Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Reading Writing InterfacesFrom the Digital to the Bookbound$

Lori Emerson

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780816691258

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816691258.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

(p.87) 3 Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics
Reading Writing Interfaces

Lori Emerson

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter three focuses on poetic experiments with the strictures of the typewriter in the 1960s and 1970s.

Keywords:   interface, poetics, digital literature, media archaeology, media studies, archives, typewriter, history of computing, personal computer

Analog Hacktivism

The third archaeological cut I make into reading/writing interfaces is the era from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s in which poets, working heavily under the influence of Marshall McLuhan, sought to create (especially, so-called dirty) concrete poetry as a way to experiment with the limits and the possibilities of the typewriter. These poems—particularly, those by the two Canadian writers bpNichol and Steve McCaffery and the English Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houédard—often deliberately court the media noise of the typewriter as a way to draw attention to the typewriter as interface. Further, since these poems are about their making by way of a particular writing medium as much as they are about their reading/viewing, if we read these concrete poems in relation to Marshall McLuhan’s unique pairing of literary studies with media studies—a pairing that is also his unique contribution to media archaeology avant la lettre—we can reimagine formally experimental poetry and poetics as engaged with media studies and even with hacking reading/writing interfaces. Another key point of this chapter is that we can also reimagine McLuhan’s work as equally influenced by concrete poetry, and so it too is an instance of media poetics—even activist media poetics.

The Poetics of a McLuhanesque Media Archaeology

As Siegfried Zielinski writes in Deep Time of the Media: “Do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old. If (p.88) we are lucky and find it, we shall have to say goodbye to much that is familiar in a variety of respects.”1 At the heart of media archaeology is an ongoing struggle to keep itself from ossifying into a set of inflexible methodologies, as well as the attempt to keep alive what Zielinski calls “variantology”—the discovery of “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, especially those variations that defy the ever-increasing trend toward “standardization and uniformity among the competing electronic and digital technologies.”2 Pulled between a desire to renovate media studies and the necessity to keep such a renovation consistently flexible and even indefinable, much media archaeology–aligned writing is marked by the sort of unexpected reversals reflected in the quote by Zielinski. If we are to take seriously Zielinski’s call to not “seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old,” then in light of our newfound awareness of ways in which digital interfaces frame both reading and writing, the typewriter emerges as a profoundly influential analog reading/writing interface. Further, typewriter poetry broadly and dirty concrete poetry in particular are extremely effective in how they draw attention to the limits and the possibilities of the typewriter as interface. When Andrew Lloyd writes in the 1972 collection Typewriter Poems that “a typewriter is a poem … a poem is not a typewriter,” he gestures to the ways in which poets enact a kind of media analysis of the typewriter via writing as they cleverly undo stereotypical assumptions about the typewriter itself. A poem written on a typewriter is not merely a series of words delivered via a mechanical writing device, and for that matter, neither is the typewriter merely a mechanical writing device.3 Instead, these poems express and enact a poetics of the remarkably varied material specificities of the typewriter as a particular kind of mechanical writing interface that necessarily inflects both how and what one writes.

That said, in order not to use media archaeology as a productive framework but to actually do media archaeology by (p.89) uncovering media-related phenomena such as the typewriter and dirty concrete poetry produced in the 1960s and 1970s, rather than drawing on a more recent figure such as Zielinski or the earlier and equally influential Friedrich Kittler, we instead ought to draw on Marshall McLuhan as a media archaeologist avant la lettre who is also finely attuned to the literary.4 Further, we ought to use Zielinski’s invocations to “find something new in the old” by focusing our efforts on McLuhan’s writing to reinvigorate studies of him that have, for far too long, focused almost exclusively on only three catchphrases enshrined in Understanding Media: (1) the medium is the message; (2) media as the extensions of “man”; and (3) the global village.5 To venture beyond this early collection of his writings, originally published in 1964, is to discover long-out-of-print books such as the 1967 Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations—a book not more relevant than Understanding Media but that clearly reflects McLuhan’s engagement with a poetics of media studies both in the sense of poetic writing and as a conceptual framework for thinking about media.6 To return to McLuhan’s less-canonical texts is to significantly broaden his legacy to include a thoroughgoing engagement with innovative poetry—especially, the concrete poetry that was being produced internationally at the time, along with the dirty concrete poetry that was being written prodigiously in pockets across Canada, including Toronto, where McLuhan lived for most of his life.7

There is no doubt that poets writing verbi-voco-visually themselves were as strongly influenced by McLuhan as he was by them. For example, Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations was published by the self-proclaimed “intermedia poet” Dick Higgins through his Something Else Press in the same year his press published the first major anthology of concrete poetry, Emmett Williams’s An Anthology of Concrete Poetry.8 Invested as he was in poetry that situated itself between two or more inseparable media, Higgins’s notion of intermedia was obviously saturated with McLuhan’s notions of the new electric age and the global (p.90) village. As he wrote in his “Statement on Intermedia” in 1966, the year before publishing the two volumes by McLuhan and Emmett Williams:

Could it be that the central problem of the next ten years or so, for all artists in all possible forms, is going to be less the still further discovery of new media and intermedia, but of the new discovery of ways to use what we care about both appropriately and explicitly?9

Clearly, Higgins thought of Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations and An Anthology of Concrete Poetry as two parts of the same conversation. The former features a multilinear page design and typography that is constantly changing to reflect shifts in McLuhan’s content. Moreover, Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations is a book version of a 1957 special issue of the journal Explorations edited by McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter (note that the use of “verbi-voco-visual” in Explorations anticipated the 1958 use of the term by the group of Brazilian concrete poets, the Noigandres, also the founders of concrete poetry). In fact, both McLuhan and the Noigandres appropriated James Joyce’s 1939 penning of the phrase “verbi-voco-visual presentiment” in Finnegan’s Wake, with the concrete poets transforming the term into “verbivocovisual” in their “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry.” The Noigandres reinterpreted it (in part by removing the hyphens, possibly to emphasize the interdependence of the three separate elements) to mean “coincidence and simultaneity of verbal and nonverbal communication … a communication of forms, of a structure-content.”10 McLuhan’s use of the term maintained its connection to both a simultaneous mode of communication that was not simply verbal and the specifically poetics-related emphasis on the interdependence of form (or structure, as the Noigandres put it) and content.11

Significant for this chapter is that McLuhan wanted to renovate “verbi-voco-visual” so that it resonated with media studies as much as it did with poetics—a newly inaugurated field (p.91) of media studies that made possible the observation that the 1950s brought into being an “electronic age” defined by a “secondary orality” that permitted an “instant awareness of a total situation. Oral means ‘total’ primarily, ‘spoken’ accidentally.”12 While typewriters were not yet electric in the 1950s, they did exemplify for McLuhan this return to the oral. He writes in the section “Verbi-Voco-Visual,” “The ‘reeling and writhing’ of Lewis Carroll is close to the action of pre-typewriter reading and writing. The staccato stutter of the typewriter on the other hand is really close to the stutter that is oral speech. The typewriter is part of our oral revolution today.”13 This pairing of the literary with a study of media is absent from nearly all writing that explicitly calls itself media archaeology, a pairing that is McLuhan’s critical innovation.

Further, this pairing forces us to read the work of innovative poets as performing studies of the limits and the possibilities of certain writing media. In this light McLuhan’s observation, “Stephen Spender once suggested that the reason there is no more avant-garde experiment in literature is that this role has been assumed by the new media of expression,” was not so much radical as it was a straightforward statement of contemporary poetry’s unique contribution to media studies: the experimentation with the limits and the possibilities of writing media, broadly, and writing interfaces, more specifically.14 Thus, in the case of typewriter poetry from the 1960s and 1970s, it was not simply that poets happened to use a typewriter to achieve certain effects but that they foregrounded what had always been the case: “The artist senses at once the creative possibilities in new media even when they are alien to his own medium…. The artist is the historian of the future because he uses the unnoticed possibilities of the present.”15 By 1970 McLuhan had explicitly aligned both poet and artist as future historian. As he writes in Culture Is Our Business: “Poets and artists live on frontiers. They have no feedback, only feedforward. They have no identities. They are probes.”16

While he does not explicitly credit McLuhan, Zielinski clearly (p.92) takes up the notion of artists as probes and further extends it such that their media-oriented probings of the past and the present-as-future are inherently activist. He writes:

Few activists, however, take the more daring path of exploring certain points of the media system in such a way that throws established syntax into a state of agitation. This is poetic praxis in the strict sense that the magical realist Bruno Schultz of Poland understood it: “If art is only supposed to confirm what has been determined for as long as anyone can remember, then one doesn’t need it. Its role is to be a probe that is let down into the unknown. The artist is a device that registers processes taking place in the depths where values are created.”17

With poetic practice framed as one that “throws established syntax into a state of agitation,” insofar as it gives an account of the normally invisible—the taken for granted that nonetheless defines what can be said—the asyntactical, nonrepresentational dirty concrete poetry is activist media poetry par excellence. It probes, or reads, the new in old or standard uses of media such as the typewriter—a probing that in part foreshadows poets’ nonstandard use of the digital computer’s command-line interface in the early 1980s.

