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bpNichol: A Recollection (Issue 014 Devour: Art and Lit Canada)

bpNichol: A Recollection by Antony Di Nardo It is nearly impossible to put a label on the extensive work of bpNichol, work that consists of lyric poetry, sound poems, screenplays, concrete poems, visual gags, jokes, fiction, depiction, computer poems, drawings, songs, graphic narratives (what he called “nary-a-tiff”), cartoons, linescapes, and just about anything that involved human sounds, textuality and the alphabet. He was, if I were to put a label on him as an artist, a Renaissance Man. Not only was he experimental in his ground-breaking approaches to breaking lines, he was also madly innovative, a surrealist as much as a Dadaist, bending language, text and all of its components. A poem of his can be just one word, such as: em ty

or a ten-book oeuvre, such as The Martyrology, a massive work in progress cut short by his untimely death, or a prose-booklet, The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid, which, along with three other works of his that year, won the Governor-General’s Award in 1970. His accomplishments and bibliography were vast and varied. He died young. On the operating table. He was only 44. He suffered from chronic and debilitating back pain. In 1994, a street in Toronto was named in his honour, bpNichol Lane, the alley behind Coach House Press where he was one of its first editors. He was a member of the sound poetry quartet known as The Four Horsemen, a forerunner in some ways to what we know today as spoken word. He wrote for the highly successful children’s television show, Fraggle Rock, created by Jim Henson. He was a contributing editor at Open Letter, an influential literary magazine of the 70s and 80s. The human imagination was his ecosystem, the impulse to create his modus operandi.

This is what novelist and poet, Michael Ondaatje, wrote about him: In all of his work and life, wherever you stood within it, you were aware of the two pulls of song and alphabet which had been bound together into the rock of literature centuries ago. He knew that chaotic noises made up the song at the far end of the ballroom. Puns and howls allowed him a short cut across the dance floor... He hovered somewhere between Fred Astaire and Hugo Ball [founder of the Dada movement].

I was reminded of my relationship with the work of bpNichol when recently I viewed his computer poems, First Screening, on Poetry Daily’s Newsletter for November 29, 2021. Douglas Lurman’s comment on this work also makes it clear how innovative and relevant bpNichol’s writing remains to this day. You can view the poems and read the commentary at this link: PD_NL_DONALD_REVELL_2020_03_31_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b494a3846d-e7c67ba767-44702871#featured-poet

My poem that follows is dedicated to the memory of Beeper, aka, bpNichol, an early influence of mine who gave me license as a poet to experiment and play.

Beeper (A Recollection in Three Tenses and Five Parts) by Antony Di Nardo I History begins in 1974 at Lakehead University on the stage of a lecture hall,

The Four Horsemen, Beeper

among them, playing with the alphabet, syncopating to the thrill of syllables,

performing in sync, in discords and harmonies,

Beeper, a tower and a conduit,

tongue and cheek, grunts and gutturals, what language’s like when stripped down raw and naked, his face, his hair on fire as I listen, reconstructing

the spoken sounds I put to spoken lines stamped across the screen in my 24-year old head II I never see him again. Beeper dies in 1988, some say a victim of his therapies,

the chronic burden of his back,

some blamed the surgery. Blocks and blocks of concrete poems lay stacked upon the tracks he left behind for others to take the alphabet in hand and send it on by coach or cybernetics to readers in the future

III We find common ground, a past and future tense, back in 2005 when Grain Vol. 32 No. 3 features the Christmas cards of bpNichol

(they’re not what you think), 15 pages collected under the title Some Scapes,

minimal text, contra- dictions, black on white, white on black, birds and linescapes, handmade letters, waves that weave into something else entirely and the poem that follows on page 101 is mine, Skaters in Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow”, another sonnet capped “with snow that hasn’t left for ages”

and as calculated as any word or letter placed on the marquee of a page

IV The future ends in 2021 in the present tense when I view

Beeper’s First Screening, a moving diorama of coded poetics, 13 poems, words and letters scrolling on a screen, composed in 1984

on an Apple II, without sound

nor syntax, the pixels of his imagination programmed

to render gray matter into light, the medium into media, shifting, surging,

scuttling crab-wise across the screen, a visual, restless stamp of language hard at play

V Beeper, the poet ghost of writings past, of present and to come, the needle in a haystack, the singular in signifying, a-typical in type, rituals of his visuals coded in every word that makes a sound, his poem A / Lake / A / Lane / A / Line / A / Lone

carved in concrete down the alley that leads, like any poem, to somewhere else


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