INTERVIEW: Ben Gunsberg and Lisa Bickmore
Sugar's multi-medium editor, Ben Gunsberg, interviews poet Lisa Bickmore about her multi-modal work and new poetry press, Lightscatter Press.
Check out Lisa Bickmore's Sugar Suites pieces HERE.
Ben Gunsberg: Thanks so much for contributing to the first set of Sugar Suites, our new multi-medium feature. I'm curious about your composing process. Did you set out to make mixed media pieces or did you conceptualize the audio and video elements after using alphanumeric writing?
Lisa Bickmore: In this case, I had already written these poems. Natalie and Nano told me about the new Sugar Suites project, and I thought I might have a couple of poems that I could “re-mediate,” as they say in composition studies—translate a piece from one medium into another. I’m working on a book manuscript right now, so I looked through the poems in that project to see what sparked. I found some possibilities in these two poems.
About twelve years ago, I got a sabbatical to work on a project I’d proposed, to teach myself to make video essays. In that project, I worked more organically—that is, the visual content and the textual content and the aural content all developed at the same time. It was less re-mediation, more composing in several media at once. Because I was teaching myself how, I also set myself technical challenges—learning how to composite, how to use still images with moving images, how to use more than one audio track, and so on. Some of the pieces I made later in that project had a number of layers in their composition.
For these pieces, I wanted moving image and the voiced text to work as a counterpoint. It was a pleasure to make them, just as writing them as poems was a pleasure. I like the process of managing images and the voiceover, of editing the pace of the video so that it spoke to the text as voiced. In some ways these are simple pieces, but I hoped that, for instance, the image of Bowie’s graffitied head resolving, then fading, behind the letter being written, would evoke a kind of elegy.
BG: What catalyzed your interest in multimedia composition? Were you influenced by other artists doing similar work?
LB: I think a couple of things got me going, and other ideas, writing, and practitioners kept me at it. Around 2001, I had been thinking about how, increasingly, people just made things—films, videos, songs, etc.—using a variety of easily available tools. I remember reading about how David Byrne, formerly of Talking Heads, had a whole manifesto, really, about PowerPoint as an unexpected tool/medium for creating beautiful things, in some sense turning the PowerPoint aesthetic on itself—PowerPoint, a productivity and marketing tool. I began reading about how some fluency in multimodal and video production was a new literacy that could prove valuable for the students I taught. And as a compositionist in my work life, I wanted to be able to help students develop their critical abilities to not only create but to revise.
I read a 2001 interview with the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kierostami, where he said, “now, this digital camera makes it possible for everybody to pick it up, like a pen. If you have the right vision, and you think you're an instinctive filmmaker, there's no hindrance anymore. You just pick it up, like a pen, and work with it.”
I heard a presentation about video essays at AWP, and it completely transformed the way I thought about working with moving images. The presenter, whose name, I'm sorry to report, is lost to time, said that in video essays, voiceover did not narrate what was happening in the moving images; rather, the audio narration and the video track “called and signalled” to one another. By this means, the video essay or video poem explicitly aims to create an imaginative space, a poetic space.
I did a lot of reading about multimodality, a lot of it from composition studies—Cheryl Ball, Gunther Kress, Jody Shipka, plenty of others. An essay by Geoffrey Sirc, “Box Logic,” absolutely upended my world as a teacher but also as a writer—it exploded the boundaries separating the strategies for different types of writing, which I felt was a real gift for beginning writers.
When I started to make my own pieces, I started to see almost any visual creation in a new way. I remember very clearly watching the film Sugar (2008, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, directors) at the Broadway Centre in Salt Lake City. There was a long tracking shot somewhere in the middle of the film, and I remember thinking, at the same time I was taking in the visual and narrative production, about how that shot would be set up and carried out. For me, the most important pedagogical insight came from my own experience: making a video essay was the best way to see what was possible in the video essay, and that the repeated act of making multimodal pieces would open the way for new critical perspectives for the maker.
Obviously, it's possible to make better and worse multimodal pieces. But for me—and this goes for my entire practice as a writer, as an artist, really—the potential is the thing I value the most. That's what got me going and what keeps me trying.
BG: Has multimodal work unlocked certain subjects or topics for you? I suppose I'm thinking of the political edge of a piece like "Cooper’s Hawk."
LB: I think that the times—however we'd construe that as a concept—have had the biggest effect on the subject matter. I have felt driven, urgently, to try to make this art, my art, respond to what's been happening. All of it feels belated, which is part of the urgency. So, I'm not sure that modality has had a strong role in that. I have thought of specific little video projects I want to take up—things that feel like video projects at their core, and not re-mediations, like "Cooper's hawk," which I wrote as a poem first. I don't think of the re-mediation as a lesser thing, it's just different. The video projects I'm thinking about have to do with the death of my father, the big subject of the manuscript I'm working on, but also the various forms and channels that grief takes. The grief about our country is related for me, in some pretty significant ways. It's hard to tell, finally, what prompts what. I'm hoping that I'll have time and space for more video work. It feels really generative and rewarding to me, and like I still can learn so much. In that, it's exactly like the practice of poetry.
BG: You started a poetry press in 2021 for books with multi-modality. Can please you say something about your efforts to start Lightscatter Press?
LB: I worked with the press that published my third book, Red Mountain, for awhile, learning the ropes from their founding editor, as we explored how I might contribute to the press. In the end, that didn't work out, but I decided, with my partner, comrade, husband, that starting a press was something we wanted to do. Starting from scratch meant that we could explore what might be missing in the small literary press world, and to me, the possibility that multimodality might not be just an adjunct to the print book, but integrated into it, was thrilling and not particularly much of a focus in the presses I could see. The idea of light scattering came from my father, who was an optical physicist whose doctoral work focused on measuring the distribution of small-angle particles as light hit a highly polished surface. I thought this physical fact spoke to the ways that any literary work is received in the world by readers—if the book has multiple modes, it “scatters” in interesting and not fully predictable ways.
With our first book, Anna Scotti's Bewildered by All This Broken Sky, we worked with the notion of a digital derive. The derive is an idea described by Guy Debord as a “technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences.” We built QR codes (which you have to see to believe, how elegant they are) throughout the book. When readers encounter a QR code, they can scan it with a camera phone, which takes them to a multimodal experience, potentially charting an alternate path through Bewildered by All This Broken Sky. The multimodality for this book consists of digital cards—like tarot cards or saint cards—with an image and a snip of the relevant poem, and a little piece of music, all specially commissioned for this work. We worked with a digital designer to build the web app for the book. We're pretty proud of it.
Lightscatter Press currently accepts work during its competition, which is held each summer. We expect to reopen the portal for submissions in July of 2022. The process for our next book is happening as we speak, with Diana Khoi Nguyen judging. You can find out more about Lightscatter Press at LightScatterPress.org.