Kaldron: An On-Going Investigation of Visual Poetry
So, What's Visual Poetry?

Visual Poetry runs under many names and definitions. Some of the names are descriptive of different modes of the same thing. Some are silly or unfortunate. Some forms of this type of art are radically different and come from opposed conceptions of what poetry is. Concrete, a rigid, minimalist form, relying heavily on, and partly inspired by, the printers' type used in newspaper headlines, is the best known. We see the possibilities of art forms under the visual poetry name as extensive. Some practitioners want to keep it a highly verbal art, Others dispense with words altogether. The late, great sage David Cole put forward several definitions. Perhaps the one most often accepted is that visual poetry is a form of visual art that comes from a literary background. His antecedents were his university instructor, William Empson, and his poetic model was Walt Whitman - hardly men who were at a loss for words. Some argue for a visual poetry highly dependent on words written in standard alphabets. My definition is poetry that is inaccessible to people who can not see it. No matter how you read it to them or explain it to them, something is always missing if they can't see it. Although I have spent time studying the iconographic writing systems of pre-Columbian central Mexico, which didn't depend on a spoken language, and see no reason for poetry to include words, my own visual poetry is usually highly verbal. Karl Kempton's is usually not. Despite the difference, we have had little argument about it during the past 30 years. The definition for Kaldron has always been to spread as big a tent as possible and to avoid all dogmas. We both have agreed, however, that what gets the most attention elsewhere gets less in Kaldron because it is already more widely known and we want to bring forward the less well known types of visual poetry. In the printed magazine, Kempton put less attention on some modes that became more widely accepted.
Kaldron's First phase, Print Magazine and Shows

Karl Kempton began the print version of Kaldron in 1976 as a tabloid for lyric and visual poetry, presented as collaborations or parallels. By 1979, the zine shifted to publishing only visual poetry, but doing so in all known modes. Between then and 1990 it was the only magazine in the U.S. exclusively dedicated to visual poetry. Although this was its original raison d'etre, it also served several unique and essential functions. During significant stretches of its print run, it was the ONLY magazine that came out on a regular basis devoted to all known modes of visual poetry throughout the world. It was completely international, and unbiased toward any specific school among the hundreds that flourished at the time, though most of them were unknown in the U.S. Some visual poetry movements, such as the Japanese VOU group, did not publish in Kaldron, perhaps because they didn't want to or perhaps because Kempton did not know of them and hence didn't invite any to participate. If it missed a few groups, or did not print work by all practitioners of any one genre, this is no big deal. There's only so much you can get into a largely unfunded magazine of any sort, particularly when it is unique in the world for its expanse of coverage.

The difficulties of publishing or otherwise showing visual poetry at the time fed the mail art movement. This was an immense set of interlocking networks that distributed work that was kept out of print and out of galleries for political or artistic reasons. Mail art's strangest paradox is that it was simultaneously probably the most widely practiced avant-garde distribution system, and also the one that received the least documentation. Judging by print magazines and books published in the U.S. in the 1980s, it would be easy to think that visual poetry scarcely existed at all. If you were part of the mail Art networks, however, and received anywhere from two to fifty pieces of art through the mail every week, it could be extremely frustrating to know how much was going on and how little anyone saw it outside the network. The network's answers to this problem were picked up by Kaldron. By the end of the 70s, mail artists had started curating shows of work in the genre. Kaldron also frequently sponsored exhibitions. Kaldron shows at least partially made up for two shortcomings of the tabloid print format of the magazine: in exhibitions viewers could see that the majority of visual poems were not conceived or done in black and white, and that many were three dimensional. Most Mail Art show catalogs included a list of addresses of participants so they could contact each other and perhaps set up further shows. Some catalogs were nothing but lists of addresses. Kaldron also included such lists. Mail Art was supposed to be free of commercial value. Kaldron was printed in editions of 1,000, and instead of being offered for sale, was sent to hundreds of people throughout the world without charge, based solely on requests and addresses that came via Mail Art catalogs.

Although Kempton wasn't thinking about this much at the time, there was a paradigm shift going on in visual poetry throughout the world. The most important factor in contemporary visual poetry was something of which Kaldron was a forerunner, and the first strong example. Most movements, from the Futurisms to the parallel cadres of Fluxus and Noigandres, have had a visual poetry wing at the beginning. Even a group as thoroughly oriented to auditory poetry as the Beats had its Kenneth Patchen and Wallace Berman. The New York School was made up of a highly disproportionate percentage of curators and art critics. Collaborations between artists and poets in this group were common, though usually not as profoundly integrated as elsewhere. Most movements lost vis po as they moved closer to the mainstream. The biggest exception may be Lettrisme, which began primarily with sound poetry and film and grew more toward visual poetry as it evolved, and, perhaps paradoxically, became the starting point or hatchery of more separate movements than any other mode of visual poetry in the century.

