Tag Archives: Robert Priest

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

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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).

THREE BOOKS 505

          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.

THREE ROBERTS X 2 500

          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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

[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:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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):

TEXTURES 7

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.”

QUOTATION MARKS 7

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

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Robert Zend – Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan

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Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980)

Introduction:
Multiculturalism before Multiculturalism

          In the last installment, “Hungarian Literary Roots,” I traced some of Zend’s foundational influences in his native Hungary. In this section, I’d like to investigate the corresponding Canadian “cross-pollination”: writers and artists who inspired in Zend new aesthetic explorations. The 1960s saw an explosion of experimentation in the arts as well as paradigm-shifting ideas (to use Thomas Kuhn’s term) in cultural theory. Many of these would likely have been banned in Communist Hungary as decadent or counter-revolutionary. In his adopted country of Canada, Zend was free to delve into these new trends, to which he responded with a spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.
          I’m describing the influence of Canadian cultural figures on Zend as cross-pollination, for although his inalienable roots were in Hungarian traditions, his poetry and art that emerged since the 1960s blended aspects of both. His penchant for humour, mythology, and the fantastical, inherited from his Hungarian lineage, merged with ground-breaking Canadian ideas such as Marshall McLuhan’s theories on media culture and bpNichol’s avant-garde mixed-genre poetics. Knowing Zend’s delight in creating hybrid words like “peapoteacock,” I like to think he might have called such a hybrid of Magyar and Canadian influences something like “Magyanadian.”
          As this essay took shape, I’ve been continually reminded of the illusory nature of unified national culture in my description of literary lineage. Zend’s Hungarian influences included traditions from populations that immigrated to Hungary (as we’ve seen from the Budapest joke, which also provided a creative wellspring for Zend’s “spiritual father,” Karinthy), as well as poetry and novels from around the world, thanks to translations of world literature into Hungarian (including Zend’s own translations of Italian poetry). Similarly, Zend’s Canadian associates were often writers and artists who, like him, immigrated to Canada from other countries, such as poet Mary Melfi (Italy) and artist Jiri Ladocha (Czechoslovakia).
          In this respect, Zend’s work in Canada embodies a multicultural spirit — not only by virtue of his country of origin. His was among the crescendo of immigrant voices that eventually led to Canada’s official embracing of multiculturalism as a defining national feature in 1988 with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
          Although lineage can be documented, in reality the entangled network of influences is much more mysterious. Impossible complexity notwithstanding, what follows is an attempt to point out some Canadian cultural figures who had a transformative effect on Zend’s development as a writer and artist.
          And the most striking transformation of his work is due to the influence of the Canadian avant-garde. Although all of Zend’s early poems written in Hungary were lost to the chaos of the Hungarian Revolution, his earlier poems written in Canada in Hungarian, some of them unpublished, are likely a continuation of poems in a humorous and fantastical vein, sometimes with logical twists. Others are impressionistic, sometimes exploring dream states, more in the vein of Miklós Radnóti’s lyricism than Frigyes Karinthy’s modernist satire and science fiction.
          It is possible that Zend was influenced in Hungary by avant-garde culture, which most likely would have come from his knowledge of 1920s Russian constructivism. Janine Zend astutely points out that some of the concrete poetry in Oāb is reminiscent of such visual art. Certainly the work to which he gravitated in Hungary was influenced by European international modernism as opposed to traditional lyricism and narrative. However, I think it’s fair to say that his exposure to the Canadian avant-garde was transformative to his work, in ways that can be traced to specific influences.
          Among Canadian writers, Zend’s work is most closely related to the formally innovative writers of the 1960s and onward, such as the TISH poets of UBC Vancouver, including Lionel Kearns; other experimental poets such as bpNichol and Steve McCaffery; his fellow poets named “Robert” in a performing and publishing group called The Three Roberts (Priest, Sward, and Zend), and media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
          The following correspondences do not, of course, fully explore the breadth of Zend’s Canadian aesthetic affinities, and I’m no doubt omitting some important ones. Perhaps someone will take this topic as an opportunity to write a more developed analysis.

