00: Turning to the first page

This thesis and the creative projects associated with it were born from a longstanding interest in the materiality of language. My starting point was the tenet that poetry, because of its particular reading practices and semiotic structures, is as much a ‘fine art’ as a literary art. It follows that it must require a different treatment in the way it is presented to an audience. My aim, simply put, was to challenge the notion that poems should always end up in a book or on the pages of a journal, printed in the same font and heading structure as all other texts.

[Right: Peter Lyssiotis (with Leon van Schaik), Paris, photograph James Stuart]

The projects

The three creative projects I developed as part of this Masters responded to this challenge. The Material Poem: an e-anthology of media-specific writing and text-based art was the first, published in mid-2007. Initially available as an online and freely downloadable PDF e-book, it brought together the work of 28 Australian artists, writers and poets – all of whom were engaged with the materiality of language in a conscious and engaging way. The anthology now also has a life as a print-on-demand edition. While not strictly speaking a creative work, it nonetheless enabled me to develop my typographic skills on the one hand while also canvassing the current creative and critical trends within this field, at least insofar as Australia is concerned.

The second, and perhaps most challenging work, was The Homeless Gods, an online poem-world developed over the course of some 18 months. It was the result of a close collaboration with multimedia artist Karen Chen and sound artist Guillaume Potard. My role was as writer and director. The Homeless Gods took the form of a city map interface, inspired by role-play adventure games such as Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights and developed as an interactive Flash animation. Users were invited to discover the mythical city of New Eridu, wherein resided the fallen gods of Mesopotamia. Each location was represented by a custom-made, text-based Flash poem; each revealed some aspect or other of life in New Eridu. The extensive research into ancient Mesopotamian history, culture and mythology formed as much a part of the creative substance of the piece, as the poems and animated artworks themselves.

The third and final work developed for this Masters was Conversions. Conversions placed the work of three Chinese poets – two of Yi, one of Miao nationality, all from Sichuan Province – into the English language. It differed from other translation projects in two ways: first, it brought the poems to life, not in a book or journal but as a large, Chinese-scroll style banners, installed within an existing social space (The Bookworm, a bookshop/restaurant in Chengdu); second, the translation teams were all “untrained”. Thus, the process of learning the art of translation formed an integral part of the project; process was just as important as the end result. All translators worked collaboratively and, where possible, with the poets themselves. My role in the project was as director, banner designer and principal translator.

Developing the language of materiality

Having completed the three projects, and having read much critical work in that time, the final question was how to develop a theoretical exegesis that tied all three components together.

At the outset of this Masters, before undertaking even the first of the creative projects, I had been able to expand my understanding of the term materiality beyond the formal sense of the concept. In my early thinking, two other modes of materiality also emerged: first, a literary work’s material basis – or the literary devices through which a reader formulates an aesthetic response to it; second, its material context – that is, the social systems through which the work is produced and received as a language-object. This three-pronged model of materiality emerged as essential to the thesis: what enables, and how does, a reader to respond to a literary work (material basis); what socio-cultural forces influence the relationship between writers, readers and the language-object (materialism); and finally, the actual material expression (or materiality) of a language-object. This is the subject of my first chapter.

The next question was how this model might be applied to a specific literary genre, poetry. It had become clear that my model of materiality was reader-centric, rather than author-centric, since it is primarily concerned with the processes and conditions that influence how a work is “consumed”. Part of the issue with this reader-centric approach are the multiple discursive distinctions surrounding poetry, each tied up with larger literary traditions, that attempt to define what it may or may not be: one person’s poem is another’s prose.

Thus the second chapter deals with a reasonably simple question: what is the material basis of poetry? This might be rephrased more simply as: what is poetry and how do we read it? Three texts proved especially relevant in this regard. Rosemary Huismann’s The Written Poem: semiotic conventions from old to modern English offers a simple but well-wrought answer to the first half of this question, drawing the direct association between the visual qualities inherent to lineated text and how we identify a poem. The next step is to answer how we might read such a work. Here, I was drawn to Michel Riffaterre’s The Semiotics of Poetry, in which he argues that re-reading is essential to engaging with poetry’s localised semiotic systems. Finally, I looked at Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy in which she traces the non-representational tradition that emerges from Rimbaud and continues through to the present day in the works of seminal poets such as John Ashbery and John Cage: in essence she outlines the demands that this poetic strand makes of its readers, one in which the onus for meaning-making is put squarely in their own hands. Through this analysis I was able to identify aspects of poetic discourse that might serve as its material basis. In turn, these reinforced my initial idea that poetry, as a genre, seemed especially suitable for experimentation with its material expression.

But the form that such experimentation might take was still far from resolved, despite my having completed all three creative projects. What I needed was a framework that would allow me to assess the relative success of these projects and formulate the lessons that I had learned. In short, I wanted some means of taking this practice-led research and applying it to the development of future creative projects.

Thus the third and final chapter centred on this assessment. What are the fundamental principles that should guide the material expression of a poem and its framing as a language-object? Having divined that interactivity and interface were emblematic of poetry’s material basis, I asked whether new media arts was the appropriate material response – interactivity and interface being two terms closely associated with new media technology. I found, however, that such media-based limitations were not required. By revisiting the conceptual and creative work of artists/architects Arakawa and Gins, I was able to develop a model of materiality that echoed their concepts of terrain, landing sites and spatial outcomes. In turn, this gave me the required critical framework to revisit and reassess my creative projects.

By now it had become clear that, had I written this exegesis first, I would no doubt have undertaken each of the projects differently, in some way, shape or form. But it is altogether possible that the direction taken in my critical thinking might not have been possible without the substance of the creative; the creative enquiries into the materiality of language have been of equal importance to the critical. Many of the lessons learnt through resolving these project’s initial ideas into defined forms have been applied in formulating this extended essay, even if I avoid making explicit reference to them. Rather than focus my critical writing on this body of work, I have decided to take the model developed in the third and final chapter and apply it retrospectively. These analyses can be found as brief introductions to the critical works themselves.

And thus I hope that this exegesis and the associated creative works together serve as guidelines – of sorts – by which to consolidate and advance my practice in this field of both literary and artistic endeavour.

> Go to Chapter 01

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