Sunday, May 20, 2007



cornucopia by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen
(xPress(ed), Espoo, 2004)

[Previously published as an earlier version in Moria Poetry, and in The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I, xPress(ed), 2006]


“In my poetry I do not try to find the words to express what I want to say.
In my poetry I try to find ways to express what the words have to say.”
—Carl Andre

“Though these visions are influenced by ancestors, the sculpture is not used in ritual or ceremony. In the West, most African art is defined as consisting of either religious icons or practical artifacts, meaning tools used in daily life. But this definition has been imposed on Africa by outsiders and certainly does not fit Shona sculpture or other contemporary African art forms. Shona sculpture is neither worshipped nor functional. It is purely decorative—art for art’s sake.”
Spirits in Stone: Zimbabwe Shona Sculpture by Anthony and Laura Ponter

This is a poem that begins my series of poems called “The Masvikiru Quatrains”:


foolery: pollinate eyrie
progress: retinal runners-up
forger: nimbus dowdy
round-the-clock: penetrate rot

proton: airship lire
Vaseline: nose dive
freebie: damper promiscuous
specialize: betterment bloat

persuasiveness: midget manipulative
IQ: crabbed Ra
spage-age: hula slake
faintness: instrument snowsuit

lachrymal: slickness profuse
AM: ahem misfire
idiomatic: rations periscope
thrash: quarry inhalator

hobbyist: converse sheaves
epoxy: semen discrepancy
trillion: planetary wintergreen
anthem: lumber jealousy

lodge: slippery atty.
campanile: softball issuance
liquefy: pox downwards
averse: amicable perquisite

copra: nameless feasibility
panorama: negotiable dorm
decadence: outflank tweedy
offal: conjoin uncounted

plainclothesman: radicalism dire
skin: N.Mex. woodwind
upstart; gravestone outmaneuver
pointy: Mediterranean fend

I wrote “The Masvikiru Quatrains” as a result of Jukka-Pekka Kervinen's poetry collection, cornucopia (xPress(ed), 2004). From Zimbabwe's Shona culture, "masvikiru" means "spirit mediums." But before I tell you about my poems, let me share some background about their inspiration.

Jukka wrote cornucopia as a sample of what he calls "statistical writing." Basically, the poem results from a computer program, in this case one that utilizes three statistical distributions—uniform, binomial, and Gaussian (normal)—to avoid patterns. The (pattern) exception is that, in punctuation, a period is used each time the program encounters a space in its source vocabulary. For cornucopia, Jukka’s sources were excerpts from John Locke’s “The Essay of Toleration” and Antonio Gramsci’s "Letters from Prison.”

I enjoy collaborating with Jukka partly because he takes, as a beginning point, a very different—nay, perhaps the opposite—tack from how I approach my poems. That is, he deliberately tries to be dispassionate whereas I, robustly believing in subjectivity, fling myself naked, hair matted and blood rushing into the poetry-writing. [Cough.]

Exemplifying what I mean about Jukka’s approach is that, consistent with his long-time investigations into computer-generated texts and poems, Jukka says that he never edits the results: "My 'philosophy' is simple and clear: if I use the computer to generate music/poems I must be satisfied with the results without any editing. I don't change a single word/note. Otherwise I must do whole thing without computers!"

And yet the reason why cornucopia works as a poem is the strength of its poetic music—as soundscape—such that reading through it effortlessly allowed me to write new poems which I intended as pure (abstract) music. This leads me to the other reason why I like collaborating with Jukka: we may begin from disparate if not opposite points, but we end up in the same space for the poem: music.

cornucopia consists of 65 pages of words. There are no discernible beginnings or endings to the piece. There are no titles, line breaks or paragraph breaks. It's just a 65-page block of words. Yet, as I began reading it, I started reading music by sensing such music (through rhyme and rhythm and my subjective interpretations of pacing and tone) even as I also considered the text "visual" a la dark, seemingly single-color canvases.

