Tom Beckett

An Interview with Nico Vassilakis

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Nico Vassilakis: How to begin. In order to say the word language you are forced to use language. The impossible nature of getting there. Finding your aleatoric self among the pencils. Here. An alerted poise of tumult. When staring bores an opening it defines the border where breathable atmosphere and unrelenting space meet. The curve of the earth. Accumulation of lived experiencing. Filling the satchel. With thought, with movement, with decisions over both. Mostly it is documenting. The relation between chemical interface and its effect on thinking. Where mind clarifies chaos. Hones in on the attention it requires. Hallucinating the possibilities that generate a reason to speak/write outside of self. And the catalyst. Staring formulates a holding pattern writing prepares for. Poetry, always the support. The base of a totem. The basis of all expressing. It just exists throughout. It never begins.

TB: I think it interesting that you responded to my question in terms of language, chance, attention and hallucination. I may come back to that. The phrase I want to hone in on though is: "Mostly it is documenting." Can you expand on that, expand on the role of documentation in your work?

NV: Writing as field recording device. Stenographer’s translation. A mental projectile complete with thought, both verbal and visual, memory, external stimuli affecting our five senses, etc. How uncomfortable is it to say, I document what thinking arranges for me. It’s a situation I observe. Where my thinking goes. Watching my thinking think. Documenting my staring. Evidence against the collapsing scaffold of convenience. Maturation of time. Lengths of time within which experience and life matter accrue. Getting ready to write for writing. For documenting.

TB: For you, then, is it more about accumulating thoughts/images, or more about the process of accumulating thoughts/images? And to what extent is editing important to you?

NV: Editing is everything else. Process holds the attractives. Accumulating is a necessary chore as too writing is a physical nuisance. Otherly, to be amidst, within writing is the goal. To forget you are writing. Engulfed and then to edit. To revision the work with edit, with verbal and visual enjambment, with constraints – to repurpose the raw material. Constant burgeon, constant surprise – seeking charged language. Failing as you go.

TB: Take me through your process with a visual work and with a textual work as well. Talk about how decisions are made.



Shift happens
You attend to change
To parts that are changing

Moving back the surface
Appears untouched
No notice of activity

Before sound’s sound
Before sound intends

If repeats
If replete
If replicated
     said every
               and every again circles each head
               enters pores

The folds of which flower
Unload poise, anticipating a stance
Some breath elapsed length
A ribbon of talk crowning
Your moment of lush boredom

TB: Nico, you've just very wittily demonstrated parallel processes. I'd appreciate it though if you'd talk about your compositional processes. I'm interested to learn more about the ways that your visual and textual work are worked out by you.

NV: Best poise is writing editing simultaneously. Something To Avoid = comes from here written there. More time-consuming to scrawl a complete motion - thought fragment in appreciative present tense. Very few left to say poet and mean they live poet. I am not one. Like Others I’m mired in convenience, struggle to maintain connection, the daily ness of corrupt distraction. A flop poet dons a flip hat. Not academic. Not retarded about syrup verse. Built-in Quirk similarly yous.

One facsimile is gliding off a cliff. Conditions being perfect you churn out new geometry that fits. Puzzle maneuvers designed to extend. Thrust in mid air you grab for what keeps you afloat. That ping! of a drive drunk back home sans siren. That clenched writing device ala Joe Cocker trying to overlay an urban ocean onto paper. That sizzle of catching it. Then, how to continue. What’s continuing? Why continue? But you do. The flummox of brown tipped fingers. Puffed away. It’s waiting on the landing pad. Vowel Central. From air, to brain, to arm, to fingers, to page. So much blur between stations. No wonder failing along the way. To write like paint. To paint like…

Mistakes in looking. An askance & disjointed gaze. The overexposure of visible language surrounds us - forces us to stop and recalibrate. How does this language mean anything? What’s the poetry of advertising signage? We are what we close our eyes to.

To get back to your question - the only difference, if slight, between writing words with intentional meaning and writing images that focus on word noise is the approach. Visual poetry, for me, is done as a one-shot. It either comes out right or not, and then I move on. I trust my instinct. Oppositely it alleviates the rigors of handwriting writing.

Doing concrete/visual poetry was a natural extension that grabbed me the first time I found it displayed in a formal setting. It was odd justification for me – that there were others who saw the wor(l)d similarly. I took it from there.

Late bloomer wise: It wasn’t until 15 that I became consciously aware of thinking words in my head. Ach! The first time I heard my words in my head. My head voice before that was nil. I followed lines, associated with shapes, configured patterns as responses to the world. Noticed the geometry in alphabets. Conjured a field of visual language that made up my thinking. After the explosion I had to figure out a way to convey a means to witness. Writing, in particular poetry, took that spot.

