TT: One of the aspects of Imagining Language that I was most immediately entranced by was the selection of work drawn from Eugene Jolas' transition journal. It's astonishing to see just to what extent things like Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein's works appeared in a journal surrounded by other, now almost-forgotten, writers exploring similar territory. Can you talk a little about what drew you to the work of writers like Jolas, Abraham Lincoln Gillespie, Bob Brown and other folks connected with transition?  Were there any other specific groups or journals considered for the kind of spotlight focus transition enjoys in Imagining Language?

 

JR: The prominence of transition was strictly related to the central place accorded Finnegans Wake in the anthology. Right from the beginning at Ripley's, the Wake was like Wallace Stevens' jar in Tennessee, gathering all else around it. When I started thinking of Imagining Language as an anthology—around 1985—I characterized it in conversation as “a project in which Finnegans Wake would be normative and central rather than eccentric and peripheral.” Since Joyce's book, as “Work in Progress,” played a similar role in transition , it seemed natural enough to highlight that legacy in Imagining Language by placing our extract in a section drawn exclusively from the pages of Jolas's journal. Another factor contributing to this framing device (for me, at least) was a sense of dismay at the anthology In Transition: A Paris Anthology edited by Noel Riley Fitch published by Doubleday in 1990. The design was handsome, and the contents couldn't help but be astonishing, but Fitch confined her selections to the first couple years of the journal (1927-1930), with an emphasis on works by famous authors (like Gide, Hemingway, Kafka, Rilke). This presentation completely obscured the often zany thematic strategies deployed by Jolas and Elliott Paul, particularly from 1930-1938 when the bulk of transition 's run appeared. A more enduring sense of the “revolution of the word” had long been available by way of Jerry Rothenberg's anthology of that name from 1974. The contents of that anthology, and the innovative format of America a Prophecy, co-edited by Rothenberg with George Quasha (1973), had always provided me with the compass points of how an anthology could be both stimulating and serviceable at the same time.

Because the role played by transition in Imagining Language was predicated on Finnegans Wake, we never considered other magazines as framing devices or germinal contexts. For the “Sound Effects” section, however, we had a keen sense of an specific legacy, the traces of which could be found in vanguard periodicals. It was while working on Imagining Language that I embarked on what has now become a decade long crawl through the whole repertoire of modernist avant-garde journals, providing indispensable perspective for Oblique Modernism and lots of material ripe for translation and/or reprint for the anthology projects I'm still working on. These journals constituted a sort of international lingua franca. They tended to be polylingual; they took their marching orders, as it were, from Apollinaire; they pioneered sound poems and concrete poems as practical means of surmounting language barriers; and by their commitment to visual arts they substantiated this trans-linguistic zone. I've gone page by page through the contents of over a hundred of them at this point—too many to list except by a baker's dozen: Bleu ed. Gino Cantarelli (1920-1921), Contimpuranul ed. I. Vinea and Marcel Janco (1922-1926), Devetsil ed. Jaroslav Seifert and Karel Teige (1922), Grecia ed. Isaac del Vando-Villar (1919-1920), L'Italia Futurista ed. Bruno Corra, Arnaldo Ginna, Emilio Settimelli (1916-1918), Ma ed. Lajos Kassák (1917-1925), Mecano ed. I. K. Bonset [Theo van Doesburg] (1922-1923), Merz ed. Kurt Schwitters (1923-1932), Noi ed. Enrico Prampolini (1917-1920, 1923-1925), Nord-Sud ed. Pierre Reverdy (1917-1918), Orpheu ed. Mário de Sá-Carneiro and Fernando Pessoa (1915), Het Overzicht ed. Berckelaers [Michel Seuphor and Josef Peeters] (1921-1925), Portugal Futurista ed. José de Almada-Negreiros (1915), SIC ed. Pierre Albert-Birot (1916-1919), 391 ed. Francis Picabia (1917-1924), and Zwrotnica ed. Tadeusz Peiper (1922-1923, 1926-1927).

In the milieu of these and other journals and books, an expansive typographic field was cultivated from which we compiled the potential for yet another section in Imagining Language. Amédée Ozenfant used terms like “psychotypie” and “typométrique” to speak of this tendency, and Marius de Zayas defined the psychotype as “an art which consists in making the typographical characters participate in the expression of thoughts and in the painting of the states of soul, no more as conventional symbols but as signs having significance in themselves.” A critic writing in Les Soirées de Paris in 1914 thought it imperative that humans begin to conceive the world “synthetico-ideographically instead of analytico-discursively.” The graphic and typographic liberation of the word in the wake of Mallarmé and Marinetti established a dimension in which poems might rival—or, less aggressively, participate in the milieu of—the visual arts. Because we ended up with so much in the way of typographic compositions, Steve and I realized it would be too intrusive to the structure of the whole if we were to attempt any kind of documentary overview—which had never been our agenda, anyway, with respect to the topic areas of the anthology—so we settled on the very thin profile in “Words in Freedom” and left it at that.

 

 

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