Cover of Too Much To Bear by Robin Tomens (London, UK)
I believe Robin Tomens is among a group of poets and artists working today who are placing British visual poetry in the vanguard of global visual poetry. I am thrilled to have an edition of Tomens’ Too Much To Bear as part of the Asemic Front effort.
Too Much To Bear is a beautifully produced collection of 24 compositions that have depth and resonance. They are not quickly disposable (then discard) visual-verbal gimmicks nor are they the motel-room-abstract-paintings which asemic-vispo is listing towards. These are pieces you will return to again and again, each time finding more.
Because Tomens’ work emphasizes the materiality of images and language, the printed book format is especially illuminating and effective. Too Much To Bear shows the power that art can achieve beyond the limitations (yes limitations!) of the digital realm. In short, and not trying to sound too Fluxus, you can best experience Too Much To Bear by being in its physical presence and touching it.
Too Much To Bear is published by Timglaset: A Swedish/English endeavor that, humbly, refers to itself as a “fanzine.” (Timglaset appears to be much more than a fanzine.) My research indicates Timglaset is the creation of Joakim Norling in Sweden. Norling deserves applause on several fronts including his choice of poets/artists and his unique distribution system that involves the international mail art network:
In reviews, I often navigate a narrow line between trying to – visually – give a sense of what a book is like and – going too far – inadvertently publishing a digital edition. So I will provide some shots of personally favorite pages from Too Much To Bear. Keep in mind the collection contains much more.
“Status Symbol” by Robin Tomens from Too Much To Bear
The methods of collage are now firmly available to the visual poet without contest. In the case of Robin Tomens, I do not believe genre analysis alone yields insights. He is an excellent collage artist and some would leave it there; however, I believe his great strength is as a visual poet adept at the use of language. This is how we can best understand and appreciate him.
Tomens’ compositions explore – even relentlessly at times – the shifting and complex relationships between image and text. He explores the process of signification and the processes of both creating and obliterating meaning, which is of central interest to asemic writers. “Status Symbol” provides a perfect example for my contentions. The piece exhibits Tomens’ use of the Punk (anti-aesthetic) – probably generational symptom – which serves as a deconstructive filter. Perhaps Joakim Norling’s “fanzine” concept has a greater aesthetic depth than at first appears. “Status Symbol” has a street art quality as well.
Thus I believe Robin Tomens is at his best in pieces that combine image and text. Some Tomens pieces do (see above) rely on the prominence of image and visual syntax and are successful. But, in fact, what I like best about contemporary British visual poetry (if I may generalize) is that it uses visual-verbal constructs that draw from concrete poetry, text collage and that are – then – “postavant” – suggesting connection to a tradition. (Rarely do I have much praise for tradition!)
Many visual poets have abandoned text altogether in favor of image constructs. Some of this work is extraordinary and groundbreaking, but I find more energy and interest in visual-textual work. The British visual poets currently working whom I have encountered are well-grounded in concrete poetry and the cut-up work of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. (Clearly Burroughs made a BIG impact during his London years that still resonates.) I hope this explains my enthusiasm for the work of Robin Tomens and British visual poetry. This “tradition” bodes well for a British visual poetry of the future.
“It’s You” by Robin Tomens in Too Much to Bear (Timglaset)
In closing, I want to identify another source that I believes inspires Robin Tomens’ work. That is his knowledge of jazz:
As a longtime student of postmodernism (pomo), I am very aware of the important impact jazz has had on Modernism and – more important – American Postmodernism of the second half of the 20th century. The work of the Beats, Black Mountain, and much of the New York School, for example, is derived from a “jazz poetics” grounded in spontaneity, improvisations, quoting and fragmentation. Charles Olson’s historic and influential “Projective Verse” is essentially a handbook of jazz poetics. With this “tradition” comes – philosophically – the huge, rugged and bleak continent of Existentialism. That is likely where we should look to locate Tomens in terms of a worldview. It’s easy to forget about the centrality of jazz in current art, lit and music.
While Robin Tomens’ nods to Punk and street art make his work engaging and provide a textured aesthetic, I believe it his jazz sensibility that accounts for the brilliance of the pieces in Too Much To Bear (and elsewhere). In other words, Tomens brings jazz poetics to vispo. Hoping not to make a comparison too grandiose, the Abstract Expressionist painters (Pollock) brought a jazz sensibility to painting which was revolutionary in the West. I have always expressed disdain for “middle of the road.” Yet in the case of Robin Tomens I make an exception or at least a qualification. Visual poets capable of innovation (rather than regurgitating the achievements of the past) but who are also aware of and drawing from tradition (such as concrete poetry and the cut-up) are in an advantageous position to produce work of note and value. Robin Tomens opens new ground and continues the enterprise. It will be interesting to see where he takes us next.
“American Face” by Robin Tomens in Too Much To Bear