I changed my title of this online space from "Working On Something - Blog" to "Working On Gallery".
Since September 2020, I have been collecting craft essays from poets who also work with visual elements. Some of them were editors who shared their processes of their visual submissions. Others were poets whose pieces were adapted by visual artists.
I realize that this site is becoming a phenomenal gallery, where current leading poets speak their thoughts of their visual compositions along with their art. This is so unique because this is different from journal & magazine publishing. This is more personal and something fantastic is starting.
For example, Octavio Quintanilla showed his current working collection, "The FRONTEXTO", along with his process poem. He said,
"[E]ssay transformed itself in each revision. Just kept changing because, in the end, I didn't want to write a "traditional" sort of essay. So, I started taking notes as if I were creating a frontexto, and indeed, three frontextos came out of that process."
I really loved how Quintanilla approached and used the space. And I am thankful to have a better vision of what I want Working On Gallery to be.
In addition, Frances Cannon is one of the more active poets/artists working today. She constantly publishes varieties of visual writing works - graphic reviews, illustrations, books... So, I was curious as to how she manages her inspirations, workloads, and new projects. What is the blueprint of her brain? She created two new pieces for this gallery. Simply amazing.
Meg Reynolds contacted me after the Indianapolis Review was released. We were both in their visual poetry issue. I did not know her, but was familiar with her black and white drawings - simple yet energetic - and I was so excited to actually know her in person.
When we started talking about this craft essay, she in the last days of her pregnancy. She was like, "My due day is tomorrow!" and I said, "Why are you thinking of my request?!" I admire her creative professional mindset. It is not easy to concentrate on taking care of both yourself and your family, especially a newborn baby.
It is her ongoing project - process essay about motherhood and Poetry/Essay & Drawing - and I am so honored that she shared her first weeks of the project. I am also excited to witness how she develops her pencil touches & styles though her motherhood days & years. Here is a peaceful, beautiful, and powerful composition by Reynolds.
Motherhood in Poetry Comics
By Meg Reynolds
Throughout my pregnancy, my center of gravity warped, changing the way I moved. Now I carry my daughter’s growing body around our small apartment, our shared weight continually redistributing. She takes up space that expands to include her. I live in typical bewilderment - when did my infant grow out of her first onesie? In one of the endless late-night hours when she refuses to fall back to sleep? Or last week, which went so fast that I’m certain only contained three days? The warping of time is even more pronounced.
Last time my life changed this significantly, I wrote a single panel of visual poetry each day for a year. The resulting collection allowed me to witness the arc of my life, how I changed through grief and art-making. Now I return to visual poetry because it is a medium well suited for times like this. It resists categorization and commits to unanswerable questions when I don’t have an answer to even simple questions like what time it is. What makes poetry comics? What am I doing? I’m not sure I know.
Mothering often moves with a rigid linearity. To record this, I need the skeletal support of syntax. When I rise out of bed to feed her at night, it is a repetition of the same steps - warm the bottle, check the milk, nose the nipple into her mouth, doomscroll Instagram to stay awake. This is the consistency by which she lives and learns to live. I need words for this, but words in poetry, loosened and associative enough to accommodate how massive those moments feel, my daughter, hungry each night.
Other times I am more flooded. The hour goes nonlinear, and I need images. There are faces she makes, a turning down of her mouth that seems built to describe every sadness I’ve ever felt. When I hold her, it is hard not to feel that I am gathering up all my old exiled or unloved selves and kissing their lonely faces. She is her own person with her own feelings, but she is sometimes also a prism for mine. That is what images are for, compressing time until it rings through the marks. The image witnesses what can’t be suspended over the scaffolding of beginning, middle, and end.
Visual poetry makes a record of time moving in many directions because it too moves in many directions. It leads the pen and the eye both along the line of sentences and into the spiraling, layered time of the image. With the power of text and image, I work around and through motherhood. Each day I write at least one page in my journal and complete a 10 minute drawing. I draw from these pieces to make new poems and comics. As the boundaries between writing and drawing bend and change, so too do the boundaries between her and me, and I want to record it all.
Meg Reynolds is a poet, artist, and teacher in Burlington, VT. Her work has appeared The Missing Slate, Mid-American Review, Fugue, Sixth Finch, The Offing, Hobart, and the anthology Monster Verse: Poems Human and Inhuman as well as The Book of Donuts and With You: Withdrawn Poems of the #Metoo Movement. Her comic poetry collection, A Comic Year, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in October 2021.
