my tongue I thought ,on a shelf
JOHN M BENNETT, INNOVATIVE, EXPERIMENTAL AND UNIQUE
by Ivan Argüelles
Tristan Tzara: "DADA remains within the framework of European weaknesses, it's still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colors so as to adorn the zoo of art with all the flags of all the consulates.”
A critic once said of Lost and Found Times (John M Bennett’s seminal underground press mag, 1975-2005): “Insults...the past 3,000 years of literature.” One could apply that criticism to the whole of Bennett’s dazzlingly varied and maddening output. One could even ask with some justification: is this poetry? Where to begin analyzing let alone writing about this baffling and certainly most avant garde of all artists/poets living and working in the U.S.A. today? I recommend checking out his short video (one of many he has created) called Olvido del surr, read with Luis Bravo, one gets both the intended oral quality of the poem (which sounds like some eerie Mesoamerican Indian ritual chant) as well as its visual and typographical effects. For, above all, Bennett’s “poetry” is more like a meta-poetry that requires all the visual and aural senses to appreciate it. His experimentations over the years have encompassed particularly the expanding world of visual poetry (vispo) an extension of what used to be referred to as “concrete poetry” (particularly successful in Brazil). The structure of the poem on the page gradually becomes a work of art, divorced from its mere semantic sense (or lack thereof) as it seems to appear to the reader. Bennett employs numerous techniques, not the least of which is his own “polyglottery”, frequently moving in and out of English, Spanish, Portuguese, French or some Mesoamerican language. In the above mentioned video Olvido del surr all these “techniques” are brought to bear.
To invent John M Bennett one has to invest in a fascination with words, and as an infant he preferred books - and his first writing was before he could "write" – when he would take little pieces of paper and do “picture”words on them—things that were more word-like than picture-like - a boat a house a cat, whatever, like what you might see in a Mixtec codex. He recalls chanting words over and over (to the annoyance of his parents) and when he heard a new one - cloud cloud cloud cloud cloud mailbox mailbox mailbox mailbox mailbox, would go on and on. (Many of Bennett’s maddeningly obsessive “poems” continue this practice). In 1949 and 1951, on the ship to and from Japan, he wrote such little notes, by then including alphabetic words, wrapping them up in boxes and/or bottles, and throwing them overboard. He still does that and still keeps up the chanting. So in a sense he’s always been writing poetry, though he didn't know it was "poetry" until much later – in the 6th grade or 7th grade? And at that point he started haunting bookstores and libraries, reading whatever came his way so that his "influences" may be something innate in him. He lived in a house full of books, being fascinated by the typewriters and writing/drawing tools there at home. He says he never took a typing course, never a drawing class - except briefly as a child in Japan - and never studied "writing"- only literature.
Bennett lived in Japan 1949-1951, where his father, an anthropologist, was doing acculturation studies for the occupation authority. These few years made a very strong impression on him in various ways: his sense of aesthetics developed there. Japanese writing and art resonated with him in a big way (he remembers seeing Rashomon, a new film at the time, in a Japanese theatre, and understanding it, even though his Japanese was very sketchy). With his parents he visited temples, museums, rural towns, fishing villages etc., all of which was formative. He had his first culture shock on returning to the US, which in some ways still feels like an alien place to him. Bennett’s fascination with inventive typographies may go back to impressions of Japanese calligraphy, and many of his pieces which “feel” minimalistic may have unconscious roots in Japanese haiku or Zen koan. As for the culture shock he felt, this also may be reflected in the multilingual, continental and Latin American tendencies his work has taken from the onset, hence dissociating it from an American bias.
As for the authors he read that impressed him and that had resonance of some kind, these vary at different times, though naturally with some of them the resonance was more long-lasting and still present. The list includes Keats and Shelly, the Elizabethans - Shakespeare and George Herbert, and maybe Donne; and especially: Whitman, Lorca, Machado, Jiménez, Neruda, Vallejo, Parra, Huidobro, Huidobro, Huidobro, Argüelles, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Manual Acuña, Mallarmé, and lately going back and rediscovering people like the 2 Heredias, Valery, Lezama Lima (as novelist), Góngora, Sor Juana, Burroughs, Dickinson. This is just a sampling, it misses many – principally the many poets, his contemporaries, whom he values greatly and who “get his juices flowing”. "Influence" for Bennett is a tricky word in that he does not feel influenced so much as being in the presence of all these voices that are part of an atmosphere he breathes--in an odd way for him it is almost as if he is writing in them, rather than that they are being a part of his voice. Bennett says that obviously much of what he does, or any poet or artist worth their salt, is completely unique, but at the same time it's also a collaboration with all these other voices. They collaborate with him or he with them, which is not the same thing as an "influence". In fact Bennett’s actual collaborations with other contemporaries are many (e.g. Chac Prostibulario, in collaboration with Ivan Argüelles), and more recently he has taken to combining parts of poems from contemporaries and well-established poets to form new poems. He has also become fond of using “faux quotes” ascribed to other poets living or dead.
