Karl Kempton has composed visual poetry since 1974. His work evolved from typewriter to computer and now includes mixed media as well as SLR digital photography. His work has been exhibited in galleries around the world and in over 35 books of visual and lexical poetry. Between 1976 and 1990, Kempton edited Kaldron; an international journal of visual poetry. He currently co-edits the online version of the journal with Karl Young. Another of his current projects is a revision of the history of visual text arts entitled Visual Text: Page As Canvas, Paint As Ink, & Text as Sculpture by Modern & Contemporary Artists & Poets.
Kempton is also an active environmentalist who works against the nuclear power and offshore oil drilling industries, helps protect neighborhoods from pesticide drift, and works with both First Nation peoples and archaeologists to protect sacred sites along the California coast. Since 2009, he has worked with the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary effort to protect near- and offshore marine habitats. – Photo credit Peter Sterios
MÁRTON KOPPÁNY: Dear Karl, as you will remember, I briefly commented on your poem on Facebook to express my excitement publicly as well:
"Horizon". I was happy to get this very special piece by Karl Kempton in the email, which had been apparently published many years ago but was new to me. I especially liked the “hesitation” of “once a month rarely twice”. In the given text/image structure that "hesitation" is correct, and not only in the calendar.
But originally, under the immediate effect of your piece, I wrote you this in an email:
As for "horizon", it is now really one of my absolute favorites. Its visual structure is clean, essential and playful at the same time, but the deepest effect comes from that "once a month rarely twice", which is correct, and not only in the calendar. In the given context it means sincerity, acceptance, self-correction: whatever I need.
I do see connection in your visual poem between the ability of hesitating (a formal solution and not an expression of the artist’s weakness), and sincerity. The result is bright but not self-justifying, like, say, “being deluded beyond delusion”.
The wide-screen is very functional. We must move our eyes from one direction to the other to see the whole spectacle. Nature becomes a story. The lower case letter i (inheriting her dot from the circles) has to turn her head to see the whole spectacle. She is looking now in the “right” (rarely visible) direction, as a matter of fact. She and the text connect (in two different ways) black and white (I mean white and yellow), full and empty, so it becomes more than a dichotomy.
Or am I completely wrong with these emphases? In any case, please tell me more about your poem. (It brought your “Buddhist Mathematics” to my mind as well, another favorite of mine.)
KARL KEMPTON: Before we begin, allow me to thank you, Sreemanti Sengupta and Odd magazine for this rare and unique opportunity to share my feelings, seeings and thoughts on my poetry, lexical and visual. I am greatly in debt to Bharat. She gave me my guru and his numerous linages: Sri Aurobindo, Sivananda, Sai Baba and Dattatreya. She also gave me Her magnificent Bhakti saint poets. This offers me an opportunity to offer a small morsel in return.
The following is the original form published by Bob Grumman in my book, “charged particles”, 1991.
once a month
when dawn dissolves
i can stand
east to sun
west to full moon
o i o
Earlier, “horizon” appeared as a typeset broadside printed by Paul Gallo, The Hermetic Press. His narrow landscape version ran the text as a single line under o i o . He centered o i o as the title, reversing the poem’s original form and altering its concluding vowel orality. The o’s were surrounded by yellow and red floral circles. My new rendering is a third and I assume final version that for me best renders the moment. The computer, especially with the large screen, allows me considerably more flexibility than when composing on a typewriter.
That you picked up on the hesitancy without a ‘breath marker’ illustrates for me how keen your eyes and ears are, either naturally, trained or a combination of both. There are a couple of reasons why “rarely twice” had to be there not only for the reasons you expressed, though always I try for accuracy in detail(s), but also there was at that moment a wider context in the early 1980s on the Oceano dawn beach with Ruth as we saw the event that lit up my poem. I was working for and with the Northern Chumash preserving sacred sites. I had also recovered two winter solstice sites that were 40 miles apart along their equinox line. Thus, I was compiling my first data points on what has become my recovery of the Chumash solstice, equinox and pole star grid.(1) Its lunar aspects remain unrecovered. The grid seems to extend beyond their ancestral lands onto other nations. Thus, while nature is the story, humankind’s response to Her also lives in the poem as you suggest.
