A bit more on inscription

My handwriting has always been execrable. Cramped, crabbed, sotted, befuggled. Never mattered how hard I tried – after the first few sentences, the forms collapsed into a grapheme porridge pretty much only I could read, and even I only mostly.

I always thought it was impatience – hand not keeping up with thought. I was just too smart for my own embodiment! is how my thinking went. My a’s lost their stems and decayed into c’s, my f’s forgot their cross strokes and masqueraded as long l’s, my p’s omitted to close their loops, all were just too keen to get on to, well, to whatever came next.

I open my journal at random for an example and come upon notes for the course that gave birth to this blog.

Journal scrap

Translation:

Egypt/n Book of the Dead

Mesopotamian afterlife

y is hell underground? b/c that’s where rot is

the ecological imperative – to make also highest the lowest on the foodchain – the microbes + maggots that discompose the corpse

Ex: invent a verbal decay process and enact it

Ex: build a poem out of recycled objects / objs in yr recycling bin. (e.g. collage of beer bottle labels; contrap/n of cut coop plastic)


Around the new year I revisited Dumuzi to overhaul and conclude him and made a discovery. In certain brief and to me potent inscriptions I found I wanted to drop my descender hard and strike my cross stroke fast.

Journal scrap 2

Something, in those moments, that had been chained felt freed, an energy. The stroke could go as long hard far high fast wide as it wanted. As I wanted. As it in me wanted out of me. And what else happened was the rest of my hand began to clarify. The above is hardly beautiful but you don’t need my translation of it.

As if, in letting those flights of energy forth, the rest of my script could quiet down, take time to make the mark in the time given to make the mark. I felt I had felt Olson’s projective for the first time at the nerve ends – as matter in, of, motion.

I tried it out more general. And Dumuzi got altered lots by it – rather shockingly naked journal pages, and junk mail scraps inscribed with myth bits in a hand that feels a bit cuneiform a bit calligraphy a bit graffiti.At Uruk

But my thought here isn’t to rehash that. It’s first to acknowledge just how bloody hard it is to work with handwriting – the deep habit our script is in us. And second, just quick, to give a few pics of how I’ve worked since with script, my scriptural breakthrough.


These are from Overject, a translation project I’ve recently brought back into the shop for smashdown and overhaul. The source text is a really rather minor poem from The Exeter Book, a miscellany of Old English poetry with a few real knockouts – “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “The Ruin” – and a lot of stuff not much translated.

The one I’m working with is often called “Maxims” or “Gnomic Verses” but I’ve called it “Proverbs.” There’s something about its mix of sententious piety and anxious disjunction that strikes me as prematurely postmodern.

Overject, from Proverbia Disjecta, tries to release the anxious poem from the pious poem by means of wayward translation methods.


The first method is diplomatic transcription. Usually that means going from manuscript to typescript, getting as best you can the peculiar individual features of inscription into the uniformity of typesetting. Like drugging clowns to dress them in army fatigues!

My approach is different. I translate the handwriting of the Exeter scribe into my own handwriting. Here’s the scribe’s version:

88vTakes me three passes to get to my version. On the first, I do the script I told you of, let all the energy into ascenders, descenders, cross strokes they want. And damn but don’t it feel nice to.

88V dip transcrip pass 1

You’ll notice, three lines from the bottom, leftmost character, I’ve translated the scribe’s sleepiness. Not by translating some error directly, no slavish copying here, but by allowing my momentary inattention, my slip of a modern “w” where I should have writ the rune ƿ (wynn, “joy”), to stand and be overwrit, just as the scribe has done elsewhere (e for æ, say) when he’s drifted off.

How subtle this translation process gets. Best to go slow, not to assume anything, the least stroke might paralyze you.


Second pass is to set, roughly, the outlines of the characters.

88V dip transcrip pass 2

Third fills them in. This is the fussy part. If at the start it’s quick expressive sweeps of the pen – I toss the sheet and start over if I’ve got too in my head (the Sharpie is a perfect compass) – at the end it’s meticulous distribution of microns of ink, glasses off, eyes a couple inches from the receptive surface (and still I eff it up in six places).

88V dip transcrip pass 3

Not an improvement, nor deprovement, from dear anon’s, nor proof of no sort, but a difference. But a difference that makes a difference? Amn’t sure yet. I think it’s a base text, ground for sthg. more to grow upon, not sure what, annotation, emendation, error compounded upon error … well, stay tuned, if you wish.

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Student work – Inscription

A few responses to the inscription exercise I gave my students last week. They didn’t go quite so well as the first (erasure à la A Humument) and I have a few guesses why.

One is, the model Phillips offers is so accessibly bountiful, it’s hard not to find some practice in there to spring forward oneself from. In comparison, Copithorne proposes a terrifying dexterity, such fluidity with which line becomes letter becomes line, how could I do anything remotely like it, I ain’t an artist like that.

(Admittedly this is one of her most astonishingly ornate ones.)
(Admittedly this is one of her most astonishingly ornate ones.)

