Emma: Thank you Vanessa for taking the time to do this interview! You graduated from AUT with a Bachelor of Visual Arts in 2017, and so you’re both an artist and a writer. How has your writing and art developed? Have they developed intertwined?
Vanessa: It’s such a pleasure! To answer your question, I was always doing both art and poetry: through high school, at uni, and after I graduated. So they’ve both been developing for a while, and I’ve been practicing both forms for some time, slowing down one then picking up another. It’s the life of a Libra who can never choose just one thing to do. It wasn’t until I was studying visual arts at university, and was also writing poems and essays and dabbling in performance, that I was encouraged to see these separate strands of making as parts of an indistinguishably wider creative practice. It was interesting to learn how to write at art school (instead of say, at writing school) because my tutors weren’t necessarily able to help me out with the punctualities of a text, but I was given this freeing sense of language as another medium to toy around with, like a rich and vast playground. Language is a textural medium that layers our realities, it can be added to, treated, or torn apart just like any other fabric. Entire religions are built of scriptures, or sacred writings that still very much hold sway over contemporary discourse. So as a multidisciplinary artist, a lot of my fascination with text is how potent and malleable it is as a medium, and how much its history touches other facets of humanity.
Emma: I love your collection of poetry in AUP New Poets 6, it’s so playful and clever. You write poetry onto post it notes, into an Excel spreadsheet, and then use it to create a graph. What was your process in writing these visual poems?
Vanessa: Thank you! The Excel spreadsheets you see in AUP New Poets 6 were originally printed on these large fabric sheets that were displayed in St Paul St Gallery Three at my graduating exhibition, on the floor and pinned to the wall. These got shrunk and re-presented in page form for the collection with Auckland University Press.
I also presented some of the earlier works from this collection at the Poetry + Essay conference organised by Victoria University of Wellington. One of my favourite ‘visual poems’ I presented at the conf was actually replica signs that I’d reinserted across my tertiary institute, little poetic notes I attempted to slide into the architecture. I hid one in the back of the level three stairwell, swapping out the OG staircase sign for a replica that read ‘I too / have social anxiety’. It was a funny reference to the fact that I always used the stairwell to avoid socialising at the elevator. I later found out that one of the technicians “got such a fright” when she stumbled upon the sign, as she felt called out by some unseen force of the universe for using the stairs to avoid the crowd, like me lol. That was basically my intention, cosmic unsettlement. Like the above examples, I was and am interested in colliding together different formats, inserting poetic form in spaces that are seen as more rigid and administrative, spaces where text resides that are so ever-present that they become invisible to our brain. You don’t look at a street sign and think ‘that is a piece of writing’ but it is. But what if the words on street signs were swapped out for a tweet meant for close friends? Our engagement with text isn’t just in books: it’s on our notes app, in scrawled out reminders to buy more toilet paper, in email sendoffs, in shopfront signs and in spreadsheets. Text is everywhere, these strange little symbols used to order our existence. I try to use poetry to wrestle with these forms that text appears in, to try and make the form shift into focus, as well as to use these forms to wrestle with poetry, seeing how my writing would adapt to different structures—a passenger arrival card, an excel spreadsheet, a post-it reminder to self, a book made up of images. The whole time I was making and preparing this collection, I was deep in the theory juice, drinking up Roland Barthes’ writing on language and violence and categories. My poetry is typically free-verse, nebulous and unconstrained. So there’s a tension in forcing that kind of writing to fit into a specific format, it affects both the medium and the message.
Excel spreadsheets by Vanessa
Replica signs by Vanessa
Emma: In AUP New Poets 6, I also love how you write your poetry into other forms that carry their own meaning, often redacting sections of text to create something new. What do you think visual forms add to poetry?
Vanessa: I grew up reading mostly manga and comics—this was my primary form of ‘reading’. So I’ve always read writing that plays with both text and images, and that is by nature engaged with the blank space in-between. It’s sort of set me up well to become a poet/artist hybrid lol. I really love the writing of Claudia Rankine and Leanne Shapton, who also present visual forms into and next to their writing. It adds so much for me—it can provide another entry point into a piece of text, or can dislocate or relocate a text entirely, as I’ve spoken about above. I don’t think it's necessary for a good poem to consider the wider structure and iconography it exists within, but there’s certainly something appealing to me about expanding the lexicon to another dimension—allowing a poem to be an image, an image to operate as a poem, a poem to be staged as a song. It allows people to engage with writing on a different sensory level. Adding visual forms to text doesn’t have to be highbrow or super complicated either. So many common and celebrated forms already have a strong relationship between images and text, like magazines and picture books and graphic novels.
