Poetry Comics

We made a book - look! It's called Over the Line: an Introduction to Poetry Comics:

More info on the publisher's website here
or on Sequential if you want a digital copy.

It's the first anthology of its kind: a general introduction to Poetry Comics, featuring both brand new work and the work of existing practitioners, with an extensive introduction musing on both this new hybrid artform and the differing disciplines of poetry and comics themselves. It's playful and it's a jumping off point, both a teaching tool and a "fresh and stimulating" read, exploring what these two differing artforms might have to offer each other. Legendary writer Alan Moore said "I really can't recommend this venture highly enough".

This book has been a year in the making, a year which also saw two successful exhibitions and a wealth of workshops in London and Brighton, encouraging poets and artists (both adults and children) to work together to create something new. It started with an article I wrote for Poetry Wales in the summer of 2014 (issue 50:1) called 'Miremur Stellam: Poetry and Comics'. Here's an extract from the introduction:

"Reading more, trying to unpack the language of comics, the language of panel transitions and the blanks left for the reader's mind to fill in, I began to see more and more similarities between comics and poetry...  "

I'd been editing my partner's comics (he is a comics writer) on a freelance basis for a number of years (something I now do almost full-time). My background is in book publishing and the shift into comics brought a steep learning curve with it. I think I'd just forgotten how to read comics at some point, and had to retrain myself not just to read the words and speech balloons, but to read the pictures and panel transitions. I found Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics a useful and thought-provoking guide into this new world. As a poet, I was already interested in the power of language, and so seeing how it worked in this new context, alongside images displayed in a narrative sequence, was fascinating. I remember my writer's head more or less exploding the first time I read through Scott McCloud's description of panel transitions, which you'll find here. The conversation for me revolves around both mediums' use of the line - trying to do more with less, and understanding that the reading process, how we manage the space between the words and images, happens off the page as well as on it. Here are two pages from the book's introduction:

Actually my interest in poetry comics started earlier than the Poetry Wales article. In September 2012, I did some teaching for Poetry School. They asked me to pick something "a bit unusual" to teach on that would run for two weeks as part of a wider course being taught by younger poets. Poetry Comics leapt naturally to mind. Anne Carson's Antigonick (a "comic-book presentation of Sophokles' Antigone") had come out that summer, and I'd written an article for the then Penned in the Margins' online journal Hand + Star about it. I was exploring the work of Bianca Stone, who had illustrated Antigonick, and finding other artists who were working in this area and actively calling it "poetry comics". By no coincidence, this Comics as Poetry anthology came out in 2012 too, and the Poetry Foundation in Chicago put on an exhibition that year called Verse, Stripped: A Poetry Comics Exhibition. Something was starting to happen. The teaching sessions went really well. We looked at these existing pockets of work and then attacked blank pages with scissors, glue and colour to create our own.  

After my formal teaching finished (though I did do some more one-day workshops for the Poetry School), it spilled over into an informal monthly workshop in a set of pubs in SE London. Here's what it looked like:

From a session at Doggetts, near Blackfriars.

These sessions have continued to run over the past three years (which seems staggering to me now I write it down), and after each session I scanned in everyone's work and made it available online via the issuu site here so anyone who wanted to could take a look. Tom Humberstone, my co-editor for the Poetry Comics book, has been instrumental in these sessions. At some point in 2014 both the Poetry Library at Southbank Centre and the Poetry Society (both in London) approached me about putting on an exhibition of Poetry Comics work. As part of these conversations, the idea was suggested that I apply for Arts Council funding to help with the thinking behind the exhibitions, which quickly mutated into the idea to produce a book that might offer a lasting legacy to all these activities. So, 2015 was the year in which I was thrilled to be granted funding by the Arts Council, in which two major exhibitions took place, and various public workshops continued to pepper the year.

The Poetry Library exhibition ran from May 12th til mid July, and was a huge success. It offered a mix of new and old work, much of it found in the Poetry Library's own archive, and it brought many people to the Library who had not visited before. As part of the funding for the project, I also produced a learning resource and worksheet (you can download it here) that was used by multiple school visitors, and in particular with specially-requested sessions with children from West Thames College and Reading Bluecoat School. Here are some photos from the exhibition itself and the launch night:

My lovely co-editor Tom Humberstone.
The Poetry Cafe exhibition ran from 3rd September til the end of October at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. Composed of different work to the first exhibition, this one actually displayed pages from the finished book. Ah yes, the book. The book was happening behind the scenes all this time! We set an open call for submissions, which seemed to be the most democratic way of organising things. Within the call, we added links to different existing practitioners' work, so people could get an idea of what we were after - work that seemed to be challenging the limits of conventional poetry and comics together. We had a wonderful response, far more excellent work than we could possibly publish, and the editorial process was not an easy one. I was very glad for Tom Humberstone's excellent hand in it all, not only in the selections, but in overseeing the look and feel of the book itself. We decided early on that it would be best to work on the book together - someone with a poetry background, and someone with a comics background. You'll find out more about Tom's work here. We timed it so the book would be ready for the first day of the exhibition. And, miraculously, it was. The printers, local London co-op Calverts, provided us with uncut page proofs of the book which we then used in the exhibition. Here are some photos:

Photograph from the Down the Tubes review here.

