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Comics & Graphic Novels

On October 11, comics luminaries N.C. Christopher Couch, Denis Kitchen, and Holly Black came to the Forbes Library in a event I curated as writer in residence, to talk about comics and graphic novels – the act of creation, the importance of the medium, and each of their working styles. I found their comments illuminating, so I’ll share them here.

Chris Couch is a former editor at Kitchen Sink Press in Northampton and CP Manga in NYC, and a current scholar and teacher of graphic novels and comic books. He spoke about the place of comics in today’s literary universe.

Cartoon of Christopher Couch

Couch quipped that when the medium first entered the world of publishing, the comic book “wandered out into the world in its underwear.” With little formal backing, underground comic artists took to “living in garrets, panhandling on the streets of Berkely, whatever it took to become an artist.”

Despite this scrappy tradition, though, Couch said, the comic “has the DNA of short stories in it … but it’s its own artistic medium and deserves respect.” It has the same artistic richness as painting or sculpture, he said.

Today, comics and graphic novels are gaining a wider and wider readership. Young people in particular are reading comic books at a wicked clip. “People are going to read more comics because kids are reading them in school,” Couch said. Plus, he noted, “we’re really busy these days, and you can read a graphic novel faster than you can read a novel.”

Especially in the digital age, he said, comics offer unique pleasures. He noted that because online comics are often made very fast , creators “do awkward things.” Those little idiosyncracies, errors, and slapdash solutions form part of the enjoyment, giving readers a sense of being closer to the artist. “You’re really getting the raw thing when you read webcomics,” Couch noted. “There’s no editor between you and the work.”

“There are things you can do in comics that you can’t express in any other way,” Couch said.

Christopher Couch Action Comics

Denis Kitchen is the founder of Kitchen Sink Press, which published graphic novels by luminaries like Will Eisner, Hurvey Kurtzman, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Trinna Robbins, Scott McCloud annd many others. He’s been in the world of comics since helping originate the “Underground Comix” movement in the 1960′s.

Kitchen’s also a comic creator in his own right, and he shared several hilariously wry short comic sequences from his own work. Many of them riff on his discomfort with his life as an editor and owner of a press. “I was a card-carrying communist and socialist,” he said, “so I felt guilty being a businessman.”

Denis Kitchen's hippie past~

denis kitchen flowers in my hair

by Denis Kitchen

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denis kitchen i can't draw anymore
by Denis Kitchen
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Denis Kitchen - Drawers Full!

by Denis Kitchen

Finally, Holly Black, the best-selling fantasy author of The Spiderwick Chronicles, the Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the new The Cruel Prince, and a couple dozen other novels, spoke about her experience bringing her writing into the world of graphic novels with illustrator Ted Naifeh as collaborator in their series Kin.

Holly Black at the Forbes Library

She had tons of fascinating insights about how an author works best with an illustrator.

“In comics, pacing is often dictated by panel size,” she noted. “In a novel, you bury a clue. But in comics, that’s completely unfair.” Instead, a good clue should be placed somewhere in a full-page panel or other illustration that similarly indicates the importance of that moment in the plot.

“The constraints of comics to me are their real pleasure – the ability to write something like poetry,” she said.

“You have to give up certain kinds of control. You have to give up the right to set mood to the artist,” relying on illustration to create atmosphere, whereas in a book much of the atmospheric detail can come from written description. “As the writer, you’re the less important part of the collaboration.”

However, “there’s such a pleasure in working with that elegant line, the short line.”

Black said in her graphic novels, she likes to focus on “big visual moments and small character moments” that come together to form the world of the story. She mentioned receiving advice from Neil Gaiman, who told her to think of each single comic book as a full novel, and to tell it like that.

Bringing the evening back to Couch’s comparison to all great forms of art, she said that Gaiman advised her that, “the story at the front of the comic is not the real story of the comic.”

Instead, all three speakers agreed, comics, like all art, are vehicles for greater themes – friendship, anger, family, betrayal, death and love.

maple

Sugar maples’ uncertain future

As the sugar and red maples finally turn from green to shades of red, peach, orange and yellow here where I sit writing beside the river, it feels like a good time to share my fears for them as New England’s loved and iconic tree in this new ecological future we are both living and creating.

From where I sit, I see a crimson-peach sapling reflected in the pool above the dam in shifting shades, slightly rippled by the wind, trembling there in watery mists of impermanence.

A Paean to the Dwindling Maple – Daily Hampshire Gazette

NEPR Interview – Water Street

This summer, I was interviewed about my chapbook Water Street by New England Public Radio’s Karen Brown for her summer literary series.

Summer Fiction: ‘Water Street’ by Naila Moreira

Naila Moreira is a science and environmental journalist who also writes poems. Her new book of poetry, “Water Street,” is immersed in the natural world. She wrote it while living alone in a farmhouse apartment on the Mill River in Leeds, Massachusetts.

Instituto Militar de Engenharia

The story of science

As the return of spring brings a breath of hope, my latest for the Valley Advocate: a touch of memoir tangled up with politics and science.

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As a kid in Brazil, my dad was science-obsessed. When a teenager, he convinced his uncle to bring him chemicals so he could make them react in his bedroom. Once, he burned through his windowsill when a beaker of sulfuric acid bubbled over.

He came of age during the early computer revolution and was quick to realize its potential. His own father wanted him to become an electrical engineer. But my dad is nothing if not stubborn. He followed his dream, working for Sperry Univac, which took him to London and finally America. Now, having once worked on room-sized vacuum-tube computers, he writes software for cell phones.

