Saturday, May 16, 2015

a note on David Mitchell

Not so long ago, I had occasion (without issue, as it happened) to write a note on New Zealand poet David Mitchell, who died in 2011 - I was going today to add to the "stocktaking" list, Ross Brighton's book, written to be read at the spread of Mitchell's ashes over Auckland Harbour - but before doing that, I thought I'd retrieve this otherwise 'lost' bit of writing, in order to give it a home - I'll add Ross's book in a day or two - meanwhile, here's a precursor -

When the New Zealand literary avant garde (let's give it a name, as any would be equally inadequate and contested) announced itself at the end of the 1960s, it did so thru I think three publications: Freed magazine, the New Zealand Universities Students Association Arts Festival Literary Yearbook, and David Mitchell's Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby. Within two years, Murray Edmond's Entering the Eye (Caveman Press 1973) and A Charlatan's Mosaic (eds Stephen Chan and E S [Elizabeth] Wilson 1972) were issued. In these books a pattern was wedged open with a very different relation between poems & production, and between text & image on the page, than seemed current in mainstream literary publishing. There were a few American magazines that contained images among the poems, some of which were illustrative, but many of which were not – already a juxtaposition of elements that resisted any impulse towards narrative that readers might have had. Traditional narratives, production values & relations between text & image were all under review in those few years. Only the different relations between text & image seems not to have survived the intervening time. And the avant garde (however problematic in the New Zealand scene) no longer has a regular publication or publisher in New Zealand.
             It was always clear in the 1950s and 1960s that to be published by Caxton or McIndoe or Pegasus presses was to participate in not only literary value but book production value also. The book of poems was first & foremost a book of poems, one which had a value supplemental to the poems themselves & in some measure independent of the poems themselves. Freed magazine in contrast was more frail, more ephemeral, went from one format to another as if in isolated fragments, and each issue was just stapled together, a new literary community that was not securely bound in a standard format according to the best of print technology. I was very interested in this when I established A brief description of the whole world in 1995 – its authors & artists had the capacity to put any mark whatever on any part of their pages, and the photocopier was a perfect production method for it.
            My impulse as a printer was different, even tho I valued the early 1970s practice, and was instead to offer a modality of mainstream publishing to avant garde authors that, in those days, was only rarely offered to mainstream poets. Fine press printing has in New Zealand always had its share of detractors, and yet that was in fact how the first poets who 'became' the poetry canon were published in the 1930s by Denis Glover, Bob Lowry and Ron Holloway, and in the wonderful Phoenix magazine, which also mixed text & image but in more traditional ways than did Freed forty years later. These days, text & image have a much more radical & more seamless life in the realm of the artist’s book, often in a unique edition (i.e. edition of one), where image & text and the material of which the book is made all overlap & intertwine with each other in a single experience of reading/viewing, where book & art are fully present in and as the same work. In an interesting way, the historical model for Freed magazine is a book printed in 1499, in Venice, by Aldus Manutius (a hero of some of the most notable book people in New Zealand – Janet Paul, J C Beaglehole (whose poetry was published by Caxton in the 1930s), and Glover) titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, in which all possible problems and arrangements of image & text were posed and solved for letterpress printing for the next 350 years. There's a copy of this in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and an English translation which preserved all the page layouts and typeface of the original was published in 1999.
            A major transgression enacted by Mitchell's Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby was that it published poetry in a sans serif type – something that Caxton and its cohorts would never have countenanced – sans serif types were for them (via the English scholar Stanley Morison whose work was well-known to mainstream printer/publishers in New Zealand) appropriate for advertising and some book covers, but not at all for the serious business of cultural transmission of the highest order. The later A Charlatan's Mosaic and Edmond’s Entering the Eye took this a step further when they printed poems in a multiplicity of types throughout – all sense of a unified aesthetic that bound the book together thru the standardised arrangements of poems & types on the page dispersed in front of the reader – no wonder so many of the mainstream poets & critics in the country were bothered, even angered by it. Such dispersal meant there was no central validating principle of ‘authorisation’, and thus no single target for their critical displeasure; but it did permit the traditionalists to lump the multiplicity of targets (i.e. Mitchell's poems, Alan Brunton's poems, Edmond's poems, Russell Haley's poems etc) all together and refuse to make distinctions between them. Nevertheless, I have sometimes wondered, as painters have been more adept at incorporating text into their artwork than writers have been at incorporating images into their texts, whether we let a great opportunity slip by with the passing of the avant garde publications of the early 1970s. A lucid (and ludic) study of the ways in which poetry was printed & published in 1970s New Zealand is still waiting to be done, the groundwork started by Gregory O’Brien (1991) and Noel Waite (2007) yet to be developed outward to the field at large.
            Mitchell's text however also transgressed in other ways, and particularly in his abbreviations of various words, writing them as they are uttered rather than as spelled – the 'e' in 'the' so frequently not sounded in usage, for example, writing 'th', not 'the'. His abbreviations brought the reader back to the materiality of the written or printed word as 'a thing and not a picture of a thing'. And a number of others either followed him or were part of a larger movement in Western poetry in which Mitchell was simply a significant local example. And what of that note at the beginning of the book, that 'all the poems in this book have been read aloud in public' : a very different kind of validating principle from any that had been presented by the poetry of previous decades in New Zealand, and which was and is to me a measure of the coming to be of the poem itself. If it couldn't survive being sounded aloud, it needed changing – a measure I have never abandoned since I first understood it at that time. I only met David twice, the first time in the later 1970s, and this meeting bears on the sounding of the poem very well. He was with Peter Olds and in a house in Christchurch sometime I think in 1977, I read the whole of my poem dear Mondrian to Peter & David. After some raucous applause and a few nice words about the poem, I offered a copy of the book to David, which he declined on the grounds that he was worried he might be influenced by it in his own writing. What he then took from that reading was the sounded poem – aloud, certainly, if not quite 'in public'. I think that many poets now have no idea that the poetry readings they so avidly go to or participate in were pretty much initiated by the rebels of the early 1970s, and that the university arts festivals were primary occasions for them. The poem on the page altered dramatically at this time, the poem got more air at arts festivals, theatres, university campuses, restaurants and pubs, and book and magazine production values underwent a critical examination that is still perhaps waiting for its full articulation. David Mitchell's Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby was a primary component in this pattern that was already appearing in other parts of the culture, both in New Zealand and overseas. Bardic, in the best sense, and acutely aware of how letters & words register on the page, he is still in Pipe Dreams, one of the best and most interesting poets on the block in the early 1970s.