The title work above is by John Furnival.
This part of the site has some texts by contributors to the exhibition as well as some related writing about the themes of:
- design and typography and the overriding issue of materiality
- concrete poetry collections and archives
- broader concrete, sound and visual poetry fields
Professor Stephen Bann is a poet and one of the world’s leading art historians of the concrete poetry movement.
NOTES ON MY POEMS
I was still at school in 1960, when I applied some prize money from a literary competition to buying Stefan Themerson ‘s Kurt Schwitters in England (Gaberbocchus Press, 1958). This probably provided my first real acquaintance with the avant-garde poetic strategies of the Modern Movement. For the next few years as a student at Cambridge, I experimented a little in poems published in the undergraduate magazine, Granta. But my major artistic interest lay in the painting of topographical watercolours, which formed a visual record of many of the sites that I was visiting in France, Germany and Austria, as well as England and Scotland. In 1964, Mike Weaver introduced me to the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, and the visit that we paid him in Edinburgh in August of that year soon resulted in a frequent exchange of letters. Rapel (1963), his first major collection of concrete poetry, appeared to me to hold the promise of a new kind of poetic art, at once deconstructing language and reassembling its component terms to create a visual expression.
From the start, I was in sympathy with the ambition that that led Finlay to become the pioneer of the ‘poster poem’, or ‘poem/print’. For the exhibition that took place at Cambridge in November 1964, I devised the print ORANGE, which was silk-screened by my friend David Maclagan, then at the Royal College of Art. This drew a few discordant meanings out of a word of six letters, which were then (so to speak) reconciled through participating in the square of vivid colour. For an exhibition at Winchester in Summer 1965, I followed Finlay’s move to a more material form of expression in creating two poem/objects. This was the summer when Finlay began to collaborate with Dick Sheeler in creating poems that involved wooden structures at Gledfield Farmhouse in Ross-shire. My own craftsmanship was however stretched to its limit in the boxed presentation, with applied letraset, of ICICLE!
Hansjörg Mayer’s typographic workshop came to my rescue in 1966 in giving definitive formal expression to the second, more elaborate poem, which reflected my fascination with the spaces conjured up by the German church architecture of the Rococo. The decision to fragment what in my initial version had been a homogenous field of letters proved to be a good one. Nevertheless, I welcomed the chance to use the same setting, reversed out, for a magazine cover. In this way, DOMINIKUS ZIMMERMANN became less of a typographic exercise, and more an evocation of the vivid impression of colour in space that this architect’s church interiors so marvellously stimulated.
My interest in the French poet, Francis Ponge, was converging at this point on Ponge’s notion of poetry as a ‘field’, both literally and figuratively. The opportunity of curating an exhibition of concrete poetry at the Brighton Festival (April 1967) enabled to test this concept in an extremely ambitious way. Kenelm Cox, whose sea-born structure of towers was by far the most adventurous of the projects that I commissioned, also agreed to provide me with 23 wooden structures in the form of an ampersand which would be installed on wooden stalks beside the Royal Pavilion. This structure was implicitly one that could be employed to cover any designated space, with the proviso that the same figure/ground effect and the emphasis on diagonality should be maintained (in my Concrete Poetry anthology of 1967, 260 small ampersands extended over the square format of the page). To vary the different types of ampersand, and fill whole sheets with packed progressions of the character (as was the case in the folder later published by Openings Press) was antipathetic to my title and my meaning: AMBER SANDS, that is, offering the prospect of a beach scattered with precious objects, and possibly the worm casts that have left their convoluted traces on the sand.
The poem that I discussed most extensively with Finlay during the period was FLEECE. He saw a first version in 1964, and from June 1966 onwards made several suggestions about how it was to be realised in typographic form. Eventually he decided that he would like to publish it in his Wild Hawthorn Press ‘poem/print’ series. But this decision led to a long search for the appropriate form, and the right designer to carry out the project, that delayed the publication until September 1967. In my own anthology, published almost simultaneously, the only variation in the structure was provided by the word ‘ecce’ being in bold type. Finlay , however, had the intuition that ‘Matisse-y’ lettering would work better for the print version. His friend, the Scottish graphic designer Alistair Cant, eventually designed the hand-drawn lettering and specified the bold colour contrast of blue and green.
