new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Mitchell


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Stephen Chan's writing here resonates strongly with me. When the literary avant garde (let's give it a name, as any would be inadequate and contested) announced itself at the end of the 1960s, it did so thru I think three publications: Freed magazine, the New Zealand Universities Students Association Arts Festival Literary Yearbook, and David Mitchell's Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby. Within two years, Murray Edmond's Entering the Eye (Caveman Press 1973) and A Charlatan's Mosaic (eds Stephen Chan and E S [Elizabeth] Wilson 1972) were issued. In these books a pattern was wedged open with a very different relation between poems and production, and between text and image on the page, than was current anywhere in mainstream literary publishing. There were a few American magazines that contained images among the poems, some of which were illustrative, but many of which were not – already a kind of juxtaposition of elements that resisted any impulse towards narrative that readers might have had. Traditional narratives, production values and relations between text & image were all under review in those few years. Only the different relations between text & image seem not to have survived the intervening time. And the avant garde (however problematic in the New Zealand scene) no longer has a regular publication or publisher in New Zealand.

It was always clear in the 1950s and 1960s that to be published by Caxton or McIndoe or Pegasus presses was to participate in not only literary value but book production value also. The book of poems was first and foremost a book of poems, one which had a value supplemental to the poems themselves and in some measure independent of the poems themselves. Freed magazine in contrast was more frail, more ephemeral, went from one thing to another as if in isolated fragments, and the whole was often just stapled together, a new literary community that was not securely bound according to the best of print technology. I was very interested in this when I established A brief description of the whole world in 1995 – its authors & artists had the capacity to put any mark whatever on any part of their pages, and the photocopier was a perfect production method for it.

My own impulse as a printer was different, even tho I valued the early 1970s practice, and was instead to offer a variety of mainstream publishing to avant garde authors that, in those days, was only rarely offered to mainstream poets. Fine press printing has in New Zealand always had its share of detractors, even tho that was in fact how the first poets who 'became' the poetry canon were published in the 1930s by Denis Glover, Bob Lowry and Ron Holloway, and in the wonderful Phoenix magazine, which also mixed text & image but in more traditional ways than did Freed forty years later. These days, text & image have a much more radical life in the realm of the artist’s book, often in a unique edition (i.e. edition of one), where image & text and the material of which the book is made all overlap & intertwine with each other in an apparently single experience of reading/viewing, where book and art are fully present in the same work. In an interesting way, the historical model for Freed magazine is a book printed in 1499, in Venice, by Aldus Manutius (a hero of the book people in NZ – Janet Paul, J C Beaglehole (3 books of poems from Caxton in the 1930s), Glover) titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, in which all possible problems and arrangements of image & text were posed and solved for letterpress printing for the next 350 years. There's a copy of this in the Turnbull Library, and an English translation published by Thames & Hudson.

A major transgression enacted by Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby was that it published poetry in a sans serif type – something that Caxton and its cohorts would never have countenanced – sans serif types were for them (via the English scholar Stanley Morison whose work was well-known to the mainstream printer/publishers) appropriate for advertising and some book covers, but not at all for the serious business of cultural transmission of the highest order. The later A Charlatan's Mosaic took this a step further when it printed poems in a multiplicity of types throughout – all sense of a unified aesthetic that bound the book together thru the standardised arrangements of poems and types of the page dispersed in front of the reader – no wonder so many of the mainstream poets and critics in the country were bothered, even angered by it. Such dispersal meant there was no single target for their displeasure but it did permit the traditionalists to lump the multiplicity of targets (i.e. Mitchell's poems, Brunton's poems, Edmond's poems, Haley's poems etc) all together and refuse to make distinctions between them, even today. But I wonder, as painters have been more adept at incorporating text into their artwork than writers have been at incorporating images into their texts, whether we have let a great opportunity slip by with the passing of the avant garde publications of the early 1970s.

Mitchell's text however also transgressed in other ways, and particularly in his abbreviations of various words, writing them more as were uttered – the 'e' on 'the' so frequently not sounded in usage, for example. His abbreviations brought the reader back to the materiality of the written or printed word as 'a thing and not a picture of a thing'. And a number of others either followed him or were part of a larger movement in which Mitchell was simply a significant example. And what of that note at the beginning of the book, that 'all the poems in this book have been read aloud in public' which was and is to me a measure of the coming to be of the poem itself. If it couldn't survive being sounded aloud, it needed changing – a measure I have never abandoned since I first understood it at that time. I only met David twice, the first time in the later 1970s, and this meeting bears on the sounding of the poem very well. He was with Peter Olds and in a house in Christchurch sometime I think in 1977, I read the whole of my poem dear Mondrian to Peter & David. After some raucous applause and a few nice words about the poem, I said I'd give a copy of the book to David, and he declined the offer, on the grounds that he was worried he might be influenced by it in his own writing. Apart from not at all being used to having such things said to me, what he then took from that reading was the sounded poem – aloud, certainly, if not quite 'in public'. I think that many poets now have no idea that the poetry readings they so avidly go to or participate in were pretty much initiated by the rebels of the early 1970s, and that the university arts festivals were primary occasions for them. The poem on the page altered dramatically then, and the poem got more air, literally, at the same time. David Mitchell's Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby was a critical factor in this pattern that was already appearing in other parts of the culture. Bardic, in the best sense, and acutely aware of how letters & words register on the page, he is still in Pipe Dreams, the best and most interesting poet on the block in the early 1970s, and to say that I don't think I have to diminish the work of others, especially Alan Brunton and Murray Edmond, both of whose first books I still read and need.

 

Alan Loney

 

Reading list-

Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, David Mitchell (Stephen Chan 1972)
A Charlatan's Mosaic, eds Chan & Wilson (NZUSA Literary Yearbook 1972)
Entering the Eye, Murray Edmond (Caveman 1973)
Black & White Anthology, Alan Brunton (Hawk 1976)
Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream] (Aldus Manutius 1499)


ŠAlan Loney
 


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Last updated 5 March, 2010