Nico Vassilakis, Visual Language and Lexical Image on Steroids

Stephen Vincent

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Nico Vassilakis is a visual poet who engages with letters and typeface structures as his primary material. His visual poems—jazzy anatomies of the alphabet, landscapes of typographic sprawl—playfully muddy the distinction between line and sign.

Vassilakis is also active as a curator and anthologist of visual poetry. He edits a regular feature on visual poetry (coined “Vispo”) for Coldfront Magazine and, along with Crag Hill, edited
THE LAST VISPO: A Visual Poetry Anthology 1998–2008, featuring the work of nearly 150 visual poets from across the globe. In an interview with David Hoenigman for Word Riot, Vassilakis defines contemporary visual poetry as “the predilection for fidgeters of text to have letters be unmoored from their word source, so as to consider even the singular letter or portions of that letter as the material of expression.” Vispo, Vassilakis writes in his introduction to THE LAST VISPO, is “a mongrel of visual language and lexical image on steroids.”

In the following interview, Nico Vassilakis discusses his own alphabetic “fidgeting” with the poet Stephen Vincent.

—Eva Heisler 

Maybe one way to start this interview is to establish a form that will combine process and artifact. To do that, let me first ask what gets you going with a particular letter. What might you do with the letter “T”? First, is the “T” a letter that you initially make, a construction? Or might you take a “T” from a found source? Or both?

Each letter has special qualities. These qualities espouse the notion that letters are essentially atomic; they follow something like the periodic table, and words are molecular. In this atomic landscape, letters are emancipated and free to explore their individual selves before lining up and cohering into word form. Like electrons, letters exhaust combinatory possibilities to achieve newer and better results. Their material is built of natural design and our minds bend to allow this design to elaborate our communication system.

The uppercase letter “T”? It is an independent entity, as are they all, but “T” does have specific abilities. It attracts “H.” It fastens “E” so as not to fall off the end of the word. “T” separates space, is a placeholder, an insert. “T” is right angular; it points. “T” is a starting position, is an axis. It points down; it runs across; it can be flipped to assume other potentials. I find “T” where it finds me, for a moment detached and waiting in the wings. The word is constantly eager to attract “T,” to start a sentence, to name a place, but “T” is rigid and will not be easily consumed.

Once you have this letter, a piece of material, is the monitor your typical “playing” surface? If so, what do you give up on the monitor screen as, say, different from working on various kinds of paper with their diversity of inherent granular resistances and textures combined, as they might be, with various pens, brushes, and the material qualities of different inks? As you know, that is the way I work. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working on a plastic screen that may confine you to composing with pixels and an array of colors? In what way do issues of materiality open up and/or define what you can do with your work? Alternatively, do you have any arguments with the monitor as a projecting surface for your works? Does the smooth surface become a limit to the kind of depth you might achieve by other means? How do you keep the monitor from becoming “wall paper”?

I’ve worked with all sorts of paper materials, surfaces, markers, stamps, transfer and vinyl letters, toy letters, and colored inks, but certainly of late (the past five years), I have focused mainly on using a tablet. There are certain shortcuts provided working digitally. Personally, I haven't had the space to work with the accumulated raw materials I'd amassed living in Seattle for two decades. The screen is one reality.

The techniques I use to create my vispoems are a blend of apps and layers of letters that accomplish multiple entry points. I use my finger gliding across the screen to articulate and sustain an idea. A contoured cursive writ in letters. The screen is where I interact, where I snap the hardened letter glue keeping words intact. The letters are allowed to roam, to fashion their own sense of composition, to be liberated before being called to congregate into word logic again.

My fetishistic attraction to types of paper and calligraphic pens has waned. I don't feel limited by the screen; rather, I find my preparatory efforts being spent trying to hone in on the right times to create. The screen has become ubiquitous, and I need it to be available when I am at my peak of readiness. Sometimes I do sketch out an idea or observation to study later. One drawback I face is looking for new ways to use apps that suit me. This can limit how and what I want to express and can bring me to a cul de sac quickly. The notion of "wallpaper" is a flattened affect that has no pop, no multiple entry access to a piece. Yes, these can be considered failures, but not without purpose. They aren't failed due to the screen, but to the interaction I'm having with the material.

How conscious are you of the history of typography? Say, for example, woodblock, metal, letterset and/or digital fonts? Can you point to one or more places where you may have overlayed and/or played these “mediums” off or against the other?

Fragments of different fonts are in constant collision mode. Serif is sheriff, right angle is heavy authority, or block space is severe and filling. My choices and decisions fluctuate in order to capture a letter in flight previous to it settling into a static word. The history of typography is a lettered potential of eruptive possible utterance. How font is constructed and how it's digitized is becoming less relevant, because we are pointing toward this new appointed future. A cobbler of alphabet is a depleted art. Printing a broadside is quaint exercise. I don't trust this future, yet here it is. (I wonder how many times that's been said.)

You still write and publish poetry. No matter how interesting, I don’t find it typographically special, or find myself attracted to its design. I have grown to expect the Vispo side of your tool kit, and I am little disappointed by the absence of “flesh.” When you write the more conventional poem, what are you still trying to accomplish that cannot be done within Vispo?

I am compelled to express. My vispo is not so dissimilar to my poetry. It focuses on the unfolding of phenomenological minutiae, to the unattended observation both within and without. Happenstance, and the desire to document it, are a driving force. Staring and the fruit that comes from it—this, too, is a destination.

You have compared your use of the alphabet to a chemist’s use of the Periodic Table of Elements. With and beyond each letter’s atomic particles is its capacity to be energetically yoked—sympathetically or oppositionally—with other elements, alphabetic and otherwise. Could you start with another material shape—a particular rock or the shape of a sung melody—and find your work unfolding into letter shapes? In what ways does your practice permit nature to shape the letter?

I tend to think nature created the essential ingredients of alphabet. An outcropping of nature's available shapes and designs molded in the human brain to provide the markings suitable for particular utterance. And so the markings have evolved from culture to culture and civilization to civilization. A rock has no doubt been assimilated into alphabet.

In the traditional world of book typography, the idea is to create a page in which the type does not distract the reader and draw attention to its characteristics. Vispo does the opposite. Instead of a conventionally readable syntax, your work, it seems to me, must be “read” in a way more comparable to how we talk about the compositional elements of a painting or sculpture. You are making works for the Eye. Yet, your work appears rooted in poetry and language as its origin and source. Where do you want to locate your work? Or do you see Vispo as a new medium, neither poetry nor painting?

I come from poetry. I stared at poetry long and hard until the words began to unravel, and letters started to drift and float off the page and do other things. The words were holding so much compressed energy; the letters were aching to erupt, and they did. Letters for a moment were unassigned and miasmic, free to think for themselves, and I was there to document that occurrence. Vispo is nothing new; it has hovered in our consciousness ever since language was fashioned into alphabet. I don't seek to annihilate the word, but just to heighten the awareness of letters as the material of words.