During this time, before and after, I was also writing word poems first inspired by Kenneth Patchen. I called these “fissions”, poems formed by breaking a word apart or inserting parenthetical brackets. They were published in a small book, “fission”, in 1988 by Bob Grumman. Bob also wrote of the minimalist poem by others and myself.(2) That you mention my “Buddhist Mathematics” poem also adds another layer to the poem.(3) India gave birth to many forms of religious expressions. Those west of the Indus River simplified this variety into Hinduism contrary to its actual internal identification, The Eternal Dharma (Sanātana Dharma: Devanagari). Buddhism, as I examine its history, was in western terms, a reformation. A counter reformation lead by bhakti poets in southern India beginning around 500 CE pushed it into northern India (root of the term India is Indus River, land west of the Indus River). The Islamic invasion destroyed its last vestiges in Bharat with the destruction of Nalanda, its university with its seven story library full of millions of manuscripts and books of many religions, circa 1190s. At one time this university was the largest in the world. Many survivors escaped eastward to the Bengali speaking area. Out of this diaspora and over the centuries evolved a merging of several spiritual traditions – Tantric Buddhism, Tantric Shaivism, Tantric Vaishnavism, Bhakti and Sufism – to form the devotional wandering Baul poets.
What we understand as Buddhism is the external surviving forms. Ch’an and Zen are the forms I attend to with great interest for spiritual and poetic nourishment. This is a long introduction to another and newly suggested “reading” of the poem stimulated by your mention of Buddhism and my interest in symbols. The sun represents the heart centered religions, such as The Eternal Dharma, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The moon represents the mind centered religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. While the moon in “horizon” sits on the west horizon, from where I sit on the eastern Pacific rim, the moon is heading towards the lands of Buddhism and the sun is “arriving” from the lands of the heart centered ones by way of the earth’s rotation. (I often point out that there is no sun rise or sun set; earth orbits the sun.) Not stated enough is that the internal core of all religions, spirituality or mysticism all point out that all paths lead to the same ultimate experience, unification with the mystery, That Which Is, the undefinable, or Ananda (Bliss).
MÁRTON: Thank you for your response, Karl! Here I send you my follow-up question. I hesitated (okay, that word again) for a while, but I was too curious to not send it. If I am lucky enough, this might be an opportunity for you to talk a bit about your path, and how spirituality relates to your poetry, and what is the role of the so evident and heartwarming playfulness in it.
Your response was instructive, first of all, because you have clarified a lot of things about the poem and its creation, second, because I can see again how we, the readers (namely me) read into a work our own dilemma when the opportunity comes. I’ve followed and enjoyed your poetry for a long time, and I hope you will forgive me for sharing a bit more about that “breath marker” inside me. I referred to a special “delusion,” which is close to my heart and I quoted from Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Dogen’s work was another “reformation,” a reformation within Zen. I don’t dare to say more about Dogen (and prove, if I haven’t yet, that I am an ignorant). I’d better turn back to “horizon”, where I saw a coincidence between the uncertainty of having/seeing one or two full moons (thanks to the small discrepancy between the solar and lunar calendars) and the flexibility of the Dogen-like aha-sensation. Dogen was extremely careful about naming and language use because he thought more of language and rational thinking than most of the Zen adherents of his age. “Once or twice” suggests to me in the context of your visual poem that we can lose what we find, and what we find is not necessarily what we have searched for. Something strikes me as a recognition, then I realize that I have made a mistake. At that point, I want to show the whole process. And the feeling of recognition returns. Can you accept my interpretation as a reading of your poem? Or am I simply wrong? Anyway, “horizon” struck me and moved me at once when I saw/read it for the first time.
KARL: I would like to address the latter portion of your second inquiry first, if I may. The “aha!” moment has been critical for me as a poet writing the short poem and composing the visual poem. It has been perhaps more important for me as a reader, student and occasional renderer of Ch’an, Zen, Bhakti, Sufi and western Mystic poems. Much of my short lexical and visual poems are sparked by such a moment. Of course, intensities vary. Some moments may ignite an unexpected new series. Unless I am in the midst of such a series and thereby encased by the aura of the “aha!”, rarely do I sit down to write or compose poetry, lexical or visual. Most often such attempts are hollow, echo chambers of emptiness.
I look upon myself as a scribe waiting a dictation assignment from what I hope and consider higher planes of consciousness outside the intellect, the “aha!”, the flash of insight. Its pathway is through the bright layer at the topmost part of the intellect, the intuitive. The trick is to convey that moment to the reader as a poet or reader-viewer as a visual poet. Interesting, is it not, that the word intuit, a word for direct, unfiltered experience, gives us in to it?
