All too often, we define textual hybridity in terms of literary genres, implying that a writer may only transgress boundaries within his or her own discipline. This perspective seems especially common among small press publishers and other cultural gatekeepers, who express a desire to publish texts that don’t fit neatly into genre categories, yet often neglect to incorporate the visual arts in their discussions of what constitutes hybrid work. As a result, many contemporary poets and fiction writers are hesitant to experiment outside of or beyond the realm of text.
What’s perhaps most exciting about Sidebrow Books, a small press publisher based in Portland, Oregon, is the editors’ commitment to expanding our sense of what is possible within a hybrid text. Much of their innovative and thought-provoking catalogue exists at the interstices of poetry and prose, text and image, book and art object. Five recent titles in particular present the book as an interdisciplinary space, calling our attention to the myriad ways that texts can be as visually engaging as they are attentive to the intricacies of language.
Sidebrow Books frequently offers readers collaborations between visual artists and writers working across genres within the literary arts. Hybridity is made to encompass not just cross-genre work, but cross-disciplinary inquiry. For instance, Wilkinson and Rutili’s Selenography pairs spare, image-driven lyrics with Polaroid photographs. What’s perhaps most fascinating about this project is the way that the photographs are not treated as mere illustrations of the text, but rather, are allowed to complicate each of the poems, opening up a variety of possibilities for interpretation on the part of the reader. In most instances, there is no immediate correlation between the content of the poems and Polaroids that are juxtaposed, but rather, recurring images are echoed in very different contexts. The collaborators’ presentation of their work in Selenography suggests an affinity between the photographic image and the poetic image, particularly as the same motifs are carried from medium to another and back again. In many ways, the collaborators question the boundaries between text and image, suggesting that they can become indistinct if we allow them to be.
Consider this passage,
a fresh field
together between the cold radio
easing into the doorjamb
Juxtaposed with a photograph of discarded pieces of machinery, the poem is especially well-crafted, given its cross-disciplinary context. I’m intrigued by the collaborators’ decision not to punctuate the poem, a choice that suggests the text’s porous boundaries. Thus photograph and text may blur into one another, appropriate one another, and complicate one another. Like many of the recent texts from Sidebrow Books, Wilkinson and Rutili’s Selenography suggests the artifice of the categories that we impose upon not only language, but creative expression more generally.
Along these lines, Sandy Florian and Alexis Anne Mackenzie’s On Wonderland and Waste explores the ways that visual art can instruct us as to how to read literary texts. By presenting mixed-media collages alongside hybrid prose, Florian and Mackenzie direct our attention to the collage-like texture of the language being used, underscoring the appropriative qualities of the writing. I’m fascinated by the collaborators’ decision to preface each prose piece with a collage, as the artwork shows the reader how to enter the text in subtle but crucial ways. Consider this passage from “Franchise,”
You skip that part. And we wait. She does not come. Then there’s a question. Then another part and then from then on it’s all stones and doorways. In the crux of any translated language there is always the text. A text. What did she say about yesterday?
This passage, presented alongside a collage that utilizes vintage stationary, watch ads, and women’s magazines, makes similar use of juxtaposition. Like the artist’s melding of commercial and domestic discourses, the text transitions swiftly between registers, suggesting that vastly different types of rhetoric can coexist within the same rhetorical space. Because readers encounter the visual text first, they are undoubtedly more attentive to these subtle shifts in register, but also, they are made to see that even texts that seem unified, coherent, and whole are in some ways, polyphonic. One encounters many disparate cultural texts every day, so consciousness itself exhibits such collage-like qualities, retaining images, phrases, and rhetoric from the ephemera that we encounter. Like Selenography, On Wonderland and Waste offers readers a thought-provoking definition of hybridity, in which both text and image extend beyond their chosen medium.
Sidebrow Books also offers readers an array of single-author hybrid genre texts, which are consistently striking in their engagement with the space of the printed page and the book as a material object. Elaine Bleakney’s For Another Writing Back, for example, skillfully undermines the reader’s expectations of prose, using the visual appearance of the text to evoke our preconceived ideas about what prose should or ought to be like. Offering us gorgeously fractured sentences within seemingly pristine paragraphs, Bleakney calls our attention to the ways we have been conditioned to expect literary texts to fit neatly within existing grammatical and narrative structures. Bleakney subtly suggests that these familiar modes of thinking and writing ultimately limit what is possible within a given text. She writes,
Timurca, ones who kept their dead closer to us. North of here, someone dug up the long wooden owl they made. Intact, eyes smoothed in dilation, the kind of dream-find my sister, the crew chief, wants where the pipeline will go down. So she can say, Stop. Somewhere in Wyoming before the ground hardens.
