Reconnecting the links
Interview Odditor Gary Cummiskey in conversation with karl kempton and Philip Davenport
karl, what motivated you to start compiling the book, and how did you, Philip, get involved from the publishing aspect?
karl: Before we begin, I would like to thank The Odd Magazine, Sreemanti and you for your interest in the book, visual text art and visual poetry. It is an honor for us to be featured. I have received a great many benefits from India and am happy to be able to add something to its culture.
In 2004 Dan Waber asked me about the differences between concrete and visual poetries. From that question came my long overview, “VISUAL POETRY: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions,” that he published, containing many hot links for those interested in examples and supporting text sources. As far as I am aware, no English language individual has attempted another comprehensive global overview beginning with rock art to add to or correct my “Brief History.” Over the years some links broke or died.
I have many interests and activities outside visual poetry; this includes working as a marine environmental activist and protecting sacred sites of the Northern Chumash. In 2013 I turned over my efforts (23 years of research: writings, tables, and maps) to a skilled committee. Years of monthly articles summing portions of these materials can be found here.
That is when I turned to correcting the broken links and to add more commentary for “Brief History.” I was also asked to write an introduction to the Renegade Anthology. It became apparent quickly that there was more to learn in order to further the history of what became not a history of visual poetry, but rather a history of visual text art. Visual poetry is but one approach within this wider context. Understanding the wider context meant not only rewriting but widening my understanding of text usage in visual arts. I began the book in March 2013.
Philip: I’ve been fascinated by poems as and with images ever since I was a kid, reading Alice in Wonderland. When I was first published it was a set of poetic missing persons notices, which were in part image. I’d been chased by the police, billposting them. The British poet Bob Cobbing liked them and when he published me, he also introduced me to this world of seen words. In 2013, I made a language art anthology called The Dark Would, which brought together leading contemporary visual poets and text artists from around the world. In the virtual Volume 2 were 40 essays and interviews, but it still didn't feel enough. When Márton Koppány showed me karl's book, I knew that this was the prequel to The Dark Would.
The relationship between this new book and The Dark Would is important because they share many characteristics. Both try to widen the field, the spectrum, we are in. Both try to restore silenced histories. Both work outside the academy, bringing in a different kind of knowledge. Both share this knowledge in a way that prioritises practice rather than theory exchange. And karl and I as people both define ourselves through this kind of art-making ... It’s why this project has worked so well, despite other differences we have.
Philip, you say that karl’s approach to the book is ‘unrepentantly non-academic’ – in what way?
Philip: This is a book from outside the academy. It represents voices and visions of people who were “:outsidered" marginalised because they were outside academic institutions, on the edge of artistic movements, and frequently by society itself because of their mental or physical health, or political or other beliefs. karl's work is not academic in the traditional sense and several other senses (including visual!) He also is outside the academy, even though he represents a huge body of specialist knowledge. Mostly he adds this to his palette of visual/poetic expression. And to help him navigate an inner journey, which is not an academic pursuit, at least not in the western sense.
karl: The book is both objective and academic, subjective and autobiographical. The objective “academic” portions are attempts to present as accurate a history I am able on sourced accepted factual evidence. Some of the facts are parts of the often-repeated history of concrete and visual poetries; others are found among visual poetry histories ignored by concrete histories; and others belong to the wider history of an unwritten visual text history that provides a context for the concrete and visual poetry histories. Moving off the accepted academic story lines, though based on textual evidence, is perhaps where the more subjective portions of the book may be classified. The last section, “Among the Seers,” though based on factual materials may be considered the main subjective materials. Inserted throughout are autobiographical moments presenting direct experiences within the wider context. Some may look upon it as a visual poet’s or visual text artist’s personal statement, perhaps even a manifesto.
If somebody were to talk to me about the origins of visual text art, I would think of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, the visual text experiments of Mallarme’s Un Coup de Des, or (a little later) the work of artists such as Henri Michaux. But you point out that the origins of visual poetry can be found even in cave art or in the calligraphic scripts of the Arabic world, southern Asia and the Far East.
karl: The actual answer is unknown. I suggest that if the myths of the inventions of writing are visited, we see roots in many cases from nature or natural patterns. We do not know the oral context of rock art and thus whether or not visual poetics or an older parent were in use. It has just been announced that many rock art panels spread widely across Europe contained constellations and alignments to their stars. I am not surprised having found my first Chumash solar and polar star aligned site in 1978 with a later associated burial site dated of 9,500 years old.
