Monday, July 07, 2003


I’m not sure about that last guy or gal – those brackets are its “name” – & I’d wager that Ficus Strangulensis is a pen name as well. But, on the whole, this is a group of folks who will be recognizable to anybody who’s paid even the slightest attention to visual poetics over the past decade.


One thing that all the works I looked at here have in common is that they’re static – straight JPEG files, no Flash, not even an animated GIF. This I found very liberating. It puts all of the demands of the work right back onto the image itself, rather than trying to distract us with bells & whistles. It also suggests work that, over time, will be able to survive beyond current computing platforms. Anyone who is old enough to have seen “animated” poems written in Harvard Graphics or Ventura Publisher when they were the presentation software programs of the day will recognize the advantage of that. At the very worst, these works can just be scanned into whatever new platform exists ten, fifty or 150 years from now & be good to go, something you can be certain won’t happen with the present generation of animated, sound-augmented writing.


As a gathering of visual works, two questions that almost always jump into my head around such projects pop up here as well:


·         Is it poetry?

·         Is it good poetry?

There are pieces here that are unquestionably good-to-great art – Lanny Quarles’ piece, all of Maria Damon’s needlepoints & the work by Jim Leftwich, both solo & in collaboration with Andrew Topel, stand out as memorable, intelligent, fun & well executed. But Richard Kostelanetz’ piece seems as muddled & predictable as the rest of his oeuvre & there are a few people here whose work in straight text forms – Sheila Murphy, Peter Ganick & Nico Vassilakis – have done more for me than their pieces here. If you stop long enough to think about the implications of Michael Basinski’s faux art brut, its visual vibrancy will be undercut by an intellectual queasiness that is hard to dispel.


So it’s a mixed bag, ranging from the brilliant to the ordinary & beyond, which makes it hardly different from any other journal these days. All of which still begs the question: is it poetry? I’m not sure how many of the contributors here actually care what the answer to that might be – maybe this is some of what Brian Kim Stefans characterizes as my “famously knee-jerk, even reactionary” impulses. But when I just focus in on the very most exciting pieces here – the work by Quarles, Damon, Leftwich & Leftwich/Topel – I come up with different answers.


Maria Damon’s four needlepoints strike me as absolutely & unproblematically poems, well within bounds established, say, by Ian Hamilton Finlay a generation ago entailing the work as an object. They’re beautiful, funny, brilliant and their core dimension is linguistic, rather than visual. Leftwich’s solo piece also strikes me as solidly within a historically unproblematic concept of poetry. Even if that concept might be qualified as concrete poetry, its core value (once again) is linguistic, albeit a graphemic linguistics that Saussure might find quite odd. Quarles’ piece – my favorite in all of Spidertangle – is more of a borderline case, however. It uses language, but its primary value, it seems to me, is visual. And the Leftwich/Topel collaboration – the most overtly beautiful piece in Spidertangle – is entirely textural, rather than textual. To characterize it as poetry would be to appropriate the old poetry is whatever a poet does stratagem, which reduces the term to pointlessness if not absolute meaninglessness.


In a sense, these works function more or less on the same fence I saw Ed Ruscha’s visual texts sitting on when I commented on his painting here last September 24th. In general, they have more power asking, rather than answering, the question concerning their status as poetry. It is not that they live outside of genre, but rather that they use its very edges as a primary medium, that helps to render the very best of these works powerful indeed.