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Bill Griffiths' The Horseshoe Falls (Niagara)

Bill Griffiths was a poet, Anglo-Saxon scholar, book designer, small press publisher, biker, pianist, archivist and social historian. Two volumes of his collected poems have been published by Reality Street.

A great deal of his output was published in the form of handmade booklets, most often in very small numbers, by his own or other small presses. In the early days these booklets would usually be mimeographed and stapled together, either through the spine for a folded booklet of a few pages or through the left hand edge of all pages and covers for booklets with more pages. Later on his publications would more usually be bound as paperbacks. However, Bill was never averse to experimentation. He had a phase in the late 1970s of using a sewing machine to bind books together. This resulted in the concertina-like form of A History of the Solar System and two cross-shaped standup texts The Four Winds and The Moons of Jupiter. In February 1979 Writers Forum published The Horseshoe Falls (Niagara), photo below, interactive model further below, which is one of Bill's most inventive text forms.

In October 1978 the 11th International Sound Poetry Festival was held in Toronto; the first time in North America. There was a sizeable British contingent including: Bob Cobbing, Bill Griffiths, Paula Claire, Lawrence Upton, Cris Cheek and myself. I seem to remember Bob telling stories of a number of trips he made with Bill while they were out there. One of those trips was to Niagara Falls which I think was an organised bus trip but I could be mistaken. Anyway, Bob and Bill certainly went to Niagara for the day and Bob was very taken with the Cave of Winds excursion on Goat Island on the USA side. This involved descending in a lift to the rocky shore below the Bride's Veil Falls, one of the three falls that actually make up Niagara Falls. Once down there the visitor is enveloped in a thick mist of spray that almost obscures views across the river to Canada. It is so wet that visitors receive a plastic rain hat and poncho intended to try and keep them dry.

The Horseshoe Falls (Niagara) was published some months later. As can be seen from the illustration above, it is a text of 8 square surfaces arranged as an open-ended cube. At least the surfaces appear square but they are actually slightly off-square. The title page is actually 9.7cms wide and 10.3cms in height as viewed from the photograph. The other surfaces are obviously similarly sized although the orientation of the text varies as can be seen from the surface at the top of the photograph.

The text was made from a single sheet of A4 paper mimeographed on each side and then cut down the middle lengthways. Each half was then folded twice to create three squares. One of these 3 squared strips has the title page on its centre square on one side and three squares of the outer texts on its reverse. The other strip has the other 3 inner image squares on one side and the final square of outer text in the middle square of the reverse. By gluing the blank squares together in the appropriate alignments the open ended cube as seen in the illustration is achieved.

Performing the Text

The image below is an interactive 3D model of the original created using X3D . Left clicking and dragging the mouse or sliding a finger across the screen, depending on the technology you are viewing this on, will rotate the text: up or down will pitch forwards or backwards, left or right will yaw the text in the same direction. Using just these two forms of movement all 8 faces of the text can be brought into view the correct way up for reading/viewing. Because the interface is two dimensional there is no roll possible as there is with the original text as paper object. It is thus easier to manipulate the original than the model so that all surfaces can be appropriately presented.

The model has currently been tested on the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox. I will continue testing with other browsers.


With permission, scanned images of each of the 8 surfaces of the original have been used to texture map the corresponding surfaces of the model. Each of the latter was made 10cms square so as to make the preparation and application of the images for texture mapping more straightforward.

A suggested pattern of interaction with the text is as follows:

  1. Hold/orient the text as in either of the two images above so that the title page can easily be read as the lowermost square
  2. Yaw text slightly to the left and then the right so that the two images on the side squares can be examined. Return the text to the orientation in the images above.
  3. Pitch the text forwards 90 degrees so that the square facing the title page can be read. This contains an 'Introductory Verse' and a 'Concluding Verse'. Read the 'Introductory Verse'. Pitch backwards to return the text to the starting view.
  4. Yaw the text 90 degrees to the left so that the outer square that begins with the line 'C Community W Water' is in view. If you've followed these directions it will also be the right way up.
  5. Read the text and pitch forwards so that the next outer square is in view and read.
  6. Repeat 5 until the square starting with 'C Community W Water' comes back into view.
  7. Yaw the text 90 degrees to the right so that the starting view is regained. Pitch forward 90 degrees and read the 'Concluding Verse'.

Of course, there are many other possible patterns of interaction with this text and I certainly don't claim this is the correct or best or anything else. But, given the three dimensional relationship between the 8 faces, this is a very economical pattern of turnings that brings all surfaces into view the right way up for reading or viewing. Further support for this comes from a version published five years later in A Tract Against the Giants but which sets only the stanzas from the four outer surfaces in a grid on a single page. This version has the stanza beginning 'C Community W Water' in the top left, the stanza which begins 'V Vista H Hydro' below it, the stanza beginning 'G Green S Skylon' to the top right and finally the stanza beginning 'O Orange L Lemon' to the bottom right. This would suggest that the 'C Community W Water' stanza is the first and when ordered as they are in the previous sentence this also matches the order of the same stanzas using steps 4-6 in the suggested reading above.

