The April 1 opening of TEXTual ARTivity, a visual poetry exhibition at The Human Bean coffee shop in Cobourg, Ontario, featured readings by poets in attendance. Wally Keeler, one of the organizers, was good enough to videotape and upload the readings to YouTube.
Below is my reading, in which I present Robert Zend’s exhibited typescape, “Peapoteacock” and read “My Most Beautiful Poems,” from Zend’s book From Zero to One:
PS TEXTual ARTivity will continue as an annual event in Cobourg, and that’s great news!
Vispo Exhibit in Cobourg, Ontario:
Location: The Human Bean Coffee Shop Duration: April 2014 Opening reception: April 1, 7:30 pm, with special guest Bill Bissett
I continue to be amazed at what a dedicated group of poets can do to put their town — Cobourg, Ontario, about an hour east of Toronto — on the poetry map in a big way. The Poetry in Cobourg Spaces committee (Ted Amsden, Wally Keeler, Katriona Dean, and James Pickersgill) came up with the brilliant idea to host TEXTual ARTivity, a visual poetry exhibition during National Poetry Month at The Human Bean, a coffeehouse in downtown Cobourg. The list of participants includes Canadian and American visual poets, some active since the 1960s.
The exibition will feature one of my ransom note collages (shown in the image below) as well as work by many others:
Angela Rawlings, Derek Beaulieu, Robert Zend, Bill Bissett, Helen Hajnoczky, Lindsay Cahill, Mark Laliberte, Jenny Sampirisi, Eric Schmaltz, Angela Szczepaniak, Gregory Betts & Neil Hennessy, Pearl Pirie, Eric Winter, Jessica Smith, Ted Amsden, Sharon Harris, Cliff Bell-Smith, Mary McKenzie, Wally Keeler, Katriona Dean, Gary Barwin, Judith Copithorne, michael j. casteels, Alixandra Bamford, Em Lawrence and Dan Waber
Click the image below for a generous article about the exhibit by Cecilia Nasmith in Northumberland Today: Zendophiles will be interested to know that Robert Zend’s typescape Peapoteacock will be on exhibit:
Robert Zend, who is legendary in the field, will be represented by a playful piece his widow supplied, in which his words form intertwining pictures of a peacock and a teapot.
Part 13. Gaskets, Thumbtacks,
Toilet Paper Rolls . . .
Robert Zend dissolved boundaries, or perhaps more accurately, ignored them. The preceding eight installments demonstrated two ways in which he did so: his international outlook and his exploration of humanity’s place within the cosmos.
In this last substantive installment, I’d like to show a third way. To create his visual art, Zend used technologies that were available to him, including the typewriter and computer. He also used whatever materials were at hand, including automotive gaskets, thumbtacks, and toilet paper rolls. Zend was also a prolific doodler, drawing his casual sketches (some quite intricate) on everything from Post-It notes to cocktail napkins.
I hope that you enjoy this visual feast of works by an extraordinary Canadian writer and artist. I think it’s fair to say that many of these have not been seen publicly for a very long time, possibly not since his death almost thirty years ago. The time is overdue for these visual works to reach a broader audience.
The display of works here is made possible by the kind permission of Janine Zend, who generously allowed me to view, photograph, and (in the case of the toiletters) video them.
The first time I was invited to the Zend home, in October 2013, Janine led me to the dining room table, where there was a box full of cardboard toilet paper rolls on which Robert Zend had drawn poems and designs. In his usual punning humour, he called these found objects “toiletters.” He created scores of these, also drawing on tape rolls, paper towel rolls, and mailing tubes. If it was cardboard and tubular, he drew on it. I knew that he was aesthetically versatile, but these took the notion to a new level. I immediately loved them.
After the arrival that afternoon of Janine and Robert’s daughter, Natalie, the two showed me upstairs, where they searched around for more such objets trouvés. In a closet they found a long mailing tube on which Zend had written a poem spiraling from bottom to top.
Spontaneously, Natalie began reading the poem while she and I slowly rotated the tube. It was a poignant moment, and I was mesmerized. I can only describe the poem as a spiritual crescendo, and as Natalie reached the top of the tube, it seemed all but inevitable that the poem would end on the word “god” or some such epiphany. Suddenly her voice halted, for the cardboard where the last word should have been had been roughly torn off. It looked as though the word had been gnawed off by a rodent. Then it hit me that the tear wasn’t caused by a mouse; it was classic Zend humour, building up anticipation and then thwarting it, in this case with silence at the height of an expected revelation.
