Books by bpNichol and The Four Horsemen


Translating Translating Apollinaire, A Preliminary Report 1979; Sharp Facts: Selections from TTA 26 , 1980; The Prose Tattoo: Selected Performance Scores of the Four Horsemen 1983;

Click on covers for enlarged images; scroll down for comment.

Books by bpNichol and The Four Horsemen


It seems essential to include bpNichol in this first group of essays. The most important of many reasons is that he was a poet who continually started over from the beginning on most of the work he created. He was a poet who constantly explored what I think of as volume and triangulation, and the books I will discuss here allowed me to work out these concept in even greater fullness and amplitude. Had bp's life not ended early, I'm sure there would be more books listed - and not simply more titles, but continuations of the Translating Translating Apollinaire series as well as works starting from other positions. The two TTA volumes were, appropriately and ironically, only meant as beginnings of a larger project. In the development of my publishing efforts, working with him allowed me to resolve problems with publishing visual poetry in the era after the definitive Concrete anthologies of the late 1960s. He will reappear in further installments dealing with my New Fire audio tape series, and in the section devoted to my own poetry.

There may be some irony in me writing over and over, in essay after essay, that Barrie always started from the beginning, from the most rudimentary building blocks he could isolate. He rang seemingly endless inventions on the alphabet, one of the first symbol sets that children learn. He invented proto- and pseudo-alphabets and worked on the design of a typeface. Individual letters could always be reshaped and reconfigured. The sequence of the ABCs could act as a narrative line on which potentially infinite stories could be told. Pronouncing the names of letters or uttering them as phonemes could chart the most basic and often pre-lingustic articulations of sound, just as letters could be used on paper as drawing tools, as prefab elements or background patterns or plain or distorted linear modules - sometimes shaping poems without any semantic value at all. He could return to basics even in genres. Basho's frog pond haiku gave him the key to variations that run at least into the hundreds. Comic books are often the first print publications which children take to as their own discovery, instead of something brought to them, like the alphabet, through school. Hence after his typewriter poem, later titled "Blues," was transformed into rigid Concrete lettering for Mary Ellen Solt's anthology, he returned to Concrete idiom less and less in his visual poetry, but relied more on combinations of drawing based on comic strips and hand lettering. Hand lettering is not only more supple and expressive than the rigidity of type, it is also the first form of writing children make by themselves - or such was the case in the days before personal computers.

Beep's Translating Translating Apollinaire project began from a similar premise. He wanted to take a relatively simple and straight forward poem and transform it as many ways as he could devise. The poem he chose for the base was quite naturally his first published poem, "Translating Apollinaire." The poem was initially published in bill bissett's Blew Ointment magazine in 1964. Note that this was not his first poem written, but his first published. Since the project involved publication instead of simple Orphic inspiration, this was square one of his public projection, and hence suitable for use in a project that would include other people. It was also published at a time when Canadian poets were beginning to think of creating a literature of their own, not completely dependent on the U.S. elephant to the south.

In a plane over the Atlantic on his way home from The 8th International Sound Poetry Festival in London, he got the root idea for the project. Appropriately, he did not have a copy of the poem with him, so the first installments were transcriptions of what he could remember of it. When he got back to Toronto, he began working variations on the whole poem. He started inviting other people to do variations on the poem, too. One went back to his first installments written over the Atlantic: he showed them the poem, then taking the poem away, asked them to write what they could remember of it.

bp and I first started discussing publication of the results through implications of the whole work, with special attention to one of its most difficult and unusual subdivisions, TTA 26. (Here and elsewhere in this article, some "discussions" took place face to face in real time and continued through correspondence and telephone calls.) bp was at this time making significant revision to his longpoem, The Martyrology - starting some passages over from scratch. He was also working on several other projects. I too was juggling. Our conversation on the projects we had going included what it meant to finish a poem or related art piece. Beep kept coming back to the position that, with the possible but uncertain exception of The Martyrology, he wanted to pursue research. He was at times unsure about how much he should document some types of research. He did feel strongly that sound poetry should avoid excessive recording. He wasn't completely opposed to records or tapes (he was definitely not a purist about much of anything) but did not like the way audio recordings of performance art took the spontaneity not only out of the recorded performance, but of future performances of the same work. His sense of research allowed him to consider poems on the page works still in process.

