Monday, October 20, 2008

Graphic Poetry and Eleni Sikelianos

Lately, I've been curious about how illustrations and poetry might work together. One of my mentors, Molly Peacock, sparked this seed-idea a few months ago, and it's been growing slowly ever since. I read Marjane Satrapi's amazing graphic memoir, Persepolis, this summer, and it struck me how pictures can move a narrative so effectively while also conveying much emotional information. I've been wondering how that might work in the context of a less narrative form, like lyric poetry.

One of Eleni Sikelianos's poems gave a window into what a partnership between drawing and writing can produce. The following is from "Experiments with Minutes":

If we could shine a flashlight
through the edge of a minute
see the membrane's red
corpuscle, & surface
tension of a second at
the interior atmosphere of an hour
Move the flashlight out
on eternity-- possible? Not. (Duh.)

Below this stanza is a reproduction of what looks to be a postcard or a page from a notebook, which is a sort of graphic, but is still words. The handwriting itself becomes an illustration of a mental process. Sikelianos tries to visualize the invisible. She begins with the "if" that is usually the domain of fiction writers. Poets don't as often seem to speculate. I love that the minutes is conceived as membrane, human tissue (this poems is in fact from a larger collection, Body Clock). I also love the thinky aspect of the language and syntax. The speaker tries on a thought, then rejects it, almost as quickly.

Having already arrived at a dead end, the speaker turns to the non-verbal and begins to draw. What follows is a circle filled with tiny dots. Then, this:

In this conception a minute is round though not perfectly -- its lines disconnect in the drawing of it to meet up with the next / past minute. You might see the small freckles of scattered seconds at the interior (heart-meat) of the minute.

This is a big-meat minute true to its actual size but only took 34 seconds to draw.

What struck me as so original about this graphic poem is the function drawing plays in the poem. Rather than being an illustration of the narrative, the act of drawing creates experience upon which the poem itself is based. The artist/speaker is free to play with the image because it represents something intangible anyway. The language reflects this playfulness: "conception" (birth metaphors) and "heart-meat" (instead of heart beat) are two examples.

Several more very similar looking drawings follow, with reflections on their creations. I urge you read the rest of this poem. I found it in the anthology Not for Mothers Only. I'd also love to hear from you if you know of any other poets working in graphic forms.

P. S. I will try to post a picture of the poem later today so you can see the drawings, too.


H.L. Jones/Brainstorm!! said...

This is so excellent and interesting. Graphic poetry. It's so fascinating the way so much cross-genre is arising out of poetry--playwrights physicalizing it by making people speak and move it--dancers do it too--create movement particularly to accompany text. And though I've seen text incorporated in visual art, the idea of using the poem in the same way as the text of a graphic novel is new to me, and intriquing.

Jill Koren and Matthew Vetter said...

Yes, I know! I had never seen the drawing as part of the poem, both in process and product. I found it very exciting indeed. And it was only abstractly representational (if such a thing is possible). One of the things that I find intimidating about using pictures is that they will have to live up to some standard of resemblance. So I loved this. I'm going to post the picture soon.

Jill Koren and Matthew Vetter said...


There's a section featuring visual poetry in the November issue of Poetry. Artists include Miekal And, K.S. Ernst & Sheila E. Murphy, Derek Beaulieu, Philip Gallo, Scott Helmes, Michael Basinski, Jorg Piringer, Joel Lipman, Gustave Morin and others.


Jill Koren and Matthew Vetter said...

Sweet! Thanks, Matt. I will check that out.

niko okin said...

Eleni is just amazing. You should she her read these poems.