It’s just what Stein was talking about: letting images (just as words) go where they want. It’s about allowing imagination into your process.
Bianca Stone is the author of several poetry chapbooks, including I Want To Open The Mouth God Gave You Beautiful Mutant (Factory Hollow Press) and I Saw The Devil With HIs Needlework (Argos Books). She is also illustrator of Antigonick, a collaboration with Anne Carson (New Directions). Her poems have appeared in such magazines as Best American Poetry 2011, Conduit, and Tin House. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
The following interview is about Stone’s collaboration with Anne Carson on Antigonick (an illustrated translation of Sophocles’ Antigone). If you haven’t read Antigonick, you can learn more about it in our review.
Welcome to The California Journal of Poetics, Bianca! I’m happy to be talking with you. It’s exciting to see compelling art and poetry intertwined in the same book. In fact, having seen the collaboration executed so well in Antigonick, I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. Having worked through this collaboration (and being a poet as well as an artist yourself), do you have thoughts on why poets–even those like Carson with the stature to find a publisher for an unconventional hybrid book like Antigonick–rarely collaborate with artists?
Thanks for having me! I’m really happy to be talking with you, too. I think you raised a great, fundamental point. On one hand, yes, poets are disinclined to collaborate with artists, and I think that’s because there’s something sacred about poetry and “words alone”. . . we don’t want to diminish the text, or “explain” it with images (which does happen in some cases). But there is a long tradition of poets collaborating with artists, or poet-artists such as William Blake, Dante, etc. The New York School poets like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, collaborated constantly with artists like Joe Brainard, Willem de Kooning, Jane Freilicher (to name one woman in the sea of men). It was exciting to get more involved with learning about the New York School when I was studying at NYU’s MFA program in Poetry. I was starving for more collaborative influences at the time; more artists. Matthew Rohrer (one of my professors there and a great poet) was really encouraging about my poetry comics. We did a whole independent study on poetry and comic together! And this was also when I was reading all of Anne Carson’s work and taking her class on collaboration.
It was then that I got a chance to bring my art and poetry together and experiment with my classmates. It was really hard for people to accept at first, I mean doing COLLABORATION. They just didn’t think it would work—didn’t see at all how one could not just write a poem alone in a room on a computer. That you could do art, video, acting, whatever, with other people and somehow cloak it in poetics, was totally hard to swallow. And who can really blame them? I think we all work so hard in our categories. And fundamentally poetry is of course at its best alone, without images. But we forget there’s so much to touch and do and learn from. Practicing other art forms, getting out of the preciousness of academia and Poetry, can actually really enhance one’s writing; open up our minds. I don’t know. It’s just liberating. And also I think we’re talking about creating a whole new genre; not just mere illustration, or comic-book making, but a whole new beast. So I think it’s really exciting that it’s not being done much, and that I don’t always know how to define it.
But I want to expand on this idea…last night I was reading this amazing interview with Chris Ware in Poets & Writers (and missed my subway stop I was so engrossed in it!). Ware said something that really resonated with me: “I don’t script anything, because then all I’d be doing is illustrating my words, which to me isn’t cartooning. Cartooning is a mysterious process that involves writing with pictures and seeing what recollections they dredge up and superimpose as one reads what one has drawn….” THANK YOU MR. WARE FOR ARTICULATING THIS SO BEAUTIFULLY! I realized that what I was stressing constantly in my poetry comics was similar. I felt humbled that I didn’t emphasize that cartoonists already use this in their work—without it being a “poetry comic.” But I want very much to say that Ware’s work is so similar to poetry. It takes leaps. It honors the strange complexities of the human mind, how it takes in information, how it interacts with the outside world. He conveys a narrative through lyrical images. What I’m saying is, this idea of the mysterious power of the image and the narrative—not explaining the literal text, but letting the reader create with the writer, imaginatively, this is a method already inherent to cartoonists such a Ware. And I really, really appreciate knowing he’s out there. With all his spontaneous, wild genius.
