Poetry & Graphic Art: The Collaborations of Nick Flynn and Josh Neufeld
"I've just always collaborated," poet Nick Flynn said in an interview with Poets.org. "As a writer, it's interesting to talk to other artists and try my hand at different art forms. I'm intrigued by how the arts can overlap." Flynn’s many collaborations include forays into several media: a group of dancers performed an improvisation inspired by Flynn's poetry at New York’s annual Improvisation Festival and incorporated Flynn himself into the dance; Flynn read poems from his second collection, Blind Huber, into an answering machine and the Australian band Pondskater mixed clips of the recorded poems with their own music; visual artist Bill Shuck created an installation and video based on one of Flynn’s poems; and when, as a recipient of the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, Flynn spent time in Tanzania, he consulted with Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper regarding different ways to represent reality. This creative dialogue with Sauper has recently come full circle: "Both he and I were working on documentaries," Flynn explains. "He was making Darwin’s Nightmare and I was writing my memoir. His film won the Venice Film Festival the same day as the launch party for my book. It was satisfying to see our different but very similar projects come together at the same time. There was a pleasing symmetry to it."
In 1999, Flynn explored the intersections between poetry and art with graphic artist Josh Neufeld. Flynn was a second-year fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Neufeld was living and working in Provincetown. "The Poetry Society of America contacted Nick about the possibility of collaborating with a visual artist," Neufeld explains, "and, since Nick and I were friends, Nick thought of me and the poem, 'Cartoon Physics, part 1.'"
Though Neufeld had previously created art inspired by poetry, his response to Flynn's poem differed from previous collaborations because his conversations with Flynn helped fuel his creative process: "Even though the poem was already written," Neufeld recalls, "it still felt like something we set out to do together because I was able to discuss the poetry with Nick." The art inspired by "Cartoon Physics, part 1" was published in the Poetry Society of America’s Crossroads magazine and included in the traveling exhibit "Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation," published in an issue of World War 3 Illustrated and shown in the 2002 International Comics Festival in Athens, Greece.
Later, Neufeld created art inspired by "Father Outside," another poem from Some Ether, Flynn's PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award-winning first collection of poetry. Flynn selected "Father Outside" as the subject of another cross-genre collaboration in part because he refers to the poem in his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which deals with Flynn's relationship with his father and with his father's homelessness. The poem also appealed to Flynn for the purpose of collaborating with Neufeld because of its aesthetic similarity to "Cartoon Physics, part 1." Flynn explains that the two poems "have a similar structure: both present a loose, evocative narrative. With the art inspired by both poems, I was interested in how Josh fixed the narrative to one location in one panel." "Father Outside" begins:
A black river flows down the center
of each page
on either side the banks
are wrapped in snow. My father is ink falling
in tiny blossoms, a bottle
wrapped in a paperbag.
"When I first wrote that poem," Flynn said, "that first image seemed abstract to me—with the ink down the center of each page as a metaphor for writing about my father. I've lived with the writing of my poems for a long time, so the images all seem fluid and atmospheric." Neufeld approached the images in Flynn’s poem more concretely: "It surprised and interested me," Flynn says, "that Josh set the scene for that poem at a river surrounded by snow, grounding the poem in a specific setting."
The judge's statement for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award notes that the poems in Some Ether embody the act of survival: "Syntax and line conspire to pull us past the event, beyond the struggle." In his review of Some Ether for Ploughshares, poet Tony Hoagland also praises the effectiveness of Flynn’s "elegant" and "unwinding" syntax and line breaks. While Flynn gave Neufeld free reign to reshape his poems in the context of the art, Neufeld found Flynn's line breaks and stanzas helpful in understanding the poetry. Flynn recalls, "Initially, the whole poem read like a seamless narrative but, when Josh broke the poem down into lines and stanzas, it helped him see the structure of the poem. He could see how lines and images fit together." Neufeld elaborates, "I do all of the lettering in my art by hand, so I had to rewrite Nick's poems by hand. I'm really just a casual reader of poetry, so I was surprised at how the act of writing the poem, in order to pace it with my art, helped me better understand the poem." Neufeld observes, "I had to read the poetry more slowly and closely than I might normally read."
The value of collaboration as an approach to education is of particular interest to Flynn: in the spring of 2005 he taught a course in collaboration at the University of Houston. Taught by faculty from the university's visual arts, music, theater, and creative writing departments, Collaboration Among the Arts provides a group of twenty students with the opportunity to create mixed media collaborations. Flynn says of his collaboration with Neufeld, "It would have been almost impossible for me to explain to someone how the poem worked, but in order to create his response to the poem, Josh came to understand how I had put the poem together. That was satisfying for both of us." Flynn‘s reflections concur with Neufeld‘s concluding thought on the collaboration: "I found a more profound way to enter into the poem."
See a full-sized version of "Father Outside":