Singular Vispo :: First Encounters Part 2

Was there an experience, a specific interaction with visual poetry that infected your brain, made you see language differently or drew you toward exploring vispo further? Is there a vispoem that captured your imagination. What piece first awakened in you the possibility of a visual alphabet/language alternative? That was the general question posed and here are the results. Though this query is overly reductive, the poets were kind enough to choose, for the most part, a singular vispoem as example of this phenomenon. The over forty posts will be rolled out in groups of five each. Enjoy!


KS Ernst /on Ian Hamilton Finlay

Ernst-Ian Hamilton Finlay 72 dpiWhen I first noticed how Lawrence Ferlinghetti used space between words to control the rhythm of his poems, I saw it as white space in a painting. However, the first true visual poem that had a major impact on me was Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “wave rock” (left), which he did in 1966. That poem started me on a journey to lift poetry out of books and put it out there for people to see, something Finlay continued to do as well. His poem led me to believe that there must be some way to make poetry three-dimensional – or even four-dimensional if the poem could change with time. While I also create visual poems via digital media and painting, I have found over the years that, in general, the more dimensional a poem is (collage, mixed media) the more satisfaction I derive from having created it.

Poetry, or any writing at all, is about communication. Claes Oldenburg has said, “The image is the most complete technique of all communication.” What we tend to forget is that words, when written, and the letters that make them up, are in fact images. So what can we do with these images to add to the communicative resonance of their meanings? Therefore my first thought in creating visual poetry is the visual aspect. Sound is far less important, if at all, because with either visual or textual poetry you see the poem with your eyes first.

I tend to think three-dimensionally. What I mean is that my mind at rest is not a blank slate but rather an empty chamber. I can put whatever I want into that chamber and “walk” all around it, look underneath it, see how it looks from above. I can do so for letters and words as well. For example, the letter ‘E’ looks exactly the same as the number three to me. This ability is really useful for mentally constructing visual poems, but unfortunately sometimes causes me to sign my last name as 3rnst. I love working with all kinds of three dimensional letters and using their shapes as seen from different views to build shapes that are still meaningfully readable.

In this particular poem Finlay’s photographing a piece of printed glass in front of the environment precipitated my later use of mirrors. I often use mirrors in my work not only to reflect three-dimensional letters, but also to include the reflected view in the piece. Because, make no mistake, the viewer is an important part of the piece. Art happens twice: first when the artist conceives of and constructs the artwork and again when the artwork is seen by a viewer.

I was lucky enough to catch an exhibition of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work in Edinburgh, Scotland some years back. It was beautifully put together in a gallery in one of the parks. I have always felt that a gallery setting is the appropriate place for visual poetry, especially the work being done today, work that tends to be larger and more colorful that of the 1960s.

For more information about Ian Hamilton Finlay, visit

For more information about K.S. Ernst, visit


Scott Helmes /on F. T. MarinettiF. T. Marinetti: - Montagne + Vallate + Strade x Joffre, 1915

After the Marne, Joffre visited the Front by Car by F. T. Marinetti, (1915) (right)

This poem was not the first visual poem that drew me to concrete/visual poetry, however it continues today to inform my thinking about poetry. All inclusive, it contains action, story, sound, symbols, language and emotion. It’s shunned by many, being a symbol of Futurism, a historical marker in the saga of war and fascism. On a single piece of paper, it condenses the story of WWI, in its glory and horror. If you can separate it from the political environment, or accept its reason, it is an achievement that deserves to live in language. The Futurist works on paper, for me, were the beginning; and it flowered into all the arts, continuing, really, through today in various forms; but still controversial after 100 years.



Geoffrey Gatza /on Ernst Jandl

geoffrey garza - ernst jandl (1)On Ernst Jandl’s poem, Schmerz Durch Reibung (Pain Caused by Friction) (left)

I was first drawn towards Visual Poetry, Vispo from the work of Ernst Jandl, the Austrian writer, poet, and translator. Robert Creeley, who spoke of him often, first introduced me to his writings. Jandl had translated his novel, The Island into German. His experimental works focused on sounds and playful visual displays. He also worked with constrained writing composing univocalic poems such as “Ottos Mops” (Otto’s Pug) from German words using only the vowel “O”.

