Concrete Poetry in the Digital Classroom

March 8, 2021
Concrete Poetry packets

By Catie Crandell, Humanities Council

When Joshua Kotin (English) and Irene Small (Art and Archaeology) first began to think about teaching a class on concrete and visual poetry, their goal was to take advantage of the University’s extensive archives and make the course a curatorial exercise. They envisioned students in a hands-on practicum that would allow them to engage with their materials by building an exhibition. The unexpected switch to remote teaching during the pandemic threw a wrench in this plan.

While the shift to online teaching certainly created challenges for the Program in Humanistic Studies course “Language to Be Looked At” (HUM 328 / ENG 270 / ART 396) in fall 2020, it also miraculously put the study of concrete poetry in a fresh perspective. Supported by a Humanities Team-Teaching Grant in the course’s development as well as a Magic Grant to provide materials for students, it proved to be a great success. “Concrete and visual poetry is such an interesting topic because, on one hand it’s a global phenomenon that requires different linguistic skills and knowledges, but on the other hand it’s a form that seeks to overcome those differences,” explains Kotin. With students participating from across the globe, Kotin noted that “our dispersal mirrored the dispersal of the poets.”

The texts on the syllabus ranged widely, too, including everything from William Blake’s self-illustrated poem “Sick Rose” (1794) to Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry in Cathay (1915) to sculptor Robert Smithson’s artwork “A Heap of Language” (1966), and Adam Pendleton’s “Black Dada Reader” (2017). Each student also received significant packages of material, including different archival material and facsimiles of unavailable works handmade by Kotin and Small. These packets, though unable to replicate the full experience of physically encountering materials in Special Collections, afforded students the opportunity to engage with their objects of study more intimately.

Assignments were designed, in Kotin’s words, “to flex all the different muscles one has to engage visual poetry”. For instance, one assignment called an “Assembling” was “rooted in the actual practice of concrete poetry and mail art practitioners,” according to Small. Students each contributed a piece of that engaged with “the materiality of language but also how language is embodied in different ways,” Small explains. Each student’s contribution was then assembled in a collective work which will ultimately be housed in the Mudd Manuscript Library. Another assignment asked students to practice a creative work of translation, resulting in truly inventive products. One student transformed a Bach cantata into language, another translated one of Ezra Pound’s translations into emoji.

Throughout the course, students were asked to consider how a mix of language and visual imagery simultaneously invites reading and looking. The work “Dear Reader. Don’t Read” by conceptual artist Ulises Carríon highlights this tension expertly, according to Small: “In order to interact with this work you have to both obey it and disobey it.” Citing a specific course reading in Portuguese, Kotin found the potential challenge to literal understanding a fruitful one in considering this question: students could “without knowing the language, really see how words built upon each other. Lack of familiarity with the language helped us to talk about its fundaments.”

While the surprise of the pandemic forced Small and Kotin to completely rethink their original plans, “The whole course wasn’t quite by the seat of our pants. It was more carefully planned than any course I’ve taught before, but there was also no aspect that I could have predicted,” Kotin reflects. When it came to the students in the class, Small notes that “they exceeded our expectations and it was a total joy!”

“Language to Be Looked At” was made possible with the support, responsiveness and flexibility of the Humanities Council as well as assistance of the University Library. When asked if they’d like to teach the course again, Kotin and Small agree that it would be wonderful to have a chance to offer the class as originally planned, with more of an exploratory approach and a larger group of instructors. Though it is perhaps hard to predict exactly where the legacy of the course will go, both instructors agree that “There are a lot of exciting ways that we can continue these discussions.”

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