"I am also your grandmother's Hungarian silver broach, / your husband's embroidered handkerchief, your Aunt's / suede purse from Sofia, your cousin's parasol / from Venice, your father's pantaloons from Pantagruel, / your sister's tea cup from Delft, your nephew's caw..."
-- Consequences, from Andalusian Dawn (Cherry Grove Collections)
Nick Carbo concludes his second book of poems with Consequences, an ode to identity about how we shapeshift over time and how the objects we carry with us do the same. Everything is everything, and as if to prove it, Carbo has transformed this poem and a host of others into three-dimensional works: film poems you can watch on DVD, poems strung across slim ladders or suspended from steel wire and painted on polystyrene. Poems you read by circling paper cylinders or shaking a lucite box. These poems engage the whole body: They tease the eye, lure us from our padded chairs, physically engage us with their playfulness. They have outgrown their books and now move through the world, with us.
For the past two years, Carbo and his wife Denise Duhamel, also an award-winning poet, have lifted poems from the page and mined them from the secret place they are made. The result is a growing collection of visual poetry, about 20 works assembled and displayed in their ocean-side Hollywood condo. Some are in progress, such as Carbo's Consequences, which he is currently painting across a still-life he picked up at a thrift store for three bucks.
"This was already a painting and someone gave up and threw it away," he says as he unrolls the canvas across his dining room table. "I thought, `I can do something with this.' There's many things it can become.
Vispo blends art with words
The transformative power of visual poetry, also known as vispo, is but one of its charms, says Carbo. The Filipino-American poet's passion for art was sparked in childhood by his father, who took the family on museum trips across Europe and gave a young Nick his first taste of masters like Vermeer, Goya and Velazquez.
"The training started early on," says Carbo, who immigrated to the United States 22 years ago. "My father really made me see what was important in painting -- expression, gesture especially. The brushstrokes, the minute detail. They're all building blocks of the painting. A white spot or a shadow can mean so much. It's almost the same thing with calligraphy or writing. All of it is visual."
Carbo has since often considered re-invention and art in his work. He taught two semesters of vispo during his recent stint as a visiting professor at the University of Miami, and Secret Asian Man, his first volume of poems, opens with optical musings. The book follows the travels of Ang Tunay na Lalalaki, a hard-drinking, balloon-muscled icon from Philippine commercials. Carbo places the character at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, standing before a tropical watercolor by Winslow Homer. Its subject is Nassau, and the wind-bent palms and sizzling blue of the sky make Ang Tunay nostalgic for the island landscapes of his home.
The poem becomes the painting; the painting the poem. "Poetry is really bigger than what we normally think it is," says Carbo, adding that the physicality of his current vispo works heightens the act of reading -- and of writing. "For me the interactivity of the experience is the most important."
Give it a spin
"Working in visual or 3-D stuff is a way to understand, a way to grapple with form," says Duhamel. As evidence, she points to the vispo pieces she's set about the living room -- a hamster wheel lined with a poem about bureaucracy; a flower-shaped pinwheel, each petal inscribed with a stanza about gossip. She picks it up and gives it a twirl. "You can start reading on any petal, and it makes sense whatever way you spin it."
Duhamel, who frequents junk shops with Carbo in search of raw materials, likes to take apart her finds, peer into their guts and then alter them into objects that consider gender and language. For Cinderella's Ghost Slipper, she broke the heel off a lady's pump and tucked the word "ghost" inside it. After painting the shoe pink and gluing felt flowers across its sides, Duhamel then pasted the verse to the insole.
"The first Cinderella (Yen-shen) was Chinese / and had the smallest toes in all the land. Her feet were bound / not with glass, but magic slippers / made from the bones of her dead pet fish."
The poem is about the cross-cultural translations of the Cinderella fable, how each language mutated the story to its own liking -- glass slippers become shoes fashioned from gold, iron, beads and fur, or the girl-to-be-princess escapes by climbing a rope up to heaven or, worse, is swallowed by a whale. But the poem also addresses the trappings of womanhood and the sometimes perilous escape from them.
For Duhamel, the ordinary stuff that crams our cabinets and closets becomes the source of inspiration. "The objects make me consider the words because the form becomes palpable. You can pick it up and turn it around. You can see it.
"You think a poem is going to be about one thing, but then it goes off in a different direction. Art is like that too. It's very freeing."
THEN AND NOW
If one were to assemble a visual poem about vispo, a large spool of thread or a fresh typewriter ribbon might be a good place to start. The history is long and winds between continents. Visual poetry was built in part by the 17th century Welsh-born poet George Herbert, who laid out the lines to the scripture-based Easter Wings to mirror its subject's angelic form. The French surrealist writer Guillaume Apollinaire fashioned his calligrammes or concrete poems to visually resemble their content, so that a poem about peace might be rendered in the shape of a dove.
Later, e.e. cummings and Lewis Carroll followed suit, along with brothers Augusto and Haraldo de Campos, who pioneered visual poems in Brazil in the mid-century. All this doesn't even dip into the visual artists who wove words within their compositions, painters as varied as Joan Miro, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and Howard Finster.
"It's not that new, transforming letters and words into art work," says Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. "I was originally a medievalist, and there's a very intricate interlacing of capital letters and Celtic crosses. You have the Russian constructivists using words and graphics, the arts and craft movement, the Bauhaus, the dada movement, where many of the words were just nonsense, so you end up looking at them as a pattern or a design or a sculpture.
"Then you get to someone like Yoko Ono and the idea that in her `imaginary pictures' were words, but from them you are able to create your own picture in your own mind -- which is what poetry does in general."
Last summer the museum plucked one of Carbo's visual poems for its "For Everyone and No One," an exhibition of mail art culled from MoCA's archives and an open call to whomever wished to submit. The show was inspired by an international movement in the '70s, when artists bucked the market -- and the idea of ownership or authorship -- by making art and pumping it through the postal system to others who might alter it before forwarding the piece along.
MoCA received hundreds of entries, including a series of preprinted envelopes, handmade postcards and collages, a collection of cardboard boxes. Carbo's piece, Credit Score, consisted of a grid of nine credit cards stitched together with thread and painted with acrylics and his verse: "These cyan-colored snails emerge from white umbrian mist with murder on their minds..."
"I thought it was quite wonderful," Clearwater recalls. "I liked the way he used color, the way everything was attached, the way the words were contained. As an object, it was very appealing."
Emma Trelles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4689.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times