Taken at an accompanying workshop set up by the Poetry School.

If you'd asked me three years ago whether I thought a set of informal workshops in a pub with poets and artists might result in a book (a book that Alan Moore feels is worthy of interest!) I never would have believed you. I've built up to this slowly and incrementally, taking new steps initially out of curiosity, and then pushing further and looking deeper with support from the Arts Council and by people in organisations like the Poetry School, Poetry Society and Poetry Library. I'm so grateful to every piece of encouragement I've had along the way and am really proud of everything we've managed to achieve this year - not just the book, showcasing other people's new work, but these groundbreaking exhibitions and workshops. I hope that together they've built a solid foundation from which more writers and artists may leap into exciting cross-genre explorations in the future.

If you'd like to buy a copy of the book, you can get it at the publisher's website, or as a digital edition at Sequential.


  1. This is SO fascinating! I seriously just posted an article in the last week or so about how Scott McCloud's book completely changed my approach to poetry - specifically the pages on aspect transitions in the narrative and those pages on the interstitial space in between frames.

    The way that manga transitions, the aspectual shot cuts of Akira Kurosawa in his film, "Seven Samurai," and how a few of the early imagist poets were able to utilize this kind of transition. It's something I can't shake out of my head.

    Also the "gutters" - the interstitial space - I can't help thinking about poetry in this way now. Like the echoing silence in an unfinished symphony - I think poetry should do this, too.

    I finally sat down this week and using the "Autodesk Sketchbook" and "Comic Strip" apps on my phone to do my first few frames of poetry comics. But I'm a little stumped.

    I think the quote from Eddie Campbell in your digital booklet is kind of the key to what's holding me back, "In a comic, the drawing is the story; it doesn’t illustrate it." I feel like I'm just illustrating my poems right now, rather than fusing the two forms in a way that makes something new.

    So, I'm terribly curious about any insights you could offer about the interplay between the visual sequential art and the poetry. Is that basically what most artists are doing with comic poetry? Just directly illustrating the same images from within the poems? Or is anyone combining them differently, complimentary images? abstract visuals? minimalist line art? interpolated narratives? What seems to be working? What's been making the most compelling art that you've seen?

    I'm definitely going to be ordering Over the Line. Are there any other books or sources you can recommend to feed my curiosity?

    Thanks for anything you can offer on the subject. In the meantime, I'll be working through the Poetry Comics booklet.

    Thanks again,
    Jason Kerr

    1. Hi Jason. Thanks for the comment! Only just saw this, apologies for the late reply.

      I think you need to move away from the notion of "illustration" for sure - the best works I've seen are where the art is not subservient to the text (or even reliant on it), and vice-versa. They have to work together, which sometimes means pushing against each other, in order to create a new work.

      If you're getting stuck with feeling like you're illustrating things too literally, it can be useful to work with a separate artist, as they will bring their own ideas and spin to your words. Or you could start by reading your words then disregarding them, and creating work that is spurred by an idea in them, but does not correspond to it directly. (And then you try to reapply the words back to the piece later on...) There are no rules really. Try playing around and see what happens.

      I can recommend Ink Brick, an American poetry journal that only publishes Poetry Comics (the only one that does I believe) - some great stuff in there. And hope you find Over the Line useful - lots more tips for reading recommendations in there.

      Thank you again for getting in touch!

  2. Way back in 2011, a considerable portion of the second issue of my Comics Decoder site was dedicated to the relationship between poetry and comics. Personally, I prefer a mash-up leaning more towards the poetry side.


    1. This is really interesting - thank you for sharing!

  3. I've always been intrigued with the idea of generic comic-book/strip characters as subjects or major reference points. I think Roger McGough over in Britain wrote the first such example that I know of, ‘Goodbat Nightman’; and Canadian Artie Gold took the practice to ludicrous heights with ‘private eye’. I've written a few such things myself over the years, as have several others. I'd like to publish a short anthology of such poems in generic 32-page 6.7” × 10.3” comic-book format, with the words printed in some generic ‘hand-lettered’ font like Comic Sans or Back Issues. Some publisher brought out an anthology of such verse a few years ago (Drawn to Marvel), but they did it on a grand scale and completely missed the point (and several major poet practitioners!).

  4. Hi chrissy,

    I hope you are well! I know you must be busy, however I wonder if you have the time to look through a possible poetry comic for feedback? If not, I wonder where is best to take my work?

    Many thanks
    James Caley