Writing Drawing/Drawing Writing


Prose Architectures 227 from Prose Architectures. Copyright 2017 by Renee Gladman. Reproduced with permission of the author and Wave Books.

by Cam Scott

If thought consists in circularity, we could begin where we propose to end, with a question in two directions: how is writing drawing? And how is drawing writing? Much thinking around this relation tends to dualism, placing a romanticized handwriting before meaningful reference. In this account, an auto-iconic drawing appears prior to the advent of writing as a differential system. But this order of operations entrenches an opposition between body and spirit, letter and intent, that would cleave writing and world completely. As a practice of delineation, writing draws from something other than itself. And wherever one refuses the rumour of a primary repletion—a positivity that wants for nothing, standing only for its own—one discovers a minimal grammar. More than abstract negativity, this is an important reminder of the differences comprising any world.


Conversely, what might a generalized writing resemble but a kind of drawing? This description places drawing—the inscription of shapeliness—immediately on the side of voice, as a primary vehicle of meaning alienated in all subsequent content. An old Heideggerian icon of presence, the hand, asserts itself in place of speech as a measure of proximity. These two facets of outreach, apparently uniquely human, enjoy a sacred pact in Heidegger’s thought, converging upon the world in a constructive practice of “rift-design.” (Riß, by which Heidegger denotes a break between earth and world, representation and reality, refers both to a cleft and a literal sketching.)

In a repetitious formula, fashioned after a remark by Albrecht Dürer, Heidegger impels one to wrest artistry from nature: to “draw out the rift and to draw the design with the drawing-pen on the drawing board …”[1] Any “creative sketch” must first and foremost manifest a rift, or boundary, to be thematically remediated by design. This dialectic of fissure and figure is explained by Timothy Clark in the following example:

Imagine a line traced across a background of mottled paper. Completed, it brings into being two distinct shapes on either side, one looking, say, a bit like a human profile with hints of other features in the mottling, the other perhaps like the silhouette of a jug with a rough surface. The picture as a whole now may seem merely to depict or represent these forms, as if they had already been there and had now simply been highlighted by a line traced along their edges …[2]

This gesture redrafts an opaque substratum of as-yet-unrealized forms, so as to comprise at least two elements. From this proliferative limit, one may extrapolate a world, quintessentially susceptible to aesthetic treatment. Drawing is a primary demarcation in this account, tied up in language from the start. Of course, Heidegger is fanatically selective of which ethnolinguistic equipment is apt to this task of unconcealment, such that the fantasy of drawing reproduced above depends not just upon an individual’s sovereign operation, romantic and exclusive, but the cultural bearings of that operation more generally. This ante-, or anti-, foundational gesture is simply too exclusive to uncritically repeat.

One could as soon commence from Juliet Fleming’s Derridean programme of ‘cultural graphology,’ with her paraphrase that “differences are all that is required in order for there to be writing.”[3] In its generality, at least, this minimal definition approaches our cause, the parsing of non-discursive inscription—a project which tempts phanopoetic recuperation in its strangeness rather than its proximity to hand.

According to Fleming, Derrida’s own illustrative dalliances with typography work on this principle; they too “appear to aspire to be the image of what they would express.”[4] In this regard, she continues, Derrida’s experimental writing is “scarcely philosophy, it is more like squinting, for it asks you to look at rather than abstract meaning from writing.”[5] This impels a secondary question as to the status of reading in the equation of writing and drawing.

Writing, says Fleming, concerns “an experience of cognition best understood not as a representation of the world to the person who perceived it but rather as an ongoing bringing-forth of the world through a process of living in and through the dynamic organization of its spatial archives.”[6] This description approaches the anti-foundational foundation of rift-inscription, without indulging the fantasy of a privileged writer, let alone a Greco-Germanic architecture of appropriate expression.

As we approach both writing and drawing in the guise of their mutual limitation, we could consider the writing of the threshold as such. In a revealing chapter on early-modern bookworks, Fleming discusses the proliferation of ornamentation, various arabesques and floral motifs, that developed alongside moveable type as an example of a non-discursive writing—from which the hand is absent, one should note.

