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Playing with letters and fonts

In this essay I will present my way of creating visual poetry as moving poems, and explain the selection of various fonts I use in my works. So far, I have used four different fonts in books, graphic art and films. In the end, I will conclude how I consider my choices from a retrospective.

1. Introduction

I see the modern poetry-film as a unique field that opens for new ways of experiencing art and literature. On the road from reading a meaningful sentence to an abstract, artistic experience there is a world of possibilities for new adventures. The balance between reading, watching and listening will be different from work to work. I find this area not a place for creating many rules in this connection.

According to the American Fluxus-artist Dick Higgins, who after an impressing international research published Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature (1987), visual poetry has been made in more than three thousand years. He wrote about »… an ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses, to tie together the experience of these two areas into an aesthetic whole« (p. 3).

The introduction of the typewriter in the 1870’s gave a new level of possibilities for creating visual poetry, but it was not before 1950–70 this became really popular, and the concept ›concrete poetry‹ was established through ›manifests‹ in the Fifties. The words ›pattern‹/›visual‹/›concrete‹ may be used a little different among researchers, but I use them like Higgins did.

In this essay I will present my way of creating visual poetry as moving poems, and explain the selection of various fonts I use in my works. So far, I have used four different fonts in books, graphic art and films. In the end, I will conclude how I consider my choices from a retrospective.

2. Selecting fonts in my first books

I started up creating poetry films in 2009. Since most of my films are based on some of my earlier books, I need to introduce some of them along with the selection of fonts I’ve chosen.

In 1999, I started up working on my first book het still, which is a kind of research of elementary visual poetry: containing forty-four poems, each one composed of four words in Norwegian. Each word was put in one of the corners on the square page (18 x 18 cm), many of them with a common sound. The position of the words forces a reader’s eyes to ›walk‹ around on the page, but also gives freedom to choose the direction and order of reading the words. Any route however would not result in a clear sentence. The books’ title is a creation out of the Norwegian word for silence: ›stillhet‹.

At this time I was less focused on the selection of the font: I have chosen it rather unconsciously. A friend recommended Verdana, which was released by Microsoft back then and known as a font »easy to read«. It is a little ironic that I happened to choose a font made for being visible on small screens based on the technology of that time, when my work was a paper-based experiment of visual poetry. The book was presented also as an exhibition in 2003, and was animated by the Finnish poet Marko Niemi in 2007.

The title of my second book AUDITION FOR FENOMENER UTEN BETEGNELSE (2004) may be translated as ›Audition for Phenomena without a Name‹. The square 18 cm format remained, but the selected Herald Gothic font made four letters together constitute a square. This choice was a result of checking out hundreds of fonts for this special purpose.

Fig. 1. Patterns and play. An example from AUDITION FOR FENOMENER UTEN BETEGNELSE (2004). Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad.

What turns up in this system may be seen as a challenge for semantic structures. Some combinations appear as words that are known for many of us in different Latin languages. Others are probably not in use in any language.

The book may be seen as a research of the potentials in Latin languages; many combinations of letters are not in use yet, but may be picked out by phenomena that may exist without our knowledge. By our way of thinking here and now, we use the language for making categories. In other times and in other places people may think differently, and may need other words. My hope was that the reader would appreciate this way of creating a mixture of seriousness and humor.

Fig. 2. Photograph from the exhibition in Sandvika kulturhus, Norway 2005, presenting large-scale pages from the book AUDITION FOR FENOMENER UTEN BETEGNELSE. Courtesy of Connie Ursin.

In 2006 I published telefonkatalogdiktet (›the phone-book poem‹). When reading (!) the phonebook of Oslo, I had picked out more than a thousand family names on a very subjective, poetic basis. By ordering them after numbers of letters and syllables, I have created different structures and pictures. This was possible by the use of the font New Courier that gives all letters the same space on the line (›monospace‹), just like old typewriters did. Courier was designed for IBM in 1955, and released without copyright (some say by accident, others that it was consciously done). By using this font, I created a connection not only to the old way of making concrete poetry, but also to pattern poetry.

