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Weekly Alibi The Writing on the Wall

By Jeffrey Lee

APRIL 20, 1998: 

Broadsides Mingle Prints and Poetry at Harwood

For the poets, artists and printers who make broadsides, the printed poem is not only discursive; it's also a work of visual art. Like Japanese poet-calligraphers, the Blake of "Songs of Innocence," and type-jumbling Futurists and Dadaists, they appreciate letter and word as design, and the pattern of lines as a pleasure for the eye. Broadsided: Poetry on Walls is the first exhibition of poetry broadsides I've seen, and it's a nice introduction.

It's also, though smallish, a solid afternoon's visit. One thing that distinguishes Broadsided from shows of paintings or photographs is that you not only look at these pictures, you read them. Texts range from the provocatively brief and aphoristic, like Jack Spicer's "Rabbits do not know what they are" (Bieler Press), to a lengthy page by Leslie Marmon Silko, whose long, prosy sentences are hand-set and gorgeously printed on a sheet of pulpy, blue paper that is roughly the shape of Vermont. But all of them repay full attention. They're poems, afterall.

Because I don't know much about printing processes, I'd be happy if more nuts-and-bolts information accompanied these pieces. Renée Gregorio's "Gladiola," for instance, with its bright column of stylized flower shapes and pretty, hand-lettered text, looks screen-printed. But other examples range from letterpress to litho to mimeo, and knowing the details would, I think, have increased my appreciation of the printer's craft. Also, two of the show's must-see broadsides--Allen Ginsberg's "Consulting the I Ching, smoking pot" (1966) and two short poems by Jack Kerouac (1968)--are illustrated, but no illustrator's name is given. Printers, when their names don't appear on the work itself, are not always identified.

These are minor complaints, though, easily balanced out by the exhibit's eclectic pleasures. David Meltzer's "Blackest Rose," from 1964, is one of several handsome broadsides printed by the famous Auerhahn Press. A Japanese-looking serpent winds around Gary Snyder's "Two Logging Songs" (Arif Press). Above Snyder's signature, the second Song's final period has been changed by hand--presumably the poet's own--to an exclamation point. It alters the poem's character altogether and renders the broadside a touchingly personal document. Karen Snider's wry poem "Aunty Em in Binders" (Salient Seedling Press) is perfectly complemented by Penny McElroy's collage, a kind of Victorian garment from whose lacy shadows unexpected faces and figures appear.

Locals represented include Silko, Gregorio, Gus Blaisdell (as both lender and poet) and John Brandi. Curator Jeff Bryan's own "The Origins of Religious Thought" features, in comic-book panels, a violently ringing black telephone and a glamorous but angst-ridden sophisticate whose speech-bubble reads, "With breath we sail toward the science of lullabyes," as she reclines in her chiaroscuro penthouse.

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