11 of the (Many) Things I’ve Learned
From the Work of bpNichol

by Dan Waber



It’s possible you may already know all of these things; I’m offering them up here less as a list of things that will “change your life” and more as a list of things whose range is notable for having all been found while swimming in the pool of one person’s work. Many of these are also the kinds of things which, in retrospect, seem completely obvious, but the Fact of them wasn’t crystallized in me until the tumblers were all clicked into place by the act of my exploration of the work of bpNichol.

1) There are (at least) two kinds of “self-publishing”. The one I knew before bpNichol was the kind where you self-publish because no one else WILL publish the work (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, there are works whose appreciative audience is so small even this kind of self-publishing can make sense). The one I learned was the kind where you self-publish because no one else CAN publish the work in the way you would yourself. This kind of book can’t be found at all in a big box bookstore, rarely even in an independent bookstore, occasionally in certain types of used and rare bookstores, and most often in the hands of individual collectors. To date, they have always been worth the effort to find. The works that have been classified as “ephemera” are every bit as worthy of critical attention as the books that get the bulk of the attention.

2) I used to be a an ultra-perfectionist when it came to my poetry. Perfectionist to the point where it affected my output. I would get an idea to do something and would immediately see five or six possible ways of rendering the idea. I would then obsess over which of the ways was The Best Way to do it, convinced that I’d only have one shot at doing this and so I absolutely had to get it right. I would make maybe ten pieces per year, and of those ten, I’d be happy with nine of them. Not a bad ratio. After bpNichol I work in a different fashion. Now when I get an idea, I still immediately see five or six possible ways of rendering the idea, but instead of obsessing over which one to do, I do them all—and in the process of the doing I get ideas for another five or six possible ways of realizing the idea and I do those, too, and end up with an entire suite of work. I am no longer happy with ninety percent of the work, now it’s more like fifty percent. But I’m producing hundreds of pieces per year now, instead of ten, and end up happy with a number of pieces in the triple digits instead of a number of pieces in the single digits.

3) In studying the creative output of someone else, there’s a sort of hourglass-shaped double cone of relevance that extends through the concentric rings of relation. There are exceptions, of course, but in broad, general terms the work itself is of the most value, what the artist says about their own work is next in value, what those who’ve actually collaborated with the artist have to say is next, what those who knew the artist but didn’t actually work with them have to say is next, and the cone of relevancy reaches its narrowest at the point of people who were contemporaries of the artist but didn’t work with the artist or know the artist directly. And then the cone begins to flare out, and more relevancy can be found when enough time has passed that the writer is able to provide the perspective of hindsight, and/or the contextualization of historical ebbs and flows.

4) I’m still working to actively incorporate this one into my world, but the factoid has been learned, nonetheless: Bold statements are retractable. I tend (too much) to be cautious, provisional, tentative in my own statements of poetics and as a direct result I slow my own progress. It’s like that winter my best friend Ken and I went out to Colorado to learn how to ski. He spent most of his time with his ski tips together in the snowplow position, very carefully avoiding falling down. I don’t think he fell down once the whole week. I thought skiing was a lot like ice skating—which I’ve been doing as long as I’ve been walking—only with much longer blades. I spent the whole time skiing just a little bit beyond my own abilities. As a result, I fell down a lot. But at the end of that week, I was a far better skier then Ken was. I should learn to be the same way with my poetics, because I will always be able to say in response to any harkening back, “Yeah, that’s what I was really into at that point in time.”

5) ’Pataphysics and/or ’Pataphysics were lost on me. I didn’t get it, and didn’t really have any desire to get it. The same was largely true of Dada and Surrealism. I saw them as valid points on the trajectory of art, but, held them to be of value only as historical markers. Even bpNichol’s own work in this area left me lukewarm. Clever, cute, funny enough, but, so what? Then I read a quote of his where he says “...the way I tend to think of ’pataphysics is that very often you climb a fictional staircase that you know is fictional; you walk up every imaginary stair, you get to your imaginary window and you open your imaginary window, and there is the real world. You see it from an angle you would not otherwise see it from.”* That was the paradigm shift for me that brought it all into a snap-focus. As a method of getting outside normal perceptual ruts the practice became alive to me, a rich and vital vein of exploration wroth revisiting again and again.

