One of the unusual features of 2021 anthology Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry is its list of 1,181 visual poets. As editor Amanda Earl writes in her introduction, the prompt for publishing the collection and tracing this world-spanning network of practitioners was the underrepresentation of women in anthologies not only in the twentieth, but also the twenty-first century. There is a contradiction between the vibrant ecosystems of creativity and experimentation across media and art forms in contemporary poetry and language art by women, and their wider acknowledgement
Both gender and the status of the form itself have played a part in this marginalisation. Renowned experimental typographic poet Johanna Drucker reflects in her foreword to Judith (itself named for the influential Judith Copithorne, who has been making visual pieces since the 1960s) that in poetry, “graphic work, frankly, was treated as a trivial novelty”. Even now, she writes, outlets for visual poetries “are hardly integrated into mainstream literary venues”.
Visual poetry (or “vispo”), object poetry, sculptural poetry, language art are all terms that have been used to describe these poetries, which challenge the boundaries between literary, visual and performance arts, between art and craft, amateur and professional. Where the Concrete Poetry movement of the mid-twentieth century treated text itself as an object – with experiments in collage, shaped blocks of type and page patternings of repeated letters – a significant strand of current visual poetics is concerned with materiality. Practitioners are taking text off the page and into acrylic on canvas, phials of salt, wooden Jenga towers; on to plexiglass, walls, vintage linen, pebbles, eggshells. Kate Siklosi rubs Letraset on to fragile, degradable surfaces, such as tree bark and seed cases. Vilde Bjerke Torset’s “Complex Thought Hatching” combines asemic writing with embroidery, as thread loops through silk. In these works, the materiality is not decorative, or illustrative of the text, but an essential part of the poem: it is the poem.
For her “Melissa” project focusing on bees and sustainability, Astra Papachristodoulou has moulded words into bio-resin hexagons and made a beeswax book. Papachristodoulou explains: “My sculptural poems are often small in scale, ephemeral and biodegradable, functional, and made to decay; they utilise found or ecologically friendly materials and place nonhuman others at the centre of injustice. Through a careful curation of text and texture, my poems often shed light onto the human footprint and our relationship with its material properties, thus enabling readers to reconsider the footprint of materials in society.”
Where text does appear on paper in these contemporary material poetries, it has been cut, torn, mashed; rethreaded and interwoven with human detritus, plant gatherings. Briony Hughes’ “Kenning-Noise”, commissioned for the group show Text-Isles and published in the catalogue of the same name, combines linguistic and industry findings: a coil of abandoned fishing rope is strung with bookbinding thread and scraps of paper stamped with translations from Old English and Old Norse. “I want my reader to handle my poetry and take their own route through the text – this sense of agency and collaboration is important to me,” says Hughes. “Sometimes the page feels too contained or constricted, like it is calling me to put pen to paper to produce a sonnet or another historicised masculinist form. To work through this, I refigure what the page can be. Sometimes it is made of torn fragments or a 13ft long receipt scroll, but sometimes my page isn’t paper at all.”
Camilla Nelson’s pieces span the material and the performative: apples inscribed with words that scar as the fruits grow; jars of crab-apple jelly that Nelson inoculated with ink dots, accompanying a poetic bookwork. The performance installation “Poem Factory” involves “eroding” a text through a series of machinic processes, including eating. Karenjit Sandhu similarly moves between performance, page-based text and objects. “The Irritating Archive” combines costume, character, narrative, a map and series of object poems – one of them a ball of spiky, word-laden luggage tags.
Some of these poets have trained or identify as artists and are exhibited at traditional galleries. Redell Olsen was winner of the 2020-21 DARE Art Prize, her project Weather, Whether Radar: Plume of the Volants showing at the Tetley gallery, while Caroline Bergvall has staged installations at Tate Modern and Turner Contemporary. For many, however, YouTube is often the tutor of choice, or necessity; Instagram, Etsy and specialist blog and magazine sites provide outlets for showing work. As Earl also notes, much of this poetic activity is conducted through small, clustered ecosystems of exchange and support. Papachristodoulou’s online Poem Atlas gallery, Olsen’s Poetic Practice teaching and events at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the Small Publishers Fair in Conway Hall, central London have been valuable sites for me in meeting, showing, being inspired, finding networks of interest.
Far from being a “trivial novelty”, there is an ethics and politics underlying these visual poetries. The materials chosen can be informed by and themselves act as critique. Mado Reznik has made installations of hundreds and thousands of small knots or nodes – nuditos – of lamp-wick thread in a body of work that “revolves around 30,000, a symbol of the number of those disappeared because of state repression during the last civic-military dictatorship in Argentina”, she writes in Judith. Siklosi’s 2022 collection Leavings closes with a section entitled “a mend”, concerned not only with mending but a-mending. Its repurposed texts come from Canadian legal documents, declarations; in one image two torn rectangles are sewn like flags to the stem of a seedhead.
Recently, Papachristodoulou has been making poetic protest banners, which she takes on demonstrations. Banner poetry, she says, “is the coming together of poetry and protest banner literature, and stands as a societal intervention, as a reflection of one’s position in relation to social and ecological issues. It has the potential to destabilise canons, making the production and consumption of poetry more accessible and making room for healing through stitching and repurposing. There is something about being present, bodies chanting together, using language and gestures to express common ideas, that projects alliance – there are elements of unity and strength in physicality.”
Amanda Earl (ed.), Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry, Timglaset Editions (2021).
Astra Papachristodoulou (ed.), Text-Isles: A Selection of Visual Poems Exploring Text and Textiles, Poem Atlas (2021).
Karenjit Sandhu, Poetic Fragments from the Irritating Archive, Guillemot Press (2022).
Kate Siklosi, Leavings, Timglaset Editions (2022).
Words: Caroline Harris
Caroline Harris is a writer, publisher and Poetic Practice PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her own visual poetry includes the pamphlets SCRUB Management Handbook No.1 Mere (Singing Apple Press), Type Flight and Cut-out Bambi (Small Birds Press). Handmade bookworks are held in the National Poetry Library and Bodleian Library (UK) and Bavarian State Library (Germany); the “Clootie Collars” ribbon poems are on Poem Atlas and “Clootie Ribbons” installation was exhibited at the Art Park Gallery, Rhodes. Her PhD research focuses on the poetics of deer and the emerging field of cute studies. She is co-organiser of AWW-STRUCK: Creative and Critical Approaches to Cuteness and founder of Small Birds Press. Find Caroline on Instagram here.