BERN PORTER

 

Buchanan-Smith worked closely with Nightboat books to re-package his classic text, Found Poems. As Dick Higgins said, “Porter’s Found Poems have the same seminal position as Duchamp’s objets trouvées.” This book collects Porter’s strongest “Founds,” his combinations of mass-media images and text that he used to reflect American culture.

 

About Bern Porter

Original edition of Found Poems (with Porter on the cover), published in 1972 by Something Else Press

Original edition of Found Poems (with Porter on the cover), published in 1972 by Something Else Press

On February 14, 1911, from a small farmhouse in northeastern Maine, was born a man, Bern Porter, who would after World War II stretch poetry’s traditions past the frontiers of authorship, context, voice, shape, and sound. Creator of over 100 books published by non-mainstream presses, including his own, and theorizer of “sciart,” the union of science and art, there was no other twentieth century poet like Bern Porter. In the late 1960s, after stormy and traumatic employ for twenty years as a Manhattan Project physicist, Saturn Moon Rocket engineer, and transcontinental communications specialist, Porter was exiled without due process from the National Security State. Choosing to exist on the edges and never giving up, Porter prodded humanity always to consider new approaches to its problems and dreams. A Correspondence Art pioneer, he was called during his lifetime “the da Vinci of the Atomic Age,” “the Charles Ives of American Letters,” and “the Poet Laureate of the Universe.” Today, Bern Porter’s massively creative motherlode serves as an inspiration to a new generation of artists and writers. Publishers Weekly concurs, writing,  “There is no question that no one was doing quite what Porter was doing when he was doing it, and that lots of people are doing versions of it now.” Bern Porter died on June 7, 2004, in Belfast, Maine, where he had lived since 1972, as both a recluse and town gadfly, at his Institute of Advanced Thinking, a “school for drop-outs.” Its grounds were adorned with his found sculptures and poems, along with the world’s only horizontal orgone accumulator, on which, he claimed, many new lives were conceived.


Excerpt: Introduction by David Byrne

When asked to comment on contemporary literature, JG Ballard once said something to the effect that the really new stuff was to be found in shopping lists, instruction manuals and warning labels. He was semi-serious—exaggerating for effect, but not much. It’s true—hidden in plain sight is a universe of verbiage that one might call a kind of alternative literature—package labels, banal instructions, lists, questions and suggestions. Ballard’s point was that this world with its stilted and very peculiar language is ours as much as the more conventional world of fiction and non-fiction. These pseudo friendly phrases with their slightly stilted and surreal syntax written by nameless copywriters constitute the word salad we swim in, whether we like it or not.

Being unacknowledged, it shapes our thinking and behavior invisibly—a stealth
culture—and is all the more powerful because of it. We have come to accept its existence as a given, as natural, even when it is the most unnatural kind of writing there is. 

Bern Porter made quite a few books of this kind of material, but most people have never heard of him. How did I discover Bern Porter’s books? I forget the moment, but can imagine the circuitous route.

Found material had been accepted as an element in visual art since Duchamp and is more common now than ever. It wasn’t just gallery art either—Bruce Conner was making films out of found footage that had a lot to say despite that fact that he himself rarely shot a foot of film. But in poetry and literature, using detritus and stuff that was already out there still seemed like something akin to plagiarism. 

I remember when Jerome Rothenberg’s collections of Dada and Native American texts came out in the late 60s and early 70s. Those were, in a sense, found poetry; they were texts that had been taken out of context and were being re-presented as literature. Concrete poetry during the same period acknowledged that typefaces and layout were also part of content. The way words looked was often a big part of what they were communicating. The crazy bold book designs Quentin Fiore did with Marshal McLuhan, the lyrics of some John Lennon songs and Warhol’s 60s work that minimally transformed his sources were all happening at that time—something was in the air. 

