An Overview of Visual Poetry & Mail Art in Australia by Julie Clarke

Prior to the Internet and its potential for enabling networking and exchange of information between individuals, Mail Art provided a direct manner for some poets to distribute their ideas through a rarefied form.

While there is much debate around the history and origins of mail art, it is probably safe to quote the description in the catelogue for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (Los Angeles) First Thirty Years exhibition:

“Mail art—along with the synonymous terms Postal art and Correspondence art—refers to small-scale works that utilize the mail as a distribution system. These terms have also come to refer to related formats, including artist-designed “postage stamps,” postcards, and even impressions from rubber stamps”.

http://www.moca.org/pc/viewArtTerm.php?id=22 Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years

The rise of Mail Art in the USA during the 1950s provided a forum for a number of unusual visual and poetic mediums. One of these was Concrete Poetry which emphasized a poetic through concrete forms derived from letters of the alphabet. The use of the alphabet as a potent visual medium can be traced to medieval times, however, the international Concrete Poetry movement may be said to have began with Stéphane Mallarmé’s (1897) Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance) – a typographic poem that challenged established presentations of texts in books and ways of seeing and reading texts. The unusual use of typography, page space, letter forms and chance play of meaning initiated by Mallarmé continued in the early twentieth century with the Fluxus Group, Dada telegraphy, Futurists correspondence and in particular Marcel Duchamp’s Rendez-vous du Dimanche 6 fevrier 1916 ~ a set of postcards, which he posted to other artists. John Cage’s mesostic texts, in which he used the throw of a dice to determine font types, also exerted an influence on the presentation of poems and methodology of production. Poems were produced on paper by artists in small editions or photocopied so that they could be distributed inexpensively through the postal system.

David Powell 1989

David Powell 1989, Convolusions Volume #1, Issue #5, September 1989

Although this activity had been prevalent internationally since the first decade of the twentieth century, Concrete Poetry began in Australia in the 1960s. Whilst Concrete Poetry continued, there was a departure from its traditional forms in the early 1980s by Visual Poets who included collaged images as well as text in their poems. This use of collage created unusual juxtapositions and meanings. Most, if not all Concrete and Visual poets in Australia were also Mail Artists since they posted their poems to others around the world, often contributing to a call for works sent out by international small press Concrete and Visual Poetry magazines.

Concrete and visual poets in Melbourne have produced a number of small print publications since the 1970s. ΠO produced Fitzroy No. 4 in the 1970s and David Powell and Pete Spence produced Ligne magazine in the 1980s. Cerebral Shorts (Charles Roberts, now Charles Strebor) produced Convolusions: Of the Irregular Brain Post in the late 80s and early 90s. Before he passed away, Jas Duke worked closely with Peter Lysiottis to produce a small book, which is still in Peter’s possession. Tony Figalo and Pete Spence published Axle Concrete Poetry, a small press magazine in Richmond, Victoria, which included concrete and visual poems from Australian and international artists for nearly two decades. Collective Effort Press produced Missing Form: concrete, visual and experimental poems in 1981 and in the same year a facsimile edition of Christopher Brennan’s hand written Musicopoematographoscopes was published by Hale and Iremonger.

Linge

Cover of Ligne 3 edited by David Powell and Pete Spence

Several major exhibitions of concrete and visual poetry have been staged since the late nineteen eighties. In 1987 a group of visual poets (Julie Clarke, David Powell, Pete Spence, Thalia, Alex Selenitsch, Peter Murphy) exhibited their work in JustWot?, at Artist Space Gallery, Park Street, Fitzroy. Barry Reid at Heide Gallery was the curator of Words on Walls: a survey of contemporary visual poetry in 1989. Pete Spence was the curator of an International Mail Art Show at The Writers Centre in Melbourne in 1990 ~ Visual Poetry Outdoor Show at St. Kilda Festival in 1990 ~ an exhibition at Linden Gallery, St. Kilda in 1991 ~ Visual and Concrete Poetry at Trades Hall, Melbourne as well as Mallarme: Visual Poetry in 1998. Raimondo Cortese (playwright) was the curator of the Third International Visual Poetry Exhibition in 1992 and Griffith University in Queensland organized Essence: International Networking Culture in 1995. Dale Chapman curated Tongue – Artists using text, at Spencer Street Platform Project, in Melbourne in 1992. Linda Michael with Peter Tyndall curated Word: artists explore the power of the single word at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 1999.

