OURS – by Professor Jeffrey Robinson

People who have experienced homelessness have collaborated to make a medieval-style illuminated manuscript, based upon The Book of Hours, describing their daily lives. Unbound pages from the book debuted at Bury Art Museum on May 18 2021, on show until mid-July 2021. 

A BOOK OF OURS was handmade in Manchester, England 2019-21 by over 100 people with lived experience of homelessness, or at risk of homelessness. The project was devised and directed by poet Philip Davenport and visual artist Lois Blackburn, as arthur+martha. Significant events, celebrations, memorials document these hugely individual lives, in a large visual-poetic work by people who don’t appear in official histories. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund; workshops took place at The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester.

1. “Ours”

O-U-R-S occupies H-O-U-R-S, just as P-O-E-T-R-Y occupies P-O-V-E-R-T-Y.  In each case just one consonant (H, V) separates oppression from value, identity, and beauty.  The book intervenes in an injustice.  “The intent in our case is that this homeless history, this culture is iterated and has a place to arrive on a page, to be finally OURS” (Philip Davenport).  Time for the homeless can be a steely clock marking deprivations and chaos, an imposition from without of relentless vulnerabilities to lack: lack of shelter, lack of health and health care, lack of stability and safety.  The imagination learns to reinforce this trap of time.  In the art room, organized as an arthur+martha event, the mind begins to free up…

“Mine” becomes “Ours”—what is possessed is voice, memory, reflection, wisdom of not the solitary individual but many persons brought together, who co-exist on the page and in the book; they possess the untold history of people with lived experience of homelessness.

2. Leaders of The Book of Ours Project

The ethics behind The Book of Ours and Homeless Library projects: “the story is theirs to tell.”  How do the leaders of arthur+martha fulfill this remit when it is they who have planned, organized, and conducted, and participated in the lives and imaginations of people with the lived experience of homelessness?  They come with various marks of visibility and power that a society based upon inequality confers on some but denies to others.  Phil Davenport and Lois Blackburn, along with their colleague in music Matt Hill, acknowledge the privilege—with its access to workshop space, funding, and education—as they are vigilant about reducing to a minimum the temptations of appropriation and exploitation of the precarious vitality of other lives.  They characterize their roles as “curators or midwives” (Matt Hill) of lives and works not their own.  They are conservationists in the way that poets, from the beginning of recorded poetry, “conserve the image of a person across time” (Allen Grossman).  They facilitate, rather than control and interpret, an event of living and shaping.

A man called J came into a music session and, listening to Matt’s guitar, asked if he could borrow it for a moment.  A very good player, he began a striking melody, which Matt immediately recorded.  Matt asked J to repeat it but he suddenly became shy.  Matt nonetheless placed it as an undersong to “Killing Floor,” returning to the fragment throughout the song.  J didn’t know where his melody came from: an unidentified shard of musical history saved from oblivion by Matt’s attentive and practiced ear, a disarming presence not interpreting but apprehending and conserving something of value.  Commissioning becomes a form of collective artistic practice: I will do some of the work on your behalf . . , but, says Lois, “we are always checking where the power is,” making sure that noone’s authority gets usurped by another’s.  To intervene or enhance often means to compensate for a severe handicap—most evident, the leaders come to their project with acquired training: when they see a blank page, they know how to begin filling it up, with language or with design.  Without that experience, a person “comes [to the page] naked into the world,” terrified of a boundariless emptiness.  The leaders give them boundaries, coordinates.  The artist Lois draws a horizontal line, puts in an image, marks out a space for a text; the poet Phil lineates the poetic speech of a participant.  Phil, Lois, and Matt, along with the other makers around the table, abolish the terror of creation in isolation.

Phil introduces the participants to Blake, Shelley, Hildegard of Bingen, and The Book of Hours, at which point he lets go.  The books join the mayhem of pages on the worktable. 

3. The Archaic and an Imperfect Fit

 “Archaic” in this project stands for anything that grates against the idea of art as purity, consistency, and singularity of construction, which usually points to a principle of exclusion of unwanted materials and voices.  “Imperfect fit” (1) characterizes art that deliberately fosters signs of what perfection would call a mistake or an inaccuracy but that in fact signifies inclusion.  For example, calligraphy, itself “archaic,” appears throughout The Book of Ours, gorgeous and polished, but it appears inconsistently, along with less polished penmanship.


The Book of Ours draws us back to the archetype of circle and cycle; positively and negatively intertwined, signifying hopeless repetition and also renewal, or repetition as transformation:

And the CIRCLE

Of homelessness itself (March)

Rough sleep. SHELTER. Outside once more (April)

Pregnant, homeless, skeletal, autumn. Reunited

Don’t get yourself lost in circles

Wheels on fire, rolling down the road (October)

At the same time, the poet sings: “We are satellites stars surround us,” as do the seasons that give comfort, excitement, rest, and renewal, all marked in the book itself.  A great act of imagination and artistic imagination bring the makers from circles of despair caused by the circle of homelessness itself to at least a vision of belonging to the cosmic cycle; note the mysterious juxtapositions in “Pregnant, homeless, skeletal, autumn. Reunited” — belonging to both versions of the circle at once.

When the sun coming up

The golden cogs of the clock.

Usually representing mechanical circles, here the cogs belong to the generative source of the sun.  The second line has been snatched from Lawrence’s poem and song, being made to live again in a new context.  “Round”ness becomes support and even transformation: “the seasons bring us round again.”  In the midst of the cycle of an expression of malign and indifferent forces controlling one’s subsistence emerges the will and the vision: “you can TURN things around better.  The following calendar lines from October, each line composed by a different person, are heart-rending; they convert private pain into a vision of cosmic coherence:

You broke it all. Start again

Please don’t punish me again, God.

My being belongs to the elements.

The first line re-evaluates brokenness because after the full stop is a petition for new beginning.  In the fatalistic imagery of circles, “broke” layers personal failure but with a consciousness of the interruption of failure’s grim cycle.  To start again is to renew a cycle but now on one’s own terms.  The “again” in the second line, addressed imploringly to God, is a brief prayer against resignation and helplessness and pain, but invoking the divinity, it at least reaches beyond the immediacy of one’s material existence as perhaps a point of self-recognition.  The centrality of the cosmos in A Book of Ours indicates the TURN towards that realignment: “We are satellites. Stars surround us.” .