All through my childhood, my dad did science with me. From business trips he brought home toy science kits that he and my sister and I opened together. I still remember the chemistry one. It was crammed with little tubes and colorful reagents and stirring rods and instructions. The impact was indelible. My sister today is an organic chemist and teaches at Hampshire College.

My dad taught me how to program a computer. He took me birdwatching on Audubon Society field trips. With him, the world was rich, full of natural surprises to discover.

But I was also passionate for stories, for novels and poems and comics. So I ended by studying geology — the earth’s story…

read more here, at the Valley Advocate

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The image at the top of the page shows the Instituto Militar de Engenharia, the military engineering institute in Rio where my father received his degree.

Adoring the fleet world

What struck me most about poet Ross Gay, during a Q&A at Smith College this afternoon, was his response to many questions: a huge smile, a pause, and then a thoughtful “I don’t know.”

When people asked his intentions in any particular poem, and stated what they themselves had taken from it, he often answered, “Maybe. I like that way of looking at it. Sure. I don’t know.” He seemed to have a poet’s need to express himself via experience and poetry itself, rather than metadiscourse.

Only when he entered the “thinginess” of things, escaping from intellectualizing, did he light up and suddenly begin speaking. His comments were full of people, basketball, experimental teaching methods, making meals together with friends, gardening, mulberry birdshit, making puppets. Nouns. Actions.

He did, however, have wonderful comments about his newest book, A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, and the drive behind it.

“Isn’t that what we do, to write poems we wish were in the world?” he said, when asked if he writes for any particular group in society. “Really what I’m doing is assuming other people have similar hopes and fears and desires [as me].” He said he never assumes people will read his poems, that it’s always a surprise.

He spoke a great deal about the vitality of writing what we love: but that there’s a risk in doing so.

“I’ve spent a lot of time writing against things, things that I don’t want. But it’s also important to write about love.”

Asked about the relationship in his poetry of joy and loss, he said, “Maybe that’s the way I’m made up, to adore things because of the going-away-ness of them. Even the title, it’s about wanting to adore the fleet world.”

“To adore things is also to make space for others to adore them. In my poems, I want to love people. And the earth, and other things, but – people.”

“What I notice about my grad students, is that there’s a reticence – it makes you vulnerable, to love something. Sometimes people think love is not rigorous, joy is not rigorous in the way critique is. But they don’t realize that love can be critical.”

“Good feelings are never just good feelings. Joy is joy to me because it contains sorrow. Joy is a complex feeling, it’s rich.”

In perhaps my favorite comment of the evening, he added, “Writing with profound attendance requires that we see fractures in things. It’s not just all joy, joy, joy, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful all the time. It just isn’t.”

Asked how he sits with sorrow, he said, “I’m still learning that. Part of writing this book is recognizing that there’s an aversion to sadness. An abiding aversion to sadness. It’s like self-mutilation.”

Currently, he’s working on a “Book of Delights,” a series of mini-essays or prose poems on delight that he tries to write daily. He dug into his bag to read us a gem of a prose poem in progress, titled “Irrepressibles” and detailing an escaped amaranthus plant poking up from the asphalt, attended by bumble bees (ballerina bees, Gay called them) and his memory of the “irrepressible” intellectualizing of his bookish father: that by the laws of physics, the bumblebee cannot fly. “That’s impossible!” exclaims his father, pointing to a ballerina bee waltzing by.

Gay also spoke at length of his experimental teaching style. He values play, and runs a course where students make puppets, or sing, or discuss their dreams with one another, then choose the dream with the best narrative elements and create a three-minute performance. Gay described his class as exercise for the imagination.

As a a boy, he said he didn’t like to read, but rather to play sports and play pranks – like leaving fruit in his locker on Friday to attract clouds of fruit flies by Monday. At home, he remembers hearing through his headphones, as he read the back of an album cover, his father say to his mother: “At least he’s reading something.

He described his admiration for a particularly creative basketball maneuver by famous player Dr. J (Julius Erving). Gay stood up, tall as a beanpole, to act out the maneuver. He explained how Dr. J’s layup, dodging around two top-class defenders and coming in from the back of the baseboard, resembles poetry: one can’t go in a certain direction, because there’s a brick wall, so another route must be found.

“Duende,” said a member of the audience.

“Duende,” agreed Ross Gay, and laughed.

Water Street

I have a new chapbook of poems coming out from Finishing Line Press. Very exciting!

The collection is called Water Street and explores the tension between freedom and domesticity. I spoke more about the book in this interview.

Of the book, poet Doug Anderson, author of The Moon Reflected Fire, Horse Medicine and other books, said

Naila Moreira is a natural born pantheist. Her day job is writing articles on sustainability of the environment and her poetry is reflexively in love with the earth. The health and sickness of our souls is held tenderly in this lover’s touch. There is no digging out of meaning: it is there if we are able to see it: our “high journeys” will take us “Pole to pole, senseless and invincible, great arcs, like the travelings of the stars.” A fine book with more love than pain and pain held lovingly.

The collection will be out in March, and you can preorder it by clicking here or on the cover image above.

A few sample poems: Frogs, Tractatus, and Lines from Base Camp. The beautiful cover image is by photographer Stephen Petegorsky.

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Update: Poet Deborah Gorlin also has graciously given a thoughtful review:

In these urgently engaged poems, the natural world serves as witness and accomplice, muse and mirror, companion and liberator. Hearth and home chafe against wildness, habitats of freedom and promise and untrammeled exploration. Domesticity and desire duke it out in the poet’s quest for profound experiences nothing short of cosmic. By the end of the book, the drama calms, and opposites reconcile, as the poet puts her faith in the instinctive wisdom, mystery and contradictions of the heart, “a dark water that shines.”