Category Archives: collaboration

Robert Zend – Afterword: Citizen of the Macrocosm


Afterword: Citizen of the Macrocosm


          Robert Zend admired Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy for his unwillingness “to accept any label, either for himself or for others”:

He didn’t identify with any group; he belonged nowhere, but this non-belonging meant for him an extremely strong belonging to Man, to Mankind, to Humanity.1

          Zend similarly disregarded boundaries in seeking out like-minded writers and artists around the world, in shaping themes exploring the connectedness of all humanity and a cosmic sense of place, and in creating art using the most humble and mundane objects.
          National culture is a fuzzy proposition, and this is true for the countries where Zend found kindred artists and writers. At a certain point, the idea of nation becomes merely a convenient rubric to demonstrate his cosmopolitanism. For example, within Canadian culture are the cultures of many nations. In turn, the cultures of those nations cannot be thought of as pure but are often congeries of contributions from many peoples across history. As Zend resisted the notion of labels and boundaries, my use of them here might seem to contradict his convictions.
          But nations, perhaps especially one such as Hungary, whose language and culture evoke in many Hungarians fierce sentiments of belonging, are of course not totally artificial cultural constructs. And although Canada’s historical quest for a cohesive national culture has been eroded over the decades by the crosscurrent trend toward a national policy of multiculturalism, Canadian cultural protectionism has cast an enduring shadow on any debate on national identity.
          Zend had Hungarian cultural roots, and part of his cosmopolitan Budapest heritage was also the thirst to look beyond borders to find literary and artistic kin worldwide. This desire was integral to the freedom that he so valued. In Canada, he had close ties to immigrant as well as Canadian-born artists and writers. Thus his Canadian heritage and legacy are based not so much on national identity as on multicultural affinities.
          In the afterword to Oāb, he lists his “spiritual fathers and mothers” as well as “chosen brothers and sisters.” They include poets, artists, sculptors, short story writers, novelists, philosophers, literary theorists, actors, and filmmakers from Argentina, Canada, the United States, France, Austria, Germany, Ancient Greece and Rome, Romania, Flanders, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Hungary, Great Britain, and Belgium. In short, his tally of creative family is a model of interdisciplinary and cosmopolitan openness.
          Zend was a Canadian original: born in Hungary and adopted by Canada, he wrote about both places. He was also a citizen of a broader community of writers and artists and wrote about realms of cosmic dimension. His cosmopolitan outlook is a part of Canadian cultural history. It is a remarkable achievement and an homage to what he most admired in other writers, artists, and cultures without regard to borders.
          Thank you for reading my series on the life and work of Robert Zend — I hope you enjoyed it. It has been a great pleasure to work on this project.

A Special Announcement —
The Robert Zend Website

          One important matter remains: in a few days, I’ll announce the completion of a significant project recently undertaken by Zend’s daughter Natalie Zend: The Robert Zend Website. This valuable resource provides information on acquiring his books and art and offers information to anyone interested in learning more about his remarkable life and work. Stay tuned . . .

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

          Below is a list of heartfelt acknowledgements to the many people who have kindly assisted my research. Particular gratitude goes to Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori, who so generously contributed to this project. Please do not hesitate to let me know if I have overlooked any person or institution.
          And for anyone interested in the sources I used during my research, I include a Bibliography at the end of this post.


I am grateful for the kind assistance and generosity of the following:

The family of Robert Zend: Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori

Rachel Beattie and Brock Silverside, curators of the Zend fonds at Media Commons, University of Toronto Library

Edric Mesmer, librarian at the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection and curator of The Center for Marginalia, and the other wonderful librarians of The Poetry Collection for their research assistance

Brent Cehan and other librarians of the Language and Literature division of the Toronto Reference Library

The librarians in the Special Arts Room Stacks at the Toronto Reference Library

The librarians at Reference and Research Services and at the Petro Jacyk Central and East European Resource Centre, Robarts Library, University of Toronto Libraries

Susanne Marshall (former Literary Editor for The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Irving Brown

Robert Sward

bill bissett

Jiří Novák


“Administrative history / biographical sketch.” Robert Zend fonds. Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries, Toronto, Canada.

Bangarth, Stephanie, and Andrew S. Thompson. “Transnational Christian Charity: the Canadian Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the Hungarian Refugee Crisis, 1956–1957.” American Review of Canadian Studies 38, no. 3 (2008): 295–316. General OneFile. Web.

The Book of Canadian Poetry. Edited by A. J. M. Smith. Toronto: Gage, 1943.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Comments on back cover of Daymares: Selected Fiction on Dreams and Time by Robert Zend. Vancouver: CACANADADADA Press, 1991.

———. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Botar, Oliver, to Janine Zend. Email. 9 April 2001.

Buzinkay, Géza. “The Budapest Joke and Comic Weeklies as Mirrors of Cultural Assimilation.” In Budapest and New York: Studies in Metropolitan Transformation, 1870–1930, edited by Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske, 224–247. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1994.

Catalogue. Országos Széchényi Könyvtár (National Széchényi Library) in Budapest, Hungary.

Cavell, Richard. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Clarity, James F., and Eric Pace. “Marcel Marceau, Renowned Mime, Dies at 84.” New York Times. 24 September 2007.

Colombo, John Robert. Ottawa Journal. 11 May 1974. 40.

Day, Lawrence. “Re: Handbook 386(b) – Ken Field.” Chess Talk. 27 August 2008.

———. IMlday. 23 September 2004.

Donaghy, Greg. “An Unselfish Interest? Canada and the Hungarian Revolution, 1954-1957.” In The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Hungarian and Canadian Perspectives, edited by Christopher Adam, Tibor Egervari, Leslie Laczko, and Judy Young, 256—74. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010.

Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. “Hungary: The Great Depression.” Library of Congress Country Studies. 1989.

Ferrazzi, A. Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi. C. 1820. Oil on canvas. Casa Leopardi, Recanati, Italy.

“Fiftieth Anniversary of the Hungarian uprising and refugee crisis.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 23 October 2006.

Fifield, William. “The Mime Speaks: Marcel Marceau.” The Kenyon Review 30, no.2 (1968): 155-65.

Fleeing the Hungarian Revolution, Settling in Canada: Photos and documents of Robert, Ibi and Aniko Zend’s voyage November 1956 – April 1957. 1956 Memorial Oral History Project: Materials accompanying Eve (Ibi) Gabori’s interview, 31 March 2007. Prepared by Natalie Zend, 24 June 2007.

Fosler-Lussier, Danielle. Music Divided: Bartók’s Legacy in Cold War Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.

Frye, Northrop. Afterword to Daymares: Selected Fictions on Dreams and Time, by Robert Zend. Vancouver: Cacanadada Press, 1991.

Gabori, George. When Evils Were Most Free. Deneau, 1981.

Gabori, Ibi. Interview 01544-2. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute. Accessed online at the University of Toronto Library.

Gould, Glenn. “If I were a gallery curator . . .” Dust jacket of From Zero to One by Robert Zend. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Mission, BC: The Sono Nis Press, 1973.

Hahn, Lionel / McClatchy Newspapers. Photograph of Marcel Marceau performing in Westwood, California, in 2002. Available from: The Seattle Times.

Hamlet. Directed by Lawrence Olivier. London: Two Cities Films, 1948.

Hidas, Peter. “Arrival and Reception: Hungarian Refugees, 1956—1957.” In The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Hungarian and Canadian Perspectives, edited by Christopher Adam, Tibor Egervari, Leslie Laczko, and Judy Young, 223—55. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010.

History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Junctures and Disjunctures in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Volume 1. Edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2004.

Hungarian American Federation. “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Photos.“ The 1956 Hungarian Revolution Portal.

Jones, Frank. “The first time I met Ibi Gabori.” Toronto Star. 29 February 1992. K2. ProQuest. Web.

Józsa, Judit, and Tamás Pelles. La Storia della Scuola Italiana di Budapest alla Luce dei Documenti D’Archivio [The History of the Italan School of Budapest, in Light of Archival Documents].

Kafka, Franz. “An Imperial Message.” Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1971. 4–5.

Karinthy, Frigyes. “Chain-Links.” Translated by Adam Makkai, edited by Enikö Jankó.–files/soc180:karinthy-chain-links/Karinthy-Chain-Links_1929.pdf.

———. A Journey Round My Skull. New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2008.

———. Tanár úr kérem [Please Sir!]. Budapest: Dick Manó, 1916.

———. Voyage to Faremido: Gulliver’s Fifth Voyageand Capillaria: Gulliver’s Sixth Voyage. Translated by Paul Tabori. London: New English Library, 1978.

Kearns, Lionel. By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface. Vancouver: Daylight Press, 1969.

Kieval, Hillel J. “Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel.” The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. 2010.

Koehler, Robert. “Pantomimist Marcel Marceau in Performance at Segerstrom Hall.” Los Angeles Times, 11 February 1988.

Kossar, Leon. “Canada Heaven for Hungarians.” The Telegram, 30 April 1957.

Kramer, Mark. “The Soviet Union and the 1956 Crises in Hungary and Poland: Reassessments and New Findings.” Journal of Contemporary History 33, no. 2 (April 1998): 163—214.

Lenvai, Paul. One Day That Shook the Communist World: The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and Its Legacy. Translated by Ann Major. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Leopardi, Giacomo. Canti. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010.

Lloyd, John. Portrait of Robert Zend. Cover of Beyond Labels. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1982.

Luther, Claudia. “Marcel Marceau, 84; legendary mime was his art’s standard-bearer for seven decades.” Los Angeles Times, 24 September 2007.

Madách, Imre. The Tragedy of Man. Translated by George Szirtes. New York: Puski Publishing,1988.

———. The Tragedy of Man. Translated and illustrated by Robert Zend.

Magritte, René. Le fils de l’homme. 1964. Magritte Foundation.

———. Radio interview with Jean Neyens (1965), in Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, translated by Richard Millen, 172. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977.

———. Les valeurs personelles (Personal Values), Series 2. 1952. Magritte Foundation.

The Maple Laugh Forever: An Anthology of Comic Canadian Poetry. Edited by Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie. Edmonton, Alberta: Hurtig Publishers, 1981.

Marceau, Marcel. Comments on front inner dust jacket of From Zero to One by Robert Zend. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Mission, BC: The Sono Nis Press, 1973.

———. Marceau, Marcel. “Marcel Marceau Paintings.” Encyclopedia of Mime. Available at

———. The Mask Maker./em> Available at

———. Portrait of Robert Zend. Drawing (medium unknown). Dust jacket cover of From Zero to One by Robert Zend. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Mission, BC: The Sono Nis Press, 1973.

———. “This Drawing, Poem, and Zend During and After.” In A Bouquet to Bip by Robert Zend. Exile Magazine 1, no. 3 ( 1973): 121-22.

———. Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death. Film stills from 1965 performance. Available on YouTube at

Marcus, Frank. “Marceau: The Second Phase.” The Transatlantic Review 11 (1962): 12—18.

Marinari, Umberto. Introduction. Pirandello’s Theatre of Living Masks. Translated by Umberto Mariani and Alice Gladstone Mariani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 3—26.

Martin, Camille. Entry on Lionel Kearns for The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2013.

Messerli, Douglas. “Frigyes Karinthy.” Green Integer. The PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) Blog. 30 November 2010.

New Poems of the Seventies. Edited by Douglas Lochhead and Raymond Souster. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1970.

New York Café, Budapest. Photograph. Available at Famous Coffee Houses.

Nichol, B. P. The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader. Edited by Darren Wershler-Henry and Lori Emerson. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007.

———. Art Facts: A Book of Contexts. Tucson: Chax Press, 1990.

———. “Calendar” (detail). Broadside. S.n, n.d.

———. Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer. Toronto: Coach House Press, 2004; originally released in Canada in 1974.

———. The Martyrology, Book 6 Books. 1987; reprint. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994.

———. The Martyrology 5. 1982; facsimile edition. Toronto: Coach House Books, 1994.

———. Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol. Edited by Roy Miki. Vancouver: Talon Books, 2002.

———. Merry-Go-Round. Illustrated by Simon Ng. Red Deer, Alberta: Red Deer College Press, 1991.

———. Zygal: A Book of Mysteries and Translations. Toronto: Coach House Books, 1985.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 1—144.