Interesting. I’m suddenly wishing Gertrude Stein had gotten her hands on a copy of Antigonick, fallen in love with it, and proceeded to initiate a series of projects with Picasso, Matisse, and her other amazing friends. Were there artist/writer collaborations of the past—any of those that you mentioned, or others—that had a particular influence on your work for Antigonick? And, regardless, what was your process as you worked on the project? I’m wondering about the give and take between artist, poet, and designer. Did Carson simply say, “here’s the text . . . produce art!” or did she request or suggest certain images to accompany passages of text and then leave you free to follow your muse at other times? Did she see drafts of the artwork and say things like, “I think we need some red thread here . . .” or “that horse doesn’t look upset enough, Bianca . . .”?
[P]eople have a hard time understanding what the hell I’m doing…. It takes a lot to surrender yourself to something hybrid.
OH! to collaborate with Stein! Bliss. I like to think of her reading Antigonick. I think she’d have invited me over for a glass of wine after reading it. You know, it’s really funny you bring this up, because when I was doing the drawings for Antigonick I had just bought this Picasso book, and it was really inspiring me. His horses especially; mine absolutely came from him. Anne Carson and Robert Currie really let me make my own translation through images. They let me go where I wanted to go, while also giving me suggestions and ideas for images (such as Icelandic landscapes). I tried to find books when I was working on Antigonick that might help me figure out how to combine the text and images (that was a big difficulty in the beginning). I looked at New York School collaborations and Avant Garde pieces, various comic books (my favorite was Moore’s Swamp Thing), but nothing seemed exactly right. Ultimately, I knew I couldn’t really do this without doing it my own way. But that said, I’ve always loved the combination of text in image in Edward Gory, Maira Kalman, Ralph Steadman, and Matteah Harvey’s collaborations, for example. Honestly, Anne’s drawings that she showed me were a huge influence. She had beautiful little line drawings of various things, some of which I adapted to my own. When I felt stuck and frustrated I would go back to them again and again. It really helped to think about her, to read her books and look at NOX. I had to not overwhelm myself with “I should be doing this” and allow myself to create naturally.
When my review of Antigonick was being edited before publication, one of the editors pointed out a glaring weakness that I was unable to correct: I didn’t have the knowledge to address Robert Currie’s very important work on the book, aside from mentioning that he was the designer. At what point in the process did he share his ideas for the design? Did they have an impact on the production of art and text, or did the design follow the content?
I tried illustrating the text line by line, but Anne and Currie wanted me to move away from the literal. It’s important in collaborations to establish some parameters, and Anne and I were having a hard time figuring out how to bring it all together. Currie was so important to the collaboration. He’s brilliant at assembling ideas and forming a concept. At one point he said, “OK, something needs to be established so we get this going.” He came up with the idea of vellum paper to overlay the text, so I wouldn’t have to write out the translation into the work (which wasn’t working with the amount of text there was), and to hand-write the text. From there Anne and I could really begin. They also decided that I wouldn’t see the hand-written text until I was done. The only suggestions they had with the drawings was to a) move away from the human figure and b) to use these pictures they gave me of Iceland. I had never really done work with landscape, so it was haunting me. When I finally did them I was very happy with how they turned out. I wanted to bring the emotions of the characters and story into the landscapes somehow, and with the other figures and interiors in the book.
I didn’t exactly follow the suggestion of not looking at the text either: I would take a page and do a drawing for it. To me the drawing was utterly linked to the text, as if it was another element of translation. Anne and Currie made some suggestions to the final pieces, and (to answer your question) I made changes to them. Some big changes included only using a portion of the painting or drawing—like the bottom-half of the horse, or a corner of a room. Robert Currie worked with the designer on the layout and cover, I didn’t get to be part of any of that.
In an interview with Irish radio station RTE, Carson discussed her appreciation for Stein, saying that Stein was a writer who understood that words have an impulse of their own and was willing to let words “do, be, go where they want to.” It seems like, based on what you just said, her approach to this project and the collaboration with you was similar. But I’m curious about the artwork that seems unrelated to Sophocles’ Antigone, as well as Carson’s translation. One piece, for example, includes a figure in a Star Trek uniform. Can you talk a little about your greatest leaps in inspiration—the ones that took you the furthest from the text of Antigonick into your own creative space? Clearly you let the images go where they wanted to. The surprising results are likely to make most readers smile in curiosity and wonder: why did the images want to go **there**?
