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Posts from the ‘Poetry’ Category

Found – Midway on Life’s Journey


This is the last of my trio of posts on recent books that consist of found or appropriated texts and photographs. Elisabeth Tonnard’s In this Dark Wood (J and L Books, 2013) pairs ninety different translations of the opening tercet from Dante’s Inferno with a similar number of photographs from the archive of Joseph Selle, housed at the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester NY. Elisabeth Tonnard is Dutch-based artist and poet who has made a number of artist’s books that often fuse existing texts and photographs. The Man of the Crowd (2102), for example, combined photographs of a man walking through Paris with a reworked version of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “A Man of the Crowd,”while other books have payed playful homage to several of of Ed Ruscha’s classic artist’s books.

Selle was a commercial street photographer who worked in San Francisco from the 1930s into the 1970s, leaving behind more than a million negatives. In her preface, Tonnard writes of researching the Selle archive:

While I was looking at this material, it struck me that at nighttime a higher percentage were walking alone than in the daytime. These figures also had a certain look on their faces as if their eyes were seeing something else than their actual surroundings. This alienation made me think of them as souls lost in the dark woods of the city, all speaking the words of the first lines of Dante’s Inferno…

This project is also a peculiar sort of homage to the voices of the translators. 


The pairing of Selle’s photographs with Dante is brilliant. In Selle’s night photographs, lone pedestrians, carrying bags and packages and purses, appear against a blaze of neon commercial signs, often movie marquees.  Several partially visible movie titles can be seen looming over the heads of the passersby, including ones that read “Trouble in the Sky,” “of the Doomed,” and “Vengeance.”

I’ll bet many Vertigo readers could easily paraphrase their version of the famous opening lines of Dante’s Inferno “from memory,” as it were. My tercet would go like this:

Midway in life’s journey
I awoke and found myself in a dark wood
uncertain which path to take.

As it turns out, my tercet is not one of the ninety versions that already exist. Cunningly, Tonnard withholds the names of the translators until the end of the book, which places all of the versions on a level playing field. We don’t know which are the classic translations by Charles Eliot Norton or John Ciardi or which were done by famous modern poets like Seamus Heaney or Robert Pinsky. For good measure, Tonnard even throws in her own translation. It’s a remarkable experience to read consecutively so many different English-language versions of a mere nineteen words in Italian. Here are just two of the more obscure translations:

While my life was in her middle race,
I found, I wandred in a darksome wood,
The right way lost with mine unstedie pace.

[Sir John Harington]

Midway through our life’s journey, in a wood
Obscure and wild, I found myself astray.

[Thomas William Parsons]



See the previous two posts in this series on Jeff Griffin’s Lost and and Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary

Conversation with Uwe Schütte


Uwe Schütte is a Reader in German at Aston University, where he has taught since 1999. He has a PhD. from the University of East Anglia, where he studied under W.G. Sebald. His new book about the poetry of W.G. Sebald has just been published by Edition Isele in Eggingen, Germany, at the very affordable price of 16 Euros.

Vertigo: Your new book Figurationen is a study of Sebald’s poetical writings. Why did you decide to write about this aspect of Sebald’s work?

Schütte: The book actually came about by chance. For a long while I meant to write an essay on Über das Land und das Wasser (2008), the collection of Sebald’s poetry edited by Sven Meyer, but I never really got round to doing it. Then the opportunity arose to present a paper on Sebald’s poetry at a conference in Cardiff, Wales. I actually couldn’t attend due to illness but nevertheless wrote the essay for inclusion in the conference proceedings volume.

Taking a closer look at the poems, which I had so far only considered to be appendixes to the prose texts, I discovered that they have considerable merits independent of the prose books. In connection with my research, I came across some articles by the Swedish scholar Axel Englund which contained incisive close readings of several poems that stimulated my interest further. Another factor were the often eye-opening explanatory notes provided by Iain Galbraith, the translator and editor of Across the Water and The Land (2011), the English version of the poetry collection.

That in turn led me to also look more closely at the micro poetry written around the time of Austerlitz, which appeared in the collections For Years Now (2001) and Unerzählt (2003), which was published in English as Unrecounted in 2004. I had previously disregarded these small texts as I felt that they seemed too casual in their brevity and also made an odd postscript to Sebald’s œuvre. However, a closer examination of the poems – again – revealed them to be far more meaningful and relevant than initially had assumed.

Having completed the two pieces, I realized that I only needed to add a chapter on Nach der Natur (1988), published in English as After Nature in 2002, to create a book that would cover all aspects of Sebald’s poetical œuvre. Edition Isele was very receptive to the idea of a study on the poetry, so a deal was quickly struck and the book appeared a mere six months after I had started work on the first article.

Vertigo: It’s my impression that Nach der Natur has received more critical attention than Sebald’s other books of poetry – especially the micro poems – in part because it is such an autobiographical book. So let’s talk more about the micro poems and the other late poetry. How do you see the micro poems fitting into Sebald’s oeuvre?  Are they autobiographical in any way?

