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Comics and poetry may not often be mentioned in the same breath, but the two actually have a long history together. That history dates back at least to the mid 1960s, when the New York School experimented with combining the forms. (Much earlier than that, e. e. cummings recognized a kindred spirit in George Herriman.) Today, a small-but-growing group of creators work primarily in a hybrid of comics and poetry. Among these are Paul Tunis (PT), Bianca Stone (BS), Gary Sullivan (GS), and Alexander Rothman (AR). The four NYC-based artists sat down to discuss poetry comics in August 2013.
AR: Let’s start by talking about how we came to our current projects. What brought you to poetry comics?
PT: I’ve drawn all my life, and I’ve written all my life, and at different times I was more prone to do one or the other. Then when I got to grad school, studying fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, I started experimenting with putting them together. It’s been my primary mode of self-expression since then, finding ways to combine comics and the written work that I was doing.
GS: I started doing comics when I was a kid. I was doing them for the SF Weekly in the 80s. I was like the staff cartoonist for them. And then in college at SF State, I got hooked up with the poets somehow. Daniel Davidson, who’s dead now, was pretty much my best friend. I was doing comics then, too, although there was no correlation between my comics and poetry.
But one time Dan took me to the UC Berkeley library, where they had copies of Joe Brainard’s C: Comics. We’d just decided to pull out the stuff that we thought would be the most crazy, offensive shit, so we pulled Ed Sander’s Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, and Ted Berrigan’s C Magazine and Joe Brainard’s C: Comics. I just remember sitting there reading these comics and I was laughing so hard—and it was in the library. So we got kicked out.
And that was kind of what set me off. I sort of knew about the New York School at the time, but I don’t think I was so heavily into it. Then I started picking up their books, and just about everybody had at least one book with some collaborations that they had done with Brainard.
And then in 1997, Rain Taxi asked me to do illustrations or something and I said, well, I want to do a serialized comic. And I didn’t think it was really going to be poetry comics. I thought it was going to be a story. But since it comes out every quarter, it can’t sustain a story. You’ve got four panels, and three months from now nobody is going to remember what was in those, so I just said fuck it at some point and just dropped the narrative and started doing poetry comics.
And it was mainly a way—since I don’t see myself as being very good at reviewing books of poetry, I thought this would kind of work as a poetry review. I would take contemporary poetry and then do stuff with it in lieu of doing a review.
BS: Similarly to Paul, I have been drawing and writing poetry my whole life. And when I was studying for my MFA at NYU, I had a chance to take a class with Anne Carson on collaboration. Everyone was scrambling to find ways to include poetry in their collaborations without just writing poems together. So I started using my drawings then and that was the first time I felt like I was able to bring together my poetry and drawings so consciously. And then I just began to be really interested in what it meant to make a comic strip and to make it more experimental, and how a poem works and how panels work.
But I also use the term “comics” pretty broadly. Because a lot of times it’s just visual art and I think it fits best to call it “poetry comics,” but sometimes it doesn’t immediately look like a comic, if you know what I mean.
AR: Say it loud and say it proud. There’s no need to apologize for whether it’s “really” comics.
BS: I know! I think what’s exciting is that we kind of don’t know what “poetry comics” means, and it’s just kind of this words-and-image exploration. But it’s not really fixed in either world.
AR: I like that description.
I also always drew and wrote, but I grew up more steeped in comics than in poetry. I started to really love poetry around high school, and then in college I started to think about putting them together. It’s hard to pick a point where that idea crystallized, but it probably had something to do with reading Scott McCloud and thinking of his approach that looked at the structure of the comics page, and thinking, this is like language. This has a grammar of some sort.
When I transferred to Harvard from a weird little school called Deep Springs, I wanted to do this stuff by double-majoring in English and Art (only the call majoring “concentrating” and the Art department was the department of “Visual and Environmental Studies”). But I would have had way too many requirements to fulfill. So I majored in English and wrote a creative thesis in poetry.
And then when I graduated I think it was just a quick matter of discovering… I think first John Hankiewicz’s Asthma, Warren Craghead’s How To Be Everywhere, and then Gary’s work, and then you guys soon after. And then the world just kind of opened up.
AR: I’m wondering how we all became aware of other people doing this. I think we each had a moment where we thought we were the ones who invented this. Although Gary, I guess you didn’t have quite that experience.
GS: No, I didn’t feel like I invented it because I knew that the people who invented it were Joe Brainard and Dave Morice—but really Joe Brainard.