Literary DIY and Concrete Poetry

Prior to McLuhan and the concrete poetry movement, writers such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Charles Olson are frequently cited as examples of those “for whom typewriting seems to have provided for a large degree of commonality in their thinking and writing practices,” with Olson’s 1950 “Projective Verse” being, in particular, a canonical text on the poetics of the typewriter.18 “Projective Verse” is, however, almost always read in relation to Olson’s breath-based poetics, with readers taking particular note of the following declaration: “It (p.93) is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends.”19 Instead, the connection between the breath and the poet typing stands in for the typewriter’s larger contribution: the way in which it allows a turn away from “manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer” and toward, as Olson implies, a practice in which form and content, medium and message, process and product are necessarily intertwined.20 In fact, Olson’s (typewritten) writing on the typewriter also both expresses and prefigures the movement in the 1960s and 1970s to democratize the process of writing poetry through writing and distribution that draw attention to the literary artifact as both an object created and mediated by the typewriter—techniques that essentially turn the artifact inside out.21

As I discuss in greater detail in the proceeding sections, this philosophy of making—especially exemplified by the typewritten, dirty concrete poem—erodes the division between surface and depth, inside and outside. Take, for instance, the statements of poetics that appear in the first anthology of concrete poetry, Emmett Williams’s An Anthology of Concrete Poetry from 1967, and the now-canonical collection of concrete poetry Concrete Poetry: A World View, edited by Mary Ellen Solt, from 1968. While only about a third of the poems in each volume are obviously made with a typewriter, it’s noteworthy that nearly all of the poems depend on the typewriter-inspired structure of the grid. Since all manual typewriters use monospace fonts—or fonts whose individual letters take up the same amount of space on the page, as manual typewriters can move only the same distance forward for each letter—these letters naturally form lines and columns. More, those poems that are typewritten are accompanied not with the usual statements about the author’s intent with regard to the content or semantic meaning of the poem but rather with author statements that take the form of descriptions about the type of typewriter, typing (p.94) techniques, and even the size of the paper used. Aram Saroyan declares:

I write on a typewriter, almost never in hand … and my machine—an obsolete red-top Royal Portable—is the biggest influence on my work. This red hood hold [sic] the mood, keeps my eye happy. The type-face is a standard pica; if it were another style I’d write (subtly) different poems. And when a ribbon gets dull my poems I’m sure change.22

Dom Sylvester Houédard’s statement describing his “typestracts” (abstract, typewritten visual poems) is not only remarkably detailed but also notably focused exclusively on the writing process and the writing medium used (including his use and misuse of the typewriter) rather than on describing his intentions with regard to the final written product:

my own typestracts (so named by edwin morgan) are all produced on a portable olivetti lettera 22 (olivetti himself/themselves show sofar a total non interest in this fact) there are 86 typeunits available on my machine for use w/2-colour or no ribbon

- or with carbons of various colours—the maximum size surface w/out folding is abt 10" diagonal—the ribbons may be of various ages—several ribbons may be used on a single typestract—inked-ribbon & manifold (carbon) can be combined on same typestract—pressures may be varied—overprints & semioverprints (1/2 back or 1/2 forward) are available—stencils may be cut & masks used—precise placing of the typestract units is possible thru spacebar & ratcheted-roller—or roller may be disengaged.23

This quote not only reads much like a do-it-yourself guide to writing typestracts but also—with individual letters rather than words as “units” and the page as a “surface”—aligns the DIY philosophy with a poetics that seeks to spur readers/writers (p.95) to move away from a poetry that is a delivery mechanism for semantic meaning and toward a poetry whose meaning is more about a process of making that takes place outside a cycle of consuming (through traditional reading practices) the already created. Loosely speaking, it is an open-source poetics that lays bare its mechanisms of creation.

We need look only at Houédard’s untitled typestract in the Williams anthology to witness a self-conscious use of the typewriter-as-writing-medium as a way to create a processoriented text rife with nonsemantic meaning (see Figure 20).24 Here, Houédard takes full advantage of the typewriter’s monospaced fonts to create interconnected parts that are gridlike, permutational, and pictorial and that—in the case of the square spiral that spells “atom”—only occasionally make semantic sense. In fact, with the exception of “atom,” almost all of the visual structure of the poem is built from the letters comprising “atom,” thereby atomizing the word.25

This shift to a DIY process of writing, which inevitably involves a fine-tuned attention to the particularities of a given writing medium, is echoed in Mary Ellen Solt’s description of Ilse and Pierre Garnier’s “poème mechanique,” which “amounts to ‘a transformation of work’ to work-activity of the linguistic materials.”26 Ronald Johnson even more overtly thinks of his typewriter works along these same lines:

As I am unable to think except on the typewriter, my poems have been, from the beginning, all 8½" x 11". This is not only misunderstood by the printers, it is ignored. And if one should happen to bring it to their attention they say—do it yourself. So I have. I have begun to make my own letters and to think in ink.27

The poems by Johnson that appear in the Solt collection further demonstrate the extent of the typewriter’s influence, as these works go beyond a straightforward use of the writing medium by building on some of the essential capabilities offered (p.96)

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 20. Dom Sylvester Houédard’s untitled typestract that appears in Emmett Williams’s Anthology of Concrete Poetry from 1967.

Copyright the Estate of Emmett Williams.

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 21. Ronald Johnson’s “MAZE/MANE/WANE,” which appears in Mary Ellen Solt’s collection Concrete Poetry: A World View.

Copyright 1968 by Ronald Johnson. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of Ronald Johnson.

by the typewriter (see Figure 21). Inspired by the grid space made possible by the monospaced font, we get a solid threeby-four block of intertwined (presumably hand-drawn) letters. Inspired by the ability to treat the page as a surface, we get a text whose negative space plays a role as fundamental as that of the positive space of the letters. Finally, from the ability, as (p.98) Houédard puts it, to “disengage” the roller and turn the page in any direction, we get an exploration of the typographical and visual connections between Z and N, M, and W.28

Further, in this same collection of concrete poetry edited by Solt, Dick Higgins—whose connection to McLuhan I touch on in the following section—explicitly makes the point not only that these concrete poems ought to be viewed rather than read (again, no doubt in part because of the absence of semantic meaning made possible by the way in which the typewriter transforms the page into a surface) but that a new mode of poetry is required because of new media of expression.

As McLuhan says, you can’t make the new medium do the old job. The information in a new poem can’t be the same as the information in an old poem…. What interests me now is that new poetry isn’t going to be poetry for reading. It’s going to be for looking at…. I mean book, print culture, is finished.29

The foregoing clearly demonstrates a McLuhan-inspired mode of reading (writing) media such as the typewriter through concrete poetry that is also driven by a DIY sensibility.

From Clean to Dirty Concrete

Again, once we bring a media studies approach to bear on concrete poetry, we are immediately confronted with the fact that such an approach—in this case vis-à-vis the work of McLuhan—reveals that concrete poetry, no doubt along with the whole lineage of visual writing, is obviously media poetry. Further, we find that concrete poetry is not a homogenous field of writing but rather one that encompasses an extraordinary range of poems whose meaning is entirely tied to an equally extraordinary range of writing media used to create visual effects. While it may be true, as Marjorie Perloff points out, that when concrete poetry (p.99) first emerged in the 1950s and the 1960s, it “presented itself as a coherent international movement with clearcut theories and practices,” by the end of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s concrete poetry practices varied so widely that works from this era “showed anagrammatic dispersion and affirmed only the de-centring of all systems, the rejection of truth, origin, nostalgia, and guilt.”30

In the face of canonical poems from the first generation, such as those by Eugen Gomringer or Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, which appear to be either made (or to be more precise, in those cases where manuscript versions are not available, the published versions appear to be made) with dry transfer lettering or typeset in lead—as well as all those poems created with stencils, stamps, xerography, letterpress, and so on—those concrete poems from both the first and the second generation of the movement whose form and content are inextricable from the typewriters used to create them stand apart as a (sub)genre. Further, those works from the second generation that might be called “dirty concrete” are even more obviously unique in that they use the typewriter—often in conjunction with the mimeograph machine—to push the limits of readability and interpretation by taking Robert Creeley’s dictum, popularized by Olson’s “Projective Verse,” “form is never more than an extension of content,” and generally turning form into content.31

The term “dirty concrete” is widely enough known that critics such as Marjorie Perlof f can, in a discussion comparing Gomringer’s and Steve McCaffery’s work, simply mention in passing the distinction between clean and dirty concrete poetry without worrying about a readership who might not be familiar with the term.32 That said, the term is commonly used to describe a deliberate attempt to move away from the clean lines and graphically neutral appearance of the concrete poetry from the 1950s and 1960s by Gomringer in Switzerland, the Noigandres in Brazil, and Ian Hamilton Finlay in England. Such cleanliness was thought to indicate a lack of political (p.100) engagement broadly speaking and, more specifically, a lack of political engagement with language and representation. As renowned French poet Henri Chopin wrote in 1969, a year after the failed worker/student protests in France:

1968 was the year when man really appeared. Man who is the streets, HIS PROPERTY, for he alone makes it…. Yes, 1968 saw this. And for all these reasons, I was, and am opposed to concrete poetry, which makes nothing concrete, because it is not active. It has never been in the streets, it has never known how to fight to save man’s conquests: the street which belongs to us, to carry the word elsewhere than the printing press. In fact, concrete poetry has remained an intellectual matter. A pity.33

Perhaps in response to criticisms such as those by Chopin that accused concrete poetry of being overly intellectual and not nearly concrete enough in the sense of being in and with the world, it was exactly around 1968 or 1969 that clusters of poets (mostly in Canada and the United Kingdom) began to produce concrete poems that deliberately courted a visual and linguistic nonlinearity and illegibility by putting the typewriter to the test. As these poets created smeared letters with inked ribbons or different carbons while turning and twisting the page, the result was often the imprint of letters that appeared literally dirty or rough around their edges.