Schütte: They are autobiographical only in the sense that they display Sebald’s pronounced idiosyncrasy. The micro poems in that sense fit very much into his work for the very reason that they counteract common expectations and public demands. Sebald never really wanted to comply with these. My personal guess is that after Austerlitz he sought to do something completely different. And he did. You have to bear in mind that the very last book published during his lifetime is not the big novel but the “below-the-radar” collaboration with Tess Jaray.

Vertigo: It’s curious that both of these books of micro poems are collaborations with artists. Unerzählt  was done with Sebald’s long-time friend Jan Peter Tripp and For Years Now was done with a British artist, Tess Jaray. Why do you think Sebald wanted to do these books as collaborations?

Schütte: The plan for the collaboration with Tripp actually harked back many years, the pair just never really got round getting it done. At least not during Sebald’s lifetime. Given the importance he placed on the combination of pictures and text it was only a logical step to enter into a collaborative (side) project of this sort. As it turned out then, both books were essentially the product of the respective artists with Sebald only supplying texts – although they are now of course perceived as original Sebald books featuring illustrations by someone else.

Vertigo: Did you interview Tripp or Jaray? If so, what was that like?

Schütte: Tripp (like Sebald) is a digitalophobe. He was terribly difficult to get hold of; I sent postcards that were returned with “addressee unknown” and rang him numerous times, leaving messages, but all to no avail. I got hold of him though after several weeks of trying and we talked on the phone for an hour or so. Jaray was easier. She is on email and responded quickly. I just had to catch the train from Birmingham to London one sunny Saturday in June 2013 to visit her in her new studio in Camden. She was terribly helpful, providing me with lots of highly relevant information on the book. She shared her correspondence with Sebald, too, and I quote from that frequently in the book. Also, she let me have a scan of the autograph of Sebald’s favorite poem that I wanted to have reproduced on the cover of the book. Unfortunately, my publisher decided against that, opting for a rather bland design.

Vertigo: Which poem is that?

Schütte: It’s the one about his beloved grandfather, who died when Sebald was a boy aged 11. This traumatic event, I argue, was the key factor for his melancholic disposition and his obsession with reaching out into the realm of the dead, being far more important than the guilt he felt for the crimes committed by the Nazis. In the German original, the poem just says the smell of the poet’s writing paper reminds him of the smell of woodchips in a coffin. In the English version, Sebald makes the crucial and revealing addition that the coffin he talks about is his granddad’s. To me, it appears as if he needed to write in the foreign language to be able to openly talk about the very origin of his life-long sadness.

The Smell

of my writing paper
puts me in mind
of the woodshavings
in my grandfather’s

[from For Years Now: Poems by W.G. Sebald/Images by Tess Jaray, Short Books, 2001]

Vertigo: What did you discover when you studied the Sebald Archive in Marbach?

Schütte: A truly vast number of unpublished poems, particularly from the nineties! Many of them were – uncharacteristically for Sebald – in a handwriting that was difficult to read. Fortunately, I met a young Sebald scholar from the US called Melissa Etzler who had already researched the vast majority of the poems and showed me her transcriptions, which was very helpful. These days, it is difficult for me to travel to the archive as it is located in a pretty remote and provincial part of South-West Germany – an irony that Sebald would, of course, have liked a lot. So when I finally managed to get to Marbach, the book was nearly completed. Realizing how much unpublished stuff there is, both in English and German, I contemplated abandoning my original book for a while and thought of starting a new one just on the late and unpublished poetry.

Vertigo: In 2011, you published W.G. Sebald : Einführung in Leben und Werk (W.G. Sebald: Introduction to his Life & Works) (Stuttgart: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht). What is the relationship between these two books on Sebald?

Schütte: This general introduction was very much the preparatory exercise for the important project that should finally see the light this year, I hope – a major study of Sebald’s critical writings called Interventionen. Literaturkritik als Widerspruch bei W.G. Sebald (Interventions. Criticism as Contradiction in the Works of W.G. Sebald). It will run to some 700 pages and comprehensively cover the entirety of his non-literary texts. When I wrote the introduction in 2010, I primarily saw it as a way to re-read all prose books and to acquaint myself with the (often pretty dismal) criticism on Sebald; also, I assumed that there would be some sort of commemoration going on around the tenth anniversary of his death in the German papers. Surprisingly, or not, that wasn’t the case. Sebald is truly adored by his readership but still little liked by cultural establishment in Germany. Quite the reverse of the all-encompassing adoration in the Anglophone world. Many important critics as well as highly-regarded writers (such Günter Grass) and a whole bunch of academics have not forgiven him for breaking the cozy consensus by his vitriolic attacks on celebrated figureheads of German post-war literature such as Alfred Andersch, Jurek Becker and others.

I am exploring these and other issues in Interventionen and, to return to your question, I perceive Figurationen very much as a companion volume to the big monograph on the critical writings – both books aim to shed light on neglected areas of Sebald’s œuvre. Don’t forget that he published his first poems in 1964 and his first academic monograph in 1969. Poetry and critical texts, which he then continued to write over the course of nearly four decades, are the background from which his prose texts developed during the comparatively short period he produced his celebrated prose books.

Vertigo: Can we expect more publications by you on Sebald once Interventionen has appeared?

