textual vishyuns: image and text in the work of bill bissett. Talonbooks
The difficulty involved in reading the work of bill bissett, who has been writing and publishing for about fifty years now, is possibly a different kind of difficulty than that of other contemporary experimental poets. His iconoclastic orthography (where “of ” becomes “uv,” for example) is the most salient impediment to the casual observer, so that a reader of bissett’s work must also be a serious and patient participant in constructing sense and meaning from his texts. Carl Peters is just such a reader, and textual vishyuns—significantly, the first sustained work of criticism on the venerable beatnik poet—is a much-needed study, by turns polemical and proselytizing. Peters’ book signifies a crucial starting point for investigation of bissett’s important contributions to Canadian literature, and it also provides some helpful assistance in navigating the Lunarian’s latest work, novel (subtitled “a novel with konnekting pomes n essays”).
Peters’ book has two aims: to situate bissett’s oeuvre (both his visual art and his poetry: the “image and text” of the book’s subtitle) “within a modernist tradition that consistently foregrounds praxis over theory” as well as to counter unsatisfactory critical “misreadings” of the poet’s output, which dismiss his radical orthography and poetics as merely the endless repetition of a “signature style” (and here Peters is explicitly arguing against Darren Wershler-Henry’s critique of bissett’s poetry). Peters is remarkably polemical in the introduction: he accuses bissett’s critics of one-dimensional interpretations, and even suggests a critical bias towards a supposedly more “authentic” Coach House mode of experimentalism, as opposed to the putatively “middle-of-the-road” Talonbooks, bissett’s long-time publisher. These comments are fascinating because they hark back to the disputes of the early 1960s between West Coast (read: TISH) and “Eastern” poets (Acorn, Purdy). The battle for the “real” Canadian Modernism is still around, and even if the stakes have changed—the turf wars haven’t.
textual vishyuns doesn’t linger long in this territory, though. Peters is more concerned with placing bissett’s work within the broader historical contexts of international modernism: reading his cultural productions which unite “image and text” beside examples such as Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” (in the first chapter), Guillaume Apollinaire’s “calligrammes,” and Gertrude Stein’s notion of the “continuous present” (in the second). An early bissett text—“now they found th wagon cat in human body” from 1966—is used by Peters to illustrate Stein’s insight. The poem, which consists of a seemingly fragmented narrative that offers multiple “reading paths” (unlike Apollinaire’s, bissett’s calligramme-like text can be read vertically or diagonally), achieves the “continuous present . . . through simultaneity, which a series of discontinuous lines open up.” Peters makes his point here and elsewhere in textual vishyuns by reading the “image and text” as one—insisting that we read bissett’s text “by experiencing it as a visual work of art. The eye is not forced to any one centre or point in the composition: it is free to wander—there are choices.”
There are “choices” and “paths” throughout bissett’s novel, and the process of how we interpret whatever “storee line” we choose to follow (and how we follow it) is emphasized by the book’s repeated refrain, “evree brain is different.” The first fifty pages of novel introduce the idea of relationships and “relaysyuns”—particularly homing in on romances and friendships—in a way that recalls one of bissett’s great books, Pomes for Yoshi. That book tracked the dissolution of a romance amidst the dissolution of countercultural ideals in the early 1970s, while novel explores the reunion of two lovers— “jimmee” and “mark”—amidst “peopul who havint reechd 2012 yet or bgun 2 unravel the puzzuls uv terribul kodependenseez.” In this book, the shifting and recombinant nature of sexual relationships (which bissett humorously compares to square dancing: “change yr partnrs ala / mane left doez si do all th way home”) mirrors the multiple narrative paths offered by texts such as “now they found th wagon cat in human body.” Is this life imitating art, or does it signal our need to impose narrative interpretations on random or chaotic events? This is what bissett wants us to consider.
A few of the “konnecting” essays in novel reveal bissett’s “historical” relationships with other writers, just as Peters includes an interview with the author which provides similar context. But are these “supplements”? Nope, they’re just part of the “storee.”