Despite the references and the discussion around “dirty concrete,” there is no clear written account of who first used this term. Tracking the evolution of the term and its shifting valences is instructive insofar as it points toward a kind of activism through a particular mode of typewriter poetry.34 That is, it seems “dirty concrete” was used in loose conversation in the relatively small community of experimental Canadian poets and critics throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s as a viable, more politically activist alternative to clean concrete.35 Still, it (p.101) is worth noting that the earliest written record of the term appears in a letter from Stephen Scobie to bpNichol in 1968, in which there is a strong suggestion that Nichol came up with the term. Describing his own work to Nichol, Scobie writes, “You’ll notice the difference in my work & a lot of the stuff you publish in Gronk—it is I think what you called the difference between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ concrete…. But the Canadians, especially bissett of course, are dirty. You mix the two, but I sense you’re more at home in the dirty stuff.” While this seems to suggest Nichol was the originator of the term, in another letter from Scobie to Nichol in 1971 there is the suggestion that Scobie and not Nichol came up with the term. Writes Scobie, “I never meant ‘dirty’ to be a term of disapprobation. I’ve got nothing against it: clean/dirty, like expressionist/constructivist, was always intended as a (possibly helpful, possibly not) description.”36

Another written definition appears in a 1970 letter Nichol wrote to Nicholas Zurbrugg, the editor of Stereo Headphones, for a special issue Zurbrugg was working on called “The Death of Concrete,” which includes the previous statement from Chopin and reinforces the fact that by the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a sense among concrete poets that the movement was stagnating around the clean form that had dominated the concrete poetry anthologies edited by Williams and Solt.37 Here, Nichol echoes Chopin’s concerns that clean concrete had become overly intellectual:

concrete can become as big a trap as anything unless one stays open and flexible and is willing to keep seeking new exits and entrances with regard to the poem. which is to say the limitations with con lie within the men practising it, or within, say, a particular definition of it…. Stephen Scobie wrote to me from Vancouver and talked about the difference between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty concrete.’ by that definition we were all dirty. bruitist i suppose. for too many people concrete is a head trip, which is to say, an intellectual trip…. (p.102) for most people i know it’s a gut experience. i suppose you could say that the ‘concrete’ in ‘concrete poetry’ has cracked up but it sure as hell ain’t dead.38

The term was likely then put into broader circulation by way of bill bissett’s 1973 “a pome in praise of all quebec bombers” in pass th food release th spirit book, which as Jack David describes it, “begins with the phrase ‘dirty concrete poet’ repeated twice, then changes to ‘the concrete is dirty dirty,’ ‘sum like it clean what dew they ooo.’ … The comparison presents the clean ordered life of a capitalist system and the dirty chaotic life of the lower classes” (see Figure 22).39 David’s reading is nicely reinforced by other poems in the collection, such as “nefertiti,” in which bissett writes, “this aint no capitalist / pome ium tirud uv finding / th ownr aint in arint yu.”40 Here, bissett aligns clear semantic meaning and transparent, representational language that the reader ought to passively consume with capitalism, and consequently, he rejects both by way of nonstandard and inconsistent spelling, syntax, spacing, and visual appearance (e.g., overwriting with both the typewriter and the cracked imperfections of dry transfer lettering).41

That said, many of the poems in this collection push so hard against semantic meaning in service of the nonstandard and that which cannot easily be consumed that the results are often not pictures or poems of or about anything so much as they are inventive geometric designs that take advantage of the capabilities of the typewriter. Take, for example, the three gridlike poems in the collection, all made with a different typewriter than that used in “a pome in praise of all quebec bombers” (in fact, it appears bissett used at least three different typewriters in the creation of pass th food release th spirit book). These poems all overlay the letter Q with horizontally and vertically aligned o’s and n’s to create dense, abstract designs (that are more or less of a phallus).

In an email correspondence to me, bissett reinforced my sense that the typewriter as a writing medium played a crucial (p.103)

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 22. bill bissett’s “a pome in praise of all quebec bombers,” which appears in his 1973 pass th food release th spirit book.

Reprinted by per-mission of Talonbooks.

(p.104) role particularly in the creation of concrete poems that explored the page as a surface and letters as units of composition: “ibm elektrik was a big fave n smith corona elektrik as well yu cud repeet lettrs i usd olympia as well i reelee enjoyd leeving my fingr on a lettr n feeling it type a whol long line take my fingr off th lettr key n it stoppd that was at leest th smith corona was xcellent 4 th tapestree kind uv konkreet.”42 By “tapestree” poetry, bissett likely means texts, such as “a pome in praise of all quebec bombers,” whose designs and/or pictorial elements make them akin to a textile that is meant to be viewed rather than read. Unlike a fabric-based tapestry, however, these tapestry texts feature the typewriter not only as a writing machine capable of creating visual patterns but as one whose visual patterns, like a sewing pattern, lay bare the means for their own creation.

bpNichol, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Steve McCaffery

Steve McCaffery wrote presciently in 1986: “McLuhan saw the fundamental strength of technology as neither instrumental nor destructive but rather as rhetorical. Technology persuades towards modification and change; it is ideological software whose implications are both pre and post political. Technology does not serve so much as modify; it simultaneously promises and threatens change.43 This section focuses on the work of two Torontonian contemporaries of the Vancouver-based bissett, both of whom were influenced by and even lived near Marshall McLuhan—bpNichol and his typewriter poetry and Steve McCaffery and his thoroughly dirty concrete poem Carnival—and that of English poet Dom Sylvester Houédard, who was one of the most prolific typestract poet-artists and who exerted significant influence over both Nichol and McCaffery.

While Nichol, who collaborated extensively with bissett through the mid- to late-1960s, rarely wrote concrete poems as visually dirty as McCaffery’s, his writing career was defined by a McLuhan-inflected desire he expressed in his 1966 “Statement”:

(p.105) now that we have reached the point where people have finally come to see that language means communication and that communication does not just mean language, we have come up against the problem, the actual fact, of diversification, of finding as many exits as possible from the self (language/communication exits) in order to form as many entrances as possible for the other.44

If according to McLuhan’s famous 1964 declaration the “the medium is the message” and even the electric light is a communication medium that is in itself a message, then Nichol believed he could realize his desire to move beyond an ego-based poetry of self-expression through concrete poetry experiments with diverse writing media generally and, at least until about 1973, the typewriter in particular.45 Also influenced by McLuhan, McCaffery in Carnival, more than most dirty concrete poets from this era, pushed the typewriter machinery to its limits while also pushing his writing to the limits of legibility, interpretability, and readability. This section delves into not only how—especially in the context of the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s—both poets’ probings of the limits and the possibilities of communication via the typewriter as writing machine anticipated the digital media probings of the e-literature authors I discuss in chapter 1 but also how they were activist in the terms I outline in the previous section. Their typewriter/dirty concrete poetry represented a push to unsettle what Zielinski calls “established syntax” by exploring and even hacking the typewriter as a media system. As McCaffery himself wrote of Carnival in 1975, this work “developed into an exploration of technologic tension—that’s to say how far you can push and extend the capabilities of textual-textural mechanics.”46

Nichol’s and McCaffery’s work quite literally shows us how media determine what can and cannot be said. Further, using a medium such as the typewriter in ways not intended or endorsed by the manufacturer results in the creation of new modes of communication and, thus, newly communicated (p.106) content. These typewriter/dirty concrete poems are thoroughly activist media poems.47 They are even activist in the sense that McLuhan was imagining in 1966 when he wrote in Astronauts of Inner-Space: A Collection of Avant-Garde Activity, notably alongside contributions by first-generation concrete poet Decio Pignatari and second-generation typestract poets Dom Sylvester Houédard and Franz Mon: “If politics is the art of the possible, its scope must now, in the electric age, include the shaping and programming of the entire sensory environment as a luminous work of art.”48 Politics as art; art as politics.

bpNichol’s first substantial collection of typewriter concrete, Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer, was not published in Canada until 1973 (it was first published in 1967 by British concrete poet Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum Quartos). By that time, Nichol had started to use the typewriter only as a means of transcribing handwritten poems. As he put it in an interview with Raoul Duguay, handwriting provided him with a more “intimate involvement with the architecture of the single letter,” whereas the typewriter—for all that it offered—was limited to reproducing identical letters with a similarly identical, repetitive striking on the keys.49 Still, the mechanism of the typewriter was a foundational element of Nichol’s poetics, as his media experiments from 1965 to 1967 inaugurated a lifelong, acute attention to the contours of an astonishing range of writing media that extended to the pen and pencil as much as to the mimeograph stencil, letraset, photoduplication, the rubber stamp, embossing, and die-cutting.50

The poems in this collection are fairly representative of Nichol’s typewriter poems in that they depend on this writing machine to produce anything from a sound poetry score (“Cycle #22”) to combinatorial experiments (“Cycle #23”), figurative poems (“Easter Poem”), abstract poems, and often some combination of all four modes of concrete. In terms of the more abstract poems (which are, I believe, not nearly abstract or dirty enough to call “typestracts”), whereas bissett and McCaffery often court the abstract via typewriter as a way to disrupt a (p.107) clean, transparent writing/surface, Nichol’s abstract typewriter poems—even when they are clearly in dialogue with bissett and McCaffery—are notably clean and legible even while they too strive to disrupt transparency. For example, “The Return of the Repressed” picks up bissett’s experiments with the visual connections between the monospaced O and Q, and instead of overlaying the two letters to create noise, Nichol creates a visual pun as a way to enact the psychological life of letters (see Figure 23). Not only is “The Return of the Repressed” resolutely for looking at rather than through, but our appreciation of what we are looking at is entirely dependent on our how-to knowledge—how we write, how we write letters, how we write with typewriters, how the typewriter works. Further, it is this emphasis on the active how-to that makes the poem (however modestly) activist.

Published several years before Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer and during his most intensely productive years with

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 23. bpNichol’s “Return of the Repressed,” which appears in his 1973 collection Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer.

Reprinted by permission of Eleanor Nichol on behalf of the bpNichol Estate.