It’s worth noting that a lot of my poems in this collection also feature heavy and personal subject matter, some of which at the time, I could not communicate about orally. There are themes present in the collection about power and abuse that I wanted to talk to but didn’t or couldn’t speak about, not truthfully or earnestly. Redacting sections of text gave me the agency to decide what I’d like to divulge, and to acknowledge where I’d made redactions showed the obvious truth about speaking to trauma: that no one except you may ever get the full story. Writing for me has both been a way to reveal… and also to hide. There is an old poem of mine where I’ve printed out a found-poem-collage on fabric, then sewn over every single line in black thread: you can’t read a single word I’ve written bc I’ve cross-stitched over the entire thing, but that to me is still a poem, is still successful as a poem. I think about Greg Kan and his second book Under Glass and his intentional decision to keep elements of trauma in this collection vague—for the reader to glean only what they need to out of the collection.
Emma: At the beginning of this year, you started your role as Kaitohu at The Pantograph Punch. What does the current landscape of art and poetry in Aotearoa feel like to you? What are some trends you can see in art and poetry?
Vanessa: The current landscape feels energising; but also I’m exhausted. We have so many talented practitioners in Aotearoa. I’m excited by people like Tayi Tibble getting away from Aotearoa’s tall poppy syndrome and garnering the international praise that they deserve. Chris Tse being the Poet Laureate is pretty huge. I’m really excited by Rat World Magazine, eel mag, badapple.gay, We Are Babies press, arts criticism site Vernacular, The Art Paper, and artist run spaces such as play_station. These are people and collectives that are unsatisfied with the present hierarchies and are taking on exhibiting and publishing themselves and providing that need directly for their own interests and communities. There’s some incredible stuff going on in the underground, including zines like yours. I’m also aware how much the existence of these spaces is hugely dependent on volunteer labour, including The Pantograph Punch! We’re often doing more than our job description and it’s not sustainable to keep doing extra, or working for free. Mostly I’m disappointed that there’s been finite resources reallocated to the sector after a long three years living in close quarters with Covid. It’s made creative practices a lot harder to sustain and exacerbated a lot of sector issues. I’m hopeful that we can lobby the government to give more thought to the long-term impact of the pandemic on the arts, so that these spaces can do more than just survive, they can be really cared for and treasured.
In terms of artistic and poetic trends, I do wonder how long the acerbic, detached and unaffected voice of the internet will continue to be propelled forth in times of Great Crisis or whether we’ll herald a return to more sovereign earnesty in our art and writing.
Emma: Finally, what are you currently working on, and what would you like to create in the future?
Vanessa: I’m currently—mostly inactively—working on a manuscript that collides forms together in new ways, poems and personal essays. The working title is called ‘Graphic Novel’ and it’s v loosely about things that occupy a strange territory between innocence and adulthood, with themes that are both graphic, and novel. For example, I want to write back to the types of content I grew up with—anime and manga—which I really love and really shaped my childhood, while acknowledging that these were originally forms of Japanese post-war propaganda, and that the brutality of Japanese wartime occupation forms a part of my heritage as Overseas Chinese. I want to write about discovering porn as a teen and my relationship to it, from having an addict for a dad. That collection involves grappling with a lot of family history, sex and sexuality, and may take me several years to actually have the nerve to publish. Other than figuring out wtf that book is about and taking pressure off myself to feel like I’ve got to hurry on with it, I’ve been writing little poems, doing some publishing here and there, looking after myself. My focus is presently on my work at Pantograph and figuring out what I can do in my position and privileges to keep supporting the art and artists. Hehe!
Vanessa Mei Crofskey (they/she) is an artist and writer currently based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. They are the current Kaitohu | Director of arts and culture journal The Pantograph Punch, and have worked across performance, literature and visual arts for the past five years. They need a haircut.