• Caren Florance, Jen Webb and Jordan Williams

Material poetics is not a new concept. The last century has seen the boundaries of creative genres dissolve, allowing attentiveness to materiality — once the exclusive concern of sculpture and craft — to pervade and tantalise less tangible practices. The development of a digital realm has not destroyed materiality, as originally feared, but served to foreground it; and the collaboration that can take place between digital and analogue, verbal and visual, is what drives this issue.

Writers such as Kristen Kreider (Poetics and Place: The Architecture of Sign, Subject and Site, 2014), Lyn Hejinian (The Language of Inquiry), James Stuart (The Material Poem), Astrid Lorange (On Language as Material), and others deal with language, its material properties, its affinitive qualities. Where creative practitioners in general work with physical, tangible materials – everything from paper and paint through to the body – writers typically have nothing but language as their material. However, words, phrases, sentences and lines have their own tactility and affordances, and this is explored in the special section in this issue – ‘The Poetic Line’, edited by Owen Bullock. His introduction provides a context to the line, its property and its potential; and the contributions to that section, as well as contributions by poets Geoff Page and Jackson to the main section, exemplify the material practices of poets.

'Makers work against, around and with their materials to discover what they trust is the fitting solution', write the editors of the STUDIOpractice volume MATERIALpoetry (2010). 'With words or wood or any other medium', they continue, 'the business of making is a humbling experience'. The editors of the main section of this issue have been participating for some years now, individually and in collaboration, with questions of materiality, making, and being humbled. Caren Florance has completed a doctorate on the topic of poetry, collaboration and letterpress; Jordan Williams focuses on the translation of poetry into digital film; and Jen Webb uses poetry as raw material for other forms of expression and communication. In 2016 we organised and curated an exhibition of our own work and that of colleagues Nicci Haynes, Sarah Rice, Ursula Frederick and Katie Hayne (Material Poetics, ANCA Gallery, Dickson ACT, 24 August – 11 September 2016), where all the exhibitors consciously attended to the material aspects of medium and practice rather than focusing primarily on visuality or aural aesthetics. This issue extends the work of that exhibition. It brings together artists who work in one or several mediums; artists and scholars who work independently or collaboratively to understand material and materiality; and contributors whose work demonstrates some outputs from a creative and intellectual practice that is committed to objects, other humans, the natural world, and the affects and impacts of such engagements.

Writers, as noted, deal in that most immaterial human construct: language; yet despite the ephemerality of their medium, they frequently respond to the material world, experiment with it, and make essays into the domain of the visual and the felt. Caren Florance describes this happening in workshops she has been conducting with poets and other writers, teaching them the affordances and limitations of letterpress, and watching them become im-pressed with the form. Ulrike Stoltz presents a pair of works where the press and impress of drawing, of making with the hands, of crafting and constructing artist books is not only explained, but performed. Bärbel Ullrich’s discussion of altered books doubles as a reminder that just as the writer and publisher produce a text, so too the reader makes the book for themselves: sometimes simply by imagining, and other times by treating it in its materiality as a matter for art. In a conversation with bookbinder Erika Mordek, Monica Carroll uses the parts of a book to discuss and elaborate the concept of materiality and the work of making a book, an idea, a life. The link between life, language and material engagement is made explicit in Kay Are’s contribution: a translation of poems by Beatriz Restrepo, with the addition of an overlay drawn from Darwin’s famous diagram of the ‘tree of life’. Paul Munden and Paul Hetherington’s joint essay traces a project in which artists and writers responded to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in the process demonstrating the material link between ideas and texts, and the critical importance of material gestures in any written work that aims to evoke both image and affect.