5. Monuments

“Adam’s Curse,” (2) refers to labor as the curse, but The Book of Ours celebrates that labor and reveals laborers as an at least temporary community: a monument of labor is a contradiction that reflects a takeover of a tradition by the people who actually constructed it.  A monument, religious or secular, takes its viewer or reader out of the world of daily life into a vision of undiluted power.  The audience is stunned, transported.  The Book of Ours, itself a monument, draws its audience into a stimulating confusion.  The Book of Hours encourages reflection, interiority and prayer; and The Book of Ours?—


  1. Allen Fisher
  2. W.B. Yeats


to think in tongues / Dr. Mahmoud Moawad Sokar / Darren Marsh

guest blogger 13 / a surrealistic-processual aside, from an original essay by Dr. Mahmoud Moawad Sokar / treated text-images by Darren Marsh



Visual poets are difficult. To be fully aware of visual artistic and social movements that are associated with them, the Surrealistic mother of visual avant-garde movements birthed a great change in the way techniques allow the unconscious mind to think in tongues.

Cinematic effects pave the way for movements highlighted in the works of the French Surrealist poets, Pierre Reverdy and Guillaume Apollinaire, besides a notable influence on Photorealism / a multiple human activity which includes painting, drawing “affirming supremacy” and “omnipotence” as it refuses logic and reason as the major devices for understanding Freudian psychoanalysis.

Surrealist visual poets highlight the power of “automatic imagination” in order to reveal Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy , César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and James Tate, John Ashberry, Michael Palme and Henri-Martin Barzun as they the Inter-Paradigm / reflect the ambiguity, fragmentation, and absurdity of understanding corpses or collecting words and images in a mirror image or echo of two columns controlling consciousness.

More to the point, it is necessary to perceive that the Surrealists’ main objective is expressing the Second Manifesto (1929):

the progressive darkening of all other places, w/ the perpetual rambling of (poets). (Pope Breton qtd in Preminger 821)

Thus / a Surrealist visual poet must be discussed in terms of faith, love, liberty, and supremacy /



Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem, “Revolver” is the first remarkable Surrealist visual work which represents a “A Range of Flavors” / a human face, with a mouth and an eye / as Samantha Friedman puts it (using language that describes taste to give form to the ear, and making the mouth out of words) “that prized mystery”. (Par. 7)

“Revolver” can be read as / typographical effects of rearranging the text to create the visual / artifices worked out with great audacity have the advantage of bringing to life “a visual lyricism which was almost unknown before our age” (Friedman, par 8).

Following innovatively against traditions:


A deep look into poet Guillaume Apollinaire reveals Cubism and Orphism such as (the above-mentioned) John M. Bennet top Surrealist who utilizes words as images as photographs as map-numbers, and a child’s notion of freedom. Whereas the heavy use of the visual elements reflects a remarkable influence of Maximalism:





However, the dilemma of reading in the Postmodern age is ambiguous, fragmented, and not easy-to-understand within algorithms and principles of non-photorealistic chaos, absurdity, and fragmentation. In this regard, Bennet agrees: “whenever people try to establish a certain reading of a text or expression, they allege other readings as the ground for their reading” (Adler 321). In this regard, Ole Waever agrees: “All meaning systems are signs referring to signs referring to signs.” (171). Thus, Postmodernists reject work.

Only touch the verbal-literal element of any Surrealist, to understand any reader apprised of the main principle and strategies of the considered core of the genre / in short:






Works Cited

Adler, Emanuel. “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics.” European Journal of International Relations .1997. Print.

Apollinaire, Guillaume. Calligrammes. New York: Univ of California Press, 2004.‏ Print.

Bennet, John. “Vispo.” John. M. Bennett.Net. web. 2018. http://www.johnmbennett.net/vispoe-two-gallery/

Elder, R. Bruce. DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013. Print.

Friedman, Samantha. “Apollinaire’s Visual Poetry” Inside/Out. 2014.web.2019.

Geng, Weidong. The Algorithms and Principles of Non-photorealistic Graphics. Hangzhou: Springer, 1995. Print.

Greene, Ronald, et al. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. 4th ed. New Jersey: Princeton University press, 2012. Print.

Preminger, Alex. Princeton encyclopaedia of poetry and poetics. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2016.‏ Print.

Smith, James KA. Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian philosophy. vol. 1. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010.‏ Print.

Waever, Ole. “The Rise and Fall of the Inter-Paradigm Debate.” eds. Steve Smith; et al. International Theory: Positivism and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P, 1996. Print.



Perhaps a manifesto – visual poetry from prehistory to the now






A History of Visual Text Art is a gargantuan overview of visual poetry and text art by visual poet karl kempton, who is interviewed below with editor/publisher Philip Davenport.


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kempton begins with newly-available prehistoric evidence, finds paths through complex clusters of religious and political influence across the globe and then moves into a long review of the 20th and 21st centuries, from the Russian Avant Garde to the Stieglitz Circle, Concrete Poets to Conceptual Art, Word Painting and Iconographic Painting, and beyond. An emphasis of the book is to celebrate voices and visions that have been sidelined in official verse history. The Text Festival shares this approach. 

The book was published as a “prequel” to The Dark Would anthology (2013), which was an outshoot of the Text Festival, also edited by Philip Davenport who is a longtime associate of the Festival.

Interviewer Gary Cummiskey from Odd magazine is in conversation with karl kempton and Philip Davenport. This interview was first published by Odd in 2019.




20. Asemic Zen Bull


karl, what motivated you to start compiling the book, and how did you, Philip, get involved from the publishing aspect?

karl: Before we begin, I would like to thank The Odd Magazine, its Editor Sreemanti and you for your interest in the book, visual text art and visual poetry. It is an honor for us to be featured. I have received a great many benefits from India and am happy to be able to add something to its culture.In 2004 Dan Waber asked me about the differences between concrete and visual poetries. From that question came my long overview, “VISUAL POETRY: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions,” that he published, containing many hot links for those interested in examples and supporting text sources. As far as I am aware, no English language individual has attempted another comprehensive global overview beginning with rock art to add to or correct my “Brief History.” Over the years some links broke or died.I have many interests and activities outside visual poetry; this includes working as a marine environmental activist and protecting sacred sites of the Northern Chumash. In 2013 I turned over my efforts (23 years of research: writings, tables, and maps) to a skilled committee. Years of monthly articles summing portions of these materials can be found here.That is when I turned to correcting the broken links and to add more commentary for “Brief History.” I was also asked to write an introduction to the Renegade Anthology. It became apparent quickly that there was more to learn in order to further the history of what became not a history of visual poetry, but rather a history of visual text art. Visual poetry is but one approach within this wider context. Understanding the wider context meant not only rewriting but widening my understanding of text usage in visual arts. I began the book in March 2013.

Philip: I’ve been fascinated by poems as and with images ever since I was a kid, reading Alice in Wonderland. When I was first published it was a set of poetic missing persons notices, which were in part image. I’d been chased by the police, billposting them. The British poet Bob Cobbing liked them and when he published me, he also introduced me to this world of seen words. In 2013, I made a language art anthology called The Dark Would, which brought together leading contemporary visual poets and text artists from around the world. In the virtual Volume 2 were 40 essays and interviews, but it still didn’t feel enough. When Márton Koppány showed me karl’s book, I knew that this was the prequel to The Dark Would.The relationship between this new book and The Dark Would is important because they share many characteristics. Both try to widen the field, the spectrum, we are in. Both try to restore silenced histories. Both work outside the academy, bringing in a different kind of knowledge. Both share this knowledge in a way that prioritises practice rather than theory exchange. And karl and I as people both define ourselves through this kind of art-making … It’s why this project has worked so well, despite other differences we have.


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Philip, you say that karl’s approach to the book is ‘unrepentantly non-academic’ – in what way?

Philip: This is a book from outside the academy. It represents voices and visions of people who were “outsidered” marginalised because they were outside academic institutions, on the edge of artistic movements – and frequently by society itself – because of their mental or physical health, or political or other beliefs. karl’s work is not academic in the traditional sense and several other senses (including visual!) He also is outside the academy, even though he represents a huge body of specialist knowledge. Mostly he adds this to his palette of visual/poetic expression. And to help him navigate an inner journey, which is not an academic pursuit, at least not in the western sense.

karl: The book is both objective and academic, subjective and autobiographical. The objective “academic” portions are attempts to present as accurate a history I am able on sourced accepted factual evidence. Some of the facts are parts of the often-repeated history of concrete and visual poetries; others are found among visual poetry histories ignored by concrete histories; and others belong to the wider history of an unwritten visual text history that provides a context for the concrete and visual poetry histories. Moving off the accepted academic story lines, though based on textual evidence, is perhaps where the more subjective portions of the book may be classified. The last section, “Among the Seers,” though based on factual materials may be considered subjective. Inserted throughout are autobiographical moments presenting direct experiences within the wider context. Some may look upon it as a visual poet’s or visual text artist’s personal statement, perhaps even a manifesto.



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If somebody were to talk to me about the origins of visual text art, I would think of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, the visual text experiments of Mallarme’s Un Coup de Des, or (a little later) the work of artists such as Henri Michaux. But you point out that the origins of visual poetry can be found even in cave art or in the calligraphic scripts of the Arabic world, southern Asia and the Far East.

karl: The actual answer is unknown. I suggest that if the myths of the inventions of writing are visited, we see roots in many cases from nature or natural patterns. We do not know the oral context of rock art and thus whether or not visual poetics or an older parent were in use. It has just been announced that many rock art panels spread widely across Europe contained constellations and alignments to their stars. I am not surprised having found my first Chumash solar and polar star aligned site in 1978 with a later associated burial site dated of 9,500 years old.Early patterned alphabet and language is found on ancient charms, amulets, and yantras. Some have iconographics associated with them. Other early amulets were composed with hieroglyphic and ideogramic forms. Some of these shapes, alphabet and iconographic, have moved from rock art to pottery to other portable objects before parchment and then paper.


What is the relationship between visual poetry and concrete poetry?

karl: With Dick Higgins, publisher of the avant-garde Something Else Press, I co-guest edited a special visual poetry issue of the Canadan magazine, 10•5155•20, in 1983. That was the moment a concrete and fluxist publisher and poet agreed with my definitions of concrete and visual poetries. I have fine-tuned the definitions since. Both use fissioned particles of the stuff of language; concrete poets only create with text and its particles; visual poets fuse text and its particles with other arts. Concrete and other purists reject iconography mixed with text.I forget who asked the wider community who first used the term visual poetry as a specific type. Both Higgins and I pointed to the same date, 1965. In my book I go into greater detail to point out that contrary to its written histories, concrete poetry was not new as a visual text expression. Before concrete poetry were concrete art and concrete music. Nevertheless, it was the first global poetry movement. Many of us view concrete poetry as a specific movement and later a specific type of expression under the wider umbrella term visual poetry, a poetry composed that requires the reader to see the poem for a complete experience.Because of the self-imposed confines dictated by concrete poetry, many around the globe rebelled. To stand apart they embraced the term visual poetry. This should not be confused with a recycled term in current usage, vispo, a continuation of text-only concrete poetry.