AR: Or William Blake…
GS: Or William Blake. But in terms of comics comics, it was Joe Brainard. When I started doing comics in the 80s, the comics I was reading, other than the Joe Brainard stuff, was mostly Crumb, Fat Freddy’s Cat, that kind of thing.
Then I quit doing comics because I got fired from the SF Weekly and was replaced by Tom Tomorrow. He was much more suited for that job than I was. Their main criticism of me was that there were too many words. Actually it was “there are too many fuckin’ words.” So I was kind of bitter, and I quit having anything to do with comics for like ten years.
And then when I moved to Minneapolis. Minneapolis had some really great comic book stores at the time. There was one called Dream Haven and it was the mid 90s. And there were all these people doing experimental, odd stuff with comics, like Jessica Abel with Art Babe.
It wasn’t until Fort Thunder became kind of popular that I started seeing stuff that I thought was at least related to Brainard. And then in the early 2000s I discovered Richard Hahn’s Lumakick, and certain things like that that were at the more-poetic end of the spectrum. Leah Hayes had a publication, I can’t remember the name of it, but it was basically these drawings done in ballpoint pen that were non-narrative and really bizarre. It was almost just like notebook stuff, but a little bit more fleshed out than notebook stuff, so it was kind of in our world.
But becoming aware of people actually thinking about the work as “poetry comics” was not until you guys. There were people doing things like poetic forms, like Matt Madden. But no one thinking about it in any specific way, like “this is poetry comics…”
PT: I, too, read Scott McCloud’s book, and that opened my eyes to start thinking about comics in a way that really fit what I wanted to say and what I wanted to do. That happened at the exact same time that my ideas about poetry kind of exploded. I entered my MFA in the fiction program, but I showed up and many of the fiction students kind of sucked. And the poetry people were some of the most fascinating people I’d ever met. Before that, I think I had preconceived notions of poetry that were based on a lack of exposure. So I’d never found the poetry that was my poetry, that was made for my particular sensibility.
BS: It’s so true that that’s such a big problem, that people have misconceptions of what poetry is. It’s so narrow what people teach in schools, especially high school.
PT: There’s poetry out there for everybody. It just may not be the first thing you find.
I did have this idea, “I’m inventing poetry comics,” as Alex mentioned. I never thought to google it, or I would have found a lot. But my first encounter with someone else doing what they identified as poetry comics was at a reading for InDigest Magazine. This woman walked up to the podium and said, “I’m Bianca Stone, um, my thing in InDigest, it’s poetry comics, but I can’t really read that to you, so here’s some poetry.” My ears perked up and I couldn’t believe that someone else was making poetry comics and it blew my mind. I was so shocked and inspired and too timid to talk to her, so I emailed her two months later.
GS: I think it’s hilarious that you didn’t think to google that.
AR: I’m not sure I actually agree with that premise, though. You’d certainly find things with a Google search now, but—
GS: No, you would have found Dave Morice’s books.
AR: Ok, that is true about Dave Morice. But I think a lot of other stuff actually would have required quite a lot of digging to find.
One more question about this for you, Paul, which is that I know you connected pretty closely with Matthea Harvey, who taught in your MFA program. And I know that she’s interested in this work. Was there a moment of you guys talking about, “Oh, look at this person making poetry comics”?
PT: That’s a really important thing that I left out. Every once in a while the faculty could make up a graduate course on whatever they were most interested in. Matthea Harvey’s was a class called “Saying the Unsayable.” The idea was that you’d study creative disciplines that don’t have anything to do with writing, then use what you learned from them in your writing. Disciplines like architecture, dance, and, of course what attracted me, comics. That’s where I first found out about Scott McCloud. And the first time I made a poem-influenced comic was in that class. I’ve kind of had her as a mentor ever since.
So we talk about these things every once in a while. She exposed me to a lot of stuff that she was aware of, which were mostly comics that she felt were poetic, but didn’t self-identify as poetry. There are a lot of comics that are poetic, where the person who wrote them wouldn’t claim that they’re poetry.
BS: Matthea Harvey’s close friends with a lot of the teachers at NYU and I remember that’s how you and I kind of met, Paul. Because you were doing drawings for your collaboration with her, and you wrote to me about it. And I was doing things for Anne Carson’s book and we were both freaking out.
