When I first encountered the work of Vancouver concrete poet Judith Copithorne, it was through the second-hand book trade, via Winnipeg’s Red River Books. Thumbing through numerous ephemeral small press publications such as Jim Brown’s west coast seen (Talonbooks, 1969), John Robert Colombo’s New Directions in Canadian Poetry (Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1971) and bill bissett’s THE LAST BLEWOINTMENT ANTHOLOGY VOLUME 1 (Nightwood Editions, 1985), I was struck by Copithorne’s hand-drawn swirls of text and obvious refusal to adhere to the standard of equally-spaced vertical lines of typed lyric. She might have concurrently been writing poems set in a more straightforward manner, but what stood out was her engagement beyond the words, opening the possibilities of meaning through approaching text on a physical level. Copithorne, as she informed through her 1971 title Runes, was the author of “hand drawn poem-drawings.” Through more than five decades of what appears to be a rather steady production, her poems have involved sketches and overlays, swirls, curves and flourishes that allow the spatial arrangement of her sketch-poems to inform, and even twist, how they are read.
Part of what appeals in Copithorne’s work is in the engagement with not only the physical aspects of text, and even text-as-image, but one grounded in daily activity and community. In a short essay Calgary poet Derek Beaulieu wrote for Lemonhound, he included this short description of Judith Copithorne:
Her exemplary work from the 1960s and 1970s integrates a daily diaristic practice (especially in Arrangements) that documents a domestic space centered on meditation and community. 1969’s Release consists of a series of wisp-like ethereal hand-drawn texts that move through gestural fragments and slights of handwriting accumulated into florid yogic texts that move between mandala and map. The suggestion that her pieces are drawn and not written and are hyphenated poem-drawings speaks to a textual hybridity which places looking on the same plane as reading. With Arrangements, Runes and Release Copithorne creates a visual poetry of looking and reading the domestic and the community.
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1939, by the early 1960s Judith Copithorne existed in association with an informal grouping of “Downtown Vancouver Poets,” a group imagined as a linked counterpoint to those involved at TISH through the University of British Columbia. Along with Copithorne, this loose mélange of Vancouver writers included Gladys (Maria) Hindmarch, John Newlove, bill bissett, Gerry Gilbert, Maxine Gadd and Roy Kiyooka. Later on, she was part of “the heyday of experimental writing and publishing that was centred in Kitsilano in the early 1970s.” As with bissett, her production began to evolve into concrete poems produced as paintings, and has since evolved into experimenting with computer-generated shifts of image and text, adapting to new technology as it appears, to continue producing challenging work. Having appeared in the first issues of blew ointment and Ganglia, a more recent author biography online at Ditch includes the assertion that “Judith is constantly changing the mediums she works in as they become available, but the core there is always her distinctive touch.”
She has published “multiple volumes of text images and poetry” and even the occasional volume of prose, and a list of her titles includes Returning (Returning Press, 1965), Release: Poem-Drawings (Bau-Xi Gallery, 1969), Rain (Ganglia Press, 1969), Runes (Coach House/Intermedia, 1971), Miss Tree’s Pillow Book (Intermedia / Returning Press, 1971), Until Now (Heshe&ItWorks, 1971), Heart’s Tide (Vancouver Community Press, Writing Series #8, 1972), Arrangements (Intermedia Press, 1973), A Light Character (Coach House Press, 1985), Third Day of Fast (Silver Birch Press, 1987), Horizon (Pangan Subway Ritual, 1992), Tern: (Returning Press, 2000), Brackets & Boundaries (Returning Press, 2012) and see lex ions (Xexoxial Editions, 2015). Ottawa poet, publisher and critic jwcurry released a bibliography of her work as part of an issue of news notes, produced as issue #400 of his 1cent series (2009).
Given her more than fifty years of producing and publishing, it’s no wonder that jwcurry has referred to Copithorne as “our first lady of concrete.” Despite this, most critical attention on concrete and visual forms in Canada have predominantly focused on her male counterparts, from bpNichol to David UU to bissett himself. Nichol once described her as “[o]ne of the few clear successors to the tradition William Blake founded,” an assertion John Robert Colombo repeated in his brief introduction to her work in his New Directions in Canadian Poetry. To introduce her quarter (joining Earle Birney, bill bissett and Andrew Suknaski) of the anthology Four Parts Sand (Oberon Press, 1972), she wrote this:
Poem-drawings are an attempt to fuse visual and verbal perceptions. The eye sees, the ear hears, movement is felt kinaesthetically throughout the body and all these sensations are perceived in heart, belly and brain. The aims are the same as in other forms of literature and art: concentration and communication, delight, immersion in the present moment.
Before discovering Copithorne’s work, I had never seen this kind of poetry outside of my rather dry university literature courses, having read through visual pieces by American poet E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) and French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). Thanks to my own lack of knowledge and, arguably, curiosity to self-research, it had never occurred that such explorations of text around and across the page were anything more than antiquated historical blips. While not wishing to overstate, it was through discovering Copithorne that, in my eyes, the page became possible. Beyond being a mere placeholder for text, the unmarked page exploded into a larger, expanded canvas. From Copithorne, my twentysomething reading trajectories rippled outward, discovering the work of poets such as bpNichol, David UU, Andrew Suknaski, Bob Cobbing, jwcurry, Hart Broudy, Beth Jankola, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, da levy, Daniel f. Bradley, Lawrence Upton and Gary Barwin, as well as bissett himself. But through whatever accident of reading, my first contemporary introduction to visual and concrete poems was Judith Copithorne. I am grateful for that.
Ian Whistle has published in filling Station, CRASH: a litzine, Moss Trill and Nöd. Small poetry publications have appeared via jwcurry’s 1cent and Ken Hunt’s Spacecraft. His chapbook, Inaccuracies, was just released by above/ground press. He currently runs h&, an occasional journal of visual/concrete poetry and assorted other oddities: http://handandpoetry.blogspot.ca/
Photo credit: Russell Kildal