Bennett’s education includes attending HS at a lab school at Ohio State University (though he graduated from a big public school in St. Louis, another culture shock!); BA cum laude at Washington University, St. Louis, double major in Spanish and English, 1964; MA in Spanish language and literatures from Wash U, 1966; Certificate of Competence (really a 2nd MA) in Latin American studies from Wash U, 1966; PhD in Latin American literatures, UCLA, 1970. He was an assistant professor in the Romance Languages Dept. (Spanish section) at OSU, 1969-1976, teaching mostly Latin American literature and some Spanish literature.
Bennett has worked in the OSU Libraries since 1976 - ,at first in the Latin American Studies Library, then in Rare Books and MSS Library, where he started the Avant Writing Collection. In this manner he wove connections between his work and his art. There had always been a connection there: he studied Spanish because of the literature, which meant something to him as a poet, and because he felt that in English there would be a conflict between his art and his professional work. When he was still in High School, he discovered that what he wanted to do was "to change the language". With that arrogant goal in mind the bland and somewhat repressive nature of English departments would cause him big problems. Not only did he find the literatures in Spanish more interesting, but the culture in the Spanish departments was much more open to the new, and things were really happening there. Because of his PhD in Spanish/Latin American literature, he has a scholar’s familiarity with such diverse authors as the 20th century Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro and the great Siglo de Oro poet Luis de Góngora. Equipped with these professional skills it was no accident he came to be the curator of the "Avant Writing Collection", "The William S. Burroughs Collection", and "The Cervantes Collection” at the OSU Libraries. At this point one might say his artistic and professional careers intersect in a manner that again displays the intellectual depth and variation which are at the core of Bennett’s artistic forays, multiple and many directed.
The death of Charles Olson in 1970 and the ascendancy of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 60’s mark the end of a period when poetry was still a spontaneous creative activity by “poets” as such, best exemplified at the time by such movements as the Beats and the New York School (Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, etc.). The workshop influence was pervasive and not necessarily healthy as it demanded more and more that a “poet” be defined by his or her earning an MFA. The poetry was self–defined as “well crafted” verse and more often than not was based on an “ego” narrating some critical event in his or her life. The system became ingrown and self-perpetuating, each qualified MFA holder was entrusted with teaching positions and setting up more workshops around the country. At the same the post-modernist LANGUAGE school received a great deal of attention as the next big thing in poetry, but in fact the practitioners of this movement were also by and large “academics” who in turn isolated this movement in its own ivory tower. As an unconscious (perhaps not so unconscious) reaction to the “academicizing” of poetry there arose like a fungus a plethora of small presses and little magazines dedicated to publishing writers who did not fit the MFA profile required of “poets”. In fact this was the arena where real experimentation in poetry continued and thrived. Not that all of this output was good, much was ephemeral, but the experimentation was heady and fertile. It was in this atmosphere that John M Bennett got a start with something called The Frustration Press; he did chapbooks of his own work, mostly using a ditto machine “the fading blue spirit ink”. Then he started Luna Bisonte Prods as a front for various dadaesque, surrealesque, fluxusesque and mailart activities. Lost and Found Times began as “mailart publications”, and mailart was an element of the magazine throughout its run. LAFT, which went on to become one of the most influential of the small poetry mags throughout the 70’s and 80’s, was characterized by original zany dada surrealism pitched efforts with a strong visual typographic orientation. It’s appearance was unique, always with a sort of blurred or out of focus graphic representation of some kind. It is to Bennett’s credit that through his press he fomented the work of many upcoming experimentalists on the poetry scene, and he continues to do so. As Bennett puts it he continued to publish LAFT in “order to publish great stuff people kept sending me that couldn't be published anywhere else but that NEEDED to be published. That was the underlying general editorial motive.” The Avant Writing Collection at OSU is based on the same underlying idea/practice
With respect to Bennett’s start as a poet in the 70’s, he felt he did NOT fit into any of it--what he was doing didn't jive with any of the publishers of that time, with the exception of C.W. Truesdale, who published 2 books of his in the early 70's (Found Objects and White Screen). But much of the reason he started Frustration Press and then Luna Bisonte Prods was to publish stuff that no one else would, of his own, and then also of others who gradually came out of the woodwork, who equally couldn't be published. It seems that a lot of poets who are now fairly well known in the avant garde scenes, were first published in Lost & Found Times, a fact of which he is quite proud.