“Horizon” with its three versions provides an opportunity to consider briefly which provides the strongest transfer of the received and then rendered experience. The original set up the moment primarily as a lyrical, auditory experience. Its visual aspect was secondary. The poem’s original version hits its mark, heard and seen. Gallo’s rendering begins with poem’s title changed to the “aha!” moment, though the reader does not realize this until completing the newly rendered single-lined poem. The last rendering under discussion to a greater degree than the other two is a visual poem because of coloring and more importantly placement of the moon and sun on the extreme margins of the horizon line as the “i” witnesses, as I witnessed and experienced, literally seeing the word horizon, then its consonants dissolving triggering the “aha!” moment of o i o . While all three versions, one could say, follow the poem’s cycle or circle, each begins at a different point. Which of these three points best serve the poem is now in the eyes and ears of its audience.
Your interpretation is more than acceptable. I mentioned most of my works arrive from outside my individuated mind, that I am their scribe or composer. One of the consequences of trusting my intuitive-flow process is that sometimes years pass before I find more meaning in a poem than first thought or felt. Like you, what I thought primary became secondary or totally eclipsed by a newer layer of meaning suddenly rising to the surface. The new discovery meant letting go of the old or noting the old was only a surface layer.
Years ago after dropping out of graduate school studying economic history deciding to try to become a poet, two questions soon appeared. What does a poet do besides just write poetry or compose visual poems? What is the ideal poet type to emulate? The Beat poets and writers introduced me to Zen poetry and environmental activism. Robert Graves’ “White Goddess” introduced me to the Keltic master poets, the Bards. His work also moved me in two additional directions of consequence: unraveling Keltic knot art works that began my visual poetry Rune series;(4) and his collaboration with Inayat Khan on Sufism introducing me to the layered meanings of symbols used by Sufi poets. Carl Jung’s works took me on an inner journey of myths, symbols and Christian mysticism. Joseph Campbell’s works added a wider global context for myth, symbol and religion. In 1975 I moved to the central coast area of California and since 1983 I have lived in Oceano. Working on occasion with and for the Chumash since 1977 protecting or trying to protect sacred sites allowed me the opportunity to move deep into sacred site alignments and touch the original spirituality of this place.
During this period I attended a variety of spiritual groups, seeking never finding. In 1982 I met my beloved wife, Ruth. She introduced me to a realized yogi. He immediately became my guru; I was no longer a seeker. He married us on the 1983 summer solstice.
In 1994, Ruth and I went to India with swamiji. The pilgrimage was a pivotal moment. We stayed in Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram for 15 days and the Aurobindo ashram 11 days. Before leaving for Bharat, I had withdrawn or pulled back from most of my group environmental and poetry obligations.
Thereafter to this moment, while maintaining interests in Ch’an, Zen, Sufi and Christian mystical poetry, I deepened my studies of the sacred poetry and poets of Bharat. Through Sri Aurobindo I learned the significance of the Rishis, seers poets. His and writings by others of Bharat showed the layered meanings of sacred texts (including the New Testament) unseen by the general western reader now unaware of the importance of symbolic and multilayered usage. I also expanded my historical interests to a deeper understanding of world religious esoteric traditions. I would like to point out here that I consider his epic, “Savitri”, the most important English language epic written in the 20th century.(5)
Because of dangerous pesticide exposure continuing from an adjacent farm, I returned to environmental protection. In 2001 the chemically based strawberry farm lost its lease due to my and neighbors’ efforts. After three months of no chemicals, 21 illness symptoms within a quarter mile radius vanished. The farm is now a productive neighborhood vegetable farm; its stand surves the neighborhood and the greater community. In 2009 I attempted a fourth effort to protect 10,000 square miles of ocean environment by co-founding the Marine Sanctuary Alliance. In October 2015, the proposal was formally accepted by NOAA on its very short nomination list for consideration.(6)
I stopped participating in local poetry readings years ago. I was able to successfully shut half an audience’s mind off or significantly down while the other half were upset or even enraged by the spiritual content. I did not see the use of such upset. Two years ago, I returned to read occasionally.
Most of my spiritual activities went unmentioned while nationally and internationally participating in visual and minimalist poetry over the last 40 years. However, I did not hide its content when an obvious “aha!” moment appeared for a lexical or visual poem. Recently, two projects, one unintended and the other intended, brought these interests into focus.