Fig. 3. Family names starting with »sol« (›sun‹). From telefonkatalogdiktet, 2006. Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad.

3. Selecting fonts for ›letter-carpets‹

When I started up making digital prints on cotton paper as graphic art in my own studio, I created many pictures solely based on letters, which I call ›bokstavtepper‹ (›letter-carpets‹). In 2007, some of these were presented as a catalogue, the ›bokstavteppekatalogen‹ (›letter-carpet catalogue‹) in a solo-exhibition in Oslo. The Canadian poet and visual poetry UbuWeb editor Derek Beaulieu has published the book at When starting up with the letter-carpet project, I did a lot of research for finding the best font. Testing the Helvetica Neue Bold gave no doubt; here I could easily work with a font that gave exactly the effect I wanted: Initially, my aim was to find a simple way for creating a wall by the use of a lot of l’s in the Norwegian word for ›never‹: ›aldri‹. I wanted to make a visual scream of the word, and strengthened the effect by printing it in a large scale.

Fig. 4. aldri (›never‹) from the catalogue of the exhibition in Galleri Briskeby, Oslo 2007. The picture was printed in 75 x 75 cm. Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad.

Later, I started working with a favorite word of mine: ›oase‹, the Norwegian word for oasis. This opened for a new kind of carpets: all letters on the line, and in this example the effect of the ›a‹ and ›e‹ using the same space, ›s‹ a little less and ›o‹ a little more (watching this on a screen, be aware the result is more exact on a print: ›never trust the screen‹).

Fig. 5. ooase (›ooasis‹) from the exhibition catalogue in Galleri Briskeby, Oslo 2007. The picture was printed in 75 x 75 cm. Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad.

With this carpet, my aim was to create a sense of movement on the paper. Later, Derek Beaulieu considered it along with op art in his blog-post Abstract Language #2: ottar ormstad’s bokstavteppekatalogen.

4. My first poetry films

Until 2007 I was afraid of watching the works of others, I avoided all possibilities since I wanted not to be unconsciously influenced by other’s ideas, because I found the domain very conceptual. That year however, I attended to the e-Poetry festival in Paris for the first time, and was immediately enthusiastic for creating poetry in motion myself. I immediately started up making a film based on earlier works, titled LYMS, it premiered in the e-Poetry 2009 in Barcelona.

Based on a collection of works of mine, I ended up using three different fonts. The first part is from my web-poem svevedikt (›poems floating in the air‹) from 2006. Already here I had started up my project of picking words from different languages without translation (here French, Spanish, German, English and Scandinavian languages), mixing them partly because of the sound and the meaning. Usually however, I used only very common and short words. In the selected poem all words start with ›f‹. It creates a particular visual effect when exposed at different places without other letters. The font in this project is Helvetica Neue Normal, which was selected for giving the visual effect I wanted when I created the seven parts of the poem. Of special importance was the form of the letter ›o‹, which can be easily seen in the first poem.

After this ›introduction‹ I presented a Spanish ›letter-carpet‹, consisting of all words (in alphabetic order) in my Spanish-Norwegian pocket dictionary starting with ›a‹ and with letters ›on the line‹, which means w, e, r, u, o, a, s, z, x, c, v, n, m. Simultaneously, I introduced my love for yellow.

Fig. 6. acaso from LYMS (2009). Courtesy of Ottar›

All these ›letter-carpets‹ were made by the use of the Helvetica Neue Bold, which turned out to be my favorite font for this purpose. The reason may be easily seen in some of the illustrations here: I find it easy to play with this font and to create various visual effects.

The end of the film is based on one double-page in the AUDITION-book, which contains all the letter combinations starting with LY. As in the book, this was made in the third font used in the film: Herald Gothic. This mix of fonts must be seen as a result of the nature of the film, which is a collection of my earlier works. In later films (created in 16:9 format) I have decided to use one font only.

Fig. 7. non from LYMS (2009). Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad. | video›

After LYMS I started up with a more narrative project, which ended up as the film when. It premiered in e-Poetry 2011 in Buffalo/New York. Here I wanted to tell a story about life and death, basically from the standpoint of cars, rotten in a field in Sweden.

