Review by Alison Watkins
The Last Vispo Anthology: Visual Poetry 1998-2008
Nico Vassilakis and Crag Hill, editors
Fantagraphic Books, 2012
The Last Vispo Anthology, by Nico Vassilakis and Crag Hill, seeks to capture the explosion of visual poetry that surfaced as the result of computerization and digitization intersecting the humanities in the decade between 1998-2008. By naming the collection The Last Vispo Anthology, Vassilakis and Hill announce the demise of the genre, as if through the act of naming, the art form veers off toward irrelevance. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, but also clearly serious, Vassilakis and Hill’s robust collection acknowledges that the speed and vector of the evolution of Vispo’s new tools (software, computers, electronic and digital devices) and new awareness of materials (words, marks, letters, pixels, images, spatiality, dimensionality) are transforming poetic experiences in perplexing, enigmatic, and from time to time disarming ways.
Even as digitization and computerization in literature become ongoing certainties destined to change the nature of reading, of writing, and ultimately of language itself, so too does visual poetry’s current revival contribute largely to those ends. Vassilakis and Hill have taken a snapshot of Vispo at a moment in time when typography, space, composition, rhythm, the color and surface of language, even the foundations of language have become more visible, more momentous, while at the same time words have been set free of their relationship with letters. Letters have detached themselves from print’s linearity, and re-associated with space and scale and design, with dimensionality. The alphabet is reinventing itself by way of visual poetry, and in this anthology of creative work and creative essays about what’s going on in visual poetry, Vassilakis and Hill observe, collect and codify the spectacle, while posing appropriate questions, and making grand gestures toward understanding.
What pushes cognition towards visual poetry? What can we learn from Vispo’s attention to the materials of language, to the visuality of words, of letters? How are we to understand the smallest semantic element, the seme, in the universe of visual poetry? How do we read anymore? How do we integrate both verbal and visual modes of expression in our understanding of reading and writing? What are Vispo’s roots and what its traditions? Does the visual nature of media in general, or our tendencies toward hyper attention specifically, either one, alter the way we think? What do the physicality and animation of language at the level of mark, of letter, of the alphabet, have to do with perception? Is there a crisis of sign? Should language have rights of personhood? These are some of the questions that The Last Vispo Anthology forwards.
And there are as many answers as there are followers, and practitioners of the hybrid form. Seemingly huge now, but as things go, only a stationary moment chock full of tools, languages, and practices from differing media all colliding, with a kinesthetic urge toward explosion. As Crag Hill in his essay, “Why Write Visual Poetry When So Few Readers Read It” reminds us:
“Poetry must realize that reading is changing–the reading brain is changing . . . Reading now gleans information at lightspeed–breaking news updates, Google headlines, e-mails, tweets, incessant chat and text messages. . . . Where does this deluge of text and moving image lead us? What does it leave us? Look to how a visual poem can be read. That act–those transactions between/within reader, word, and image–instructs us on how to gather meaning from the intensifying synaptic flashes of our internal and external world.”
How to gather meaning from word and image fusions is something Vassilakis and Hill openly investigate in The Last Vispo Anthology. And they point the reader to an awareness of the practice of visual poetry to free words and letters from their role as containers of meaning, and to let their forms converse in the original language of visual art, the pictorial . . . contrast, repetition, rhythm, scale, proportion and the like. As readers, as viewers, we respond as only our eyes allow, working to bridge the elusive intensive synaptic gaps while staring at the luscious visual terrain of language made anew. Of the word made flesh. Some of its first new gurgles can be found in The Last Vispo Anthology.
Alison Watkins is a poet, videopoet and essayist. Her poetry has appeared in a number of journals, including Sulfur 3, Text 12, Anhinga Press, Campbell Corner Language Exchange, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature, the Pikeville Review, and the Snake Nation Review. Her video, “Historic Tremé,” was a finalist in the NY Short Film Festival and in the Documentary & Fiction Festival of Hollywood, and a number of her videopoems have won recognition in festivals throughout the southeastern U.S.. She has a PhD in Literature, an MFA in creative writing, and teaches poetry and storytelling at Ringling College of Art and Design in southwest Florida.