As has come to be tradition, I met poet Kit Ingram this past Saturday in a google doc. It was 10:30 am Edmonton time, and 5:30 pm in London. We discussed the ambitious project we've taken on together (Alice and Antius) and considered it's role in the current art and literary climate. One of my favourite moments in the chat was discovering that Kit seeks to infuse his poems with the rich emotions of paintings, while I want to create images that are as immersive as a novel. Kit says "two sides of a coin".
Super minor spoilers ahead:
Brianna: Welcome! Shall we dive right in? My first question for you is: Can you walk me through your creative process a bit? Specifically, in Alice and Antius, do you recall which ideas came first?
Kit: I think the process more or less followed an alchemical arc, where a whole bunch of texts were melting and reducing in my mind until I had a clear vision of how I wanted to address the situation we’re in—the compounding climate and ecological crises.
Brianna: texts like, your own older writings, or the works of other writers?
Kit: Environmental texts like ‘On Fire’ by Naomi Klein and ‘Losing Earth’ by Nathaniel Rich. And then, essentially, my subconscious mind playing with images of fire … and then later the images of two lovers struggling through a burning world.
Brianna: The images of fire were definitely a strong starting point for me as well. (I mean, the text was nearly complete when I first saw it) but when I began consciously forming images, that smoky sky (so helpfully on display here in Alberta this summer) was central. It indicated such an awful thing, but that faded pink is so beautiful.
Kit: Yes, we don’t have to delve into the imagination to find images of the apocalypse. The wild fires in Alberta, Oregon, British Columbia, California, Turkey, and Siberia this past year were all vivid and unsettling enough.
Brianna: Why lovers?
Kit: From the beginning, I knew I wanted to confront the scale of the situation we’re in—climate and ecological breakdown—with an equally grand form, the epic poem. Yet I also wanted to make the story resonate on a personal level, and what’s more personal or intimate than the story of two lovers?
Brianna: It is an excellent vehicle, a love story. I’ll read almost anything with a romantic subplot. It has seemed necessary to me in the last few years, to blend in something beautiful and hopeful whenever making art about really hard subject matter. The main themes of writing that I’ve collaborated on lately are environmental apocalypse, mental health, and grief. These are important things, things that it is actively harmful to ignore, but sometimes we need a little help looking at them directly.
Kit: I’m not surprised, especially because climate anxiety is now a diagnosable (though not necessarily treatable) condition. And I agree that it’s important, particularly for me as a storyteller, to balance hope and dread, horror and beauty. That’s one reason why nostalgia is such an important device in Alice and Antius. It allows them (and us) to experience the lovely moments of their past and to realize we all have such moments of tenderness and connection worth saving.
Brianna: Also, with a reader mixed in, the nostalgia that Alice and Antius feel is for a time that we’re currently living in.
Kit: Exactly! I wanted us to look on this time–even with its faults—as something to hold onto.
Brianna: Telling us to pay attention. This text is kind of like having a cold (bear with me! haha). When you’re briefly sick, you do this bargaining with yourself, where you think: I’ll never take my health for granted ever again. But of course, when you feel fine you forget. The importance of this literature is in reminding, and reminding and reminding. Because it is so easy to fall into old patterns of telling ourselves, everything is fine.
Kit: Yes, I think that’s a good analogy, particularly around the bargaining that happens when we’re ill. However, I’d also say that it’s an imperfect analogy because the current sickness the planet is experiencing isn’t short-lived. It’s effects are cumulative and we won’t one day wake up healthy and restored unless we make some extraordinary changes. And, more importantly, unless we come together as global citizens.
Brianna: Which is why (spoilers!?) it’s important that the story doesn’t have a happy ending. You can’t let us off the hook that easily.
Kit: Correct. I couldn’t bring myself to write an ending that let us off the hook. We have a lot of work to do and now isn’t the time for complacency. Or for despair. We must use our grief as a catalyst to action. We must, effectively, turn grief into bravery.
Brianna: Is that the key to your own creative motivation? Or, how do you stay creatively inspired when tackling this kind of content?
Kit: To be honest, I’ve never relied on inspiration in the aesthetic sense.
Kit: I’m inspired by truth, and truth is the only thing that will get us through this crisis. We must speak the truth, and act on it.
Brianna: I admire you for that. I find I am not always so strong.
Kit: Oh, I still despair, but I don’t dwell in the shadows for too long. Truth is light.
Brianna: I love it. Are there any hidden treasures in the text that you want to share with readers? Any easter eggs, if you will?
Kit: I think the allusions to the alchemical process are important—from the opening words of the collection straight through to the closing lines, which is why I’m glad you included that alchemical sketch in the text.
Brianna: The goals of alchemy are interesting to me as a metaphor as well. For example, taking base metals and turning them into gold. I think some interesting materials have been discovered in this pursuit, happy accidents that had further uses and implications. It reminds me of some conversations that were happening a lot, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. With the breakdown of societal structures, we get the opportunity to not build back up things that belong to the past and aren’t serving the future. The byproducts of breaking things down have a lot of potential?
