unAustralian English: Oscar Schwartz Visits Chris Mann in NYC

By | 1 June 2013


In his Introduction to Off the Record, Π.O. recounts how, at the 1978 Adelaide Arts Festival, David Malouf delivered a paper called ‘Contemporary Australian Poetry’. Its content sparked a debate between those who thought that Malouf’s survey of the state of poetry in Australia was expansive and accurate, and those who felt Malouf’s survey was narrow, exclusionary and stultifying. Inevitably this debate ‘flared up into a huge argument’, the result of which was the introduction of a new term into the Australian poetry discourse: ‘performance poetry.’ On one side of the debate were those who either identified themselves as performance poets or saw the activities of the performance poets as being worthy of discussion in a survey of contemporary Australian poetry. On the other were those who suggested that, while performance poetry was an innovative art form, it was, in some crucial aspects, separate from an established understanding of what poetry was. In other words, by placing the word ‘performance’ in front of ‘poetry,’ the ‘establishment’ no longer had to engage with the term – it was ‘literally off the tongue, off the page, off the air and therefore beyond their scope of literary concern’ (Π.O., Off the Record). What is strange about the fallout from this particular debate is that the performance poets were not so much excluded as differentiated – what they were doing was not uninteresting; it was categorised as something that fell ‘beyond the scope of literary concern.’


Much of Mann’s poetry engages in a reawakening of the sounds that words make, and lends itself to being read aloud or performed. This means that in the brief mentions Mann’s work receives in Australian critical writing, it is said to be ‘performance poetry’ –in other words, ‘beyond the scope of literary concern.’ But if you give Mann’s work more than a cursory glance, you begin to notice that the formal innovation in his work is informed by specific philosophical and literary traditions. Mann’s work draws some direct lines back to the most important literary innovators.

Take, for example, a collection published in 1978: Words and Classes: on having words. The collection is printed on one large, double-sided piece of paper. You have to unfold the paper as you read.

In this collection, Mann uses many different forms: there are dramatic dialogues, rhyming quatrains, long stream of consciousness narratives and poems written with unconventional, non-uniform line breaks. Despite their different formal appearances, what strikes us about these poems is the back and forth movement between made-up words and real words. For example, one of the shorter poems reads:

tend plot of playn weans
skerimble thud
pret pro wringe
hoddy mill furble merkim
skittsing shy the sat
mangle of the wheal
back act pinge
tinny and skirt
list fawch all a pay
fayn interim dock
sayd by her cull scansion bawbee
snick to palor sop quail
in creeling trumpery come snup burp
toggle the footstwps to fatten the soil
britchless masterdom

Reading the poem requires us to enunciate the unfamiliar sounds of the made-up words. It also defamiliarises the sounds of the known words in the poem. Words that we usually sweep over rapidly – ‘and’, ‘to’, ‘all’, ‘the’ – are read for their sound value, their phonemic sense reawakened in their relationship to these purely sound-based constructs. So the function of Mann’s made-up words is not, as we might imagine, to empty real words of their content but rather to allow us to utilise the content as working material in equal conditions with the phonemic material of the word. This technique has informed poets from modernists such as Joyce to the Canadian avant-garde of the 1970s.

Specifically, Mann’s sound work, in these early poems, recalls the notion of ‘beyonsense’ or ‘zaum’ championed by the Russian Futurists Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh and Mayakovsky, who all saw their work as avant-garde in the sense of it being the van guard to a new social reality through the re-imagination of forms (Perloff, ‘Sound Poetry and the Musical Avant-Garde’).

In Words and Classes, Mann also experiments with the Mallarméan technique of decomposing linear authority. This is displayed in a poem entitled, ‘Syntactics (for three players)’.

The issue of how to read this non-linear poem raises methodological questions: How are we supposed to react to the large empty spaces between words? Do we sound them out in silences, or do we skip over them with our eyes? The title of the poem, ‘syntactics (for three players)’, may suggest an answer: the poem is a type of game for which we need syntactical ‘tactics’ for reading. One such possible tactic might be to honour the non-verbal spaces between words, staying silent for longer-than-normal periods in between the articulation of words. This silence is translated on to the page with the space bar, the typographical gap being the visual representation or instantiation of that relational sound that silence makes. In fact, Words and Classes, published on one gigantic piece of paper, has a similar effect as a collection that ‘syntactics’ has as a single poem. The physical spaces between poems, spaces that are usually drowned out by the noise of flipping the page, become tangible, graphic elements. The materiality of the gaps between the poems makes us aware of the silence between one poem and the next. The material spaces awaken us to transitional noise, the whole collection itself becoming an object of multiple transitions.

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