Pushing writing to its limits, Surfaces is Eric Schmaltz’s compelling debut collection, situated at the intersection of language, bodies, and digital culture. In this recommended reading list, he recommends other books where text and image are working together.
The list presented here could be much longer than a list of ten books, which also means there are many omissions. However, this list consists of ten books published within the last ten years or so that have struck me as indispensable collections of visually based poems. These books highlight the intersection of text and image to create compelling explorations of linguistic meaning-making through not just reading, but also seeing, gazing, and skimming.
Un/Inhabited, by Jordan Abel
Published two years before his Griffin Poetry Prize winning Injun, Jordan Abel’s Un/Inhabited is one of the most striking poetry collections of recent years that fuses text and image. A research-based book that intervenes into the mentality of the settler-colonial Western novel, Abel recasts that genre’s language as lists, maps, cut-ups, and textures to unsettle romantic depictions of colonization. The book itself is beautifully designed and composed—both inside and outside—using data visualization methods to create the work and balance both minimalist and maximalist visual aesthetics: minute poem fragments posed against text flowing off the page.
Zong!, by M. NourbeSe Philip
This is a powerful, research-based collection of poems that draws the reader in with its beauty and is striking in its treatment of systemic anti-Black racism. To compose the work, Philip rewrites the language of a 230-year-old insurance report that describes the mass-murder of slaves being transported to North America. The original document describes these Black lives as little more than lost cargo. Philip takes this document—manipulates, fragments, and distorts it—to find the voices of these murdered persons within the silences of the original text. Across each page, the language flows like currents—fast and slow, sparse and overlain—reflecting water’s sustaining and devastating capacities.
Delet This, by MLA Chernoff
Baffling the normies, MLA Chernoff’s debut collection of poetry is writing as meme, born from the depths of our strange and rapidly transforming digital culture. Delet This extracts the estrangement of “weird Facebook” and the “post-ironic internet” onto the page in a brilliant and intoxicated collection that conceives of the poem as everything circulating through the accelerated streams of digital culture—the book is five-parts flarf, five-parts selfie, five-parts philosophical treatise, five-parts satire, and 400-parts memetic magic.
Kern, by derek beaulieu
derek beaulieu is perhaps one of Canada’s best-known visual poets, with an impressive publication record that spans decades and continents. Kern marks a striking departure from beaulieu’s previously established “dirty concrete” poetics—that is, a mode founded in a contrived disorder of flowing ink, densely overlaid text, and decomposing letterforms. The Letraset-based Kern marks a shift toward a cleaner poetic based in the aesthetics of advertising that imagines the poem as pataphysical street sign, slogan, and logo for a world that exists only parallel to our own.
Magyarázni, by Helen Hajnoczky
Helen Hajnoczky’s Magyarázni is an understated collection of lyrical and visual poems disguised as a Hungarian “language primer” that speaks to the experience of growing up with a parent who is a Canadian immigrant and refugee. This colourful book is composed of 45 visual poems conceived out of a hand-drawn folk-art practice. Each lyrical text speaks to the experiences of being a first generation Hungarian-Canadian and is accompanied by brightly blooming visual poem based around each letter of the alphabet.
Full-Metal Indigiqueer, by Joshua Whitehead
Joshua Whitehead’s Full-Metal Indigiqueer is a collection of hybrid poetry that “infects, invades, and infests” both the literature and art of the cannon and popular culture. Whitehead’s language is steeped in cyberpunk and Indigenous traditions to compose poems written as a lyrical computer virus that also incorporate image, code, and collage to resist the erasures of settler-colonialism and to raise up queer indigeneity.
si tu, by angela rawlings
si tu, angela rawlings’ most recent book of poems, is a “response to Marjana Krajač’s choreography Variations on Sensitive,” a durational work by five dancers that first premiered in 2014. As a poet and interdisciplinary artist, rawlings always, it seems, has worked with both image and language as equal parts of her compositions. The same holds true for si tu, wherein rawlings responds to choreographed dance and reimagines the page as a floor, a space through which her letters move and spin, drawing language from the body and giving a body to language.
Asemanticasymmetry, by Mark Laliberte
With the eye of both a designer and a poet, Mark Laliberte develops a “mutant” poetics that sits at the intersection of language and art to produce surprising works that blur the borders between poem, fine art, and comic (as also seen in his 2010 Brick Brick Brick). His most recent chapbook, Asemanticasymmetry, is a colourful risograph-printed collaboration with visual poet derek beaulieu. In Asemanticasymmetry, Laliberte mixes, tweaks, and reinvents beaulieu’s letraset-based work to offer visual poets a fine example of what more can be done with a little well-placed colour and careful consideration of space.
Buffet World, by Donato Mancini
Of text and image, Buffet World is representative of Donato Mancini’s penchant for restless experimentalism. Here Mancini’s poetry focuses on life under late capitalism with an special focus on food. Alongside poems that swerve every which way in compositional style (including found text, list poems, visual poems, and prose poems), Buffet World contains a number brightly coloured—gaudy, even—photographs of food items like quiche, bacon, fish, and hot dogs that don’t exactly stimulate an appetite.
Found, by Souvankham Thammavongsa
In Found, Souvankham Thammavongsa uses material from her father’s 1978 scrapbook accounting for the time her parents lived in a refugee camp in Nongkai, Thailand. The scrapbook contained markings, addresses, stamps, maps, and measurements, which became the source material for her poems. While this collection doesn’t demonstrate the same overt visual inclinations of other image-text poetry, Found is composed from a visual archive that is reflected in the poetry: Thammavongsa so skillfully uses the blank space of the page and recreates the drawings and markings of the source text so that these are just as much a line of poetry as the others.
About Surfaces: Opening toward the embodied and the intersubjective, Surfaces is at turns playful and unsettling as it explores the processes, interactions, and erasures that occur on and below the surface of writing with machinery.
Composed with a minimalist aesthetic and conceptual elements, the book combines found elements, graphic design, imprint, translation, and experimental typography to engage questions about writing and feeling in the twenty-first century: Where does the body go when we write to one another thru digital channels? How and what do we feel when information is realized through taps, clicks, and pressures? What happens to meaning within a digital economy when information is considered to be bodiless? Concerned with these questions, Surfaces begins to probe for their depths.
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