April 26, 2012 - This second anthology blog continues documentation of the two editions produced by the recent visual poetry (vispo) collaborative book project that Cheryl Penn (South Africa) and I coordinated. It also provides a view of a particular strain of visual poetry in the United States because the poets are in communication with each other through the mail-art network and share many common influences.
John M. Bennett (Columbus, Ohio, USA) has been a presence in visual poetry and a significant figure in its evolution for decades. Especially due to his activity in the mail-art network, his impact is inestimable. For instance, when my early correspondents in vispo were primarily Jake Berry (Alabama, USA) who published a zine called Outre and Mike Miskowski (Arizona, USA), who published a zine called MaLLife and issued books under the Bomb Shelter Propoganda imprint, John Bennett's submissions and Lost & Found Times served as gateway and center to discover exciting work by others who were doing (usually better) what we were trying to do and an affirmation that we were not alone or stark raving crazy.
In email communication with Skybridge, I learned she also knows and has been influenced by John's work for many years. Her talent and knowledge have led to innovative contributions to the Asemics 16 project as well as the current visual poetry effort. Her chapter, with its interesting black wrapper (top), includes biographical information on Jim Harter, the artist to whom her chapter is dedicated:
Harter's work and his influences, especially surrealism and fantastic realism (aka magical realism), are consistently reflected in the Skybridge chapter and give it a distinctive style. The meta-realist group in Holland is news to me and is added to my list of "isms" with which I am probably overly preoccupied. She adds what strikes me as an incongruous (but that works well here) pairing with G. K. Chesterson quotes. Here is a scan of the opening page without the black wrapper:
Visual poetry chapter excerpt by Skybridge Studios (Indiana, USA)
Skybridge is another "middle-grounder" in the project, choosing to unite letter and image to create visual poetry. This is shown dramatically in the veiled woman's face and the concretist text that suggests lines of poetry but also adapts letters to the shape of the image. I immediately think about Victorian poetry for some reason. Here are the next two pages:
Similar to the chapter by Tic Tac (Germany) posted and discussed in the first anthology blog, Skybridge chooses the lyric sequence model. The poems, although non-linear, require a kind of reading but might ultimately be viewed as a unified glyphs. Repitition, such as the circles in the two pieces, suggest image patterns stretching across poems in a sequence that help give them unity.
The powerful image of the eye provides this image continuity from the opening page. The Skybridge chapter and a number of others in the project prominently display eyes gazing from the page into the eye of the reader: A playground for the postmodernist: The poem reads the reader as the reader reads the poem. If that is too far out, then perhaps the eyes draw attention to the process of reading, which is a central issue in visual poetry. Certainly the soft dissonance among the images keeps surrealism at the forefront:
The relation of the circles to the eyes are brought to clarity, almost as a resolution or synthesis that is simultaneously negated by the quirky Chesterton quote, a sort of self-deconstructing text. Here is the final page:
The bio sheet states that Harter was a freelance illustrator and editor of clipart books. The basic images Skybridge selected strike me as having the simplicity and stylization of clip art and magazine illustrations, rather than the complexity of "high art." Could this be a nod to Harter too?
The alteration and arrangement of the images and letters creates the visual poetry. The starkness, the references to different historical eras in the images, the familiarity of commonplace images that are suddenly made strange (alienation effect?) contribute to something at least close to surrealism but perhaps too disrupted in places to be considered dream language. I still come back to a play with the Victorians and surrealists. After all, the surrealists were still trying to lose all that Victorian baggage.
The result I think is a structure and images that present numerous possibilities for meaning as well as a tonal quality that expresses subtle emotional states and perceptions. The packaging of the chapter is very clever too and provides another theme for the work:
As ever, many thanks for your contributions to the project, Skybridge. Make sure you have a look at her blog where you can find much work that you will not find at the IUOMA:
Visual poetry chapter first page John M. Bennett (Columbus, Ohio, USA)
John M. Bennett's chapter for the second edition - "XAYACATIN" - references the poetry (in a traditonal sense) half of vispo. Since so many of the contributors are visual artists, it's not surprising to see so much work in the project that uses art technique in a masterful way and with a view of language as simply another material without much concern for literary content.
Many visual poets, in fact, began as writers and also continue to write poetry and prose; that work and sensibility is integrated in their vispo. Current Fluxus artists seem to have moved away from writing, focusing their efforts solely on vispo, which I think is a shame because the "old" Fluxus had a distinct literary component. David Chirot (USA) is an exception, having also produced a large body writing that includes poetry and prose.
From my perspective, John Bennett is part of what amounts to a school of poetry in the U.S.A. that has been evolving for several decades and that I imagine has global counterparts. Two other poets in this group that I read and enjoy especially (they are also visual poets and participate in mail-art) are Sheila Murphy (Arizona, USA) and Ficus strangulensis (West Virginia, USA).
John Bennett's chapter, then, in addition to being vispo, provides some classic examples of his poetry that can be approached with more normal expectations for reading (factoring in the Spanish). "XAYACATIN" can probably be read easily as a travelogue, although other possibilities abound:
As much as John Bennett is a figure who places himself outside the mainstream, the influences of contemporary poetry are present in the work and help provide some context. First, I do not believe there are hidden meanings or literary references requiring footnotes; I wouldn't approach it that way. It's not George Oppen with obscure systems informing the work that the reader cannot discern, yet it owes something to Louis Zukofsky. The idea is to take it at face value, enjoy it, and finally provide your own interpretations.
