Local Colour

Derek Beaulieu

Poet Laureate of Calgary, Canada
Adjunct Professor, Alberta College of Art + Design

[Keywords: Beaulieu, Erasure, Auster, Stahl, Eno, Conceptualism, Concrete, Visual, Ambient, Smallpress]

Local Colour (ntamo, 2008; Eclipse 2010) builds upon my explorations of the combining of Concrete poetry and Conceptual writing. With Local Colour I apply conceptual techniques to Paul Auster’s 1986 novella Ghosts. Written as the second installment of The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, 1985; Ghosts, 1986; The Locked Room, 1986), Ghosts is neurotically obsessive and trapped within a vocabulary of proper names:

First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown. Brown broke him in, Brown taught him the ropes, and when Brown grew old Blue took over. That is how it begins. [1]

Local Colour is the result of a constrained reading of Ghosts based not on plot, character, or an urge to solve the mystery of the novel, but rather on the occurrence of words on the page. Reading is a cartographic feat; Local Colour maps the location of each chromatic word in Ghosts. As an example, isolating only the colour words from the open paragraph of Ghosts (above), the text reads:

          Blue                         White   Black          
            Brown   Brown       Brown      
    Brown   Blue [2]        

Reading within this constraint results in a text that abandons the plot-driven narrative dependent on the hallmarks of traditional prose. What remains are words treated as widgets and ciphers, glowing linguistic pixels that represent the “local color” that haunts, like ghosts, the novel from behind the cathode ray tubes of narrative. [3] Upon excising Ghosts of all non-chromatic text, I replaced the words with polygons that visually represent the semantic content of each word. Local Colour is a novel without words, yet one that translates and transforms – geographically and semantically – the content of Auster’s Ghosts into another form. Local Colour is a novel emptied of all the signals of a novel, dusted with isolated pixels still broadcasting into the void.


Erasure texts fragment the source text into a scattered broadcast, a series of dots and dashes that highlight isolated sections of the original. The resultant texts highlight the spaces for collaboration between reader and writer; every source text becomes a site for readerly intervention, a ‘choose your own adventure’ inscribed on any (every) text. The creation and circulation of erasure texts make permissive nodes for future projects.

Local Colour was originally published through Finnish critic Leevi Lehto’s ntamo press in 2008. Once that edition lapsed out of print it was re-issued online as a downloadable PDF document through American critic Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse in 2010. This digital reissue has fostered a readership that was simply unrealizable with the print edition.

Only once I released Local Colour online did it truly begin to embody its potentiality as a conceptually collaborative text. In 2012, Ola Ståhl and Carl Lindh (Malmö, Sweden) reissued Local Colour though their In Edit Mode Press. Produced in an edition of 200 copies, Local Colour: Ghosts, Variations treats Local Colour as the initiating point for a series of rewritings, collaborations, reinterpretations, and creative feedback that explores “[t]he tension […] between the textual narrative and the graphical mark, and the opening it seems to provide toward a realm of intermediality and experimentation.” [4]

Local Colour: Ghosts, Variations is a collection of unbound folios, perfect-bound miniature books, leaflets and CDs. Gathered with a printed paper band (itself also a response to the source text), Local Colour: Ghosts, Variations includes a new edition of Local Colour and responses by seventeen international artists. [5] The new edition of Local Colour is a permissive node that furthers an international discussion of the potentiality of conceptual writing. Ståhl states that he was most intrigued by “the way in which Local Colour seems to split Auster’s narrative text open, deterritorializing it by rendering it graphical and freeing it up, by the same gesture, to a potential excess of meaning.” [6]


In performance I draw inspiration from Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s Prix Nobel and from Kenneth Goldsmith’s Gertrude Stein on Punctuation. [7] Both authors perform devoid of emotion and rely on a flat voicing of measured empty space. Local Colour, both in publication and in performance, is an Eno-like ambient text.

In the liner notes to his 1978 album Music for Airports / Ambient 1, Eno proposes music “as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.” Eno contrasts ambient music with muzak and argues that

[w]hereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments […] Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. [….] Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. [8]

Eno’s formulation builds on Erik Satie’s ‘furniture music.’ Frustrated by music in public spaces which was too assertive, distracting diners and gallery attendees from appreciating their own conversations, Satie proposed music

that would be a part of the surrounding noises and that would take them into account. I see it as melodious, as masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it completely, without imposing itself. It would fill up the awkward silences that occasionally descend on guests. It would spare them the usual banalities. Moreover, it would neutralize the street noises that indiscreetly force themselves into the pictures. [9]

Satie’s proposal suggests music is meant to blot out extraneous noise, creating a “neutralized” palate that fills up the “awkward silences.” Satie’s ‘furniture music’ would remain effortlessly in the background, an inoffensive relaxing wash rendering all spaces prepared for discussion and thought.