I agreed on one level, but not on another. Some of my ideas on this appear throughout these essays. Perhaps the most important difference in our conversation was that I aimed at places of rest and reorientation. I often didn't chart or reveal how I got to these stages, which usually occurred at the time of publication. The continuation might be made by other people, or it might be made in the context of collaboration, or it might be part of my own development. As examples, I used works of mine in which the imaging was achieved with the aid of the quirks of photocopiers. In these, I didn't want the reader to fuss too much about how the image was made, since that might detract from what I was trying to achieve with it. Barrie described some of the stages of TTA 26, the section of Translating Translating Apollinaire that worked through xerographic decay. Xerographic decay is the alteration an image goes through as it is repeatedly copied. In older machines, the distortion or transformation tended to happen much more quickly than in the newer copiers just becoming available. I thought that a lot of the examples of stages of decay in his work were closer to what I though of as stages than simple research, since they usually presented a significant variation on the original, on the previous copy, and would have the potential of making a broader impact on the change that the next step might take.

This lead us into all sorts of areas, and I'm not completely sure how the conversation proceeded. The first important thing it lead to was his showing me most of Translating Translating Apollinaire. As part of the conversation, I thought we should do it as a series of books. We did not start immediately planning this, but continued talking about the implications of variations in process. This of course included my ideas of pluralism in editing and triangulation in publishing.

Part of the background to my role in the project, and to our conversation, was my uncertainty regarding the publication of visual poetry. I published a good deal of my own, but not as much by other people. One of my reasons for this was that in producing my own work, I could be certain that any sacrifices I made were indeed the author's considered decisions. This included when and to what extent I could use color. I couldn't produce four color process on my press, but I could design poems with the colors available to me in mind, not having to compromise later. I did not have to think about whether the poet would have preferred to use color on a conscious level or had simply ruled it out because of economic reasons.

I had been disgusted by the limited range of work in the Williams and Solt anthologies, and still see the failure of Concrete as due in part to the initial botching of these collections and the way they had brought about a fad that collapsed more thoroughly than any other serious genre in the 20th Century. I did not want to do books that could be construed as implying a narrow form of visual poetry, whether in Concrete or any of the many other forms of visual poetry until something redressed the imbalance created by the anthologies. At the same time, I did not want to do anything that would separate visual poetry from other forms in such a way as to imply anything but a continuum from abstract and improvised sound poetry, through lexical poetry, through the broad spectrum of visual modes.

The TTA project seemed just right for the kind of presentation I wanted. It included prose and traditional lyrics as well as visual poetry. Though it was basically a collection of the mimeo form of visual poetry, the typewriter poem, it could potentially include all other genres and forms - in fact, eventually it should. We could even look forward to volumes that included full color, to performances (both ephemeral and recorded), and to other media yet to be devised.

Once we agreed to produce the book near the end of 1977, we had to decided what to include in the first volume. This was almost entirely done by Barrie, though we did try to set up guidelines that would not only make this book manageable but would leave options open for other volumes. This took about a year.

The book more or less designed itself - all I had to do was not let it become crowded. It gave me several interesting opportunities for cover design. Part of this goes back to my sense of visual poetry and the use of color. Since the anthologies were printed almost entirely in black and white (the exceptions being several silk screened pages in Solt), many people who tried imitating them thought that black and white was something like a rule laid down as harshly as the rigid minimalism of type in the books. This despite the fact that much of the work that went under the name Concrete before the anthologies had been in color, and was only transposed to black and white for affordable printing. When the black and white fundamentalists argued for the necessity of monochrome, they sometimes dismissed color as being, in Duchamp's phrase, too retinal to attain a correct purity. I have nothing against retinal satisfaction. But even following the Manichaen obsessiveness of minimalist Concrete, there was a fatal flaw: If you use color, you can get more information on a page, and you can create simultaneities. Lyric poets tended to use the musical terminology of polyphonic music to describe work in this mode. "Counterpoint" and "harmony" are plainly impossible unless you have two lines running simultaneously. Using "counterpoint" to mean shifts in argument and "harmony" to indicate unity from one line or stanza to the next seemed ridiculous metaphors to me, the type that dulls the critical abilities, and indirectly minimizes masterpieces ranging from those by Scarlatti and J.S. Bach to Louis Armstrong and Thelonius Monk among the classics of the two sides of the Atlantic, and Ornette Coleman and John Cage among the current tribal elders. I had done some poems in which I had printed texts over each other in different colors so that they could be simultaneously present and simultaneously legible, not only satisfying retinal desires, but increasing the amount of information presented, and do so in a way that truly mimicked the harmonies and counterpoints of polyphonic music. This book seemed perfect for such treatment. Since I was not using a white stock, red and blue ink could not be read with the base as the colors of the American flag, They were, however, the components of Barrie's favorite color, purple.

