Online Edition: Winter 2000/2001

Coach House Books at the turn of the century

Books discussed in this essay:

The Inkblot Record

Dan Farrell

Sensory Deprivation / Dream Poetics

Damian Lopes

Spiral Agitator

Steve Venright

by Tom Orange

In 1962, Stan Bevington left Edmonton to study in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Toronto, but within a few years he was spending most of his time with an old Challenge Gordon platen press residing in a 19th-century coach house tucked away in an alley at the edge of the U of T campus. Wayne Clifford's Man in a Window, published in March 1965, was the first title to bear the Coach House Press imprint. A short list of poets published by Coach House over the next thirty years would include Margaret Atwood, bill bissett, Robin Blaser, George Bowering, Nicole Brossard, Tom Clark, Robert Creeley, Frank Davey, Christopher Dewdney, Allen Ginsberg, Roy Kiyooka, Robert Kroetsch, Dorothy Livesay, Daphne Marlatt, Steve McCaffery, bpNichol, Michael Ondaatje, Fred Wah, and Phyllis Webb.1 So when Coach House Press closed in the middle of Summer 1996, Canada lost one of its finest independent publishers, one with an at times feverish devotion to innovative North American writing.

Yet in December 1996, Coach House Books emerged from the ashes, offering new titles in two formats--online editions at www.chbooks.com and limited-edition print volumes--beginning with Darren Wershler-Henry's Nicholodeon: A Book of Lowerglyphs (which had been accepted by the press in the Spring of 1995). Wershler-Henry has since taken on the job of editor for Coach House, whose publication of Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget has already been brought to the attention of Rain Taxi readers.2 But a flurry of activity over this past summer has yielded this crop of arresting new titles by three of Canada's exciting emerging writers. In other words, in case you may have missed this fact, Coach House is back.

Steve Venright's Spiral Agitator is part manifesto, part handbook, part marketing plan. Under the auspices of Torpor Vigilance Industries (TVI for short, or perhaps "T.V. Eye" as Iggy Pop would have it), Venright has written and filled the prescription for all who have ever hunted snarks, practiced Cranial Theramin Ouija, or counted themselves among the ranks of Post-Historical Incubi, Somnivores, Philip K. Dickheads or Rimbaudelautreamontians. (The back cover taxonomy, of which these are only a few representative species, approaches Joycean proportions.) Venright works here in short prose pieces, at times a single sentence or two standing alone, at times in short paragraphs or lists, at times numbered together in longer sequences. Together these forms work to create what Venright coins a "neureality," a rewiring of the perceptual hardware, a whirl through the champs magnétiques of the information age. Take a paragraph from "The Sepulchral Gazebo":

Deliriant cataleptic. I am a bleakness. In streams like these, motions turn up that cannot be replaced. One of us is dead, I can't tell which, but we reconnect here. Generate terrific monuments made of coloured steam. In hail we storm the edifices of a scream more incredible than the bursting of a thousand hearts amplified through vacufazers at full speed.

The passage suggests the flavor of the whole but fails to do justice to the variety of subgenres that filter through Agitator's synaptic mesh: stump speeches, proverbial wisdom, a love letter from a dithering suitor, a slide show commentary, Dada performance texts, even a send-up of Edward Gorey's "Gashleycrumb Tinies." Moreover, these pieces show a deft rhetorical slight-of-hand that, like the narratives of Maldoror, both assert and undermine the credulity of the narrator's seductive incredulities.

Damian Lopes's book--actually two books bound together head to toe--collects primarily his visual and concrete work that has accumulated over the past ten years. Readers who know only his earlier book Towards the Quiet (ECW Press 1997) will be surprised at the turn away from more traditional lyrics. But Lopes in fact wears more than one hat at a time. His micropress Fingerprinting Inkoperated has helped support and define innovative visually oriented poetries in Toronto for some time now, through a steady stream of limited edition books, booklets, and book objects. Skeptics may note that Lopes's work owes a lot to Wershler-Henry's, which is itself in many respects an homage to bpNichol. But Robert Duncan has, correctly I think, demonstrated that a derivative poetics arises not out of some of imaginative impoverishment but an awareness of the very richness that lies underexplored and underrecognized within a tradition, one that for Lopes includes other past and present Toronto-based verbal-visual artists such as Daniel F. Bradley, jwcurry, Beth Learn, Mark Sutherland, and David UU. Lopes blends more traditional-looking poems (found in portions of Sensory Deprivation / Dream Poetics) with a number of visual techniques: photo and digitally enhanced collage, found schematics, popular print media, graphemic decimations and dissemblages. The thematics are wide ranging as well: far from merely fetishizing the physicality of language, Lopes here investigates language, body, and machine as a kind of technological nexus. Indeed the book amounts to something of a compendium of current possibilities for visual poetics.

In The Inkblot Record, Dan Farrell continues and extends the rearticulatory practice evidenced in a piece like "Avail" from his previous book, Last Instance (Krupskaya, 1999). "Avail" uses responses to mental and physical well-being surveys as source material to create a text that, as I have suggested elsewhere,3 not only foregrounds the split nature of subjectivity under capitalism (the subject that is both perfectly at ease and at the same thoroughly angst-ridden by the state of its health), but also critiques the status of such surveys as ideological tools through which institutions identify, classify, and evaluate us. The Inkblot Record is a logical and structural extension of such an approach, plumbing the medical literature on Rorschach testing to compile--in an unbroken, 109-page paragraph--an alphabetical list of responses to such tests. This example, chosen almost at random:

Couple of lobsters in some sea grass. Couple of men bowing to each other. Crabs. Craggy dark wood area, irregular formation bare as you see in mountains sometimes. Craggy mountain area. Crawdads. Creatures flying along because of some force. Crocodile head. Cross-section of a cervix. Crudely done face, back with toy pack, color part of idea, color leads to illusion. Crustaceans' ball.

What astounds here is not merely the range of responses Farrell has gathered, or the labor that such an undertaking has exacted of him. The Inkblot Record demonstrates all too clearly how relentlessly the need for the human species to make meanings insists. "No symbols where none intended," Beckett concludes in Watt, but here we find symbols in spite of intention. Or to put it another way, Kenneth Burke's definition of "man" as the "symbol-making animal" returns with a vengeance.

In these works, as in Goldsmith's Fidget and Wershler-Henry's own recent Tapeworm Foundry (itself a work of potential literature that should be ranked among Oulipo's best), writing approaches, if not attains, the status of conceptual art; that is, given the concept, the writing becomes a matter of working the concept through all of its implications and permutations. And as Sol LeWitt writes, "It is difficult to bungle a good idea,"4 something about which these three writers hardly need to worry.


Notes

1. For background and history see "Coach House Press, 1965-1996," a special issue of Open Letter (Ninth series, Number 8: Spring 1997).

2. Reviewed by Christopher Fischbach, Rain Taxi Review of Books 5.6 (Fall 2000), page 30.

3. Lagniappe 2.1 (Fall 1999), http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~foust/B1.html#farrell.

4. "Sentences on Conceptual Art" (1969), reprinted in Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, ed. Gary Garrels, Yale University Press, 2000.

Click here to buy The Inkblot Record, Sensory Deprivation/Dream Poetics, and Spiral Agitator at Amazon.com

Winter 2000 Table of Contents