Sunday, September 23, 2018



 Listening To Red by Dona Mayoora
(Timglaset, Malmo, Sweden, 2018)

Malayalam (member of the Dravidian language family in Kerala, India) and English are two of the languages poet-artist Dona Mayoora speaks, writes and illuminates. Contemplating this collection, the conclusion becomes obvious she volunteered as a scribe for Red rendering its whispers through the prism of asemic writing. Works outside this group prove others, such as Blue, also whisper secrets to her inner ear. Moreover, many of her works exhibit by subject of choice and illuminated poetic- and artistic-lined voice, the nuances heard by her intuitive ear.

Asemic writing, a post-literate movement, begins with surrealists sourcing from the unconscious to play with meaninglessness, anti-syntax made-up writing shapes. Abstract expressionists exploring with calligraphy-like brush stokes expanded it, again from the unconscious. Some point further back, to rock art as asemic because of its “contemporary meaninglessness.” From the 1950s into the 1990s increased use of abstract verbal signs, iconographics and calligraphies found in global visual text arts solidified by the late 1990s into what has become a formal movement. “Post-literate” carries implications beyond the constraints of this movement. Nevertheless, literally tongue-in-cheek or not, the apocalyptic, or pessimistic suggestion requires comment. There is some justification for this post- of many post-s forming the deconstructive post-modernist fence line, plucked atonally as if a new music of the spheres with which to rewrite the past and present projecting into a future of its own image. Their argument arrives from obvious positive consequences of computer graphics reinventing what the printing press destroyed in Eurocentric cultures, illuminated books and calligraphy. Calligraphy in these regions remains reduced to pretty writing. Iconographic images convey quicker in meaning, greater in expanse than word. That graphics ubiquitously populate today’s media leads to a logical assumed eventuality: image replaces word. However, most asemic writers create without conscious meaning, “write” from the unconscious asking readers/viewers to create their own meaning and intent of the work. Essentially, Rorschach art.

With the eclipse of symbolism by the pre-World War I avant-garde painters, the arts, except perhaps music, have been lead by painters, not poets, in Eurocentric cultures. From this, though not its direct cause, evolved in the late 1940s non-reference art followed by non-reference poetics. The work refers only to itself. Symbols were outlawed as were other references external to the work causing the illiteracy of iconographic symbols and other symbolic usage. Intent of the artist had no consideration. Criticism devolved to material content, brush stroke, color, and so forth. Non-referential poetic theory and criticism followed suit and tied to a jumbled dialectical-materialism philosophy justifying their materialistic poetic and sometime-misuse of Buddhist philosophy to support meaningless expressionism. Some asemics scribble (their term) meaningless abstract images and calligraphies. Are we heading into the desert of the self-indulged? Bleak as this may appear, this worship of the mirage, I suggest an optimism seen in Dona Mayoora’s interpretations of Red’s commentary during her moments of silence or contemplation. Hers and a handful of other abstract calligraphers may be forging the initial steps reinvigorating lost Eurocentric calligraphy and illumination traditions. Here neither unconscious sourcing nor scribble reside. Conscious intent and meaningful iconographic abstraction abide: “Will Red (the square symbol) be heard, was my first thought. If there is no common language for communication, how will it be interpreted by the listener (bracket). Between these two symbols there are barriers, flow of gestures etc. Is the listener hiding, or is the listener eagerly waiting to hear Red. I often found myself in a situation where people misunderstood what others say and/or misinterpret what one is saying. Even with a common medium of language.”

Many are red’s symbolic and associated meanings: anger, blood, courage, danger, desire, energy, fire, heat, id, joy, longing, love, malice, passion, radiance, sensitivity, sexuality, strength, stress, vibrance, vigor, willpower, wrath, and so on. Enter a red painted room, blood pressure elevates, metabolism increases as well as enthusiasm and energy levels. Red belongs to Satan and Cupid. Many reds are muddy, unlike the clear, bright red rose representing a light-filled heart. In Sufism, red sulphur transforms silver to gold, the symbol of enlightenment. Theosophy’s red, the 6th ray of their spiritual rainbow, means devotional love.

