A bunch of years ago, the late, great Jerry Cox brought me to a Houston museum to hear a disembodied voice (actually a stereo buried in the floorboards) asking over and over:
“How bad is it going to smell when it starts to smell?”
This got my attention.
The voice belonged to Vito Acconci, an artist who made his name using audio and video to often salacious effect. Most famously, Acconci once masturbated under the floorboards of Ileanna Sonnabend’s new Soho gallery while announcing into a mike his fantasies about the people walking above him. (When he told Sonnabend of his plans, the vivid Romanian art dealer said, "Do what you have to do, Vito.")
That was 1971. Since then Vito’s settled down a bit, studied architecture. He now works on large installations, or architectural interventions, and calls himself a landscape architect. But before all this, in the very, very beginning, he was a poet. Which is why I'm writing this blog today.
And what a poet. As a young man writing in the sixties, he was not the only one questioning the fact of poetry, of writing at all. But he took it to a heady extreme. A risqué performance piece is one thing, but Vito’s conceptual poetry still shocks this parochial school gal. (VA, by the bye, as also a parochial school kid—from the Bronx.) He began writing poems like READ THIS WORD:
READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD READ THIS WORD NEXT READ THIS WORD NOW SEE ONE WORD SEE ONE WORD NEXT SEE ONE WORD NOW AND THEN SEE ONE WORD AGAIN....
It goes on. And here is a fine, and slightly further out, example from 1969. (I'd love to upload it but cannot.) Check the link for semiotics in the purest sense, the awareness that words are mere metaphors, theatrical artifice, not real at all—even as he mocks the reader with the artifice, too. He explains the process quite clearly here:
Because I was so interested in the page as a field for movement, eventually the choice of words became a problem. It seemed to be impossible to use on a page a word like “tree,” a word like “chair,” because this referred to another space. Whereas I could use on a page a word like “there.” Or phrases such as “at that time” or “at that place.” In other words, words that directly referred to my act of writing on the page, your act of reading the page. In short, I was writing myself into a corner, writing myself into a position where in order to preserve the literalness of the page, the only thing I could put on the page were periods, commas, punctuation marks.
The only things he could put on the page were periods, commas and punctuation marks?
Now, such conceptual questioning makes no appearance in my work and really never has. (Though it has occurred to me that only a parochial school kid could be so angry about the hollow symbols that are words that he'd write poems made of punctuation marks.) Yet I torture students with it year after year. Why do I do this, when it's so clear that you want to write stories about real life, about family and love and murder and the occasional vampire?
I do it so you can set off on your own explorations, and to remind you (and myself) of the made-up-ness of the enterprise of writing, the constriction of the rules that we don’t even know we’re following because they are the air we – dash into headlong.
What prompted me to write to you today, and not last week or next week? A book review from The Constant Critic, always full of smart reminders of what’s new and coming. (You can sign up for their notices of new reviews yourself.) Here, in a piece called "No Content," the hilarious Vanessa Place (a conceptual poet, editor and lawyer who has been tweeting Gone With the Wind in its entirety) focuses on three new-ish conceptual poetry books. (As it happens, Vito Acconci did not exhaust the page as he thought. He just got bored with it. His heirs continue--and some of his heirs came before him. (See my post from last February.))
I urge you to read the review, if not the books, but will recap just in case you don't. The first book Place takes up is a collection of poems from marginalia—that's right, poems from the little notes left by strangers in books and forgotten. Liam Agrani, the poet/editor and librarian (naturally) who pulled it together, has been working on Volume One: Selected Anonymous Marginalia for ten years. That's devotion to the god in the details. Then, Ryan Haley’s Autobiography: Volume One is a series of lists of words—and yes, a list can be a poem--or fiction, for that matter—that appeared in our language, or rather in the venerated OED, from 1975 to 1993.
My favorite? Servants of Dust by Gary Barwin. The book is published in Calgary by some folks who call themselves No Press, with the byline: “No press: no promotions, no advance, no problem.” Indeed, they are so no-promoting that I couldn’t find them or the book. (I’ve written Barwin to learn how to get a copy and am eagerly awaiting response.) Barwin offers literal transcriptions of the punctuation marks on Shakespeare’s sonnets. (Very Vito.) I urge you to check out Vanessa’s review to see her transcription of Barwin’s transcription of Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? The famous first line becomes:
inverted comma question mark
Barwin's The Punctuation of Thieves, which Place doesn't review, contains far more traditional poems, each dedicated to punctuation marks, lovingly and merrily illustrated. They remind me a little of Neruda's Elemental Odes. Available for download here, take it! Enjoy!
Fittingly, I’ll excerpt the one to the period and sign off for now:
.At the end of a sentence a period, a full stop. Peer into its
darkness, a celestial sky so dark nothing is visible save
the darkness itself.