Wandering through the Universal Archive

19 February 2013

John Jenkins tracks his first poetic collaboration with Ken Bolton to ‘a scurrilous free-associative free-for-all’ titled ‘Little Herman(eutic)’. Although the poem, ‘defamatory and very likely actionable’, was subsequently abandoned, Bolton and Jenkins went on to publish their first book, Airborne Dogs, in 1988, and in a remarkable display of fidelity to their first collaboration, have since published eight co-written books, including a number of verse novels. The previously unpublished piece included here – ‘Manic at Night’ – is a manifesto in reverse on how writing a poem with someone can provoke a serious case of the night terrors, an affliction that only further collaboration will ease. Like lightning, it ‘illuminates the real world but discharges ions that soothe anyway.’

The poems offered by Sam Langer and Marty Hiatt mostly revoke any such assurances. The ‘duplex world’ is one in which ‘gods are their hatred of us’ and ‘the business partner’s / random numb legs / encapsulate destruction’. Severing the word in two can sometimes result in two new words but frequently produces a couple of useful though somewhat partial locutions. Enjambment looks harmless enough but can leave a bloody remainder.

Somewhere in the middle of the Australian state of Victoria, the poet and artist, Patrick Jones, is painstakingly gathering and reorganising remnants and cast-offs. Artist as Family is just one permutation of an ethos of ‘permanent making’ that takes place under the rubric of what Jones has termed permapoesis and has included the design and installation of a public food forest for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Broadly speaking, Jones’ poetic mode is one of epistemological intervention. It rebels against what it thinks of as the ‘neat technocratised rows’ of printed poetry in English just as it seeks to disrupt the agricultural categorisations that insist on the eradication of weeds. For Jones, weeds repair land damaged by farming and industry and prepare the ground for reafforestation. His construction of a comprehensive Daylesford Community Commons Map that pinpoints the location of off-the-grid edible fruits and plants foregrounds issues of inclusion and exclusion. Who gets to decide what or who belongs where and to whom? If a plant or a letter or a word is in the wrong place it is viewed as a ‘mishap’, or a disruption. To overcome this ‘the eye has to get out of the machine and walk … the text becomes something the eye has to forage for or through.’ The map and the two poems gathered here constitute ‘a refiguring or reclaiming of the geopoetical – poems of the earth.’1

Hot Pocket’ is an excerpt from an ‘in-progress collective (multi-authored/household) ambient novel’ by Sydney-based poets, Eddie Hopely and Astrid Lorange. It’s a kind of ‘history of that which never took place’ that situates itself in the real estate void of hastily assembled bookshelves and half-written shopping lists that strata titles the end of the poem to the beginning of prose. It used to be assumed, Agamben reminds us, ‘that the poet would on any occasion be able to provide a reason for what he had written’ and that ‘the poet risked shame were he unable to ‘set it out in prose.’’2 In ‘Hot Pocket,’ shame is worked towards rather than avoided: ‘xe saw lights of pink milk in the limp black sponges behind xer eyelids … Collapsible within a cheerful soft hood of young textiles … air scrolled over and burnt the surface of xer cheeks and earlobes’. Where the lyric is empty and, in the song, the poet ‘forgets what he wanted in the song to remember’, in prose, the poet remembers an event, a sensation, a vision as something that never happened in the first place. Any phrase chosen at random will demonstrate the efficacy of this claim: ‘Xe relaxed’, ‘Xe turned a flurry’, ‘Xe glided plain and fine’. ‘Xe woke up and knew immediately that xe had been asleep.’ It has been said of the art of novelistic prose that it is one in which women excel, that ‘woman’ wanders and narrativises.3 But who, in the writing of a multi-authored/household novel, can be said to be the woman? And who will maintain the function of motionlessness along with the paradoxical imperative to continue? A work in which threads cross ‘in all directions under the gathered ruffles attached to those first spun from the rim’ will necessarily exhibit a sort of limping quality. It will have staggered, homeless and destitute, between the campsites of poetry and prose. It will have done this insistently and resourcefully.

Most of the works gathered here were discovered in the process of such foraging and wandering. The initial impulse to produce a collection of collaborations arrived, I’m convinced, during a dinner conversation at a restaurant in Sydney with a table-end of poets, most of whom I had not previously communicated with in person. Thanks to Sam Moginie for alerting me to Pam Brown’s collaboration with Maged Zaher, to the poets who enthusiastically contributed their work, and to Kent MacCarter for saying Yes.

It seems fitting, as they say, when they are wondering how to conclude, to do just that with two videos by Nick Whittock and Tim Wright. I first saw Whittock and Wright onstage at the Bella Union in Carlton, Melbourne, reading a collaborative poem from an iPhone which they passed back and forth between them with miraculous continuity. I’m certain that this was the first time I had ever seen two poets reading together. The idea of writing poetry with another person had never entered my autocentric skull. I remember my father telling me – Always be your own boss. Working for someone else is a mug’s game. Whittock and Wright’s velodrome videos remind me that working for – and with – others can be fun. And that going around in circles, interrupting your progress, and directing your focus away from the object can be a good way to achieve satisfaction.

  1. Patrick Jones. ‘Poems to Accompany a Community Food System: notes to the reader.’ Unpublished essay.
  2. Giorgio Agamben. Idea of Prose. Translated by Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. 51.
  3. Alain Badiou. ‘What is Love.’ Conditions. London: Continuum, 2008. 180.




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