Singular Vispo :: First Encounters Part 7

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!


Mike Borkent / on bpNichol


“Blues” by bpNichol

I first bumped into visual poetry as an undergrad. I hadn’t seen it before then, as far as I can recall, although I had seen lots of lyric poetry. bpNichol’s visual poem, “Blues,” caught my eye initially with its balanced form and clarity of concept. It seemed simple but upon closer examination was filled with interpretive potential. The use of the page as a mirror for words, which so easily transformed love into evol (evil? evolve?), was innovative and refreshing. I experienced a facet of communication in a way I had never seen before. I loved how the poem invited me to both look and listen at the same time (and were those dueling guitars, or soundlines?). So much to think about. I now know that it was a part of a wider and longer tradition of visual poetry, which I have since had the pleasure to explore, but it remains a prime example of concrete elegance. I keep this poem in mind when I work. I hope to reflect a sense of that elegance in my own way.

“Blues” was originally published as a typewriter poem in Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer, and was later redone in the more commonly anthologized version seen here. Konfessions stands out not only for its success as a book of poetry, but also because it was the first major volume of visual poetry published in Canada (and recently reprinted by Coach House Books). It was also the opening statement of an accomplished career of genre bending borderblurs by bpNichol.


Patrick Collier / on Louis Aragon



Louis Aragon’s “Suicide” (1924)



from “Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975,” by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh


mdr (from the series, “Gists”) PtC 2010


Gleb Kolomiets / on David Baptiste Chirot



Gleb Kolomiets - David Baptiste Chirot, Kino Zero

“Kino Zero” by David Baptiste Chirot

This work is one of the turning points in my perception of visual poetry. It helped me to discover a new field of the experimental art beyond the boundaries of formal experimentation.

David Baptiste Chirot has unique seeing which makes it possible for him to find the elements of his work in his closest surroundings. The author takes for his works objects everyone can find close by – scratches on the walls, pieces of newspapers, ads, or signs. Form and texture of the elements bears the traces of time and nature’s forces. And this makes possible for the artist to express in his works (and this work in particular) the tremendous complexity of the actual world. Multiplicity of active forces, complex structure of the matter, numerous practices of human existence – these are the “characters” of Chirot’s works.

By including the piece into my own network of interaction with the world, I discovered new qualities of seeing; I learned to find evidences of diverse and mysterious interactions that form the world from subjective and objective perspectives. I saw that the forms are ever-changing and the processes are ever-flowing. I understood that visual poetry can be more precise and more truthful than even photography and then uncovered new qualities both of visual art and real world.


Jesse Glass / on William Blake




“Laocoön” by William Blake



William Blake’s remarkable reworking of the Laocoon group, now known as “Yah and his sons Satan and Adam” (as per Morton Paley’s excellent study)* was an early influence on my conception of visual poetry. I found this application of words to a resonating image irresistible and immediately began to employ it. In Jr. high school I created several pictures similar to Robert Smithson’s “A Heap of Language,**” though in reverse to R. S.’s apparent method, while true to Blake’s: the landscape was drawn first and the words layered in rather than the words themselves constituting the landscape. In both Blake’s “Yah” and the ancient Roman curse tablet (defixio), which I append as exemplary of the second influence on my visual poetry, *** text and image inhabit an equal space inviting the reader to participate actively in reading the image as if reading a map, or negotiating the image as a figure “in the round” as it were***( This fulfills Willard Bohn’s definition of one basic characteristic of visual poetry—that of disrupting (of making strange) a straight-forward reading of text). In addition the curse tablet contains a promise of cause and effect which intensifies the physicality of the image. We could consider the inclusion of the voces mysticae—what we might now call sound poetry–in both the Blake in both his use of Hebrew and his subjecting standard English to the overwhelming desire to follow the default mode of reading from top to bottom and left to right, which also leads to a constant interpenetration of contiguous readings resulting in powerful “babble,” and the curse tablet, as a further enhancement of the physical “presence” of text and image. (The curse tablet also interested me because of its connection to horses), as it was designed to be a plea to a Sethian Gnostic deity for the destruction of a chariot driver in a horse race. (As a young man I was constantly around horses on the family farm and at the track—sulky racing—modern equivalent to the chariot, was part and parcel of my life .) A final set of images in a similar mode were Antonin Artaud’s “Gris-Gris”–poetic and magical curses.

jesse glass pic

“Curse Tablet with Horse-Headed, Sethian God”


Amplification: Text=allusions to corporeality–body in text. Violent action, threatened action–imminent action. Intensifiers (bombs, knives, guns, fang, claw)to imply force, power, immediacy.