Tom, implicit in your question is another - is there a difference between visual and textual composition. The word, the image are virtually the same. They tell. I hold onto tiny notebooks for months. Filling them slowly with staring poetics. Handwritten. A distance acquired and derived from event and event transcribed. After a notebook is done I TYPE the contents backwards from back to front (like this answer you’re reading). I keep sound and flow in mind. I keep spacing pretty close to original. I recall the writing as a memory of something written. Relive engaging time and space. Refining as I go. Remembering as I go. Stein, I might be describing everything around the thing without knowing what that thing is. Olson, sitting with my thoughts means nothing till I leap into action. Some female L=poets merge logic/intuition. Williams, Oppen make simplicity look easy — something I strive, but utterly fail at as I go.

I don’t work them out, if anything I contain them. If I’m lucky I get it right. Much of my compositional attitude is informed by what Morton Feldman said about time, "My obsession with surface is the subject of my music. In a sense, my compositions are really not 'compositions' at all. One might call them time canvases in which I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of the music. I have learned that the more one composes or constructs — the more one prevents Time Undisturbed from becoming the controlling metaphor of the music."

TB: What role have appropriative strategies or procedures played in your work?

NV: If they’re used I wonder if it’s not to absolve laziness. But when they are it’s as kick-start. As ballast. Finding one that suits me containment wise is the trick. In my book, TEXT LOSES TIME, I use music charts, abecedarian devices, Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, stills from my video work, typewriter constructions, pattern poetry, sound scores, prose, haiku, etc.

TB: I want to know more, Nico. Tell me about the music chart sequence and the texts deriving from Perec. How did you come to do what you did with those source materials?

NV: The music chart sequence is a piece that roughly shares the title of my book. THE TEXT DEVELOPS AND LOSES TIME IN THE READING OF IT. These are from a book of blank chord charts I’ve had for 15 years not knowing quite what I’d do with them. One day I was collecting five letter words for a visual poetry video I was working on and I happened on this chart booklet again. So, in they went. A week later I found a rubber stamp set I misplaced. So, in they went. Around that time I had been working on a piece that extracted play-by-play commentary on the game GO. I replaced existing words with the word ‘text’. B and W, of course, are black & white. I cut up portions of this piece. So, in they went. The text between the rubber-stamped rectangles was another GO derived piece. So, in they went as well. You can read, "endlessly the life and death of larger texts and their disputed intersections”.

(click on the image to enlarge)

Regarding Perec, that was mostly happy accident. Written while on a few long flying commutes and jazzed with eyebrow lifters. This piece, in my book, is titled Species Pieces. It reaches closer to this notion of Time Undisturbed. This idea of appropriating, for me, is another way of translating. Reading a given text. Allowing its effect. Merging your momentum with the given text. Applying your poetics, your current thought. Recalibrating the effort of two sources to yield a third. Standard poet stuff I imagine.

The ingredient contradicts
another. The same ingredient.
The double
headed temptation of
an alphabet to be both. Aware
and disengaged. Moves
through walls. Vibrates at
universal speed. See the descrip
tion of this unfinished
project. 100 ft above sea
level. The sky inscribed
with clues. The craftsman,
the cartoonist become


Writing a history for
each thing you own.
A framed photo of two
friends. Perhaps
Pennsylvania. On the cycling
team. Date unknown. The
objects that follow
you from one living
situation to another.
And what house do you
recall having no door.

TB: "Language, chance, attention, hallucination". That's a constellation that popped out in your first response to me. Go a little deeper. What do those words combine to mean to you in the context of your work?

NV: I would consider those words to be modes of gathering information. The words are ingredients of what could be my poetics. A kind of Staring Poetics. It essentially hinges my concrete/visual and textual poetry output to the same source.

Saccades for cadence. The fixed point renders a viewer’s seeing immobile for several seconds or more. A momentary paralysis imbued with hyper focus. Not in charge of what to think. Immersed in the designs and possibilities of visual momentum honed to Euclidian ends. Time slips or stops or the ability to control time ceases. Free for unattended thought to seep in. Then translating this process by capturing it. As how the psychology of seeing, of reading might alter the writer. And now that we stare into any number of screens a day we, ourselves, are caught.

TB: I asked Geof Huth to suggest a question to ask you. He offered this: "You once said you couldn't say anything about a certain piece of visual poetry because you knew nothing about the methods used by the visual poet to achieve his effects. How important do you think it is to understand a visual poet's processes to understand the work the poet produces?"

NV: The same as any other art form. Important, but not absolutely necessary. It enriches and assists you in unlocking what might be there. It allows you to connect further. I think there are layers of deconstructing involved in deciphering visual poetry that bring both seeing and reading into play. I can view a work completely on its surface knowing nothing of its construction and be totally satisfied. But having information regarding how it was made and, in some sense, why - can and does enhance the experience. Aesthetics can change as your eye becomes familiarized.

What constitutes a successful visual poem is predicated on such wide, ever-morphing standards that it’s hard to tell what’s good, what’s not. I see this as a positive, democratic stance. Is gauging the associative depth a piece can reach helpful? This is, of course, subjective, but can perhaps be monitored objectively by the level of resonance a piece emanates (we are currently working on a device to measure such things).

