Tuesday, January 22, 2008

GRAPHIC HAIBUN: An Interview with Linda Papanicolaou

by Ray Rasmussen
Linda Papanicolaou lives in the Bay Area of California. A middle school art teacher and art historian, she is editor of Haigaonline, assistant director of WHChaikumultimedia, a resident artist at Moonset and a member of the editorial board of Modern Haiga. She became interested in haiku and haiga while teaching an art lesson that combined leaf printing and haiku. This fascination led to further experiments in the combination of image and text, especially in the area of graphic haibun.

Ray Rasmussen – technical editor of Contemporary Haibun Online, web-designer for various online literary ventures and widely-published author of haibun – recently discussed with Linda, for Haibun Today, the various practical problems and future possibilities of her wedding of haibun and art.

Ray: Linda, I'm looking now at your "The Oseberg Find," an account of your visit to a Viking ship museum in Oslo. Instead of using literal photographs of the various parts of the museum and artifacts, you've made up panels composed of digitally modified images that look a bit like newspaper images in their texture and your text and haiku are placed strategically in different places. I think that your approach to this sort of presentation is rather unique. Could you tell us how you came to it?

Linda: As a style, it's actually rather easy because the frames, photo filters and font are all in the software package I'm using, Comic Life. If you go to the company's website, there's an online gallery where you'll see others that are recognizably similar to mine.

As an art teacher, I've noticed that many of our students are avid readers of graphic novels. Graphic novels are comic books that have novel-length plots, character development and a more complex graphic style than the old "funnies" that we remember from when we were kids. Asterix the Gaul and Tintin qualify as graphic novels, but so is Art Spiegelman's Maus. There are also science and history-based novels, and of course a huge market in the US for the Japanese style, called "manga". I started looking at them and realized their practical applications for integrating images into haibun.

Ray: Right, they have the look not of the comic books of my childhood, but of artistic pieces with a different artwork than fine art drawings or paintings or than the literal photography one usually finds in haiga. So, how do you think about them? Why do they work as they do? And am I right that this is a rather unique approach?

Linda: There are others who have put images to haibun. In online presentations, there are two ways to do this. The first is to make a two-column table in html, put the text in one column and a jpeg of the image in the other. This can make for a handsome web page, but text entered in html tends to stay text, while the image tends to sit in its jpeg as an illustration rather than participate in the haibun as a coequal to the prose and the poem.

The second is to treat the haibun like haiga text, inserting it into the jpeg itself. The problem here is that there may not be room for it in the image itself. That means creating a very large jpeg so that you can surround the image with a frame big enough for a column of text. There will be problems of large file size, slow download and inflexibility in adapting to various readers' screen sizes.

I tried both approaches but with neither could I achieve the kind of aesthetic unity one gets with haiga where the text is a simple, short haiku.

Comics have been called "sequential art" and have a highly developed set of graphic conventions that are designed to display the image and text in dynamic relationship so that meaning is created by their juxtaposition. These conventions bring text and image closer together than other art forms, and they offer a ready-made set of design conventions that work very well for combining haibun with haiga. By dividing the page into panels, pictorial imagery can expand beyond the single image to depict narrative progression, zoom or shifting point of view, while the text is in speech or thought balloons, captions, or cartoon effects, each of which comes with a visual code that cues us how we're to interpret it. In other words, images are 'read' and text is 'seen'. The aesthetic of page design in comics and graphic novels allows for every bit of space to be used economically, and the very arrangement on the page follows the reading order of a printed page – for us in our own print culture, that’s top to bottom, left to right.

Ray: Each frame of your “Oseberg Find” graphic haibun has three elements: text that explains the displays; images to illustrate your impressions of the ships and artifacts; and haiku or short poems. Let's start with the artwork. I see a mix of small, digital images that seem to be modifications of photographs and that show us the setting and artifacts, and you have background graphics that give your impressions of the character of the place. And the entire layout, the way these images are mixed, could be called a composite work of art.

Linda: Yes, I use multiple images on a page. When I began doing graphic haibun, I quickly realized that multiple images in juxtaposition on a page are necessary not only to get what we expect as the look of a comic but also to take advantage of its visual conventions. In the page size I use for online presentation, optimal design seems to be four to six frames, including both image and text panels.

Within the four pages of “The Oseberg Find,” you'll see four different ways that the images relate to one another. On page 1, there are three image panels, all of the ship. Two of them are actually the same photograph, though one is zoomed and manipulated with a different Photoshop filter; the third is a view of the carved bowsprit, from a different angle. If you think about it, it's like cubism. A Picasso, for instance, though what may have influenced me more directly is a video from a PBS children's art series called "Behind the Scenes” that I show my art students. It’s about perspective and features David Hockney drawing a chair, conflating multiple viewpoints into a single image. "It's not a chair," comments one of the children in the video, "It's a walk around a chair."

