I’m happy to report in on a recent joyous dance of my reader-self and viewer-self as I turned the pages of ARK CODEX, a thoroughly engaging visual/verbal collage “novel.” My curiosity about this authorless book led me to question its shepherd, the one who goaded this “mutated goat” of a book into being. Says Derek White, “Each word is a collage in itself . . . .” Yes! And the correspondences between the bits of text and gorgeous etchings bring an unusual intrigue to the pages and to the journey of this odd ark/book.
Derek White lives in New York City where he publishes Calamari Books and Sleepingfish Magazine. Do explore more of his work via the web links. You won’t be sorry!
— Nance Van Winckel
Nance Van Winckel: I know you’re interested in Derrida and his ideas that words refer primarily to other words, rather than to things and ideas, and also his view of texts as residing finally beyond authors, of literary works as collective enterprises generated by a concert of forces: reader, writer, cultural echoes surrounding them, etymologies, etc. I like how Ark Codex ±0 clearly allows the whole of itself to be “created” by those forces, and I appreciate how much I have to “bring” to the book myself. My own imagination and intellect are truly involved in furthering the book’s narrative momentum and visual journey. Could you talk a little about your own sense of authorlessness and the “concert of forces” that make the Ark Codex.
Derek White: Thank you, you are reading Ark Codex as i hoped it would be read. At the end of the day Ark Codex, any book, is a bound stack of paper on a shelf . . . until a reader comes along. Readers are the true “authors”—the ones who give meaning to a book. And your reading of it is just as valid and important as any other, including mine. Sure, my role is unique in that i experienced Ark Codex as it was coming together, but i think of my role more as a shepherd. Or, okay, maybe a breeder. And i personally prefer to think of goats rather than sheep, wherein the goats are other books and ideas . . . yes Derrida’s books being some of those goats. But Derrida is not one of those goats—I’ve never met Derrida. Sadly, he is dead. But his books aren’t (and in this sense, neither is he). Ark Codex is some sort of mutated goat that came about by such selective breeding. But again, don’t let me be the one to tell you what Ark Codex is or isn’t; you might have a completely different beast in mind when your eyes scan over this particular confluence of text & images, based on your own prior collective associations with certain words, phrases, images, etc.
NVW: Collage seems both a method of creation AND a method of participation in this book. As a reader/viewer, I was fascinated by how my reader-self and my viewer-self danced about on the pages. I loved this back-and-forth interplay and how when I’d read the small passage of text at the bottom of a page, what I’d just visualized in the imagery and graphics hooked in, “enlarged,” or somehow “played with” the linguistic elements. I think the text and the visual elements achieve an amazing symbiosis or amalgamation here, and I wonder if you could comment on that interactivity of visual and verbal elements.
DW: Ark Codex actually started as a text, a somewhat linear narrative. If you look carefully in the pages you might find traces of it, but most of its original form is probably lost, embedded into the page, bleeding into the collage of image and other underlying or superimposed text. The footnoted text came as an afterthought—a sort of associative narrative that came about by re-processing the images. I think of them as abstracts, in a scientific sense. Collaging feels more like how at least my brain thinks. Language in its pure form is a beautiful thing, but it can also be debilitating in that we risk detachment, severance even. Someone like Peter Markus (a true guru of pure language) is so enamored by language that when he hears a word, like “river,” the first thing he thinks of is how the word looks on the page. While i also share this reverence of, especially written, language, in all its type-faced forms, i don’t want to lose sight of the actual river. But even staring at a river (which is what i look at when I’m not looking at my computer) we can still forget, or take for granted, what the river means, or has meant to us. I’m not so interested in photography or still lifes—capturing images, reducing them to their iconic forms. Collage allows us to breed new images, new ideas. And yes, when i say collage i don’t mean just images from magazines cut and pasted together. Even if I’m writing something purely textual, i think of it as collage—the way combinations of words interact and morph, glued together by syntax and grammar. And each word is a collage in itself, a vessel that contains an accumulative amalgamation of every instance and use before us.