Schütte: I am afraid so. Just as Sebald predicted when I first mentioned that I would like to do a PhD. with him in order to pursue an academic career, the situation of German studies in the UK has much deteriorated, constantly eating away at academic freedom and imposing misguided bureaucratic mechanisms to demonstrate the relevance and so-called “impact” of one’s research. I am under pressure to increasingly publish in English and have already started to work on a contribution to the “Writers and Their Work” series by Northcote Publishers, due to appear later this year or in early 2015. It is not a translation of my German general introduction but rather written from scratch with an English-speaking audience in mind. It will be my fourth book on Sebald in as many years – and I guess I should then declare a moratorium on Sebald research for the time being…

Found – in the Mountain

Coal Mountain Elementary

One of the things that can happen – perhaps uniquely – with poetry that appropriates existing texts is that this repositioning of a text into a poem can also dramatically redirect our understanding of that text back within its original source. Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009) does exactly that. Coal Mountain Elementary is a kind of activist poetry comprised of preexisting texts that have been combined with color photographs by Nowak and British photojournalist Ian Teh.

The book gives us three radically different modes of written discourse on the subject of coal mining: newspaper accounts of mining disasters in China, verbatim testimony from survivors of the deadly January 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, and the American Coal Foundation’s suggested curriculum guide for school children. In addition, we are given two distinct sets of photographs – Nowak’s photographs of American mining towns and Teh’s portraits of Chinese miners and images of miners at work.

It doesn’t take long to figure out the book’s basic game plan. The testimony of the Sago Mine survivors more or less walks us through the day of the disaster in the words of the miners. The newspaper excerpts provide factual and historical background for numerous mine disasters, reminding us (among other things) of the horrible frequency with which these events occur. And the photographs bring us face to face with the miners, the conditions in which they work,and the communities in which they live and die. Unified, these elements weave a deliberately stark contrast with the oversimplified, sugar-coated image of mining offered by the American Coal Foundation. The book is divided into three main sections, each named after an elementary school level lesson plan found on the American Coal Foundation’s website


Students will
1. participate in
a simulated “mining”
of chocolate chips
from cookies,
using play money to purchase
the necessary property,
tools, and labor;
2. understand
the various costs
associated with mining coal,
including environmental remediation,
as demonstrated in the simulation; and
calculate costs and profits
from cookie mining
and relate them to the mining industry.

Needless to say, within the loaded context of Coal Mountain Elementary, the failure of the school lesson plans to make any reference whatsoever to the dangers of mining or the “cost” of death and disability to the miners makes us realize that these innocent-looking “lesson plans” are actually corporate propaganda.

So let’s look beyond the activist message at the very curious type of poetry we have here. As the book begins, we immediately read a newspaper account of a mining disaster in China in which the wife of a dead miner is quoted as saying “I have no language for my feelings…and there’s no way anybody else can understand it.” Throughout Coal Mountain Elementary the quotations from surviving miners and the widows of miners are strikingly subdued in the wake of the horror which has forever changed their lives. The testimonies given by the Sago miners are scattered throughout with phrases like “you know,” as each miner reaches a point in the recalling when he asks the listener to intuitively comprehend what he cannot utter.

And that morning I just – I did actually notice though and I made the comment of an old wive’s tale, you know, what does this mean, this lightning and thunder in January because where I’m from there’s always a – you know, the frogs in certain parts of the year and things like that. But I went to the door and opened the door because it was lightning and thunder carrying on so bad and it was so warm for the second day of January. You know, I asked two or three people, you know, what could this mean, you know. I mean, there’s got to be a tale of some sort, you know.

These transcript excerpts (which can be found in their entirety onlinebecome a poetry of circumvention, of reticence, of talking around the emotional issues. But then, these verbal statements were recorded under highly formal circumstances in the company of state mining officials, attorneys, and other investigators, which undoubtedly inflected the speech of the miners and rescuers. Nevertheless, reading the transcripts chosen by Nowak strictly as a form of discourse, there is something wonderful about the ebb and flow of unedited oral language, the meandering path toward the important point, the abrupt changes in direction, the sudden intense focus. 

Hang in there, we’re going to get you out. And I put myself, my eyes on his hand, and I noticed he had a wedding band on, and I’m thinking about this young man. And I watch his hand all the way out to see if he moved any, and that’s what I did. I was watching to see if I could see any movements. But I did notice his wedding band on his hand. He never did move his hand that I could see.

And, in fact, the miners had developed a code that referred to bodies as “items,” in hopes that anyone listening in on their radio conversations would not immediately realize that there were dead miners.

coal flowers

Likewise, transformed through its new context, the school lesson plans offered by the American Coal Foundation become a poetry of evasion, avoiding the harsh realities of coal mining in favor of a few banal subjects: “coal flowers”( a traditional craft in which pieces of coal are crystallized), “mining” for chocolate chips, and studying the sociology of the small towns that coal companies have provided for their workers.

Coal Mountain MinersUntitled photograph by Ian Teh

Nowak SagoUntitled photography by Mark Nowak

For a book about violent and sudden death, Coal Mountain Elementary is pretty restrained. The few flashes of anger and outrage at the poor wages, terrible working conditions, and repeated safety violations appear mostly in the newspaper journalism. But the impact of the book’s message is not restrained in the least.

See the related posts Found – in the Desert and Found – Midway on Life’s Journey.

