Beginning in the mid 1960s, I started trying to expand the poetic possibilities of Greek literary fragments. I often used ideas generated by art forms that ran under such banners as minimalism and multimedia, as well as models from advertising and accidental characteristics of mimeograph production, to draw greater significance from fragments. I was interested in the way the origins of literacy and Western culture related to the present.
In 1975, I changed my source to fragments written in Aramaic and left by a colony of Jewish exiles in Egypt during the first Diaspora. Many of the fragments were lists of names based in the Biblical Book of Psalms, implying or registering circumstances of birth and social position, the fathers' pride and the mothers' pain, the fears, hopes, and obligations of individuals in a precariously situated community. The fragments – the oldest Jewish writing that survives on anything like paper – included the first mention of a pogrom, and lists used in managing the daily affairs of the community. This seemed an ideal starting point for a brief and gritty sketch of some of the basics of Western history. The result was a book, Cried and Measured, published by David Meltzer's Tree Books in 1977.
I moved on to early fragments of Old Latin. In my workings of the earliest texts in the alphabet that we now use, I turned to an exploration of reading practices in relation to poetry in our own time. The Roman alphabet evolved into a writing system that could be read silently. This reduced or destroyed the sound patterns which had distinguished poetry from other forms of language art. In working with Old Latin fragments, I used some of the practices of early writing (inconsistent direction of reading; lack of separation between words) to create rhythms by differing reading speeds, replacing such devices as metrics with pacing that didn't depend on audibility. At a time when literati were talking about "interrogating" the nature of meaning, it was discouraging to me to see how much trouble they had with a work like this which experimented with the more basic questions of the essential mechanics of reading. In this much larger book, frameworks of stoicism, dread, tranquility, and, despair frame
comic and quotidian trills. bpNichol published the book that resulted, Should Sun Forever Shine, in 1980.
That next step was the translation into contemporary terms by the distant descendents of the authors of the original documents which survived in fragments. For Cried and Measured, that would require a contemporary Jew, who had lost family in the Holocaust, and was, as the Psalms put it, "A stranger in a strange land," living outside Israel and writing in a language other than Hebrew. Márton Koppány, a Hungarian Jew whose very name resembles those of the fragments, offered to do the job. Since Marton is, in my opinion, the best literary minimalist I'm familiar with, I could not have been more fortunate. There were many coincidences in this work: My father, a U.S. Army chaplain, had given primary aid to the survivors of the concentration camp at Dachau; an event which changed his life and set in motion aspects of mine before I was born. My father taught at an Army base in Germany when the Soviets destroyed the Hungarian uprising of 1956. As a child watching these events unfold at
close hand, they had a significant impact on my worldview.
I had several Italian translators in mind through much of the 90s and early 00s, particularly those belonging to the Inismo group. However, I came into contact with Anny Ballardini, who worked extensively with internet publication. She seemed an ideal translator for more reasons than I could have imagined or hoped for in advance. This completed the basic process of "bringing the text back home" - I had first returned to the origins of western culture in Judaism, from whence the figure Jerome Rothenberg had called "the first universal Jew" had given the Mediterranean world a nexus of ideas around which to build a new religion. A modern Jewish exile had translated it into the language of a hostile nation. The writing system the Romans used for their evangelical book, like it or not, has held the west together ever since. Likewise, a modern Italian woman who had made extensive use of the Roman alphabet in cyberspace, translated my second fragment book into Modern Italian, the language into
which Old Latin has evolved. Its alphabet, made transmissible by digital electronics, was the first to make the internet a force in binding the world's individuals together. I used the first Roman efforts at writing to suggest a new poetic process, as well as to transform visual poetry into a more complex and flexible genre.
At this point, the site includes
A general, and essential, essay on the project and its participants. This is probably the best place to start.
Four e-books: The complete English texts of the two books. Complete Hungarian translation of Cried and Measured. Complete Italian translation of Should Sun Forever Shine.
Contextualizing essay on the original use of the Roman alphabet.
Notes on relation of this project to others related to it.
Annexes to come include work already done by other people suggested by Cried and Measured, Should Sun Forever Shine, and work and comment on the whole project. It will also include more source material and reflections on Judaic writing and the Roman alphabet.