In the 1930’s Antonin Artaud, poet, actor, and polemicist for the new theater, created a series of prose poems which he sent to various people–some personal acquaintances, some (like Hitler) not. Just a few of these self-styled “gris-gris” survive, and one only has to examine them closely to see why. We can imagine the surprise of Jacqueline Breton when she opened a letter addressed to her on September 17, 1937 and read in part: I’m sending a Spell to the First One who will dare touch you. I’ll crush his braggart’s little snooty snout to pulp. I’ll spank him in front of 10,000 people…” To yet another recipient he writes: ” All those who banded together to prevent me from taking HEROIN…I’ll have them pierced alive…in a PARIS square and I’ll have their marrows perforated and burned…” {Rowell, 149} During the process of creating these texts, he soiled, tore, spattered and creased the paper he used. In some cases he burned the pages with cigarettes. In order to emphasize the physicality of his message he often used crayons to write his spells, crushing the wax into the page as he wrote. (43-51) His violent language threatened imminent death, madness, and destruction–often to the recipient. Always the curse was cast in the present tense, and always Artaud’s curses were to effect an immediate change in the reader’s life. “And this spell will not be recalled. It will not be deferred…And this spell will act instantly.” (149)


Gaston Bachelard, in his study of the violent imagery in Lautreamont, makes this point: “‘The word,’ says Maxime Alexandre, ‘seeks action.’ In Lautreamont the word finds action immediately. Some poets devour or assimilate space; one might say that they always have some universe to digest. Others, far fewer in number, devour time. Lautreamont [and Artaud, I might add] is one of the greatest devourers of time, and that…is the secret of his insatiable violence.” (1) While Bachelard’s insight is true enough, there is yet another aspect to violent imagery in poetry, and that is the attempt to give the text an added dimension–a true physical presence—or, if you will, A BODY OF LIGHT situated somewhere between this world and the world of ideation. Karl Popper famously calls this phenomenological space inhabited by intellectual artifacts “world 3.” We find this attempt at reifying the text–by allowing it to act– in poets as diverse as anonymous shamans in every culture, Artaud, Lautreamont, and in America, Emily Dickenson, and this quest always takes the form of violent tropes—of LITERALLY PLAYING WITH PSYCHIC BLADES AND MATCHES and in the case of visual poetry, the application of those scoraic processes to matter. Violence implies dynamism, which in turn defines presence. (As in the Hadron Collider, the use of extreme force reifies the subtle components of matter.)



Yet another characteristic we can observe from the text of Artaud’s gris-gris is his emphasis on the body as the basis of thought.

Ralph Merrifield, in his The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, says, “To the illiterate there is something magical in the way that ideas can be conveyed by the written word, so it is not surprising that writing itself should from its beginnings have played an important part in magical practices….symbols drawn for magical purposes everywhere precede written characters and are likely to be their source.

It may be useful to juxtapose the following text with Artaud’s curses.


O wife of Pluto, good and beautiful Proserpina…pray tear away nostrils

lips, ears, nose, and his tongue and teeth so that Plotius may not be able

to utter what it is that gives him pain; his neck, shoulders, arms, fingers,

so that he may not be able to help himself at all; his chest, liver, heart,

lungs, so that he may not be able to feel what gives him pain; his…

belly, navel, sides so that he may not be able to sleep; his shoulder-blades

so that he may not be able to sleep well; his sacred part, so that he may

not be able to make water; his buttocks, vent, thighs, knees, legs, shins,

ankles, soles, toes, nails, that he may not be able to stand by his own aid.

…So I consign him as victim to thee, Proserpina….Send, I pray, some-

one to call up the three-headed dog with request that he may tear out

Plotius’ heart. Promise Cerberus that thou wilt give him three offerings–

dates, dried figs, and a black pig–if he has fulfilled his task before the

month of March….I give thee the head of Plotius, slave of Avonia. O

Proserpina Salvia, I give thee Plotius’ forehead. Proserpina Salvia, I

give thee Plotius’ eyebrows, Proserpina Salvia, I give thee Plotius’

eyelids. Proserpina Salvia, I give thee Plotius’ eye-pupils….


(Warmington, 281-285)


This is the text of a curse written about 80 B.C. in the month of February on a thin sheet of lead pierced by a nail. It was accompanied by four other curses of similar wording, and was probably written by a professional sorcerer.

jesse glass pic 2
“I Fly Against Your Life” by Jesse Glass (Paint, marker, pen on Chinese Hell Money), 2011



Works Cited in PART I:


*Morton Paley The Traveler in the Evening. Oxford, 2008.

**Robert Smithson’s Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam. U of California Press, 1996.

***John G. Gager Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford, 1992. Pgs. 67—71.


Works Cited IN PART 2


Bachelard, Gaston. Lautreamont. Ropert S. Dupree, trans. Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture Press, 1986.

