Eric Schmaltz on The Dark Would: an anthology of language art

The Dark Would: anthology of language art. Ed. Philip Davenport. Apple Pie Editions, 2013.
Review by Eric Schmaltz

For years now many practitioners who have identified with uncreative writing and the Conceptual writing movement have appealed to Brion Gysin’s assertion that “poetry is fifty years behind painting.” The claim has prompted an array of contemporary writers to integrate the ideas and processes of the art world into their praxis. And while the quote is now over fifty years old itself, and its use as a motivating dictum has grown stale, the gap between art and writing remains to be a relevant and challenging void for writers to overcome. It is generally acknowledged that art, unlike poetry, has made a greater cultural impact simply because of the consumer economy in which it circulates. Over the last few years, curators, artists, and writers have sought to close the void, exploring language as it is used across a variety of disciplines– 2011’s The Text Festival (directed by Tony Trehy) and The Bird is the Word (curated by the Niagara Artists Centre) as well as the very recent PostScript: Writing After Conceptual Art (curated by Nora Burnett Abrams) are excellent attempts at closing this gap. These exhibits have made a lasting impact on literary communities, expanding conceptions of what is possible for writers in the gallery space. The Dark Would: anthology of language art edited by Philip Davenport is a book that continues to do this work.

The work selected for The Dark Would is representative of what might be regarded as today’s experimental, avant-garde, post-avant (call it what you will) workings with language. Davenport has selected texts that adhere to a loose criterion. He sought out texts that are visual, texts that are influenced by Conceptual art, texts composed of asemic or esoteric inscriptions, sound scores, performance pieces, outsider works, and texts that employ an assemblage of these practices. As a result, this survey is wide-ranging including writers such as Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bök, Caroline Bergvall, derek beaulieu, artists such as Jenny Holzer, Fiona Templeton, and Tom Raworth, as well as “outsider artists” such as Ed Baker and Harald Stoffers.

In his Introduction, Davenport claims that the contributors address issues of “living and dying” (np) suggesting that the anthology “asks what it is to live in a body now, knowing that one day we won’t be here” (np). Indeed, in her untitled diptych Amaranth Borsuk, one of the many contributors, engages these issues of embodiment by writing across the print and digital divide offered by the anthology’s unique construction–one volume being print and the other in e-reader format. Borsuk nods to experimental poet Christian Bök and visual artist Micah Lexier’s untitled collaboration in which an original text was written by Lexier and then given to Bök who produced an anagrammatic translation. Both texts were installed side-by-side in a white, sans-serif font, on the blackened front windows of the MKG127 Gallery in Toronto. Borsuk playfully adapts their piece replicating their aesthetic and creating her own two texts, each an anagram of the other that addresses her language as well as the methods and materials she uses to communicate it. The diptych explicitly addresses issues of embodiment and, in part, confounds conventional conceptions of the “real” and “virtual” binary as the poem points out the etymological basis of the word “digital” being “digits” (one’s fingers).

On the other hand, the anthology as a whole seems to be stimulated by another metaphorical interpretation of death: the death of poetry, another beaten phrase, but one that writers and publishers seem to take seriously. Our understanding of poetry and what is poetic is indeed changing. Davenport’s anthology seems to suggest that the term “language-art” be used to describe these works that many believe are leading to the future of the art. It is a name that blurs the border of writing and art, perhaps giving it a chance to expand its cultural relevance or impact. Furthermore, the anthology draws no distinction between the approaches of these artists. There are no page numbers and no categorical divisions. Thus the context of each writer’s respective discourse is removed, permitting and encouraging the viewer/reader to fluidly draw connections between these many language artists and their work.

The essays, interviews, and instruction manuals section of the digital volume entitled “Feuillets Inutiles” is particularly revealing. In his interview with Kenneth Goldsmith, Davenport reveals his ambition. He says, “What I hope to do is make something with this anthology that means somebody else is able to turn a glass key and pass through the wall,” (np) clarifying that, more than anything else, he hopes The Dark Would will be used pedagogically. Davenport seems to hope that this becomes a text for a younger generation of writers to look toward for a progressive model of creative engagements with language. In this way, the anthology offers a kind of “permission” (np), as Goldsmith calls it, to future linguistic provocateurs. In this vein, perhaps its time we laid Gysin’s tired dictum to rest and beat at another. Perhaps we should begin to subscribe to his idea that “everything is permitted.”


Eric Schmaltz was co-curator of the Grey Borders reading series. He will begin graduate work at York University in the fall and will be a regular contributor to Lemon Hound.