There is a delight to seeing what Toronto poet Eric Schmaltz has accomplished with his first full-length title, SURFACES (Picton ON: Invisible Publishing, 2018), a title rightly listed equally as poetry, graphic arts and typography. My first real interaction with Schmaltz’ work came in the form of a chapbook manuscript, produced through above/ground press as MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems (2014). As he wrote in an email as part of his original submission, the chapbook was “an homage to Paul Dutton’s The Plastic Typewriter.” Toronto poet Dutton’s work, produced by Underwhich Editions in 1993, is described as a “Compilation of concrete or visual poetry that goes beyond the way the typewriter is traditionally used to make impressions on to a piece of paper. Completed in 1977, materials used were a disassembled plastic case typewriter, an intact typewriter, carbon ribbons, carbon paper, metal file and white bond paper.” Further to Schmaltz’ email on his response project, he wrote that:
Following Dutton’s example, I dismantled a keyboard and use its parts and black paint to create a series of visual poems that simultaneously map and disrupt the materiality of the keyboard. These poems engage with ideas and questions regarding language's materiality, tactility, and the language devices we use to creatively communicate.
I was immediately fascinated by Schmaltz’ curiosity in exploring the work of one his forebears, composing new work as both study and exploration, as well as working to find his own way through it, and very openly build on the visual and concrete experiments already set down. As Gary Barwin writes on Schmaltz’ Dutton project for Jacket2:
And the typewriter: a Flintstones era writing machine when looked at from the digital age. I’m writing this digitally, the text appearing on the digital representation of a page. There’s no ink. Only light. Pixel yourself on a boat on a river. But this newfangled thing is modeled on that old fashioned typewriting machine. Keys in QWERTY order. The scrolling page. The word processor defaults to modeling the typewriter experience. Digital mimicry.
So when Eric Schmaltz in 2013 deconstructs typewriting, it’s carbon ribbon dating. He’s a retronaut re(con)textualizing the typewriter and writing in both space and time. Indeed his typewriter is so changed by spacetime its actually a computer keyboard. He quotes Kenny Goldsmith in the epigraph to MITSUMI: “The twenty-first century is invisible. We were promised jetpacks but ended up with handlebar moustaches. The surface of things is the wrong place to find the 21st century.” (Goldsmith, “The New Aesthetic and The New Writing.”)
The collection presents itself as an assemblage of surfaces, playing off the suggestion of superficial while presenting a sequence of works that work through a variety of depths of text and texture, lines and rough scapes, from what jwcurry might refer to as “dirty concrete,” to cleaner lines, collaged images and manipulated and reassembled texts. SURFACES exists as a collection of sketchworks, presenting a sequence of studies on image, text, response and the page, extending the notion of what the concrete/visual poem can accomplish. In the afterword by Joseph Mosconi, titled “THREE SUPERFICIAL THOUGHTS ON SURFACES,” he writes:
These questions of surface and depty, of superficiality and profundity, have been a central concern of textual scholarship in the wake of Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s call for what they term “surface reading”—an attention to surface as materiality, as verbal structure, or as an affective and ethical stance. Marcus and Best situate “surface reading” in opposition to the seemingly oppressive structures of “symptomatic reading,” or the search for hidden textual truths typified by Freudian and Marxist literary criticism. “We take surface to mean what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,” write Marcus and Best, “what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.”
One of the remarkable things about Eric Schmaltz’s Surfaces is that, like the put-down joke, and like the duck-rabbit illusion, the book manages to engage both the shallows and the depths. It asks its readers not only to confront its textual experiments—its schematics, patterns, substrates, and structures—but to think through the social, political, and cognitive contexts that lie beneath such surface encounters.
The past twenty-odd years of Canadian writing has been wonderfully rich in the production of visual and concrete works, an explosion of publishing, producing and curiosity that seemed to come out of nowhere, with dozens of writers and artists now composing and producing, from the older writers who have been working away for decades—jwcurry, bill bissett and Judith Copithorne, for example—to the mid-career practitioners—derek beaulieu, Gary Barwin, W. Mark Sutherland, Sharon Harris, Billy Mavreas, Christian Bök and Helen Hajnoczky—to the array of emerging writer quietly moving their own ways through multiple threads of history to begin producing their own works—Sacha Archer, Kate Siklosi, Kyle Flemmer, Ken Hunt and Dani Spinosa (these lists aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but simply to give a quick sense of some gatherings of activity). All of this activity is impressive, and the benefits of a growing community of practitioners in the digital age have allowed the work being produced to be more thoughtful, and often presented in deep conversation with other works already produced (Spinosa, for example, has been working on some very interesting homage pieces over the past few years). All of this to say that, while Schmaltz’ work is part of something larger and grander, it has also become one of its ongoing highlights, something SURFACES can’t help but broadcast.