Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Poster for Poetry Month

Every April in the USA is National Poetry Month. Nobody really cares about this, or even notices it, except poets, academics, and English teachers. There is usually a flurry of commemorations, both analytic and creative. it's not uncommon to see poetry workshops challenge their participants to write a poem a day for the duration of Poetry Month. Some public consciousness of poetry is indeed raised during the annual festivities, but then it sinks back below the public consciousness once the month is over. After all, April contains other, more urgent annual events, such as the day every year by which one must file one's income tax return. Poets struggle hard during April to raise the public consciousness of poetry, and the discourse around poetry. Overeager poetry literary-critical cheerleading spouted by poets during the month ranges from bland analysis to hysterical hand-wringing about the state of poetry nowadays. It must be said, one feels, that it's only because poetry is suffering public indifference and disinterest, most of the time, that it needs an annual bout of boosterism.

I am not big on boosterism. However, just for fun, last night I made a couple of flyers or posters, incorporating word-clouds made using Wordle, that are celebrations and/or announcements regarding National Poetry Month. These were design ideas that were sparked by running across various celebratory boosts in the literary world. I thought about all the earnestness, and decided one needs to also encounter some playfulness.

I find myself getting into trouble, again, for not obeying the rules that many poets impose on their own practice, and would like me to follow as well. I find myself once again indifferent to the definitional boundaries between poem, prose-poem, and poetic prose. I frequently pass across those boundaries, within a single piece, without taking any notice. This offends poets who wish to keep the definitions and boundaries intact and pure.

One of the reasons I like Wordle is that it makes words into visual art. There are rhythms within the visual forms that Wordle creates from your poem, essay, or random journal entry. This takes poems into a realm in which a poem's meaning can get decentered, while at the same time creating something like an illustrated poem, a haiga, an illuminated manuscript. The words lose context and syntax, although how they become juxtaposed can create fresh linkages between words. I appreciate how a word-cloud can then become part of a larger collaged image, adding layers of experiential communication to to a ohoto or illustration. Words and image can sometimes synergize into a greater whole.

In other words: Design and illustration wherein word-clouds are just another visual element, although naturally some linguistic meaning will accrue.

So, just for fun, I made a couple of versions of a poster or flyer for National Poetry Month, using my photography and poems.

Let's start with the poetry element. Here are three word-clouds based on my poem Needles.

Wordle's sorting algorithm for creating word-clouds from texts sorts frequency against size. Thus, the more often a word appears in a text, the larger it is in the cloud. Position is randomized, disconnecting meanings.

Here's a couple more word-clouds, made from my poem Letter to ____.

And here's a word-cloud made from my poem Walt Whitman's Summer Wander Across North America.

These examples give, I hope, an idea of the range that Wordle has within its operational parameters.

That last Whitman-based word-cloud ends up in the poster I designed:

(Click on image for larger view.)

And here is a different version of the poster, in which the most obvious design change is the background color.

(Click on image for larger view.)

I'm also thinking of re-photographing these poetry posters in conjunction with one of my antique typewriters, to add another layer of writerly and design interest.

My own spin on a poster for National Poetry Month was to take a marginalized poetic subculture rarely represented during the annual celebration, and foreground it. A poetic subculture, I might add, that I care deeply about personally, but which the poetic mainstream rarely has time for. I'm referring to openly gay and lesbian poetry.

So I chose a photograph of mine, with a nude model at the Pacific Ocean. The word-clouds are made from two or three of my own poems with homoerotic themes, including the Whitman poem mentioned above.

I wonder if anyone would notice, if I didn't point it out.

They'd certainly see Whitman's name in there—but then, Whitman is considered a universal poet nowadays; a lot of Whitman criticism outright ignores the homoerotic aspects of the sexualities presented in his poetry. Unless one deliberately foregrounds the "Calamus" poems from the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, plenty of scholarly critics and poets are happy to overlook Whitman's open homoeroticism. The usual argument goes: "After all, we're trying to raise the public consciousness of poetry, here, so we don't want to muddy the waters by emphasizing controversial subject matter!" Exclusion of such "controversial" subject matter is merely the most subtly pernicious form of censorship by the poetry mainstream. Whatever makes them squirm is to be avoided—which is paradoxical, since the deliberate obscurity, disjunction, and obliqueness that is currently fashionable in much contemporary poetry is exactly what makes many general (no-poetry-specialist) readers squirm.

I might revisit this poster design concept later, perhaps, using the "Calamus" poems as my source texts. That could make for an interesting take on this poster concept, particularly if I also include in the collage a portrait or two of Whitman, and more of my own homoerotic photography. Maybe later.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think the posters are quiet effective - I prefer the blue one of the two - but I doubt the words will register with anyone. They'll just see them as art, almost devoid of meaning, merely examples of the subset of words that poets use. 'Whitman' was the only one that jumped out at me. I looked at this as art and not poetry and I don't need words-as-art to mean anything, just look pretty.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks. I agree completely about words-as-art, that's really the whole idea with something like this.

I slightly prefer the blue one, too. The other one is more eye-annoying, which of course means that some folks will more readily be drawn to it.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Eshuneutics said...

I too like the first poster and its graphics! Would anyone notice it is gay? Now, isn't that the eternal question again: What is gay art/poetry? This intrigues me more and more (because as you wrote in a post, the gay image mid-America is not the same as on the coasts, in other words, we don't belong to the stereotype). If the wordle had SEX, QUEER and the image was a male couple, hey, it would be obvious. Yes, obvious to the gay stereotyping mass. To me, there is an ambience to the poster that says something. I'd love to see something done with the Calamus poems. Really, the wordle clouds border on concrete poetry.

2:34 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Those are all good and fair questions. Not all are answerable, I think. That we don't belong to the stereotypes was partly what I was thinking of, yes. Something a little less obvious, maybe.

You're right, I could make things more overtly and obviously homosexual; and I was thinking about the "code" that used to happen in gay literature and art of the past, in which those "in the know" would pick up on it, but the average straight folk would not. And that DOES feed into stereotypes of how we're represented.

I also agree about the connection between Wordle and concrete poetry, and also the current fashion for visual poetry (vispo).

I'll do something with Calamus eventually, no doubt.

Thanks for the excellent thoughts.

10:44 PM  

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