Stephen Nelson is a Scottish poet who lives in Hamilton. He writes a blog called afterlights which I’ve been following for a couple of years, well lurking around to be honest because I rarely make a comment. It’s not often I have nothing to say but the main reason I never comment is because Stephen specialises in all kinds of visual and concrete poems and most of the time I look at them I go, “Eh?” and pass on by.
I’ve been thinking about asking Stephen to do a piece for my blog for a while now and the fact that he’s up for The Crashaw Prize seems like a decent enough excuse but then I got to thinking and rather than a guest blog I thought I’d do a sort of an interview. Since I’ve never really been able to get my head around visual poetry I thought this might be a good jumping off point. I don’t especially like not getting things but I never seem to run into people who get the things I don’t get to ask them what I’m doing wrong. It’s like I’ve never actually met anyone who likes listening to Stockhausen. He’s an interesting bloke to talk about – a bit like John Cage in that respect – but I’d really like to meet a guy who would stick on one of his CDs to listen to while he’s making his tea and ask him why. Do you see where I’m coming from? And I feel much the same about visual poetry. I look at it – it’s often pretty to look at – but I’m not sure what to do with it. I was hoping since he’s are a practitioner that he might open my eyes a bit and maybe attract a few readers to his site in passing.
Like you I was brought up in Scotland and the fact that I wrote poetry was not something I publicised. Can I assume that being a visual poet is an even harder sell?
Well, yeah, I tell people I make visual poetry and it’s like, “What’s that?” So I mention concrete poetry and usually someone cracks a bad joke about bricks or buildings or something. Generally there’s an air of bafflement. You get used to it.
Where did you first come across visual poetry?
On the web. I was interested in concrete poetry. I knew about Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work and was doing a search on him. It lead to bigger things. In particular a site called Minimalist Concrete Poetry, which presented a bunch of contemporary visual poets and introduced me to the term and its application.
Was it love at first sight?
Absolutely. But love mixed with confusion. A lot of it I didn’t get. What was going on? Why did I find it all so damn gorgeous to look at but remain clueless as to its meaning? Then it struck me. Text! A love of text. The look of written language.
Okay I walk into your Visual Poetry shop and say, “Hello I’m interested in looking at some visual poetry.” What would you pull out to show me?
I would give you (or sell you, it ain’t cheap) a copy of Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. A rare book. A precious book. In fact you can only looking at it wearing a pair of special protective gloves, in an air-conditioned room, softly lit.
I’ll show you two pieces which illustrate the process I’m involved in.
The first is a letter composition; the second a digitally processed version of the same poem. The key thing to understand is the material substance of the letters, the physical shape of written language. For a while I was interested in the letters “Y” and “K”, and how the shape of these letters could be interpreted imaginatively according to my own concerns. For example, these two letters are composed of thrusting limbs (a bit like the human body, which is interesting). The limbs reach up or reach out into the future, into the sky, moving forward, moving up, reaching, extending. The “Y” extends up in praise or celebration; the “K” reaches out exploring what lies ahead.
So in the first poem ‘Dance of Past Lives 1’, I use the celebratory limbs of one “Y” entwined with another, in a dance or sexual union (think Tantra or Kama Sutra), creating almost tribal shapes and patterns which represent the dance of life. I’m interested in reincarnation, so each coupling becomes a life, or if not a life then at least an important stage in one life, punctuated by full stops – death, the end, transition from one stage to another.
The second poem, ‘Dance of Past Lives 4’, I like to think of as a “version” of the first, a bit like the old Dubplate versions of King Tubby or Lee Perry. Here, the very substance of the language is transformed and irradiated at an almost cellular level. And so, for me, this metamorphosis acts like the transformation of the human body, or the Self, in a way which resembles Taoist sexual alchemy, Tantra, Jungian Individuation, Christian Resurrection, or, simply, as Gary Barwin put it, Dr Who style transformation. The digital tools allow that luminosity which I see as part of the process of change from grosser elements to more subtle forms of energy. They also create images which remind me of spirit beings or aliens or ectoplasmic entities, which I like.