There are so many aspects to Bennett’s “poetry” that in a sense the term poetry does not adequately cover the whole of Bennett’s creative endeavor and output. Under the impetus or guise of poetry he has done so many different kinds of things that keep evolving into new things, that it is difficult to make something of the whole work step-by-step. Through the late 20th century he often reached a point where he decided to make a "big leap" forward into something very different. He would get myself worked up to do it, and then take a plunge into the unknown without any idea as to what he was about to do. The results were generally satisfying in the long run. He still does this, though less dramatically, perhaps, and there's more of an evolutive process. Much of what he has always done through these changes is to incorporate aspects, often minor ones, of previous styles into the new one, expanding on them so that they became a major aspect of the new style/approach: a mix and match, so to speak, layering various “schticks” to create something “new”. And indeed when looks at the range of his “works” in some sort of chronological order these efforts at shifting styles, mixing and matching etc, intensify to the point where something utterly new results, such as in many later texts which are sometimes totally visual (Sacaron navajas), or emphatically visual with some vestiges of poetical “text” interspersed (Las Cabezas Mayas).
Language for Bennett is inextricable from consciousness, and thus very hard to talk about because of not being able, really, to get outside of it. Unlike the so-called LANGUAGE poets, for whom language is an abstract post-modernist speech act of objectification divorced from any intent of lyrical expression or narrative, in short an anti-poetry, Bennett’s language is more of a meta-language, a conscious employment of words to metamorphose themselves in weird, disjunctive combinations that may baffle or annoy the reader. As William Burroughs says in The Ticket That Exploded: "Would there be any time if we didn't say anything?" So for Bennett language is much more than a "linear construct to...describe events and emotions". Events and emotions occur in language (as well as elsewhere). Bennett employs language to say it all, that is, to re-create the entire world, but in as few words as possible. His poetry is almost of necessity a minimalist approach to incorporating the whole. For Bennett “a poem is a kind of singularity in the center of a black hole, matter in an impossibly dense mass, including time.” The many gimmicks and word-play he employs constantly in his poems are to this end: to say as many things as possible all at once. Almost unique in contemporary poetry is Bennett’s use of multiple languages; e.g. English, Spanish, French, Nahuatl, etc., all of which swarm in his “head or heads.” Bennett’s concept of language is that every word is related to every other word ever made, in every language, present, past or future. In Bennett’s words: “another way of describing what I do is that I work in that zone of resonance of all those other words/languages.... the technique of "transduction" is one way of doing that: instead of translating a word I use another word that sounds like it or in some other way resonates with it.” Bennett’s use and concept of language compares with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Further, Bennett says what he has found “through his own work and through working with patients as a poetry therapist, is that each of the functions of language -- speaking, thinking, writing, translating, reading, learning new languages, etc. -- involves a separate mental process, and each of those processes must be learned and practiced separately. There is some overlap, but in general each works on its own. Part of what I try to do is to combine those processes into a single process.”
Clearly for any attempt at comprehending what Bennett’s poetry is about, his views on language and languages is at the core. Once it’s understood what these views are, the apparent nonsense and chaos of the “poems”, as such, while not taking on any more meaning than they had before, become comprehensible as a system to express his own particular Weltanschauung through language. But Bennett’s work did not arise from a vacuum; it has its antecedents or roots in various earlier movements and poets. One could begin by citing Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dées” with its visual outlay on the page. But perhaps the principle historical movement by which Bennett’s work could be identified is Dadaism, with its emphasis on the absurd, its deliberate syntactic breakup and its typographical display on the page. Two obvious antecedents from the Dadaist era are the Chilean Vicente Huidobro, whose masterpiece Altazor is marked by a mounting wordplay, frequently reduced to nonsense syllables, and Guillaume Apollinaire whose Calligrammes may be the first, and among the most brilliant, examples of visual poetry.