You have been one of my readers for an unplanned book now in progress, an effort to open a wider discussion of the history of the development of visual text arts from the early 1900s to the present moment of the development of a global, multi-facetted visual text art expression. My interest in modern and contemporary pan-Islamic calligraphy and painted word forms date from my publishing days when I was the first American poet to publish such work in 1979.(7) Many of these individuals are either Sufis or are informed by the Sufi esoteric Science of Letters.
Writing about the spiritual aspects of these works, of course, is obvious and necessary. What I was unprepared for and remain in the grip of is how best to discuss the triple problem of the histories and commentaries on the pre WW2 European and American individuals and works, especially before the 1920s. The art and literary histories, the aesthetics and the psychological lenses through which the critics and historians see in order to write their contemporary articles and books are bifurcated, polarized between spiritual and materialistic with the latter overwhelmingly dominant. Since the late 1930s until recently the materialistic lens has dominated such writing. This body of work in turns influences contemporary art and literature. As I see it, collectively, the criticism, art and literature, once avant-garde and thus anti-orthodox, collapsed into a new orthodoxy. It’s the old story of the rebels becoming the academy. For example, the influence of Theosophy and mysticism, where meaningful, is briefly treated as a factoid unworthy of explanation or deeper probing. Traditional and contemporary symbols and their use have been rejected to the point that when now seen in their historical context their significance has been lost. This creates not only an incomplete record of meaning of works or individual intent, it allows in some cases misrepresentation of historical facts to continue. Due to my broad interests in esoteric traditions and being able sometimes to identify or empathize with rendered inner experiences, I am attempting to pull back the veil on individuals and works not fully discussed, in my opinion.
Another project now available is my new lexical and visual poetry collection, “poems about something and nothing”. Some poems are many years old, others a few months. I dedicated the collection to my guru. Without his guidance over the years most of the poems probably would not have been received. Many works are informed by the previously mentioned traditions. Playfulness and intentional humor counter the more serious moments to enhance the contrast on behalf of levity to lighten.
Often during my political efforts I have been too serious. I also have been too serious in poetry disagreements letting ego dominate. An obvious contradiction when walking a spiritual path. There are no exceptions regarding kindness and love towards others.
Two American avant-garde visual text artists I greatly admire, Paul Reps and Kenneth Patchen from the previous generation, seem to me the most playful. Their moments of levity carry more profundity than their counter weighing serious insights. Lightness lifts; seriousness trends otherwise. Numerous Bhakti, Ch’an, Zen, and Sufi poets’ important teaching moments often occur within a playful twist of word or phrase or direction. Many of my guru’s points are learned and remembered in a humorous moment. In the end, how much is a direct influence on me and how much is an inner eye seeing a humorous or playfullness to lift the ends of a reader’s or viewer’s lips is a question for others than myself to answer.
I would like to conclude with a short note on a new avenue of contact through Facebook that has widened my literary and visual text art horizons. Not getting into details, since 2013 I have been in touch with many Arab, Iranian, Pakistani and other word painters and calligraphers composing with Arabic letters. I have been greatly moved since 1970 by Arabic calligraphy and as noted above published contemporary works beginning in 1979. Beauty is central to most of these word painters and calligraphers who also are informed by Essence and its Energy. Another magnet for me is their Sufi context. In this new arena I have written an introduction to a book of word paintings and for two catalogues, an artist and a word painter. Two of these individuals live in Pakistan, the other a Syrian with German citizenship currently residing in Turkey. I introduced visual text arts and minimalist poetry source materials to a large group of Bengalis. And, at the moment I write a short monthly column for the Pakistani BQ Studio Newsletter.(8)
MÁRTON: Thank you very much, Karl!
(1) http://slocoastjournal.net/docs/archives/2011/aug/pages/marine_sanctuary.html http://slocoastjournal.net/docs/archives/2011/sept/pages/marine_sanctuary.html &http://slocoastjournal.net/docs/archives/2011/oct/pages/marine_sanctuary.html
(8) http://www.binqulander.com/paintings.aspx; http://emaanbukhari.blogspot.com/2014/06/blog-post.html?spref=bf; https://www.facebook.com/aramchaledres/photos_albums https://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=aram%20chale%20res&rs=typed&term_meta=aram|typed&term_meta=chale|typed&term_meta=res|typed http://www.studiobq.org/newsletter?page=1
An INTERVIEW with KARL KEMPTON
By Márton Koppány