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Category Archives: Visual Poetry

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978, ed Taylor Mignon (Isobar Press)

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978, ed Taylor Mignon (Isobar Press)

This intriguing anthology features the work of nine visual poets active in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, artists whose work was largely ignored by the mainstream and which, as a consequence, has been little documented. 

The VOU Club, from which the anthology takes its name, was founded by Kitasono Katue in 1935. His pioneering work in abstract and visual poetry influenced the younger generation of poets featured in the anthology. Kitasono maintained links with a wide range of writers, corresponding with Ezra Pound, James Laughlin, Kenneth Rexroth, and the Brazilian concrete poet Haroldo de Campos. He was also involved in Surrealism. 

The poems in the anthology tend to the purely abstract, making little or no use of words and letters, even as graphic elements. Where text is used the artists generally shun Japanese characters, perhaps in reaction to a tendency of Western poets to see Japanese ideograms as exotic. The techniques employed vary from photographic media, to collage, to drawing. Dada and Surrealism are obvious influences. 

There are many delightful images in the book. One of my favourites is ‘two people eating the moon’ by Tsuji Setsuko, whose work has a strong Surrealist style.  She used a camera to create her poems, photographing her own collages. She edited an avant-garde magazine O which featured the work of several of the poets included in this book.

The influence of Surrealism, in this case the paintings of Magritte, is again evident in ‘anti-illusion 2’ by Shimizu Toshihiko. He was a jazz critic who wrote the liner notes for Japanese issues of albums by Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, and whose collages appear on the covers of albums by the Stan Tracey Sextet and the Masahiko Togashi Trio. The Japanese characters in ‘anti-illusion 2’ include fleeting references to jazz.

Another interesting image is Seki Shiro’s ‘plastic poem: parole sans parole b-2’, part of a series featuring different letters incorporated into abstract visual designs. He was associated with Tsuji Setsuko’s O before founding his own influential magazine δ.

A number of the artists included in this anthology had or have international connections and have shown and published their work in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Seki Shiro, for example has exhibited many times in Europe. Takahashi Shôhachirô, who died in 2014, also exhibited internationally, including a joint show in Los Angeles with Ian Hamilton Finlay, and exhibitions with Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Shiomi Mieko.

VOU regularly published experimental non-Japanese artists and writers in its journal. This international orientation, suggests Eric Selland in his helpful introduction, may be one of the reasons the Japanese mainstream, preoccupied at the time with defining a new Japanese identity, marginalized these artists. Another contributing factor might be the intermedial nature of the work raising questions about whether this was ‘poetry’ or ‘visual art’. A third reason for the comparative neglect of this group perhaps lies with Western poets being more interested in Zen and haiku than in experimental poetry. 

The anthology has an interesting history which underlines how precarious is the survival of much of this material. The editor, Taylor Migon, began researching Japanese avant-garde visual poetry more than twenty years ago. His desire to put together an anthology led him to the American scholar and publisher Karl Young of Light & Dust, who proposed publishing the work online and as a CD-ROM. A limited selection of work was posted online, but the project did not progress beyond this. 

Young died in 2015 but left instructions for his executors that the planned anthology with Mignon should be published. Funds were supposedly available for this in Japan but never materialized. However, Mignon was able to recover a great deal of material he had sent Young and had feared was lost. Paul Rossiter at Isobar Press then stepped in and VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio, 1958–1978, which is dedicated to Young’s memory, is the result.

An online archive of material published by Karl Young’s Light & Dust, available here, gives a good sense of the wider context within which Japanese avant-garde art was circulating. The website includes a section on Kitasono Katue, but also features a wide array of work from different parts of the world, work by bpNichol, Michael McClure, a Fluxus section, and much more. 

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio, 1958–1978 is a fascinating addition to a small body of publications in English which document the avant-garde tradition in Japanese poetry and its international links. Mignon provides useful contextual information in an Afterword to the book, as well as including a page of biographical data on each of the poets featured. There is also an excellent Bibliography for anyone wanting to explore further. 

Simon Collings 8th March 2022

Responses. Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář Translated by Ryan Scott & Kevin Blahut (Twisted Spoon Press)

Responses. Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář Translated by Ryan Scott & Kevin Blahut (Twisted Spoon Press)

I bought this book because of the sequence which forms the second part – ‘crumplages’ of photographs, accompanied by quotes from Kafka – having discovered Kolář’s name online in relation to myriad forms of collage. These often gave names to ways of cutting, folding, juxtapositioning or distorting images I and many others already use in visual arts. Kafka’s Prague is an entertaining and thought-provoking sequence, with deconstructed and re-imagined buildings, reproduced in full colour, opposite brief and elusive fragments from Kafka, often to do with death, dreams and confusion. But it is Responses that has enthralled me.

Kolář drew on Surrealism and Dada in his writing and visual art, although he later moved beyond and away from these influences, and much of his art he considered visual poetry. In response to the Czech regime he lived under he made silent, visual poems, but even these mute texts had to be published in samizdat form to avoid punishment by the Communist rulers. By the early 1970s he was in exile, and Responses, a gathering of 71 sections of notes and reflection (he sometimes referred to it as an interview without questions) was completed in Paris. It would not be published until 1984, in Germany, and only now has it been translated into English.

It’s a fascinating statement of poetics, and as such is a product of its time and place rather than a manifesto or definitive statement, a fact the ‘Translator’s Note’ makes clear. It contains some grand statements about Art, as well as personal recollections, memories and asides. It discusses specific ways to write and collage, ponders the idea of fate, authenticity, poetic form, and how to find out about the world:

I said before I didn’t feel as if tearing, crumpling, and cutting reproductions and texts were acts of destruction. It felt more like a kind of interrogation, as though I were constantly querying something, or something were querying me. I asked myself: What was beyond the page, the letters, the picture, inside of it all? I knew something had to be there. (page 38)

This inquisitiveness underpins the whole of Responses, and is something I feel akin to, something I ask my students to be. Kolář is sometimes wilfully awkward: he won’t work with established forms; he dismisses his previous work; he perhaps clings to, and defends, what we might regard as outdated ideas of the avant-garde:

It would seem that experimentation and daring in art presents more than a danger to wrongheaded people that anything else. Start to think for yourself and you are more dangerous than anything that can be made. The truth is, all the power of art and literature largely comes from its ability to produce a shift to a new field of perception. (page 14)

I find these declamatory statements, which emerge from many quieter passages, provocative and thought-provoking, but Kolář is also aware the writer/artist has to contemplate and understand things for themselves, before they can create. ‘It’s imperative to appreciate poetry’s historical development’, he says, but goes on to suggest that ‘[e]very attempt at change and revolution came out of something’. (page 18) He also states that writers must ‘learn from those who are expanding it [the field of perception] towards other disciplines, whether in art, science, philosophy, or other fields.’ (page 15)

Kolář, however, had always been drawn ‘to locate the points of friction between visual art and literature’ (page 12), and suggests that ‘[t]he material itself gives you a chance to think differently’. (page 22) ‘For the poet, language is a type of understanding as well as misunderstanding’ (page 24), seems to me a powerful statement for those of us who struggle to navigate, filter and make sense of the 21st century world of (dis) information overload. ‘Form or content becomes trivial when we fail to notice the hidden meaning’ states Kolář (page 51). Responses is rooted in a different version of the world to ours, but it reveals a restless, creative, thoughtful artist/writer at work, whose ideas can still challenge and provoke.

I think every artist one day must, like it or not, try to effect what’s called a revolution: a reshaping and reinvention of poetry as a whole […] (page 17)

Rupert Loydell  21st January 2022

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