Julie Clarke

Julie Clarke-Powell, 1989, Convolusions, Volume #1, Issue #6, November 1989

Works produced by concrete and visual poets initially stood outside traditional poetry and ‘High Art’ expectations; however the techniques have influenced the development of text-based art adopted by many international and Australian artists. Indeed it has become interdisciplinary practice for the past five decades. Poems produced in small format, were originally intended to be posted and maintained a sense of intimacy. Australian writers/artists I am aware of who have been active visual poets over he last decade include: Bev Aisbett, Javant Biarujia, Mike Brown, Alex Danko, Jas Duke, Tony Figalo, Peter Lysiottis, Finola Morehead, Peter Murphy, David Powell, Leonie and Frank Osowski, ΠO, Rose Nolan, Alex Selenitsch, Pete Spence, Stelarc, thalia. Richard Tipping, Peter Tindall, Cornelius Vleeskins, Nicholas Zurbrugg, and myself.

– Julie Clarke

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Dr Julie Clarke is a writer and exhibiting artist with a PhD in Cinema Studies from the University of Melbourne. She has exhibited her artwork in Australia and has had her visual poems published in Australia, Italy, Egypt and Russia. Her academic writing and poetic prose has been published widely in Australia and Internationally. She has been the primary author of the Anything But Human blog (http://juliejoyclarke.blogspot.com.au/), which has had over 150,000 page views since 2009.

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The cover of ah! by Cornelis Vleeskens, Redfox Press, Ireland 2011. (http://www.redfoxpress.com/)

Carol Novack – A life remembered. Tributes from John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones

Carol Novack, ca. 1974 / 1975, Adelaide, Australia (photo: Terry Bennett). Source Mad Hatters' Review

Carol Novack, writer, poet, editor and luminary publisher of the alternative and edgy Mad Hatters’ Review, MadHat Press and the MadHat Arts Foundation,  died on 29 December last year. Although she was born in the USA, and spent much of her life there, she spent a number of years in Australia during the 1970’s and made a major contribution to the development of Australian poetry during those years. During these years she worked as an editor for the Cosmopolitan, and began publishing her poetry.  Makar Press published her collection, Living Alone Without a Dictionary, as part of the Gargoyle Poets Series in 1974, and her work was included in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.  She was the recipient of an Australian Council of the Arts writer’s grant. She left Australia in 1977.

After a traveling in India and Europe, Carol returned to New York City where she completed a law degree. As an attorney, she worked first in the Criminal Appeals Bureau of the New York Legal Aid Society and later as a solo practitioner, championing the causes of artists and the underprivileged.

She went on to receive her master’s degree in social work (community organizing), and teach lyrical fiction writing at The Women’s Studio Center in NYC, returning to the serious pursuit of her own writing in 2004.  “The muse just suddenly reared her jerky head again,” she said.

From the mid-2000s, she began publishing her gender-bending hybrid metafiction— “her little aliens,” as she called them—in many journals and anthologies, including: American Letters & Commentaries, Exquisite Corpse, La Petite Zine, LIT, Missippi Review, Notre Dame Review and Caketrain.

In 2005 she founded the Mad Hatters’ Review, one of the first online journals with a true multimedia approach, marrying literature, film, art and music in an annual collage of some of the most explosive arts on the web.“

Carol curated the successful Mad Hatters’ Review reading series at KGB Bar in New York, and performed herself at many venues in New York City and elsewhere.  After re-settling in Asheville, North Carolina in 2010, she began a new reading series at The Black College Museum & Arts Center and founded a non-profit arts organization, MadHat, Inc., which now includes the Review; MadHat Press, a print publisher; and an artist’s retreat at her mountain home in Asheville.

Before her death,  Carol was working several new projects, including the novella Felicia’s Nose, in collaboration with Tom Bradley.  Both Felicia’s Nose and a collection of  Carol’s shorter works are anticipated for publication in the near future.

Thanks to Marc Vincenz for allow Rochford Street Review to run an edited version of his tribute to Carol which was original posted on Mad Hatters’ Blog on January 5 2012

Carol’s impact on Australian poetry can be measured by the number of moving tributes posted on the Mad Hatter Review following her death. John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones have given Rochford Street Review permission to republish their tributes.

Tribute to Carol Novack by John Jenkins

I first met Carol Novack in 1974 in Melbourne, at a literary party hosted by Meanjin magazine, an Australian literary institution published by Melbourne University. The new editor wanted to refresh and revitalize it by including new talent and directions. I had recently had a short story published, and was introduced to Carol by the novelist, Finola Morehead.

