Art Feature: LEXIA

Posted by on Oct 1, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments


LEXIA by Marco Maisto


In/around 2015, Marco Maisto’s poetry took a turn for the weird. Eerie instructional love poems. Postcards written from one enormous outdoor sculpture to another. Poems containing werewolves. Lots of. During this time, Marco co-edited the Poetry Comix and Animation folio for Drunken Boat. Recent work can be found now or soon in: Fjords, Drunken Boat, Rhino, 3Elements, Timber, Heavy Feather Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Small Po[r]tions, and, best of all, Spry. His chapbook, The Loneliness of the Middle-Distance Transmissions Aggregator was a finalist in YesYes Books Vinyl 45s Contest, and his poem cycle of the same name won the Kay Murphy prize from Bayou Magazine. MM lives in NYC with his favorite painter, whom he married. He’s looking for illustrators who want to make poetry comix. They or anyone can reach him through or @MarcoMaisto.

Question 1: LEXIA is so powerful — at turns moving and fascinating. And between the splay of letters and words, and the color combinations that almost seem to induce split vision, it’s an absolute experience. Please tell us about this piece. What was it about the subject of dyslexia that moved you to create it, and what’s the story (or poem) behind it?

Those are really kind things to say, first of all. So thanks.

In your question you use the word, “powerful,” (parsed in emotive and perceptual terms, I think) to describe the LEXIA. I’m very glad to hear that you encounter it on an affective level. I’m also interested in using your word as a way into discussing the piece.

One of my fears in hitting STOP on this poem—for me, LEXIA is a poem—when I did, was that, for a lot of people, it might only be interesting as a cerebral novelty. Don’t get me wrong: the poem practically begs to be read through a conceptual prism. It’s just that, for me, it triggers a 100% emotional experience. (Although getting to why it affects me that way is a circuitous story that we could talk about too.)

That said, I think you can find something moving in LEXIA even if you wanted to enter it at a phenomenological angle. Maybe you could say that if it’s powerful it’s powerful because it’s highly telegraphic—quick, over before it begins. Maybe that’s a way of thinking about power. Power can be a quality of speed. Or the other way around.

Sometimes speed is the first quality that I encounter in a poem or a painting. In these situations I usually experience (this is weird to say) a sort of emotive slow-motion: my feelings get involved, but at a delay. Saroyan’s “lighght” and “Disintegration” by Richard Kostelanetz (or even his short fictions) have that effect on me—and it’s a fantastic experience, jumpcutting from from fast to slow

Those pieces derive power from speed, but their affect comes alive in the art/writing’s afterimage—like a specter one can’t shake. Poems like these are haunted. The power of speed is that it leads to the slowness of haunting. I’d like to think that my poem haunts some people.

Anyhow, that’s one way to talk about how LEXIA works on an emotional level, but it doesn’t describe my own experience of it. As promised, getting to that is a circuitous story with lots of digressions. So lets digress a lot.

* * *

As a visual experience, LEXIA is tied up in its medium.

I’ve got a (very) little bit of training in letterpress printing. I like that humbling medium because it constrains creative choices. Or maybe you’d say that it (for those of us who are a bit challenged by visual-spatial relations and easily frustrated) triggers creative adaptation. For me that happens in two ways:

—The whole process of letterpress takes forever. So you’ve got to have serious belief in the poem (or whatever) you’re going to (literally) build for this machine (sometimes it feels like the machine is your ultimate audience).

—Printing presses turn mistakes into catastrophes. A lockup falls apart. Forward sorts make backwards words (this is probably another way into LEXIA). Hours and days of work can just disappear over a small mistake.

If I have a process, catastrophe is probably a part of it. So whenever I’d all of a sudden shipwrecked an intended print, I’d always try to salvage something interesting from the pieces, and make a print of that.

In retrospect, prints like these felt like Polaroids. Little almost voyeuristic freeze-frames capturing the beginning of some invisible moment. Pictures of two hands: one trying to hold squirming language on a trajectory toward form, the other disintegrated for trying to hold onto language as some traceless agent explodes it.

