Offspring of poetry's artistic polygamy

Several events this month platform the spoken and written words in new combinations: An exhibition of Japanese and French “visual poetry” opens May 15; poetry marries improvisational live jazz and shakuhachi performance; and a book launch for an anthology of new writing offers readings, music and dance.

Visual poetry may claim antecedents in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the genre took shape in modern times with the experimental works of the Dadaists and Futurists, the poet Stephane Mallarme and Brazil’s Noigrandes Group of designer-poets led by the de Campos brothers.

By the mid-1950s, the genre had become an international movement, and Japan’s earliest examples appeared in 1960. Published in the journals of the Association for the Study of Art and the VOU Club, these “vispoems” were the work of Katsue Kitazono, editor of the VOU journal, and Seiichi Niikuni.

A new exhibition, the “Biennale de Poesie Visuelle, France-Japon,” displays one work each from more than 40 “vispoets” from the two countries, among them several who contributed to the now-defunct VOU. Mostly, there are two types of vispoems here: parole avec image (word with image), pieces that manipulate the shape, font, size and color of words or letters for aesthetic effect.

Cyrille Brzet creates a kinky tension between word and image by layering red mesh and typed or hand-written words over fragmented images of a woman’s visage. Shoji Yoshizawa manipulates the characters of the Japanese language systems, so that the kanji for “water” seems to overflow while the kana for ru rolls among other signs, as if creating a textual orgy on the page.

What to make of these works is left open to the viewer: Is vispoetry a parody of poetry, a twist on Pop Art . . . or a conceptual game?

“Biennale de Poesie Visuelle, France-Japon,” runs till May 25 at Gallery Oculus, a short walk from Shinagawa Station, tel. (03) 3445-5088; open 11 a.m.-6p.m.

Under the aegis of Kazuko Shiraishi and editor Kitazono (nicknamed “Kit Kat” by Ezra Pound), the VOU magazine also published American literati including Henry Miller and Kenneth Rexroth. The latter returned the favor when he contributed an introduction to the first translated volume of Shiraishi’s poetry. She enjoyed, Rexroth wrote, a reputation as “a very erotic poet.”

Nothing’s changed a quarter century later, with the release by publishers Nude Erections of an English-language selection of the poet’s new works, titled “Let Those Who Appear.” The translators of the new volume write, “The explicit sexual language and bold images in the poetry she was producing then brought her both fame and censure.”

Another innovation of the poet’s was her fondness for accompanying public readings of her works with experimental jazz, and again, Shiraishi’s still at it. She recently returned from a reading tour of the United States where some of her shows were accompanied by the trumpeter Itaru Oki, a long-time collaborator. (Oki is celebrating, too: Orai Records has just released his new CD, “Anthologie: Paris, Lyons,” with liner notes by Shiraishi.)

The two are now touring Kansai, with performances pairing Shiraishi’s masterful poesie — written in calligraphy on a scroll for visual effect — and Oki’s carnivalesque improvisational jazz.

Kazuko Shiraishi and Itaru Oki perform May 16 at Espas 446 in Osaka Honmachi, 7 p.m., tel. (06) 6245-0446; May 17 at Rafinein Hyogo Ashiya-shi Oharacho, 7:30 p.m., tel. (0797) 25-2587; May 20 at Kaze Makase, Hito Makase in Osaka, 8 p.m., tel. (06) 6768-1340.

Sam Hamill, the prolific translator and poet, began translating erotic classical Japanese poetry after reading Rexroth’s “One Hundred Poems from the Japanese.” Hamill performs works from his CD, “Heart of Bamboo: Poetry and Music in the Zen Tradition” (2000), in unison with the shakuhachi of Japan Times hogaku columnist Christopher Yohmei Blasdel.

The accompaniment of traditional flute and Hamill’s poetry, itself exuding an Asian aura, is likely to be evocative, so make and take a date.

“Heart of Bamboo,” May 17 at International House Japan, 7 p.m. Admission free but reservations are requested; fax (03) 3470-3170 or e-mail

“Faces in the Crowds,” is the title of a new international anthology from local press Printed Matter. The book grew out of monthly readings at Ebisu’s English pub, What The Dickens, where the launch party will also take place.

The day’s events includes contributors reading from their published works, among them the accomplished poets Kevin Dobbs, Melanie Campbell-Drane and Malinda Markan. Other wordsters in the lineup are contributor and bilingual poet Atsuco Ueno, who also leads the all-girl dance band Higezu, the popular Frank Spignese and the humorous political polemicist Wallace Gagne. Also performing will be Amami-Oshima-born folk dancer Naoshi Koriyama, always a joy to see.

The editor of “Faces In The Crowd,” Hillel Wright, should be commended for this Viagra boost to Tokyo’s sterile publishing scene.

Coronavirus banner