I remember leaning beside a settee, drinks poised; people chatting intelligently around us, as Carol and I hit it off from the first word: the attraction immediate and mutual, our conversation bright and animated. I was delighted by Carol’s effortless style: her quick intelligence, zany humor and ready smile. She was indeed a New Yorker and pure oxygen to me. Her urbanity was polished and real, yet refreshingly free of anything po-faced or ponderous. Indeed, there was always a hint of something wicked and unexpected: together with an infectious relish and enjoyment of people, life, conversation, everything.

She was on a visit to Melbourne, down from Sydney for just a few days. So I invited her to dinner, to discover if the attraction wasn’t something I had imagined, or just the sort from a wine glass. A few days later, we agreed that I should accompany Carol back to Sydney. Everything was moving very fast: but such throw-the-dice impulsiveness was often the badge of our relationship.

We set off in my old car, which nearly ended the story at the very start. At one point, I became fatigued, and asked Carol to take the wheel. She readily agreed, then struck something on the next bend. We ended flying through space and emerged, somehow, by the side of the road, as my car span slowly around on its roof in the middle of the highway, and a truck blared down upon us. The world might have stopped shunting into eerie slow motion by then, but—miraculously—neither of us was hurt.

We just sat by the roadside, wide-eyed, in utter disbelief to still be alive. It seemed we sat there forever, and might still be there today, but it was really only minutes. There was a pub nearby, with a tow truck parked outside. Almost casually, as if it happened every day—and maybe it did—the tow truck driver put up some barriers, righted our car and towed it back to his workshop somewhere. ‘It’s a total right-off mate’, he said, ‘but I won’t charge you if you let me strip it down for parts.’ I agreed, and the driver of the truck that nearly ran us down offered us a lift to Sydney.

Carol had been living in the palmy suburb of Woollahra, in a comfortable house she co-rented with the poet Joanne Burns, but the lease was almost up, so Carol and I moved into a small and comfortable place not far away, in the fashionable suburb of Paddington. We lived together there for about a year, and Carol told me how she came to Australia. Apparently, not long before we met, she had married an Australian academic in New York. Her husband then took a senior post at an Australian university. Carol said he was a terrific person, but she soon realised the path marriage paved for her was not the one she really, ultimately, wanted. The domestic life of housewife was not to be her destiny. She was much more artistically inclined; and very adventurous: so had parted from her husband after mutual agreement.

Our life together in Paddington was certainly never dull, as it happened, and not very domestic either. There were many parties, which we either hosted or attended; ferry voyages around Sydney harbor to meet poets and writers; always lively discussions of art, politics and writing – and it was sometimes hard to say whether the arguments or agreements were the more heated. A heady round of restaurant and café meetings where the wine and conversation flowed freely, and spirits were often high. Generally, the mid to late ‘70s were sunny and exciting years in Sydney literary life. Even when we moved from Paddington, after finding lower-rent places in down-market Ultimo then Glebe, the excitement continued.

We met, and often socialized and partied with, some of the most talented and interesting people connected with poetry and writing of those years: Frank Moorhouse, Joanne Burns, Michael Wilding, Rae Desmond Jones, Ken Bolton, Pat Woolley, David Malouf, Bob Adamson, Clive Evatt, Nigel Roberts, Anna Couani, Dorothy Porter, Kerry Leves, Bruce Beaver, Dorothy Hewett, Merv Lilley, Rudi Krausmann, John Tranter, Mike Parr, Dave Marsh, Vicki Viidikas, Dennis Gallagher, Laurie Duggan, Alex Danko…far too many to list here…but collectively creating an effervescent milieu both absorbing and upbeat.

Of course, Carol and I had also to earn a living. This proved relatively easy for Carol, who had always been an academic high-achiever, and proved an equally fast learner when moving from one profession to another. Her research skills were considerable, and she put them to work for Lachlan Vintage Village, a re-created historical attraction in Forbes, New South Wales, built according to historically accurate specifications Carol supplied to the architects. Meanwhile, I worked as a book distributor; before we somehow hit on the idea of writing (or sometimes co-writing) articles for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Cosmo liked Carol so much, they happily hired her, as staff writer and sub-editor; and she then arranged full-time work for me in the mag’s umbrella company, Sungravure, which had a big stable of magazines; and was further owned by the Fairfax group of magazine, newspaper and radio media. And this, effectively, is how we both entered well-paid commercial journalism. In parallel with this, we both continued writing poems, articles, stories and whatever took our fancy.