One may well ask what differentiates Bennett’s poetry, which seems so implicitly based on language as such, from the LANGUAGE school of poetry. For one thing LANGUAGE poetry is rooted in the academy, and its practitioners are a well soldered group, insular and exclusive, that adheres to strictly post-modernist theories of literary deconstruction. Theirs has become a socially entrenched style that presents itself as in some way definitive. While there have been some interesting writings to come out of it, there is a serious dogmatism about it, not dissimilar to the surrealistic dogmatism of Breton, that makes it feel like a peculiar attempt to apply "politically correct" ideas to a style that seems irrelevant to those ideas. On the other hand, Bennett’s poetry is wholly outside the academy, and like so much of the very best poetry written since 1970, is apparently sub rosa, barely visible to the main-stream publishing houses that profess to promote “poetry”, such as Wesleyan or Pitt. Bennett’s poetry is truly “experimental”, and again like so many other of the best poets of his generation, has had to rely on fiercely independent small presses that do not live by the grants-and-foundations-mill of the Poets & Writers establishment. LANGUAGE poetry as such began it seems as an experiment against the “canon” of poetry, but almost immediately became a genre co-opted by the academy. It’s safe to say that Bennett’s work, as well as that of other experimentalists or innovators in poetry since 1970, has been flat out rejected by the jealously guarded main stream poetry world that thrives on Iowa Workshop MLS graduates to perpetuate itself. For Bennett language is organic, palpable, multidimensional, swarming and breathing, and not a deconstructed post-modernist theory.
The visual aspect of Bennett’s work cannot be emphasized enough, as it is again language exploited for its appearance on the page. This visual aspect has always been important to him: to visualize the text as it appears on the page, as a random or not so random design, as it were. Perhaps the first major explicitly visual work beyond textual poetry was some collage poetry he did in the early '70's. A selection of these pieces was published by C. W. Truesdale in a book-in-a-box called Found Objects, and others in White Screen, and in a number of Luna Bisonte Prods chapbooks. From that practice, and from hand-writing he began doing calligraphic work, his own calligraphy (never having studied the formal kind) which he still does. In fact, Bennett’s idiosyncratic calligraphy (a zany sort of scrawl all but legible at times) is one of the earmarks that sets a Bennett poem off from anybody else’s. The drawing developed out of the calligraphy. He says his drawings are basically writing, hieroglyphs as it were. One of the best examples of that kind of thing is Las Cabezas Mayas. Like the sound and oral work he does, this technique is just another way, not so different, of achieving some of the aspects of language and linguistic expression which characterize Bennett’s prolix and often complex body of work. An extension of what he calls “calligraphy” is the radical use of differing typographies employed in a single poem. Recently he has returned to collage, and to mixing collage, drawing and calligraphy .
Another important dimension to Bennett’s work is music, or sound. There was always music in Bennett’s house as a child--classical, jazz, "ethnic" (his father was an anthropologist), so he took to music very early. He had his own record player in his room and would listen to a lot of Bach, baroque, classical, Fats Domino, Rock Around the Clock, and other great '50's rock. He also learned to play the clarinet, then oboe--also sax and bass clarinet—which he played in the school orchestra and chamber groups, and seriously considered going into music as a career. He did jazz and poetry with friends in high school. Some of what he has been performing the past 3 decades or so is in that vein, although he says it is not "jazz and poetry", but rather “improv” music, using his poetry as if it were another instrument. Whatever it is, it is not poetry accompanied by music. He has also done, mainly in performances, what could be called sound poetry, his own rather eccentric versions of it. An example of this is referred to in the opening paragraph, the piece Olvido del surr. All this would suggest, correctly, that the sound or music of language and form are an important part of how he writes. According to Bennett “there are at least 5 dimensions to a poem as I write it: sound, visuality, meaning of the words, rhythm and movement through time, and resonance (what other words and/or images come to mind that aren't explicitly there). All are equally important.” Music, then, has always been important to Bennett, and he listens to it constantly, especially baroque, early music, avant garde, classical, "world" and "ethnic", jazz, experimental and sound art. In the 80's and early 90's he recorded some work he had done on saxophone, and used it in some work he did with poetry and music and other musicians. Recently he has been playing various kinds of flutes, often as part of poetry performances.