AR: Stepping back, I want to highlight that I find it interesting how Gary discovered Brainard so early. He’s one of the last people that I found! Through a bizarre confluence of things, I once had dinner with Richard Nash, who was then publisher of Soft Skull Press. I told him what I did, and he said, “Oh, do you know that we published a book of Kenneth Koch doing that? I’ll mail it to you.” That was 2008 or so, and I still didn’t learn about C: Comics until last year, when a friend told me about it. Now, I might have come across it if I read more New York School poets’ books…
But I wonder if there isn’t some sense in which the idea of “poetry comics” occurred more intuitively to the three of us who are younger, because we were, what—five or something?—when Maus came out, and grew up with this sense that comics had achieved “high art” status…
GS: I would disagree. My first experience with something like that was the Ralph Steadman drawing of Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” which was a fuckin’ terrifying book for me as a kid.
There was always stuff in the air, actually. The idea of an adult comic. There was Yellow Submarine. I remember being so blown away by that movie, which was a really poetic movie, actually. I mean, maybe it’s not when you’re an adult, but when you’re a kid…
I think it was in the culture, to some extent. It’s different for you guys, but the very fact that you didn’t discover Brainard means it didn’t really matter in a way. Because you get exposed to whatever else there is and it sort of feeds your predilection for this stuff.
PT: I feel like Brainard is still kind of locked up from the public, though.
GS: He is.
PT: All the C: Comics I’ve read are from Alexander getting permission to view Columbia’s copy and taking pictures with his phone. And from your blog as well, Gary, when you did your piece on it. And that’s the only place I’ve seen Brainard’s comics outside of the Nancy stuff.
BS: Sometimes I feel like what matters is… our comics are each as diverse as our writing. So they all kind of break new ground. I love that initial time when you find something like Joe Brainard and get inspired to do poetry comics, but then you take off on your own from there. You know what I’m saying? Sometimes I feel less interested in cataloging all the poetry comics people.
PT: I wanted to ask you guys, if you felt any satisfaction or moment of epiphany when you started making poetry comics.
Personally I did. That moment when I first felt I did a successful poem in comics, I really felt a jolt, that this is the thing that I’ve been trying to figure out how to do forever. I was curious if any of you guys had a similar experience.
GS: Yeah, definitely. For me it was the first issue of Elsewhere—the one that took place in Japan. It was a complete revelation to me. For my Rain Taxi comic, “The New Life,” I took some photos and redrew them and combined them with some of the language that I’d seen on people’s t-shirts and stuff in Japan.
And then my ex-wife Nada was like, why don’t you do a whole book of that? Because I had several notebooks filled with all this language, and tons of photos. And the photos were not of people or buildings; they were of images that had been drawn by people, or statues or stuff like that. It was all sort of, as I think about it, others looking at others. Same thing with the language. It’s all English, but not from people who necessarily know English. So that to me was like a big deal. It was a big deal for me because it didn’t occur to me before that to take it any further. I was just doing this thing for Rain Taxi and that was it.
BS: For me, what’s so exciting about working on poetry comics is that it’s so unbridled. I’m such a serious poet—when I write a poem, it’s got to be perfect to be published and make a book. When I do a poetry comic, I feel so much more free to experiment and be messy and go all over the place, and I find it kind of liberating. It’s liberating especially in the structure. I found that poetry workshops can be so claustrophobic and uninspiring and not generative. And then something like taking a poem and putting it with your own images—it’s totally a relief and full of excitement.
PT: That was my experience too, that I was sick in my MFA by the end—of being told that I needed to be something else. When I did poetry comics, I could just make the thing that I felt moved to make, and it wasn’t going to be compared to anything else. Because nobody in my MFA program was doing anything like that. I could own it, and the terms with which I approached it were my own, and I didn’t have to meet some precedent or ideal that had already been established, and that was such a beautiful thing. Exactly what I needed to have when I started making work without any kind of workshop structure.
AR: Let’s talk about collaboration. Traditionally most American comics were collaborative works. I’ve only done solo work, but I know you guys have made poetry comics with other people.
BS: Collaborating is such a hard and delicate and amazing thing. I mean, it’s hard when you’re working with somebody else’s poems, where they’re right there with you and you don’t want to… you don’t have as much license or whatever. They might not like what you draw, and it makes their poem not their poem anymore.
PT: When I collaborate with someone, I suggest to them, I want something that isn’t fully realized. I don’t want a poem that is already perfect or already there or everything you want it to be. Because then there’s no space, no area to play with it.
PT: So when you pick a poem that you want to re-render—potentially one that you wrote, even—are there certain criteria? Did you write it knowing that it would be made into a comic? Did you write it and feel like there’s space in there to build a comic?
BS: You’re so right: that’s exactly how I feel about it. I think that the last thing you said—there are some poems that I feel have space for more in between the lines, almost. I like to think of the image as another part of the form of the poem. Some poems that I have, I don’t want to draw anything to them. They kind of don’t lend themselves to it. They exists too much on their own, and I don’t want to do anything else to them, imaginatively.