Often people & students asked me how the graphic poet adapts the true meanings of an original poem and what the original poet thinks about the adaptation.
My answers were:
I wanted to explore this question. Especially with RHINO Poetry launching a new submission #RHINOArt2Art to celebrate the brilliant poets who have graced Rhino with their work over the years. We invite the artistically inclined among our readers to create art for poems in Rhino’s online archive.
I wanted to ask for poets whose works were adapted into visual formats. Coincidently, I received an email from Gretchen Primack, whose poem was recently adapted by a British video artist in December, 2020. And I also had a graphic review of her most recent poetry collection.
Primack's collection, Visiting Days, is about a men's maximum-security prison. In Albany Poets, Rebecca Schumejda reviewed her book:
[Primack] speaks for those who do not have a voice, for those who are locked away and forgotten about or locked away and mistreated...Another idea that she discusses involves how inmates survive in often inhuman and degrading conditions, which is perfectly illustrated in “Hakeem (The Box),” where the use of repetition, internal rhyme and spacing recreate the absolute torture of being in isolation.
So, I asked Primack, "What are your thoughts on your poems in a visual format?"
By Gretchen Primack
To be read, really read. Not to win awards, or have my books buried on lonely shelves, but to have poems absorbed. That’s my wish. And there is no form of absorption like someone turning someone else’s poems into a new piece of art.
I got to find this out in the most delicious way not once but twice since Visiting Days, my third book of poems, came out in 2019. The book is “set” in an imaginary maximum-security men’s state prison like the ones where I’ve been teaching for many years, and each poem is in the voice of an imaginary person incarcerated or visiting there. Naoko Fujimoto created a visual review of the book. Then the artist Helen Barker created a video complement to one of its poems.
I think the only visual reviews I’d seen before Naoko’s were the work of graphic novelists in the New York Times book review. They are compelling, but I found Naoko’s work about Visiting Days even more intimate, expressive, and far-reaching. Naoko’s review combined three elements: The poems, the commentary on them, and the art supplementing that commentary. Those elements shaken up together become magic—far more than the sum of its parts. Naoko integrated quotes from the poems into her collaged colors and shapes, enhancing them; she heightened her observations about the work with texture and shades. I encourage any lit-loving visual artist to give this a go.
Helen Barker’s work is part of Agitate Art, a curated portfolio of activist art that she and Philip McCulloch Downs created in order to showcase consciousness-raising work, often around animal rights. In fact, Helen found my work through that avenue; another of my books, Kind, advocates for non-human animals as part of an ethical, intersectional and environmental consciousness. (Two of the poems in Visiting Days also deal with these ideas, in the context of incarceration.)
Helen chose a poem about art—specifically, an incarcerated man detailing the joy and release he feels when drawing with colored pencils. The idea of someone finding freedom and self-affirmation in art even within the walls of a max prison was one Helen was eager to translate into visual form. She did so by animating the poem, with different-colored figures appearing on “paper” as my recorded voice recites the poem, the words scrolling next to the forming and disappearing images.
It’s remarkable how apt the animations are, as if Helen reached inside not only my brain but the brain of the man I’d imagined, and created just what he and I saw. And I’m amazed at how much seeing the sketches form contributes to the experience of the poem. Once again, there are three elements: in this case, the animation, the written lines of the poem, and the voiceover. And once again, the sum is far greater than its parts.
Absorption? Oh yes—Naoko and Helen absorbed the hell out of these poems. There’s a downside to it: they’ve spoiled me. If a piece of writing hasn’t been triple translated by an artist, has it been read?
Gretchen Primack is the author of Visiting Days (Willow Books Editors Select Series 2019), set in a maximum-security men’s prison, as well as Kind (Post-Traumatic Press), which will be republished by Lantern Books in March 2021. She is also the author of Doris’ Red Spaces (Mayapple Press) and co-wrote, with Jenny Brown, the memoir The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (Penguin Avery). Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, FIELD, Cortland Review, Ploughshares, Poet Lore, and other journals. Primack has administrated and taught with college programs and poetry workshops in prison for many years, and she moonlights at The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, NY.
In 2019, I curated the first RHINO *Graphic* Review. The issue was unique because each reviewer explored a book of their choice and expressed their comments in both words and images.
The result was phenomenal! The NewPages, many editors, and publishers commented on the issue; in addition, the second issue was launched in 2021 along with many visual projects at RHINO Poetry.
