A little experiment. Photo taken with my Iphone, altered with the iRetouch app, filtered with CameraBag.
A little experiment. Photo taken with my Iphone, altered with the iRetouch app, filtered with CameraBag.
The above snippet came from a Texas Monthly article on Texas songwriters I read on the plane this morning.
It reminded me of Ronald Johnson, in his introduction to radi os, a long poem made by erasing words from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “I composed the holes.” (Johnson was quoting a composer whose name I forget at the moment.)
Composing the holes. That’s what we do when we craft a piece of art, whether it’s drawing or making a blackout poem.
It’s often the holes in pieces of art that make them interesting. What isn’t shown vs. what is.
The same could be said of people. What makes them interesting isn’t just what they’ve experienced, but what they haven’t experienced.
Devoting yourself to something means shutting out other things.
When it comes to education, it’s not just the holes, but the order you fill them in. For instance, if you read the canon straight through, from Homer to McCarthy (or whoever), how original would the connections in your mind be? Better to start with one author you love, who speaks to you, and move in every direction, backwards, forwards, sideways…the juxtapositions you see and the connections you make in your brain will be more unique.
The same is true when you make art: you must embrace your limitations and keep moving.
Compose your holes.
(Written on my iPhone in the Houston airport.)
While re-reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s wonderful book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, I came across this passage on working crossword puzzles. I think he could just as well be talking about making blackout poems:
There is much to be said in favor of this popular pastime, which in its best form resembles the ancient riddle contests. It is inexpensive and portable, its challenges can be finely graduated so that both novices and experts can enjoy it, and its solution produces a sense of pleasing order that gives one a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. It provides opportunities to experience a mild state of flow to many people who are stranded in airport lounges, who travel on commuter trains, or who are simply whiling away Sunday mornings.
Csikszentmihalyi then goes on to talk explicitly about poetry and writing:
What’s important is to find at least a line, or a verse, that starts to sing. Sometimes even one word is enough to open a window on a new view of the world, to start the mind on an inner journey….
And the joys of being an amateur (why leave it to professionals?):
Not so long ago, it was acceptable to be an amateur poet….Nowadays if one does not make some money (however pitifully little) out of writing, it’s considered to be a waste of time. It is taken as downright shameful for a man past twenty to indulge in versification unless he receives a check to show for it.
UPDATE (6/30/08): Weird timing: a reader from Tacoma, Washington messaged me and said her local newspaper, The News Tribune, is running a blackout poems contest. (I’ve archived the full text in the comments.)
It seems to me that the language of poetry is very dependant on setting up images and juxtaposing them against each other. A poet will create an image in the first two lines of his poem and then he will create another in the next two lines, and so on. I do find this jumping from image to image in poetry to be a very interesting, comic-like element. Many poems are almost like word comics.—The cartoonist Seth on poetry and comics
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this recently, but in the beginning, I called my poems “Newspaper Blackout Comics.” The first batch I ever did explicitly juxtaposed image and text:
My old creative writing teacher used to tell me that a poet “thinks in images” and a fiction writer thinks in terms of “character and plot.” I’m not sure it’s that cut and dry, but I think it sheds a lot of light on why I find traditional prose fiction so incredibly hard, and poetry and comics so incredibly fun.
So hilarious, and so true. Be sure to visit his site for even more.
And speaking of mean comments, here’s a new phenomenon for me: mean-spirited spam.
As if it wasn’t hard enough for me to get up in the morning!
Leland Myrick’s MISSOURI BOY started out as a batch of poems that he put together and made into a graphic novel. He has a wonderful post about the process over at the First-Second blog:
…the poems that eventually became MISSOURI BOY were written over a span of almost ten years and were quite different in form, ranging from blank verse to haiku. When the idea finally gelled that I would take all these disparate poems and meld them into one coherent graphic novel, I began to think about the process of turning poetry into comics, and in thinking about the process, I began to feel my way toward the kind of book I wanted MISSOURI BOY to be when it was finished. What I did NOT want was a book of illustrated poems. What I wanted was a graphic novel that moved through time and in the end told one large story through a bunch of little moments strung together, the little moments fairly clear in themselves, but the larger story more indistinct as seen through the scattered lenses of the individual chapters.