He has synthesized into something unique the William Burroughs cut-up, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and aspects of postmodernism, among others. Many people don't find these references useful, while it might help others. The fact is that John Bennett cannot be engaged in culture the way he has been without it having had an impact on him too.
Nor would the knee-jerk response that this is randomly assembled DaDa account for this poetry. Bennett, Murphy, and strangeulensis have developed a method of composition that, at its best, produces a stunning, non-linear discourse. The place where it differs from the sterility of most langpo and postmodernism is its sense of play, humor, irony and the absurd. At least that is how it works for me.
In a previous blog I also discussed what I saw as the presence of the New York School in the work and connections to diverse writers including Tom Clark. Anyway, I hope you'll read John's poetry and enjoy it as much as I do:
Visual poetry aspects of the work include the variations of fonts and sizes and use of dingbats that focus awareness on the visual presence of words and letters. I think it would be very interesting to hear this work read aloud and follow how it corresponds to the page. The reader can easily lose all thought of written content and follow the flow and combinations of constantly changing letters. I think the most important part of the chapter is the shape of the poetry on the page.
Traditional forms in poetry produce predictable configurations on the page. We know what a sonnet looks like, or haiku, or couplets. Concrete and visual poets have simply taken the next step and use shapes to define form in terms of line length and line break. In this instance, I think John Bennett uses rough triangular shapes to construct stanzas in a poetic sequence. Some of the stanzas fit together to create diamond-shape structures and others hour-glass 0r bellshape.
Some syllabic poems have this appearance on the page, as do many of Michael McClure's center-justified poems. Zukofsky sometimes used word count to determine line length, such as seven words per line. I can't see any other measure for line-length in John Bennett's work in this chapter other than shape. In terms of prosody, we would be talking about radical enjambs -splintered words. Tell me if you see anything different. Here is a close-up of one of these structures:
Next two pages:
"LETTRISME" (upper right) is a nod to another influence present in this highly typographical work. Charles Olson once wrote, disparagingly, about "the verse that print bred" and we might well be witnessing here an evolutionary step in this mode: One that intends to resucitate the poem on the page and also accomodate the ever-increasing primacy of the visual image.
Here is a link to John Bennett's website. Please make sure to visit John M. Bennett's blog:
Many thanks, John, for your contributions to Asemics 16 as well as the vispo projects.
Visual poetry by Matthew Stolte (Madison, Wisconsin, USA)
Cheryl and I were very happy when Matthew Stolte joined the vispo project. He is active in mail-art and many people are familiar with his work and thus have a context for this chapter. I think of Matt as part of the vispo powerhouse located in the U.S. heartland. Having Miekal And and David Chirot as neighbors and John and C. Merhl Bennett nearby (relatively), it would be easy to tap into the flow of ideas and synergy; and this has seemed to benefit Matt greatly.
Matt is developing a very recognizable style - a visual poetry based in abstraction, asemics, and found material gathered into "texts" similar to the approach used by Nancy Bell Scott (Maine, USA) and discussed at length in Anthology #1. Matt seldom uses the short lyric or minimalism. Rather, he creates sustained pieces in which textures, tonality and often distorted language and image produce meditations that coalesce around a central theme. The aesthetics are rugged and tend toward anti-art.
My own subjective, personal reading of this chapter is that it is essentially political poetry and very much a document of this moment in history:
This work has the power and immediacy of street art. Whereas at times there can be a certain emotional detachment or neutrality in Matt's work, an intellectual subtlety in intricate, entangled images and textures of metal, this chapter is like a raw nerve - and to me it communicates anger, impatience, and a compulsion to action. Matt's style is present but he uses larger shapes to build larger structures and asemic symbols. The use of black, red, and yellow are stunning and disonant.
The poetry expresses the movement that is captured in action art. The work is a document of the physical activity of the artist. The words and images don't seem mediated. They seem as if they just poured out directly onto the page and then to us. I think these center pages (above) look much better when viewed vertically:
"Black Ice" is a curious condition you can encounter in very cold climates during the winter. The highway appears to be free of snow and ice but is extremely black. This means the pavement is actually a coat of solid ice you can't see and extremely treacherous. Hideous "Black Ice" fatalities are sadly commonplace because someone misread the signs and believed they were safe when they really weren't. It's a great concept to build the work around, and I think Matt made full use of it; however, I can't fully account yet for what appears to be the repetition of the copyright symbol.
These pages (above) is very interesting to me because the sustained form seems to fracture and break down. The last page is very striking:
For me, Matt's chapter is a record of life in 2011-12 on the level of the frustration and anger with inequalities and economics that brought people into the streets for Occupy Wall Street, from events in New York City to the ports in Oakland, California. The pages of his chapter are like a montage that captures the blur of activity, words, sentiments, and images experienced collectively by many thousands of people. My personal reading is highly subjective yet I feel like the work speaks to me and articulates things for me that I previously did not fully understand. I don't know how art can achieve anything more.
Matthew Stolte's amazing "Illegitimate Prescriptions" vispo blog has been suspended by blogger because they thought it was spam. I hope he can get it back. In the meantime, I found a blog link with more work by Matt as well as John and Mehrl Bennett:
Again, many thanks Matt for some tremendous visual poetry and your willingness to participate in the project.
For more vispo-collabooks you might also want to visit: http://cherylpenn.com/wpb/
"No! I prefer MinXus."
Even the sphinx winx at the minx.
Bonnie or Nancy
Duane "Dog" Chapman & "Baby" Lyssa
Ray says: "I really like 'When Things Get Tough on Easy Street.' This one is good too."
Still raining cats & dogs