But working with somebody else, you actually have to establish right away how much of yourself you can put into it. Because if you’re drawing to their poem, and they don’t want you to put yourself into it, then it’s going to be more like illustrating somebody’s stuff. So true collaboration really has to involve both people giving and working together to create something completely new. It’s not the poem, it’s not the drawing—it’s a new beast all together.
PT: I certainly agree. I feel it’s really easy when you’re working with somebody else—especially if they wrote the poem and you’re going to do the drawings later—to fall into the trap of illustration, because you want to re-relate the information that your brain received while reading. If there’s a really evocative image that someone gives with their words, you want to do your version of that image. So personally when I work with a poet, I really have to think about, not only my perspective—because I could do a really cool illustration of what ran through your head—but ask myself what else can I include that is not necessarily already delivered by the text. I have to dig into myself.
Gary, did you find that when you were doing a review of a comic for Rain Taxi, that you were going beyond illustration?
GS: Well, when I did those things, it’s not like I took a poem and just illustrated it. I basically would comb through the book and grab stuff, and oftentimes the book wouldn’t present itself until after I’d done the illustration or a portion of the illustration. Then I’d find something that seemed to be working with that illustration, and then throw it in. When I say it’s a review of the book, I mean, it’s very loosely a review. It’s in lieu of a review.
PT: You feel it’s more your reaction to it?
GS: Yeah, because to me, illustrating a poem would just be too boring.
BS: Really repetitive.
GS: Really repetitive, and there’s also no point to doing it. Why would you take someone’s poem and illustrate it?
BS: And why is that always what happens?
GS: People do like to do it. And there are certain people who like to read that kind of stuff. I admit there were times in my life when I liked it, but I can’t do that anymore. I have to do something where—it’s got to be new. As Bianca was saying, it’s not one or the other, it’s its own thing, which would not exist otherwise.
In collaboration, I’ve taken works from people—and I don’t tell anyone that I’ve done this—but I’ll sometime change their words. Like Bianca said, you don’t want the person sitting there when you’re doing this. I wouldn’t want them to see that I was pretty much adulterating their book.
PT: Yeah. I think it works so much better when there is the sense that more than one person made this thing, and each of those people were bringing something separate.
GS: A really good example is David Lasky, who did this illustrated version of “The Raven.” You can’t be more obvious than “The Raven,” but he did a fucking great job with it. What he did was he used the language of comics to sort of make a meta-commentary on Poe’s poem.
Lasky is not just illustrating the poem, though it’s absolutely the poem, but he’s really brought it into—like Paul was talking about earlier—brought it into the language of comics, and using the language of comics to do something with it. To me that’s one of the more brilliant examples I’ve seen.
BS: Yeah. Because you never want to take away from a person that’s experiencing it as a reader. You never want to take imagination away from them. You want to complicate it; you want to add to it. Allow them to fill the rest in, to make it too.
PT: Instead of robbing them of their own perspective on what you were reading.
GS: So you guys are talking about something very specific, which is basically someone provides you with text, then you do something with it.
That’s been mostly what I’ve done, but the one collaboration that was not like that, I really loved and still love. I don’t know if other people would recognize it as poetry—it probably isn’t—but it’s certainly not a story. It was this thing I did with Brandon Downing, where we really collaborated. He had a lot of ideas for the images and I had a lot of ideas for the text, and we put together this thing called “The Feminist.” Some of it was using words from Kathy Acker texts, some of it was from other stuff that we found online, but the image sources came from these EC Comics—emergency room comics. It’s on Facebook.
AR: I want to return to a question we’ve touched on, which is why now? What’s special about this historical moment that so many people are taken with the idea of poetry comics?
PT: I personally feel it’s easier to raise awareness because the internet allows poetry comics to be produced without having to worry about the overhead of printing. I feel like—and this may relate to why C: Comics hasn’t been reprinted—any traditional publisher would probably get scared off by the idea of something as esoteric as the overlap of poetry and comics, trying to see that as a moneymaker. But in the new media landscape, it’s free, so nobody has to foot the bill, so we are actually able to find each other, read each other’s work, and nobody has to pre-approve it.
AR: That makes sense, and I think there’s also so much precedent for artsier or more ambitious comics. As I mentioned before, by the time the younger three of us grew up, you no longer had to convince anyone that “comics aren’t just for kids!” Of course they aren’t! They’re for everyone and they can say something meaningful.
