Singular Vispo :: First Encounters Part 6

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!


Karl Kempton / on Seiich Niikuni

rain niikuniSeiich Niikuni’s “Rain”

A single moment or work luring me into visual poetics or inspiring me to compose visual poetry is not to be found. There is no point from which a single line can be drawn, except maybe from my indictable creative center. I suspect this center is but a jumble of energetic points mimicking a formed constellation of intent rooted in the more allusive intuitive from whose guiding hands I await delivery of the next gift. Perhaps this is why I view lineage as a twig in the tree of visual text art history, especially now that my studies have greatly expanded my understanding during the last two years as I write anew on the subject matter.

Seiich Niikuni is the individual of singular import during my introductory phase to concrete poetry. Selecting an individual work of his or even his body of like work as the point or points from which to draw a line for my lineage, as the question seems to have been framed, is nebulous. His available few poems at the time formed a challenge to try to equal, having found most concrete poetry uninspiring in the Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry and later, Solt’s Concrete Poetry. When I thought I had perhaps accomplished my goal, it was after three or four years of dedicated effort. To this day, I hold his book, sent as a review copy by his widow, as one of my archive’s treasures. Before discussing his work, I suggest a larger context triggered his influence.

I began graduate studies in economic history emphasizing in Middle Eastern studies in 1971 at the University of Utah. In the U’s library was the Middle Eastern Library where I spent hours, part of which were “off course,” absorbing Islamic calligraphy and art that I had quickly come to love. That was the year I diagnosed myself with dyslexia. My form is visual (reversing letters, numbers, and syllables and dropping or adding letters in words) and auditory (inability to sound out unfamiliar polysyllabic words along with the dropping or adding or reversing letters or syllables). I gradually accepted its constraints and embraced its gifts, such as the ability to mentally navigate three- and four-dimensional space, see poems in words and colors vibrating off black and white patterns. If the intuitive visual flash, a “seeing” of an “incoming” poem, is part of my dyslexia or not remains unanswerable. During this period, I met Charles Potts, who was then demanding an American phonetic spelling, which solved my spelling troubles. The phoneticism accelerated my word poem work; I soon called my word breaking poems fissions.

Two earlier incidents, 1965 and 1966, come to mind before seeing and reading the Williams’ anthology. Before being drafted into the army and then sent to Stuttgart, Germany, I heard Ken Nordine’s first Word Jazz album. I “saw” the letters and numbers about which his marvels spun, my first such experience. The 1966 incident in Stuttgart remains with me to this day. Often I went off base into Stuttgart. My wanderings lead me to a cellar club frequented by the youth, Club Voltaire. Then, the name had no association with dada. As I descended the stairs, I noticed and took in, but uncomprehendingly, exhibited arrays of letters. While publishing Kaldron, upon receiving his exchange and for review publications, I came to know that the work was concrete poems by Hansjörg Mayer.

Next to me, on my left, is an archive filing-cabinet folder full of individuals’ concrete and visual poetry. The visual poem, “Rain,” on display scans best from Seiichi Niikuni: Concrete Poetry. It is one of a handful I have been moved by because of its clarity, a presentation both simple and complex. Stare unblinkingly at it; it is an optic wonder of shimmering raindrops. Stare longer, and the rain drops through a rainbow. I understand that Crag Hill will also discuss Niikuni, his “River and Sandbank” poem. These two and a few others of like expression inexplicably attracted me. The only explanation I can now offer is the kindred spirit and patterning similar to the Arabic works informed by Persian and Byzantine patterns I was first drawn to and “eye” and “heart” trained by. Eventually, I came to know this piece had an undercurrent, a subtle unemotional and objective reference to an earlier emotional “Rain,” the “Il pleut” calligramme by Apollinaire, who is both a mistaken beginning or second point in visual text art histories and a point for many lineages disguised as histories.

