Commentaries - September 2013

With special reference to Zukofsky's 'Poem Beginning 'The'' and Likht’s 'Protsesiye dray' ['Procession Three']

Left, Louis Zukofsky c. 1940; Right, Mikhl Likht, c. 1936
Left, Louis Zukofsky c. 1940; Right, Mikhl Likht, c. 1936

[EDITOR'S NOTE.  To say again what I’ve been driving at in previous postings, the attempt here is to bring into the open a remarkable Yiddish-American poet whose master work, Processions, accompanies & may even prefigure the long-poem experiments of English language masters like Pound, Williams, & Zukofsky, with all of whom he was in contact.  If so that might in itself suggest a rethinking of experimental American modernism & open the possibility of a multilingual history of twentieth-century American poetry.  The groundwork here has been initiated by Ariel Resnikoff, in the form of a recent thesis in Jewish Studies, “‘Double Exposures’: Poetics of Resistance and Acculturation in the works of Louis Zukofsky and Mikhl Likht,” at the University of Oxford, from which the present excerpt is taken.  A complete translation of Processions by Resnikoff and Stephen Ross is currently in the works.

Otherwise earlier postings regarding Likht can be found here & here & here on Poems and Poetics. (J.R.).]

A Modernist idiom…became, not an arbitrary overlay upon some purely Jewish consciousness, but rather the most effective means to explore what happened to that consciousness when it was immersed in the acids of American heterogeneity … (Burton Hatlen, “Objectivism in Context,” in Sagetrieb, 1994)

Zukofsky and Likht arrived at a Jewish American modernist poetics from opposite sides of the language spectrum. Their respective choices embody a widespread linguistic fissure which emerged between immigrant and first-generation American Jews during the first half of the twentieth century. The sociocultural implications of this fissure greatly influenced both writers and helped shape the poetry they produced. Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ (1926) and Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” (Procession Three, 1925) represent powerful expressions of each writer’s stake in the question of what a Jewish American culture should look like, and how the Jewish American writer should function within it. Both poems respond, in many ways, to Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which, according to subsequent critics, communicated its author’s vision of the modern Anglo-American/European cultural condition. Yet, whereas Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ satirizes Eliot’s “master” modernist poem in an attempt to conceal what Charles Bernstein calls the “fault line for high culture” which this work established, Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” echoes The Waste Land’s bereaved tone by mourning the deterioration of a Jewish literary tradition as pure as that of Anglo-American/European literature. Zukofsky’s and Likht’s Jewish American modernist poetics clash in these two poems over a basic question of opposing linguistic orientations: while Zukofsky’s poetics rally for an English language literature inclusive enough to incorporate a Jewish American cultural experience, Likht’s poetics insist on a Yiddish language literature exclusive enough to stand on equal footing with Anglo-American high modernism.

Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The,’” which he published at the age of twenty-two in the literary journal, Exile, does more than allude to The Waste Land—it openly challenges it. As the young poet writes to Pound in 1930: ‘“The’ was a direct reply to The Waste Land…intended to tell him why spiritually speaking, a wimpus was still possible and might even bear fruit of another generation.” The poem begins its “direct reply” from the dedication: “Because I have had occasion to remember quote, paraphrase, I dedicate this poem to Anyone and Anything I have unjustifiably forgotten. Also to J.S. Bach—309…”  Yet, as John Tomas notes, “This is a dedication in name only”; what follows is an assortment of notes to the intertextual references included in the body of the poem. These notes are eclectic, ranging from “Bede’s Ecclesiastical History—248” and “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—310” to “Modern Advertising—163,” “Mussolini—74” and “Myself—130”.  Zukofsky’s glosses take a deliberate and aggressive jab at The Waste Land. Where Eliot includes footnotes at the end of his poem, which (beyond any rhetorical significance) appear to be functional and sincere, Zukofsky’s notes are impractical and absurd: they are ordered alphabetically (not in the order that they appear in the text), and precede the poem. Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes that this act of inserting “the end beforehand” begins the poem “in a scandalous formal pun on Jewish ‘backwardness’ (whether the non-acceptance of Jesus as messiah or the insistence upon Moses seeing only the backside of God, Exodus 33:23)”.  Additionally, Zukofsky’s “end beforehand” is entirely nonhierarchical, noting “Henry James—2nd Movement” next to “Title, Jewish Folk Song—191” in a gesture that overtly undermines Eliot’s brand of high literary tradition.

