In the various anthologies and publications of concrete and visual poetry I have piling up, its not particularly surprising to find visual poets who are intrigued by the graphic possibilities of punctuation. A few quick Canadian visual poetry examples include David Aylward’s Typescapes (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1967); Sha(u)nt Basmajian’s Boundaries Limits and Space (Toronto: Underwhich Editions, 1980); both are relatively simple combinations of punctuation signs as a means of exploring the graphic possibilities of typographic marks. Additionally, Paul Dutton’s right hemisphere left ear (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1979) includes his off-the-grid 6 page “mondrian boogie woogie.”

What is a bit more unusual—and to me a lot more exciting—are the novelists and visual artists with the same interest in punctuation.

Most of the writers I know who work with punctuation do so by isolating the punctuation from existing texts as a means recreating a new resultant text devoid of any semantic content.

Gertrude Stein’s “On Punctuation” (Lectures in America) begins “There are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not.” With Gertrude Stein on Punctuation (Newton, N.J.: Abaton, 2000) Kenneth Goldsmith isolates all of the punctuation in Stein’s lecture, leaving blank spaces where all the other typographic characters once occurred and proves that all of the punctuations are in fact interesting after all. (Goldsmith has an entire series of work in this vein, including all of the punctuation from William Strunk and E. B. White’s chapter on punctuation in their Elements of Style)

Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s Prix Nobel (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1960) is another text which uses an original source text to create a new punctuation-only result. While I know nothing about the source text that Reuterswärd uses, I was able to find a brief recording of him reading from Prix Nobel.

herman de vries’ argumentstellen (Châteaugiron / Rennes: frac bretagne : editions incertain sens : 2003) consists entirely of 48 blank pages each with a single period floating in space. The text was written as a response to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus 2.0131 which translates roughly as “The full stop is the place for an argument.”

Heidi Nelson also gathers punctuation from other sources, but presents her work as a series of artist’s books. Her 2004 volume Atlas of Punctuation arranges all the punctuation in a series of books, overlaid into single sheets of constellations. Her 2003 Typography of the Period: A Brief Introduction presents periods (full-stops) from a variety of typefaces showing the intricate variations within the most ubiquitous of punctuation.

Scott Myles’ Full Stop is a print of the immensely magnified period [see above] at the end of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Gary Barwin’s Servants of Dust (Calgary: no press, 2010) isolates all the punctuation from Shakespeare’s sonnets but articulates them as words:

Barwin creates a new form of sonnet, but one without any semantic content other than a map of potentiality.

Riccardo Boglione’s Ritmo D. Feeling the Blanks is solely the punctuation from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, one of the most censored books in history. The punctuation here acts as a “ ghost of the text [that] roams around the structure that should contain it.”

All of these texts are potentialities—each text offers the reader a writerly possibility of filling the spaces between the punctuation marks—to try and imagine the possibilities of what could happen within the skeletal framework of punctuation. Each novel is a map to everywhere.

–derek beaulieu
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Author of five books of poetry (most recently the visual poem suite silence), three volumes of conceptual fiction (most recently the short fiction collection How to Write) and over 150 chapbooks, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. A collection of his critical writing entitled “Seen of the Crime” is forthcoming from Snare Books. He is online here