I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Are you listening?
Yes, I am.
Exactly how do you mean?
—The Graduate (1967)
Dry-transfer lettering—and thus the poems constructed from it—consists of a thin sheen of plastic. My letraset poems render the particles of language into a new content that uncannily resembles the letters we already have, but form logos which promote empty storefronts and boarded-up retailers, their signs scrubbed to the point of illegibility. In these oneiric logos letters combine, like so many pieces of orphaned Lego, to form previously unexpected constructions not at all resembling the images on the packaging. In the age of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, poetry must embrace plasticity in order to remain relevant. Plastic and vinyl perfectly embody the poetic possibilities for language.
Roland Barthes’s “Plastic” entreats for the artistic potential of “ubiquity made visible.” Barthes’s comments on plastic are germane to a discussion of Concrete poetry, especially Concrete poetry made with pvc dry-transfer lettering. Concrete poetry, like plastic is
a “shaped” substance: whatever its final state, [it] keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless.
Poetry no longer retains the cultural caché that it once held. Like plastic, poetry
in the hierarchy of the major poetic substances [...] figures as a disgraced material.
Barthes argues that plastic (read “poetry”) “belong[s] to the world of appearances, not to that of actual use.”
pvc / vinyl is created from a combination of hydrocarbon byproducts and Chlorine. I have lived in Calgary, Alberta for over 35 years, having moved here as a young child, and it seems only appropriate that I would choose to poetically investigate a medium produced as a product of oil and gas exploration. Calgary’s economy is driven by the problematic revenue of non-renewable resource exploitation and increasingly by the notorious northern Albertan oil sands. Calgary—with an estimated population of 1.2 million—popularly represents itself through its rural ties, by oil and gas revenue and by right-wing politics. Alberta defines itself not in terms of cultural growth but in terms of economic growth.
To be an artist or arts worker in Calgary means to engage with the culture and economics of oil and gas exploitation. Concrete poetry created with dry-transfer lettering—pvc suspended on inert backing paper—actively embraces marketability and the technology of waste:
[p]lastics have been seen, notwithstanding developments in recycling technology, as the one-way conversion of natural resources into mountains of waste.
Concrete poetry embraces advertising and graphic design—the logo-ization of language—as necessary and inevitable in order for poetry to prove its relevance to a contemporary audience. Plastics “adds quality while reducing skill, enriches and cheapens” but “[w]e couldn’t be modern without them.” Concrete poems, like plastic, are “the very spectacle of [their] end-products;” the spectacle of a logo, operating normally, but promoting an empty product. The material of poetry, here, “is wholy subsumed in the fact of being used” while ignoring the need to be poetic. Concrete poetry, like plastic, contains a “reverie [...] at the sight of the proliferating forms of matter.”