Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 33, September 2013—Women of Visual Poetry Issue)

Jessica Smith
Women of Visual Poetry: an introduction

It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman

It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman

—Grace Paley

What is “visual poetry”? Just as the question of “what is poetry?” may be answered differently by every reader and practitioner, so “visual poetry” is hard to define closely. The unifying elements of the visual poems presented here seem twofold: first, the following poets responded to the call for “visual poetry” with the following works (a self-defined community); second, the poems privilege the visual or material over the verbal or sonic.

Poetry is so often compared to music that the visual element of the word on the page is transparent in many poems. To be a “visual poem” is to remind the reader that the way the words are arranged on the page (and their legibility, color, etc.) is a medial part of the message in every poem and cannot be separated from aurality and meaning. As in music, the poem on the page can operate as a score in myriad ways and need not indicate a traditional lyric performance. By highlighting and problematizing (making decorative, illegible or difficult) the optic elements of poetry, visual poetry reminds us that the eye and ear are inseparable when we parse written language.

In 2008, Geof Huth edited a feature for Poetry titled “Visual Poetry Today” that included eleven men and only two women, K. S. Ernst and Sheila Murphy. Four years later, a new anthology, The Last Vispo Anthology: Visual Poetry 1998 – 2008 (ed. Nico Vassilakis and Crag Hill), includes many more female poets and a stunning variety of visual poetry from all over the world, but the ratio of male to female poets is still almost 4:1. Meanwhile, in 2008 I edited a feature on women in visual poetry for Phoebe magazine and edited, from 2006 – 2009, a monthly magazine called Foursquare that exclusively published visual poetry by women. For those seeking to define an historical territory for visual poetry, women seem to play an insignificant role in the genre. From my point of view, there are female visual poets everywhere.

Visual poetry as a subset of the poetry community is plagued by the same illness as poetry itself. Every time VIDA does a count of the woeful underrepresentation of female poets in major publications, editors claim that women don’t submit. Perhaps the language, and resulting practice, of “submission” is repellent. Editors, of both magazines and more cloaked periodicals like anthologies, must research writers and actively pursue the writers they want to publish, specifically request work from these writers, and create an environment in which writers feel comfortable “contributing” to the collaborative entity. Maybe the need to actively research and invite women to participate in a project will fade when periodicals are less blatantly gender biased. For now, editors can’t expect numbers trouble to magically clear up on its own. And in the meantime, projects that witness the truth of the underrepresented must continue to provide an accurate survey of the poetry scene.

The following selection started with a call to a hundred female visual poets and a very tight deadline. mIEKAL aND, Amanda Earl, Luc Fierens, Drew Kunz, rob mclennan and Sheila Murphy were instrumental in helping me gather names and email addresses in the “research” part of the process. I asked contributors to refer their friends, and they were generously forthcoming. Some of the women who responded overlap with the women in The Last Vispo Anthology, but most do not. This selection, like The Last Vispo’s, represents just a fraction of the amount of visual poetry being produced by women. It’s not the first such gathering. But let’s hope it’s not the last.