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Martin Gubbins


Time and Visual Poetry

I will describe three ways in which time becomes an important element of my practice as a poet.

1) Representations of time: One of the most distinctive, boring and annoying features of modern life is that everything is determined by certain timings. An efficient society is one in which things are done in accordance with schedules. Public transport works according to timetables. Labour productivity relies on more or less fixed hours. Even domestic life is dominated by machines that function on the basis of processes with established durations. As in every state of captivity, we are both trapped by time and we depend on it to survive. Some of my poetry is very figurative, and one of the things I have been trying to represent is how these faces of time the monster show themselves to us and determine how we live. For the poem Inside the Microwave [still version / movie version], for example, I recorded one of its possible readings, which has the same time length of some cooking or heating processes in a microwave oven: 3:43 minutes. Thus, the reading got as fixed as the text and anyone turning the recording on can actually witness its automatic performance. The poem becomes a frozen meal as it were, and the time spent waiting for it to be heated/performed acquires poetic significance. Moreover, the point of view of the poem is set within the machine, looking at the outside. Thus, the oven becomes a metonym of our living surrounded by microwaves of various sorts (radio, TV, mobile phones, etc.) and ruled by timings of all kinds. However, the duration of the poem is not only a time of waiting but also a time of transformation. Something does happen inside the belly of this microwave/whale. The poem starts to dissolve. Its letters/molecules start to move, heat and melt, and whatever or whoever we can imagine is in there will not be just spitted out; it will move, heat and melt as well.

2) Time and structure: Time relates to structure because of the relationship between poetry and rhythm. “Rhythm is a form cut into TIME” Pound says in the ABC of Reading, and he adds that “the writer of bad verse is a bore because he does not perceive time and time relations.” I agree, but Pound is thinking mostly on versification here, which is the means traditionally used by poets to solve the challenges of rhythm. I have been using visual forms, instead of or in addition to versification, to create not only visual shapes but also patterns of rhythm. In The Naked Snaked Snakes, for instance, I could not have represented the decomposition of the skin of a snake by writing in verse only. In addition, this visual configuration gives to each part of the poem a particular rhythm. Prosody studies emphasize that some formal design is the sine qua non of verse. Poetry used to achieve this by means of metric writing. However, the metre is a submorphemic principle of order that not always gives a general composition/appearance to the poem, for both sound and visual purposes. This is why I have explored other resources to charge my words with meaning, like sound, shape, size, weight, position, absence, blur, distortion and movement. Of course, there is nothing new in this approach. I will mention two examples. In the beginning of the 20th Century, the Italian Futurists attempted to convert the page “from a neutral surface holding neutral graphic signs, into a dynamic field of typographic and sonographic forces.” (Steve McCaffery, “Sound Poetry: A Survey”, in Sound Poetry: A Catalogue, Toronto: Underwhich Editions, 1978.) The same is crucial for the Brazilian Noigrandes' poets, for whom “concrete poetry begins by being aware of graphic space as structural agent. Qualified space: space-time structure instead of mere linear-temporistical development” (“Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry”, 1958, in www.ubu.com/feature /papers/feature_noigandres01.html.) As a poet, I find extremely difficult to escape from form, and any reaction to form is expressed in another set of forms. What is interesting is the search for forms that are not detachable from the poem to which they belong, forms that cannot be used with the same effect in any other poem.

3) Time and performance: The importance of time also appears at the moment of the performance. Metrical poetry relies almost exclusively on the aural for its prosodic deployment. This makes possible to know how to read a poem, because there are patterns ordered by more or less recognisable sets of rules. In contrast, poems that rely on the visual open the range of possible readings, making the performance an essential part of the process of creation, the process of creation a continuous exercise and the poem a product that changes in time. Not only in time, but also conceptually. The poem becomes a creature uneasy to label. The line that could eventually divide visual and sound poetry, for example, becomes insignificant, and strongly visual-oriented pieces become sound-oriented performances. This happens with my Transport System. I use to read the text with which I composed the image from beginning to end, but the poem can be read (and not read) in many different ways. In multivoice performances of this piece for instance, some of the poets started to read different lines of the poem/map, while others were spelling out isolated letters found on it, making a visual poem become a sound piece.

London, June 2003
Martín Gubbins is a Chilean poet.