We were visited a couple of weeks ago by the celebrated writer and essayist, Sarah Minor, who shared with us her experiences working with texts that are not always only two-dimensional.
Sarah Minor is the author of The Persistence of The Bonyleg: Annotated and the video editor at TriQuarterly Review. Her website, sarahceniaminor.com, showcases her many and diverse projects, which bend the shape of how we can and should think about writing.
Q: You are the visual essay columnist for Essay Daily. Do you think an essay can be composed entirely of images?
A: I’m interested in what it means to essay through both text and image—that is, of course, to try or to try out an idea in two modes, at the same time. I think the challenge of making multimedia work is first, to work in two mediums, but second, to allow each of those mediums to take a step back from its practice; to let the other medium try a little too. For writers, this often means laying off the writing and letting visuals set the scene, build the tone, or a compose the argument in ways that the text isn’t already.
So then, I think that a text can essay by using very little text (like in Mark Ehling’s “Neighbors”) or that a text can essay through the absence of text (like in Jenny Boully’s “The Body”). In Film Studies there’s a genre of “visual essay” and many photographers I know publish “photo essays” and each of these is made entirely of images. But when we seek out essays in their literary sense, I think we mean an example where language is contributing significantly to that trying.
Q: When is the first time you ever created something hybrid?
A: When I was five I drew a string of illegible words with my mom’s red lipstick on a long piece of toilet paper, took my clothes off, and wrapped myself in it. TP served me well as a medium for a while after that. Today I sometimes ask my students to make a text using the most basic materials they have at arms’ reach, which often means materials they are willing to ruin.
Q: Your website contains text formatted into shapes which have guides or paths for the reader to follow. I think many (including myself) find this design engaging and aesthetically pleasing, but have you ever encountered hybrid work wherein one facet of it distracts, or takes away from the others?
A: Guides or paths seem right on—like instructions, or road signs; a bit controlling. Most of my work uses minimalist visuals, especially when compared to many of the hybrid examples I teach (Scott McCloud, Eric Lemay, Danica Depenhart…). I tell myself I make work this way because I want reach a specific audience of readers who like to look, and but it’s also, of course, because my graphic skills are limited. I think because each hybrid text defines its own audience, I’m less pleased or more distracted when I’m not as literate in the media a hybrid employs—that I’m missing some of those cues. The only examples of hybrid work that feels distracting to me in an uninteresting way are those with visual elements that don’t seem to be contributing very much to reader’s understanding.
Q: How would you define the concept of hybridity? How would you define the concept of non-hybridity?
A: “Hybrid” often describes my favorite literary work, though I’ve seen the term used to label many different types of mashups. I think it flags a text that is working in the same way that most things currently in the MOMA are working—by combining two things in a manner that prompts the audience to question their distinctions.
Q: Over the summer you spent some time on a sheep farm in Iceland. Can you speak to how that experience is influencing the work you’re doing now? Did you form a special relationship with any of the sheep?
A: I worked on the sheep farm for a few weeks as a way to research textiles by tracing Icelandic wool to its source. Later, I learned that Waldorf schools translate this same idea into their pedagogy. On my first day the farmer taught me to reach elbow deep in a sheep to turn a lamb that had gotten stuck during birth. One of my daily chores was to bottle feed a small flock of orphaned lambs that grew to recognize me by sight—by now they’ve all been processed and eaten. So the experience allowed me to me to feel and smell a lot of new things, and prompted me to think more about the connections between textiles and bodies, textiles and place.
Q: Do you feel like you’ve had to work to convince publications/publishers of the value of your pieces, or has your genre-bending been readily accepted?
A: I started the series at Essay Daily because I wanted to feature some of the exciting work that I wasn’t seeing in literary venues, especially not in print. Early on, I remember someone telling me that for a visual text to get published, the writing would need to be three times as strong as all other submissions—as if strong writing might excuse an experimental form.
In the past I’ve had editors ask to publish the text of an essay without the visuals, and so far I’ve always said no. But I’ve also worked with editors who were willing to send me the entire proof of their issue just to allow me to format my own piece, and others who wrote to ask specifically for text-image work or recommendations for other visual writers. Many well-established literary journals still seem closed to such genres (“Times New Roman, 12pt font, 1 inch margins…”), but so many are now welcoming, if not requesting these hybrid creatures (!!). Right now I think what we still lack are many examples of visual texts that offer a second, or more interior type of hybridity—like a braid, a collage, or a non-narrative thread (like Emma Sheinbaum’s “It’s You” or Lawrence Lenhart’s “The Beautiful Rump Nut of Praslin Island”).
Q: What is your favorite hybrid work, or if that’s too difficult, a favorite hybrid work you’ve encountered within the past year?
A: This year I’ve loved Jennifer Wortman’s “Worst Case Scenario” from Diagram, Sam Stokley’s “How to Discuss Race as a White Person” from Brevity, and Spring Ulmer’s “Steel Trees” from TriQuarterly.
Q: Do you believe that your work, or hybrid work in general, serves some purpose in the world as a whole? If so, what is it? If not, what is the principal motivator behind your work?
A: I think each new invention of a hybrid gives other makers permission to invent and push further, and this feels like maybe the most contagious and exciting part of making. The first essay I ever loved was Albert Goldbarth’s “The Flea” because it required me to be present for each wildly curated sentence. It built a kind of cosmology for itself, and also for me. That essay, like the others in Many Circles wanted to say something like “Everything Is Connected, And How!” But a writer can only make this argument so many times before it becomes a performance in associative gymnastics, and I think that’s why I started making visual texts—they get to do this in a new way.
Lately I think my motivation to write is more about crafting an experience that demands the kind of presence and attention I felt “The Flea” once asked from me. I was once in a class where Eric Lemay asked each student to describe their writing as an object. When it came my turn to share I couldn’t think of the term I needed. Instead I asked the class, “What do you call the type of maze where you have to avoid traps and jump across barriers?” “An Obstacle Course” they said in unison. I want to make work that rewards the reader who is willing to give it their energy—that’s the kind of reader I am, too.