We are confronted with a paradox by these two works, one based on a misunderstanding of the ideogram, the root of the calligramme, and the other unwittingly seems to support the misconception that the ideogram is pictorical, not phoenetic. Apollinaire first called his visual poems ideograms; his initial and basic understanding of the visual aspects of the ideogram was commonplace at that time among non-Chinese speakers, and Pound’s heralding its supposed pictorialness only added to the confusion among uninformed literati. It appears also that the term calligramme was first used by the Chiliean poet, Vicente Huidobro, and later mistakenly credited to Apollinaire (as were other terms and movements, isms, for which there is no room to digress into). Concrete theory continued the misinterpretation of the ideogram being pictorial by demanding the replacement of lyrical language, common among the many calligramme poets who remain obscure footnotes hidden by Apollinaire’s large, inflated shadow, to a highly rigid geometric patterning of language. Niikuni’s “Rain” fit nicely into the theory as did other of his works. It would be as if one outside the knowledge of the European alphabets stated proof that they were pictoiral because the letter A is an ox head, B a house, etc., or that ) ( are new and old moons.

Perhaps Niikuni’s piece is not the unemotional, objective, geometric, concrete presentation on rain found within its kanji ideogram. Perhaps it is directly composed as an additional and deeper compainion to Apollinaire’s “Il pleut” as a subjective, emotional, and political visual repetitive haiku-like lyric expressing grief of and also by innocent victims of war. In Niikuni’s work, the rain can read as the Black Rain, rain contaminmated with radiation after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Additionally, the rain can be the torrent of tears caused by continued aftermath from these bombings.

Autumn Equinox 2015

Oceano Ca


W. Mark Sutherland / on Augusto de Campos

Augusto de Campos

Olho por Olho (1964)
Augusto de Campos

In 1968 my high school art teacher loaned me her copy of An Anthology of Concrete Poetry edited by Emmett Williams (Something Else Press, 1967).* She and her husband were young American ex-pats, conscientious objectors escaping the draft and the war in Vietnam in Canada. They had recently studied art in New York City and were familiar with Fluxus, Pop Art, Warhol, Duchamp, Cage, etc. I marveled at the many concrete poems in William’s anthology, but it was Augusto de Campos “popcrete” poem Olho por Olho (1964) that changed my understanding of what poetry is. My aesthetic practice continues to this day informed by the ear of the eye and the eye of the ear.

*Later in life I met some of the poets featured in the anthology: Williams, Cobbing, Gomringer, corresponded with Chopin and saw bp Nichol perform with the Four Horsemen. In 1970 I obtained a copy of Notations edited by John Cage (Something Else Press, 1969) and that’s another element of this story…


Vittore Baroni / on Tom Phillips

tom philips

I became aware of visual poetry, and in particular of the Italian school of “Poesia Visiva”, reading art magazines and books about Contemporary Art when I was still in high-school. I saw a large international exhibition of VisPo in my home town Forte dei Marmi in the mid-Seventies (the Modern Art Museum was located in a villa just in front of my house), and that happened before I even learned of the existence of Mail Art. I was very impressed by some of the works on display (by Edgardo Antonio Vigo, Eugenio Miccini, Luciano Ori, etc.) and I remember thinking “I should make something along these lines!”. The overall effect of that show is still vivid in my mind, though I do not recall a particularly influential individual piece. I was captivated by the whole field, rather than by a single author. In a few years I would be at the University in Bologna attending a course on advertising techniques taught by visual poet Lamberto Pignotti. In those years I studied more in depth the VisPo tradition, I met authors like Miccini (who had a summer house in Forte dei Marmi) and I started to contribute regularly works to mail art and visual poetry magazines, projects and exhibitions. It was through one of my early collectors (Marvin Sackner of the Ruth and Marvin Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, located then in Miami Beach) that I got to know what is probably the single most inspiring VisPo work I have ever encountered. Sackner introduced me to the more experimental side in the production of the British painter Tom Phillips (who I immediately recognized as the author of a famous record cover for King Crimson, my favorite progressive rock band) and he urged me to find a copy of his A Humument – A Treated Victorian Novel. First published in 1980, this is a 368 pages masterpiece (de)constructed modifying in a wide array of techniques and styles the novel A Human Document (1892) by a certain W.H. Mallock. I eventually found a copy of the book (Thames and Hudson, first revised edition, London 1987) and I totally fell in love with it. vittore baroni - photo