Kenneth Patchen is one American poet and artist who gets quite prominent coverage in the book – and rightly so. But what about Ezra Pound? I am thinking of his introduction of Chinese characters into some of the cantos.

karl: My brief discussion of Pound focused on three concerns: 1) his knowledge and comments concerning one of many disappearing acts by concrete theoreticians and history myth-makers, the erasure of Henry-Martin Barzun, who Pound knew and was familiar with his visual poetry; 2) Blast; and 3) the Chinese ideogram error.His use of ideogram images as a visual poetry is suggestive and perhaps considered so by some. Not me. They can be considered illustrations of what he wrongly viewed in the context of his imagist poetic where the ideogram exemplified for him a purer poetic moment than available with alphabetical-based text. His use as illustrations, it seems to me, was to support his erroneous claim that Chinese ideograms were a visual language. Embedded in this approach one finds his mistaken view that the written form was a higher ideal than the spoken. He embraced Confucianism at the time when his peers, those also interested in Chinese culture, were pulled not towards hierarchy but Ch’an and Taoist poetics, they being anti-hierarchical.Philip: Pound is important, but he’s already given huge attention at the expense of other people. What karl brings is fresh news — people whose ideas haven’t already been ingested, Barzun is one, but the book contains a host of others. There’s also a renewed problem with Pound’s Fascism, given that we are in an age where the far right is resurrecting as populism, the alt right, etc. Those ideas don’t need any more oxygen, they need challenge. This book offers another reading of the history of visual poetry that includes traditions sometimes seen as threatening, like Arabic word painting, which has Islamic roots and would be considered “alien” by a European alt right organisation like Pergida.


The book also covers asemic writing, though I have noted that some visual poets are quite critical – if not dismissive – of asemic writing.

karl: I needed to address asemic writing because of its current popularity. I assume most of its composers remain, as most visual poets, uninformed about the history of visual text art on the one hand and the damage caused to all the arts by the philosophical arguments found in non- referential art.


What were the challenges in compiling and editing the book?


karl: The vastness of the subject matter is beyond one individual. Individual segments have been skillfully covered, but not the entire spectrum. Without the internet this project would not have been possible. In 1975 I consciously removed myself from active literary centers to pursue my poetic close to the ocean here in south San Luis Obispo County. There are no nationally ranked local research libraries. I do not have academic access or financial assistance for extended periods of time for library research. I also refused to venture out to research libraries, not wanting to add to my carbon footprint. Thus, throughout the six years of writing and researching, I added a significant number of books to my library. It took over a year familiarizing myself with some of the Russian Futurists and their influences, including a deep dive into ikon art from its beginnings. I uncovered an error that Orphism was an idea from Apollinaire; it came from Barzun. Correcting the Apollinaire contribution to visual text art required much research and the help of Michael Winkler, who visited the Barzun archives at Columbia University to photograph some of the vast collection of his visual poems.  The error in the standard history of Orphism, many references to Plato, and the Islamic Science of Letters pushed me to look afresh at the Greek philosophers and Orpheus. Many other jumped-through hoops are found in the book presenting my findings. These few examples illustrate my primary challenge, to present in-depth commentary on this complex subject matter.

Copyright law presented a maze I did not want to run. That is the reason the book is an internet-published pdf with over a 1000 hot links to individual works and various texts ranging from essays to books. We plan an e-book edition later in the year.Another challenge is my dyslexia. It requires me to burden others to be proofreaders. Also, in order not to become trapped in mistaken concepts, I need knowledgeable readers. Karl Young died during the writing. Márton Koppány has been an indispensable sounding board over the years for this book. Harry Polkinhorn has been generous with his time, especially proofing and assistance with Latin American issues. Gerald Janecek has been essential regarding Russian Futurism. Others noted in the Acknowledgements have also been of great help.

And, Philip Davenport, my editor and publisher, has added to the project making it far more than I first planned. Part of the addition was associating the book with the blog Synapse International online anthology, the first of its kind in India, thanks to its host Anindya Ray.Some of my peers regard this as a life-long work. They are not wrong. Without my many interests, including rock art, symbols, calligraphy, Vedanta, Sufism, Ch’an/Zen, North American First People Ways, the history of ideas, economic history, and the history of religions, the book would not have provided the wider context throughout history around the globe. Such context seems to me to be generally missing. The reasons for this are discussed in the book.

Philip: The problem for me was not to be an editor in the usual meaning of the word. The discussion within it had already been chewed over with two other editors: Karl Young and Márton Koppany. In addition, I wanted to respect karl as a dyslexic writer because I thought this was an essential part of his aesthetic, which affects how he sees words, sometimes in three dimensions and with inner light. Therefore, while I did some work on the text, it was with a delicate touch. Instead I brought in contrasting elements.My most visible editorial role was to insert sequences of poem/images in the book, by varied invited practitioners; then secondly to work on the blog which we decided would be a kind of second volume to the book, showing hundreds of works by contemporary visual poets and artists.


Philip, you say in the introduction that you don’t agree with all the ideas in the book – could you elaborate on your differences of opinion?

Philip: Collisions produce energy and there are some differences that have fed into the book. I grew up in a so-called religious war in Northern Ireland and that makes me suspicious of any religiosity, whereas karl’s worldview has spirituality as a touchstone. We have joked a few times about the fact that my gurus were the Sex Pistols and the poetic experimenter Bob Cobbing, rather than anyone from esoteric religious traditions. Therefore, I brought scepticism, a certain amount of humour, and a different set of references.But if this is anything, it’s a book that allows space for difference. It is full of stories of poets, artists and others who didn’t fit with the orthodoxy of their time. From the medieval mystic Marguerite Porette, who was burned for heresy, through to members of the Stieglitz Circle, who were silenced by critics, there’s a theme of people being silenced, or even erased. One of the unusual things about karl’s book is that it contains its own dissenting voice too, a series of letters from the remarkable visual poet Márton Koppány; it is only a short section, but it ripples through the whole thing. What is crucial is that it all serves to bring to light poets, artists, whose opinions differ from the official histories.


1. Shidarezakura


What is the relevance of such a book today? What is the relevance of visual poetry itself?


karl: It has relevance for those interested in the history and context of visual text art. I wrote this to correct what I saw as misinformation and missing information.Visual text art has the relevance of any art. Text wedded with image, because of available technology, has become ubiquitous. Stated above, discussions on concrete and visual poetries lack context and are guilty of misrepresentation (in my opinion). Also, the writings generally are caught in the centric web of concrete and or visual poetry points of view. Individuals wanting to move beyond cliché may find it relevant.



