A Bianca Stone interview

Bianca Stone isn’t a name familiar to most comics readers; in fact she’s better known to poetry aficionados. The author of multiple chapbooks of poetry, this year Stone released I Want To Open The Mouth God Gave You Beautiful Mutant, a collection of poetry comics that Stone wrote and illustrated. While she occasionally adapts short poems from other writers, she mostly illustrates her own work. This year she also worked with the great translator Anne Carson and the designer Robert Currie on the book Antigonick which was released this summer. A translation of the play by Sophocles, it’s  one of the best designed books of the year with hand-written text and translucent vellum pages contributing to a unique reading experience. I reached out to Stone to talk about poetry, art, the interplay between text and image and working with Anne Carson. This interview was conducted over e-mail in June and July, 2012.

TCJ: What are Poetry comics?

Bianca Stone: Sequential art that uses poetry as the text. But there are so many variations. Some examples are very abstract, some more traditional and more obvious than comic strips/graphic novels, with text that is clearly poetry (sometimes well-known published poetry). I use that term because it fits the best with what I’m doing. An artist named Dave Morice has been doing them for a long time, and actually published a book “Poetry Comics.” I was excited to find that, but it’s a much different thing than I was doing. I like how everyone who does it is very different. I use the term Poetry Comics for a much broader sense. I’m very interested in pushing against the limits of what a comic can be. There are so many aspects of the comic book, and the comic strip, that offers itself so readily to poetry. Things like panels, gutters, lettering; the conscious choices made regarding empty space on the page vs. the text; timing, line breaks, condensed language, etc. There’s so much to play with.

In my work I prefer to have the images move away from literal illustration of what the text is saying. I want to use the image as another element of form in poetry—to have the image offer more space for the reader to interpret and create meaning on their own. I almost exclusively make poetry comics of my own writing for this very reason.

TCJ: Talk a little about where this idea first came from and how they’ve evolved over the time you’ve been composing them?

Bianca Stone: My family are all writers and artists, so for as far back as I can remember I’ve written poetry, and also been confident in my art. However, I never particularly put the two together and called it something. I was always plagued by the idea of having to choose one or the other in my career path, and poetry was what I “chose” as the focus of my studies and profession. I wanted to keep up with my art, and when I was in graduate school at NYU’s MFA program in poetry (class of 2009), I had some professors that really pushed me in the right direction in this regard. Anne Carson’s class on collaboration was one of the first opportunities to use poetry comics as a legitimate element of my studies.  It was natural to combine them in a class on “collaboration” where we were supposed to each get together in groups each week and come up with ways to collaborate. The poet Matthew Rohrer was really the person who encouraged me with Poetry Comics. He introduced me to a lot of great things and we did a whole independent study in it together. Another person is Matthea Harvey, who is a big advocate of poetry comics, and really inspired me. Although she didn’t teach at NYU, she was in and out all the time and sent me a package of some of the materials she used in her Poetry Comics class. Over the years I’ve developed, of course. I’ve started using almost exclusively watercolor paper and a calligraphy pen and ink; I’ve been using more color, and experimenting with paint. Now I always have a bunch of whiteout on hand now, since I only use ink, and that’s become a whole new element to my medium. Some big influences in my Poetry Comics come from Peanuts, Edward Gorey, Maira Kalman, Joe Brainard, Swamp Thing, Batman comics, Ralph Steadman, Scott McCloud’s books on comics, Marlene Dumas, Henry Darger, to name a few...

TCJ:  That was an interesting list of influences you rattled off. I could have guessed Steadman and Kalman. I would have guessed Gorey just because of your sense of humor, but what was it about Swamp Thing?

Bianca Stone: Swamp Thing is obviously a far cry from my work. But still, I felt it creeping into my mind when I worked. I alluded to it in a few poems too. It’s important to allow influences into our work, even if they seem completely different. For whatever reason they resonate with us artistically, and push us in new directions.

TCJ:  Do you read many comics nowadays?

Bianca Stone:  Yes, of course. I’m always trying to find new things. I just finished “LINT,” from the ACME Novelty Library, which I liked a lot. I bought Alison Bechdel’s new memoir about her mother, and have been reading the Sandman series, although I’m kind of in the middle about Gaiman. I endlessly read Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes. I just finished Ben Katchor’s strange, grey, text-heavy The Cardboard Valise. His work is so interesting. I downloaded this Comixology app, and although it’s strange reading comics in this way, I’ve been enjoying the Crisis on Infinite Earths and Batman. When I talk to some of my friends who are real comic book buffs, I’m clearly low on the knowledgeable scale, but that’s always how it goes. I like to read lots of different kinds of things, and I’m still learning. I love it when people recommend things to me. It’s always fun going into the comic book store and asking the workers there. People have strong feelings about what they like and what’s worth getting into, and it’s great to hear them talk about it.