If poetry is to be responsive to the everyday and to be a mirror to experience, then it should reflect, as accurately as possible, the means by which we approach texts. Poetry should not assert anything at all; it should be smooth and undistinguished commentary on the textual landscape. With Local Colour, I propose writing that takes Eno’s formation of ambient music as “a tint” literally. Local Colour is weightless and pristine, unmarked by language, consisting solely of tinted rectangles.

Eno promotes an ambient aesthetic that creates “space to think” and “enhance[s] the mood.” [10] I prefer an ambient writing closer to the materiality of Concrete poetry and to Robert Smithson. Smithson famously argues that “[m]y sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas – i.e. ‘printed matter’” [11] and “[l]anguage should find itself in the physical world and not end up locked in an idea in somebody’s head. . . . Writing should generate ideas into matter and not the other way around.” [12]

Smithson supports the poetic prioritization of the material of language, his infamous “heap of language.” Eno looks to an ambient stylistics in order to create a flattened, peaceful artistic space designed to enhance such ethereal ideas as “mood,” “calm” and “a space to think.” I would rather suggest that an Ambient poetic should be more reflective of the modern milieu, emphasizing the overwhelming graphic textual ecology.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 161), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 161), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 162), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 162), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour  (excerpt p. 163), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 163), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour  (excerpt p. 164), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 164), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour  (excerpt p. 165), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 165), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour  (excerpt p. 166), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 166), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 167), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.

Local Colour (excerpt p. 167), 2011, Derek Beaulieu, book.


  1. Paul Auster, Ghosts (New York: Penguin, 1987), 7.
  2. Derek Beaulieu, Local Colour (Helsinki: ntamo, 2008; Salt Lake City: Eclipse), 1.
  3. Auster, Ghosts, 10.
  4. Ola Ståhl, “Introduction,” Local Colour: Ghosts, Variations (Malmo, Sweden: PS Malmo / In Edit Mode Press, 2012), n.pag.
  5. Local Colour: Ghosts, Variations includes print-based responses by Steve Giasson (Québec), Martin Glaz Serup (Denmark), Jörgen Gassilewski (Sweden), Craig Dworkin (USA), Peder Alexis Olsson (Sweden), Cecilie Bjørgås Jordheim (Norway), Cia Rinne (Germany), Elisabeth Tonnard (Netherlands), Cia Rinne (Germany), Eric Zboya (Canada), and editors Ola Ståhl and Carl Lindh (Sweden). Two CDs included in the edition included sound performances by Pär Thörn (Sweden), Gary Barwin (Canada), Helen White (Belgium / UK), Ola Lindefelt (Sweden), Andreas Kurtsson (Sweden), Magda Tyzlik-Carver (Sweden) and Andy Prior (usa). Ståhl also created Colour’s Gravity a limited edition full-colour print in an edition of 200 copies and, with Lindh, created Apparition, a music box produced in an edition of 10 copies which performed the “score” of Local Colour.
  6. Ståhl, “Introduction,” n.pag.
  7. Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, Prix Nobel (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1960); Kenneth Goldsmith, Gertrude Stein on Punctuation (Newton: Abaton Books, 1999).
  8. Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Polydor, 1978). Liner Notes.
  9. Erik Satie, as quoted in Alan M. Gillmor, Erik Satie (Boston: Twayne, 1988), 232.
  10. Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Liner Notes.
  11. Robert Smithson, “Language to be Looked at And/Or Things to Be Read,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 61.
  12. Smithson, “Cultural Confinement,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 155.


Dr. Derek Beaulieu is the author or editor of sixteen books, the most recent of which are Please, No more poetry: the poetry of derek beaulieu (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013) and Kern (Les Figues press, 2014). He is the publisher of the acclaimed no press and is the visual poetry editor at UBUWeb. Beaulieu has exhibited his work across Canada, the United States and Europe and is an award-winning instructor at the Alberta College of Art + Design. He is the 2014-2016 Poet Laureate of Calgary, Canada.