BS: That’s what I was going to say: I feel like once comics started to be called “graphic novels” they became more accepted in the mainstream. And then there’s the explosion of comic book movies as blockbusters. Of course there were things like that in the 80s and even earlier with Batman, but you can’t go two months without there being a new, giant comic book movie. And I think that seeps into everyone’s minds no matter what form they’re working in. And maybe that’s why comics are so on the minds of so many people, poets for example. That’s kind of a grim way to put it…
AR: I don’t think that’s necessarily grim. You can take the angle of something like Star Wars, right? The idea that we’ve all bought into the Joseph Campbell formulation that “this is our mythology.”
PT: Comics also, as far as media is concerned, gained so much power in the last ten years. If you go to a big comic con, you’re not just going and seeing comics. Everybody knows that if you’re trying to get the word out on your movie or TV show or anything, you go to a comic con and you have panels. It’s become really ubiquitous as a format for telling stories. So more and more people see the possibilities of it being a medium instead of a genre.
GS: People had to get over the hurdle of thinking comics are a particular sort of genre, which happened steadily over decades. I remember getting hostile reactions to what I was doing. Not directed at me, but toward anything that was not narrative comics. I remember at early MoCCA festivals hearing people say that comics were supposed to tell stories, and being pissed off about stuff that didn’t. And that’s changed in the last five years—or maybe more than five years.
BS: Just like it’s hard for people to read poetry in general, and they say I don’t get it, this doesn’t make any sense to me, because it’s words and words are supposed to be telling a story…
GS: Did you see Hillary Chute’s thing that was on the Poetry Foundation blog? I looked it up and saw that there’s been a response in The Atlantic. She wrote a piece where she was kind of relating comics to poetry, but was talking more about what we would consider almost mainstream comics…
AR: Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman…
GS: She was talking about the poetics of that. And then Noah Berlatsky responded. She was saying you could talk about those comics in the way that you talk about poetry, because there’s an attention to form… there’s a sort of hyper attention in the way that poetry has a hyper attention. And Berlatsky was saying that the problem with it was, I don’t want to see a bunch of rarified fuckin’ comics, because that’s what poetry is and nobody reads poetry.
AR: I haven’t had many people say something like that to me outright, but I feel like I get that attitude quite a bit, going to conventions and things. I recently met a comics historian and when I told him I mix the forms, he said, “Why do you do that?”
GS: Here’s the thing: I think Berlatsky is totally wrong, because the comics world is already like that. You talk to comics-geeky people who are creators and they’re so into these incredibly obscure references. Even in the comics themselves… I remember Joe Matt’s Peep Show… those guys are talking around a table in those comics, and they’re making references to all this stuff that people outside the comics world don’t give a fuck about. It’s the same thing as poets.
AR: But isn’t that the story of the world, that we always hate or are most annoyed by things that remind us of ourselves?
GS: Yeah, that’s probably it. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that part of the reason that poetry comics are coming around is that comics creators themselves are becoming more and more openly self-reflexive, and that seems sort of like a natural thing for poetry, because it’s so meta already.
AR: I can understand the problem some people have with that, though. Because that impulse in any kind of art tends to bother me. Art has room for everything, right, so I’m not going to say you shouldn’t do self-reflexive work. But I do think there’s a level on which you have to worry about ethics if you’re doing something that completely folds in on itself and is only accessible to a small group
GS: Why? That’s Chinese poetry. Chinese poetry does nothing if not refer to itself, to it’s own history. Up until you get to the Misty school, it refers back to itself, constantly folding over into its own history.
AR: Because I think we can look at that stuff without knowing that and still get something out of it. There are strains of whatever—painting, performance, comics—that drive that tendency to a point where, if you don’t have a very specific critical lexicon or special knowledge, it becomes opaque to you. And I think that kind of art can be used as a tool to demonstrate how much smarter or better you are than other people.
BS: So you’re saying it’s important not to do that?
AR: Yes, although I think people are often too quick to identify things as doing that. Maybe if they just gave the work a chance, they’d get something out of it.
BS: I agree. I think it’s laziness a lot of the time. Or it’s not just laziness—people don’t want to say to themselves, It’s ok that I don’t know everything right away and just open themselves up to the experience of the work.
AR: Yeah, totally.
BS: Which is, like, hippie to say…
AR: To use school as an example, I think it also prepares us to totally buy into the idea of gatekeepers. I remember a friend in the Harvard Divinity School talking about how incredibly frustrating it was that, if you wrote a paper clearly, people looked at that skeptically. Because you should be working so hard to have brilliant ideas that you shouldn’t have time to put them into accessible language. Obviously she was exaggerating, but I think there’s something there, and that is something to be avoided. And whether they’re imagining it or not, I think that kind of attitude is what people are reacting to when they say, Oh, poetry is too rarified.