In late April 2018 three women visual text artists, composing, writing, drawing, collaging or painting with red, were introduced by Serendipity and Synchronicity. Dona Mayoora and Dawn Nelson Wardrope I met through my editing and publishing interests on the Internet. While in San Francisco, I met Yuri Shimojo; she was present at her exhibition, Sumi and Shu, the day following her opening. After one of the more meaningful introductory exchanges with an artist, I ­purchased her catalogue. Apparently she felt the same, honoring our meeting by accompanying her signature with the ideogram en: fate, karma, a blood relationship, connection, or tie. Its extended karmic meaning holds within it a synchronistic meeting in a significant spacial context during which the special connection is made. Part of our discussion, since her art bridges shamanic iconographic traditions across many unassociated groups she worked with, dove into the use of iron oxides as the first reds in Africa nearly 300,000 years ago, to cinnabar based red applied following a traditional Japanese approach for her series, and to the fact an hour and a half drive north of my home the once oldest known North American First People’s mining site was found uncovered by ocean activity in 1990. The Chumash 6000 years ago pounded large cinnabar boulders into smaller stones to transport for rock art and other arts. The ocean later destroyed it. Our garden hosts a few surviving fragments from the beach viewable from the mountains of southern Big Sur.

Those familiar with typography know en is the space between words and letters. The diligent typographer employs en to form and inform negative space pleasant to the trained and untrained reader’s eyes. The skilled asemic artist-writer manipulates en space beyond the liner lineup of iconographic symbols merging with the em space, the space between lines of type, moving the abstract forms into rhythmic dance, also pleasant to the eye. Her rendered dances came from listening to Red with the ear centered in the word heart.

That being said, let us, then, bring our chairs, attachments to Red, conscious or not, and sit around her waiting campfire cast in a full moon light seen on the first page. Red-lined pathways are marked. The courageous can follow the lines to the fire. The cautious can follow the lines stopping at the boundary of uncomfortable radiance. Or, we can sit in a circle. Page by page glowing images appear and disappear, ­erasing mind-chatter to hear fiery tongues spell and whisper secrets, secrets Red also speaks in the languages of other colors. Note that Dona listens to clear, bright Red. Thus, always present, the transcendent. The transcendent, if heard, if realized, means that one turning to another in the circle sees their self in one grand talking-to-self monologue. However, most do not want to hear or see. The collection is an earwax remover. Experiencial illumination transforms, erases the cataracts of opaqueness, vaporizes or exiles “isms.” Transcendency resides in her other works; one, a series of lyrical homages to the calligraphic flourished Zen Circle. Another, perhaps a learning from this series: “Rumī’s Rubies,” – the Red square with red abstract writing strokes suggesting his poetry. Her homage to Rumī, while outside the frame of this collection, nevertheless being informed by it, orbits hearts open for ascendant change that begins with clarity of unfiltered listening.

Karl Kempton
Oceano, Ca
June, 2018


Karl Kempton (Chicago, b: 1943) lives with his beloved wife, Ruth, in Oceano, California.  He has been composing visual poetry and visual text art since the early 1970s. His lexical and visual poems have been published internationally in 45 titles, 50 anthologies; seen in over 100 group exhibitions; and, widely published in magazines and on the internet. He edited and published America’s first international visual poetry and language (visual text art) journal, Kaldron (continuing on-line: He is co-founder and co-director of the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival (Language of the Soul); co-founder and co-director of Corners of the Mouth, a monthly poetry reading series, San Luis Obispo; co-editor for special editions of visual poetry magazines; curator of seven international visual poetry exhibitions; advisor for visual poetry collections including Renegade blog and anthology; and lead editor for the forthcoming Bengali blog visual text art anthology, http://, the first of its kind in India. His latest book, poems about something & nothing, was published by Paper Press, ref=rdr_ext_tmb.

