Every Poet Needs A Theory

Enzo Minarelli in Correspondence With W. Mark Sutherland

Enzo Minarelli is a dynamo much like his artistic forefathers the Italian Futurists, but without their extreme politics infecting his singular aesthetic vision. He has published books, lps, cds, videos, and dvds since the 1970s as well as curating international sound-poetry and videopoetry festivals. In 1983 he founded the publishing company 3ViTre PAIR Editions of Polypoetry and produced a series of international sound-poetry recordings — Voci Ispano-portoghesi (1992), I Nuovi Mondi (1994), Baobab Europa, (1997). In 1987 he wrote The Polypoetry Manifesto, a theory encompassing the use of voice, body, language and technology in public performances. As a videopoet his use of new media extended beyond his many international public performance to include gallery exhibitions like The Flag (1989) and The Shop (1991).

It is important to note that in Enzo Minarelli’s worldview, the polypoet is more than just an artist or theorist. Minarelli’s polypoet actively engages the dominant culture as critic, translator, curator, promoter and global net worker. Minarelli’s polypoet is therefore directly responsible for not only material artistic production but also, its dissemination. Even after more than forty years of polypoetic practice, Minarelli’s intellectual curiosity and boundless energy continues to challenge cultural and aesthetic borders on the global stage.

Manifesto of Poylpoetry Overview

Enzo Minarelli’s 1987 Manifesto of Polypoetry is an attempt to construct a theoretical framework for new approaches to sound poetry. Ostensibly, Minarelli’s concept of “polypoetry” means “many poesis” encompassing a multiplicity of poetic methods, forms, and interpretations. In essence, “polypoetry” is sound poetry integrating language and the human voice with music, video and theatre in live performance. In some respects Minarelli’s 1987 manifesto presaged the rise of spoken word, performance poetry, videopoetry and e-poetry at the end of the 20thcentury.

Mark Sutherland's record

Mark Sutherland: Both the political and art manifesto are historical paradigms used to define, critique, and polarize ideas and culture values. “We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind…”F.T. Marinetti. What socio-political and cultural conditions informed your decision to write the Manifesto of Polypoetry in 1987?

 Enzo Minarelli: Actually, I am pushing the research of sound poetry towards its limits in point 3 of my Manifesto of Polypoetry.

“The exploitation of sound has no limits. It must be carried beyond the border of pure noise, a signifying noise: linguistic and oral ambiguity has a sense only if it completely uses the instrument of the mouth.”

While I was following an avant-mania for destruction, it is evident that the Manifesto of Polypoetry expresses a destruens side and a construens (constructing) one. Especially when I refer to the multi-word and to the hidden energy of the language.

The Manifesto of Polypoetry is not informed by socio-political conditions. Unlike the Futurists or the Lettrists, the Manifesto of Polypoetryis not interested in changing society nor was it inspired by any suggestions coming from society and the body politic. After the literary success of Romanticism (especially English Romanticism), I was convinced that art and more importantly poetry has no chance of changing society. Society can be changed only by means of a political revolution — the Bolshevik or the Cuban revolutions are just two examples.

Of course there were cultural reasons for the Manifesto of Polypoetry. But first, let me say that every artist, every poet needs a theory before beginning the practical act of creating work. Without a theory, no work of art or poetry will have real, lasting value.

Between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s I started attending performances by the so called historical sound-poets like Maurizio Nannucci, Adriano Spatola and Lora Totino here in Italy or Henri Chopin, Bernard Heidsieck in Europe and Dick Higgins, Richard Kostelanetz in the States. By observing and studying their performances, I noticed that under the umbrella of sound poetry and performance poetry everybody was developing work which resembled a more personal style than the direct consequence of a theory — with the possible exception of Heidsieck and his development of Action Poetry in the late 50s and early 60s. The fact that many international artists and poets were directly involved with Polypoetry festivals over the past 30 years, leads me to believe that my theoretical concerns were shared and felt.


WMS: Would it be correct to say that the following statements: “Thought is made in the mouth” (Tristan Tzara) and “It is not the word that is the original material of poetry, rather the letter” (Kurt Schwitters) were important primary sources of influence for your manifesto. And if so, what other poets and artists from the 20thcentury avant-garde influenced your theoretical concerns in the Manifesto of Polypoetry? Lettrism? Fluxus?

 EM: Yes, although they belong, in my opinion, to two opposite ways of approaching oral/vocal poetic experimentation. The Dada path introduced by Hugo Ball at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire is based on chance and instinct whereas the work of Schwitters or Raoul Hausmann and the Russian Futurists like Khlebnikov and Kruchonykh is oriented towards the exploration of single phonemes in a rational pattern.

Among the historical pioneers, I’d like to mention the poems of Fortunato Depero, both for his oral elaborations of language and the visual aspects of language. I recently presented the world premier of Depero’s work at a San Francisco poetry festival. It was a great success! I also, like to note the work of Lettrism’s Maurice Lemaître for the emphasis he gave to the rhythm of a poem. But, no influence at all from the Fluxus happenings save when there is the involvement of the voice, which is the unique case of Dick Higgins who was, as you know, a friend of mine.


WMS: Please name some of the international poets and artists you consider exemplars and practitioners of polypoetry in the 20thcentury and early 21stcentury? In particular I’m thinking about the late Xavier Sabater and the late Philadelpho Menezes and younger figures like Eduard Escoffet.

EM: First of all I should mention Xavier Sabater, who was undoubtedly an extraordinary paladin of the Polypoetry movement, organizing more than twenty international festivals in Barcelona. Xavier was a very good performer. Eduard Escoffet used to attend these festivals when he was just a teenager. He now performs regularly through out the world. I should also, add Fernando Millán and Llorenç Barber to the list of Spanish polypoets. In Lisbon there is of course, Fernando Aguiar. I met him in México mid 1980s, when he was making silent performances. I eventually persuaded him to use his voice, which he does in a superb way. The same thing happened with Philadelpho Menezes, my dear friend, killed in a tragic car crash in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. He was also, reluctant to perform in front of an audience but he eventually developed a unique approach to performance uninfluenced by the weight of the Brazilian Noigandresconcrete poets.

I had the chance to perform in México at the end of the 1980s, and according to César Espinosa this gave rise to a new wave of performers inspired by Polypoetry, among them Laura Elenes and Leticia Ocharan. Unfortunately, both have since passed away. In North America, apart from some artists from Quebec City, you and Nobuo Kubota fit the tenets of Polypoetry, both of you are naturally gifted with an astonishing stage presence. The same can be said of the magnificent performances by Anna Homler and by Marina La Palma. Although Charles Amirkhanian does not define himself a polypoet his performances contain polypoetic qualities especially when he performs on stage with fixed and luminous images behind his shoulders (created by the artist Carol Law). In Australia I do appreciate the work of Chris Mann and Amanda Stewart, and in the Caribbean the work of Ivette Román.

In Italy, there are many Polypoetry performers. My favourites are Giuliano Zosi, Tomaso Binga, Massimo Mori and Luisa Sax. In Europe, apart from Rod Summers, I should mention Endre Szkarosi from Hungry, Julien Blaine, Serge Pey and Jean Pierre Bobillot from France and Jaap Blonk from Holland, especially when he employs projected images. Jacques Donguy from France deserves a special mention for his work combining voice, computer and moving images. Also, worthy of note are performances by Américo Rodrigues (Portugual) and Miroslaw Rajkowski (Poland). Last but not least, Fátima Miranda, a splendid performer who uses all the elements of Polypoetry in her concerts like a rock star.


WMS: The Polypoetry festivals held in Bologna, Florence, and Barcelona in the 1990s have achieved historic, if not mythic cultural-status in Europe. Tell me a bit about the origins of these festivals and their relationship to the manifesto including your selection of artists for the various festivals and the challenges you faced in presenting the festivals from the dominant literary establishment, the academy and even other artists. 

 EM: That’s true! Such festival experiences nowadays are simply impossible because of a lack of economic support and because young people are generally disinterested in continuing the oral/vocal traditions of performance. I have been organizing shows, events, festivals, recordings, publishing catalogues, etc. since the 1980s. It’s always been a struggle.

Firstly, being an experimental, innovative poet means managing not only my own work but also the work of others. Secondly, there have rarely been institutional poetry festivals where poets, who used the voice, the body, and various multi-media instruments, could present their work. Of course, I’ve likewise had to struggle against the conservativeness of the literary establishment, who did not understand (and still don’t understand) that even in extreme forms of performance we can create a poetry on equal footing with capital L literature.

Strangely enough, Xavier Sabater in Barcelona found it easy to get the institutional support of the local government. In the beginning, he was reluctant to do so as he came from the underground poetry scene. But eventually I convinced him to follow the institutional funding path. Xavier’s most important organizational contribution to polypoetry was the First International Congress of Polypoetry held at CCCB, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona in August 1999.

The Polypoetry festivals in Bologna and Florence in 1996 and 1997 were sponsored by the Bologna University’s Department of Art, opened to me by the influential Italian scholar and critic Renato Barilli. He was the guarantor on the side of the institution, whereas I was the festival curator, totally free in my choice of performers. Fortunately, I also received economic support from the European Community for a festival clearly based on experimental poetic forms. So all the poets who were invited to my festivals were adherents to a Polypoetry programme and practice. In other words, only poets who practised Polypoetry or had the kind of research and practice easily related to the points of the Manifesto of Polypoetry were invited.

However, when I was compiling lists of the poets to invite to my festivals, I used to keep 20% of that list reserved for unknown and young poets. I thought it was a useful method to create a solid base of audience and practitioners for the future of Polypoetry. Unfortunately, most of the younger poets featured at the festivals were unable to commit themselves to polypoetry and develop an audience for their work. They seem to have lost themselves in the labyrinth of their lives. That’s why nowadays we lack good, new polypoets at least in Italy and Europe!