I consider A Humument a sort of VisPo’s Finnegans Wake, a book I constantly return to for renewed pleasure, always discovering in the text new details and layers of meaning. Each page is a visual poem in itself, but is also linked in various ways to the rest of the volume, no word is added or displaced from the original page yet a whole range of sub-texts and characters (such as the lovely Irma) emerges from the skillful selections, connections and alterations through drawing, painting and collage of the available text (a piece of literary detournement or “plagiarism” on the same wavelenght of John Oswald’s plunderphonics). I later acquired other revised versions of the book and some spin-offs, such as the cd of Phillips’ opera IRMA, whose libretto and music are based on characters and passages of A Humument. So maybe this is not a “single poem” as requested, but it certainly is a single, organic and superbly structured piece of verbo-visual virtuosism (though Phillips is often unfairly and inexplicably excluded from VisPo studies and anthologies). I can open the volume and pick up a page at random, and I’ll be sure to find a “visual poem” that has and will continue to inspire me (it turned out to be page 3, just at the beginning), renewing each time my faith in the breath, depth, density, humor, pathos and all round wonderfulness of the marriage of image and word. VisPo – this is A Humument’s weighty contribution to the genre – can be appreciated as a single self-contained picture, but can also construct complex nonlinear narratives that potentially expand into the most different media. Thanks Tom for all this, and thanks also to Marvin!



Tim Gaze / on Jim Leftwich

tim gaze

I opened Lost & Found Times #39 (November 1997), and encountered a collection of marks by Jim Leftwich on the top portion of page 19. A more linear group of illegible marks by Jim was on the opposite page, with single verbal poems by other poets underneath each.

Seeing this work, my initial thoughts were something like: is this really poetry? Is it even writing?

Although there are hints of numbers and letters, the composition destroys any sense of an orderly grid, and raises doubts about what these marks are meant to mean.

A few months after seeing this for the first time, I sampled part of it, added my own marks, and published the resulting collaboration in asemic volume ~ 1, as well as the original rotated 90 degrees clockwise.

I get a sense of fun, creative energy from this piece. It had an effect not unlike an article in the punk fanzine Sideburns (1977), along the lines of “Here are 3 chords. Now form a band!”

Whether or not Jim intended this creation to be poetry or visual poetry, it certainly gave me pause for thought, and made me question many of my assumptions about reading, writing and poetry. Probably more than anything else, it stimulated me to begin to explore what we now call asemic writing, as a creator, explainer and publisher.



Connie Tettenborn / on Derek Beaulieu

derek - frogIn the spring of 2010, The Pedestal Magazine placed a call for visual poetry submissions and included a couple of links to collections of vispo for reference. I was initially looking for places to submit traditional poetry but was intrigued enough to check them out. While a lot of the work did not make much sense to my untrained eyes, Derek Beaulieu’s “Frog Plop” (left) struck me as unique because it had clearly understandable words. After a moment’s reflection (no pun intended) I realized the poem’s intent. It was straightforward and accessible, yet subtle. In just those three words, an entire scene unfolded that involved motion and sound. I realized that there was considerable power in the placement of a word in relation to another and in the size and orientation of the letters. The letters in “pond” were small and spaced apart to suggest the boundary of the water’s surface, into which the frog jumps headlong to create the inverted “plop”. This opened up to me the creative possibilities of letters themselves. In addition, the simplicity of the poem led me to the minimalist concept of paring down ideas to their essence. I was inspired to try my hand at a few visual poems of my own. While none were accepted to The Pedestal, I continued to explore this form of expression, and a year later, “Frog Plop” must have been the inspiration for a visual poem I painted, “Tea Garden”, that had only the three words “frond”, “serene”,  and “koi”.