The Art of Poetry, with Julian Peters
In 2013, when Julian Peters, a comic book artist and illustrator living in Montreal, published the first nine pages of his yet unfinished visual adaptation of T.S. Eliots’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock on his website, poetry and art buffs all over the internet rejoiced at the lyrical and seemingly effortless quality of the images. Peters’ works, which have been praised for both their faithfulness to the original text and their innovative, original aspects, are evocatively in perfect tune with the verses they attempt to describe. Those impressed by the aforementioned adaptation, continued on to devour the stunning interpretations of Keats, Yeats, Rimbaud, Nelligan and more, published on his website. Here, in conversation with Eye, Peters discusses his art, his inspirations, and why the juxtaposition of the visual and the verse is more relevant than ever.
[Images: The Drunken Boat by Arthur Rimbaud, adapted by Julian Peters]
1. Tell us about Julian Peters the man- where you come from, what your story is. If you had to sum yourself up in a short, autobiographical comic strip, what would you choose to draw?
I was born 35 years ago in Montreal, the son of two biology professors. My mother is Italian, and I spent a great deal of time in Italy as a child; I even did a year of elementary school over there, and one year of high school.
If I had to do a comic strip about myself (a project that, in truth, I’d rather avoid), I’d probably focus on those childhood summers spent in Italy, at the family home on the hills overlooking beautiful Lake Orta, in Piedmont. That’s my Eden, and probably the greatest repository of artistic inspiration I have. Perhaps the day will come when I will tackle the memory of those sensations head on in a comic, although it’s more the kind of thing I picture myself doing as an old man.
It’s also in Italy that I developed my passion for comics, starting with the wonderful Disney comics that they have over there (Oddly enough, Italy is the world’s largest producer of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse comics!). Then, later, my mother’s cousin, who had studied comics in Milan and who amassed a vast comics collection throughout his life, introduced me to what I consider the golden age of Italian comics, those from the late sixties to the mid eighties. These are still my favorites. Those are the comics that revived my childhood passion for the medium, and set me down the path I’m still pursuing to this day.
2. Who would you say are your greatest influences/inspirations in terms of art and literature?
As I said, my greatest inspiration are the classic Italian comics artists, including Hugo Pratt, Andrea Pazienza, Dino Battaglia, Angelo Stano and, more recently, Lorenzo Mattotti and Manuele Fior. Recently though I’ve become obsessed with the Uruguayan comics artist Alberto Breccia, especially his “Mort Cinder” series from the early 60s. It’s wonderful falling in love again so completely with a comics artist! I’m also inspired by a lot of French and Belgian comics artists, especially Edmond Baudoin and Emmanuel Guibert. And I think the influence of Hergé (Tintin) one of my first great loves, is still there, albeit in a very sublimated and diffuse form, in everything I do.
Besides comics, I’m also very inspired by the works of late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century British illustrators, especially Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham, and Edmund Dulac. And from more recent decades, I also look a lot at the work of Edward Gorey, Victor Ambrus, and Maurice Sendak.
As for literary influences, I haven’t written a whole lot of original texts, so it’s hard to say. The accompanying texts for my ongoing “Views of an Imaginary City” series are inspired primarily by certain works by Italo Calvino, Borges, Kafka, and Dino Buzzati.
3. Tell us about the birth of your art. Was it an idea borne out of a hobby for pure artistic pleasure, or was it a happy accident?
I first had the idea of combining poetry and comics when, in my early twenties, I conceived the idea of creating a comic book biography of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I saw a drawing of the boy wonder done by his lover Paul Verlaine, in which I thought he looked a great deal like the Belgian comic-book character Tintin, and that was the genesis of that idea. As part of this project, which I began but never completed, I created a visual rendering of Rimbaud’s short poem “Sensations.” That was the first of my poetry comics. A few years later, I returned to this idea, adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” into comics. And then I just kept on going.
4. How would you categorise your artistic style?
Aside from your fluid personal style, you’ve also done a Manga-style adaptation of Yeats’ When You Are Old. What would you say are the differences and similarities between the two styles (your personal style and Manga) In terms of your art? Which one is easier to work with?
I’d say I have two main personal styles. One, more “classic,” at times almost slightly Victorian or Edwardian-looking, with deliberately wobbly lines created with a nib pen, and smoky, hazy effects that are achieved with a dry sponge. That’s the style I used for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The other style is looser and more expressionistic, and relies more on contrasts between areas of black and white. It’s done using brushes rather than a pen. Going forward, though, I am looking at ways to combine these two styles together, taking what works best from each.
As for the Manga version of Yeats, I wouldn’t consider that one of my own styles, but rather a deliberate attempt to replicate as closely as possible the style of another artist, or rather that of a group of artists, the work done by the CLAMP collective from Japan in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s really more of a pastiche. As such, it was actually quite a lot easier for me to draw than something in one of my more personal style, because I never had to really ask myself how I should draw things. I just had to imagine how CLAMP would draw the images I had in mind. Those drawings for the Yeats comic are obviously completely different from everything else I’ve done, but I think they do share in a concern for elegance of line and a harmoniousness of composition. I’m usually striving for a certain gracefulness that I think compliments the lyrical qualities of a lot of the poetic texts I’m working with.
