Thursday, May 4, 2023

Teo Eve: Notes from the Field: Vispo - Past & Present


Vispo visual poetry and concrete poetry (subtle differences, I would argue, but largely interchangeable) is a fertile form amongst the indie publishing crowd, but, like most examples of ‘experimental’ poetics, tends to get overlooked by mainstream poetry publishing houses and magazines (insofar as a poetic ‘mainstream’ actually exists).

While vispo might be seen as a relatively new art form, taking advantage of print and digital culture (and certainly digital visual poetry can be seen as a new-ish sub-genre of vispo), its origins stretch arguably back to the invention of writing itself. Many readers will likely be familiar with George Herbert’s concrete or shape poem ‘Easter Wings’, and some will know that this poem’s shape imitated that of a poem by the ancient Greek writer Simmias of Rhodes. Before this, Egyptian hieroglyphs were written in a complicated system of synergy between images and text, and the majority of individual hieroglyphs can be considered mini artworks in their own right. Before the decipherment of hieroglyphs by Champollion and co., scholars had a lot of fun attempting to decipher what hieroglyphs might mean based on the objects they represented alone, leading to mystical and wildly erroneous results. And while these attempts to ‘read’ hieroglyphs under the false assumption they were pure pictographs may have been ahistoric (possibly influenced by these reconstructions, contemporary writer Philip Terry proposed an intentional ahistoric mis-reading of ‘ice age poetry’ in The Lascaux Notebooks, conjuring minimalist stories from prehistoric geometric signs), there is an argument to be made that all hieroglyphic writing was visual poetry: certainly, all hieroglyphic writing was visual. Earlier still, the very formation of letters themselves could be interpreted as vispo in the purest form: abstract signs, inviting interlopers to read in meanings.

If our writing system seems to have long since abandoned the unbreakable bond between image and syntax so characteristic of hieroglyphic literature, writers in the intervening centuries have maintained an interest in the synergy between text and image. Medieval monks painstakingly illustrated and illuminated manuscripts, William Blake printed his own poems accompanied by detailed artworks that interact with his text in interesting ways, and entire calligraphic traditions flourished in South East Asia and the Middle East. The European vispo revival was probably spearheaded by Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, which brought a strong typographic element into the text. If Apollinaire was a writer inspired by visual arts, Modernist painters of the 20s onwards went the other way, combining, to borrow a title of a work by Magritte, ‘Les Mots Et Les Images’. This synthesis of text and image inspired and continues to inspire Postmodernist and contemporary artists: the work of pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein come to mind, as do the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat; while Charlotte Johannesson frequently incorporates words into her sometimes-digital, sometimes-weaved, artwork. Nowadays, it is difficult to go into a highstreet art gallery and not see a painting that incorporates letters in some way.

Can artworks that are primarily visual, yet incorporate words, be truly called visual poetry? If not, is this because they are largely confined to galleries? 21st-century digital and print culture seems to be challenging these assumptions: cheaper mass-printing has liberated the page from strictly rigid typographies of the printing press and pre-digital age, and now many artists have taken to publishing abstract artworks, often without reference to words or letters at all, in books. These ‘visual poems’, presumably called so primarily because they are designed for the codex rather than the gallery (though perhaps they can be ‘read’ in much the same way as abstract lyric verse can be, looking for resonances and patterns rather than interpreting a figurative scene) are markedly different from the calligrammic concrete or shape poems by Herbert and Apollinaire. (A further sub-category, asemic poetry, uses letter-like shapes to explore the physical act of writing, scoring movement à-la Jackson Pollock while exploring what words can’t express.) Despite a growing school of visual poets using digital, photographic, and hand-drawn methodologies to inform their practice, there remains a strong calligramic tradition amongst the wider vispo community, marrying text and image to make meaning and making figurative shapes out of letters (see SJ Fowler’s charmingly asemic Calligramms).

Overlooked as they may be in the mainstream literary word, there are too many practicing vispoets to even hope to begin to form a representative list here. A good introduction to contemporary writers would be Timglaset’s Amanda Earl-edited Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry, a full-colour 260-page tome containing art and essays by 36 women based in 21 different countries. See also Penteract Press’ 2022 The Book of Penteract, which as well as being a beautiful product includes a dazzling mix of digitally-produced visual poetry (Laura Kerr’s abstract geometries; Vilde B. Torset’s asemic calligraphy; Tom Jenks’ colourfully spiraling ‘visual translations’ of Dante; Merlina Acevedo’s collage work; and Clara Daneri’s glyphic ‘Corvid-19’ sonnet, Frankenstein palimpsest, and line-by-line emoji retelling of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and that’s just scratching the surface). Indeed, alongside Trickhouse Press, Steel Incisors (edited by prolific vispoet James Knight), Beir Bua Press and Streetcake Magazine (co-run by Nikki Dudley, an experimental visual poet), Penteract Press is one of the UK’s leading champions of vispo, publishing a large range of books that celebrate the interactivity of image and text.