Early patterned alphabet and language is found on ancient charms, amulets, and yantras. Some have iconographics associated with them. Other early amulets were composed with hieroglyphic and ideogramic forms. Some of these shapes, alphabet and iconographic, have moved from rock art to pottery to other portable objects before parchment and then paper.
What is the relationship between visual poetry and concrete poetry?
karl: With Dick Higgins, publisher of the avant-garde Something Else Press, I co-guest edited a special visual poetry issue of the Canadan magazine, 10•5155•20, in 1983. That was the moment a concrete and fluxist publisher and poet agreed with my definitions of concrete and visual poetries. I have fine-tuned the definitions since. Both use fissioned particles of the stuff of language; concrete poets only create with text and its particles; visual poets fuse text and its particles with other arts. Concrete and other purists reject iconography mixed with text.
I forget who asked the wider community who first used the term visual poetry as a specific type. Both Higgins and I pointed to the same date, 1965. In my book I go into greater detail to point out that contrary to its written histories, concrete poetry was not new as a visual text expression. Before concrete poetry were concrete art and concrete music. Nevertheless, it was the first global poetry movement. Many of us view concrete poetry as a specific movement and later a specific type of expression under the wider umbrella term visual poetry, a poetry composed that requires the reader to see the poem for a complete experience.
Because of the self-imposed confines dictated by concrete poetry, many around the globe rebelled. To stand apart they embraced the term visual poetry. This should not be confused with a recycled term in current usage, vispo, a continuation of text-only concrete poetry.
Kenneth Patchen is one American poet and artist who gets quite prominent coverage in the book – and rightly so. But what about Ezra Pound? I am thinking of his introduction of Chinese characters into some of the cantos.
karl: My brief discussion of Pound focused on three concerns: 1) his knowledge and comments concerning one of many disappearing acts by concrete theoreticians and history myth-makers, the erasure of Henry-Martin Barzun, who Pound knew and was familiar with his visual poetry; 2) Blast; and 3) the Chinese ideogram error.
His use of ideogram images as a visual poetry is suggestive and perhaps considered so by some. Not me. They can be considered illustrations of what he wrongly viewed in the context of his imagist poetic where the ideogram exemplified for him a purer poetic moment than available with alphabetical-based text. His use as illustrations, it seems to me, was to support his erroneous claim that Chinese ideograms were a visual language. Embedded in this approach one finds his mistaken view that the written form was a higher ideal than the spoken. He embraced Confucianism at the time when his peers, those also interested in Chinese culture, were pulled not towards hierarchy but Ch’an and Taoist poetics, they being anti-hierarchical.
Phillip: Pound is important, but he’s already given huge attention at the expense of other people. What karl brings is fresh news — people whose ideas haven’t already been ingested, Barzun is one, but the book contains a host of others. There’s also a renewed problem with Pound’s Fascism, given that we are in an age where the far right is resurrecting as populism, the alt right, etc. Those ideas don’t need any more oxygen, they need challenge. This book offers another reading of the history of visual poetry that includes traditions sometimes seen as threatening, like Arabic word painting, which has Islamic roots and would be considered “alien” by a European alt right organisation like Pergida.
The book also covers asemic writing, though I have noted that some visual poets are quite critical – if not dismissive – of asemic writing.
karl: I needed to address asemic writing because of its current popularity. I assume most of its composers remain, as most visual poets, uninformed about the history of visual text art on the one hand and the damage caused to all the arts by the philosophical arguments found in non- referential art.
What were the challenges in compiling and editing the book?
karl: The vastness of the subject matter is beyond one individual. Individual segments have been skillfully covered, but not the entire spectrum. Without the internet this project would not have been possible. In 1975 I consciously removed myself from active literary centers to pursue my poetic close to the ocean here in south San Luis Obispo County. There are no nationally ranked local research libraries. I do not have academic access or financial assistance for extended periods of time for library research. I also refused to venture out to research libraries, not wanting to add to my carbon footprint. Thus, throughout the six years of writing and researching, I added a significant number of books to my library. It took over a year familiarizing myself with some of the Russian Futurists and their influences, including a deep dive into ikon art from its beginnings. I uncovered an error that Orphism was an idea from Apollinaire; it came from Barzun. Correcting the Apollinaire contribution to visual text art required much research and the help of Michael Winkler, who visited the Barzun archives at Columbia University to photograph some of the vast collection of his visual poems. The error in the standard history of Orphism, many references to Plato, and the Islamic Science of Letters pushed me to look afresh at the Greek philosophers and Orpheus. Many other jumped-through hoops are found in the book presenting my findings. These few examples illustrate my primary challenge, to present in-depth commentary on this complex subject matter.