Nyugat 1938, no. 10. Budapest. Frigyes Karinthy memorial issue.

Pirandello, Luigi. Right You Are, If You Think You Are. In Pirandello’s Theatre of Living Masks. Translated by Umberto Mariani and Alice Gladstone Mariani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 69—118.

———. Six Characters in Search of an Author and Other Plays. Translated by Mark Musa. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.

———. Six Characters in Search of an Author. In Pirandello’s Theatre of Living Masks. Translated by Umberto Mariani and Alice Gladstone Mariani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 119—67.

Priest, Robert, Robert Sward, and Robert Zend. The Three Roberts: On Childhood. St. Catherines, Ontario: Moonstone Press, 1985.

———. The Three Roberts: On Love. Toronto: Dreadnaught, 1984.

———. The Three Roberts: Premiere Performance. Scarborough, Ontario: HMS Press, 1984.

Q Art Theatre. The Tragedy of Man publicity poster. Montreal: Q Art Theatre, October – November 2000.

R., Patrick. Robert Zend. “Memorial.”

Rippl-Rónai, József. Portrait of Frigyes Karinthy. 1925. Pastel. Petőfi Museum of Literature. Available from Terminartors.

Robert Zend bio. Ronsdale Press. Available at

Robert Zend fonds. Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries, Toronto, Canada.

Sanders, Ivan. “Karinthy, Ferenc.” The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. 2010.

Six Degrees of Separation. 1993. DVD Culver City, Canada: MGM Home Entertainment, 2000.

Sled, Dmitri. “Partisans In The Arts: Marcel Marceau (1923—2007).” Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. 12 June 2012.

Standelsky, Eva, and Zoltan Volgyesl. Tainted Revolution. Dir. Martin Mevius. The Netherlands: Association for the Study of Nationalities, 2006.

Stark, Tamás. “‘Malenki Robot’ – Hungarian Forced Labourers in the Soviet Union (1944–1955).” Minorities Research: A Collection of Studies by Hungarian Authors. Edited by Győző Cholnoky. Budapest: Lucidus K., 1999. 155-167.

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. Edited by Howard Anderson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.

Szabó, László Cs. Qtd. in “Frigyes Karinthy Author’s Page.” Publishing Hungary. Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum.,en.

Szaynok, Bożena. “Stalinization of Eastern Europe.” Translated by John Kulczycki. Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Volume 1. Edited by Richard S. Levy. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005. 677—80.

Talpalatnyi föld [Treasured Earth]. Directed by Frigyes Bán. Hungary: Magyar Filmgyártó Nemzeti Vállalat, 1948.

The Toronto Mirror. Published and edited by Robert Zend. October 1961.

Troper, Harold. “Canada and the Hungarian Refugees: The Historical Context.” In The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Hungarian and Canadian Perspectives, edited by Christopher Adam, Tibor Egervari, Leslie Laczko, and Judy Young, 176—93. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010.

Ungváry, Krisztián. The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II. Translated by Ladislaus Löb. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. “Hungary after the German Occupation.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Last modified 10 June 2013.

Veidlinger, Jeffrey. “Stalin, Joseph (1879—1953).” Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Volume 1. Edited by Richard S. Levy. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005. 676—77.

Volvox: Poetry from the Unofficial Languages of Canada . . . in English Translation. Edited by J. Michael Yates. The Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia: The Sono Nis Press, 1971.

Wershler, Darren. “News That Stays News: Marshall McLuhan and Media Poetics.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing 14 no. 2 (2011).

White, Norman T. “The Hearsay Project.” The NorMill. 11—12 November 1985.

Zend, Natalie. A Biography of Robert Zend. Unpublished manuscript. 8 March 1983. Personal library of Janine Zend.

Zend, Robert. Ararat. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.

———. Arbormundi: 16 Selected Typescapes. Vancouver: Blewointment Press, 1982.

———. Beyond Labels. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1982.

———. A Bouquet to Bip. Exile Magazine 1, no. 3 ( 1973): 93–123.

———. Dancers. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.

———. Daymares: Selected Fictions on Dreams and Time. Edited by Brian Wyatt. Vancouver: CACANADADADA Press, 1991.

———. Eden. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.

———. Fából vaskarikatúrák. Budapest: Magyar Világ Kiadó, 1993.

———. Film poster produced for Hamlet, directed by Lawrence Olivier (London: Two Cities Films, 1948). Press and Publicity Department of the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company, 1948.

———. Film poster produced for Talpalatnyi föld (Treasured Earth), directed by Frigyes Bán (Hungary: Magyar Filmgyártó Nemzeti Vállalat, 1948). Press and Publicity Department of the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company, 1948.

———. From Zero to One. Translated by Robert Zend and John Robert Colombo. Mission, BC: The Sono Nis Press, 1973.

———. Genesis. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.

———. Hazám törve kettővel. Montréal: Omnibooks, 1991.

———. Heavenly Cocktail Party. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.

———. How Do Yoo Doodle?. Unpublished manuscript. Private collection of Janine Zend. Coloration is the author’s.

———. “The Key.” Exile Magazine 2, no. 2 (1974): 57-67.

———. LineLife. Ink drawing on paper. 1983. Box 10, Robert Zend fonds, Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries. Adapted for digital medium by Camille Martin.

———. “Months of the Super-Year.” Exile Magazine 2, no. 2 (1974): 50.

———. Nicolette: A Novel Novel. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 1993.

———. Oāb. Volume 1. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1983.

———. Oāb. Volume 2. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1985.

———. Pirandello and the Number Two. Master’s thesis. University of Toronto, 1969.

———. Polinear No. 3. 1982. Ink on paper. Private collection.

———. Quadriptych in Gasquette series. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.

———. Science Fiction. N.d. Paper collage. Private collection.

———. Toiletters. N.d. Ink on toilet paper rolls. Private collection.

———. “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story.” Exile Magazine 5 nos. 3-4 (1978): 147.

———. Versek, Képversek. Párizs: Magyar mühely, 1988.

———. Windmill. N.d. Mixed media with thumbtacks, sewing pins, string, and paper on wood. Private collection.

———. “The World’s Greatest Poet.” Exile Magazine 2, no. 2 (1974): 55-56.

———. Zendocha-land. Unpublished manuscript, 1979.

Zend, Robert, ed. Vidám úttörő nyár (Happy Summer Pioneers). Magyar Úttörők Szövetsége (Association of Hungarian Pioneers), 1955.

Zend, Robert, translator and illustrator. The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách. Unpublished manuscript.

Zend, Robert, and Jerónimo. My friend, Jerónimo. Toronto: Omnibooks, 1981.

“Zend, Robert.” Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. Edited by W. H. New. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. 1234.

Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 12. International Affinities: Belgium (Magritte) and Japan


Part 12. International Affinities:
Belgium (Magritte) and Japan

          Robert Zend’s international openness was remarkable, especially during a time when a broad tendency in Canadian culture was to look within Canada’s borders for inspiration in order to foster a national cultural identity. As a cosmopolitan Canadian writer and artist, Zend found affinities and friendships not only in his home countries of Hungary and Canada, but also among a writers, artists, and cultural traditions around the world.
          In the last few installments, I’ve discussed his aesthetic kinship with cultural figures in Hungary (Imre Madách, Frigyes Karinthy, and the Budapest Joke of Eastern European Jewish tradition), Canada (Marshall McLuhan, bpNichol, Robert Sward, Robert Priest, The Four Horsemen, Glenn Gould, and Norman McLaren), France (Marcel Marceau), Argentina (Jorge Luis Borges), and Italy (Giacomo Leopardi and Luigi Pirandello). In addition, after his move to Canada, Zend connected with immigrant writers and artists from Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Japan, and Spain, sometimes engaging in creative collaborations with them.
          The current installment, which focuses on Belgium (Magritte) and Japanese traditions (haiku and origami), will end my exploration of Zend’s international affinities.
          In the next installment, the last substantive one in this series, I’ll show Zend as a multi-media artist who not only worked in more traditional paper collages but also used such unusual materials as thumbtacks, string, toilet paper rolls, and automotive gaskets, and exploited technologies such as the typewriter and the computer to create his visual art. In addition, Zend was a self-described “inveterate doodler,” the truth of which I learned from sifting through the extensive Zend archives at the University of Toronto. From this research, I’ve culled a variety of these sketches, from casual to intricate, poignant to humorous, as well as selected a few examples from his unpublished manuscript entitled How Do Yoo Doodle?.

An Eight-Ball for Magritte

          Zend developed his own unique spin on surrealism, informed by an early interest in the fantastical in Hungary and nourished by his study of surrealism in artists such as René Magritte. Of the influence of the latter, most obvious is the portrait of Zend on the cover of Beyond Labels, designed by John Lloyd. The face of the formally-attired Zend is obscured by a large eight-ball; another eight-ball floats in the cloudy sky. The image bears a striking resemblance to Magritte’s 1964 self-portrait with signature bowler hat, Le fils de l’homme, face similarly obscured by an apple (figs. 1 and 2):
          Magritte’s own words bespeak the themes of concealment and unknowability in his art:

Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.1

In Magritte’s statement can be heard an echo of Marcel Marceau’s concern with masks and with illusion and reality, and the passage also strikes a chord with Zend’s own literary and artistic themes.
          “Climate,” for example, Zend’s prose poem dedicated to Magritte, is likely an ekphrastic poem based on any of several paintings by Magritte in which the separation between interior and exterior is either confounded or based on an illusion:

          In the room in which I work it often rains. Sometimes the sun shines, but usually it’s twilight. Bright in one corner, dark in another, the weather can’t seem to make up its mind.
          When I can’t take much more of it, I wander outdoors. The hills are gentle, the brooks are bubbling, the trees are whispering. Then I switch on the overhead light, turn up the heat, draw up a chair, sit down in front of my desk, and begin to work — until the clock tells me it’s time to quit.2

Weather incongruously occupies the writer’s room. And this weather is personified as fickle: it “can’t seem to make up its mind.” The writer seeks relief from the vagaries of the room’s elements and light by wandering outdoors through a soothing scene that is as clichéd — babbling brooks and rolling hills — as it is illusory, instantly morphing into an ordinary interior with overhead light, desk, and clock. In going outside and then inside, the writer has crossed no literal threshold, a clue that the divisions between indoors and outdoors, fickle and pleasant weather, and fantastical and quotidian are not literal either.
          Instead, Zend renders a metapoetic image of the act of writing. The writer, disturbed by indecisive climate (perhaps a symptom of writer’s block), mentally steps outdoors into a calming, postcard-like scene, which seems just as unreal as the capricious indoors climate. The artificial banality of the landscape creates the degree of calm distraction that facilitates creative flow. But the results of that flow are not revealed, and the fashioned scenes of room and outdoors, of interior and exterior, themselves become the artifacts of writing, including the oddly mundane yet somehow apt ending: “until the clock tells me it’s time to quit.” Paradoxically, the poem’s subject (the writing of the poem) is both concealed and revealed in the act of writing.
MAGRITTE PERSONAL VALUES          Magritte’s Les Valeurs personelles (Personal Values) (fig. 3) is possibly the work that inspired Zend’s “Climate.” Like Zend’s poem, Magritte’s still life discombobulates the viewer’s sense of indoors and outdoors, and it subverts the normal utility of objects, as in the giant comb and wine glass. Magritte’s surrealism disturbs the normal context of objects (indoors becomes outdoors; small becomes gigantic), a feature of his work that informs Zend’s self-referential poem.
          Lastly, in 1971, Zend wrote in Hungarian ten brief poems each entitled “Magritte,” which Janine Zend published in the posthumous collection Versek, Kepversek (1988). As far as I know, no English translation exists of these poems.
          And this may be as good a place as any to point out that many other poems by Zend remain untranslated into English, which poses a problem for a more complete discussion of his work. A review in the Ottawa Journal of Zend’s first book of poetry, From Zero to One, praises efforts to translate and publish his poetry:

The poetry of Hungarian-born Robert Zend is surreal, brilliant, and witty. Zend’s fantasies operate between the twin poles of profundity and humour. John Robert Colombo believes (and with reason) that were Zend writing in English or French, he would be recognized as one of Canada’s leading poets: “But because he writes his witty, inventive, resourceful and extremely imaginative poems in his native language, he is known only to a handful of Canadians.”3

Since that time, a good deal more of his work has been translated, and some Zend wrote in English himself. However, much still remains untranslated, including three collections that Janine Zend published after Robert’s death: Versek, képversek (1988), Hazám törve kettővel (1991), and Fából vaskarikatúrák (1993). It would be a gift to Canadian and world culture if more of his works were made available to a wider audience. The republication of out-of-print editions would be a most worthwhile project, as would a collected or selected works edition.

