INTERVIEW: Wendy Chin-Tanner on Embodied: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology

Poetry is Wendy Chin-Tanner’s first love. In her own poetic work, she calls on the influences of poets such as Audre Lorde, Ai, Sylvia Plath, Vera Pavlova, and Lorine Niedecker. For A Wave New World’s Chin-Tanner, poets are a kind of literary world superhero, because, she says, “they’re always trying to do the impossible — to write into the ineffable, that is, that which cannot be expressed in language because it’s too great for words. That’s a pretty tall order, right?”

As a kind of literary superhero herself, she has authored two poetry collections — Turn, an Oregon Book Award finalist, and Anyone Will Tell You and has served as a poetry editor at the literary magazine The Nervous Breakdown since 2010. Until 2019, Chin-Tanner’s co-publisher role at A Wave Blue World focused more on the big picture in the background, making executive, editorial, aesthetic, marketing, and branding decisions. When the company decided to venture into the book market, Chin-Tanner also took on the role of project curation. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring my more literary sensibility to the table and curate an anthology with that in mind.” The publishing company was founded fifteen years ago by Chin-Tanner and her spouse and co-parent, the same year they were married. Fittingly, the combination of her literary experience and network with his comics background and anthology curation skills in Embodied: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology is, as she describes it, “a marriage of our skill sets.” 

The cover of Embodied featuring various women and non-binary people embracing and expressing love and joy

A Wave Blue World describes the Embodied anthology as “mystical, rooted, painful, joyous, and ecstatic; visions of the body, our genders, and our very identities from across the spectrum of contemporary poetry.” Embodied combines the verses, illustrations, colours, and letters of cis female, trans, and non-binary poets and comic artists in a stunning and moving collection that is all wrapped in a mesmerizing cover by Claudia Ianniciello that sings with joy, love, hope, perseverance, and introspection.

“The common thread of the anthology, in keeping with its theme of intersectional feminism, is that all of Embodied’s comics poetry stories speak to experiences pertaining to gender, identity, and the body from the unique perspective of each contributor.” As a result, Embodied works as “a celebration of the multiplicity of voices and diversity of experiences of individuals who inhabit non-cis-male bodies,” and is in keeping with A Wave Blue World’s guiding principle of emphasizing inclusivity and the company’s politically conscious mission. “[A]t this historical moment,” says Chin-Tanner, “the rights of people of marginalized genders and identities have been more under threat than they have ever been in my lifetime. As part of my literary activist work, I had already been curating intersectional feminist poetry readings and panel discussions, so editing a book with that same ethos and motivation seemed like a natural next step.

A pregnant couple are shown a new home by a real estate agent in the poem Good Bones
“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, illustrated by Carola Borelli

Right now, there’s nothing quite like Embodied in the comics world, which was the perfect motivation for the Chin-Tanners to fill that gap, but this anthology is more than just about political activism and filling a niche. “Ultimately, I think people read in order to feel less alone,” says Wendy Chin-Tanner, “and in times of trauma especially, poetry is uniquely capable of speaking to those unspeakable feelings and experiences, to say the unsayable, or to at least try.” Given the current state of the world, Chin-Tanner has found immense comfort in “Wait” by Galway Kinnell. She dares us to read it and see if it doesn’t make us feel a little bit better too. 

When curating this anthology, Chin-Tanner looked for works that could simultaneously reach inward and outward. Artists were then brought in to adapt the poems into sequential narratives that called on their own visual interpretations that, Chin-Tanner says, brought the poems to life in unexpectedly unique ways. “Whether you identify with what you’re reading or you’re reading about an experience that’s totally new to you, the stories in this anthology have the capacity to make you feel less alone as much as they give you the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. They are filled with bravery, wonder, and empathy.”

Sketches for the poem Cherry Blossoms
Process pages for “To the Cherry Blossoms on 16th and Wharton” – art by Hazel Newlevant, from the poem by Kayleb Rae Candrilli

“In collaboration with the poets and artists to varying degrees, Tyler and I came up with the scripts, oversaw how they were interpreted, and then decided along with the letterers how to lay out the verse so that the poem and the art would amplify each other, making each story greater than the sum of its parts. Each poem is printed in its original form at the end of each comics poetry story in order to showcase the process of transformation it underwent. We also show behind-the-scenes process art at the end of the book to give readers even more insight into how each story was created.

Sketches and planning for the poem Rubble Girl
Process art for “Rubble Girl” – art by Sara Woolley, from the poem by Jenn Givhan

Vanessa Villarreal, a contributor who recently received an NEA fellowship, describes her contribution to the anthology as a “poem turned into a graphic experience,” a description that Chin-Tanner really loves as a summary of what Embodied is meant to be. “Comics poetry is a hybrid creative form that mixes the syntax of comics and poetry,” says Chin-Tanner. “Tracing its origins to illuminated manuscripts, graphic novels, concrete poetry, and poets who combine image and text, comics poetry has become formally established in the past decade as a number of artist-poets have begun independently publishing collections and projects.

Process pages like those above are included in the backmatter of the anthology, as is a study guide for educational and discussion purposes — something I’m personally very excited about as my own comic book club will be reading Embodied shortly after it comes out in May. Chin-Tanner points out that many of the poets are also creative writing professors, so the addition simply makes sense as “an ideal opportunity for readers to benefit from their teaching methods and insights in order to increase understanding and spark discussion about their work.”

a page from Embodied

A portion of the anthology’s proceeds is being directed to the International Women’s Health Coalition, an organization supporting causes that are very important and personal to Chin-Tanner who, as a woman of colour, has experienced many gender-specific health issues during her time in the U.S. and Europe. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault, I’ve had an abortion, I’ve had three miscarriages, I’ve experienced secondary infertility and fertility treatment, I’ve been pregnant six times, I’ve given birth twice, and I’m the mother of two daughters. Having had all these experiences, I am absolutely passionate about the global need for women–all women–to have access to adequate medical care.”

Chin-Tanner is excited to see how readers will feel about the Embodied poetry anthology when it is released on May 5 and is already working on ideas for a new poetry anthology. Though Embodied will be the first to fill the comics poetry anthology niche and showing the industry that there truly are no limits to what comics can do, I expect it won’t be the last

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.