(p.108) the typewriter, his 1968 “The Complete Works” is Nichol’s ultimate homage to this machine that is both a visual and a permutational writing device (see Figure 24).51 Using the typewriter, he attempts to reproduce the precise order/appearance of the letters and characters on the QWERTY keyboard. Ultimately, however, the poem is only an orderly reproduction of the typewriter key functions and not a reproduction of the appearance of the keyboard, as the Shift key on typewriters from the 1950s and 1960s supplanted the need to include lowercase letters on the keyboard. This reading of the poem as a how-to guide to writing—a poem whose meaning and content are entirely dependent on the typewriter—is reinforced by the fact that Nichol’s poem is preceded by Aram Saroyan’s 1965 “The Collected Works.”52 Conceptually, of course, the two poems are nearly identical. However, not only is Saroyan’s poem written from a very different typewriter (as it excludes mathematical symbols and the numeral 1 and includes a key for ¾), but the published version is typeset and so lacks the media-specific focus of Nichol’s version. As such, Nichol’s “The Complete Works” becomes even more a poem about the potential of potential (reinforced with an asterisk reminding us of “any possible permutation of all listed elements”) that is here necessarily tied to the material differences and particularities of the typewriter. The poem not only is a DIY guide to poem writing in that it consists of eighty-eight different combinations of eighty-eight letters and characters but also is an example of potential literature even more brilliant than Raymond Queneau’s resolutely readable but infamously never completable Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, as Nichol’s poem is both utterly unreadable and uncompletable in its concern with the writing process as product. As he put it in 1976, once again using McLuhanesque terms that recall the dictum from Understanding Media that “media are the extensions of man,” “When I was into typewriter concrete, it was as much that I was into the typewriter as a tool of the writer—as an extension of the writer.”53


Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 24. bpNichol’s 1969 concrete poem “The Complete Works.”

Reprinted by permission of Eleanor Nichol on behalf of the bpNichol Estate.

Though more readable and so less resolutely oriented toward writing that exemplifies process as product, Nichol’s later collection of mostly typewritten poems Translating Translating Apollinaire (TTA)—a series of homophonic translations written between 1975 and 1979 of his own 1964 “Translating Apollinaire”—similarly explores the ways in which the typewriter engenders both visual and permutational writing. In its relentless exploration of different procedures for English-to-English translations, it has become something of a cult serial poem in certain experimental writing circles, spawning iterations such as Stuart Pid’s Translating translating translating Apollinaire and Andrew Russ’s Translating, translating, translating Apollinaire, or, Translating, translating bp Nichol (both from 1991). Nichol writes by way of an introduction:

(p.110) May 27th 1975 en route from London England to Toronto with Gerry Gilbert … in a mood of dissatisfaction re certain aspects of my writing (always the feeling there is more one should be learning—more limitations one should be pushing against & breaking down) i began this present series. In my mind was the idea of a pure bit of research one in which the creativity would be entirely at the level of the research, of formal inventiveness, and not at the level of content per se i.e. i recalled the first poem i had ever had published—Translating Apollinaire in bill bissett’s BLEW OINTMENT magazine circa 1964 … & decided to put that poem thru as many translation/transformation processes as i & other people could think of.54

Among the series of TTAs is a little-known collection called Sharp Facts: Some Selections from Translating Translating Apollinaire 26—a series of TTA poems that are both typewriter and photocopier poems. Given his love of the pun, a love he shared with McLuhan, one of his favorite photocopiers was, not surprisingly, the Sharpfax copier machine (as they were called at the time). Writing as an experienced writing-media technician two years before his short McLuhan tribute, which I discuss later, Nichol declares in the introduction:

The translative system involved here entails the use of …copying machine disintegrative tendencies. Which is to say that an image fed through a copying machine over & over again (feeding the image of the image, & then the image of the image of the image, & so on) thru a great many generations, disintegrates. & it does this differently depending on which type of copying machine you’re using.55

The primary example of his copier machine poetics was created on a Sharpfax—a series of poems that are by far the dirtiest, most illegible of Nichol’s works (see Figure 25). These poems are dirty copier concrete (even though the original, thoroughly (p.111) legible poem he copied was made on a typewriter) whose content is the noise of media transmitting this same content. Nichol concludes his introduction by writing, “The ultimate goal of TTA 26 is to produce generational disintegrations on all the different types of copying machines. The analogue is one of a transmission thru time, a speeding up of the break-down process given information in a purely machine context. In this case the machine is the message. The text itself ultimately disappears.”56 These are poems of and about writing media—poems that are not interested in their own illegibility per se so much as they are invested in reading, vis-à-vis writing, the typewriter through the copier machine.

With the abundance of near-McLuhanisms throughout Nichol’s critical writing, the media theorist’s influence on Nichol appears to be broadly conceptual in that he seems to have both internalized many of McLuhan’s key precepts and admired McLuhan as a writer of poetics. Within a year or so after McLuhan’s death in 1980, Nichol wrote “The Medium Was the Message,” in which he made clear that although they did meet, McLuhan’s influence “was model, a style or way of thinking”:

He understood that writing was not simply what is written but rather, in the very way you approached it, the very terms you set for yourself, became and becomes a strategy for living, a model for how to deal with the “reality” of the world. He showed how the medium became the message and how the most profound thot becomes cliché, becomes archetype. He showed us, too, a way to re-energize the language, the word world.57

While McLuhan undoubtedly had an influence over Nichol’s concrete poems, which doubled as investigations into writing media, Steve McCaffery arguably had an even stronger, if not complementary, influence. Around 1967 McCaffery moved to Toronto from England and inaugurated several decades of collaboration between the two. Formally, these collaborations (p.112)

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 25. A copier poem made on a Sharpfax copier machine that appears in bpNichol’s 1980 Sharp Facts: Some Selections from Translating Trans-lating Apollinaire 26.

Reprinted by permission of Eleanor Nichol on behalf of the bpNichol Estate.

(p.113) took place through their creation of the Toronto Research Group (TRG) and, along with Paul Dutton and Rafael Barreto-Rivera, through their sound poetry collaborative the Four Horsemen.58 In a 1986 discussion with Geoff Hancock about the importance of McCaffery’s arrival, Nichol declared:

That made a huge difference in my life. Here was someone who was concerned with the same issues, and covered the same ground from his own angle for his own reasons. Steve and I are very dissimilar writers. But we share a lot of concerns. I always concerned myself with design, typeface, and papers on the press though you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking.59

Even as McCaffery’s work throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s was more obviously concerned with moving as far away as possible from writing that attempted to represent reality through experiments that one could say were performative (in how they drew attention to the page as writing canvas and the mechanical means for producing letters that acted as the basic unit of composition), Nichol’s work was equally concerned with the same issues. Further, judging from TRG documents Nichol and McCaffery both penned, the typewriter as an object of and a crucial means for thinking was a nexus for their shared interests.60

We’ve always typed. We type with maybe one of us typing what’s in our mind and then we kick an idea around. And then maybe I dictate to Steve while he types. And maybe I’m typing, and he’s dictating to me. And I’m adding something as I think of it. And then we go over it, and go over it. So it happens at the time of writing.61

While the typewriter may have been a productive intermediary for both Nichol and McCaffery in that it acted as a kind of catalyst to improvisational thought, in McCaffery’s (p.114) single-authored works such as Carnival it operated largely as a means for his attempts to achieve a calculated annihilation of semantic meaning.62 Even though it is just one of many typestracts McCaffery created during this period, Carnival is his most well-known concrete poem and certainly his most sustained work of typewriter poetry—it is even, arguably, the most well-known work of any typewritten dirty concrete. That said, to have a complete understanding of Carnival it is important to note that McCaffery was clearly experimenting with the limits of the genre in the years leading up to, during, and even after Carnival. With 1969 as his most productive year with the typewriter—during which time he created numerous typestracts, among them “Broken Mandala,” which reflected his “desire to capture the force of sheer imprint … imprint as it registers as a gestural, manual trace, a hand-print impressed upon language”—McCaffery continually sought to find the limits of a literary-based material gesture.63 While the pieces in the “Broken Mandala” series do include the typewritten repetition of one legible word, “from,” the process of creating this textual repetition is used to create utterly abstract, painterly shapes, layers, and textures such that “from” enacts its semantic meaning of transformation on nearly every level. We can see how such an engagement with the limits of the readable gesture via typewriter finds its logical conclusion in works such as the 1975 “Punctuation Poem” and, ultimately, in 1980’s “Suprematist Alphabet.”64 In fact, even as the former consists only of wavy rows of commas, semicolons, and periods (such that it goes beyond concrete poetry’s established form of the grid), the latter pursues the utter annihilation of semantic meaning and representationality through perfectly symmetrical lines of overwriting. The result of these superimpositions is a text that is simultaneously clean and dirty—neatly typewritten letters of the alphabet become increasingly blurry and unrecognizable with each equally neat overwriting.

In terms of the literary milieu in which Carnival was created, while I am, in part, arguing in this chapter that there was a (p.115) uniquely Canadian context for the McLuhan-inflected dirty concrete poems of the 1960s and 1970s, which experimented with the material limits and the possibilities of the typewriter, given that concrete poetry was from the beginning a resolutely international movement it is worth pointing out that the progression of McCaffery’s typewritten dirty concrete appears to have been strongly influenced not only by bissett and Nichol but also by the work of the English Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houédard.65 At some point in the 1960s, McCaffery did briefly meet Houédard at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire, but it is more likely that Houédard’s influence acted largely through publications, which often included work by both poets, and perhaps indirectly through Houédard’s correspondence with Nichol.66 Houédard consistently published an astonishing range of typestracts from the early 1960s through the 1980s. While his work throughout the 1960s varied substantially in both technique and content—from the pictorial to the abstract (along the lines of the piece from the Emmett anthology I discuss in the previous section), the permutational, and the gridlike—the overall trajectory of his typewriter poetry was similar to McCaffery’s. Houédard gradually focused exclusively on creating geometrically clean yet utterly abstract designs that may or may not be constructed with letters. For example, while his 1971 “earthbond” contains no text at all and whose shape is made entirely from typewritten hyphens and slashes, his 1975 “leaning on an angel” does contain the title of the text, yet the letters of the text itself are created with typewritten slashes, as is the “poem” itself—a series of lines constructed to form a blank-space ring around a lined circle in the center (see Figure 26).67 The result is a tense interdependence between the semantic and the purely pictorial that is utterly of the typewriter.

