Squaring the vowels

On the visual poetry of Judith Copithorne

Square Vowels by Judith Copithorne
Square Vowels

A reading journal: 

Letterforms turned to smoke or swirl. Letters become flame. Fire. Perhaps the almost image of a face?

Vowels: a hoop, an O. The water-shimmer of another O, like a tree reflected in a  lake. Perhaps a Hebraic glyph.

Blue flame in the centre. An O, a droplet, a throat, a thought cave. The rippling of water is the flicker of fire. An O and an O and an O: round vowels enclosed in this squared frame.

A square vowel: pronounced with digital lips. And this a digital image. Chopped, refracted.

I can read the signs of digital manipulation. The cutting, the rippling, the superimposition. This to me is like a form, like a poem which emerges through the sonnet form. Like reading brushstrokes and the story of paint in a Van Gogh or a Pollack.

Layers: overlays. Three dimensions reaching back into the frame. Contrast between the round O in the middle distance with the rippling square-based O in the foreground. The blue flame O behind. And beyond, a squared and fragmented red O. And flickering in between, the orange broken fire-flame O.

I want to speak these vowels. Perhaps pronounce them as they ripple or flicker or flame. Can my mouth assume these shapes? My mind? The interplay of glyphs, of movement, of imagined sound.

Now: an orange flame that resembles a small bird. Something about this akin to Native Canadian art. And all that blue: water, or near-dark dusk when the fires are lit?

But there are signs of the images’ making. Chopped digital collage. Overlapping. Not as fluid or flame-like as I first imagined. I’m taken in, turned round with the movement, the whirling, rippling, lured away from seeing these cut edges, the slicing, fragmentation, the digital. Then, my reading pulls out for a long shot, seeing again the notation of movement, the painterliness, (sound-) waving of vowels.


Judith Copithorne has been creating visual poetry for over 45 years. We recently spoke about her work:

GB:  Like many of your visual poems, this piece has an intense spiritual attentive quality to it, a kind of unpretentious mysterious quality, and a kind of joyful shout-out to the delight that one can experience with forms and expression. I’ve given some of my reading notes above, how do you imagine reading this poem?

JC: What you have to say about the individual portions of this piece is gorgeous and I am very impressed and honored by this but this in not quite how I was working in this piece as far as I remember.  I was working in a more physical manner with the actual visual reactions to the various physical attributes of the piece.  Not too much red, just a little bit of straightening here and so forth.  And so especially when working such a nonliteral area I am basically pretty intuitive although if I attend to it I can usually come up with conceptual referents.  And also in general I would characterize my attention as being a combination of left and right brain attributes. In fact a balance of these processes feels, and seems to be important to me.

As to the first question I can really only answer thank you to you and not much else.  These pieces are all gifts.  I have very little control over them although I have strong feeling and ideas the actual expression of them is thanks to things I really can't control.  And maybe my usual inability to do things any other way may actually is in itself be a boon in that it forces me to depend of the kindnesses of the rest of universe. But it makes it pretty fraught if anyone wants me to commit to producing anything.  In fact I simply don't agree to produce any actual visual poetry or written creative work unless I actually have it already in hand and I always only offer work that I have already produced.  That way when I get something new on the page it is a delightful surprise.

And this piece that you chose really was a surprise to me when it was finished which happened very quickly as I remember. Firstly I have very seldom used color in my work for a variety of reasons. But sometimes especially since I have been using a computer program, I get grabbed by the excitement and richness of the color available on it just as I sometimes get swept away by the variety of fascinating “tools” available although I only have a black and white printer so I only get to see the color on screen.  I quite often print up the color pieces, which I have recently started doing, in black and white. If they work well in black and white I feel less extravagant about them.  I haven’t tried to print this one in black and white actually and when I have finished with this interview I will try this and see what the result is.  I am afraid that it may not have as much contrast as it should have to work well in black and white but it is always interesting to see.

And also in answer to your questions specifically about the piece "Squared Vowels" I should say that part of my project with this piece was simply to fill effectively fill the whole page, square the vowels and the piece as a whole, as I quite often don't do that.

This piece is a bit of an anomaly to me as I have not used that form of composition, and as well, I hadn’t much used the function on the computer that produced the outlining and modulating of the shapes and colors.  And as I said I have not usually used so much color as I have used in these pieces that I have done in the last couple of months.  So I had several quite happy surprises when I saw the final result of these actions.

I can't really imagine at this point orally "reading" this poem out loud.  This maybe because I haven't had time for a long time to work on oral expression or maybe it really just is visual.  I think that if I had time to work on this I might be able to expand it into the oral realm.  I sometimes do read some of my visual poetry out loud when pressed but it is always pretty surprising to me and it has been years since I felt as if I had any handle on that.

Now here I guess I should clarify the nature of my pieces on vowels.  They do not usually have the same literalness or linguistic qualities for me as the pieces I do that are built out of, or around, or with linear, linguistically derived language-oriented or even literal and transparent word-formed writing.  Usually I simply let the vowels be either sound pieces or, more often, abstract visual objects to be worked with as that.

So what I was involved with here was likely a simple combining of vowel shapes into what would hopefully become an interesting gestalt.  And here, as elsewhere, the operation of chance was a huge motivator for me.  Here, I was mainly, I think, learning about how I could make these various "layers"  (each letter is a separate "layer") interact, work with each other without cutting across each other too much and so on.  I have always been interested in "layers"—that is what the Illustrator program calls them and that seems a good word for them.  I have always been interested in the layers of an onion, of clouds, of the skin and the mind. These words and ideas, which may appear at first to be quite simple, are actually gigantic in their reverberations as words, as physical phenomena, as ideas, as physical and conceptual processes and visual representations or references, which can be fascinating I find.

from Prism by Judith Copithorne

GB: You’ve been involved with visual poetry since the 1960s. How do you think it has changed—not only the work itself, but its place in literature and in the arts in general? How would you say your work has evolved over time?

JC: I started imagining how to combine visual and written work pretty early on.  I loved the illuminated pages from the Book of Kells that relatives sent at Christmas. And I wished to have the skills to produce political posters as I felt strongly about some of the problems in the 50's and posters seemed a possibility for dealing with the frustrations and pain that the McCarthy era and other parts of the surround too various to mention were producing.  I had also had a chance to see some of the Constructivist work from the early 20's, although before the Internet, this sort of material was much harder to access. Then around 1961 I got to visit City Lights Bookstore and saw a small amount of some work by Henri Michaux and Brion Gysin. 

So, I had been given a lot of clues but there seemed to be a quite strong feeling at that time here in Vancouver  that to do anything that might represent that might seem to be disordered was at least a foolish thing to do and perhaps crazy or at least not “proper” and perhaps even “bad.” I don't know how far to go in talking about this.  There is so much that might be mentioned.  

So yes, things have changed a lot and have moved toward a more open view of the possibilities of art and literature and life itself although the forces of reaction and greed are also everywhere and physically getting more powerful and less ashamed of their own behavior.

I am not sure that my work has actually changed that much except that I have gradually become surer and clearer about what I want to, or at least, like to do.  The computer has certainly given me a huge amount more power and access which I love, although in the end, who we are doesn't change that much, or so it seems. Not that I know much about any of this.

GB: Your work has always closely engaged with materials and the opportunities those materials inspire. derek beaulieu writes that your, “suggestion that [your] pieces are drawn and not written and are hyphenated poem-drawings speaks to a textual hybridity which places looking on the same plane as reading.” And more recently, you have been using computers and so I think about the digital drawing and manipulations that you do in relationship to ‘drawing’ vs. ‘writing’ How do you conceive of the difference between drawing and writing, reading and looking? Does the computer change this?

JC: The statement that, "Your work has always closely engaged with materials and the opportunities those materials inspire" is such an excellent statement to start off with, although I won't be specifically answering it, except to say that when I learned about art and literature in the 50's, that was supposed to be a very important approach to making artistic or literary work. 

Having been so interested in the interface of the verbal and the visual since the 50's, ten years before I knew there was such a thing as concrete poetry, has perhaps made it easier for me to work in a variety of mediums which can be much more difficult for people today [particularly] if they have learned about these ideas especially in schools which were more prescriptive than descriptive or experimental.  But then sometimes such people will produce very clean, clear and tight work which is well worth studying.  And at the other end of the spectrum there are also some brilliant, wide-seeing and wild innovators working today, some of whom started quite recently. And then there are other of this grouping who have been around for what seems to me to have been a long time.  

