Sunday, October 10, 2010

What you see is . . .

(just the start of !)    . . .  what you get!

Andrew Topel
(Mayne Island, British Columbia: Perro Verlag, 2010)
[edition of 60]
[5.5" x 7" | unpaginated (25 pages / 25 poems)]

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Andrew Topel
2010 Calendar
(No place: Fact-Simile Editions, 2010)
[edition of 100]

[calendar design by Travis MacDonald]

[6.25" x 11" | spiral bound]

Readers of visual poetry – including those who create it – might rightly wonder what in the name of the gods of intermedia is going on here in the glade.

Since this blog began in October 2008, there have been more than 100 posts. Only four mention or discuss visual poetry. There was an August 2009 post on Adeena Karasick’s Amuse Bouche, which has among its treats visual poems featuring large-sized commas. A post in October 2009 includes a short comment on a visual poem in the upgraded edition of Christian Bok’s EUNOIA. In November 2009, I briefly mentioned how the poet David Melnick, my freshman year college English professor, taught Eugene Gomringer’s visual poems. And then last month I wrote about Joseph Mosconi’s Word Puzzles.

Pretty paltry, I admit.

This post today can’t fix the past, but maybe at least gets me going towards making things right. The focus here, towards the end of the post, is Andrew’s Topel’s Letters, Patterns, and Structures, an eye-catching and mind-bending set of visual poems published this year. I also give a shout-out to visual poetry from recent years by Jessica Smith, Geof Huth, derek beaulieu, and Nico Vassilakis; this work has similarly caught and stayed with me.

But first – hey, in writing this one up, I naturally took another look at many of the classic visual poems of the past, and re-read many of the now-classic collections – permit me to take a quick walk through the visual poetry basics. Maybe I can provide a bit of a feast for your eyes and mind, and especially for your mind-eye!

. . . your mind-eye

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Visual poetry – aka, these days at least, VisPo or vispo – has a long history, particularly if “shaped poems” are considered (and they should). Such poems can be identified back through the centuries, way back, including for example (click on images to enlarge):

(circa 300 BCE)
[sorry for the slightly skewed image];

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George Herbert
“Easter Wings”

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and (of course):

Guillaume Apollinaire
Il Pleut” [“It Is Raining”]

[a beautiful water streaming window-pane!].

Excellent and important collections and discussions of shaped and patterned poetry can be found in Charles Boltenhouse, “Poems In The Shape of Things: A Survey 300 B.C. to A.D. 1958,” in
Art News Annual XXVIII (1959); Shaped Poetry (Arion Press, 1981), with Glenn Todd, Editor, Shaped Poetry: A Suite of 30 Typographic Prints (San Francisco: The Arion Press, 1981); and Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1987). See also on-line at UbuWeb [click here] links to a dozen very early (1506-1726) visual poems.

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VisPo also has at its back various traditions of typographical innovations, particularly those in the decades starting from around 1900. These include, perhaps most notable in poetry, Mallarme’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard ” [A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”] (1897):

two pages from “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard

There are also the many works from the the Futurist, Bauhaus, Dada, and other avant garde movements (e.g., Karel Teige in Czechoslovakia), in approximately the first third of the 20th century:

the “R” page from Abeceda [Alphabet] (1926)
Vitězslav Nezval (poetry)
Karel Teige (design and typography)
Milča Mayerová (dance)

Abeceda [Alphabet] (1926)

For more on the typographic tradition, see Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1994), and Willard Bohn, The Aesthetics of Visual Poetry, 1914-1928 (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1993).

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In the two decades plus after World War II, there was, no doubt about it, an explosion of visual poetry, much of it contemporaneous with other intermedia creative work, including Fluxus. Visual poetry in the late 1960s was blessed with two epoch-making anthologies in English:

Emmett Williams, Editor
An Anthology of Concrete Poetry
(New York: Something Else Press, 1967)

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Mary Ellen Solt, editor
Concrete Poetry: A World View
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968 / 1970)

These two anthologies each featured approximately eighty poets (many appeared in both), including dozens from outside the USA. Taken together, the books have more than 600 pages of poetry and commentary. The commentary in the Solt-edited anthology is particularly valuable: a fifty page introduction/overview by Solt (available on-line, click here), and twenty double-columned pages of manifestoes and statements by poets (some of those, including four by Gomringer, are available on-line, here, here, here, and here).

It’s not possible here to provide an overview of the range of vispo in these books. However, permit me to present a few favorites (and see also the Solt poem “Forsythia” on the cover of her anthology, imaged above):

Augusto de Campos
“o novello òvo”

[acrostic word-link brilliance]
[get out yr Spanish-English dictionary!]

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Franz Mon
[thin columns, bold design, and
what does it “say”? Compare the psychedelic
lettering of 1960s rock posters]

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Jiří Valoch
“Homage o Ladislav Novák”
[an optical poem with a “shivering
microstructure,” in the poet’s words.]