Kit: That’s exactly right. Alchemy is also a metaphor for the fire of the creative process—the crucible—reducing base metals down to something pure. But also, as you say, breaking down the things that don’t work for us and finding the things that do.
Brianna: I’ve always believed in having goals, not because I know for certain that the goal will be the final thing, but because they get you closer to figuring out a different goal. Does that make sense?
Kit: I think that makes sense? I often think of goals as a starting path, from which there are often many divergences on the journey to meaning.
Brianna : in terms of base ingredients in the text, I really ran with a couple things… rhododendrons, smoke, oily “wine dark” waters, the camper van. In my own alchemical creative process, I asked, how can I recombine these in THIS scene?
Kit: And you did a marvelous job! Your illustrations really ground the text in a knowable and familiar world so that the reader doesn’t get too lost in the labyrinth I’ve created.
Brianna: Haha, thanks. I think I fell prey to the labyrinth a couple of times over the course of the story… I feel a bit like a novice when it comes to richly complicated poetry. There have been some amazing reviews already from people who have dived into your text and gained even a deeper comprehension than I have in terms of understanding all the references and noticing the clever structures. Which is so amazing to see! I think that in this case, part of what the illustrations do is make the text slightly more accessible for a reader who is less versed in poetic structure.
Kit: The pathways are as clear or serpentine as one wants them to be. It was my goal to create a text that a reader could appreciate on many levels. At the level of a love story in a climate apocalypse, it’s accessible to anyone. The deeper layers touching myth, and alchemy, and philosophy are there for the dedicated reader, should they want to explore them.
Brianna: I love that. In visual art, we often talk about where the viewer stands in relation to the art piece, literally. Are they right up close to it, have they stood back to take it in a little better, or do they need a huge amount of distance to actually see it? With writing, the physical distance is nearly always the same: the length of your arms or less. But in terms of closeness of attention, of how deeply they dive INTO the text, it’s a lot less obvious than with visual art.
Kit: Art objects and books are interesting things to compare, especially because Alice and Antius happens to be both. But it’s also a text, and in that sense, it lives in the imagination. And that’s about as close a ‘thing’ can get to someone. A reader experiencing images and feelings in their own minds is the ultimate intimacy. An editor once said of my poems that ‘they were incredibly intimate in how they seek out the subconscious mind of the reader’. I think that’s getting close to the idea I’m trying to express.
Brianna: Haha, this is making me think of how I approach art. When I decided I wanted to be an artist, it wasn’t like I knew of a lot of excellent art or artists. There was no visual thing that made me think, I want to do that. Instead, I was a reader. The effect that books had on me was wild and magical and I felt I had a talent for rendering things visually (better than in writing) but I wanted to make art that evoked the same feelings as reading a book. It’s a bit of a strange goal. Actually, as an illustrator I feel kind of weird because I personally find illustrations distracting? But when I expressed as much to my mom when I was illustrating my first book, she said “okay, but you know that most people don’t have the same vivid visual imagination that you do. Most people don’t have strong enough images in their mind that cause an illustration to not match”.
Kit: I think illustrations can be distracting for those that have particularly vivid imaginations, but most people appreciate the creative help. Focusing on images is interesting because, as a poet, I find that I’m often trying to capture the emotional vivacity I find in the best visual art. In other words, I often think of poetry as a kind of translation from images and emotions to words.
Brianna: This is kind of perfect.
Kit: Two sides of a coin. We have touched on this a bit, but as both the artist and the acquiring editor, what first hooked you about Alice and Antius? The story? The message? The potential for illustration? Something else?
Brianna: ooh, that is a good question. I definitely need to see something when I first read a text. One of the dangers of poetry is leaning into beautiful language and away from meaning. Alice and Antius never did that. You described your work (even before I saw the manuscript) as “poetry and ephemera” which I latched onto. I also recall the rush of looking into the names Alice and Antius to see if there was some significance within mythology. I traced Alice back to Alizarin, the red pigment, which became very obvious in the final copy. (maybe not glaringly obvious to anyone who is unfamiliar with standard artist pigments. Technically, Alizarin is a deep, cool red, not the slightly paler red that we used.)
The presentation of ephemera is also important in the final format. I hope all the readers understand that just because some of the text looks like it’s part of the illustrations, doesn’t mean it’s coming from me!
Kit: Ok, so you first connected with Alice and Antius in a really specific and geeky way. I love that.
Brianna: very in-character for me. Everything I do is geeky and specific.
Kit: It’s interesting to contrast beauty and meaning. I might re-frame that as style versus substance. And rather than having them at odds, I think I’d say that style is the gateway to substance.
Brianna: haha, I think there is space for both kinds of art: pretty and meaningful. But I agree that AAA focuses on meaning.
Brianna: Looking back on our earliest exchanges, I mention to you that I “spent this sunday afternoon dreaming up ideas for Alice and Antius and some of them are pretty cool” that’s definitely a sign for me, if I can’t stop thinking about something. Or that once I start thinking about it, the ideas just keep coming. It’s very subjective apparently.
