Recently I had a chance to interview Beth McDermott about graphic poetry. In the interview, she has great insights: such as what kind of visual textbooks she uses, what are the advantages or disadvantages of studying graphic/visual poems, etc. This is a ten-minute audio interview. If you have the time, please visit my homepage to listen to it.
In her interview, she mentioned her thoughts of line breaks in written poems. She enjoys finding surprising line breaks on a page. Then I thought, can a graphic poem also have a line break?
I enjoy placing awkward, yet surprising line breaks in my written poems too. I consider composing some line breaks to alter the tempo of words and vivid images. “Beneath the Sand” is one of my newer poems, which was published in Diode Poetry Journal. In the poem, I played with line breaks and sections a lot. The following picture is an example me wanting to use the sound “of” repeatedly without too much repetition. If you would like to read the whole poem, please visit their website.
It will take a lifetime to master line breaks; however, I learned two things about it over ten years. When I was a graduate student, I used so many awkward line breaks because I personally believed that it was a cool thing to do at the time. I felt like composing my own music of words.
Then, I took one workshop with Lina Ramona Vitkauskas who said that my line breaks were confusing. A fellow student in the workshop agreed, “Like a link of short sausages on paper”. That was my eye-opening moment of line breaks.
My two rules are now:
#1) Line breaks may not disturb and confuse readers
#2) Line breaks may not disturb the musicality or punctuation of phrases
My rules may be too simple, but I always keep these in mind when I write. So now, do I purposely add line breaks in graphic poems?
My answer is yes (but may not be for all graphic poems).
I reviewed some of my graphic poems to find out how I adapted line breaks from their written source material. “From an Apartment” may be a good example for this investigation.
This graphic poem was made after the following original poem, which I wrote in graduate school at Indiana University South Bend over nearly ten years ago. This is indeed one of my earliest poems. (And you may see stubby line breaks in this poem too, like “stale/beer”.)
FROM AN APARTMENT
I walk. Sticky yellow
chewing gum is smashed
on the concrete curb. I smell stale
beer in a green
recycling box. Crows
observe me from the electric wire. My mother
watches them from the fifth floor. She shrieks.
I step back.
A bus honks at a cab. It carelessly
turns. I keep walking,
past the fountain of polished
granite. Yesterday’s newspaper
drowns in it.
I stride down the crosswalk
stepping only on the white
lines. Cars wait.
The drivers’ eyes follow me
like mannequins. I see
the subway station while crossing
the lawn in a park. I look at the trembling
camphor trees. Black street lamps are stuck
toward the cloudless sky. I step on
a dandelion. I grasp my one-way ticket.
The graphic poem was slightly different from the original poem. Like the poetry erasure technique, the original poem carefully scattered specific phrases or implied images. However, the line breaks are clearly there. Therefore, I removed the graphic part to see the line breaks more clearly.
Smashed sticky chewing gum;
I smell stale beer..........a recycling box,
crows, the electric wire
trembling camphor trees
buses honk..........yellow cabs.
The driver’s eyes follow me..........like mannequins.
Black street lamps stick..........toward the cloudless sky.
I tip toe the crosswalk
By the fountain of polished granite.
Yesterday’s newspaper..........drowns in it.
The graphic poem of “From an Apartment” has more poetic components than visual elements, and the line breaks play a big part of it. I will keep investigating theories of line breaks in poems and graphic poems. As you already know, each graphic poem communicates with a unique imprint from the poetic spectrum.
(You may also enjoy reading this article about the differences in the spectrum of visual and written pieces.)
It excites me to analyze the relationships between poetry and graphic poetry. Thank you very much for publishing “From an Apartment” in Glass: A Journal of Poetry.