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  • A Poetics of the Street
  • Alain Arias-Misson (bio)

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Photo (film-strip) montages by Alain Arias-Misson illustrate the unfolding of the public poem. Courtesy the artist.

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What is the Public Poem?

The street is Grand Theatre—but is not experienced as such. Economic necessity, the pressures of the city numb us. Creative thought is dimmed. The polis has vanished. Yet the city is still the focus of multitudes of signs and the crossings of the most diverse humanity. We need to appropriate it—to write it—writing renders it theatre. In a highly mediatized culture, in a virtual city, bodily involvement in the street—shocks. My body in the street—not the hypothetical or mythical body of body-art, but a body like anybody else busy in the streets—is the hand that writes. When I make a Public Poem I push the writing before me in the street, generating a grammar and a semantic of the street. No ready-made text is introduced, instead by means of graphic and phonetic linguistic signs, masks, materials—a poetics of the street becomes legible. When I write the street, a path is opened into the unpredictable dimension of the other: passers-by and street-incidents. This dimension recoils with a shamanic energy that grips the psyche of writer and reader (not actor and spectator—reading the city). The experience of writing (acting) on the raw, uncategorized space of the streets is—intoxicating! Outside any art-context, the Public Poem explodes in the public domain—what is it? a political demonstration, a terrorist act, publicity? The Public Poem tears open a rent in the urban surface (blocking a street, shutting down a square—arresting the mechanized rush of traffic and signs), interrupts its flux, its regulated conventions, its necessity—to enable the emergence of a dream-place.

Who is the Public Poem?

Sometimes I am asked how this street poetics relates to my fiction, which is published in the States, and to my art, the “literal objects” I show mostly in Europe. The latter have consisted over the years mostly of tiny wooden or plexiglass “theatres.” In these miniature theatres, drawings, photographs, or little transparent figures make up a narrative, a fiction. The figures are made visible through the writing that covers their surface. They are drawn from a political, biographical, and shamanic iconography. I am interested in their blurred border between the aesthetic and the magical. It is clear to me that in the Public Poems their theatre has simply opened up in the street and that the street has been filled with a burst of their energy.

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The novels on the other hand—the most recent being Theatre of Incest and Count-down! The Return of the Maya to Manhattan—are more difficult to relate. Where the public poem is “objective,” external, political—the novels are extremely “interior,” drawing energy from the invention of narrative strategies. If there is any connection, I would see it in the creative process: what I call “active dreaming”: the pushing forward of language—words, meanings, grammar—into the white space of the page. This magical effect, which I feel cannot be described in a mere aesthetics, is close to the Public Poem.

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[End Page 96]

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[End Page 97]

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[End Page 98]

Alain Arias-Misson

Alain Arias-Misson, born in Brussels, Belgium and educated in the U.S., is one of a score of innovators around the world who created visual poetry in the early sixties. The Public Poem is an outgrowth of his poetic experimentation, a form of street poetics, which he invented in 1965 and has enacted periodically ever since, sometimes commissioned by a cultural institution—the City of Bonn for the Beethoven Bicentennial (1970); the Beaubourg, La Revue Parlée (1988); the Deutsche Literatur Haus, Hamburg and Berlin (1991)—but more often produced outside any artistic framework, as, for example, the Public Sistine Chapel Shamanic Poem in the Vatican (1994), or the Public Surveillance Poem...


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