Some of us have been waiting quite a while for a first trade collection from American poet and blogger Jessica Smith, after small publications here and there and here for some time, including chapbooks with Calgary's No Press and Ottawa's above/ground press, and both print and online publications around North America and beyond. Finally, her very attractive Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002 - 2004 (Charlottesville VA: Outside Voices, 2006) has appeared; Smith is one of the few working poets today who seems to understand the fundamentals of physical landscape, of the shapes and spaces possible on the page. The late Toronto poet bpNichol, for example, was heavily involved in the printing of his own books through the Coach House Press/Printing, and incorporated what he learned about bookmaking into the process of his texts, or the spaces that, it seemed, only Saskatoon poet Sylvia Legris, through her three trade poetry collections, really knew how to work properly.
Smith's first trade collection sprawls across the feeling and physicality of the white page, and is not a poetry of straight lines or even lines at all but of a deliberate splatter and splash, of space and drift, expanding what a poem can actually do in what is otherwise made into a very confined space. Prefaced by the brilliant essay "The Plastics of Poetry (A Poetics)" (previously appeared as a chapbook with No Press), Smith moves through the body of work of poets Charles Bernstein, bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, the combined works of Japanese architect Arakawa and poet Madeline Gins and various others to work through her own personal poetics for this collection, working through the plastic aspect of the poetry on the page. As she writes in her preface:
To understand what a "virtual" reading space is we must further analyze my proposed analogy between the plastic arts and plastic poetry. Avant-garde works of plastic art call attention to the way we use space every day. We see and remember our physical surroundings in order to recall them for future occupation. Arakawa's and Gins' projects remind us of this diurnal activity by disrupting it. Plastic poetry works in a similar, albeit more complex, way, by reinforcing elementary conditions of reading. When we read any text, the interplay of words, letters, fonts, ink, and paper already requires work: real physical and mental effort to make meaning. Furthermore, this process of making meaning is already virtual, in the sense that meaning is never actual but requires memory and expectation in order to be formed in the first place. The gears of memory and expectation are already at work in syntax and thus operate quietly beneath our understanding of "meaning." For example, we read the newspaper without thinking about the process of gathering sense from printed language. In contrast, the plastic poetry of Organic Furniture Cellar calls attention to this process in two ways. First, since plastic poetry usually has a fragmentary visual component, it calls attention to the physicality of reading. This forces the reader to recognize that there is more than one level at work in reading. Reading is not an immediate or transparent process, but a physical effort. Second, plastic poetry interferes with syntactical continuity by disrupting what the reader expects to find, or by suspending her memory of a word by breaking the word into unrecognizable fragments. By thus disrupting the reading process, plastic poetry calls attention to the way a reader uses the virtual space of memory to syntactically organize fragments of language into meaning. Like experimental architecture, the poetry I designate as "plastic" calls attention to the syntactical organization of space and time (in terms of the physicality of the page and the virtuality of the reader's memory) that already underlies every moment of action and thought.