Adam Soldofsky was born in Oakland, California and raised in the Silicon Valley. He received his MFA from New York University in 2007. He lives in New York City. For more of Adam’s poems visit: multiplesuns.tumblr.com
Paperbag: What is the importance of the visual impact of a poem?/ What are your thoughts on digital, internet-based journals and publications?
Adam Soldofsky: Generally, if it appears someone is listening very seriously to me or on the verge of accepting something I’m in the process of asserting, I begin to feel as though I’ll be unable to forgive that person for it. Next, I begin to feel like I should make an apology to the person, who is clearly undeserving of ridicule and is only being punished for his or her open mind. Then I feel a little sorry for myself because again it seems I have failed to have a serious conversation unsullied by self-consciousness. Finally, I begin to feel sorry for all of us, for humanity, who I have determined, based on my difficulties, must live in a state of constant miscommunication – in part because I believe this to be true, and in part because I don’t want it to just be me. This is all to say that very soon I am going to start talking about poetry. Like now. Like right now.
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The visual aspect of the poem is clearly essential to the reader’s experience of the poem, though it should be impossible to explain scientifically why this is. It is impossible because however abstract, shapes and configurations are sensuous, i.e. they feel a certain way once they are internalized. A small green triangle, for example, feels distinctly like itself. Apprehended or conjured, it feels pleasant or irritating or neutral. Or it feels like something too difficult to articulate. A cloud of small green triangles is sensationally different than a grid of the same. Why? To pursue an answer beyond the domain of Aesthetics into the realm of the anthropologists and the head shrinkers is not my intention here. I’m not certain the shape or look of the poem is inseparable from its meaning. Conveniently, I am against the pursuit of hard evidence to justify this.
When we talk about the visual, I suppose we are really discussing two categories of the visual, one of which we typically spend more time considering than the other – we are talking about the shape/ look/ visual nature of the text or we are talking about the shape/ look/ visual nature of the field in which the text appears.
Regarding the visual nature of the text – my suspicion is that before actually reading the poem for its meaning in language, a reader reacts to the poem by automatically measuring the level of order/entropy in the appearance of the text as far as it is situated in the field (readers of books are of course used to the field being rectangular – I want to address this later). An orderly form, a poem in quatrains for example, must feel a certain way to a certain individual, before the poem is read, and regardless of the poem’s content or agenda. Likewise, an entropic poem registers a certain way to a certain individual before it is read for content. What qualifies as “Orderly/ Entropic” is also scalable to each unique reader, though I wonder if anyone would dispute the characterization of the quatrain as “orderly.”
While the reader is reading (if the reader is me), the reader is registering space as occupied or unoccupied by text. When the space is occupied, the reader divides his or her attention between the physicality of the presence of the text/ the meanings of the words (as words alone, as combinations of words, as devices with literal and figurative contextual implications etc.). When the reader encounters unoccupied space, the reader acknowledges and internalizes it as such, and if it occurs within the unfolding of the poem, it stands for a silence roughly proportional in time-length to the time-length it takes the eye to travel it. The more predictable the terrain of the field, the more it tends toward the orderly. The less predictable, the more entropic. Every locale on this spectrum represents a zone of satisfaction for an individual reader. In this sense the spectrum is built entirely of thresholds – thresholds that owe their spontaneous existence to the individual and to the circumstantial influences (large and small) that weigh upon the individual who approaches the poem.
To summarize before we move on: A poem (in this discussion) = a field distinct in space and of a particular shape which accommodates a text. The configuration of the text is the terrain of the field. The terrain, because it has an overall shape and is composed of shapes (which are sensuous) must necessarily warrant a physical response when encountered. This response is directly related to the respondent’s tolerance for order/ entropy within a poem. The level of order/ entropy is automatically measured when the poem is encountered in a strictly visual sense and considered simultaneously as the poem is being read. Would it be correct to assert that the more extreme the terrain, the more extreme the physical response? Why not? It is true out there in the world.
Beyond this analysis lies the interiority of the reader and his or her traumatic, ecstatic, moderate, mild, or too-subtle-to-characterize intuitive response to specific shapes/ configurations, which is unique to the individual reader, and which to hear discussed is like hearing a person analyze his or her dreams – which is contemptible. What is not contemptible (I hope) is to ask the question “should the shape/ look/ visual nature of the poem bear any deliberate resemblance to its content or agenda? The answer must be highly personal. It is for me, anyway.
I don’t want a poem whose order shows too much of a correspondence to its content or agenda. A poem about a tulip that takes the shape of a tulip? (Pardon, monsieur Guillaume. Je t’aime!) A poem in quatrains about traveling by horseback? This behavior is ill advised. My reasoning: when the shape of the poem shows too much conscious similarity to its content or agenda, what is most notably sacrificed is spontaneity – which for me is tops. Besides, it is terrible enough to have an agenda, as poems tend to, but to have one’s agenda echoed in the form is to beg for its being noticed.
Now to “the field” – it is most commonly a rectangle. So commonly, in fact, that we begin not to see it. This is ultimately for the good and for the bad. Good because the world has to end somewhere, so there can be a little space for the poem to exist. The rectangle, whether detectable anymore to the reader or not, has historically been a fairly successful perimeter for visual art and art in the form of literature. Bad because this seems like a limited and too defensive position for art to take. Perhaps now is a good time to discuss digital technology and its potential to improve poetry or at least increase its dynamism. (I’m not of the opinion that digital technology/ the internet is detrimental to poetry or art exactly the way I’m not of the opinion that it is attractive to run scared from what you cannot change).
One thing technology can do and has already done is to change the shape of the field. Jenny Holzer, whether you agree she is a poet or not, is a good example of the way the field can be enlarged/ pleasantly altered to accommodate a text. The field can now be a building or a river. I suppose “the field” can even be a field. I’m sure there are numerous and more compelling examples than Holzer, and you can have them, you think you know so much…
The Internet, strangely, has been reactionary as far as the field is concerned. I say this to be provocative but also because so much reading online is the reading of scrolls, and who (besides Kerouac) would have predicted such a large scale return to an anachronism? Of course, there is software that mimics the turning of the page as well as the pervasive tablet computer, which at this point is mostly devoted to the rectangle. I do think that the touch screen will have an impact on the field, will at the very least replace the rectangle with the cube, will add a dimension of physicality to the visual that we have never known before as readers and writers, once software developers and online publishers have more time with it. This shouldn’t frighten readers or writers. What should frighten readers and writers is what has or should have frightened readers and writers from the beginning of time – those who would assert unreasonable control, restrict and/ or exploit content for profit.
Also carnivorous fields that live on the Internet.