Coach of the Ganglia Frame: on bpNichol's Small Press Poetics
The 1970s saw a huge rise in modernist-inflected small press poetry publications. With the readily-available mimeograph as a primary means of printing, and the photo-duplicator just around the corner, the stage was set for the web-poetics that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. While many poets today will email their works to one another (creating an interesting divergence of fine press and visual-voco-verbal texts amidst relatively traditional poetic forms), the 1970s were marked by a proliferation of poetic communities linked by the mail. This essay looks into the ways that single works of poetry and publication reflect the larger aesthetic projects of book publication and the serial poem, focusing on works by the Canadian poet bpNichol (1944-1988) and his mailing of poetry publications, specifically those distributed by way of a mailing list for his poetry series Ganglia and grOnk. In examining the role of the poet-publisher-designer during a critical period of innovative poetry, we can distinguish a poetics of publication from the poetics of aesthetic/thematic language art, and observe the correspondences between them in the drive to materially distinguish individual works by their physical shape, implicit rules for reading, or the processes by which they are composed. Among many other poets involved in the mimeo and artist's-book communities of the 1970s, bpNichol attended closely to the sometimes necessary, and sometime intentional aspects of designing others' and his own works throughout the decade. Aleph Unit (1973) and Love: A Book of Remembrances (1974) are manifestations of concrete poetry, inflected by English-language book traditions and European modernism. In a parallel process, by building a publishing and reading community by mail, bpNichol recognized the meaning of the "frame" for the work as a concern for the way that a work is to be read. In The Martyrology Books 3 and 4 (1976), he takes up themes of a personal and local history within the newer practice of a poetry explicitly centered on autobiographical and subjective experience. If the popular press deemed the 1970s a "me" decade, Nichol's work reminds us that a little letter-pinch can induce mirrors, transpositions and reversals sufficient to spin selfish concepts towards new interpersonal insights: ME --> WE.