I moved to Winter Park, FL (neighbor to Orlando) about a year and a half ago. My very first literary outing in my new home was meeting a coworker at the reading event There Will Be Words, hosted by J. Bradley.
I didn’t know what to expect, as I was used to the bubble of South Florida, where I had lived my whole life. While I was only four hours away, it felt like light years of distance between the literary community I left and where I ended up. There was something about this event, though, that made the area feel more like home.
I eventually found my way to other local events, but There Will Be Words is still one of the most inclusive, comfortable experiences out there for writers in my area. I appreciate all of the work that J. Bradley does for our community, and was happy to ask him a few questions after the release of his newest book, The Bones of Us.
NO: You mentioned long ago in your “Chicago Subtext” interview that “you can get away with certain things in flash that you can’t get away with in poetry and vice versa.” What are those things you can’t get away with depending on what genre you’re writing in?
JB: With poetry, you don’t need a defined narrative or characterization, even though in flash that characterization is very brief. Poetry also can get away with lyricallity (as poetry is best read aloud), rhyming. There are rigid traditional forms in poetry that flash could not survive in. Flash, on the other hand, has room for dialog. It doesn’t need to be musical in its prose. It doesn’t have the weight of poetry bias that would scare off people who don’t read poetry. Flash gives you much more room to create a concise narrative that poetry can’t. Flash gives you more room to turn sharply. A really good prose poem though could mix in both elements, such as the poems in Corey Zeller’s Man vs. Sky.
NO: What could you get away with by working with an illustrator for The Bones of Us that you couldn’t otherwise?
JB: I couldn’t say I got away with anything working with Adam Scott Mazer. YesYes Books and I trusted his talent to create this tremendous body of work. He created images that worked in tandem with the poems. The images stood alone and enhanced the narrative thread of the collection.
NO: We’ve all seen writing illustrated before, but I love that much of the writing in The Bones of Us is actually woven into the images themselves. What came first when working on this project, the poetry, or the images?
JB: The poems were actually written before the concept of turning into a graphic poetry collection came to pass. My publisher, KMA Sullivan, read the manuscript and came up with the idea of turning it into a graphic poetry collection when she accepted in August 2011. While I write poems that create pictures in the reader’s mind, I didn’t think about what they would be like turned into a graphic narrative.
NO: Did working in collaboration with an illustrator hinder your writing or revision processes at all?
JB: As Adam Scott Mazer sent us more art, KMA realized that some of the poems needed additional emotional fat cut from them so Adam had the work at its strongest before he created his visual interpretation. The edits KMA suggested helped get the work to its fullest potential.
NO: The poems in The Bones of Us have definite narrative threads. What do you feel sets this collection apart from other examples of graphic narrative, other than its genre designation as poetry?
JB: The Bones of Us is an honest depiction of the death of a marriage and what happens after. It doesn’t sugar coat or romanticize the disintegration. It made me flinch when we finalized the order. Not a lot of work makes me do that, even my own.
NO: After plenty of tours and countless poetry slams and other reading events, you have plenty of experience delivering your work in front of an audience. How do you address the visual component of The Bones of Us at a reading?
JB: Before the West Coast book tour, I created various setlists that were used to create slide shows of the poems that I would read. These setlists varied in content and length based on the allotted time I would have at a reading series or in a workshop. I would perform the presentation. Some of the poems I’ve memorized, some I used the slides as the page, as opposed to relying on the pages of the book as a net. I have also done readings without the presentation, which gives me room to banter. When I do a reading using the slides, I provide the audience a disclaimer that I won’t be bantering so I can let the images do their work.
NO: Some writers approach themes like failure with a more subtle hand. Between your website, iheartfailure.net, and work with titles like We Will Celebrate our Failures, the idea of failure permeates the surface layer of your work. What is it about failure that keeps you returning to it so openly as a theme?
JB: I failed a lot in life and it was learning from that failure that made me a better writer and a better person. If others treat failure in the same way, there would be less fear in doing something that could fail.
NO: How do you know that a poem or collection is successful?
JB: I don’t think you can ever truly know if a collection or a poem is successful. I write what I like to write and I’m fortunate other people enjoy my work. If I went into writing aiming for success, it would fail.
J. Bradley’s latest collection is The Bones of Us. It is a graphic poetry collection with art by Adam Scott Mazer. It came out March 15 through YesYes Books
Nicole Oquendo has tugged at genres for most of her life. Having recently completed her first book, a hybrid memoir project, she is currently drafting a book of poetry about abandoned places, as well as an illustrated chapbook of Lucretius translations. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, Hippocampus Magazine, and other literary journals. In her free time, when she is not writing or working on terrifying paintings for her loved ones, you will find her tweeting the madness of Cassandra of Troy @nicoleoq.