5. The instruction in poetry, at least throughout high schools in India, tends to be rigid and mostly focused on pre-determined, syllabus-based textual interpretation, as opposed to individual analysis. While the imagery in poetry is discussed in theory, there is very little scope to realise the “visual”, evocative aspects of verses. You’ve successfully created a space where art and poetry co-exist in harmony. How does your artistic vision complement your interpretation of poetry?
Do you always imagine the literature in terms of images?
Beyond any particular approach to poetry instruction, I suspect the most effective way of getting high school students interested in poetry is for teachers to communicate their own enthusiasm for the art form. I think poetry reading should be presented first and foremost as a sensual experience, like listening to music. Textual analysis is important of course, but the starting points should be the rhythm and musicality of the words, and the emotional resonance of the thoughts expressed.
I’ve always been a very visual person, so images naturally tend to pop into my head when I read poetry. These spontaneous images are the starting point for the creation of each new poetry comic. But it’s also possible that a line of poetry may really move me without any particular accompanying image popping into my head. In those cases I have to give it a little more thought, and cast about for ideas. Eventually something will come.
The effective pairing of imagery and text is not the only important aspect of creating poetry comics, however. I also pay a lot of attention to the overall layout, the placing and spacing of the text, the main lines of the drawings, guiding the movement of the reader’s eye across image and text in such a way as to create a more immersive reading experience, almost as in such “time-based” art forms as music or film. Not that I’ve been completely successful thus far in achieving this effect, but it is the goal I am always ultimately striving for. It’s the great potential I see in poetry comics.
6. What are the challenges you face when you sit down to translate poetry into images? Poetry comes with several layers of meaning. How do you deal with the bits involving similes, metaphors, allegories, and so on?
How do you decide upon an illustrate-able poem, or literary piece?
I think one of the biggest challenges is staying true to the text and to the image that it spontaneously evokes in me while avoiding an overly obvious, redundant interpretation. In terms of capturing different layers of meaning, I often try to find an image that is a kind of compromise between the various possible interpretations of the text. For example, in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the fog is described in terms that are obviously meant to recall the movements of a cat. It “rubs its muzzle against the window panes,” “licks its tongue,” makes “a sudden leap,” etc. Yet at the same time, it’s still a fog, not a cat. So how is one to draw it? My solution was to draw the fog as a kind of vaguely cat-shaped cloud, with big, cat-like eyes.
As for the reason why I choose to illustrate a particular poem over another, I have two main criteria: The poem has to move me, and it has to spontaneously evoke at least some strong images in my mind’s eye.
7. An unfinished adaptation of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is currently one of your better known pieces on the internet. What went into the production of this piece and when can your fans hope to see it finished?
Well, “Prufrock” has long been one of my favourite poems, one that couldn’t correspond more to the criteria I mentioned above. It’s by far the longest poem I’ve ever tackled. After completing about one-third of it, I decided to send it various comics publishers, along with other poetry comics I had done, with the hopes on selling them on an idea for a comic-book anthology of poems. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any immediate takers, and I moved on to other projects. That was about four years ago. Then, just a few months ago, the finished portion of Prufrock that I had posted to my website suddenly and unexpectedly went viral, and was eventually featured in Slate Magazine and The Boston Globe, among other places. Now I am trying to capitalize on this newfound attention to work out some kind of publishing deal for a collection of poetry comics. But all of the positive responses to my “Prufrock” have convinced me to try to complete it as soon as possible, whatever happens. I am hoping on finishing it later this year.
8. There are a lot of people who, otherwise not too keen on reading poetry, have gone back and comprehended with relative ease and enjoyment a difficult poetic piece in its illustrated format. What do you have to say about the future of illustration-aided poetry appreciation in education?
Well, we’re supposedly living in an ever more visually oriented society, so it makes sense that poetry education should incorporate more visual teaching aids such as poetry comics. I hope it will, anyway. Certainly I have had many people tell me that they have developed a greater appreciation or understanding of a poem after reading one of my comics interpretations of it.
9. Tell us about your upcoming projects- what you have planned, what you would like to do someday and so on.
Well, I’m collaborating with a scriptwriter on a project for a graphic novel set in nineteenth-century Florida. I also have a lot more classic poems that I would like to adapt, including a number of Italian poems. I’d also like to continue my “Views of an Imaginary City” series. I also have an idea percolating in the back of my head for a kind of fictional biography of a character who would be a composite of those large-than-life –but also to my mind, slightly ridiculous- poets from the early twentieth century who founded their own “isms”, penned endless manifestos, were obsessed by planes, motor cars and women, in that order, and had silly ideas about the rejuvenating powers of war. The protagonist would be a combination of the poets Fabrizio Marinetti, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Arthur Cravan, and Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows.
10. And last, what is your advice to those who would want to pursue this genre of art?
Well, I think my main advice would be to make sure, if you decide to get into poetry comics, that you are as equally passionate about poetry as you are about comics. If a poetic text moves you deeply enough, then I have no doubt that, as a cartoonist, you will find a way to express these feelings visually in a worthwhile way.
If you’re new to Peters, and you loved what you read and saw (or if you’re still not convinced), then we advise you to abandon all your plans for the day and check out the rest of his works on his official website. You will not be disappointed.
Interview by Priyanka Sen