Saturday, September 22, 2018



Hay(na)ku 15 edited by Eileen R. Tabios
(Paloma Press, Meritage Press, and xPress(ed), San Mateo / San Francisco / Finland, 2018)

Flipping Through
Hay(na)ku 15—A Commemorative 15th Year Anniversary Anthology
What can you say—really say—in just six words? When poet Eileen Tabios first introduced the hay(na)ku in 2003, I admit I was only politely intrigued. Six words, three lines? I thought. That’s kind of neat. I failed to realize how enthusiastically poets would respond to the form, and of course I never would have imagined that fifteen years later I’d be writing a review of Hay(na)ku 15: A Commemorative 15th Year Anniversary Anthology. But here we are.
The official definition of the hay(na)ku, as shared by Tabios in her introduction to the collection, says it is “a tercet-based poetic form [that] presents the first line as one word, the second line as two words, and the third line as three words.” There are several variations on the form including reverse hay(na)ku, the chained hay(na)ku sequence, the haybun, and the ducktail or rattail hay(na)ku. All of these variations, plus many others, make appearances here. One more thing: to fully embrace the notion of hay(na)ku, I believe the reader must know that its name is a riff on “hay naku,” an endearing Filipino expression that in today’s parlance translates as “OMG!”
I found that the best way for me to engage with this collection was to simply—pun intended!—flip. Several contributors explore the fraught political climate both in the U.S. and abroad. “This tortuous year—/hope dashed/daily” begins Luisa A. Igloria’s “Reverse Hay(na)Ku Reinstating Hope.” The hay(na)ku sequences of Iris Lee, Abigail Licad, and Eunice Barbara C. Novio excavate similar ground with their images of resistance, walls, and wrongful death. Jose Padua also takes up this theme in “Five Broken Hay(na)ku on the Theme of America.” Here, each tercet is composed of the same six words. I’m taken with the way this additional constraint allows the poet to nudge meaning this way and that. It’s like looking at the same view out of different windows:
was my
first broken heart
heart was my
first broken
America heart
was broken first
my heart when
America was
is broken
in the heart

Glimpses of nature offer a counterpoint to the disillusionment brought on by our current state of affairs. They also call to mind, of course, traditional haiku. This poem, written by Ivy Alvarez, plays like a silent film. And I love the way the sound of susurrus/brushing and bamboo/roof play off of each other in the second tercet:
races me
up the hill
of bamboo
brushing the roof

I found myself returning several times to this evocative piece from Lauren McBride. It leaves a trace of salt on my skin:
seashell spirals inward
enclosing ocean

On occasion, a note from the editor or the poet will appear at the end of a poem. Sometimes these are notes on form, translations, or terms that may be unfamiliar to readers. Occasionally they take a playful turn when, for example, the poet offers an alternative way to read the poem or, in the case of poet Amy Ray Pabalan, a confession that she misread the definition of hay(na)ku and so used variations of one, two, and three syllables rather than lines of one, two, and three words. The appropriate response to this can only be: hay naku!

I’ll end with a poem that I found unexpectedly moving. Written by Gabby Pascual Bautista, who was age 5 at the time of composition, it’s a set of simple, plaintive questions:
About the Hug
I wanted
What about the
Words I

This brings immediately to mind the 12,800 immigrant children currently held in detention with the blessing of a corrupt US President and his complicit administration. Upon re-reading, Gabby’s poem expands to include us all because don’t each of us—no matter our age—spend much of our lives asking a version of these very same questions?


