Poema / Processo

How Brazil’s forgotten poetry movement fought a military dictatorship by combining politics, protest and the visual arts, from the September 2015 issue

By Tobi Maier

A poema / processo action from the 1960s Neide Dias de Sá, A Corda (detail), 1967. Photo: Roberto Moriconi. Courtesy the artist A poem by Falves Silva, title unknown, 1976, 48 × 33 cm. Courtesy the artist

Although it only lasted five years (1967–72), at its height, Brazil’s poema / processo movement counted as many as 200 to 350 poets (depending on the source) within its ranks. It’s a surprise, therefore, that the collaborative work of its members, characterised by an emphasis on shapes, images, colours, three-dimensionality and printmaking techniques, is today so unknown.

The principal premise upon which poets Wlademir Dias-Pino, Álvaro Sá, Neide Dias de Sá, Moacy Cirne and Falves Silva set out in December 1967 during the first national exhibition of poema/processo, at the Escola Superior for Industrial Design in Rio de Janeiro, was a qualitative break with traditional, modernist and postmodernist poetry through a radicalisation of language. In this respect it is analogous to the better-known development of concrete poetry. Yet it came also as a reaction to the hegemony of the concrete movement – championed in Brazil by Décio Pignatari and the brothers Haroldo and Augusto de Campos in São Paulo, who, through their strong connection with the Ulm School of Design and figures like Max Bill and Eugen Gomringer, dictated the kind of Brazilian visual poetry that was to proliferate internationally. With this in mind, the simultaneous launch of the poema / processo manifesto Proposição-1967 and exhibitions staged in Rio de Janeiro and the northeastern city of Natal can be seen as a carefully planned act of PR. The manifesto advocates the visualisation of structure and reading processes, it propagates the nondefinitive (so no judgements of good or bad) and ideas of optionality and participation; it favours ideas of communication over contemplation.

The roots of all this can be traced beyond the movement’s official start, to what is credited as being the earliest artist book in the history of Brazilian art: A Ave (1948–56), published by Dias-Pino in an edition of 300, of which no one copy was identical to another. In A Ave each page consists of two sheets of paper featuring perforations (resembling the aesthetics of computer punch cards), folds and coloured pages. Leafing the pages, the viewer, by means of the punched holes, can already gauge the colour and content of the following page. A Ave exemplifies the kind of circular reading that appears in electronic media. Its integrated circuits play with reading, launching words in minuscules and majuscules that don’t obey the laws of grammar. The poem ‘auto-generates’ itself. A Ave was a book that, for the first time in Brazil, radically assumed its structural condition as book-manufactured- as-object /poem, and not as a mere support or container for poems and literary texts.

A poem by Falves Silva, from September 2015 Feature Poema proceso

A poem by Falves Silva, title unknown, 1976, 48 × 33 cm. Courtesy the artist

In general, though, Brazil’s sprawling network of visual poets tended to publish in anthologies, and alongside their 1967 poema / processo manifesto issued their first official publication, Ponto (Point), with a second edition the following year, which featured different positions from visual poets such as Dailor Varela, Anselmo Santos, Anchieta Fernandes and Ariel Tacla. The two publications were sent by mail to hundreds of Brazilian and foreign poets.

Poema / processo differentiates radically from the more structured and text-based visual poetry of the concrete poets. Where they rigidly insisted on the use of typography alone, the new movement was based on semiotic research and moved away from mere verbal, chronological and alphabetically structured readings. In place of these it sought out processes and languages that might be considered more openended. Accordingly, its poems could be produced on any physical material (for example, paper, textile, glass, metal) and advocated the notion of direct viewer interaction with the poem/object. Occurring simultaneously to the emergence of process art in the us and Europe, poema / processo sought to invite a new participative reader, one ‘who leaves behind his or her role as a passive, contemplative spectator in order to become an explorer of probabilities of the process, its structural probabilities and operational solutions’, as one of the few female protagonists, Neide Sá, has put it.

This was not just a case of exploring the formal qualities of poetry and the role the ‘reader’ takes for the sake of it; it had a political impetus. Poema / processo was born in the first decades of Brazil’s military dictatorship, and ‘it appeared with a very direct political critique’, Dias-Pino has said, affirming the movement’s creation as ‘a manifest political act’. Therefore, it can be considered not only an important milestone within the development of poetry and publishing in Brazil but also a key moment within the countercultural history of the country. This critical voice crystallised in the public actions that took place in parallel to the collaborative publishing that was the mainstay of the movement. At the exhibition that occurred on the occasion of the launch of the movement, Neide Sá pegged photos to a washing line in her work A Corda (1967), creating various subversive juxtapositions such as placing an image of a general next to a picture of a gangster. In Rio de Janeiro in 1968 and in the Minas Gerais municipality of Pirapora in 1969 literature students organised protest walks under the name of poema / processo. Some of their banners carried slogans critical of the dictatorship, which naturally attracted the attention of the police.

Neide Dias de Sa, A Corda, from September 2015 Feature Poema proceso

Neide Dias de Sá, A Corda (detail), 1967. Photo: Roberto Moriconi. Courtesy the artist

During poema /processo’s second national exhibition, at the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro, a so-called rasga-rasga act happened on the stairs of the municipal theatre in Rio de Janeiro in January 1968. Various of the key figures from the movement ripped apart books by traditional discursive poets such as Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Jo.o Cabral de Melo Neto. Alvaro S. referred to the ripping of the poems as analogous to ‘ripping laws’ – a protest against the military dictatorship. From then on, members of poema / processo were frequently harassed and searched by the police, and the group was eventually forced into a tactical stop in 1972, concluding the activities of the movement with an optional future action, under new sociopolitical circumstances.

Many of the artists of the poema /processo movement are still active today, though the movement as such never took off again. Falves Silva in Natal has shifted his attention, working within the popular realm of quadrinhos (comics). Dias-Pino, poema / processo’s most active protagonist, continued with A Marca e o Logotipo Brasileiros (Brazilian Brands and Logos, 1974), a substantial and unnumbered publication on branding design in Brazil. For an open-ended visual encyclopaedia, Dias-Pino created 1,001 categories (city, Egypt, Christ, art, event, for example), collects images and illustrations from a variety of sources (books, manuals, advertising pamphlets) and stores them in a library of white boxes. A work always in process, he says, the visual encyclopaedia can at no time be exhibited. Perhaps it is also due to the concealed production of its protagonists that 50 years after its founding poema / processo has not yet received a proper retrospective exhibition in this country. 

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue.