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  Summer 2012
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Visual Poetry in the Avant Writing Collection

Jeffery Beam

Visual Poetry in the Avant Writing Collection.
John M. Bennett, editor.
The Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, Ohio State University Libraries, 2008.
142 pages, $30 (paperback).
ISBN: none

The Avant Writing Collection at Ohio State University holds one of the most important and varied collections of North American visual poetry anywhere and includes personal archives, manuscripts, as well as original work of art. Most of these artists became active in the 1970s and most are still producing provocative and genre-bending works of unique beauty, wit, energy, and craft. Although no formal school exists, these artists form an engaged and sometimes even collaborative community which reaches across the globe, and has roots in the Concrete Poetry movement of the late 1950s. There works span many genres including visual arts, photography, sound art, music, performance, conceptual art, mail art, and/or artists' books. Bennett, who is curator of the collection, has compiled an informative and stimulating feast of items from the collection.

In addition to reproducing 80 works in full color, Bennett provides a brief introduction defining the contrast between textual and visual poetry, a short but fascinating numerical breakdown of the types of work in the exhibition by one of the world's most noted collectors of visual art, Dr. Marvin A. Sackner (who founded the Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry in Miami), and a brilliant introduction by noted visual and concrete artist Bob Grumman.

Grumman's essay creates a mini-survey, through descriptions of the works and their place and the individual artist's places in the history of the medium. It's an essential work for anyone interested in visual poetry, serving as a sourcebook of styles, history, and taxonomy. Grumman's "continuum," as he calls it, "starts an infinitesimal distance from pure poetry, or the wholly verbal, and ends an infinitesimal distance from the wholly graphic, or pure visual art. Halfway in between are works that are more or less half textual and half visual—collages and the like." I learned more by spending an afternoon with this book than I had gathered in years of haphazard interest. I did discover one mistake—the crediting of Emmet Williams for a collaborative piece with John Furnival. I happen to own a copy of the piece, and know it was done by my mentor and friend the late Jonathan Williams, and John, whom I also know. The great thing is that a PDF of the whole catalog is available online. Enjoy: http://library.osu.edu/projects/avant-symposium/Avant2.pdf.

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