Versify #7 by Pamela Burger
A New Kind of Comic Verse
As is probably now clear, I am a great lover of the hybrid form. Prose poetry is perhaps my favorite hybrid genre, because it brings out the poetic elements so often missing from narrative prose but often feels more natural than verse. The new release from YesYes books, The Bones of Us is part of an interesting new development in hybrid poetry. Described as “graphic poetry,” with words by J. Bradley and art by Adam Scott Mazer, the collection looks like a comic book and reads like experimental poetry.
For those who have never heard of “graphic poetry,” the collection might also be described as “poetry comics,” a blending of hand-drawn art and lyrical text that is difficult in many ways to differentiate from abstract or avant-garde comics.
Whatever one calls it, the subgenre that combines the traditions of graphic literature/comics and poetry seems to be thriving. Late last year, Julian Peters received a bit of attention for his in-process adaptation of TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock“Peters has also adapted other French and English-language poetry into comic form, like Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” which appeared in the Graphic Canon series. Visual adaptations of classics (or recent-classics), like 2010’s Howl: A Graphic novel are becoming easier to locate.
Also of interest is a trend towards collaborations between artists and poets like those featured in Cordite Poetry Review‘s October, 2013 issue in which ten graphic novelists adapt contemporary poetry. One of the more intriguing projects featured there is Pat Grant’s visual adaptation of Fiona Wright’s “Vibrations.” Grant fed the lines into google image search and then drew what came up. He explains that he “was thinking about it as a durational, situated drawing performance.”
Many poetry comics come with these types of cryptic explanations of what the work should be. The basic premise of the form, however, is fairly simple: by juxtaposing two media, the reader/viewer has more sensory input to take in and more semiotic decoding to process, and therefore has a richer art-experience. Or, at least, a different experience. In the instances mentioned above, where an artist works off of a pre-existing poem, I often find myself giving the words priority; however, in the case of artists like Bianca Stone, who creates the words and art together, the experience proves quite different from other interactions with poetry because the visual and verbal elements receive equal weight. It feels less like illustration and more like graphic literature.
Although The Bones of Us was written first and then illustrated, my reading experience was closer to when I look at Stone’s work than Peters’s. The images are striking and often horrifying, but do not detract from the power of the words. Rather, they meet the intensity of the poems they accompany, and the entire work coheres not as a blending of two different things, but as a completely original form.
That is, a “graphic poem” or “poetry comic” often feels like an illustrated poem rather than a truly hybrid form. On the other hand, such a work might veer towards the other end of the spectrum poetic and come off as a very abstract comic that is “poetic” but not poetry per se. So it is remarkable that The Bones of Us does not seem to lean towards one genre or the other, but instead appears as the third term: the graphic poem.
Indeed it is always remarkable when collaborations give this feeling of coming together as a single work, and in the case of such a new form–new, at least, in comparison to, say, the haiku or sonnet–it is perhaps more noteworthy that the combination is so seamless. YesYes Books seems interested in producing all kinds of such collaborations, which makes them a publication house worth looking to in the future.
Pamela Burger has a very short attention span, which is why she loves poetry. Her poems have appeared in several small magazines you might never have read. She lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing and literature, and is an instructional technologist for the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.