Philip: Linking words and visuality together is an ancient practice that goes deep into all of our pre-history. That crossover doesn’t stop at language and image. Making signs, making marks, leaving traces, making patterns, communicating through gesture, dance, all of these things are possibilities. And as our tech and our needs evolve, more possibilities will be added, not subtracted. (Do you know Christian Bok’s poem “Xenotext”, written with a bacteria?) The mistake is to think that any of the differences between media are barriers. They’re simply reservoirs of material for us to unlock and use. Advertisers, propagandists, signwriters, website designers, filmmakers, games designers… all combine media to add complexity, depth, power, resonance.Why wouldn’t poets want to use these materials too? We speak with the means that speak most deeply to us.



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Behind & Between the Lines, by karl kempton











karl kempton’s a history of visual text art traces the deep roots of language art, finding poems for the eye in the  ancient, the occluded and the disappeared. It was published by Apple Pie in 2018, as a ‘prequel’ to The Dark Would anthology, which itself grew from the Text Festival. A free PDF download of kempton’s book is here.

kempton’s account begins with newly-available prehistoric evidence, finds paths through clusters of religious and political influence across the globe and then moves into a long review of the 20th and 21st Centuries, from the Russian Avant Garde to the Stieglitz Circle, Concrete Poets to Conceptual Art, Arabic Word Painting, Iconographic Painting, and beyond. The book is unusual for finding nuances and practitioners who had been ignored, or erased. So we have Barzun’s story more than Apollinaire, we have Theosophy in the lineage, alongside Mallarmé we have the seers. Crucially, kempton includes non-Western narratives, and details the affect of spiritual practices — particularly Buddhist Ch’an and Zen, Sufism and American First People — on the gestation of language arts. Much of the book is an untold history: some practitioners discussed in it were suppressed by violence or persecution, for others the erasure has been more subtle. The book is most especially for those makers who have been “disappeared”, bringing them back to our eyes.

The blog Synapse International (Ed. kempton and Davenport) is an online Volume Two of illustrations,  gathering a wide range of works by visual text practitioners from around the world, selected by guest editors.

(a history of visual text, publicity notes 2018)


And so. The spectrum of visual poetry and what passes as visual poetry continues to expand. But large numbers of visual text art works created before WWII were made by individuals who are now either forgotten, ignored or have been “disappeared” in ego-driven poetry conflicts between various camps. The primary division being between the egalitarian and the only-us. One of the intents of my 2005 essay VISUAL POETRY: A Brief History of Ancestral Roots and Modern Traditions (1) and its expansion into my long book in 2018 is bringing to light the missing-in-action.


My 2005 web-published essay needed updating and links were broken. More information had been accumulated. The essay answered a question from Dan Waber concerning the differences between concrete and visual poetries, a question whose fullest answer became the book in 2018. In between, I was asked to write an introduction to a proposed visual poetry anthology, Renegade, a collection of international visual poetry & language arts (2) and realized I had to study the pre WWI Russian avant-garde.

No one had followed up on my suggestion for a multi-volume book on the history and developments of visual poetry; I decided to do it myself. I’d write an overview others could add to or correct where they saw shortcomings. I planned a free pdf for the interested with hot links to works doubling as an virtual anthology to avoid the maze of copyright laws. Had I known the road would take me on a six-year journey, I may not have begun. But I am richer in knowledge, meeting many new word painters and visual text artists. The book expanded the essay of 39 pages to 569.



Before 1900

The essay also provided an overview of the ancestry of visual text and poetry types before 1900, beginning with the origins of writing in rock art. In the early 1970s many poets in the country became interested in ethnopoetics, ch’an / zen and later sufism. But many sources remained untouched such as Marshack and Gimbutas, both of whom I closely read. Gimbutas’ theorized origins of proto-writing are to be found as signs in rock art, later-pottery and other portable objects. Her contention was that these early developments in the evolution of proto-writing to alphabets were ground breaking. With the old guard gone, new techniques in use, and new and expanded areas of research, new finds arrived on the web almost weekly, sometimes daily. I tried to keep up and add the more significant findings during the writing of the book. The most radical changes were the new views on the Neanderthal (though Gimbutas had nodded in their direction and for doing so was soundly rejected. She was actually decades in the forefront).

My first writings on the visual sources of inspirations for proto-writing and alphabets appeared in “visual poetry: definitions, context and problem of types,” Innovations I, 1991. Interests in archaeology, mythology, ethnopoetics, and spiritual traditions informed me of various pathways of early visual communication with their respective evolutions. I expanded the list of proto-writing and went deeper into detail, including suggestions for alternatives to the traditionally-accepted narrative of the development of signs becoming our alphabet. Concrete and visual poetries were constantly appearing in mail art collections and other publications; most of their alphabet-origin-works remained with the unquestioned Eurocentric view of pre-Greek, Phoenician South East Mediterranean, Egypt, Fertile Crescent and China fields. But, these areas were not probed for earlier developments. Among the geographical exceptions Karl Young (3) pointed with dexterity and detail to Meso-America as another unique origin. (4)

Calligraphy cannot be ignored. Each major religious area has its own forms of beauty and associated iconographics, some of which jumped from rock art to pottery to page. Calligraphy was a major visual text art until its demise caused by the printing press in Europe, contrary to its prominence in Islamic Culture and East Asia. The health of South Asian forms is mixed. In my book, the discussion on calligraphy follows a sequential development before 1900. A more detailed look at esoteric calligraphy is given in the last section. The historical development of the Science of Letters begins with Orpheus. Surprisingly, the Islamic Science of Letters influenced European visual text arts after WWII. “Surprisingly” because I find no direct discussion of this among visual poetics, only in collections of Arab language word painting. Members and associates of the Lettrists and Art Informal were Persian and Arab word painters. Out of Arab and Persian calligraphies after WWII came the development of word painting. Word painting found expression in America from the 1920s onward. I hope others will expand on its overview in my book.

