Then why did I use a toilet paper?

Recently, the Indianapolis Review accepted my super long (more than five meters), toilet-paper graphic poem! I was so happy that the editors supported my new challenge, which is how to adapt a long poem into a limited space of graphic poem.

In the last article, I wrote about how I cut 73% of the words from my written poem, “Thursday”, and created a graphic poem, “On the Black Hill.” For this one, the original written poem is obviously longer than “Thursday,” so I wanted to approach it differently.

The graphic poem, “Spaceflight Sonata P”, was adapted from "Spaceflight Sonata vol.1 & 2” (The Seattle Review, Issue 11) and these original poems are fourteen pages long. My new obsession is writing long poems. I thought that I am a very minimalist writer, but I found I liked writing longer poems as if playing sonatinas and sonatas, one after another on the piano.

“Spaceflight Sonata P” has elements of Egyptian culture and history. P also stands for papyrus, but I used toilet paper, ultra-soft & strong. I have been creating graphic poems inspired by the Japanese Emaki (picture-scroll) story telling method and learning from Midori Sano’s books.

Then why did I use a toilet paper?

With the traditional Emaki method, the artists can choose not only drawing particular scans, but also background papers and styles of calligraphy. Here is one of example where Midori Sano explains how the written words look rushed, almost like being on top of each another.

A summary of this Emaki is that Aoi no Ue (the first wife of Genji) is dying, so in building up the end of this chapter, the artist creates a dramatic effect though handwriting. The background paper is brown with a bit of gold, but it looks much gloomier if you observe background paper from other chapters.

When I read Midori Sano’s research, I though that this method may be a key element of adapting a long, written poem into a graphic poem.

"Spaceflight Sonata vol.1 & 2” contain multiple storylines about space, history, and the future (if you have spare time and money, please order the issue from Seattle Review). I think that human history may as well be written on toilet paper—frequently flushed away—before we learn from our decisions, despite how horrifying some were.

Therefore, I wanted to experiment with my storylines about “human history” being represented in writing on toilet paper. In this meaning, “Spaceflight Sonata P” has more visual emphasis than previous approaches. This method worked this time, but I may want to mix it up and have a more written emphasis on some future projects.

These on-going works also have visual elements that are stronger than the written portions. There is no right or wrong method here because a process (you may try to create one or several graphic poems) is like a workout. I think that poetic trial and error is the same as push-ups or squats building muscle.

But I can clearly say that my brain is stimulated when alternating my pieces between a spectrum of visual and written, which sharpens my senses to find other topics to write about. I love this feeling.

Choosing materials while thinking of reasons can be a lot fun. Probably, this is my favorite part of the process. Creating graphic poems are always a pleasure to me because it can create very festive and colorful experiences in my brain.

It is important to know why, or have a reason for choosing a material. Art and poetry should have creative freedom; however, I believe that they should be meaningful and explainable. And it should support its own theme and project.

(I love Q&As because I think the interaction is an important key to improving one’s writing/editing skills.)

The smoothness or roughness of a particular fabric may change the way you present certain emotions with it; exactly like the Emaki artists chose background papers and handwriting styles for each chapter of the “Tale of Genji.” It is the same with everything from paint type, brush tips, pencils, plastics, photos, pictures, and anything else you use in the creative process.

Some people tell me that I am lucky because I can visit Japan to purchase these fabulous papers, which is true. But I use many papers and almost any material available to me (look at the toilet paper graphic poem!), including the color printed coupons in grocery store receipts, bits of an old towel, and shredded Sallie Mae letters. I also use old greeting cards, magazines, candy wrappers, basically anything around me I can modify to fit my work. It is an inexpensive profession, indeed!

To be continued…

Why didn’t I write down whole poem in a graphic poem?

After my graphic poetry exhibition (thank you very much to those who visited. It was a wonderful success!), one of the audience members asked me a question, “Why didn’t you write down whole poem in a graphic poem?”

(I love Q&As because I think the interaction is an important key to improving one’s writing/editing skills.)

I am so glad that he asked me this question because this leads into my theme: Graphic Poetry=Trans.Sensory. The answer is “Yes, while I used a whole poem, it was wholly expressed with words. Some words were replaced with images.” Therefore, the audience can meld the words and images in their minds and mix the work’s graphical elements with their own internal manifestations.