That's in fact what's going on in the first page of “The Oseberg Find”. The text speaks of walking around the ship, gazing up at it from floor level. In the subsequent pages of the series, the relationships between the images shift and develop. Page 2, which speaks about the grave goods, is centered on the sleigh as it’s displayed in a glass vitrine (showcase) in the museum, with other vitrines visible behind it. The secondary images are other artifacts that you see in the gallery. So it's still multiple points of view, but opening out to mirror the larger experience of being there by including more than is in the visual imagery of the page.

On page 3, the background is a much grayed-down reconstruction of one of the tapestries that is thought to depict the funeral cortege, an historical photo of the excavation, and another current view of the ship. So the point of view has now shifted from spatial to temporal–distant past when the ship was buried, recent past when she was dug up again, and the present. Page 4 is also temporal shift–in sunset a Viking ship and an airplane, vehicles of then and now.

Ray: Let's move to the prose. It doesn't seem to follow contemporary haibun practice, in that some of it is a bit like what you'd expect to read at the museum on signs explaining the displays, yet it's more succinct like haibun tends to be. How do you think about composing the prose for these pieces.

Linda: You’re right, though I’d point out that “The Oseberg Find” is pretty traditional in that it’s a travel haibun. My other graphic haibun are more what you've called "contemporary haibun practice" in that they directly focus on personal experience. The expository nature of this one is because of the subject matter, though actually the museum visit was a deeply personal experience. I went with two friends; it was a beautiful day, exquisite spring weather, and it was also the first time that I and one of the friends had talked at any length about the death of her son. Looking at the haibun now, it feels to me that I may have channeled some of this emotion into the experience of the museum, though this of course is not there for anyone who reads the haibun. I considered whether I should include some of this context but decided not to because it seemed to pull the prose off-focus. The "exposition” is because that’s what’s on your mind in a museum when you’re trying to absorb what you’re seeing by reading the gallery labels.

Also, I'm an art historian and all of us who study history have at some moment or another experienced an intense empathetic connection with the past. Viking art isn’t my specialty. When I got home, I plunged into reading about it avidly. Getting the factoids under control was a problem. I dealt with it by balancing each page with a personal response centered on the haiku.

Ray: As for the short poems, or haiku: Here again you seem not to be following the more typical 17-syllables or less, 2-phrase methodology. This isn't to suggest that that's the only approach to haiku, but, given that some of the haiku aren't conventional, tell us how you think of them.

Linda: You’re right. Pages 1 and 2 are inverted-syntax haiku; page 3 doesn't have a poem at all, and page 4 has a tanka. And none of them are particularly compelling as stand-alone haiku, are they? Recently I’ve been reading Bruce Ross’s essays on haibun. In “Narratives of the Heart,” he recounts a session at 2001 HNA where they discussed which comes first in haibun writing, prose or haiku. For me, both tend to pop into my head about the same time, at least in embryonic form. They may change substantially but I always test multiple versions of the poem to make sure that it says what I want it to.

Ray: Tell us a bit more about how you think about integrating text, haiku/tanka images and page design. It seems that you have a lot more to manage than someone doing standard haiga [image + prose/haiku].

Linda: The first time I tried haibun with a graphical interface, I wrote the text, then put it into a page in Comic Life with images based on photos of the same locale. Later, I realized that the graphics and images were no more than add-ons rather than part of the living, organic whole. Now, I ask myself, what part of what I want to say is best allocated to the text, what to the images. Because there’s so much more at play here than just writing, graphic haibun are extremely labor-intensive–much more so than purely text-based haibun. In a graphic presentation, the minutest details count–how size and shape of the text box affects where the line breaks will occur, how position of text and image elements draw the reader’s eye across the page to create meaning. Text-based haibun are processed linearly, beginning to end. But in a graphic presentation, with visual processing, all the elements within the picture frame are simultaneously at play as the eye darts back and forth in response to compositional movement, focal point, repetition of forms.

I'm not a "broad shift" writer in general and in my graphic haibun the haiku tend to be even closer to the prose because the images introduce so much more complexity.

Ray: Let's get back to the haiku. In haibun composition, there's been some theory advanced about the relationship of the haiku to the prose. What about this more complex mix of images, prose and haiku?

Linda: The question that comes up often in the context of both haibun and haiga is how independent and self-sufficient must the haiku be? It's been suggested that both image and haiku must be able to stand alone within their respective forms yet achieve new meaning and depth in juxtaposition.

What does that mean? Obviously, if you have a haiku that can flower into its fullness as a text-only haiku, it would be pointless at best, overkill at worst, to stick it into a haiga or haibun. In the other direction, you don't want a haiku that’s simply redundant of prose or image. What is said of haibun is that the haiku shouldn't be able to be "folded back" into the prose; the equivalent in haiga is that the haiku should not describe what we already see.

There’s an idea that has taken hold–that the haiku has to be about something completely different. From time to time, submissions come to Haigaonline where the text is so close to the image as to be almost a caption. I look at them and think, according to the “rules” this shouldn’t work, yet it does. That’s set me to mulling the whole question of linking. In the current issue of Haigaonline, we have a workshop exercise in haikuing photographs in various link modes, from repetition of what's in the image out to juxtaposition, or "scent linking" as Basho called it in the context of renku.