Marshall McLuhan, Lionel Kearns,
and Norman T. White’s Hearsay Project

          Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist who wrote about the effects of media and electronic communications on society, was a frequent guest speaker at the CBC, where Zend worked as a producer. Zend was obviously fascinated by his ideas; some of his works were written under the sign of McLuhan, such as the following short one in a series entitled “Tissues:”

QUOTATION MARKS 7

The time will come
when there will be no time
only electronic circuits
and I will remember
what the dead have forgotten
what the unborn have planned1

In a futuristic world in which brains are replaced by electronic circuits, time, memory, and desire will have collapsed into a static omniscience in which every thought — past, present, and future — is always already immortalized. In such a world, total knowledge paradoxically becomes oblivion, a vacuous nothing (in human terms), since it is no longer parsed by the meaning-producing processes of remembering, forgetting, and planning. Birth, growth, change, and death would be equally meaningless. In a few linguistic strokes, Zend captures the essence of the age of electronic information, and we don’t have to exchange brain cells for circuitry to experience the effects of a culture increasingly reliant on electronic information storage.
          A closely related work is “The Message,” which Zend dedicates to McLuhan:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

          The messenger arrived out of breath. The dancers stopped their pirouettes, the torches lighting the palace walls flickered for a moment, the hubbub at the banquet table died down, a roasted pig’s knuckle froze in mid-air in a nobleman’s fingers, a general behind the pillar stopped fingering the bosom of the maid of honour.
          “Well, what is it, man?” asked the King, rising regally from his chair. “Where did you come from? Who sent you? What is the news?” Then, after a moment, “Are you waiting for a reply? Speak up, man!”
          Still short of breath, the messenger pulled himself together. He looked the King in the eye and gasped: “Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.”2

“The Message” is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “An Imperial Message,” in which the dying emperor’s words, whispered to a messenger, never reaches its intended receiver, who nonetheless daydreams about the message’s content.3
          Zend’s parable tells the reverse tale of a messenger approaching the king, whose expectations are thwarted by the runner’s denial of the role of messenger and thus the very existence of a message. The messenger-who-is-not-a-messenger is himself the message—which is simply the fact of his enjoyment of running. The king, like a good consumer of messages, has failed to comprehend the significance of the medium of that message.
          In 1985, electronic media experimenter Norman T. White honored Zend several months after his death by using “The Message” for The Hearsay Project (fig. 1), a conceptual electronic art happening that took place in a span of twenty-four hours from November 11 to 12.

HEARSAY PROJECT

The story, minus the title, dedication, and author, was sent in succession to various countries around the world, in which each translator passed their rendition on to the next translator, in the manner of the children’s game of telephone, also known as hearsay. White reports that Zend’s “widow, Janine, was on hand to hit the ‘return’ key which sent the message on its way around the world,” from Toronto to Des Moines, Sydney, Tokyo, Vienna, Newport, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and back to Toronto. En route, “The Message” was translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, Welsh, Hungarian, and finally back into English. Not only was the text of the story transformed by the successive translations, but also the process “preserve[d] . . . the text distortions generated by typographical errors and by telephone-line ‘noise.’”4
          The following is a comparison of the messenger’s last words in Zend’s story and the end result of The Hearsay Project:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.

QUOTATION MARKS 7

YOUR MAJESTY, THERE IS NO NEED FOR AN ANSWER. AFTER ALL, NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. NO ONE SENT ME. I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING.

If the media of language and electronic transmission are the message, then the vaguaries and fallibility of those media are rendered transparent in this conceptual game. And the final words, “I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING,” seem oddly apropos and fortuitous, for to rise above all is perhaps also to become less visible as a medium to consumers of messages.
          Such theoretical concerns were emerging themes among TISH poets such as Lionel Kearns, who shares Zend’s fascination with the ideas of McLuhan: Kearns’ book of poetry By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface (1969) explores the ironies and paradoxes arising from mass media fallout on society.5 A prime example of Kearns’ preoccupation with media is “A Collage Education,” which “exposes television’s ironic juxtaposition of African-American poverty and pharmaceutical painkillers. . . . Kearns’ engagement with media culture also infuses poems of postcolonial irony, as in ‘Bleeding,’ in which Mexican Day of the Dead ceremonies are marred by arrogantly voyeuristic tourists and the intrusion of travelogue filmmakers.”7
          In other poems, such as “Medium,” Kearns more directly pays tribute to McLuhan:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Once I’d be filling up poems
with outrageous images
                    and impossible ideas
just to keep track of them
and let you know I’m here

Now I give you only
silence and blank paper
but this too
                    is a kind of message7

KEARNS BIRTH OF GOD  130 W          One of the most striking (and most widely anthologized) works from By the Light of the Silvery McLune is the concrete poem “The Birth of God” (fig. 2), which Kearns calls “a mathematical mandela embodying the perfect creative/destructive principle of the mutual interpenetration and balanced interdependence of opposites.” In its creation of an image of the binary from characters that denote the binary system, it might well also be an homage to McLuhan.
          An interesting counterpart to Kearns’ depiction of binaries is Zend’s Espanto (fig. 3), which creates the yin and yang symbol in Daoism using the Spanish words “no” and “si.” While I would not say that this work was directly influenced by McLuhan, it’s possible that the spirit of Kearns’ “Birth of God” was in the back of his mind when he created Espanto, which was, by the way, Zend’s first venturing into the kind of typewriter art exemplified in his collection Arbormundi.

YIN YANG 350

          Kearns, White, and Zend responded creatively to McLuhan’s theories of media communications. And in this section I have confined myself to poems that effectively transpose McLuhan’s theories into descriptive, allegorical, or concrete-poetic form. But McLuhan famously upheld modernist and avant-garde poetry as an exemplary manifestation of changes in the nature of communication through their juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, disruption of syntax, and disjunctive narrative, as he relates in a 1969 interview:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of processes of cognition and creation.7

          It’s beyond the scope of my present project even to begin to document such vast and complex territory, which is being explored by such communications scholars as Darren Wershler and Richard Cavell. So I will close by simply pointing out that in a similar way that bpNichol, Zend, and many other poets of their time were drawing attention to the medium and materiality of language through disjunctiveness and fragmentation, poets and New Media artists such as Kearns, White, and Zend were exploring ways to make visible the media and effects of mass communication, which despite (or because of) its pervasiveness tend to fade into background noise.

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


Camille Martin

Robert Zend (1929-1985): Poet without Borders – Preface with Portraits

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Preface with Portraits

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All images of work by Robert Zend are copyright © Janine Zend, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend. Family photographs are reproduced with permission from Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori.

     Welcome to Robert Zend: Poet without Borders, my illustrated exploration of the life and work of the Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. The slide show above consists of photographs from Zend’s family and creative life as well as artistic portraits and self-portraits.
      This project is the result of several months of research, interviews, and writing. It has become very dear to me, and I hope that you will enjoy the results. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post installments, including biographical sections about Zend’s life in Hungary and Canada, and sections about his Hungarian literary roots, Canadian cross-pollination, and international affinities and influences.
      I’ve had the pleasure and honour of speaking with members of the Zend family (Janine Zend, Natalie Zend, and Ibi Gabori) and of viewing texts, artworks, and other artifacts and memorabilia in the private collection of Janine Zend, for which I offer my deepest gratitude. I’ve also had the opportunity to research the extensive Zend fonds at the University of Toronto Library’s Media Commons. I’d like to thank curators Rachel Beattie and Brock Silversides, who had to put up with many a yelp of joy as I found such priceless artifacts as a photograph of Zend playing chess with the great French mime artist Marcel Marceau — on a chess set of Zend’s own design. These conversations and experiences have greatly enriched my understanding of the life, mind, and work of Robert Zend, for which I am very grateful.
     As I worked on this project, I became acutely aware of my limitation of not knowing the Hungarian language. There are works by Zend in Hungarian that are as yet untranslated into English, and many documents in the Zend fonds that are written only in Hungarian. Nonetheless, I am fortunate that so much was either written by Zend in English or translated into English by him, often with the assistance of John Robert Colombo and others. I sincerely apologize in advance for any errors or omissions in what follows, and encourage correspondence from anyone with greater knowledge on the subject than I. If what I have written stimulates interest in Zend’s life and work, then I will consider my primary goal to have been accomplished.
     The next installment, which will appear on this blog in a few days, will feature the premiere of Linelife, a previously unpublished visual work by Zend to be presented in digitalized form as a short animated film.

If you’d like to receive notification of these installments on Robert Zend, please use the email subscription feature to the upper right. And please kindly spread the word to anyone who might be interested. Your comments and feedback are most welcome.

LINELIFE DIVISION

Next Installment: Part 1.
Linelife: Premiere
of a Rediscovered Treasure


LINELIFE DIVISION

Acknowledgements

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 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


Camille Martin