A Process Essay
In working on “The Empathy Machine”, a visual essay on poetics recently published by Cleaver Magazine, I wrote and drew part 1 in the summer of 2015, and finished part 2 on the kitchen table over a snowy January weekend. Part two was much longer than part 1, which had been subtitled A Visual Narrative on the Poetics of Kenneth Goldsmith. Part 2 expanded on those musings into something that took the form of an ars poetica. (You can read part 2 here.) For a long time, the ideas had been stewing in my imagination and coming to life in my sketchpad. But there comes a point when you have to pull it all together, even if that means doing so with tools as simple as glue sticks, a watercolor set, and some Faber Castell artist pens.
What appeared as part 1 in issue #11 of Cleaver started off as a series of New Yorker-style cartoons calling out poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s for his insensitivity in turning the autopsy report of Michael Brown into a performance piece. I was angry. I was MAD. I couldn’t understand how the “material” Goldsmith was performing and the poetry I was writing could all supposedly fall into the same genre. Other people were outraged, too, and when Vanessa Place, Michael Derrick Hudson, and Sherman Alexie entered the equation it all built to a critical mass. (It didn’t hurt that Goldsmith, with his penchant for wild suits and his long beard, was a fun figure to draw.) The anger and energy I felt proved to be a vehicle for me to look outward and inward, a way to ask myself questions to guide me in terms of future art-making, whether that be in words or pictures (or the two combined). Karen Rile, Editor-in-Chief, and Raymond Rorke, Art Editor, would prove invaluable to me along the way in terms of critical feedback.
As new ideas came to me, I found that working in a “New Yorker” style wasn’t going to cut it. The project was opening up into an essay, stretching its shoulders, wanting more space.
My thoughts tend to bounce around in a ricochet, one idea playing off another. I decided my method needed to be old school (literally “cut and paste”) as well as very personal: a journal style to match my journey. I’m a huge fan of cartoonist Lynda Barry, and I’ve followed her work for years, even reviewing some of her early comic strip collections. Using legal pads — which Barry did in What It Is, her fantastic meditation on image-making — proved extremely liberating. Cheap paper gave me a freedom with the material aspect of the project. More color began to enter the drawings as I dug out the paints and Prismacolor pencils I had accumulated over the years. Why hadn’t I been using them? What had I been saving them for? For this?
Over Christmas, through a New Year’s Day plagued with a head cold, and well into a January snowstorm, I made steady progress toward the end of the project. My partner and I did not eat at the kitchen table for weeks.
As I was working on the project, David Bowie died. I loved Bowie, a grand statesman of the ’80s British Invasion that I loved, and so much more. Bowie became another of the visual homages that the narrative called for. Others included Keith Haring’s pop art from the 1980s, which seemed to be everywhere back when I was coming out (and is long overdue for a resurgence in popularity). Another inspiration was the current plight of the honeybee in the face of colony collapse disorder. The list goes on: Ganesh and Cthulhu and Superman; Calvin & Hobbes cartoons; the art of activist Rini Templeton, whose brilliant drawings I happily discovered by way of Christopher Soto’s poetry book, Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press). Templeton’s image suggested connectivity and transformation to me, and were ripe to combine with the image of a mermaid, a sometimes-symbol of the trans community as well as a symbol of the connection between humankind and nature. Other allusions included The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, which I saw once in the Michener collection at the Honolulu Museum in Hawai’i. Most importantly, I relied on a sketchbook filled with faces of the inspirational people I met during the summer of 2015 at the Crosstalk, Color, Composition conference, the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. To those amazing people and their inspiring words, I am grateful. I am changed.
In terms of negative inspirations, I’ve been bothered by this era’s bad habit of people anonymously attacking one another through social media channels when they disagree, and how if anyone critiques that practice he or she is quickly accused of tone-policing or censorship. I understand that anonymity is an appealing veil when one fears for personal safety, but we also diminish our nobility on occasions when we don’t fight fair. If you ask me, there is enough micro-aggression going around these days that it all very quickly adds up to full-sized aggression. Such tactics should be used with caution. That might sound funny coming from someone who has taken a number of shots at Goldsmith and Place, but I also believe in the power of satire as a vehicle for critique and an instrument for social change. Certainly there are voices that get too often heard, and certainly we need new platforms to raise up those voices needing better representation. Yet every time I see a dialogue opportunity get crushed, I hear the creak of more minds closing.
What did I learn about image making? Poems and visual art rely on images, and these images are not always seen with our eyes but with our mind. Ezra Pound described an image as an “interpretative metaphor” or “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”. I think sometimes images can be sounds. Or smells. Or things we touch or things that touch us. These images take us on a journey that at times feels circular and difficult, an uneasy game–but that path is not without purpose.
On a practical level, I found it useful to lay my pages out on the floor in order to get a sense of narrative flow and design. l was reminded how easily paper crinkles when watercolor is added, and that sometimes you need to make your better half gently iron pages the way Carson the butler irons the Earl of Grantham’s newspaper on Downton Abbey. I learned that there are probably better glue sticks out there than the ones Staples sells, and that there is great joy to be found in the smudge-proof nib of a good Faber Castell drawing pen.
I learned that even with ironing it is best to have heavy books on hand to continue flattening your pages prior to scanning. I combined the weight of an atlas, Chip Kidd’s Batman Collected, and a collection of nude studies by photographer George Platt Lynes for a little extra frisson.
In my work, I’ve often felt pulled in many directions at once, that my different art-making impulses compete with each other. This has often left me frustrated. In teasing out the reasons why I think art-making should be viewed as an empathy machine, I learned that what I’ve feared can also be a strength. That the mistakes of others can teach us almost as much as the mistakes we make on our own. I’ve learned that hybrid, ekphrastic constructs bring great satisfaction. Along the way, I developed an Empathy Credo to guide my future making. It might not be the same approach as yours, and my own credo might change and evolve over time. Most of all, this project reminded me that poetry—and all art—is in the making, that the key to overcoming obstacles can be found in the words “try” and “do”.
Now I need to go get busy. What about you?