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John Mingay

A Smudge Is Better Than A Line

Thorn Corners, Stephen Nelson, 2014, erbacce-press, Liverpool, £7.95.

I've never been over-fond of pigeon-holing things, preferring, instead, to have the lines between genres smudged, at the very least.  However, any attempt to review Stephen Nelson's Thorn Corners would, I feel, benefit from a little labeling, if only to see how it stands up against the theoretical notions it embraces, not because it's a difficult book to read or understand in its apparent simplicity of largely three word pages, but because it suffers the same general fate as vispo and minimalism themselves... the explanations are seemingly intrinsic to the forms by way of literary justification.

Though therein lies the dilemma... is it aspiring towards the vispo referred to in the back cover blurb and front cover image, or towards the minimalism as cited in Nelson's explanatory introduction to the work (this, in itself, being a dangerous thing for any writer to offer up... tantamount to that of visual art, the artist's statement... a licence to present bollocks as a serious interpretation)?

So, upon first opening the book, the immediate thought is that it's minimalism, plain and simple... three words, generally, appearing in apparently random positions on each page, in something like a rather sober twenty-four point Times New Roman, surrounded by lots of white space which, to Nelson, is a reminder of, "the field of consciousness on which all words and thoughts are written."  If Nelson's work is looked at from the perspectival definition of minimalism put forward by Bob Grumman, namely that it falls into a category he terms infra-verbal fissional poetry... "In fissional poetry spaces are used to "disconceal" words within words" …it becomes all the clearer that Nelson has followed this line of thought.  For example...

          d raped


...makes the association between being draped in the fear of rape as a violent act of violation, by having the "d" split away to belong to either "scare" or "raped", i.e. the interpretation of further meaning has been made possible by a process of fission.  We have been gently pushed towards meaning we may not, otherwise, have seen.



And all that minimalist white space on each page!  This is brave publishing from erbacce, its editors already having developed it into a press unfazed by occasionally being, "taken to task for publishing poetry which is either 'obscure' or 'elitist'."  In terms of customer perceptions of "value for money" and, therefore, potential sales, there are many other publishers (too many?) who would all too easily shy away from a project of this nature.  So, good shout, erbacce... just remember, as Ambrose Redmoon put it, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear."  In this instance, it's pushing the boundaries that's more important than fear... quality that's more important than quantity... so, keep 'em coming!

Thus, as we can undoubtedly consider Thorn Corners a readily defined minimalist work, can it also fall under the spell of vispo?  Can it be both?  Can one be the other without it being all?  How does it stand up against the statements of intent made by his peers in the last vispo anthology?

As Jim Leftwich declares of vispo, when it comes to meaning, "it is a series, or an aggregate, of opportunities for the collaborative construction of meanings by the interaction of the reader and the text."  Not, then, a million miles away from the general precept of 1970's Californian Language Poetry, in which the reader was required to work at finding meaning for themselves, rather than having it spoon-fed to them.  But, if what Leftwich suggests is, indeed, the case, we could then go on to ask whether Thorn Corners provides opportunities of a similar nature?  In short, absolutely!  In providing so little to work with, Nelson has produced work that forces the reader to look in depth at the individual words, at literal, fissional and metaphysical levels, and at the layout and combinations of words which, by virtue of their punning progressions and hinted at associations, tease the reader with implications towards possible meanings, what Klaus Peter Dencker refers to as "poetic play" or "calculated play", yet another aspect that is seemingly a prerequisite of vispo.

            ginseng sung by baritones


Petra Backonja comes at it as the "visit of one thing upon another."  In other words, a collision between text and image, though, as Backonja goes on to say, "the image, the text, title, the thought evoked - what's to distinguish anything as visual poetry?"  Taken in this context, Nelson's Thorn Corners is a work of vispo that does collide familiar alphabetical images to create texts that obviously have their origins in a writer's thought provoked and an outcome in the reader's thought provoked.  However, that notion of vispo being “anything goes” is one that repeatedly raises its head.  For example, Marlyn R Rosenberg tells us in a very straightforward way that, "If the work's creator says it is, and if the editors accept it, then it is visual poetry."

It is, therefore, necessary to dig deeper, if we are to understand the significance of Nelson's work.  After all, the other extreme in defining vispo is best summed up by Karl Young, who says, "Visual poetry is an ad hoc term for joining or reintegrating verbal and visual modes of expression."  Yet, what can also be seen is that vispo, in nearly all instances, exists on a seemingly casual level.  In fact, the more seemingly casual, the better.  And the reason I use the word seemingly is that, although vispo, such as Nelson's, may appear, initially, as very simplistic in the way so little is presented to the reader, it is, rather, the outcome of considerable creative thought by the writer, and the trigger for a similar cognitive effort by the reader.

So, yes, vispo may, on the surface, appear as what Greg Evason perceives as common critical comments that place vispo as being little more than "games for children"  and why it is often difficult to take "so-called 'visual' poetry seriously”; similar criticisms that could be levelled at Nelson, particularly when he's punning or pushing some other word-play.  However, Evason counters these criticisms by asking, "What is visual poetry's great insight into the human or any other condition?", and then providing the answer that it, "shows us what isn't there.  Normally."  Then, of course, if it isn't there, it has to be down to the reader to go look for it without first having been provided with the usual literary crutches.  In the following example of Nelson's work, this simplicity is apparent... individually, the words have their own easily attributed meanings, but collectively they provide nothing that could fit in with the modern need for instant order... it's for the reader to find meanings that relate to his or her, or any other, condition.

            indigenous cavern vertigo


And, remember all that white space mentioned earlier?  This, too, can often be a feature of vispo, according to Donato Mancini, for whom the blank space is anything but blank.  It is something that, intrinsically, is an integral part of the poem, rather than just being something the poem is printed or written on.  The white space is awaiting activation; it is where the poem will happen; it becomes significant; and, according to Mancini, "when the blank space signifies, the page is activated...  the page... is now [a] white bedding and arena", a battlefield upon which words and images will be used as ammunition.  Yet, that battlefield can end up being knee-deep, wall-to-wall in significations with not even the smallest speck of blank space.  In fact, vispo often revels in this.  Nelson's own contribution to the last vispo anthology, Walk with Me (p316), does just this with tinted, mirrored, angled text planes and a single monochrome textual central panel.

This, however, is not the case with the pieces in Thorn Corners.  Much of the arena has been left to signify on its own.  Whether this is good or bad is beside the point.  It has it's purpose.  Less can be more.  But more can take the potential for meanings further.  In the same anthology, for example, Mike Cannell, with Relationships (p127), takes a similar wordplay to those employed by Nelson, lays out this text in a similar way, but adds a relevant, full-frame background image.  The result is the text "meat/meet/metre" sitting on a macro shot of the marbling in a piece of prime beef.  Although providing more in the spoon, and therefore maybe requiring less initial work of the reader, to my mind, this has the potential to say more to us, and have us look further for even more meaning, than, say, Nelson's words on a signifyingly activated, yet blank page...

            sun anus


One other feature of vispo is the conviction that vispo is not of the oral tradition.  It is poetry that has no interest in being spoken.  As Karl Kempton puts it, "Visual poetry may be defined simply as a poem composed or designed to be consciously seen."  This ties in well with Leftwich's comment that, "all visual writing is a rejection of, by which i [sic] mean an expansion of, regular writing."  Following the logic of these statements, it becomes clear that, we can push the written word further than being recital pieces, pieces that have been written on the basis of a tradition that hasn't gone beyond the advent of the printing press, poetry that has to be remembered and spoken to pass it on.  Leftwich tells us that "visual writing deconstructs the conventional dichotomy of looking and reading."  As early as 1923, Karel Teige, in his manifesto Painting and Poetry, could see the liquidation of traditional methods as a possibility, if not an inevitability, through the fusion of text and image.  To him, this "new art stops being art; new areas are born and poetry expands its borders."  And, with the advent of digital technology, this trashing of tradition is picking up pace.  C Mehrl Bennet, in writing of letters originally being images, states, "It is a sign of these digital, post-modern times that 'asemic writing' is becoming more accepted and possible."  To this end, it is now possible to go beyond standard alphabets and printing techniques.

So much so that, with the digital and other technology available to the artist/writer today, there are some, such as El Lissitzky, who have made it clear that, "The endlessness of books must be overcome," or Raymond Queneau who, as long ago as 1944, said that, "One is ill-served if one believes in the superiority of the book and rejects that connection with other means of expression that are being delivered by modern technology.  One should not imagine that nothing acceptable is to be found outside the book."

            sunflowers verging on the horizon


And just how does this relate to Nelson's Thorn Corners?  In as few words as possible, the work addresses Bennett's dichotomy, in that looking and reading become a single act.  What's less certain, though, despite the bravery of erbacce as a publisher, is whether a book is the best place for these pieces at all.  Are there other technologies that would provide a better platform for Thorn Corners?  After all, as Bennett says, "Visual poetry is inherently 'experimental' in nature, and as such, it attempts to avoid predetermined concepts and it strives to be 'on the edge.'"  The predetermined concept to be avoided here is that words belong in books and, for those words to be 'on the edge', they need to be seen beyond the sanctum of a page in a book.

For Peter Frank, there's a certain inevitability to the switch from page to screen.  He believes, "The computer will not kill the book, but liberate it.  By relieving the book of its lexical responsibility, the computer will do for the book what photography did for painting two centuries ago: allow it to become a self-reflexive discipline, an investigation of medium and format and content and history whose resonance deepens and complectifies [sic], spawning experiments and arguments, contradictions and unanticipated pathways to entirely new artistic possibilities."  Perhaps, then, if anywhere, this is where Thorn Corners fails.  Perhaps, as a book, it is merely a storage dump for ideas that need to be taken forward in another technical medium?

            her host head hosed


However, this said, Nelson's Thorn Corners does seem to tick all the right boxes in relation to the schizophrenic nature of vispo: in its relationship with the reader it is both confrontational, in terms of taking them out of their comfort-zone, and co-operative, in the opportunity for exploration and invention it provides; and in terms of the artist/writer's immersion in a creative process that, as Nico Vassilakis suggests, combines "both word and picture, as one," but which is "not an easy balance to sustain."

Equally, as we saw earlier, Thorn Corners also fits easily with the basic tenets of minimalist poetry.

So, where does this leave us?  Well, we're left with a certitude that Thorn Corners smudges its way between both minimalism and vispo, and that, therefore, neither form is exclusive.  What's vispo can be minimalist.  What's minimalist can be vispo.  But, not all that is vispo is, necessarily, minimalist, and vice versa.  More importantly, then, is not so much the categorisation of the work, but its qualification.  Is it good?  Impossible to answer.  Everyone will take something different from it.  Actually, that’s the point and, therefore, perhaps this alone, this ability to be something to everyone, is what could allow the subjectivity of the term "good" to be applied?  But, if not, I'd then have to ask, does it provide the reader with an experience that is out of the ordinary, untraditional, modern, uncomfortable and/or thought-provoking?  Well, the answer to that question from me would have to be an unequivocal...






  1. MNMLST POETRY: Unacclaimed but Flourishing, Bob Grumman, 1997 -


  1. From Concrete to Visual Poetry, with a Glance into the Electronic Future, Klaus Peterr Dencker (trans. Harry Polkinhorn), 2000, Kaldron On-Line & Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.
  1. the last vispo anthology: visual poetry 19988-2008, Crag Hill & Nico Vassilakis (eds), 2012, Fantagraphics Books, Seattle.


  1. Karel Teige, El Lissitsky and Raymond Queneau quoted in Dencker ibid.


Copyright © John Mingay, 2015