Materiality involves all the many ways in which the world impresses itself upon us, and a substantial group of contributions to this issue of Axon examine it in relation to interaction with others — people or objects. For Ursula Frederick, Kurt Cobain’s habit of wearing flannel shirts opens up a major project that, through the material practices of her engagement with old shirts, becomes a meditation on death, loss and memory. Another mode of material interaction is through audio, and Nicci Haynes presents an ‘essay’ on sound in her ‘Radio CCAS’, where the often under-acknowledged impact of the auditory domain on the human being, and all our readings and misreadings of ‘information’, is laid out for listeners. Ross Gibson journeys into the visual and material space, stripping away content to pair the redacted account of the massacre of an Aboriginal community with bland google images of their country, of where they lived and were murdered; and the empty spaces – the void left by the crime – are filled with a haunting affect. Truth and interpretation are evident in Marian Crawford’s alluring analogy between pearls – the pearls that were eyes, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the pearls that adorn the bodies of the wealthy – and the ‘pearls’ that are the ‘pixels and dots’ on our screens. She answers her own question, ‘where do pearls come from?’, in the short lyric essay, and photographs that hint at the uncertain properties of the apparently material. Peter Anderson revives a project he first presented in 1977, where he – or, as he puts it, a semi-fictional person who shares Peter’s name and history – mounted small poems in public spaces as poetic performance that unexpectedly captured people as they went about their everyday business. Sarah Bodman’s photo essay is the product of a creative experiment, whereby she sourced simple objects, then recruited a ‘psychometric reader’ to capture the messages these objects carry – with surprising and often moving results. Angela Gardner combines poetry and printmaking in her ‘Thirteen meditations’, poem/etching pairs that together draw attention to, and manifest, elements such as temporality, inconstancy, and the plurality of the material domain.

Other contributions use the natural world, and human relationships with it, as a point of entry. Bridget Hillebrand expresses in word and image an empathy with the landscape that is afforded by physical connection and by her art practice. Her artist books become analogues of her various rock climbs; and vice versa. A different relationship to the natural environment is teased out in Amanda Johnson’s paean to trash, where she traces a line from Thoreau to the new materialist scholars, in the process uncovering points of kinship between human and non-human matter. The affordances of the diagram form the heart of Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax’s ‘Skywriting’. Here, in an essay that swirls through poetry, fiction, essay, philosophy, she recounts her case study project of connecting to the physical world and its wild inhabitants, exemplifying John Berger’s concept of ways of conveyed what cannot be reduced to language.

Several of the contributions are collaborative, and of those the majority function as conversations. Virginia Barrett and Quinn Eades engage in a poetic conversation to produce what feels like a barely-mediated and affect-laden account of their experience of writer/performers during Eve Klein’s operatic work, Vocal Womb. This astounding project involved the simultaneous making visible of Klein’s throat and larynx, and of Barrett’s and Eades’ ekphrastic responses cum personal expression. Martina Copley and Francesca Rendle-Short tread a similar creative path in their work, which is the visible and visceral record of the process of composition, one in which the ‘thingliness’ of art works and art practices is immediately present, in its visual and poetic materiality. Another approach is offered by Elizabeth McFarlane, Ronnie Scott and Bernand Caleo, whose multi-part multi-voice essay on comics teases out the affordances of this form through stories of the process of teaching it. Finally, sisters Lorraine Webb and Jen Webb perform the practice of ‘conversational drift’ in their essay about the process of making a collaborative exhibition, bringing together the modes of painting, drawing and poetry to think about water, creativity, and the erratic nature of both creative and academic investigations.

We offer this issue as a talking point, contributing our findings to the wave of practitioners who are crossing boundaries, who site meaning within materiality and make use of the myriad openings that attention to materiality can offer to creative practice, on-screen and off.

Works cited: 

Hejinian, L 2000 The Language of Inquiry, Berkeley and LA: University of California Press

Kreider, K 2014 Poetics and Place: The Architecture of Sign, Subject and Site, London: IB Tauris

Lorange, A 2014 ‘On Language as Material’, dasSUPERPAPER 33, Materials issue (November), http://dasplatforms.com/magazines/issue-33/ (accessed 15 January 2015)

Stuart, J (ed) 2007 The Material Poem: An E-Anthology of Text-Based Art & Inter-Media Writing, The Salon, http://www.nongeneric.net/index.php?/publications/the-material-poem/ (accessed 12 December 2012)

STUDIOpractice 2010 MATERIALpoetry, Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications