On Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959-1979


Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959-1979.  Alex Balgiu and Mónica de la Torre. New York: Primary Information, 2020. 479 pages.



During my doctoral study, one of my reading lists focused on visual poetics. I began in antiquity, studying the Greek Simias of Rhodes, who carved poems into stone sculptures in the shapes of their subjects. I worked my way through the centuries, through medieval occasional poems cataloged by Dick Higgins in his Pattern Poetry, such as poems written in braided “lover’s knots” for weddings and poems etched into tombstones, [1] through George Herbert’s The Temple, and onto the oft-cited precursors to Concrete Poetry, Mallarmé and Apollinaire. In the process of consulting the anthologies by Emmett Williams [2] and Mary Ellen Solt [3] to form a list of contributors to the Concrete Poetry movement, I noticed a clear lack of representation outside of North America, South America, and Europe, as well as a near-total absence of women. When I brought up this latter point to a mentor, they suggested the visual and sound poet Paula Claire—who eventually proved pivotal in my work—but said that otherwise, there were very few women who were acknowledged as part of the Concrete Poetry movement proper.

While the anthologies and most criticism of the movement proved this assertion true, that women were not acknowledged to be much of a part of Concrete Poetry, it struck me as improbable that in the second half of the twentieth century, there would be no more than a small handful of women participating in an artform whose practitioners, according to the collected manifestos in Solt’s Concrete Poetry: A World View, spanned four continents. However, my own research in the University at Buffalo Poetry Collection, renowned for its cache of twentieth-century avant-garde work, did not reveal much more. I found a copy of Johanna Drucker’s incredible letterpress experiment From A to Z—itself a meditation on being a woman in the 1970s Berkeley poetry scene [4]—the botanically inflected concrete poems of Mary Ellen Solt, and the suggested works by Paula Claire. These findings reflected the same limitations as the extant research.

My experience researching concrete poetry in the archives was shaped by the usual problems: access, sheer size, slow processing, physical distance, or in sum: too much to see, no easy way to see it. Another archive, the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, presented a different set of problems. In the intervening years between its residing in an actual residence, the home of Ruth and Marvin Sackner, and its recent acquisition by the University of Iowa, the Sackner Archive was housed in a warehouse space in Long Island City, and had one (very helpful, knowledgeable) attendant handling all the responsibilities of the collection. The rules were different from those of many collections. I could browse the archive, and much of it was cataloged (though analog, in binders). Nonetheless, even with one week of 9-5 browsing and a DSLR camera to take home images of what I found, it was hard to find work that did not already fall under the established rubric that recognized almost exclusively men from the US, UK, and South America, and a smaller portion of continental Europeans. It appeared as though the Sackners, who founded the collection in 1979, when Concrete’s popularity was on the wane, were perhaps a bit too close to the movement itself. Their collection includes many personal letters from artists, photographs of the Sackners taken on visits with the artists they admired and collected. As much as this friendliness helped to create an extraordinary collection, it seems also to have reinforced the established understanding of who ought to be included.

Enter Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959-1979, a new anthology released in 2020, edited by Alex Balgiu and Mónica de la Torre. It presents the work of fifty writers, more than 400 pages of evidence to contradict the notion that women were not practicing concrete aesthetics when the movement was at its peak. [5] Some of the women included, such as Mary Ellen Solt, Susan Howe, Rosmarie Waldrop, Hannah Weiner, will be familiar to readers of postwar avant-garde poetry. And yet the editors have done an admirable job in presenting almost exclusively fresh voices, something that other recent anthologies, such as The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century have struggled with. [6] Women in Concrete Poetry includes concrete poetry in the early, clean style, which was often grid-like (Françoise Mairey), punny (Giulia Niccolai), and typographically driven (Gay Best, Blanca Calparsoro), and the later dirty varieties, including clouds of over-typed typewriter art (Waldrop, Anna Bella Geiger), intertextual collage (Katalin Ladik), and mimeo experiments (Betty Radin), as well as concrete’s first cousins: gestural, asemic writing (Mirtha Dermisache), poetry sculpture (Liliane Lijn), and site-specific word-art (Bogdanka Poznanović).

