I have been bewitched by the bringing together of text and image in art for as long as I can remember. A film or photograph can convey something that words alone cannot and vice versa. And if you combine the two, a whole other imagistic universe opens before your eyes.
I decided to ask Dr. Elisabeth Frost, a poet and professor who works in text and image and literally wrote the book on feminist avant-garde poetry, about the bringing together of these two worlds.
Caroline Hagood: How did you get into working with text and image together?
Elisabeth Frost: I was very fortunate. After many years of going to artists’ residencies and proposing collaboration with visual artists I met, I was invited by the poet Lois Roma-Deeley to take part in the Poetic Dialogue Project, which pairs poets with artists. My first collaborations with Dianne Kornberg were shown in 2009 at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of that project. Dianne and I have been working together ever since. Writing is lonely! I love collaborating with Dianne because of the creative charge I get from her ideas and vision, as well as her sheer persistence—not to mention the gift of breaking away from the isolation of writing.
CH: What do text and image have to say to each other?
EF: I tend to think first of how text and image address a viewer/reader together, but of course it’s also true that each “says” something to the other (or “semaphores” something?), and in composing our works, Dianne and I have to think about that issue all the time. In terms of that incredibly complex relationship, I love the gaps that can appear in writing when accompanied by visual elements. Some of my process in recent years has been to move toward minimalism in my language, and I love that I can say even less when Dianne and I work together on a piece with image and text in concert.
But I should note that what we do is neither ekphrasis (say, a poetic response to an existing work of visual art, like Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) nor illustration. We collaborate to make text and image utterly integral to one another in each piece or series of pieces that we make—that’s true from our first piece, “Arachne,” in which the text appeared as if handwritten on specimen pages. We want an integral relation between text and image even when (in some cases) the images and text eventually occupy different visual/verbal “zones” in the piece (for example, in “What Is Left,” in which the text appears below the visual images).
CH: What can a picture do that a poem cannot?
EF: That’s a huge question and the stuff of more theory than I’ll ever be able to absorb! But if I answer subjectively, I’d say that I am tremendously moved by the stillness that a visual image can induce in me. I don’t mean that an image itself is “still”—except in the literal sense—because any image necessarily contains all kinds of movement based on line and color and composition. What I mean is that the act of looking at a (still) image makes me stop my own restless motions, the jittery quality of my thoughts and the way I often act on those physically as well with nervous habits. When I engage with nonmoving images, I have the capacity to slow to a contemplative pace. Language doesn’t do that for me—not even music does. Like you, I love to look, but unlike you, I don’t often turn to film or video creatively or even as the subject of my analytical/critical writing. The fixedness of a still image is something I adore and am drawn to as (for me) a meditative medium. Oddly, I also increasingly appreciate still visual imagery as I grow older because the act of looking at something still does not require the function of memory! Time-based art forms are strangely anxiety-producing in me these days.
CH: What can a poem do that a picture cannot?
EF: Again, I’m always thinking of these elements in relation to one another and to a viewer/reader. I also prefer thinking about writing or text rather than invoking genre (defining what a “poem” is). But what I most love about collaborating is that my writing takes off into experiments with narrative, abstract assertion, discursive statement—these are elements much harder to invoke in visual art than in language arts.
CH: Which poets are doing exciting things with hybridity, multimedia, and inter-arts?
So many right now! Again, because I’m so much less conversant about what is happening in either performing arts or film/video, I’ll limit myself to thinking primarily about text-image work for the page. In that arena, documentary poetics has ushered in tremendously exciting new forms and means of engaging with history, visuality, politics, and identity. Think Claudia Rankine, Kristin Prevallet, Mark Nowak, Tyehimba Jess, Anne Carson, Amy Sara Carroll, M. NourbeSe Philip, Monica Ong, and many others. In terms of mixed-media and collage work (often “translated” into book form), I’ve been excited by what Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jen Bervin, Maria Damon, and others are doing. In terms of digital poetics, most important to me are probably Stephanie Strickland (such a pioneer in this field!), Amaranth Borsuk, and Amy Catanzano. I recently wrote an essay on visual poetics for The Cambridge History of Twentieth Century American Women Poets, and I loved rediscovering work by Mary Ellen Solt, May Swenson, Lorraine Sutton, Sonia Sanchez, Hannah Wiener, Kathleen Fraser, Johanna Drucker, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Ntozake Shange, Susan Howe—I could go on . . .
CH: What’s text and image’s role in the Trump era?
EF: We have to bear witness, and I am not averse to using that old-fashioned term. Recently my wonderful Fordham colleague Sarah Gambito curated an issue of her online journal CURA by having her student editorial team simply reach out to family and friends with the question of what story they urgently need to tell right now. That kind of project—a sort of oral history of the moment—is crucial to our sustenance. Documentation is critical—we are an image-based, digitally-driven culture, and we’ve seen how important it is to have visual records of incidents in the street, in the public square. But I also believe that humor is crucial to survival, and today we need our satirists in text and image alike.
CH: Can you share some works that are helping you through these strange times?
EF: I’m reading in a disparate, even desperate, fashion—whatever gives me hope for change—dipping into books by Alicia Ostriker, Valeria Luiselli, James Baldwin. And I find myself drawn to the comforts and sharp hope of satire, too—Thomas Bernhard, Zbigniew Herbert, Eileen Myles. For a project I’m working on with Cynthia Hogue, I’m reading a lot of Emily Dickinson, and I never cease to be amazed and transformed by her. And when I don’t have the focus to read (which is pretty often), I watch police procedurals on Netflix. I’m privileged to have some time just for escape, and right now seeing mysteries get solved in under an hour is sure helping me get by.
Elisabeth Frost is the author of All of Us: Poems (White Pine Press), the chapbooks Rumor (Mermaid Tenement Press) and A Theory of the Vowel (Red Glass Books), Bindle (Ricochet Editions, a collaboration with the artist Dianne Kornberg), and The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (Iowa). Frost has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation-Bellagio Center, the Fulbright Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and others. She is Professor of English and Women’s/Gender/Sexuality Studies at Fordham University in New York City, where she is founder and editor of the Poets Out Loud Prizes book series from Fordham Press.