When I was in art school, I once had a poetry professor who, on the first day of class, introduced himself as a failed painter. Immediately, that proclamation (and others) rubbed me the wrong way and I ended up dropping the class in favor of a film course instead. A year prior to that, I had taken a course entitled “Word & Image” that spoke to impulses I’d had since childhood: pairing words and images together and understanding how they co-exist. One of the main questions was, Why can’t you make words and images? As someone who studied both art and literature as an undergraduate and went on to earn an MFA in interdisciplinary art practice, I embrace the notion that you can write and make images for your writings. William Blake, Beatrix Potter, Shel Silverstein, Kurt Vonnegut, and Faith Ringgold all did it. And plenty of other authors, too! There are also image-makers who, while better known for their visuals, write splendidly for their books. Take Sally Mann’s prose for her photography books, for instance.
A few of my published books combine my words and images and I have titles with “illustrative” and “disruptive” approaches, which I will explain in later in this post. My poetry books, Water for the Cactus Woman (Spuyten Duyvil) and Belladonna Magic: Spells in the Form of Poetry & Photography, feature “disruptive” photographs, whereas the poetry collection Heaven Is a Photograph features “illustrative” photographs. I have also created the covers for a few of my books and chapbooks, but that’s really a separate topic from interior artwork. Book covers largely serve to market a book, whereas interior artwork is part of the book itself.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of incorporating photography into your poetry manuscript, read on. But, first, a note: I am using photography as the visual art example here because the barrier to creation is lower than it is for other media. However, you can just as easily apply these two approaches to other types of visual art, including drawing and painting. If you’re so inclined to make sculptures and take photos of them, then even sculpture can find a home in your poetry manuscript. Yet drawing, painting, and sculpture all require the use of digital technology and photo-based processes for manuscript finalization. You must scan or photograph the visuals and edit the files to deliver as photo files to the publisher. (Or hire a professional who can complete this task for you.)
There are two main approaches to choosing photos for your manuscript—and neither one is “better.” It depends on your preferences and what sort of experience you wish to craft for your reader. Here they are:
These photos illustrate your story or concept. They advance the narrative or clearly demonstrate images communicated in your poetry or prose. These photos can be fairly literal in terms of form, but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring or predictable. You have plenty of room for inspiration and imagination in your image-making.
These photos break up the reading experience. They deserve a pause (or even longer!) and demand reflection and analysis beyond thinking about the literal who, what, where, and when of the story. They do not simply show what is stated in your poetry or prose. They might convey a similar mood or atmosphere and fit into the same world of your story but they are not literal interpretations of your words. You have more flexibility about where you insert these photos into the manuscript because they are not tied to specific poems or “scenes.”
Before you decide on your approach, I encourage you to experiment and see what sorts of images you produce. Are your photos more literal (more apt for illustrative) or non-literal (better for disruptive)? Take new photos or, if you keep a digital library, explore what you already have. As you take/select and edit your photos in programs like Photoshop, Lightroom, or Gimp, give yourself permission to make the kinds of images you want to make. Don’t fret—you don’t need a license or degree or any special achievement to be an artist. You are an artist because you make art. If this is your first time using your photography for art-making, get excited and relish the time you dedicate to this project. Remember to consider color, light and shadow, and even layers. If you loved making magazine collages as a teen (high school lockers, am I right?), you just might love making photo collages. There are plenty of YouTube tutorials for digital photography and photo editing if you seek technical instruction.
Once you’ve made a few images, study them, ask yourself what you like, and start playing with placement in your manuscript. Does an illustrative or disruptive approach better suit your sensibilities? Which one fits the type of book you hope to have published? After you answer these questions, commit! Produce the rest of the images for the book. Don’t be afraid to generate a TON of photos. Then play with the order of poems and photos from page one to the end. If your book has a straight narrative structure, this will probably be a more straight-forward process. You might end up rejecting photos and take new ones as you view the whole body of work. More experimental manuscripts may require more back and forth. It’s okay to tinker! Think about how the meaning of a poem might change depending on the image that’s on the same page or the page next to it. Images have the power to affect the whole flow of a manuscript. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, but do be aware of symbols, color, and aesthetics overall.
Once you’ve finalized your manuscript, start using Trish’s blog as a resource for finding a publisher. It can be challenging to find a publisher who will publish poetry manuscripts with photographs, especially full-color ones. (Printing full-color is expensive.) But as with any book, you want to find a publisher who believes in your vision. If you’ve found your photos to be essential to your manuscript, as I have found with a few of my books, then there’s no substitute for a publisher who will champion your work. That same publisher is the one who will ultimately help you reach readers who will appreciate your book, including the images you have created.
Christine Sloan Stoddard is a Salvadoran-American writer and artist creating books, films, murals, and more. She founded Quail Bell Magazine and the Badass Lady-Folk podcast and runs Quail bell Press & Productions. Her books include Heaven Is A Photograph, Naomi & The Reckoning, Desert Fox by the Sea, Belladonna Magic, and Water for the Cactus Woman, among other titles. Previously, she was the first-ever artist-in-residence at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan and has art on display at the Queens Botanical Garden through April 4th. Her film Bottled is now available on Amazon Prime Video. Find out more at WorldOfChristineStoddard.com.
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