 An anthology such as this helps to situate the work of a poet like Paula Claire, who operated in several of the above-described modes. Her 1976 collection Codesigns presents the reader with materials—including cucumber, holly, and high-carbonate steel—photographed with electron microscopes and then redrawn by Claire for the page, thereby placed within the context of language, tempting the reader to “read” her line drawings as text. [7] In her foreword, Claire imagines an infantile interpretation of these speculative signs, and asks the reader to attempt to make a kind of prelingual reading, to conjure sounds for the microscopic “language” of the natural world. Any improvisational attempt to do so resembles echolalia, as the reader’s lack of familiarity with a language they seek to invent mimics a prelingual child’s attempts to organize alphabetic letterforms into words, feeling one’s way through unfamiliar, proto-linguistic terrain.

While Women in Concrete collects some of Claire’s more familiar concrete gestures, using the grid-like structure of the typewritten page to create poems in rectangular and triangular heaps, seeing her work alongside Betty Danon’s poems provides an exciting new context in which to analyze Codesigns. Danon’s poems in this volume investigate two Italian words: “punto” (point) and “linea” (line). (122-133) Danon draws lines and points and uses both typewritten and handwritten text to blur the boundaries between writing and drawing, text and illustration. On pages 132 and 133, each word is handwritten repeatedly, with less and less variation in the gestures until each word becomes simply a flat line, encouraging the reader to ask when writing  ceases to signify language. If Claire was imagining how language emerges from the miasma, Danon appears to have been wondering when and how it dissolves back into it.


 
                         
                                                                     

In addition to compiling this vast, exciting compendium of concrete practice, the editors have included in the back matter English translations of all non-English work—the majority of the poems come from continental Europe—and a lengthy biography of each of the fifty women included that goes well beyond the standard contributor bio. Considering as well the anthology’s substantial 8”x9” trim size and hefty glossy paper stock, and eminent affordability at $25, Women in Concrete is much more than a project to establish representation for women artists; it is the best executed anthology of concrete poetry published in the last several decades. [8]

Balgiu and de la Torre summarize the ways that the poems in their anthology fulfill and contradict the self-defining prescriptions of the Noigandres poets in their early manifestos of the 1950s: They “may very well represent the ‘tension of word-things in space-time,’” but “are less concerned with using ‘graphic space as structural agent,’” and “definitely involve a substantial degree of ‘play-activity’” but cannot "be as easily understood as ‘signs in airports and traffic signs.’” Appropriately for this collection, they land on a definition by Mary Ellen Solt from her Concrete Poetry: A World View: “concentration upon the physical material from which the poem or text is made.” [9] According to Balgiu and de la Torre, the poets in this anthology “focused on multiplying the possibilities opened up by attending to language’s materiality, and on challenging the very constructs that support the binaries divorcing a poem’s physical properties from its more subjective ones.” [10]

Balgiu and de la Torre argue that the inclusion of women artists in concrete poetry discourse opened a further space to explore questions of identity, a subject not often found in the work of more established concrete poets:

Gender inequality was often explicitly denounced by the artists and poets in this anthology. They proved that questions of identity, gender, and power were not only not antithetical to concrete poetry, but also could be made intelligible—and could be activated—through the process of the materialization of language. [11]

Such an approach might seem to run counter to Eugen Gomringer’s argument for concrete as “a universal poetry,” [12] as an emphasis on individual experience may be seen as isolationist or fragmentary rather than ecumenical. However, this would be to reaffirm the hegemonic fallacy that art pertaining to identity is only valuable to those who occupy marked subject positions. As has been recognized in recent years, [13] avant-garde movements are particularly subject to hegemonic impulses. [14] Balgiu and de la Torre recognize the potential for their curation, which remains mostly focused on writers of European ancestry, to recreate similar dynamics: “While our research has tried to rectify some of the biases of historical narratives and the imbalances in representation, it has surely incurred others. In the future, we would like to pursue those geographies and lineages not represented here.” [15]

