Photo: Bryony McIntyre

Steve McCaffery



21 Mar 2009  •  The Arches, Glasgow


Leading Yorkshire/ Canadian language/ action/ sound poet since the early 70's. He'll be performing his groundbreaking typewriter concrete poem Carnival. It's a beautiful, dizzying mandala of text, symbols, fonts and rubber stamps. And it's a kind of book as reading machine.

One of the great sound/ action/ concrete and language poets.  An important strand of McCaffrey’s poetry attempts to go beyond meaning and signification and to explore the material and sound properties of text.  A great example of this strand of thought is Carnival.


A very big deal in poetry (from Modernist poets on) was the invention of the typewriter, which allowed poets (rather than publishers) control over exactly where they placed phrases, words and even individual letters/ symbols on the page.  Carnival is composed of loads of different type sizes, stencils, fonts, colours and rubber stamp marks, and is certainly one logical apex of this control over where individual symbols can be placed.  It’s often called a ‘typestract’ (i.e. typewriter + abstract = typestract) poem.  Spread over 16 pages of a book, each page was intended to be torn from that book and reassembled by the reader into one large composition.


Why is it interesting?


Carnival is a fantastic example of a kind of psychogeographic sound poetry; it’s a poem about wandering, the reader negotiating a text space.  And it’s also an example of what Steve has called a book-machine, a machine for the production of poetry/ meaning/ sound, “to let your seeing be what your reading was”. (If you can accept this idea of a book-machine, then the readers of it are no longer simply consumers of text, but instead "must adopt the role of operators, workers and machine hands”.  And if you can get behind this idea of an operator and think of them themselves as a kind of seeing/sounding-machine then you can imagine a poetic landscape pretty different from that of the traditional writer|reader, producer|consumer.) It starts with the ideas that text is a “seen thing” and so if text is readable then every seen thing is readable (Steve has often sounded spaces as poetic performances: looking at a room, translating the colour/ texture/ shape of an object in the space and using that as a starting point to suggest words that then suggest clusters of letters to be improvised with.  It’s an approach very similar to Joan La Barbara’s Hear What I Feel performances. “After spending an hour in isolation with my eyes taped shut and not touching anything with my hands, I was led out into the performance space where my assistant had placed a variety of substances in six small glass dishes.  As I touched the material, I tried to give an immediate vocal response to what I felt both emotionally and physically, without the benefit of visual information. “).  And then it asks the performer sounding the text (or indeed the reader reading it) to navigate, creatively engage with and act as the operator of this book-machine in order to sound a landscape made up of the pure, graphic materiality of text. 


So what’s really interesting to us is that it’s a kind of poetry concerned with text beyond meaning. Text isn’t some signifier of meaning, it’s just ink on a page, deliberately placed there by a typewriter, operated by a person at a desk.  It doesn’t matter what the symbols might traditionally ‘mean’, it’s more important that the material properties of text can be explored in and of itself, (how it looks, sounds and interacts with other text(s)), and how together they open themselves up to different reading/ sounding paths. So also, Steve has talked of Carnival as releasing the typewriter (and text) into abstract possibilities similar to how the free jazz of Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler opened up the saxophone and jazz to new (previously dormant) possibilities.  And so of course by thinking of text as something to be sounded, Carnival makes clear one abstract and material potential of text and allows poetry to approach and share similar concerns with music.


At the event everyone was handed an A3 colour print of the poem so they could follow along as Steve was reading.

  • Audio

  • Video Clip