One of the most important things that happened in the transformation from poem to comic was the loss of words. My editor, Mark Siegel used what became an important phrase for me in the early stages of the book when I was still struggling with keeping the language of the original poems intact—Let the words fall away. And so I did. In my head I saw the words falling away, floating leaves settling on the floor around my drawing table.
“I have felt, for some time, a connection between comics and poetry. It’s an obvious connection to anyone who has ever sat down and tried to write a comic strip. I think the idea first occurred to me way back in the late 80’s when I was studying Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips. It seemed so clear that his four-panel setup was just like reading a haiku; it had a specific rhythm to how he set up the panels and the dialogue. Three beats: doot doot doot— followed by an infinitesimal pause, and then the final beat: doot. Anyone can recognize this when reading a Peanuts strip. These strips have that sameness of rhythm that haikus have— the haikus mostly ending with a nature reference separated off in the final line.
As time passed I began to see this connection as more and more evident in how I went about writing my own work. Certainly, it is not a process that is very tightly worked out — but when I am writing a comics page (or sequence of pages) I am very aware of the sound and ‘feel’ of how the dialogue or narration is broken down for the panels. If you have to tell a certain amount of story in a page then you have to make decisions on how many panels you need to tell it. You need to arrange these panels — small, big or a combination of the two — and decide how to sit them on the page. All these decisions affect how the viewer reads the strip; there is an inherent rhythm created by how you set up the panels. Thin panel, thin panel, long panel: this rhythm is felt by the reader, especially when you put the words into the panels. When writing a comic strip I am very aware of how I am structuring the sentences: how many words; one sentence in this panel; two in this one; a silent panel; a single word. These choices are ultra-important in the creation of comics storytelling, and this unheard rhythm is the main concern for me
when I am working out a strip.
I imagine poets feel this same concern. If you read any free verse poetry you can see how the poet has made certain decisions for how to break the thoughts apart and structure them, often in a way that defies a system.
It seems to me that the language of poetry is very dependant on setting up images and juxtaposing them against each other. A poet will create an image in the first two lines of his poem and then he will create another in the next two lines, and so on. I do find this jumping from image to image in poetry to be a very interesting, comic-like element. Many poems are almost like word comics.
Comics are often referred to in reference to film and prose — neither seems that appropriate to me. The poetry connection is more appropriate because of both the condensing of words and the emphasis on rhythm. Film and prose use these methods as well, but not in such a condensed and controlled manner. Comic book artists have for a long time connected themselves to film, but in doing so, have reduced their art to being merely a ‘storyboard’ approach.
The underlying rhythm seems to have gone unheard for literally decades in the world of commercial comic books (a few noticeable exceptions: Kurtzman, Kirby, Stanley).
The ‘words & pictures’ that make up the comics language are often described as prose and illustration combined. A bad metaphor: poetry and graphic design seems more apt. Poetry for the rhythm and condensing; graphic design because cartooning is more about moving shapes around — designing — then it is about drawing. Obviously when creating a strip about a man walking down the street you are drawing pictures of the man and the environment…however, you are also trying to simplify these drawings down into a series of more iconic, graphic renderings. The more detailed the drawing — the more it attempts to capture ‘reality’ — the more it slows down the story telling and deadens the cartoon language. Don’t get me wrong; the cartooning can be very specific, it doesn’t have to be generic. It simply has to properly ‘cartoon’ the images. The drawings become symbols that are arranged on the page (and within the panels) in the most logical way to make the reading of the story work; you place these cartooned images together in a way that does what you want them to do. You aren’t concerned with drawing a proper street scene so much as you are concerned with moving the reader’s eye around the page in the way you wish it to move. Trying to draw realistically just sets up a myriad of frustrations for the proper use of cartoon language. Think of the cartoon language as a series of characters (letters) being purposefully arranged to make words.”