The frame, violently subtracted by and from artistic evaluation, manifests as more than a marker of incision. Here appears Derrida’s parergon, the contiguous space that marks the interior of a work from its exterior conditions, and in so doing cooperates with both—with an outside from within and with an inside from without. This consideration of the frame as work, or of the page as non-arbitrary with respect to its inscription, establishes writing and drawing on a kind of continuum. As Fleming writes:

… to understand type ornament in this way is to be able to see the printed page not as site for information but as a visual field whose intricate black lines and white spaces provoke sensations of movement and light and whose vibrating surface combines regularity and recurrence with a commitment to systemic local variance … you will begin to see leading figures in the script and in the letter forms: stairways to climb, paths and rivers down which to you can travel, shapes to lean against, spaces in which you might hide.”[7]

This ineluctable translation of line into meaning is revealing, insofar as the reader is a spatial organization, too. With this in mind, we may set ourselves to reading as a practice of cohabitation, extrapolating interiors from surfaces, measuring lines against a motile immutable, a living, live-in, frame.

Renee Gladman: Drawing Bridges

Renee Gladman’s writing already spans any ambiguous boundary between poetry and prose; and her Prose Architectures showcase a practice of lyric draughtsmanship that establishes both on a strictly visual continuum with surroundings. Gladman has been producing a writing of intense civic interest, mapping fictional cities in their unevenness and intrigue, over volumes and years. Her novels set in the unplaceable terrain of Ravicka, beginning with The Event Factory, explicitly pursue a co-theory between language and place—to imagine one term is to presume, or project, the other. A similar set of concerns anticipate, or accompany, these drawings.

“How were houses like paragraphs,” Gladman asks in her introduction, setting out to discover as much.[8] One may recall Gertrude Stein’s assertion that paragraphs, unlike their constituent sentences, are emotional; much as houses, unlike their materials, are inhabitable, that associations may accrue. A similar expectation—that confluences of otherwise emotionally inert lines should produce depth, both pictorial and emotional—underwrites Gladman’s project. “I drew out of the matter that was most central to my thinking and living, and that was the city,” she explains, much as the fictional Ravickian poet Ana Patova attempts to manifest inhabitable structures line over line.

Something utopian transpires in these illustrations, for Gladman’s ‘writing’ does not translate back into a language from which it derives. “Language has an energy that eludes verbal expression,” she writes, such that a dreamlike meaning emanates from behind, and between, contiguous glyphs. As though charting an arrhythmia, the pen makes signs of life upon the page, an active field. Gladman’s hand is divisory of the negative space it presumes, and her carefully placed characters impel the projection of pictorial space. A panoramic backdrop to each figure, like the painterly wash of a canvas before scenic embellishment, is implicit in the page, or paper, as Gladman prefers to call it, foregrounding its material obtrusiveness. This is the space of which Mallarmé wrote in the 1897 preface to Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, the paper that “intervenes each time as an image of itself,” both a cause and an effect of the language it supports.[9]

Prose Architectures 37 from Prose Architectures. Copyright 2017 by Renee Gladman. Reproduced with permission of the author and Wave Books.

After Fleming’s suggestion, we could squint together in the direction of these works. In the image above, a provisional foreground unfurls from a legato skyline. Off-centre battlements imply a downtown on the water, a super-alphabetic spire towering above the illegible sentence of its reflection. In their mirage-like suggestiveness, Gladman’s prose has less to do with the geometric abstraction of the architect’s draft than with the lived abstraction of space itself, as an intuited relation of things. This is a writing of implied interiors. And when Gladman describes this writing as ‘architecture,’ we should presume the prose itself the realized project, a structure fully coincident with its conceptualization.

Gladman’s visual prose depends for its sense upon effects of spatialization, such that the minimal requirements of poetry, marking it apart from the putatively prosaic, are already met. Without concern for jurisdiction, one could offer that poetry has something generally to do with ‘line’ as a meaningful gesture. One needn’t overemphasize the punctive function of the break, for poetry is not a writing in, but rather of, lines. One might adapt Stein’s adage to suggest that sentences aren’t emotional, but the lines in which they may occur are rife with feeling, as desirous vectors in themselves.

Prose Architectures 131 from Prose Architectures. Copyright 2017 by Renee Gladman. Reproduced with permission of the author and Wave Books.