Kit: In a sense, it sounds like you’re saying that the poetry is rich in images and from those images you were able to let your imagination riff and extrapolate?
Brianna: Yeah, I think, it resonated with me. And I don’t have the poetic education to tell you why in terms of the construction… but it was enough that I enjoyed it and it sparked creatively in me. I try to trust my intuition in this kind of decision.
Kit: Me too.
Brianna: Flipping the question, was there a particular project I did that you saw and were like “I want that for my poetry” why did you reach out?
Kit: I’ll spare you the heady answer and simply say I love your linocut art and how you’re willing to experiment with different formats for presenting poetry. That project you created on a scroll! How amazing is that?!
Brianna: If a Carp Dreams of the Milky Way by Jasmine Gui. Yeah, I loved working on that project. I also liked your half-formed answer about an old book of Greek mythology. I was looking at older illustrated work for early inspiration as well. There is a particular look of mass-produced books right before we stopped using bookcloth. The covers are all so clearly relief printed. It’s my medium and I wanted to call back to it.
Kit: That’s the one. Oh, good, I’m glad you followed up on my abandoned answer, because this actually flows into my next question, which was going to be: Outside of the tradition of epic poetry and magazines, illustrated poems aren’t that common. Did you reference any illustrated works for inspiration, or did you mostly draw from the text and your own imagination?
Brianna: So… I have a pinterest board… let’s see… I was definitely looking at illuminated manuscripts. I had this specific vision that was an extension of the fill-all-the-negative-space aesthetic in Carp Dreams, and I was looking for similar examples. Also, there is a Canadian artist/poet named Laura Watson who, since she writes the poetry and does the illustration, has a gorgeous unified style. I really enjoy composing pages so that if the text were removed, it would cease to make sense or feel balanced, visually? I don’t want the illustration to stand alone.
Kit: Wonderful. I’ve had a love-affair with illuminated manuscripts since I took my first medieval studies class. I can see how you gleaned some inspiration from them. Colour is important in Alice and Antius, both in the text and illustrations. Why did you choose this colour palette?
Brianna: The first thing to understand with the colour palette of the book is that it’s printed as a risograph. Which is a kind of hybrid of photocopying and screenprinting. Every colour requires it’s own layer, and you get some interesting vibrations when the colours don’t line up 100% perfectly. So I wanted to choose a colour palette that offered me a range of colour. In my early career (read: highschool and first half of university) I did a lot of coloured pencil drawings using only red, yellow, and blue. You can realize nearly any colour from this starting point. The reason that I changed the blue first to black (an early version) and then to green (final version) is that visually, I like a limited palette, also black feels very final, very concrete, very permanent. If we reflect back on this story as a warning, as a potential outcome that we desperately want to avoid, then the permanence of black didn’t sit well with me. The green came as a desire to show some of Alice and Antius’ nostalgia for a time with healthy greenery. It’s also great for pulling an ashy-ness into the aesthetic.
Kit: That’s a brilliant and helpful explanation—for me and for readers! Alright, my last question might allow for some high-level geekiness.
Brianna: Bring it
Kit: The book is a literal work of art—hand bound and largely hand illustrated. Without getting too technical, were there any particular challenges in creating this fine press edition of Alice and Antius?
Brianna: Oh boy. Well, two main challenges: one was working digitally. I am a very analogue artist. My main practice is executed on a 70 year old machine that isn’t produced anymore. I don’t even have photoshop on my personal laptop. Yay for shared studio resources. So when I made the illustrations, it might have made more sense for another artist to start in the realm of digital. You can superimpose the text into the background without worrying about having to erase it and paste it back in. You can keep your colour separations really clean, hypothetically. But I struggle to get any sensitive or satisfying images directly on a screen. I need a pencil in my hand. I ended up doing a lot of drawing and scanning, which was actually ideal , because it led to playing with scraps of paper for the ephemera.
The other challenge has been hardcover bookbinding. It’s slow, painstaking work that is highly dependent on using the right kind of glue, having the right direction of paper grain, and letting everything get to bone-dry before taking it out of the book press (I’ll put a photo). It’s not within my regular wheelhouse but I hardly ever do anything that’s fully within my wheelhouse for book projects.
Kit: Doing uncomfortable things is how we grow! Nearly every new project I start feels uncomfortable, and that’s usually how I know I’m doing something worthwhile. I’m a serial improviser, so no judgement here.
Brianna: My final question is: is there a thought or emotion that you hope Alice and Antius leaves a reader with?
Kit: I don’t know if there’s a single emotion. The more I reflect on my creative works, the more I see love is at the source. Of course, the dark side of love is loss, despair, grief. So, I’d hope a reader can walk away experiencing all these emotions. We’ve talked a bit about nostalgia and that’s also central to the text. I want people to reflect on the best of their lives and our world and feel that there’s still hope for preserving a legacy of memory and love.
Brianna: That we can use nostalgia and past happiness to fuel future happinesses. (I love it)
Kit: Nostalgia reminds us of what we have to lose.