Thursday, November 3, 2011

Abstract Language #4: bpNichol’s Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer

To begin with a little genealogy: KonfessIonS of an ElizAbeThan Fan Dancer (note the capitalization) was first published in January 1967 through Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum Quartos, with a second edition coming from the same press in August 1969. Five years later in 1974 (although the book is dated 1973), the revised Canadian edition was published by Nelson Ball’s Weed Flower Press. The editions were not identical, with 5 poems removed and a further 5 poems added for the Canadian edition.
This new edition of Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004. ISBN: 978-1-552451-37-3) follows the manuscript order of the 1973(1974) edition—with the excised poems from the 1967 edition appended at the end of book—along with valuable end matter, bibliographical work and a new introduction from editor Nelson Ball.
The Coach House version of Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer returns a collection of poetry to print which is a vital section of bpNichol’s oeuvre; his typewriter concrete (not to mention the inclusion of some of Nichol’s more well-known visual poems like “Cycle #22”, “Blues” and “Easter Pome”). While Nichol continued to write concrete and visual poetry through-out his career, after Konfessions the amount of typewritten concrete was eclipsed by hand drawn, lettered, and letraset work, not to mention his longer lyric work The Martyrology. Konfessions represents an interesting aspect of Nichol’s oeuvre in as much as it is much closer in style to Henri Chopin, Pierre Garnier and Cavan McCarthy’s typewritten-driven work than his other work.
Being that this is a re-release of a book almost 40 years old, I am more interested in discussing the book and the design as opposed to the poetry contained within the book. What I find quite intriguing about this edition is some of the decisions that Nelson Ball and designer damian lopes have made concerning its presentation. Much of the design is extremely sensitive and thoughtful. This text is dependant on a fixed-space typeface (that is, a typeface where every letter takes up the same amount of horizontal space on a line), and lopes has thoughtfully re-typeset the entire manuscript in Prestige Elite creating a wonderfully clean and sharp finished text. The fixed-space typeface is necessary for the success of many of these poems. The grid structure of “Cycle #5,” like many of the poems in Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer, is dependent on the fixed space between letters to create a verticality / acrostic style which foregrounds a sort of visual rhyme. In my opinion, these typewriter-based poems owe a great deal to Olson’s theorizing of the typewriter as a precise instrument for writing.
Additionally, the cover has a few little nods of irony in its imagery. The cover image consists of an old Underwood typewriter with a page in progress. There’s also a wonderful little visual pun on the spine where the Coach House pressmark has been placed directly over the ‘8’ key—obscuring the number eight (Nichol’s favorite letter was ‘H’, the eighth letter of the alphabet) with the Coach House pressmark, underlining Nichol’s role at the Coach House, and that press’ dedication to keeping a large portion of his work in print both on paper and online. A nice touch.
For the most part, the poems of Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer are short, concise poems (which Nichol at one point categorized as “ideopoems”) seeming to me, to be more grounded in a haiku-like concision than in an awareness of page-size and the political uses of white-space.
Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer allows renewed access to a deceptively complicated and elegant suite of poems too often overlooked.


  1. Thanks so much for this, Derek! I also remember seeing some hand-drawn comics by bp nichol, some of them quite close to abstract. I have scans of them somewhere. Do you know what book of his, if any, they came out in? (I think the scans were from a magazine.)

  2. Those are the ones I was talking about!

  3. hey, I put a page up, back here: from memory, it was a tip from Geof Huth.

    btw, his name is most often written bpNichol.

    your Antipodean friend,


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