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Poetry Comics


Suicide Hotline Hold Music

by Jessy Randall

Red Hen Press, 2016


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Sometimes it seems as if the poetry world is forever on a search for the New. Or I should say, New! Going further, the highest praise for poetry these days is to say it “reinvents language.” As if the English language has been basically used up, and poets are tasked with making it work again, from the ground up. Or maybe it’s that poetry itself no longer draws the audiences of yore: “yore” being…Elizabethan theater? Homer’s Greece? Perhaps Kennedy’s inauguration? In any case, one can safely say that there are two tribes in the poetry world: the highbrow, dominated by academia, and the lowbrow, dominated by pop music lyrics, poetry slams, rap, and greeting card/ Internet poetry. The former is held to high standards, divided into genres, and is judged by editorial and “established” peer discretion. The latter is held to to the standard of popularity (and/or monetary success). The search for the New! is part of highbrow poetry’s search for a validation of its existence, at odds with what have become the Western values of profit and popularity über alles. Enter Jessy Randall in the middle of all this with her third poetry collection, Suicide Hotline Hold Music. Not only does she not reinvent language, she uses the same vernacular we hear in sit-coms, grocery checkout lines, and the corridors of middle school. Yet manages to put our brains on “refresh” mode, looking at ourselves and the world differently. I attribute this to her unique voice; perfectly balanced (funny but not too funny; weird yet recognizable; whimsically satirical) to fulfill the directive for suicide hotlines, as stated in her title poem: “the main thing is to keep them on the line.”


On this point, Randall’s voice permeates both the comics and the poetry, managing through her playfulness, subtle wit, and counterpoint between “normal” and wacky, to keep us with her. Her poetry is not so much about the astounding phrase or unheard-of imagery, but rather about a tension between revelation and restraint, the commonplace and the outrageous, a low-key, ordinary walk through a surprising otherworld within. With comics as simple and basic as one could imagine added to mostly brief poems and unassuming diction, she manages to present a surprising and satisfying array of experiential wisdom. Like this example from “Pool Rules,” a list poem whose elements jump from the expected to those which speak apparently to a wider pool:


No smoking. No horseplay. There will be

no stealing of your best friend’s boyfriend.

No nose-picking. Say please. In sexual matters,

be generous, but do not think of it that way.

No watch-wearing. No digital clocks. No

t-shirts with sayings on them. Spell *ketchup*

with a *k*. Do not drink to excess. If you must

read a book in the bathtub, be careful. Turn off

cell phones unless you enjoy subtle disdain.


This is how I like my rules, in what seems like no particular order, yet whose order gives it the element of surprise. But in case that strikes you as too suburban, she already admitted to suburbanizing New York (“I Ruined New York”: “I’m the one who wrecked … the alive, excited state of the streets, the way the museums embraced everyone who came in”) and has passed through the “Nine Circles of Motherhood Hell” (a poetry cartoon), the best defense of mothers I’ve seen in a long while. (See below.)


The title’s mention of “suicide,” couched as it is in “hold music,” almost imperceptibly acknowledges the human condition, its necessity to deal with death and despair. If this book was meant as a sort of antidote, it may well have succeeded. I found myself drawn back to it when, sans hotline, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Maybe it was the wisdom of the “Food Diary of Gark the Troll.” Or more likely, knowing things could be worse—knowing I could have been “The Girlfriend of Time,” who ended up with “a face full/ of ectoplasm and no one to cry to.”


The unspoken element here is that her poems ring true. Social commentary slips through the comedic approach with a sleight of hand in which neither overwhelms the other. One of my favorites is this:


The Practice Children


“assignments might include divvying up responsibilities in a ‘practice house’ that sometimes even included ‘practice children’ borrowed from local orphanages.” —Emily McCombs, “Home sweet Home ec,” Bust, August/September 2009.


We know we’re only for practice. It’s

a comfort to us. Nothing we do has any

long-term effect, so we can behave perfectly,

for a time, win prizes for our goodness and then

it’s right back on the bus home again,

regular life waiting for us, the bunk beds,

the dinner trays, the horrible bathrooms.

We’re practicing, too. We’re practicing on you.