But then he said, “I never knew I was allowed to write a poem like that.”

So, I told him about Japanese Emaki story telling technique. I have been studying Emaki (Japanese picture scroll) for a while now. Through my theme, I want my audience to transcend the boundaries of just the images shown and the images/emotions conjured from the words they read. They can exist at the same time in the same place, and this inspiration came from studying Emaki.

There are two fascinating books by Midori Sano. The books are educational, yet fun to learn about Emaki history and techniques.

In order to understand the emaki art, we must understand its goals and approach to storytelling (like what visual cues trigger emotions in the viewers). They did not want to show much emotion in the art itself because the style challenged the viewer to connect more subtle visual cues with the emotional beats of the written story. Therefore, all the characters show minimal actions. Here is one example scene from “Tale of Genji”.

(You may like reading a review of “Tale of Genji” in RHINO Reviews.)

This is one of many fantastic, yet crazy moments of emaki. This picture shows the majority of the chapter of “Kashiwagi”. When I first saw it, I did not understand how it represented the original text because there are six characters with the same face and clothes.

A. The princess
B. The Suzaku Emperor
C. Genji
D. Three ladies
E. Kashiwagi is not present in this picture.

A very brief summery; Kashiwagi falls in love with Genji’s super young wife, the Princess. She conceived his child (Kaoru), eventually Genji would know about their secret relationship. Therefore, the Princess decided to become a nun. Her father, the Suzaku Emperor, supports her decision.

According to Midori Sano’s research, these lines and rectangles signify how complicated the characters’ emotions are under the surface (like the sorrow triangle). Also, their minimum gestures, the choice of paints, foreground and background paper, and color details of the kimonos show all that is needed to convey the story.

When the audiences look at the emaki, they would immediately understand the story of Kashiwagi even though there are no words. How amazing it is! So, I wanted to use this story telling technique into my graphic poem.

Again, I am going to use my graphic poem, “On a Black Hill”, and in the full-length book, the title is “Thursday”.

(Why are titles different?)

As you can see orange highlights, about 27% of words remain and the rest of the words become images. Like the chapter of Kashiwagi, I wanted this poem to tell a story in one glance.

In order to achieve that goal, I cut some lines from the original poem. For example, I cut the following sections in the graphic poem:

Grandfather watches TV on the highest volume,
the howling-wind.

He lost his voice seventeen years ago,
Stroke. This mouth, and the quietness—
Like the people in those black and white photos.

Piles of Jewish clothes, glasses, and hair,
Half-naked bodies and holes in the ground,
Their stark tongues with dirt in their mouths.
A last word adheres to their throats.


Why did I cut off these sections?

Because the sections are important in my written poem in a way they are not in the graphic poem. The graphic poem already shows an inappropriate, domestic moment: The mother is casually vacuuming a photo documentary of Auschwitz and the little girl is stepping on it with a caption, “Will I go to war?”

Historical documents and photographs may not mean anything if we are just like the innocent, perhaps naive girl, surrounded by words and pictures with no context. I may be the girl, but I do not want to be, and that is one of my themes in this graphic poem. There is the understanding viewpoint of the mother, and oblivious viewpoint of the girl, existing at the same time in the same room.

It takes guts to delete sections from the original poem when I create one-page graphic poems. (Indeed, this is currently leading to how to adapt a long poem in to a graphic poem.)

I received a response from one editor who said that the written portion is not interesting enough to grab the attention in my graphic poems. It is heartbreaking to hear, until I realize that different formats require different ingredients (think of a book being adapted into a movie as an example, there is no longer a narrator’s internal voice guiding the reader/viewer, so more emphasis is focused on actions and visual pacing to convey motivations).

It is not always easy to omit sections of your work you spent so much time on, but as an artist, the graphic poem will be better as a stand-alone work that does not rely on viewers to have read the poem to understand. I am still working on this aspect, and likely will continue to for some time.

One thing that I can clearly say is my favorite quote from my first-grade teacher, “If you progress one thing, the whole community learns from you. They will come up with new ideas that inspire you to ascend to the next level.” I like the thinking and I would like to share it with my poetry & art community.

To be continued…