I can imagine two voice versions of the original text where the first voice, Bill's, reads the text in the order I have suggested and a second voice, Bob's, performs the internal images as improvised sound poems, maybe interspersing those with snatches of text from the four outer faces. I have a very vague sense that this text was performed something in this manner at the Experimental Poetry Workshop at the National Poetry Centre around the time of publication.


I have no intention of trying to explain Bill's text nor exhaustively listing all its sources; even if I were capable. However it is instructive to note the sources of the two internal images.

To the right of the title page, when viewed in the manner I suggest above, is a somewhat blurred image which is actually a view of the Horseshoe falls looking from the top of the cliffs to the north of Goat Island. This is the point from which Bob and Bill would have taken the lift down to the shore at the foot of the cliff. However, this view is by an unknown artist made sometime between 1829 and 1927. Bill's image takes only the top two thirds of the artists sketch which can be viewed online here. The image was scanned, probably from a postcard Bill bought at the time, using a thermal image scanner which literally burnt holes in a wax stencil to recreate a version of the image. The technology works in much the same way as early fax machines. Even given the limitations of this technology, and Bob used it extensively to reproduce sound texts, book covers and the like, the image is not well reproduced. The vertical bar to the right of the image, which I had taken to be telegraph or electricity pole before finding the original image online, is almost certainly an artefact of the scanning process.

The Biddle Steps were constructed in 1829 and offered the visitor a route down to the shore below, an iron, spiral staircase wound its way down inside the wooden structure the top of which can just be seen. At the bottom of this torturous staircase was the entrance to the Cave of Winds, a large set of natural caverns. This was a popular attraction which is no longer accessible: the caves having collapsed as a result of blasting during the building of the hydroelectric power station in the middle of the twentieth century. The Biddle steps were demolished in 1927 and eventually replaced by the current elevator system. Not only are the Biddle Steps no longer there but neither is the tower that can be seen standing precipitously on the edge of the Horseshoes Falls in the background. The tower was demolished because a bigger tower was being built elsewhere near the falls. At the same time the land between the tower and Goat Island was backfilled and visitors can now walk across dry land to the point where the tower once stood. The view of the Horseshoe Falls from this viewpoint at the time of Bill and Bob's visit, and to this day, is thus dramatically different from the one presented in the text.

The second image, yawing to the left of the title page, is of a set of 9 views, sketched by Bill, of a particular rock variously obscured by spray resulting from the turbulence at the bottom of the Bride's Veil Falls. Being a far simpler image this has scanned quite well.

Bill is taking us from a view of the falls at the top of the cliffs on Goat Island to the bottom of those cliffs in the dense swirling, vaporous mists at the bottom. That I believe is the starting point, the stimulus for the four stanzas on the outer surfaces.

Turning a Page

One of the things that intrigues me about this text is the relationship between it, as a decidedly non-standard book form, and a paper book, a printed book, a pBook of regular page structure. In respect of a typical pBook, turning a page, the relationship between recto and verso, the set of places, page views, this objectifies is an unnoticed, almost completely non-semiotic act, performed on the vast majority of pBooks without thought.

But what about The HorseShoe Falls (Niagara)? Are these structural relationships different, absent? In fact turning a page is exactly what we do when we re-orient the text to view particular surfaces except that in turning one page we have to turn all pages about a point located somewhere within the 'empty' inner cube. But recto and verso are more fluid concepts in this case. The text on the reverse of a surface does not have much if anything to do with the order of viewing. There are possible orderings of surfaces as I have suggested but the strict ordering of pages determining the correlation of rectos and versos does not hold. There is certainly the notion of the surface before and the surface after but this is related to the order of viewing the pages and not their physical ordering into a spine. In a sense this text does have a spine but it is more of an abstract concept of spine: the point about which the text can be turned; and turning in this context is a three dimensional turning, pitch, yaw and roll, about a point. The Horseshoe Falls (Niagara) takes the concept of a pBook and abstracts away from it and in doing so only suggests its structure to the reader. Structure becomes a puzzle for the reader to play with and this play augments the normal process of semiosis. The inner, contained surfaces, connote a non-dynamic viewpoint while the outer surfaces denote a cycle that repeats but does not have to end. Moving between the two sets of surfaces connotes a change of mode. The very act of turning a page augments the normally proscribed semiosis of strictly ordered surfaces of signs as in a pBook. Playing with this text as object becomes a conscious part of meaning making.

For a number of years I have been both researching and authoring texts which require this type of conscious play. The general term for such works is Ergodic but in my words the interactive and maybe electronic book: The ieBook: in other words, will be published as an ieBook sooner or later. As a result of this process I have had in mind for some months the image of a text that fits in my hands and is thus about the size a of thick paperback, a somewhat oversized Rubik’s Cube of a text, one that I have to handle in a sculptural, a far more consciously haptic way in order to access all there is to be read.. I now realise that this text of Bill's is an excellent example of this type of text, an ieBook, that I had been thinking about. This case study will become a part of The ieBook.

In the meantime, more on this subject can be found in "Readers, Players and eLiterature", a paper presented at the eLit by/with Performance Symposium, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol: online here.

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