Pure and Sublime Poetry: A conversation with visual artist Robert Amos

amos Lowry

Robert Amos wearing his self-customised Wake-inscribed jacket.

Sara Jewell, of Waywords and Meansigns, interviews a Canadian Visual Artist.

Joyce aficionado Robert Amos has had a copy of Finnegans Wake since 1969. One of Victoria’s best known artists talks frankly to us about Finnegans Wake, decorating the entirety of the James Joyce Bistro in Victoria, British Columbia, and writing out (by hand) one of the world’s most vexing books.

So, when did you first come across James Joyce’s work? What appealed to you about it?

I can’t recall where and when I discovered Joyce, but I found a copy at the Brampton Public Library in a suburban town on the edge of Toronto in 1969. What appealed to me was that Joyce wrote it. Otherwise, I remained mystified for many years.

Do you feel personally connected to Joyce in some way? 

Well. I don’t have much connection to James Joyce himself. I am not Catholic, don’t read Latin, have never been to Ireland (or Trieste, Zurich, Rome…). I have never taken a course in Joyce or anything approaching it at any school. I can’t understand Gaelic in any manner. My eyesight is good, I am not addicted to awful Swiss white wine, and I don’t depend on the kindness of strangers for my income – well, maybe I do, at that. So what is about Joyce? I like his way with words, his wide appetite for information, and his sense of fun. I am not interested in Dubliners – no sense of fun. I’m not too keen on Portrait of the Artist – not much fun, and too many Jesuits. I do like Ulysses a lot, but it really only kicks in with the advent of Leopold Bloom. That must be it – fun!

Can you tell us a little about Joyce’s readership in Canada?

Unfortunately I cannot tell you anything about Joyce readership in Canada. I rarely leave Victoria, which is on an island in the Pacific. At first I couldn’t find anyone to discuss Joyce with, but I introduced David Peacock to him, and he and I began. That was about 10 years ago. Things have picked up since then [David is the proprietor of the James Joyce Bistro – see peacock billiards web site below].

When you first read from Finnegans Wake, did you find it daunting? How would you compare it to Joyce’s other work? To other novels in general?

From t018theylived2 copy 1he beginning I found Finnegans Wake impenetrable until about the year 2000. I had made a few attempts to read some bit out loud to a willing friend, and distant glimmers of the sense of it came through, but it was through a glass darkly. Then I discovered a page-a-week reading group online and I discovered a) the book makes sense and b) there are reference books. So, after following that group for 2 ½ years, I took it up on my own.

As a painter and artist, is there something about Joyce’s visual language that stands out to you?

My feeling is that Joyce was functionally blind, and spent his time listening to what people said. Thus, his work is not particularly visual, though the detailed catalogues of information gives that effect. His descriptions of landscape, for example, are few.

How has art helped you to navigate and better understand Finnegans Wake? 

01my desk copy

Robert Amos’s desk and notebooks in which he turns the ‘Wake’ into poetry.

My own art practice has greatly assisted in my approach to Finnegans Wake. I believe that it is impossible to fully comprehend the book using one’s eyes. It is better [for me] to process the words through my voice, or better still, my hands. The simple task of writing out the words calls into question at the very least Joyce’s spelling which – believe me – is often not quite what you thoth it was. To me, Finnegans Wake is a mountain of content. Now I have something wonderful to write which opens up like a flower before my eyes. Joyce’s words are very dense.

118patiencescroll copy 1Many of your paintings and works are very reminiscent of Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints from the 17th-19th centuries, especially the seals (a style which also inspired Toulouse-Lautrec). Were these an influence?

I make my living painting pictures of Victoria. My art, as a painter, is specifically influenced by Japanese woodcut prints. The landscape paintings are a parallel to Hiroshige’s scenes, and many of my city scenes are directly inspired by the Shin Hanga artists of the 1920s and 1930s Japan. But more to the point, ‘oriental’ paintings always carry, in addition to the image, an inscription and a red seal. The point of contact between my Japanese-inspired landscape art and Finnegans Wake is this – I needed something to inscribe on my paintings. At first I tried many things – Chinese poems in translation, Bob Dylan lyrics – but when I began to inscribe Joycean phrases I knew I had found what I needed. The red seals, carved in stone and printed with vermillion red ink, are the necessary final point on every scroll. Of course, not being Chinese, I had to carve my own as fits the material I am writing – I have ones for Ulysses, Finnegan, Wake, and Pomes [Pomes Penyeach is a collection of thirteen short poems written Joyce] so far.

