The more I’ve read into the fields of physics and ecology, the more I’ve begun to understand how it is that things bleed into each other. The industrial development of the past couple of hundred years has seeped deep into the geological record. The particles of the Big Bang shoot constantly through us. And all of the planet’s species, humans included, hum with traces of radiation.
This thinking has begun to infiltrate my practice as a poet. As discrete packages of text my poems feel like too small a portion of the whole. When we read, we commonly see black type on a white or neutral background or page. The conditions for reading poetry and prose are really very specific. This specificity or standardisation is useful, because it reduces the brain-work required to decipher text. But the other side to this is that when we read we forget we’re also looking. It is roughly this distinction that I think separates literature from art. Looking versus reading. So for this past year I’ve been playing around with the materiality of text itself, attempting to broaden the sense of what it is to ‘read’ a poem, and bring to attention some of the other markers we’ve erased, both from what we might call the ‘final draft’, as well as from the creative labour of producing work.
Since January I’ve been writing a continuous poem -- a list-poem. Here’s a portion:
For its first presentation at the Arteles Creative Centre, Finland where I was a resident artist in January, it looked different to this -- I wrote the poem out by hand on a long sheet of paper, which ran to a length of about three metres. How did the poem work aesthetically, as an object? How did the readers, or audience, engage with the poem? How did the work as a whole speak back to ideas of time, autobiography and poetry? How did handwriting, as a highly unstable and emotive medium, affect the way the text was received and interpreted? These are some of the questions I asked.
The poem begins with two quotes that I keep returning to as compass points. The first is from Rachel Blau duPlessis’s poem Draft 97: Rubrics: ‘Multiple exposure to the bright debris’. DuPlessis is best known for her goliath project Drafts, a long poem she began writing in 1985, and which she is still writing now. By following this poem, which is made up of smaller numbered units such as the one mentioned above, you can see traces of DuPlessis herself, and her ongoing and changing interests. It’s an active poetry that lopes along with life itself.
Until this point most of my writing has been an exercise in economy, but through DuPlessis I began to see the potential of a text shaped like a net or nebula, a growing amorphous shape that could embody somehow the dazzling range of inputs that we call the self or the world. Getting back to that quote, if I can be really real for a second, our debris is the only evidence for living we have. All our desires and fears and breathing and anthropomorphising and fetishising die with us. She seems to be saying look at this stuff, what’s it say?
This brings me to Nick Last, my other compass-point who writes: ‘modernity invented the future, but that’s all over’. Last is a kind of ratbag academic, disgraced within the academy but beloved by many for his high voltage philosophical writings. This tongue-in-cheek quote helps keep me in check. He reminds me that the temporal and spatial structures we use to self-organise are politically and culturally constructed. Time, as it has been oft-quoted this past twelve months, is a flat circle. It’s also many other metaphors.
In a joint exhibition this month with Naomi Bishop, a Melbourne painter I met at Arteles, I am presenting the second public iteration of the poem. It’s changed form yet again, and this time the work flows across two mediums. I’m exhibiting a large installation made from paper, as well as short video. In total, the poem comprises code, video, ink, pencil, word docs, Google, selfies, find-and-replace searches, highlights, glitches, printing errors, folds, loops, wine stains and background noise.
Emily and Naomi’s exhibition is on display at the Rubicon ARI Melbourne, September 27–Oct. Emily also be discussing her work at Critical Animals during TiNA.
Emily Stewart is a poet and commissioning editor of Seizure. Her writing has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Feminartsy, Filmme Fatales, Overland, The Lifted Brow Digital and the Age. She is a 2014 Wheeler Centre hot desk fellow. Emilyvalentinestewart.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.