Visual Poetry
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John Riddell


Pope Leo: El Elope [7.2mb, PDF] 1969.

untitled [520kmb, PDF] 1969.

Criss Cross: A Textbook of Modern Composition [212.8mb, PDF] 1977.

A/Z does it [82.2mb, PDF] 1988.

E clips E [137.4mb, PDF] 1989.

Since 1963 John Riddell's work has appeared in such foundational literary journals as grOnk, Rampike, Open Letter and Descant as part of an on–going dialogue with Canadian literary radicality. Riddell was an early contributing editor to bpNichol's Ganglia, a micro–press dedicated to the development of community–level publishing and the distribution of experimental poetries. This relationship continued to evolve with his co–founding of Phenomenon Press and Kontakte magazine with Richard Truhlar (1976) and his involvement with Underwhich Editions (founded in 1978): a "fusion of high production standards and top–quality literary innovation" which focused on "presenting, in diverse and appealing physical formats, new works by contemporary creators, focusing on formal invention and encompassing the expanded frontiers of literary endeavour." The best–known example of Riddell's writing of writing is "Pope Leo, El ELoPE: A Tragedy in Four Letters," initially published in April 1969 with mimeograph illustrations by bpNichol through Nichol's small but influential Canadian magazine grOnk. It was published again, with more refined, hand–drawn, illustrations, once again by Nichol, in the Governor General's Award winning anthology Cosmic Chef: An Evening of Concrete (1970, the version included here) and in a further iteration in Criss–Cross: A Text Book of Modern Composition. "Pope Leo" relates a stripped–down comic–strip tale of the tragic murder of Pope Leo; the narrative unfolds partly by way of frames within frames, windows within windows, telling a minimalist story in which the comic–strip frame is nothing but a simple hand–drawn square with the remarkable power to bring a story into being. The anagrammatic text is an exploration of the language possibilities inherent in letters 'p,' 'o,' 'l,' and 'e' (hence the sub–title, "a tragedy in four letters")–sometimes using one of the letters twice, sometimes dropping one, always rearranging, always moving back and forth along the spectrum of sense/nonsense: "O POPE LEO! PEOPLE POLL PEOPLE! PEOPLE POLE PEOPLE! LO PEOPLE."

With a/z does it (1988), Riddell's writing of writing focuses even more on the investigation of the possibilities of story that lie well beyond the form of the sentence, paragraph, the narrative arc. Rather than playing with the visual story structure of the frame and the verbal structure of the anagram as means by which to create a narrative, with pieces like "placid/special" Riddell first creates grid–like structures of text with the mono–spaced typewriter font and then uses a photocopier to document the movement of the text in waves across the glass bed. The resultant text is the visual equivalent of his earlier fine–tuned probing of the line between sense and nonsense in "Pope Leo." These typewriter/photocopier pieces record both signal and noise as columns of text waver in and out of legibility. Semantically, these mirage–like texts focus on the words 'placid' (the lines of text reminding us of the symmetrical reversibility of 'p' and 'd' which begin and end the word), 'love' (with just the slightest suggestion of 'velo' at the beginning and end of each wave), 'first,' 'i met,' 'special,' 'evening' and 'light' (appearing as a hazy sunset moving down the page), and conclude with 'relax' and 'enjoy.' The paratactical juxtaposition of the two pages in "placid/special" creates the barest suggestion of a narrative about lovers enjoying an evening together while at the same time each page is in itself an even more minimalist story told through experiments with the manipulation of writing media.

Riddell's writing of writing that is simultaneously sense and nonsense, verbal and visual, self—contained and serial—that demands to be read at the same time as it ought to be viewed–nearly reaches its zenith in later work such as E clips E (1989). In particular, "surveys" is writing only in the most technical sense with its Jackson Pollock–like paint drippings and scattered individual letters, all counter–balanced by neat, hand–drawn frames.

Riddell's oeuvre is almost entirely out of print and unavailable except on the rare book market. Working within the purview of 1970s and 1980s Canadian small presses means that Riddell's writing proves elusive to a generation of readers who have come of literary age after the demise of such once–vital publishers such as Aya Press (which was renamed The Mercury Press in 1990 and has also ceased publishing), Underwhich Editions, Ganglia, grOnk and the original Coach House Press. As obscure as his original books may be, Riddell's work remains a captivating example of hypothetical prose; dreamt narratives that have sprouted from our abandoned machines. With no words and no semantic content, we are left to read only the process of writing made product—a textbook of compositional method using writing media from the pen/pencil, the sheet of paper, the typewriter, the shredder, photocopier, to even the paintbrush. The medium is the message.

–– derek beaulieu and Lori Emerson




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