As he tellingly wrote in 1979 of an early revelation he had about the possibilities of the typewriter that continued to play out through his writing career: “During 1945 I realised the typewriter’s control of verticals and horizontals, balancing its mechanism for release from its own imposed grid, (and) offered (p.116)

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 26. Dom Sylvester Houédard’s typestract “earthbond” from 1971. Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, by kind permission of the Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

possibilities that suggested (I was in India at the time) the grading of Islamic calligraphy from cursive (naskhi) writing through cufic to the abstract formal arabesque, that ‘wise modulation between being and not being.’”68 Unquestionably, given the two aforementioned works, Houédard continued well beyond 1945 in his exploration of the movement between working within (p.117) and without the constraints of the typewriter grid by way of both alphabetic and nonalphabetic characters.

The most important connection that Houédard offers to this study of Canadian dirty concrete is, however, his fascination with Marshall McLuhan. In the same year that McLuhan published Understanding Media—in which he makes the distinction between hot and cool media—Houédard wrote his 1964 “cool poem,” whose shapes are created with the letters c, o, and l, though neither letters nor shapes clearly or obviously spell out “cool” (see Figure 27).69 With hot media as that which is “low in participation” and cool media as that which demands high “participation or completion by the audience” (McLuhan lists the cartoon, the hieroglyph, and ideogrammic written characters as examples), Houédard’s “cool poem” is surely more McLuhanesque than a 1960s homage to “cool” as the nifty or neat.70

More revealing, a 1965 letter from Houédard to bpNichol opens with a small typewriter poem in the form of a greeting and then proceeds:

in canada dyou know marshall mcluhan?—his books have big influence on especially furnival—cor bougre—just looked up address—he is yr neighbour—29 wells hill toronto- 4—like photography liberated art from having to be a reporters lens—radio-tv-&c liberates poetry from (& prose from) i mean ALL communication artwise from being written descriptive report—so abstract or concrete poetry is cool in mcluhan sense.71

Even though he was in possession of McLuhan’s mailing address, I have not yet found evidence to suggest that Houédard and McLuhan ever met or corresponded. Recalling that only a year later contributions by both appeared in Astronauts of Inner-Space, separated by a few pages, this letter serves, however, only to further confirm the tight interconnection between McLuhan’s canonical and noncanonical media writings and typewriter/typestract poetry.


Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 27. Dom Sylvester Houédard’s typestract “cool poem” from 1964. Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, by kind permission of the Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

Given the mid-1960s literary milieu of Toronto and the active correspondence among concrete poets in Canada, Europe, and South America, it is not surprising that by 1967 McCaffery had begun work on his two-panel Carnival. Unlike Houédard, whose entire oeuvre was defined by his work within or around the stringency of the carriage, McCaffery created the first panel of Carnival from 1967 to 1970 with the typewriter and the addition of masks; the latter was his solution to the problem of how to work against the linearity of the typewritten line, which could bring (back) into play traditional reading and writing habits (see Figure 28). As he explains in the following quote, the mask is a physical interposition that excludes and fractures text—it moves the work outside the control of the author and his intentions in that its exclusions are determined by the material qualities of the mechanism of the mask itself:

Carnival was essentially a cartographic project; a repudiation of linearity in writing and the search for an alternative syntax in ‘mapping.’ … The panels grew directly through the agency of the typewriter and through the agency of marginal link-ups…. As a mask bled off a page I would (p.119) devise another shape that picked up the bleed of the text at the margin…. The mask came about as a way to create a painterly shape by censoring the flow of typewritten line…. It’s important to remember that the mask excludes and deletes much of the written text. What results are deliberately induced fragments, parts of inscription whose terminations and commencements are not determined by a writing subject or a logical intention but by a material, random intervention.72

The culmination of McCaffery’s work with and against both mask and typewriter in the first panel of Carnival is a typestract that very nearly explodes visual and semantic representationality. I write “nearly” because, in addition to the masking, it encompasses a broad range of concrete poetry forms and techniques, including the concrete poem, whose form literalizes its content (take, for example, the section that repeats across the page “eyeleveleyelevel” at eye level) and so actually merges visual with semantic representationality instead of rejecting representationality altogether. Moreover, McCaffery pushes the physical possibilities of the page and the book to their limit not in using single pages with margins whose supposedly empty space is used to frame “meaningful” text but rather by writing over the edges of each of the sixteen 8.5-by-11-inch pages so that we see whatever blank space remains as meaningful in itself. These individual pages in turn are perforated and arranged in sequential book form, accompanied by the following instruction: “In order to destroy this book please tear each page carefully along the perforation.”73 Thus, the final form of the poem may not be a book whose pages proceed linearly but rather, only if the reader chooses to follow the instructions to destroy the book, a 44-by-36-inch square.

The second panel was created between 1970 and 1975—and incidentally, was later coedited for Coach House Press by bpNichol, to whom McCaffery dedicated this second panel (see Figure 29). Here, McCaffery extends his experiments with (p.120)

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 28. The sixth 8.5-by-11-inch sheet that constitutes the first panel (1967–70) of Steve McCaffery’s Carnival. The image appears here in mono-chrome, but the panel was originally published as polychrome. Courtesy of Steve McCaffrey.

(p.121) writing media to include, in addition to the typewriter, “xerography, xerography within xerography (i.e. metaxerography and disintegrative seriality), electrostasis, rubber-stamp, tissue texts, hand-lettering and stencil.”74 Building on bissett’s and Nichol’s typewriter work in dirty mimeo, this second panel uses processes such as photocopying copies to significantly muddy or intervene in any kind of visual clarity. The result is, in part, a deliberate, activist-oriented courting of media noise that McCaffery describes in the introduction as a “structure of strategic counter-communication.” It is one that reminds us of the material workings of writing media that, alongside the visual nature of the written word that in itself communicates, always already shape every contour of communication. As such, in comparison with the first panel, the second panel is generally “more” on nearly every level—McCaffery uses more writing media to push these media to their use limits. There are also more semantically clear, readable fragments of texts in this panel, even if these fragments exhort us to write rather than to read, to look at our words rather than to look through them: “you must write / upon it you must write / upon the page that there is / white upon the page.” While greater readability might seem a counterintuitive development from the first to the second panel, fragments such as the foregoing remind us that despite the experiments of the first panel, the complete annihilation of semantic meaning is neither possible nor desirable. The point is, rather, to activate our sense of the profoundly materialist and the multidimensionality of the reading/writing process. (Understanding the sophistication of the second panel of the simultaneously viewable and readable Carnival is akin to understanding that when McLuhan asserts “the medium is the message” he is not asserting there is no such thing as a message at all—only that all messages are mediated and that all media bear with them a message.)

Finally, to turn to the ways in which the media archaeology approach underlying this chapter involves reading “old” media against “new” media—to disabuse us of this belief in (p.122)

Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 29. The second 8.5-by-11-inch sheet that constitutes the second panel (1970–1975) of Steve McCaffery’s Carnival. This second panel was originally published as polychrome.

Courtesy of Steve McCaffery.

the progression from new to old as much as to make visible the invisible aspects of contemporary media structures—what is also significant about McCaffery’s project is that the typewritten text, the stamps, the various traces of writerly labor and the physical world (in the form of smudges or the slight bleed of ink) turn it into a work in which the surface is the depth and the making of the work is the meaning.75 I contend this in (p.123) spite of McCaffery’s own assertions in one of the first issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Magazine (which was republished as the introduction to the second panel) that “Carnival is product and machine, not process…. It must stand objective as a distancing and isolating of the language experience.”76 He goes on to say, “It is language presented as direct physical impact, constructed as a peak, at first to stand on and look down from the privilege of its distance onto language as something separate from you. But Carnival is also a peak to descend from into language.”77 This turn, this descent into language, transforms it into a product, a representation of “the language experience” that is about its processual descent. Christian Bök and Darren Wershler rightly declare that “the panels do not diagram a premeditated mission of intention for a product to be formed but diagram a ‘spontaneous emission’ for a conduct to be performed … the mapmaker recording a process for producing a process of recording.”78 It is partly the evidence of the sheer volume of labor executed over a period of years, all of which took place within the stringent confines of a typewriter carriage, that makes the work less about what is written and more about how it provides a record of the labor of writing that doubles as a kind of how-to guide to writing.79

Moreover, this processual, labor-oriented aspect of the work gives rise to one possible media archaeology reading of McCaffery’s dirty concrete/typestracts that aligns work such as Carnival with the current digital DIY movement and, especially, with the programming language appropriately named Processing. In the introduction to Casey Reas and Ben Fry’s Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, Reas writes about how his time at the Aesthetics and Computation Group at MIT was transformed after working with computer scientist and graphic designer John Maeda, who described his philosophy as one made possible by “dirty hands.”80 Writing for Harvard’s business school blog, Maeda declared, “In the last few decades, technology has encouraged our fascination with perfection—whether it’s six sigma manufacturing, the (p.124) zero-contaminant clean room, or in its simplest form, ‘2.0.’ Given the new uncertainty in the world however, I can see that it is time to question this approach—of over-technologized, over-leveraged, over-advanced living. The next big thing? Dirty hands.”81 With Maeda endorsing an approach to education and even a lifestyle driven by doing, by physically working with tangible materials, it is easy to see how such a philosophy brought about a shift in Reas and Fry from being “a consumer of software to a producer.”82 As a result, they created Processing not only as a means to relate “software concepts to principles of visual form, motion, and interaction” but also as a means to “increase software literacy in the arts.” Explaining what software literacy means, they include a telling quote from Alan Kay (whom I discuss in depth in chapter 2), known for his pioneering work on object-oriented programming and windows-style graphical user interface design at Xerox PARC: “The ability to ‘read’ a medium means you can access materials and tools created by others. The ability to ‘write’ in a medium means you can generate materials and tools for others. You must have both to be literate.”83