“Poem Beginning ‘The”’ is written in six movements in the style of a tone poem. The first movement, subtitled “And out of olde bokes, in good feith” (a reference to the proem of Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls”) surveys the English modernist literary canon with allusions to various works by D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Norman Douglas, and T.S. Eliot, among others. Zukofsky represents these modernist writers as: 

                6  Residue of Oedipus-faced wrecks
                7  Creating out of the dead, —

               10  Books from the stony heart, flames rapping
                                the stone,
                11  Residue of self-exiled men
                12  By the Tyrrhenian.
                13                              Paris.   

Citing Canto IX of The Inferno in line 10, Zukofsky accuses the English modernists of a heresy comparable to that of Dante’s heretics, who are “imprisoned in stony sepulchers and subjected to eternal fire” (Tomas). Yet the heretical behavior of these “Oedipus-faced wrecks” is less religious than cultural; while Zukofsky struggles to find traction for his Jewish creative output in New York, these English modernists produce “[r]esidue of self-exiled men” from “the Tyrrenian” and “Paris.” They have divorced themselves from the world deliberately, a sin Zukofsky can neither comprehend nor forgive. He is particularly critical of Eliot, asking, “And why if the waste land has been explored, travelled over, circumscribed,/ Are there only wrathless skeletons exhumed new planted in its sacred wood…[?]”. Eliot’s quest for a viable Western culture within “the waste land” of modernity has generated nothing more than a collection of recycled relics to be reburied in his “sacred wood.” Zukofsky does not deny the existence of a “waste land” in the first movement of “Poem Beginning ‘The,”’ but, rather, submits that it is the modernists themselves, as self-exiles, who have conjured this modern nightmare: “And the dream ending—Dalloway! Dalloway—/ 53 The blind portals opening, and I awoke!”

Zukofsky’s “exile,” on the other hand, is imposed from without, allowing him a perspective on the potential of modern culture that is much clearer than Eliot’s and the other Anglophone modernists. Like “… Spinoza grinding lenses, Rabbaisi” Zukofsky intends to offer a credible alternative to the “Broken Earth-face” of English modernism in his poem at any cost.

The five movements that follow take up this cause, facing its consequences head-on. In the fourth movement Zukofsky brings his revolt to the gates of Columbia University, his alma mater. “163 Drop in at Askforaclassic, Inc.,” he writes,

                 164  Get yourself another century
                165  A little frost before sundown
                166  It’s the times don’chewknow,
                167  And if you’re a Jewish boy, then be your
                                      Plato’s Philo.               

                168  Engprof, thy lecture were to me
                169         Like those roast flitches of red boar…

 “Askforaclassic, Inc” refers to the Great Books method of instruction at Columbia, which Professor John Erksine had introduced a few years before Zukofsky’s arrival at the university. Zukofsky parodies Erksine’s method by using low “Modern Advertising” lingo; yet he clearly feels strongly about the Great Books ideal at Columbia, which make “a Jewish boy” into “Plato’s Philo.” The classics of Latin and Greek antiquity, he suggests, which Erksine adopted as the standard source texts for Columbia’s English Literature program, leave no room for a Jewish American student’s own literary history. The Jewish American student must give up his distinct cultural narrative, digesting the standardized English literary tradition “[l]ike those roast flitches of red boar” [where “flitch” = bacon]. Zukofsky rebukes Erksine, the Columbia University “Engprof” and his Great Books method, equating his literary philosophy with Eliot: “Professor,” he writes “from the backseats which/ 182 Are no man’s land!” The “waste land”—“the no man’s land”—is not something which high Anglo-American culture has discovered, Zukofsky suggests, but, rather, something it has created.

