A few years ago, when her first book appeared, I shared two poems by giovanni singleton, a poet I've known and been a fan of for years. giovanni's collection ascension deservedly won the California Book Award and garnered a great deal of praise from fellow poets and critics, some of whom noted her ability to utilize silence to great affect, and the cumulative power of poems, which, once they set the book down, continued to fizz in their consciousnesses. I wholeheartedly agreed. To this day, I can remember the effect a very short, seemingly simple but powerfully erotic little poem entitled "the chair" had when I heard her read it years ago.
Another direction giovanni has taken, related to those earlier poems, was in exploring poetry's material and graphic qualities. In her most recent book, American Letters: works on paper (Canarium Books, 2018), she reproduces a number of poems that are as much works of art in a visual sense, which is to say, drawings in language, as they are poems made of language. This is not ekphrastic poetry in any of the ways I have presenting it. It is poetry as art, akin to concrete poetry and textual performance (think of the poems I shared by Doug Kearney).
In the case of the second poem-artwork below, it also seems related to asemic writing, though giovanni's calligraphic poem's words are real and do mean something, individually and together, even as they challenge our ability to read them, and bar any easy interpretation. American Letters' poems' sources include African American spirit writing, sacred sound, Tibetan meditation practice, giovanni's study of Japanese language and calligraphy, and the multiple traditions of visual poetry.
The first poem was featured during last year's National Poetry Month by Colorado State University, and as soon as I came across it online, I found myself studying it. One need not read the words to see what giovanni is up to, and yet it is necessary to read them--you can enlarge the image by clicking on it and pinching your trackpad or screen, depending upon what you're using, or even download it, to get a fuller sense of what the poem is doing. Note also how the title, with the marker "Untitled," is similar to many works of visual art.
Poems like "Untitled (Bird Cage)" and the second poem below, from American Letters: works on paper, raise the question of what kind of language is appropriate to discussing the poem, and how to read it. Or rather, it organizes our ways of reading it first, and we have to come to terms with it and how it resets our expectations. That is what poetry and art does, it seems these poems keep reminding us. We can't hear this enough, though.
Source: Poetry (December 2016),