Copyright law presented a maze I did not want to run. That is the reason the book is an internet-published pdf with over a 1000 hot links to individual works and various texts ranging from essays to books. We plan an e-book edition later in the year.
Another challenge is my dyslexia. It requires me to burden others to be proofreaders. Also, in order not to become trapped in mistaken concepts, I need knowledgeable readers. Karl Young died during the writing. Márton Koppány has been an indispensable sounding board over the years for this book. Harry Polkinhorn has been generous with his time, especially proofing and assistance with Latin American issues. Gerald Janecek has been essential regarding Russian Futurism. Others noted in the Acknowledgements have also been of great help. And, Philip Davenport, my editor and publisher, has added to the project making it far more than I first planned. Part of the addition was associating the book with the blog Synapse International online anthology, the first of its kind in India, thanks to its host Anindya Ray.
Some of my peers regard this as a life-long work. They are not wrong. Without my many interests, including rock art, symbols, calligraphy, Vedanta, Sufism, Ch’an/Zen, North American First People Ways, the history of ideas, economic history, and the history of religions, the book would not have provided the wider context throughout history around the globe. Such context seems to me to be generally missing. The reasons for this are discussed in the book.
Phillip: The problem for me was not to be an editor in the usual meaning of the word. The discussion within it had already been chewed over with two other editors: Karl Young and Márton Koppany. In addition, I wanted to respect karl as a dyslexic writer because I thought this was an essential part of his aesthetic, which affects how he sees words, sometimes in three dimensions and with inner light. Therefore, while I did some work on the text, it was with a delicate touch. Instead I brought in contrasting elements.
My most visible editorial role was to insert sequences of poem/images in the book, by varied invited practitioners; then secondly to work on the blog which we decided would be a kind of second volume to the book, showing hundreds of works by contemporary visual poets and artists.
Philip, you say in the introduction that you don’t agree with all the ideas in the book – could you elaborate on your differences of opinion?
Philip: Collisions produce energy and there are some differences that have fed into the book. I grew up in a so-called religious war in Northern Ireland and that makes me suspicious of any religiosity, whereas karl’s worldview has spirituality as a touchstone. We have joked a few times about the fact that my gurus were the Sex Pistols and the poetic experimenter Bob Cobbing, rather than anyone from esoteric religious traditions. Therefore, I brought scepticism, a certain amount of humour, and a different set of references.
But if this is anything, it’s a book that allows space for difference. It is full of stories of poets, artists and others who didn’t fit with the orthodoxy of their time. From the medieval mystic Marguerite Porette, who was burned for heresy, through to members of the Stieglitz Circle, who were silenced by critics, there’s a theme of people being silenced, or even erased. One of the unusual things about karl’s book is that it contains its own dissenting voice too, a series of letters from the remarkable visual poet Márton Koppány; it is only a short section, but it ripples through the whole thing. What is crucial is that it all serves to bring to light poets, artists, whose opinions differ from the official histories.
What is the relevance of such a book today? What is the relevance of visual poetry itself?
karl: It has relevance for those interested in the history and context of visual text art. I wrote this to correct what I saw as misinformation and missing information.
Visual text art has the relevance of any art. Text wedded with image, because of available technology, has become ubiquitous. Stated above, discussions on concrete and visual poetries lack context and are guilty of misrepresentation (in my opinion). Also, the writings generally are caught in the centric web of concrete and or visual poetry points of view. Individuals wanting to move beyond cliché may find it relevant.
Philip: Linking words and visuality together is an ancient practice that goes deep into all of our pre-history. That crossover doesn't stop at language and image. Making signs, making marks, leaving traces, making patterns, communicating through gesture, dance, all of these things are possibilities. And as our tech and our needs evolve, more possibilities will be added, not subtracted. (Do you know Christian Bok’s poem “Xenotext”, written with a bacteria?) The mistake is to think that any of the differences between media are barriers. They’re simply reservoirs of material for us to unlock and use. Advertisers, propagandists, signwriters, website designers, filmmakers, games designers... all combine media to add complexity, depth, power, resonance.
Why wouldn’t poets want to use these materials too? We speak with the means that speak most deeply to us.