The final two movements of “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ provide a glimpse into a new English literary tradition which is as Jewish as it is American and opposes the high modernist “waste land” and the Columbia University English literature classroom. In these movements Zukofsky “sets out to reclaim his distinctively Jewish Yiddish heritage,” writes Tomas. His aim “is to expand Western tradition by opening it to another type of epic”. This is a mongrelized epic—a Jewish adoption of Anglo-American/European tradition “but with a difference, of mimicry, deformation” (DuPlessis).  Zukofsky constructs this mongrel Jewish epic, in part, by embedding classic Yiddish and English literary allusions alongside each other within his poem. At the start of the fifth movement he writes:

                 186  Speaking about epics, mother,
                 187  How long ago is it since you gathered
                 188  Gathered mushrooms while you mayed.

                190  A stove burns like a full moon in a desert night.
                191  Un in hoyze is kalt…   

“Gathered mushrooms while you mayed,” parodies Robert Herrick’s well known, “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May,” while the Yiddish, “Un in hoyze is kalt” (and in the house it is cold), alludes to a “Jewish Folk Song,” which Hannah Wirth-Nesher identifies as Mark Varshavski’s (1848-1907) celebrated “Oyfn pripetshik.”  Zukofksy’s English/Yiddish collage technique gives weight to Jewish American cultural claims by “speaking about epics” which “fall out of the purview of those like Erksine” (Tomas) and Eliot, and open English literary tradition to a non Anglo-American/European majority narrative. He lays out the requisites for this new narrative at the close of the fifth movement. “Assimilation is not hard,” he writes:

                 252  And once the Faith’s askew
                253  I might as well look Shagetz just as much as Jew.
                254  I’ll read their Donne as mine,
                255 And leopard in their spots
                256 I’ll do what says their Coleridge,
                257 Twist red hot pokers into knots.
                258  The villainy they teach me I will execute
                259  And it shall go hard with them,
                260  For I’ll better the instruction,
               261  Having learned, so to speak, in their colleges.

 Zukofsky speaks through Shakespeare’s Shylock here, (“the villainy they teach me I will execute,/ and it shall go hard with them”) proposing an act of vengeance  against the Anglo-American cultural institutions that have prompted him to abandon his Jewish heritage in order to “pass.” He has “learned, so to speak, in their colleges,” and now “look[s] Shagetz [gentile] just as much as Jew;” but, though he has changed his “spots” through assimilation, his Jewish cultural past remains with him. This cultural past provides him an opportunity as an English-language poet “to better the instruction,” that is, to plant new literary flowers, mongrel Jewish flowers, in the “long dry…sacred wood”.

Zukofsky ends his poem with an English translation of the Yiddish poet Yehoash’s “Oyf di khurves” (On the Ruins). This is not, however, a strict translation. As Harold Schimmel writes: “the late nineteenth century formula which appeared on Yiddish translations and adaptations, ‘Translated and Made Better’ [in Yiddish: fartaytsht un farbesert”]…is valid for Zukofsky.”  The most significant change Zukofsky makes to Yehoash’s poem is to shift the first person possessive singular (“mayn”/“my”) to the first person possessive plural (“undzer”/ “our”), making “the poem into a triumphant affirmation of the value of his tradition, and Zukofsky into a representative of a people” (Tomas). The final lines of “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ read:

                 315  I have not forgotten you mother—
                316  It is a lie—Aus meinen grossen leiden mach ich
                                    die kleinen lieder,
                317  Rather they are joy, against nothingness joy—
                318  By the wrack we shall sing our Sun-song
                319  Under our feet will crawl
                320  The shadows of dead worlds,
                321  We shall open our arms wide,
                322  Call out of pure might—
                323  Sun, you great Sun, our Comrade,
                324  From eternity to eternity we remain true to you 
                325  A myriad years we have been,
                326  Myriad upon myriad shall be.
                 327  How wide our arms are,
                328  How strong,
                329  A myriad of years we have been,
               330  Myriad upon myriad shall be.

