“An image flares with story, idea, and philosophy”: A Conversation with Poet & Visual Artist Jenny Grassl – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Jenny Grassl was raised in Pennsylvania, and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her poems appeared in The Boston Review as a runner-up prize selected by Mary Jo Bang. Rhino Poetry, Phantom Drift, Radar Poetry, and The Massachusetts Review have published her poems. Other journals include Ocean State Review, Rogue Agent, and Inverted Syntax. Her poetry is included in the anthologies BOSTON, the cities series of Dostoyevsky Wannabe Press, and Humanagerie, Eibonvale Press, UK. Her work was published in a National Poetry Month feature of Iowa Review. Lana Turner and Tupelo Quarterly will publish her poems in upcoming issues.

Kristina Marie Darling: You are a gifted writer, as well as an accomplished visual artist. What has your background in photography, collage, etc. opened up within your poetry?

Jenny Grassl: This is a great question. My background in visual art has inspired me to create poems with layered images and collaged words. I became comfortable using text as a visual entity by doing the art collages.  I found that poetry can use shapes and texture to tell a story or interrupt one. I worked for a while making what I called “interior landscapes,” using a panorama format. Sometimes I made the pictures from a series of photographs “stitched” together. This idea still interests me—how a sweeping view might stand for something enclosed or hidden, in a photo and also in a poem.

Portraits I photographed suggested narratives of women, staged with pieces of the natural world. Our interactions—between me (the photographer), my muse, and nature— unfolded as improvised moments. These encounters shaped themes in my poetry.  

KMD: What I particularly enjoy about your poetry is the way the page becomes a visual field, a canvas. In a literary landscape where most poems are left margined, I find this approach refreshing. What’s more, the visual appearance of the work on the page frequently shapes the poem’s music and meaning. What advice do you have for poets who are hesitant to take risks with form?

JG: Get started, and don’t look back! To begin thinking about form on the page, look at figure-ground relationships in visual art—how they create tension. Positive and negative space are equal players, interacting and sometimes swapping places, like the well-known urn and two profiled faces. Gaps blaze transformations, because white space is synaptic. 

I would suggest experimenting by thinking of the poem as a photographic negative, imagining white space as a dark void (or welcoming shade), and the text as light. One could invite light and shadow to play together, illuminating and concealing elements of the poem. Or, the text can be darkness, and space light. Words will attract or repel each other and the spaces when you move them around, revealing magnetics of the field. Yes, jump into the page—

KMD: You have a talent for using imagery— and provocative juxtapositions of disparate images— to suggest and evoke a range of ideas from the philosophical to the narrative. What are some of the artistic advantages of letting imagery speak for itself in a poem or hybrid text?

JG: At its best, an image flares with story, idea, and philosophy, electric in the senses. It radiates or cascades with associations, allowing the reader to leap, connect, and create her own insights. To experience images fully, the reader must become image-literate. This requires reading words with the body as well as the mind. Meaning must be apprehended, instantly or in the fifth reading. I am thinking of Hopkins’ lines: “My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled/ Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun.” What can I say? The body-reader dies, and comes back to life. 

KMD: Will you share a writing prompt with our readers?

JG: Sure. Write a poem using the whole page. Think of placing words, spaces, and lines as symbols on a map. Create a river (flow), a place name (image), a rest stop (pause), a highway (connecting lines), a remote forest (the imaginative terrain), or whatever catches your fancy. Now imagine walking through the place you have mapped, finding your way, perhaps running to get out of the rain for a spell. What do you see, hear, and feel? Where and when will this happen? Write it on the map. Why are you feeling at all? If this isn’t enough, cut your map in pieces and rearrange what you have written. 

KMD: What else are you working on? 

JG: I seem to be writing about times when magic interleaves the everyday. What is this like at the end of the world? Questions and answers surprise me! Another theme is the suppressed mystical causing trouble in America. I wonder, if we engage it can we benefit? It is difficult to know what I am working on until I am finished. Poems have their own lives, beyond the subjects I assign them. Each must have its own DNA, and be born shivering.