For me, most writing about visual poetry, in the past, has unfortunately been concerned with descriptive tendencies. Texts that laboriously explain exactly what‘s in front of you. These texts have been unable to attract and find a place in larger literature. Someone like Geof Huth has begun to change this trend toward another — that being, a holistic approach to reviewing by merging multi-levels of thought and history onto a work of visual poetry. Not by hand holding, but by fashioning a contemporary lineage.

TB: Speaking of lineage…Who do you see as your forebears, your influences as a visual and textual poet?

NV: In the 20th century there’s Picabia — the Objectivists — Stein — Guston — Gysin — Cage — Corso — Einsturzende Neubauten — H. Weiner — etc.

TB: I'm sensing a reluctance to pursue this thread. So, I gotta ask: Care to elaborate?

NV: Sure, though I assumed you were looking for a list. I chose these people, because the sense I get is that the idea of image and text commingle in their work. Also, because of the directional nudge they gave me toward how I think and craft my own work. Text and visual poetry are active scenarios able to both implicitly and explicitly blend into one another. Those words you plucked "language, chance, attention, hallucination" are all present in these people’s work. We’re all an amalgam of what came before, right? We reach that height and are drawn to the challenge of exceeding it. Each person/book alters your path. Fine-tunes the next encounter. I don’t know what I’m doing until it’s behind me. Influences are so constant, so serendipitous, also the obverse, rare, that one can’t know what’s his or her own till after. Being individual is essentially a lie. As I mentioned earlier, being a real poet is all but impossible. Anachronistic. We please ourselves and in so doing it’s just dumb luck that we might affect other human beings. More than anything, today, it’s about ambition. Names come and go, but very few adhere. My interest in what influences me is to find out how and why they put their pieces together the way they did.

TB: What keeps you going? What makes you want to write and create visual works?

NV: Inspired and delicious moments reach a crescendo. Alongside these are your flowers — anxiety and boredom. These opposing forces create enough electromagnetic momentum to keep you going. Over and over again, repeatedly, without a hitch. In syrup verse — it’s like the seasons. Why I continue is really about this itch that needs scratching. And so, I scratch.

TB: Do you feel as a poet/artist that you have any special obligations to society? Do you consider there to be a political dimension to your work?

NV: In my estimation, the less poetry tries to do the more it succeeds. The politics of poetry surround such a tiny trophy of reward that the act of reaching for it amounts to virtually nothing. I don’t knowingly write with political dimensions in mind or with what my obligations to society might be. They could be embedded without my knowledge. I think I write about the psychology of economy and exchange and power sometimes. But more from the vantage of their effect on the human condition. How these invisibles become manifest in us. How they change us. How they deteriorate the future by repeating. How we’re bound by mistakes. I am, of course, beholden to society and society beholden to me supposedly. The society that holds their poets in special regard doesn’t live here anymore. That’s long gone. We either acclimate or become curmudgeons. Or the third quality, Time Undisturbed.

TB: Well, why do you write poetry/create visual texts as opposed to doing something else? What do you derive from these activities?

NV: Tom, I’m not sure there’s an answer to that. It’s how I express my thinking. The itch needs scratching, right? How I do it, why I do it is part of this giving evidence by documenting staring. That I’m here among these bits of alphabet.

TB: So, you're among "bits of alphabet" more than amidst a constellation of words or images?

NV: I think a person can be drawn to both the atomic and the planetary simultaneously. The quantum mechanics and general relativity of writing/drawing writing. I look for, this moment, where the two meet. Nick Piombino asked me to elaborate on why “staring at textpo creates the potential for vispo.” I responded with “Text itself is an amalgam of units of meaning. Words, right. As you stare at text you notice the visual aspects of letters. As you stare further meaning loses its hierarchy and words discorporate and the alphabet itself begins to surface. Shapes, spatial relations, visual associations emerge as you delve further. Alphabetic bits or parts or snippets of letters can create an added visual vocabulary amidst the very text you're reading.”

For me, the more important operative part of the phrase “That I’m here among these bits of alphabet” is That I’m Here! Affirming that I exist. Cause sometimes if you don’t — no one else will. You can dig that, no?

TB: How do you reconcile art as an affirmation of your existence with your earlier assertion that "Being individual is essentially a lie."

NV: I don’t think I need to, because they’re not in opposition.

One ”lie” is that people inundated by massive amounts of shared advertising stimuli can actually remain individual. In the marketing world it’s called a micro trend when a million people do the same thing.

What I was discussing earlier, probably poorly, was the idea that poets, artists, come out of artistic continuums and rarely emerge singular without lineage. Also, that meaning is only realized after time has chewed it and it begins to settle.

I don’t know about art as affirmation, but anything that makes you mindful of self must have its positives.

Tom Beckett is the author of Unprotected Texts: Selected Poems 1978~2006, Meritage Press, & This Poem/What Speaks?/A Day, Otoliths 2008. He curated the E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S interview site, a vital repository for anyone interested in contemporary poetics.

He lives and works in Kent, Ohio.

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