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Comics and Candlesticks

10 June 10 words: James Walker, Aly Stoneman
Our 3,000th online article explores the world of 'graphic poetry', a new and exciting art form project by NCN students...
Design by Kieron Hunt

If you haven’t heard of graphic poetry yet it’s because it doesn’t exist. But an exciting project involving Nottingham Writers’ Studio, Candlestick Press and a bunch of enthusiastic students at New College Nottingham may see poetry assimilated into this popular art form and gripping the imagination in the same way that graphic novels have in Hollywood. On one level it could be seen as the kind of 'dumbing down' of culture that would have Brian Sewell chocking on his Alpen or perhaps it is simply enhancing poetry and making it more accessible to a wider audience.  We caught up with Jenny Swann and Richard Johnson to see why they were translating Yeats greatest known poems into sequential art...  

Graphic Poetry – a new genre?
Jenny: Illustrating poetry has a long tradition and some famous participants – not least a series of illustrations to the poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson, produced in the 1850s by the Pre-Raphaelites and, more recently, the memorable illustrations by Arthur Rackham for Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘Goblin Market’. NCN students and Candlestick Press have been experimenting with a project that takes this tradition forward into the evolving comic strip/sequential art-form, using the work of the poet W.B. Yeats as the starting-point.  

Why Yeats?
Jenny: I chose the work of Yeats, rather than other poetry, because I felt that it lent itself particularly well to comic strip treatment and also, that the poetry of Yeats would appeal to young people. Although Yeats is not a poet one grows out of, he is a poet who seems to speak loud and clear to the young, whether that be on the subject of love, death, war, futility, passion or politics.

How did the students engage with the challenge of translating poetry into a design project?
Jenny: When presenting the project to the students, the emphasis was very much on each student interpreting the imagery and meaning of the poems in their own way.  I had no idea what to expect from the end results and was impressed to find that the students had each taken hold of the poetry and made it their own. 

Design by  Patti Bugarini

Such as…
One student saw the poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death in a futuristic context, and her own Burmese background gave her insights into the universality of the poem; another managed to skillfully incorporate textiles, and scenes of Wollaton Hall, into the poem He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven.  Another student turned the voice of He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven into that of a homeless man begging on the streets, who appeals to the passers-by (who ignore him), “Tread softly for you tread on my dreams”. Looking back over the project, I was impressed by the new meaning that the sequential art-form had added to Yeats’ poetry, and the originality of the students’ responses.

Richard: The students were apprehensive at first. It's always been an important part of the learning process that design students on our FdA course research and develop their ideas. To walk away from a project and have learned about another design discipline and developed a new skill is one thing - but to embed historical context pushes the students further. There are always themes attached in the briefs and Yeats' poetry was perfect for this. In my experience, Art and Design students in general will struggle more with literacy than other academics, therefore another reason to embed these core skills. With this in mind, the students at NCN did exceptionally well - some of the strongest examples completed by international students. Yeats' universal themes were perfect for adaptation and were interpreted with the depth they deserved. The final outcomes were a rewarding experience for the students - a steep learning curve which has inspired both an interest in poetry and sequential art.

I guess the standard trope of cultural analysis is to see this as further evidence of ‘dumbing-down’…
Graphic novels are literature. It’s as simple as that. They’re visual literature. It’s being taken a lot more seriously now thanks to writers such as Alan Moore. Marjane Satrapi - who did Persepolis - has a massive female following, enticing people who don’t usually read graphic novels to read them on the basis of the movie so all of these visual art forms connect in some way and become adaptations or reworking or however you want to see them. They all seem to feed into and support each other which is why this project was set-up in the first place. If a short graphic poem or story helps introduce students or younger people to poets such as Yeats then I think that’s a good thing. This doesn’t cheapen poetry, it opens it up.

And we still have the original. It’s not replacing anything.
Exactly. It’s just a slightly different form, a cultural melting pot of ideas.

I guess the recent trend in Hollywood for graphic novels has rejuvenated our love for this art form. I’m thinking here of films such as 300 and Sin City...
Even Road to Perdition and A History of Violence are based on graphic novels which I don’t think everyone is aware of. And even here some are interpretations by smaller publishers, not just the big boys such as Marvel and DC. This is why people are being pulled into the genre. They watch an original script such as those mentioned and then want to read more. The real beauty is it can cover absolutely everything and anything. For example, I’ve just bought my wife Johnny Cash: I see a Darkness by Reinhard Kleist which is not just a graphic biography, it’s about people influenced by his song lyrics or prisoners imagining they were the ones who fired the shot in 'Reno'. Then there’s Put the Book back on the Shelf, based on Belle and Sebastian songs. The possibilities with this art form are endless, something I hope this project proves. I’m really proud of what my students have done.    

Design by Su Nge Nge

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

You can hear the Comics and Candlesticks talk in full on the NWS website, along with readings from Dr Deirdre O’Byrne and friends. To hear an interview with the ncn students and Richard Johnson see our WriteLion 6 podcast.

Sick of the World Cup? Well get down and see NCN’s Art, Design, Fashion and Media End of Year Show


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