When I look at the first piece my initial reaction is that these look like a form of hieroglyphics or logograms and it’s hard not shake that first impression and to want to define each ‘character’. Take for example this one:
There’s certainly something anthropomorphic about it. It could be a man doing a cartwheel. Rather than ‘praise’ might not this represent ‘joy’? It’s impossible not to want to try to interpret/decode the symbol. The problem with that is that we’ll end up labelling each one and end up with a list of nouns.
The title is a help because it suggests a sequence, like dance steps:
and so I suppose this could represent various stages in a life without trying to do anything as generic and ‘profound’ as The Seven Ages of Man. Of course when we get to the second piece it’s harder to see the ‘man’ in them – the blobs look more like amoebae and so we have to think about the sequence more abstractly. It’s hard though not to look at the symbols and try to impose a logical sequence on them. In many respects the second one is better because unless you know where it came from you don’t automatically see the letters. Letters, even funny-looking letters like Cyrillic, are the building blocks of words in my head and words are containers for meaning.
I looked up ‘cartwheel’ to see what the Chinese character was and got this:
which, reading from right to left, says ‘turn’, ‘hand’ and ‘side’ which led me to think that this might not be nine steps but only three. At the end of the day I still feel very frustrated because I want to be right and I’m very uncomfortable with vagueness. Overtones I get and I’ve no problem with subtext but this still feels like
E = mc2
when I don’t know what E, m or c stand for.
So, let’s say this isn’t a shop. It’s a class. It’s Visual Poetry 101, Lesson 1. What are the key elements you’d want me to take away today?
Teacher would like you to grasp the concept of the materiality of language (words, letter, even fragments of letters), the shape and substance of text, and how that can be applied imaginatively to the poem.
Okay, what’s my homework assignment?
Your assignment is a simple one. Pick two or three letters and compose them into a shape or pattern that you think has some poetic merit.
I actually lay awake last night unable to sleep for thinking about this. This is what I finally came up with:
My thinking is that it can be read a ‘fail’ or ‘fall’ although I’m not sure if it might work better in lower case. You can probably see what was on my mind. I was afraid I might fail the test, that I was too bound to meanings and words. The fall of man led to him failing to live up to God’s expectations and that led to the grave. That wasn’t what I was thinking about but I guess that’s another way of looking at it. Then there is the famous Beckett quote about failing better coupled with his view of life as that glimmer between birth and death. I think my real aim was to say something profound. I don’t write nearly as much poetry as many of my friends online because I feel that I need to say something meaningful for it to count and although this conversation with you is basically light-hearted I am still sincere in wanted to get concrete and visual poetry.
So how did I do?
I like it. I think upper case is stronger and I see what you are doing. I like it when the word can be read in different ways – in this case "fail" or "fall". That's a characteristic of pwoermding and this is a decent visual pwoermd. I see the depth (not least in the grave), but I also see dark humour. These things can be profound but I think levity is ok too – it can be joyous, free, playful. Your poem is quite Scottish; dare I say Calvinist without being offensive? Anyway, keep it up. Visually it's striking and I like the shadowy quality.
Looking at the tags on your site I can see examples of bracket poetry, found poetry, sound poetry, pwoermds, punctuation cut-ups, minimalist and concrete poems, dripglyphs and something new to me: asemic writing, but not a lot of stuff I recognise (as in visualise as oppose to acknowledge) as ‘real’ poetry, the odd haiku or haiga perhaps or even a prose poem. A cynic might say that much of the stuff looks as if little or no thought has gone into it and so it probably doesn’t deserve a great deal of time spent on it. For example this piece posted in 2008:
I see the words ‘neon’, ‘one’ and I suppose ‘eon’ and the prefix ‘neo’ at a push but my reading of this is ‘one neon’ and I think to myself: What does this mean? Can that be it? What am I supposed to feel reading this? What am I not bringing to the piece to make it work? and I wonder how long this took Stephen to write?
Or this one from 2010:
An onion has many layers and words have many layers. Is that it?