Here she explores the word “practice” itself and the psychological cruelty of its use through the voice of the children, “we.” This in itself acts as both a rebuttal to and exposition of the callous negation of the children’s individuality in the quote. Without showing anger or speaking out of character, the children’s voice creates a subtle jab at the quote’s moral vacuity with “earn prizes for our goodness” and “regular life waiting for us.” Here the words “goodness,” “regular” and “perfect” are used to poignant and satiric effect. Of course, the best part is the last line, where the “practice children” turn the tables. We can only guess what that involves.


Part of what’s trending in poetry now is genre-bending. By including poetry comics, Randall can certainly check that box. What interests me most is that although poetry comics is an amalgam of words and graphics, with the latter usually dominant, her voice remains a constant in both. The simple and down-to-earth (or TV) language is the same in both. The graphics too are simple and down-to-earth, giving the sense that anyone could do it. It’s a matter of the same wit and casual tone interspersed with quirkiness, applied differently. That the poems are mostly short and the comics simple certainly holds the notoriously short modern attention span. She fills that short space with observations that keep us reading. As one might imagine, in experimenting with a medium, some efforts will be more successful than others. In her quest for brevity, for packing subtle meaning into the simplest and most rudimentary of graphic and verbal juxtapositions, a few of her poems and comics fall flat in their restatement of the obvious. If she was banking on sparsity itself as a poetic device juxtaposed with the humor of oversimplification, it works sometimes but not all of the time—although this is more a matter of subjectivity and taste than fatal flaw. What we get in return from her “investment” is that even what doesn’t seem to say much does so out of understatement. So you’re underwhelmed? Turn the freaking page..!.. Now that’s better.  It may be a letdown in the sense that one, expecting a ladybug, finds a potato bug. But was that really so bad?


Which brings up the issue of what we hope to find in literature. Since Randall’s work really takes on some of the features of what I described above as “lowbrow”—accessibility, common language, comics (as opposed to the Visual Poetry use of blurry typeface as Art), humor, and brevity—she may find herself not only straddling genres, but worlds as well: the Art world as opposed to the Pop world. Rewinding history a bit, this has been done successfully by no less than Shakespeare, who wrote plays for the common man, not a literate culture, made accessible via theatre. There has always been a back-and-forth between the Cultured and the Boor; education (think middle school) forms an equalizer in modern society. By harkening back to a younger school age, Randall leaves the post-grads in a quandary: this is not your MFA-certified material, so is it Poetry? Even poetry comics can be done with more finesse, in technicolor no less. It’s…well, what is it? Whatever it is, it’s New! And that means unique.


So here we are, in this era of depression and despair, Trump looming like a giant bully on the horizon, the 99% counting yachts while we count imaginary sheep, suicide hotlines sprouting everywhere, and I do not, on certain days, really want to hear long odes by Jorie Graham. I want to hear the sound of  “Everybody’s Hair in Middle School.” Literally. A couple of awkward pie graphs of love and I’m good to go. This may not be what Jason Guriel hoped for when he complained in “Why Is the Great American Poem So Hard to Write?” about how the world needs “a poem, not just poetry. That’s what our era is lacking, claims a growing chorus of pundits. . . .” Randall may not write the Great American Poem, her work may not be what some say ought to be done, but she does write “self-contained” original pieces and collects them into her book like (her cartoon of) boyfriends in a candy box. There’s a place on my bookshelf for that.photo2 (1)










Jessy Randall‘s poems, poetry comics, and other things have appeared in Boog City, McSweeney’s, Rattle, and West Wind. She is a librarian at Colorado College and her website is http://personalwebs.coloradocollege.edu/~jrandall/

In many of the pieces I’ve turned in for a Creative Writing class, they’ve been returned with red ink underlining the first line, usually with comments like “This needs to have more impact” or “How does this draw in the reader?” Plus, there’s always one class period dedicated entirely to the crafting of the first line. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if these first sentences are really the best ways to open this article.

The first lines of our poems can promise us interested audience or convince them our work is worth skipping over. From what I’ve learned from my studies so far, a good opening grabs a reader’s attention. I’ve also seen from my own reading that trying too hard to get their notice can make the lines feel forced and serve as a worse opening than something more generic.

This emphasis in my classes and the complexity of first lines I’ve experienced in my own writing led me to wonder what truly makes a great first line and what people’s favorite first lines are. I took to THEthe’s tumblr and twitter page to ask our followers.