GS: You know, really one of the most meta things I’ve ever witnessed, though, is Bollywood. Every single movie has billions of references back. It goes back to the 50s, where they’re already starting to make references to earlier stuff, and it’s winking, nodding, what we’d call either postmodern or these assholes that are snobs, or whatever.
And I just feel like that’s a way that culture manifests itself. Let’s put it this way: George Steiner had this theory about language, that the reason you have so many languages is that people’s nature is not to share things, but to have secrets, to protect or keep stuff within the group, because you’re valuing the tribe. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, actually.
PT: It’s also kind of funny that someone in the comics community would level that complaint, because even mainstream narrative comics have a barrier of entry that is massive.
GS: You couldn’t get Spider-Man from reading one issue! You need to read like fifty.
It’s basically people getting pissed off at other people for doing what they pretty much do themselves…
BS: I mean, the irony is that I feel like I want to write a poetry comic like I would a poem: one that anybody could pick up and enjoy. I’d actually like it less if they knew what I was trying to do or something. It’s not a narrative, it’s not definable, it’s not a poem or a comic, I don’t know. It’s still something that you can look at and like and get something out of.
GS: Do you think random people do that?
BS: Totally. Random people enjoy them.
AR: I think if I’m trying to make one didactic point here, it’s just that poetry can absolutely be that. And things like hip hop demonstrate that.
GS: But that’s a totally specialized language.
AR: It is, but it also goes back to your example about Bollywood: it’s a specialized language where, if you want to drill down and go down those obscure alleyways of references, you can, but you can also just listen to it—
AR: But again, I’m not arguing against that at all. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying that that stuff exists as a layer of meaning in good art. It exists for people to explore. But my life, versus life for someone growing up in Compton in 1988, is wildly different—but I can listen to that stuff and appreciate it.
GS: But it’s the same reason you can read Bianca’s comics and not know about poetry and still like them. There’s a texture to the images and you can appreciate the lines and how it looks visually and blah blah blah. I think there are many entry points to any kind of artwork. For hip hop it’s obviously music, beat, rhythm, whatever, the tone of somebody’s voice….
AR: Good storytelling, whatever…
GS: Storytelling. And you don’t have to necessarily get the references. And I think that’s true in poetry comics. You can just look at this stuff and be—
PT: Everybody feels qualified to judge whether something is aesthetically pleasing. Everyone can say whether a drawing is good or successful in a way that they don’t necessarily feel confident in saying about a poem. So the visuals in poetry comics does take the place of music in any number of art forms.
AR: I think this shifts into a corollary question: Do you guys feel that you are engaged in teaching people how to read your work?
I mean that its structure is in some way about teaching people how to read it. I’m thinking of Chris Ware in particular, where you can look at a giant page of his and it might be pretty unclear how to read it, but it also kind of tells you how—and maybe there isn’t a set way in the first place. So do you guys think about that? Does it just not matter?
BS: I do try. It’s taken time to learn this, but I think part of it is looking at more strategies from comics, at least visually on the page: how to guide the reader through the path you want them to go down visually. Where you put images on the page will draw them in different directions. Where you put the words, too, in juxtaposition to that. Also deciding how many words you’re going to have on the page to slow them down or speed them up or create a certain tone. I feel like it’s one of those things that’s really purposeful and takes practice, but also has to have a certain amount of spontaneity in terms of how you do it.
PT: Even if I’m challenging the reader with the text, I’ll try to give them something more easily rewarding visually to hold them there longer, so that they’ll face that more challenging part. And sometimes I’ll make the text difficult to read, so that they’ll have to slow down as well, if they want to read it.
I do think that at least for what I’m trying to do, I use the pictures as the engine to move the reader through the work, and I don’t use the text in the same way.
GS: Bianca, do you start visually or do you start with words?
BS: I start with words. I always have this anxiety that I don’t want the words to slip behind anything. I want to do justice to the words all the time. I want the words to be first and foremost.
GS: So are you working with stuff you put in a notebook? Where is it coming from?
BS: Two things: either a completely finished, in my mind perfect poem, so I can do a beginning-to-end thing, like a chapbook.
Or a lot of times, I’ll use fragments of unfinished poems, which isn’t exactly notebook stuff, but might as well be. More single pieces, that have more leeway to be fragmented and abstract. I guess one’s more narrative than the other. Or maybe one’s a comic book and one’s a comic strip.
PT: My pictures tend to be more narrative in nature. And I’m much less narrative with text, pushing toward non-narrative. So it’s another reason that the foundation is the visual part.
AR: For me, the engine is composition on the level of the page—what Bianca was talking about with where words go, where space goes, and how the images all create movement across the page. In terms of how I come up with things, it starts with words, but I’m trying to compose in both words and images at the same time. And it’s always an iterative thing. I’ll have a snippet of something—a line or image—that comes into my head, and things just kind of glom onto it as I repeat it over and over again.
PT: Will you plan out a multipage piece before you start drawing?
AR: Oh yeah, absolutely.
PT: Bianca, do you do that?
BS: Oh, hell no.
GS: You just said you did with words.
BS: Yeah, I have my words, but sometime I’ll cut a line if it’s not going to work. And I don’t know what I’m going to draw at all.
AR: When you start at the top of a page drawing something, do you know what’s going to be at the bottom?
BS: No, I just kind of let myself go. I’ll usually look at books, and think about it, and do a little drawing, and look at it…
GS: For me, it’s accrual. You have a germ of something. So to give you a recent example, there are these [remixed] Thai comics I’m doing, where the idea was Black Magic—because you have Black Magic ink for comics, and then a lot of Thai comics are literally about black magic. So it’s basically accrual and association. You have this idea, a little weird thing that sparks your interest, and then you keep adding on and making it resonate outward, and then building everything based on that.
AR: That actually sounds very close to what I’m trying to describe.
GS: And that kind of also determines how long the comic is. How much resonance can you get out of this thing?
AR: I’ll also say that being an editor is a disturbing amount of who I am. We were talking earlier about the idea of “write drunk, edit sober”? I try to do some variation on that, where I have to get out of my own way. A lot of my ideas will come to me while I’m running, or when I’ve stayed up until 4:30 am. I collect things ideas, throw them all together into a sketchbook or Evernote, brainstorming as freely as possible, and then edit, edit, edit.
I’m figuring out what needs to carry what weight. So, if I’m saying something but I also think of an image that does the same work, maybe I take out the line and just use the image. When you pull as much stuff out as you can, what kind of skeleton with some weird, pulsing brain is left?
PT: Lately I’ve been doing a multipage thing, but every single page I have no idea what’s going to be on there, but try to find it on the page, as I’m going. That’s been really challenging, but I’m not sure it’s successful. But it is a thrill.
GS: Well, what determines success for you?
AR: I would actually like to hear everybody try to answer that question… Except me.
GS: Well, let’s start with you, then.
AR: As I hinted earlier, I have this strange, contentious relationship with ideas of difficulty and accessibility. I think for me, success happens when the parts of the poem have gotten past my attempts to control them, but at the same time seem to cohere in a way that isn’t totally perplexing.
I think a thing’s successful if I can look at it and feel that the occasion for writing it—a feeling, a line that popped into my head, a childhood memory—is still there, and hasn’t totally been buried or edited into a lacuna or something like that. But it’s also operating on its own crazy dream logic. It’s not didactic or essayistic.
PT: I feel like something’s successful if I was able to surprise myself while I was doing it. It evokes something new or refreshing or whatever it is. Hopefully something personal. It evokes something but I got there through some sort of surprise.
BS: I guess I know I’m successful when people look at it and really like it. And I’ve actually finished it. A lot of my feelings of failure come from not doing something. Just getting myself to just sit down and do something.
PT: So do you have a point when you know that it’s done?
GS: And is it similar to what you feel when you finish a poem, or is it different?
BS: It is different. With poems I may be harder on myself. I’m usually happy when I write something and there is something in it—like Paul was saying—that surprised me. Sometimes you think something is so great and the next day you realize, Oh, it’s crap. But sometimes you look at it the next day and you’re like, Damn, I really had moment where I did something that I wanted to.
It’s this nebulous, indefinable thing where creativity happens, in a very pure way where you get somewhere that you really wanted to be. I think that for drawing a comic, it’s really a challenge for me to do longer things. So maybe I feel successful when I finish drawings for the whole poem.
GS: For me it’s basically when I have the same feeling that I have with certain Japanese and French comics. Because I can’t read Japanese or French, it’s an entirely visceral experience. So when I have that feeling, it gives me something. There’s a lot of stuff that I have to do for a deadline or whatever which may not give me that feeling at all, then there are certain things that do, which I feel much more strongly about.