In opposition to a poetics of suffering (Heine’s grossen leiden), Zukofsky’s Jewish American poetics are “against nothingness joy;” they “call out of pure might” and “open arms wide” to pull the Jewish American experience into English. Zukofsky’s translation and adaptation of Yehoash’s “ruins” (lines 318-330) contradicts the “ruins” of Eliot’s The Waste Land, which signal a fractured, irreparable past. Zukofsky’s “ruins” of the “myriad years” of history gesture instead to the “[m]yriad upon myriad [that] shall be.” “Poem Beginning ‘The’” concludes with an optimisitic look to the Jewish American future, a future that will communicate its Jewishness fluently (and fluidly) in English.

 [Continued here]

By Frank Sherlock & Carlos Soto-Roman

Frank Sherlock (left) with Carlos Soto-Roman

LISTEN HERE [audio arrangement by Kinan Abou-afach]

Forty years ago today, a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet waged war on the democratically elected government of Chile. It was the South American September 11th. That day began a period of cruel repression, characterized by extreme violence and human rights abuses. Thousands of people were tortured, murdered and disappeared. The Chilean people commemorate this day with remembrance, mourning and renewed commitment. We observe this date in solidarity from within the borders of the Empire where the coup began. Our collaborative composition examines the damage beyond the event itself, crossing continents and spanning years. You may hear resonances of folk singer Victor Jara, fundraiser/activist Ronni Moffitt, poet Pablo Neruda and CIA agent Michael Townley. Of course, there are also the voices inside the house.

The house is the site of an artist salon hosted by novelist Mariana Callejas, as recounted in Roberto Bolano's novel By Night in Chile. One of the few gathering places for artists after the coup, many artists attended — though almost no one would admit that they were there. Callejas was a gracious and lavish host, providing food and fine wine while her CIA husband tortured dissidents in the basement. We were drawn to the true and fictionalized accounts of the house because, as artists creating in the United States- we are in the house. Beyond historical commemoration, we needed to interrogate what it means to share our poems in the American salon while electrodes are attached to the genitals of our colleagues & comrades in basements around the world. We eat and drink the wine of our hosts. What is our level of complicity? Will we admit we were here? Will we have an explanation? What will our qualifications be?

Christopher Willes' visible Negotiation with the invisible

Screen Shot: Negotiation by Christopher Willes
Screen Shot: Negotiation

Click here to view the video of Negotiation.

What happens when 'talking' happens? It doesn't always make things clearer. But what else happens? Is there another kind of exchange, another kind of dance? How are we changed by listening, by looking? 

Canadian interdisciplinary artist Christopher Willes writes that in Negotiation,  "Two colours are modulated by permutations of the phrase 'Talking Doesn't Always Make Things Clearer' through an augmentation of text-to-speech software (in Max/MSP). A third color (center) is created through the combination of the two." 

What is being negotiated? Is this a negotiation between two people? A negotiation between two sides of some kind of conflict? Hmm. The three bands of color make the image suspiciously flag-like. Or is the negotiation more conceptual: a negotiation between words and meaning, between sign and signifier, between speaking and listening, looking and hearing, sight and sound?

Two people speaking. One on each side of the frame. They speak. There is the flash of thought. The flash of language. The exchange changes the speakers. Their colors change. The scene changes. I imagine the timing of the flashing corresponding to the sound contours of the spoken language. There are pauses where the screen remains still. The silence between sentences. The colors are clear. Without talking, it is as if after being stirred up, the sediment in some water settles and the water becomes clear again.

Gradually, the palette changes. Language is an erosion. Or is language itself changed, eroded, to reveal something else?

