Tim Wright Reviews D. J. Huppatz and Sebastian Gurciullo

3 April 2005

Gurciullo.gifBook of Poem! by D. J. Huppatz
Textbase, 2004

Marginal Text by Sebastian Gurciullo
Textbase, 2004

'Please don't make confused noises while chanting,' a sign in a Kunming monastery read when I visited there a few years ago. Another sign, not far from a thick wad of burning incense sticks, announced 'No conflagration!' D.J. Huppatz's Book of Poem!is written with a sharp sensibility to similar glitches in translation, specifically as they're found in the spiky readymade phrases of Japanese English, or 'Engrish', in the consumer world of packaging, t-shirts and instruction manuals.

The poems are assembled from found examples of 'Engrish' as well as Huppatz's own versions of this hybrid. The appropriated nature of many of the phrases lends the poems a tension – they feel both out of place and in place. Surfaces of the language are left exposed, something like elements in a mixed-media sculpture.

By changing small words like pronouns or making a singular word plural, Huppatz plays with the idea of correct grammar. It's surprising how much these little changes can effect a line, opening it up to new associations or turning it in a different direction. As I read over the poems I get a sense of English being unlocked or peeled back, revealing another language underneath. I first read the poem 'Enjoy Your Ozone' as I was waiting for the bus in Alexandria, watching trucks crash down the McEvoy Street and trying to ignore the smell from the McDonald's on the corner. The machine-like voice evoked in it seemed entirely appropriate. It begins:

There are wilderness on the ground. The flowers
Repeat themselves to be out vividly, gone beautifully
And reborn one after the other …

The poems vary in terms of how cut-up and Engrish-ized they are. In 'Tasty Life' the language is bright and alive; each line acts like a little defibrillator, zapping the reader:

We sell you tasty life!
These are your demands:
Happy Smacks, Britney Spears, Mr. Cuddles.
We'll be yours forever
Please don't weep.
There is very embarrassing
to be smart, being fresh is everything.

In 'poetics', the language is not so obviously sampled, but there is still the measured tone of a voice that could be the hold message on the end of the telephone or the disembodied female voice over the PA on a train platform:

make your poem over time
& this will make you happy &
senseful, space will be so exciting.
words come into the mouth
like love in the eye –

Here the youthful voices of consumerism and advertising are indistinguishable from other voices: ancient, spiritual.

The use of computers for translation and the global spread of English (and the continuing strength of Mandarin) make 'Engrish' and the various other hybrid languages more than curious ha-ha funny aberrations. In other contexts, with other languages, Huppatz's project could come across as simple fun-poking, but instead his poems are an example of how much this cross-fertilization can reinvigorate poetry and English.

Anyone who has learnt another language, particularly when living away from an area in which it's spoken, will know of the very material process of coming to speak it through things like language cassettes and textbook dialogues. It is a stage when invention through mistakes comes easily. Like children's paintings, these mistakes become more difficult to replicate as one becomes comfortable with the new language, and can see far enough ahead to avoid mistakes.

Book of Poem! brings up questions that arise at the meeting points of poetry, consumerism, advertising, globalisation, and grammar – more than I could elaborate on here. Yet unlike that cumbersome last sentence, the poems are light and measured and often hauntingly beautiful. They 'burn politely' as the preface tells us. Perhaps children's paintings are a good analogy: they are vivid and wonderfully strange.

Sebastian Gurciullo's Marginal Text is more visual-based. I would also say it is more experimental in the sense that it seems to be moving towards a field rather than presenting one as complete. It is, as the title suggests, in an in-between place, or in transition. On each page of the collection is a frame containing a small section of a page of a published book. Samuel Beckett's Watt, Don DeLillo's Underworld and Peter Robb's Midnight in Sicily are some examples of the 27 novels and books of poems sampled in this way. As someone who is fond of photocopying pages of old journals and enlarging them until the letters lose all context, this struck me as not an unworthy project, though initially I did find it a bit of a hard nut to crack.

On each page my eyes move over the frame of text vertically as well as horizontally, glancing new connections between words. Like other visual poetry, Gurciullo's work plays around the distinction between seeing and looking.

For me, the collection was not as instantly approachable as Huppatz's, though after a few weeks of having it around my room – picking it up every so often and flicking to a page, scanning over it to see what I could find ? it started to soften. One night I was writing in my journal on top of an open book: looking up from my own handwriting I noticed the random margin this created down the page of printed text and it seemed to make sense. Gurciullo's pieces were about that ?zoom in' from the big to the small, from the horizon to a pebble at your feet, or cupping a hand around an eye to take in a small piece of the sky. Books and words pile up around us, but what gets kept? The idea of framing echoes out from this book. The more I think about frames and margins, the more they appear.

As well as the idea of framing, there is play around the idea of marginality. As Gurciullo explained in an email to me:

“The texts whose pages I sampled fall on either side of the margin that divides the canonical and the obscure. The margin of what counts as poetry was also something that entered the mix: what sets a group of words apart as poetic, composition from random selection. Ultimately, whether this experiment sits inside or outside the margin of poetry …”

Another margin played upon is the distinction between an art object and the book. The pieces in Marginal Text could well have been presented in a gallery or an art book or in a digital format of some kind (and indeed earlier incarnations of the project were published in Textbase's online journal). The design aesthetic of the book is clean and minimal. My personal wish is that there could have been more grit – some supporting notes or addenda to give the work some air and lessen the distance between it and the reader. However that coolness and opacity is also, in a way, what makes it a lasting piece of work.

It seems to me that most poems are an experiment, or a gamble. To draw a line around something called 'experimental poetry' then seems like the wrong move – experiment can and, I think, should exist at the margins as much as in the centre. Having said that I would add that part of the pleasure of these chapbooks, for me, is simply finding out that small publishing houses such as Textbase are out there and continuing to produce innovative works in the conservative era we find ourselves in. As the editors write in the online journal, 'We see a basic failing in current Australian literary, art and academic journals to really even explore what writing can do . . . What the Textbase publication aims to do is redefine creativity as primarily a social act.' Or to take another quote: 'We begin from the premise that writing is already. It is among us and within us, out of control, living and full of possibilities.' Tally-ho! I say to that.

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About Tim Wright

Tim Wright currently lives in Melbourne where among other things he reads and writes poems and is researching a thesis to do with contemporary Australian poetry.

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