Gladman’s hand attains to integrality. Its legibility consists not in the use of written symbols as a key, but over the course of an automatic, or iconic, music. This invites sight-reading, a transfer without expectation of semantic exchange. These non-alphabetic letters appear self-abiding at a glance: pistils, petals, gridwork, tracery, any and all possible analogues, unfurl in retrospect of expectation, but there is no important architectural distinction between ornamental flourish and its sturdier support. Each construction is a single ligature, a sentence-character exhaustively pronounced in the act of seeing.

To speak of sight-reading, many of these structures appear as though modelled on musical staves; but here, the abstraction of the orthographic score is mediated at the level of one’s own readerly performance. Throughout these works, the draft is practically identical with the extemporized structure it would describe, such that Gladman’s super-discursive freehand may be referred to a practice of improvisation where anticipation and experience are near-synchronous; or the necessary gap intervening between these temporal attunements is so minimal that one may identify the adaptive pivot of spontaneous decision with the crux of the composition as a whole. This processual coincidence of signified and signifier is not simply self-referential; rather, it is self-revising.

Prose Architectures 132  from Prose Architectures. Copyright 2017 by Renee Gladman. Reproduced with permission of the author and Wave Books.

This wordless writing enacts nothing like a primitivism; rather, Gladman proliferates themes as a kind of baroque. For Heidegger, whose rustic mandate obliged him to fear the typewriter, the typographical regularization of writing threatened the hand as an utterly singular, expressive institution. By his account, the hand is the origin of the essence of the word, and the history of technological transcription is the history of its destruction. It would not seem to have occurred that the alphabet in general would be one such regularizing institution, and every bit as much a pre-requirement of writing-by-hand. Heidegger’s mystical reverence for the word—otherwise a token of relation—is also symptomatic of the modernity he decries; to which end he proffers the reactionary version of the critique of commodity fetishism.

Conversely, Gladman’s architectures affirm that the modest expressionism of the hand already tends to verticality. To speak of infamous analogies between writing and building, paragraphs and houses, Heidegger remains the self-appointed philosopher of sedentary domicility, and his poetic descriptions of language always tend in this direction—language is a dwelling, it is within language we dwell, and so on. Gladman changes the emphasis from private dwelling to planning, and it is striking that the prose comprising these illustrations is public in its very appearance. Where some might, after the fashion of asemic writing, attribute an agenda of deep privacy to the dense curlicues and un-voiceably (re)cursive figures of Gladman’s series, the very naming of the writing as ‘architecture’ is evocative of a peopled space.

Prose Architectures 206 from Prose Architectures. Copyright 2017 by Renee Gladman. Reproduced with permission of the author and Wave Books.

The tiered paragraph above is most reminiscent of an architectural cross-section, with spirals for stairwells and steep diagonals for railings. Perhaps the most startling addition is the square of deep blue above the structure, as though sky itself unfurls from the rooftop like a flag, a picturesque enlargement of a neighbour’s laundry. This imaginative gloss offers but one possible reading, and perhaps it is better to commence from this interested stake, insisting upon legibility as requirement of line, and life as a requirement of space, than to prize the authenticating hand as ineffable presence.

It is this preservation and embrace of space that furnishes Gladman’s architecture with its depth and dreamlike suggestiveness. As she explains, “the dream is often not the text you’re reading but comes from some other part of the page, some part of the text that is not quite visible.” In this respect, Gladman’s drawing stands instructively alongside the very different prose architectures of artist José Vera Matos, whose illegibly small handwriting furnishes interlocking panels their variegated texture, inky to the point of tactility. In Reading Paths, a drawing from 2016, tidy aisles mark polygonal paragraphs apart from one another, whilst larger letters and inscriptions float in the foreground, like strands of protein adrift in one’s field of vision.

José Vera Matos, Lenguaje Y Discriminación Social En América Latina, 2016. Ink On Bambu Paper 51,5 X 70,5 cm.

Vera Matos explicitly models his vertiginous citadels on Incan architecture, whilst drawing additional detail from a source text or transcription. Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana is a re-writing of a work of the same name by philosopher José Carlos Mariátegui, whose prose is organized into practically illegible abutting blocks by the artist, outcroppings and cloisters of which correspond to lines of argumentation. Space gathers around the bottom of each paper-sized chapter, in silent or unwritten relief to the opaque blocks of writing above. Where the page, or any frame implicated therein, is pre-allocated to the cause of writing, the script is provisionally finished. An open-ended hypergraphia, when materially cordoned, manifests as horror vacui.