Starting with a handful of isolated people in the 1920s, and gaining momentum around the middle of the Century, visual poets of various sorts began to emerge without an affiliation to some other movement. The print version of Kaldron was the first zine to present, on a regular schedule, and to a global audience, visual poets who were not necessarily part of some other movement. Given the ephemerality of Mail Art, Kaldron became the central document of the great paradigm shift away from visual poetry as a subset of other art forms, to a means of doing visual poetry independently of other movements. This makes it the de facto Declaration of Independence of visual poetry, and the century's most important publishing effort of visual poetry as an entity unto itself. It doesn't much matter if poets p, q, and r didn't appear in the magazine, or that it missed several groups altogether: Kaldron marks the point in the history of the art where individual poets with no allegiances to outside groups could stand on their own in a regularly printed magazine.

from Ink to Electrons

In the early 90s, Kempton no longer had the money to continue publishing Kaldron. He continued curating shows, but contemplated turning it over to his step daughter, Amy Franceschini and to me to co-edit. Amy had other things she wanted to do, and I didn't have the money to continue the magazine. Besides that, Karl and I had had a mild and friendly debate going for decades. His sense was that visual poetry needed a publication venue devoted solely to it. As part of visual poetry's declaration of independence, that made sense. But it still remained in a minority position, and my own view had been that separate is never equal. My feeling had been that the necessary segregation of arts had been a perversion that had grown stronger as the world marched toward and into industrial society. Besides that, I was stumbling along through the first manifestations of electronic publishing, and in the pre-web days, that most emphatically didn't give me a place to publish anything but ruthlessly plain ASCII text.

When the web did open up, I started putting up visual poetry. As far as I'm concerned, any general anthology of poetry in the second half of the 20th Century that doesn't include visual poetry is bogus. I couldn't think of web publishing as anything but poetry samplers. The possibility of doing a REAL anthology of late 20th Century poetry became possible. It took about two years of practice before I felt confident with presenting visual poetry on-line. But when I was, it seemed time to revisit something like Karl's thoughts of continuing Kaldron on different terms. The biggest opening for this came from realizing how the web related to our old discussion of separate and joined visual and lexical poetry. On the web, each of us could have out cake and eat it too. We could set up a Kaldron menu as a means of presenting visual poetry by itself; and at the same time, make everything accessible from the main Light and Dust menu as a means of presenting it integrated with other literary modes. Our first entries in the Kaldron menu were from Kaldron shows, and, to bring us good luck as well as to affirm our basic belief in visual poetry as a clear descendent of the most basic form of writing, the page included from the beginning some of the petroglyphs of the Chumash Indians who had lived in Kempton's region of California for thousands of years.

The web offered several possibilities not available in the print version of Kaldron. The two most important were color and context. Although much of the visual poetry of the 20th Century in all modes has been done in color, costs of reproduction had made it appear as though there was something inherently or deliberately black and white in visual modes. On the web it didn't cost anything more to reproduce work in color than black and white, so the colors of original works was restored. A big problem in my mind was the way visual poetry was usually presented in the U.S. without any kind of context. The web allowed plenty of space for comment, manifestos, artist's statements, and so forth, again, without the cost problems of the print Kaldron. In many instances, it seemed essential to present contextualization in multiple languages, and this too was something the web allowed without significant additional charge.

Some of the poets and genres present in the print version of Kaldron took on a different character in the home pages and surveys set up for them on the web. As with the rest of the Light and Dust complex, there are no standardized approaches to the work of individuals, movements, or regions; but rather presentation that grows out of the original work and experiments with different means of presentation. The web has made a way to present more fully the work of poets published in the print version, and has opened up room for the continuing presentation of visual poetry in all its growing wealth and diversity.

Visual poetry has seemed to expand rapidly in recent years. This is in part an illusion. There are now a great number of magazine that publish visual poetry. Since the Cold War political underpinnings of Mail Art are no longer there, a lot of the poets who formerly used it as their distribution system now appear in print. It seems also likely, however, that the graphic nature of computers and the web have stimulated larger numbers of people to work in visual modes. It seems particularly important to point out to younger readers that the prolificity of visual poetry print publications is new, and something that simply wasn't there during the days of Kaldron in print. And, believe it or not, the web has only been accessible to a general public for a little over a decade, and in the pre-web days the zines now available on-line simply weren't there.

My feeling is that another paradigm shift is now in progress as a result of computer usage. How well I understand this shift and its implications, I don't know. I'm sure Kaldron will document some of it and make a contribution to it as well. I can also see easily imagine a time when I turn the editorship over to someone else. That's not something I'm going to do in the near future, so don't bug me about it. The important thing is that Kaldron has always been in a process of change. This will continue. And I assume it will continue after Karl Kempton and I are gone. There's a good chance it will shift to other media over time. It certainly will continue to provide the biggest tent possible for visual poetry and related arts.

A Few Words About The Title

The name Kaldron comes from hexagram 50 of the I-Ching. This hexagram includes "fire" in the upper 3 lines; wood and wind in their peaceful usages in the lower lines. This suggests the way fuel and freedom create constructive heat which in turn provides nourishment by preparing food in a communal cauldron. No one owns the wind; it comes from everywhere in the world and perpetually recycles itself. Trees make the world habitable, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, cool the environment in summer, act as a wind-break in winter, and after living a long life becomes one of the most basic materials for human uses, from fuel for fires to lumber for houses, even the handles of tools for cutting and shaping other pieces of wood. Variations on included concepts and diagrams of poetic inspiration throughout Eurasia. The K spelling suggested Runes to Kempton, and a less ambiguous sound graph than the dual purpose letter C. The hexagram suggested some of the possible origins of writing systems, particularly, given the fire component, the possibility that hexagrams were initially patterns of cracks in burnt turtle shells which served as a base for Chinese writing characters. Likewise, Kempton saw the K spelling as more closely related to what he saw as the magic properties of Runes as opposed to the plain manufacturing function of the name "poetry" in its Greek origin as "to make."

- Karl Young

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This is a cooperative publication by Kaldron
and Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry.