Words Carry Weight
People began to gather near sunset at 17 Miner St. on June 21, the night of the summer solstice. It was around 6:30 p.m. and folks helped themselves to chips and other snacks then wandered through the quiet backyard near the rotary in Greenfield, carrying bottles of soda or beer. But this wasn’t just any backyard gathering or just any solstice celebration. Poet and Turners Falls businessman Chris Janke had invited friends and Kickstarter supporters to witness the culmination of over a year’s planning: an installation of poems and drawings that would create, he hoped, an environment in which a reader could be “inside the poem.”
The project, titled, “How the world wears its words: aka, ‘of the of of the of: miner street,” was an exploration into how words interact with the physical world, and how readers — turned by the scale of the installation into something closer to gallery-goers — interact with both.
Janke was hoping that the one-day installation would give viewers the sense of being in between mind and body.
At the head of the driveway, friends of Janke’s handed out a “quickstart guide” and a copy of what Janke referred to later as “the poem” — as opposed to the many smaller poems that sprang from the project — printed on a piece of transparent film. The words of this main poem are packed into a 6-by-6-inch square, force-justified to the edge, with no punctuation aside from two apostrophes. The lack of punctuation and the poem’s density give it a graphic quality that asserts itself first, before a reader can begin to decipher the poem’s meaning.
Even once you begin to penetrate the poem’s density, it’s not easy reading. If you can quiet the more logical impulses of your brain and set aside the expectations you might unconsciously bring to a more “normal” poem, Janke’s poem becomes a free fall through not only the Miner Street yard but through time, the human endeavor to tame the world through language and Janke’s persistent consciousness.
Janke created a series of what he called “constraints” for himself while writing the poem. Some of the words are placed where they are because Janke held up a 6-by-6-inch square of Plexiglas at various vantage points in the yard and looked through it for objects to label.
Words like “peak,” “motel,” and “rhododendron” found their places in the poem because of where those objects appeared behind the Plexiglas. As Janke layered the panels from various vantage points over one another, more of the poem filled in. Some of these labelings existed as their own shorter poems and appeared on panels that made up the roughly 20 installations arranged throughout the yard.
To create the panels, Janke etched and sandblasted words — and, in the largest installation, individual letters — on Plexiglas and mounted them in the yard of his friends, Daniel Hales and Shira Hillel. Some of the panels created lenses through which to view objects in the yard with the words of Janke’s poems superimposed over, and ultimately blended into, them. Others acted as projectors: when the sun had lowered to the correct angle, light shone through the panels, casting shadows of words onto the house or garage.
“As the sun sets, words rise,” Janke explained. But he had also designed one panel to cast the shadow of a word onto the grass at sunrise the next morning.
Our Place for a Time
Janke’s largest installation involved 35 Plexiglas panels, each 2 feet high by 3 feet wide, weighing 3 pounds, with a letter sandblasted into each. Strung at the second-floor level across the front of the house from two towers of scaffolding, the panels were designed to shed onto the house the shadows of the words: “this small white house our place for a time.”
The installation proved to be “more of an engineering feat than I expected,” Janke said. Figuring out the details “pushed at the pressure points between mind and body.”
“Words actually carry weight,” Janke joked, referring to the roughly 150 pounds of Plexiglas that he and four or five friends lifted and strung across the front of the house. Janke provided 1,500 pounds of ballast, mostly in the form of water-filled barrels, to stabilize the scaffolding. A friend who works as a movie rigger helped him to figure out how to build the installation, Janke said.
The process of engineering and constructing the scaffolding became a powerful analogy for the mind/body duality that Janke had set out to explore.
“It became meaningful for me that these words were physically heavy and you could see the apparatus,” Janke said. “In the beginning, I didn’t want scaffolding. I wanted just shadows, if possible.”
But in the end, Janke felt it was much more interesting to be able to see the installation’s physicality and for viewers to get a sense of the effort involved in producing something that might seem, at first glance, to be ephemeral.
A neighbor’s tree had grown more over the winter than he’d anticipated and blocked the sun, inhibiting the full affect Janke had hoped for. Yet, as the sun lowered and words did indeed begin to appear on the side of the house, spectators were impressed.
“The creative process is visible here. It’s tangible,” said Violet Walker of Greenfield, who attended the event with her partner, poet Mary Clare Powell. “Oftentimes at readings, the words just zip by. But you have so many ways of experiencing them here. I love this. I absolutely love it.”