(Invisible: when my botches were especially bad, ink would get on the furniture and leading, leaving traces of the things that are supposed to structure content while remaining unseen. Real, yet ordinarily imperceptible binding elements that my own incompetence had given form. Ghosts.)

That’s the machinic parentage of LEXIA. That’s the ancient history behind the poem.

* * *

The how-and-why digression is more concrete and it’s another way into the poem.

In a funny way I feel like I’m never so much creating something as I am trying to find a way out of something that doesn’t want to be finalized.

I found a way out of LEXIA one afternoon when I sort of recognized that this hybrid thing I’d been pushing around for a few months was on the brink of feeling like a text. Or becoming an assemblage. Or behaving like a little sentient machine would. Or reading as a story could.

Maybe those are all ways of saying that I recognized that the picture/poem (it was both and neither then) was taking on an emotional range.

Prior to this moment, LEXIA was was just a crowded-feeling picture plane. But when I came back to it that afternoon, I saw how it could be pushed toward a place where feelings were at stake. Purposive decisions followed.

(Note that the above is the longest way I can think of to say that LEXIA started out as play and along the way became work.)

Anyway, this poem wasn’t consummated in some fit of inspiration. I found my way back into (and finally out of) it when I placed the prefix “Dys-” on the plane.

Before that, the poem had more to do with language. When that little extra lexical item got on board, it felt like it had more to do with people and perception—which got me closer to an exit strategy, but not quite enough. What I had felt sort of narrative and academic.

I thought that more blocks would help. Adding design elements seemed to equip the poem with additional affective registers. That worked. The whole piece felt stranger and yet more organic. For me that’s a sign that a poem is getting close to the finish line: when it becomes less of a commentary and more of an (image of) an almost-living thing. That’s where strangeness lives, I think. Where the third act masquerades as the second act.

* * *

You asked about dyslexia. I think that getting there involves talking about what is specifically happening in the poem as an entity that lives within a picture plane.

Like I said earlier, I think most people get some kind of experience out of this poem in about 3 seconds. But I think the party gets moodier if the reader sticks around a little longer.

Time gets involved in the poem the longer you sit with it—your eyes wanders, reprioritizes, oscillates between the fixed visual elements. As a result, I think, everything on the plane gets a longer tether. And you get more options in terms of how you feel about it.

LEXIA captures a moment in which certain lexemes try to flee the picture plane (y, y s…D, L). In the same moment, fixed-looking blocks contend with blocks that hint at motion. In the same moment, you’ve got proto-words that induce split vision as they contend for dominance of the focal point (even the central word (LEXIA), is a moving target, pulled toward the “becoming-word(s)” behind it (AXIAL?/AXEL?). I wanted these effects to offer a heterogeneous menu of experiences. I persist in wanting the reader to have interactive options.

For me this poem is always shuffling its content on the page. That’s why, more and more, I like that you used the expression “split vision,” which feels like something just a little different from “double-vision.” To me, “split vision,” means that the reader has perceptual options in the space of LEXIA.

(I’d like to think she’s got tonal options too. While she may have affect sort of thrust upon her by color, there are plenty of affective options within blue. And there’s nothing about blue that make it the only appropriate color for this poem.)

If that’s an overhead view of LEXIA, I’d say that within the picture plane I wanted to show two tribes of abstraction (lexemes and blocks) that hint at having a life of their own.

As ground-level experience, I want LEXIA to make you believe in a noological space—invisible but actual—where form-things behave like living things (strangeness, again).

If I can get you to believe in that space, then maybe you’ll see LEXIA as an invitation for you to make yourself (and your feelings about language—and, sure, the condition of dyslexia) an active participant in it. I know that sounds strange. Maybe this poem has a slipstream quality about it. (Maybe that’s the condition of many “hybrid” poems.[*] ) Or if not, then that’s the poem I want to write.

Anyway, I have an emotional reaction to this poem because I feel like I/my mind can be a form/character within it.

