Thursday, 25 July 2013


Sometimes people just vanish.  They are in focus for a time and then you stop looking.  When you look again they’re gone.  It happened to Cavan McCarthy .  Concrete poet, literary innovator, small press publisher with a mission to fill the little magazine information gap.  He lived in Bristol from where he published his experimental small mag, Tlaloc and its attendant LOC sheets of magazine information listings.  He also made rings in which were embedded concrete verse.  He came across to Cardiff to visit and travelled by hovercraft.  You could do that then.  The sixties were full of roaring and the sense that the walls that surrounded our worlds were falling down.

When I looked again forty years had passed and Cavan had vanished.  His publications lingered deep within a few specialist collections.  Most of his poetry had turned to dust.
What had endured was the anthology I published in 1972.  Typewriter Poems.  A Second Aeon co-publication with that leader of the American avant garde Dick Higgins.  At  Something Else Press Higgins had welcome the idea with enthusiasm.  There would be two editions – a UK version and a second with $2.95 marked on the back cover.  Several thousand were printed and bound  by Browns of Burnley.  The bulk of the American edition were shipped direct to Vermont. 

For reasons I’ve never understood and now won’t (Higgins died in 1998) the man took a dislike to the finished work.  In his introduction he says “And since one of the most interesting of serious magazine editors is Second Aeon’s Peter finch, he was in a position to make up one of the most exciting collections.  The ultimate, universal collections it is not – it makes no pretence at internationalism.  But a constellation from an epicentre of the whole concrete earthquake it is.  And it’s in that spirit we are proud to present it.”  But the American edition was poorly distributed, unaccountably kept in boxes, and then finally pulped.

Cavan’s contribution is zeeeyooosshhhhhh where a rocket of typewritten words zooms across the page to crash in a blackened woomph against the right hand margin. Hhhh h h h h h  and then a deep stack of ns - nnn n n nnnn.    It isn’t as good as his landmark plurble poem  but almost.

As a writer Cavan sits somewhere in that arc formed by John Cage, Andy Warhol, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Yoko Ono.  All of these artists whose largely post-modernist ideas came to focus in the sixties have repetition in common.  Warhol films the Empire State building in one take 485 minutes long.  The lights come on and go off again.  Yoko’s 1966 Film No 4 runs for 80 minutes and consists of 365 naked bottoms of the famous all shot from the same angle.  Cage composed pieces of silence presented as sonatas.  Stockhausen pioneered musique concrete where the electronic modulation of sound became more important than the sound itself. 

The great  constants were chance and repetition, the sub-text, the surface and minutiae found deep deep inside. 

Henri Chopin, France’s greatest sound poet fled the country during the riots of 1968.  His Le déjeuner sur l'herbe  delves into what he calls language’s micro particles.  The atoms deep inside a given  sound that make up what we eventually hear.  Chopin would find them by slowing down tape recordings, interfering with the erase head and speeding up the results.  You can hear the world inside his productions but it isn’t quite the one you know.

George Perec, a member of the Oulipo Group, hidden from the Anglo-Saxon world by the complexities of the French language,  wrote the ground-breaking La Disparition, a 300 page novel in which the letter e makes not a single appearance.  It took until 1995 for this 1969 masterwork to appear in English (brilliantly and painstakingly translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void).

If there are seeds  for Cavan’s work then these are they. 

In the notes at the back of Typewriter Poems Cavan declares “I have never published a separate book of verse, apart from an exhibition catalogue, and have never made an unsolicited contribution of poetry to a magazine.”   He was reticent even then.

Recently there has been a revival of interest in Typewriter verse.  Down the years I’ve kept copies of the original anthology in print and more recently made it available on Amazon.  Suddenly it has started selling again.  Its slim white spine refixed with new century carpet glue, padded-bagged and mailed to addresses across the globe.

At least two editors are now hard at work preparing new anthologies.  Marvin Sackner of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in Florida is working on The Art of Typewriting for Thames and Hudson.  Barrie Tullet of the Caseroom Press is editing Typewriter Art for Laurence King.   Big books with hard covers and dashes of colour.  Cavan is in both.

I’ve tracked him down too.  Louisiana.  Via Brazil. Librarianship and teaching.  Although he has retired now.   His 1700 pamphlets plus supporting materials went to the Prussian Cultural Institute in Berlin.  I suggested to him that after all this time he should really consider putting together a book of what’s he’s done.  Taciturn as ever he said he’d think and see how it went.