When Art & Poetry Collide

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It was just another day on Instagram for me, scrolling through my timeline and checking my mentions when up popped a notification from an account named @riles.art who commented on one of my posts about how she too had just started slapping her poetry up around her city in sticker form. I clicked on her page to check out her work and my jaw dropped at what I saw - a page full of words and phrases cut out of books to form poems that she creates from those clippings. If that wasn't creative enough, then she sticks the poems to what looks like vintage photos, creating an aesthetically stunning visual piece along with her beautiful poetry. That was it, I had to know more! 

After a few comments back and forth and a slide into her DM, Riles agreed to let me ask her a bunch of questions about her creative process and her inspiration for these pieces. If I wasn't obsessed before, I definitely am now! All of us in the poetry community are striving to create our own lane while staying true to ourselves and our journey and Riles is definition of that!

If you are lacking some inspiration lately, keep reading. This interview will surely get your creative juices flowing!  


How long have you been reading and/or writing poetry?

Golly, for as long as I can remember? Growing up my house was always full of books. I started writing my first novel in second grade. It was about a girl who could climb into a different world through a tunnel in her closet. It was never completed. In sixth grade, my english teacher had us write “moon poems” every full moon. We were to go outside and look at the moon and write a poem, and since then I’ve kept writing. How much and what (fiction, poetry, journaling) has definitely had it’s ebbs and flows, but it’s been in my bones forever. There’s a quote from the book White Oleander by Janet Fitch that I have had on my wall since high school that still resonates very deeply. It says “Always learn poems by heart. They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they'll make your soul impervious to the world's soft decay.”

How did you first come up with the idea to cut words/phrases from pieces of literature and then piece them together to create poems?

 I honestly don’t remember. I think the first time I did it was in college, around 2008 (I actually still have a couple of the poems I made then. I posted one on my insta recently). I printed out some poems from poets I love, cut them up, rearranged them & taped them onto cardboard (Anne Sexton & Charles Bukowski are definitely featured). I liked the idea of being able to clothe my own thoughts in the words that had moved me so much. I didn’t come back to this form of art until last summer.

Where do you get the pictures for the backgrounds of your pieces?

Until now I’ve been getting backgrounds by cutting out images from old magazines, mostly National Geographics. What I like about the current format is that for the most part, the focus is on the words and not the background. However sometimes there are poems that make sense in my head but really need the right images to help convey the feeling I intend for the reader. To be able to better fit some of my poems with images and because of potential copyright issues of using magazine photos, I’m looking at some new options. I’m considering making my own backgrounds either with photos or paints, using photos available in creative commons, or collaborating with other visual artists. I am currently working on a collaboration with an artist where we will arrange my poems on some illustrations he comes up with and I’m really hyped about it. I’m looking forward to how that pushes my creativity and helps grow my vision of what this could become.

How do you organize what you cut from the literature? Do you have a method to your madness?

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Good question! It has definitely been a growing process. At first I just threw all the cuttings onto cardboard “trays” and set them around my workspace, but that was insanely precarious. If I blew on them the wrong way (or bumped into a corner & knocked them over) all my little papers went flying, and I don’t even want to tell you how long it takes to pick up and rearrange a tray of little tiny phrases. (I may have just thrown some in the trash sometimes because ain’t nobody got time for that). You also couldn’t really stack them. so I ran out of space quickly. I looked online, trying to solve my problem, but nobody has really blogged about this! So through trial and error, I’ve developed a system that is working pretty well for me (though it’s still definitely evolving). Here’s my secret - poster putty! I lay it out in strips and set the phrases on the strips, so they don’t fly around, and I can still remove them easily. It’s not perfect, and I definitely have ripped phrases I really wanted while trying to remove them, but it’s a million times better than what I had before and has made this accessible as something I can bring on the road (I was able to successfully make tons of poems while on a trip to Mexico and even made poems on the plane because I had everything organized nicely).

I’ve also recently started organizing by book so I take a piece of cardstock, label it with the book or magazine I’m cutting from, then fill it with putty strips and phrases. I’m thinking about doing sets of poems from specific books so keeping track of the phrases. This is the first step toward doing that.

What kinds of literature do you use to cut your words from?

I have a ton of books. Most of them are old used copies of classics and books I have read and loved. I just started cutting from the books that I already have. I do also cut from magazines, but that’s mostly because if I’m already using the images, I don’t want to waste the words. I’m thinking about starting some series of poems from specific books or authors, probably starting with some of my favorites (right now I’m debating between starting with Alice in Wonderland or some Tom Robbins).

Do you read the whole piece of literature to find phrases to cut out or do you just fish through and whatever catches your eye?

The last few books I started cutting were books that I actually just read not really intending to use them for art. While I was reading I kept noticing phrases I wanted to use in a poem, so as soon as I finished the book, I started cutting it (but I did a really bad job marking which phrases I liked, so I’m still just fishing through them).