It is open to question whether one may regard poetry when it is read aloud, presented, as an “oral” art, as a performance. When he was in school and college, he did a lot of acting, and for several summers when he was in graduate school in St. Louis, he earned money acting in a Commedia dell'Arte troupe, a different play every week. He played Pantaleone, one of the stock characters of that genre. It was improvisational, based on a general plot outline and consistent characters. He also acted in plays, most memorably playing Lucky in Waiting for Godot. From this experience rather than reading his poetry he began to "perform" it, only the role he was playing was himself, or one of the many John Bennetts. He became his own cast of roles or characters, which doesn’t make them any less authentic, but all the more authentic. Learning other languages also plays a role in performance, insofar as speaking another language is rather like taking on another self or role, in that a different language embodies a different culture. As a result he has learned to perform rather than read his poetry. At times the performance aspect of his reading may get ratcheted up a bit, especially with some of the more extreme processes he employs, and also when he performs some of the visual poems.
As a natural outgrowth of Bennett’s performance techniques the Be Blank Consort was formed when he was at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2001 with a group of other visual poets. The concept of Be Blank is based on creating scores out of poems and visual poems so that they can be performed by a group, rather like a chamber ensemble. Some of the scores, in fact, use musical structures , such as canons and fugues, with the text read simultaneously by many people, each one starting at a fixed point after the other. The original group has gotten together several times in various places to perform, and they produced a CD, and wherever they perform local poets may join in to perform with them. Or, based on the various score compilations they have done, one of them can form the Consort anywhere with anyone , like some kind of self-generating biological organism. Bennett has done that in Mexico, and other places. The original group included Bennett, Scott Helmes, K. S. Ernst, Michael Peters as prime movers and shakers, but has since included at various times Sheila E. Murphy, Tom Cassidy, Geof Huth, and many others.
Bennett considers poetry as first and foremost oral, but also first and foremost visual, textual, and conceptual, or all at the same time. Bennett asks: “In the history of our species did speech come before writing? Probably so, at least in regards to more complex forms of writing. But that's not for certain, and in any case was so long ago that it's kind of moot. For most of our history these functions/matrices of poetry have all been of equal importance.”
If Bennett had done nothing else but found and edit Lost and Found Times he would for that alone deserve a footnote if not a chapter in a history of contemporary American poetry. In the hectic milieu of countless small press and little poetry magazines, frequently just stapled and mimeographed, Lost and Found Times had few equals. Perhaps the West Coast magazine Kayak, edited by George Hitchcock, comes closest to it in nature and content. But while Kayak had a distinctly surrealist bias combined with artful collages, LAFT derives more from an absurdist, dadaist matrix, and seemed somehow “messier”. Kayak consciously died with its 64th issue, to be revived in sorts by the slicker Caliban, edited by Larry Smith. Many of the same poets can be find in either venue. LAFT continued appearing through 2005. An anthology called Loose Watch was published in 1998 and covers material from issues 1-39. Quoting from the preface of that publication: “From its origins in mail art to its more recent participation at the edges of language (and what is coming to be called post-language) poetry, Lost and Found Times provides a model of how marginalized cultural workers can create productive areas of engagement within a network of activity.” Indeed it is safe to say that LAFT serves as a paradigm of relentless anti-cultural if not anti-literary activity, that can be compared to earlier movements, such as Dada or Futurism, though never strictly adhering to any ideology or –ism. Marvin Sackner sums it up concisely: “I consider the magazine one of most outstanding compendiums of international experimental literature and poetry.”
Bennett’s total output to date could form a monograph in itself. To compile such a work exhausts one just to consider it. Such a “list” would have to include not just the many actual books he has published, but the countless chapbooks, leaflets, postcards, scraps of paper with what appear to be hieroglyphs and some primitive form of script, and the myriads of sound efforts, readings, performances, films, et cetera! How does one approach this intimidating body of work to achieve some sort of assessment of it, to be able to make a coherent critique of what Bennett is about? When asked the question “which of your own books do you prefer, or wish to be remembered by for posterity?” Bennett replied, listing the following 5 titles: LaMaL, Liber X, Olvidos, Mirrors Máscaras, and El Humo Letrado. “And these are just the textual works, I'm ignoring the visual works. As to why I like these? I think that in various ways they are the peaks of various hills I was climbing, and that they combine the voices/techniques/manias I was working through in them. That is, they bring together a lot of things into single works, which fulfills the need I seem to have to say everything at once, so that every book, poem, phrase, word, letter, punctuation mark is as multivalent as possible. The world is a swarming, and I want to hold that world in my writing. Maybe these books do that more than others.”