* * *

When the piece was finished, I was concerned that it might look an attempt to just cleverly emblematize a word/idea. (“Look! I made you read the word ‘dyslexia,’ ‘dyslexically’!”)

Which would be fine enough, I guess. And if there’s such a thing as conceptual poetry, I guess you could tamper with this poem enough to make it fit into that genre. But don’t.

With LEXIA, I wanted to give you a snapshot of a car-chase at the edge of the virtual and actual. Something that would come from a poetics of invisible (or maybe, unactualized) things.

* * *

So that’s another way in (and out). But, finally, LEXIA would have looked different if not for the people around me at the time it came together.

Caroline DeVane is a very close friend and collaborator (we’ve got a poem in Kristin Prevallet’s Trance Poetics folio in Drunken Boat #16). She’s dyslexic. She likes to tell me that some people with her condition are able to see actual back holes when they look up at the night sky. She’s never seen one, but often her story comes across with a certain dreamy gravitas that has bled into a lot of what I write lately. Most of all in LEXIA.

Q 2: From your body of work, especially the work you’ve had published in Drunken Boat, it’s clear that you are a master of the hybrid form. What is it about the marriage of art and poetry that speaks to you? In your letter to us, you mention that you feel the generic distinction [between poetry and art] is arguably irrelevant. Can you speak to that, too? I’d love to hear your thoughts.)

Well, the word count it took me to get to question 2 should prove that I’m not a master of anything. But I do think about hybridity some.

Texts that mingle art + poetry speak to me because they serve up cognitive dissonance, something that can be both pleasurable and stressful. They often ask us to customize our habits of seeing/reading. There’s a lot of creative negotiation in that moment. A lot of unknowing.

For me, I love nothing more than looking at something and not knowing how to think about it.[†]

It’s probably a good thing (time will tell) that we have this literary space around hybridity, although it feels a little ghettoizing at times. It can be a category that relieves us of the pressure to revise the wider institutional definition of Poetry. It has the potential to be an arm of the hegemony in that way, giving us a marginal (and, frankly, chaotic) space to put visual poems, poems that have pictures in them, poetry comics, pictures that wear poetry big and bold…etc.[‡]

(At one time, a manuscript I’ve just finished writing had a section where photographs and poems shared the page in a way that’s reminiscent of Siebald (does anyone call Siebald a “hybrid novelist”?). A publisher told me that there were exactly two presses in the US who would even consider something with pictures. An overstatement, but still discouraging. (And so silly—what are we protecting by enforcing an imagined aesthetic purity around what counts as poetry and what doesn’t?)

But back to your question. My wife, Margaret Galey, is a painter who uses text (sometime mine) on about half of her canvases. Our collaboration in Drunken Boat #20 lives a double life as the natural history of our discussion about hybridity.

To make it, both of us took turns painting and writing text as the work unfolded. This way we didn’t have to think about whether the art or the writing was doing the heavy lifting. If you can’t get out of that predicament, it feels like you get stuck with images that narrate words that narrate images. If you can, however, then I think you take a step toward a poetics based in unknowing. That’s the place I’m looking for.

I think that when you mingle art with poetry every choice you make reverberates across varied aesthetic registers. They refuse to stay fixed. They get more intuition-based and nomadic. There’s uneasiness in doing this because you don’t have as much ownership when it comes to the deployment of feeling and meaning. Also, your chances of creating pure crap are extremely high. But sometimes it’s worth the ride. It’s a wilder, more mercenary experience.

* * *

To talk in terms of literary tradition for a split second, perhaps—as far as narrative and meaning go—when you marry art and poetry, maybe you lean toward a Deleuzian poetics of assemblage.[§]

When I said in my letter that the distinction between poetry and art was arguably irrelevant, I was only referring to my piece, or, for example, the work Margaret and I do. In the most general sense, I think generic distinctions—where text + image are both involved—are institutional. And to an extent profit-driven.[**]

I’d like to think, though, that “hybrid” is a placeholder for a more nuanced set of differentiations that we may or may not yet have the language to describe.