Correcting visual poetry history

The third focus in the essay was an (ongoing) attempt to correct the historical record of concrete and visual poetry. Some, like my deceased friend Bob Grumman, held tightly to the accepted story promoted by concretists: Apollinaire to Cummings to American concrete. For me, this  lineage ignores three areas of concrete poetry origin in the early 1950s influencing American concrete. It also ignores the earliest American visual poetry and text art composed before WWI within the Stieglitz Circle, published in 291, that also influenced European works by Picabia and others. It additionally ignores the Circle’s influence on portraiture in visual poetry, iconographic and word painting before WWI into the 1930s. The Circle was founded on photography, years before Kitason Katue, of the Japanese avant-garde group VOU, called for poets to replace the pen with a camera to flip objects into iconographic symbols for a wordless poetic. He too was a forerunner of concrete. (5)

Information available to me for the essay that I had previously trusted I correct in my book. For example, I expanded the discussion on the Circle to included short biographies and works of influence illustrating its larger significance in American visual text art into the 30s ignored or disappeared by concrete, neo-concrete (vispo’ers) and visual poets. Curiously, they were a New York City avant-garde later ignored by later groups centered in New York. Another correction was unraveling the self-glorification of the Brazilian Noigandres Group. If this was their only fault, I would have ignored it. They caught the virus of supremacy at all costs from a mix of Italian Futurism, Marxian or Hegelian dialectics, and rejecting-the-past nihilism. They allied themselves with factions of American concrete; this academic consolidation formed a self-appointed “avant-garde” promoting Noigandres concrete above all others. Then they participated in disappearing others’ histories contrary to their party line in this country (USA) as was done in Brazil by Noigandres.

The fourth focus, another part of correcting the histories, shines a light into the pit where historians of concrete poetry tossed individuals, to ensure their disappearance. In the essay, among others I point to, is the attempted erasure of the 1939 to 1948 visual poems of Kenneth Patchen that essentially form a checklist of types of concrete to come. It seems trying to prove originality leads to this behavior, even among poets who, ideally, are truth seekers, sayers and whose stance is truth to power. Seems I am an idealist.

My interest in correcting what I and some others considered the history of visual poetics began when I met Miriam Patchen, Kenneth Patchen’s widow, for an interview in 1978 for Kaldron 9. (6) Kenneth Patchen is considered by many in this country to be our William Blake. Yet, his work neither appears in American concrete poetry anthologies nor was he discussed or mentioned, not even in a footnote. Yet he was the forerunner of American concrete, proven with his numerous proto-concrete works from 1939 through 1948, before turning to his better-known picture poems. I remain disturbed and disgruntled with the responses from the anthology publishers and editors to my querying his disappearance, if they answered me at all. I also remain puzzled at the shoulder-shrug responses in the concrete and visual poetry communities. Are they keeping their heads low not to be seen by those they unwittingly give power to, the gatekeepers of the orthodox story, or do they not care about tradition, craft, beauty and truth?

I tasked myself to correct the record where necessary. Patchen, I discovered, was not an exception; the running total of the ignored and disappeared grew with my occasional research over the years. The problem of gender representation appears after WWII. Undervaluing or ignoring women characterizes the concrete anthologies where one or two women appear, token-like. Doris Cross and Betty Danon, both deceased, remain ignored by the American gatekeepers (Betty Danon on her work: “It will be given acknowledgement when you don’t care any more.”) (7) The body of works by Marilyn Rosenberg and K. S. Ernst are generally ignored. (8) My task of course challenges the American-gatekeeper “history.” Speaking truth to power in my environmental efforts led to death threats and a tapped phone. (9) Speaking truth to this “avant-garde” academic literati led only to ostracism. (10) Such was not the case for Harry Polkinhorn after the April 7-8, 1995 Yale conference, “Symphosophia: The End of Literature.” During his presentation of his paper, “Hyperotics: A Towards A Theory Of Experimental Poetry,” he announced the publication of Philadelpho Menezes’ Visuality: Trajectory of Contemporary Brazilian Poetry by SDSU Press. Publication in Brazil had been blocked by the Noigandres cartel. (11) Polkinhorn’s translation caused a ferocious and personal response by the academic concrete-language poetry clique. Polkinhorn left visual poetics creating a great loss in American translations from Spanish and Portuguese Latin American visual text arts.

Exchanges with Dan Waber, host of the website “minimalist concrete poetry,” (12) who published my article in 2005, (13) show Karl Young and I were not the only ones upset with the disappearance of Patchen and others from the anthologies. Dan was as appalled as Karl and others. kaldlron(.2), (14) the web site, came into being under the skilled guidance of Karl Young. (15) With the help of Harry Polkinhorn and its contributors we continued publishing the best works we could and provided context for the works, mainly with his articulate essays. The web site continues to provide numerous supporting sources for my essays. (See also the current Synapse International)



Orphism to Seers

Another vexed topic was the need for a term to categorize works of high quality imbued with (to my eyes at least) true vision, beauty and a spiritual root. In my essay I had decided on “Orphism” as a catch-all term, which had already been in use before WWI. Not having a deadline for the book allowed me to follow hinted and hidden trails seen in footnotes or between lines uncovering more overlooked, consciously disappeared or forgotten individuals, groups, and influences. I read closely the intents of the pre WWI avant-garde. I found an error in my essay regarding Orphism. Orphism’s actual founder was not Apollinaire, for whom it was attributed. I corrected this error, rightfully crediting Henri-Martin Barzun. (16) I also found and added seer painters and their works. Wanting a continuity within the history of visual poetry, I did not look for a new term. With Orphism as a category I listed a few individuals I thought presented works worthy of study by others — and for those new to visual poetry as possible role models. Coming across the writings of Henri-Martin Barzun in his American published books proselytizing Orphism, I came to learn his intent, and the intent of those associated with him: creating a new form of integrated art to lift culture and hence society to a higher level of awareness. Part of the original choice of the term Orphism was influenced by ethnopoetics where one finds the original function of the poet for her or his group, tribe or nation. (17)

Correcting this error along with deeper studies of various spiritual influences led me to ignored or rejected aspects of Platonic philosophy. (18) To understand the roots of contemporary Arab and Persian language word painting, I studied the biographies, writings and poetry of Sufi masters whose works formed the philosophy of the Science of Letters. It seems few visual poets and no (as far as I know) concrete poets were aware of the influence of the Science of Letters on the Lettrists and Art Informel. Platonic and esoteric philosophies influenced many of the pre WWI avant-garde, excluding the Italian Futurists who eventually, disastrously, embraced fascism. This material is of course associated with a baleful history, but the artistic influence exists and should be acknowledged, especially in this time of the rising far-right which thrives on invisibility, misunderstanding and code.