In this interesting response it is useful to pull out a few key words or phrases, such as swarming, multivalent, and the need to have to say everything at once. For someone just casually perusing any of Bennett’s multivalent texts (text is perhaps a better term them poem) the page does indeed seem to be swarming with words, bits of words, combinations of bits of words, multilingual juxtapositions, typographical intrusions and calligraphic embellishments, none of which seems to make a lot of sense read in an expectant linear order. The texts which highlight or may consist of wholly typographic play and calligraphic embellishments may actually appeal to a visual aesthetic sense, and hence require no semantic explanation. But for the most part the bulk of this massive corpus of texts must seem and perhaps remain baffling, which may be their very intent or purpose. We have come past the point of asking: “What is the poet trying to tell us?” Bennett’s texts might be compared to the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollack or the aleatoric compositions of John Cage. We know a lot is going on in such works, but it is not easily discernible exactly what it is that is being communicated in the creative process, nor why if something is being communicated, it is being done in such a manner as to either baffle or irritate the intended audience. Let us take at random a (typically) small poem from El Humo Letrado (The Lettered Smoke):
aim to numb er the cornfled
tops yr ano lacustre er yr
a~no .fullness rains las piedras
rinsed with .ease of cramping
los chayotes en la mesa em
papada el cielo dreams or
blinds like un escarampión yr r
ashy forehead scuttled ,nice
an flimsy corner shingled with
yr suit ,where I rivered
por las camisas y los manteles
Here is one of the countless “bilingual” Bennett texts which actually has a rather lyrical effect read aloud. Looked at carefully with words broken at line breaks such as “r/ashy forehead ...” the text acquires an ambiguous semantic quality: rash and ashy. Words run together is a technique constantly used by Bennett, but which also recalls Finnegans Wake. Neologisms also occur, I rivered. But is this all taken together supposed to mean anything? Probably not. As for the Spanish words in the text, they are employed more in the manner of what linguists refer to as “code switching”, that is words from either language used in the same sentence without regard to their position. A person who code switches uses two (or more) languages simultaneously, such as in el cielo dreams, as if there were only one language in his/her head. For this reader the text has an overall dreamy quality, in which words become semantically diffuse, such as cornfled (meant to remind us of cornfield). The concluding lines have an especially lyrical effect: “yr suit / where I rivered / por las camisas y los manteles” (shirts and tablecloths). In fact looked at a 2nd or 3rd time, the poem seems less random in its choice of words, and more intentional. It is as if someone were talking in his/her sleep about something. There is an anesthetic effect in the broken up “numb er” and in the choice of “dreams” and “blinds” in such close proximity. The poem is clearly the product of a mind grappling with the world’s lack of cohesion, trying to articulate that disorder in order to make it meaningful. One is reminded of Paul Valéry’s comment” Two things threaten the universe: order and disorder. Multiply this poem/text by thousands and you get some idea of Bennett’s incredible output and intelligence. When one surveys this all but overwhelming output, which seems at times labyrinthine, one is confronted not only by a portmanteau vocabulary constantly in flux, but by the frequent references to body parts and functions, vomiting, spewing, pissing etc. all over the page. One has the sense that for Bennett the human body and its functions and malfunctions is the microcosmos by which he measures the universe at large in all its swarming linguistic variety.