Casey and Reas’s solution to the need for software literacy in the arts has been, then, to create a programming language that results not in a WYSIWYG interface, by which you can, for example, click a button to create a circle or a square, but rather in a scaled-down, simplified, even transparent language that binds users to what they produce. The difference between Processing and a largely WYSIWYG-based program such as Flash—which was popular for a time in the creation of digital poems—has mostly to do with the degree of access to making that has been built into each. The other, less obvious, but no less significant difference is that Processing is entirely open source, whereas Flash is, of course, entirely proprietary. The latter results in digital artwork, such as that by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI), in which the reader/viewer is forced to consume (a fact of which YHCHI are well aware and that they even selfreflectively build into their works) rather than work, such as (p.125) “[theHouse]” by Mary Flanagan (which I discuss in chapter 4), that is built with Processing and so is open source, which makes it possible for reader/viewers to build on it or tinker with her poem and so create their own.84 Perhaps, the difference is more stark when comparing an early work of digital poetry by Brian Kim Stefans, titled “The Dreamlife of Letters,” that was built with Flash in about 2000 (shortly after Macromedia published a new version of Flash that included advanced actionscript) with a more recent work built with Processing, called “Letter Builder,” that he released in the summer of 2009 (see Figure 30).85 The latter piece, a DIY concrete-poetry builder, is something of a mirror for the code underneath—reading and writing the poem are complimentary processes based on a philosophy of making. (Also noteworthy, the aesthetic of Stefans’s work is becoming less and less clean, more messy, and thus closer to the aesthetic of McCaffery’s typescapes.)

What ties Processing to dirty concrete poems such as Carnival, as well as typewriter concrete poems by Nichol and Houédard, is a movement not only to democratize the creative process but also to combine this democratization with artworks that embody a self-reflexive sensibility that makes this democratization possible through techniques that draw attention to the art object as a created object—again, techniques that essentially turn the inside of the art object out through a philosophy of making. Alan Kay describes the computer skills one develops via programming as distinct from the skills one needs to develop print-based literacy: “In print writing, the tools you generate are rhetorical; they demonstrate and convince. In computer writing, the tools you generate are processes; they simulate and decide.”86 This last sentence is where I disagree with his vision of software literacy, for it is precisely the DIY philosophy as a means to achieving software literacy that underlies Processing, which in turn ties it to literary DIY typewriter dirty concrete such as Carnival—a work that is a kind of artist book that generates both rhetorical tools and processes by way of an activist media poetics.87


Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics

Figure 30. Screenshot of Brian Kim Stefans’s “Letter Builder” from 2009 (no longer available online).

With its embrace of nonrepresentationality and illegibility via the typewriter, dirty concrete effectively communicates to us that in our current accelerated move into the supposedly clean digital age, the page, the typed letter, and the stamped word are media that we can (and should) be able to read and write just as much as we can computer software. Moreover, one of the ways in which Nichol, Houédard, and McCaffery communicate this is through hacking the page, the book, and the typewriter in order to renew them, to turn them from transparent carriers of meaning to objects meaningful in themselves.88

Dirty concrete poems are not an aberration in the history of twentieth-century poetry but rather representative of one of the mainstays of innovative writing: an active engagement in hacking both writing and writing media that treats both as process and product, the two unavoidably intertwined. Given this emphasis on making and doing, often through a kind of reverse engineering, it again seems clear that these works can be productively reread alongside the recent surge of digital DIY culture (p.127) as a form of activist media poetry. McCaffery was prompted to write in the early 1970s, while he was at work on Carnival, “The typewriter oracled a neoclassical futurism that emerged in the mid twentieth century as poesie concrete. This is part of that oracle.” But so too have these resolutely analog dirty concrete poems oracled our current cultural turn to the digital iteration of making as meaning—a turn that is strikingly exemplified by the underlying philosophy of different facets of the digital DIY movement, with the open-source programming language Processing as one particularly pertinent example.89 Moreover, while as Michael Basinski writes, concrete poetry broadly “was so effective as an anti-academic, political tool, that it was exiled and abandoned and labeled by the machine as a trite form of outsider art” and “still waits for political poets to resurrect the form and make the charge anew,” dirty concrete oracled digital media activist poems that do answer the charge anew.90 (p.128)


(1.) Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), 3.

(2.) Ibid., 7, 10.

(3.) Peter Finch, Typewriter Poems (Millerton, N.Y.: Something Else Press, 1972), 47.

(4.) Extended critical readings of the typewriter as a reading/writing medium have so far been few and far between. Other than Darren Wershler’s 2007 The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, the English-language version of Kittler’s 1999 Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, which follows his more diffuse writing on the typewriter throughout Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, does have a substantial chapter dedicated to so-called old media such as the typewriter, which he frames with the notorious claim that “understanding media—despite McLuhan’s title—remains an impossibility precisely because the dominant information technologies of the day control all understanding and its illusions.” (p.200) While he does take from McLuhan the conviction that media unavoidably transform us, citing Nietzsche as an example of one who “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style” once he started to use a typewriter, his account of the typewriter, on the one hand, is dominated by his conviction that in the “convergence of a profession, a machine, and a sex,” it “only inverts the gender of writing” and, on the other hand, despite his passing observations that “poésie concrète” is a “form of pure concrete poetry” and that “Remington’s and Underwood’s invention ushered in a poetics that William Blake or John Donne with their limits/ears could not hear,” is simply not concerned with the ramifications of this writing machine on the broader twentieth-century literary landscape. Darren Wershler-Henry, The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007); Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999); Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990), xxxix, 203, 183, 229, 231.

(5.) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).

(6.) Peggy Curran, “McLuhan’s Legacy Is Alive and Tweeting,” Montreal Gazette, July 17, 2011, http://www2.canada.com/reginaleaderpost/news/weekender/story.html?id=68d18c46-d3e8-4b06-b737-4d570ed9cae0. Credit is due entirely to Darren Wershler for introducing me to McLuhan as one engaged in the practice of poetics. “McLuhan,” he declares, “writes like a poet, and if you read it like a poem, it makes sense.”

(7.) It is worth remarking that not only was Michel Foucault—whose The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) is commonly touted as a founding text in the field of media archaeology—writing the foregoing at roughly the same time as McLuhan was writing Verbi-Voco-Visual but also it appears that the roots of his archaeological thought lie in his 1966 The Order of Things and extend beyond The Archaeology of Knowledge to his 1973 This Is Not a Pipe. In the context of this chapter, what is remarkable is that Foucault’s description of heterotopias in The Order of Things seems to precisely describe all that dirty concrete undoes—from its turn away from semantic meaning to its use of the typewriter as a means to turn words into objects one ought to look at rather than read. He writes that unlike utopias, which “afford consolation,” heterotopias are “disturbing … probably because they secretly undermine language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy ‘syntax’ in advance…. Heterotopias … desiccate speech, stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source; they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences.” I touch on The Archaeology of Knowledge (p.201) in chapter 4, but here I want to point out that This Is Not a Pipe not only seems to carry on his archaeological line of thought but does so with an anachronistic reading of visual works by René Magritte. Of particular note for this chapter on concrete poetry is his chapter on the calligramme in Magritte’s paintings, which he reminds us, has the ability to both draw attention to the page as a writing interface that’s anything but blank or empty of meaning and offer us a McLuhanesque verbi-voco-visual experience: “It distributes writing in a space no longer possessing the neutrality, openness, and inert blankness of paper. It forces the ideogram to arrange itself according to the laws of a simultaneous form. For the blink of an eye, it reduces phoneticism to a mere grey noise completing the contours of the shape; but it renders outline as a thin skin that must be pierced in order to follow, word for word, the outpouring of its internal text…. Thus the calligram aspires playfully to efface the oldest oppositions of our alphabetical civilization: to show and to name; to shape and to say; to reproduce and to articulate; to imitate and to signifiy; to look and to read.” These earlier works by Foucault are remarkably similar to the underrecognized works by McLuhan that use poetry and poetics to inflect the study of media. Both seem to suggest that formally experimental poetry and poetics could be reimagined as engaged with media studies, a fundamental shift in perspective that bears with it the potential to make poetics a relevant means by which to understand (Western, English-language) digital textuality. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Random House, 1972); Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1994), xviii; Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe, trans. and ed. James Harkness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 21.

(8.) The first collection of concrete poetry appeared in 1957 not as an anthology but as the inaugural issue of the journal Material, published by the German poet Daniel Spoerri. This issue featured contributions by Josef Albers, Louis Aragon, Helmut Heissenbüttel, Eugen Gomringer, Dieter Roth, and others.

(9.) Dick Higgins, “Statement on Intermedia” Artpool, http://www.artpool.hu/Fluxus/Higgins/intermedia2.html.

(10.) Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari, and Haroldo de Campos, “Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry,” in Concrete Poetry: A World View, ed. Mary Ellen Solt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 71.

(11.) McLuhan was surely aware of Robert Creeley’s declaration that “form is never more than extension of content” as it was popularized in Charles Olson’s 1950 “Projective Verse.”

(12.) Marshall McLuhan, V. J. Papanek, J. B. Bessinger, Karl Polanyi, Carol C. Hollis, David Hogg, and Jack Jones. Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations (New York: Something Else Press, 1967), unpaginated.

(13.) Ibid., unpaginated.

(14.) Ibid., 16.

(15.) Ibid., 16–17; emphasis my own.

(16.) Marshall McLuhan, Culture Is Our Business (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), 44.

(17.) Zielinski, Deep Time, 256.

(18.) Wershler-Henry, The Iron Whim, 242.

(19.) Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1997), 245.