In the Islamic sphere hundreds of years ago many of these strands were woven into the Science of Letters that now informs many Arab and Persian language word painters. (19) Again, the influence of Islam is problematized by contemporary fundamentalism and the current Western societal responses to it. And once again, I believe, the word and its backstory needs to be made fully visible.

Pulling inspiration from iconographic spiritual symbols, except surface use for collage works, remains frowned upon in my country, the USA. The negativity is such even someone as fiercely independent and strong as Karl Young held back from publicly dipping into his spiritual tradition to compose works, fearful of the reactionary consequences from academic “avant-garde” peers. Karl’s father, alive during the 1990s and deeply loved by Karl, was a retired minister. In the 1960s their home was a target for attacks because he fought racism in Kenosha. Karl continued defending the “underdog” throughout his life against bullies, regardless of occupation. I got to know Karl intimately beginning in the late 80s through correspondence and then long phone conversations for which he was well known among his friends. He had been among the first to create a body of critical work supporting the emerging language poets. Later he became a champion of those they tried to erase or ignore.

What I did not explicitly discuss in my essay was beauty. Beauty had become pejorative. A sad commentary on our times and the avant-garde that not only are poets and artists fearful of attack or ostracism for expressing a form of spirituality but also for attempting to reach for beauty as part of a work. In my book I face toward “Beauty,” with a capital B, and link the discussion to what I see as the function of the visual text artist and poet, particularly in word painting the pervasive influence of the Science of Letters and Platonic philosophy.

Orphism, as understood by Barzun and his colleagues, was a group not individual effort. While I consciously live removed from literary centers in a semi-rural area on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean in Central California , I often work with others, long distance in my poetics and short distance in environmental protection. The same process applied to writing the book. Originally, I planned the book without visual materials. This changed when Márton Koppány, who became my primary reader, introduced me to Philip Davenport. While Márton was my primary reader there remained areas of disagreement with some of my observations, views and conclusions. Philip eventually became the book’s publisher and a co-editor of the international visual text anthology, Synapse International, hosted by Anindya Ray of Kokata, the first of its kind hosted in India. This blog anthology was devised as an online Volume Two for the book, of contemporary works, illustrating the landscape I describe – Philip’s idea. He also suggested “interventions” into the book itself, to present alternative points of view, Márton’s and my dialogue being one. He additionally suggested I select works to add visual materials within the book. I soon agreed seeing the wisdom of such an approach. An overview is available associated with 14 visual text works in Oddity 18. (20)

As a totality, my writings on visual poetry and text art, and my gatherings of this work, are intended to promote an egalitarian, healthy visual poetry community fully integrated with other visual text arts. I have one voice among many, some agree and others not. It is in the hands of the group to decide whether or not to follow the inclusive model of correspondence/mail art or become a collection of ghettoes and dead end cul-de-sacs in conflict resulting in limited audience that Karl Young warned against in 1995.

A final note. One of the drives of the Stieglitz Circle before WWI was to manifest an American vision. While they were trying to accomplish something uniquely American, such a vision was already nascent in New Mexico. From the 1920s into the 1940s some of the Circle witnessed it but seemed not to recognize its importance. In the mid to late 1920s others saw it and were influenced before, during, and after they formed the Transcendental Group, 1938-1942. It was the development of the First Nation’s iconographic painting. And surely it is the First People that we should acknowledge first of all…? (21)


Navajo Prayer — Beauty Way

In beauty may I walk

All day long may I walk

Through the returning seasons may I walk

Beautifully I will possess again

Beautifully birds

Beautifully joyful birds

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk

With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk

With dew about my feet may I walk

With beauty may I walk

With beauty before me may I walk

With beauty behind me may I walk

With beauty above me may I walk

With beauty all around me may I walk

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty,

lively, may I walk

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty,

living again, may I walk

It is finished in beauty

It is finished in beauty.


Essay: karl kempton, Oceano, California. August, 2019

Visual text sequence by Mohammad Arif Khan, from the series Mystic Letter






2 http://visualpoetryrenegade.blogspot.com/

3 An intervention from Márton Koppány: “I’m especially glad to see Karl Young mentioned. It is important to keep his work alive. Based on my exchange of ideas and collaboration with him (which went on for one and a half decade or so), I feel that his knowledge, taste and inclinations were catholic. He was as open toward pre-modernist traditions and source-works (in Europe, Asia /with a special emphasis on Japan, because of his personal connections and also because of the shock of Hiroshima/, the Americas and elsewhere) as toward existentialism or the French Nouveau Roman, for instance. And all those sources influenced his poetry.”

http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/bot/boturini.htm & http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/bot/ky-anm.htm

5  http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/japan/kitasono.htm


7 Cross: http://synaptry.blogspot.com/2018/11/doris-cross.html, http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/dcross00.htm; Danon: http://synaptry.blogspot.com/2018/10/betty-da-

8 Rosenberg: http://synaptry.blogspot.com/2018/10/marilyn-r-rosen-

9 Anti-nuclear power, protecting sacred Chumash sites, fighting pesticide drift and use, and nearshore and offshore ocean environment protection.

10 They embraced the Brazilian Noigandres Group concrete poetry as heroic, despite the fact that none of the Noigandres Group were troubled by the fascist regime whilst it was in power, contrary to the experience of other Brazilian poets and visual poets arrested and tortured. None of the Noigandres members were jailed as they were apparently deemed safe, if not supporters of the status quo, i.e., not avant-garde but retro-garde? Think: stories of Clemente Padin’s and Jorge Caraballo’s incarcerations for several years under Uruguay’s military dictatorship, the jailing of Paulo Brusky (three times) and Daniel Santiago in Brazil, the kidnapping of Jesus Romero Galdamez Escobar by the El Salvadorian military, and the exiling of Guillermo Deisler from Chile. Perhaps these others were actually the heroic poets, visual and lexical…? Chile: how can we forget the poets, writers, artists and countless other citizens killed, tortured, or exiled?

