(REVIEW) Three Leaves, Pressed
In this deep dive essay-review, Joshua Calladine-Jones explores three recent publications out with Sam Riviere’s micropublisher If A Leaf Falls Press in 2022: Matthew Stuart’s Overture, Montana, by Louise Jacobs and Lucy Ives’ Exercises for Writing from Memory and Other Exercises. Attending to the specific procedural elements of the pamphlets, Calladine-Jones crafts a study of the ‘techno-poetica’, amidst the wider landscape of forms such as auto-generated text, found poetry, Flarf-ish SEO-poetry, AI poetry, and GPT-3 simulation poetry. Here, poetry is program.
‘All minds quote’, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. So the text, then, is a sort of mind. This is the logic of Matthew Stuart's Overture, where this quote relocates, and maybe of the publisher of this pamphlet as a whole. Overture is, in academic parlance, a work in dialogue with the discourse of itself, in relation to the texts and authors it borrows from. With a range of sources spanning from Ursula K. Le Guin, Ferdinand de Saussure, and James Baldwin, to Sumerian epic poetry, this is a rather expansive menagerie. In form, the entire work is an essay, constructed, however, solely of already existing quotes, a concept with an execution as parsable as it is unsettling. Reader, we are just getting started.
If a Leaf Falls Press has been in operation for enough time to gain a cult following, inasmuch as micropublishers can generate one in their diligent and forward-thinking way. It is the publishing brainchild of the poet, Sam Riviere, who is (or ought to be) particularly celebrated for bringing what-we-might-call procedural poetry into its own as a serious form of contemporary English literature in the UK. Albeit a literature that would, as far as serious goes, ever-shirk the label, as much as it may or may not elide itself from the self-identifying-experimental. Riviere's After Fame distorted the epigrams of Martial, and Kim Kardashian's Marriage relied in part on the vast browser-histories of that eponymous event. En bref: procedural, here, refers to what in the visual arts might be loosely called conceptual. Mistranslations, auto-generated text, found poetry, Flarf-ish SEO-poetry, AI poetry, GPT-3 simulation poetry, non-poetry, accidental poetry, and so on.
This is, of necessity, a gross oversimplification, but maybe an important one that, by now, red-handed readers of the avant garde are already acquainted with. But—surely all poetry (all writing, even) has a process, a procedure? Yes, but procedure can be the crux. Non-poetic, antipoetic and unpoetic poetry have been around almost as long as their conventionally poetic cousins, as even Dante Alighieri knew when he chose Tuscan over Latin for the Inferno. Here, though, the specifics entail the definition. Most of the works published with Riviere's press are in some way procedural or, that is, conceptual. They function like paper contraptions, executing ideas in their overarching form and dialect, their lexicon and syntax. But not all. Some flirt with the line between contrivance and poetics more than others. Montana, for instance, by the poet Louise Jacobs, isn't overtly conceptual in an obvious way. This is to say that there is no Duchampian R. Mutt signing-off on her writing.
Rather, Jacobs's pamphlet resembles straight poetry (as in not primarily conceptual or technologically altered), although its surprising construction of images strikes out as slightly unreal, its movements and non sequiturs strange and automatic, as if generated by a machine.
While standing on that particular chair The whirlwind from behind Turned upside down her eyelashes And curled them under the eyelids and into the sockets, and while perspiring deafly, She now knew exactly what to look for.
It isn’t hard for the mental ear to replay this like a text-to-speech generator, enhancing the unheimlich. Like a Leonara Carrington reproduced by an android, a neural-blend. A robot surrealism of the melancholic. What’s more, it's customary of If a Leaf Falls to not provide any procedural explanation with their pamphlets. And there is also a lacuna of blurb-text, leaving that hermeneutic sidequest in the hands of the reader. This means working out what’s going on formally can be a challenge without context, it not always being clear what the idea behind the intention is. Or if there is a mechanical procedure at all. Somewhat like entering a roomful of artworks, minus gallery-texts and artist biographies. But all art and literature requests this. We enter the room in search of meaning. We enter the work in search of the work. And we enter Montana in search of Montana. It is, as a mountainous dream-state, mirageous and elusive. A locale where lifetimes are compressed into snowless winters. Is Jacobs's writing genetically-modified? If we are asking the question, that is part of the point.