6) Even after I got through that (possibly mandatory) juvenilia period of not wanting to be influenced by others, I still floundered with trying to locate myself and my work within a specific community or tradition. Gradually, over time, I began to find pockets in a variety of communities/traditions that were less ill-fitting than others, but I continued to feel adrift in a way that made me question the validity of what I was doing because I couldn’t fully claim the mantle of “lyric poet” or “novel writer” or “digital artist” or any other more or less specific categorization. If I couldn’t name it, how could it be legitimate? Then, after about two years of swimming further and further out into the sea of the work of bpNichol I realized that the only way to accurately categorize the breadth and depth of his output was to call it “inventive”. It was a major epiphany in my life when I realized I didn’t need to pre-fit my creativity into existing categories, that I didn’t need to pre-locate it within any specific tradition. My creative process consists of read, write, and revise. I’m only ever able to be actively involved in one of the three at any given time. I can switch modes fluidly, but can’t do any of them simultaneously, they seem to use mutually exclusive parts of my brain. Categories and traditions are valuable to help focus reading, and to inform revising, but they are of no positive use to me in the act of writing.

7) If you like the work of one artist there is a high probability that you will like the work of those who influenced that artist. There is so much brilliant work out there it can be crippling to consider where to begin or where to explore next. This simple revelation has provided me with all the focus necessary to fill the rest of my reading life with highly relevant-to-my-own-work avenues of exploration. I’m not really good at monomania—if I was, the work of bpNichol alone would suffice to keep me busy—and when I need a break from one person’s work, I look to their influences and those they influenced. From the node of bpNichol I have rippled my reading outward to: Steve McCaffery, Paul Dutton, David UU, Earl Birney, Gertrude Stein, Nelson Ball, Barbara Caruso, jwcurry, Karl Young, d.a. levy, Margaret Avison, Kenneth Patchen to name just a few. Each of these is an equally rich node in and of themselves. My cup runneth over.

8) This one is in the same family as 2), but moves from it orthogonally: there are some ideas that can be realized not just in several different ways within a single mode, but can be realized in multiple modes. Before bpNichol I never would have thought a SMS text message could be made into a small concrete poem, riffed into a broadside-scale version, interpreted as an interactive digital piece, and performed as a sound poem. Now the first question I ask when I finish anything is “How else can I use this to help me learn about another mode?”

9) Still Water (Talonbooks, 1970) is a notable work for many reasons, only one of which is germane here within the present piece. Still Water is so much like so many things I had done or planned to do before I saw it that the one brilliant way in which it was different really leaped out and grabbed me by the throat and shook me. I would have been so terrified by the whitespace that I would have never been comfortable with the poems being printed in a normal, reading-sized font. But, holding it in my hand as the work of another, I knew without a doubt that it was the correct decision to have made. I never could have made it on my own—though I have since made a similar decision on my own—without his example.

10) The Toronto Research Group (which was bpNichol and Steve McCaffery) gave me what I currently find to be the best term for the less traditional artistic endeavors that occupy my time. I have always disliked the term “work” (if your art is work, find a different art), and cumbersome compound phrases (like the just-used “artistic endeavors”), and felt there was always something marginalizing about the terms “experimental” and “avant garde”. But the term “research” carries with it a much more accurate set of connotations. Experiments often blow up in Beaker’s face, but research is an exploratory mapping of a knowable territory.

11) A little obsession goes a long way, and there’s just no telling where it might lead. The first time I read that bpNichol had a favorite letter of the alphabet I was sufficiently steeped in his work that I wasn’t really surprised, but, it did strike me. I ran quickly through the alphabet in my head and tried to decide if I had one. I didn’t, but, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that I could have a favorite. The idea of a favorite letter struck me more than the fact of the specific letter. Over time, in no planned or constant fashion, I’ve taken advantage of a few opportunities to connect back with his favorite letter, H, some more notable than others. One example (from many):

I’ve been camera-in-hand for a couple of months now because of an unrelated project, and I’ve taken advantage of that by hunting for Hs in the wild, and taking pictures of them whenever it was convenient. One morning while I was having some work done on my car I went on a walk with the camera and ended up in front of a local independent transmission repair place that’s been around forever. All their signs are hand-lettered and were strewn with great Hs. As I was taking my pictures the owner came out and asked me what I was doing. I spent a good half hour talking to him about bpNichol, about poetry, about his store, about his terrific Hs, and about his own appreciations of poetry. As I was walking away he said, “Thanks, I never knew what I had here.”

* from “Talking About the Sacred in Writing” in Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, edited by Roy Miki (Talonbooks, 2002). Thank you to jwcurry for his abundant assistance in helping me re-locate the exact quotation.

an excerpt was previously published in HOLY BEEP!, Natalie Zina Walschots, editor (filling Station Publications Society / No Press), 2007

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