Japan: “The Great Spirit of a Small Nation”

          Some of Zend’s poems and visual works were influenced by Japanese poetic forms and cultural traditions, namely, haiku and origami. Among Zend’s unpublished manuscripts is a collection of haiku from the mid- to late-1960s entitled The Fourth Line. Zend states that although he is a “true admirer” of Japanese culture, he makes no claim to approaching anything “faintly similar to the perfection of the original Japanese haiku”:

Besides a lot of other faults, my biggest “westernism” is that I could not eliminate my ego-centrism from my transcendental approach to existence, although I would not give up keeping on trying. . . . Consider [these poems] only as efforts to understand and appreciate through experience the great spirit of a small nation, among the big ones.4

What the haiku in The Fourth Line might lack in formal orthodoxy, Zend makes makes up for in inventiveness, including the following variations:

  1. Riddles, puzzles which challenge the validity of the mind’s judgment of reality;
  2. moods, impressions, feelings which are lyrical expressions of my personal life;
  3. intellectual ponderings on the controversies of our space-age and social problems;
  4. Western three-liners which have nothing to do with the original concept of haiku;
  5. jokes, games, drawings, concrete experiments;
  6. philosophical statements;
  7. miscellaneous and unidentified.5

Below is a brief sample of poems from The Fourth Line:


Like a severed arm
left on the battlefield
you still give me pain


A cat was meowing
I gave him milk in a plate
Now I am happy




          Among Zend’s Japanese-influenced concrete experiments are works inspired by origami, including a vanishing origami sequence and a page of concrete poems that “folds” the word “origami” in various two-dimensional configurations (figs. 4 and 5):


          In his variations on haiku and renderings of origami Zend approaches Japanese traditions with humility and admiration, yet also infuses them with a spirit of playful inventiveness that shows a range of approaches from lyrical to conceptual, and from linguistic to visual.

Next Installment — Part 13.
Gaskets, Thumbtacks, Toilet Paper Rolls . . .
and Doodles

Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 9. International Affinities: Argentina (Borges)


Part 9. International Affinities:
Argentina (Borges)

Belonging Nowhere but Humanity

          In the previous sections, I traced some of Robert Zend’s Hungarian literary roots as well as Canadian cross-pollinations. In this section, I’ll explore his affinities with artists, writers, and cultural traditions around the world, focusing on some of the more significant ones from Argentina, France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan.
          Zend openly expressed his admiration for writers and artists in many countries — one only has to look at the numerous dedications in his first two books of poetry. But on a deeper level, Zend’s tributes often took the form of collaborations of various types. He wrote ekphrastic poems (based on works by Norman McLaren, René Magritte, Julius Marosan, and Jerónimo, for example), absorbed lessons from the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, engaged in poetic correspondence with Marcel Marceau (for whom he also designed a chess set), and incorporated elements of Japanese traditions such as haiku and origami into his poetry and visual work. There’s a spirit of generosity in such collaborations, which are at once quintessentially Zend-ish and overtly otherly. Zend’s title of a draft for a collaboration with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha captures something of that spirit: Zendocha-land.
          Zend wished to model his creative life after his Hungarian mentor, Frigyes Karinthy, in that

[Karinthy] wasn’t willing to accept any label, either for himself or for others. . . . He didn’t identify with any group; he belonged nowhere, but this non-belonging meant for him an extremely strong belonging to Man, to Mankind, to Humanity.1

Many factors shaped Zend’s cosmopolitan outlook: the historically international culture of Budapest and its tradition of literary translation, his early exposure to Italian culture, his admiration of Karinthy, and his opportunities as a CBC producer to travel around the world interviewing writers and other cultural figures. Zend’s cosmopolitanism is part of his legacy to Canadian culture, and thus it is also part of Canadian cultural history.
          As I mentioned in a previous installment, certain literary tropes and approaches were part of the widespread influence of international modernism and postmodernism — for example, the proliferation of forms with which to question epistemological certainty, and the avant-garde experimentation with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In Zend’s case, however, the relationships and influences are more often than not revealed through collaborations or by specific allusions and acknowledgements. Thus it’s possible to draw meaningful literary and artistic connections between Zend and some of those world-wide others.

Argentina — Jorge Luis Borges

                                        Now I know why you came here
                                        from the other end of the world.
                                        Actually, I should have written Oāb . . .
                                        — Borges to Zend2
ZEND BORGES 4 250          The reader of Zend’s short stories in Daymares is likely to notice that they are on a similar wavelength as the fantastical fiction of Borges. Using surreal, mythical, or dream-like settings, both explore philosophical and metafictive concepts, toy with notions of infinity, expand the limits of human cognition, and posit labyrinthine or paradoxical quandaries, leaving the reader with a feeling that there is a mystery at the heart existence and the universe that will not yield to rational analysis. Zend was already writing in a fantastical vein when in the early 1970s he began reading Borges and working on a CBC Ideas program entitled “The Magic World of Borges.” Lawrence Day, a member of the chess club that Zend frequented, describes how the idea came about:

As a chess player he was about 1600 but as a thinker he was easily a Grandmaster. Borges came up in a conversation. He got interested. A month later he was in Buenos Aires interviewing him for the Ideas program. Nice job eh, fly around the world interviewing people with ideas and get paid to do it!3

ZEND BORGES 1 250          Zend indeed took full advantage of the opportunities afforded him by his role as producer at CBC by traveling around the world interviewing persons who made important contributions to culture and science. And by doing so he made a lasting contribution to Canadian intellectual life. In Hungary, his travel opportunities had been limited and closely monitored for signs of the intention to defect. After he finally escaped and immigrated to Canada in 1956, it was as though his pent-up desire to travel the world and meet other writers were suddenly given the freedom and means to be fulfilled.
          Spending two weeks with Borges in Buenos Aires in 1974 not only benefited the CBC’s Ideas program, but it also proved a tremendous encouragement to Zend as a writer. After his visit, he began to write more stories exploring the fantastical, inspired by what he had learned from Borges to translate his own experienced, dreamed, and imagined worlds into the complex, multi-layered, and sometimes self-reflexive forms congenial to their narrative content. His visit was documented with some remarkable photographs, which I’ve uploaded to this installment, including one of Zend strolling with Borges through the latter’s family mausoleum, and another sitting in a Buenos Aires café with Borges and his secretary (figs. 1, 2, 6). His conversations with Borges are also commemorated in a remarkable collaboration between the two, “The Key,” published in Exile Magazine in 1974.

The Key to the Labyrinth:
A Zend-Borges Collaboration

                                        “It should be written by the Table!” I said.
                                        “It is written by the Table,” Borges said and laughed.4
          Zend’s meetings with Borges offered him the opportunity to cultivate in the older writer an important mentor for his narrative work. In him, Zend found a master of precisely the kind of writing that appealed to him and that he had been exploring in some of the earlier stories posthumously collected in Daymares. During their conversations, Borges talked about his fascination with keys. Zend suggested writing a story combining the idea of the key with Borges’ long-standing interest in labyrinths. Borges was delighted with the idea, but offered it back to Zend, who had originally proposed it, to develop into a narrative. Zend accepted the offer and began to take notes for what he expected to be a more or less linear story about a person’s search for the key to a labyrinth in which to become lost. However, on his return to Toronto, the papers he mailed back were delayed. Moreover, the editor at Exile Magazine, interested in publishing Zend’s work arising from his visit to Borges, proposed, in place of the linear narrative, a metanarrative take on the origin and evolution of the story’s premise.
          The idea appealed to Zend, who set about writing the narrative even before his notes arrived from Argentina. “The Key” ended up being composed of five footnotes appended to the (absent) linear story originally conceived. In these footnotes, Zend recounts a labyrinth of decisions and thwarted goals, at the heart of which is the absence of the actual intended story originally discussed with Borges:

What I wanted to write is not the story entitled “The Key,” it isn’t even the story of the conception of the story entitled “The Key,” but it is the story of the conception of the story of the conception of the story, entitled “The Key.”5

In other words, to write the story of the conception of the story would be (on one metanarrative level) to relate his conversations with Borges and with the editor of Exile Magazine. The layers of the metanarrative further removed (in the footnotes) consist of Zend tracing labyrinthine mental associations with his decisions regarding “the story of the conception of the story.”
          In one such associative footnote, Zend tells of his involuntary habit since youth of distilling “abstract ideas into structures.” He illustrates some of the visual narrative patterns suggested to him by the fiction of various authors or works. The three patterns in fig. 3 below display the idiosyncratic patterns he visualizes for Dante, Shakespeare, and Borges:


STORY SHAPE TRISTRAM SHANDY 250 W          This type of visualization of a narrative line or pattern is reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s illustrations of meandering lines in Tristram Shandy to render visible the novel’s digressive texture (fig. 4). Interestingly, in both works, the visually reflexive gestures serve both as digressions within a digressive story and as further deferrals of the novel’s professed autobiographical subject. Shandy early in the novel sets his metanarrative cards on the table: “digressions are the sunshine; — they are the life, the soul of reading!”6
          Such laying bare of narrative process is echoed in Zend’s explanation of the evolution of his typewriter art in “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story”:

For the honest artist, no borderline lies between the finished product and the process. The essays of Poe, Dante, Wagner, Pirandello, and Kosinsky are “finished products” which describe the “process” . . . and vice versa: the Cantos of Ezra Pound, some short stories by Borges, the Sweetheart-book by Emmett Williams, etc., reflect a continuous “process” although they appear to be “finished products.”
          For me, the division makes no sense. How can an artist — being an unfinished, imperfect product himself — create anything finished or perfect? Or rather: how can he sincerely believe that he did so? Maybe that’s why Goethe never felt Faust was finished, or Leonardo that the Mona Lisa was finished smiling . . . For me (as my wife said, taking a Marshall McLuhan tone), “the process is the product.”7

ONE STORY SHAPEAs part of his exploration of the process of “The Key,” Zend displays his visualization of the story’s metafictive pattern as an Escher-like paradox (fig. 5). Any two angles of the triangular sculpture constitute a logically possible shape; the addition of the third angle makes the form impossible as a three-dimensional object. Although Zend does not explain the corresponding irrational concept of the meta-meta-narrative of “The Key,” he is clearly, in works such as Oāb, fascinated by other such topological conundrums as the Klein bottle and the Möbius strip, which don’t lead anywhere but their own infinitely repeating surface. Somewhat similarly, the irrational triangle creates an endlessly iterable and labyrinthine path, corresponding to the journey of the story that never reaches its supposed destination (the planned narrative about a key to a labyrinth), but instead becomes the labyrinth itself for which the reader must search for a key within her- or himself.
          In addition, the image of the labyrinth symbolizes for Zend the network of influences by which writers and their works come to be, referring to the joint authorship (triple if we include the editor of Exile Magazine), but also questioning the very notion of literary originality. In a pivotal passage (itself a footnote), Zend explains the lineage of the foregrounded footnote:

Writing footnotes as organic parts of a fiction is not my innovation, I am merely imitating Jorge Luis Borges who imitates DeQuincey who probably also . . . Borges openly imitates innumerable writers innumerable times since he doesn’t believe in originality — everything was said and done before, he thinks. This is quite an original philosophy of writing, at least nowadays: in the Middle Ages it wouldn’t have been. Thus, although writing footnotes on footnotes had been done, yet writing footnotes following a blank page had not been done, and I consider this to be my innovation in this present piece of writing: however, it is possible that I do so only due my lack of cultural awareness.8

Although Zend is the one who actually wrote the story, not Borges (or the table, for that matter), the gesture of acknowledging Borges as collaborator emphasizes Zend’s indebtedness to his mentor, which, as we have seen, is characteristic of Zend’s customary expression of gratitude to his “spiritual fathers and mothers.”9 It also recognizes the phenomenon that authorship is never original but is dependent on a myriad of influences.

Parallel Dream-Sons: “Circular Ruins” and Oāb

          Borges himself also recognized his literary kinship with Zend in their respective explorations of dream-worlds and golem-like creations:

You created your dream-son the way my magician in “Circular Ruins” created his dream-son. You consider me one of your masters, yet you were my pupil even before reading my work.10

Borges is referring to the relationship of “Circular Ruins” to Zend’s two-volume graphic poem, Oāb, most of which Zend wrote during two weeks in May 1970. Borges’ letter to Zend seems to confirm that the latter created Oāb prior to being exposed to Borges’ writing. As Borges observes,

Both you and I are inspired by the same themes. Now I know why you came here from the other end of the world. Actually, I should have written Oāb . . . 11

A comparison of the works reveals that the two writers, despite stylistic differences, were indeed tapping into mysterious realms of dreams and the subconscious, ideal matter for shaping mythical tales that leave the impression of mirrored infinity.
          “Circular Ruins” is such a story with its “dream-within-a-dream” premise. Borges tells of a magician with a mission:

He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality.12

The magician travels by boat downstream to the ruins of a temple. Within a succession of dreams, little by little he creates a living being and teaches his dream-child “the arcana of the universe and of the fire cult,” in order to prepare him for his priestly role “in a temple further downstream.” The magician believes that his son would “not exist if [he] did not go to him” in his dreams. Sometimes the magician is troubled by feelings of déjà vu, as if “all this had happened before.” But he forges ahead fashioning his dream-son, who is finally ready to be born. His newly-minted priest travels to the temple downstream to practice rituals “and give glory to the god.” Only fire and the magician will know of his existence as an illusion and not flesh and bone.
          Later, the magician hears that his dreamed “magic man . . . could walk upon fire and not be burned.” He fears that his son will thus realize that he is “a mere image” and will feel the “humiliation” of being only “the projection of another man’s dream.” The aging magician prepares himself for death as fire mysteriously arrives to engulf him, but he is startled to find that like his dream-son, he too is unharmed by the flames. In an epiphany he understands that his déjà vu experience was actually a glimpse into the cycle of creation, in which he was not only creator to his dream-son, but also himself “a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”13
          In outward form, Borges’ six-page short story could not be more different from Zend’s two-volume, 237-page graphic poem with its scores of concrete poems, photographs, and drawings. Borges’ story has the quality of a myth whose rather ornate descriptive language is akin to magic realism. By contrast, Zend’s language in Oāb is plain and conversational. Oliver Botar, a Canadian art historian who has translated some of Zend’s poetry into English, observes that Zend’s poetry is “written with an almost sparse economy” and “directness of language,”14 chracteristics that lend themselves well to paradoxes and twists of logic. In Oāb, this rather porous linguistic quality is appropriate to the multi-dimensional story whose theme of creation plays out on biblical, generational, and authorial levels. The playful and childlike dialogue between the creators and their naive beings gradually transforms into language reflecting deeper levels of experience and the painful knowledge of their own diminished role in the cycle of creation — while still retaining the work’s hallmark simplicity of language.           Despite the differences between the narratives of Borges and Zend, both spring from similar concerns with illusion and reality, dreams within dreams, and beings who create other beings only to learn that they in turn are being fashioned by a being in a higher dimension.
          Similar to Borges’s magician in “The Circular Ruins, in Oāb a character named Zėnd writes a son, Oāb, into existence as a blank slate; thus his “written doll”15 is all potential, and like Borges’ magician-teacher, Zėnd tutors his written son in human knowledge and three-dimensional existence.

he lives in my verse / it’s his universe.16

But Oāb begins to take on a life of his own, first through his own dreams and later by creating a being of his own, Ïrdu.
          Zėnd plays tutor to Oāb, all the while keeping him subservient to his own wishes and dependent on him for existence, as we wields his pen-nib above the “while soil” of Oāb’s paper world and observes him with the “blue suns” of his eyes.”17 Oāb, aware of the power dynamics but determined to cultivate his own world, in turn teaches Ïrdu everything he learns from Zėnd. Zėnd believes that he is at the top of this chain of creation and that a being named Ardô is his friend on equal footing with him. But (similar to the magician’s realization of his own illusory existence) in reality Ardô is a higher-level being who created Zėnd.
          Each generation is convinced of its own god-like superiority in relation to its “written doll.” For example, Zėnd believes that he is the only “real” being and that Ardô, who thinks that Zėnd is “merely a figment / of his imagination,” is only a “braggart.”18
          Like jealous gods, each generation is in turn suspicious and of the growing independence of his created being and resentful of the time he spends on his own offspring. Zėnd inculcates in Oāb that Oāb cannot become independent like him because “you are a part of me. / I contain you.” But Oāb rebels and becomes his own god, in effect. Like the biblical God who says “I am that I am,” Oāb boasts, “I am myself . . . self-contained . . . independent.”19 And when Ïrdu, Oāb’s son, in his turn rebelliously asserts his independence, Oāb balks. And Zėnd, conceding that there are things in Ardô’s four-dimensional world that he cannot comprehend, ultimately comes to realize that, far from being his friend on an equal footing, Ardô is actually his creator.
          Each over-possessive creator in turn becomes vengeful, threatening to destroy his dream-son. However, once Oāb and later, Ïrdu, are out of the bag, they cannot be “unborn” or destroyed, for like ghosts floating in the infinite memory of the universe they would haunt their creators until reborn. And each creator is helpless to stop his creature from taking on a life and identity of his own. Agency is further denied the creators when Oāb, now a fully-fledged being in his own right, explains that it was not Zėnd who willfully created him, but the reverse: it was Oāb who had to be born:

“I had to come to life. I was an absolute must. Time was ripe for me.”20

It was Oāb who found and chose Zėnd, led him around, and in fact authored Oāb: “I led his hand, don’t ever doubt it!” he says to Ïrdu.21
          In the end, the four generations come full circle. Ardô create Zėnd who created Oāb who created Ïrdu. Finally, in a repetition of the scene of Oāb’s creation, Ïrdu hears Ardô’s “name calling from the darkness,” and thus “the middle-aged Ïrdu gave (re)birth to Ardô.”22
          Zend’s story is more overtly a metapoetic exploration of authorial creation than Borges’ story of the dreaming magician. Moreover, while Borges’ magician learns in an instant’s epiphany the truth of his own origin in dream, Zend’s characters (Zėnd, Oāb, Ïrdu, and Ardô) come to this realization gradually and communicate their discovery amongst themselves in subtle psychological detail. However, both Zend’s and Borges’ narratives share the sense that creation is an endless cycle in which one’s works, and perhaps also one’s self, are never totally knowable or controllable. In Oāb, each generation of creator experiences the humiliation of discovering that he is not in control of his creation. It is in reality the creations who tutor their creators and claim agency over their formerly god-like beings who dispense life and destiny, pen in hand. And in “Circular Ruins, the magician;s paternal feelings of love and protectiveness for his dream-son cause him to worry that the son will discover that he is not as real as his magician father, when in fact the magician himself is a figment of another being’s dream.
          In other stories, Zend uses the Borgesian dream-world to poignantly explore pain and loss in Hungary during two brutal regimes: the Nazis and the Communists. During Nazi Germany’s two-year occupation of Hungary, more than 500,000 Jews lost their lives to the Holocaust. And Stalin’s regime exacted a high price in human life in Hungary as well: of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians sent to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union during the late 1940s, an estimated 200,000 died due to poor living conditions or were murdered outright.23
          In “The King of Rubik,” one such story exploring a Holocaust theme, the speaker is

sitting here again, in Peter’s room, talking to him just as if he hadn’t starved to death in a Nazi labour-camp, thirty-eight years ago.23

Throughout the story, a magic Rubik’s Cube creates dream-like shape-shifting identities and time-frames, and orchestrates remembrance and forgetfulness in a tale of guilt, regret, and loss.
          Borges’ “The God’s Script” contains a succinct statement of the idea of the “tireless labyrinth of dreams” epitomized in “The King of Rubik” and Oāb:

You have not awakened to wakefulness, but to a previous dream. This dream is enclosed within another, and so on to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path you must retrace is interminable and you will die before you ever really awake.24

Borges’ image of life as an infinite cycle of dreams, suggesting that humans live in a labyrinth of illusions and that unknowability is the inevitable nature of existence, is also explored in a poem by Zend entitled “The Dream-Cycle,” a dizzying zoom-in view of Creation that begins in nothingness and ends in awakening:

The Dream-Cycle

Nothing dreams Something
  but Something is mostly Void

    Void dreams Matter
      but Matter is mostly Vacuum

        Vacuum dreams a Universe
          but the Universe is mostly Ether

            Ether dreams Galaxies
              but a Galaxy is mostly Space

                Space dreams Solar Systems
                  but a Solar system is mostly Sky

                    Sky dreams Celestial Bodies
                        but a Celestial Body is mostly Hollow

                          Hollowness dreams Beings
                            but a Being is mostly Empty

                              Emptiness dreams Consciousness
                                but Consciousness is mostly Sleep

                                  Sleep dreams Wakefulness
                                    but Wakefulness is mostly Irrational

                                      Irrationality dreams Knowledge
                                        but Knowledge is mostly Chaos

                                          Chaos dreams Existence
                                            but Existence is mostly Nothing

Nothing dreams Everything
before it is ready to awake25

ZEND BORGES 2 250          Considering the literary kinship of Borges and Zend, their friendship and mutual esteem is not surprising. Just as at the age of eight, Zend had the youthful enthusiasm and temerity to call on Frigyes Karinthy, his literary idol, many years later he didn’t hesitate to fly thousands of miles to meet a writer whose work resonated with his own. He realized that Borges’ fiction could serve as inspiration, and indeed, the spirit of Borges’ can be seen in Zend’s fantastical work that blossomed in the stories, poems, and artworks of Daymares, a good portion of which were written following his meeting with Borges.
          To conclude this section, Zend’s typescape Awakening seems apropos as a cul-de-lampe (fig. 7).

Next Installment — Part 10.
International Affinities: France (Marceau)

Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 8. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren, Glenn Gould


Part 8. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren,
and Glenn Gould

                                                            Robert Zend the Nomad
                                                            gazing in like an acrobat
                                                            at the window in the sky.
                                                                      ——Robert Sward
          This installment will conclude the sections on Zend’s Canadian affinities. The next ones will look at some significant international collaborations, notably with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and French mime artist Marcel Marceau. I’ll also show some Italian connections, such as his interest in experimental playwright Luigi Pirandello and cynical poet Giacomo Leopardi. And I’ll demonstrate the influence on Zend of Belgian artist René Magritte as well as Japanese traditions such as haiku and origami.
          But first . . .

The Three Knights of a Roberthood:
Priest, Sward, Zend

          During the 1980s, Zend participated in a remarkable collaboration with two Canadian poets who were also fellow immigrants: Robert Sward, an American poet from Chicago who lived in Canada from 1969 to 1985, and Robert Priest, a British poet who moved to Canada. Picking up on their admiration for one another’s poetry and the fact of their identical first names, they began performing together in poetry reading tours, calling themselves “The Three Roberts.” They also published a series of poetry anthologies of their work in themed collections: Premiere Performance, On Love, and On Childhood (fig. 1).


          Sward and Priest performed their poetry together at CBC radio, where they met Zend. Sward recalls that Zend’s cosmopolitan outlook drew them together and inspired them. He relates that the sense of humour and playfulness of their personalities and poetry allowed them to play off one another during their performances and to serve as muses to each other.1
          Each of the Roberts has a recognizable voice: Sward often writes from a personal and familial perspective steeped in his Jewish heritage; Priest’s poetry exhibits a zany sense of humour and the influence of popular British music such as the Beatles; and Zend explores the personal and fantastical with a cosmic vision. There is a warm accessibility to the work of the three that creates a coherence in their anthologies that, as Sward observed, placed them a bit outside the mainstream of Canadian poetry during that time.
          Below (figs. 2 and 3) are a photograph of the three looking rather like a jolly barbership trip, and a set of silhouettes created by Zend to commemorate their friendship.


          One of Robert Sward’s poems in Premiere Performance captures the spirit of good humour, rapport, and mutual inspiration of the “Roberts . . . / Robertness . . . / Three Knights of a Roberthood.” The following is an excerpt:

Robert Zend phones Robert
Sward. Ring, ring.
“Robert, this is Robert.”

“Is this Robert?” “This
is Robert, Robert.” “Yes,
Robert?” I say, “This

“is Robert, too.” “Ah,
excuse me, I need
to find a match,”

says Robert Zend putting
down the telephone
and rummaging for matches . . .
. . .
Zend translates serious things
into funny things
and funny things

into serious things.
He also translates himself
into other people, and

other people into himself —
and where does one of us end
and the other begin?

And where does Zend begin
and where do I zend?
I mean, end?

And what about Robert Priest?
Is he a visible man?
An invisible man?

Or the man who broke out of the letter X?
Is he a spaceman in disguise?
A blue pyramid? A golden trumpet?

A chocolate lawnmower?
An inexhaustible flower?
Or a reader who escaped

from some interstellar library?
Rock Musician in residence
at the University of the Moon?

And meanwhile Robert Zend
looks into his mirror
and sees not Zend

But Chicago-born Uncle Dog;
Half a Life’s History;
Mr. Amnesia; Mr. Movies; Left to Right;

Mr. Transmigration of the Soul;
The poet as wanderer;
A forty-nine-year-old human violin . . .

Robert Zend the Nomad
gazing in like an acrobat
at the window in the sky.2

Their first performance, at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto in January 1984, was reviewed by Sheila Wawanash of Shades Magazine, a punk rock magazine:

[Their] poetry reading . . . was especially fine (by which I mean fun). . . . Three voices — and quite different kinds of approaches — broke up hieratic monotonies in “poetry” “readings,” while their (rough) conjugation of themes circled round and took off. Of course, it helps that they are all worthy poets and readers and much else besides; in their concluding, separate sections/performances, Priest sang some of his songs (which survived a solo acoustic rendition) and Zend showed the slides illustrating his long and abiding obsession with “action word” doodles, some of which were remarkably funny and beautiful.3

          Although their collaboration was cut short by Zend’s untimely death in 1985, while they were together they formed a vibrant part of the Canadian poetry scene. And the sympathetic vibrations among the three during their performances and in their three anthologies is testament to their creative rapport and close friendship.

Norman McLaren: Musical Geometry

          I cannot end the installment on Canadian influences and affinities without at least a mention of Zend’s admiration for the experimental films of Norman McLaren. Zend, who had worked in film in both Hungary and Canada, was fascinated by McLaren’s artistic and sometimes abstractly geometric animated films. Zend’s Linelife, a work that I featured in Part 1, most obviously shows Zend’s interest in McLaren’s avant-garde animations. As well, Zend dedicated to McLaren “The Three Sons (a fable of geometry),” involving the progeny of “Father Circle and Mother Circle.” The admiration was mutual: McLaren called Zend “a sorcerer par excellence.”
          Zend’s experimentation with geometrical animation was brief and not sustained. However, the little gem of Linelife is one piece in the overall picture that I wish to build of Robert Zend’s openness to many different influences. Indeed, this little piece of animation bears an affinity not only with Norman McLaren, but also (as I will show in a later installment) with Marcel Marceau.
          In addition, McLaren played a role as a kind of tutelary spirit in Zend’s development of his typescapes. In his creative essay “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story,” he imagines McLaren as a guiding force, encouraging him to overcome difficulties in his struggles to “tame” the typewriter. After some trial and error, Zend becomes frustrated:

I remember taking a coffee break. While sipping coffee and smoking my cigarette, I sulked: “Why do I have to make mistake after mistake?” Then suddenly Norman McLaren’s face leapt into my mind’s eye. I saw him bending over a “mistake” on a piece of film, with a loving smile on his face. What was this? I’d never seen Norman working with film, where did this memory come from? Then I knew. Last summer, I made a radio series consisting of 5 programs in which Norman not only spoke about his life, but every night a guest speaker talked about Norman’s art. The last of these speakers was NFB executive producer Tom Daly who gave a beautiful talk about the various worlds Norman had created in each of his animated shorts. Among other things, he said that whenever Norman made a mistake, he wasn’t angry, as people usually are, but that he contemplated the mistake and tried to take advantage of it so that many times a small mistake became the source of a great innovation.4

Zend had the epiphany that like McLaren, he could use his mistake to his advantage. He experimented by superimposing characters to create an almost infinite variety of textures, each with “a different soul” (fig. 4):


With this revelation, inspired by McLaren’s process, he went on to produce, in a feverish and concentrated period of creative energy, scores of typescapes whose hallmark is their subtle and overlapping textures with delicate shadings.

A Glenn Gould Scherzo:
Where to Put the Zend?

          An admirer of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Zend dedicated his poem “Symphonie Fantastique” to him; one of his doodles below (fig. 5) also pays tribute to Gould. His esteem was reciprocated: Gould called Zend “unquestionably Canada’s most musical poet.”5
          And to conclude my installment on Zend’s Canadian lineage, I’d like to quote Gould’s homage to Zend in the following humorous quandary about the resistance of Zend’s work to categorization. Zend was not quintessentially Hungarian or Canadian or any other nationality. As Gould suggests, Zend is akin to many, yet he also “stands alone.”

If I were a gallery curator, Robert Zend would pose a problem.

          “Where do you want the stuff to hang, boss,” my assistant would ask, “in with the Mondrians, maybe?”
          “No, I don’t think so—the sense of line is similar, but there’s more sense of humour in Zend—so try wedging them between the Miros and the Klees, and better set up an exhibit of Saul Steinberg in the foyer as a teaser.”

If I were a symphony manager, the problem would be similar.

          “Out of ze question,” Maestro von Zuyderhoffer would declare. “I conduct no Zend before Bruckner, not even mit Webern to raise curtains.”
          “But, maestro, Zend takes the cosmos for a plaything, as does Bruckner, and wrings out of it an epigram, like Webern. However, I suppose we could try him on a chamber concert with early Hindemith, maybe . . .”
          “Ja, besser.”
          “. . . and then, perhaps, Kurt Weill . . .”
          “Viel besser!”
          “. . . and finish off with Satie.”
          “Nein, kein Satie. Zat vun is not knowing secondary dominants, und ze vork of Zend is full of modulation.”
          Ah, well.

But if I were a book publisher, no such problem would exist.

          Robert Zend could stand alone—his cynically witty, abrasively hedonistic, hesitantly compassionate, furtively God-seeking poems could mingle with each other, find their own program-order, and settle among themselves the question of what goes where and how much wall-space will be needed.
          Gee, what an easy life book publishers must have!6

Next Installment — Part 9.
International Affinities: Argentina (Borges)

Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: bpNichol


Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha

          In the last installment, I began my exploration of Robert Zend’s affinities with Canadian cultural figures, starting with Marshall McLuhan. The next two installments will discuss ways in which Zend’s work was transformed through exposure to Canada’s poets and artists. Here I’ll focus on his kinship with avant-garde poets such as bpNichol and the sound poetry group The Four Horsemen, and artist Jiri Ladocha.

Robert Zend and bpNichol

          Among Canadian poets, bpNichol produced a body of work that is most closely akin to that of Zend. Most obviously, both expand their range to include concrete poetry, typewriter art, sound poetry, and multi-genre works. In addition, both weave an intensely social poetic fabric; embrace a processual aesthetic; incorporate metapoetic gestures; exhibit playful, free-spirited qualities; and explore cosmic themes. There are fundamental differences in their work, of course, some of which I will try to address as well.

The Process Is the Message

          Ample evidence points to Zend and Nichol as writers and concrete poets concerned as much with the processual paths leading to thoughts and decisions — both conscious and subconscious — that become a part of the reader’s experience, as they are with the published product. Fortunately, neither was averse to discussing the process and evolution of their work. In Nichol’s case, we have Meanwhile, a generous selection of essays and interviews edited by Roy Miki. And of course the multi-volume The Martyrology itself, which Nichol describes as a “poetic journal,” is a testament to his interest in exploring process. In Zend’s case, works like “The Key” (a story told in footnotes, arising from a collaboration with Borges) and “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story” (a multi-genre essay recounting the evolution of Zend’s typewriter art) demonstrate such an approach. As well, an examination of the documents in the myriad boxes of the Zend fonds allows the researcher to traces interconnecting strands among works and to understand Zend as a writer and artist fascinated with journey as much as destination.
          In an interview with Pierre Coupey and others, Nichol addresses what writers sometimes call “writing on the mind,” or as Nichol explains it, writing that “reflect[s] accurately the processes of the way the mind works”:

I keep going back to this, of how consciousness works. Like in The Martyrology, I would bring in names very briefly, or characters very briefly or faces very briefly. Because it felt to me like that was the way you encountered people in real life. You’re walking down the street, you’re feeling things all the time, you see somebody you meet very casually, you know their name. You might never meet them again, but for that moment they’re there, and that’s all you know about them. Whang — they’re gone. So I let all that stuff into the poem, I let in a bunch of maudlin things because it felt to me that it was all part of the process of moving through something. All those things actually collide with your consciousness, so I left them in. But it makes for a very strange poem.1

In the following example of such “strangeness” from The Martyrology, Nichol writes of spending an evening with poet friends:

                an evening spent with friends —
                bissett, Arlene Lampert, Janine & Robert Zend
                — that list enters the writing again
                like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
                the details of my life dragged into the poem
                in part at least
                immaterial as the leaf
                as any life
                as the fleeting impressions of this cold October night
car slam2

Nichol moves freely and conversationally between naming friends and more metaphysical musings (“immaterial as the leaf / as any life”). He then jolts the reader into consciousness of the materiality of both life and writing with the auditory reality of a “car slam.” This passage also displays Nichol’s famous self-reflexivity, bringing into the writing the act of writing itself (“that list enters the writing again . . . the details of my life dragged into the poem”). The result is a linguistic texture of a life lived, suffused with an awareness of being in the moment, observing details as they happen and jotting them down for later reflecting and shaping (he was not at all averse to revision).
          Zend also embraced a processual aesthetic, and tells of enjoying drafts and sketches as well as the completed work:

Picasso . . . published a huge book containing his sketches for Guernica. For me, turning the pages of this book is [as] interesting and enjoyable as looking at the finished mural itself.3

He was also acutely aware of the ever more reticulated network of cognitive associations over time that lead his work in different directions. His description of the evolution of his typescapes demonstrates that although his brief but remarkably intense period of creation of this typewriter art may seem to have been “spur of the moment,”

the moment on the spur was, in fact, the final eruption of hidden forces boiling and whirling for years under the surface.4

          For Zend, eastern spiritual traditions wisely de-emphasize originary creation:

Artistic creation is often compared to divine creation, but the mystery of the beginning (the tale that God created everything out of nothing and will annihilate everything at the end) is a special note in our Judeo-Christian tradition. According to other — more Eastern, or more ancient, and, perhaps more sensible — traditions, the thing called Nothing doesn’t really exist except in the human mind as a concept; consequently they speak about world ages separated by global catastrophes in which the death of a past age coincides with the birth of a coming age. Thus the concept of creation in the beginning and the end of the world is replaced by that of eternal change.5

          In his customary highly visual style, Zend observes the continual fluctuation between process and product in the evolution of his typescapes, in which

I had succeeded not only in expressing my entangled subconscious
in “finished” type scapes
but I also had kept a clear account of the mysterious “process” of creation
so that one day I could write it down with the most acute clarity, so that it would be just another finished product.
PROCESS 4 235 W6

The triumph of that account, however, is tempered when he describes an inscrutable encounter with his six-year-old daughter and understands that the product is never finished but continues to produce still more threads in the “entangled subconscious”:

PROCESS 5 270 W7

Thus Zend believes that there is never true poetic or artistic completion, but instead an ongoing process of associations between creation and quotidian existence, an attitude shared by Nichol, especially, as we’ve already seen, in The Martyrology.
          While Nichol usually references postmodern linguistic and critical theory to make his point, Zend more typically refers to ideas from world religion and mythology. Although their theoretical approaches diverge, nonetheless they are both swimming in the same avant-garde waters, radically questioning habits and traditions of thought and writing.
          Another difference is that whereas Nichol found in the poetic journal “a logical model upon which to build formally” in The Martyrology, Zend found in dreams the ideal cognitive model for his fractured and shape-shifting narratives of Daymares and some of his poems. For Nichol,

the journal is almost always present as an element in the continuous poem. Its partialness, incompleteness, serialness and, yes, processualness, make it a logical model upon which to build formally. Certainly, in my own work, its use of intimate detail, of private reference & temporally tied specificity, has worked as a formal framework for The Martyrology and for part of what The Martyrology attempts—the building of a life work in which the building of a life is also reflected.8

On the other hand, dreams-worlds and the journeys and digressions of the conscious (and subconscious) mind provided Zend with a model for exploring the strange world in which a mysterious darkness reigns, whose law is

falling-apartness instead of coherent concentration; obscurity instead of distinctness; spaciousness instead of linearity; dispersion, instead of fusion; overlapping, instead of separateness; indefinity, instead of expictness; womb-like roundness, instead of erect angularity.9

Each chose a different paradigm — Nichol the journal and Zend the dream — but their explorations of the mysterious movements of consciousness as multi-layered and meandering are on parallel (if non-linear) tracks.