Found – in the Desert

Lost and cover

I am queuing up three posts on recent books of “found” poetry and photographs. Each book represents a different approach to re-using extant texts, as well as distinctly different types of photography.

But before I go any further, I want to put in a plug for one of my favorite writers, Marjorie Perloff, and especially for her 2010 book Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (University of Chicago Press). Perloff’s books have long served as an essential guide to the proliferation of poetic forms in the 20th century, and with this book she moves into the 21st century. In Unoriginal Genius she traces the arc of “citational” or intertextual poetry from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a book of poetry that consists entirely of radio traffic reports. “Citational” is a polite academic term, but I am going to stick with “found” as a way of categorizing the texts in these three books, for reasons that will become obvious.

Unoriginal Genius

The first book under consideration is Jeff Griffin’s Lost and (University of Iowa Press, 2013). Here is Griffin’s Preface in its entirety: “The following work I found discarded at various locations around the desert, mostly in abandoned trailers and homesteads, from 2010 to 2013. The pieces are either transcribed verbatim or scanned as is.” What follows are some 150 pages of personal notes, pages from journals, snapshots, letters, poems and stories by children and amateur writers, and other miscellaneous papers left behind or lost in the deserts of California and Nevada. Although the book is divided into five geographical sections indicating the deserts in which materials were found, I tend to view Lost and as a single book-length poem. It opens with the transcription of notebook containing an alphabetically-ordered list of the words and phrases that someone’s pet budgie was capable of speaking. “Where’s the beer, Barbara?” “He’s a bad budgie.” “Give me a kiss Billy Boy!” “Drink it – drink it!” Thus we are immediately confronted with an exquisitely complicated and contradictory image of language as something that can be taught, spoken, written, and sorted into a pidgin dictionary that – to the bird, at least – is totally devoid of meaning. It also sets up the central trope for Lost and – the human need to communicate.

Lost 1

The brutally beautiful deserts of the American West are places of tragedy and despair and visions. For early settlers, they served as one of the Herculean labors that had to be surmounted before reaching the Eden of California and the succor of the Pacific Ocean. As a No-Man’s-Land, the deserts were – and still are, to some extent – unmapped places where one can dream of regeneration, flee civilization or the law, or simply find a harsh solitude. The notes and letters and photograph in Lost and deal with troubled relationships, sex, drugs, alcohol, depression, regret, failure, hope and religion. Many of the written pieces have a tone of desperation. “Estée, I do love and I do want to change for the Better I need you. Love T. P.S. I owe you $20:00.” Here’s the ending of a letter found east of the desert town of Twentynine Palms, California:

…I hope that someday you find true happiness within yourself. But please, for yourself, figure out what it is that you want before you get yourself involved in another situation like this. No one wins. Three of us got in this and that didn’t need to happen.

Oh, just one thing before I go. I want you to know one more time that I’m sorry and that I miss you already. I’ll think about you every day for a long time.

Take care, Lori

P.S. I wasn’t planning on not seeing you again so I borrowed your sweatshirt when I left Saturday night. I woke up and was really cold so I put it on. If you want it back let me know where/when I can drop if off. I would drop it at your apartment when you’re not there but I can’t get in the building.

Just about dead center in the book is a remarkable and rather long document, precisely dated “6:20 P.M. 4/17/96, Wed.” Written by someone who claims to have met Alexander Hamilton at a party in 1950 and to have “corresponded” with Admiral Byrd, it has visionary aspirations almost worthy of William Blake.

we are so brainwashed by all forms of media that our brains are like a clogged-up chimney with black negative thoughts and feelings which have blinded our true understanding and we need a good chimney sweep to blast this nonsense out of our heads and let our hearts pulsate a flame up through our heads and coming to a point above the head just like a match flame and pulsate up on to our Higher Consciousness to literally lift us out of the mess we are in! …I could paint you pictures of how we have been destroying our civilizations by the misuse of just our tetrahedrons. A tetrahedron is the most beautiful and exciting thing you have ever thought of or visualized in its magnificent glory.

The proliferation and variety of actual poems included in Lost and says something about the culturally perceived value of poetic forms. While contemporary poets may struggle for an audience, Lost and is a vivid reminder that the general public frequently shifts into poetic mode for all sorts of reasons. Poetry is widely employed as a powerful structure for communication, even if the outcome might be little more than a silly ditty or an evocation of Hallmark card sentimentality. The poems here are used to mark occasions, elevate emotional intensity, or simply to set certain communications apart from ordinary daily discourse. On occasion, however, some of these outsider poems resonate on a higher level. The book closes with a poem titled “Alone With Out You” a piece of writing that might struggle with grammar and spelling, but which otherwise makes its point with great effect.

Lost 5

The photographs in Lost and are all personal snapshots and thus function rather differently than the written matter. In general, snapshots tend to be only be fully comprehensible to the limited circle of people who have shared knowledge of the people or things or moments depicted. As outsiders, we look at these snapshots of unfamiliar people and often puzzling events largely for their aesthetic values. Our understanding of the content of most snapshots is dramatically different from the insider’s. Thanks to earlier generations of artful photographers like Lisette Model, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand,we have a rich aesthetic construct that encourages us to relish the the accidental and the incidental in photographs – elements the snapshot photographer is likely to overlook entirely. In fact, much of the pleasure of looking at anonymous snapshots lies in being aware of the gulf between our outsider’s reading of the image and the probable view of the insider,in the discordance between what the outsider and the insider see as important and meaningful. In many ways, the snapshot aesthetic actually depends on our not fully understanding  the content.

