Visual Poetry Rethinks the Page

by Anna Leahy

The physical page upon which the poem appears is a designed space: a chosen weight of paper, specific dimensions, a certain brightness. It creates a stable, material encounter for the reader in which the poem and its physicality cannot be separated. (Hearing the same poem aloud or seeing it on one screen or another is a different type of encounter, beyond the scope of this essay but worth pursuing in another context.) “Form has a direct effect on the silence beneath it,” Glyn Maxwell writes in On Poetry, “which is to say on the whiteness before and after it and where the lines end.” If the physical page is a designed space (it is!), is not the physical poem there also designed for visual reading?

As Joanna Drucker writes in her foreword to Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry, “The value of language was believed to reside in its meaning, not specific instantiation. Rhyme, meter, formal features, and structure in the service of voice drove poetic practice – but graphic work, frankly, was treated as a trivial novelty.” That was my experience through school. The text was an abstraction, language arranged for meaning separate from its material instantiation and my embodied encounter with it. Concrete poems were discussed as gimmicks, exercises, contrived and voiceless, too obvious. Because poems were presented to me and discussed in terms of what I’ll call voice-meaning, for many years, I did not take fully enough into account what could be meant by form, the import of the formal choices I was making as a young poet, or the scope of possibilities of form.

Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry, edited by Amanda Earl
Work seen on spread by Cinzia Farina

“The Dickinson Composite Series” by Jen Bervin

My assumptions broke open several years ago, when I heard Jen Bervin talk about The Dickinson Composites, her quilt-sized embroideries in red thread of the markings from some of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles, and The Desert, in which she sews blue thread over stretches of text. I sought out her erasures (in which no text is rendered completely invisible) of Shakespeare, which were published as the book Nets. In 2021, the University Galleries of Illinois State University published Bervin’s selected works under the title Shift Rotate Reflect. There, in a conversation with Claudia Rankine, author of the visually driven Just Us and Citizen, Bervin says about Nets and The Desert in particular, “What is important to me is the calibrated engagement and source is visibly apparent to the reader so that they can draw interconnections, arguments, and arrows created in the friction and conjoined space of what Donna Haraway would call a ‘contact zone,’ where the dynamics of the authors involved, the literary and historical context, approach and process all matter.” I would argue that any poem’s page might be considered a contact zone: a material space in which meaning is determined by co-existence of visible textual elements that is inevitably interaction as well as voice meaning.

But it’s difficult to think about this contact zone when reading a conventional textual poem on a standard-sized page because that design reinforces generally agreed-upon presentation. Non textual visual and tactile elements make me aware of the page differently, even when published as conventional books like Rankine’s Just Us and Bervin’s Nets, as opposed to Bervin’s three-dimensional work.

“Nets” by Jen Bervin

“The Desert” by Jen Bervin

In the last few years, two presses have expanded my sense of the poem as visually designed. Timglaset Editions in Sweden has published not only Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry) but also a book of speech bubble poems, a deck of cards containing ideas for poetry books, and a collection of patterned images created with a typewriter. One of the most stunning books from Timglaset is leavings by Kate Siklosi. The poems are lettered on and sewn among leaves, branches, shells, pods, and other organic subjects. In one poem, the letters f, a, l, t, e, r are superimposed—printed askew— over two pieces of bark, inner side facing up. In another, typed words, torn individually from a page, are tucked into a pine cone. Text on paper is sewn with red thread into and onto numerous other leavings. A snippet of paper sewn to a hole in the middle of a browned leaf reads, “bridges of the two / impact with the waves / to the skin.” Like Bervin’s work, is this a poem or visual art? Can it be both—and what does it mean to be both? In Bervin’s words to Rankine, “I love it when poems offer an array of ways they can be understood, including being understood as unknowable.”

Taking a somewhat different approach, much of the work published by Guillemot Press in the United Kingdom explores text as (rather than with) image and also image as text. Astra Papachristodoulou’s Constellations consist of simple star maps, with words placed along lines and Greek letters near the dots that represent the stars of the given constellation. To me, these shapes echo sentence diagrams, another way to re-see language’s structure. In Papachristodoulou’s Stargazing, the poems are formatted in text squares of ten lines. The first, “across the room,” is entirely back slashes; the second, “window distractions,” is seven lines of back slashes followed by eight stars in various tiny sizes sprinkled over the space of the last three not-lines; in the third, “ontomorphic,” five-petaled asterisk-flowers-as-stars stipple the space. Is this three poems, a unified series, or the poem evolving in space and time as we read? Ontomorphic suggests a pictorial element with culturally fixed associations, which seems to be part of why this visual poetry creates or carries linguistic meaning. Even without fixed voice-meaning, the poem means; it offers the sense of knowing.

“Signals” by Richard Carter

Likewise, the asemic writing in Richard Carter’s Signals, also published by Guillemot, echoes conventional text, the sense of linguistic pattern, even as the work alienates us because this text is unexpected, foreign. Pieces on left pages consist of squares in various shades of grayscale stacked to form a larger square. Pieces on the right look like typographical lettering, but are they a language? The visually oriented reader of this book is able “to perceive contrasting shapes in space, to parse them as discrete, symbolic arrangements, and to evaluate them as linear sequences running from left to-right.” But in this uncanny valley of visible language, the intention “is to foster a sense of the viewing relations involved in receiving and attempting to decipher alien communication.” Signals is an example, then, of poetry that can be understood as unknowable.

Let’s start again without relying the usual conventions and assumptions about voice-meaning. “Let’s start with poetry’s inventions that are absolutely required—their names are something and nothing—and see what comes of them,” says Maxwell. The work I’ve discussed can be called experimental, a word that shares its Latin roots with experience. Any poem on the page is a particular reading experience. Or as Dona Mayoora says about visual poetry, “Viewing, reading, and knowing are three different things” (in Judith). Or as Maxwell puts it, “whatever it is this time, just don’t make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing.” Encounters with the work of Rankine, Bervin, Siklosi, and others have heightened my awareness of writing and reading poems as processes and interactions—cognitive, physical, and temporal.

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