I’d be interested to see where something like LEXIA would land in terms of genre if, for instance, it came with instructions. If, for instance, I were to annotate it and ask that the reader to approach some parts of the layout as if they were lines, and others as stanzas, or even sections. Something that might look like this:


I’d like to see what it would look like to write criticism or (much better) original variations based a diagram like this one. I should do that. Or someone should.

Q 3: At Spry, we’re fascinated by the way in which creativity and the creative process is so individualized. What’s your creative process like? How do you know when you’ve finished a piece, and it’s ready to start submitting for publication?

Like I suggested earlier, I sort of have a (non)process that involves accretion, catastrophe, and even misplacement, to some extent. But, really, my process is about finding a space that can help me decide how best to fill it.

For example, I often start writing a poem, hit PAUSE on it, and then forget about it altogether (I can think of 15 examples of this floating in the ether right now). In the meantime, I might go digging around through work from months or years prior. If a bell goes off, I might marry something from that box to something newer. All to and see what kind of space opens up. That’s a misplacement approach.

But lately my process is more about accretion. Anselm Berrigan recently taught a class through the Poetry Project here in NYC. In it, he sort of continually circled-back toward the value of keeping notebooks to later hunt through. As the class went on, what he meant (or implied) by “notebook” became more and more (to me) protean. Anyhow, I keep more “notebooks” going these days. Some are private, somewhat purposive, and on paper. Others are public, very circumstantial, and digital—like Twitter. Twitter is definitely a notebook for me. My morning commute to work is a notebook for me, too.

In any event, both approaches involve distancing myself from what I write. When I’m lucky, I come back to a poem and certain parts of it feel bolted to the page while others seem like noise or decoration. That’s an easy edit.

When I’m not lucky, I try to figure out what I like about the writing “space” created by the magical garbage on the page. I try to start fresh, but within that space. I guess it’s all about salvaging.

* * *

I think I know when I’ve finished a piece when one of two things happen: I feel like I really want to write a series of poems in the same space, or I want to keep what I’ve got and never go close to repeating it.

Or maybe, like with this LEXIA, I feel OK about being done with a poem when I recognize emotion in it that wasn’t there (or supposed to be there) on the outset. If that happens, I feel like the poem had grown bigger than me in my absence—I’m just there to polish it.

In totally practical terms I feel good about something when I’m not timid about rereading it. If that feeling lasts for a few weeks or months—if don’t I feel compelled to revise when I see it again—then I know it’s done.

Also, friends + loved ones—if they are the type to tell me when my work could work harder. I’ve got that too. It’s a rare and wonderful resource. I try to use it sparingly.

(Note: over the last year I’ve ignored all of these tests on dozens of occasions, submitting work before I should have. That’s an area for improvement on my part.)

Q 4: Do you ever find yourself in a creative slump? When you do, where do you go to seek inspiration? What motivates you to continue creating?

I’d say I’m presently on the far side of a very long slump. You know the feeling. When you’re in the clear, there’s an energy that moves you from one project to another. It’s great. For me it can also be intense and manic.

But snares and blocks of all sizes are always in the air.

If I am really trying to seek out inspiration (and that’s rare, for a lot of bad reasons) I might drive to Storm King in upstate, NY. That place is nature as I would have it: a landscape free of language populated by strange, alien things.

Also I might draw and read comics for a month before I want to write anything. Somehow that helps, even if it means you end up with a poem that has “Ultimate Nullifier” in the title (I did).

Also, whenever my wife paints, I write.

Also, I find that committing with another writer to producing a poem a day and sharing the results no matter how bad—that works.

Sometimes I just write through other people’s poetry. Setting up shop in their style and writing until something ownable comes forward.

All of these tricks have at least once led to a piece of writing that I like but don’t understand. I quite like writing something and not knowing where to put it. It means I’m on the brink of a new space—or once that’s new to me, at least.