Within the admittedly limited geographic scope of the anthology, the editors have found work that both reaffirms and expands our notions of what is possible with concrete aesthetics. To offer just two examples, I’ll focus on the work of Annalies Klophaus and Liliana Landi. Landi’s work combines various writing media, including handwriting, typewriting, large-form graphical printed text, and more standard printed text in a serif typeface. This variation certainly implies attention to materiality, but the poems are explicit in their interests. On page 256, we read, in typewritten Italian, “il pennello e sestituite dal la mano che intinta nell'inchiostro lascia le impronte d elle dita come azione che maggiormente trasmette la fisicita delle strumento del gesto,” or, according to Stefania Heim’s translation, which also indicates the poem’s mid-word line breaks, “the brush is replaced by / the hand which dipped in the in/k leaves the impression of / fingers as an action that most/ly transmits the physi/cality of the instrument of the ges/ture.” [16] A set of fingerprints registered in black ink mark the bottom of the page. In handwriting above them, we read, “la mano si e posata sulla pagina dopo gli effetti del gesto la preseuza fisica l'origine del gesto”: “the hand is placed on the page / after the effects of the gesture / the physical presence / of the origin of the gesture.” [17] This narration of various aspects of the writing act—gesture, registration of ink on the writing instrument, and registration of ink on the page—provides a self-reflexive close reading of its own linguistic performance. The text’s focus on the hand as a writing instrument adds the human body to the common repertoire of tools and materials under consideration in concrete poetry: the typewriter, the page, the mimeograph machine.





Klophaus’s poems, meanwhile, are handwritten in thick marker and vary between red, black, and yellow inks, highlighting the texture of the letterforms and, as Balgiu and de la Torre note, the embodied performance of the gesture. Her poem in French on page 229 is a two-column list poem of twenty-three lines, divided by dashes, where nearly every word in the left column is the word “MOT,” French for “word.” The right-hand column presents a series of nouns, often both sides of a binary, beginning, significantly, with “HOMME” (man) and “FEMME” (woman). There are moments in the poem that perform familiar concrete gestures, such as the twentieth and twenty-first lines, which read “MOT – PENSÉ” (word – thought) and “PENSÉ – MOT” (thought – word), and point respectively to the cognitive registration and production of language. In the sixth line, “MOT – COULEUR” (word – color), the word “COULEUR” appears in red while the rest of poem is written in black ink, a moment of text becoming the thing it represents. These forms of semiotic play are often the focus of concrete poetics. How we understand language qua language could be said to be the primary question of the movement.





However, Klophaus’s second line, which completes the masculine/feminine binary described above, presents unique possibilities. While I have followed Balgiu in translating the second word of the second line as “woman,” the truth of the line is a bit more complex. The first “e” of the apparent word “FEMME” is missing its bottom stroke, such that it reads “FFMME.” It is the only altered letterform in any word in the piece, which might tempt one read it as a mistake in this handwritten poem. Yet the entire basis of another Klophaus poem (236) consists of missing strokes in the repeated German words “FRAU” (woman) and “MANN” (man). In each case, the “f” in “FRAU” is missing its bottom stroke, so that it almost reads “TRAU,” the German word for “trust.” Each instance of the letter “A” is also missing its horizontal stroke, like an inverted “V.”





Given Klophaus’s tendency for intentionally altering letterforms to create new semantic possibilities, we must consider the incompleteness of the word “FEMME,” especially as it appears in a poem dedicated to binaries. One might read it as a way of graphically marking the feminine through subtraction, inverting the Romance language tendency to create distinctions between masculine and feminine forms with supplemental letters and syllables. Additionally, through the absence of the stroke, the word which at first glance appears to be “FEMME” instead becomes an unpronounceable stutter: “FFMME.” The subtle erasure of “woman” from the poem can thus be read as a form of ironized silencing. In the context of this anthology, one could read it as a comment on the erasure of women from linguistic cultural practice, up to and including in the Concrete Poetry movement.

