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Poetry, Language, and the Visual Arts

I’ve been ruminating today on the aphorisms of Jennifer Moxley’s “Fragments of a Broken Poetics” (from Chicago Review, Spring 2010).  Worth taking a gander.  This one in particular has got me thinking:

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I have met very few poets who are calm about or accepting of the way visual artists use language in their work.

It seems to me that poets should never be calm about or accepting of language in general — nor of the fuzzy and oftentimes unhelpful distinction between poetry and visual art… And somehow, materiality is at the heart of the matter…

Some examples come to mind:

Robert Smithson’s “A Heap of Language” (1966).  Drawing.  What unknown pharoah lies beneath this pyramid, the bulk of his riches most likely already plundered?

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Mary Kelly’s “The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi” (2001).  Intaglio printed lint created by drying 4000 pounds of black and white clothing in a tumble dryer.  With a score by Michael Nyman.  Inspired by the media story of Rexhepi, who, as an 18 month old child, was left for dead when his parents fled a Serbian assault during the Kosovo War in 1999.  He was renamed Lirim by Albanians before eventually being reunited with his parents.  This “epic” ballad — which shows, among other things, how even mediated trauma pierces through the fabric of the domestic and the everyday — begins:

Unnatural spring;
Metal seedpods germinating bloody flora,
Anticipating the ‘expulsions’
Men in uniforms of blue and green…

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Hsia Yü’s bilingual artist book Pink Noise (self-published, 2007) printed on clear celluloid pages.  Yü composed flarf-like poems in English through a process of internet searches and then mechanically translated them into Chinese with the program Sherlock.  Check out an excerpt at Drunken Boat.  If I can’t have an actual copy of this rare book, I’d like, at the very least, to have these transparencies projected against my cerebral cortex…I would be calm and accepting about that.

Michael Leong is the author of four volumes of poetry, e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge, as well as a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat, I, the Worst of All. His poems have appeared in jubilat, Lana Turner, New American Writing, Tin House, Verse Daily, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and elsewhere. Excerpts from a new manuscript in progress is forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing 2018. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY.

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