Some of our responses were from our reader’s own poems:


Others responded with some published and famous works:


While I had read some of these poems before this gave me the opportunity to look up many of these poems. What I noticed was that many of these first lines left a strong visual image along with an emotional connection, most notably love or sadness. An image by itself in an opening can be memorable, as in one of our followers’ original poem, which compares cervical mucus to egg whites. This also gives a bit a mystery to beginning of the piece because although the bodily fluid obviously will relate somehow, the reader must read more to find out what’s going on in in the piece. It can sometimes be difficult to pull out extraordinary descriptions but simpler image may be more readily available. In this case, it may be more effective to juxtapose the image with a strong emotion that isn’t usually associated with that image. For example, one follower mentioned the opening to Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.” While the image of a door is not all that exciting, and certainly not very memorable, when combined with the feeling of suffering the lines become a powerful combination that pulls the reader in. Sorrow isn’t typically a feeling one would think of alongside something as typical as a door, and by putting them together the poet creates interest.

Still there are other amazing poetic openings not mentioned by our followers, but still are worth examining. For instance, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, begins with “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” While this line doesn’t meet either of the characteristics previously mentioned, it does give the reader (or in the case was for Homer’s audience: the listener) an immediate sense of what the following story is about. We learn that our main character is smart, strong, and a veteran of the famous battle of Troy. We also know that this story will be about his journey after the battle, and that it will be a long journey. Also, Milton’s Paradise Lost opens by telling the readers what they are about to experience. The first book opens with “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” It is becomes obvious to the reader within these first few lines that the tale will be about Adam and Eve and their infamous story of the origin of sin. Neither of these poems open with bold imagery or obvious emotional connections, but they are still regarded as iconic and beautiful first lines. There is something in the simplicity of these lines, along with those of other epic poems, which are inviting to a reader. These lines seduce the reader with the promise of an adventure or tale, which the reader then gets to experience vicariously through the poet and the characters in the poem. There is also this hint of a narrative in the lyrical first lines. It may not be as direct as epic poems, but it is there in an unusual image, or evocative phrase. Look again at the Louise Gluck’s line. Both the suffering and the door promise a story of some sort, one of an upsetting past and the other of a hopeful future.  However, there is a lack of immediacy in epic poems that is present in lyrical poetry.

This easily explained by the difference in lengths between these exceptionally longer epic poems and the shorter lyrical pieces. Epic poetry has many chapters, in some cases books, in which to ease the reader into a scene and topic of a story. Meanwhile, lyrical poems have less space available and must get to the essential parts of the scene immediately. Shorter works from the same time periods as Homer and Milton have similar first lines to modern lyrical poetry.

There is also a sense of intimacy in the openings of lyrical poetry that is lacking in the epic poems. Homer’s work addresses the muses in the first line, seemingly talking to a third party. The epic poem begins with holding the reader at a distance, although it invites them to read the story. Lyrical poetry is more personal and usually addresses a “you” or “we”, even in the first lines of the poems. These lines give the allusion that the poet is speaking directly to the reader.  Whoever the poem is about served as a sort of “muse” to the poet and that’s who they are truly addressing, but the language gives the sense that it can be about anyone, including the reader.

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!


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Things Warren loves:

Warren Craghead III lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA with his wife and two daughters. See more at www.craghead.com.

Related Linkage

Waking Up
Tea Time
Before Bed
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), winner the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award. A former Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, she’s currently a doctoral candidate and King/Chávez/Parks Fellow at Western Michigan University.

Eryn Cruft lives in Bloomington, IN but will soon be leaving for London to study for a Master’s degree in Language and Cognition at King’s College. Previous collaborations with Traci Brimhall have appeared in Guernica and Nashville Review. Eryn has also contributed work to the Undergraduate Journal of Cognitive Science.


2. Internet Archaeology: an academically rigourous archive of curated .gifs&such from the 90s.
3. Prime Time TV: Julia Panek’s TV-poetry-for-an-internet-age.
4. aaaaarg.org: a technically limitless archive of free, rare, university-press-and-such .pdfs.
5. Reanimation Library: an amazing resource for strange high-res scans of “found” images–with a hub in Southern Brooklyn, run by Andrew Beccone+.
6. Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts’s entire run.
7. gmail.com

Paul Legault is the co-founder of the translation press Telephone Books and the author of three books of poetry: The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn, 2010), The Other Poems (Fence, 2011), and The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s, 2012). He’s here.