Where am I going wrong?
Ok, let me start by saying that I don’t think the length of time it takes to create a poem is in anyway indicative of its value. You know that. I’m interested in the tiniest moment of poetry. That moment when poetry sparks in the mind and dies. It can be the tiniest movement of mind that produces poetry, and it can only take an instant to create a poem. Added to this is my interest in poetry as a spontaneous flow of creative energy, rather than a labour intensive craft. Poetry starts in the body for me, not the brain. It rises from the base of the spine, grips the chest and flows up out of the mouth or into consciousness as language in long flowing waves, or little staccato breaks, or tiny little puffs of sound or language.
I also have to say at this point that the work on the blog is very different from the work I submit to magazines, or the work included in the Crashaw Prize collection. For one thing blogging is a community activity. Its poetry created in response to other blogging poets. Blog alongside blog. (I think the “neon” piece was written in response to a poem by Mike Cannell). Blogging represents one side of my poetic – visual, minimal, yes, but also spontaneous and instant, rather than considered or thought out. Also, it’s difficult to format poems on blogger so the textual poems I post are usually laid out simply. My magazine poems are generally more considered, more worked through, or the result of a particularly intense (even special) creative rush.
But let’s get to the “neon” poem. Again the physical substance of the poem has to be looked at. In particular the visual rhythm created by the repeated word without any breaks. “Neon” begins and ends with the letter “n”, and so repeated creates words within words (an interesting phenomenon in itself). For me it has a dazzling, beautiful effect on the eye. It lights up! It sparks! And one doesn’t quite know where to focus: on “one”, on “neon”, on “neo” – the words you mention? So let’s take the two main words and how they have that destabilising, disorienting, (hallucinogenic?) effect – “neon” and “one”. Light is a key element in my work. I believe light, in its subtle form, is the spiritual substance of being and consciousness. Neon light is particularly interesting to me because it is the light of the city, the light of excitement, thrill, nights out, dancers, diners, the whir of the city at night. That energy has a spiritual quality. It unsettles the ego, allows some form of supra/unitive consciousness to emerge. I remember nights out as youth with my friends. I lost that sense of everyday identity, became part of a group mind, a city mind. A disordering of the senses. Which brings me to the idea of non-duality. Ego breaks down and consciousness unites with the Other, the One. And so from the neon dazzle of city nightlife, the One emerges, universally, to anyone open to it, experiencing it, attuned to it. This happens in a concrete way in the poem.
The same can be said of the “onion” poem, where the “I” sits in the centre of the poem, surrounded by the word “on”, and the brackets compose layers in which the “I” is buried, or alternatively, waves of energy radiating out from the central source.
To be honest, it helps to have an understanding of my central concerns, my interests, and how other poems may impact upon each individual poem. But bear in mind that blogging textual poems is only a particular strand of my work. It explores the “immediate”.
I think what really gets me about a lot of this kind of poetry is that it doesn’t seem very deep. I can’t imagine, for example, when my mum died expressing my grief in a poem like this:
Can you think of an example of ‘profound’ minimal poetry?
The central concern of minimalism is language itself, how it works, how it mutates, how it can be played with. You probably won’t find many examples of emotional depth in this type of minimalism. But isn’t play one of the profoundest experiences of your life? Or rather, didn’t it used to be? Whatever happened to all the fun in the world? And isn’t language itself the thing that binds us all together from day to day? That seems pretty important to me. One of the main things about my prose poems in the Crashaw collection is how words or phrases form unconscious patterns in the mind. My own interest is in language as “the Word” or as an expression of unconscious energy and how this reforms at a conscious level. This breaks down into minimalist poetry at times and seems to have a certain depth that is other than mere emotional expression. Have a look at my chapbook Flylyght[*], available at the blog or from the Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press. Isn’t it funny how the word only represents the object. It isn’t the object. You can’t really say what the object is in essence. You can only represent it. Therefore the word, like the object, is subject to change. It is impermanent. Why not use that quality and play around with it a little?