Parties and Gossip

          Another point of convergence between the poetry of Zend and Nichol is that it is often intensely social, as the above passage by Nichol remembering a party with friends demonstrates. For Nichol, such naming was part of bringing lived experience into the process of writing, as in a journal. He also stresses that “one of my intents in naming, on a first name basis, people encountered in the course of the text [is] to recreate that . . . parallel emotional experience . . . as part of the reading experience.” Mentioning proper names is “part of the gesture of story-telling,” to “locate the narrative in a moment of reality. That was their entire function.” Using proper names is also

a deliberate confrontational device, an attack, if you like, on naïve notions of biographical and psychological criticism, since “David” is many Davids and the “I” is more than a biographical gesture.10

          In a similar way, Zend’s poetry is often laced with social interactions — autobiographical or semi-autobiographical — as in a poem in which he and twenty-five co-workers (“at the dreadful place where the supervisors / imagine themselves prison guards”) construct a fantasy room complete with carpet, bookshelves, flowers, and a record player, where partying and love-making help them to escape the soul-numbing workday.11
          One of his most striking “naming” poems is “Prelude and Fugue,” which involves a complex web of gossip surrounding a poem of Zend’s. Here are the first two stanzas:

I wrote a poem to A(mbrosios),
I read it to B(elinda),
Then gave it to A(mbrosios)
Who showed it to C(ameleon)
Who mentioned it to D(olores).

I didn’t really like what I’d written about A(mbrosios),
But B(elinda) wept when I read it aloud),
That’s why I gave it to A(mbrosios) because B(elinda) wept.
C(ameleon) liked the content but didn’t like the form
and told this to D(olores) who didn’t read my poem at all. 12

Despite the alphabetic naming, which tends to generalize persons almost to the point of anonymity (or at least fictiveness), I view such instances in Zend more as an apparatus of story-telling than a postmodern attack on notions of individual biography. Nonetheless, it’s clear that both he and Nichol share, along with many other poets of their time such as New York poets Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, a desire to incorporate interactions with their network of friends into their poetry, bringing elements of the personal, narrative, and lived experience into the texture of the poems.
          Zend brought a social dimension to his concrete poetry as well, especially in a series of “portraits” in hand-written Hungarian, as in “Vera” (fig. 1). I can’t comment on the Hungarian but only admire the ingenuity of the shapes and guess as to the kinds of characteristics they suggest.

VERA 300 W


          The excerpt from Nichol’s Martyrology above includes a metapoetic gesture in his incorporation of the process of writing into the poem:

                — that list enters the writing again
                like a leaf picked up on the shoe & tracked in
                the details of my life dragged into the poem
                in part at least13

Another example from The Martyrology shows Nichol addressing writing to a different effect, that is, not self-reflexively to announce the incorporation of lived details into the poem, but to meditate on such non-transparent use of language:

this is a voice speaking
reflecting in reflection

metaphorically the page is a window

it’s not

i try writing on the glass &
the ink won’t hold
the mind won’t hold
writing i try in the dream &

this is a pen moving on paper

metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper


memory trace

place to place &
a poem because of it
part of poem this time
not always the case14

Nichol’s metapoetic “reflecting in reflection” arises from the desire to critique assumptions about the transparency of signification: the transparency of glass, the window-on-the-world that is text assuming its role in transparently conveying meaning. Such transparency will not absorb ink, will not draw attention to itself as a writing surface to bring into awareness its own material presence; nor will it allow language to reveal its own incompleteness and semantic slipperiness. As Nichol says in ABC: The Aleph Beth Book,


For Nichol, the autonomous poem, oblivious to itself as created artifact, constitutes an artificial separation of poem and poet, whereas the “artifice” of self-reflection liberates and breathes life into the poem.
          Zend’s poems also often describe the act of writing, as in the following short poem, which opens his first book, From Zero to One:

Someone writes with me
his fingers clutch my waist
he holds me tight leads me on
holds me tight again

The poem done he drops me
I feel diminished
and with surprise I read
the part of me he wore away16

Here, Zend’s metapoetry functions differently from Nichol’s. Whereas Nichol critiques language as a transparent conveyor of signification and incorporates the act of writing into the poetry, Zend dramatizes the illusion of the writing subject as autonomous, intentional author, by imagining the poet taking the role of the writing implement, and some other force wielding him to write the poem. In this respect, Zend’s metapoetics seems more related to Spicer’s notion of the poet not as a consciously created self with an autonomous voice, but instead a conduit for language channeled from some other source.
          Zend’s most significant metapoetic exploration, of course, is Oāb, in which each character in turn writes into existence his own two-dimensional child, who then attempts to stretch beyond the limitations of his world of ink on paper. We can see a similar kind of metanarrative at work as in the short poem above: the otherness of the writing subject, unaware (at least in the beginning) that he may be being written by another.
          In the excerpt below from Oāb, Zėnd (a semi-autobiographical character in Zend’s creation myth — note the diacritical mark on the name — contemplates the constraints of the world of his son, Oāb, compared to his own more expansive perspective:

His cosmos is one of my galaxies
his galaxy is one of my planets
his planet is one of my poems
he lives alone on it17

But Oāb, the filial creation of Zėnd, wonders what lies outside those limits:

What is beyond the four
edges of this paper?
Another paper? And beyond that?
Another and another and another?
How many sheets of paper
lie beside each other?
How many sheets of paper
are contained in what?
And what lies after
the last one, on the other edge?18

If on one level Oāb is Zėnd’s textual progeny, then the perceived limitation of the paper’s range signals the circumscription of authorial perspective as well as that of the signification of the created text. Oāb’s yearning to expand his world and become more autonomous alarms Zėnd (again, the character), who in his hubris would like to think he possesses and controls his writing.
          Oāb and The Martyrology both contain so many metapoetic passages that one can practically point on a random page and find such reflexive gestures — indeed, self-reflexivity is part of the fabric of each work: writing that self-consciously creates worlds as it proceeds, commenting along the way on that act of creation.
          bpNichol’s self-referentiality in The Martyrology occurs within the personal and meditative framework of journal writing, traditionally a genre in which the writer meditates on events, but not usually the event of writing itself. Nichol continually shatters the mimetic illusion in a convergence of writing and life, and a blending of poetry and critical theory.
          Zend’s fundamentally metanarrative premise in Oāb, on the other hand, arises more from his dramatic playing out of authorial creation and intention. The multi-layered drama of Oāb also alludes to other contexts of creation: biblical and generational. Although the name “Zėnd” suggests a semi-autobiographical character (as do many of Zend’s poems and stories), the work as a whole has a mythic or allegorical quality, and the reflexivity of Oāb serves to explore questions of authorial desire and illusion within that framework.
          Of course, metapoetry and metanarrative were very common during that period of concentrated experimentation in poetry and fiction (not to menton their occurences throughout the history of literature). Nonetheless, I find it instructive to compare the self-reflexivity of these major multi-genre works by Zend and Nichol — contemporaries who lived in the same city and who were certainly aware of each other’s work, even if they were not close friends — for their differences in approach as much as for their similarities.

Typewriter Art

          During the 1960s, Nichol began experimenting with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In the end, he produced more handwritten concrete poetry than typewriter art. Zend, on the other hand, produced about as much concrete poetry as typewriter art, the latter during an extremely concentrated period of feverish creation. It’s interesting to recount Nichol’s and Zend’s stories of coming to their visual work without much influence from predecessors, as well as to note the many points of similarity in their work in each genre.
          Nichol relates that he came to concrete poetry and typewriter art with few examples and no clear idea of the history of such work. In the early 60s, he was studying the Dadaists and the visual poetry of Kenneth Patchen. Addressing this relative isolation, he states that

There were hardly any examples; I had nothing that I could actually look at. The whole problem with what is known as “avant-garde” literature in the 20th century . . . is that it’s like we’re dealing with amnesia; we’ve got this repressed tradition so that . . . when you start writing this way, you end up regurgitating a lot of what’s already been done because you can’t get your hands on the stuff. So you literally have to make your own way. In a way I made my own way, so that when I look at some stuff I can say, as some reviewers have said, “Hey that was done in Berlin in 1981”; I look at it and say “Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921.”19

NONOSISI          Similarly, Zend tells that he came to typewriter art with no knowledge of precedents. By 1978, he had already produced a body of work in the category of concrete poetry, and was approached by John Jessop to contribute to the International Anthology of Concrete Poetry he was editing. Jessop selected forty, some of which needed to be re-typed or translated from the Hungarian original.
          Zend, famously a procrastinator, didn’t complete the work on time but instead began to create new concrete poetry. At first, he typed lines of repeated words onto paper, cut them into shapes, and glued them onto paper on which he had typed another word repeated in lines — see fig. 2 for this kind of early experiment with the yin and yand symbols. Then he had an idea:

I could get rid of the glue by using a sheet of paper as a “negative” and placing it on another sheet, the “positive.” I typed across the holes of the negative onto the positive.20

He found that this method “gave a much more 3-dimensional look . . . than the former glued version.”
          He then discovered the range of textures he could create by superimposing various typed characters. Through a series of trial and error, he finally succeeded in creating polished and complex works. Fig. 3 shows the process from sketch to finished typescape, which looks rather abstract but is actually a “stylized representation of the almost invisible fine lines on the silvery crust of a sea shell”:


My low-resolution reproduction does not convey a faithful sense of the delicacy of the textures, so I’ve cropped a portion of the finished typescape to show a detail (fig. 4):


The differing weights of the question marks forming the overlaid shape suggest that he varied the pressure applied to certain typed characters to give the effect of shading.
          Nichol relates that his typewriter art evolved from visual and verbal puns, such as the following minimalist poem:


Nichol dubbed “warbled” and other more visually complex poems such as “ASEA” (fig. 5) his “ideo-pomes.”

ASEA 250

          At a certain point, Nichol decided not to continue with typewriter art, preferring to draw his concrete poetry by hand, citing the

more direct connection with the body—I’m actually shaping the individual letters with my hand . . . . The form is moving into my body—it’s moving into my own musculature—it’s like an intimate involvement with the architecture of the single letter.22

          However, some of the work that he did produce in this genre shows him and Zend thinking in a similar vein about overlapping forms, as a comparison of Nichol’s “precarious poem” and Zend’s Peapoteacock reveals (figs. 6 and 7).


          A key difference in their typewriter art is that while Nichol brings linguistic and conceptual play to the fore, Zend emphasizes the aesthetic and symbolic, using typed characters to create varied and delicate textures that form emblematic images, as in Uriburus; or that create visual or verbal puns, as in Peapoteacock, a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock; and Sexerpentormentor, an image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Nichol’s typewriter poems most often must be read to be appreciated; their typed shapes add to the plurality of meanings that arise from the fragmentation and recombination of letters and words.

Concrete Poetry


          As early as 1963, Zend was beginning to experiment with spacial configuration in his poetry, adding visual movement complementing the meaning, as in “Dragonfly” (fig. 8). bpNichol also produced a number of such poems that take the shape (or suggest the movement) of an object or experience, as in “sunthrutreespassing” (fig. 9).


