NINA KATCHADOURIAN LIKES LANGUAGE. While the Brooklyn-based artist has worked in many different media throughout her career — photography, sculpture, video, sound, even spider-web — Katchadourian’s deep interest in the linguistic is evident across her work. Whether she’s translating popcorn kernel pops into Morse code (“Talking Popcorn”), or editing the words out of the Apollo 11 moonwalk recordings (“Indecision on the Moon”), the relationship between language and the material forms it takes is at stake in much of her work.
Nowhere is this more true than in Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project, which plays with found language in the form of book titles. There’s something deeply satisfying about the language of Sorted Books. The pieces are precise and economical, and they offer up a kind of verbal instant gratification. They deliver a flash of recognition, the almost visceral pleasure of something being exactly on the nose.
While many have been quick to categorize Sorted Books as a kind of poetry, Katchadourian’s pieces are rarely taken seriously as poems or read in a poetic tradition. Katchadourian is known primarily as a visual artist, and she has been working on Sorted Books since she was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego in 1993. The project has taken many shapes in its 20-year existence, and in March it was published for the first time in book form. Viewing the pieces of Sorted Books all together in a book offers up an occasion for us to see Katchadourian’s work differently, to rethink the boundaries between visual arts and literature, and to read her images as we would read poems.
But can we eschew the visual when we read? What is the relationship between a poem’s content and its appearance on the page? These questions have a long history in literary criticism, and Katchadourian’s work makes them newly provocative. The art critic Brian Dillon, in his introduction to Sorted Books, describes the project’s many iterations:
Sorted Books is many things at the same time: a series of sculptures, or photographs, or site-specific installations: a collection of short stories, or poems, or jokes, a work in which the "found object" is subject alike to chance and the most painstaking choices: a delicate conceptual game with the horizontal and the vertical. But it is first of all an act of reading.
Dillon elevates “reading” as the method of taking in Katchadourian’s project, and his approach to Sorted Books has been echoed by the public’s reception of the project over the years. Katchadourian’s work has inspired many, many copycats, who latch onto reading as the mode of taking in — and thus emulating — the project. Often under the banner of “spine poetry,” these imitators have attempted to create their own versions of Sorted Books. As even a quick glance at the “spine poetry” website proves, Katchadourian’s imitators pay little attention to the aesthetics of the books themselves. It’s clear from their pieces that their mode of reading elevates semantics — making meaning out of the juxtapositions of titles — above and beyond the material aspects of the books; their color, size, shape, and texture take a backseat. Most of the imitators’ work pales in comparison to Katchadourian’s, and it’s when we compare the clusters of Sorted Books to the copycat clusters that her skill becomes most apparent. Sorted Books is deceptive in its simplicity, and Katchadourian’s economical and idiosyncratic use of found language, as well as her distinctive aesthetic for the project, become even more visible when compared to less evocative examples of “spine poetry.”
Katchadourian encourages the copycat phenomenon; she has judged a number of library contests in which people create their own book clusters, and she seems to genuinely enjoy the life that her project has taken on in the hands of others. But, she explains in an email interview, “reading” has a broader meaning to Katchadourian than it does to her imitators:
Sorted Books is much more than reading the words on the spines of the books. It's also about reading, in the interpretive sense, the implications of the typefaces in relationship to one another, the color and weight and size of the books, the rhythm of the language in play, etc. — all of these things are also part of what the book clusters mean and how they communicate, and all that gets read by viewer at the same time as they are reading the words on the books themselves [. . .] the part of the project that is most overlooked, and most underestimated when the project is in the hands of others, is the importance of treating the books as sculptural objects with physical properties.
Reading, for Katchadourian, is more than a digestion of language: it’s also an apprehension of the materiality of the book, a simultaneous encounter with language’s physical and semantic realities. Nonetheless, the term “spine poetry” (never used by Katchadourian herself) is suggestive. Not only are the pieces of Sorted Books quite literally made out of books, their language, like the language of poetry, is lineated, rhythmic, precise, and painstakingly arranged. And it is in these ways that Katchadourian’s work aligns with a poetic tradition particularly focused on the relationship between word and image.
In the March 1913 issue of Poetry magazine, Ezra Pound famously described the ideal Imagist poem. The Imagist movement, coming on the heels of ornate decadent and Edwardian verse, valorized a very specific kind of poetry: short, precise, economical. Pound proposed three (now infamous) rules for the would-be Imagist:
1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not the sequence of a metronome.
