Five Chilean visual poets
Visual poetry is an odd egg: it never seems to extinguish. It continues at the periphery, way back in the corner of our literary eye. Possibly surprising is that many poets around the world have a thriving fascination with text as visual material. Perhaps vispoets stare at words longer than most, but their work is enmeshed in the design elements found in the alphabet and in symbols generally. What vispoets alter is the very conveyance of communication. Words are exchanged for letters, for markings endowed with different hierarchies of meaning.
During a recent visit to Chile, which included a launch of The Last Vispo Anthology in Santiago, I met several robust visual poets eager for community and conversation. There’s quite an excitement in meeting people doing similar work - the camaraderie was excellent.
As part of these meetings, we determined a need to create a venue by which others can follow some work coming out of Chile. Of course, what is gathered here is a very small sampling that we hope can be expanded on at a later date.
The poets collected here wield a mastery over visual poetry. The work is both exacting and loose. It roams freely and explores a variety of potentials. From Anamaría Briede’s drafting forays into word geometry to Gregorio Fontén’s visual scores and sounded mappings. From Kurt Folch’s collaged hallucinations of text to Martín Bakero’s chaotic maelstroms of excess. And finally, to Martín Gubbins’s committed precision to logic and playfulness.
So what makes this visual poetry specifically Chilean, you might ask? The answer to that lies in the question: what is visual poetry? Fidgeting with visual language is a human's propensity to merge erudition and play. As it’s a global predilection, this creating visual poetry, the answer to that question is: nothing. By nothing, I mean to say that our approaches to manipulating alphabet may be culturally different, but the impetus to create is a communal experience.
An overview of the past hundred years of Chilean visual poetry is filled with gaps. Chilean poetry, mostly lyrical, has been resistant and distrustful of visual and sound experiments. The timeline begins with Vicente Huidobro, who claims to have published his calligrammes before Apollinaire’s. Then, between the 1920s and the 1950s, a small group of surrealist poets explored the page visually. The second half of the century started with the work of Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, and Alejandro Jodorowski, among others, who collaborated in the seminal publication ‘quebrantahuesos’ in the late ’50s. The ’60s saw the appearance of Guillermo Deisler and Dámaso Ogaz, followed by the poets Raúl Zurita, Juan Luis Martínez, and Gonzalo Millán in the ’80s, whose visual work most stood out. The 2000s and onward are represented here by poets following a tradition informed by both such Chilean roots and the Brazilian, English, Canadian, and Latin American concrete movements of the twentieth century.
Visual poetry, in the last few years, has enjoyed a dynamic surge. The ability to share work electronically has dealt a mighty blow to previous pockets of isolation. Our Chilean friends offer you their salutations and a glimpse into their world, as it is much like ours.
Trevor Joyce is an Irish poet whose innovation and creativity constitutes a sustained challenge to the conventions of poetry and reading in Ireland and abroad. Writing and publishing in Ireland since 1967, Joyce has seventeen collections of poetry and is cofounder and coeditor of New Writers’ Press. He is director of the SoundEye poetry festival in Cork, now in its eighteenth year, and is a member of Aosdána, a nationalaffiliation of creative artists in Ireland. The materials gathered here include a bibliography of Joyce’s poetry and criticism, an interview with the poet, a critical essay, and a gallery of book covers and photographs. The bibliography itemizes Joyce’s poetry, critical writing, editorial work, and recorded readings, along with an extensive list of reviews, secondary criticism, and biographical references. My thanks to the readers and scholars of Joyce’s work who helped in the collation of the bibliography. The interview dates from November 2010 and addresses Joyce’s poetic approach to and use of language, the formal and stylistic innovations of his oeuvre, and the importance of nationality to his thinking and writing.
John Ashbery and the arts
While painting occupies a primary place in John Ashbery’s sense of the arts, his poems also have to do with the possibilities he has gleaned from individual artists in nearly every medium. In “Jane Freilicher,” an essay on the painter and his close friend, he writes:
We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing. But there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage’s music, Merce Cunningham’s dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone. I could see all of this entering into Jane’s work and Larry’s and my own. And then there were the big shows at the Museum of Modern Art, whose permanent collection alone was stimulation enough for one’s everyday needs. I had come down from Cambridge to catch the historic Bonnard show in the spring of 1948, unaware of how it was already affecting a generation of young painters who would be my friends, especially Larry Rivers, who turned from playing jazz to painting at that moment of his life.
Poetry and painting are set in an interlinked relation of the arts, with music, dance, movies, theater, and literature, all feeding new aesthetic questions as they come into being.
With these overlapping affinities in mind, we went about assembling “John Ashbery and the arts” wanting to explore how artists across genres respond creatively to Ashbery’s poetry. Our most exciting revelation was how much everyone here fashioned work by reading himself or herself into Ashbery’s. That is to say, contributors created their pieces through reading their own sensibilities into Ashbery’s, and not the other way around.
The distinction is as subtle as it is generative. We discovered that the house of Ashbery is generous and catalytic: were many of the artworks published here to be gathered under other circumstances, they might not seem to have much in common. But instead, they roam through dance, theatre, poetry, music, translation, and essay, in styles so divergent, they push at the outer description of the word while still tracing correspondent lines to Ashbery’s work.
One of Ashbery’s particular strengths is how he accommodates so very much. His dexterity with tone allows for compositions into which he can place almost anything — movie titles, comets, skaters, abstract painting, and comics — and make them work. More precisely, perhaps, not so much “work,” as mystify, surprise, open language in ways that would be nearly impossible to anticipate.
Ashbery has discernibly influenced a number of poets. But the word “influence” here is much too confining to convey the impact he has had across genres and art forms, or the rich the impact that all the arts have had on him. His effect amounts more to a permission writ large: a permission to range widely, to experiment mightily, to be not like Ashbery, but to be allied in a deep sensibility of possibilities of the avant-garde and “this thing there is no name for.”
It is as though a day which had begun brilliantly in the blaze of a new sunrise had become transfixed as a certain subtle change in the light can cast a chill over your heart, or the sight of a distant thin ribbon of cirrus ebbing into space can alter everything you have been feeling, dropping you back years and years into another world in which its fragile reminder of inexorable change was also the law, as it is here today. You know now the sorrow of continually doing something that you cannot name, of producing automatically as an apple tree produces apples this thing there is no name for. And you continue to hum as you move forward, but your heart is pounding. (John Ashbery, “The Recital,” in Three Poems)