POETICS OF DEFAULT // AB Gorham

15 Feb 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

During the 2018 CBAA Conference in Philadelphia, I took part in a panel comprised of myself, Carley Gomez, Woody Leslie, and organized by contributor Levi Sherman. This panel explored, among many other things, how book art can benefit from adopting methods from the creative writing field and discussed ways to improve institutions and systems that unwittingly de-emphasize writing within book arts.

As a tangent of my talk titled “Rebus Read Plainly,” I’d like to propose expanding the notion of writing, specifically in the context of incorporating text into artists’ books. Even more, how can we (educators) get students to produce text for or within artists’ books that doesn’t fall into the trappings of the often-clichéd language that tends to be a default for nascent writers?

In the long stretching shadow of Mallarmé exists a collection of books that contain fragmented poems, poetic utterances, or short, quippy phrases—while these are wonderful books, this seems to be the default mode of writing within many artists’ books. Perhaps writing in this manner is due to the shared space comprised of text and imagery (not to mention a book’s structural concerns), or, maybe there is a subconscious impulse to keep the language brief or mainly visual in order to appeal to a more visually-oriented audience. Of course, there are many different categories of books, and books that slip in between those categories, so I want to avoid over-generalizing and explore some tendencies I see with “new” book artists. I know that book artists agonize over the text that they incorporate into their books, so this isn’t to imply otherwise. Rather, I’m curious about the textual trend I see with so many artists’ books containing what looks like and acts like poetic language = Poems.

Writing should not be an afterthought within an artist’s book. Visual elements that work primarily in service of the text are referred to as illustrative, a word that denotes a level of dependency between text and image and, often, places the visual elements into a category of work that historically is defined by an intent other than artistic expression. What about text that works primarily in service of the visual elements of the book? Shouldn’t we call this text descriptive, stripping it of some of its independence as a written artistic form? In order to begin a discussion about the relationship between text and imagery in artists’ books, we have to be willing to prescribe levels of effectiveness not only with imagery and structure, but with the accompanying text. Don’t we already have enough to consider when making books and book objects? Sure, but what’s one more thing?

The book arts workshop isn’t always a conducive environment for reading/viewing books which contain text that takes time to digest. How can we get students to respond to the text as they respond to the imagery, structure, and material choices? I suggest recommending to students (and ourselves) that alternative writing, including text messages, grocery lists, and step-by-step processes (to name a few) can provide ample fodder for exploring book forms, as well as creating dynamic reading/viewing experiences. Employing these familiar, certainly mundane forms of writing has the companion effect of providing a remedy for that pressure to write Poems into books. Perhaps incorporating text with familiar forms (the texts, lists, and processes that I suggest above) is one way to begin that training. Ultimately, regardless of form, how is the text working within the book space? Using these forms to shape text, we can still ask students to avoid illustrations and descriptive language with the aim of creating more conceptual books, and, just maybe, they’ll begin to see the possibilities for text that doesn’t have to be a Poem.


AB Gorham is a book artist and writer, originally hailing from Montana. She holds MFAs in Book Arts and Poetry from The University of Alabama. She is the Manager of Black Rock Press and lives in Reno, Nevada with her husband, their daughter, and their three beasts.


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