To see how this works in practice, consider the most oft-cited Imagist poem, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Here, Pound aligns two phrases and asks us to consider their relationship, suggesting that there is some level of equivalency between the “apparition of these faces” and the petals on a bough: between the ghostly modern subject in the metro station and dewy petals on a wet branch. Pound does not explain the relationship between the two sides of the sort-of equation; he presents only the juxtaposition. In his book Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (1916), he declares that the “‘one image poem’ is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another.” Pound took the Chinese ideogram as his model of “super-position,” and while Pound’s misreadings of Chinese have been well-catalogued, his idea of “super-position” was potent; the stacking of disparate phrases — “one idea set on top of another’’ — was a touchstone of the Imagist movement. When we read an Imagist poem, we must expand on connections that the poet only suggests through this heightened form of juxtaposition. Even Pound himself struggled with the relationship between the lines of “In a Station of the Metro;” one earlier published version of the poem had no punctuation at the end of the first line, while another featured a colon, rather than a semi-colon. The relationship between the lines is the question of the poem, for Pound, as well as for his readers.
Though the Imagist movement itself lasted just a few years, Pound’s emphasis on directness, economy, and an attention to the “natural” rhythms of language have resounded throughout the 20th century. Variations of it crop up in work by poets as diverse as H.D., William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, Robert Creeley, George Oppen, and Rae Armantrout. And despite the almost infinite variations on the spare poem in the 20th, and now in the 21st century, the Imagist-y poem always has the same effect: it accomplishes a lot with a little, and does so by challenging us to do the work of active reading that finds meaning in juxtaposition and possibility in sparseness. The Imagist poem suggests, in other words, that the only way to read is to close read.
Katchadourian, similarly, asks us not just to read her sculptural objects, but to close read them as we would a passage from literature. For example:
The logic of metaphor, of equivalency, is at work in this piece, as it is in “In a Station of the Metro.” For Katchadourian, art is a form of close observation, and close observation is a form of art. One idea is set atop another, and the answer to the first line of this cluster exists somewhere in the relationship between its two terms: art, and close observation.
Some of the most successful pieces from Sorted Books are jokes or visual puns that require very little interpretation:
To unpack this image is to risk ruining it, but nonetheless: this piece works, as does “In a Station of the Metro,” through juxtaposition. The first book title, Dyslexia: Problems of Reading Disabilities, acts as a sort of equation with the two issues of the art journal October, which together enact a dyslexic moment of reversal. While the visual similarity of “October 57” and “October 75” encourages us to read them as a unit that is more or less equal to the materially heavier Dyslexia: Problems of Reading Disabilities, there is not much other knowledge to be gained from an understanding of the physical objects themselves.
Other pieces operate by the same logic of equivalency — by the metaphorical logic of “one idea set on top of another.” I’ll let this next joke stand, and not explain it away:
While these first two pieces do not ask us to draw on our knowledge of books in the clusters, some pieces from Sorted Books do challenge us to incorporate them into our readings. Take, for example, one of Katchadourian’s earliest pieces:
The second and third lines of the piece (Old Age Is Contagious But… and If I’m in Charge Here Why is Everybody Laughing?) act as an interpretation of the first line, King Lear. Lear in this piece, as in Shakespeare’s play, is a comment on the cruelties of old age. That the second and third lines of text come from goofy self-help books only adds to the pathos of this particular cluster. Also pathetic: trying to imagine this cluster back into the play, and wondering when Lear might have cause to utter the line “If I’m in Charge Here Why is Everybody Laughing?” My guess is right before he rushes out into the storm.
My personal favorite of Katchadourian’s pieces is a narrative unto itself:
Like so many Imagist poems, this cluster — one of the largest in the book — works through juxtaposition. Katchadourian sets the scene with the first two books, and then capitalizes on the sense of chronology that comes with vertical organization. The piece, through just a few stacked phrases, evokes an entire narrative. And the darkness of the narrative (a shark attack) is underscored by the color of the books in the cluster; the appearance of Sudden Violence, with its graphic, over-the-top font and clashing colors, embodies this violence quite legibly, especially in comparison to the neutral tones of the other books.
Other narrative pieces, unlike the one above, function best when we bring some outside knowledge to the cluster. In this piece, Katchadourian works with an even more distilled narrative:
At first glance, this piece is simple enough. How is the poet assassinated? With a Pop, then a POP of a gun (or so the piece implies). But a familiarity with the books in the cluster opens it up for other readings. The Poet Assassinated is a fragmented roman à clef by modernist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, written while the poet was suffering from wounds inflicted during World War I. (He would die of the Spanish flu in 1918). With this information in mind, we might read the cluster as a comment on war, its pops echoing the sounds of gunfire from the trenches.
