Books, Artistexts, and Typopoiesis: An Essay by Johanna Drucker

 The commonplace that authors write books is generally a fallacy—most authors write texts. These end up as books, chunked onto pages and bound in sequence into a physical object, but this is a matter of technological convenience as much as deliberate design. Poets may attend to the sequencing of their work as surely as novelists orchestrate the unfolding play of scenes and events figuring the narrative to a reader's eye, but almost none write with graphical design and display in mind. Fewer yet would imagine rewriting their texts to suit a page or layout, or edit to fit a format. The very idea would strike most writers as odd.

By radical contrast, the books on exhibit here were created in a deliberate dialogue between design and writing.  In almost every case, the artist and writer are the same as the printer or designer of the book. In the rare exceptions—such as the Maximiliana produced by the remarkable book artist Iliazd with the artist Max Ernst—the collaboration was organized around the design of the work as an integral graphical and conceptual whole. (Iliazd laid out the book with his usual mathematical precision and gave Ernst a set of templates within which to draw his imaginary writings.)

In fact, the artists in this exhibit are keenly aware of the many dimensions of a codex book as part of the way they write and organize their texts. They engage and activate its structures through textual play and inter-textual relations, within the unfoldings and turnings of a series of spaces. Cover to cover, page to page, margin to gutter and across the edges of the finite sheets, they make use of the ways a book can act to form and perform a text. Ulises Carrión, an early book artist and champion of the genre, once remarked that a book is a series of spaces. Though he did not go on to elaborate the extent to which in fact a book is a series of interrelated spaces, these works show dramatically how that potential can be realized.  

In this collection each book has typographically sophisticated texts whose forms and formats are as integral to their meaning as the words of which they are composed. The tightness of the dialogue of graphical and textual forms collapses these writings into artistexts—a genre that exemplifies another appropriate neologism, typopoiesis—the making of a poetic work in and through typographic means.

Type trails across the openings in the Chax Press production of Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee's Fool’s Gold. The poems slide through the gutters in a range of sizes and shapes that shift and move with dynamic energy so that we forget, for a moment, that the texts are fixed on the page. We feel them as living language, alert to motion and change, whose variety is as polyvocal and morphologically complex as the levels of nuance and meaning they invoke.

In John Crombie's Spreading the Word, the writings swarm around the spine and text blocks, wrapping themselves into and out of each other, in a continuous narrative chain that never resolves. When they do, the lines of prose make a chained link of exchanges that interweave one communication with another. The spatialized meandering lines seem to wander through the spaces of his book, diffusing into air and the spreading field of communication. In my own History of the/my Wor(l)d, one line of text breaks  through another as an interruption to the authority of any single mode of discourse, threading official history into and out of personal memory.

Elsewhere, an elaborate play of asides and feints, comments and marginalia, breaches the decorum of mere presentation and become a chorus of voices competing each from their own point of view. In the works of Walter Hamady, we wonder where to look first in the layers and textures, the textile weaving, the warp and woof of contradiction and argument, statement and counterpoint. They gabber and jab as if saying, "Here, look here, read me, this, now," in a siren call for attention through distraction.

Playfulness and artfulness abound in the innovative approaches to the page and production, as varied as the contents—newspapers, poems, aesthetic credos and personal jottings. Dieter Roth repurposes found materials and printed artifacts to make us aware of what they are and how they present themselves as graphic things—while at the other extreme Kenneth Goldsmith strips away the typographic features of a day's New York Times to make the same point through other methods.

In Emily McVarish's works, the careful orchestration of typographic layout reinforces the capacity of pages to anticipate and recapitulate each other, setting up a vibrant field of associations and interconnected references. Compositional acuity makes each separation of an opening into a scene within a series, a punctuated moment, bracketed by the literal edge of the sheet. Lines, rhythms, spaces and intervals that emerge as a result are consequential to the meaning, not incidental. The text doesn't simply get laid into a template, flowed through a book design, but is written for the page, with each phrase and break composed graphically and textually at the same time. Our sense of the literal line becomes amplified as a result.

In the books of Clifton Meador a lens of attention swells a single row of letters until we follow it across a page, drawn into the act of writing's presence in a record of historical events. But the moments of reading—like the moment of writing—are always passing. Brad Freeman's palimpsestic pages in MuzeLink constantly show us the inevitable ephemerality of writing, the impossibility of noting the present as it slips away from and in the very acts of inscription, creates a temporal field out of the space in these books, layered with the history of their own making.

In Keith Smith's Out of Sight, the pages are cut to reveal and obscure various sections of a work, activating the typographic field across the inter-textual spaces of a book structure. Emmett Williams does a similar recombinatoric trick in Sweethearts simply by playing with the concrete poem and its letters in various arrangements of sense. The play of edge and edgy-ness, of coy flirtation and slow strip tease, of knowledge offered slowly through engagement of self and other in the publicness of private display, is structured into the ways we enter into both texts.

Selection and excision, painterly or graphical, physical or poetical, organize clusters of words into statements, constellations pulled into legible view against the large field of possible texts within a text so that a different sense of palimpsest makes Tom Phillips's A Humument into a play of seeking and finding. Phillips paints a story by painting out many parts of an original text, showing the ways we may exhume our current tales from those of the past.

Cuts, physical forms, shapes, and dynamic movement factor in here as well—in the thrust and vigorous pop art action of Augusto de Campos and Julio Plaza's Poemobiles, whose folds and angles in engineered forms bring the text into view as an actual, not a metaphoric, form in space. The combinatoric possiblities of Raymond Queneau's canonical Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes are also realized through an act of transformative cutting, slicing, liberating the lines of his sonnets from a single position in a fixed text, and giving them life as modular elements.

Madeline Gins plays a game of self-self-consciousness in Word Rain, showing us a reader reading a book that is referencing the reader at every turn. Her photographs of hands holding the book show us someone —who?—and so we know that we, too, are readers of the text. Other games of convention are called to our attention. Dick Higgins's wonderful and now classic Foew&ombwhnw presents itself as a hymnal, and then proceeds within its double columns and on its thin religious publication paper to display its outrageous magic mushroom Thunderbaby observations. In Kyle Schlesinger and Caroline Koebel's Schablone Berlin, geographic references get re-represented, not merely invoked. Their Berlin is photographed as the surface of walls, corners, urban spaces on which the graffiti works they track appear. We follow the signs and trails through the turnings as if we were on the streets, so that a page turning functions like a corner in an urban space, in an artful  collapse of actual physical book into represented city. And the ideograms of the Lettrist Gabriel Pomerand complete our inventory—playing with meaning and image, vision and reading, familiar reference and invented language, in his under-appreciated and highly imaginative St. Ghetto des Prêts.

Each of these books is exemplary, distinct, unique in its approach to the articulation of the spaces of page, sequence, codex through the carefully thought-through use of typography and layout. Gleaning the lessons of these works gives us a vocabulary for critical engagement. But reading and looking at the pages provides sheer delight and bemusement. Games and play abound, even as somber, serious and profoundly thoughtful writing appears before our eyes.


This essay was written by Johanna Drucker to accompany her Artistexts exhibit, on display at The University of Arizona Poetry Center from April 2, 2012 to June 29, 2012. Reproduced online with kind permission of the author.

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