Then wonderful things happened. Because of the awareness, I started receiving information about poets who work with visual / graphic elements. They are all fantastic and super interesting. Therefore, I approached them about writing craft essays in 2020, which was the start of my blog, "WORKING ON".
I started hearing about Frances Cannon from many sources in late 2019. Her graphic reviews were published in the Green Mountains Review, with her newest review being featured the Iowa Review. These led me to her book, Walter Benjamin Reimagined A Graphic Translation of Poetry, Prose, Aphorisms, and Dreams from MIT Press. The editor at North American Review also personally emailed me to check out her work!
Now, I am so thrilled to learn her poetic style and hope to work with her in future projects. It is so exciting to share Cannon's creative brain blueprint.
By Frances Cannon
It is to my detriment as well as my benefit that I have an insatiable hunger to create. My cup of creativity runneth over and is creating a mess. I have too many projects, too many ideas, too many journals, notebooks, sketches, paintings, poems, scribbles, manuscripts-in-progress, too many irons in the fire; I hope that this isn’t misread as boasting, rather—my overactive production limits my capacity for task-completion, as well as career focus.
I will elaborate: due to my interests in art, writing, and teaching, I spread my energy equally into these fields, rather than diving headlong into one and achieving ‘greatness,’ by my own definition.
Perhaps it is the double capricorn in me (sun and rising), or the fact that both of my parents have PhD degrees and my grandparents were tenured and beloved professors, but for whatever reason, I’m an ambitious animal. My goals are becoming increasingly difficult in our current economy: to publish a whole shelf of books and secure a tenure-track full professorship at some prestigious university; good luck, and get in line!
Instead, I am juggling three part-time teaching jobs, and haven’t had time to complete any major personal undertaking in a few years. Perhaps my scatterbrained approach makes me a less-than-ideal candidate for any straightforward position: I’m not an expert in American literature, nor an expert in copper engraving, nor in culinary arts—I dabble in each of these crafts, and many more half-developed skills. My mediums blur together. Whenever I sit down to write another book, I can’t help myself, I sneak in an illustration, then two, then three, until my prose manuscript becomes a graphic hybrid, and then I don’t know how to categorize it, and neither do the publishers.
There is a similar pattern in my teaching habits—in all of the teaching jobs that I currently hold as well as all of the previous teaching jobs—I start off in one clear discipline, and over time, I drift into an in-between zone of genres—a ‘medium medium’ so to speak, as in, a mode in the middle. For example: when I taught in the English department at the University of Iowa, I began by teaching introductory writing and literature courses, then queer literature, then graphic literature, and I began adding comics and drawing workshops on the weekend, until I drifted all the way out of the English department. In other words, I moved on.
Similarly, while pursuing my master’s degree in Iowa, I pitched a graphic novel thesis project, and met much resistance and confusion. The powers that be didn’t know how I would fit my unwieldy hybrid genre manuscript through the narrow slot of accepted forms. My round peg didn’t fit into the square hole of academic expectations. I doubled my thesis committee to include a bookmaker and artist, but in the end, my primary advisor, a nonfiction writer, suggested that I leave the drawings out and submit the prose alone. I didn’t want to abandon my drawings, so I split my thesis in half and wrote two books at once: my prose thesis, as well as a graphic novel. In an ironic twist of fate, the graphic novel got published, and the prose manuscript sits in a file on my desktop, untouched.
All of this is to say, my hunger to create, and my interdisciplinary, hybrid inclinations often produce more obstacles than successes. I am lost in a labyrinth of my own design. On the bright side: I am never bored; I am always bursting with ideas; and I have published a small stack of books, as well as many articles, essays, and art. And, I have three jobs, which is tiresome, but better than the alternative: unemployment.
I am grateful, and I would never want to dampen or reign in my over productive imagination, to set aside one of my three vocations (art, writing, or teaching) in order to ‘focus’ on one. So, I try to keep up with all three: a triathlon of creative disciplines.
Here is a dizzying map of my brain, enter at your own risk.
FRANCES CANNON is a writer, professor, and artist currently living in Vermont, where she teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Champlain College, and the Vermont Commons School. She has an MFA in creative writing from Iowa and a BA from the University of Vermont. She is the author and illustrator of several books: Walter Benjamin: Reimagined, MIT Press, The Highs and Lows of Shapeshift Ma and Big-Little Frank, Gold Wake Press, Tropicalia, Vagabond Press, Predator/Play, Ethel Press, and Uranian Fruit, Honeybee Press.