On Dirty Concrete Poetry in a Clean Gallery

This article was originally published in issue 3.16 (Winter 2012).

Last Friday I attended the Concrete Poetry symposium at UBC’s Belkin Gallery. Organized by the Belkin’s Shelly Rosenblum, it was originally to feature talks by Stephen Scobie, Lori Emerson, and Liz Kotz, all academics who work on visual, or concrete, poetry, and was to complement the exhibition now on at the Belkin, Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry (up until April 8, 2012). The exhibition is an important mélange of wonderful, eye-popping paintings by Morris from the 1960s, and concrete/visual poetry, both wall-based, and in book or chapbook (or film) form. What was interesting to me when I first visited the exhibition a month ago was the question of which direction cultural capital flowed: from the paintings to the poetry (this is in an art gallery, after all), or from the poetry to the paintings (perhaps Morris, like other artists best known for their work from the 1960s, needs some latter-day publicity). I also witnessed, last month, a performance by the legendary bill bissett – another artist, or poet, associated with the 1960s – at the Belkin, which he began by taking the two or three dozen audience members around the gallery spaces and talking about some of the work. That performance was marked by a great impromptu reading of a poem by Jamie Reid, and by co-curator of the exhibition, Michael Turner (the other curator is Belkin director Scott Watson), asking bissett some pertinent or even impertinent questions about the reception of work in that period.

Turner’s impertinence continued at the Concrete symposium, when he stood in for Stephen Scobie, who was ill and could not attend. As Turner noted, he and I both studied with Scobie at the University of Victoria in the 1980s (we might have been in the same film and narrative course), and it may have been a lingering affection that led Turner, in reading a reminiscence or memoir of Scobie’s about the 1960s in Vancouver, and about the place of visual poetry at that time, to embellish or annotate it with corrections from his (Turner’s) own, encyclopedic, knowledge of the galleries, exhibitions, players, and collaborations of the time. It was an interesting moment, with some chuckles but also tension in the room, and it illustrated for me the relationship between memory and history. Scobie was a Ph.D. student at UBC at the time but also beginning to write concrete work and in correspondence with the Scottish giant Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Another history, or an analysis, was then offered by Lori Emerson, who teaches at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and is somewhat of a young Turk in the field of electronic literature. Emerson’s presentation was especially engaged with the question of typewriter poetry, with dirty and clean concrete, and with the work of Steve McCaffery and bpNichol. She argued that these poets were in effect hacking the typewriter, were media activists. Liz Kotz, from the University of California-Riverside, gave a more art historical discussion of the typewriter poems of minimalist artist Carl Andre, arguing that, in spite of an archive that is only sporadically available, the engagement with the grid in Andre’s work could best be understood through internal formal developments in painting and poetry in the 20th century, and not, for the most part, social or political connotations of the grid. Two local writers provided codas or supplements to these academic (but also, in the case of Turner, performative) presentations. Both are poets who work in visual media: Judith Copithorne distributed a copy of a poem she’s recently completed called “surprising poetry”; Donato Mancini provided a response to the symposium with some remarks on the persistence of concrete and the propensity of concrete poets to indulge in “shop talk.”

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