Lost 2 Lost 3 Lost 4

Taken as a whole, the contents of Lost and add up to a rich, complex, melancholy book. Look for related posts Found – in the Mountain and Found – Midway on Life’s Journey in the weeks to come.

Conversation with Poet Nathan Hoks

Hoks Double page spread

I first encountered the poetry of Nathan Hoks when he read from his new book The Narrow Circle at New Bo Books, located in the hip New Bohemia district of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was intrigued by the poems he read and as he flipped through his book during the reading I was surprised to see images on some of the pages. I bought a copy and started to spend time with it. The more I read the poems and pondered the relationship between his poems and the pages with photographs, the more impressed I was with the individual poems and the thoughtful construction of the book as a whole. In November, I posted a short piece on The Narrow Circle and I emailed Nathan to propose that we conduct a short conversation for Vertigo that would focus on his use of photographs. Here is the result.

Vertigo: First of all, tell us a bit about your intentions for the structure of The Narrow Circle, which is bifurcated into two halves with twenty-two poems each. The first section is labeled The Interior and almost every poem in that section has the word “interior” in the title.  The second section does the same for The Exterior.  How did you arrive at this structure?

Nathan: One summer I simply fell in love with the word “interior.”

Not coincidentally, I was the primary care-taker of my son, thus confined to the domestic interior quite a bit. I was also reading Suzanne Buffam’s wonderful book The Irrationalist, which uses “interior” in a few of its titles. The word possessed a kind of magical spell over me and I found myself not only using it in titles like Buffam, but also orienting my poems in this interior direction. These poems piled up and then I started to worry that I wasn’t being fair to the Exterior. I had no real intent to approach a dichotomy, but I’m a fairly diplomatic person, so I let the Exterior in and the book started to take shape after a lot of back and forth (or in and out)  work. Interior and Exterior became, for me, physical spaces, states of mind, types of experiences, allegorical characters,  and ways of orienting language.

Vertigo: In addition to the forty-four poems, your book contains eight double-page spreads on which you have paired phrases from your poems with photographs.   I notice that these spreads do not have titles and they are not accounted for in the Table of Contents, which seems to make their role somewhat ambiguous. How do these spreads relate to the poems and how do you see their role in the structure of your book?

Nathan: The use of photographs is, in a roundabout way, related to the bifurcated structure of the book. One of my models for working with and corrupting a dichotomy was William Blake, whose poems often coexist with his own visual art. I decided, however, to distance the images from the poems, in part because the poems are not ekphrastic and the images are not merely illustrative. Image and text here are collaborative, but not co-dependent. The pictures, rather, should work as corruption and correspondence, as rifts in the reading process and as routes of potential reference.

Vertigo: When the reader comes to one of these spreads, do you want them to go back to the preceding poems and try to find the place where the quotation came from and think about the poem anew with the photograph in mind?  Or do these spreads stand on their own?

Nathan: Both. I think the spreads can stand alone. The captions, which come from the poems, tag the images and suggest a way of “reading” them, and I very much wanted each spread to have a kind of visual coherence. I wanted the pictures in spreads, in groups of four, in order to provide a bit of relief, a pause in the way that a section break or chapter break does. I hope, too, that they convey a bit of whimsy and lighten the mood (some of the poems seem overly serious to me). However, I hope the spreads also create echoes and provide a visual index of certain motifs. If they do provoke a lot of flipping back and forth for more assiduous readers, that’s great because one of my ideal books would be a book that you can never really finish because linear reading is constantly thwarted by cross-references.

Vertigo: When did you begin to think about employing photographs in some way within the book?

Nathan: They were the last thing I did to the book. I spent roughly three years working on the poems. One of my friends, Chris Hund, read a late version of the manuscript and suggested that, since I was borrowing the contrarian system from Blake, the book might have a visual component, too. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but I started to amass pictures and before I knew it, they became essential to my sense of the book.The stream of images showed me that the book was finished because they formed a fairly coherent visual index. I could see motifs developing, shapes forming, ideas echoing. They were the finishing touch of a composition process.

Vertigo: The list of credits at the back of The Narrow Circle show that the photographs came from a wide variety of sources, including photographs that you took yourself.  How did you select images and how did you pair them up with the text phrases? Which came first: the image or the line of poetry?

Nathan: Most of the images come from various public domain resources, such as the Wikicommons. The photos I took myself were actually recreations of images I couldn’t get the rights to. The language always came first in this process. I chose images that I felt intervened with, complimented, or distorted the poems and their systems of reference in interesting ways.

Vertigo: Did you have any models in mind for the way you wanted to use photographs in your book of poetry?  Were there any particular books or authors that employed photographs that you had studied or found useful as you thought about The Narrow Circle?

