The work of Vlado Martek follows the patterns of avant-garde poetry, or radical poetry practice. His work is part of the tradition of authors working within experimental poetry in the 20th century, which stands opposed to the dominant lyrical paradigm of European literature. In the historical avant-garde art movements, poets questioned the concept of persona in poetry, poetic sensibility as an accepted quality of poetry, linear narration, conventions for the written presentation of a poem, purity of genre, the poet qua wild romantic genius, etc. For avant-garde poets, art was a field for provoking the bourgeois worldview.
Mainstream modernist poetry demonstrates a considerable power of absorption. Modernism has tamed and beautified radical elements of avant-garde poetry. The term “avant-garde tradition” indicates a process in which modernist art adopts and uses methods of avant-garde poetry: collage, editing, discontinuity in narration, parataxis, multiple lyrical personae, etc. In modernism, these methods are used to communicate a coherent message in a mediated, complex way. Seen in this context, a poem is self-sufficient entity. The emphasis is on the purity of art, and poetry is thus understood as the art of words.
A quality of radical art and poetry practices is to disrupt the purity of art media and genres. In his work Martek plays with discourses of poetry, art and philosophy. He destabilises them and interrelates them, generating new connections, transgressing discursive frames, and thus questioning their institutional foundations. How does that work in poetry?
By the end of the 1970s, Martek had developed strategies of resistance effective in resisting assimilation into the mainstream body of contemporary Croatian poetry. The only context for his poetry was the context of a new art practice. He refused to publish his poetry in literary magazines and poetry editions. He also refused the idea of a book as such and consequently refuses to publish one. Instead, he started to publish samizdat books in 1982. His poetry books were in small formats, handmade and typewritten, and he positioned texts and drawings in an order aimed to form a close connection on the page. He then photocopied the chapbooks and bound them by hand, while covers were made from colored paper and afterwards books were distributed in a limited edition inside the field of visual arts.
In his essay, ‘The Question of Engagement’, Martek wrote: “Poetry is a process. That is to say, on this level of understanding a poem-work does not exist.” In other words, while traditional literature insisted on a poem as a work, as a piece, radical poetic practice insists that the process in which a poem is made is inseparable from the poem itself. A poem demonstrates the conditions of its own creation. In such poetry, a code becomes a message.
Lyn Hejinian claims that poetry is a process, owing to the fact that it is the language of our knowledge-construction, as well as the language of our reality-construction. In both his poetry and his texts, Martek questions what poetry in fact is, how poetry is possible to begin with, how it comes into being and what poetry makes poetry. Since the terms ‘poem’ and ‘essay’, in Martek’s context, can only be used conditionally, when speaking of Martek’s poetics it is best to speak of a textual production. His texts are the results of the investigation of the ideologies of textual forms. A Pre-Poet (Ante-Poet, Arch-Poet) destabilises the essay as a genre aimed to explain and clarify a certain point. The poetry text is destabilised by means of ‘verses’ becoming statements that question poetry as a literary genre. Both poetry and essays incorporate materials that, strictly speaking, do not belong to them. A dense and opaque interwoven texture of fragments taken from various discursive practices is equally present in both Martek’s poetry and essays. The simultaneity of its presence further complicates a comfortable consumption of his literature.
Martek wrote about poetry that does not assume a poet. His poetry tells a reader that in fact it is Poet(r)-I. In Croatian, the last syllable in the word poezija (‘poetry’) is Ja, which means ‘I’. Alluding to the presence of a self within the very word poeziJA, the poet indicates that in the process of writing the very language of poetry constructs the ‘I’ of the poem and, consequently, that there is no subject that precedes poetry. The ‘I’ of the poem apprehends. The same happens to us while reading it. It is due to the fact that the language of a pre-poem indicates the materialistic, or perhaps objectivistic relation toward the poetry understood as a human activity. In his pre-poetry, Martek focuses on the elements that make the material foundations of writing and, as such, precede the writing itself, i.e. paper, pen, eraser. By the middle of the 1980s Martek was pasting pens and erasers onto the paper. He also wrote letters of the alphabet on paper, on books, etc. Explaining such practice, he stated: “To me, materialisation via the ready-made was the most provocative and the most efficient way to show my ways of contemplating poetry.” The materialistic aspect of Martek’s poetry indicates non-symbolic poetry, characterised by a historical, realistic and anti-mythological worldview concentrated on the materiality of both world and words.
Charles Bernstein said that poetry that exists as a performative event, and not only as a text, is a “plural event”, and it could not be identified with any of the graphic or performative realisations. It is also not the sum of the aforementioned segments of the holistic event. While performing the poetry made of the found material that he sorts out and repositions in new inter-relations, Martek questions the authority of the poetry text. A poem is not a fixed, stable and final linguistic object.
Western poetic tradition focused on a poetic discourse that privileges thought – that is meaning as the result of the intention of an Author as a Creator. While privileging Word and Thought, the Western tradition censored all the parallel streams in the history of Western writing that emphasised the materiality of the text. Avant-garde revived the later tradition, and with new media that enables the performance of a text using computer techniques, the aforementioned, suppressed tradition becomes live again. In this context, the work of Vlado Martek becomes a matter of utmost importance.