Brief Graphic Performances

Reviewed by Johanna Drucker

All poems are graphical on the page, but only some are interesting in that graphicality, through self-awareness or deliberate attention to the potential of the dimensions of semantic value that accrue through use of visual strategies. Many poems are diagrammatic, which is to say, they articulate their meaning by spatializing the relations of their elements. Poetic composition depends upon the break of a line, the distance between words, the positioning of a node of visual emphasis on the page so that the eye is drawn to it or to a space that pauses our attention. These are all graphical features that use spatial properties. Diagrams work, they do not merely present. They are dynamic, not static. They allow the components of a schematic structure to articulate, as surely as the joint of an elbow or knee, the hinge of a door, or the opening span of a mechanical compass setting the position of one arm to another. By contrast, other poems are iconographic, and invoke pictorial objects or scenes to direct the reading of the text towards a particular frame of reference. Some poems are scores, meant to be performed by the eye on the page or the spoken voice. And poems may be scripts, with instructions for characters, staging, a reading, or a mise-en-scene of some kind. The succinct summary of major genres of visual poetics does not exhaust the field, but it does describe some of its major categories. 

This preamble is essential to understand the range of approaches embodied in Frédéric Forte’s Minute-Operas, since he has engaged nearly every one of these techniques in the approximately 120 works in this volume. The book has two phases, of apparently overlapping chronology, the first from January to October 2002, the second from February to December of the same year. Demarcations and lines of division mark our lives into phases as absolutely as scoring lines divide sections and regions of space and text, and yet, they layer and complicate each other. Forte’s multifaceted approach engages graphical properties as principles of poetic composition. Elements of scale, hierarchy, position, prioritization, elevation and subordination—the list could go on at length—are part of the text, not a supplement to it, an extra, or an afterthought. The works sit almost like rebuses on the page, their quasi-cryptic presentation suggestive of a glyph or sign, but as Forte states clearly in one of works toward the end of the book, “The problem poem/ would like a solution […]” and instead, becomes a demonstration of the idea that it is “What works by working.” (p.115). These are not puzzle-poems to be solved, but dynamic expressions making use of condensed encoding as part of their literary matter.

Forte takes the distillation and reduction of poetry, the spare line, the phrase and fragment, combines it with the capacity of graphical scoring to create active relations among the parts of the work on the page. Some of the pieces are clearly, almost literally, theatrical—their letters and words act as instructions on the left and language to be performed on the right. He uses every convention of typesetting and schematic graphs—black blocks of censored texts, lines that connect alternative expressions, asides, or subtexts to a statement, scribbles and cross-hatchings. He activates the vertical axis, setting lines at the perpendicular or stacking the letters on top of each other like children’s alpha-blocks. Occasionally a graphical element is almost an image—as in the case of an empty box, bordered in hairline rule, that follows a line about movement in space “sail-steaming towards the west when suddenly /…” (p.12) The bordered space is a defined aporia, not a vague one, and the device works to confound the multiple values of the spatial and dynamic terms in the text. In other instances, the graphical scoring performs the text, as on p.81 where the “Maoi” have “turned their backs to the sea” in a long graceful curve in which the spines and lines align with space and gaps to map the twisting motion. 

Diagrams are not depictions, their designations are not fixed but mutable, produced through the flexible mobility of their elements. So the works play with repetition and rearrangement, with indications of scale, instructions for placement, raising their questions about modes of address. Do these graphical elements speak in the second person, addressing their audience of readers? Or are the declarative statements, formal and presentational? The questions do not require answers, but guide the generative reading of these complicated pieces, acknowledging the organization virtuosity of Forte’s elegantly perfected technique. 

Forte’s work is not without precedents. The techniques of F.T. Marinetti and Fortunato Depero, among the Italian Futurists, exhibited some of the same theatrics. The use of brackets, of zones of the page, and instructional devices found in Les Motsen Liberté (1919), Zang Tuum Tumb (1914), and other publications of the 1910s also found their place in the Dada poems, broadsides, and journals that began in 1916 with the first published manifesto springing from performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, and among the Russian Futurists, most conspicuously in Vassily Kamensky’s Tango with Cows (1914), and Ilia Zdanevich’s zaum dras, plays in transmental language rendered with typographic scoring techniques (1917-1923). Later examples could be found in works like Robert Massin’s rendering of the Bald Soprano (1964), Warren Lehrer and Dennis Bernstein’s (1984) French Fries, and other visual, concrete, and graphical texts. But the poet who comes most immediately to mind in looking at Forte’s work is Bern Porter. His particular genre of found poetry collages absorbed the visual features of commercial and vernacular texts, making use of an extensive inventory of brackets, lists, layouts, and suggestive features with full appreciation of their semantic contribution to each poem. Though Forte is not using directly appropriated or found text, and his set of graphical elements has been reduced to a very carefully edited collection, something of Porter’s wry appreciation of the suggestive power of diagrammatic methods seems to echo here, no doubt by accident rather than design. 

More directly, Forte acknowledges many precedents and templates in his 
inventory of “fixed forms,” six pages outlining highly specific rules of formal
composition. Some, like Georges Perec’s heterogram, may be familiar to readers steeped in the OuLiPo tradition (letters chosen by a poem must be used in a single series before any of them may be repeated). Others are part of the more esoteric history of poetics, the fatras, a medieval form, the monostitch (“an alexandrine of twenty-three syllables and fourteen words”) (p.130), the chant royal (“five stanzas of eleven lines each and an envoi of six lines”) (p.128). The haiku and the sonnet find their place here, alongside rarified inventions such as the nonina–whose explanation, “Level-9 quenina (federal states) is a machine; the reader is permitted to 'fabricate' her own text.” hardly serves as clear explication, but rather, shows how much the technical creation of poetry follows implicit and explicit instructions sometimes (and sometimes not). Technique is in the foreground here, literally in the layout of the poems on the page, and figuratively in the attention to their composition as technically refined works in which every word, letter, and mark of punctuation has a place—and every space works as a semantic element of the text. 

Design is everywhere in these works. They are crafted as graphical texts, set on the stage of their own making, each organized along the fundamental divide of a single vertical line that divides one part of the poem from the other. That simple device, of differentiation and distinction, so spatial it serves as column and boundary, as property line and feature of a balance sheet, as an act of exclusion and inclusion, is almost inexhaustible. That Forte takes such a fundamental principle into poetic practice, uses it extensively, to show how the making of a poem can be graphically formed—even as he pays scrupulous attention to the language of each work–is what makes this volume so rich. Not a collection of clever (though wit abounds) poem-tricks, but a careful engagement with basic principles of page and layout, graphical language as poetic expression, this is a book that performs the diagrammatic experience of aesthetic text.

Johanna Drucker

Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies at UCLA. She has
published widely on topics related to digital humanities, book history, graphic design,
historiography of the alphabet and writing, and contemporary art. Her recent titles include
a collection of essays, What Is? (Cuneiform Press, 2013) and Graphesis: Visual Forms of
Knowledge Production
 (Harvard University Press, 2014). Drucker’s work as a book artist
and writer was the subject of a retrospective, Druckworks: 40 years of books and projects
in 2012. In 2014 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For more information: