A broadside is like one of those screen-printed band posters you see at indie rock shows and in Etsy shops, but for poetry. The tradition is almost as old as the printing press itself.
And like broadsides of old, contemporary versions are priced to move, with most running between $15 and $30. The price point makes sense when you consider the nature of the form. Broadsides are paradoxical. They're ephemeral but suitable for framing, artful objects in their own right but also potentially disposable. Broadsides are the ideal decor for people whose aesthetics shift around all the time.
But poetry broadsides have a problem. Unlike fancy band posters, which may be distinguished by hundreds of distinct aesthetic signifiers, there are basically two kinds of poetry broadsides: the bucolic and the abstract. A small line drawing of a feather or a tree branch will occupy one corner of a thick-papered, handmade, letterpressed poster, delicately accenting (and oddly muting) the poem. Or else you get some abstract shape-thing in the center with the poem's text steamrolled over it. Broadsides almost always broadcast a reverence for poetry, and in so doing, they almost always make dimmer some dim corner of someone's den. Like all art that strains for respectability and promises "nourishment," they are the enemy of art.
This is where Mary Anne Carter comes in.
She has enlivened this old-timey form with humor, typographic wildness, and a deep understanding of poetic structures. I recently interrupted Carter's vacation in Forks and La Push, where she claimed to be resting unmolested by the vampires of Twilight, for a brief interview. She deserved the rest. In addition to having several pieces currently up at Gay City and Kaladi Brothers Cafe, her work will also be featured in Fashion Hot Dog 225's upcoming Butt Show. And last week at the Factory, she unveiled tons of broadsides based on the work of poets Ben Fama, Sarah Galvin, and Monica McClure, all of whom read at the event.
Highlights included a Fama poem done up in blocky letters on rainbow hologram plastic paper, a microwave-oven-sized print that simply read "The Champagne of Queers," back patches that featured Sarah Galvin's profile inscribed with the words "Gay for Galvin," and a melancholy Monica McClure poem called "Pale Blue" stitched in pink on ladies' handkerchiefs.
Carter told me she thought it fitting to put a poem that discusses both "cosmopolitan women" and abortion onto a dainty handkerchief because the contrast reflected the themes of McClure's debut collection, Tender Data. This unlikely impulse seems right on to me. Speakers in McClure's poetry often perform a kind of lip-gloss femininity, but the ironic imagery and darkly humorous line breaks acknowledge the anxieties associated with that voice. Carter's choice not to iron out the literal creases in the fabric offer visual support for McClure's rhetorical moves, while bucking the neatness and perfection that makes broadsides seem so precious.
At her day job, Carter does marketing and design for an architectural salvage yard, which she sees as a giant art and fashion store. "I don't confine myself to conventional beauty products as means of self-adornment," she said. "Rhinestones, googly eyes, craft glitter, and paint is my 'makeup' of choice. Large swaths of fabric found at the Goodwill bins become veils or capes. Skirts make great turbans." Her use of unconventional products as a means for self-expression naturally extends to her art.
Though her broadsides help expand the audience for poetry, they're a lot more than mere illustrations of poems. She sees them as an act of reading, an interpretation of and response to an art form she appreciates but doesn't make. Though she claims to not be a poet—she jokingly calls herself a "groupie" with "professional and sexual ties to the poetry community"—she certainly sounds like one when describing her process: "Everyone sees a violin when they read a poem about a violin. But how do they feel? That's what I want to get to."