Victoria Bean is a visual poet and the co-tutor of our upcoming Online Reading Group, ‘The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century’. Victoria has been working over the last 3 years with Chris McCabe (another Poetry School tutor) to put together a major anthology of new approaches, ideas and techniques being used in visual poetry, which was finally published this year by Hayward Publishing (and is without doubt the most beautiful poetry book of the year). We’re delighted to be able to exclusively share much of this new work as part of the reading course.
We caught up with Victoria to talk more about the project, and what makes a visual poem work.
Hi Victoria! So visual poems – aren’t they a bit like Dingbats?
Victoria: Not really. Dingbats are pun based and work like cryptic crossword clues- and the only similarity with visual poetry is the sense of playfulness with language and words
The same goes for the other ‘dingbats’, the font option kind, which are seen as decorative objects rather than being a signifier of anything, however, because they correspond with the letters on a keyboard, you could make a great visual poem out of a string of them.
Tell me about The New Concrete project. How did you get involved and what was it like working with Chris McCabe?
Victoria: The Poetry Library, where Chris works, has a collection of concrete poetry anthologies from the 1960s, which we both liked looking at. While there had been recent collections of visual poetry, there hadn’t been an anthology about the kind of visual poetry that was referencing the original concrete movement. We were both coming across work that felt like it had ‘concrete DNA’ in it, and both thought it would be a good moment to capture this. The Hayward were the first publishers we approached and supported the idea from the start.
Chris collected visual poetry at the Poetry Library and I made visual poetry, so this combination, as co-editors, meant that we had experience at both ends of a visual poem; this really helped when looking at artists and choosing their work. We both had to agree on a piece of work before it went into the book.
I’ve worked with Chris before, and there isn’t anyone I’d rather have done this book with: he’s organized but easy going, has an incredible knowledge of poetry and a fine poetic talent.
What changes have you noticed from the origins of the concrete poetry to the various manifestations of visual poetry today?
Victoria: The inside book jacket of Emmet Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry from 1967 opens with the line, “concrete poetry is not one style but a cluster of possibilities”.
Which it still is.
I’ve just compared the variety of work in Emmet’s anthology with the poems in The New Concrete and there’s a sense that the work in either book could appear in the other; this might be because the original work from 1967 is so fantastically timeless and hasn’t dated even though the artists and poets didn’t have access to the printing techniques and computers we have today.
The main difference today would be that artists have Photoshop and Illustrator so they can create at a much faster speed.
There are specialised visual poetry practitioners like yourself, but what about regular poets, who are often attentive to form, line spacing, typography, and subtle graphic details. Is not all poetry ‘visual poetry’ to an extent? How do we draw the line?
Victoria: I agree that all poetry is visual poetry. Like you’ve said, the poem’s form dictates its shape whether it’s formal or freestyle.
So the only way to ‘draw the line’ is to look at a visual poem and imagine how you would respond to it if it had been set in the more traditional way; by a publisher, in 12pt Times Roman, in the centre of a page. In other words, when you look at a visual poem you can always ask, could it have been done in any other way?
The poet makes a lot more decisions about the poem in visual poetry: decisions like the white space around the work, the choice of paper, medium, type-size and font.
Emmett Williams says visual poetry is “a poetry that’s often asked to be completed or activated by the reader”.
Do you see yourself as a visual artist foraying into poetry, or a poet foraying into visual art? Or is there no distinction for you?
Victoria: There’s no distinction for me.
I was working as a writer before I went to Camberwell College of Art to do a Graphics and Illustration BA. You had to choose one discipline over the other, but I realised my skills fell right between the two – I could only illustrate using type, and could only do graphic design projects if I could play with the type.
I started composing poems directly onto the bed of the Letterpress presses in the basement of the college, and then, when I went to the Royal College of Art to do an MA we had a dissertation tutor that taught us to write poetry.
Do you think our notion of literacy has changed over the last 50 years, particularly given how much our media forms have changed?
Victoria: A sense of speed feels like it’s behind this change.
Information is faster. Our attention spans are shorter. There’s no need to wait for anything anymore: a book can be downloaded in a second.
We can even read more quickly – text speak and Emojis make language truly universal – able to be understood by everyone.
I’d like to be locked in the British Library for a week to detox.
How separate is the meaning of the look of a letterform or word to what that letterform or word signifies?
Victoria: Kenneth Goldsmith talks about this in the introduction essay to our book, how the early concrete movement in Brazil wanted to create a universal language.
He says the Noigandres group set out to “change literature by creating a universal picture language, a poetry that can be read by all – regardless of what language they spoke. Letters would double as carriers of semantic content and as powerful visual elements in their own right.”
How skilled do you need to be to create visual poetry? Is it just for artists or can anyone do it?
Victoria: Everyone can do it with a little guidance. It’s usually the poem that dictates the need for it to be visual or not.
What is it like to make a visual poem? Like painting? Sculpture? Printmaking?
It’s like using all the disciplines at once – sometimes the form appears before the words do.
Who are some of your favourite visual poets?
My favourite visual poets are in the anthologies I’ve mentioned, but there’s also a poet called N H Pritchard who was around in the sixties in New York but outside the more established concrete circles.
What about page poets?
Victoria: EE Cummings – I’ve re-typed three copies of his selected poetry books as an art project and really got to pay attention to his work beyond that sense of lightness you get from only reading a few of his well known ones.
I like Charles Bukowski, Michael Donaghy, I’m getting to know Susan Howe’s work, and also Simon Armitage – I was very moved by his poetry play Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster.
Could emojis be considered a kind of visual poetry folk art?
Victoria: I love emojis. Speedy communicators and pictorial get outs when I don’t have time to write what I need to say.
Why folk art? Is it because they’re so colourful, naïve looking, and a row of emojis creates an appealing pattern?
Do you have a favourite font?
Victoria: I’ve set a lot of my poems in Helvetica because the font is neutral and doesn’t demand attention or distract the eye. I’ve sewn a poem onto canvas in different point sizes of Helvetica and have got to know the curves and lines of it very well.
There’s a typeface used in letterpress called Grot which is also one of my favourites.
Why is there no International Museum of Poetry?
Victoria: I don’t know but I’d like to visit one. The Poetry Library is our nearest equivalent.
Curators and visual artists have become increasingly interested in a sort of text-based art practice over the last 5 years, with more poetry readings in art galleries, artists working with text, producing books of poetry and prose collage, and of course The New Concrete is part of this overall trend. Why this re-emergence of language-based art?
Victoria: Maybe it’s a reaction to the overload of information we get from the internet, emails and text messages, that gives our words such a fleeting feeling, which makes us want them to stay in one place again like pieces of art, so maybe artists are “using the semantic, visual and phonetic elements of language as raw materials”*. *Emmett Williams again.
The work has always been out there, it just has the spotlight turned back on it by galleries and collectors who have a new confidence in it.
Want to explore writing at the intersection of visual art and poetry? Come explore hidden rules of visual poetics with Victoria and Chris on their new online reading group, ‘The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century’. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.