Then with respect to the language itself in the piece, it has to feel like if I read and then read it again later, something else is going on that I didn’t know before. Then you realize that there really are resonances going on.
Image 1: Excerpt from “Leprosy,” from Comics as Poetry, Paul K. Tunis, comicsaspoetry.com
Image 2 & 3: Comics anthology by Joe Brainard and various New York School poets, self-published, 1964
Image 4: Cover from Elsewhere Vol.1 No. 1, by Gary Sullivan
Image 5: Cover of Because You Love You Fall Apart by Bianca Stone, Factory Hollow Poetry Comics, Vol. 2 No.1, March 2013
Image 6: “Praise Poem,” by Alexander Rothman, published in Watching What You Say , 2012
Image 7: Page from Asthma by John Hankiewicz, Sparkplug 2006.
Image 8: “The New Life” by Gary Sullivan, Elsewhere Vol. 1 No.3
Image 9: Excerpt from “Flu,” Paul K. Tunis
Image 10: Excerpt from “The Thing in the Wall,” published on The Rumpus, June 25, 2013
Image 11: Excerpt from “Mothman,” from Mount Hope, Paul K. Tunis, mounthopemagazine.com
Image 12: Excerpt from Elsewhere Vol. 1 No.2 by Gary Sullivan
Image 13: Excerpt from Because You Love You Fall Apart by Bianca Stone, Factory Hollow Poetry Comics, Vol. 2 No.1, March 2013
Image 14: Excerpt from Elsewhere Vol.1 No. 1 by Gary Sullivan
Image 15: Excerpt from Because You Love You Fall Apart by Bianca Stone, Factory Hollow Poetry Comics, Vol. 2 No.1, March 2013
Image 16: Excerpt from “Spruce Tip Syrup,” Paul K. Tunis and Autumn Giles
Image 17: Excerpt from I Want to Open the Mouth God Gave You Beautiful Mutant by Bianca Stone, Factory Hollow Poetry Comics, Vol. 1. No.1, Feb. 2012
Image 18: Cover from Elsewhere Vol.1 No.2, by Gary Sullivan
Image 19: Excerpt from Elsewhere Vol.1 No. 1 by Gary Sullivan
Image 20: Excerpt from Evidence and Ink Thirsty, by Alexander Rothman, 2013
Image 21: Excerpt from “Mothman,” from Mount Hope, Paul K. Tunis, mounthopemagazine.com
Image 22: Excerpt from Elsewhere Vol.1 No. 1 by Gary Sullivan
Image 23: “Bell’s Bow Swung,” by Alexander Rothman, published in Watching What You Say, 2012
Image 24: Excerpt from The Thing in the Wall by Alexander Rothman,
Image 25: Back Cover of Because You Love You Fall Apart by Bianca Stone, Factory Hollow Poetry Comics, Vol. 2 No.1, March 2013
Image 26: “Omphaloskepsis #11,” from Moonshot Magazine, Paul K. Tunis, moonshotmagazine.org
Image 27: Excerpt from Because You Love You Fall Apart by Bianca Stone, Factory Hollow Poetry Comics, Vol. 2 No.1, March 2013
Image 28: Excerpt from “Leprosy,” from Comics as Poetry, Paul K. Tunis, comicsaspoetry.com
Image 29: Cover of Evidence and Ink Thirsty, by Alexander Rothman, 2013
Image 30: Excerpt from “30 Days of Comics project: Nov. 15, 2012 entry,” Moving Targets by Alexander Rothman, 2013
Image 31: Photo of (clockwise from back left) Gary Sullivan, Bianca Stone, Alexander Rothman and Paul Tunis, by Andrea Tsurumi, 2013
Image 32: Photo of Paul K. Tunis and Alexander Rothman, by Andrea Tsurumi, 2013
Alexander Rothman is a poet and cartoonist. His work has appeared in the Seneca Review, Moonshot Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and online at The The. He and the author Joshua Malbin cohost Comics for Grownups, a podcast available for free on iTunes. More work can be found at his website, Versequential. He lives in Queens, New York, with the illustrator Andrea Tsurumi.
Paul K. Tunis is a comics poet. His work has appeared here and there. He has had the pleasure of making comics with Matthea Harvey, Melissa Broder and others. Paul completed an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. He sneezes when he eats baby carrots. More at deathbyorphans.com and paulktunis.com.
Gary Sullivan‘s poetry and comics have been widely published and anthologized, most recently in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology and Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. A full-length collection of his comics is forthcoming later this year from Make Now Press. He writes about international music, immigrant culture and vanishing New York at bodegapop.com.
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.