Mary Ellen Solt “Forsythia" (1966)
Is it a map of the word “Forsythia” exploding into the shape of the plant? Or is that part the envelope? The poem nestles above those letters. It “insists action” by having each of those Forsythia-letters take flight. As little birds from wildly rocking cradles, those letters fly across the page until this picture or poem or map leads you to something, a place where Forsythia is both a noun and a verb, lush with tendrils.
Fittingly, this “map” orients our review of the finest and most recent visual poems we have come across on the interwebs and published in acclaimed journals of creative writing. As makers of art and visual poetry ourselves, we savor the glints and facets of visual poetry. The various sheen and settings of the following examples have inspired our own works in many ways. For those interested in the teaching of visual poetry, try this miner’s guide from poet and graphic artist Lauren Holden.
To us, “visual poetry” integrates visual elements and tethers them like tired trail horses to the watering posts of poetry. But let us leave those horses tied and tired.
Our extended metaphor for the following list centers on gems. It is meant as a nod to our latest Almanac mixed media project, which imagines the plenty of fall leaves as a single gem. The diverse world of visual poetry bursts with more gems than our feeble hands may measure or weigh. Consider our list, then, as a slate of choice cuttings tucked in platters of velvet, their carets sparkle under the lights.
1 Andrew Topel from LETTERS PATTERNS STRUCTURES
Some of Topel’s work has appeared in Switchback and Atticus Review. We rank this gem high in sheen for its purity of glare. It is perhaps one of the reasons Poetry magazine has a submittable category dedicated to the genre of visual poetry. We treasure it among other locked-vault stones alongside others appraised by Geof Huth—with facets from miEKAL aND, derek beaulieu, Anatol Knotek and others.
2 Brentley Frazier "Trust is a Vice"
Frazier’s cuts and stones mesmerize onlookers here. They remind us of the gem like qualities already found in paper and ink—even when such material traces of the twentieth century are as sentimentally gaudy as the D color Type IIa diamond. Aside from the calligrams of Guillaume Apollinaire, these rank among our favorite letterpress shimmerers—Detroit-based Amos Kennedy being one of the most unsung heroes of this art, in our humble opinions.
3 Dona Mayoora “Chasing Twenty-fifth hour”
Those interested in panning for precious materials themselves may luck out to discover Donmay’s asemic glisteners spanning social media. Our favorites are the “Listening To Red” pieces as well as the comics. Want another must-see asemic gem? Rattle your gold-rush pans with some of Gene Kannenberg’s qodèxx comics.
4 Krista Franklin “Boy W/ Joker” from Rattle #24
Krista Franklin’s gems remind us again of the power of layering, the nimble care one takes with settings. We treasure it alongside similar gems, normally not considered among visual poetry, necessarily, such as the extraordinary illustration-based collage of Bryan Collier. A bow here too goes to Rattle for their expert curation. Other trusted carriers of fine stones include Pleiades, their press features a series of visual poetry, and Timber, TYPO, 3AM, Nashville Review, BOMB, and many others.
5 Ruth Bavetta “The End and the Aim” from Rattle #29
Bavetta shines a light in a direction away from the shape poem or the concrete towards erasure poetry. These are lovely and luminescent. They share refractive and dispersive light indexes on a par with artists such as Bethany Collins and erasure poets such as Sonja Johanson. Oh, and for an added luster, you might take note of the richer veins of erasure pulsing beneath the present presidential political strata. If so, you might also read the miner’s report on the matter by Rachel Stone in New Republic, “The Trump-Era Boom in Erasure Poetry”
6 Bill Keith from Pictographs
William “Bill” Keith (January 20, 1929 - September 1, 2004) was an African-American artist who, in the latter part of his career, focused primarily on visual poetry. This piece is from Bill Keith’s Pictographs, published in 1996 by LeftHand Books. Although Keith’s work is illuminated by the light of many artistic influences, the luster of West African visual traditions shines on every page. His genius was burnished by a vast familiarity with African iconographic traditions and their diasporic journeys. We love Keith’s visual investigations of metrical structure in the absence of words, reminding us that poetry doesn’t live in lexical meaning alone.
7 Sarah J. SLoat “the Wreck” from Sixth FInch
SJ Sloat’s visual poems glitter with interpretive smarts. “The Wreck” employs arts of strategic marking and collage to re-interpret a page of Stephen King’s Misery. We especially love the use of strike-outs in this piece. Traumatic feelings associated with reading Misery for the first time (or seeing it in the theater) are soothed by Sloat’s colorful embellishments. From a source text about masculine fear of domestic entrapment, Sloat draws a visual poem that re-centers the fantastical feminine.
8 Nance Van Winckel “A Nose Can Smell Rain Coming” from Body
Nance Van Winckel’s collage work draws on many sources, but we find her play with iconography of the 1950s especially brilliant. In “A Nose Can Smell Rain Coming,” she sets a lyrical love poem against the backdrop of what might be a medical anatomy encyclopedia or a child’s textbook. The context created by the page seems recognizable at a glance, so much so that inattentive readers might miss the pin-up girl floating in the brain of the anatomical illustration. Van Winckel’s sly substitutions make for a multifaceted text that shines with interpretive intelligence.
9 Bianca Stone “Because You Love You Come Apart” from The Nashville Review
Considered by some to be the mother of the poetry comic, Bianca Stone is an uncut genius. She makes us sigh, and chortle, and look, and look again. We love the spooky and shiny quirks of her drawing style and enjoy returning to this piece from The Nashville Review to pick a new favorite detail. Most recently, we can’t get enough of the array of objects on the quilt in the 2nd panel. Is that an upside-down tarot card and an empty prescription pill bottle? Want another purveyor of this gem variety? Try Jesse Randall. Traci Brimhall’s work with artist Eryn Cruft is also sure to delight.
10 Catherine Bresner “American Sentence” from Poetry Northwest
Catherine Bresner is a poet, comic artist, and editor from Seattle whose hybrid poetry collection, the empty season, won the 2017 diode editions book contest. Bresner is remarkable for the many facets or techniques she employs in her work—including poetry comics, collage and erasure, to name but a few. In “American Sentence,” Bresner chisels away at the grammars of American life in a series of sentence diagrams inspired, in part, by the 2016 presidential elections and their aftermath. Like Nance Van Winckel, Bresner uses the art of arrangement to permit fresh views of familiar cultural artifacts, often for political ends. Her work is forged in urgency and burnished with wit. We can’t look away.
To sample a few of our gems, see “When Crows Came to Stay” and our Almanacs mixed media artworks.