Sapling: Tell us about the process of getting The Savage Lyrics published. Did you enter contests? Open reading periods? What transpired between creation of the work and the decision to publish with SINK/SWIM Press?
Ian Bodkin: The process overall was a long series of collaboration. Several years ago I had been reading a good deal of post-apocalyptic and I guess what would be defined as experimental fiction. Some of the works that really struck me were Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. In both of those books in particular I was stuck by the poetry in the way they dealt with time, characterization and voice. I could say more here, but in terms of The Savage Lyrics, the impetus began with a desire to write post-apocalyptic poetry from a voice that was aware of the world, but much like Berryman’s Henry separate and divided from that very world, a poetic voice that I find comfortable with in my writing. So I wrote some 70 prose-lyric poems in that vein with a specific idea of the narrative to which the poems alluded. During the writing I had several friends, namely Tatiana Ryckman, AW Marshall, Charlie Geoghan-Clements, and Caitlyn Paley who encouraged my writing but often gave a similar criticism; something is missing.
Then in the fall of 2014 I went to the annual Indie Comic Creators Expo in Richmond, VA put on by SINK/SWIM Press. At the time my son was barely a year old, and like many first time parents who write, I was having trouble staying engaged in my writing and reading life. The main reason I was going to the Expo was to check in with some friends, but also meet some local artists because I had started to think that what might work for The Savage was an illustrated or visual component. In my mind it was like a futuristic Songs of Destruction ala Blake—hell it still is. As I went around the tables and talked to the different creators, I found myself mentioning the idea of the Savage more and more and met some artists who were really encouraging about the idea. Then I met James Moffitt the founder and driving force behind SINK/SWIM. I pitched him the idea, and he gave me his email and said to send a sample. The idea being that he might at the very least put me in touch with some local artists. After reading the sample, he was really encouraging, suggesting I put together the whole manuscript and that we meet and discuss what I could do with the manuscript.
When we met, James gave me a lot of great feedback on what was working in the poems and what needed more work. And again, much like my friends he said that there was something missing. He couldn’t see it as just a series of poems with image plates. One of the things I’ve realized now having worked with James for several years is how well he understands audience and how readers will engage in the work. So his basic point is that the poems even with some visual aspect would leave readers feeling frustrated by what they didn’t know or understand. But again, he encouraged me to stay in touch and keep working on it.
Not long after that I was let go from a teaching job I had at a high school for almost ten years, the story is long, but the short version is that I was right and it was the best thing to ever happen to me. I got a job picking up coins for the Ronald McDonald Foundation and counting them. Basically, I drove a truck to northern VA daily, but I would make sure to take a few hours every day applying to more teaching jobs and writing. I love comics, I always have, namely Batman, and given a long enough timeline I would love to write Batman one day. So one of my issues whenever I write, but especially poetry, is that I write elaborate back stories, setup and context for my personae and characters. I world build. I define the characters and then I write in that world. This is fun for me, but I realize now that this often leaves my readers with more mystery than intrigue. So without much in terms of prospects on how to fix The Savage or in the way of jobs, I decided to stop trying to make the work into something it wasn’t but to instead and most importantly, to have fun. I’d never written a comic script before, so I researched how to write a comic and I decided to write the connective tissue or narratives between the poems of The Savage Lyrics.
Once I had a solid first issue and an outline for the next five, I emailed James again. From there, James made the decision to move forward with the book through his press, and find an artist who could handle both the image plates for the poems and the post-apocalyptic western story or graphic narrative, and that’s how we found William Bennett, the first illustrator on the series. As the series progressed, William became unable to really give it his full attention and James helped me create a partnership with a new illustrator, Christian Leaf.
Sapling: What has been your experience with the editing of The Savage Lyrics? Did you have an opportunity to make revisions either at your own suggestion or at the suggestion of your editor? How involved were you in the design aspects of the book's production (cover image, interior design, etc.)?
Ian Bodkin: The experience has been amazing. When writing a script for each issue of The Savage Lyrics, I first send it to James for feedback on how the poems work, the narrative itself and especially the dialogue. Coming from a poetry background, writing dialogue has always been a little tricky for me. And one of the things it’s taken me some time to understand is also how story and dialogue work in a comic. I sort of see each panel as having three fulcrums; the panel or image, the text of the narrative or captions and of course the dialogue. For the story to move forward and engage the reader all three have to work in conjunction with one another. So once I write the script and James gives me feedback, then it goes to the illustrator to take the words and put them to image. This involves a great deal of discussion in terms of how characters react and the purpose of the scene. Once the artist and I get an initial draft, we then meet up with James to look at both how the art and words can be better utilized to make the story better. I go into those meetings feeling positive and ready for critique, but I have to admit that I typically come out feeling a bit crestfallen and upset. After a day or two, I realize that the reason to cut or change certain wording and dialogue, especially the lines I love, is again in dedication to the greater good. When it comes to the art, I really leave it to the expertise of the artist. I think the editing process is the same when it comes to art of the book by both William and Christian.