Corey Sanderson, minister of the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield, also expressed enthusiasm for Janke’s installations. “I like language, the power of words to transform,” he said. Sanderson smiled as he listened to Janke explain one panel on which various words were etched, along with the approximate date when they might have first come into usage. Janke included words that described abstract concepts such as “place” or “forever,” along with more concrete nouns such as “motel.”
“Motel” was relatively easy to date: Janke put it at circa 1930. “Forever” was a little more difficult to pinpoint. Janke decided to set the date just before the epic of Gilgamesh, which refers to eternal life. The word “place,” he dated to the Big Bang, 13,770,000,000 BP (before present).
Janke was interested in the effect that naming or labeling things has on our experience of them. Naming something can have the effect of summarizing it, he said. A video he made for a Kickstarter fundraiser to cover the project’s expenses shows him wandering through the yard at 17 Miner St., pointing out the garage and shed, a big blue wall at the back of the yard.
“We label things quickly and move on,” Janke says in the video. “It’s almost like we don’t see them. And at the same time, there are times when the words we use create what we see.”
Janke offered as an example of this second, creative function of language, the word, “Sky.”
“The way I see it, sky is not a thing,” Janke said. “There is atmosphere and there is deep space. We look up and it looks like there is a thing up there. But the word ‘sky’ seems really to be a perspective on an atmosphere.
“Or take the word ‘forever.’ ‘Forever’ seems to me to have not existed before the word. And even the word ‘tree’ has fuzzy edges. What we call ‘a tree’ is a joint agreement to exclude and include — a creation of a category where before there were just things growing.”
Rising into now
Montague poet Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno attended Janke’s evening event and was so moved by it that he returned the next morning to watch the sun rise through a Plexiglas panel that would cast a shadow, inserting the word “now” into a blank left in the first line of Janke’s poem, spray painted in white lettering on the lawn.
“It was really quite something,” Sawyer-Laucanno said. “Because that, in a sense, is what I think that whole piece is about, it’s about ‘now.’”
Sawyer-Laucanno said that walking through Janke’s installations, “You have to really encounter language and look at it as a sculptural form but also as a form, in a sense, detached from the page. We’re so used to linearity, we’re so used to things following on top of one another, sequences and things, and suddenly it’s the language alone that exists there for you. So what happens with that when you’re looking at it, is that you’re making your own poem constantly. You’re making your own meaning, which you do anyway when you read a poem, but it really happened with that, for me.”
Recalling the morning when he and others waited for the sun to rise, Janke laughed and said, “I discovered the slowest, most excruciating ‘now.’”
Janke had positioned the panel based on research into what the angle of the sun would be as it rose on June 22, and had done some preliminary experiments in his own yard, but he didn’t know for sure how well — or whether — any of the installations would work until that weekend. The morning of June 22, a large barn behind the house obscured the sun’s rising, Janke said, casting a large shadow across the yard. Viewers had to wait as the shadow moved slowly across and finally away from the panel.
Janke recalled the morning when he and others watched the panel, waiting for it to cast the shadow of the elusive word. “The clouds are obscuring it, the dew has to evaporate off of the plastic before it can cast a shadow. And then when it does appear, it’s kind of gentle and fading. It takes a long time and then it never materializes quite exactly, which seems kind of appropriate for the word ‘now.’
“I’d initially thought of it as kind of a dramatic moment,” Janke said. “But it was anti-dramatic, almost, and I kind of like that better. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s smarter than I would have planned it.’”
A month or so after the event, Janke said he felt he’d “nailed it,” as far as the installation went. Being able to leave the panels up longer would be a nice improvement for the future, he said, but he feels he can answer “yes” to the questions: “Was the emotional trajectory that I was aiming for accomplished with the physical means? Am I satisfied with the poem? Does it work for me?”
And how about the question: “What’s next?”
“I’ve got to clean my house,” Janke answered. “And I’m working on a series of love poems to my wife from my own perspective after I’m dead that obsessively use prepositions.”
Janke is also working on reconfiguring some of the objects from the installation as Kickstarter rewards for donors from across the U.S. as well as several donors from Europe and one from Russia. One of the larger panels will be permanently installed in a local donor’s yard. Several others will get shipped to other states.
“So that’s the next phase of these physical objects living on,” he said.
And Janke is designing individual Plexiglas books that will include vellum pages printed with the individual poems, as well as a book of photographs that documents the installation.
His next large project is already in the beginning stages: Janke is talking with professors in the art department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, about an installation, scheduled for 2015, on “ineffability.”
Ineffability denotes “the things that are impossible to describe,” Janke said.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She writes a regular column, Poets of Franklin County, for our Book Page and is interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press.