Amongst Penteract’s publications is The Kazimir Effect by Christian Bök, who was recently nominated for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. Comprising of minimalist haiku named after British Paints’ shades of white, which accompany abstract Malevich-ian paintings whose palettes employ the shades of white named in their respective poems, The Kazimir Effect is a beautiful marriage of form and content. Marian Christie’s recently published Triangles combines (to quote the blurb I provided for it) ‘a compelling array of experiments, mathematical theory and vispo’, and in doing so ‘proves the beauty of mathematics. In blending the visual and lyrical with the numerical, Christie finds art in science, science in art’ look out especially for the tasteful emoji triad of ‘Love Triangle’.

My own Penteract release, the quasi-vispo, quasi-lyrical, quasi-letterist The Ox House, is a ‘love letter to the letters of the alphabet’, and combines the visual and written arts. Each of its poems, many of which are themselves visual, or at least incorporate visual aspects in their typography, are accompanied by full-page illustrations of capital letter forms, inspired by and in homage to medieval manuscripts’ illuminated letters. Its spiritual sequel, I Imagine an Image (forthcoming from Penteract Press in 2024) will push The Ox House’s experiments further, exploring how graphological layout affects readings of poetry while incorporating poems that necessitate the physical turning of the page in order to be read. Anthony Etherin, who runs Penteract alongside Clara Daneri, applies formal constraints to his visual poetry, as in ‘Lunar Phases Sestina’ (Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes), Penteract Press 2021), which imitates the prosody and pattern of a sestina silently using you guessed it glyphs representing the moon’s various phases.

I have said in my opening paragraph that vispo ‘tends to get overlooked’ in the poetic mainstream, but there is of course one major exception. Rupi Kaur, the Canadian poet loved and derided for her minimalist, maxim-esque made-for-social-media poetry, frequently marries her text with a visual element. Though these are not calligrammic concrete poems (their images are not formed by images), nor are they ‘pure’ visual poems (figurative images accompany sensical text, rather than forming abstract shapes) and the images rarely interact with the text (though there are exceptions), there is no doubt that the poems’ illustrated accompaniments play a large part of Kaur’s appeal. Kaur’s collections are undoubtedly amongst the best-selling poetry books of all time, and her myriad imitators reproduce the poet’s simple but affecting line drawings as much as they do her stark verse. Considering Kaur continues to publish many of her pieces on Instagram, an image-sharing platform, before they make their way into a book, this makes sense. What is more likely to capture someone’s attention on a busy social media feed: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, or five sparse lines accompanied by a picture?

If vispo fell out of public consciousness due to limitations on printing necessitated by the printing press, new digital forms of reading and book production have opened the door to a new golden age of vispo. This article has barely scratched the surface of either the history of visual poetry or contemporary practitioners, and there is currently no definitive guide to vispo past or present (hint hint to all the publishers out there). I haven’t even mentioned Astra Papachristodoulou’s multi-dimensional sculpture poems, or Briony Hughes’ visually and sculpturally-informed ecopoetry, nor have I begun to explore the wealth of interactive GIF poetry and computer game poetry made possible through programming, social media and the blockchain. (Speaking of Papachristodoulou and Hughes: if artwork that incorporates letters are only considered vispo when they’re published in books and not displayed in galleries, Astra and  Briony are complicating this dynamic again; their group exhibition of sculptural poetry, Textual Porosity which also features the work of Caroline Harris will run from the 30th of May to the 11th of June in Winning Gallery, near Hampton Court.)

It is possible that due to the accessibility of resources and platforms (it’s much, much easier to create typographically interesting poems on, say, Canva than it is a typewriter or even Microsoft Word), more visual poetry is being made and published today than had been in the sum total of pre-21st century history. And even if this proves to be a hyperbolic claim, one thing is indisputable: vispo is alive and kicking. Even if mainstream publications and critics ignore it.






Teo Eve is a poet and writer based in London. Teo’s debut poetry collection, The Ox House, was published by Penteract Press in 2022. A love letter to the letters of the alphabet, it combines visual and literary arts to celebrate the possibilities of language encoded in abstract signs. Its spiritual successor, I Imagine an Image, is forthcoming from Penteract Press in 2024. Teo’s debut book of autofiction, On Shaving, Or, The Taxonomy of Clouds, was released by Beir Bua Press in 2023, and incorporates methodologies from visual poetry into its prose.


Photo credit: Charlotte Ottevaere

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