Last year Claire Potter diagrammed Matthew Hall’s ‘Dawn Falsely Observed’ for Black Rider (hit the link for the full size diagrammitised poem – go back and have a look – it’s pretty special). In the words of Graham Nunn: “I have been like a spider going back and back and back to this and each time something reveals itself in the web.”
All along the intent has been to publish big ole posters of these, but it’s taken a while – still looking for a printer who can handle the kind of paper we want to use. I can’t wait to have this on my wall though.
Hey, so in the meantime Claire and I got to talking about diagamming. Here’s us kickin’ it.
1610s, from Fr. diagramme, from L. diagramma, from Gk. diagramma “geometric figure, worked out by lines,” from diagraphein “mark out by lines, delineate,” from dia- “across, out” (see dia-) + graphein “write, mark, draw” (see -graphy). The verb is 1840, from the noun.
This diagrammitised poetry reading… what exactly is it? How did you come to diagramming?
Initially, diagramming came out of distance. It was a way to sketch a dialogue – curved, peregrine and spontaneous – across time. I had finished the Cours de Civilisation Française at La Sorbonne, and part of the language classes were devoted to studying literary texts. An excerpt, usually canonical, was read and then, in that very French way, pulled apart. At the end of the week, after five days on one excerpt, the text was a forest of notes resembling a new document. I liked how it looked: the graffitied text was beautiful in its matrix of colours, diagrams, lines and notes. It was as though the filaments linking the poem and the reader were displayed as such, like the architecture of the Centre Pompidou where the mechanics and scaffolding – usually reserved into cavities and walls – are displayed on the outside of the building. I liked the look of this spider’s web, with its spider-poem in the centre, but I knew was that I was not trying to reveal anything about meaning: I didn’t want to pretend to fill in authorial intent or practice – it was very much a work-in-progress between a poem in-itself and the reading self, a practice which tried to borrow from the gravity of the poem, so to speak, and balance precariously with it there.
When working on the diagram poems, I often have Virginia Woolf’s character Lily Briscoe (To The Light House) at the back of my mind, and her canvas ‘scored with running lines’. It’s true that the diagrammed poem changes the poem in question, alters it and defaces it, which is not terribly respectful, but it’s exactly what I think is most useful about the activity – the feeling one gets when confronting a poem, especially a canonical poem we are (pedagogically) told we must be familiar with, and, as a result, one’s thoughts and writing hand are arrested mid-air not knowing how to approach this revered and delicate looking object, surrounded by a moat of white page. Until within that moat of white page, thoughts and footsteps can be recognized, heard – Lily Briscoe’s ready canvas poised before her echoes, reverberates, revealing how full the canvas already is:
Where to begin?— that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must be run; the mark made… Down in the hollow of one wave she saw the next wave towering higher and higher above her. For what could be more formidable than that space? Here she was again, she thought, stepping back to look at it, drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers — this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded reluctant… For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, moving her brush hither and thither, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what she rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.
And in what ways does the diagram become its own piece, I mean, in what ways is it the response in a dialogue?
It does and does not become its own piece.
Lines from Woolf come again to mind in terms of the work being dialogic:
From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool [of daily life] is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art (‘A Sketch of the Past’).
If it is a dialogue, in what way could the poet now carry on the discussion? Diagram the diagram? Deconstruct?
That’s a great question – after I diagrammatised two of Andrew Zawacki’s poems for VLAK, he wrote saying that he had thought to send me his own annotations of my annotations and as a workshop project, continue to pass around annotations of annotations of annotations, in a collaborative chain. That is very much in the spirit of the work.
Do you stand on the shoulders of those gone before you to see a wider horizon?
I’d have to say that I definitely don’t stand on the shoulders of those gone before and nor do I want to. The wider horizon exists already between us and the blades of grass, to borrow an image from the French philosopher Luce Irigaray, so climbing is not necessary! This perpendicular axis formed by standing and lying down, verticality and horizonality, is important, and I try in my creative practices to balance and pay attention to both, and not just one – verticality – which appears privileged in Western culture. By verticality I mean how the world around us is arranged so as to require a scapegoat, someone or something that is at the bottom. I really don’t like that way of arranging things, or seeing the world, and so practices which permit inter-relations interest me greatly. I like ways in which influence can be an organic entity – performative inasmuch as it opens and engenders possibilities rather than pinpoints them, or it can come directly from people you know or don’t know, and open one onto and into emotions that voyage and grow differently thanks to specific encounters. The element of uncertainty is essential to this process for me, as is the notion that from uncertainty important questions can arise which open dialogue rather than stultify it.
On the other hand, when diagramming a poem, turning it into an infographic, it is impossible to avoid imposing – however minimally – a new sense of order or assimilating incongruent ideas into an arch-narrative. And yet, when I’m doing a diagram poem, I’m aware that no matter how much I fill the white space of the poem, it is always standing all the more brightly there. All I feel whilst working is what I don’t know and what I don’t and can’t fully apprehend, or approach, in the poem. This negative consciousness drives the work onwards, but also requires an amount of resignation to be tolerated, albeit with difficulty, that reserves space for the unknown and the unknowable in the poem to rest and come to the fore. This inclination towards the ineffable is necessary – it is precisely what engenders dialogue to enter into the discussion.
On a more technical note, there are works with which I feel diagramming has some affinity: Sol LeWitt’s wall and lines drawings, Mark Lombardi’s fascinating narrative structures which move like water, and Alfred Barr’s chart of Cubism and Abstract Art which I find exciting and beautifully drawn, albeit for its content which is a perfect example of how information appearing dynamic and fluid can at the same time be rather omissive, instructive and one-directional.
Last year, I was also fascinated by the cover artwork on an issue of Artlink, where my friend Lucas Ihlein had hand-drawn a radish.
From Lucas’ radish sprang lines and words such that the radish was the imaginary centre of the page and framing it were all different kinds of thoughts and musings on the topic of the ‘Underground’. I really liked how the information was pushed out to the sides of the page, and loved how the radish was brought alive not only by its own suggestive outline, but by the gap created between object and name, radish and word, which the hyphen-like lines and words led to, and from.
When we last spoke, you were outlining your intrinsic love for London and Paris. Has location changed your artistic pursuit? Has it changed you?
My heart is in Paris, more than in London, although both cities are magnificent. London, however, has such imposing parks, like Hampstead Heath, and my writing has tended towards longer forms, which perhaps represents the pleasure my feet take in making rambling, itinerant journeys into the thickets.
Language in London has really affected me, although it is mostly English, it’s an English which remains a foreign language. It is not only inflected with the most vivid array of accents and cultures, but also ways of saying things which can be fascinating to Australian ears. The pronunciation here is much more tonal than Australian English, which is generally flatter and lower, and the English language, like French to a degree, is replete with the conditional, the subjunctive, which means it can be slow moving, and not very straightforward. I find people here use more words to say things and you can have some really great conversations. But hearing an Australian accent, or any accent for that matter, and I confess that my ears swivel magnetically.
Being in London has without any question changed my writing in English – language here feels sharper, formalised, and closed sometimes – the power and dominance of the English language, over regional languages especially, is palpable and becomes cloying. Location in this sense has changed my relationship to the English I write and hear and has made my ears, which had certainly lost some of their English from having lived in France, feel enthralled by the depths and variances of English, and also a little more understanding of the colonial and colloquial English I grew up with in Perth.
What’s a non-literary art piece that has challenged and/or moved you recently?
There was an Elisabeth Frink exhibition that I visited a few months ago with a friend, and there was a sculpture of one of her Birdmen which really intrigued me and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since. Her birdman was made out of bronze, blackened and only about 40cm tall. It was a menacing piece with a shiny patina and angular strokes and dents as though the chiselled metallic feathers were armoury, but alongside the smooth feathers, on the underbelly of the bird, were cragged stone-like surfaces reminiscent of rough cliff faces or clods of dirt. There was an energy and flight to the piece, as though it were caught in space, perhaps like Icarus one can imagine, during his charred freefall. The blurring of the human and the bird was significant and made me think about Frink working in the post-war years, the 50s, and about how the idea of who it was to be human had essentially been dismantled by this Birdman entity reassembling the grace, and, too, the disgrace, of a fallen angel.