I recently shared the limelight with an LA poet and artist, Jen Hofer. We read together at Cal Plaza as the culmination of our City of Los Angeles (COLA) literary fellowships. We made an unlikely pairing—I gave a rather staid and traditional poetry reading, while she premiered a performance piece in which she and her cohorts read a poetic re-scripting of scenes from Polanski’s “Chinatown,” which were looped without sound (mostly). It was an intriguing presentation, though it’s impossible for me to view such “neo-benshi” without thinking of Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily.”
Since then, I’ve been perusing Hofer’s chapbook, Front Page news. The book is a work of art in itself—hand-stitched, with a silkscreened fabric cover. But though the chapbook is small, the poetic conceit is large: Every day for a year, from birthday to birthday, Hofer created a poem by excising all but a few words from the front page of the local newspaper wherever she happened to be that day. The newsprint is glued to an old-style ledger of some sort, and this is another feature that makes the chapbook such a joy to hold. The concept of erasure is of course not new—I first encountered in back in the ’80s in Ronald Johnson’s Radios, which was an erased version of Paradise Lost. But while Johnson’s work seemed more like an academic exercise, tailor-made to suit the deconstructionist zeitgeist of the day, Hofer’s is more firmly rooted in the seamy world at large. The use of a newspaper as the substrate conveys an odd sense of urgency mixed with banality. Pound famously declared that “literature is news that stays news.” In Hofer’s case, the news is literature that stays literature.
The chapbook only includes two weeks worth of poems, in April and May of 2011, which are remarkable for their repetition. Does the news ever really change? Have we all become so inured to tragedy that we fail to see it repeating or proliferating day by day? I don’t know Hofer’s actual birthday, so I can’t say whether the chapbook begins with her preliminary birthday poem, but it was certainly an eventful two weeks. The limitless war on terror was still in full swing, so words such as “war,” “kill,” “force,” and similar terms dominate the poems. More significantly, the time span includes May 2, 2011, when front pages across the country trumpeted the killing of Osama Bin Laden (Hello, NSA! Welcome to the blog!). It also includes Shakespeare’s birthday, though through some strange oversight, that failed to make the front page.
Hofer was (I think) born in 1971, so 2011 would’ve marked her 40th year. It’s probably just a coincidence, but the poems average about 40 words apiece. It’s more likely, of course, that the word count was not intentional, but informed by an imagist or zen sensibility that seeks to convey the grandest truths in the fewest words. Unlike Radios, Front Page News erases a text set in multiple columns, and takes advantage of the format. There is not always a linear progression down the page, and no grammatical sentence structure. Words and phrases can be read in several directions, rightward and downward, or as loosely connected but isolated images and phrases. At times, the format can be reminiscent of refrigerator-magnet poetry—but at its best, it conveys a progression of ideas that gain significance as they build, ultimately revealing a consciousness shaped by a sense of dread, horror, outrage, and impotence. It is hard to quote such poems—not just because of the uncertain line breaks, but because the physicality of the medium is part of the meaning, much as it is for concreate poetry—but the May 2 installment is worth attempting. The “title” comes from the headline (set in a huge pont size the dwarfs everything else): “Kills.” The poem reads: “terror / murder / death / war / terror / fighters / and / terror / days / ravaged / grim / violence / and / terror fact / killed / killed in the city / killed killed killed / killed / fight forces / attacks death war a corpse / crowds / the / people / dark streets / the former World / bitter / still.” The result is a damning summation of our entire imperialist endeavor. And as in the best Deep Image poetry, the lack of punctuation expands, rather than confounds, our understanding. The ending of this poem is fine example, allowing the dual readings, “the former world still bitter” and “the former world bitter and still.” Even focusing on the single word, “still,” we get—depending on our own mindset—a sense of continuation, as of something still happening, or conclusion, as in the stillness of death.
Front Page News is probably not available on Amazon or in your local bookshop—because it’s more than a book. Perhaps that’s just the direction we’re headed, where books will become more than just another exchangeable container for words, but artifacts and objets d’art in their own right. Certainly, Front Page News fits (or should I say breaks?) that mold.