His choice of found object, the humble cardboard tube, rings true in the context of his writing and other visual works. The toiletters bespeak an absurdist (and scatalogical) sense of humour and a love of doodling. And he was drawn to the circularity of the tubes as he was drawn to themes involving cyclical processes of creation and destruction as well as images of the uroboros. On reflection, the ultimate household throwaway seems a natural canvas for Zend.
I selected a few toiletters to give an idea of their variety and filmed them on a turntable (Fig. 1).
In a series of collages, Zend traced shapes with automotive gaskets, or “gasquettes” as he dubbed them in tongue-in-cheek eloquent French. More mundanely, he describes the objects as “automatic transmission valve-body separator gaskets . . . courtesy of Gabriel Nagy of Low Cost Automatic Transmissions, Ltd., Toronto.”1 Using these little machine parts as templates, he created highly stylized works such as the following two works in the Gasquette series (figs. 2 and 3):
The Humble Thumbtack
Zend found inspiration in quotidian objects like thumbtacks, pushpins, and string to create multi-media works such as Windmill (fig. 4), which manages to be simultaneously playful and haunting:
The three paper collages below (figs. 5, 6, and 7) show a range of Zend’s stylistic approaches in this medium. The lively motion and rhythm in these works have a musical effect, perhaps owing something to his background as a pianist:
Typewriter and Computer Art:
Typescapes and the Polinear Series
Scattered throughout this essay you’ve seen examples of Zend’s remarkable “typescapes,” such as “Stormelancholix” from Arbormundi (fig. 8):
In this installment I’d also like to present examples of different approaches he took to typewriter art. Oāb is full of playful experimentation with typed characters to illustrate the two-dimensional characters Oāb and Ïrdu exploring the possibilities of their world of paper and ink, as in “ÏRDU IMITATES THE SNAKE, OĀB THE PREY” (fig. 9):
and the following representation of the four creature-creators of Zend’s generational fantasy:
Zend was fortunate to live at a time when computer programs were being developed that allowed artists to take advantage of the possibilities of digital technology. Using such software, he created delicate works of parallel lines and concentric patterns, as in Polinear No. 3 (fig. 11):
An overview of Zend’s visual works would not be complete without a gallery of his doodles. I knew that Zend was a compulsive and prolific doodler, but it was not until I began researching his fonds that I began to understand the sheer number and scope of these off-the-cuff scribblings. His restless creative energy spilled over onto any paper product in sight, be it party napkin, doctor’s tablet, Post-It note, manila folder, or toilet paper roll — all were an invitation to play. If he ran out of paper, he would doodle on the back of a drawing he just made. Thirty-five years later, I was finding these little drawings scattered throughout the scores of boxes in the Zend fonds. Who says research has to be dull?
The doodles are by turns humorous, beautiful, erotic, abstract, and punning, and often a hybrid such as comic-erotic. He took especial delight in caricatures and intricate monograms. Sometimes his sketches turned into ideas for typescapes or other works, and sometimes they seem to be outlines for longer visual sequences. In the punning category, he created a collection of visual/verbal puns entitled How Do Yoo Doodle?, which he produced as coloured slides.
Zend was a paper hoarder – the wastebasket was his enemy. Janine points out that this may have been a reaction to having lost everything, including all of his poetry, during his escape from Hungary in 1956. How fortunate that after that loss he saved every scrap, and that after his death Janine took great care in archiving all of his papers, from the gorgeous and labour-intensive typescapes to the humblest scratchings on an envelope.
The following gallery contains a sampling that I gleaned from the Zend fonds as well as a selection from How Do Yoo Doodle?
Behold Zend’s doodles, like sparks flying from a creative mind that never seemed to rest.
You can hover your cursor over the image for pause, reverse, and forward buttons.
