VIS-PO-ART and the Shimmering Verge

The forthcoming winter issue will feature an interview with Molly Peacock, and I love one of the things she talks about, which I’ll preview for you here.

PEACOCK: The shimmering verge is for me the place between two states of being or two emotional states. I opened my one-woman show by asking people to imagine a paint chip and that paint chip is green, and then I asked them to imagine another paint chip and that paint chip is blue, and then I asked them to get one greenish-blue and one blueish-green and greenish-greenish-blue and blueish-blueish-green until they can’t tell the difference; they can’t tell what color the paint chip is anymore. And that is the shimmering verge, the place where one color shifts into the other and you can’t figure out exactly where. And that’s where one emotional state shifts into the other and you can’t figure out exactly where. And for me, that’s where the poem occurs. And because the poem is always about the thing we don’t have words for, that’s why the poem exists, because we didn’t have words for it before. … And it’s not that there isn’t a border, it’s that you can’t quite tell where it is, like where the side of road exactly ends and the land begins. It’s that kind of thing—where the lake ends and the shore begins.

That might be the best description of “real” poetry that I’ve ever heard.  Poetry gives words for things we don’t have words for yet — if there were words, we wouldn’t need the poem.  That’s the problem with cliches and hallmark verse, and I suppose it’s what makes real poetry too challenging for most people — not that they couldn’t understand the shimmering verge, but that they don’t understand that this experience is what they’re looking for.

The concept deserves its own post, but it’s not going to get one.  Not much of a segue, I know, but what I want to talk about is visual poetry.

Starting a couple weeks ago we’ve added Dan Waber as a contributing editor, helping us make visual poetry a more regular part of Rattle.  Whether loving it or sounding baffled, we’ve received a huge response to last summer’s Vispo issue, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to keep that fire going.  It’s explained in a bit more detail here, but what we’re going to do is this: Dan Waber will write a column on visual poetry in every e-issue, usually focusing on a specific poem, series, or artist.  We’re also encourage black and white visual poems to be considered for the open section of our print issues.

Quite incidentally, we’ve already got two concrete poems slated to appear this winter — a shaped sonnet by Patti McCarty, and a textual flame by Paul Siegell.  We’ll also have an ekphrastic sonnet, and the photo it’s written after.  I wasn’t sure if any of these should be considered visual poems — each of them are enhanced by a visual element, but that visual element isn’t really necessary to any of them; if you just read the poems out loud, they’d still be good poems.

Since we now have a resident vispo guru, I asked Dan what he thought, and he directed me to this fun page, where he turns categorization into a quiz, listing 31 gray-area pieces, and making us decide.  Of course, which category a poem falls into will always take a back seat to the experience of the poem itself, but the human brain is basically a categorizing machine, so you can’t blame us for feeling the urge.  If you’re up to the challenge, take the quiz.

Two interesting results seem to arise.  First, the general concensus of the results for each piece seems to stablize as the quiz progresses — respondents seem to agree more often later in the series.  Dan describes the quiz as an educational tool, forcing us to make a label and so exploring that label, and this suggests that the tool actually works.  Maybe we don’t always agree what to call these things, but the more often we label them, the more confident we become in our labels.

What’s more interesting, though, is that visual poetry seems to exist as another kind of “shimmering verge” — that indescribable ground between poetry and visual art.  “And it’s not that there isn’t a border, it’s that you can’t quite tell where it is…”

In the same way that, I think, the shimmering verge scares fiction readers away from poetry, I think it might be the shimmering verge that scares poetry readers away from visual poetry — if you don’t know that the shimmering verge is what you’re looking for, you don’t know what to make of it, it’s unsettling.  But if you embrace the shimmering verge, then these are the poems that become most exciting.


  1. Ruth Bavetta

    Great idea, Tim!

  2. Shimmering verge — thanks for that ear worm. And for showcasing VisPo/VizPo/Treated Text. I’ve been addicted to the action & smell of my Sharpies since your last summer edition!

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