But am I reading this piece entirely wrong? Negotiation isn't a moving ideogram. It doesn't need me to parse its meaning. This kind of talking doesn't always make things clearer. I should just observe the dance of its change. Its flickering color shifts. Its process. We obscure with our talk and logic the apprehension of the thing itself. 

Reading can be a careful observation, a close noticing. Witnessing. An attention.

Why is this is a visual poem? It is about the process of language, of signification, of visual correlates to verbal communication. Language has been abstracted to its processes. Strip away the words and structures of the sentence. What's left is the physics of grammar. The fundamental forces of language. Like astrophysicists we might have to observe something that isn't there, inferring its presence by how its forces affect what is around it. A negotiation with the invisible, the inaudible, or with what has not been said.



Based in Toronto, Christopher Willes’ work explores the intersection of music, performance, and sound-art practices and often involves technology and live performers including musicians, dancers and actors. He studied at the Faculty of Music University of Toronto, and is currently a candidate for an MFA at the Milton Avery Graduate School, Bard College (NY.) His website is here.

Book artists who print on demand

Travis Shaffer Reworded
Travis Shaffer, Reworded (Self-Published, Print-on-demand book, BLURB, 2013). Image: Travis Shaffer

My last commentary began by asking what a print-on-demand artist's book might look like and explored works of conceptual writing that use the trade paperback form as a central aspect of their poetics.

I'd like to ask the question again, and offer a somewhat different print-on-demand approach:

So what might a conceptual, print-on-demand artist's book look like?

It might resemble Travis Shaffer's work.

Inscription, close up

Artist's Book: Conceptual, shown above, is literally printed on demand—by hand. The first copies were sold in person at the New York Art Book Fair, and it is now for sale through the artist's website. Despite being a conceptual or heady project, it is also highly personal, since every page bears a trace of the author's body and presence. As if to emphasize the personal nature of this seemingly impersonal work, when I ordered my copy this summer, I received a reply from the artist revealing just how non-automated the POD process can be:

"Amaranth Borsuk,

Thanks for your purchase of AB:C.

I will get it "printed" and sent out as soon as possible. Please pardon me that it may be 3-4 days until I am able to get the shipment out. My wife and I had our first child 5 days ago so. Pardon the slight delay.


Travis Shaffer"


Travis Shaffer's Print on Demand artist's book

Shaffer's book is a lovely object. Hand-lettered on Rives Lightweight paper, which has a luxurious softness, its 20 pages are perfect-bound in a pleasing 6" square format that even includes a hand-inscribed spine, mimicking the conventions of a trade paperback. The abbreviated title, AB:C, suggests the project's simplicity. Like a child's primer, each page contains a single word. Progressing through the book, we learn about its activating concept:


Shaffer plays with the time of the book: the time of creation, of reception, and of the turn between pages that lets language unfold. The book is a performance.

The book's cover

Travis Shaffer's AB:C Spine

Shaffer works extensively in print-on-demand form, but his other books hew more closely to our general understanding of the term. A member of ABC [Artists' Books Collaborative], an international collective of book artists working with POD, Shaffer has produced a number of books in homage to Ruscha's, such as A Few Pommes Frites (2012) [the limited-edition box includes scans of every french fry in a McDonalds small fry bag, and is packaged with the empty bag, receipt, and a napkin], Reworded (2012) [as seen in the teaser image for this post—poems composed from, and typeset like, the text from Ruscha's paintings in a given year], and  Thirtyfour Parking Lots (2008) [Google satellite images of the parking lots from Ruscha's 1967 book]. One might imagine a syllabus that pairs his NYSE: CBL Mall Maps (2010) with Rob Fitterman's Sprawl: Directory, both of which draw attention to the homogeneity of shopping mall geography.

