The Oakland Arts Review is a new international undergraduate literary journal published out of Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Their inaugural issue, which came out this March, featured a number of my poetry comics, and also included an interview that I gave to Paige Rowland, an undergraduate at Oakland U and one of the two Poetry Editors for OAR. I am reprinting the interview here. Many thanks to OAR Faculty Adviser Dr. Alison Powell for getting in touch with me and making this happen.
1. What’s your creative process?
In terms of my comics adaptations of poems, it begins with some image or images starting to take shape in my mind’s eye as I read a poem (Some people have complained that my adaptations are “overly literal,” but this is the direct –and intended- result of this approach). Afterwards I’ll flesh these images out further in my mind in a more deliberate, conscious way, and start to work them out on paper. At the same time I’ll begin to think about how to connect everything together in terms of the visual narrative of the comic, and how it complements the narrative of the poem, if there is one. Normally I’ll also do a good deal of visual research, in books and online. For instance, for Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” a poem written in the 1840s, I had to look into the children’s and adult fashion of the 1840s, and also the architecture and atmospheres of the mid-nineteenth-century American Atlantic seaboard, which was my chosen setting.
- What do you think the medium of comics and graphic novels can offer in storytelling that other mediums of storytelling cannot offer?
So many things! To answer this question adequately would take a whole book, and indeed there are a number of books dedicated exclusively to this subject. To take one example, there’s nothing like comics to make a character come alive in the mind of the reader. Among the many brilliant observations in Scott McCloud’s comic book about comics Understanding Comics is the insight that the simplification and stylization of faces and facial expressions in comics allows the reader to better identify with them, or at any rate to “fill up” the character in their head. This makes for a particularly engaged form of reader interaction with the story at hand.
There’s also the very satisfying impression that comics can produce of allowing one to move about within a picture. I recently read some lines by H. P. Lovecraft that really struck a chord with me: writing about the old town of Quebec City, Lovecraft calls it “a realisation of that always-beckoning and bitterly-tantalising conception of imaginative fancy –a fairy-tale picture into which one can actually walk.” I think comics could be seen as another way of realising that fantasy.
- I noticed in some of the comics you have made, like “Prufrock” and “Annabel” and “Witch-Wife,” that you choose poems that have a similar theme: love and heartbreak. What draws you to adapt these kinds of poems?
Well, I’m attracted to adapting great poems, and aren’t most great poems about love and heartbreak? I almost feel as though poetry has its origins as a direct outgrowth of humankind’s need to express the sorrow of love –love lost, love unrequited, love the great missed opportunity. Music, on the other hand, seems to my mind like the direct natural outgrowth of humankind’s desire to express the joy of love, or if not quite the joy, the heady passion and desire. That’s why in pop songs an uplifting melody is often combined with sad lyrics.
- What inspired you to start transcribing classic poetry into comics?
My passion for poetry continued to grow throughout my twenties, in the same period that I was getting more and more into comics. So perhaps bringing the two together was inevitable in my case. I noticed that the poetry I liked the most was often evoking some very definite images in my head, and at the same time how certain combinations of text and image in comics had a very peculiar poetic power that was very specific to them. I mean they had a power to evoke feelings that was far greater than the text or image on its own, or that the single comics panel would have had in isolation from a sequence of panels.
- What’s your favorite piece that you’ve created? Why?
Probably my adaptation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot. I find the drawing style seems to match the tone of the poem rather well, and it’s also one of the poem adaptations in which I find my own personality comes across the most. I definitely put a lot of myself in the depiction of the character of Prufrock.
I’m also quite fond of the adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” That was one of my very first attempts at translating a poem into comics, and I find there’s something in the lingering naivety of the drawings that suits the content of the poem.
There’s also an illustration I did inspired by Rimbaud’s “Song from the Highest Tower” that I really like, even if technically it has a lot of issues. I feel it expresses a very definite kind of feeling, a particular kind of almost triumphant solitary happiness that I’d be at a loss to adequately put into words.
- Do you believe that the travel you did at a young age influenced your art? How so?
Absolutely! I grew up in Canada, where my dad was from, but we often went back to Italy, where my mom is from. My parents liked to travel, and they always took my sister and me along with them, something for which I’m extremely grateful. Travelling around Italy you’re inevitably confronted with stunning works of art around practically every corner, and looking back it was probably these encounters more than anything else that sparked my lifelong passion for the visual arts. I think that growing up partly in Italy where the art of the past is all around you and forms the backdrop of your day-to-day life makes it so that you’re more likely to feel a certain personal connection with this art, and to more easily feel comfortable drawing inspiration from it, if you should happen to be artistically inclined.
- The self-portraits posted on your website are interesting. What do these self-portraits represent about you, and why did you choose to represent these aspects of yourself?
In almost all of these self-portraits I appear in period costume of some kind, as if I were someone from the Italian Renaissance or the Romantic era. I think that comes from always having been fascinated by the history of art, as I was just mentioning. The cult of the “great artist” is a big part of the way that history is traditionally taught, and certainly how it was presented to me as a child. And celebrated self-portraits by great masters such as Leonardo, Raphael, Dürer and others play an important part in that whole myth-making approach to art history. Although I recognize the deep flaws in such an approach, I must admit I still find it an exciting and inspiring way to think about art production. I think my historical self-portraits represent a playful and tongue-in-cheek attempt to imagine myself within that narrative.
- A lot of the poems you choose are heavy with existentialism. Do you experience existentialism often in your life? Or are you just drawn to the Lovecraftian concept of not mattering in the universe?
I am in a constant state of existential anxiety, I’d say. Existential anxiety is probably the natural by-product of having an excess of time on one’s hands to obsess about abstract problems, but then a lot of great poetry is probably born of that condition as well. I suppose I don’t disagree with the concept that we don’t matter in the universe, to the extent that “mattering” can be understood to mean anything. As (I think) the French Existentialist philosophers put it, it’s up to us to decide what gives our own lives meaning. It’s clear to me from reading Lovecraft’s fiction and essays that, whatever he may have liked to posit as his personal philosophy, he was very far from interacting with the world as if nothing in it had any meaning. His passion for colonial architecture for instance, seems almost erotic in its intensity.
- You have written your own poetry, yet you have only drawn comics of poetry created by other people, with the exception of “Les aventures de Rimbaud”. Why do you not make comics of your own poetry, and which do you find more useful and satisfying when expressing yourself, writing your own poetry or making a comic of someone else’s work?
This is a very interesting question, but I should say right away that I am very far from considering myself a poet, or even a person who writes poetry. I could count all the poems I’ve even attempted to write in all my life on two hands, I think. Even I did write poems in earnest, though, I don’t think I’d have much of an interest in drawing them, for the reason that they would have their origin in a different impulse. The driving impulse for the very poems I created came partly out of a feeling, of course, but largely out of a certain pleasing combination of words that has begun to form in my head. Whereas my poetry comics take their driving impulse from some images that have begun to form in my head as a result of reading someone else’s words. I suppose if I could write poetry of my own that I considered really good, that would be a far more satisfying accomplishment for me, as I wouldn’t have to take a backseat in terms of credit to the poets I’m adapting in my comics poetry. Presently I would like to try my hand at both writing and illustrating some comics stories. Maybe I’ll attempt to insert something a little bit poetic into the writing component every so often.
- Your art style changes swiftly in your work, which I noticed very prominently in “Sweet Child O’Mine” and “The Hat and the Heron Master”. Your art can go from being realistic to being caricature-like to being hyper-stylized and sharp. Was it difficult to master being able to switch styles so frequently? What methods did you use to develop your art style?
I guess I’m a bit of an artistic chameleon that way. Partly this is a result of never being completely satisfied with anything I do, and thus wanting to strike out in some new direction in the hopes that will lead to something I could be happier with. In the case of “Sweet Child O’Mine,” a graphic novel of mine that I started many years ago now and never finished, the idea from the beginning was to combine a wide variety of drawing styles, sometimes even within the same panel, in such a way as to bring out different facets of the characters’ personalities and emotions, and to intensify the atmospheres of the settings. I was mostly inspired to do this by the work of Andrea Pazienza (1956-1988), one of my all-time favourite Italian comics artists.
- You’ve said before that Arthur Rimbaud is one of the major reasons why you became interested in poetry. What about his work resonated with you so much?
I didn’t really start to respond to poetry at all until I was about seventeen or eighteen. I discovered Rimbaud about a year or two after that, and his poetry was the first that I really got excited about. Of course his whole bohemian persona and dramatic life story was a big part of the appeal, but I think I also responded to the simplicity and directness of his language, and the way it was combined with such fantastically imaginative visions.
- Do you search for poems that have content similar to Rimbaud’s work? Or just whatever intrigues you?
I’m rarely ever seeking out any particular kind of content in poetry. When I like a poem, it grabs me the same way a piece of music grabs me, in a visceral, almost physical way. Sometimes it may take more than one reading, just as a piece of music may take repeated listenings before one “gets it,” but it’s not an intellectual understanding. That’s really what I find the most interesting about poetry –how a combination of words can create a kind of music. That’s not to say that the meaning of the words isn’t important, far from it, but the meaning alone is not enough to create true poetry.
- What concepts and ideas do you usually try to include in your work?
In my most ambitious moments, I’d say melancholy, nostalgic beauty, sehnsucht (that is the longing for a place one has never been to but which nevertheless feels strangely familiar), stuff like that. I also strive to create something somewhat original while still maintaining a strong connection to what has come before, even long before. And hopefully slipping in a bit of understated humour.
Great interview, Jools! I enjoyed reading it immensely from start to finish!