People asked me how an artist adapts the true meaning of an original poem and what the original poet thinks about the adaptation; mainly because of the current #RHINOArt2Art Submission Guideline. I have my own thoughts, but I wanted to explore this question with Gretchen Primack and Scoot Swain.
Primack's poems were adapted into video poems, visual poems, and a graphic book review by various artists. She talked about the adapted works in the past article.
I saw Swain's works at The Indianapolis Review (Issue 14: Fall 2020: The Visual Poetry Issue) for the first time. The Editor In Chief, Natalie Solmer, beautifully curated the issue, and there are so many current leading visual poets such as Sarah Sloat, Meg Reynolds, and David Dodd Lee. Solmer also discussed what she is looking for in her submissions in this article. It is the happiest feeling to share works with my respected, fellow visual poets.
Swain added illustrations to Abby Johnson's poems, which were "16 Questions that Might Lead to Love" in the issue. My favorite thing about their illustrations are how relaxed the line-strokes are. The comic poem was clearly a good result of teamwork - - the illustrations and words flowed, and the two elements were fluently welded together - - that was my first impression of their poetry comic.
Then, when I read the following article, I was like, "I knew it!" Swain and Johnson were indeed good colleagues. There was clear proof in the illustration.
By Scoot Swain
Abby Johnson and I worked together on 16 Questions that Might Lead to Love. She brought the poem into one of our classes in Paige Lewis’s workshop and I just fell apart after reading it. No huge surprise there--Abby is without question my favorite poet. After that class, I reached out to her and asked if she minded if I illustrated it, and we went from there, communicating through email. It took me about a month total to get all of the drawings’ last drafts together, but the entire process couldn’t have gone any smoother.
I went line by line, writing each one in sharpie on a piece of Bristol paper and leaving myself plenty of room to draw. That was the most relaxing part of the process--a great opportunity to just sit and listen to music and take in the poem at a much slower pace. For anyone who wants to try their hand at a similar project, I recommend buying some notecards for first drafts so you don’t waste as much Bristol paper as I did (I’m not very good with scissors). Once all that was done I got drawing, which you probably guessed took the longest.
The biggest no-no in poetry comics is drawing the exact same images already evoked by the piece’s language. You can’t illustrate “The Red Wheelbarrow'' by just slapping a red wheelbarrow on the page.
Doing so takes away from both the words and drawings, makes the comic feel flat and predictable by taking away any tension between the two forces. Instead, I like to focus on the unseen--what absences can a line imply? What was here that we’re just barely too late to see? Something’s missing. What? The idea of absence makes 16 Questions into the piece it is--empty rooms, unopened doors, abandoned swingsets. When adapting poems into poetry comics, I’ve found that every image comes from the poem, even if it wasn’t in the piece to begin with. Or maybe it’s just that I love drawing people who look incredibly forlorn. Maybe a little bit of both.
I should say that my favorite part of making the comic was working with Abby. She’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and if she were to ask me, I’d illustrate every poem she showed me. I’m surprised every conversation I have with her doesn’t just start with me shouting “COLLAB BRO?” I recommend throwing on some headphones and just listening to her read the poem on its own. It’s such a thoughtful and interesting piece, and the fact that I got to give it some of the life it gave me and make it into something new was one of my greatest joys of 2020. I also recommend reading all of Abby’s other work, which you can find at Ghost City Press, Requited Journal, and the Indianapolis Review.
If I had to boil down my experience from drawing 16 Questions and working with Abby, it’s that you should take every opportunity you get to make art with your friends. Working with Abby made me feel far less lonely in a year defined by isolation and uncertainty. If you get the chance and find the inspiration, I recommend making something new with your loved ones. You’ll be proud of what you make, I’m positive.
Scoot Swain is an Indianapolis-based poet and illustrator, currently pursuing an MFA in poetry from Butler University. A poetry editor for Turnpike Magazine, their work has appeared in The Indianapolis Review and The Broken Plate. They love comics, Dungeons and Dragons, and bugs. Find more of their art and words on Twitter and Instagram, @scootswain