Veronica Montes is the author of Benedicta Takes Wing & Other Stories (Philippine American Literary House, 2018). Connect with her at

Friday, September 21, 2018



(University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2010)

In the early 1950s the painter Robert Motherwell casually referred to a group of young writers and artists living in New York City as “The New York School”. From that moment on, the appellation took hold. It became the label by which Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch became known even though they resisted being “tagged” in this way. In time, the name became a form of identity that is still used today to refer to the generations of poets and artists who have succeeded them. Regardless of the label used to describe them, they were fiercely independent in their aesthetic allegiances but they were bound together by ties of friendship and the mutual respect they showed for each other’s work and the work of other artists in and around New York City.

Given this background, a consideration of the urban pastoral (which is almost a contradiction in itself) makes this book all the more intriguing. In it, Gray gives us a fresh perspective on their work. Gray says that he first heard this provocative term twenty years ago when it was first mooted by David Perkins in a Harvard lecture on Frank O’Hara and James Merrill. To Gray, “urban pastoral often refers to a cosmopolitan retreat conducive to the development of aesthetic experimentation and countercultural community, though as evident throughout this book, it refers as well to the natural sensibilities city writers secretly harbour.”  The main argument of this book is devoted to the second aspect of urban pastoral where he argues that the poets of the New York School should be placed alongside contemporary American nature writers such as Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver.  Gray shakes up our common conception of what constitutes nature writing.  At one point he states that “flowers are more beautiful in their garden of verses because no one expects them to bloom there.”

In his introduction, he explores traditional definitions of town and country and people’s perceptions, attitudes and experiences to both.

Separate chapters follow which discuss the work of each of the poets in turn. They can be read in any order as they are relatively independent of each other.  The approach that Gray chooses to adopt with respect to each poet differs in emphasis with regard to subject-matter. The chapter on O’Hara, for example, focusses mainly on art rather than poetry (he was, after all, a museum curator and an art critic, as well as a poet), whereas the chapter on John Ashbery (who was also very much involved in the art world) concentrates more on his poetry.  Early on, Gray points out that the book is also as much about painting as it is about literature. His focus on the art scene is particularly prominent in chapter 4 which is partly given over to a discussion of the work of the painter Jane Freilicher. The focus shifts again when Gray considers Kenneth Koch’s work with school children and Diane di Prima’s foray into the world of the Beats. By the end of the book we are in the Plains of Dakota with writer Kathleen Norris.

“Pastoral” means different things to different people. For O’Hara, special realms that became pastoral havens were places where freedom was to be found. O’Hara’s escape route from the city was the archetypical escape to the beach.  In an epistolary poem to Jasper Johns he says “I want someday / to have a fire-escape // in 1951 I became crazy for fire-escapes / as you remember.”  Gray postulates that the “fire-escape” could well be Fire Island, “a pastoral site” where O’Hara could go to escape the attention he had attracted in New York City since his arrival there in 1951.

For Ashbery, “pastoral” is very much bound up with memory , in this case, the memory of his rural childhood on the family fruit farm near Lake Ontario. It was a region he dubbed the “Holy Land / of western New York State.” Later, Ashbery claimed that “much of my poetry comes out of memories of childhood, the feeling of some lost world that can’t be recovered.”   Discussing such seminal poems as “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” and “At North Farm” Gray argues that, although Ashbery’s poetry is “attuned to the transitory nature of ‘logarithmic’ New York City…closer inspection indicates that it remains anchored in rural landscapes.”

It is particularly gratifying to see a chapter devoted to Barbara Guest who, until the publication of her Selected Poems in 1995, had been significantly overlooked even though the other poets of the New York School admired her poetry and she admired theirs.  In this chapter we return to the coastline. Guest spent most of her childhood in the coastal states of Florida and California before moving to Los Angeles when she was ten and then on to New York in her twenties. Focussing on specific poems, Gray shows how images of the sky and the sea and water in general – especially “urban rainfall”– became deeply entrenched in her work. Guest had a particular gift for being able to express how these elements had the capacity to alter human relationships and affect mood, especially in the city. Nowhere is this more obvious than in her poem “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher,” where Guest – with recourse to both images of sky and sea “investigates an environmental indeterminacy felt acutely by those in love.”