The exercise will be part of an ongoing study of text/image relationships. I’ve found that text-image linking in comics uses the same categories we do, and they also have a concept of linking. They call it “closure”. It’s the “gutter”, that space between the panels where the reader has to leap in and construct how one framed image relates to the next––narrative sequence, zoom in, pan out, redundancy/emphasis, changing point of view, etc.

So that’s one reason why I find that haibun takes so readily to a graphical presentation in the Comic Life layout software. Graphic novels and comics come ready-made with a vocabulary and syntax for doing just that. By treating texts and images as semiotic systems, turning text into graphics and making images read as text they collapse the differences between the two. There’s flow and unity in the whole.

Because of the way linking is embedded in comics format, I have taken to heart what Bruce Ross has said about renku-style linking being central to haibun as a form. Haiga is another form that privileges the link–on some level we all know this, though I wonder how many of us have taken the next step of recognizing that haiga and haibun are like renku except that the poem links to prose or image rather than to another poem. It’s my opinion that everyone who wants to practice either haibun or haiku should seriously look at renku.

First, in renku only the hokku or first verse has the fragment/cut/phrase structure that is fundamental to haiku; in all the links that follow, whether two- or three-lines, there is no cut. Renga practitioners do not conceive of their links as self-contained because their meaning derives not from within but rather from linking to what’s before and after.

Second, renku has a highly developed and codified approach to linking that offers a much wider range of possibilities than most of us imagine when we’re writing for haibun or haiga. There’s an article on the Renku Home page that I’ve found indispensable: “Link and Shift: A Practical Guide to Renku Composition” by Tadashi Shôkan Kondô and William J. Higginson. I recommend it to anyone who wants to build their haiga or haibun skills. Another is Ferris Gilli’s essay, “English Grammar: Variety in Renku.”

Now, regarding my single-image haiku on pages 1 and 2 of “The Oseberg Find”: Neither has a cut but rather, inverted syntax and I think of them as really more like renku links. Also, both haiku proceed from their pages’ prose narratives rather than leap away to different subject matter or locale. This is something that seems to be frowned on in haibun and haiga, but why? Janice Bostok said that she’d like to see this kind of linking “allowed” rather than only the “leaping away” method (“Must haibun contain haiku?” in Stylus Poetry Journal). In renku context, it’s also what Kondo and Higginson call “object linking” and in renku it’s not a no-no, though you’d want to vary it and use other modes of linking too.

I think I’ve done that. On pages 1 and 2, the haiku proceed from the prose but neither repeats what has already been said–as if prose and haiku ever could say exactly the same thing. I’ve tried to follow Ross and center the “epiphany” of these pages in the haiku by writing them as personal response to the factual narrative of the prose. If you look at the progression of the haibun across its four pages, you’ll also see a widening relationship between the prose and poetry. On page 4 the epiphany of the whole haibun is a tanka that leaps away to the departure area of the Oslo airport.

Ray: That brings up the subject of tanka versus haiku in haibun and haiga.

Linda: There's also been a suggestion that tanka shouldn't be used in haibun. I respect the writers who say this, with reservations. Haigaonline has always accepted haiga with tanka; they work in haiga very differently from haiku, but sometimes you want that. In graphic haibun, I find that they bring a different pacing to the page. In “The Oseberg Find,” I did try to cut this one down to a haiku but it just didn't say what I wanted it to. The prose text is much shorter on that page, so I guess that the two have found their own equilibrium.

Ray: Which graphic haibun among your works combines the three elements –prose, verse and image–more convincingly than in your other graphic haibun? Can you explain where and how this particular work succeeds in ways that others may have not?

Linda: It’s more a matter of progressing as I learn the possibilities of comic mode, especially the different ways of treating text. In my early efforts, I put everything, prose, text and image in frames. With experience, I’ve learned how to articulate the parts of the page for different levels of meaning. Text that is boxed tends to be read as the author’s voice; text laid directly on an image or against an open section of the gutter has more–how shall I call it?–“is-ness”. Similarly, the experiential level of the images differs whether they’re framed in panels, laid across the background as gutter, and whether they’re left as photographs or filtered so as to move them more into the realm of imagination. There are so many possibilities; so far I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Ray: Thanks Linda for taking the time to tell us about the whys and wherefores of this intriguing approach to linking images and text and the idea of doing sequential as opposed to single image/poem presentations. We'll list links to your other graphic haibun pieces so that readers can have a feel for this treatment on a variety of subjects, and, as you pointed out above, they'll be able to see that some of the accounts are more personalized than the museum piece.



“Keepers,” haigaonline V7 N2 Autumn / Winter 2006

“Lingering Snow,” haigaonline V7 N1 Spring / Summer 2006

“Mnemosyne,” Santa Fe Poetry Broadside #49, October 2006

“The Oseberg Find,” haigaonline V8 N2 Autumn / Winter 2007

“Putting By,” Simply Haiku V4, N2, Summer 2006

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