Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Essay Blinks: A Post-AWP Manifesto

Image by @sarolee17

This year’s AWP Conference saw a trend in panels with titles like “Object and Subject: The Illustrated Book,” “Literature as Visual Art,” “Comics Confessional,” and “Teaching Graphic Memoir.” Whether we’re calling it the graphic novel, vis-po, ekphrasis, video essay, or illustrated text, many writers at this year's conference had images on the brain. It was exciting to be a part of this buzz while facilitating “The Essay Blinks,” a panel-cum-visual writing manifesto that featured Amaranth Borsuk, Mark Ehling, and Eric LeMay.

My original count numbered 13 panels on visual writing at AWP on. Between half-hour coffee lines and attempts at note taking in standing-rooms-only, what I took away from many of these panels was a new insight into visual forms as a home for narratives in flux. I came to better understand some of the ways these hybrid texts might allow literary translators, veterans, and queer writers a place for non-textual renderings that might ring truer into spaces where language falls short.

Slowly, and perhaps unsurely, more and more literary publications are making room for work that incorporates visual elements as a means of conveying and complicating their language. A common critique from these publishers might be that visuals are unnecessary to texts, or rather, that text can always do better what the image attempts to achieve. My intent in organizing this panel was to bring together writers who had mastered these forms in very different ways and to ask them what makes image and text integral to rather than extraneous from writing? What resulted was a manifesto that became a kind of how-to for our audience. Before the discussion began, we handed out 50 foldable manifesto booklets (a digital version is provided below). We also encouraged the audience to participate during and after the panel via twitter (@theessayblinks) by contributing texts and images.

For our purposes, we defined visual essays as texts that rely on the extricable relationship between two media. They require visuals to develop their central ideas and their visuals do not simply illustrate that which the text contains.

Manifesto book template

Though it’s taken me some time to realize, each genre has its own set of current and historic literary artists working in visual media. Part of how I understood the visual writing trend this year was seeing it as surge in connections between somewhat disparate traditions that share common craft and historic influence. Visual writing perhaps traces its earliest roots to illuminated manuscripts in which the work of text and image was integral. Illumination came in the form of gold leaf and mineral pigmentation as much as in wild animals and demons that threaded themselves through hand-painted type. To a reader of the period, these illustrations wound with text signaled nuanced messages that informed the content of their narratives in the same way an irony mark might today.

Illuminated Capital Detail, Book of Kells

Much later came works like Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, in which illustrations and marbled and color-blocked pages served to both section off and complicate a reader’s engagement with the narrative (A newest version of this book was republished beautifully by Visual Editions last year).

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759)

Later still, concrete poetry such as that of George Herbert and Lewis Carroll became one of the more literal modes that the space of a text might be used to echo its content (below, representations of a butterfly and a mouse’s tail).

More recently the 1960’s and 70’s Fluxus kits built by George Maciunas, Yoko Ono and George Brecht invited viewers to interact and curate the elements they contained.

Most recent of all, at The Essay Blinks, Eric LeMay opened the discussion by prompting us think about how design can guide a reader’s experience of a text through his presentation on saccades—the movements the eye makes when confronted with an image.

a. A jerk or jerky movement (in various specific applications).
1728   E. Chambers Cycl.   Saccade, in the Manage, a violent 
Check the Cavalier gives his   Horse, by drawing both the Reins 
very suddenly.
b. A brief, rapid movement of the eye from one position 
of rest to another, whether voluntary (as in reading) or involun-
tary (as when a point is fixated).
1962 Jrnl. Optical Soc. Amer. 52 571/2   The eye does not move 
continuously along a line of print in reading, but executes a regular 
alternation of rapid jumps, called saccades, and fixational pauses.
1967 New Scientist 20 Apr. 156/1   Apart from a rapid trembling 
which plays a part in the mechanism of perception itself, there are 
two main types of eye-movement: slow drifts away from the target 
image, and rapid jerks or saccades tending to recentre it.


From a study of speed reading made by Humanistlaboratoriet, Lund University, in 2005. 
Data are recorded using an SMI iView X 240 Hz video-based pupil-corneal reflex eye tracker.



Amaranth Borsuk delivered a true poetics manifesto in which she articulated of interrelated nature of forms and contents, and reminded us of the transience of both elements (all slides available here).

Mark Ehling encouraged writers to interject play into their process by using found imagery. He succinctly articulated this process by coining: “Find it, Grind it, Combine it" (All slides can be found here).

We hoped this might all result in the following: 1. A delivery of the inspiration and tools to experiment with visuals in writing 2. The means to talk about the craft and tradition informing this kind of work.

So go forth and write, and maybe ask, what might a visual say/do better here? Or here? Or try Joe Sacco, Marian Bantjes or Anatol Knotek. Or Eric LeMay's "Drive He Sd," Amaranth Borsuk's Between Page and Screen, or Mark Ehling's River Dead of Minneapolis Scavenged by Teenagers. Check out The Minnesota Center for Book Arts or New York's Center for Book Arts or The University of Iowa's Fluxus Digital Collection

Lit. publishers—we’re coming for you.

Special thanks to Eric LeMay’s Born Digital Writing Workshop for their tips for beginning visual writers. Additional thanks to Margaret, guardian angel of tech support. 


Sarah Minor is from the great state of Iowa and curates the visual writing series here at Essay Daily. She makes essays and visual art and messes around as a doctoral candidate in Nonfiction at Ohio University.

About the panelists:

Amaranth Borsuk is a poet working across media platforms. She is the author of Handiwork, Tonal Saw, a chapbook, and Between Page and Screen, a book of augmented reality poems created with Brad Bouse. She teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics program at the University of Washington, Bothell. 

Mark Ehling is a writer, teacher, and multimedia artist living in Minneapolis. His stories, comics, plays and films have appeared in international publications, on the internet and on stages and screens in the twin cities. 

Eric LeMay teaches in the writing program at Ohio University. He serves as an editor for Alimentum and New Ohio Review and is a host on the New Books Network. He is the author of three books including In Praise of Nothing, a collection of traditional and multimedia essays.

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