Nathan: I’ve mentioned Blake, who was more of an inspiration than a model. I’ve always been fond of the way Breton deploys photographs in some of his books, namely Nadja and Mad Love. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, for sure. And there’s no shortage of books of contemporary poets who have influenced my thinking about the relationship of image and text — for example, Elani Sikelianos and Claudia Rankine, as well as Pierre Alferi in his book OXO.

Vertigo: What was the reaction from your editor at Penguin when (s)he realized you wanted to include photographs in your book of poems?

Nathan: Paul Slovak was very supportive, and I’m very grateful that he teamed me up with a wonderful book designer, Sabrina Bowers.

Vertigo: I’m always curious about the cover art for poetry books. As a consumer of books, I realize how often I am compelled to examine a book simply because of the cover. But I’m surprised how often I will pick up a book of poems in a bookstore based on the cover and start to read some of the poems only to be puzzled by the relationship between the cover art and the poetry. That’s clearly not the case with The Narrow Circle. Who was responsible for discovering the wonderful cover image by Kate MacDowell? I can’t imagine a more appropriate visualization for your book.

Nathan Hoks Narrow Circle

Nathan: Alison Forner was the designer who worked on the cover, and I was delighted by the cover she created. Paul and I corresponded before they started designing it, and one idea was that there might be an ear on it — the ear is a central motif, maybe even a secret motif, for me, and I’ll just leave it at that. But the sculpture by Kate MacDowell that they found just blew me away. Not only is it stunning and lovely and creepy in its own right, but to me it embodies the way these poems work. When I first saw it, I was disturbed — not simply by the image, but by how right it immediately seemed to me.

Nathan Hoks is the author of two books of poetry, Reveilles and The Narrow Circle, which was a winner of the 2012 National Poetry Series and recently published by Penguin. He works as an editor and letterpress printer for Convulsive Editions and lives in Chicago with his family.


Cahier Series

The remarkable collaboration between the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions continues to put out thoughtful and beautifully-produced publications.  They have just released numbers 21 and 22 in their Cahiers Series, with texts by Anne Carson and Paul Griffiths.

In The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories (Cahier 22), Paul Griffiths translates eleven traditional Noh plays and turns them into eloquent, brief stories. In a brilliant bit of pairing, the stories alternate with color photographs by John L. Tran showing mostly empty shopping malls and other indoor public spaces. As the editors of the Cahiers Series put it, Tran’s photographs “explore the relation between theatricality and narrative, while offering hints of a very different vision of infinitude.”

Cahier 22

Anne Carson’s Nay Rather (Cahier 21) deals largely with the act of translation.  It opens with the essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” in which Carson discusses “where one language cannot be rendered into another,” moving through Homer, Joan of Arc, Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Celan, and the painter Francis Bacon.

The essay is followed by seven translations of the same fragment by the 6th century BC poet Ibykos, which I found to be the highlight of this Cahier. Here is Carson:

What follows is an exercise, not exactly an exercise in translating, nor even an exercise in untranslating, more like a catastrophizing of translation. I shall take a small fragment of Greek lyric poetry and translate it over and over again using the wrong words. A sort of stammering.

What Carson does is to translate the fragment using different restricted vocabularies. In one example she uses only words found in Bertold Brecht’s FBI file, while in another she draws upon the names of stops and the words found on signs from the London Underground, while in a third she limits herself to the words found in the owner’s manual for her microwave oven. Purists may recoil at the very concept of translating with “the wrong words,” but I found the the results to be immensely intriguing.  Even though the fragments are strikingly different from one another (with the single exception of the line that reads “Nay rather,” which is found in every translation), each version uncannily manages to point back to the original, suggesting that a gifted poet/translator can create linguistic approximations of poems even with an extremely limiting vocabulary.

Finally, Cahier 21 includes a poem by Carson called “By Chance the Cycladic People” (one page of which is shown below) in which the lines have been shuffled by a random number generator. The poem is accompanied by a series of simple, elegant drawings and gouaches by Lanfranco Quadrio.

Cahier 21

The Narrow Circle of Nathan Hoks

Nathan Hoks Narrow Circle

When I open my mouth, a whale swims out and I am the hologram projected from its spout.

Duality provides the structure for Nathan Hok’s book of poems The Narrow Circle. The forty-four poems are divided equally into two sections called The Interior  and The Exterior, but the poems themselves seem to be doing everything they can to eradicate the boundary between inner and outer.  The book’s telling epigram comes from William Blake:

They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.

Not surprisingly, the fives senses are on high alert throughout Hok’s poems, but especially the ear and the mouth as primary instruments of communication.  There are multiple references to the mouth, which uniquely among the senses serves as a two-way passageway between inner and outer.  The mouth receives sustenance, the mouth emits language.

“Mouth eats poem. Falls from rafters.” (from Mouth of the Interior.)

“Film comes/Whirring out of his mouth.” (from People of the Interior)

“When the sky comes out/Of the mouth/Should I break it -” (from Sky of the Exterior)

“I feel my mouth./It is a child crying in a dark bed.” (Mouth of the Interior, complete poem)

And here is the complete poem Edge of the Exterior:

My mouth has become
The edge of me.

It spills outward
Like a spool of thread

Which I can use to stitch up
The rest of my face.

I am so afraid
Of this mouth

I keep it as far
From me as possible.

Here it is –
I hold it towards you.