TCJ:  The Poetry Foundation actually had an exhibition, “Verse, Stripped” in Chicago recently. What did the exhibition consist of and what was the experience like?

Bianca Stone:  I was thrilled to be a part of that. There are some real poetry-comic advocates at Poetry Foundation! Some friends and I put a little panel at NYU together last year of Poetry And Visual  Artists. I think that Poetry Foundation must have known about it because three of us who were doing it are in the exhibition, Sommer Browning, Paul Tunnis, and myself. I had just had my first official comic published with Factory Hollow Press, and so they used the whole second half of that comic book in the exhibition. The Poetry Foundation website is really doing a lot of amazing, innovative things.

TCJ:  You spoke a little about how the poetry community has embraced poetry comics, but have you or others had much interaction with the comics community?

Bianca Stone:  I don’t know about other people, but for me, not much. I would love to interact more with the comics community, which is strong in NYC. When I lived in Williamsburg I went a lot to this great little comic book shop called Desert Island. They have a ton of small press comic book stuff; zines, and local artist’s works. I met Gabrielle Bell there, who was doing a signing, which was really exciting. A few times I’ve have readings/Poetry Comic showing with comic book artists, recently at this “Second Comics/Illustrations benefit” with Julia Wertz, Josh Neufeld, and Marcie Paper. And once I did a reading with Sarah Gidden, and Lisa Hanawalt. I was really taken with Lisa’s style. I wish the worlds would collide more, but they do somewhat.

TCJ:  Talk a little about your recent collection of poetry comics, I Want To Open The Mouth God Gave You Beautiful Mutant, which is a heck of a title by the way.

Bianca Stone:  At the time I was reading about the importance of mutation in human evolution, and how we evolved from cell mutation. Suddenly everything was very X-Men feeling. It felt inspiring for a love poem. I’m thrilled with how Factory Hollow (Emily Pettit, Guy Pettit and Dara Wier, all amazing poets) have been with making the comic. Emily has been rallying me on with my art since I first met her, and was kind enough to take this on. (She, too has done some awesome poetry comic stuff, and does amazing photography of tiny furniture, as well as stop animation). We’re going to have the Poetry Comic periodically, it’s like my dream-come-true. I wanted it to look like a real comic book, like you’d by in the dime store. I like that it looks like a classic comic book, but you open it up and it’s something so very untraditional.

TCJ: Do you think differently about writing a poem that is accompanied by illustration and one that simply stands alone on a page?

Bianca Stone: Yes, of course. Everything changes when there’s an image. Recently in a review of Antigonick by Chrissy Williams, quoted John Berger  saying “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” We react differently to the pictorial. It can be dangerous, because you’re giving the reader an interpretation of the text, essentially. And there is never one narrative interpretation. For that reason I want to move away from illustrating what is “happening” in the poem, because what’s happening in the poem, isn’t necessarily what is happening, in your mind or in the poem, while you’re reading it. I believe the creation of the poem happens in this way, which is why having a readers of your work is important: for the poem to really exist it needs to be invented by the reader. This is why I try to create a visual element of the poem that is immediate, but not redundant.  I don’t want to tell people how to read the poem via my images, which is how the naturally look to images: for explanation. But I also don’t want to shut the reader out completely with over-conceptualizing it. I want them to read the poem as they would words alone, and have the images naturally weave in and out, and to feel right, but not to be entirely definitive. The practical function of art and text together is not exactly what happens with poetry comics, or with Antigonick. Rather, words become a functioning element of the art, and vice versa.

TCJ: Now I don’t expect to see you filling in an issue of Green Lantern next month, but do you have any interest in crafting a comic that’s more narrative-driven than the poetry comics you’ve made?