(21.) Steve McCaffery is, in fact, one of the only concrete poets who openly works against this conventional reading of Olson’s use of the typewriter for a breath-based poetics. In fact, in a 1998 interview with Peter Jaeger, McCaffery declares that his dirty concrete poem Carnival represents the “repudiation of a breath-based poetics.” His explanation of what he was instead attempting seems only to support my reading of Olson as endorsing an emphasis on (the material, mechanical aspect of the) process and the product in poetry whereby both are, in and of themselves, meaningful. McCaffery states that he wanted to extend “the typewriter beyond Olson’s own estimation of its abilities (to provide a precise notation of breathing) into a more ‘expressionistic’ as well as cartographic instrument, approaching the typewriter less as a notational device than a form of saxophone.” In other words, he sought to use the typewriter in Carnival not as a neutral means of transcription but rather as a means to explore the typewriter’s material contours. Steve McCaffery, Seven Pages Missing: Volume One: Selected Texts 1969–1999 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000), 447.

(22.) Aram Saroyan, untitled, in An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, ed. Emmett Williams (New York: Something Else Press, 1967), unpaginated.

(23.) Dom Sylvester Houédard, untitled, in An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, ed. Emmett Williams (New York: Something Else Press, 1967), unpaginated.

(24.) As I argue in chapter 1, despite its disinterest in semantic meaning, such poetry does not lack meaning altogether—rather, it is invested in broadening our sense of meaning to include a thoroughgoing explo-ration of materiality as meaning and, as such, is also a clear precursor to contemporary digital texts such as those by Judd Morrissey and Jason Nelson.

(25.) Dom Sylvester Houédard, untitled, unpaginated.

(26.) Mary Ellen Solt, ed., Concrete Poetry: A World View (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 34.

(27.) Ronald Johnson as quoted in Solt, Concrete Poetry, 52; emphasis my own.

(28.) Ronald Johnson, “MAZE,” in Concrete Poetry: A World View, ed. Mary Ellen Solt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 251.

(29.) Dick Higgins as quoted in Solt, Concrete Poetry, 57.

(30.) Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 232; Caroline Bayard as quoted in Perloff, Radical Artifice, 232.

(31.) Olson, “Projective Verse,” 240.

(32.) Perloff, Radical Artifice, 114. Perloff only points out that Steve McCaffery used the term to describe his Carnival and that it describes the “later more iconoclastic version” of concrete poetry.

(33.) Henri Chopin, untitled, Stereo Headphones: an occasional magazine of the new poetries 1 (Spring 1970): unpaginated. It is worth noting that in the same issue of Stereo Headphones, Pierre Garnier counters Chopin by writing, “I definitely do not believe that spatial and concrete poetry is dead, but I think that we must get our breath back and above all assimilate (before using it in our poetry) everything that has happened to the world during the past year. New problems have appeared—especially at a political level—towards which poets can not remain indifferent.”

(34.) As Steve McCaffery wrote to the Poetics Listserv in late February 2011: “‘Dirty’ concrete as I recall is a term like ‘Dada’ with an uncertain origin. It was a familiar usage in the early seventies in my own discussions with bp Nichol about the incipient hierarchization within the international concrete movement. We both noted that anthologies were regurgitating the same material which was straight edged, typographically lucid (Garnier’s work for instance and Eugen Gomringer’s as well as Ian Hamilton Finlay’s in Scotland and that of the de Campos brothers in Brazil). We both considered that what seemed to offer itself as a vanguard movement dedicated to poetic change was rapidly ossifying. Nichol certainly used the term in his letters to and from Stephen Scobie (living in the same town as bp we met and chatted rather than wrote to each other hence my take is purely anecdotal).” Steve McCaffery to Poetics Listserv, February 28, 2011.

(35.) “Dirty concrete” was first used either by bpNichol, bill bissett, or Stephen Scobie; the term is almost certainly Canadian in origin. There are, however, no documents that prove this definitively. I am tremendously grateful to George Bowering, Jack David, Frank Davey, Jamie Hilder, Steve McCaffery, Stephen Scobie, and Darren Wershler for their attempts to help me track down the history of the term.

(36.) Stephen Scobie to bpNichol, June 26, 1968, Special Collections, Simon Fraser University Libraries.

(37.) Writes Jean-Francois Bory in this issue of Stereo Headphones: “I think one can define concrete poets as those appearing in the big concrete poetry anthologies…. I am very much afraid that we’ve witnessed an ignoble recuperative operation in these two anthologies, into which (p.204) everybody threw themselves because it suited them to do so at the time…. So? … So the word concrete, which clearly represents no concept at all, has through the pressure of various authors, become part of history.” Jean-François Bory, untitled, Stereo Headphones: an occasional magazine of the new poetries 1 (Spring 1970).

(38.) bpNichol, “concrete,” in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, ed. Roy Miki. (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2002), 30.

(39.) Jack David, “Visual Poetry in Canada: Birney, bissett, and bp,” Studies in Canadian Literature 2, no. 2 (1977), http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/view/7870/8927. I should also note that “dirty concrete” was later picked up in Stephen Scobie’s 1984 book-length study bpNichol: What History Teaches, in which he aligns Mike Weaver’s use of the terms “expressionist” and “constructivist” with Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “suprematist” and “fauvre” and claims that “more simply, bpNichol spoke of a division between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ concrete.” When I wrote to Stephen Scobie asking whom he thought was the originator of “dirty concrete,” he responded, however, that he had heard it from the English critic Mike Weaver, who was writing very early on about concrete poetry. I conducted a phone interview with Mike Weaver in March 2011 in which he denied using the term. Stephen Scobie, bpNichol: What History Teaches, (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1984), 35, 139.

(40.) David, “Visual Poetry in Canada.” In the same article, David claims that Rosalie Murphy refers to “dirty concrete” in her 1970 Contemporary Poets of the English Language. I inspected the Murphy book, however, and could not find any reference to either dirty or clean concrete poetry. In fact, Frank Davey informed me in an e-mail correspondence that David is in fact referring to Davey’s own 1971 definition of clean and dirty concrete he includes in Earle Birney and that he wrote with the assistance of bpNichol: “Concrete is usually divided by its devotees into ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’. In clean concrete, the preferred and dominant type, the visual shape of the work is primary, the linguistic signs secondary. In this view the most effective concrete poems are those with an immediate and arresting visual effect which is made more profound by the linguistic elements used in the poem’s constituent parts. The weakest are dirty concrete, those with amorphous visual shape and complex and involute arrangements of linguistic elements. In dirty concrete there can be no immediate to the whole, only a cumulative interpretation gained by painstaking labour.” In the same e-mail correspondence, Frank Davey writes, “When I met bp in 1970, he told me that clean concrete was a kind you could understand by looking but not reading, and that dirty was the kind that had a visual shape made of phrases or clauses or sentences that had to be read as well as viewed. (But he didn’t attribute that theory to anyone.)” Rosalie Murphy, ed., Contemporary Poets of the English Language (Chicago: St. James Press, 1970), 99; Frank Davey, Earle Birney (p.205) (Toronto: Copp Clark Publishing, 1971), 65; Frank Davey, e-mail message to author, March 1, 2011.

(41.) bill bissett, “a pome in praise of all quebec bombers,” in pass th food release th spirit book (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1973), unpaginated.

(42.) bill bissett, e-mail message to author, April 21, 2011.

(43.) Steve McCaffery, “McLuhan + Language × Music,” in North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973–1986 (New York: Roof Books, 2000), 85.

(44.) bpNichol, “statement, november 1966,” in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, ed. Roy Miki (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2002), 18.

(45.) Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium Is the Message,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), 8. Nichol similarly framed this desire to move beyond an ego-based poetry several years later, in a 1973 letter to Mary Ann Solt, as one that came out of his belief that up to that point he was “too arrogant”: “[i] had found myself trying to dominate in the act of writing the language i was using as opposed to letting myself simply learn from the signs themselves.” bpNichol, “A Letter to Mary Ellen Solt,” in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, ed. Roy Miki (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2002), 116.

(46.) Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1992), 141; emphasis my own.

(47.) Concrete poets also exploited the printing and distribution capabilities of the mimeograph machine as a crucial extension of their politically oriented work with the typewriter. In an essay on the close ties between Nichol and the Cleveland-based dirty concrete mimeoist d.a.levy, Douglas Manson rightly points out, “The mimeo revolution in poetry was also the typewriter revolution, because it had supplanted the compositor’s box and the laying of type for a press, and instead utilized mimeograph stencils to transfer the typed manuscript into the appearance of the page in the published work.” More, since mimeograph stencils were notorious for quickly deteriorating, the degraded quality of the image made the mimeograph machine an ideal printing and distribution extension of dirty concrete poetry created with a typewriter. Douglas Manson, “Mimeograph as the Furnace of Loss: The Literary Friendship of bpNichol and d.a.levy,” d.a.levy & the mimeograph revolution, ed. Larry Smith and Ingrid Swanberg (Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2007), 194.

(48.) Marshall McLuhan, “Culture and Technology,” in Astronauts of Inner-Space: A Collection of Avant-Garde Activity, ed. Jeff Berner (San Francisco, Calif.: Stolen Paper Review, 1966), 18. This same collection provides textual evidence that even concrete poets from the first generation such as Decio Pignatari (who was both a poet and a professor of information theory) were attempting to make their work more politically engaged by way of a thoroughgoing experimentation with form that, in the case of concrete poetry, was inextricable from writing media or from its material means of production. Pignatari wrote in 1966, the same year (p.206) as Nichol’s “Statement”: “From 1961 on, concrete poets face definitely the ‘engagement’ question. What issued—social and political concrete poetry—was chiefly based on Mayakofsky: ‘There is no revolutionary art without revolutionary form.’” Decio Pignatari, “The concrete Poets of Brazil,” in Astronauts of Inner-Space, ed. Jeff Berner, 8.

(49.) bpNichol, “Interview: Raoul Duguay,” in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, ed. Roy Miki (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2002), 120.

(50.) Nelson Ball, introduction to Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer, by bpNichol (Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2004), 10.

(51.) bpNichol, “The Complete Works,” pamphlet (Toronto, ON: Ganglia, 1968).

