115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Making Intertexts Visible: The Visual Poetics of Jen Bervin and Terrance Hayes

Deborah Sarbin, Clarion University

This paper examines formal experimentation in works by poet/artists Jen Bervin and Terrance Hayes as a strategy to make intertexts visible to readers.


Making Intertexts Visible: The Visual Poetics of Jen Bervin and Terrance Hayes

            Contemporary American poet/artists Jen Bervin and Terrance Hayes share more than a background of art training and MFAs: both use formal experimentation to highlight intertextuality in complex ways.

            Bervin’s 2004 book Nets “is created within a palimpsest of Shakespeare’s sonnets to make crystalline and prescient new poems” (Jenbervin.com). She argues that “when we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, preinscribed in the white of the page” (jenbervin.com); her formal choices lay bare this inherent conversation between texts. 2008’s The Desert unites that palimpsest concept with a type of erasure poem, stitching in blue thread through John Van Dyke’s 19th century book The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances.  Again, the poet/artist leaves her mark visibly on the source text.

 Visual art in Terrance Hayes’s poetic work (including paratext—his paintings have featured as cover art for each volume) has equally played an important role. Yet, critics—and sometimes Hayes himself—have downplayed the visual in favor of the musical. The visual works in myriad ways throughout Hayes’s work, but one strong strand is its use as a means of highlighting intertextuality.

Most volumes of his poetry have introduced novel forms: anagrams in Hip Logic (2002), pecha kucha and the Golden Shovel in Lighthead (2010).  This last innovation, described as “a kind of reverse-acrostic variation” (Malech) offers the palimpsest of another writer’s poem with an effect similar to Bervin’s. His most recent volume, How To Be Drawn (2015), clearly emphasizes the visual; the motif circulates through titles of poems, and the practice shows up most clearly in his formal experiments, including ekphrastic poems, bureaucratic forms, and a supplementary series of videos. Hayes’s formal innovations pay homage, give credit, and speak to predecessor texts.  In their distinctive but sympathetic ways, Jen Bervin and Terrance Hayes make the abstraction of intertextuality visible to readers.

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