On Visual Poetry

Conversation with John Hall

Part one

by John Hall in Shearsman Gallery
from An Alphabet for else here by John Hall in Shearsman Gallery

HANNAH SILVA  presses record.

– I like the way that was a performic moment, signalling the start
– Yes, that was the drink before the performance. Now we’ve opened the doors.
– So I have to take my jacket off if we’ve started.

JOHN HALL takes of his jacket.


Hannah Silva: I went to the exhibition of your work at Peninsula Arts a few years ago. Your visual work seemed very sound focused, or maybe it’s exploring the way the words look and how you can find words within another word visually. Perhaps I associate that with sound as it’s close to what I do out loud.

John Hall: It seems to me, that fragmenting of very few letters and so on relies on people sounding them. I don’t think it’s possible for those of us brought up with an alphabetic writing system, not to.

HS: You make the page a place of performance, and a collaboration with the reader, the way in which you place words, allows the reader to read them in different ways – vertically, horizontally, across, to look for words within the words. Do you think of those pieces as performances on the page?


JH: If we see any rectangle as being page-like, then the question becomes, do we see every page as being a visual frame and I think the answer to those questions is different, I suspect, because they are different modes of reading. There’s a mode of reading that you can trigger as a writer, that says ‘this page actually counts, it’s not just a convenience to get through to get to the next one, it is an entity.’ Interestingly enough that’s a very strong factor in the lyric poem tradition.

If you think of those of your poems that can have an equal life written down and sounded, do most of them fit on a single page or a single spread?

HS: A lot of them do, and we work within that. As soon as you start turning a page it interferes with the writing, it changes it.

JH: It changes it and I don’t know about you but if I’m reading a poem that is obviously continuous I will flick through to see how long it is before I start, because I want that sense of what the duration is. Where am I going in this projection?

I think it’s an interesting question, and I think it’s a question for readers more than writers, although what I’m saying is that writers can encourage reading to take certain directions in that respect. As soon as you draw attention to typography, you’re invoking something about paging.

HS: It’s the opposite to what fiction writers talk about … Fiction writers often say if the reader is aware of the language, is aware that writing is happening, then the writing has failed. The reader shouldn’t be aware of the way language is being constructed, and that there is an author behind it. Which is really the opposite of what you’re doing…you’re making that surface visible.

JH: Which has been happening in different modernist art forms for a century now. At least. To Mallarmé, and much earlier. It leads to what Roland Barthes would describe as the ‘readerly text’, where you’re up against resistance of the text. I think there’s an interesting distinction there between fiction writers, a form where plot is very important, thrillers for instance, who don’t want people to delay on the text: they might find flaws in the logic of the plot.

HS: Thriller writers always want to avoid being poetic, they want short punchy sentences and to get straight to the action, ‘leave out the bits that the reader skips’ etc.

JH: I haven’t read many but the ones I’ve enjoyed are “poetic”.

HS: I haven’t read many poetic thrillers…

JH: Raymond Chandler … if you’ve got mild flu and don’t want anything heavy try Raymond Chandler.

HS: I don’t think I’d need flu for that.

JH: And I say that not because it’s poetic in the sense of purple passages, it’s just that, there’s a mode, a genre of thriller, there’s a wise cracking, hard bitten mode that draws attention to the writing.

HS: The dialogue often does. The fiction example is extreme but I think there is an equivalent in poetry, with different traditions of poetry, that one tradition, mainstream or whatever will focus on meaning and ideas and emotion, and mistrust work that appears to be ‘clever’ – not my word. There is this idea that if you are playing with language, first perhaps, or alongside meaning, that you are trying to be clever, somehow sacrificing the heart…

JH: Authenticity

HS: Yes

JH: Absolutely. One of the things that interests me in the visual, because visual pieces are most of them by their nature really short, is that you are always having to deal with that extraordinarily difficult formal moment in any time-based art form which is the end. How do you get out of this? Part of it has no end, but it’s got to be finished. Even in essays, I find endings incredibly difficult.

HS: They are the thing you can’t get away from. But when you have work that is so short, it’s as much a beginning as it is an ending, in one.

JH: Absolutely. I’m guessing that for many, one of the features of the conventional lyric is that there’s a narrative moment. An anecdote that provides grounds for noble thought, and where does the noble thought come? At the end. It’s like the moral. That is the form, and obviously prosodically, rhythmically and so on it really has to finish. The lovely elegiac ending, the kind that a popular movie that’s ‘serious’, really goes in for.


HS: If you’re working in a gallery for instance, with your exhibition, then the audience experience is that of walking into a space and out of a space; the ending is as they leave the space. That’s a different way of constructing the reader’s experience, you don’t need to begin, middle and end within one piece; you’re doing it through the whole experience.

JH: And you might actually want to defeat it. I assume if we had the curator of that exhibition here with us, Hannah Jones, she could talk about that. It seems to me that’s curating, just like supermarket design. Do you organise the space so it’s full of options, so that there’s no obvious route, or is it like a busy Tate, one where they want you travelling through, and you know when you’re going against traffic. Visual space is organised in a way in which sequence of perception is notionally optional.

Any kind of life urgency cuts through that. If suddenly somebody screamed for real, that wouldn’t be optional, we would leap to it. But otherwise, even with the organisation of perception, the way the ear-brain works, we can select. We could have been distracted by all of these sounds around us but there’s a simultaneity of the visual field that gives us options. Whereas you, in your performance work, the liveness is there, it’s operating on a time signature that isn’t the audience’s. The audience has to adjust to it, and will either adjust or not, they’ll either live it out, or want you to hurry up.

HS: Yes, work out loud, in performance, has its linear time – its tempo, its ending.

JH: All of the features of temporality.

End of Part One