In 2009 you posted a blog entry about Cythera by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a ring of standing stones situated near a busy road in your home town of Hamilton. The stones bear the following texts:
CYTHERA ~ AIR ~ IN BLUE ~ LEAF ~ BLUE BARK ~ AND BLUE LEAF ~ A LEAF ~ A BARQUE ~ A BLUE LEAF ~ A BARQUE IN LEAF-BLUE ~ AIRE
I was intrigued by what you wrote about your experience of them:
They are framed by the sky as every element of earth should be. When I look up at them I feel both solid and as light as a leaf in air. I feel the earth and I feel the sky. I feel rooted and I feel transcendent.
There are more which I may post at some later date. For now, these words are for me today. They exist for today. This day, as all days, I am of earth and heaven. I am both. When the balance is right, I exist centrally, solidly, softly. I have direction and belonging. I am of and I am to. Of and to. This is a blessing as words on stone are a blessing. Reaching from and to. For, of, in, up, to. Today, somedays, all daze.
You have clearly spent time with this piece. Is that what is needed with your own work?
I don’t think a lot of time is needed to appreciate the work, just a familiarity with the forms and an understanding of what’s going on. Although having said that, the idea of meditating for a time on a single word or image is important to my understanding of how to gain a peace-filled mind. That involves allowing the mind to simply rest in a chosen word.
Tell me a bit about your submission for the Crashaw Prize. Reading between the lines it sounds like you’ve submitted a few poems like this one:
Ma heid's fu ae letters
waukin through this park
the skirl ae the pipes
washin it clean so's
the letters fly up tae the sky
blue sky poems curlin
at the edges fur the
glories ae the nation.
Again not a poem I imagine the mainstream would jump at.
Not really. Again, this is more a case of a poem coming to me quickly in a given situation and getting it down and out there almost immediately. It has a superficial similarity to some of the Crashaw poems and is indicative of some of the dialect writing in the collection, but there are a variety of styles and forms in the book which I wouldn’t publish on the blog. Perhaps because these involve more of a shaping of creative energy, or more time spent in allowing the creative energy to flow, or perhaps because they involve a poetic style which I feel just isn’t suitable for the blog. In any case there are a variety of styles in the book bound together by ideas of awakening, unfolding, consciousness, experience, discovery. More than that I shall not say in case I jinx it. Well, other than there are only one or two poems in the collection which you’ll find on the blog.
Apart from your own work whose sites would you recommend newbie visual/minimal poets to investigate?
Geof Huth’s blog is essential reading for anyone interested in visual/minimalist poetry. In terms of great practitioners, Geof’s one. Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimalist Poems is a must, as is the site which hosts Robert Grenier’s box set of minimalism, Sentences. There is an abundance of visual poets on the web these days, most of whom are creating work which far outstrips my own. Some of them work with a far greater visual component than I do. Let me name just a few: Satu Kaikkonen, Andrew Topel, Nico Vassilakis, Matina Stamatakis, Marton Koppany, Scott Helmes. Look out too for mIEKAL aND and Endwar, a great minimalist, if that isn’t a contradiction. I could go on deep into the night. If you look, you’ll find them, and it’s a wonderful discovery.
Your bio says:
Stephen Nelson was born in Motherwell, Scotland in 1970, to the King of Belgium and his wife, a member of the Swedish Royal Family. He was educated in a monastery in Bhutan where he quickly learned the simultaneous arts of telepathy and levitation. He gave it all up for poetry however, and now practices visual poetry, minimalism and freeform songs.
I assume I can take that with a pinch of salt?
Just a pinch. Don’t you get bored of all these bios listing publishing credits? Seems to me that’s all about making a name for yourself. Let’s have a little fun!
I have to say I’m very grateful to Stephen for the work he put into this. I still don’t think I’m going to make any radical changes in my approach to poetry – a bit too long in the tooth – but you never know. I think I’m pleased enough with ‘fail/fall’ to stick it in my big red folder, give it a number and count it as one of my ‘real’ poems. What do you think?