Fig. 8. quand from when (2011). Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad. | video›

Fig. 9. beau peau from when (2011). In English ›beautiful skin‹, used in combination with a photo of a Citroën DS. Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad. | video›

Fig. 10. the long goodbye from when (2011). Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad. | video›

In when all letters were made in Helvetica Neue Bold, which I found necessary for my purpose: the font gave me exactly the effect I described earlier.

Additionally, I experimented with new combinations of letters ›on the line‹ (like oase) and other letters, like q and d in quand. In my next film natyr in 2013 however, I decided to return to the New Courier. The film is based on one painting by Norwegian Knut Rumohr, and I did not want the letters to take too much space. Because of the history of the font, being fundamental for the concrete poetry in the Sixties, I always feel happy when finding new possibilities for its expansion.

 Fig. 11. From natyr (2013). Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad. | video›

In mooon (2015) the situation was different. I wanted to create letter-carpets as I usually did with Helvetica Neue Bold, but I also wanted to start the film more or less like in LYMS, where I made animated poetry in close connection to the concrete poetry in the Sixties. This was an argument for the New Courier. But on the other side I felt my new films should consist of just one font, so I started experimenting using Helvetica from the beginning. This resulted in the eau poem:

Fig. 12. From mooon (2015). the eau poem image no. 6. Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad. | video›

The work can be seen as an effort to document water (French: l’eau) on the mooon (!), and is based on live video footage shot during travels in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Lithuania and Germany. I also continue my multi-lingual project using words from different languages intentionally without translation. This invites viewers for an individual experience that is based upon the viewer’s language background.

In my next film, YELLOWFLOWERPOWER (2017) I will return to the Herald Gothic font (which I used in LYMS), and create letter-carpets out of this font for the first time. This is an experiment I have found very interesting because of the special form of the font, but perhaps more challenging for the audience because it may be more difficult to read.

5. The OTTARAS project

When natyr premiered in e-Poetry 2013 in London, I met the Russian composer and musician Taras Mashtalir, who is working with Nathalie Fedorova as the artist duo Machine Libertine. Meeting in Bergen the following year, we decided to collaborate, and contacted the Russian video-artist Alexander Vojjov for creating three works. The first, LONG RONG SONG (2015) is based on my AUDITION-book, with the Herald Gothic font.

Fig. 13. From OTTARAS: LONG RONG SONG (2015). Video by Alexander Vojjov, based on the book AUDITION FOR PHENOMENA WITHOUT A NAME (2004). Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad. | video›

The film was produced in two versions: one for plain screening and one for performance. It was performed for the first time at the international Festival and Conference of the Electronic Literature Organization in Bergen, Norway in 2015.

Fig. 14. From NAVN NOME NAME (2016). Video by Alexander Vojjov. Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad. | video›

The second OTTARAS project is based on my phonebook-poem from 2006. Vojjov got full artistic freedom, and did his own selection of fonts. As mentioned before, the book was based on New Courier, when it comes to the font’s choice, this is a version that is far from its original.

In upcoming projects, I will produce a couple of films based on other pages from that book, this time in the original font (one of them shown in fig. 3). So far, the OTTARAS project also includes a couple of films based on my work kakaoase, which is a kind of letter-carpet using the Helvetica Neue Bold font.

Fig. 15. kakaoase, digital print from the solo exhibition in Galleri Briskeby, Oslo 2007. (Since the same sound turns up in every fifth syllable, the poem may be read as an end-rhyme, even though there is almost no meaning, even in Norwegian. The yellow y symbolizes the poet reading sound poetry.) Courtesy of Ottar Ormstad.

6. Conclusion

In this essay, I have described my selection of the four fonts I used in my works to date. The Verdana font in het still was selected rather unconsciously, but when converted to LYMS, it seems to work well. The Herald Gothic in the AUDITION book was the only font I found that could create a square out of four letters, and works well in letter-carpets of my last film YELLOWFLOWERPOWER. The idea behind the phonebook-poem could be realized with a mono-spaced font only, and the New Courier was the natural choice, since it associates to the original concrete poetry made after the IBM invention. In later years a few other mono-spaced fonts were designed (such as Maison Mono and Space Mono), but the original works best to me, especially in a work like natyr.

Finally, the Helvetica Neue Bold creates an extremely well effect as the basic font for most of my letter-carpets. Some of which are based on letters ›on the line‹ only, like o, a, s and e are giving effects in the direction of op art, as Derek Beaulieu has pointed out. Another result of this font was my use of the letter y, which I use in yellow (my favorite color from childhood on) as a symbol I identify with. This is demonstrated in fig. 15, and may be studied at my web-site

In 2012 I published an article titled From Concrete to Digital Poetry: DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD OF CONTINUITY in the online journal Dichtung Digital in which I write about my goal to find new technological possibilities and different media forms for artistic expression.

For the most part, I have chosen the fonts I used in my works to create visual effects. In other cases, the fonts served a conceptual purpose, such as in my letter-carpets, or when I created square-sized words based on four letters (AUDITION).

In general, I think that fonts that work well as stills also succeed when animated. My impression is that the use of the monospace font Courier has been a basic font for creating concrete poetry, and that the Helvetica Neue Bold is unique for creating visual poetry in the direction of op art.

In all my projects, the fonts used serve a common purpose: to play with letters in various ways, namely to create a room for combining text and image, and to offer possibilities for new artistic experiences.


Beaulieu, Derek: »Abstract Language #2: ottar ormstad’s bokstavteppekatalogen.« Abstract Comics. Sept. 1st, 2011 (11 May 2017).

–: ed. UBU Web Visual poetry section. Ormstad, Ottar. bokstavteppekatalogen (11 May 2017).
Higgins, Dick: Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature. New York: State U of New York P, 1987.
Ormstad, Ottar: YELLOWFLOWERPOWER. Video-poem, HD 16:9, 07:17, 2017 (unpublished May 2017).

–: »From Concrete to Digital Poetry: Driving Down the Road of Continuity? A Personal Report from Norway.« Dichtung Digital 42 (2012) (11 May 2017). 
–: bokstavteppekatalogen. Oslo: s-p, 2007.
–: svevedikt. Afsnit P, 2006. URL: (11 May 2017)
–: telefonkatalogdiktet. Oslo: Samlaget, 2006.
–: het still. Oslo: s-p, 2003.

About the Author

Ottar Ormstad has published several books of concrete poetry. He has presented video-poems and exhibited darkroom-produced photography and graphic art based on his concrete poetry. In 2009, he produced his first film called LYMS which premiered in e-Poetry 2009 in Barcelona and was screened in 19 countries. The film was also presented at the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin (2010), where he also performed sound-poetry in 2014. The film when premiered at e-Poetry 2011 in Buffalo, New York, and among other places has been screened in Paris, Marseille, and Toulouse. Ormstad’s web-poem svevedikt (2006) was selected for the ELMCIP Anthology of European Electronic Literature (2012). His first three films were selected for the international exhibition project SCHRIFTFILME: Schrift als Bild in Bewegung (TYPEMOTION: Type as Image in Motion, 2012–2015), exhibited at the ZKM in Karlsruhe and in Liverpool, Vilnius, and Taichung.

In an article titled From Concrete to Digital Poetry: Driving Down the Road of Continuity? published in Dichtung Digital 42, Ormstad reflects upon his artistic practices from book publications, exhibitions, to digital concrete poetry. The gallery of Norwegian graphic artists in Oslo (Galleri Norske Grafikere) presented a solo-exhibition of visual poetry based on the film when by Ormstad in 2013. The film was also selected for the Electronic Literature Collection 3 (2016).

Since 2014, Ormstad collaborates with composer Taras Mashtalir. As OTTARAS they present their works also as performances, so far in Canada, Portugal, Russia and Norway. The artists strive for raising awareness for electronic poetry and sonic ecology to attract new audiences to a potent yet to come genre, in which concrete poetry becomes danceable.

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