The content of this print was avowedly religious. Finlay had rightly deterred me from entitling it ‘Cucifixion’ as being too obvious, but in the period when it was being discussed, both he and I were interested in the possibility that work of this kind might find a place in churches. Needless to say, this attitude hardly agreed with the implicit assumptions of most critics of the 1960s. John Willett judged the poem/print as being too like an altar-cloth in his review for the TLS (29 Feb. 1968). Finlay commented in a letter to me: ‘His assumption that an altar-cloth is ipso facto a bad thing, is innocently revealing’.
About her work as a designer of concrete poetry and her works included in the exhibition Ann Noël wrote:
I was introduced to Concrete Poetry by John Furnival, a tutor during my second year as a student at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, Wiltshire. In his class we were assigned one-line typewritten poems by a number of his colleagues from the world of visual poetry, which we were to render into typographic designs. They were printed in the academy print workshops and the editions were included in a portfolio, EAVELINES/HEADLINES, published by Furnival’s Openings Press. My contribution, Waterwheels in Whirl, was composed on a Staromat photo-typesetting enlarger and printed as a lithograph.
I never did meet the author, Ian Hamilton Finlay, since he rarely left his home at Stoneypath, Lanarkshire in Scotland, but we began a long correspondence that continued until after I had finished my art education and was living in the United States of America. In his letters to me, Finlay wrote about the “wee wee” poems he was realising with any number of artist/designers and the “wee wee ponds” he was building in his garden, on which to float and sail them. He also approved or made further suggestions about the latest batch of printing proofs I had sent him. The letters were eventually donated to the Jean Brown Archive in Massachusetts and ended up at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The most famous of our collaborations was the poem a c r o b a t s, which I composed in several letterpress versions with a metal typeface and finally designed as a silkscreen print in two colours – glossy orange letters on a complimentary, matt blue background. It was printed at the Tarasque Press, accompanied by an introductory text by Stephen Bann.
Another poet the students met and worked with through John Furnival was the eccentric, black-cloaked monk from Prinknash Abbey, Dom Sylvester Houédard (dhs). Our projects with him were to result in an exhibition at Arlington Mill. One room was devoted to the seven Greek vowels and their astronomical connotations. Each vowel was related to a planet, given a specific colour and associated with the properties related to them. In the other exhibition spaces we showed the print editions we had made with other concrete poets during the previous year.
Upon the occasion of the Brighton Festival of Concrete Poetry in 1967, I was one of five students invited by John Furnival to work on a Vowel Screen, 6 x 4 feet in size, printed on Perspex/Plexiglass. The vowel assigned to me was the lower case letter > e <. I composed a unit in a metal typeface printed on a letterpress machine. This was reproduced 16 times and pasted up to make the design to cover the entire surface. One unit was photographically enlarged and used to make a hand-held silkscreen frame, which could be printed on the front and the back of the glass.
A year later, 1967-68, I took a course in typography and printing with Hansjörg Mayer. Not only was he an extraordinarily innovative printer/publisher, but also allowed us to experiment on the letterpress and a Rotaprint offset machine overprinting colours and images until the paper became saturated. It was in this class that I made the hexagonally-shaped prints using one block of type printed from each of the six sides on the first print, and then double that number on the second, triple that number on the third and so on and, completing a series of ten composite images.
I was sold on printing and in the genre of artist’s books produced by and with the avant-garde poets and artists of that time, whom he had published in his Edition Hansjörg Mayer. I even ended up marrying one of his authors, Emmett Williams, who had edited An Anthology of Concrete Poetry!
On her Black Stars & other poems using electrical language
In 1964, on a visit to the Signals Gallery in London, where I was exhibiting in the First and Second Pilot of Kinetic Art, I discovered I could buy sheets of Letraset electronic symbols in stationery stores. At the time, I was living near Athens in Greece, where most kinds of sophisticated materials were unobtainable. An electronic symbol is a pictogram used to represent various electronical and electronica devices (such as wires, batteries, resistors and transistors) in a schematic diagram of an electrical or electronic circuit. I had already been using Letraset fonts and arrows, since 1962, applying them on painted metal drums to make Poem Machines. I had a large collection of Letraset font sheets that I had bought in Paris and discovering sheets of symbols that I hadn’t seen before was inspiring….I thought of these functional pictograms as letters in a new language, one made of sparks and light and motion. I called a series of them Following the Stars. On exhibition in this exhibition is one of the series which is called Black Stars.
In 1969 when I had settled in London my friend, the South African Beat poet, Sinclair Beiles, asked me to illustrate his manuscript Deliria. Since Deliria was a diary of his time spent in the throes of mental illness, I transcribed the electronic symbols to represent brain functions or Neurographs.
On her work called A Material Alphabet
Since coming to live in London in 1966, I found a way of making my work in small, often Dickensian engineering factories. This led me to a fascination with the processes and materials used by the small manufacturing companies that were scattered all over London. It was then possible to walk into Smiths of Clerkenwell to buy off-cuts of bronze or aluminium. On opposite sides of Euston Road, I would go for steel to Macreadys and for aluminium and Perspex to Righton. On one visit to Righton, I picked up a catalogue of aluminium extrusions that listened all the aluminium sections available. Looking through them for the one I needed, I was struck by the fact that here was an example of a material alphabet. I decided to redraw, using tracing paper, these sections (scanners or even photocopies were not available) to create an Alphabet for a Material Language. Once I had the symbols on tracing paper, I made dye-lie copies of them on white paper or card. Laying the transparent copy over the opaque dye-line doubled the symbols or, depending on the degree of registration, could lend them a three-dimensional effect. I thought of using these to write poems or even a novel. Thinking of Egyptian hieroglyphs, I realised with delight that pictograms were still in use. Less coded than our alphabet, they are closer to image. There is a crossover between image and sign that comes together in pictograms, probably the most ancient form of writing.
Lily Greenham died in 2001 in North London where she had lived for many years after a life spent in many European cities – Vienna, Copenhagen, Paris, Madrid – and performing as a vocalist throughout Europe, in the Middle East, North Africa and the USA. This is an excerpt from a text she wrote in 1995 which was published as part of a CD called Lingual Music, produced and released by Clive Graham’s Paradigm Discs label in 2007 :
From Un Arte dev Vivir (An Art of Living)
…I worked on a series of visual investigations of geometric patterns, some of which were based on magic figures and placed on a grid-system. In the early 60’s we called that kind of work ‘programmed art’ and I chose the title ‘study of similarity and differentiation in visual perception’ for one of my series. This particular work (comprising three variations) was conceive to make the observers aware of their own spatial relationship to it, because this interrelation is in actual fact the cause behind certain changes in their perception. Approaching and withdrawing in relation to the images makes it possible to grasp the complete visual information, since this bodily movement discloses that the fixed two-dimensional image in front of one seemingly changes whilst one moves. Finally, it struck me that here was a visual exemplification for the saying ‘one in all, all in one’, becaause each variation is unique and can at the same time be traced back to a basic pattern….Similarity and differentiation are two sides of the same coin.
Later on in the ’80s I experimented with computer graphics, using the then smallest and cheapest computer on the market (Sinclair ZX81).
My Semantic Sound Poetry was conceived to be not merely recited by performed; it combines semantics and abstract sound. As a starting point for these poems I used keywords, as I liked to call them, which I developed through an etymologic associative working process. Sometimes I used scientific definitions and turned them into humourous reflections. With the choice of subject matters I wanted to stress the absurdity of daily/weekly/monthly/yearly social ‘trends’ and point out the conformity with which they are met. …..
When I was heavily involved in one of the disciplines I actively pursued, I identified with certain professional groups for a time, but I was never exclusively dedicated to any single discipline. Others also seemed to recognise this, because in the field of music I was often described as a painter, in the visual arts I was seen as a poet, in literary circles I was a performer and so forth. And this and still is, the true situation. Some people perceived me as a ‘guest figure’ in their own domain. They were right! Hahaha! Neither nationality, nor religion, nor profession, not any sort of classification covers my own concept of myself. Categories don’t fit my character, nor my soul. I am a stranger in a strange land.
One of my lasting beliefs is that, when a person has undertaken a fundamental, earnest and thorough investigation into one single subject matter and has arrived at the very core of it, this understanding can be used as an analogical matrix for arriving at the nucleus of other enquiries or studies. Deep contemplation on a centre allows identification with ‘it’. This gives an inner vision that doesn’t seek but finds.