In the fourth chapter, Gray explores the work of writer James Schuyler and artist Jane Freilicher, whose painting Harmonic Convergence (2008) is on the book cover. Although they worked independently of each other, they share the same chapter because, according to Gray’s estimation, something set their work apart from the rest of the New York School. Like O’Hara, Ashbery and Guest, Schuyler wrote a considerable amount of art criticism for Art News and Art and Literature but there the resemblance ended. He argues how Schuyler’s work “provides us with a great window on New York that is less abstract than Ashbery or Guest” but qualifies this to some extent by going on to explore the degree to which “tension and ingenuity lurk beneath its shimmering simplicity.” Similarly, unlike O’Hara’s reflections on the frenetic pace of life in the city, Freilicher’s paintings “soften the edge of urban architecture, making the city seem like a more peaceful place.”  

Kenneth Koch’s seminal work with school children is examined in chapter five. His infectious sense of humor, which earned him the nickname “Doctor Fun,” and his openness to, and encouragement of, new modes of expression, made him ideally suited to this type of work. Koch urged children to reconsider their familiar surroundings and place them in imaginative contexts that dislocated them from their territory. He made them see things in a new way.  According to Koch, having city kids implement avant-garde techniques in their own writing was not as impossible as some experts feared, “since children aren’t bothered by the same kinds of difficulties in poetry that adults are bothered by ….they have an advantage over some more educated readers whose fear of not understanding every detail of a poem can keep them from enjoying it at all.”

Diane di Prima, described as “a second generation Beat writer tangentially connected to the New York School – largely due to the friendship she forged with Frank O’Hara- is the subject of the next chapter. Here, Gray offers us a fascinating account of one woman’s journey in a largely male-dominated preserve that starts out in the city and then spreads progressively west. He shows how di Prima lead the way for second generation New York School writers who, by the end of the sixties, were gravitating to places like Bolinas, California, and Boulder, Colorado (Home of the Naropa Institute). Reading this chapter one gets the impression that di Prima was always on the road. At one point, she and her family embarked on a 20,000 mile reading tour across America to establish new alliances and experience some sense of personal freedom which she achieved through many mediums, not just the arts but also through experimenting with various forms of eastern religious practices. In Gray’s words, “di Prima’s city skin [fell] away as she [became] infused with the light of wide-open spaces.”  She found happiness in unrestricted movement across a vast landscape enjoying close contact with all whom she met.

The final chapter is given over to an account of the New York underground movement which centres around Andy Warhol, Joe Carroll and Kathleen Norris with a particular focus on the latter’s “escape” to the plains of Dakota. In “The Middle of the World” Norris calls the Plains an “inland sea” where she implies that the Midwest’s desolate landlocked “sea” is responsible for her own religious conversion. Like di Prima and Guest, she has a life both inside and outside the city. She claims that she is conscious of carrying the silence of the Plains with her into cities and of carrying her experiences in the city back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed back into silence. In common with all of the writers and artists discussed in this volume she is proof that there are literary and artistic possibilities to be experienced in quiet, out-of-the-way places.

This is a first book-length scholarly account of urban pastoral in the New York School. It is accessible, erudite and beautifully written. Fully recommended.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017). 

Thursday, September 20, 2018



Scaffolding by Eléna Rivera
(Princeton University Press, 2017)