After my read—and conclusion that what I experienced through such reading was music—I asked Jukka about his work. Jukka replied that he also found the computer-generated results "surprisingly musical." But as Jukka—who is also a composer—explained, "One reason for this might be that the program was first used to generate a cello piece (punctuation vs. silence/very loud (low) strokes)."

Jukka’s referenced cello piece is available on the Internet at (see “Compositions-Computer-generated scores-eXudes for cello solo”).

I hadn’t intended to write poems as I read through cornucopia, but I found that each page offered a new poem. Specifically, each line on the page generated a three word line. For each line, the first word is followed by a colon so that the next two words offers a relationship to the first word based on said colon (I happened to be in the midst of investigating the colon punctuation mark when I began writing this series). Because the diction is based more on sound (music) vs. narrative meaning, I wanted to push the challenge of creating a colon-based relationship within each three-word line.

Reflecting the fact that each page of cornucopia contains 39 lines, the poems are formed from quatrains. Every fifth line on the page was deleted, with that line deletion becoming equivalent to a stanza break. Thus, each poem consists of eight quatrains, except for the last poem which is comprised of five quatrains as the last page contains only 24 lines.

To write—and hopefully for the reader to read—these quatrains was/is an experience based on a sense of musicality in cornucopia. Moreover, cornucopia is so musical that even as I wrote my poems, I sensed that there were other parallel poems threaded through each of the pages. This may be made clearer by looking at the original cornucopia source text (featured in “Notes” below) for the first poem, “The Fourth Page”. In looking at the prose poem form of the source text, you might sense—as I do—that one could just as easily have formed different three-word combinations than what I chose for “The Masvikiru Quatrains.” For instance, rather than the poem’s version of the first quatrain

foolery: pollinate eyrie
progress: retinal runners-up
forger: nimbus dowdy
round-the-clock: penetrate rot

I could have written—chipped out from the stone-prose—the following for the first quatrain:

notoriety: smirch resilience
baptize: runners-up kilowatt
impersonate: unceasing nimbus
ménage: disingenuous moonscape

Another example is how the series’ last poem, “The Thirtieth to the Sixty-Fifth Page,” was created by stringing together the first quatrains from each of the referenced poems. For me, this implies that had this series’ concern been only music, I also could have written the series’ individual 66 poems as a single poem like Jukka’s cornucopia, without page breaks or titles.


However, I didn’t write this series only from a sense of soundscape. Not only did I wish to extend my exploration of the colon punctuation mark, but I also wanted to translate Zimbabwean Shona sculpture methodology into writing poems. By the latter, I mean that I had to chip away at cornucopia's prose blocks to release new poems. Shona sculptors believe that (ancestral) spirits reside in stones and when they sculpt from stones, they basically are trying to release the spirits into what we later see as sculpted forms. From cornucopia, I sought to write poems to release the many hidden strains of music I sensed as spirits beneath each of cornucopia's pages.

As I learned about Shona sculpture, I also felt a kinship between the sculptors’ approach and my long-time desire to write poems along the “first draft, last draft” vein. In Spirits in Stone: Zimbabwe Shona Sculpture, the authors Anthony and Laura Ponter describe the Shona sculpting process as:

“The artists do not experience angst in the creative or carving process. When a sculpture does not emerge, it is simply cast aside. There is no regret. When a carving exploded during the firing process, destroying more than a month of work, artist Crispin June Mutambika said simply, ‘It wasn’t meant to be.’ Shrugging off any disappointment, he picked up another stone and began anew.” [126-127]

“The Masvikiru Quatrains” were written along the first draft, last draft mode. Nowadays, I attempt all of my poems in that manner. If a draft doesn’t work, I don’t file it (for further extensive or copious editing). I trash the “failed” first draft, believing that if there was some “spirit” (or poetic energy) sufficiently strong to generate a poem, it will come back to me and perhaps at that later date I will be more adept at guiding out its form in one (unedited) passage. I relate my way of writing to something the Ponters said: “Like most other acts in Shona culture, the carving is … destined from its beginning.”

