“According to the Demands of the Text”

Responses from C. Mikal Oness of Sutton Hoo Press

Q: How do you balance artwork and text in your books? What is the importance of this balance? What are the different effects of the variety of relationships that might exist between art and poetry in the book format (consider the difference between poetry-art books in which images are used to “illustrate” a text, those in which a text is used to accent artwork, those that aim to more fully integrate the two art forms, etc.)?

CMO: I’m interested in what people have come to call artist’s books, and know that they have become sexy in the field and among collectors. I like visual art, and I like structures, and feel they are of equal importance to the verbal text in the making of meaning in a book. Sometimes I have incorporated as many pages of visual text as verbal text in a book. Of course, even if I feel that the variety and subtlety of the codex format and binding structure is also a part of the meaning-making machine that is the book, such projects are never looked upon as artists books. In the end, I think that may be a good thing for me, as I feel many artists books diminish the importance of text too much, and their intentions are too transparent, and they feel contrived to me. I don’t think I’ll ever be a part of that club, though I had, in my earlier days really wanted to be considered. Now I draw from the energy of my collaborators; I take what they give me and read and make the project according to the demands of the texts and my desire to push the technology to whatever limit seems appropriate for the project at hand.

Q: How do you select artwork and poetry that will be published together in one volume? What are your primary criteria for each art form? Which comes first in your selection or publication planning process—image or text?

CMO: When I’m dreaming about what author or what text to use for a book, I often have in mind an artist as well, and an idea about what I think that artist could do for the project. It doesn’t ever work out the way I originally intend, which of course is also part of my intension. I have never given a writer a visual text and asked for a verbal text to go along with it. I have never been able to write like that myself, and have never liked ekphrastic writing I’ve read. Again, it seems contrived. I have given artists manuscripts, however, and asked for their visual contribution, but I have always been clear with them, and talked extensively with them, about NOT ILLUSTRATING THE TEXT. Read it, sure, but work on a visual text that has its own integrity separate from the manuscript. There may be a perverse prejudice in me or a writerly arrogance that feels that it is okay for an artist to work off of a verbal text, but not for a writer to work off a visual text, but for some reason I am more comfortable discussing the caveats involved with a visual artist then I would be working it out with a poet writing about pictures. Let’s remember that the binding structure is a text in itself that joins the chorus early on in the reader’s experience of the book. I have been blessed with very talented, skilled, and patient collaborators in this regard. There are always hours of discussion about the binding structure.



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