S: I've just finished reading Antigonick (your collaboration with Anne Carson) for the second time and I’m interested in the story behind that project. I know that you took Carson’s collaboration class at NYU’s MFA program—Did you begin working together during that course, or afterwards?
B: During my class with her I was doing a lot of work with images. We talked a lot about it. After I graduated we’d continue talking about the idea of the comic book. She wanted to explore combining image with her translation of Antigone, which she was working on at the time. Our idea was see how we could integrate image and text in a different way, to make a comic book that didn’t look anything like a comic book. I was really developing my idea of the poetry comic at that time and I think Antigonick really pushed me forward.
S: Something I love best about Antigonick is the inclusion of translucent pages that allow text and image to mingle visually across the book. There’s a sort of privacy signaled when I flip those pages and see the diaphanous image in reverse on the verso side, and the text that had first appeared behind it in recto. It seems a little like a peek inside the machine, into the space where the two interact. Was the decision to include translucence about bringing the two mediums closer? How did you choose this element as a collaborative team?
B: Anne’s partner, Robert Currie, was taken with examples of vellum in books; we really wanted to use it for something. In a way, I didn’t fully expect that element of multiple viewings, of turning the page and having the combinations change, but I find it supernatural. Vellum has a futuristic and classic quality.
It was a good way to mix image and text, since Anne and I couldn’t figure out how to bring the two together. I wanted word bubbles and they didn’t. So it was really Robert Currie came up with the idea for the layout. And it worked wonderfully.
S: It seems like the name we use for this kind of multimedia text-image work is kind of a tired subject that depends on the primary genre an artist is working from. But I’m interested in why you think so many artists and writers come to visual writing as if they are discovering it for the first time. Why is the tradition behind this genre something we aren’t more aware of?
B: We’re raised to myopically study one discipline. We’re not encouraged to even read things outside of our area—especially in higher education. And partly, the brain needs to focus on one thing to really get good at it. But we become too comfortable in what we know. So much art gets lost when we shut down to the possibility of other interests, and the possibility that those other interests can be relevant to our profession.
So, when an adult writer gets the sudden chance to bring the arts into their life again (as children we have the blessed opportunity to try many things and to bring art into everything), it’s like discovering it for the first time. The excitement is palpable.
Also, think about the comic book form in general: it’s one of the biggest instances of image and text working together and it’s massively popular. And we can trace that sequential image back to cave paintings. But things have changed, too. These aren’t new concepts, but there is great swaths of newness in acceptance and execution happening too fast for us to define it.
For example, look at the internet: it’s simply a continuous combination of image and text. Our expectations for that have risen greatly in the past ten years. We expect a lot more now from text and image without even knowing it. In that way, I think people feel that the conscious union in art is new, because of our higher expectations. The means to do it and share it are more readily available. We’ve acclimated to taking in lots of information at one time. We think it’s new because, partly, it is. Our relationship with the visual static and continuous image has evolved. And that relationship has changed everything; the entire course of the history of arts is changing. We’re accelerating into the curb right now in time.
S: Part of the project behind this series is to develop a vocabulary to talk about how language and visual elements work together. Can you add to this by choosing one or two words describe the particular relationship between your texts and your images? Or can you make one up?
B: All that stuff I just said about the internet age and the changing social artistic tide: people don’t know the right name to call any of it, because we’re in the thick of it. I think you’re totally right about the lack of rhetoric, the language we use to describe it, as needing to be developed.
I call it Poetry Comics. It’s not my term, I don’t claim it as just mine, but it’s the term of my life now. The more I use it, the more wide and beautiful it is. It’s not just comic strips. It’s using the idea of what a comic book does and what a poem does. It’s a moving forward, an illustrative lyrical expression. Poetry Comics does what poetry does with Keats’ negative capability and it courts mystery and mystical meaning, but it hovers on the concrete. Robert Loss wrote an article about Poetry Comics as “Profluent Lingering,” and I think that term is fantastic. “the result of the variable tensions between a generally narrative progression and a quality of stillness, both of which manifest in multiple media—pages, panels, images and words—that are arranged sequentially” (from the Comics Journal, March 9, 2015)
I think the term Poetry Comic rolls off the tongue so beautifully. I don’t like Comics Poetry because I want poetry first. There’s Visual Poetry, but I think that’s more specific to poetry. There’ll be many names for that we haven’t even come to yet.
Poetry Comic by Bianca Stone
S: In the vein of craft, something I’ve been thinking about with regards to Poetry Comics is the intentional sectioning of images and text inherent to most examples in the genre. These divisions suggest that a panel might work like a stanza does in that it allows the viewer moments of silence or transition between. This seems like a key tactic in combining text and image. I wonder if you have any ideas about additional means for dividing a reader’s time or for controlling the reading process by designing space?
B: A lot of times I don’t even use a panel. I hate sometimes how it won’t let me sprawl. I think you have to depend on the text you’re using to feel out the form on the page. It should mimic how you want the eye to move. That control is not perfect and it never will be. It’ll never be like reading a poem! I realized that, but I also know that poets choose line breaks and stanza breaks to align with the music and content of the poem. It’s an almost subconscious act. I just don’t know. I’m always striving to do better.
S: I'm interested in something you said during a recent interview on The Rumpus about text that has space left in it, and thus allows or suggests the inclusion of visual work. As someone who begins with the text, do you think that poetry comics are always more successful when their poems are abstract?
B: I think some poems lend themselves more to having visual images, but it’s the choices you make that matter. I think what can happen with narrative poetry is that people try very hard to illustrate exactly what’s happening, which is redundant. The image can be narrative without repeating the narrative, but rather being another element of it. In fact, I always like using my more direct lines, that way I can be more abstract with the images, and it won’t confuse the reader too much. I don’t want to confuse, I want to illuminate.
S: There seems something important about the brief nature of poetry comics that makes them lend themselves well to place-based presentation such as in installations or margin notes. Where do you think image-text work should be encountered? Or, ideally, where would you like a viewer to read your own work?
B: I think we should be making more full-length books. Like Lynda Barry’s amazing Picture This, or Maira Kalman’s Principals of Uncertainty. In a book you can develop an arch that allows for the reader to become engaged in what you’re doing. But actually, it’s all around us. It’s just a matter of acknowledging it, and engaging with it.
S: For me, it feels like there is still not a lot of space within better-known journals and presses for literary work that involves visual elements. Can you tell us a bit about Monk Books? Does the press ever seek out work that includes images? Or, what does it mean to “make books as deliberate and artful as the texts within”?
B: A lot of people ask me where they can publish their hybrid works. I think journals and magazines are becoming much more open to it. Poetry Magazine now accepts “visual poetry” and they’re very much into the whole idea of poetry comics. There’s also Ink Brick, which I helped found, run by Paul K. Tunis and Alexander Rothman, which is solely for “Comics Poetry”.
Monk Books started out as a press where we wanted to make chapbooks that had some form of visual art in them, much like illuminated books the ancient monks used to make. But we now do more poetry than anything else, although my husband, Ben Pease, who edits it with me is doing a whole new series, a yearly anthology, where writers and artists who create mixed genre work can publish longer pieces. That’s all wrapped up with The Ruth Stone Foundation, too. We will do all we can to foster homes for hybrid work.
Bianca Stone is the author of several poetry chapbooks and an ongoing poetry-comic series from Factory Hollow Press. She is the illustrator of Antigonick, a collaboration with Anne Carson, and her first full-length collection of poetry “Someone Else’s Wedding Vows” is forthcoming from Tin House/Octopus Books. She lives in Brooklyn where she runs the small press, Monk Books, with poet Ben Pease.
Sarah Minor curates the Visual Essay series here at Essay Daily.