How did it come about that you were commissioned to decorate the James Joyce Bistro? Did the project feel overwhelming at first?

My friend David Peacock relocated his top-end pool hall to a place that had space for a restaurant. Because of his fascination with Ulysses he decided on the Joyce theme, and (naturally) asked me to paint murals. I countered, saying I thought murals would be complex to paint, too expensive for him, and overbearing for the diners. I proposed panels on the walls with text written on them by me, with a brush. David chose the texts from Ulysses and, when I began, it was hard to space the texts evenly. So I began to add little illustrations. Then, after painting 5 3 x 7 foot panels, we moved on to the tables. He provided Baltic birch plywood round table tops, bare wood. As they were circular I drew the pencil designs with the wood on a turntable, and then “inked” the designs with a brush and thin acrylic paint – burnt umber, only. Because of the circular nature of the tables, I chose passages from Finnegans Wake (a notoriously circular book) and used Rembrandt’s portraits of himself and his wife Saskia to represent HCE and ALP [characters in Finnegans Wake].

There are 7 circular tables 4 feet in diameter, and 8 rectangular ones, all of them inscribed with Celtic knotwork and key patterns. I also painted the top of the bar with 3 ½ pages of text from the “Bronze By Gold” chapter of Ulysses, which takes place in a bar. Another bar equally long has wave patterns and a passage from Finnegans Wake. All around, the walls are hung with my original paintings of Joyce, Nora and Sylvia Beach. And so on. You really have to see it.

This took about 4 months of dedicated effort, and I confess my neck got very sore from leaning over the turntable. My wife took the brush and painted the knotwork and key patterns on the last tables. The bar was painted in our living room over the Christmas holidays – the timing was an incentive to get it done. I consider the Bistro to be the most extensive and interesting installation of my career as an artist. As well as being a very attractive and comfortable restaurant, the Bistro has a literary integrity, for the words are carefully chosen, legible and are worth reading many times over.

[Editor: You can get a look at the James Joyce Bistro at Peacock Billiards where the art is all reproduced and there is a virtual tour.]

 As a graphic narrative student, I’m particularly interested in word-image relation. The line between these is often very blurry, however, as is the case with your Joycean art, which can be both ‘read’ and appreciated from a purely aesthetic standpoint. What would you say differentiates word from image for you, if anything? How does rendering text in a pictographic or calligraphic way assist in understanding it or absorbing it?

Almost immediately the calligraphy became more than an appended poem and became the whole point of the … piece of paper with ink on it. Joycean phrases have a shape and a rhythm which becomes visible through the play of the ink and brush. The words thank me for freeing them from the rigors of typesetting, mouth-filling, ear-swilling words which take on cadences when liberally splashed about. Note: the western calligraphic tradition favours pen nibs and a tendency to perfection. My model is the calligraphy of China and Japan, which treasures the spontaneous expression as a window to the soul.

You’ve spoken about the importance to you of the way that words are visually arranged on a page in your reading of the Wake. Why do you think things like the length, placement, and division of lines are so important in understanding the text? Your contention has been that the arrangement of words in the Wake is often intentionally obfuscating, and that a rearrangement can clarify and improve a reading. Why do you think Joyce chose to place things the way that he did?

You asked me about length placement and division of lines. My first intervention was what I saw as a poster for The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies [from a passage in Finnegans Wake]. I thought that if it was laid out in old fashioned wooden type of various sizes it would make sense at a glance, so I took brush in hand and tried it out. The second intervention came when I attempted to separate the 2 ‘washers at the ford’ so they spoke in a simple dialogue layout. Trying to decide where 1 woman stopped and the other picked up was intriguing. About this time, someone on the page-a-week Joyce listserve laid out a very short passage ‘as if it was poetry’, meaning: in short lines. I tried it myself, and became passionate about it. I downloaded the entire text from the trentu site and then began to break it up. The system is simple: nothing is added but space and line returns. First I put space between the paragraphs. Then I separated the sentences. Then I separated the text into short lines by punctuation – at each of these stages I hit ‘return’ 3 times, twice or once. Then I broke it down by prepositional phrases. I discovered that Joyce was always grammatical. Beyond that, later I began to indent the clauses embedded in other clauses, creating a visual correlative to the grammar of the sentence. But keystroking on a typewriter was unnecessarily restrictive (you have to turn the damn thing on!) so I set to work writing the whole thing by hand, with a fountain pen in hardcover blank books. It took 2 and a half years. What was the question?

Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake erratically on large sheets of paper. It was later laboriously typed by others, and the much-corrected and manuscripts were handed over to a typesetter who had no idea what the words meant. Printed as a book, the type size and layout was dictated by elementary economy. The result is impacted blocks of text, running from margin to margin, sometimes page after page all the way to page 627. It defies any engagement by the casual reader and gives the impression that this is a very big and very difficult book. Breaking it up into sentences, made up of short lines which set the lists and word games in a clearly visible format, renders it as a volume of an infinite number of short poems. Prying the words out of their impacted context eventually resulted in my list of ‘one word quotations’, beginning with – riverrun.

You have also recorded yourself reading the Wake in order to listen to it. Do you think the book is essentially aural, that it must be heard as well as read?

I have recorded Finnegans Wake in its entirety twice. The first time I did it in my own bedroom with a cassette recorder. I thought if I could hear someone read it I could become familiar with it and might begin to understand it. The Jim Norton/Naxos 6 hour version was a revelation, but eventually unsatisfactory (too fast, too edited). So I had to do it myself. It took a year and a half. In the end I could hear the radio station bleeding into the mix and realized it was hopeless as a recording. So I began again, imposing on the kindness of a friend with a recording studio. Rob Martin worked with me over 6 years to create a good recording of my reading the entire Wake. A full chapter of this is included in Waywords and Meansigns. I have found, by reading it to my one friend who will sit still for me to read to him, that having the written text before you to follow along as I read is more than twice as good. I envision this whole thing being on-line, and you’ll hear me read as you “follow the bouncing ball” along the text which scrolls across the screen in short lines. Shall we do that?

You have said that: ‘reading with eyes, listening to a recording, reading aloud, typing, for example – allows one to move right along without actually taking in what’s been written…’ and that writing the book down by hand, which took you 2 and 1/2 years, helped to slow you down and almost take on Joyce’s role as the writer of the text. What would you say is specific to the act of writing which makes it so different from, say, typing something out?

When I tried to read Finnegans Wake with my eyes – scanning the page – I was just running along hoping to find a place to land. When I read it out loud, I became all the characters, and the whole enterprise was far more fun (which, by the way, is the point). To actually take your favourite instrument in hand, and provide yourself with a book worth writing in, focuses the mind. For me the ‘task’ of writing occupied the time from 7 pm (by which time I had brought Sarah tea in bed) and 8 pm (at which time my presence was required for fruit and oatmeal). I wrote as carefully as I could, correcting any errors with a single horizontal stroke. Each word, in fact each character, had to be read, understood, spelled and checked in the mind and then inscribed on the page – and checked again. As there was no reason to do this, there was no point in haste or to worry about the number of pages or number of mornings it occupied. I had the feeling as I wrote that I might never be this way again, with the time to take apart what Joyce has put together. You can follow a word-flower to the bulb hidden below and break apart each blooming syllable into its myriad corms.

Each of us has his and her idea of what Finnegans Wake ‘means’. Many rush off to look up some arcane reference that only they may have noticed. There is more joy in simply rolling the words off your tongue, or letting the references that occur to you pour forth from your own overstocked brain. My own favourite element of Joyceana is the pure and sublime poetry of his words and phrases. To copy out these words is an honour and a delight. As a pianist can bring Chopin or Liszt to life at his fingertips, so by writing Finnegans Wake I get closer to James Joyce than in any other way.

Robert Amos read Finnegans Wake for the first time at age 35, and since then he has recorded it being read aloud (twice) and written the book out in its entirety with a fountain pen. He has also inscribed passages on innumerable pages of Chinese paper (with illuminations), decorated countless pieces of porcelain with Joycean words and pictures, and created the interior of a restaurant in Victoria named The James Joyce Bistro. His Joycean artwork has appeared on the cover of the James Joyce Quarterly three times, and he can be heard reading the second chapter of Finnegans Wake at Waywords and Meansigns, and his art can be viewed at his website.

Sara Jewell is a student at Hampshire College, where she is studying graphic narrative. You can support work on her upcoming graphic memoir on Patreon.

Waywords and Meansigns is an unabridged musical version of James Joyce’s famous text, Finnegans Wake. The book has been divided its 17 chapters, with a different musician or performance group assigned to each chapter. It is available for free through creative commons at Waywords and Meansigns.