Here Bleakney offers the reader the illusion of wholeness, giving us a provocative fragmentation of meaning within a text that seems, at first glance, to adhere to received structures of writing and communicating. We are unsure where “North of here” is, where “in Wyoming” the ground is hardening, and the relationship between “the long wooden owl” and the “ones who keep their dead closer.” Although meticulously punctuated, and seeming to offer us narrative, Bleakney invites the reader to forge connections between images, ideas, and events within the text, participating actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. With that in mind, Bleakney asks us to consider the ways in which writing is almost always a collaborative act. What’s most impressive about this book is the way that she consistently uses the visual presentation of the work on the page to address these complex theoretical issues. I’m fascinated by Bleakney’s suggestion that poems are visual, even when we don’t necessarily realize it. Hybridity becomes not only a melding of literary genres, but rather, the freedom to extend beyond one’s chosen medium, making use of visual and sonic elements to complicate and compliment a text that already exists across and beyond genre categories.
On a related note, Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s single-author volume, The Courier’s Archive and Hymnal, asks us to consider the myriad possibilities of white space within a hybrid text. As Wilkinson’s book unfolds, he uses the page as a visual field, suggesting that negative space can be nearly as communicative as the words themselves. Like Bleakney’s work, Wilkinson’s collection calls our attention to the ways that a text’s presentation on the page may function as an extension of the content of the work.
Presented in small prose boxes, perfectly aligned and centered, the prose pieces in The Courier’s Archive and Hymnal frequently implement white space within these seemingly whole constructions. In many ways, Wilkinson posits wholeness—of a literary text, as well as narrative—as an illusion, a fantasy that holds allure because of our own fractured experience of the world around us. In much the same way that the individual must find narrative continuity within the disparate phenomena that he or she encounters in everyday life, Wilkinson offers us fragments that we must connect through our own imaginative work. He suggests the artifice inherent in any narrative, offering a graceful matching of form and content all the while. For instance, he writes,
Where’s you learn your stony knock?
Your hithering gets the blood to cadence. A nurse
at the net mender’s ear with invisible talk.
Clouds above uncoiling rope to the world’s black
socket. My fingers ground to a cartoon glow, as
the ocean roils yellow & gauges dock the moon.
There is much to be admired here, but I found Wilkinson’s adherence to received grammatical structures to be especially interesting. By offering a provocative fragmentation of meaning within seemingly pristine sentences, Wilkinson suggests that grammar, like narrative, represents a desire to create continuity from the disparate phenomena of the world around us. Because these seemingly grammatical sentences are presented within what appear to be pristine and perfectly measured prose boxes, Wilkinson subtly draws a parallel between grammar and narrative, as both are revealed as mere artifice. Much like Bleakney’s collection, the poet’s use of the space of the page to make these compelling theoretical arguments proved to be consistently impressive.
Lastly, Roxanne Carter’s Beyond This Point Are Monsters offers a similarly thought-provoking approach to the visual presentation of hybrid text. Presented in what appears to be neatly delineated chapters, comprised of grammatically impeccable sentences, Carter’s decision to eschew conventions dictating the capitalization of proper nouns and other words is visually striking. In many ways, this lack of capitalization serves as an equalizing force, giving all words within the book equal weight within the narrative. Carter subtly and artfully interrogates grammar from within, questioning its implicit hierarchies and judgments about phenomena in the world around us. She elaborates,
she can hear the line. strapped against the wall. furniture crashing, a waterfall rearranging the room. she is interested in what is to come.
ritual function: the door closes, not effective to merely report the door closing, the bang click and echo. the fireplace never without, unable to finish burning.
I’m intrigued by Carter’s matching of style and content in this passage. By hinting at the violence inherent in everyday domestic tasks, she suggests the myriad ways that language itself is inherently destructive. Indeed, certain types of words are imbued with greater or lesser importance, and all of language is made to fit within a preconceived hierarchy. Carter prompts us to consider the ways that the judgments inherent in language, its implicit assumptions about the world around us, are gendered, reflecting larger structures of power and authority within society more generally. Her visual and stylistic presentation of the work may be read as an intervention, an interrogation of linguistic convention. Like Bleakney and Wilkinson, Carter consistently dazzles with her ability to convey complex theoretical ideas through her visual presentation of the work on the printed page.
In short, Sidebrow Books offers an impressive array of hybrid texts that question the boundaries of their chosen discipline, exploring the idea that literary works are visual in ways we rarely realize or fully acknowledge. The titles in this press’s eclectic catalogue offer an exciting and refreshing definition of hybridity, in which the book affords an interdisciplinary space where visual experimentation can compliment and complicate textual innovation. With new books on the horizon from Julia Bloch and Popahna Brandes, Sidebrow Books is a publisher to watch.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.