In the vast majority of poetry books, we encounter poems stripped of their scaffolding. Which is to say, the incredible labor that has gone into the writing—drafting, redrafting, editing, revising; not to mention reading, research, and living—has been removed and made invisible. An evidence of labor withdraws, leaving only the poem as artifact. In Eléna Rivera’s third full-length collection of poetry, Scaffolding, the poet offers a corrective to this trend by revealing (and reveling) in poetry’s living labor. Using dates, strike-throughs, and the indication of “versions” in her titling, the reader becomes privy to a poetic process synched with a process of life, which is to say, working, seeing, breathing, conversing, remembering, imbibing, and loving. My favorite among the poems are the “versions,” which offer variations on the same poem, distinguished only by dates. The poems are similar enough that we almost see them as ‘takes’—as in filmmaking or studio production. Interestingly, neither poem seems to be ‘better’ than the other. That one comes after the other does not imply ‘progress’. Rather, the poems are merely different—and all the more pleasing for being offered in succession, unfaithful copies of one another without original. Yet, there is something else that is unusual about this book in terms of how it transgresses and challenges the norms of the ‘poetry book’. And this involves Scaffolding’s take on the sonnet, since all the poems in the book consist of 14 lines. While the poems assume the conventions of the form—they are often “epideictic,” to quote the Renaissance scholar Joel Fineman, inasmuch as they not only offer praise, but are about praise—they also challenge the sonnet tradition through a kind of amplification and displacement of this aboutness. Here, in Rivera’s poems, we have an insistent sense of the speaker’s distribution through and dispersal by a set of perceptions, sensations, and textual encounters. And it is through these distributions and dispersals that we realize the subject, too, is in fact scaffolded by those with whom they enter into contact. Like George Oppen before her, Rivera is an ethicist who wishes to reveal a phenomenology of relation—with things, with other beings, with people, and with a (real and imagined) locale. Scaffolding gets at the ground under our feet—a ground constituted not by being itself but by being-in-relation. It shows not just what stands, but that upon which it rests, the inextricable and at times reversible relations shared between ourselves and other beings—within the field of the poem and the world. Remaining in perpetual motion through Rivera’s careful attention to lineation with sparing uses of punctuation and spacing, we experience the world not as a static entity but an evolving series of particulars inviting our participation as well as our inculcation—a sense that we are responsible for the world’s making. Writing through a reduced vocabulary, however an expansive prosody, we hear the “self” largely as a construction of sound, stress, and idiom. Much in the way we make our way through the urban spaces they describe (the principal one being that of Morningside Heights, Manhattan), we read the poems reiteratively and ergodically. To tread and retread their pathways is to encounter the world with ever- refreshed attention and insight.

From Scaffolding by Eléna Rivera   

OCT. 3rd (VERSION 1)

surface ellipses … a kind of tropism …
it always depends on the definition—
Fragaria “wild strawberry” noun and root
and perhaps, more and more, torn by lack of time
for ecstasy—we are tempted (you see this
everywhere, hear of its little importance)
point to poetry, the place where the parts are!
(instead of living the parenthetical)
(instead of this race toward emptiness, this race
that masks our insignificance, our “false fruit”)
(judgment too repeatedly wears us out our
seeds, I heard “What do you expect at your age”)
(the early stages of metamorphosis)
she bit into the soft sweet red fruit and missed


Surface tension, growth … a kind of tropism …
the early stages of metamorphosis
depend on the body and definition—
Fragaria “wild strawberry” noun and root—
Remind the young girl tempted by ecstasy
that fantasy is a fragrance, shame clings to
the changes of the body—blood running down
and pee pushed her to the parenthetical—
That weighing in, comparing size shape, the change
How games put forward the questions of “better”
and fruit when bruised by too much judgment retreats
“What do you expect at your age”—early stage—
then came to poetry, the place where parts are
is a soft sweet red fruit that I missed and miss


Thom Donovan is the author of numerous books including Withdrawn (Compline, 2017), The Hole (Displaced Press, 2012) and Withdrawn: a Discourse (Shifter, 2016). He co-edits and publishes ON Contemporary Practice. He is also the editor of Occupy Poetics (Essay Press, 2015); To Look At The Sea Is To Become What One Is: an Etel Adnan Reader (with Brandon Shimoda; Nightboat Books, 2014), Supple Science: a Robert Kocik Primer (with Michael Cross; ON Contemporary Practice, 2013), and Wild Horses Of Fire. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts.