises what it means to encounter a poem, insisting that to read is to move through the space of the book, to touch, to listen, to navigate, in short, to encounter a “full-bodied literature.” [...][2]

More at Jacket 2.

Originally Published: October 3rd, 2014