Singular Vispo :: First Encounters Part 4

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!


Stephen Nelson /on Ian Hamilton Finlay

FinlayBeing a Scot, the poetry of the Scottish concretists always interested me. It felt significant that Scottish poets had participated so successfully in such an important international movement. In particular, the playful, lyrical quality of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work appealed to me. I loved his earlier short stories, and later art work, and of course, Little Sparta. There’s a ring of standing stones inscribed with text in my home town created by IHF, so the connection felt local and emotional, as well as artistic.

The piece that stood out for me when I first explored his work several years ago was playful and full of joy – ACROBATS. The initial contact with the image appealed because of its order, its rigour, the way the letters ran straight across the page. Then, as I looked into the space between the letters, there was such movement and vitality – the eye could dance between the letters and into the space quite joyfully. It’s quite thrilling to follow the contortions and physical permutations of the word as the letters zig-zag up and down and across the page in various patterns, the way a troupe of acrobats might twist and bend their bodies across a circus stage. There’s a dramatic flip of the word between the upper right diagonal and the lower left, and a cartwheel between the top and bottom halves – some real textual gymnastics. From the perspective of pure language, there’s a dance or gyration of letters away from and back into the word, as well as that very real relationship between word and body. The physicality of the piece, its endless movement and reference to the body within that rectangular block of text, is one of the most significant aspects of concrete poetry for me – the physicality of language mirroring our own patterns of physical and, of interest to me, spiritual energy.

Hooray then for the Scots and the Scottish concrete poets. Hooray for IHF, one of the most significant Scottish artists of the 20th Century. And hooray for the acrobats and the poems they inspire.


Bill DiMichele /on Bárbara Mesquita 

pencil pool on paper _1

pencil pool on paper 1 by Bárbara Mesquita

Somewhere south of Babylon and north of Ur-DasDim lays another city where specters haunt the crumbling towers and mosaics of Bárbara Mesquita’s ghost palace. The overall atmosphere is one of fog and age, lines merging with background, silently fading into some ancient obscurity.  Numbers echo through empty rooms, measuring, counting the ages of their decay. The number 300 settles into a more substantial plot, a throne room, a treasure room, perhaps, important, but eclipsed by the inner chamber, the holy of holies, which houses a red rectangle, made, well, red-er-er by the contrast with the grey mysticism.

Looking at it from a purely formal point of view, we see a preliminary architectural sketch, drawn, erased, drawn, erased, aiming toward the design that the client requires. 

Looking at it from an occult point of view, there’s a sanctity of secrets, of ratios and proportions, partly bowing to the past and partly constructing the future. 

Personally I would like to live there, among Bárbara’s ghosts that run through the corridors, fading back into a building I’ve never seen and that I may never see. 


Carol Stetser /on Petroglyphs

PetroglyphsThis photo by Jim King shows Carol observing the petroglyphs at Christmas Tree Pass in 1976.

I exchanged my photography books with Karl Kempton after reading about his publication, Kaldron in Umbrella. Padma Press was added to his mailing list beginning with the winter 1978-1979 issue. I was completely baffled by what I saw. For the next few years I struggled to understand what the artists published in these pages were saying. It wasn’t until 1984 that I was able to make a bookwork, Hierograms, that  I knew could be called visual poetry.  I had finally made the connection between the “writing to be seen” in Kaldron and the rock art I loved to photograph.

The petroglyphs at Christmas Tree Pass in Nevada are the inspiration for the visual poetry I was to create. After we moved to the Mohave desert, my husband and I made yearly pilgrimages to this desert canyon. The people who chipped these images in the rocks are unknown to us and the meaning for them of the symbols they left are also unknown. But these petroglyphs have a visceral impact on those who encounter them.

Philip Glass in his memoir, Words Without Music, posed the question “where does music come from?” For me, visual poetry comes from the “ancient ones”, the ancestors. The pictographs and petroglyphs they left on the rocks of this country are significant for all of us and deserve a place in the lineage of contemporary visual poetry.


Denis Smith /on Segai Gibon


“The Universe” by Segai Gibon

My asemic response to vispo is by the Japanese Zen monk, Segai Gibon,1750-1837. His famous Square Triangle Circle. I first saw the original in an exhibition of Sengai’s paintings at the Art Gallery of N.S.W, Sydney, thirty years ago. The collection from the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo. I was drawn to this piece for its universality, that the three components are recognizable by anyone, anywhere. Indeed a visual poem that transcends language.


An Asemic Treatise on “The Universe” by Denis Smith


Demosthenes Agrafiotis /on Dick Higgins

“In Dialogue with Dick HIGGINS”

 In 1995, Dick Higgins was invited by Luigi Bonotto in Molvena/Bassano di Grappa/Veneto/Italia. During his stay, he proposed a scheme for a possible “definition” of Visual Poetry (Fig.1) in the book of Dencker (Fig.2). In 1990, Luigi Bonotto asked me to comment and to complete the proposal of Dick Higgins. So, I have elaborated on a new version (Fig.3 – my new elements in hand writing)/(Fig.4  Hybrid version  of D.H-D.A).


Fig. 1


Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Fig. 4