Since I got my first digital camera in 2001, I’ve been thinking about ways to integrate words and imagery. Until recently, my concern was focused on how to mix poetry and photographs, with some attempts more successful than others, but in the last couple years, I’ve expanded my inquiry to additional media and dimensions.
This has included making poemboxes (sculptural interpretations of my poetry that usually involve a box), playing with geoboard poetry, collaging image with text, and including text when painting and sculpting. When you have another medium to incorporate beyond the written word, one you interact with using your more physical body, such as drawing or assembling, it helps you to approach the work from a new perspective.
Sometimes I am literally holding words in my hands. How does that feel, how does it differ from just reading them? Do some words weigh more than others? How can I embody what poem fragments like “blue stone” or “compilation of silhouettes” or “body as shelter” mean in the work, visually, not just linguistically? When we convey meaning beyond words can comprehension work at a more fundamental, primal level?
Lately, my joy in creating hybrid works is playing with their physical presence: I want words I can touch, turn over in my hands instead of just seeing them. Wondering how to translate a poem into a sculptural format was how my poembox project began. Sometimes I write sentences on pieces of ribbon and wind them around a geoboard to see how fragmentation and viewing from different angles changes the way I experience a piece.
I’ve made poems as flowcharts and mind maps (similar to some of the work in DIAGRAM magazine), chopped up a paragraph into small pieces and mixed it with dirt, played with spreadsheet poetry (inspired by work like Jamie Mortara’s “Parse Table”), buried a prose poem in the ground, wrapped lines into scrolls to sleep with them under my pillow, and used a wooden box with 31 paper slots as a daily writing prompt (asking: what gap do I want to fill today?).
Objects can invoke non-verbal associations: symbols, the collective unconscious, etc. Anything can become an ingredient in your art, but not much starts as a totally blank slate. How can use of materials with pre-existing connotations enhance or affect a piece of work? What happens when you add text to the mix?
Of course, people have been creating mixed- or multimedia art for many years. But assigning these labels tends to focus on ingredients, prepares the mind to experience a piece based on its raw materials, potentially making it more difficult to see the whole through the sum of its parts.
If we instead speak of a piece that goes beyond text to span several media as hybrid, perhaps we can better focus on its holistic composition than the boundaries it incorporates or transcends. Would that change how we experience a piece of completed art? Would it change the way you’d want to compose new work?
There is no limit to ways you can play with integrating your words with the three-dimensional world. If you could carve one sentence into a stick, what would it say? Can you make a shape with clay or play-doh and then write a poem about its existence? What if you gave yourself $5 and 10 minutes in a thrift store to make a visual collaged poem? What would a poem look like as a movie? As a comic book?
Taking words off the page and onto unexpected materials gives us new ways to process their potential, to uncover what they mean to us. Working outside your comfort zone can be intimidating at first, but that’s the point: to see what grows from exploration of unexpected places. That’s one of the beautiful things about hybridity: it can include whatever you need it to.
When I think of genre, I think of a color-by-numbers coloring sheet. I think of borders that are imposed to contain identities, whether that be an association to a country, a religion, or a culture. I, for one, was raised Catholic by a Maronite Catholic father and a Ghanaian-Lebanese mother who went to Catholic boarding school. My mother was exposed to the beliefs of her Asante heritage, and her father was a Lebanese Muslim and her mother was a Ghanaian Protestant. That meant I had relatives who were practicing Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. It meant for my mother, designing a faith for herself that made room for all. Because of that, when it came to religion and faith, I had no borders or lines dividing the shapes on my coloring sheet. It meant I had no choice but to be human first, before being a race or a faith or a gender.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a mixed-race woman who doesn’t fit into one race that I find the idea of genre challenging. As a writer, I find myself sometimes adhering to publishers’ restrictions on length, form, content, and I want to write more and more for a world that publishers will not let exist. When determining what kind of journal Inverted Syntax should be, I found myself frustrated with the different genres we must impose on readers because we are all in this world of controlled categorizations. As readers, we have memorized frames of references and schemata that we draw upon to help us make sense of content and context within literary works, but that background information only makes sense within certain spheres, a limited group with similar experiences.
Genre restrictions also perpetuate the idea that because things tend not to be created to fit into multiple overlapping categories, human beings who are able to fit into multiple identities, whether by gender or race, are opposed by a world that struggles to accept them because they don’t have a designated genre space on “the bookshelf.”
The idea of genre in literature and the arts, like with the idea of borders, not only minimizes our humanity but also restricts creativity to a fixed system of comfortable patterns while trying to contain artistic impulses within the bordered spaces that is allotted for our creativity. Can creativity be restricted? What art can be produced in a world of genre restrictions? If we continue to adhere to these outdated writing and artistic rules, we will not transform our world but instead allow the corruption of our humanity.
Throughout history our world has changed because of hybrid thinkers, those with competencies in multiple areas: Da Vinci was an inventor and artist; Benjamin Franklin was a politician and a scientist. Genre categorizations become a bigger issue than simply whether a piece of writing is more poetry than prose, they become an affront to creativity, to invention and innovation, to humanity, to identities, and to the boundless possibilities that exist when hybridity is allowed to thrive. For some, genre categorization feels playful and safe as when one colors within the lines, but for many others, it is a suffering that restricts invention and creativity to imposed lines.
Much like borders, genres are a construct. And the publishing industry, much like politics and government, controls the lines and often rejects cross-categorization. In a world where bookshelves are structured around what is the most marketable, crossing genres creates a problem for the publisher.
But real life is not neatly composed to genre. Our lives are disjointed and disconnected. Sometimes I think in poetry, speak in prose and dream in fantasy, and I’m still learning how to write this voice. Hybridity thus is inevitable, because the act of writing and making art is an identity-making act. And when you bring yourself to literature and art, you arrive multifaceted, in broken and fractured parts. How can you not cross genres?
We break the genre rules so as to write ourselves, so as to write and paint across the genre coloring lines until there is no “genre” but instead a new space for brave new works.