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.