‘Nother is, the myriad possible inflections to ordinary inscription – Moorish calligraphy, graffiti in sodium-lit underpasses, Chinese wild grass cursive – weren’t immediately present to them. There as links on our course site but those don’t seem to have been touched, not much. Whose slip up that is, mine, theirs, I amn’t sure, and no big deal.

And a third, simplest and maybe mostest is, handwriting is deep habit, hard to break out of without contrivance. To convey your usual script to an altered script, one not just transferred but translated, is to translate yourself, your hand, your character – two metonyms for “script” never more telling.

Well without further ado here are a few that struck me. One, polylingual, showing the influence of its maker’s explorations in medieval practices of manuscript illumination. As well as, in the errant vegetal forms, maybe a visitation from Wm. Blake.

Handwriting 1

One in which charactery seems to have seen itself in sequin mirrors, doubled and distorted and half disintegrated, seeding a landscape of chimeric forms part Euclid part pencil crayon dream.

Handwriting 2

And this, crowblack lines perfect arcs and rudiments of script.

Handwriting 3a

I scanned it in two versions. One, as above, and one with the plastic bag the student wrapped it in so the charcoal wouldn’t smudge its neighbouring papers. It came out pretty cool.

Handwriting 3b

Nothing like a little distortion to see you through – chance, directed. (Click on it, and again, see it big, the textures. Do!)

Said I was going to fold in a bit of talk about my own work. Doesn’t seem like much beside what these guys are doing. But I will. Tomorrow, I think, as the battery’s fading, and the light, and my mind, and din calls.

Teaching note

Just went through the annual contortion of preparing my teaching evaluation portfolio. No one wants this, not the teacher who preps it, not the committee that reads it, not the dean who signs off on it. (Theme of evening seems to be, Too Honest For Own Good.) Only the system wants it. To the system it’s Pure Sugar.

Had this time to thread the needle — accounting (without seeming defensive) for a weaker batch of evals (don’t get me started on evals) than usual while attesting (without seeming boastful) that I am teaching (as I do think I am) at the live edge of my game.

Thought I’d paste in the last para as a sleep aid for you.

I’ve stretched myself in several ways as a teacher this past year. Posting my students’ work on the blog where I feel through live questions about writing, reading, teaching, being. Showing my own work, including drafts and failures, to my students. Sharing strong feelings with them — grief at the loss of a friend, or anger about discovering cheating, or the sheer pleasure I so often feel working with them — in a more raw and open way than I usually have. What these shifts have in common, I think, is that they rub away at the the wall between my role as a teacher and my being as a person. I’m not sure all have been successful but all have been intentional and all — even those decided in an instant — carefully considered. Nor am I sure I’m a better teacher this year than I was last year when I played it safer. I do feel I’m a truer one.

Some time I’m feeling braver I’ll write about the art of cussing in the presence of students. It’s a knife’s edge. What’s not? G’night.

Exercise – Inscription

The second exercise to my visual poetry group. Who keep doing wonderfully – our conversations together, their serious play, astound me. I wish I had leisure to write how much fun it was to talk with them today about Grenier’s Sentences and Cage’s 4:33 and Olson’s “high-energy construct” and Duchamp’s readymades.

Back. On. Track. An exercise cued by Judith Copithorne’s Runes, rather more obscure than A Humument, but very delicious, and in its way more luscious, an investigation of the threshold where grapheme becomes idly wandering line.

The prompt. Write a poem by hand in which the character of the writing is central to the experience of the poem.

Pointers. Again, by all means, take Copithorne as your model, but avoid slavish imitation. You might start by exploring ways of stylizing your usual handwriting. What happens when the cross-strokes on your t’s, the loops on your g’s, are allowed to run riot?

I’ll post a few of their soon. Till then, a bit from Copithorne (what, BTW, a lovely Norsish name).

Copithorne

Full text of her Runes and some others on UbuWeb.

Trust yr boredom

Well isn’t that interesting. I said I’d post some stuff about my adventures in erasure and now I find I just don’t feel like it. I tell my students over and over – trust your boredom – it’s some of the best guidance you’re going to get. Bored with a line? Cut it. Bored with a poem? Throw it away.

A sour and maybe cranky wakefulness but wakeful just the same. Could I ask of them something I won’t of myself?

face 2The deal I made with me when I started this blog was – write when I feel a wish to and write what I feel a wish to and not otherwise. Lots of duties and such elsewhere. Here I’ll see if what I’ve heard about whim is so, its fructiveness and sufficiency. So far it’s borne out well. Some fallow periods, some heavy fertile swells, an amiable rhythm.

So, having erased erasure, what do I mean to write about? I sat down without knowing. That’s the scary or even terrifying thing about trusting your boredom wholeheartedly. It might tell you what not without telling you what to.

face 3One thing I do, when in this place, and I mean to offer this to my students wherever you are, is just shine an inquisitive light over all the terrain of my mind open at that time, and see what gleams back, even tinily. That might be the place where whatever the counter to boredom is, is waiting.