A lot of people are pointing to the excellent Ron Rege‘s recent adaptation of Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” over at PoetryFoundation.org.
What they’re not pointing to are Kenneth Patchen’s own “picture-poems,” many of which are painted and silk-screened in wild colors. Dig them:
(click to make it bigger…)
A poem of mine, “I saw a man on my way to work,” was selected for the second year of the Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s MOVING MINDS: VERSE AND VISION PROJECT. The piece will be displayed on over 700 trains and buses all around Cleveland for the next year.
The card’s design was by Kayne Toukonen, a student from the Glyphix Design Studio at Kent State’s School of Visual Communication Design.
Here’s the Official RTA Press Release, and announcement from the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland site (which, has scans of all the bus cards, including my favorite.)
Back in May, Meghan and I were invited to the RTA headquarters to celebrate the unveiling of the cards with a reception and poetry reading. They had a special bus parked out front, displaying all the cards. Here’s my ugly mug in front of the piece:
And hamming it up for the photographer:
And a great pic of Meg with the bus driver, who was cool enough to chat with us about the bus’s soundsystem, and let Meghan pull the horn:
All in all, it was a fun project. 200,000 people ride the RTA every day, and I love the idea that random people from all over the city will see the work. It’s like legitimized graffiti.
They altered the poem slightly for the card, so here’s the original (and an embarrassing video of me reading it):
I saw a man on my way to work
standing in the middle of his yard
hands in his pockets
watching clouds and traffic
He caught me looking at him,
and gave me the eye
as if to say,
“Son, what do you do that’s so important?”
These are caricatures I did last night during a poetry reading. Poetry folks are a different clan. More about that later…
Meg always saves me the Science Times section. I’m obsessed with it. It’s the only part of the newspaper I read regularly.
Today I read about a tribe in Columbia that walked out of the jungle after thousands of years, and declared it wanted to be part of civilization. They asked “whether the planes that fly overhead are moving on some sort of invisible road.” A thousand miles away, a boy is slowly turning into bone. Other people with his disease twist into living statues. He has a mother who protects him, but not all creatures are so lucky.
To my imagination, this stuff is golden. Magic. What is it about reading science that has this effect on me? That makes life seem so spectacular and mysterious?
All other news pales in comparison: the remix page for MLITBOG is finally up, there’s a nice long post about the novel Kurt Vonnegut didn’t write, and George Saunders recalls leaving Ayn Rand for Sam Beckett.
“I learned so much using words and pictures and captions from some of the most concrete poets, because poetry is all about economy, and it’s about reducing things down, and you’re seeing how much freight you can actually give words. Plus, the great thing about comics which I miss when I’m writing prose, is knowing that I can pretty much guarantee that everybody will read every word. I can pace everything, every caption, every line of dialogue.”—Neil Gaiman on Studio 360
Kenneth Koch was a poet who loved comics. Backwards City Review just reprinted some of his comics in their second issue. I tried desperately to find Koch’s posthumous collection, Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly Without Pictures, in a Cleveland Public Library, and turned up nothing. Then, lo and behold, Google Print has the introduction and a few pages online.
In the introduction, David Lehman writes about Koch,
“letting comics into his literary imagination followed not only from his love of the humorous, the whimsical, and the witty, but from an aesthetic point of view that could be charactreized as defieantly antiacademic.”
Koch saw no reason why Popeye shouldn’t enter the same conversation as T.S. Eliot. In one of Koch’s courses on imaginative writing at Columbia, the assignment was to go out, buy a comic strip, and without reading it, paste white paper over the balloons, and write your own dialogue.
“In 1992, Kenneth decided that not only could he borrow subject matter or adapt a narrative technique from comics but it might be possible to write poetry in a new form based on them.”