Afterword to Bill Keith's
Stalking the Minotaur
by Karl Young
Stalking the Minotaur: Selected Works of Bill Keith
Koja Press; P.O. Box 140083 / Brooklyn, New York 11214
Bill Keith's visual poetry has ranged widely over at least three decades. During that time, it has been delightful, interesting, and informative to see how he has pulled new dimensions into it, and how he has made the work of other poets and genres his own. His previous books have tended to settle on specific techniques or themes. These chart patterns of evolution and growth which distinguish him from many lesser visual poets who find a catchy formula and stick to it.
His Pictographs series, for instance, makes a great synthesis of genres and forms. Starting from a solid base in African iconography, Keith works through other forms, including the collective store of images from many primary cultures and from our own. Textile patterns make up part of the African base of many poems, and this can be seen in poems where Egyptian papyrus becomes something like a cloth when enlarged, and in poems where a series of exclamation points become a fabric that rhymes precisely with a zebra's markings. An abstract photocopied distortion from an unknown, and perhaps unknowable, source can in similar manner make a provocative answer to a collage strongly influenced by Lettrisme.
Given the nature of his earliest work, closely associated with simple concrete, moving quickly enough into a take on Op-Art which made the pieces opulent as well as optical, his moves into new areas make new books surprises for readers to look forward to receiving. The present selection seems particularly interesting in his continued evolution of takes on other artists and genres, Keith's usual inventiveness, and, particularly, his further development of poems that explore strategies for page-kinnetics. This dimension of the work in the present book takes ideas from the Op-Art pieces and carries them into an exploration of movement in rectilinear forms. It seems likely that this comes about in part as collaboration with his editor, Igor Satanovsky. The poems move through permutations over page sequences which vary from continuous to episodic. One line of development features thin columns of letters tipped at various angles to create dynamic imbalances and eccentric rhythms. Another set of episodes work out from bases in modular poems such as those found in classic Concrete - initially forming geometric patterns, but moving into something else by superimposition and the absorption of curved letters and pseudo-letters. Yet another series takes its base in internally radiant square forms deployed in grids. The first seem homages to Karl Kempton, who used this strategy extensively. These become most interesting in later variations where Keith superimposes radiant grids, creating something like moiré patterns which give the images a vibrant quality. Others based in Lettriste models (or in Latin American poems influenced by Lettrisme) interact with varieties of repetitive stamps and seals.
Beginning early enough in the book, running as cousins of the linear columns, Keith begins a series of serpentine poems based on African images and African themes. These inform and reshape the other poems in the book. The fluidity of these poems suggests an African alternative to North Atlantic linearity. Keith closes the book with a set of verbal meditations on rhythm, giving a retrospective key to the book as a whole. One of my own concerns has been with the strategies for exploring rhythm in visual poetry, as often as not through means of varying the possibilities of reading speeds, and displaying text and words in non-standard orders. Each poem has its own space, its own dance, its own games, its own conceits and resonances. The book as a complete entity, however, weaves the rhythms of cultures into a fluid yet stately dance, inviting people with different backgrounds and orientations to share their abilities and achievements, and to see where they can take them from that meeting point.
Copyright © 2003 by Karl Young