The course of true love has never been smooth, Shakespeare tells us, and the same can be said for “Vou: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978,” a new book from Isobar Press. First conceived in the late 1990s by author and poetry editor Taylor Mignon, it took more than 20 years of twists and turns to bring the collection of Japanese visual poetry to fruition.
Vou: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978, edited by Taylor Mignon
“I was co-editor (poetry journal) Printed Matter from 1995,” says Mignon, “and one of the contributors was John Solt. He translated contemporary poetry, more modernist works. In particular, he submitted translations by Katue Kitasono.
Kitasono had been a pioneer of visual poetry in the pre-war period, and later became the leader of the Vou (spoken vow) club, a group of artists which was at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s.” Simply put, visual poetry is a cross between art and poetry, a combination of image and letter, especially when the letter is manipulated,” says Mignon. The definitions are fluid, which is the joy of a collection that encompasses such a wide variety of works.
“It was so exciting to discover another world of literature. I started to get interested and involved,” continues Mignon. “I saw Kazuko Shiraishi play a lot – she was a member of Vou – and I got to know Shohachiro Takahashi; I briefly met Toshihiko Shimizu; and I spoke on the phone with Katsuhiko Okazaki, then Shin Tanabe, who was one of the younger poets. So I got lucky. I got to see the newspapers (published by the club) and started collecting them. We were in correspondence, exchanging letters, and I had the idea for this project. They said yes, let’s do this.
Mignon began collaborating with Karl Young, an editor from the American company Light and Dust. “Karl had been my introduction to visual poetry in 1992, through a series he published called ‘Word/Light Pescia’, so he was a perfect fit for the project. I sent him my entire collection of journals from Vou to the States -United.
However, international communication at the time was not as instantaneous as it is today, and the process of preserving visual poems slowed down. “We didn’t communicate well enough,” Mignon said of the delays. “It was hard because the artists (many of whom were born in the 1920s and 1930s) were dying. I felt very bad, I felt so guilty that I couldn’t finish this project.
Here Mignon stops. “And then Karl died in 2017,” he said after a wave of emotion passed. With Young’s departure and Mignon’s journal collection gone in the United States, the project seemed doomed. However, all hope was not lost.
Through Kris Kondo, his poet and artist cousin living in Japan, Young had made arrangements before his death to return the archive to Mignon. “I got almost everything back,” said Mignon.
Determined to pursue the project, Mignon turned to another Printed Matter alumnus, Paul Rossiter of Isobar Press. Without the original negatives, however, it was difficult to reproduce the images. “We had to scan everything directly from the page,” says Mignon.
He stops again, his emotions still strong. “This project would absolutely not have seen the light of day without Karl. He introduced me to visual poetry. It’s terrible to say that the death of my co-editor contributed to the making of the book but, in a way, it’s true,” he says, noting that the book, which at times seemed impossible to produce, is dedicated to Young’s memory. “It was a long process. In a way, it’s a miracle that this book even came out.
While the moving backstory gives “Vou: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978” a more personal touch than many poetry anthologies, the collection is far from an exercise in nostalgia. The artists highlighted in the book are central to understanding 20th-century Japanese poetry.
The works of Vou artists may not be what many readers imagine when they think of Japanese poetry. One of the aims of this book, said Mignon, “is to make a difference by trying to open the minds of Westerners to what they forget, to what they miss”. This is partly thanks to the Beat Generation, a literary movement that emerged in the United States in the 1950s. Due to American Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen, who spent time in Japan and produced works influenced by the country’s culture, Western perceptions of Japanese poetry “are more the reductionism of haiku”, says Mignon.
The works of Vou artists are in a way a reaction against the Western exoticification of Japanese poetry and culture. Katsuhiko Okazaki, for example, “uses imagery of the female form, but in a sense it’s a commentary on American Beats that tended to exoticize Asian women. Shinichi Sawada uses images of Western women to respond to the same,” says Mignon.
While the Beat Poets were mostly male, the Vou Club was more gender balanced. “You were open. There were lots of female contributors – they weren’t discriminated against and their work was welcome,” he says, adding that his book opens and ends with two female artists, Setsuko Tsuji and Fumiko Hibino. “Personally, I think Tsuji’s work is the best. Karl really liked Hibino’s work. So we sandwiched everything else between those two.
Eric Selland’s excellent foreword places the visual poetry movement in its historical context, and Mignon’s introductory biographies for each of the nine artists help ground the reader, but it’s the work itself. even that counts. Each image is presented on a page by itself with nothing but the title.
“I offer some commentary,” says Mignon, “but I don’t try to tell people how to interpret the works. I have my opinion and I choose the images, but I think visual poetry is more intuitive and a bit anti-rational. There is a freedom where you can come up with your own interpretations.
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