To relate the poems further to Shona sculpture, one might say that Jukka and I have found as a common “ancestor” a type of music that draws out an empathy that we hold in common, a type of music that makes us kin. Through music, Jukka and I zero out notions of Other-hood. Through Poetry, we become the same flesh, blood … and even computer.


Some of the poems were sent to maganda magazine’s issue on “Power, Choice and Change” with the following cover note to maganda editors:

I wrote “The Masvikiru Quatrains” by practicing maganda’s theme of “Power, Choice and Change.” The words in these poems are lifted from the long prose poem “cornucopia” by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen. By stringing together three-line words based on my sense of poetic music, I amended cornucopia. By doing so, I thought to question whether my “power” over Kervinen’s text was negatively wielded, if the result was still the same poetic music that had caused him to write his own text. I also insert a colon after the first word, as if to create a colon/conclusion type of relationship between the first word and the next two words. The power, then, resides with the reader in determining whether such a narrative relationship can exist (a la Gertrude Stein’s mode that putting two seemingly unrelated words together nonetheless creates meaning because of the nature of words). Thus, whatever power I exercised in reconfiguring Kervinen’s text is also something I gave up ultimately to the reader of these poems. The paradox of this process befits, in my view, the inherent paradox of Poetry’s ephemerality.


The following is the source text for “The Fourth Page”:

Page 4 from Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s cornucopia

foolery chore notoriety smirch resilience drip pollinate eyrie baptize hemlock colliery progress retinal runners-up kilowatt periscope impersonate wane. forger unceasing nimbus dowdy round-the-clock ménage penetrate rot disingenuous moonscape gabardine ugliness cornucopia pimple front office. Overweening proton munificence wheelbarrow airship lire scalene denouement batch. Vaseline nose dive. Unintentional trading post. Substation blowup freebie scalene gem gas damper promiscuous monotheistic specialize lubricate alluvial betterment bloat trick narcissi permissive conductive gritty VCR handyman positron persuasiveness statehouse midget manipulative recalcitrant phantasy mantel IQ programmable. Crabbed Ra farmhouse fallibility space-age namby-pamby exportation stony hula slake inflexibility least faintness. Spontaneity instrument snowsuit steppingstone all-purpose odometer housecleaning anytime trot crystallization lachrymal cheesecloth mummer slickneses profuse bigot timbre AM corpus defeatism ahem misfire diplomat idiomatic unintended treatment dogmatic rations periscope thrash patent medicine. Watt malt swindle quarry inhalator rummage sale. Dwelling copter augment politician disguise hobbyist paleness flake paunch nontransferable converse sheaves epoxy. Hayloft. Iodize self-controlled semen discrepancy nerve gas. Trlllion speller deterrent bravery planetary wintergreen veritable autonomous anthem praiseworthy circle lumber jealousy digit leeway advantage tortuous thimble commissar lachrymal gainful pushiness reformatory protector lodge slippery atty. Campanile Na voltmeter imprisonment jewelry softball issuance Frequent small fry. Quiescence liquefy. Chicken pos. downwards Touching averse impassive amicable perquisite truthfulness Postage nevermore proceeds levelheaded groceries breaking and Entering. Copra markup monastic viability nameless feasibility Clubhouse eyeliner beast panorama negotiable dorm Pisces Decadence announce tremendous outflank tweedy browser Idealism offal viviparous conceal iterate conjoin uncounted badge Jr. stay malcontent salary boldfaced swordfish. Meek thermal Plainclothesman radicalism dire thin-skinned capital punishment. Baker’s dozen. Skin southeastern detainment N. Mex. Woodwind Upstart medicinal. Bunk assortment gravestone outmaneuver Hungarian picture tube. Pointy Mediterranean fend conclusive


Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou. She can't do anything but shrug over the loudness of her Silences...


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