Conversely, Gladman’s imaginative civics are iterated throughout her work as “one elaborate question about the making of space.” Her figures are neither free-standing nor entirely self-referential, but ways of writing absence, or non-writing, by implication. Likewise, the abiding concern of her character Ana Patova is “to give language to the spaces she recognizes between buildings and bodies, between books and bodies, between one body and another …” Tarrying with negativity, this linguistification of space transcends any narrow question of penmanship. It is a challenge to perception that bears directly on the subject of politics.

Mirtha Dermisache: No Repetition

Argentinian artist-writer Mirtha Dermisache’s work is often discussed with reference to her historical situation, and the military dictatorship during which she continued to create. Against this backdrop, Dermisache’s difficult writing is framed as a practice of utopian negativity. The artist herself, however, eschewed any such interpretation, offering a formalist account instead: “I never wanted to give a political meaning to my work. What I did and continue to do is to develop graphic ideas with respect to writing, which in the end, I think, have little to do with political events but with structures and forms of language.”[10]

Sin título (Texto), no date, c. 1970s, ink on paper, 11.1 x 9.1 inches from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

The political purity of this writing, however, is not prior to engagement but derived. Certainly it would be reductive to construe this writing as cipheral, simply inscrutable before its would-be censors. But the aforesaid ‘forms of language’ bear closely upon, and produce, so-called ‘political meaning,’ and Dermisache’s work on the newspaper and its visual hierarchies suggest as much. Content appears cognitively redacted, pointing up certain concrete interpretive cues that inhere in the medium, short-cutting interpretation at a glance. Her use of the tabloid format and its columnar organization models a multi-discursive clamour without content, where four or more provisional systems of writing share a page.

The implied comparison presumes an engaged readership, immediately refuting the one-sided reception of asemic writing that finds anti-social mysticism at each and every point of impasse. In their formality, these texts enact neither visionary saintliness nor a state-savvy evasion of surveillance, but a sustained engagement with the material and historical situation of writing qua writing—a gradually, if not initially, impossible ideal.

More than most hand-writing practices, Dermisache’s work addresses the conditions of what Benedict Anderson terms ‘print capitalism’: the consolidation of national consciousness by the mechanical reproduction and distribution of vernacular writing.[11] Dermisache’s seismographic regularity of hand proliferates occasional systems, that her attention to the objectal dimension of reception renders inseparable from a medium of dissemination. While many of her ink-on-paper works have found an afterlife in gallery settings, Dermisache produced innumerable books, postcards, newspapers, and ephemera: portable formats that structure each encounter of reading. These are public texts, anticipating a reader whose attention may fill the “tenuous structure of ‘gaps’” that comprises each instance of writing, hereafter expanded to include the broader gaps comprising difficulties of access and distribution.[12]

Page from Libro No. 1, 1972, unique artist’s book, ink on paper, 42 pages with 37 images, 11 x 9.25 inches from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

Reading, then, may be as simple as looking at an object. In Dermisache’s 1972 artist book, Libro No. 1, blocks of text appear as though a skyline. This silhouetted vista is reversible; a negative image of itself, calling attention to those rifts constitutive of meaning. A cityscape awaiting traffic in attention, this differential structure visualizes a provisional outdoors.

Elsewhere, Dermisache’s hand descends the page in lines of approximately equivalent weight and length, as though the artist were recopying a sentence. Not only does this work have the visual effect of incantation, its descending self-comparison refutes any easy notion of extemporaneous positivity. This marking of difference in regularity recalls Gertrude Stein’s insistence that one never repeats oneself when writing. Stein, of course, is a grammarian, in which guise she addresses herself to syntactic permutation rather than a restricted spate of characters per se. But her pith pertains: even birdsong varies its insistence, Stein reminds her reader, and only a high degree of familiarity or an encompassing condition of strangeness will give the impression of repetition.