I was excited today to discover the visual art of Gail Tarantino through three works in the December 2008 issue of Cricket Online Review. Her bio tells of her “not-so-secret desire to be literary” in her work, and her weaving of “compressed narratives and distilled description” with the “rhythmic and musical aspects of language.” Like artists such as Ann Hamilton, there is a conceptual sophistication in the way that Tarantino uses language in her work. Interestingly, both have used Braille. For the 1989 Venice Biennale, Hamilton rendered Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: the United States (1885-1915) into Braille in an installation entitled Myein. On a much smaller scale, Tarantino’s One Act in Cricket features a sentence in Braille:
Gail Tarantino, One Act
In order to understand the interplay among the images in the three horizontal fields, it is necessary to decipher the Braille, something that I at first resisted. But my curiosity prevailed and I arranged the work on my screen next to a Braille alphabet and proceeded to decipher the sentence, letter by letter, yielding the following:
a spoon worked most effectively
when he discovered the bumps
an act of retaliation
As I progressed, the act of decoding it became easier, due to my increasing familiarity with the configuration of dots and the fact that after a few letters, guesswork came into play. A long word beginning with “effe . . .” can be guessed pretty accurately. But the slowness of my reading made me aware of how much take reading for granted, in a similar way that I take eating with a spoon for granted. Mulling over each letter in Braille slowed down the process. My brain, racing ahead of my slogging pace, was thinking of various possibilities, leading me to make incorrect assumptions a couple of times. I was taking too long to think about the text, so my mind was impatiently filling in the gaps in an effort to understand.
After deciphering the words, I realized that my effort was roughly analogous to a child learning to eat with a spoon: both are, as the title suggests, “one act.” This analogy is supported by the echoing of the shape of the Braille’s background colour, which is reminiscent of a spoon.
Tarantino compels viewers who do not know Braille to experience the unfamiliarity of the text and the opacity of its meaning until we decipher it, letter by letter. And in the act of doing so, we become conscious of the configurations of dots in each letter, recalling our original experience learning to read as a child, tracing the shape of each letter, as well as discovering the shape and usefulness of a spoon. Our reward is discovering something about writing as medium for communication, its thingy existence, as opposed to it being a system endowed with inherent meaning.
Significantly, the understanding of the Braille sentence is crucial to speculating on the meaning of the middle and top portions of the work. The middle portion consists of a series of spoons, one rather flat, like a knife, and the others in the familiar rounded concave shape.
The top half of One Act consists of scores of what look like little bowls. Some are missing, so that the pattern echoes the Braille in the bottom half. They are also different colours, resembling perhaps little pots of paint or perhaps bowls of soup, or food in the concave part of the spoon, the reward of the savvy child.
The question arises as to why Tarantino would describe the act of learning as on of retaliation, assuming that I am understanding the Braille sentence correctly. Retaliation requires first an act to retaliate against, so it seems plausible to assume that “he’ is retaliating against the opaque meaning of the spoon’s shape prior to his figuring it out, an opaqueness that strikes him as an act of hostility, which he counters by learning the usefulness of the spoon’s “bump.”
Carrying over the ideas in the message to the analogy of learning to read, the Braille sentence might suggest the concept of violence in the act of understanding. This idea is expressed in a set of conceptual metaphors in English, such as “to attack (or tackle, or surmount) the problem,” “to struggle with the meaning of something,” and “to fight ignorance.” These all suggest that understanding is a process of overcoming that which we don’t at first apprehend: the child “overcomes” the spoon’s unintelligibility; the uninitiated tackle the illegibility of Braille. And that violence is a retaliation against the violence of opacity, of being faced with something that is (at first) illegible.
Derrida’s theories on the violence of writing come to mind here, of writing regulating meaning, inscription as prohibition, law, circumscription. Before we deciphered the Braille, its meaning was opaque to us; it shunned our desire to understand it. Thus it might appear that Tarantino is turning the tables on the idea of violence inherent in writing, for the text (or the spoon) do their violence by remaining unintelligible, and the reader retaliates by learning and understanding. The violence of the reader is not the same as the violence of writing, for in Tarantino’s work, the reader’s violence is against illegibility. And meaning, interpretation, writing, and learning are not inherently acts of violence.
I may be overreaching in my musings here, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this is the only way of approaching this work. As One Act implies, there can be many different rewards to learning how to use a spoon, as the many bowls of soup in different colours attests, and by extension many different ways to understand a text.
In any case, I sense an acute intelligence at work in Tarantino’s work. It grapples with (to continue the conceptual metaphor) questions of representation, writing, legibility, and meaning in a condensed yet open-ended work. Did I mention that it’s also beautiful?
I highly recommend her website, where many of her works can be found: