CONSTRAINT editorial

1 November 2014

When given the license to constrain what is otherwise perceived as instinctual, inadvertent, unconscious, and innate, the supposedly authentic centres of creative practice, constraint appears to become a kind of permission to release responsibility to the personal and towards expedition to machines of the sonnet, the page, the code, the number, the constellation, the collage, the palindrome, the algorithm, or the aphorism. Is this a sign of a persistent binary at the heart of creative practice, or of a persistent desire to debunk the binary? Whatever the origin of this dichotomy, I’m excited by its blurring in submissions to this issue and, to echo Marjorie Perloff, excited by the creation of poetry by other means. Patterns emerged, encouraged by the distribution of poetic production: attributions of authorship to anecdotes or dedicatees, an embrace of the byzantine or the complex, sublime systems like cosmology or sexuality, transformations of the factual, experimental textual ecologies, and speculations on the future.

Gauged by submission alone, this issue might have been the STARGAZING issue, the INFORMATION issue, or the METAPHYSICS issue. I didn’t expect this at all. None of these are (wittingly) represented as a mode by my choices, but you might see traces of these unconscious anxieties, all of which curiously situate the poet as encountering those sites where subjectivity dissolves, is transfigured, or is predicated. So why cosmology, why the immaterial, and why the informational and the conceptual in an issue on CONSTRAINT? Microscopy is recalled: matters of scale in relation to text when closely observed become, like a Tardis, something of extra-spatial size and extra-temporal possibility. CONSTRAINT appears to have had a consequent derangement of the relation of what is signified by language to our language itself.

Perloff, after Antoine Compagnon, would call these machines of constraint ‘reserve organs’1; they are not limited to one type of materiality, but instead are reservoirs of language’s emergence. A new system of writing is for me a new kind of reservoir. But, I would extend Perloff’s largely topical contemporary organs of digital textual ecologies to include linguistic machines of production, its aphorisms, its grammars, its styles, its enigmas, and its biopower. The languages of power and dissent inhere in the ways the world is ordered into information.

Found in the textual microscopy of aphorism and palindrome, joanne burns’ ‘pennant’ to Justin Clemens’s ‘madam, i’m adam: noah’s nose knows no gnosis’, are new textual macroscopial imaginings of ‘world politics gone queasy’ and the ‘sun AWOL’. As Marty Hiatt writes in ‘autolytic’, ‘(worlds swallow worlds)’.

Machines are analogues for dimensions of unconsciousness and the automatic in general. The paradox of this issue is that with the means of the poems’ production becoming a conscious subject for writing, many take on a desultory textual sense which is spacey, libidinal, and contingent. My wish in instigating this issue’s recursive theme – this issue might have as successfully been called THEME – was for the emergence of new ways of writing, but begun as humbly as possible in the circumstances of the poet. Perhaps it was more exciting from an editorial point of view to see experiments devised by the poet that defied exhaustive apprehension as a constraint. I am excited by Jill Jones’s poem, ‘ “All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.” ’ for example, which is a series of seven dramas that all finish with the second-person persona deleting the drama’s protagonist’s photograph or message. It is construed in a kind of digital text-messaging time, a multimedia epistolary universe, where:

You are suddenly thrown forward into the Holocene, into your own time period again.
After a hard day at work, you find someone’s wallet. You receive a text from a random
number. It says: ‘You are possessed by a demon’. You delete the message and go shopping.

Bella Li’s ‘237, Overlook’ is also a series of dramas or acts. This should offset any sense of preference for the technical, though the lexical enjoyments of this issue I hope are read with interest. There were a lot of great palindromes, and some crazy sestinas. But formal innovation also wasn’t an expectation, with some very curious responses to the theme of CONSTRAINT emerging. Have a look at Sam Wagan Watson’s theory of anonymity in ‘A bar of soap’ or Louise Crisp’s geodesic quest, ‘Gibson’s Folly (Tambo River)’ for constraints of passage or travel. The empty temples of Jacob Edwards’s ‘Colosseums of the Future’, the infant ‘spongey pink economy’ of John Wilkinson’s ‘Island of Love’, and the ‘nauseous twilight / Of my endless appetite’ of Timothy Yu’s ‘Chinese Silence No. 40’ situate the gravity of the future as an abiding constraint. Then there is Emily Critchley’s ‘Something wonderful has happened it is called you’, which is constrained to a powerless but timeless happiness and felt contradiction between mother and child. She writes:

I only pray that when you grow up there may still be
polar bears, for instance, forests and an ozone layer
keep the sun off yr precious face
I worry about other things too, but mostly 
it is hard to be unhappy these days [...]

Critchley’s poem speaks to the tonality of the issue as a chronicle of private and public imaginaries found in the basic constraints of bios and graphos. I encourage you to attend to their interweaving by all these poets’ direct encounter with the condition of writing. But this is a fun issue, full of peculiar contemplations. I hope your experience reading it is as surprising as it was for me.

  1. Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010): 169.
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