In the “surplus explanations” whcih conclude Nicholodeon (Toronto: Coach House Books, 1997), Darren Wershler states:
“Eugen Gomringer, who claimed that ‘it is important that [concrete poetry] should not become merely playful,’ and that ‘Concrete Poetry has nothing to do with comic strips,’ can bite me.”
Which seems as good a spot as any to start a discussion.
Gomringer is one of the originators of 20th-Century European concrete poetry, and author two early manifestos of the genre: “From Line to Constellation” (1954) and “Concrete Poetry” (1956). In my early reading in concrete poetry (and Nicholodeon was an influential text on my understanding of the dynamics of Canadian concrete poetry) I was astonished that anyone would consider comic books as anathema to concrete poetry.
Comics were—and continue to be—a key part of my own reading. I find it interesting then that when friends come over and inevitably peruse my bookshelves, they contain themselves to “literature” and they rarely “pull from my shelves” any of the graphic novels, comic books or collections of historical publications.
There are a few Canadian concrete poets who have interacted with comic books and panels in their oeuvre; bpNichol (as exemplified with his piece in “Snore Comix” and Mark Laliberte (as exemplified with his 2010 bookthug book brickbrickbrick both immediately come to mind.
Andrei Molotiu has compiled an incredible anthology of non-narrativity and abstraction in his Abstract Comics: The Anthology 1967-2009 (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2009). The book is companion to his excellent blog Abstract Comics: The Blog Covering 43 different artists, Abstract Comics opens with a exemplary discussion of abstraction in comics books and its overlap with contemporary art. R.Crumb’s “Abstract Expressionistic Ultra Super Modernistic Comics” (1967) is the first contribution, and sets the tone with a multitude of panel shapes and sizes framing a hyper-sexualized landscape.
Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) provides a history and explanation of comics which lines up startlingly with issues around poetry: “And so comics’ low self-esteem is self-perpetuating! The historical perspective necessary to counteract comics’ negative image is obscured by that negativity.” (18) Poets need to think outside of the limitations of their own genre and realize that what holds back the development of poetry is the perceived limitations of the "poetic."
Analogously, Molotiu’s collection explores the possibilities of comics without characters, without plot, without dialogue or action; comics “whose panels contain little to no representational imagery, or that tells no stories other than those resulting from the transformation an interaction of shapes across a comic page.” The book is an incredible resource of potentiality (and the blog only furthers the discussion); I can’t recommend it higher.
I am particularly thrilled to see Montreal resident Billy Mavreas included in this collection. Billy’s work explores a strange combination of fuzzy animals and an overwhelming static of lines and pattern; alien dialects and fleshy biomorphic blobs. Billy, in addition to countless chapbooks, is the author of Mutations: The Posters of Billy Mavreas (Montreal: Conundrum, 1997), The Overlords of Glee (Conundrum, 2001) and most recently the silent Inside Outside Overlap (Kootenay Bay, timeless books, 2008). Billy is the proprietor of Monastiraki, an outlandish tickle-trunk of paper goods, vintage strangeness and small-press ephemera.
Author of five books of poetry (most recently the visual poem suite silence), three volumes of conceptual fiction (most recently the short fiction collection How to Write) and over 150 chapbooks, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. A collection of his critical writing entitled "Seen of the Crime" is forthcoming from Snare Books. He is online here. You can read "Nothing Odd Can Last," from How To Write, here.