Nichol created a number of such concrete poems in which the letters and words more or less mimetically reproduce some feature of the object they spell out. Zend created (quite literally) hundreds of them to illustrate the play-learning of Oāb and Ïrdu in Oāb.
          As we have seen above, Zend also created a series of portraits as concrete poems, sometimes drawing the small letters to form lines and shapes, as in “Erzsi” (fig. 10), and sometimes typing them, as in “Judith” (fig. 11) (see also “Vera,” fig. 1).



In most of these concrete poems, the words and letters are as important as the shapes in contributing to the effectiveness of the portrayal.
          In such portraits, Zend’s concrete poetry has a social component, whereas most of Nichol’s work in this genre tends to be (as far as I can tell) almost exclusively metapoetic, conceptual or representational. Zend’s concrete poetry that he created as a result of his friendship with mime artist Marcel Marceau, as well as that which created under the influence of Japanese traditions, will be explored in later installations on international influences and affinities.
          Zend’s most prolific and sustained contribution to concrete poetry is contained within the two volumes of Oāb. Until this work, most of his concrete poetry is mimetic on some level — imitative of a person or thing, or else creating textures for a more or less representational work. In Oāb, however, the concrete poetry is interwoven with the dramatic metanarrative.
BPNICHOL 2 250          Both Zend and Nichol delighted in alphabet games, including the creation of artificial alphabets and strange fonts. Zend’s playful use of the alphabet in the visual poetry of Oāb is related to Nichol’s concrete poetry experimentations using the letters of the alphabet, giving sculptural materiality and playful drama to the irreducible components of language. Fig. 12 is an example of Nichol using comic-book-like frames, riffing on the letter “A.” Fig. 13 shows images from three pages in Oāb, in which names and letters personify the characters they represent, playing out various dramas in Zend’s myth of authorial creation—sometimes also using comic-book frames for the parade of Oāb and Ïrdu’s games.

OAB 3 4 6 250

          Zend also shared bp Nichol’s interest in the calendar, specifically with the naming of months, in his concrete poem “The Months of the Super Year” (fig. 14), which is part of a “super-calendar” for humans to track time if we ever populate a “super-universe”:


A comparison of this work with Nichol’s “Calendar” (fig. 15) shows a similar structure but a different kind of fragmentation in the names of months:


While there is no evidence of mutual influence in Zend’s and Nichol’s rendering of the calendar months, it is worth noting that both were experimenting with language in related ways, taking apart the names of the months and arranging them in such a way as to reveal something about the nature of mutability and expanded temporality. Where Nichol’s approach to the months is fragmentary, Zend’s is recombinatoric.

Sound Poetry

ZENDOCHALAND CREATION OF WORLD 270          Another dimension to Zend’s multi-genre explorations is his sound poetry. In addition to composing and performing his own, sometimes in collaboration with others, Zend also performed on at least one occasion, according to Janine Zend, with The Four Horsemen, the sound poetry group to which bpNichol belonged along with Steve McCaffery, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Paul Dutton.23
        Zend was no doubt influenced by the explosion of Canadian sound poetry during the 1960s and 1970s in his unfinished manuscript of sound poems from 1979, Zendocha-land (fig. 16), which was to be collaborative effort with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha. He proposed to Ladocha twelve to sixteen “poem-paintings” to be presented in a dynamic relationship with the art. Fig. 16 shows a draft for the sound poem in that collection about “the creation of the world,” which arises “from nothing: H / from breath / H / ether becomes air becomes water becomes solid ever denser / new vowels are born / new consonants are born” and new “combinations develop.” The trajectory of the sound poem follows that of creation and destruction: “Life appears on the back of cold rock planets . . . but when the creation reaches its peak / the end begins / the machine runs down” and all is once more nothing, “where it started / long ago.”

Splitting Words

          Nichol and Zend are kindred poets in their linguistic playfulness; both delighted in creating puns and fragmenting words into phonemes and letters. Nichol shares his love of wordplay with Zend, whose puns extend to his typescapes. For example, Zend’s Peapoteacock (see fig. 7 above), a typescape that superimposes images of a teapot and a peacock to form a visual and verbal pun, shows a playful punning that is similar to the Nichol’s delight in verbal inventiveness, as in his most well-known minimalist poem, “Catching Frogs”:

jar din24

The following is a more extended example of word fragmentation, from Nichol’s The Martyrology Book 5:

each street branches in the mind
puns break
                    words fall apart
a shell
sure as hell’s
ash ell
when i let the letters shift sur face
is just a place on which images drift25

Compare this with an excerpt from Zend’s “Ars Poetica”:

There are poets who insist
that poems can only be written
about glbvx
in the style of iuiu

I think everything
repeat everything
eve and ryth and ing
also yreve and gniht
evth and ryng and tyrev too
can be poetry26

Steve McCaffery points out in an interview with Nichol that

In your playful destruction and reassemblage of words, the subject and its relation to meaning become a prime issue. If a reader can get beyond a distanced appreciation of (or irritation at) the display of wit in these pun productions, then a radically different subject emerges and one not predicated upon the orthodox logic of the sign. A subject deprived of unity and circulating as a textual effect among the verbal fission and the shattered syntax of the language.27

McCaffery’s observations about fracturing in relation to both poem and reader also relates to Zend. In their word-splitting, both poets are expanding the possibilities of language, and the string of fragmented words and recombined letters seems to unmoor words from their meanings so that when “the letters shift,” “sur face / is just a place on which im ages drift.” Depth of meaning (and thus the mimetic effect of language in which poems must be “about”) is transformed to a surface of drifting images, and this “too / can be poetry.” A different kind of reading is involved, one in which expectations of linearity and completion must be relinquished to appreciate the text. Such language does not merely fade into the background while a more or less straightforward signification plays out on a stage, but comes to the fore, compelling the reader to contemplate the materiality of language and to reflect on the slipperiness of its signification.

Inner Child

          Northrop Frye wrote that “Robert Zend never forgot that every creative act was first and foremost an act of free play.”28 Both Nichol and Zend have been described as taking a childlike delight in their manipulations of language and visual poetry. In a poem from about 1979, Zend writes admiringly of his seven-year-old daughter Natalie at play, and expresses the desire to “change the Earth into a gigantic playground / instead of the battlefield that it was made into / by our common enemies, the grownups.”29 Zend, who as a young man had written and published for children in Hungary, must have felt an affinity for the playful spirit of experimentation in the work of avant-garde Canadian poets such as Nichol, and in his adopted language he was constantly experimenting with wordplay and puns, as in a series entitled “Silly Rhymes,” perhaps created to amuse his daughter Natalie:


When you come to Winnipeg,
I’ll show you my guinea-pig.


I will catch you!
Better fly!30

Perhaps some day Zend’s early and popular publications for children written in Hungary under his pen name, “Peeker,” will come to light. Such verses above likely came naturally to him as he explored and delighted in the possibilities of English. Nichol also wrote for children, including the beautifully illustrated On the Merry-Go-Round; an excerpt from the title poem is reproduced below (fig. 17):


Cosmic Scale

          Lastly, Nichol’s and Zend’s poetry shares a preoccupation with cosmic themes and images, which often play out dramas of infinity and cyclical processes of life and death. Zend’s concrete poem “Scope” (fig. 18) is a thought experiment illustrating the interplay between micro- and macrocosmic scales, in which the the pupil of the human eye serves as an image of both the tiny and the vast:


In a similar way, the following poem by Nichol from The Martyrology imagines a dizzying and continually broadening span of time and space in relation to human lives, which “flare briefly” and vanish:

here on the galaxy’s edge we live out our lives in ignorance

the distance to the dawn bridge grows infinitesimally longer
our lifetimes flare briefly and are gone

highways stretch from the big bang outward
cycle back to our beginning31

Comparing Nichol’s excerpt with the one below by Zend, from a poem entitled from “More and More,” it’s clear that they were both fascinated by space and time on a cosmic scale:

Hasn’t the universe been exploding long enough?
No, not long enough. More.
Death. And what can follow death? More.
Should we buy a second house? More.
After our world tour, should we travel again? More.
When this poem is finished, should I write another? More.
The sun orders us: More. From the core of the galaxy of galaxies
a telegram comes to ours
which is forwarded down to earth
and when we read it, it says: More.32

The excerpt by Nichol relates cyclical processes on a grand scale to those on a human scale, whereas the excerpt by Zend relates the two to offer a compelling vision of infinity to the point of ennui, accompanied by the relentless refrain “More.”

In the Air

        A case could be made for Zend’s kinship with other contemporaneous Canadian poets who were experimenting linguistically and visually with the aesthetic approaches mentioned above. After all, bpNichol was not the only Canadian poet exploring typewriter and other concrete poetry and performing sound poetry; as Janine Zend points out, such things were “in the air” during the sixties and seventies. Zend befriended many Canadian poets, attended their readings, collected their books, and dedicated poems to them. Focusing the above comparison on bpNichol shows many points of convergence, and extrapolated to a wider community within Canada would reveal a matrix of themes and processes that Zend was aware of and drew upon for inspiration in his own work.

Next Installment — Part 8.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren,
and Glenn Gould

Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 2. Dissolving Labels and Boundaries


Part 2. Dissolving Labels and Boundaries

Being a poet does not depend on the geographical location of the poet’s body, or on the political system under which the publisher functions, but on the linguistic and literary value of the poems.1 —Robert Zend

          Robert Zend (1929–1985) was a Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. As a young man of twenty-seven, he escaped his native Budapest during the 1956 failed Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule and immigrated to Canada as a political refugee. He settled in Toronto, where he lived until his death in 1985. So nationality-wise, his life was divided into two parts: childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in Hungary; and the rest of his life in Canada.
          According to the convention of hyphenating nationality, Zend was indeed Hungarian-Canadian. However, considering his profound distrust of labels, the classification might have seemed an attempt to delimit him as a poet and human being. Because of his cosmopolitan outlook, I’ve come to think of him as a citizen of a realm expanded and enriched by his own generous sense of a borderless community of kindred poetic minds. And it is this generosity in his international affinities and aesthetic vision that I hope to develop in this essay.
          It could be said that Zend had a somewhat conflicted relationship with nationality. Arriving in Canada as a political refugee, he celebrated the freedoms that had not been available to him in Soviet-controlled Hungary. And as an exile, he explored themes of alienation, loneliness, loss, and nostalgia for his native country — not unusual for immigrant writers.
          On the other hand, having survived war-torn Europe, where totalitarianism and zealous nationalism had fostered a culture of xenophobia, racism, and hatred, and having seen the cruelties inflicted by the Nazi and then Soviet rule in Hungary, he understood all too well the catastrophic consequences of labeling people. He developed a distrust of boundaries, be they political, social, or aesthetic.
          During World War II, more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews died as a result of the Nazi regime.2 And the Soviet Union, for all its propaganda of unity and egalitarianism, often used xenophobic fears to control the population, and under Stalin promoted an antisemitic campaign of murder and persecution.3 As well, many thousands of Hungarians labeled as “imperialist enemies” of the state were imprisoned, deported to forced labour camps, tortured, and executed, to say nothing of the more than 2,500 Hungarians killed during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.4 Zend’s experiences of these brutal regimes provided cautionary models of zealous nationalism and racial paranoia and hatred.
          One of Zend’s most poignant statements about labelling is in a speech for a panel on exile at the 1981 International Writer’s Congress. He speaks of totalitarian governments coming to power in Europe during the 1930s, which “began simplifying and polarizing the labelling of people”:

All labels — whether they were dignifying or humiliating — were meted out to certain groups, not because they did something good or evil, not because they deserved a reward or a punishment . . . but merely for circumstances beyond their control . . . like having been born into a rich or a poor family, into an Aryan or a Jewish family.5

From his experience of that catastrophic era in European history, Zend had developed a strong conviction of

the complete senselessness of labelling people according to nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.6