It’s interesting because I didn’t feel that that one in particular made the farthest leap from Antigonick. For me, looking back, something more like the lone armchair ink drawing, seemed a better example of an image that hung outside the text. The line of figures you refer to was completely linked to the text; the feeling of being watched, or of the chorus overseeing everything. I think having a Star Trek insignia makes it slightly absurd. And it is! But it’s not without purpose. It’s just what Stein was talking about: letting images (just as words) go where they want. It’s about allowing imagination into your process. Letting imagination cross the border of what you want to convey to the reader—what is perhaps appropriate or literal—and the unknown, the enigmatic. That is what I am most interested in. I didn’t want to control the sacredness of the text within it’s own time, but rather interact with it tonally (if not emotionally) and imaginatively. In allowing flourishes of the contemporary to come, such as Star Trek, football players, etc., the story of Antigone is visually able to cross generations, supersede time, interact with the present and the past simultaneously. Which is what Anne Carson does so incredibly well in her work. I encourage readers to smile in curiosity! But also to surrender themselves to The Not Knowing. There’s a power in not asking what something means, the irony being that the question becomes relevant only once you stop asking it. And also perhaps, in some ways, answered.
Do you often find yourself producing artwork that is related to what you’ve been writing, or poetry that is related to what’s happening in your visual art at the time? Do you find yourself working on projects that you feel need both text and image, but then worry that they’re not going to be able to find a home in print?
My artwork and writing come from the same imaginative place, and so are concerned with many of the same things. However, the impulse to express those themes or concerns can, it’s true, come forth more easily in one medium opposed to the other. I like to believe that in doing so, it can allow the other medium access. More literally, I occasionally have directly addressed the subjects of my artwork (horses leaping over a wave, etc.) in my poetry. But I think it’s more an issue of tone than anything else.
Tone is such an amazing concept to think about. There’s something elusive and yet so specific about it. The momentum and feeling of a poem must be taken into account when creating a drawing based on it–which is why I think I much prefer drawing to my own poetry, because I have the same tonal sensitivity to my own work.
The place I’m at right now in my life in terms of “projects that [ I ] feel need both text and image” is one where I don’t want to write poems that need artwork. I now prefer to use poems that are very “done” and stand on their own. However, I love spontaneity. It’s what drives my work. And the good fragments of failed poems can be used in artwork. In that sense, absolutely, there are instances of dependency.
Practically speaking, the issue of print is MASSIVE. Color and format are the biggest challenge. I’m not a fan of letting strict form (in my poetry comics, and in my poems) control my work. But its something I have to deal with in my artwork, so I’m learning to adapt to more structured, linear forms on the page. Many people don’t have the time, money, or space to print the artwork, which is sad. The other side of the answer is that people have a hard time understanding what the hell I’m doing. They ask me for a poetry comic, but having just seen Antigonick, they don’t really “get” what I end up sending them. And I don’t blame anyone for that. It takes a lot to surrender yourself to something hybrid.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us! Just one last thing, for readers who might be interested in exploring this hybrid genre further: are there other contemporary writers/artists who have published (whether online or in print) work that you admire that mixes text and image?
A few people that I’ve met recently are Gary Sullivan, Paul Tunis, Sommer Browning, and Alexander Rothman. We found each other via poetry and/or online. It’s been wonderful to get to know them and their work. They’ve been putting so much into the art form and brought so many new things to my attention. Also Tamryn Bennett (from all the way across the world in Australia!) has done astounding work and research on poetry and comics. Poet Matthea Harvey is constantly working with poetry and image, collaboratively and otherwise. Ben Pease has been experimenting with poetry and video, as well as images (and I’m just obsessed with them), and Mark Leidner and Ryan MacDonald do amazing video poems as well. The poet, fiction writer, and artist, Rachel B. Glaser, is also a great example of someone who supersedes a lot of taboos, showing us how we can work in many art forms, and do it well. There are lot of people out there doing different versions of hybrid poetry. What I find most exhilarating is how vastly diverse we all are. I think it’s an incredible time for contemporary poetry, and I’m so lucky to have so many brilliant friends and colleagues.
The featured image for this interview (“what does it mean?”) is artwork by Bianca Stone. It was created for the series CHAT at Flying Object (over the course of 31 days, 31 poems by Chris Martin appeared along with illustrations by a variety of artists, including Stone).
More Bianca Stone:
Visit Stone’s web site, Poetry / Comics.
Purchase Antigonick from New Directions.
Read another interview with Stone in The Comics Journal.