Friday, November 2, 2007

Archives Project: STL #36

Title: Perfect Example
Description:Reading comics, reading poetry, and presenting papers
Date: 18 March 2004

Not only did I not present (or write) this paper, I never even heard back from the panel chair I submitted the proposal to. That's some seriously unprofessional bullsheet.

The usefulness of academic conferences isn't really clear to me. I went a few weeks ago to one where I learned a lot: the Flair Symposium on Modernism. Of course, I went as an attendee, and all the speakers were well-respected and most of them were even smart. Not so with the ones I actually present at. But you want something on your cv, so I try to go to one or two per semester. Last fall it was a regional MLA in Arkansas (a sort of farm team for the MLA, who recently turned down my proposal), but this spring I'm staying close to home with a grad student conference on campus and a big ole pop culture conference in San Antone. (Pathetically enough, both papers are on blogs.)

Anyhoo, at that last SCMLA conference I got myself signed up to be the secretary of the panel I was on, so I "have to" go to this year's. ("Have to" in quotes b/c it's in New Orleans, so wasn't exactly a hard sell.) So that I wouldn't just have to go and watch, I sent out a couple of paper proposals this week. Since I feel myself getting more sporadic with my dear STL, I thought I'd post the more hare-brained of the two, which tries to unite two of my passions: poetry in the Pound tradition and comic books.

The most popular alias for comic books—the pretentious phrase “graphic novels”—plainly reveals a common assumption of readers and critics of comics: that they are by nature narrative, that they are essentially a type of illustrated prose fiction. This assumption has become the dominant interpretive frame which determines and therefore limits possible reading of comics. It derives from Scott McCloud’s influential Understanding Comics, which defines the form as “sequential art.” The structure of comics apparently support this narrative presumption: panel follows panel, action follows action. Scanning a comic strip or page, the narrative progress of ‘this happened, then this happened’ seems clear. However, I will argue that the narrative interpretive frame occludes what might be called the poetic nature of some comics. My paper will survey the prevalence of the narrative model, delineate its limits, and offer a supplementary frame based not on prose but on poetry.

While there are many possible poetic models to consider, I will focus on one of the most influential to modern and post-modern poetic practice: Ezra Pound’s “ideogrammatic method.” Though based on Ernest Fenollosa’s misinterpretation of the Chinese ideogram, Pound’s theory has provided a formal base for 20th century American poetry. It is based on the repetition and combination of images to signify concepts or themes which are not explicitly named. The understanding of the Chinese ideogram which underpins Pound’s theory depends on the representational quality of some ideograms: for example, the symbol for the sun resembles the sun. This understanding of writing gives us insight into the functioning of what McCloud calls “the language of comics.” Pictorial and nonpictorial elements (words) combine to form the vocabulary of a comics text, while Pound’s logic of the ideogram provides a syntax.

In presenting the paper, I would select images of a number of comics to illustrate my claims. Two likely sources would be Art Spiegleman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, which certainly tells a story but need not be equated to prose, and John Porcellino’s lesser-known Perfect Example. Porcellino’s stories are lyrical and digressive, and reading them as narratives obscures their best qualities.

I kind of hope they turn this down (and the other panel accepts me) but if not, expect to see me develop here before next Halloween.

reading: Blood Oranges by John Hawkes, Alice Munro's stories, Sound of the Best (a history of metal), Berube's Employment of English
listening: downloads of classic metal (Iron Maiden, Dio era Sabbath)
watching: Starsky and Hutch, Millenium Actress, Pieces of April, Secret Lives of Dentists

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