From coursing cursivities to abacus-like measurements of space, Dermisache’s systems are tightly controlled, and this minimal variation makes all the difference. At second glance, this writing is more urbanistic than its hermetic reputation would suggest, insofar as it too measures and decides upon space, rendering it visible as so many enclosures—whorls and gaps to find oneself alongside and within.

Again, this legibility is a crucially utopian dimension of the work, instantly marking it apart from many superficially related practices of asemic writing, often regarded as a method of secrecy or withdrawal, that attempt to circumvent the agony of representation more generally. Simply put, these idealized practices merely ironize language, for in each such case of “pure” writing, the alienation implicit in representation transpires without any hope of the conceptual recuperation presupposed by language, which tends to universality. As philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer prudently states, “even the pure signs of an inscription can be seen properly and articulated correctly only if the text can be transferred back into language.”[13]

Sin título (Texto), no date, c. 1970s, ink on paper, 11 x 9 inches from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

Purity in writing, however, seems quite impossible, and the very notion of a self-contained or univocal sign opens onto all kinds of pathologizing discourses around the difficulty of an encounter otherwise occasioning translation. (Consider psychologist Theodore Flournoy’s infantilizing verdict on the inspired “Martian” and “Hindoo” writing of Hélène Smith: “momentary returns of inferior phases,” betraying “an eminently puerile origin and the display of an hereditary linguistic aptitude.”[14]) This refusal of mediation, bodily or conceptual, remains untenable: when one speaks of sound, for example, as a basis for language that is not comprehended by language itself, it is without any hope of recovering non-signifying sonority, romanticism be damned.

John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse: “Notable Architextures”

In Seismosis, a book-length collaboration with artist Christopher Stackhouse, John Keene sets out to write through the “notatable architextures” of his collaborator’s hand, with attention to the extensive interpersonal merit of the line-on-paper.[15] Over the course of this exchange, the two pursue a highly demonstrative co-theory: Keene is writing drawing, whilst Stackhouse is drawing writing. These figure here as two ways, or directions, of touching a common object, which may or may not pre-exist artistic contact.

Keene defines drawing in a complementary relationship to language, as a practice of “deriving the called thing,” and the consonant bookends of this formulation sound as though an elongation of a nearby acronym, ‘drwng.’[16] In treating words abstractly, as melodies subject to embellishment, Keene treats language as permutatory, plastic, a practice of mapping sans terrain. The pleasure of line may imply an eventual punctuation, but it proceeds immediately without a self-conserving limit. In a subtle rejoinder to Heidegger, perhaps, whose doctrine of handiness also underwrites and haunts these paragraphs, Keene’s grammar suggests that the mystical pact between language and being is in fact one moment of a process: one derives the thing, so-called, rather than receiving, much less calling forth, its form.

From Seismosis. Copyright 2006 Christopher Stackhouse and John Keene. Reproduced with permission of the artist.

The collaboration begins with a vertical frontispiece, densely layered and multi-signatory. On a facing page, Keene identifies the hand with an absolutely singular expression, multiplying figures of interiority. This personal touch must adapt to the more rigid requirements of experience: when Keene speaks of “the augured grid,” against which drawing attains to depth, he situates this effort in excess of Cartesian space.[17] This is not to simplistically oppose figure and concept: Keene riffs repeatedly upon the ways in which one term originates in and returns upon the other, regarding “spirals darkening at angles where concept begins.”[18]

Accordingly, the concept is not only secondary to, but generative of, myriad figurations. Stackhouse’s riverine line evades, exceeds, and implies a geometric overlay, while elsewhere Keene sorts keywords into parallel columns, four-quadrant charts, and ten-by-ten grids: agrammatical inventories that await attentive vectors. Each poem projects an ersatz-system, which technique proves itself by its result, and which result exalts technique.

The page has a categorical function in Stackhouse’s drawings; it is a generic vista from which the particular depiction unfurls, a parcelled sheaf the blankness of which pre-concerns uncertain figuration. For all those drawings that allude to an aerial vantage, and the sublime abstraction of a vast topography seen from a distance, there are many more in which the onlooker is one-sidedly embedded—a vanishing point or implied horizon establishes a series of relations in space, whereby a cyclonic apparition hovers in the foreground. The page allows for the impossible overlay of viewpoints, however, such that these perspectives may coincide, as seen below, where a figure in outline appears to recline, gazing skyward in the midst of a visual din.