After every five or six poems there is a double page spread on which we see four brief texts that have been extracted from the previous set of poems.  These texts can be single words, brief phrases or a full line from one of the poems, and here each text is associated with a photograph. (There are a total of eight of these photo spreads.)  These text/image spreads seem to act as a sort of refrain that reinforces the idea that all of the poems share some common goals or themes.  But these refrains also act like new poems unto themselves, poems that force us to deal with the inner/outer issue head on. (I should probably be just a bit cautious about calling these double page spreads “poems,” since they do not have titles and their existence is not acknowledged in the Table of Contents.) In these text/image “poems”or spreads we undertake the normal activity called upon by a book, we read words – an “inner” activity of the brain in which we convert language into images.  But we are simultaneously asked to read images – a process by which we pull the outer world inside to be digested, and we are challenged to find common ground between the two forms of “writing”: text-writing and image-writing.  In some instances the text and the image essentially say the same thing, while at other times we must puzzle over the relationship between the text and the image.  The images themselves show us things from the exterior world and (unseen) glimpses into the inner world, such as X-rays, images of sub-atomic particles, and brain scans.

Nathan Hoks spread

Hoks seems to be trying to find a way to avoid being “inclos’d” by his senses, but instead to use them to erase barriers between the inner life and the exterior life, between dreamed/imagined events and observed events, between emotions and the objects and events that cause them.  We see this clearly in the line quoted at the beginning of this post: “When I open my mouth, a whale swims out and I am the hologram projected from its spout” (from Letter of the Exterior).  Reversing the Biblical story of Jonah, here the poet disgorges a whale, projecting his own imagination upon the world, but  the holographic image of the poet is real enough to turn back and examine the poet. 

Here’s the last third of the final poem in the book, Mind of the Exterior:

What is the body?
The body becomes light.

Where is it going?
To the other side of the couch.

When will it get there?
When morning comes around again.

Why is it a circle?
I am a circle.

What is a circle?
A way to be erased.

The hand-built porcelain work of art on the cover, Kate MacDowell‘s Taking Root, 2009, is a brilliant evocation of Hok’s book.

Nathan Hoks. The Narrow Circle.  NY: Penguin, 2013.

Poetry Northwest’s Photography Issue

poetrynw cover

The Spring & Summer 2013 issue of Poetry Northwest is dedicated entirely to the relationship between poetry and photography.  “Faced with the endlessly replicable image-clutter of the digital age, do words retain their image-making power?” asks the magazine’s editor Kevin Craft.  His conclusion?

To judge by the evidence herein, poetry and photography get along very well as sister arts.  Out of instances in time, both produce a legible artifact.  Ekphrastic rapture, tangential extension, allusive juxtaposition, homage – these are just a few of the means by which poets bring the photograph and its fictive, fugitive frame into view, and vice versa, while hybrid forms like “pho-toems” or “poemgraphs” convince us the word is, indeed, flesh.  And flash.  And bone.  It may be that the proliferation of images in our time has reduced the classic 1000:1 picture/word ratio to a rough equivalency.

Much of the issue focuses on poetry about or inspired by photographs, but there are a number of examples of word/image combinations.  Several poets – C.D. Wright, Lewis Warsh, Joshua Edwards, Jennifer Firestone – write about the inclusion of photographs within their books of poetry, sometimes through collaborations with visual artists.  Writer Andrew Zornoza reflects on the legacy of Georges Rodenbach‘s seminal Bruges-la-Morte.  Paisley Rekdal’s essay “Forms of Kitsch: On Poetry, Loss, and Photography” addresses her photograph-laden, fictionalized memoir of photographer Edward Curtis called Intimate.  Jill Magi defines the four ways in which she sees images and poetry working together.

There are also several examples in which the poem is, quite literally, embedded within the photograph.  Poet Elisabeth Frost and visual artist Dianne Kornberg have collaborated on several portfolios of work in which images and text are blended.  Tim Johnson (who currently runs the Marfa Book Company) photographs found fragments of texts.  And Jen Benka (who became the Executive Director of the American Academy of Poets last year) photographs pages from poetry books in public places (see her Tumblr blog).  In recent months I have seen several such examples of blended photography and poetry and will be writing more about this before long.

poetrynw inside

Railroad Conversations – part 1

audio-obscuraAt first glance, Audio Obscura (Full Circle Editions, 2011) looks like a rather well-produced chapbook that pairs poems by Lavinia Greenlaw and photographs by Julian Abrams.  And on one level that is exactly what it is, a beautifully designed volume, handsomely printed on lush paper, bound in sturdy French wrappers, with twenty-four double spreads that each have a text on the left page and a photograph on the right.  The stark black and white images that dominate each spread depict scenes within railway stations and powerfully convey both the intimacy and the anonymity of public spaces. The sentences or phrases that make up the matching poems or prose poems suggest voices overheard or the thought fragments that might occur while waiting for a train – prayers, lists, remembered conversations, pangs of guilt.  The brief texts, sometimes shorter than a haiku, have the flavor of authentic voices, although Greenlaw makes it clear that these are not found texts, but carefully shaped texts that, in her words, are meant to “hover between speech and thought.”