I remain forever grateful to Carol for opening this new career door for me, as I was rather directionless at the time, never quite knowing how to balance means and ends, or make the latter meet. It was only in the last few months of our time together, that things got really rocky. One of Carol’s favorite movies was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and we would sometimes have hilarious mock arguments in a parody style of Albee’s famous play. But it was sometimes too real, too close to the bone; such as one night Carol’s dramatic finale was to throw all my clothes out a second-storey window, down into the street. No doubt I had committed some misdemeanor or other, and thoroughly deserved it. I was often ‘a handful’, and emotionally unpredictable. Such as the night I splashed Vodka over dumbstruck friends, while staggering into an incoherent and feverish tirade against the world, with Carol chuckling wildly to one side.

Eventually, we decided neither of us was ready to settle down, into even a casually de-facto version of married life, as we both had wild oats to sow, if not so carefully nurture or cultivate. Besides this, I wanted to travel to Indonesia, while Carol began longing for family, and familiarity, in New York. Eventually, we sat down together, and after a long, sober and rather melancholy conversation, agreed to part; but it was in a spirit of true friendship, and without bitterness.

Carol always had a wonderful sense of humor. She was also naturally kind-hearted and had a great capacity for joy and happiness. She was generous to a fault, both in spirit and materially when people needed help. Though always a ‘straight talker’, very frank and to the point when she needed to be, she was also a fiercely loyal friend. Once she liked and trusted you, you were there for life. All these fine qualities in her nature, and many more beyond listing here, were always evident to me, as they were to all who knew her well. And Carol had a talent for attracting friends to her warm and generous and outgoing nature, which always illuminated her wonderfully buoyant and creative life.

I saw Carol on two occasions after we had split up, and she had returned to New York. The first time was at her West 13th Street apartment in New York, when Carol introduced me to her (decidedly zany) friends, then took me around town to see the sights. At that time Carol was a member of ‘The Party Line’: nothing political, but a group of amusing ‘party animals’, who rang each other to pass on addresses of the best gigs in town.

I went along for the ride, ending up at a ‘do’ thrown by novelist Joseph Heller, at the swank Four Seasons Hotel; and another bash for friends of Lou Reed in some ratty, black-painted room downtown where the amplified sound of smashing bottles rang from the walls as one-time Velvet Underground singer Nico wailed into a frenzied, feeding-back microphone.

The very last time I saw Carol was in Ireland, in 2004. A quiet meeting. We both happened to be in Dublin at the time, and our paths crossed almost by chance. It was a happy reunion; and we took a coach tour, on a rare sunny day in Ireland, to some interesting historical sites. We were clearly both older and wiser by then, and spent a gentle afternoon reminiscing about good times and bad, about what had come to both of us, and friends past and present. Carol studied Asian culture, and even spoke a little Mandarin. She often quoted one of her favorite poems, I think it was by the Chinese poet Ouyang Xiu: ‘Life is best like a drunk falling off the back of a wagon, who rolls to the roadside, and by chance sees only the star-filled sky.’ I can’t remember the exact quote, but this might be close: and I always think of it when I think of Carol.

—John Jenkins, Melbourne, Jan 2012

Memories of Carol Novack – Rae Desmond Jones

I set eyes on Carol Novack one warm evening late in 1972. My first chapbook had been published, and I was invited to read at a forthcoming Adelaide Festival of Arts. I had never read out loud before, and needed practice. This took place in a semi derelict Protestant Church in one of Sydney’s less desirable suburbs (things have changed). I was sitting in the front pew shuffling poems when a striking woman draped in flowing clothes with long raven hair walked onto the stage and began to read. Her poem was a tapestry of chthonian images, showers of light and darkness.

Our friendship proved deep and enduring. Through 1976 she shared a small white terrace house near Bondi Junction with the poet Joanne Burns, where the conversation and the wine flowed well into the early hours. The house was a vibrant centre of literary and cultural ferment. Carol loved the company of poets and artists and frequently encouraged others before fully developing her own considerable talent. The late poet Vicki Viidikas heard her read in a small studio and asked her pointedly why she had not written and published more of her truly astonishing poems. Carol was unable to respond, a rare event.

Carol had courage. After she returned to the United States she contacted me from New York. On 9/11 I phoned her. She was calm and controlled, despite ash and dust and smoke in the air. She also was able to know and accept individual weaknesses and failings with humour and sensitivity. Once you were Carol’s friend, it was for life. This may have been linked with her literary gift, in which she examined and sought to reconcile her own complexity and ambiguities. Like her personality, her writing is complex and demanding: it lives.

– Rae Desmond Jones, Sydney, 2012

Other tributes from Australian writers have also been published on the Mad Hatters’ Review Blog:

Link to Mad Hatters' Blog

Link to Mad Hatters' Review