As a footnote it should be noted that with the advent of email Bennett sends out through the ether dozens of these compositions a month, many of which he gathers to be included in new publications. Making these available through email is an open invitation to others on his list-serve to riff off his syllabic notes, and in return he will improvise on the works of others through the email. An example of his joyous wordplay is the following from a very recent email:
just one leg ,jjjerking
in a circcle
But this is just the more linear/textual aspect, although the dominant one, among the variety of ways he has chosen to express his poetry. Over a period of time Bennett’s typographic and calligraphic embellishments or enhancements of given texts on the page become more and more prominent. At times these can become highly ornate, baroque one might say, and become more prominent on the page almost as pictograms or pure ornamentation than the underlying semantic content of the words they are embellishing. Some of the best examples of this rich, ornate typography can be seen in recent works, such as Liber X (2012) or Mirrors Mάscaras (2014), both of which as books or artifacts are beautiful, glossy productions. At the same time Bennett’s linguistic innovations become more intense, especially in his Spanish texts, or, better yet, texts that employ the above-mentioned code switching technique. El Humo Letrado (2011) purports to be “poesía en español”, but scattered subliminally throughout this text are more than smatterings of English, such as in the poem Under: “, otear y ,fumble one ,nada simple”. Perhaps the most experimental of his linguistic innovations is his Sole dadas & Prime Sway (2012). Sole dadas is a complete transduction (not translation) of the long poem Soledades by the great siglo de oro poet Luís de Góngora. The original Spanish text is considered by many to be a high point in Spanish poetry, but it is a very complex work involving a rich, erudite vocabulary and an intricate Latin word order, which make the poem difficult to decipher. Bennett’s transduction takes the Spanish text by rendering word for word an English homonym (or something close to it) to represent the original Spanish word. It is interesting the extent to which it also “feels” like a translation, which it is not. This intricate and faithful-to-the-original (homophonically speaking) “translation” will surely find its place among the major experiments in contemporary poetry. Of the companion piece in that publication, Prime Sway, a transduction of Sor Juana’s Primer Sueño, Bennett says he wrote it “pretending I don’t know Spanish and writing it out (reading it) as if it were English.” Of similar interest is Chac Prostibulario (1999), a text composed through email with Ivan Argüelles, and written in the code-switching manner employing mostly English, Spanish and some Portuguese in a long sequence of 7 line stanzas to form a book length poem. The fascinating aspect of this work is that though the two undertook to writing alternating stanzas, after a point it is difficult to discern who is the author of which stanza. A perfect blend. This work is a bit like John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the works, or Finnegans Wake.
From the visually idiosyncratic and highlighted typography/calligraphy employed increasingly in Bennett’s texts to the purely visual, hieroglyphic texts is but a slight leap in Bennett’s multi-directed trajectory. As a bridge to the purely visual (vizpo) publications, there are two interesting titles that consist purely of typographical/calligraphic texts: Cuitlacochtli—typographic stick figures, and La chair du Cenote, both of which seem to derive from Apollinaire’s Calligrammes in their elaborate and stunning appearances on the page. On the other hand there are purely graphic works, colorful, zany, at times collage-like, but all with the zigzaggy mental imprimatur that can only be identified as John M Bennett. Foremost among these are: Sacaron navajas, a small book consisting of very colorful pieces which at times look like they’ve been torn from a larger Dada-type illustrative text; and the gorgeous Las Cabezas Mayas Maya Heads, a colorful sequence of hand drawings of often quite whimsical cartoon heads, punctuated sparsely by typographic texts. Bennett also published a small chapbook, very beautifully done, simply called this is visual poetry, which contains some of his finest art work in this genre. Bennett continues to disseminate a series of “heads” through the email—typically these are somewhat recognizable human heads or skulls superimposed on scraps of text. Were Bennett simply to be known as a premier vispo artist he would be ranked at the top of the heap. But, amazingly, these graphic/visual works are just a part of the entire Bennett œuvre .
Finally, it should be pointed out that Bennett does not work in a vacuum. In fact he is one of the most collaborative artists working today. Among the poets he has interacted with are: Peter Ganick, Ivan Argüelles, Jim Leftwich, Olchar E. Lindsann, Sheila E. Murphy, Davi Det Hompson, poets whose writing bears some relation to his, and whose work he finds quite stimulating. These are just the "textual" poets. When it comes to visual poetry, there's another group of artists he interacts with: Tom Cassidy, Scott Helmes, Jim Leftwich, Serge Segay, Rea Nikonova, Sheila E. Murphy, and his wife C. Mehrl Bennett. And in the past few years, he has been sporting with some of the new Fluxus artists that are out there, where there's an absurdist spirit that he finds very stimulating. As to whether Bennett and the artists he interacts with form a "school or movement" is open to question. Bennett also incorporates his own work, or intrudes upon, the work of others, living or dead, in Spanish and French: Pablo Neruda, Rubén Bonifaz Nuño, Nicolas Carras, Philippe Billé, Juan Ángel Italiano, Martín Gubbins, Julien Blaine, etc. In recent years he has signed off many of his poems with quotes, often faux quotes, of many authors, living and dead, a technique which lends a mock literary flavor to the texts.
Bennett says that despite the appearance of the poems he writes them as stories, as narrations, a narration that incorporates much more than a single line. This is analogous, perhaps, to the sense of narration in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, or Lezama Lima's in Paradiso or Burroughs' in his cut-up trilogy of the 1960's, texts which he read for the first time back in the early 60's. He was terribly impressed, and at the same time mystified by these works. In fact, many of the works of others that impacted Bennett in one way or another, were at first sort of incomprehensible, but they stuck with him until he finally "got" them. In addition to telling a story, most of his poems are highly lyrical, highly emotional. So what then is being communicated by these texts? First of all they are protean: there is no one exact thing to be drawn from them (i.e. there is no "moral" to be drawn at the end of them, unless if what a reader wants is a “moral”, the reader will find it). Bennett wants to say it all simultaneously, in which case a LOT of things are being said with great concision.
How to read these poems? Bennett says the poems are “like mirrors in which the reader sees him or herself, or an aspect of that self. And that every time one looks, one will see something a bit, or a lot, different. There are number of ways to see what's in that mirror: basically they involve reading or saying the poem and paying attention to your emotional response. That response might cohere around a particular line or phrase or sound or whatever. One can then try to say what that emotional response is: "saying" something is giving meaning to it. Consciousness of meaning for most folks generally involves language, being able to talk or write about something. There are other kinds of consciousness, of course: there is meaning in sound, as there is meaning in music, which is difficult to translate into language. The same goes for the visual meaning a text has. And for that zone of resonant meaning created by the words and concepts that are suggested, but are not "physically" present. These are all arenas of meaning.”
Bennett goes on to say: “So much of North American poetry is fundamentally didactic-- it uses poetry as a tool to present some moral idea or lesson. What I do is not that at all; the ethics and values of our cultures can be taught, and are, in much more effective ways. What I want to do is to create a mirror of the larger swarming context of existence, in which particular rules of behavior and thought are small particulate aspects.”
In this short essay I have attempted to give some sort of cohesion to the extremely varied, multiple and complex work of John M Bennett, one of the most innovative and experimental poets, if not the most unique, in America today. Yet, it is a sure bet that his name and work are all but unknown, if not ignored in the literary and academic establishment where poetry is pronounced with a capital P, and grants and awards are dished out to the sub-proletariat would- be poets who hold MFA’s and are willing to punish others with their less than catholic knowledge of poetry in hundreds of workshops across the nation and elsewhere. Were Bennett a citizen of some Latin American country or France or Spain or Italy, he would no doubt be well recognized for his chaotic, irreverent, innovative, highly experimental, intelligent, and often beautiful works, be they in traditional print form or in the sometimes dazzling graphic representations. In fact, Bennett’s reputation is to some extent international, and he has been published in France and Latin America. His interest in Meso-American culture and languages has drawn him frequently to that part of the world where is a recognized figure. So it is frustrating that, outside of the relatively small avant-garde experimental performance world where Bennett is a prime mover, he is so unknown and unappreciated in his homeland. As with the music of John Cage, what may seem aleatory is in fact more intentional and grounded than first perceived. Bennett has roots in traditional literatures, those of Siglo de Oro Spain and of Elizabethan England, but he is capable of transducing those literatures, metamorphosing them by way of the radical avant garde movments of the 20th century, such as surrealism and dada, into something utterly innovative and unexhaustingly New, such as few contemporary artists have. It is the purpose of this essay to hopefully advance a critical awareness of John M Bennett and his fabulous, multifaceted œuvre. It is fitting to conclude this essay with the following recent poem written in Spanish by Bennett.
nada he escrito
no he escrito nada soy
el topo nimio del lugar
sin palabra sin palabra
he escrito una silla sin
plumas del pájaro caído
en el aguafón no he tomado
nada no me bostezo sin
tragar las fofofrases de mi
similencio de los libros sin
jamón sin lechuga con su
monstraza no me atra
ganto con una tinta in
visible con un algo mudo
que muere en un salivazo no
emito nada nada remito na
da redimigo y la nada
que escribo me titubea siempre
como foco que se estrella
en la escalera hablada que
subo y bajo vajo y subo
con mi lenguarabo atado y flagelante
...la gran boca que ha perdido el habla.
- César Vallejo
Berkeley, CA 10-02-14