ntst: the collected pwoermds of Geof Huth
(if p then q, Manchester, U.K., 2010)
ntst is one of the funnest poetry reads I’ve experienced: a veritable nest of fun! Every single pwoermd encourages you to not just read but play! A pwoermd is a one-word visual poem created by Geof Huth and ntst collects 775 pwoermds he’s written from 1986 to 2009. Here is Huth’s own introduction of the pwoermd (first published in Dirt: A Journal of Minimalism:
Minimalist poets work with a tiny number of words in each poem, trying to wrest some eternal insight out of the smallest of spaces. The tendency towards minimalism, which was a hallmark of much of twentieth-century art, seems empty to many people, who see minimalism as an anti-art trick. But minimalism is serious play, making it among the purest of the arts.
The height of minimalism in literature is the pwoermd, a one-word poem that has no title save for itself. The pwoermd must make its effects in the smallest of spaces; the very smallest being the four letters of Aram Saroyan's "Blod." Because of the huge limitations on the creators of pwoermds, these poems are one of the most challenging forms to create successfully. Somehow, the pwoermd must capture our intellectual imagination in the space of a few letters. For this reason, many of the best pwoermds focus on language itself and its illuminating shortcomings. Pwoermds tend to come in many styles, though, just as the creators of pwoermds might be visual poets or haiku poets or language poets.
And "pwoermd" itself? Where does it come from? I created it in 1987 by folding the word "poem" into the word "word." "Pwoermd" is a tiny mouthful to pronounce, but that is not a problem, since it is not a word meant for the air. It is meant for the page, and I see it as a little visual pwoermd itself: the "pw" at the front mirroring the "md" at the end, and in the middle there appears that old poetic "o'er."
I’ve always had trouble seeing words as visual art, versus things to be read; after I wrote the first draft of this engagement, I can see how my bias or imaginative constraint might limit my reactions. For example, for the first pwoermd in the list below, I initially didn’t focus on how “ei” mirrors “ie”, thus physically manifesting the “either” concept. Instead, I noticed “ei”’s transformation to “ie” as exemplifying, from a meaning versus visual standpoint, the concept of “either.”
Indeed, some of the most enjoyable pwoermds are those spelled exactly to fit their (implied) definitions, like
so that you realize that the pwoermd is the more accurate spelling. I could push, by the way, for this as a more apt spelling--
--but, as a woman, I’m biased.
Some of the most effective pwoermds make you think. For example, doesn’t
make you wonder if “marriage” is also “mirage”? Similarly, doesn’t
evoke that whole topping-from-the-bottom thing? Again, note the limitations of my reactions: how I’m responding to the inevitability of a word’s meaning more than the cleverly-harmonious (or harmoniously-clever) visual effect.
But to continue…, when Huth anoints an existing word as a pwoermd, it also highlights how purr-fectly that word already is spelled. For example
Some pwoermds say more about the reader than perhaps anything intended by the poet or poem (except that said pwoermd be about the reader). For example, I thought the following pwoermd to be XXX-rated:
The pwoermds, despite their minimalism, can even act as critical commentary, e.g.
As regards the latter, the example is also part of how Huth uses punctuation to create nifty emphases (logical, of course, if he considers these to be “visual poems), e.g.
Doesn’t the adjustment of “dictionary” to “diary” intrigue? So, it’s obvious that, while I appreciate the visuals (including visual symmetry)of certain pwoermds, I can’t avoid relating to their (implied) textual meanings. Again, this has always been, for me, one one of the tensions of words as visual art, but in the case of ntst and pwoermds, I don’t find (as I’ve had in the past) this tension irritating. The whole thing is just fun! Let me continue sharing what I found in my read...
Some poems are so dead-on but will forever frustrate spelling bee participants, e.g.
Other pwoermds are cleverly created by melding more than one word into one word. For example, “devil in the details” becomes
cleverly affirmed by the evocation of "dovetails."
Nonetheless, a pwoermd--as with many other poems--can be more resonant when it doesn’t spoonfeed meaning, e.g.
which could be “we wed” (into one) or “we did something that united us but that something is unknown.” This turn towards more abstraction-as-a-way-to-clear-space-for-the-reader-to-inhabit (or, as I would put it in a failed pwoermd, “abstruseded”) is something I welcome generally in poems and thus I welcome it, too, in pwoermds. It took another 24 hours after reading “we’ed” for me to realize the visual component: how the apostrophe slips up through the words like…a weed might surface from a sidewalk’s crack.
It's even fun to try to pick our pwoermds that don't work! I might debate, for example, that even as I get the visual of it,
is a bit obvious. I also found
unconvincing--that it felt a tad arbitrary or one-note. And I guess I just don't get
though readers should feel free to teach me). But in all cases, the reads--and subsequent debates spawned with myself--were fun!
Ultimately, ntst’s pwoermds provided so much pleasure that I’m forced to conclude that these also are poems for the Beloved. Really. To wit:
even as I sheepishly note the mirrored image belatedly after meaning. Nonetheless, I think I’ll catch more of the visual implications in a subsequent reading of the book—which is to say, ntst accomplishes what many great poems effect: an expansion of the reader’s mind.
It also seems fitting that ntst would be published by one of the most interesting new publishers around, if p then q. I found very interesting this publisher's vision from an "About if p then q" flyer that was posted in the review copy -- I want to present an excerpt as I think it offers much food to consider:
If p then q is a publisher of poetry books. Based in Manchester it aims to be consistent and cutting edge; without manifesto yet clearly against certain ways of pursuing poetry.
The poetry published brushes shoulders with contemporary art and does not marginalize itself. It places itself genuinely within the contemporary art world. This means accessibility, intrigue and academia. The poetry if p then q publishes can be approached in a three tier model (this does not suggest that the poet writes for an audience however).
* The first level is that the reader simply likes the poem (this could be that it works on a relatively simplistic, accessible level in par to rin the whole) or that the work is aesthetically interesting--a comparison here is the minimalists.
* The second level of the work is that a reader may want to (is encouraged to) 'dig' deeper and see the ideas through, without any need of specialist background knowledge--poetry or otherwise.
* The third level is that of a reader, who does have some prior knowledge to somethign contextual, allowing them an understanding of content or form. The audience who has gone through level one and two is prepared to research (because it's gone through level one and two).
A book like Geof Huth's ntst clearly manifests the publisher's vision in an enjoyable and often enchanting way.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her newest book THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010) over at Litter Magazine and at Tributary. The book's "Afterword" essay by Joi Barrios is also newly-available online at OurOwnVoice. If these reviews get you curious, please note that its publisher Marsh Hawk Press is supporting a fundraiser for Haiti relief by giving a free copy if you order at least $15 worth of booklets through the Hay(na)ku for Haiti fundraiser; as THE THORN ROSARY is priced retail at $19.95, this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.