During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the costs of printing were declining, allowing books to be mass produced relatively cheaply. This led, among other things, to the rise of mass market paperback books (the kind of thing once seen in grocery stores). Additionally, small, easy to use machines like typewriters and mimeograph machines made text and image reproduction fairly accessible. At the same time, second-wave feminism was taking root, calling out patriarchal institutions, including those in art. Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959-1979 covers this pivotal period in 20th Century literature, showcasing 50 writers from around the world whose work explores the boundaries between text and image, language and understanding. It’s a remarkable book, both as object and document, beautifully produced while being academically rigorous.
In their introduction to the book, Alex Balgiu and Mónica de la Torre describe Materializzazione del linguaggio (Materialization of Language), the first exhibition in the Venice Biennale to be devoted to women artists. The 1978 exhibition, curated by Mirella Bentivoglio, featured work that “sought, through a wide range of ‘poetic operations,’ to liberate words from the strictures of syntax and the patriarchy, from the conventions of both genre and gender.” Balgiu and de la Torre “pick up the threads” of Materializzazione, expanding their focus “beyond the European milieus” Bentivoglio featured, including works by artists from Japan, the U.S., Mozambique, and Brazil.
The artists are presented in alphabetical order by surname, removing the need for a thematic arrangement while nodding to the ways the artists featured have found to atomize language all the way down to individual character strokes. As a result, unintended visual rhymes pop up from time to time. The square prose pieces from Susan Howe’s “Hinge Picture” are echoed in “Alone,” the first piece by Ruth Jacoby directly following Howe’s work.
Mirtha Dermisache’s pieces resemble newspapers written in alien languages and are followed by Amelia Etlinger’s experiments that use punctuation to create patterns that resemble textile patterns.
The alphabetical arrangement also means the first piece featured is “Neeijj (Naayy)” by Swedish poet Sonja Åkesson—nej being Swedish for no. This refusal and the poem’s resemblance to a written scream come across as deeply political and feminist. It says, no I will not be quiet and I will take up space. The poem builds over seven pages, from “ååååååååååååååååhhhhhhhh” in the first line to the italicized “ÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅ” of the final line.
Indeed, several of the pieces in Women in Concrete Poetry resemble primal utterances. Lenora de Barros’s “Ri-chora” and sections from Francoise Mairey’s “Substitution” stand out in this regard. Other works focus more on the visual elements of language. Betty Danon’s “Punto Linea,” for example, explores the possibilities of two words. In one instance, the word “punto” (point) is in the center of a grid of points; in another, a series of evenly spaced straight lines run across the page, with the letters of the word “linea” (line) written diagonally down the page in small swirls of letters, using some of the straight lines lines.
As mentioned, the period covered by Women in Concrete Poetry saw the proliferation of printing techniques. Inkjet printing was first widely developed in the 1950’s; a product developer at Xerox created the laser printer in the 1970’s. Balgiu and de la Torre put it this way:
“The technological evolution of typography during the mid-twentieth century, the passage from ‘lead’ to ‘light’—from physical letterpress to dematerialized phototypesetting—facilitated [text art] explorations. The way text was set and designed was transformed, and type (and therefore text) consequently became an image. Amid these new technologies, the appearance and widespread use of dry transfer lettering, such as the popular Letraset, allowed the emancipation from the physical limitations of metal/wood type and the grid-like structure of the typewriter; it offered an instantaneous application on surfaces and total freedom in composition.”
Portable, personal duplication devices put printing directly in the hands of poets. This can be seen especially in Rosmarie Waldrop’s selections from “Camp Printing,” wherein text is layered on top of other text making it difficult or impossible to parse.
It’s difficult to describe the scope and variety of the art featured here. Best, if possible, to see it and hold it. As an object, Women in Concrete Poetry is hefty: almost 400 pages and weighing in at over two pounds. Full-color, high-resolution reproductions are featured throughout. Works in languages other than English are provided translations at the back of the book, and each artist has a detailed biography included as well. This rigorous detail means it’s an excellent entry point into concrete poetry, and well worth the price.
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