From Polkinhorn’s paper, “Hyperotics: A Towards A Theory Of Experimental Poetry,” delivered at Yale’s “Symphosophia: The End of Literature”: “There are big stakes to continuing these arguments. Among them are the chance to define cultural history, not to mention more mundane consequences such as ten-ured university positions with full health, vision, and dental coverage as well as the possibility of retiring without sliding into poverty. So assertions about what is and is not experimental poetry (or some other cultural form) will continue, and as usual the primary beneficiaries of these discussions will continue to be the arguers, not those about whose works the arguments are being conducted.”

11 From Polkinhorn email: “One of the de Campos brothers was there, with his son, and he walked out of my presentation, in a grossly conspicuous fashion.” And: “The whole conference at Yale was a kind of set-up, a glorification arranged by the Language School manipulators to further their narrow agenda by getting the im-primatur of Yale for the Brazilian Concretists (and themselves of course). I crashed their party with the Menezes book.” Polkinhorn email exchange.

12 http://www.logolalia.com/minimalistconcretepoetry/

13 http://www.logolalia.com/minimalistconcretepoetry/archives/cat_kempton_karl.html

14 http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/kaldron.htm

15 http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/kal-note.htm

16 He created simultaneity, although it is often credited to Apollinaire and Marinetti. They reduced it to a single page; Barzun contended that a single voiced point of view poem in the new urban complexity was inadequate; it required multi voices simultaneously, choir-like poetry. His visual poems were also, in a sense, multi-voiced scores.

17 For English language roots, see White Goddess by Robert Graves.

18 Not to be confused with the religious, though in a few cases they are intertwined among individuals such as Robert Lax

19 https://www.pinterest.com/karlkempton/word-painting-1/

20 https://theoddmagazine.wixsite.com/oddity18 visual poetry issue: https://theoddmaga-

21 See the extraordinary anthology: Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Edited and with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg. University of California Press; 3rd edition (2017) recommended.







RANDOM Archive Symposium 12 August

Saturday, 12 August, 11am-3pm
Symposium at Bury Art Museum

‘Silences, interventions, disruptions: Exploring the text art archive’
Invited artists, writers and researchers respond to the notion of practice based archives and the collection of text art held within ours. Including papers, performances, readings and informal panel discussions. A launch event for the 2019 Text Art Festival, and to mark the close of the RANDOM Archive exhibition.
The day will feature presentations and panel discussions with a number of artists and writers including Lauren Velvick, Lisa Wigham, Penny Anderson, Phil Davenport and Jez Dolan, with performances by Helmut Lemke and Rachel Defay-Liautard. We will consider the ways in which archives might be spaces used for generating text art, and ways in which this art might resist the constraints of the space. The afternoon panel will examine the people and narratives ‘absented’ from institutional archives and the practitioners who seek to create alternatives and mark out these histories. We will close with the launch of the 2019 Text Festival announcement by Director Tony Trehy, followed by drinks and a final opportunity to view the RANDOM Archive exhibition.
Lunch and refreshments provided – please sign up in advance (link)


Workshop: LGBTQI+ Archives Through Polari

Dolan, Jez - Polari - An Etymology according to a diagramatic by Alfred H Bair - BUYGM.1592.2014.JPG

Saturday 15 July, 1:30pm – 3:30pm

Join us this Saturday for a workshop which explores the Polari language and artworks relating to the research of this hidden coded language which are held by the Bury Text Art Archive.

Hosted by co-curator of the ‘Random Archive’ exhibition Hannah Allan and artist Jez Dolan who has carried out extensive research around Polari and other overlooked Queer cultural histories. http://jezdolan.com

Image: ‘A Polari Etymology’ Jez Dolan (2013)


Please sign up using the link below or by calling the gallery on 0161 253 5878


All welcome – with or without knowledge of the subject area.


Exploring the various language categorisations that can be used when cataloguing an LGBTQ archive.

Part of the Random Archive exhibition at Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre which features work of national and international language artists which are part of Bury Art Museum’s unique Text Art Archive. For more information about this exhibition and related workshops please visit BuryArtMuseum.co.uk



Workshop: Catalogue Poetics

Join us this Saturday for a creative workshop where we will use the structure of archive catalogues and respond to works within the RANDOM Archive show to create short poems and an alternative guide to the show through our own responses to the pieces.

Welcoming those with and without previous writing experience.

Please sign up using the link below, or please ring the gallery on 0161 253 5878



Saturday, 24 June, 1:30pm – 3:30pm

Exploring the language and syntax used when cataloguing an archive, and how this might be used creatively to draw out narratives or work with the documents.

Random Archive workshops

Running along side the Random Archive exhibition are a series of FREE workshops funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The workshops explore how to catalouge and care for community & personal archives, how to establish a DIY/Feminist archive, how to catalouge an LGBTQI+ archive and how to create your own Digital Archive. For more information on dates & times visit the Random Archive Workshop tab or Bury Art Museum website http://www.buryartmuseum.co.uk

Random Archive Exhibition – (20/05/2017- 12/08/2017)

Curated by Susan lord and Dr. Hannah Allan, the Random Archive exhibition features work of national and international Language Artists which is part of Bury Art Museum’s unique Text Art Archive. Random Archive attempts to push boundaries by questioning how an archive can be viewed, accessed and explored. This is a unique opportunity for visitors to get up close in a gallery setting to a collection which is usually kept in store, the public will be encouraged to interact with it and explore it afresh.


Earlier this year Philip Davenport, long time Text Festival collaborator, and Text Artist Derek Beaulieu began working on the idea of celebrating Text Festival Director Tony Trehy’s 20th year at Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre.

They came up with the exhibition TEXTfestschrift, which focuses on the notion of constructing memory. Philip and Derek set about inviting Text artists to contribute an original piece of art on this theme, and here are just a few of the art many artworks that we have received so far:

DSCF8854 (2)

The Exhibition opens August 2015