From Seismosis. Copyright 2006 Christopher Stackhouse and John Keene. Reproduced with permission of the artist.

On a facing page, Keene queries these images, that they may bear reflectively on one’s own subjectivity: “Raised to itself as global agent, figure and ground impel representation.”[19] The relationship between self and other, local and global, here and there, is iterated as so many points of contact within the lines of a “differentiable map”; configurations animated by “psychosexual momenta,” or Freudian drive.

Stackhouse’s drawings greet the spontaneous gloss of understanding halfway, frequently appearing to ascend from the page like plumes of smoke, or to glance upon it like a certain slant of light; all the more striking with reference to the aforesaid preservation of pictorial space. Stackhouse allows the page to function as such, rather than ideally, as a disappearing frame. Each facsimile preserves the tactile materiality of its source; the grain features prominently as a counter-texture, and the square perforations along the top are retained.

An additional question of framing, having to do with the reproduction of paper on paper, bears closely upon Keene’s interpretative remarks. From ‘(ANTI)KANTIAN’: “how when I filter the frail margin/record of ideal forms of something/so mundane and readymade/moment ravels there.”[20] So many concentric frames facilitate experience that any point of view has only virtual purchase on an object that is more properly a moment. Keene and Stackhouse refute geometric regularity throughout this collaboration, constantly referring its preconditions back to a decisional substrate: “The design event begins in subjectivity.”[21]

After this insight, Keene binds writing to drawing as a parallel pre-discursivity: “I’ve written since I was small, right after I uttered my first word or crayoned a scribble.”[22] In this account, drawing is an auto-erotic placing of worlds on the page, a practice of “interiority exteriorized.” It is important, however, to emphasize the movement of exteriorization, so as not to give an account of drawing as a kind of pre-conceptual Stimmung or acognitive simplicity. “Within toy, fusion, cognition,” Keene writes, for play is a relationship that already tends toward conceptualization.[23]

Here appears an unlikely term of mediation between writing and drawing, namely voice as a primary expressive means. This move may seem counterintuitive for abandoning the page altogether, and the visual as well, but Keene, Stackhouse, Dermisache, and Gladman each invite us to consider the act of drawing as a kind of creative outreach, rather than a pursuit of any representational outcome per se. While one might offer that both drawing and writing have a hand in common, Keene’s developmental insight offers that voice preconfigures an entire world-at-hand, as a self-touching mechanism which transmission intersects an ultimately responsive world. (One might note that the German Stimmung, for ‘attunement’ to surroundings, carries the additional sense of musical ‘tuning,’ and derives from the word Stimme, or voice.)

bpNichol: Lungscapes

From Love: A Book of Remembrances by bpNichol. Image courtesy of Coach House Books.

At least superficially, poet bpNichol’s work commences from the quintessentially modernist desire for a non-arbitrary written character, a marking that would be somehow iconic of its bearing in the world. If the concrete poetry of the mid-twentieth century aspired to such a goal as well, it was comparatively shorn of idealism, its autonomy purchased at expense of extra-compositional reference. Likewise, Nichol appears at various points to be interested in the letter qua letter.

From Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer by bpNichol. Image courtesy of Coach House Books.

The sculptural possibilities of moveable type were of formative importance for Nichol; but his kinetic interest in the page as a threshold between poet-sculptor and reader-other would impel him toward more forthrightly sentimental means, such that one may trace a movement toward the vocalization of the hand in Nichol’s visual work. Nichol’s first published book is the collection of typewriter concrete, KonfessIonS of an ElizAbeThan Fan Dancer. By 1973, ambivalence had crept into his relationship with this regularizing technology. Nichol is starting to write by hand:

it feels like for me it’s a more direct connection with the body—i’m actually shaping the individual letters with my hand—essentially when i’m typing each letter’s the same as an experience with fingers—it’s just a pressing down—when i’m writing it … the form is moving into my body—it’s moving into my own musculature—it’s like an intimate involvement with the architecture of the single letter[24]

Coming from a less committed poet-typist, one might suspect banal technophobia ala Heidegger, for whom “the typewriter tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e., the realm of the word.”[25] But Nichol’s typewriter poems subject the regularity of the medium to non-calligramatic pictorial elaboration. A densely repetitive, shapely text like ‘Early Morning: June 23’ or the performance script ‘Not What the Siren Sang But What the Frag Meant’ begins from and with recombinable vocables of bodily origination, such that the columnar alignment of letters contrasts non-identical and incidental soundings, not to mention the almost arbitrary drama of scenic associations that proceed from the shifting placement of sets. In this regard, Nichol’s transmutatory typistry directly rebuffs Heidegger’s selective anxiety regarding mediation.