Michael Rae’s suggested links
1. A FREAK WEEK music video for the song “Any Little Game.”
2. The website of Michael’s BFF since kindergarten. Michael has served as his tattoo guinea pig for a decade.
3. Andrew Rae’s excellent collage work.
4. Contemporary American folk art: Jesse Malmed.
5. Elvis in his prime rehearsing with an absolute crackshot band.
6. The coolest dancing you are liable to see.
7. Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear.
8. She’s not there!
9. Now My Empty Cup is as Sweet as the Punch

“People Thoughts” is an ongoing drawing/writing series by Michael Rae that began in 2009 and now features over four hundred pieces. In addition to illustration and writing, Michael produces pop music under the moniker “Freak Week.” He is from New Mexico and lives in Brooklyn. He loves sports. You can find many more of his creations here.

Jono Tosch is a poet, artist, non-fiction writer and fermentation enthusiast who lives in Northampton, MA. Last summer he took his blog, Oilchanges: the anti food blog food blog, to New Mexico on a reader-supported X-Country road trip. You can find his poems and whatnot by googling his name.

Poetry and images are no strangers. From ancient illuminated texts, to William Blake, to Lewis Carroll (to name a mere few) illustration is a powerful ally beside poetry. I’m excited by the writer who feels compelled to expand his rapport with the poem by creating art. I think it’s the excitement of language that can bring forth the illustrative in such an electrifying way. So for our third installment on Poetry Comics, we have the stunning images of Mahendra Singh alongside his translations of Jean de La Fontaine.

~Bianca Stone

The Stag Upon the Vine
(V; 15)

A hunted Stag concealed in vines,
in this verdant tropic havoc
grown riotous thick by fecund luck
till hounds and men lose heart, resigns
the chase and he’s free again
to devour the vine, all decency defy
till they hear him, hounds and men
they return and set on him to die
a just punishment, he now knows too late
forget me, he cries, yet remember my fate
then falls and the pack falls upon him
stoic he dies while huntsmen join in
forsake gratitude for greed, the egotist’s whim:
betray thy saviour and revel in thy sin

Le Cerf et la Vigne
(V; 15)

Un cerf, à la faveur d’une vigne fort haute,
Et telle qu’on en voit en de certains climats,
S’étant mis à couvert et sauvé du trépas,
Les veneurs, pour ce coup, croyaient leurs chiens en faute;
Ils les rappellent donc. Le cerf, hors de danger,
Broute sa bienfaitrice : ingratitude extrême !
On l’entend, on retourne, on le fait déloger :
Il vient mourir en ce lieu même.
« J’ai mérité, dit-il, ce juste châtiment :
Profitez-en, ingrats. » Il tombe en ce moment.
La meute en fait curée : il lui fut inutile
De pleurer aux veneurs à sa mort arrivés.
Vraie image de ceux qui profanent l’asile
Qui les a conservés.

A Dog Who Took His Prey for Shadow (VI; 17)

There’s only illusion on offer down here:
all the fools chase their shadows till their
swelling numbers soon appear
to make the wise despair.
Aesop’s dog was of that obscurant race
his prey reflected on the water’s face,
left one for the other to give chase
he nearly drowned with little grace
but returned enlightened to river’s shore
and mistook shadow for prey no more

Le Chien qui lâche sa proie pour l’ombre (VI; 17)

Chacun se trompe ici-bas :
On voit courir après l’ombre Tant de fous qu’on n’en sait pas La plupart du temps le nombre.
Au chien dont parle Ésope il faut les renvoyer.
Ce chien, voyant sa proie en l’eau représentée, La quitta pour l’image, et pensa se noyer. La rivière devint tout d’un coup agitée;
A toute peine il regagna les bords,
Et n’eut ni l’ombre ni le corps.

Related links from Mendra if you’re interested
1. Mahendra’s blog
2. An English SF writer, Adam Roberts, whose blog is one of the best, and most catholic, literary blogs around … he does it all, SF, verse, very astute criticism … I am planning to illustrate an upcoming SF book of his later on, very tasty stuff indeed.
3. Will Schofield has one of the best illustration blogs around, mostly book stuff … plus, he’s a devotee of Raymond Roussel.
4. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is the book that defined the classical look and format of the western mass-produced book … type, paper and illustrations are completely integrated.
5. Hans Rickheit is one of the best, and one of the few genuinely imaginative people making comix … may be a bit disturbing for some readers though … his recent book, The Squirrel Machine, was 100-proof American Gothic surrealism. Link here and here.