The major contribution of Concrete Poetry was to point out that reading is in fact always a double-translation, both of meaning and material. Before we can begin the process of translating language into ideas, we must first recognize language as language. That translation is a material one—the registration of ink on paper or pixels on screens in particular patterns that signify letterforms. Concrete poetry makes this translation process visible and palpable for the reader, aestheticizing the very registration of language in the same way that poetry has always aestheticized language itself. In this way, Concrete Poetry revealed a hidden process in the functionality of the written word, and opened paths to new sites of interpretation, play, and critique. One crucial function of Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959—1979—in addition, of course, to creating space for important work—is to make visible another set of secondary processes, those that take place in the offices of publishers, in the writing of syllabi, and the curation of archives. While the trend toward canon expansion in literary studies began long ago, and may feel like a familiar critical gesture, anthologies like Women in Concrete reveal the need for the continued practice of re-evaluating our assumptions regarding even movements only a few decades past. The literature and art of the previous century drew the maps many of us follow in our pedagogical, critical, and cultural work, and it is important that we recognize the limits and errors of those maps, not only to unearth buried voices, but also to prevent such burials in the present.







Works Cited


[1] Dick Higgins. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

[2] Emmett Williams. An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. New York: Something Else Press, 1967.

[3] Mary Ellen Solt. Concrete Poetry: A World View. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

[4] Johanna Drucker. From A to Z: Our an [sic] (collective Specifics) an Im Partial [sic] Bibliography; Incidents in a Non-Relationship; or, How I Came to Not Know Who Is. Oakland, CA: Chased Press, 1977.

[5] Balgiu and de la Torre suggest capitalizing “Concrete Poetry” when referring to the movement and using lower-case when referring to the genre or practice of concrete poetry. Insofar as these understandings are distinguishable, I’ve attempted to follow that suggestion here.

[6] Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe, eds. The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century. London: Hayward Centre, 2015.

[7] Paula Claire. Codesigns. London: Writers Forum, 1976.

[8] It should be noted that Primary Information has, over the last ten years, become the leading publisher of twentieth-century visual poetry texts, and have recently made the move toward correcting the record of twentieth-century avant-garde poetics. Along with Women in Concrete Poetry, publications from 2020 and 2021 include Black Art Notes, a collection of essays by Tom Lloyd, founder of the Jamaica, Queens cultural center the Store Front Museum, the Concrete and Black Arts poet Norman H. Pritchard’s The Matrix Poems: 1960-1970, and A Documentary Herstory of Women Artists in Revolution, originally published in 1971 by Women Artists in Revolution (WAR).

[9] Alex Balgiu and Mónica de la Torre, Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959-1979, New York: Primary Information, 2020, 12.

[10] Balgiu and de la Torre, Writers, 12.

[11] Balgiu and de la Torre, Writers, 14.

[12] Eugen Gomringer. “Concrete Poetry,” in Concrete Poetry: A Worldview ed. by Mary Ellen Solt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

[13] See, for example: “A Poetics of Suspicion: Chicana/o Poetry and the New,” which traces the colonialist instinct in the American quest for the “new” back to Whitman and up through contemporary movements such as Conceptualism and the experimental lyric. J. Michael Martinez and Jordan Windholz. “A Poetics of Suspicion: Chicana/o Poetry and the New,” Puerto Del Sol, Volume 45.1 Spring, 2010, 38-49.

[14] See also, Timothy Yu. Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965. Ed. Gordon H. Chang. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009.

[15] Balgiu and de la Torre, Writers, 17.

[16] Balgiu and de la Torre, Writers, 447.

[17] ibid







Michael Flatt is the author of "What the Air Became: Rereading Eigner to Read Compositional Tools in Networks," (Configurations, Winter 2020) and two books of poetry: Absent Receiver (SpringGun 2013) and, with Derrick Mund, Chlorosis (The Operating System, 2018). He is the editor and publisher of Low Frequency, which publishes book-like objects of marginal aesthetics, and Threadsuns, a teaching press at High Point University, where he is an assistant professor of English.