Sapling: Did you publish any of the text (poems/lyrics) from the comic in literary journals or other periodicals before the publication of the first issue? Did this seem like a necessary part of the process for this particular project?
Ian Bodkin: No, I didn’t ever really send the work out. We’re already publishing the book in 30+ page issues. I had thought of sending out some early image plates or what we call “Lyrics,” but I often feel it difficult to send out any of my work in piecemeal. I don’t know if journals or other publications often offer the ability or space to present the full breath of a work in segment. Don’t get me wrong, I love journals and literary publications, but often I feel that giving a reader a brief moment or singular point of view is not enough for how I work. Much like how the Savage Lyricscame to fruition, I need room to show my ideas. To offer only a window into the world could limit readers more than engaging them.
Sapling: In what ways have you been involved in the publicity and promotion of your books? In what ways is SINK/SWIM helping you with marketing?
Ian Bodkin: First I should say that SINK/SWIM has an amazing apparatus of social media and promotion through several magazines and publications. The press also has a great relationship with several local comic shops, like Velocity Comics and Ponshop. At the same time, part of publishing with small presses in the modern age, whether it’s comics, poetry or prose, is that it has become incumbent upon the creators to utilize social media and other venues to promote their books. I think the argument could even be applied to books from more notable or mainstream presses as well. There are just so many books out there for people to choose from, so being able to grab someone’s attention and engage them in your art has become a necessity. And yet, I’m not always the biggest fan of doing promotion. But I have tried again to have fun with it. One of the things we did in leading up to the first issue was to send out brief scenes in an email newsletter involving the main characters prior to the story of The Savage Lyrics. I found this to be a lot of fun, and also helpful to me as a writer because I got to really play with who these characters are and why this story is a pivotal moment in all of their lives. We now have those excerpts on our website under the label Before the Savage.
Sapling: What are some things that surprised you about the process of getting your work published? Is there anything you wished you'd known beforehand about putting your work out into the world?
Ian Bodkin: I’ve been really surprised by the response the book has gotten. It’s always nice to have
friends or people that I really respect offer feedback on my writing and work, but with The Savage Lyrics, more so than any other work I have put out there, we’ve had a lot of strangers get in touch with us. Often the response has just been a quick note to say they are enjoying the book and can’t wait for more, but some people have even reached out because their excited by some of the philosophical and religious discussions the book addresses.
As I continue to work on the book, I do find that the questions and comments people have about the book have also informed my writing. In many ways, I think this speaks to the difference in the indie comics community as oppose to other literary groups. Unless someone is both an incredible artist and writer—and they do exist!—the comics community is built on collaboration; a writer must work with an artist to bring the text to life.
And in terms of audience, there has always been a long standing structure for direct communication. Many of the comics I grew up reading used to always have a letters section in the back and some of my favorite books published today still have this. I guess what I feel it boils down to is that unlike the literary worlds of poetry and prose, which sometimes feel as though the reader must be almost apologetic or at the very least humble in their approach to the writer, comics have always celebrated the connections between the audience and the creators of the book. I’m not trying to put down he traditional literary worlds, but I often feel that ego gets magnified and almost takes precedence over the work in a way that would be antithetical to the world of comics. The audience does not react to the literary devices or craft I can deploy, but instead that I am taking chances with the structure of the book and its ideas in support of the story.
I am having fun not because it entertains me as a writer. No, I’m having fun in pursuit and devotion to the story itself. I know this is what we should do in any form or genre or style. But when I write a single poem or a short story or an essay or even a review, I can’t help but cringe at the moments my ego makes a play for acceptance or employs a brutal literary tact in hopes that someone will react to the act and not the point. With all that said, I realize too that these are my hang-ups as both a writer and a reader, and my hang-ups alone perhaps. When someone cuts me off in traffic, they’re a jerk with bumper stickers to confirm my belief that they have no common sense. When I cut someone off in traffic, it’s a mere mistake that the other driver will surely understand.
Ian Bodkin is a writer living and breathing in Richmond, VA. He writes letters, words, and such. His poetry comes from the lips of madmen that he swears existed at some given point in space and time. He also writes comics and narratives of various lengths and characterization. Ian Bodkin is the author of the collection, Every Word Was Once Drunk, writer and creator of The Savage Lyrics comic from Sink/Swim Press, and co-author of the collection, Fingertip Scripture, written with poet Lee Busby.
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