(52.) Aram Saroyam, “The Collected Works,” in Complete Minimal Poems (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2007), 151.

(53.) bpNichol, “Interview: Caroline Bayard and Jack David,” in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, ed. Roy Miki (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2002), 171; emphasis my own.

(54.) bpNichol, Translating Translating Apollinaire: A Preliminary Report from a Book of Research (Milwaukee, Wis.: Membrane Press, 1979), unpaginated.

(55.) bpNichol, Sharp Facts: Some Selections from Translating Translating Apollinaire 26 (Milwaukee, Wis.: Membrane Press, 1980), unpaginated.

(56.) Ibid., unpaginated, emphasis my own.

(57.) bpNichol, “The Medium Was the Message,” in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, ed. Roy Miki (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2002), 300.

(58.) Most of the Four Horsemen’s creative output simultaneously explored the verbi-, the voco-, and the visual through nonrepresentational and asyntactic sounds, improvisation, and a loose method for visually notating performance scores for these sounds. Thus, it is noteworthy—though not surprising—that according to Steve McCaffery, Marshall McLuhan owned all of the Four Horsemen LPs. While no doubt McLuhan’s interest in the Four Horsemen partly stemmed from his fascination with the “secondary orality” he believed defined the electric age, he was also in personal contact with Four Horsemen member Paul Dutton, as McLuhan was a lay participant in the liturgy for the church to which both belonged.

(59.) bpNichol, “Interview: Geoff Hancock,” in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, ed. Roy Miki (Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2002), 405.

(60.) Notably, McCaffery and Nichol include two books by McLuhan in the bibliography for Rational Geomancy and The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, both published in 1969. Surprising for McLuhan but presaging Nichol’s slightly later conclusions about (p.207) typewriting versus handwriting, in Counterblast McLuhan writes, “The typewriter is a good distancer. You’re less closely attached to what you’re writing. Handwriting remains a part of you.” Clearly in line with Nichol’s and McCaffery’s experiments with the way in which the typewriter turns the page into a canvas, McLuhan continues: “It’s difficult to see the shape of sentences in the maze of handwriting. When typing, you’re more conscious of the appearance of your writing. You view it stretched out before you, detached from you.” Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), 104. McLuhan, ed. Eugene MacNamara, The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969).

(61.) McCaffery and Nichol, Rational Geomancy, 10.

(62.) Steve McCaffery, Carnival (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001), http://archives.chbooks.com/online_books/carnival/index.html.

(63.) Steve McCaffery, “Broken Mandala,” note in Seven Pages Missing: Volume Two: Previously Uncollected Texts 1968–2000 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2002), 439.

(64.) Steve McCaffery, “Punctuation Poem,” in Seven Pages Missing: Volume One: Selected Texts 1969–1999 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000). 56; Steve McCaffery, “Suprematist Alphabet,” in Seven Pages Missing: Volume One, 65.

(65.) It is striking that just eight years before McCaffery’s “Suprematist Alphabet,” Houédard wrote the following about the “wordless suprematist” as an accompaniment to his 1972 typestract “Like Contemplation”: “like contemplation, goal of poetry-purge, / was the wordless suprematist / white on white, poeme blanc, / concrete fractures linguistics, atomises words / into incoherence, constricting language / to jewel-like semantic areas where / poet and reader meet / in maximum communication … / it is possible to think in images alone— / diagrams, models, gestures and / muscular movements— / as well as in words alone. / poems that are concrete objects themselves, / not windows into souls … / concrete poems just ARE; / have no outside reference: / they are objects like TOYS & TOOLS.” Dom Sylvester Houédard, “Like Contemplation,” UbuWeb Visual Poetry, http://ubumexico.centro.org.mx/text/vp/DSH001_houedard_like_contemplation_1972.pdf.

(66.) Not surprisingly, Houédard also corresponded with other major writers of the time who were heavily invested in the typewriter—such as Edwin Morgan, Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.

(67.) Dom Sylvester Houédard, “Leaning on an Angel,” Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, http://ww3.rediscov.com/sacknerarchives/ShowItem.aspx?325201355323~34713.

(68.) “Dom Sylvester Houédard, England, 1924–1992,” ubuweb, http://www.ubu.com/historical/houedard/index.html.

(69.) Dom Sylvester Houédard, “cool poem,” Sackner Archive of (p.208) Concrete and Visual Poetry, http://ww3.rediscov.com/sacknerarchives/ShowItem.aspx?325201354749~46240.

(70.) Marshall McLuhan, “Media Hot and Cold,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), 23.

(71.) Dom Sylvester Houédard to bpNichol, July 10, 1965, Special Collections, Simon Fraser University Library.

(72.) As quoted in Marjorie Perloff, “‘Inner Tension / In Attention’: Steve McCaffery’s Book Art,” in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 267–68.

(73.) McCaffery, Carnival.

(74.) Steve McCaffery, introduction to Carnival (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001), http://archives.chbooks.com/online_books/carnival/2_introduction.html.

(75.) That said, it is important to keep in mind that the dirt that defines the analog Carnival is simply not present in the digital version. Darren Wershler rightly, and presciently, declared in a 1998 note about his poem “Saint Ratification”: “It’s extraordinarily difficult to produce a ‘dirty’ concrete poem on a computer, because the level of pixel-by-pixel manipulation imparts at least the illusion that everything is potentially controllable.” The randomness and nonlinearity of Carnival communicates anything but control. Darren Wershler, Nicholodeonline, January 1998, http://archives.chbooks.com/online_books/nicholodeon/surplus.html.

(76.) McCaffery, introduction to Carnival.

(78.) Christian Bök and Darren Wershler-Henry, “Walls That Are Cracked: A Paralogue on Panels 1 & 2 of Steve McCaffery’s Carnival,” Open Letter 10, no. 6 (1999), 27.

(79.) It is also the stubbornly lingering evidence of countless alignments, realignments, dealignments of the page, along with the dirt, dust, smudges in the serifs, signs of wear in the keys, misaligned letters, ribbon wear in the inking, and so on that means Carnival is a text that defies close reading, the very bread and butter of literary studies, in much the same way that many digital poems defy close reading. Rather, the kind of close reading it demands amounts more to description as analysis—as I am attempting to do here—than to a careful, word-by-word analysis. After all, recall McCaffery’s injunction: “It’s important to remember that the mask excludes and deletes much of the written text.” If the written text itself is deliberately occluded, then what we are left with is writing media and the labor of writing itself. Quoted in Perloff, “‘Inner Tension / In Attention,’” 267.

(80.) Casey Reas and Ben Fry, Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), 3.

(81.) John Maeda, “Creative Leaders Get Their Hands Dirty,” Harvard (p.209) Business Review blog, April 20, 2009, http://blogs.hbr.org/maeda/2009/04/the-dirty-mba.html.

(82.) Reas and Fry, Processing, 3.

(83.) Quoted in Ibid., 3.

(84.) Mary Flanagan, “[the house],” in The Electronic Literature Collection, vol. 1, ed. N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland, http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/flanagan__thehouse.html.

(85.) Brian Kim Stefans, “The Dreamlife of Letters,” in The Electronic Literature Collection, vol. 1, ed. N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland, http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/stefans__the_dreamlife_of_letters.html; Brian Kim Stefans, “Letter Builder Update,” Free Space Comix: The Blog, July 27, 2009, accessed March 24, 2013, http://www.arras.net/fscIII/?p=409 (site discontinued).

(86.) Quoted in Reas and Fry, Processing, 3.

(87.) Further, this process-oriented ethic of (loosely speaking) opensource making is not limited to dirty concrete poems or certain programming languages—it also underlies a range of recent community-driven artistic/cultural phenomenon such as the demo-scene, the chiptune music scene, Maker Faire, and any of the burgeoning DIY electronics and robotics movements supported by companies such as Makerbot or Arduino. While the impetus for many of these contemporary digital DIY movements can be traced to the arts and crafts movement and the growing prominence of artists books at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, which were reactions to rapid industrialization and mechanization, the way in which the meaning is in the making as well as in an exploration of surface as depth now seems to be less about the grain of the wood, the binding of the book, the reworking of the physical page and more about how the meaning is in the code, the software, the programming, the circuitry.

(88.) It was not coincidental that McCaffery in particular was creating Carnival during the most lively years of the Homebrew Computer Club or during the most influential years of the DIY-inspired and enormously influential Whole Earth Catalog—an ethic of making was in the air. Looking at the Whole Earth Catalog, which was published consistently from 1968 to 1972 and then sporadically until 1998, it advocated a philosophy remarkably similar to that embodied by McCaffery’s typestracts—a philosophy of making that treated tools as both process and product. As Fred Turner writes, “At one level, the Catalog was a ‘Whole Earth’ in its own right. That is, it was a seemingly comprehensive informational system, an encyclopedia, a map…. At another level, the Catalog offered its readers ways to enter its world and become ‘as gods’ in a local sense too. The reader could order the ‘tools’ on display and so help to create a (p.210) realm of ‘intimate, personal power’ in her or his own life…. One reader explained the distinction thus: ‘Walking to the bathhouse today, holding my new twenty-ounce hammer, I suddenly understood the Whole Earth Catalogue meaning of ‘tool.’ I always thought tools were objects, things: screw drivers, wrenches, axes, hoes. Now I realize that tools are a process: using the right-sized and shaped object in the most effective way to get a job done.’” Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 83; emphasis my own.

(89.) McCaffery, introduction to Carnival.

(90.) Michael Basinski, “Letter to Larry Smith & Ingrid Swanberg, Concerning d.a.levy’s concrete Poetry; Some Ruminating Thoughts Imagined in 2006 (Which Were Some Ruminating Thoughts Once Written to Derek Beaulieu in 2001),” in d.a.levy & the mimeograph revolution, ed. Larry Smith and Ingrid Swanberg (Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2007), 236.