From Love: A Book of Remembrances by bpNichol. Image courtesy of Coach House Books.

Nichol’s insistence on the bodily mediation of a written alphabet will impel him to “consider a serial development of a primary drawn text” on the model of his earliest literary obsession, comic books,  and to a practice of “drawing as drawing – line as line,” where line is conceived as a medium closely akin to breath.[26] This is hardly a naïve naturalism, however, and elaborates upon the critique of phonocentrism implicit in earlier work. For Nichol, the letter is in many ways prior to the sounding voice, which is an instrument of its recovery. One trains upon it, in a kind of circular rediscovery of self. In a letter to Mary Ellen Solt, quoted above, Nichol describes an integration of breath line, or sound-based, poetry with his “literal obsession with the single letter & what it contains as an element of word as sound unit & in terms of its own history.”[27]

Nichol’s cartoon allegories are exemplary of this material re-evaluation of the alphabet. While Krazy Kat and Dick Tracy comics would spur Nichol to create recurrent heroes of his own, like Captain Poetry or Tommy the Turk, the far more important characterological associations within his enormous body of work concern the alphabet itself. Nichol writes and rewrites each letter as though it were a miniature poetic personality, with cameos across the written universe. In this respect, Nichol would seem to have seized upon the integral flatness of the comic-book page, whereupon each hand-lettered speech bubble and its purveyor feature equally in space.

The formal strictures of the comic book may have primed a school-age Nichol for his later experiments in concrete poetry, using the page as a framing device. But Nichol’s Steinian deduction from comic narrativity eventually concerns the expectation of sequentiality. In Love: A Book of Remembrances, frames are radically contemporary of one another, and present as discrete containers, which may be provocatively recombined. The letter is an allotment of space, in which movement is implied.

From Love: A Book of Remembrances by bpNichol. Image courtesy of Coach House Books.

In the numbered allegories, from which an amoebal frame is notably absent, each letter form appears as so many concentric and competing containers in itself. The letter, spontaneously construed as the smallest integral unit of written language, appears both infinitely divisible itself, and contiguous in body with its sounding neighbours. Strange worlds gape from every crevice, pictures of private association. Letters are trapdoors, nesting dolls, collapsible vistas, inhabitable domiciles. In Nichol’s words, “the language is the landscape of the poem,” such that the idealism of Ezra Pound’s calligraphic fetish, for example, is circumvented altogether.[28] Poems do not depict, but are nonetheless depicted.

From Love: A Book of Remembrances by bpNichol. Image courtesy of Coach House Books.

Writing Drawing

On an immediate level, both Gladman and Nichol appear to attempt the recovery of interiority in representation, and to manifest a certain impasse of form and content, concept and figure. While the outcome of these drawing practices could hardly be more different—an intelligible illegible on one hand, and a cute inscrutable on the other—they are amenable, for each artist has embarked upon a project of expanded field poetics more concerned with bodily conduction than with information exchange. And self-expression is already mediated by the structures comprising an external reality, whether by cities or alphabets, categories or symbols.

As Keene reminds us, design begins in subjectivity, and it culminates in subjective appreciation, too. Drawing, then, may be an inter-objective conductor of subject to subject, desire to desire. To quote a statement foundational of Nichol’s poetics, “if (the poet’s) need is to touch you physically he creates a poem/object for you to touch and is not a sculptor for he is still moved by the language.”[29] In what respect does drawing open onto a superior, or ulterior, poetics?

