unAustralian English: Oscar Schwartz Visits Chris Mann in NYC

By | 1 June 2013

But Mann doesn’t just use the layout of the poem to express its visual potential. The best such example is his poem ‘Da-dum,’ which was delivered in 1987 as a paper to the American Society For Cybernetics in Illinois, and was printed on a box containing a drinking glass, a serviette, a fake dollar bill and a box of matches, all of which were covered in text. This poem is a polemical and humorous expression of making the poem ‘a reality in itself’ – a poem you can drink out of, clean up with and light a cigarette off.

Reading Chris Mann’s work, The Birth of Peace, is similarly demanding. In fact, it is so demanding that the challenge for the reader appears to be the polemical message of the poem: ‘I dare you to figure out how to read this one!’ Published as both a chapbook and a tape-recording, the poem is a simultaneous rendition of a Chris Mann text, a ballet in verse attributed to Descartes, a ballet written by Heinrich Heine, a musical composition by Nietzsche, and a recording of Wittgenstein playing the clarinet. Along with the chapbook and the tape, the poem was published with a fake diamond ring, a small scroll of paper with Mann’s poem printed on it, and two fish made out of red cellophane that bear the inscription: ‘Place the Fish in the palm of the hand. The movements will indicate your fortune. Keep Fish in envelope when not in use.’ The chapbook is laid out so that Mann’s poem, Descartes’ and Heine’s ballets and Nietzsche’s piano staves run parallel across each page. Set behind these texts and scores is a computer source code in the C language of the programs IDALR.C and IDALT.C. The source code appears to be bearing instructions for a computer program that would stream the four pieces together. On the recording, the parallel texts combine into overlapping soundscapes, each one made audible over the other, forming a cacophony of philosophy, art, poetry and linguistics.

This is an intentionally, ostentatiously multimedia poem – a poem that uses and interrogates Wittgenstein’s notion of play and language games in its form and composition. There are so many media channels blaring simultaneously that any conventional notion of reading is relinquished. Interaction with the piece is a performative experience: the reader may find themselves wearing a fake ring, juggling plastic fish, reading French verse while listening to Wittgenstein and Nietzsche jam. The reader may find that they become a computer program through which the many media channels are streamed – performer as broadcaster.

While reading this poem I empathise with the demands John Cage made on virtuosic American pianist David Tudor. Cage’s unconventional and indeterminate scores required Tudor to invent performance techniques that would enable him to play the piece; he would sometimes resort to playing a certain constellation of notes with his forearm. Mann’s unconventional texts are similarly demanding: they require virtuosic reading practices, and the invention of reading tactics. Every reader must be prepared for innovation, interpretation and transgression.


In his academic capacity at the New School, Mann teaches a subject entitled ‘Art as Social Practice’. The course description reads: ‘What is the society that a work of art makes possible? What sort of community does it help us to realise? This seminar and discussion series seeks to explore the social dimensions of performance through the work of contemporary composers who are less interested in aesthetics than in designing tools and systems that both articulate and facilitate social change.’

What is the society that a work of art makes possible? If we think back to the Malouf story, and reinterpret Mann’s question, we come up with this: Has Mann’s art been realised in any form in Australian society? What is it about Australian society that resists this realisation, even in the form of it being written about?

Π.O. has expressed a concern regarding Australian reading practices, his dissatisfaction fuelled by the belief that ‘nobody looked at the poetry to examine it. I don’t think they know how to analyse it, they didn’t know how to look at a text. There are no critics in this country’ (‘A Brilliant Fantastic Great Interview with Π.O.’, 56). Instead of directly engaging with a text, Australian critics have tended to import pre-existing theories and scholarly methods, and then work to make Australian poetry commensurable with the theory: ‘criticism in reverse,’ as Π.O. claims. And it is such critical practices that perpetuate the exclusion of poets such as Chris Mann. If criticism is done in reverse – if there is no pre-existing hermeneutic ‘theory’ for what is going on in a poem – then the poem doesn’t receive critical attention. The theory defines the poetry rather than the other way around.

Imagine, for instance, if David Tudor hadn’t been such an innovative reader of Cage’s music. There is a good chance that someone less willing to experiment, less in tune with the grammar of the avant-garde would have simply said, ‘Well, yes, this is interesting. But it is not music. It is beyond the scope of musical concern.’

This throws new light on the debate of 1978: because there was no pre-existing critical context with which to understand and write about the poetry that was classified as ‘performance poetry’, it was left, ‘beyond the scope of literary concern’. Literary concern, in this context, can be understood as that which can be written about without having to radically revise scholarly methods and critical practices.

And here is the crux of the issue: Australian writers have not written about Mann’s work not because there is a lack of good writers in this country; rather, there is a lack of inventive readers. The development of new ways of reading, or new ways of receiving information – this is the avant-garde ethic. This is the most profound social action an artist can hope to achieve, for it is the relationship between the reader and the artist that manufactures attitudes towards the reception of information, and these attitudes form the basis of a response to other information beyond the poem, in the world. Once new ways of reading are created, the way texts are read changes forever.

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