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carl peters responds to questions by Sasha Moedt at the UFV Cascade about textual vishyuns, his new study of image and text in the work of bill bissett, now available from Talon.
I started reading bissett in grade 12. My English teacher gave me one of his books. On the back cover of that book was a full-figure photo of the poet. It was blurred like a Monet painting; it also reminded me of a Seurat painting. Or, I would soon discover, the poet’s own poems, which were unreadable. Something is going on in this image, I remember thinking. The poet is there and not there. The art is there and not there. Great poets are like magicians explaining their best trick. And bill bissett is the greatest trickster I’ve ever read.
(th fields ar gold, 1988 – assemblage – Photo: Vancouver Art Gallery, Jim Jardine)
I originally wanted to be a painter. In art school I signed up for a new course that was being offered on contemporary art. It changed my course – it taught me about conceptual art and I became interested in artists who use language as their material. I turned to writers and I soon discovered that there were poets who also made visual art: bpNichol, Apollinaire, and bill bissett to name three. I came to the insight that the most interesting work was interdisciplinary. Neither just one thing or another, but a combination of things. A new thing.
I think the reason there has been very little critical work on bissett is because the work itself is so radically anarchic and avant-garde. Readers do not have time anymore to engage with difficult and challenging work. People want things explained and spelled out for them and perhaps they may even perceive bissett’s writing as simple or cute. But it is neither simple nor cute. He has written poems that you can put beside Shakespeare or Chaucer. Here is an example – here is an extraordinary poem by bissett:
eye went down 2 th beech
last nite lookin n an invisibul
vois sd its not xcellent
4 me 2 be ther
ium no fool
i walkd back home
And this one:
watching broadcast nus
i see th salmon talks will
resume on monday
well thank god at leest th
salmon ar talking
bissett also breaks all the rules and academics especially may think he is beneath them. They do not take his orthography seriously and they may see it as an affectation. In actual fact, bissett’s syntax is a rigorous deconstruction into the inner-most alchemy of the word.
I mentioned the word “interdisciplinary” earlier. bissett’s multi-media work, his whole art, demands a new critical vocabulary and this new critical vocabulary is an interdisciplinary critical vocabulary. So I have read bissett’s work through film; I have read his paintings through writing, not just his own, but modern and contemporary writing and philosophy, too. I have laboured on this study of bissett’s art for over a decade. It has taken that long to invent a critical vocabulary with which to read and do justice to his extraordinary art.
(untitled Judy Garland/Wizard of Oz collage – stardust – blewointment press, 1975)
Probably the single-most important influence on bissett is the work of Gertrude Stein. Stein taught bissett that language can exist independently of narrative. That is to say, not all writing has to follow from an intention or bring the reader to an idea or message. Writing can be a lot more open-ended than that; and the experience of reading this kind of writing rewarding – “meaningful” – in itself.
I think bissett is his own “school.” But his paintings do sometimes look like other paintings by other painters. In a way he reminds me of Picasso because he is so protean and prolific. He is always creating, always making something out of something else.
(standing with th fire, 1997 – acrylic on canvas – Collection of Jonathan Rainbow and Michel Potvin)
I think in the history of art, especially modern art, the best painters are influenced by the best writers. Gertrude Stein’s mentor was Picasso. She adored Matisse and Juan Gris, as well. She studied their pictures closely and their pictures gave her a critical language. Antonin Artaud invented his theory of the theatre of cruelty by reading very closely Lucas van Leyden’s painting The Daughters of Lot.
William Carlos Williams was inspired by Duchamp and Brueghel. He defined the poem as a field of action. Around the same time Jackson Pollock was re-defining painting as a field of action. I am convinced that if you want to paint well you must learn how to read well. The same is true for writing well.
(all my relayshuns, 1989 – acrylic on board – Formerly in the collection of Lenore Herb, bequeathed to her children, Saphira Coutts and Taliesin Foley-Herb)