Lucy Ives's Exercises for Writing from Memory and Other Exercises, on the other hand, is openly concept-oriented. What Ives does isn't new though, and has been practised in a faintly similar way by Yoko Ono, in Grapefruit, of 1964, and is very much Fluxus. Ono’s book consisted of poetic exercises that parodied, mirrored, and contemplated the happenings of the sixties: set fire to a canvas with a cigarette, or count the number of stars in the sky every night and send it to your friends. This handbook style was perhaps perfected by Czech poet and crumplagist, Jiří Kolář, in his 1969 work, Návod k upotřebení, known as User's Manual, in English, which honed the instructional form to a finely absurd simplicity. In fact, Kolář prefigures Ives's work in no small way. His Sonnet, for instance, involves reassembling a novel page-by-page through a form of cut-up. But no form is ever as new as it claims to be, although what Ives does with it, arguably is.
Ives's pamphlet has as its centrepiece an exercise for composing a collective novel. This is the most convoluted of the exercises she proposes, though it's proposed in all sincerity and with a note suggesting it has been completed at least once, and IRL, too. As a concept it demands willingness to participate, and if this is obliged, the exercise seems a sort of cadavre exquis, a passed-around work that comes together as a startling, or slightly monstrous whole. One with the imaginative narrativity of RPG character-building, or D&D. Ives highlights the conundrum of authorship: the novel, as a product, as an experience, not quite individual, not quite communistic, belongs inherently to everyone, and to no one at all. Other exercises are more straightforward, if admittedly with an undertonic quality of Zen koāns. As exercises, they're fungible as writing prompts, or Oulipian frames: write a scene without a narrative, one instructs. Describe something you have completely forgotten, encourages another. Or, in a Calvino-esque turn, compose an index to a book that doesn't exist. The real marvel is in the potential of each directive.
Meanwhile, something about Stuarts's Overture is in equal parts disquieting and inspiring. The inspiration it gives is profoundly human: to peruse so many words of wisdom from such historically diverse sources, inspires awe in literature as a universal endeavour. But to come across these wise words as a heap of severed (but unmutilated) limbs is the source of the disquiet.
The novels we know best have an architecture. To me, reading was a deliciously private experience, one that allowed me to be secluded, walled in by silence and thought. What does it mean to spend a good part of one’s life alone in front of a book? And if this is our choice, how are we to go about it?
Above, the text has already bit-mined Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, bell hook’s Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, and Moyra Davey’s The Problem of Reading. This kind of sampling makes a strange remix. The result is somewhere between chef-d'œuvre and copypasta. But an overture, strictly defined, is only the orchestral introduction to a dramatic musical work. And this pamphlet too, is a sort of introduction: a primer, an orchestra of sources for further exploration. Stuarts plays the Frankenstein—e con molto gusto—and the result is erudite and primaeval: the mitochondrial morphing of literary insight into a just-stitched but still-twitching form. It summons the notion of some modernist ultrabook, where the veins are wires in the ethernets they lead to, the sequence itself conduiting ideas like an app concocted in the hands of a tech-eccentric.
This techno-poetica is a form not without parallels and comparisons. Take the humble programmer. In programming, the procedural paradigm suggests that programs are sequences of instructions to be executed. There are instructions, and the program consists of completing them, or them being completed by the software. Programs are therein divided into instructions (or procedures) analogous to the program functions. When the steps are followed and no one gets confused, the program works. So too, in poetry. Ives, for instance, gives us the steps, the procedures, and the poem (or novel) consists of completing them. Stuarts takes the procedural form more broadly, from the sprawling intranet of already-existing quotes, themselves content for the procedure of their reassembly. Both Ives and Stuart adhere to the procedural paradigm in one way or another in their respective pamphlets. Arguably, so does Jacobs. And perhaps all poets do.
To some extent, the dialectic of reader-and-writer in relation to the text, be it poem, novel or other, is a seamless and conjoined sequence of procedures, moving from the concept of the work, to its execution, which is only consummated in the hands of the reader. Ut pictura poesis. Poetry is as painting, wrote the venerable poet. But there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatius, than were dreamt of in such philosophy. Ut programmata poesis. Poetry is as a program. The poem consists of steps hardwired by the poet, and the completion of the poem the procedures of writer and reader. But art and literature are hard, especially conceptual art and literature. So what happens if we get the program wrong? If we ignore or misinterpret these steps, does the poem cease to function? If a poem is left unread, was it ever written at all? And if a leaf falls in the forest, does it make a sound? RE: the nature of poetry—there is still something left to be decoded. There are still quotes left to be written. And so too, are there still awaiting minds.
Text: Joshua Calladine-Jones
Photo: Joshua Calladine-Jones