After dropping out of art school in the early 70s I myself was inspired to transcribe a broadcast of The New Price Is Right off TV, commercials and all. The sheer quantity of product placement was mind-boggling. The idea that holding this stuff up for examination might yield something was in the air. Somehow leaving it raw and unfiltered seemed the way to go. It wasn’t meant to be cynical or satirical—it was simply meant to say “this is here.”
I continued making lists and questionnaires around the same time I was beginning to write songs. Obviously I was ready to receive this stuff.

Inspired by the typings of Christopher Knowles that Robert Wilson used as texts for some of his theater productions (A Letter To Queen Victoria, Einstein on The Beach), I included some of my lists and instructions as part of the text in a collaboration I did with Wilson a few years later (Knee Plays). I suspect that a few years after that I might have finally heard about Porter’s Book of Do’s and ordered it via mail order. Of course I loved it. Who knew he’d been doing this stuff for so long? It seemed perfect—very of the moment, though most of Porter’s stuff had been done years earlier.

I loved that he maintained the inelegant typefaces, clunky kerning and the handmade layouts. He was ahead of his time, and though the source materials have changed, the idea that texts that “sound off,” stilted and strangely inhuman, might be a kind of poetry has become semi acceptable. 

There are contemporary examples of what Bern Porter was doing: spoetry, sleep talking, faulty voice recognition results and the collections of notes and photographs on found.com all get passed around the web. Kenneth Goldsmith fits in here as well. He’s an author whose books are almost all comprised of material from other, often banal, sources—every traffic report in the NY area on a given day, every weather report and one book (Soliloquy) is a 400 page transcription of everything Goldsmith said for a whole week.

In the last decade some of my friends and I began collecting something that came to be known as spoetry—machine generated texts that were plopped into Email spam to evade spam filters. These appeared in our inboxes for a number of months and then were never heard from again; the filters got wise I guess. I used some to caption some photographs. There are books of spoetry. Here’s a sample:

A little secret to make you private life more interesting! 

As fast as 30 minutes, they were married an hour late. As your friendly chestnut bed squeaked from their orgasmotron, she lied… unpaid, despondent… pressing herein then menlo. She smiled with pleasure nonchalantly. 

“As it happens, it’s a very nice butt.”

Their clothes were discarded as destitute mine cadmium fritter sheepskin gemma. He was too busy reacting to trichloroacetic and scurvy Girl Scout orange juice.

“It’s my seduction, not yours.” He shook his head. He found his first smile.

Some of the spoetry I received was clearly all sourced from the same place; though nonsensical and sliced and diced. I remember one chunk was clearly from a pirate novel and another from some Victorian romance. It was as if the essence of these genres had been distilled and the clichéd narratives taken out.

The amazing website Found.com has made themselves into a repository for stuff that we all find on the sidewalks or left behind somewhere. Mash notes and to do lists. Here’s a sample found note submitted to found.com:

Last week I discovered the website sleeptalkinman.blogspot.com on which a
woman records and transcribes the mumbled utterances that her husband Adam makes in his sleep and then posts them. Poor Adam. “Don’t move a muscle. Bushbabies are everywhere... everywhere... Shoot the fucking big-eyed wanky shite fucks! Kick ‘em. Stamp them. Poke ‘em in their big eyes! Take that for scaring the crap out of me.”

“You’ve got to save the curtains! Save the curtains... They hold so many secrets.”

The latest examples of this phenomena that I know of are badly translated voice to text phone messages.

Although some of this stuff appears to be pure nonsense I suspect the reason others and myself find it so attractive and sometimes even moving is because sometimes these strange and stilted texts with their jarring incongruities seem to mirror some parts of ourselves. Hidden and unacknowledged parts, but we sense a kinship.

They might mimic the non–rational logic of our unconscious, and we can recognize that weird voice from the ether, even though it is no-one who is doing the talking. And sometimes, as with visual art, these words that no-one would deliberately come up with tap into some deep chthonic source of emotion and feeling. We laugh at some of this stuff, but sometimes it’s uncomfortable laughter, because we recognize parts of ourselves, parts that we haven’t been able to put into words. Well, not normal words anyway.

 

THANKS & CREDITS

Designer: Jeff Stark