WMS: Of your many activities including recordings, publishing, performances and gallery exhibitions, you were in fact, one of the first poets to integrate videopoetry into your live performances. You also, curated several exhibitions and festivals of videopoetry in the 1990s. Are you still interested in the videopoetry as both a practitioner and curator?

 EM: Of course, yes. I do like this question. I started to work with the videotape recorder in the early 1980s. It was a heavy analogue Portapak system produced by Sony. The extension of sound and also the image in motion have always been essential elements in my own work. Without the help of the video image (video, still projections, etc.) the performance of the word or the split phoneme would be incomplete. Beginning with performances like Lo scrivano scrittura (1980), Plusplusplus (1981), and above all Diario come (produced by the national radio Rai, 1982), my polypoetry practice always included vocality, orality and images. Even now, my most recent performances faithfully respect point 6 of the Manifesto of Polypoetry.

Polypoetry is devised and realized for the live show; it gives to sound poetry the role of prima donna or starting point to link relations with musicality (accompaniment or rhythmic line), mimicry, movement, and dance (acting or extension or integration of the sound text), image (television or slide projection, picture or installation, by association, explanation or alternative and redundancy), light, space, costumes and objects.

Even today, I remain a curator of events which involve videopoetry or rather video sound-poetry. I curated one of the very first European videopoetry festivals in the early 1980s (Festival di Videopoetry in Ferrara, Italy at Sala Polivalente). I am still producing videopoetry, although it is a rather curious paradox, that my latest videopoems are silent. They were part of my recent 2018 exhibition Videopoesie 2011-13, Galleria del Carbone, Ferrara, Italy.

Nowadays, thanks to YouTube, Vimeo and various social networks, videopoetry is engaging a wide audience. Sadly, many of the poetry-videos I see online present tired, old solutions to contemporary poetics. It seems that younger generations ignore the work of the immediate past and so repeat what already exists. Which is a pity, as nowadays an artist has affordable access to professional quality media, unlike the poor equipment we used in the 1970s and 80s.


WMS: Does e-poetry interest you?

 EM: Yes. It is a new genre developed as a consequence of the technological explosion of media. Please note the first tenet of the Manifest of Polypoetry.

“Only the development of the new technologies will mark the progress of sound poetry: the electronic media and the computer are and will be the true protagonists.”

I think that some examples of e-poetry can easily be identified in some videopoems of the past, especially in those where graphic elements are used. E-poetry can be considered as an extension of the field of concrete poetry or visual poetry. E-poetry, substitutes screen for paper and text/image fixity for mobility. It embodies the aesthetics of the Italian Futurist, who of course, did not have the technology to realize such a dream. The two silent videopoems I was previously talking about 3ViTre una persona normale and Selfpoem, made both in 2013 are examples of my e-poetry.


WMS: How has both your theory and practice of Polypoetry evolved over the past 30 years?

 EM: I think that my reasons for writing the Manifesto of Polypoetry are as true today as they were in 1987. Most of the names mentioned in this interview are still developing work in the context of the Manifesto of Polypoetry and I’ve seen some young poets at recent international festivals that are unconsciously following the Manifesto of Polypoetry path. I also see a wide spread creative use of video images in performance and that was pretty rare in the past century. Plus I see a more advanced use of the audio software in comparison for example to the works made during the old age of the analogue systems.

On the other hand, I remember in the mid 80s when I was using the Studio di Sonologia Computazionaleat Padua University. The computer occupied a whole flat and you needed to understand Fortran to press the electronic pen on the screen. I learned from that experience that technology is no substitute for the essence of the poem and above all, that we need to master the technology we are using, while maintaining our focus on the poetic project. Any use of technology must always be justified by the project itself. Otherwise we will become the slave of a technological toy!

That’s why point 5 of the Manifesto of Polypoetry really calls for artists and poets to rationally consider their sonic materials.

“Language is rhythm. Tone values are real vectors of meaning: first an act of rationality, then an act of emotion.”

In the future new theoreticians will come along to probe the inadequacy of the Manifesto of Polypoetry, and they will introduce up to date theoretical principles. For the moment, I believe that Polypoetry remains a viable theory. When for example, I watch how young Peruvian and Argentinian performers are able to negotiate with the elements of a Polypoetical act, it is clear that poetry is always “a” solution and/or “the” solution to a given problem. The elements of the live performance are all well known. Still, the first rule in Polypoetry is assigning the role of the protagonist to the voice. All the other performative elements are assembled according to the poem project or to the purpose the artist/poet wants to pursue. The secret lies in the novelty of such a union.


WMS: As polypoetry’s primary theoretician and practitioner what’s next for Enzo Minarelli and polypoetry?

 EM: A Brazilian University Press (Eduel), is publishing Polypoetry 1987-2017, a book I’ve edited with Frederico Fernandes. It is a collection of essays by international polypoets and academics surveying thirty years of polypoetry. Dutch publisher, Jan van Toorn is releasing my first live LP.  It’s called Enzo Minarelli Live in San Francisco, a recording of my performances at the San Francisco Sound Poetry Festival, in April 2018. Then a new performance and a new video installation of sound poetry programmed in London for 2019.


January-July 2019 

Enzo Minarelli