(image by antic-ham)
Fantagraphics has just released the advance copies of Crag Hill & Nico Vassilakis' anthology: The Last Vispo: 1998-2008 (it's called something like that). Nothing of its kind has been published, neither in size, nor quality. It is a huge volume, in something like five sections, amounting to sub-categories (or categorical possibilities) of visual poetry, alongside over two-dozen essays by different practitioners of visual poetry and viewer-readers alike.
It is a strange volume. It includes sculpture, drawing, typewriter art, digital art, photography (found and otherwise), and various kinds of collage. Presumably, the artists within all believe that their work fits into the "movement" known as visual poetry, but it is not a simple question: what is it that unites these works? Certainly there is a tendency to the celebration, perhaps, or the exploration, of letter-forms, and I think of this tendency as something inherited from the practice of Bob Cobbing as well as the Canadian concrete poetry movement (not to say such practice was non-existent prior), and this practice of the letter-form may be the main, though not the only thrust of visual poetry at this moment. But there is much work in the anthology that falls outside of this rickety convention. So much can be found in the section labeled "collage," as well as scattered other work, that, to me, resembles abstract expressionism, and may lack letter-forms entirely. Much of editor Crag Hill's own work as a visual poet (though not included in this anthology) takes textual sources and visually manipulates them into what would improperly be called abstractions, as they are really developments, akin to Bob Cobbing's stretching, twisting, and warping of letter-forms. Then there are those like Bob Grumman, who use the visual structure of mathematics to suggest a new syntax.
Without any intention to insult I would suggest that many of these visual poets are coming from beneath established art conventions. As Geof Huth has said (I'm paraphrasing): "visual poets are artists who can't really draw, and poets who can't really write." though I'm not sure I agree with that.
Of the many centers of visual poetry, the one that is most interesting to me is the letter-figure that splits off from language, invoking the primal act of scrawled symbolism that somewhere and how inspired written language. But there are many other possibilities, and many other actualities. New possibilities for syntax, abstract expressionism in new media, post-literacy sign-painting, post-literature nature worship, vocal choreography, neo-Patchenism, and of course, zaum, which never gets old. All of these in some sense can be found in The Last Vispo, and it may be as well worth noting that most if not all of these ideas are working in between or across different media, sticking to the etymological fore of modern poetry that is: "MAKE IT NEW." The program os visual poetry has put everything in the fire, the heating of the heart at art's center.