They’ll find out and they’ll think I knew.  But that’s not what I saw.  Not really.  I only saw a list.  You have to be absolutely sure.  Or you’ve destroyed everything for nothing.  Nothing.  A list.

As Greenlaw discusses in her Introduction, the book Audio Obscura is actually a second generation artwork, an essentially new product related to but not exactly a substitute for the original artwork, which was a commissioned soundwork of the same name.  Audio Obscura, the soundwork, consisted of a dozen monologues written by Greenlaw and audio-recorded by actors.  During a period of several months in 2011, lucky visitors to several train stations in Manchester and London were able to use headphones and listen to the monologues as they walked around the stations.  (There is considerable additional material about the project at the website of Artangel, one of the commissioners.)  Here is Greenlaw describing what participants might hear once they donned headphones and headed into the station equipped with an MP3 player, excerpted from The Guardian:

You hear station noise so you forget you have headphones on, and the idea you’re cut off goes.  Then these voices start appearing. At first you think they’re voices you’re overhearing in the crowd, then you start to overhear interior monologues – some are quite painful and explicit, some uplifting…I spent a long time coming up with situations you could map on to the people around you. So there’s a teenage girl, waiting…Having recorded these monologues, which are more poetic than narrative, I broke them down. I wanted to get to the point where you could overhear enough to imagine the rest.

As this audio excerpt shows, there is a startling intimacy to the voice speaking quietly and directly into the listener’s ears, which would have been in striking contrast to the bustling crowds, the arrival and departure of trains, and the nearly incessant noise of a busy station.   There is something invasive, almost creepy about a voice in your ear, especially since it isn’t clear whose privacy is being invaded – that of the listener or of the speaker.  Is the voice exposing something deeply private exclusively for our ears or are we eavesdropping?  In her Introduction to the book, Greenlaw, who is Director of the Poetry MA at the University of East Anglia, talks about how her concept of “dark listening” and this feeling of “transgression” relates to the idea of the dark room or camera obscura:

The fragile, shifting but acute images of the camera obscura draw you in.  In Audio Obscura, the idea is translated into ‘dark listening’ with its connotations of depths and shadows, the impalpable and the unreachable.  We enter interior lives and discover, somewhere between what is heard and what is seen, what cannot be said. We are conscious of this as transgression but unable to contain our

I keep thinking about the huge distance between the soundwork and the book, between the visceral multi-sensory experience in a busy train station and the silent experience of moving one’s eyes back and forth between words and images in a book.  For me, the word and image pairs never become simultaneous or connected (I’m not sure that achieving this is even possible).  They never overlay or adhere to each other in any way that alludes to the possibility of transgression or eavesdropping.  In the end, I can’t avoid sensing that the book is just a pale ghost of the original soundwork, and I must not be the only one who thought this: it was the soundwork, not the book, which won the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry for 2011.  Greenlaw more or less suggests that her audio monologues are site-specific (if not to specific train stations then at least to locations that masquerade as train stations), but I’d like to see them have a new life as a podcast that could be downloaded and taken for a walk without a leash.

Coming in “Railroad Conversations – part 2”: Railtracks by John Berger & Anne Michaels, with photographs by Tereza Stehlíková.


New Directions Poetry Pamphlets

New Directions is starting up a new Poetry Pamphlet series and, curiously, two of the first four employ photographs.  Bernadette Mayer’s Helens of Troy, NY contains a series of photographs of women accompanied by poems that, to some extent, serve as written portraits.  Although there is no statement about either the poems or the photographs, the implication is that each of these woman is named Helen who lives in Troy, New York.  There is no attribution to the informal photographs, so one is left with the assumption that they were made by the author.  The book concludes with a poem “A History of Troy, NY (in homage to Ed Sanders, Patti Smith& Howard Zinn).”


Mayer’s book reminded me of the classic (and now rather hard to find) self-published artist’s book by Mike Mandel called seven never before published portraits of Edward Weston (1974), which contained portraits of seven men who shared the name of the famous American photographer.  Instead of poems, however, Mandel had each Edward Weston complete a questionnaire:

Mandel EW

Susan Howe’s book Sorting Facts: or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, is an extended poetic “essay” on two films by Chris Marker – Sans Soleil and La Jetée.  Although Marker has title billing in her piece, Howe spends at least as much space on the Soviet filmmakers Dziga Vertov (1896-1854) and Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986).  Her essay/poem, with its reference to Wallace Stevens’ 1917 poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” deals with “the primacy of the ‘factual'” in poetry and film and includes a number of stills from films by all three.

I work in the poetic documentary form, but I didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.

Howe takes aspects of the traditional academic essay and willfully bends them into her own poetic form.  And then she blends in elements of her own autobiography – descriptions of going to movie theaters as a child or reminiscences of her deceased husband.  Passages that read like film theory are followed by passages of dense poetic shorthand.  The result is that Nineteen Ways is neither classic analysis nor essay but a series of oblique glances, some quick like a snapshot and others deeply penetrating.

Yesterday words could come between the distance.  Frame light, for example.  All living draw near.  Knowing no data no something then something.  No never and no opposite occident orient.  Film with jumps and quick cuts.  Dissolves and slide effects.  Real chalk.  Burnt-out ruins.  Without weariness.  Without our working conditions.  When our forces hadn’t been thrown.