Ducasse, Isidore. Maldoror And Poems, Paul Knight, trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Esslin, Martin. Antonin Artaud. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Johnson, Thomas H, ed.. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

Knapp, Bettina L. Antonin Artaud, Man of Vision. New York: Avon Books, 1971.

Sontag, Susan, ed. Artaud, Antonin, Selected Writings. Helen Weaver, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

Rowell, Magrit, ed. Antonin Artaud, Works on Paper. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996.

Warmington, E.H., ed. and trans. Remains of Old Latin, Archaic Inscriptions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.








Jeff T. Johnson / on Judd Morrissey


morrissey last performance still
[screen capture courtesy of Judd Morrissey, as published in LIT No. 22]

Projecting Form: Judd Morrissey’s The Last Performance
Toward an open-field digital concrete poetics

Before we read language on page or screen—if we do so with the eye—we look at it. We can’t separate the process of comprehension from the act of looking, and much of what we think of as reading is, in fact, viewing language. Until I began to see language as letterform objects in relation, I could not appreciate concrete poetry as anything but the confusion of language for the objects it purports to represent. (It does not help that the anthologized works of concrete poetry I first encountered were names of flowers shaped like flowers rather than tanks or nebulae.*) Of course, language need not aspire to representation, nor does it necessarily succeed at mimesis if it is used with that goal.

It wasn’t until I saw Judd Morrissey and Mark Jeffery present The Last Performance at Brown in 2008 that I recognized what concrete poetry indicates. Kinetic language projections require embodied reading practices within the logic of Morrissey and Jeffery’s performances. Imagine the body as a preferred reading tool. Morrissey must visually interpret and select from morphing textual fields in order to voice the work, a process complicated by Jeffery’s interventions—moving the microphone stand, lowering it for supine use, or extending it to absurd heights that require a step ladder, among other interruptions and provocations (I am undoubtedly combining elements of other Morrissey/Jeffery performances I have seen over the years). Not only does Morrissey select and embody text (with machinic collaborator), he moves in relation to an immediate human collaborator, prop and site collaborators, and audience collaborators (we too select and read in relation).

Of course, The Last Performance is not concrete poetry, nor is it comprehensively described as performance art, but it is certainly transdisciplinary art that intersects with visual poetry.

Detour on historical terminology (via hobby-horse):

Vispo as a generic or genric term includes concrete poetry without renaming it, which is to say they are distinct, if related. This requires much more consideration, but one important if not absolute distinction seems to be 20th-century concrete poetry practitioners’ resistance to identification with institutionalized visual art (as ratified and rarefied by museum and gallery), contrasted with the more typical embrace of art-world context by self-identified contemporary vispo artists who seek to break down the institutional distinction between visual art and poetry. Contemporary vispo does not seem to share concrete poetry’s ambivalence toward hanging next to framed visual art as singular material object-composition. 20th-c concrete poetry and contemporary vispo tend to agree, however, that poetry is language art that does not (necessarily) rely on traditional notions of expressive semantic or mimetic representation. (Max Bense, 1965: “Everything concrete is nothing but itself”; de Campos, Pignatari and de Campos, 1958: “concrete poem is an object in and by itself, not an interpreter of exterior objects and/or more or less subjective feelings.”) Letterform gestures need not point away from themselves. In concrete poetry as practiced and theorized in the 20th c, the danger of decontextualized, apolitical formalism (which vispo may well resist) is checked by its vision of a universal poetry that transcends individual expression as well as literary and linguistic barriers.

The revelation of The Last Performance as it relates to concrete poetry is the demonstration of letterform systems in relation allowed not only by linguistic kinesis and embodiment, but the open field. If concrete poetry presents an autonomous letterform object, the open field of digital poetry confronts us with relational letterform systems. Cobbing and Mayer’s selection of historical examples in Concerning Concrete Poetry, as a matter of expedience perhaps, suggests the possibilities of open-field composition: exemplary works are arrayed together on the page, rather than isolated one to a page. Triangulated with Morrissey and Jeffery’s explorations, there is the potential for an open-field digital concrete poetry of relational quasi-discrete language objects. This is what I explore in collaboration with Andrew Klobucar in the poetics and practice of THE ARCHIVERSE, and this is what I look for in contemporary works of vispo inspired by concrete poetry.

* Nor was I aware of statements like this, gathered in Bob Cobbing and Peter Mayer’s Concerning Concrete Poetry (emphasis mine): “Concrete poetry is all too often confused with the CALLIGRAMMES of Apollinaire and their modern equivalents in which lines of text are ingeniously manipulated in order to imitate natural appearances.” —Stephen Bann, 1967