The Lightning Room With Anna Joy Springer

In the most recent queer issue, Anna Joy Springer gave us a fairy tale in the form of a rebus with “The Forest of Despots’ Daughters.” Here, Anna shows us her creative process, the decoding of her particular art:

1. This story has a subversive yet very fable-like quality to it, constructed like those children’s books designed to teach moral lessons and cleverness via rebuses and illustrated puns (a cartoonish eye representing “I,” for example). What implications about the telling of stories and inculcating “morality” might we tease out from the presentation of the material this way?

“The Forest of Despots’ Daughters,” in a recent LGBTQ Pank is a rebus adaptation of a chapter from my book, The Vicious Red Relic, Love. I took the images from a variety of children’s books printed between 1950 and 1980. I never thought of the rebus form as a didactic form, because I associate it more with puzzles on the inside of beer caps, but I see now you are right. Rebuses are often simple puzzles in children’s magazines and activity books that invite a deeper engagement with a text, because it forces a reader to decode while reading, and therefore engage with the piece actively rather than as a passive lesson-receiver. I also like to force active engagement and do sleight of hand with my readers, rather than directly advise. I suppose you could call this approach “manipulative,” “sneaky,” or “tactical.” We see faster than we read, so putting pictures in a row of text seduces a reader’s eye across the text to the image, and then (in a rebus) they have to decode the image. In my rebuses, there is no “right answer,”- all decodings are rather queer. And I suppose the desire to prompt “an unpredictable reading (or response)” is one of the most consistent moral underpinnings of my work. The moral of the entire novel, of which this piece in its written form is just one part, is that if life mimics art, it may be possible to have a more interesting (less proscribed) life if attention is drawn to art’s cultural functions and conventions, especially to the conventions of art that are so repeated and so supported by the ruling paradigm that they’re often seen as seamless, seen as natural (natural law-bound) rather than artificial. All story is allegorical in some way or another, and all figurative comparison is didactic, even when the antecedent has faded from historical memory and the figurative relationship is more or less severed. In my book I draw attention both to the artificiality of story-making and to the historical contexts from which the stories emerged to de-neutralize narrative conventions, i.e. heroes win (a tautology, and not a politically or interpersonally neutral one) – the method of presentation is, as you’ve said, didactic. But, the bright and not overtly ironic illustrations may hold the interest of even the most imaginatively dull pupil. Unless of course that pupil is a reformer. Reformers seem always to prefer minimalism of some sort, without too many scents, curves, or visible rhetorical maneuvering or “game playing.” “The Forest of Despots’ Daughters” is a playful, didactic game that’s impossible to win (or lose). It’s only possible to engage or not to engage. That’s a moral prompt, right there.

2. The images in this piece span various styles, media, and time periods. Where did you cull them from? Was there a specific purpose behind using the sources that you did?

I use a lot of Reader’s Digest children’s literature anthologies from the 1950’s and 1960’s because the illustrations are just so beautiful. I use these illustrations for other kinds of art too, and I collect the books- especially ones from the 20’s-60’s with that nice pulpy flexible beige paper that used to be so nice to chew on. The drawings in many mid-century children’s books are extremely savvy and, I think, underappreciated. A couple years ago I was at a book arts program making prints, and I found myself ripping one up for a collage piece that Andy Warhol drew, before I realized he was the artist and I wondered if the book had been some collector’s item that I could have sold for a lot of money. I never have looked to see if it was rare.

3. What inspired the creation of this piece?

Teresa Carmody organized a panel at the &Now Festival in Buffalo in 2009 on alternative ways of staging a reading. I made this piece for that panel. I had eleven different people read/interpret it aloud from a large screen.

4. Tell us something about the kinds of books you were reading as a kid, ones that may have looked, superficially, like “The Forest of Despots’Daughters.” 

You know I don’t really think I’ve seen anything that looks like “The Forest of Despots’ Daughters.” If I did, it may have been from one of those Better Homes and Gardens or Reader’s Digest children’s anthologies from the 50’s-60’s. I know I did find a rebus version of “The Little Red Hen” in one a few years ago that I keep on hand. It’s very straightforward, though, for example a picture of a chicken in an apron and kerchief- “little red hen.” Her apron and kerchief stand in as emblems for her gender and class.

5. What, for you, is the most satisfying fairytale/fable/myth?

I suppose the most satisfying one is “If you work hard and try to be a good person, you will be a success.” But my favorite myth is the one I investigate in The Vicious Red Relic, Love, the story of Inanna’s descent into the underworld in order to see what actual death is like (which she can’t really completely experience because she’s a goddess, so immortal). In order to enter the underworld, she has to take off everything, including her royal power charms and including her skin, which her sister hangs from a nail on the wall. She is rescued by flies, who are able to travel between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.

6. What kinds of experimental writing do you have your eye on these days?

I like lyric essays, some experimental autoethnography, and comics. I also like writing created for theater.