How far can poetry go? Where are its borders? How many different elements can a poem hold before it stops being poetry and becomes something else altogether?
This exhibition is conceived as a walk along some of poetry’s borderlines. To veterans of previous Krikri festivals, this will hardly come as a surprise: the borders of poetry and music or poetry and performance have been among our favourite holiday destinations since the organisation began in 2002.
The Zaoem 2008 exhibition concentrates on the visual: borderlands between word and image, poetry and cinema, or poetry and multimedia.
How far can a poem go? If the page is gone, what happens to the lines of text? How is a poem structured in three-dimensional space, in hyperspace, or simply on the physical, visual space of a page or screen once the compulsion to write in lines is gone? When the medium changes, what happens to the message? Is the result still ‘poetry’? And how do you read it?
Stephanie Strickland compares the reading of her multimedia work 'Vniverse' to the way prehistoric nomads read the stars: an exploration of an unknown space. Different hand movements, different mouse clicks lead to different parts of the work being revealed. Intermedial art forms demand multimedia readings: we need to employ our knowledge of how (textual) poetry works, but also our understanding of how a painting, a film, a website works.
What can language be, what can it do if it is more than text alone? The Arabic letter ‘alif’ or ‘elif’ is the first letter of the alphabet and the first letter of the word ‘Allah’ – but what does it mean when the Turkish poet Ayşegül Tözeren writes it with S-like curves suggestive of the female body? Renaat Ramon’s ‘Carte Blanche’ has no words, but does its structure make it a sonnet? In his ‘Polar Alphabet,’ Marko Niemi treats each letter not as a component of language but as an image to be distorted (rotated, fragmented, spun round like a compass at the North Pole). So is his alphabet a collection of poems or pictures? Words become images, images become linguistic signs. Our ability to read and ability to see may send us conflicting messages, like having a conversation with someone whose words say one thing and body language says another. In a text, ‘…’ might indicate hesitation, expectation or something left unsaid, but the punctuation marks in ‘Forecast,’ by Márton Koppány look like raindrops, the sun, stars, germinating seeds. Can we reconcile these different messages? Do we need to? Does one take precedence over the other?
How far can a poem go, and still be poetry? That entirely depends on your definition of poetry, of course. Multimedia poet Jörg Piringer shrugs the question off (after John Cage): ‘if you don’t think this is poetry, call it something else.’ Poetry is a language art, so what about these works: are they language art and does that necessarily make them poetry? Poetry is often capable of infusing language with new life, of finding fascination or beauty somewhere in the muddy floodwaters of everyday chatter. Does Leevi Lehto’s Google Poem Generator succeed in finding something valuable as it picks through the debris of a search engine and re-arranges it in sonnet or sestina form?
How far can language go? Where does it begin and end, or stop being language, or dissolve into noise? Are the illegible scraps of words in K. Lorraine Graham’s poems an unborn language, an open poetry? A language avant la lettre, which feels something like music you can’t quite place though your feet are already itching to get up and dance? Or are her poems the fragments that remain in a time when poetry has become impossible, barbaric? Scraps, splinters, silence. Can poems without words still speak? Does non-textual poetry avoid its responsibility when it rejects comprehensible language? Or is there perhaps a specific contribution that visual poetry can make to language in that very fact, in its ability to acknowledge silence? More deeply than other poetic forms, visual poetry can engage with silence: with the inability to speak, the choice not to speak. With the spaces between words.
In her ‘tiny wonderrooms of love,’ Jessica Smith hides her text on tiny rolls of paper inside little boxes. The words are there, we catch glimpses of them, but they are not intended for our eyes or ears. All we have is the knowledge of private communication just out of sight – perhaps a reminder that the world is bigger than we are, that we are not all-powerful and do not have the right to go anywhere we please. At a different extreme, perhaps, Michelle Detorie’s daily ‘Bellum Letters’ are shot through with invasive references to the war in Iraq. Browsing through, we might easily spend twenty times as long surfing the texts she links to her poems as reading the poems themselves. If visual poetry can acknowledge silences, it can also engage with cacophony.
In his 1998 essay, Neurofysiologie van de Poëzie, Arie Altena speculates that the purpose of poetry is to create new connections between diverse ideas, and hence construct new pathways between neurons in the brain:
Poetry tests out our language and comprehension abilities. The brain is constantly forced to make new connections, deviate from existing patterns, reverse the familiar. Habitual interpretations only go so far in reducing poetry to an ‘everyday’ message. No existing pattern is strengthened; no existing way of looking at things becomes more strongly anchored. […] Reading poetry trains the brain to deal with constant change, a skill that is of vital importance to our daily life in this world.
By encouraging the reader to use different forms of perception all at the same time, by stretching language to its limits, visual, interactive, sound and performance poetry challenge us to re-think our relationship with the surrounding world. But not every artwork that can stretch our perceptions and challenge our thinking is necessarily a poem.
So we find ourselves back at the beginning. How far can poetry go? How far do you want to go, and in which direction?
Helen White (UK, 1977) is a visual poet and founding member of Krikri. She has a Masters in Literature Studies from the University of Leuven (2004) and wrote her thesis on ‘Visual Poetry in De Tafelronde from 1965 to 1979,’ which allowed her to study the history and various aesthetics of visual poetry. Since 2003, she has participated in exhibitions in Belgium and abroad. Her work has appeared in various magazines, including De Poëziekrant, Foursquare, Phoebe, Karagöz and The Big Ode. She is the curator of the Zaoem 2008 exhibition.