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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

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