Right now I’m working on a few different sort-of invented forms that feel persistently out of place with everything else I’ve got going on. I keep wanting to make these poems play well with the writing I’m happy about.

It’s important that I resist my impulse to do that, even if it feels like I’m devoting myself to a left fucking turn, even if it means watching other work that’s going really well grow smaller in the rearview. Examples of these poems can be found in the summer edition of Timber Journal.

Q 5: How has your artwork evolved over time? What have been the most challenging obstacles to overcome in your work as an artist?

Trying to balance life, work and artistic practice is nearly impossible. For about five years I gave up on writing because of it. Wanting to collaborate with my wife got me back into the game. Since then I’ve met some great writers, artists and a few teachers. So intimacy and community make the balancing act more doable.

My work has definitely evolved over the years, but during 2014-15 things became bigger and faster.

I don’t see an evolution as much as a restyling. I think for a long time I’ve been trying to find a way into the lyric poem that more honors the experimental/prosodic poetry I’m more inclined to write on a daily basis. I think the last two years have been a lot about negotiating what counts as abstract and what qualifies as concrete in my writing.

(An easy way to illustrate this process would be to compare the work I’ve got in Rhino 2015 and the forthcoming Heavy Feather Review (4.2) with what your readers can find in Small Po[r]tions issue #3 and the Timber’s forthcoming issue.)

In terms of reception, I’ve been trying to gauge how much fiction, how much of the unreal people in 2015 can tolerate in their poetry. Right now I think it’s safe to say that a lot of what’s our there is swinging toward the intensely personal, very narrative, attitudy, and realistic. (Not everything, just a lot.)

Lately I’ve been writing poems that feel very slipstream. This month I’ve pushed the envelope and started poems that have aliens and werewolves and androids in them. I guess that’s a way of saying I’ve been creating a lot of my own obstacles. I expect to keep doing this for a while.

Q 6: Are you working on any projects currently that you’d like to share with our readers?

Sure. I’m trying to find a home for two MSs now. The first is put-a-padlock-on-it-and-just-keep-sending-it-out finished. No more edits. The other has two versions. To me both make sense, but one of them concludes with a very long poem and the other with a series. I’m trying to think about the difference from a reader’s POV.

Also, I’m making a zine with my wife. Way before I was even dating her, she’d founded and ran literally the hippest shop I’ve ever walked into. It was called Iowa Killed Buddy Holly (in Iowa City, IA). All she sold was zines, making her my personal hero when it comes to minor literature. So we’re making one. I’ll probably bring it to AWP.

I’m also in the early stages of collaboration with some writers I’ve met this year. Mostly (prose) poetry. Possibly a graphic novel.

And I’m ankle deep in writing a novel. It’s too early to say anything about that, except that some of the recurring personae I’ve developed in poems over the last two years are in it.

Q 7: Are there any artists or poets who have influenced your work? Who are they? If you could turn the world onto one artist, who would it be?

I don’t want to give you a list here, but that’s what’s going to happen, I think.

John Yau, Anselm Berrigan, John Taggart, Mary Margaret Sloan and Cole Swenson are all living poets that have heavily influenced my work. I’ve taken classes from all of them save for Taggart. I had the stupid good fortune to be in a summer workshop that John Yau taught on Long Island in the mid 90s. I think I was a sophomore in high school. I didn’t know who he was, but that class was huge for me. Sometimes it pays to be an antisocial kid with nothing to do over the summer but take writing classes.

If I could turn the world onto one to one artist it would be these four poets:

Carrie Bennett (she’s got a gut-wrenchingly strange and wonderful book called The Land is a Painted Thing coming out in the next year), Dina Hardy (who I met through Tupelo Press’ 30/30 project and is doing some amazing work right now), Ali Power, Laura Henriksen

and Morgan Vo.

And I’d point to any prose written by Dave Sterner.

I’d also turn people on to the artists Aaron Sinift, Charlotte Noruzi, Suzanne Goldenberg and Maren Miller.