So it’s not surprising that his life’s work dissolves boundaries, and in this essay I will explore three ways in which he did so.
          First, his outlook was international, starting with his high school and university studies of Italian literature and readings of world literature in Hungary. And after Zend’s arrival in Toronto, Zend sought not only Canadian affinities but also artistic and literary friendships and inspiration around the world, perhaps most significantly with Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges but extending to writers, artists, and traditions in other countries such as France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan. Zend, no respecter of cultural boundaries, enthusiastically sought out the literature and art of other nations.
          Indeed, Zend’s first poetry collection, From Zero to One, reveals something of his cosmopolitan openness. He shows his indebtedness to Canadian influences with poems dedicated to Raymond Souster, Marshall McLuhan, Norman McLaren, Glenn Gould, John Robert Colombo, and professors of Italian studies J. A. Molinaro and Beatrice Corrigan. The dedications of other poems demonstrate Zend’s affinities with cultural figures from the United States (Saul Steinberg, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke), France (Marcel Marceau), Belgium (René Magritte), Hungary (science writer Steven Rado, actor Miklós Gábor, and artist Julius Marosán), and ancient Greece (Plato). The title of the book comes from a poetic essay by Frigyes Karinthy, who, as I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming installment, was an important Hungarian literary influence. And the dust jacket bears an exquisite portrait of Zend by French mime artist Marcel Marceau.
          His tributes to writers and artists sometimes takes the form of collaboration, strikingly in the case of Borges and Marceau, and ekphrastic poems, as in his response to the paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte, Hungarian-Canadian artist Marosán, and Spanish-Canadian artist Jerónimo.
          Secondly, his writing thematically dissolves geographical, political, and social boundaries to explore humanity’s place within the cosmos as well as fantastical realms that often involve dreams and time travel. He writes more traditionally about such subjects as romantic relationships and the dilemmas that he faced as an immigrant, but many other works develop philosophical concepts about the connectedness of all persons to one another and to the universe.
          Thirdly, Zend was a polymath, and he used whatever materials were at hand to create works that are multi-genre and multi-media. During his twenty-nine years in Canada he wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and plays; created collages and concrete poetry; used found objects such as cardboard tubes for creating three-dimensional visual poetry; and researched, wrote, directed, and produced over a hundred cultural documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). He was also a musician, filmmaker, and self-described “inveterate doodler.”7 A multi-media artist and chess player, he designed a chess set to be presented by the CBC to Marceau during his 1970 visit to Canada.8 And some of his works defy classification, such as the two-volume multi-genre Oāb (1983, 1985).
          Zend’s cosmopolitan attitude is rooted in childhood and early adulthood experiences that nurtured in him an openness to cultural influences regardless of national boundaries. For Zend, love of city, region, or homeland, or of the culture associated with those places, is accompanied not so much by feelings of pride as by the desire to seek out affinities with writers and artists without regard (as he puts it) to “nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.”

Coming Up . . .

          The next two installments of my essay will highlight some major events in Zend’s life, giving biographical context to what follows, as well as offer an overview of his published works.
          The last installments will be devoted to the heart of my endeavour, in which I trace some of Zend’s literary affinities and influences, with special emphasis on his roots in Hungary, his transplanted roots in Canada, and his alliances with writers, artists, and cultural traditions worldwide, with particular emphasis on Argentina, France, Italy, Japan, and Belgium. And in some of the samples from his writing, you’ll see some of his cosmic and fantastical concerns. As well, I’ll reveal ways in which his visual work crosses boundaries of genre and discipline.

A Note about Cosmopolitanism

          My use of the term “cosmopolitanism” refers to a historically situated discussion in Canadian culture that came to the fore during the 1940s. The debate between the proponents of a national, nativist literature and the advocates for a more cosmopolitan view intensified when A. J. M. Smith threw down the gauntlet in favour of the latter in his 1943 anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry. Post-World War II, this debate defined two overarching trends in Canadian poetry criticism: the desire for a national literature rooted in autochthonous themes and imagery, versus a more cosmopolitan spirit of poetry aware of currents of thought in international modernism and embracing their influence. While it is not my purpose to enter into a detailed theoretical and historical explanation of these trends, I wish to set the stage for the strong view of nationalism that gained steam with the aftermath of the Massey Commission since the 1950s, as this is the historical period that Robert Zend entered when he immigrated to Canada in 1956. My use of the term “cosmopolitan” to describe Zend’s cultural outlook does not in any way denigrate regionalism or nativism in content or aesthetic approach (or imply that Zend did so); neither does it suggest that Zend, as a political refugee from Hungary, did not admire and absorb lessons from the literature and art produced within Canadian borders. I hope to demonstrate in my analysis quite the contrary.

Next Installment: Part 3.
Hungary: Childhood and Early Adulthood

Camille Martin

Majlis Multidisciplinary Arts: “Figure of Speech” concert photos

Here are some photos of our multidisciplinary concert
on Saturday, August 29. The performers, in order of
appearance in the photos:


Hallie Fishel-Verrette
John Edwards

Camille Martin
Gauri Vanarase


For my musings on the collaborative experience, please see
yesterday’s post.


Hallie and John performing their setting of “this is the tune
that paper sang” (one of my “nursery rhyme” sonnets, based on
“This is the house that Jack built”):

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

<font face="Times New Roman" size="+.5" color="#302226">Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie</font>

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


My solo reading:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Hallie and I performing a “shadowing” setting of
“if you are somewhere.” I read and Hallie “shadowed”
me by singing the same words:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Gauri performing “Folia d’Italiana,” accompanied by
Hallie and John on guitars:

Photo: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Hallie, John, and I performing “Does It Take” (Gauri also
performed in this piece). Hallie hummed and John played
guitar while I read, and Hallie sang the last part of the poem;
Gauri performed a haunting interpretation of the poem:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Gauri performing “Folia d’españa”:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie


Curtain call with Gauri’s red ribbon and heart balloon:

Photos by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photos by: Cameron Ogilvie


Mingmar, multidisciplinary muse:

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie

Photo by: Cameron Ogilvie



Camille Martin

The Majlis Collaborative Experience

The Majlis “Figure of Speech” multidisciplinary experience was intense and rewarding. Tricia Postle, the organizer of the series, selected the members of our motley crew, which consisted of Gauri Vanarase, a kathak/modern dancer; Hallie Fishel-Verrette, a soprano and Baroque guitarist; John Edwards, also a Baroque guitarist; and myself, a far left field experimental poet. The point of such groupings is to throw together people from various disciplines and see what emerges from their collaboration. They gather for a series of rehearsals and then perform a concert on two evenings. Although some of the collaborations are expected to be designed as structured improvisations, our group, according to Tricia, was one of the most rehearsed ones.

The performance facility was rustic but warm. Tricia converted what I think used to be a woodworking factory into a performance area. She opened up one side of the building to create a stage, and stretched a large canvas from the roof to a nearby fence to cover the outdoors seating area. It was a nice surprise to find, just down the path between the stage and the restroom, a peach tree full of large ripe peaches.

In rehearsals I worked mostly with Hallie and John, who make up the Renaissance/Baroque duo The Musicians in Ordinary. To get things started before the first rehearsal, I emailed Hallie and John several of my poems that I thought would work well set to music: sonnets inspired by nursery rhymes and my “Poor Souls” sonnet series. I tried to select poems that were based on repetitions of various kinds or at least phrases of a fairly uniform length. And John emailed me samples of some Baroque styles that might work well for turning my poems into songs. At our first rehearsal, Hallie and John had already worked out several song settings of some of my poems and ended up performing five at the concert: “sixpence,” “if all the seas,” and “this is the tune,” “poor souls 1” and “poor souls 3.”

The blend of the poems and Baroque settings with a continuo-type guitar part worked out well. The continuo guitar part provided the structure of a repeated harmonic progression, which is very typical of Baroque composition. John’s repeated harmony gave the composition coherence and also provided opportunities for Hallie to improvise embellishments on the melody based on that harmony.

After that first rehearsal, I remembered having set a Dylan Thomas poem, “We lying by seasand,” to a capella soprano a long time ago, longer than I’d like to admit, as a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music. So I downloaded a music notation program and wrote the melody as best I could remember it. I thought, ok, I wrote this, maybe I can set some of my poems to music.

I knew that for the Majlis concert it would be good to have some pieces that I could perform with Hallie and John in various combinations, so I wrote a “shadowing” piece to perform with Hallie, based on my poem “if you are somewhere.” I’d speak a phrase or sentence, and a half a second later, Hallie would shadow my spoken words with the same words sung to a melody that I had composed. I’d seen this kind of collaboration improvised at a poetry reading in New Orleans to great effect. In performance, it worked out beautifully between Hallie and me.

Hallie and I also performed an “echo” piece based on my double sonnet “where you are when you,” which consists of a series of—I can’t believe I still remember the rhetorical term—aposiopeses, sentences that break off mid-stream. I’d start one phrase and a half-second later, Hallie would echo the same phrase. After we got the hang of the rhythm of the echo effect and the breaking off of the incomplete sentences so that they seemed to end suspended in mid-air, the echoing was very effective in performance.

I composed another collaborative piece in which John accompanied Hallie, who hummed a melody in a series of four-bar phrases. During each four bars, I spoke a sentence or phrase of my sonnet “does it take.” Hallie sang the last two lines of the poem. For the performance, Gauri joined this piece and improvised movements that beautifully expressed the sad nostalgia of the poem.

I wrote three song settings of my poems for Hallie and John to perform: “sometimes i write about cats,” “comatose in paradise,” and “dear perpetrator,” of which they performed the first two for the concert. I had never written for guitar, so there was some guesswork in my notation, but John gamely arranged them for his instrument. It was very moving to hear these songs performed—I got to experience what composers must feel like hearing their works in concert. In performance, the realization of the songs was better than I had imagined them in my mind’s ear as I was writing them. I felt as though I’d returned to an old friend, music, after my piano playing had lain fallow for so many years.

Gauri based one of her dances, which we nicknamed “the hat dance,” on a poem that has a line about putting a new ribbon on a hat. She attached a long red ribbon to a hat and used it to great effect in her dance, which seemed to address the inner conflict and restlessness of the speaker of the poem. The photos that I will soon post show some of the highlights of her choreography.

This collaborative experience allowed me to perform with others, which added one or more layers to what I normally do in a solo reading. But it’s more than just adding layers—it is learning to listen carefully to the phrasing, articulation, inflection, and tone of others to try to mesh your own part with something that is larger than just the sum of the two or three layers of the collaboration: the spoken, the sung, and the strummed. The players become a single creature that just happens to have three voices. And when Gauri joined Hallie, John, and me in “does it take,” it was apparent that she was very aware of what was being spoken and sung so that her improvisation would harmonize with the sounds of the others in the group

The collaboration sounded very classical and traditional in its realization, nothing, for example, like a performance of poet Bruce Andrews and dancer Sally Silvers. In the beginning I had tried to get a little avant-garde action going, but in reality, the collaboration needed to grow from the strengths of each person, and part of the process is finding out what those strengths are and how willing each person is to try things that lie a little beyond their usual practice. At first, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about setting my poems to Baroque music, but I was very pleasantly surprised at the first rehearsal, on hearing Hallie and John’s rendition of two of my sonnets, to find that the blend sounded natural, even inevitable. I’m delighted that Tricia brought the members of our group together, and I couldn’t be happier with the results of our collaboration, which stretched my usual practice at poetry readings and pushed me to take risks and try new approaches to making poetry happen.

Soon I’ll post some photos from the concert, taken by Cameron Ogilvie, and Tricia will post video clips from last night’s performance, for which I’ll provide the link.

Camille Martin

Majlis Multidisciplinary Arts: Figure of Speech




What do you get when you cross edgy poetry with Renaissance music? Find out at “Figure of Speech,” a collaborative performance of poetry, dance, and music.

I’m incredibly honoured to be performing with Gauri Vanarese, a dancer, and John Edwards and Hallie Fishel-Verrette, musicians in the Renaissance and Baroque music duo, The Musicians in Ordinary, in an evening of artistic collaboration organized by Tricia Postle.

Hallie and John have composed settings for several of my sonnets, using traditional musical forms of the 16th and 17th centuries. Some of these sonnets were inspired by English nursery rhymes, and when I heard Hallie and John perform them at a recent rehearsal, the poetry and music sounded to my ears like a perfect blend.

And for the occasion I also set several of my poems to music, which John, Hallie, and I will perform in various combinations.

In addition, Hallie and John will accompany dancer Gauri Vanarese in two of her beautiful and evocative choreographed pieces.

It will be a memorable evening. Please come!



Camille Martin