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Seiichi Niikuni
[the two characters here = river and sand-bank, respectively]

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Pierre and Ilse Granier
“Text for a Building”
[excellent full-screen flicker here!]
[and perfect 16:9 wide-screen ration!]

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Mary Ellen Solt
“Moonshot Sonnet”
[“made by copying the scientists’ symbols
on the first photos of the moon in the
New York Times”]

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Ferdinand Krivet
from “modulo”
[click on image, then click again to enlarge, to see the words and letters]

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Since the 1960s, visual poetry seems to have never let up. For my eyes, the ne plus ultra of the last half century in vispo is Steve McCaffery’s Carnival, a two-volume work – a total of 24 individual poems – in which each poem is 8.5" x 11" in size; however, the poems in each volume (i.e., each set of 12) also fit together, such that two giant (and beautifully mysterious) panels are formed. See Carnival – The First Panel: 1967-70 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 1973) and Carnival - The Second Panel: 1970-75 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 1978), each of which is a tear-out-the-pages (they are perforated), assemble-it-yourself book.

Carnival, in McCaffery’s words from the preface, is “a multi-panel language environment, constructed largely on the typewriter and designed ultimately to put the reader, as perceptual participant, within the center of his language.” Images from both volumes (or panels) of of Carnival, including individual pages and each in its respective conglomerated and glorious entirety, are available on-line (click here). But here are two of the twenty-four pages (click images to enlarge):

Steve McCaffery
Carnival Panel I, part 6

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Steve McCaffery
Carnival Panel II, part 7

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VisPo today seems stronger – more vibrant – than ever. Much work can be easily found on the web (google away!), and there are plenty of blog posts (e.g., and just last week, on punctuation-based vispo, or, from a few years back, a listing of (contemporary) women who have worked in the genre). There are also micro-zines (e.g., derek beaulieu’s Speechless (available on-line, click here), on-line journals (see for example Renegade) and not too long ago (November 2008), a special section in Poetry magazine that presented work of a dozen contemporary vispo practitioners. There’s also an annual text festival in England that’s heavy with vispo work, and even a vispo adaption of a Notorious B.I.G. rap (and you have been clicking through on each of these, yes dear readers?). Perhaps most impressive, there are even super-collectors, by which I mean the incredible Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, which – click here and scroll down – has hundreds of images on-line and is searchable).

There’s no way I can survey all that’s currently going on. But here are four poets who in addition to Andrew Topel have in recent years big-time lit my fuse with their visual work:

Jessica Smith
[untitled (circa 2007)]
[approximately 4" x 2.5"]
[“The act of awaking [:]Wake [:] the tracks left on the waters surface by a ship”]

This work was one of two visual poems that comprised an entire special edition issue of
FourSquare, a micro-zine edited by Smith from circa 2006 to this year (and maybe still). This particular issue was distributed in or around 2007 (unfortunately, this particular issue has no date at all). The calligraphic beauty in the poem above, the curves and crossed lines, the varying sizes and placements of letters, can’t be denied. This visual and semantic representation (it seems to me) of hypnopompic dream-traces is a lovely imagistic gem.

The second poem in this
FourSquare special edition is also handwritten by Smith, but is something else entirely:

Jessica Smith
[untitled (circa 2007)]
[ 8" x 8"]

Eight inches square is a pretty good size considering all that is in this one. The size and density give this poem a miniature getting-close-to-epic scale. It’s a magnificent example of Smith’s all-over approach in these kinds of works (she has done a few others, although none have been collected in a single publication yet). This particular poem looks geologic, sedimentary layers of words, embedded fossils-like clusters, etc., almost as if it presents a cut-away of a lexical deposit that’s accrued over time. Or it can be seen as currents of language, liquid that flows on the page. This poem can be read – click on the image, then click again to enlarge – but it ain’t easy, and that’s part of the brilliance here. Every time I read it, it is new, because there’s so much going on: the mind can’t possibly take it all in at once. In this way, it reminds me a bit of the felt-tip pen drawings of Bruce Conner, which coincidentally also tend to fill the page:

Bruce Conner

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Geof Huth
“Eyechart Poem 13” (2009)

This is one of 27 similar looking works by Huth in his book titled – you can guess this, eh? –
Eyechart Poems (Buffalo: P-Queue, 2009). I made a mistake not including this one in my year-end round-up. I definitely “overlooked” this one. The eyechart may be mostly a doctor’s office prop these days, but it’s still known to all. Huth’s poems wittily and wisely play with the idea that the idea “behind” the eyechart is for the patient (here reader) to see how much s/he can see on the dang thing. And in the poem above, we struggle to make out the various language, mathematical, typographic, and other symbols. Unlike at the optometrist, there are no right answers. It’s all up to you. I might have wished for more frequent hints of semantic meaning, but still, these are memorable fun.

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derek beaulieu (the lower case, I do believe, is how he prefers it), is prolific, and I enjoy seeing what’s new in his visual work. The poem above, published in a 20-page chapbook in August, is a wide-screen (it’s presented across two pages) Letraset wonder. It reads as an aerial view of a geography traversed by language-trails bordered by amusement parks and energy centers (the dots and other circular “structures”). Alternatively, I read this as some sort of guitar, or musical instrument – the upside down run of W’s acting, at first glance, as a kind of neck – that plays a wild melange of tunes.

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Here’s a poem that presents the mysteries of H, S, G, and O, some of them largely inverted. The great John Olson wrote of this poem, “Little ‘h’s dribble down from big ‘H’s, bending like willow branches in a light breeze. A mound of S’s, enlarging then diminishing like a Doppler shift in an arc over a junkyard of tumbled g’s and o’s, lifts then drops one’s eyes in a tickling sibilance of insinuation.” I also see thoughts, the soup of thought, with ideas just starting to bubble, or trailing off. Olson used “wild,” frenzied,” and “explosive” to more generally characterize the poems in
STARINGS, and I agree.

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There are 25 poems in Andrew Topel’s Letters | Patterns | Structures chapbook, with 13 of them repeated, in a much larger size, in the Fact-Simile 2010 calendar pictured at the head of this post. The boldness, intensity and inventiveness of Topel’s work captivates me. I just keep looking, and thinking. The following poem, untitled (as are all in the book) is the first one in the chap, and serves as the cover image on the calendar. It blazes with angles and edges, excitement and energy:

The heavy use of symmetry in this poem, and its reliance on the frission between dark and light (black and white), reminds me of some of – yes, here I go again – Bruce Conner’s art. This time, I see the inkblot drawings Conner made in the last thirty or so years of his life. A specific analog to Toppel’s poem, to my mind, is the Conner splatter inkblot drawing immediately below, or at least the center part of it. I see the same strong central line in both works, and both have an overall look that permits the imagination to flow most anywhere:

Bruce Conner

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And here’s another pairing, of a Topel poem and a Conner work, this a different kind of inkblot drawing; both have a complexity and symmetry that attracts and holds attention:

Bruce Conner
(October 23, 1993)

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Some of Toppel’s beauties provide a meaning of the kind I can put into words:

In this one, I see the “Y’s”cartwheeling around and around and around. It’s a big ol’ beautiful endless circle, in other words, of why why why why why. The never-ending mystery of life, in other words, creating its own momentum and energy. Keep the mother rollin’!

This one is built of question marks, commas, exclamation points, semi-colons, plus the letter a, repeated twice. These elements are not arrayed so that there is a left/right symmetry (the image is flipped along the mid-line vertical axis). I find a pair of narratives in this poem, or a double-description of an object, starting in either case with the indefinite article “a”. There is in either instance suspense and surprise (the question marks and exclamation points), and pauses short and long (commas and semi-colons). Some of the mysteries are interlocked, others merely touch on one another, and many elements are difficult to tell apart, just like most things in life (and most really good poetry!). Most beguiling to me are twin 45 degree angles of the two opposing “arms” at the upper right and bottom left of the work. These take the mind off into the “white” or space of the page and give off strange, slightly off-kilter vibe that keeps, and will keep, this poem fresh.

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Endnote: Andew Topel maintains a blog, VVIISSIIOONNSS, in which he presents, as he terms it, “solo & collaborative wrEYEting & visualanguage” (click here to go). Some of the work from Black on White on Black (2010), a series of visual poems by Topel even more recent than Letters | Patterns | Structures, was posted less than two weeks ago and can be seen by clicking here.
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Geofhuth said...


Great job here. I'm so behind on my online reading that I'm seeing this only here.

One possibly surprising comment about Eyechart Poems: Each line of each poem, except for the first and last lines, actually spell out a pronounceable and likely interpretable word. The work is filled with semantic content.

Of course, it's not always easy to recognize it. I've thought of writing out the poems in standard characters, but that might ruin too much of the fun.

Thanks for this spin down Visual Poetry Lane.


Steven Fama said...

Hi Geof,

Thanks for the comment, and the confirmation of the fact -- which I find fascinating and stirring -- that most of the lines in Eyechart Poems are or correspond to words.

I'm going to put on my reading glasses and give the poems another look!

Tom King said...

Thanks for showing a picture of Easter Wings in the book, sideways like it's supposed to be. I never see it that way.

-Tom King

Steven Fama said...

You're welcome, Tom King -- I just grabbed the image of "Easter Wings" off the 'net for the post. I too thought it interesting to see the poem as I believe it was intended, with the wings properly oriented on the page.