Finally: Matt Kindt. His graphic novel Mind MGMNT is about as good and wild as books get. Full stop.

Q 8: What’s the name of your favorite book, author, or poet, and why is this book (or person) so close to your heart?

The two books that come to mind are John Yau’s Edificio Sayonara and John Taggart’s Loop. They are like two ends of a spectrum that doesn’t make sense as a spectrum. But I think they are both perfect books.

To be thoroughly unscientific, Edificio Sayonara is, for me, an object lesson in how far the lyric, intensely indeterminate persona can be stretched while still having something like an orbit or orbits even. It has a single tone of voice that is by turns undermined and consummated by the things it says. Pseudopods of subjectivity reach out to grab you in a manner that can be seductive, hard-boiled, improbable and familiar. It draws the strange from the ordinary and vice versa. It’s painterly but bigger than the images it deploys. There’s love poetry in it. It’s aware of all manner of traditions but really (Loop is like this but in a different way) feels like it talks to none of them. It also contains the best prose poetry I know and it happens to be pretty as all get-out.

Loop is singular in how it constructs its speaker within an almost sacred (if religious didn’t mean what it does I’d call it religious) conceptual, rhythmic, and vocal space. Anything can happen in that space (things theological, political, art historic, just plain visceral, etc.), but you can literally feel the prosody and poetics that buttress it performing the role of active participants in decisions that are made: how images come to form, how genesis stories sort of roll out and engulf you. It’s Kierkegaardian, naturalistic, sincere, speculative, funny and deadly serious. It’s like an ethics of language as a way of life. It recasts worlds and brings you closer the very real ground you stand on all at once.

I’m just thinking about it now, but both of these books are easily over 200 pgs—yet you want to read them in one sitting. I like it when a book of poetry doesn’t mind taking up the kind of space we habitually reserve for the fiction writers.

[*] Totally aware I’m pushing the envelope on what “slipstream” means in generic terms and how it has to do with “hybrid” art/poetry. Trying to be provocative.

[†] For an example of this, have a look at the work of sven staelens, Paul K. Tunis and Derik Badman in the Poetry Comix folio of Drunken Boat #20, edited by Michael Chaney and I. All three of these writers identify as authors of poetry comics, and rightfully so—their comics instantiate the best of that emergent genre. But I personally wanted to include their work because it made me have to un-known what I knew about both poetry comix and hybrid poetry. Each of their pieces make me feel both fulfilled and disoriented at the same instant. Their work that also makes me feel a little stranger about the world than I did before I laid eyes on it.

[‡] Not even going to get into the world of digitally experiential hybrid writing/poetry. Not here.

[§] Maybe Deleuze would say that the very first concern of hybrid poetry is to craft an “assemblage”— a body of disparate elements brought together in net of affects. (But maybe he wouldn’t—I have a bad habit of thinking that Deleuze would agree with me and my use of his ideas.)

[**] By example only (I don’t think the following is true about the value of my poem), if a poem like LEXIA were to appear on a page in a printed book, its genrification would entirely depend on what kind of work surrounded it. Put it in the middle of a bunch of white-page poems, it’s a hybrid poem (no monetary value). Put it in a series of similar looking poems on glossy paper and all of a sudden maybe it’s an art book (minimal monetary value). If I hung LEXIA (or some far, far better version of it) in a gallery, then maybe it becomes art (mad-stupid high monetary value, for the right buyer). When we talk about what’s art, lit or a hybrid, we’re often talking to artistic and literary apparatuses of cultural production that exist to make a lot of money in the service of individuals and creative institutions.

Linsey Jayne is a wave-headed poet with a penchant for jazz who received her MFA in creative writing at Fairfield University. Her writing has been published in such publications as The Standard-Times, The Dartmouth-Westport Chronicle, and exactly.what. She has served as the chief poetry editor for Mason’s Road, as well as the student editor for the Bryant Literary Review and the opinion section editor of The Archway. Linsey is currently at work on her first collection of poetry, entitled Idle Jive.

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