But an alternative reading emerges if we recognize the image on the bottom book of the cluster. Its spine features a slice of one of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreens. Reading the piece with Warhol in mind encourages us to think of Warhol, and not Apollinaire as the “poet assassinated,” especially since Warhol himself was the victim of an infamous assassination attempt. If we read “the poet” as Warhol, the cluster seems to suggest that he was assassinated by his own art movement: not by the “pop” of a gun, but by Pop Art itself. That the piece invites both readings is part of its success, and it seems no accident that the subject of the cluster slips back and forth between poet and visual artist. In Sorted Books, this is the move that Katchadourian herself will make again and again.
Finally, the most complex sort of cluster offers neither the satisfaction of the visual pun nor the pleasure of the narrative. It’s evocative rather than determinative. These clusters, more than any others, remind us of portraiture:
In this case, the title of the first book, Bleeding Optimist, acts as the subject of the piece. The bleeding optimist is a masochistic sort; he or she is someone who enjoys the bodily torments of love. An astute reader might recognize that each of these books is a collection of avant-garde poetry. In addition to creating a portrait of the imaginary bleeding optimist, and of the particular book collection from which it is gathered, this piece asks us to think about the relationships between the contents of the books themselves. Is there a masochistic strain that runs through the work of Robert Creeley and Lyn Hejinian? Clusters such as this one ask us not just to create readings out of the found text of book titles, but to turn back and reevaluate already familiar literature in a new light: to imagine King Lear in self-help speak, to see the Andy Warhol in Apollinaire, to contemplate the masochism, or lack thereof, in Robert Creeley’s For Love.
Unlike many artworks involving found objects, Katchadourian’s pieces are not about chance relationships. Sorted Books does not have the aleatory air of a Duchamp readymade. It is about selection and arrangement rather than creation ex nihilo, but that doesn't mean that the relationships internal to each piece are generated randomly. On the contrary, they succeed because they are deliberate and precise. And their precision lies not just in the realm of language. Once we view a few images from Sorted Books, it becomes increasingly clear that Katchadourian has carefully arranged the books with more than poetry in mind. Her arrangements, for example, tend to emphasize the books’ titles, and in doing so, they render the other signifiers on the spine (such as the name of the publisher) less visible, even while they remain in plain sight. I would wager than no one is tempted to read the line “Drawn & Quartered” in the cluster above as “Drawn & Quartered Robert Creeley & Archi.” This is not by chance; Katchadourian’s arrangement creates the possibility for this kind of exclusive reading. She tends to vertically align the titles of books so that we read them as a unit, and her clusters achieve a visual balance, or at least, a purposeful order that focuses our attention to the text that matters.
Part of the fun of Katchadourian’s Sorted Books is that her clusters often seem spontaneous; we can imagine finding a naturally-occurring cluster in the wilds of a library or bookstore. But as I’ve already suggested, these arrangements are anything but natural. To understand the level of complexity behind Katchadourian’s work, we might examine this anonymous example of non-Katchadourian work from the “spine poetry” website:
Though this cluster borrows Katchadourian’s basic form, it doesn’t aspire to her elegance or precision: the book titles point in all different directions, there is no consistent aesthetic in the arrangement or in the appearance of the books themselves, and while the books may all have a common, if vague, scientific theme, the language does not cohere in any way. Comparing Katchadourian’s work with that of her ardent copycats allows us to see that her simplicity and economy are not accidents. Katchadourian’s Sorted Books are not just arranged, but cultivated, not just stacked, but carefully edited.
It is well known that “In a Station of a Metro” was once a 30-line poem; Pound’s flash of inspiration to cut most of it out was one of the Ur-moments of modern poetics. Like the Imagist Pound, Katchadourian works through a process of excision. “In and of itself,” she explains,
putting a bunch of books together that can be read in sequence is very, very easy. But to really fine-tune that, at least according to the parameters that matter to me, takes a lot longer. With any book-sorting project, I reject many, many book clusters before I decide on the ones that make the cut. One of the most painful parts of the project is always looking at a group of great titles that never found a home in a cluster. I just have to re-shelve them, and admit defeat.
What Katchadourian sees as a painful defeat, we might, instead, see as her greatest success. Simplicity is never all that simple, but that Katchadourian makes it seem so is a testament to her skill not just as an artist, but as a poet.
It’s no surprise that Sorted Books, like much of the artist’s other work, reminds us that language is as much a material as it is a medium for communication. But what reading Sorted Books in the Imagist tradition unexpectedly illuminates is that poetry is as much about selection, arrangement, and omission as it is about creation.