Lynda Barry likes questions. They "bring on a certain state of mind" and "in that weird opening, other stuff starts to happen," she says. Barry has an impressive resume of "other stuff": She's created a long-running comic strip, which used to appear in Isthmus; written tons of books; and is a powerhouse of an artist, writer and teacher. She's also a pretty cool person to have coffee with.
Lately, she's been chasing down one question in particular: "What is an image?" Part of her search has included teaching at UW this past spring. She'll be teaching again next semester, but this semester, her home base is the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, where she's doing informal research and reveling in conversations with scientists and mathematicians.
Barry will appear at two events at the Wisconsin Book Festival: "Encyclopedia Show 2.0" on Friday, Nov. 9, and a screening of the film Seven Days Without Print, where she'll serve as a panelist, on Saturday, Nov. 10. Both events take place at Overture Center's Promenade Hall.
We met recently in a downtown coffee shop to talk about it all.
Isthmus: You're so prolific -- you're teaching, you're writing, you're working with the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Can you share a little bit about what's going on with you right now?
Well, my interest does take a lot of external forms, whether it's teaching or making my own pictures, whatever it is. But to me they're all tied together by this central question that I've been chasing down since I was 19 and I met my teacher Marilyn Frasca at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington ... The only way to explain it is this little question she asked me, which is "What is an image?"
At first, it seems like kind of an easy question to answer, but the more I studied with her, the more I realized that, for example, everything we call "the arts" contains it: this sort of living thing. It's the reason we talk about a painting like it's alive or a piece of music like it's alive ... After working with these people at Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, I would argue that certain mathematical formulas have it. People respond to them as if they're alive.
So, chasing this down and trying to answer this question, I realize I can't answer it by myself in my studio. I tried for a long time, but I actually need to be around other people and teaching. That's how I ended up back here and applying for the UW residency last year. ... I need to be around other people and doing stuff to figure out this stuff.
So, it sounds like a really exciting time for you right now, being a part of the University of Wisconsin.
I can't believe my good fortune. When I get up in the morning, I can't believe that I'm going to come to school. I love school. I was a kid who always loved school. ... Just because of this, because I have this little card that has the UW logo on it I can have access to the kinds of people I really need to be around ...
What you're doing is so cool! It's a holistic approach to life and art. My background is in poetry and I think a lot of poets and artists in generally -- especially those who don't know better -- work in isolation. It's easy to fall into that, isn't it?
Yeah. Absolutely! ... Poetry is the core. Poetry is exactly what I'm saying. And I would argue that anything we call the arts contains something that is the corollary to poetry, whatever it is. Poetry is right there with music and actually, in terms of hemispheric differences in the brain, poetry is on the right side, unique to itself, unique to all things that are expressed in language. Poetry is on this side, everything else in language is on [the other] side ... But if you say "poetry" to people ... they've given up on it, it's so sad. You just want to say, 'But it's happening to you right now; it's happening right this second."
I'm glad we're talking about poetry, because I really wanted to ask you about it. I re-read "Cicadas" from your book One! Hundred! Demons! last night. Every time I read that story it makes me cry -- it hasn't worn off over all these years. And after I read it, I thought, "It looks like a comic strip, but it's poetry."
I think you identified something about poetry, which is that you can't wear it out. A poem can accommodate whatever situation you're in. ...
I really believe that science and art and poetry -- which I'd say is common to both science and art -- has been extracted from people as if it doesn't belong to you anymore. It's been extracted, and there's this idea that it belongs to other people.
I think that that has serious consequences, not just culturally, but physically and psychologically. ... One thing that's so cool is how sorry I am about our life spans being so short, because I really want to know this before I go. That's the dream, isn't it? To have that thing that you can't quite answer, that you chase all the way.
Yeah, we wouldn't have art if we weren't chasing something, even if we're not exactly sure what it is, right?
Especially if we can't say it, in a weird way. That's the thing about poetry. I always think about it like something round, like a tire-shaped thing stuck in the mud. You can only see the top of it. In a funny way, that other part of the shape has to be under, where you can't see it.
think about poetry a lot. ... There has to be a way to flip it on its back and people will think it's new. They won't have that immediate body reaction: "Oh, it's a poem, I don't get it." You can't get a poem by thinking about it; it doesn't exist in that thinking area. ... It's the big mystery. Poetry is exactly the thing I'm talking about: it's the one thing that is in language that isn't language.
Again, what is an image? One of the things I argue is that an image is a place. I'd say that a poem is a place.
You're part of two events at the upcoming Wisconsin Book Festival: Seven Days Without Print, which sounds pretty interesting, and also "Encyclopedia Show 2.0" -- I am not really sure what that is!
"Encyclopedia Show" is so boss! Well, both of them are. I am very, very delighted to be part of both. "Encyclopedia Show" is ... this show where people from all different walks of life are given a topic and they have to write 500 words about it and you don't know what they're going to give you. ... Then, the time comes and they run it like a boxing ring where everybody just gets up and does their piece. I don't know how to explain it; it's such a great show. ... It's fantastic!
Seven Days without Print is about trying to figure out the future of print, what's going to happen. I am going to be on the panel talking about that. My comic strip used to be in Isthmus; I had a comic strip that ran for 30 years that no longer exists, and that job doesn't exist anymore. Part of it has to do with print and what's happening with paper.
This interview is one in a series of author interviews, book reviews, and other curiosities leading up to the Wisconsin Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 7-11.