NVW: For me, Ark Codex ±0 has many qualities of a novel. I’m thinking about the journey undertaken on this strange ark, an ongoing narrative that’s a kind of quirky Noah story set in realms that are by turns ancient or futuristic, metafictional or metaphysical, scientifically “steeped” or mythically enriched. I could go on and on with my list. But let’s look, for instance, at a couple of my favorite pages, these two from the third section where “we” seem to have made landfall (or are within our museum diorama) and encounter the figure of the “bush doctor.” Here’s the text which reads a bit like a ship’s log:
0:3:8: Under such sea-snaking circumstances, the bush doctor warns us to not splay our fingers. He is not counting on the fact that our <>are webbed. Before we snap out of it, he blindfolds us for continuity. We can see all the way to the end of our own nerves from within our cloth cul-de-sac. Clogged fibers branch back into the roots of palms. At this point a puncture is made to drain any misleading perceptions. Even judgment of unreliability is deemed unreliable, so we are back to square 1 with each articulation.
And from the facing page:
0:3:9: At his juncture, the kernel become clearer. A system is in place to separate trash from recyclables—organic & non-organic (& sub-divided even further). We are in a hangar now (or a diorama of 1, still in the natural history museum)—an ark house so large that isolated weather patterns form from within. It is still below freezing on this page, but the rate of the rate of change is what matters. To determine our current coordinates (& capacity for change) we integrate this rate of the rate of change in each cardinal direction.
Wow! The brevity of each of these snippets makes me feel I’m getting just a small part of a huge—HUGE!—story. Plus each piece of information makes the ark tremble. Unexpectedness in each new sentence. Where will the ark go next; what fauna and flora will we encounter; what will happen to our own physical selves? For me, it’s an adventure story in the widest possible sense of that word. If not as author or even as “authority,” but rather might you comment on the book’s behalf about its proclivities toward story in general or the novel in particular?
DW: Ha, you made landfall! That’s further than i got—in my mind, the narrator is constrained to the North Pole, waiting for the ice to melt, for the flood. So in this sense, nothing happens. But in such a landscape, cabin fever sets in, the imagination runs wild. I’m not very good at making things up. And i am far from a reliable source as to what is happening. If there is any semblance of story, it likely rose out of a dream. And dreams came from a warped union of personal experience (the hangar—Hangar One in Moffet Field, CA—i actually delivered a pizza to!) and the tapping of our collective unconscious. As Joseph Campbell and others have showed us, we are telling the same story over and over—this four-pronged cycle or journey. Noah’s story is just one variation on the theme, that particularly appeals to me because it is about more than just the human condition, but is inclusive of all animals, and the inherent drive in us to preserve and propagate our underlying code. Which is to me what writing and publishing is all about. Story to me is just a framing device, a vessel for language, a boat that gets you down (or up) the river. Ark Codex is a fleeting condensation of collective unconscious that materializes to stain the page, then dissolves when read, into liquid—rain that falls on the landscape, flows into the river, back to the sea … to do it all over again. The ‘story’ comes in the reader reading it. They become the ark, the historical act.
—Derek White & Nance Van Winckel
Derek White lives in NYC where he publishes Calamari Press & Sleepingfish magazine and blogs at 5cense.com. More about Ark Codex may viewed here: http://calamaripress.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Boneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.
Great interview and such a fascinating look into the book. I keep thinking how Anne Carson does some of this in her books, though obviously more language-driven, but still a blending of words and images to create a journey for the reader.
Yes, this is a more image-driven blending, true, but this text is similarly compelling, spare, and luminous.
Wonderful interview. I love your classification (I was going to say “division,” but that’s not what it is) of the reader self and the viewer self…
What if I read as the viewer
and view as the reader? I should give that a shot.
I don’t know if I agree with Derek that the reader is the true author of a book—but perhaps it’s just his choice of words that I’m having trouble with. I admit that I can’t tell if I am reassembled by the text each time I enter it, or if I am the one doing the rearranging. A bit of both, I suspect. We are never the same each time we pick up a book and, of course, neither is the book.
I look forward to exploring more of Derek’s work.
“Ark Codex” is a Byzantine and archaic appearing work that owes much of its power to fascinate to its dissolute quality. Like many collage works it is essentially made from fragments of texts and images, but in a manner that emphasizes the fragmentation. This emphasis prompted me to reflect upon the archetypal process (and symbolism) of dismemberment. “Ark Codex,” in my opinion, ultimately suggests a scattering of psychic elements …initiating a journey or quest at least, for the “author,” as he puts it on: “a boat that gets you down (or up) the river.”
I apologize if the link was already posted, but there is a “Book Video” based on Ark Codex, that is really worth watching.
Very cool. Thank you, Jonah.