Here what shone back in mind was an image of a red rock cliff in an essay I’d run my eyes over a few minutes earlier, looking for something on erasure I might want to use.

My thought was a propensity for seeing faces where they ain’t, and then my thought was, that’s where I want to go, that’s where the living interest is, the way inert matter makes faces at us, or the way we make it into faces.

face 1

Project onto it a sentience it doesn’t have, if you’re the sort of materialist most people today are, or acknowledge the sentience we intuit it to have, if you’re the sort of postmodern animist I’m coming to give myself permission to be.

Gleaming in mind, I think, because I spent some of yesterday, and today, turning a portion of Dumuzi into a chapbook ms, title Junk Inanna Down, which will go off to a contest tomorrow. The final image, built out of junk mail, is this

10. Eyes

Those eyes move me some. They’re a mother’s looking down at an infant in her arms. They’re Kuanyin coming to poor lowered noble Ezra in that Pisan tent. They’re the trademark stamp on the Bank of America logo blown up about 1600%. Sacred just bitch-slapped profane, ’bout time. Her earrings are the rest of the same logo disassembled. Her headdress is one of those scan codes you see on the front of an envelope a machine reads to shunt its news unwanted to you more speedily.

This one’s for Don, with love.

Erasure and treatment

Started looking round, wondering where to start a post on my own efforts in erasure and treatment, creative demolition and reformation of a source text – a loving demolition, a savage reformation. I sure am not going to subject you, nor endure myself, some blow by blow account of my misadventures. But it was interesting to see where I got started. I’d forgotten.

Salt Lake City circa 2010 and I’m finishing my diss. I’ve read into the shining spaces in Johnson’s Radi Os and been blindsided by the Blakean rainbows of Phillips’s A Humument. I’ve a stash of found matter (NYT clippings) ten years after a day I’ve not been able to write of to around or about. And I understand, post-Bervin, erasure’s growing old, as too 9/11 and poems about 9/11 have some time since grown old. Understand as well my sense of old and the currency of old are not maybe typical of the avant-garde I maybe or maybe not aspire to keep company with.

Well anyhoo. Our discourse around 9/11 seemed censorious in all sorts of ways. Repression that made it seem past in ways it was present and present in ways it was past. Repression with political beginnings and a mercantile middle and self-preening ends. And with black bars I could maybe indict the targets both obvious (war crimes of the Bush admin) and subtle (oh come let’s say it liberal friends we can be sanctimonious). Also black bars seemed easy to make even for such graphically mega-challenged as I.

So I went there with the redactors and they there with me. Made a few heaps of found material and did a selection thing derived a bit from Johnson a bit from Phillips and a bit from Bervin.

OrderI never ended up publishing these in any version or trying very hard to. A good friend, one I showed them to early on, was upset by them, and she’s a New Yorker, and that she was offended, though I didn’t get it then, I took serious, and thought best to move on. So maybe Sal you saved me from something stupid. Where Sal by the way ARE you?

WodeAnd well now I do get it. Seems kinda obvious now. Sal I didn’t mean to silence the voices of the victims. I meant that the voices of the victims had been silenced. But yeah thanks for saving me from my stupid. Still though where ARE you?

SillsPretty crude, yes? compared to what my students have been up to. Gonna skip a bunch of steps in my own progress to get to where I’m about at now. That’s the next post.

And then, after that, because onward is always, their next adventure – handwriting. The inscribed line, thick or thin, mischief or dutiful, studied or fleeting, how it expresses a moment of spirit, before and in language.

Student work – Treated page

A few responses to the treated page exercise I gave my students as we met and read and viewed and wrestled with Tom Phillips’s A Humument. All struck me. Each differs from the others plenty. None imitates Phillips servilely. All take care with their erasural gestures, understand them to be, as they are, presences in their own right.

One that foreswears mimesis almost entirely and uses abstract form pattern and colour to expose the ickiness of its source text’s speaker. (A lot depends with this exercise on the right kind of friction with one’s source text.)

Treated page 4

One that goes maximal, takes erasure as a baroque occasion. (I neglected to note the source text here, oops.) It actually has texture under your fingertips. Glitter that bites back.

Treated page 2

And one that goes minimal, erases erasure, or proposes that we omit omission, or something like that, its ironies tangle my head. The source text is Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and it mucks with their most famous pro-imposition, “Omit needless words.”

Treated page 3

A dismantlement of text that can’t help but call to mind Susan Howe’s, as this from “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards” in Souls of the Labadie Tract:

Howe - wedding dress (A poet I’ve never had the guts to try to teach.) There were others good, wonderful even, or that didn’t in themselves transcend but were important explorations for their fashioners. There’s in fact no knowing what will beget what. That’s why I don’t grade these, they should be done in great spirited freedom.


In a few I’ll hope to write a bit about my own muckings about with treated pages. Nothing so colourful as these. Also want to write about really good discussions we had today on qualities of line (actual and implied, that’s from Taylor) and the non-blankness of the blank page. First though dinner – steak!