Shaffer -- A few pommes frites cover

Reworded was created as part of ABC's group project ABCED, a collection of POD books created in honor of Ruscha's 75th birthday (and only available until his 76th, in December 2013). The alphabetical inversion in the project's title alludes to its unifying theme—the appropriation of and dialogue with Ed Ruscha's works. All of the books have been given past-tense verbs for titles, a gesture that both describes their process ("Abstracted," "Colored," "Collected," and Rorschached," for example) and evokes the "ED" to whom they are indebted.

Tony White, a book artist and Director of the Decker Library at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, recently made the case for considering such books "Artists' publishing," rather than "artists' books," in talks at Camera Club, New York and at the conference of the Art Libraries Society of North America. Such a distinction makes sense, given the engagement of these artists with mass-publication and the democratic multiple. I will be interested to hear more on the subject at CAA in Chicago in February, where White is chairing the following panel:

"It is what it is: artists’ books or artists’ publishing

Many artists, photographers, and graphic designers who are creating artist’s publications for the first time in this century are using the internet as a collaborative community, and creative publication ideologies are in flux. Many of these artists are attempting to re-categorize, rename or even re-establish their publication types as innovative and new, no longer as artists’ books or zines, but as something different. This flux is in large part due to the development of new online communities and networks for production, distribution, sales, and exhibitions, that have been transformed by the world wide web, print-on-demand technology, and the cultural and ideological transformations among artists and designers actively engaged in self publishing and DIY printing.  This has led to a shift away from using the phrase artists’ books, to artists’ publishing, when describing this new paradigm. 

Participants on this panel will discuss and address the following questions, among others.  What is the impact of this paradigm shift on the genre of artists’ books? How has the availability of print-on-demand impacted these publication types? Does it matter? Who produces them and why?  How and where are they sold, and to whom? What is the role and impact of internet distribution and sales? How is this impacting the form and content of these publications?"

Covers of ABCED works

The ABC collaborative has produced a number of wonderful books that are intertextually linked to Rusha's.

Many are featured in MIT Press's Various Small Books: Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha, edited by Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton, and Hermann Zschiegner a catalogue that lays bare the artist's influence.

Various Small Books -- cover resembles Ruscha's own books

Among those of interest:

Elisabeth Tonnard's Recounted (full disclosure: I am a big fan of Tonnard's work, and plan to profile her in a future commentary), which provides "textual snapshots" of Ed Ruscha's Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, using descriptions of swimming pools extracted from American novels published before 1968 (the year Nine Swimming Pools was published). Sources include Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Double Indemnity, among others.

Elisabeth Tonnard, Recounted

Also Eric Doeringer's Stained, an interactive book providing an index of 76 stains, from  L.A. tap water to "Blood Of The Artist," with which the reader can recreate Ruscha's 1969 boxed set Stains. Doeringer's many recreations of conceptual artworks include Real Estate Opportunities, which revisits the same vacant lots Ruscha photographed in 1970 and records their current state.

And see Paul Soulellis's Stripped: Sixty-Six Sunsets Stripped, which includes images of the sunset "stripped" from Google Image and lined up in strips along the top and bottom of the page in the manner of Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip.

Paul Soulellis Stripped (2013)

Soullelis also has a fascinating body of work and is himself tracing the use of appropriation in contemporary artists' books, particularly appropriation facilitated by digital media. His Library of the Printed Web is an invaluable (and growing) catalogue of such works. Soulellis theorizes this shift in an excellent blog post, "Search, Compile, Publish,"  where he describes the project this way:

"Almost all of the artists here use the search engine, in one form or another, for navigation and discovery.

These are artists who ask questions of the web. They interpret the web by driving through it as a found landscape, as a shared culture, so we could say that these are artists who work as archivists, or artists who work with new kinds of archives. Or perhaps these are artists who simply work with an archivist’s sensibility—an approach that uses the dynamic, temporal database as a platform for gleaning narrative.

In fact, I would suggest that Library of the Printed Web is an archive devoted to archives. It’s an accumulation of accumulations, a collection that’s tightly curated by me, to frame a particular view of culture as it exists right now on the web, through print publishing. That documents it, articulates it."

