“Poets bring something to the conversation that wasn’t there before." ~ Derek Beaulieu
“An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (<<> >) lick their lips.”
~ Theodor Adorno from “Punctuation Marks”
Canadian concrete and experimental poet Derek Beaulieu has won multiple awards for his contributions to contemporary poetry. He teaches Creative Writing, Theory and Contemporary Canadian Literature and holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Roehampton University. From 2014-2016, he was Calgary’s first poet laureate.
In addition to publishing 18 book of poetry, for the past 20 years, Derek has run his own small press from his apartment in Calgary, a space he shares with his wife, teenage daughter and family dog. In between his busy teaching, writing and family commitments, Derek’s small press publishes on average a new publication every two weeks. Running under the names housepress (1997-2004) and no press (2005-present), Derek’s publishing demonstrates a passionate commitment to making poetry available to readers in a way that to me appears unprecedented.
One of my draws to Derek as a poet has been his passion for bringing contemporary poetry, along with the art and essays that influence it, to a wide readership. An editor at the largest online archive of the avant-garde, ubuweb.com, Derek rejects many of the restrictions of copyright; his Twitter and Facebook feeds themselves often read like hip archives of experimental digital content.
Hearing Derek read for the first time at Reverse, Copenhagen’s International Poetry Festival proved delightful. A wonderful reader with a rich performance presence, Derek brings engagement to his art form on and off the page. After his reading, Derek sat down with a panel ofexperimentalpoets that included Pierre Alferi and Jörg Piringer and discussed the state of contemporary poetry. "Is Poetry Dead?" they asked. The following day, with Nils-Øivind Haagensen, poet and co-founder of Oslo-based publishing house Flamme Forlag, Derek mused on the potential for small presses to be sites of activism.
The transcript of my brief interview with Derek fills with the sounds of the streets of Copenhagen: casual laughter, cars passing, bicycles locking and unlocking. If I transcribed our talk, perhaps the best response might be notate only the background music of city: the punctuated remarks of wheels and footsteps. Rather than transcribe the conversation, I might notate everything that interrupted it. In the manner of Beaulieu's own writing practice, I might erase everything but the street music to leave all but the breathing of Copenhagen's neighbourhood Nørrebro. For it’s that punctuating background noise that Derek so beautifully notates in his newest book of poetry, a, A Novel.
In over 400 pages, Beaulieu's latest release performs the erasure of Andy Warhol’s 1968 novel a, A Novel leaving only the punctuation and the onomatopoeic sounds of the city, remnants of tape-recorded conversations of Warhol and Factory actress Ondine, (Robert Olivio), which four typists employed by Warhol transcribed.
When I first flipped through Derek's a, A Novel at its launch at Yvon Lambert Bookshop in Paris, the erased transcription struck me as a potential score for movement. The shapes of commas, for example, surrounded by white space, came forward on the page to me as physical gestures. I imagined them translated into mudras or instructions for the qualities of action in space. The series of full stops to me indicated potential directions and pauses across a stage. In our interview, Derek refers to his text as a map of the breathing of the city of New York. To me, a, A Novel might easily act as traces of unseen or potential choreography, not only of the lungs and diaphragm, but for the performance of a whole physical body or bodies. Language appears simultaneously as absent and full of possibility. The silence of the page is, in Derek’s own words, “generative.”
Indeed, reading Beaulieu’s a, A Novel is a generative act in itself. Filled with unknowns, marks absent from their narrative context, the work suggests a contemplative approach to reading; it invites us into language acts in a way that provokes response. Taking cues from both Theodor Adorno’s and Gertrude Stein’s essays on punctuation, Beaulieu investigates the topography of writing. His acts of erasure simultaneously record his own reading of Warhol’s text and unearth a new poem in itself.
So, in keeping with my intention to respond to each of these meeting with modern muses with a new creative work of my own, I’ve decided to choreograph a short dance piece to a page of Derek’s newest book of poetry a, A Novel. I plan to use it as both a choreographic score and a source text for the minimalist sound score. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, listen to Derek speak engagingly about his own work, and have a browse at derekbeaulieu.wordpress.com where he makes available much of his work. You can buy a copy of a A Novel at the website of Jean Boîte Éditions.