Bianca Stone: I’ve definitely done narrative things, but nothing on a larger scale; nothing clean and “finished”. My boyfriend is reading a lot of Green Lantern right now, and Crisis of Infinite Earths series, which I’ve been enjoying too. I really want to do a narrative comic. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. My next big project is just that: I want to make a long collection that weaves in an out of poetry comics and narrative vignettes that tell an overall story. There’s so much power in narrative that can get lost in the experimental. It’s the same with poetry in general. I think direct-narrative can be very important in poetry, and it’s somewhat out of style. I’m probably never going to do a traditional superhero series or anything, but I love fantasy so much that when I do finally do a narrative-driven work I’ll absolutely include a lot of inhuman characters and invented worlds.

That said, now I kind of want work with a superhero...

TCJ:  You have a new chapbook of poetry, I Saw the Devil with His Needlework. Talk a little about what you’re trying to do with this book.

Bianca Stone:  It’s a tiny exploration of the vastly different results of how we love. In particular, to do with men. Matthew Doddona wrote a nice review here and said of the poems: “the result is a memorable field guide into the unreasonable acts of love....Stone’s aesthetic comes in leveling the playing field, deriving these poems from the fickleness of masculine/feminine relations and pleading collusion, only offering a more tender way to understand these coalescent acts.” I agree with that.

TCJ:  When I spoke with Ms. Carson she mentioned that you had taken the class that she and Robert Currie taught at NYU, Egocircus. Could you talk a little about what that class was and the experience?

Bianca Stone:  It wasn’t called Egocircus when I was there....it was officially Poetry and Collaboration. I love the name Egocircus. Anne Carson and Robert Currie had just come to NYU. I was just getting to know her work and loving it. The class was fun, and sometimes frustrating (but collaboration is always frustrating at times). I think Egocircus is a good name for it. Everyone was a little unsure at first how we would collaborate. A lot of people never thought you could do something like that, or use any other genre or media in poetry. It’s very liberating to have a someone like Anne come in and let us go wild. It can be very reparative and stiff sometimes in the poetry workshop, I was very, very grateful to have her.

TCJ:  How did you get involved with Antigonick?

Bianca Stone: After graduation, Anne Carson, Robert Currie and I discussed a few times doing a collaboration. We’d talked once about doing a comic book together. We were all interested in experimenting with the form. It evolved from there, and took a long time to figure out the final vision for the book with New Directions. It started out as a small enterprise, with short selections from Antigonick, and, to my joy, eventually became the whole of Anne’s translation, and much bigger beast.

TCJ:  To what degree did Ms. Carson and Mr. Currie have a clearly defined idea of what the book would be and look like before you came on board and part of your job was to help create that vision, or did you have more freedom than that?

Bianca Stone:  We all had vague ideas, but they really wanted to let me explore on my own. I had a lot of freedom. Anne and Currie wanted me to move away from the figure, from the character. It was great for me, because that’s not entirely my thing to illustrate an entire story with many different, specific characters. However, the human figure has always been very important in my work, so it was a challenge to move away from it. They gave me some pictures of Iceland landscapes that they had taken, and a wanted me to use them somehow. So I did a lot of landscapes, which was daunting at first, but once I got going I was very pleased with them. I also used a lot of animals and furniture to express the human emotion of the play. Essentially my job was just to draw 30 images. Which I did most of staying with the poet Emily Pettit and confining myself to her study so I could get them all done.

TCJ:  I ask this specifically because I’m thinking of the text and had they already decided how the text would be laid out on the pages or was that decided after the artwork was completed?

Bianca Stone: Robert Currie designed the book and decided that I wouldn’t see the written text until I was done with the images. We assembled them together afterwards to see how they randomly came together. It was so fun and amazing to see how they did come together. He’s brilliant at assembling and conceptualizing and randomizing.

TCJ: Ms. Carson has said in the past that she thinks of herself as a visual artist more than a writer and was once quoted as saying “Homer’s a poet. I would say I make things.” And I’m just curious about your thoughts on this having worked with her.

Bianca Stone: It’s really amazing to see Anne Carson and Robert Currie collaborating with all these different artists. They do a lot of performance pieces with people. About a month ago I saw a performance of NOX, where they both drew on the wall over a dancer with projectors, while a recording of Anne reading from NOX played. It was wonderful. I think Anne is a writer who rejects the static, allowing for the work to be continuously created. She writes, yes, but she knows that that is only a fraction how one interacts with an idea. Once a work is written, she keeps making it. She has a complex mind, without being hyper academic. Her way of interacting with text is incredible, it goes beyond translation, beyond poetry and essay; she makes it bigger somehow, we enter in through a different door. I think what she said about Homer is entirely accurate, in her quietly genius way. She is never one fixed thing, but always moving, and insisting that we continuously invent.