Mahendra ends with some final words…
I hope someone has the common sense to toss a copy of Christopher Marlowe’s plays and verse onto my funeral pyre to keep me company on the journey … with Chapman’s continuation of Hero & Leander, of course … in fact, toss in a copy of Chapman’s Odyssey also. Those are the two poets who I’m in the mood to spend eternity with.

What I love about Paul K. Tunis’s work is how brilliantly he melds traditional comic-book style with the experimental. “Toddlers & Tiaras & Vermin” uses three elements I find very interesting when creating a poetry comic: the poem itself, dialogue, and interpretive image (the latter as it differs slightly from the literal text of the poem). It works so well as a poetry comic because we see an absurd, strange elucidation of the poem through the images. However, Tunis never forces too much on the reader; there is always the sense that the images are only part of the story, and it creates a separate component. There’s mysteriousness in the image/text information given, allowing the reader space to create meaning on their own–what great poetry does. The poetry comic is straight forward, the arc, as seen through the images, eloquently executed, with the elements of the humorously (tragically) grotesque. Be sure to keep an eye out for more of Paul K. Tunis’s wonderful work!


Paul’s Website
Putty Eating Magnets
Raccoon Thief


Paul K. Tunis is a graphic-poet. His work has been featured in BateauDrunken BoatThe Daily CrosshatchPaper Darts, and elsewhere. A fan of both OuLiPo and OuBaPo, much of his work employs writing/drawing constraints and experiments. His collaboration with Matthea Harvey is included in Loaded Bicycle. He’s from the desert and has floppy, red hair.

The visual has always been an important means of communication, from caveman paintings, to graphic novels, to IKEA instruction manuals. We know it fits in somewhere with poetry, beginning with how poets and artists have always looked lovingly upon one another, and ending somewhere more uncharted. It’s been proposed that the use of illustration with poetry is redundant, but what this forum is interested in is not translating the words, but a much wider vision: illustration as a kind of poetic form. Poetry and poets who interact with the visual has limitless implications, from traditional use of the comic-strip and comic book, to a much more experimental use of text and image. I wish to go boldly, willingly, into Poetry Comics, and see what people are doing out there. I’m not entirely concerned with defining what I mean by Poetry Comics, but rather seeing how many tiny silver arrows we can launch at it. And perhaps how many it can launch back at us.

Every month we will look at a new artist/poet(s). They will share some of what they love to look at and read. Let’s call it Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Poetry Comic. Let’s call it WTF is a Poetry Comic. Let’s call it The Fallacy of the Mental Image. Let’s begin.

We’re going to start with the amazing poet and artist, Sommer Browning, who has done several drawings for several poems by Noah Eli Gordon’s series of poems called “The Problem”



Links For More of Sommer Browning:

Visual Poetry Review of Thomas Hummel’s chapbook Point and Line to Plane(Projective Industries, 2009) in Octopus Magazine.

Sommer’s book page with a poem and a comic.

Sommer’s Twitter account.

Sweet-ass Things Sommer Browning Loves:

Cartoonist Victoria Roberts.

Author Robert Benchley. This 75 year old comedy short is the British Office’s equivalent. It might take a little old-fashioned patience to enjoy, but the awkwardness and non sequitur humor feels very modern to me.


Sommer Browning writes poems, draws comics and tells jokes. She is the author of Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC; 2011), a collection of poems and comics. She also has three chapbooks out, most recently THE BOWLING (Greying Ghost, 2010) with Brandon Shimoda. With Julia Cohen she curates The Bad Shadow Affair, a reading series in Denver.

Noah Eli Gordon is the author of several books, most recently The Source (Futurepoem, 2011). Gordon is the co-publisher of Letter Machine Editions, and an Assistant Professor in the MFA program in Creative Writing at The University of Colorado–Boulder.

These two poems and illustrations are from the forthcoming collection, 62 Problems (1913 Press, 2014).

More Monsieur fragments can be found here.