As a bridge to bp's sound poetry, the phrases could be read by multiple voices. In a transformative process of the title and author, I took fractured words, usually two syllables long, and superimposed them over each other in a spindly type face that made the superimposed texts more legible. Since Barrie liked to start over from beginnings, I initially focused on the letter O. Calligraphers and type designers will tell you this letter is the mother of the alphabet. From it, all the others take their proportions. The Os in the design interact with all other types of letters, suggesting how much curved letters such as S depended on them just as they define straight lines like those in the letter L. bp's favorite letter, H, overlaps an A before an O, emphasizing the way O governs slant lines as well as vertical and horizontal strokes. I made some adjustments to make angled lines apparent, trying to echo some of the different types of formalism bp and I had discussed in other contexts, in relation to models primarily from Russian and Dutch sources.

For extended excerpts from the book click here

Xerography on its own Terms and Images

TTA 26 involves subjecting the base poem to as many types and stages of xerographic decay as possible. We had decided to do a set of variations on TTA 26 as a separate book nearly from the start. There initially seemed an inherent problem in doing this, however: any printing process we might use would constitute a new generation, so we could not reproduce any of the existing pages bp had collected. What we could do is a sort of book as improvisation, producing all pages on the same photocopying machines. Instead of using photocopiers as expedients, such devices were the only means of legitimately making a book from this section of the work.

By this time we had both become somewhat fanatical about searching out and trying different machines, albeit usually for different purposes. We sometimes went so far as to send each other things to be copied on machines in our respective cities. In addition to the fascination we had with the way xerography could transform words into images, we were also becoming painfully aware, in part through our discussion, that the time frame in which we could work with quirky photocopiers was limited. Newer and more efficient machines were proliferating, not only reducing my business as an offset printer, but also limiting the transformations a machine could produce. When we started, you could still find machines that produced large steps in a single generation. In some of the newer machines, 20 generations might do no more than make the image a bit fuzzier. We spoke of this as a doomed art and as an art of transience, related in a literal way to some of the themes in the T'ang Dynasty poets I was studying. Barrie's landmark essay "The Pata of Letter Feet; or the English Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," included the implication of the less likable transformation of photocopiers as a media for image creation to machines for standardization.

I was able to arrange for bp or the whole ensemble of Horsemen to perform in Milwaukee at least once a year by the end of the 1970s. We decided to do the text of the book during one of bp's visits, in February 1980. We had a relatively hectic schedule, since I had set up performances at U.W. and at Woodland Pattern, and we had other things we wanted to talk about. Despite the fact that we had become expert xerographers, we underestimated the time it would take to print the text. The machines we used were in public places, and this created some confusion among people around us. Still, fanatics that we, were, it was definitely a high for both of us. Some savants had bandied about the nonsensical idea of what happened in a text as a performance art. What we were doing was literally making it as close to one as you could get. At one point we were working on the only photocopier in a building and had a line of maybe half a dozen people behind us. One fellow in the line barked "what the hell you guys doing, printing a book?" bp and I turned at precisely the same time, said "ya"in perfect synchronization, and turned back to the machine just as mechanically, though both of us laughing at how much like the machine we were working on we had become. It would have made a good video clip. Bouvard et Pacuchet in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

The rest of production consisted of printing covers and introductory matter and binding them together. Since xerography at that time was almost entirely monochrome, I did another recension of the first TTA cover in a more subdued color scheme, with endpapers that seemed to bridge the green and brown of the covers. Green and brown are also the colors of oxidation through time, miming the rust of old metal in air and under water.

Perhaps fortunately, the book didn't sell very well, and at least half of the copies ordered were returned as "defective" by people who didn't understand the book. We resigned ourselves to passing copies around to people who would appreciate them. Despite the small print run of the book (perhaps 150 or 200 copies), this is a book which cannot be reprinted, since any reprint would take it to another generation. I did, however, put several pages on the web as a continuation of the project. If TTA in general is the most inclusive of projects, TTA 26 suggests that excruciatingly arcane or esoteric connoisseurship is part of any broad spectrum, and perfectly legitimate as long as it does not seek to take over the whole art range of which it is a tiny segment.

You can see them by clicking here

Performance Scores of the Four Horsemen

TTA's base was in print, though it included some performance elements. As publishing TTA progressed, I wanted to bring what I saw as the reemergence of a continuum in the arts from the extremes of non-acoustic visualization in TTA 26 to as close as paper could get to performance.