I definitely don’t properly read things while I’m cutting. I scan through the pages and just see what catches my eye. Often I flip to a random page in the middle of the book and go from there. It’s fun to do this with books I love because I will know what’s happening wherever I’m cutting, and sometimes I’m making a poem and can remember exactly which part of the book the line came from. I love to see how the meaning is transformed when juxtaposed with the new phrases around it.

I’ve done a little cutting from books I've never read before, and while it can be interesting, I don’t like it nearly as much.

Do you then glue the words to the pictures? How do you keep them on the picture but still keep them looking clean?

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Yes, I glue the words on once I’ve decided the poem is complete and the picture is the right one. Keeping the picture clean is just a matter of practice, I suppose. I've definitely made a mess of things a few times, but over time I've gotten better at knowing how to get my pieces together without smearing glue on everything. I don't have any insider advice, though. Glue sticks and caution, I suppose. 

How long does it take you to make a single piece? From cutting the words, formatting, applying, and then making it a sticker?

That’s really hard to say because I do things in stages, as inspiration strikes I guess. I usually will start by sitting and cutting some phrases. This helps me get into the zone. Some days I cut for a little while and that’s it, I don’t even make any poems, and I'm just preparing for the next time I’m ready to write.

When I’m ready to make some poems, I’ll start by looking through the pages of phrases I’ve got cut and pick out a few that strike me. I lay them out on my mat, grouping them by ones I think will go together. Then when an idea starts to feel like it’s forming for a particular poem, I'll scan through my phrases with that idea in mind, trying to feel out what will complete it. I know I'm using the word "feel" a lot, but that’s how I experience this process. I suppose technically I’m reading the words, but it’s really about matching feelings together and trying to shape the words around something I'm not even sure I know how to verbalize.

While I'm teasing poems out, I’ll find phrases I like that don’t fit together, and often they’ll end up building into two separate poems. Or a line I thought would fit doesn’t,and now it’s on the mat and maybe some other lines end up grouping around it. I often complete 5-10 poems in one burst.

I used to glue each poem as soon as it was finished, but now I'm finding it easier to just set aside the finished poems (using my magic poster putty again) until I have a few lined up. Then I can go through and find them all backgrounds another time. This is also nice because it gives me longer to let the poem sit and decide if I still like it or if it needs adjusting before I’ve glued it down.

After I've glued the poem down, I have to glue the whole thing onto cardstock & crop it nicely so it can be a finished piece. Then I scan it into my computer and to make a sticker I have to digitally crop it to a nice size and lay it out in my homemade sticker template. After I print some stickers, I arrange them outside and spray with a couple coats of varnish so the colors pop and they’ll last in the sun (I could definitely skip this last step but then the magenta ink runs a little bit when it rains and I want my art to look good, y’know?).

I’d guess that if you added all the steps together, it’s at least a couple hours per poem, from start to finish, to produce both a complete original piece of art and a sticker. I do things in batches, which makes it harder to tell per poem. Like right now I have a pile of poems that have been glued onto the backgrounds & posted on Instagram but are waiting for a day I feel like it to move them forward in the process and then I’ll do them all at once.

I would add that I do try to create something every day. Sometimes it’s just cutting new phrases. Sometimes it’s writing in my journal or painting or drawing and nothing to do with poetry. I recently went almost two weeks without writing any new poems, but I was still busy cutting new phrases, making stickers, working on other art projects. Then a day came when I felt inspired. I sat down and had all the phrases ready and put words together for ten poems in a morning. I try to ride with what my energy is and not force it, but to make sure I’m creating in one way or another.

You now post your pieces in sticker format all around your city. When did you first get the idea to do that? How do you transfer your pictures and poems onto a sticker?

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The only time I’ve ever (knowingly) been on Craigslist missed connections was when I was in college and a girl posted thanking the “barefoot girl in a polka dot dress” who handed her a poem on the street after she’d been having a bad day (I was also leaving them under windshield wipers and in mailboxes). Getting poetry into the world has always been a passion of mine. I have loved street art in general for a long time but have never really participated. I’ve never felt like a visual artist and have only recently started drawing/painting more, so graffiti art didn’t seem accessible to me. It’s also kind of a Boys Club, which I find intimidating. My style is eclectic but definitely falls on the femme side of things. I love the stereotypical graffiti writers’ style, but mine is much more cursive, flowers, and glitter. Last fall, a friend started putting up little heartstickers around and asked me to join them, so I did. Making these cute little hearts in bright colors and putting them in the world felt so gratifying. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, and it occurred to me that I could print my poems out as stickers and put those up too, and here we are! I love getting to spread my art this way.

To make my poem stickers, I print them at home using an inkjet printer & vinyl sticker paper. Then I spray them with some varnish to help weatherproof them so they will stay looking fly outdoors. In the future I might order some from an actual printing company but right now printing them at home works best because I can easily try out different sizes/styles/designs without committing to a large run of something. This is absolutely not a profitable way to make them but that’s not the goal right now so that’s okay although if people love them and want to buy them, they are available on my Etsy & it definitely helps support the project. I do really like that making stickers at home allows me to hand sign each one, making it a little piece of art in it's own right. 

Have people noticed your work out in public and contacted you through social media?

I only started putting these stickers up last week so I haven’t had much social media interaction yet but literally as I was writing the answer to this question, a gal I follow on Instagram who posts cool stickers she finds around Seattle found me (@206liz) so it’s starting!

How many cities have you been able to post your stickers? Which ones?

So far, I’ve sent stickers to folks in Germany, England, the Philippines, and in the U.S. - San Francisco, Baltimore, Portland, Montana, & a small town in Alaska. Again, I just started this project, so I don’t know where all folks have put them up, but they’re definitely getting around, and I hope to continue getting them out there. Some designs are also available for purchase on my Etsy site, alongside my original art, and I’ve sent a few out that way, so we’ll see where else they land. 

What is your goal when it comes to creating these pieces? Do you want to monetize, spread poetry in the urban world, build a social media following, etc.

Ha! Good question. I guess I want a little bit of all of the above? To be honest, I would be making these whether or not I was sharing them. I can’t imagine not making art. But it’s also feels really good to share my art with the world, and I like how it challenges me to help grow my creativity. I do sell the originals of my poems, and I’ve really been digging turning them into a piece of art for someone to have in their home. I’d like to expand that to some postcards/prints. I love buying interesting prints and paper products, so I think other folks might like to buy mine. The stickers are more of a passion project for me - a way to get more poetry into the world, slap up some femme street art, and beautify public spaces with folk art. The fact that it gets my name out there is a nice side benefit. They are for sale on my Etsy for folks who see them and like them, but it’s definitely more of a labor of love at this point. Eventually, I would love for art to be my full time job, so in a sense all of this is a process toward making that happen both by developing my style, developing an audience, and figuring out what folks want to buy from me.

What inspires your pieces? Do you start with the picture & then write the poem from there or the other way around?

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It’s all about the words. Most of the time, the pictures are simply to give the words a nice framing. My pieces always come out about my life. I never go into a creative session thinking “oh, I’m going to make poems about loss (or hope or fear or insert emotion here) today” but it’s like I uncover how I'm feeling on a day based on the poems I end up making. Some days my eyes completely pass over certain phrases that the next day are the inspiration for multiple poems. I really step out of my rational brain when I'm making them and just let me feelings guide me. Honestly half the time I'm as surprised as anyone else by the pieces I put together. It’s somewhat terrifying to share with the world, to be honest, because these are my deepest, most raw emotions spilled onto a page. But that’s poetry, and I can only hope that it helps someone else feel less alone in their feelings.

What do you enjoy most about creating these pieces? What is your favorite element of it?

I have always loved writing, words, poems, reading, and just.. everything about books. If I had to pick one favorite part about this, it would be combining phrases like puzzle pieces and that moment when it just fits, and I read the pieces in front of me, and the poem punches me in the stomach with something I didn’t even know I was trying to describe. I know I'm the one writing these things, but it often doesn’t feel that way. I surprise myself, and that’s the best part.

Why have you decided on this avenue of art to share your words with others instead of say, writing a full length novel, participating in spoken word events, or other avenues? What about this pathway has you the most inspired? 

I feel like this is a sort of modern take on formal poetry - adding external constraints to your process to actually help spur creativity. I am limited to what I have cut out, which is limited by what books I have used to cut from, and I think that lends an interesting flavor to my work. I also just enjoy the aesthetics of the cut pieces on the page (any asofterworld fans out there know what i’m talking about). 

More deeply, I feel like all of us as humans are sharing things through our own lenses of life, histories, memories, and feelings. But we’re all trying to share the same essential things about humanity and the general human experience. By taking words from multiple authors whom I love and turning those into my expression of experience, I'm just making it more obvious on paper how we are all just made up of the life we’ve lived, the books we’ve read, the people we’ve loved, but underneath it, the ideas are all the same, and they all still fit together into the same puzzle.

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See more of Riles work in the gallery below and click the button to follow her on Instagram!

To check out Riles' Etsy shop where her custom art and stickers are available for purchase, click the button below to shop her collection! 

& coming soon - www.rilesart.com ! 


 I'd like to thank Riley for allowing me into her world and letting me pick her brain on the evolution of her art!  You truly have something special and unique and I can't wait to see what the future holds for you! 

 If you would like to be a contributor like Riley, click the button below to contact me! Be sure to include the idea for your topic and your IG handle in the message! 

love & light, 

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