Of the many visual poems Jandl produced I am including Schmerz Durch Reibung (Pain Caused by Friction) as it has stayed in my mind for well over 20 years. Using the four lettered word frau breaking and cascading into the shape of a pyramid. Frau is German for a woman; an adult female. But is also has many connotations such as a title of courtesy equivalent to Mrs./Ms.; but can also mean a lady or one’s wife. But when sounded out it creates to Au sound which sounds like utterance of experiencing pain, Ow! In this poem Jandl has realized both a beautifully envisioned work but when spoken out it creates a wonderfully timed sequence of sounds running through the gates of dreams, faith, love and pain. We are reminded of both the hidden geographies and sentiments; as organic and breathing as one senses not only the gravity of love and loss, but one can visualize the rolling hills of some forgotten and dignified place. In bright and wide-eyed verbalizations this poem evokes in both verbal and visual echoes.


Mark Young /on Márton Koppány

Ellipsis No. 5 by Márton Koppány (right)Ellipsis No. 5

I may have come to the appreciation of vispo late, but I was prepared for it. I was a wannabe surrealist in the 1950s, a fan of Magritte, the Belgian painter who included words in his work.

Magritte dans un tableau

My discovery of Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry early into the 1960s eased me into an appreciation of the Numbers of Jasper Johns, the Comic Words of Roy Lichtenstein. Later in the same decade I worked as an art critic, wrote about—as impersonal task although personally overwhelmed by—the work of Colin McCahon. I noted at the time, in New Zealand Art: Painting 1950-1967: “. . .words appear in the paintings, at first superscriptions or titles but later becoming the subject of, or the forms used in, various paintings.” See, for example, “Let us possess one world.” []

I drifted away from poetry, from all writing, in the mid-1970s. Came back to it just before the fin de siècle. Started publishing again just after the début de ce nouveau siècle. From an essay I later wrote for the Finnish journal Parnasso:

One of the first places I was published in on my return was can we have our ball back. I had heard of almost none of the poets in the issue, but amongst those with whom I shared a line in the list of contributors on the front page was a person called Jukka-Pekka Kervinen. To my Anglo-Saxon eye it was a name that leapt from the screen. Evocative. As I’ve written elsewhere, Jukka-Pekka like a ragged mountain range, Kervinen like the valleys that run down from them.

Jukka was my introduction to the world of manipulated text, stochastically generated, randomly positioned on the “page.” & Jukka moved so fast that Einstein’s theory disappeared down a black hole. He was perhaps the prime innovator of the time.

But Jukka was also a collaborator & an editor, & the wide range of people he either worked with or published — including myself: & my first attempts at visual poetry were collaborations with him — meant that I was exposed to a large number of vispo practitioners both directly &, through further exploration, indirectly.

Among them was Márton Koppány. I had been excited by Jukka, had admired the work of many of those others whom I came to through him, but Márton was the one of whose work, when I first made its acquaintance, I just said YES! His work clicked with me – its humor, minimalism, satire, genius, art, politics, its multi-faceted et ceteras.

His work has appeared in many issues of my journal, Otoliths. I published three of his collections whilst I was publishing books. He is still my favorite.

On the low bookcase beside my desk, there is a signed postcard-sized print of a singular piece of vispo, Ellipsis No. 5. I have garnered many pieces during my editorship of Otoliths: this piece by Márton is the only one I have consciously sought out.


Sven Staelens /on Andrew Topel

sven - TopelMy first encounter with visual poetry, somewhere in the end of the first decade of the new millennium, immediately turned me into a vispo-addict. As a huge sponge, I began to absorb an incredibly large number of experiments in this very specific branch of poetry. In no time I was jumping the timeline, trying to get a grip on historic and contemporary production. It was an overwhelming experience, both inspiring and informative, leading me to an ongoing urge to experiment myself with language as material.

The history of visual poetry is stuffed with an enormous amount of fantastic works. Choosing one specific work to point out the origin of my affection for visual poetry is merely impossible. Without a doubt it is the variety of works, all in their own segment, that fascinates me most and that drew me toward exploring the possibilities myself.

But when I really need to pick one visual poet, it must be Andrew Topel. Every time I saw/see his visual poems, I’m paralyzed for at least a few seconds. The way he interprets the borderline between text and image is amazing. Often he starts with canonized techniques and styles, which he transforms, alters and augments until there is a unique Topel poem.

The image I have chosen (left), is one from his comix series. I recall taking my first steps in visual poetry around 2009, with the poemic strip project. It must have been in this period I first noticed Topel’s work. The way he combines the letter/word constellations and images is surely an endless source of inspiration for me and undoubtedly a lot of other visual poets besides.