A Conversation with Andrew Topel
by Greg Bem
Greg Bem: When did you first get into visual poetry and how did you first get inspired? What's your history as a writer, a poet, and a visual artist?
Andrew Topel: I discovered visual poetry about a decade ago, in 2000. The way I discovered it ties in to my history as a writer, poet & visual artist, though I am not any of these. Concerning the path to discovering visual poetry, I was studying fine arts, concentrating in drawing at Colorado State University. At the same time, I had an interest in creative writing. As time went by, I began to take some Creative Writing courses, specifically those that covered short story writing and poetry. Because I enjoyed both art & writing, I began to think about hybrid forms of these two interconnected disciplines.
At the same time, as I was writing, I was encouraged to begin submitting work for publication. I searched for small presses & had a manuscript of short work that I had compiled. One of the presses I submitted to was Broken Boulder Press in Lawrence, Kansas. This contact blew off the door & opened up a vast world of others practicing visual poetry. They sent me the journals they published, one of experimental writing, and one of visual poetry, which I had never even heard the term of at that time. I remember being stunned & puzzled during my first encounter with visual poetry. The editors, Paul Silvia & Adam Powell, were also encouraging, sharing work with other people who might enjoy seeing it.
This connected me to John M. Bennett & Jim Leftwich, who have created some astonishing work. I shared my hybrid forms of art blended with writing & it grew from there & it continues to grow. See vviissiioonnss at http://vviissiioonnss.blogspot.com/. I plan to eventually put up the strongest work I've crated over this first decade of involvement with visual poetry. This growing addresses what I feel I am. As mentioned, I don’t think I am a writer, poet, or visual artist but an explorer. At some point I heard the phrase, “There's nothing new under the sun,” to which I am in agreement. However, I have strived to kick against that as I search out ways to make language stretch & expand & corrupt & transform.
Greg: When I look at your works I do get a sense of exploration. I was wondering about your approach to creating your art, and how you settle on various concepts or themes. For example, your book comix is able to use transplanted images of superhero characters as central images from which bolts and flashes of text fly. How were you inspired to create these truly original pieces, and how do you get inspired in general? Also, what inspirational poets and writers are you currently reading and what visual artists have been inspiring you lately?
Andrew: Do you know the commercial “Whatever it is I think I see becomes a tootsie roll to me?” For me, when I look out at the world, all material becomes potential to be used in a visual poem. As I go for a walk, bare trees silhouetted against the sky become hieroglyphic symbols. Discarded trash on the ground can be manipulated & transformed. In this way, inspiration is constant & accessible everywhere. A specific example: in the poem 'creating’ I was looking through magazines & came across an ad for a dance. The lady in the image was caught in a still moment of ballet. I noticed if I turned the image (her outstretched arm was originally on the left rather than the top) it appeared as if she was touching off the starting point of a poem.
Another specific example: the hands in the poem 'the maestro' came from an ad for a diamond wedding ring. The hand on the right was slipping the ring onto the hand on the left. I ignored its original intention & saw music/a visual score flowing out of those hands.
Greg: Let's talk about style and creative process. While it appears that you spend a lot of time on each piece, that might not necessarily be the case. Do you think that artwork should be a fleeting exercise or that it is important to spend a lot of time with each creation? How long do you usually spend on a piece and how do collections of your work go into a series or book? Do you think about concepts or does everything just kind of fall into place?
Andrew: Time spent on each piece is a funny thing, because it differs from series to series, though I have noticed as I grow older, I take more time in creating, striving for a type of perfection with the art. I wouldn't tell another creator to put more time into his/her artwork. I think it's an individual choice. But with the way I work, if an idea isn't exciting & doesn't engage my mind for long, then perhaps it's a fleeting exercise. Though all exercise strengthens & benefits in some way.
