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   Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Astrid Lorange reviews
The Material Poem
by James Stuart
268pp. free downloadable PDF file from non-generic productions

This review is about 5 printed pages long. It is copyright © Astrid Lorange and Jacket magazine 2007.

The Poetics of Liveliness


Writing’s forms are not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamics — they ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, directions, number, and velocities of a work’s motion. The material aporia objectifies the poem in the context of ideas and of language itself.

 — from Lyn Hejinian’s The Language of Inquiry, pg 42.


Reading The Material Poem is to experience objecthood. The collection, as a PDF file, is opened on my computer screen as countless thumbnailed images, geometrically identical, laid out in small promises. As I begin to read (there must be a better word here, I am not so much reading as exploring, or, in cyber lingo, ‘using’ this text as I would a map) I discover that the spatial organisation of my method is a matter of tuning–I open the work in one window and a document for me to note down page numbers and tidbits of text that strike me in another, and a third page for a web browser to follow the hyperlinks to online projects and media files. For hours I move between the three screens, following the ant trail of thumbnails until the back cover of the e-book.

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Since then, I have printed the 268 pages on paper and spiral bound them into a book object, not because I needed to validate my reading experience (by page-turning), but because I was interested to see in which ways the artworks dialogued with a notion of materiality, both on-screen and on-paper, and, above all, to get a sense of the fluidity and multitudinousness of this materiality (that is, how the materiality of language is a transient notion).


The Material Poem is an anthology of poetic artworks edited by UTS Masters student James Stuart. The work, by 28 artists, is interested in the materiality and objecthood of the ‘poem’, and often engages intermedia and cross-disciplinary compositional methods. In his opening essay, ‘The Art of Writing’, Stuart lays out the aims of this wide-ranging anthology: that new writing can expand the possibilities for text-based art (and conversely, I would add, visual poetry); that interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches can expand the ways in which poetry and literature are practiced. The Material Poem succeeds, in terms of these aims, and in fact goes even further than simply opening out the scope of new media and its composers.


In a sense, The Material Poem is a project which attempts to un-name the discursive distinctions that are made between poetic language and everyday language (the assumption that what makes a poem a poem is its separate realm of language to the everyday self); between visual art and poetry (the assumption that words are contained within linguistic practice and that images are contained within traditional modes of art practice); and lastly, between writer and reader (the assumption that the writer will provide enough meaning for the reader to reach a certain level of understanding in the work, that the work itself is meaningful).


Stuart argues that writing is a “physical, spatial, aural, performed and/or interactive phenomenon”. This notion of writing may seem conceptually oppositional to publishing, in a traditional sense, but in fact the moveability is inherent whether writing occurs in a novel or within an impermanent digital setting. Writing is moveable because language is moveable, and this moveability is a cause of both pleasure and despair.


In The Material Poem, the tensions between digital publishing and bookmaking are played nicely. The file resembles a printed book in many respects–with its professional design aesthetic (also by Stuart) and a printable, linear format–but the accessibility of the digital file, and its ability to be directed to many places online simultaneously, moves the book object into a less-defined territory of collective ownership. ‘Democratic’ is a word that could be used here, but I’d much prefer to use John Cage’s idea of ‘anarchic harmony’.


Most of the works in this anthology exist elsewhere simultaneously, either in other formats or as site-specific installations and performances. There is a feeling that Stuart’s role as editor approaches that of a curator, and that The Material Poem is an exhibition catalogue of sorts. Often, the work is accompanied by an artists’ statement, which in some cases are substantial essays that talk through the kinds of conceptual and critical architectures that background the works.


Alex Selenitsch, for example, whose ‘Book Works’ opens the anthology, exhibits images of his work–objects made from books and everyday flotsam such as feathers, string, medical bandages and pen nibs–alongside a piece of writing in which the book is poeticised as a site of sensual interaction and transient meaning. The relationship between words and images in ‘Book Works’ exemplifies what is so successful about The Material Poem: that the lines demarcating what is written and what is visual are not lines at all, but are synapses; junctions of active dialogue through which a ‘thing’ and its language exist as one dynamic entity.


Essentially, this activity, whether it occurs as a shift between words, images, syntax or ideas, is a movement that is literally ‘hypertextual’. Language is and always has been cyber, in the sense that its materiality is unfixed, multiple, simultaneous and evolutionary. Language is an activity that occurs within a larger frame of movement, interaction and collaboration: it is not a mode of communicating, but a mode of existing.


In Patrick Jones’s accompanying notes to ‘Public Fruit: A Chance Control’, he says, “If all literature is by nature ‘intermedia’, then every aspect of th poem–th spatial, th material, th sonic and th syntactic–need care, even if it’s just by providing the space, and not necessarily filling it”, a statement which for me acts as a kind of fulcrum for the entire anthology. Each artist takes care with the material elements of their works, engaging in a form of composition which is obsessed with the aesthetic minutiae of language. In Jones’s work–a chance-generated poetic work drawn from ten different sources–the text is repeated three times, once with footnoted references to the corresponding source text, once with each letter subject to a change in font size (depending on the roll of two dice), and the third with each letter subject to change in type-effects (such as bolding, italicising, underlining, etc., depending again on the roll of dice). The work can be read in a number ways: as Jones suggests, the second and third version could be read aloud as though they were musical scores, with the difference in each letter denoting a change in pitch, volume and dynamic in the voice. The first could be read as straightforward non-fiction: a series of referenced statements. Alternatively, it could be viewed as the visual mapping of a cacophony, the collective din of language sitting in a pile of books next to Jones’s bed, speaking simultaneously and recorded for a few moments.


Nick Keys’s first piece from his ‘New Babylon Sydney’, ‘Intersecting Paths of Chatter’, consists of a digital print (in which a series of lines of text crossover a cartographic image) and a talk poem (inspired by David Antin). The text in both halves are pulled from poetry (by John Kinsella and Michael Palmer), and philosophy (Raoul Vaneigem, Paul Virilio and Ludwig Wittgenstein), and embroidered by Keys to create a multiply authored poetic map. Like Jones, Keys is interested in the connections made between the words and their image-ness, the sounds they make between each breath and the spaces of possibility between each word:


who can say we are moving away from the city we drive in the picture
of absence a veritable phantasmagoria burning only as afterimage it connects to nothing


Compositionally, these two works (as well as many others in The Material Poem) are paratactic rather than syntactic; the language ‘happens’. There is a conscious revelling in the openness of non-sequiturs, the small pockets that are offered when there is not a determinate trajectory of meaning.


Collaborated works are well represented in this anthology, and mostly the collaborations are between two or more artists from different art practices. Gareth Sion Jenkins collaborated with filmmaker Jason Lam to make Unfed, a short film featuring three contemporary dancers (with direction, choreography and musical score by Lam) performing to a reading of the poem ‘Cusping’, by Jenkins. Unfed carries the four movements–film, music, dance and language–in a lively, layered rhythm that engages the different modes of art making in a conversational socialisation.


Jill Jones and Annette Willis create a different sort of dialogue in their collaboration, ‘Where We Live’. Here, the conversation between poetry and photography is gentler and more intimate. The two come together to create a wander down a familiar street; with Jones’s poetry arcing through the sky, following birds, and Willis’s images tracing the palimpsestic surfaces of the city’s streets, walls and window-fronts.


Animals are brave
searching for a nest
among trees
columns, gutters.
Birds fly out
of their moments.

Statements and emblems
spread across
bones of the neighbourhod
in a pattern of wings


Other collaborations occur between the artist and unknowing texts–such as Michael Farrell’s ‘Top 40’, in which handwritten typefaces, which spell lyrics from 70s and 80s pop songs (recalled from memory), are filled with words pulled from a source text (Proust, Stein, Shakespeare, Bronte and O’Hara). Stills from Ruark Lewis’s ‘Banalities of a Perfect House’, an installation/performance with Rainer Linz in 2005, show the collaboration not only between the two artists, but between the dynamics of the installation (sound, image, text and object) and between these dynamics and the audience, who are, by nature, complicit.


Of course, in a general sense, the collaboration between artist and audience is the most important of all, and can be discussed (and experienced) more widely. When we talk about ‘poetry’ or ‘language’ or ‘art’, what we are referring to is a process of composition and the lively, ongoing transition of this process into form. When we read or engage with a text, we are allowing for the transferral, of sorts, of the compositional process onto ourselves. The act of composition is natural to us, part of our liveliness. And in many ways, this is one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience of reading The Material Poem: following each work along from its conception to this moment of transferral. That each work is interesting and complex, that the combination is vivid and far-reaching; this just makes the enjoyment even more intimate.

Astrid Lorange

Astrid Lorange

Astrid Lorange is a Sydney-based writer who completed an Honour thesis at the University of Technology, Sydney, in 2006. Her thesis looked at the compositional links between the work of Gertrude Stein, David Antin, Lyn Hejinian and John Cage, and she hopes to develop these idea in a PhD thesis. She is part of the arts collective dkdc, and blogs at

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