On one hand, we could define drawing as a practice of the body of writing, without the presumed universality of a given language. It offers no propositions, and is not convertible into language. On the other hand, this utopian remark must stand to clarification; for this retreat from translation not only depends upon a spontaneous notion of drawing as auto-iconic, it is a retreat from the concept, too. Not only is writing already and immediately a kind of drawing; but initiation into one practice presumes the other, insofar as this distinction is itself conceptual. And as there is no private language, concepts are in common. Dermisache’s mute ligatures insist as much, on a mutual silence in which general readership consists.

It is striking that Gladman refers her practice of solitary drawing to questions of public space, and moreover that this pro-social striving is so acutely felt as to (circularly) shape the content of a personal expression in the first place. Without a goal in mind, the incidental features of civic space assert themselves from within the movement of the hand. This objectively subjective practice surely describes the kind of writing that bpNichol had in mind when he prescribed poetry to the masses, that everyone should write in tandem and cohabitate after the manner of this writing.

In an essay concerning Derrida’s relatively few engaged remarks on the topic, Laurence Simmons proposes to understand drawing as a search, rather than a communication: “the physicality of the primary gesture of the drawing hand here must also be understood as an impulse to touch that which should only be an object of visual perception, to transfer a presence to a deep memory.”[30] In this account, drawing remains a primary operation, but only subjectively, insofar as it follows from that which it would project.

Rather than suggest that drawing is an inalienable basis from which writing departs, one may consider the directionality of this attempted transfer, for the comparison ends in recursion. As Simmons asserts, “there can be no metadiscourse on drawing since all work on drawing is also a work of drawing.”[31] Not only does drawing pass through writing, writing passes through drawing en route to its fleet publicity. Neither appears primarily.

The texts under discussion here illustrate as much, differing in emphasis as any hand, any expression, must. The signatory gesture which inheres in drawing, then, is less a token of authorial presence than a bodily antecedent to form; in which sense drawing, too, becomes a practice of the letter. Simmons describes drawing as a search for a lost object rather than a communication, in which respect its purposes are allied to writing, where language cinches an otherwise irremediable gap between communicants.

In Calamities, a philosophical daybook of beginnings, Renee Gladman describes the act of transcribing favourite sentences by Gail Scott on her living room walls. “I wrote them as if they were a geometry instead of a verbal consequence,” she writes, and this practice of studious mural making mirrors the prose architectures, in which interrelated shapes appear as sentences.[32] It is with this invitation to an action, to relate to the relation of arrangement, that we may close the circle of this writing, having glimpsed gloriously little of what drawing includes and can do.


[1] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings. (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 195.

[2] Timothy Clark, Martin Heidegger. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), 53.

[3] Juliet Fleming, Cultural Graphology. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 8.

[4] Ibid, 59.

[5] Ibid, 59.

[6] Ibid, 62.

[7] Ibid, 84.

[8] Renee Gladman, Prose Architectures. (Seattle: Wave Books, 2017)

[9] Quoted in Fleming, 58.

[10] Will Fenstermaker, Mirtha Dermisache and the Limits of Language. In The Paris Review, January 2018.

[11] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. (London and New York: Verso, 1983)

[12] Mirtha Dermisache, Selected Writings. (Los Angeles/New York: Siglio/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)

[13] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method. (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 409.

[14] Theodore Flournoy, From India to the Planet Mars: A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 267.

[15] John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse, Seismosis (San Diego: 1913 Press, 2006), 72.

[16] Ibid, 5.

[17] Ibid, 6.

[18] Ibid, 69.

[19] Ibid, 19.

[20] Ibid, 32.

[21] Ibid, 38.

[22] Ibid, 35.

[23] Ibid, 73.

[24] bpNichol, Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol. (Vancouver: Talon Books, 2002), 120.

[25] Martin Heidegger, translated by André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz. Parmenides. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), 81.

[26] Ibid, 115.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid, 113.

[29] Ibid, 18.

[30] Laurence Simmons, Drawing Has Always Been More Than Drawing. In Interstices Issue 11: The Traction of Drawing. (Auckland: enigma : he aupiki, 2010), 117.

[31] Ibid, 115.

[32] Renee Gladman, Calamities. (Seattle: Wave Books, 2016), 44.

About the Author:

Cam Scott is a poet, essayist, and improvising non-musician from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty One territory. He performs under the name Cold-catcher and writes in and out of Brooklyn.