The history of the interrelation between the extremes is profound, and should be taken into serious consideration by anyone interested in Avant-Garde art. Although they may seem extremes, they often find more affinity with each other than work closer to what most people would see as the center. Bob Cobbing and David Cole, for instance, insisted that virtually any type of mark could be read and/or performed, and both could indeed read or perform nearly anything from the grain in a pieces of wood to scratches on the windows of a phone booth. At the same time, many performance artists have produced scores as purely utilitarian notes, and as works meant to be seen as much as performed. Some "scores" have taken concepts of notation as metaphors or conceits, but have been produced as works of visual art without any thought of the possibility of performance. Likewise, some scores have been created after performances either to buttress claims of the artist or as a means of clarifying what the performance means. Still other performances have involved the creation of paintings, drawings, photographs, and other images as part of the performance. If this does not get tricky enough among contemporary Avant-Gardes, Chinese students have been learning to write by drawing characters in the air, and people in Sino-Japanese cultures use drawing to augment and clarify their conversation by writing characters on the palms of their hands and on other convenient surfaces for thousands of years. Islamic calligraphy has been done to musical accompaniment, both as a mature art and as an aid to students. Medieval and Renaissance Europe produced musical scores in a plethora of shaped pages, calligraphic variation, and notes and staves interspersed with images and diagrams.

bp had reservations as to the value and nature of scores, just as he had reservations about recording performances. Generally, the scores for Four Horsemen performances are extremely utilitarian. Some accidentally stumble into unexpected visual dimensions. Some plainly have aesthetic visual elements in them, often greater than deliberate visual poetry. My own sense, not always shared by Barrie, was that seeing the scores made the performances, including their improvisational passages, more accessible to audiences. However, I was also pushing boundaries I set up myself in this assumption. My basic definition of the visual poetry segment of the spectrum of arts is that it 1. is a type of art that comes from a literary background, whether it includes any verbal content or not; 2. that it need have no aesthetic value whatsoever as long as it conveyed ideas or perceptions that could not be presented in any other way; and 3, that it is a form of poetry that is inaccessible to people who cannot see it: that no matter how you read it or explain it something essential is always missing. I don't want to become complacent in my assumptions. Does this definition or set of parameters hold true for utilitarian scores that need not be seen? In going into the project of making a book of scores for Horsemen performances, I had some reservations myself, and for me, this was a form of research as much as a form of assertion or conclusion.

bp's notes (linked below) explain his thinking during the time we assembled the book. It is important to note here his concern with performance as a collective art. The first TTA volumes were intended to include work by many people. But they were almost invariably working alone when they produced their compositions. The Horsemen pieces relied on active and simultaneous interchange among members of the group. The collection of scores thus moved the project into yet another dimension.

At the time of publication of the book, we had started other projects, most importantly, what we intended as a set of four recordings of solos by each of the Horsemen and a tape of the group in rehearsal, not final performance. I'll go into this in a later installment, but suffice it here to say that we might have done the book differently if we did not have the set of tapes in mind while working on The Prose Tattoo and had we not already published the tape of Barrie's solos.

Text printing again proved simply a matter of letting the scores breathe. For the cover, I wanted to do something that would include echoes of the TTA volumes, but also break away from them. Using the same color scheme and type as the first TTA sufficed in linking the books. In using a pictorial passage on the front score and a graph on the back presented some of the range of the scores. Echoing the difference, the prominent teeth on the front cover link with the word "DENTA" in large letters on the back, as does an exchange of color patterns. If TTA's covers should be built from letters, the face of a book of performance scores should be based on a rendering of a human face in the act of sonic articulation.

Click here to go to scores from the book.


There were many reasons I did these books, and many reasons why I worked with bp on these and other projects. One of my main objectives was to use this line of publication to chart as broad a trajectory of contemporary poetry as possible with the work of a single poet and those associated with him. And I wanted to do so with a poet approximately my own age, even though I had hopes of charting something of the expansiveness of two of the elders, Jerome Rothenberg and Jackson Mac Low. The projects with Barrie required not only the kind of work he did but also a personality that could sustain the effort, work easily with me, and continue along lines I was working myself without seeking an alter-ego or simulation of myself. Beep's kindness, generosity, and openness remain legendary, and were essential to the scope of the project I had in mind.

When The Prose Tattoo came out in 1983, I was working at fever pitch, and coming unglued in the process. I later began a period in which I tried not to write or to read much or to stay in touch with literary friends. Of the latter, beep was one of the very few exceptions. On the eve of his death in 1988, he called me back to writing. Ironically, I came back to a position from whence to continue the projects we had started, but bp was no longer in the place to which he had asked me to return.

In titling The Prose Tattoo, Barrie was indulging his love of puns and paradoxes, contrasting a type of body art with a type of dance and playing them off the title of a play. For the dance form, he may have had its practice among his Scotts-Irish ancestors in mind, as he might have had Gertrude Stein's rose in mind when he shifted the middle word into prose. The staccato dance steps and the rapid fire tapping that give body coloring its name balance each other. The permanence of transience and the transience of certainty may also have played a role, as they certainly have in the legacies of these books.

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