When I created letters patterns structures, many of the final poems took several hours to create, some were created over a few days, but it was one of the most time-consuming series I've been involved with. At other times within fifteen minutes I have a finished piece that I'm satisfied with. In relation to exploring, I usually will sustain in exploration long enough to create a miniature collection of work, so while exploring I'm working with a set of similar ideas or a loose theme in mind. During this process, other ideas & possibilities spring up; I take note of them & try & return to those ideas at another time, or at the same time. I usually create at least three different projects at the same time.
As far as concepts go, I'd say about three quarters of the time I have a concept in mind & begin working towards that. The rest of the time, I gather a lot of material, cutting out letters, interesting images, etc., and as I gather this material and look at it as a whole, a concept is generated.
Greg: Can you talk more about avantacular press and your other publishing initiatives and maybe tell me a little bit about what you're hoping to achieve with them?
Andrew: avantacular press is a dream I have had for about eight years. I've always had an interest in books & book making. As I became involved with small presses, I learned different techniques to make chapbooks & was also introduced to a do-it-yourself attitude that I embraced. I founded avantacular with the idea to publish any work that I liked from others as well as self-publishing my own work. Since I created the work, I felt I could set up the book to appear just as I envisioned it, down to the size of the book, the papers used, the order of the images, the size of the image on the page, the placing of the image, etc.
My resources are limited, but I have several ideas to publish non-traditional books someday. The text sculpture serves as an example. Another goal is to be able to walk into a Barnes & Noble & see a section of visual poetry. In other words, emerge from the underground & see visual poetry as common as a cookbook.
Greg: How do you see the state of visual poetry as it stands today, and where do you see it going in the near future? Is there a community in this country? Is it stronger in some places rather than others? Does it extend to or is it related to any international trends? And how is digital or cyber poetry involved, do you think?
Andrew: The state of visual poetry as it stands today? I'm not an expert at all, just a big fan of visual poetry. Only recently, within the past few months, have I been getting in touch with visual poets internationally, gathering work for RENEGADE. I've wanted to publish a journal of visual poetry for some time, but am just now picking up steam. Most all of the practitioners I've gotten in touch with were people found in the pages of Kaldron. These visual poets are still creating beautiful and inspiring work. See: http://visualpoetryrenegade.blogspot.com/
Visual poetry should be taught in schools at the same time children are learning to read and write. Let's not isolate the visual and the verbal but intertwine them. Then we'd have a generation growing up with visual poetry being a natural art form, an art form that would eventually dominate worldwide (kidding, but the idea is many people trying their hand at it). Abstract art was accepted over fifty years ago; visual poetry remains on the outside.
There is a community. John M. Bennett recently hosted an avant symposium at Ohio State University where many gathered from the United States and abroad. The Sackners have an astounding archive of visual poetry. Many groups stay in touch through e-mail. I've seen journals sprouting up online devoted to digital poetry. Others see the computer as another tool to create a vision. Jim Andrew's work is quite beautiful. He'll have a chapbook coming from avantacular press this winter.
Interview conducted from 11/19/2010 – 11/23/2010
Greg Bem grew up in Southern Maine and quickly moved to Rhode Island where he received his BFA in Creative Writing in 2008. He worked for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, and then moved to Philadelphia where he worked as a bookseller, manuscript reviewer, and gourmet grocer in the Reading Terminal Market, data entry processor, and educational assistant at Olney High School West in North Philly. While in Philadelphia he was a member of the late Poetic Arts Performance Project (PAPP) and the New Philadelphia Poets (NPP). In September, 2010, he moved to Columbia City in Seattle. When not selling books at the Sea-Tac airport, he assists the Northwest Spoken Word Poetry Lab (SPLAB), the Rainier Valley Food Bank, Seattle Public Library's Homework Help program, and the Columbia City Business Association. Outside of book reviews and poetic experiments, his latest major project, completed in December, is the photo-poetry collaboration he created with Linda Thea called Ghost to New York (ghostny.wordpress.com). His personal website is gregbem.com.