Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Day 2 With Dana Walrath
“Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.” Dana Walrath
Dana, let’s talk a bit more about the graphic novel versus the novel, and the verse novel versus the prose novel. It seems you just listened for a way in and found it, rather than imposing form from without. Any advice for artists wanting to blend their work in this way?
I believe that each story has its own form and its own voice and that I found these unusual forms because these were the ones to use for these particular stories. I came to both comics and poetry very late in life. I was poetry phobic as a teenage and bristled with embarrassment with my inability to interpret it to the satisfaction of my teachers. Karen Hesse’s verse novels opened the world of poetry for me.
In terms of comics, I liked Mad Magazine but Archie, Marvel and the like, left me cold, even made me mad. But when I discovered the form in 2009, I was hooked. Masterpieces like Maus, The Fun Home, Persepolis and American Born Chinese showed me that this form was perfect for complex, multilayered storytelling. I was a visual artist long before I discovered writing, and graphic narratives gave me a way to use pictures to tell stories and to tap into my subconscious. It is funny that my first two creative works to be published are not in standard prose. Prose is where my writing began. I have a number of prose pieces in various states of revision that I hope will be out in the world before too long.
I was really interested in how collage entered your work, and how your work seems to be a collage of your life (and you “collage” various art forms in a sense as well). Do you find this has any connection for us, considering our lives today? We’re often scattered and fragmented it seems, yet you were able, with your paint, pen, needle and awl, to make these bits into something whole. How can we as artists and writers best learn to embrace this sense of connection with the past, with our families, in our work?
What an interesting observation! True that collage provides a medium for simultaneous reference and a way to integrate disparate elements. I first got into it big time, back in the dark ages, in college, when I studied intaglio printmaking and loved chine-collée, a method for bringing torn paper into the print, fusing the pieces of paper together as they run through the press. After that, I was away from printmaking/artwork for 20 years but went right back to using collage elements the second I returned. Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.
I think that the route to embracing a sense of connection with the past, our families and our work involves finding ways to tap your subconscious as you work. It’s all there in that compost heap in a non-verbal form. For me, turning to the visual, going back and forth between the visual and verbal lets this happen, but one doesn’t have to be an artist to use the visual. Let yourself do some free, uncensored drawing, with your eyes closed even. Don’t underestimate doodling. Another lovely way to access the subconscious is to let naps be a part of your writing process. Often when I am stuck in a story a certain kind of exhaustion comes over me, and if I just give in to it, sleep brings things up from my subconscious that un-stick me.
How do you handle the violence in your stories (emotionally and craft-wise). I’m thinking of the emotional violence of your mother’s illness, and the violence of the genocide. Of course it’s important to speak about these realities, but any advice on what to leave in, what to leave out? How to give the reader relief? Why violence is important to include?
I addressed some of this above but this is so important that I am glad to return to it. With my mother’s story, the violence/unhappiness in our relationship predated Alzheimer’s disease. The sickness gave us time to process our relationship and to heal. Finding common ground at last made it possible to feel at peace with losing her and for her to be free to die in peace. I wish this for every being. In terms of craft, the form of short individual pieces let some of them hold more pain and others more relief. The tough stuff came out in precise bursts that kept going deeper once the reader knew that they would be held after each bit of pain. Repeating visual and verbal motifs kept these pieces that varied somewhat in tone, unified and knitted together as one.
With Like Water on Stone I was determined to honor the truth of the events, which meant including harrowing details. These details were documented by hosts of neutral eyewitnesses at the time, through census records, through confessions, through the stories of survivors. Even heaps of bones in the desert have not been enough to stop policies of denial. I brought in specific details judiciously but with absolute clarity, protecting the reader through the character of Ardziv and by the fierce love Shahen, Sosi and Mariam had for each other. With each peak of violence one of them would take on the role of protecting the others, and in the process keep the reader safe. People survive extreme violence and pain often through magical thinking. Ardziv, a magical creature, was the embodiment of their strength. I was also determined to lay down paths toward forgiveness so that Shahen, Sosi, and Mariam could survive these horrors with their spirits intact instead of consumed with revenge, unable to ever move on.
You are a wonderfully gifted artist, poet and writer. Yet publishing today doesn’t always embrace the spare, lyrical author of serious works. Can you speak about your journey and how you stayed the course?
Thank you. True that it has been a slow journey toward publication. The thing that kept me going was always doing the work. I think if I hadn’t immersed myself in a series of projects while waiting for one of these tough topics to stick, I would have lost faith. Along the way, I consciously began a piece that is more of a madcap romp to give myself some respite. Even with that story, The Very Long Days of Arden Hose Stoopnagle, the serious questions have been finding their way in as they do in all the books by others that I love, such as Holes.
Writing, reading, drawing, working, turning to humor and to short pieces where appropriate also helped me stay the course. Staying in touch with other writers and artists and exchanging work with them kept me a part of a supportive community and ready to continue. I even taped bits of encouragement, things said by writing mentors, above the screen of my computer to keep me on track. Publication tales filled with countless rejections for fabulous books, such as Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running, also served as inspiration.
Always interested in edges, margins, and connections, Dana Walrath weaves many distinct threads through her work. After years of using stories to teach medical students at University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, she spent last year as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds upon her award winning graphic memoir series Aliceheimer’s about life with her mother Alice, before and during dementia. She has shown her artwork in a variety of settings in North America and Europe. In the fall of 2013, she returned to Armenia to give a talk at TEDx Yerevan that integrates Aliceheimer’s with her Fulbright work, and for the launch of Part I of Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass (Harvest 2013). Her verse novel, Like Water on Stone, is forthcoming from Delacorte Press the fall in 2014.
She earned a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania; an MFA in Writing Vermont College of Fine Arts; and a BA in Fine Arts and Biology from Barnard College, Columbia University, and is a co-author of one of the leading college textbook series in anthropology. Spanning a variety of disciplines, her work has been supported by diverse sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Centers for Disease Control, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Vermont Arts Council.