Two Vermont Laureates, One Book Of Poetic Cartoons

Jan 29, 2014

Last fall, Vermont's Poet Laureate and Cartoonist Laureate collaborated on a unique project: a small book of illustrated poems. Poet Sydney Lea and cartoonist James Kochalka traded verse and drawing for what became Vermont Double Laureate Team-Up.

Lea co-founded the New England Review in 1977 and has taught poetry at colleges and universities around New England and abroad, and Kochalka is the creator American Elf, a daily comic strip that ran from 1998 to 2012. 

Lea kicked off the process by sending Kochalka a single poem, Garnett and Leon in December, from his 2011 book Young of the Year. Kochalka drew cartoons to accompany the poem, and then reversed the order of operations: He sent Lea four panels of drawings, which Lea used to inform an original poem.

"The first story involves Connecticut River log drivers ... These are men and women who would be 120 or 130 years old if they lived now," Lea says. "I never knew the Connecticut River drivers, but I knew a lot of drivers when it was still legal up in Maine to move lumber by water. I handed it to James, and he sent me back the rough sketch. What really astonished me was that the renderings he did so closely resembled the men that I remembered, working on the log drives. That was just stunning to me and it remains that way."

"Well, I used the tone of your poem to guess at what they might look like," Kochalka says. "But also based it on my memory of old Vermonters up in the Northeast Kingdom from when I was a kid."

Credit Sydney Lea & James Kochalka

Credit Sydney Lea & James Kochalka

Credit Sydney Lea & James Kochalka
Credit Sydney Lea & James Kochalka

"I broke [the poem] into comic book panels, basically following the way that [Syd] had broken up the lines in the original poem," Kochalka says. "And then, just to make it look more like a comic, I added word balloons. And I asked Syd's permission, because if I'm going to change his stuff like that, I wanted to be sure he was okay with it."

"All the additions were completely appropriate," Lea says. "Especially the 'All right, ladies,' because I could hear that from an old man like this one, feeding his chickens ... There's something melancholy about it."

After illustrating Garnett and Leon in December, Kochalka sent Lea four panels featuring a character he's drawn many times before: Squiggle, a little ghost who appears in Kochalka's Johnny Boo children's book series.

"I just drew Squiggle floating gently through the air," Kochalka says. "I drew the street that I live on, a hill near my house, a stop sign near my house, and Squiggle floating out over Lake Champlain. And I gave those four panels to Syd."

"I took the final floating over Lake Champlain as a kind of liberation," Lea says of the resulting poem, Squiggle: Tonight's the Night. "I'm not really sure why, and it doesn't matter."

Credit Sydney Lea & James Kochalka
Credit Sydney Lea & James Kochalka
Credit Sydney Lea & James Kochalka
Credit Sydney Lea & James Kochalka

While other cartoonists have adapted classic poems — the Montreal-based cartoonist Julian Peters has illustrated everything from T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to Le bateau ivre by Arthur Rimbaud — and comic-book versions of the works of Shakespeare are available to elementary school children, the creation of original poetry and cartoons in tandem may be unprecedented. But James Kochalka says the media naturally complement each other. 

"All art forms have a lot in common," Kochalka says. "You can make comparisons between comics and poetry, you can make comparisons between dance and painting, rock music and comics."

"I agree," Lea says. "And I think lyric poetry and cartooning may have a lot more to do with one another than I have ever imagined, and I learned that by way of this wonderful collaboration. It's turned out, in all honesty, to be perhaps the most interesting project I've undertaken since I was appointed."

Vermont Double Laureate Team-Up was supported by the Vermont Arts Council and printed at the Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. Two hundred copies were distributed to Vermont lawmakers at an arts summit held in Montpelier in October, but according to Lea and Kochalka, the edition has not been made available elsewhere. 

For their part, the artists are open the possibility of collaborating again in the future. 

"We certainly haven't discounted the notion," Kochalka says. "It would be great."

"I would love to do it again," says Lea. "My further dream would be some kind of a book-length collaboration, but I haven't even broached that subject with James."