bpNichol (Barrie Phillip Nichol) was born September 30, 1944, in Vancouver, British Columbia. His writing is, by definition, engaged with what he called ‘borderblur’: in his lifetime he wrote (somewhere between) poetry, novels, short fiction, children’s books, musical scores, comic book art, collage/assemblage, and computer texts.
Nichol was also an inveterate collaborator, working with the sound poetry ensemble The Four Horsemen (whose members were Nichol, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, and Steve McCaffery); Steve McCaffery as part of the Toronto Research Group (TRG); the visual artist Barbara Caruso; and countless other writers. In the mid 1980s bpNichol became a successful writer for the children’s television show Fraggle Rock, produced by Jim Henson. His early work in sound was documented in Michael Ondaatje's film Sons of Captain Poetry. A second film has been made on Nichol, bp: pushing the boundaries, directed by Brian Nash; he also appears in Ron Mann’s film Poetry in Motion. bpNichol died in Toronto, Ontario on September 25, 1988.
While his initial attempts at writing in the early 1960s produced fiction and lyric poetry, Nichol first garnered international attention in the late 1960s with his hand-drawn concrete and visual poems—poems in which he brilliantly works against the conventions of the traditional lyric poem by exploring the material, tangible, and aural qualities of the word and the letter. (Not surprisingly his work with the aural qualities of language soon led him to sound poetry, resulting in the release of four solo audio recordings.)
Nichol’s first major collection of concrete poetry, Konfessions of an Elizbethan Fan Dancer, marked the beginning of a long engagement with the typewriter and its unique ability to mechanically reproduce letters an exact distance apart; in other words, the grid-like qualities of typewritten text allowed him to create meaning semantically and visually, horizontally and vertically.
Soon after, Nichol published typewriter concrete in the boxed bp and in the 1970 Governor General’s Award-winning collection of loose poems Still Water. While his concrete poems illustrate an astonishing range of techniques and concerns, other early works such as ABC: the aleph beth book and aleph unit point to his lifelong interest in representing processuality by gradually transforming series of letter-shapes.
Exemplifying the dictum spelled out in his ‘Statement’ printed on the back of bp, ‘there are no barriers in art,’ the prose booklet The true eventual story of Billy the Kid, the collection of lyric poems Beach Head, along with the anthology of concrete poetry The Cosmic Chef, also won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1970. In fact, it was partly through his work with concrete poetry (take for example the tale that is indirectly told through the concrete narrative of Extreme Positions) that Nichol discovered innovative ways to work with narrative, ways that were often hilarious reworkings, re-mixings, of narrative conventions for genres ranging from the novel to the western, the detective story, the romance novel, the journal entry and the autobiography. The result: the deconstructive metafiction of The true eventual story of Billy the Kid; the collage of romance novel, personal and historical letters, poetry, prose poetry and cartoons that is Two Novels; the stream-of-consciousness of Journal; the autobiographical accounts of Nichol’s vagina, tonsils, lungs etc. in Selected Organs; and so on.
Nichol continued to subvert formal and thematic conventions in his shorter poems and sequences—effortlessly moving between genres, blurring and experimenting with generic boundaries to produce writing as varied as the minimalist lyricism of The Other Side of the Room; the pun-filled, semantically complex Journeying & The Returns; the translations of translations of Apollinaire in Translating Translating Apollinaire. While the series of books that began with love: a book of remembrances and was followed by Zygal: A Book of Mysteries and Translations, Art Facts: A Book of Contexts and Truth: a book of fictions was an ideal means for Nichol to continue developing over many years a number of poem series (from his concrete letter poems to the series ‘Probable Systems,’ ‘I.T.A.N.U.T.S,’ and ‘Studies in the Book Machine’), most readers and critics see Nichol’s The Martyrology not only as the culmination of all of his work but as one of the most important long poems of the twentieth century. Begun in 1967 and remaining unfinished at the time of his death in 1988, The Martyrology is an open-ended, life-long poem that endlessly problematizes issues of textuality, reading and writing. Given Nichol’s dedication to the process of writing, The Martyrology undergoes countless transformations over the years—writing, rewriting and expanding on previous books, formally and thematically inventing and reinventing itself, its mythology, over and over again. For example, the section ‘Clouds’ from Book 2, which continues to explore the mythologization of the ‘saints’ of language first introduced in Book 1, is brought back as the ghostly presence of Book 5’s ‘Chain 11’—Nichol has systematically taken out most of the words and left us with only clusters of certain letters. As Nichol said of The Martyrology in 1987, ‘This text has not closed.’