A Comic Year
July 14, 2022 § 2 Comments
Stonecoast MFA alums Penny Guisinger and Meaghan Reynolds sit down for a conversation about A Comic Year, Reynolds’ collection of poetry comics.
Meg, I know you as a beautiful poet, and I would love to hear about the journey into creating A Comic Year. How long have you been drawing? When and how did you decide to capture this story graphically?
Although I finished undergrad with an art major alongside my English major, I had abandoned my artwork in my early 20’s mostly because I didn’t make time. I chose the medium that seemed the most portable – poetry – even though I had been drawing all my life.
It was a stroke of luck that I was recommitting to drawing during the period that my relationship was falling apart. I had taken a revelatory online course in poetry comics with Bianca Stone through the Writer’s Center where she showed us how it was possible to poetically integrate text and image. I had always practiced visual art and writing separately, but I had just started to interweave them under Stone’s influence and after reading the work of artists like Edward Gorey, Maira Kalman, and Lynda Barry. When my relationship ended, working in poetry comics was incredibly attractive to me because it was fresh and new with all this exciting energy attached to it. I did the first poetry comic, Day 1, literally on the day after the breakup. I thought, I could do this every day. I will do this every day. For a year. I’d heard on Sex in the City that it takes you half the time you’re in a relationship to get over it. I’d been with my partner for two years, so, yes, one year of these should do it. It’ll help me keep track of whatever the hell is happening to me.
You know I’m a CNF writer, and so to me this book feels like a graphic memoir because that’s the seat I sit in. What makes this a collection of poetry comics instead of a graphic memoir? Does it matter? How useful (or not) do you find distinctions between genres to be?
Poetry comics can be many things. In the case of Sarah J. Sloat in her fabulous collage poetry collection Hotel Almighty (a found poem re-rendering of Stephen King’s Misery), it’s about brevity, precision, and humor. There are 1-2 poetic lines per page that hang with the other pages or can stand entirely on their own. Each page is layered with collage images or sewn over with thread. In the case of an artist like Naoko Fujimoto in her exuberant and vivid book Glyph: Graphic Poetry=Trans. Sensory, it’s the resistance to narrative and a guiding internal emotional framework of each piece that ties together all the marks on the page. Her comics attempt to blur and cross boundaries of language, time, memory, and geography. She layers images, text, and lets it wind around the page. Many of them are unified with color.
Each artist that I’ve met that calls their work poetry comics has different reasons why their work qualifies. For me, it’s about time. I want the eye to move around the page in both linear (as in the written line) and nonlinear ways (as in how the panels are composed and through the image). Grief moves in both linear and nonlinear ways and I wanted the book to reflect that correspondence. I also wanted the reader to feel the strain of some of the text. Some of it is difficult to read because it was difficult to write, difficult to feel.
One of the brilliant things about this book is the ways in which you weave in so many ways in which it’s difficult to be a human being in the world. A relationship ends, but that doesn’t totally eclipse questions about drinking, body image, binge-watching Netflix, being an artist, having parents, and other challenges of existing. Did you set out to create a treatise on the human condition or did those pieces present themselves unbidden? When did you know that they would demand so much stage time, and did you struggle against that or welcome it?
In order to make something of this scale, a size and scope that I had never worked in before, I had to be a really willing witness to all my nonsense and whatever lived underneath it. I do struggle with drinking sometimes, even still. I fail to love my body again and again. Working in a new medium as a daily practice felt like enough of a constraint. The grief from the breakup amplified these existing hazards. To ignore them would have been harder.
In the cutting down process, I sorted the comics into piles. I observed my biggest themes – Dating, notes on singlehood, sex & politics, friends & family, ______, body stuff and so on. I studied the thickness of each pile and strove for a balance between them.
What were the parts that felt hardest or most scary to put into the world? How did you decide to include them anyway?
There’s a lot in here that I could have gotten nervous about. I’ve discussed my issues with weight and body image really publicly in poems and readings before, so it felt like it was an intimate part of an ongoing conversation. I felt similarly about my account of traumatic sexual experiences, though this was the most explicit I had ever been.
I was also nervous about sharing elements of my sexual identity and my sexual life in Burlington. I wanted to protect my partners from judgment. I didn’t want to cheapen any of the interactions that I had. Most, if not all of them, were healing. I also knew that my mother would read this book, my in-laws. I keep expecting strangers to ask me about the threesome or my bisexuality, but nobody does. I’m relieved. It means I did my job in terms of providing enough context so even the most intimate comics feel well and truly a part of a larger story.
I’m so struck by the diversity of drawing styles throughout. For example, the adorable line drawings of fruit, snacks, and other food items on Day 253 feel like they were drawn by someone different from the dark rendering of yourself as a well of grief on Day 316. Do you feel that way about the different drawings? How did that happen? How did you decide which touch to bring to each day?
Part of the work of this collection was to experiment with and refine my drawing voice. A lot of the drawings are experiments, imitations, shifts in perspective or just images that I felt drawn to. For example, one of the comics, Day 50, started out as practice. I was drawing a series of hand positions I might need in future comics. Once the page was filled, I realized that I could just add text to finish the day’s comic. To me, that comic is a list poem, a form that I’ve worked with in poetry before and really love. In fact, that’s true in many of the comics, that the ideas I had for shifts in form or perspective were inspired by my familiarity with the formal elements of poetry – stanza, room, panel – there are all names for boxes that you can fill with content or, in some cases, allow content to spill from them or blur their edges.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the memoir Postcards from Here. A Maine Literary Award winner and three-time notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is a former Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine and the founding organizer of Iota Short Forms Conference. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.