Soullelis is doing some excellent work cataloguing this emerging field. His tumblr is essential reading.




Selected Further Reading:

SFMOMA Interactive feature on Ruscha's word works

Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and Twenty Six Gasoline Stations scanned as part of Reed College's Digital Artists' Books collection.

Twenty Six Gasoline Stations digitized and described by the Tate as part of the Transforming Artists' Books Workshop (August 2013).

Simon Morris (publisher, Information As Material, profiled here), The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003):

"The Royal Road to the Unconscious was conceived by the artist Simon Morris in order to conduct an experiment on Sigmund Freud’s writing. Utilising Ed Ruscha’s book Royal Road Test as a readymade set of instructions, seventy-eight students cut out every single word from Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. On Sunday, June 1st, 2003, the artist, Simon Morris (thrower) threw the words out of the window of a Renault Clio Sport on Redbridge Road, Crossways, Dorset, travelling at a speed of 90mph, approximately 122 miles southwest of Freud’s psychoanalytical couch in London. The action freed the words from the structural unity of Freud’s text as it subjected them to an ‘aleatory moment’ – a seemingly random act of utter madness."

Jon Rafman, 16 Google Streetviews (Rafman has made trawling street view an art, and has amassed some amazing images, available at his site.)

MMMMarginalia: Notes on Publishing, the colaborative blog of Silvio Lorusso, Francesca Depalma, and Francesca Coluzzi.

Also see the following related material at this site:

Elaine Equi, "The Poetry of Ed Ruscha"

Rick Prelinger on the art of appropriation at Kelly Writers House

Nico Vassilakis on the poetics of looking

Vispo by Nico Vassilakis

Pleasure in viewing is a pleasure to think freely, visually, without destroying it with interior chatter. (from Notes 3: for Martín Gubbins)

What can you say about seeing? It’s wonderful, well, that’s not nearly enough. Try as you might, and thousands have, to describe the joyous nature of seeing...It’s a passage from the thing through the eye into the brain. Seems like a fantastically long journey where anything can happen. And it does. And no one ever seems to really be there. No one ever gets it right, so we continue to look, to stare. (from Staring Poetics Appendix One.)

A conversation with Nico Vassilakis about reading, looking, and visual poetry where my questions are invisible.

Nico writes:


Perhaps I state the obvious when I write of staring at the alphabet and watching letters dislocate. Few vispoets write about what they do, even fewer about how they see. 

The alphabet has a tendency to transmogrify when stared at long enough. It unravels and informs the viewer/reader of its simultaneous realities, that is, the housing of both visual and verbal elements.

Alphabets were the first steps away from prehistory and the ever-morphing reach into future speech. But sign and design logic have always been part of humanity's presence on the planet. Alphabet is about finding the most common way to comply in order to communicate with the widest population. Grammar's a yet further reach toward acquiescence. But that's what we work with, or else we'd each have our own individual alphabet. I'm not against that, it's just too damn inconvenient for everyone. 

Visual poetry, for me, strips away the dominant verbal default we use to communicate. It relies instead on our dominant sense, eyeball intake. The language of seeing encompasses volumes and volumes of words, as well as, eliminates the awkward and limited capabilities of speech.

Vispo by Nico Vassilakis


What's reading? Reading is an intentional look. We see or visually gather information in saccades. We seek cadence for saccades to capture a rhythm in order to proceed along a page. We hope cadence engages long enough for the eye to absorb it as reading writing. Writing is organized markings. The eye sees thinking, it reads a trail of thinking, left behind. Writing is organized markings left behind.

So, poems. How to read poems? And what of their cleverness? Virtually all writing is bound by margin. Margin logic and the act of returning. The saccades stop and return to their margin of origin, only lower each time. To confine and constrain. The eye forced to read marginalized space, unable to stretch past the fence, at least not often enough as we'd like.

from Moment's Notice by Nico Vassilakis

So, the eye likes to locate itself, to pick a spot to start. It's grown accustomed to starting, at least in Rome, at the upper left hand corner. It then marches from margin to margin like a foot soldier. The eye is easily bored if the markings aren't fetching. It seeks attractive thought, glowing thought, left behind.

So, if the eye were tracked while reading a textual poem it might look like endless tide coming onto shore.  What happens to the eye when it reads visual poems? It gets lost. It's desperate to locate a beginning. The eye is confused and tries to determine if it should be in reading or viewing mode. Two different eyes colliding. The tracked eye looking at vispo would tend to be chaotic, not orderly. It might resemble drunken spider webs or pin the tail on the donkey or any aleatory start looking for logic.

Is reading visual poetry a learned experience? Or is someone just preset to be drawn to it? I think it's about being fascinated by the interior space of letters.  You either are or you aren't.

from Moment's Notice by Nico Vassilakis


Where do letters go? After watching them discorporate. Liberated from confinements of the word. Simple accumulations that become decorative elements in visual poetry. Fascinations with representative sound units. After attempts at altering. After value's been reassigned and ciphers adjusted. What next for the emancipated letter? Digitize and spiff up, done. Letter as fingerprint. More letters, Letters that exceed, asemic Letters, done. For the letters that choose not to return to the word. Is it a kind of suffocation?

My interest is in watching letters discorporate from the words that contain or confine them.

The first tendency of letters, when newly released from their word bondage, is to become decorative. This is usually followed by design logic and visual pun, as well as other compositional templates. Next, letters either proceed into new visual poetics or return to the word. We are taught to return, but are seldom given an option. Yes, they said, let us go, free us. 

from a Short Essay on Looking by Nico Vassilakis


 If words convey the image of a thought and letters are part of words, then parts of letters are...what's the most suitable response here?

In the past forty years, we have gone further into the neutron discovering more and more material. That final unit of information is what we seek in order to associate it to all other living material. Without the tiniest bit of the letter how can we have the word. A molecule is not possible without a sequence of atoms. The blind vispoets move about in the dark of their homes making and breaking code according to instinct. Science is the perfect unresolved pest.

vispo by Nico Vassilakis

Where letters are conterminous Where a letter neighbors another Where letters detach from the word they're caught in Where letters only huddle and flank each other Where letters verge into themselves Where letters are visually contiguous Where parts of their bodies touch Where letters are flush against the other Where letters fringe and skirt other letters Where letters abut nearby letters Where a letter attracts its fellow letter and makes actual contact. This is where my eyes move toward This is what they seek Where a letter is its own magnet Not only to other letters but to my eyes' attention You find this in the streets Walking among our communal visual texts Out of the corner of our eyes

from Staring Poetics by Nico Vassilakis

Which letter or portion of that letter will quell this desire of yours? 

 I've arranged these letters.Put them together—next to one another. Yes, I have.

There is no one word to satisfy what it is you want of me. No collection of words. No sentence affirming or destructive enough to keep you fully engaged.

Paragraphs, as you know, are too loud, so those we relinquish. 

from Moments Notice by Nico Vassiakis

...bit, fraction, piece, scrap, cantle, shred, tatter; end, leftover, oddment, remainder, remnant, stub; portion, section, segment; chip, flake, shard, shatter, shiver, sliver, splinter; clipping, paring, shaving; atom, crumb, dribble, fleck, flyspeck, grain, granule, molecule, morsel, mote, nubbin, nugget, particle, patch, scruple, snip, snippet, speck, tittle of a letter.


Artist, poet, and writer Nico Vassilakis was born in New York City. His books include the recent visual poetry collection MOMENTS NOTICE (Luna Bisonte Prods, 2013.) With Crag Hill, he co-edited the major anthology of visual poetry, The Last Vispo Anthology: Visual Poetry 1998-2008 (Fantagraphics, 2012), and has served as coeditor of Sub Rosa Press. He currently lives in New York. His website has many examples of his work plus links to many other of his publications and writing.