So perhaps what you originally know and when you start isn't so likely to direct you as your inborn disposition. However this [could be so] if you conceptualize a whole range of existence being made up both of inert substances and then also energy—from the deep sleep range of 1 or 2 hertz per second up to beta waves at 16 Hertz per second through the speed of light waves, x-rays, gamma rays, the speeds of electrons and photons and even up beyond that to that which we have not been able to visualize the extent of—then many shifts of thinking and perceiving become easier to entertain.

And then there is the perception that [we] detect and respond to literary material in a variety of places in the brain, most of which are fairly removed (as space in the brain might be considered) from where the brain processes visual perception.
But it isn't completely cut and dried.  Sometimes when one part of the brain is damaged, another part has been known to take over. Then there are the cases of people with various forms of synesthesia.  And then there are the times when people are scanning a "transparent" document, that is to say a very literal and fascinating story for example, and at those times, they will quite often hold in their minds images sometimes in a similar form to how we are sometimes aware of a dream for a short time after we wake up.

This then could be seen as an example of visual perception which occurs due to stimulus in the language oriented parts of the brain.
We speak of ‘conceptualization’ but we haven't yet identified the actual nature of the physiological events which occur through the medium of the mind, brain, hand and finger movements of a draftsperson or collagist or through the lips of a sound poet although such people as jwcurry or gustave morin are working on this.

And when I say a draftsperson, I am also referring to those people who may be drawing on a computer.
Thus much of this is another attempt to point out some of the multiple bases of "textual-hybridity," mixed media, working in several media at once or concurrently, and/or interdisciplinary collage which was quite common in the 20th century and has become more so in the 21st century.

And then there is the rise of digital media particularly in the last 20 years which has given rise to more ways to think about this.
So basically, to skip the next three pages of my answers to your questions, I will answer that generally I find that the computer is a great boon and an economic annoyance.  And in fact, I find that all media have similar good and bad sides. 

Occupy by Judith Copithorne

GB: Much of your work was published in small press editions distributed to a number of artistic communities. Your work now frequently appears online (via Facebook, Flickr, as well as in online publications.) How do you think of community and publishing in terms of readers and fellow artists these days?

JC: [To] answer about communities of art and literature, particularly in regard to the computer, I guess my answer would be similar [to my last response.] Homo Sapiens is an extremely mutable species.  So adaptation is not particularly unusual. Whether I interact by mail, phone, face-to-face or on the computer doesn't seem to make a huge amount of difference in the end.

I do feel that the community of people interested visual poetry, surprising writing, experimentation in art and literature and in general discovering what is possible in order to open out the world of the mind and support the needs of the world is growing and it feeds me. I worry about some health concerns, our very precarious political and environmental situation, getting old and having to find another place to live when rents are so high, but I also feel support from some very important places including the very kind and generous interest of this community.

It is very important to me to have people to talk to.  It would be lovely if we all lived nearer to each other but comprehension, attention, intelligence, support are each made up primarily of non-physical things and they can be transmitted by letter, magazine, email, phone and book as well as by face-to-face contact. And it seems that life goes by very, very fast, and the faster it goes, the less boring it gets.  So this visual poetry activity I started doing back in 1961 has turned out to be an entry into a very exciting world.

And I also wanted to add that what I like best about visual poetry is the possibilities in it for surprise.  I like literary and artistic speculation. I want to speculate on ideas rather than on land.  I'd like creative endeavors be our future instead of fracked gas. I like all kinds of visual and concrete poetry and many other kinds of art and literature, but what I like best is seeing something that surprises me in a way that opens up hopefully satisfactory possibilities even if only to a small extent.

Canadian poet Judith Copithorne has been actively creating and publishing concrete poetry since 1961. She is also the author of several books of prose and textual poetry. An excellent discussion of her work by derek beaulieu can be found at LemonHound. More of her work can be found at ubuweb and at ditchpoetry  jwcurry’s 1cent #400 “for Judith with Love”  (2009) 1 cent #400 contains an extensive bibliography and is available from Room 302 Books: #302, 880 Somerset W., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1K 6R7.