One of the principal objectives of Just Buffalo Literary Center's BIG NIGHT series of readings, performances, music, and media art events over the past four years has been to generate conversations across the boundaries of form and genre, and to facilitate a kind of informal community setting where useful creative interactions between writers and other artists might occur. If there's a kind of high-gloss sheen surrounding the phrase "interdisciplinary arts," BIG NIGHT has effectively dismantled the rhetoric and turned the "process" into a party.
No program in the series better exemplifies this intent than tonight's season finale featuring leading conceptualist poet, textile and book artist Jen Bervin, media artist and Associate Professor of Media Production at Buffalo State College Meg Knowles, and music by the electro-dance duo UVB76. The festivities begin at 8 p.m. at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk St.) and, as always, feature the food creations of BlazeVox Books publisher and gourmet chef Geoffrey Gatza. General admission is $5, $4 for students, Just Buffalo members, and members of Just Buffalo's affiliate organizations.
Bervin's capsule biography describes her work as bringing together "text and textile in a practice that encompasses poetry, archival research, artist books, and large-scale art works," but even this summary is incomplete in capturing the full conceptual range of her work, which might also be described as exploring the spatial extensions of received cultural texts and revealing, either through emphasis or material veiling, embedded variant readings contained in texts and other cultural artifacts.
In a "process note" to perhaps her best known book project to date, "Nets" (2004, now in its fifth printing from Ugly Duckling Presse), Bervin wrote "I stripped Shakespeare's sonnets bare to the "nets" to make the space of the poems open, porous, possible—a divergent elsewhere. When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest."
And indeed, what the book contained was 60 of Shakespeare's sonnets raised on the page but not inked--a kind of ghostly undertext--from which Bervin chose only select words or groups of words (which she inked in boldface) to "compose" or "derive" or "liberate" (what terms one uses to describe the process reveals as much about the reader as it does about the work) a new overriding text that resolved itself spatially and syntactically into a recognizable poem, born, as it were, from Shakespeare's looming absence.
Other notable Bervin projects have included "The Desert" (2008) from Granary Books--a poem she wrote by sewing row by row, line by line, across 130 pages of John Van Dyke's, "The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances" (1901) using atmospheric fields of pale blue zigzag stitching to construct a poem “narrated by the air”--and "Mississippi," her visually breathtaking installation that is a ceiling-mounted 230 ft. panoramic scale model of the Mississippi River composed of hand-sewn silver sequins to the scale of one inch to one mile, showing the river mapped from the geocentric perspective, from inside the earth's interior looking up at the riverbed.
The work that brings Bervin to Buffalo, however, is her most recent book "The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope-Poems" (2012), co-edited with Buffalo-based Dickinson scholar Marta Werner, an associate professor of English at D’Youville College and published in a limited edition by Granary Books.
An outgrowth of Bervin's acclaimed artist book "The Dickinson Composites" (2010, Granary Books) based on her installation "The Dickinson Fascicles"--a series of large-scale quilts she made by embroidering Dickinson's unusual punctuation markings from her poems written from 1858 to 1864, which the poet grouped into small hand bound packets, later called fascicles, "The Gorgeous Nothings" is a limited edition artist book based on Dickinson's late compositions on envelopes.
The edition includes a portfolio of 48 high resolution double-sided color facsimiles with visual transcriptions, exactingly mapped and painstakingly reproduced by Bervin along with Marta Werner's lyric essay, "Itineraries of Escape: Emily Dickinson's Envelope-Poems," which places these previously under-examined poems in scholarly, historic, and poetic context. In her postscript, Bervin notes:
The title, 'The Gorgeous Nothings,' is an excerpt from Emily Dickinson's manuscript A 821, 'the gorgeous | nothings | which | compose | the | sunset | keep'. In choosing it, I was thinking of Dickinson's own definition for nothing: 'the force that renovates | the World –' and her definition for 'no': 'the wildest word we consign to language.'
Taken together with Werner's essay, both of Bervin's Dickinson books make a compelling case for the reconsideration of Dickinson, if not as a visual poet in the 20th or 21st century sense, then as a poet for whom the materiality of her work, and its spatial arrangement across the field of the page, was significant in both its primary and variant readings. The normalization of Dickinson's poems to conform with the formalisms of subsequent generations of her [male] editors, as Susan Howe noted in quoting one of Dickinson's letters ("The look of the words as they lay in print I shall never forget") in her enormously influential "My Emily Dickinson" (1985), confines the poet's work to a scale and range of possible readings that is at enormous variance with what appears in her manuscripts.
While much of the critical language that has been applied to Bervin's appropriation of literary texts as the genesis of her work speaks of "erasure" and "defacement"--terms with a certain cache amongst critical theorists--nothing one observes in her work can be read as transgressive in the violent sense, as if she means to transform texts into substrate. Instead her work, especially in its sense of the physical presence of the trace, the ghostly silence of the source text, partly occluded, partly raised in defamiliarizing emphasis, is a poetics of displacement and regeneration: a way of beginning new sentences again even as the gravity of the old language fades.