Interview with Paul Tunis

Paul Tunis, graphic artist and poet, gave TellTell the low-down on his life, his work, and he even told us which fictional character he'd take to Prom! Read on, friends!

Leprosy pg 2 || from Comics as Poetry, © 2012 Paul K. Tunis and New Modern Press

Can you explain a little bit about your job? Is writing poetry your job? How do you make money, we'd love to know.

 I’m currently trying to balance teaching English composition as an adjunct at Lehman College and doing freelance illustration, graphic design and animation work. The job juggle makes poetizing difficult when the semester is in session, but I try to make time.

So what have you spent the last few months doing?

Outside of my professional work, I’m currently working on a comic with Bianca Stone and Alexander Rothman. It’s an expression of our shared love of superhero comics and has an invented form to allow page collaboration. At the same time, I’m illustrating a book of poetry for children by the poet Todd Dillard. His work is playfully odd and occasionally dark in tone and is slightly evocative of Shel Silverstein. I’m very excited about both projects which allow me to indulge in some of my childhood obsessions.

Wow--I am interested to read and look at the poetry book collaboration! Let us know when it comes out! What got you interested in poetry?

To my chagrin, I wasn’t exposed to very much poetry growing up. Those around me including teachers gave me the impression that poetry was generally archaic and a chore to decode. Unfortunately, because of this, I approached poetry with a similar detachment throughout my undergrad. This whole time I was writing short stories and a novel, and I entered my MFA at Sarah Lawrence in the fiction genre. At Sarah Lawrence, I had this idea that I could steal some poetry craft tricks to improve my fiction writing and took courses with Matthea Harvey, Jeffery McDaniel and Joy Ladin. This plan proved naïve, because while reading works by poets like Heather McHuge, Terrance Hayes, Russell Edson, Elaine Equi and so many others who’s writing was—in a page—equally as affecting as the best novels I had read, changed everything for me.

 What came first the poetry comic or the poems?

Starting grad school, I had been obsessed with page space and hierarchy of text placement, and the page as an object. In my fiction workshops, I was making stories where the letter ‘f’ would be falling out of words and collecting in a pile at the bottom of the page, pop-up stories, and 3D poems where the text jumped towards you, or folded up notes that were suggesting they had been stolen by ants. My fiction peers were not especially amused by my experiments. I was feeling out of place among many of the fiction grads, and people in the poetry program were so much more willing to try things and play. Then Matthea Harvey gave me a copy of Making Comics by Scott McCloud. McCloud’s book does a beautiful job presenting how comics are a language, and how that language is completely spatially informed by the page as an object, which—though I had made comics sporadically throughout my life—I had never fully realized. So I began writing poetry comics almost simultaneously with writing my first earnest poems. It was a moment where I finally saw an elegant synthesis and form for all of my artistic compulsions, which the absence of had been terrorizing me most of my creative life. When I talk to other makers of poetry comics that moment of discovery is common, each person feeling they’ve invented something special for themselves. Only later do we stumble upon other people doing similar work.

 

What are some new projects you've spend time doing? What are some projects you've done that you are most proud of?

As far as pride, I would have to say making a comic out of a poem by a nine-year-old poet, Kameron Quinlan, was my favorite task. I was approached to contribute to an art auction for AmericaSCORES NY, a non-profit that supports literacy in underserved communities by teaching poetry to elementary-age children. I particularly like this program, considering, as I mentioned, I really didn’t get the kind of exposure to poetry growing up that I could have really benefited from. The premise of the auction was to make art inspired by the poem of one of their participants. Kameron’s poem “The Lion on My Hair” about his unruly hair was so imaginative and brilliant. It was everything I wish my own poetry could be. It was incredibly rewarding to make. It sold very well at the auction to a family who intended to hang it in their baby daughter’s room whose hair was already to be unruly too.

 Apart from the superhero and children’s poetry projects, I’m also trying to find time to make installments to Omphaloskepsis and Blind to Blue, which are two series I have online.

 Was there a moment when you discovered you were a writer, or that you wanted to be one? Can you provide a 5 line run-down of how you got to where you are now?

I always made stories and drew pictures to go with them. I can’t put my finger on a time that I decided that I was going to commit completely to being a writer. I think I just kept making choices that excluded the possibility of becoming an upstanding member of society.

 

Doodled pictures. Scribbled stories. Lost sleep. Ate chips. Built a cardboard submarine.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming illustrators and poets?

Hmmm… It’s tempting when you’re working in creative fields to cope with disappointment by judging and criticizing others. If you venture too far into that mud puddle, you might realize that you aren't an artist at all anymore, just a critic. Creative peers are important for your growth, but when those peers succeed or get attention, you might want to be jealous or catty, but really that should be encouraging that good things and breaks can happen for you as well, unless you've alienated everyone.

If something could happen to you in the next 5 minutes, what would it be?

Ocelot attack.

 

The Lion on My Hair (from Open the Door, Mcsweeney’s Press and The Poetry Foundation, 2013)

Who or what inspires you?

Whos: Windsor McKay, Tig Notaro, Robert Coover, the Billys (Faulkner, Blake, Watterson), Ben Marcus, Astrid Lingren.

Whats: Bees, quantum physics, food-allergy cats, cartoons.

When you tell people what you do, how do they usually respond?

Ha! Most of the time I don’t tell people, and just say that I teach English. The result is a lot of unsolicited career advice. Since everyone has drawn at some point in their life, so they can value the skills required for effective drawing, so folks tend to be impressed when you can draw. However, people haven’t often sincerely tried to write a poem, and generally see poetry, which isn't making anyone a lot of money, as a frivolous indulgence. The result is lots of people implying that I should be making conventional comics. That if I made a plot driven, action heavy, zombie “graphic novel,” Warner Brothers would buy the rights and I could move into a mansion. Even when I just wrote prose, people were always encouraging me to try to cash in on popular trends despite the fact that almost every fad’s apex has passed before a suggestion is made.

 (You+Me=Ants)

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In a mansion after selling my graphic novel to Warner Brothers, no doubt. Honestly, I’m not sure. The best thing about poetry comics right now is that it’s a small community but within the last year it has been experience a groundswell of interest and the number of practitioners has been growing exponentially. That could evaporate tomorrow, or continue to grow and mature into something new. Either way, I know I’ll keep busy trying to push the limits of my own work and continue to make poems in the language of comics.

Let's get to the real questions...if you could go to prom with any character from a book, who would it be?

Easy. Pippi Longstocking, provided she’s of consenting age at the time.

What is a typical day-in-the-life of Paul Tunis like?

Wake up around 8am with a hungry cat on my chest. Draw, usually on freelance work, until 2:45pm, leave to teach class. Grade papers on the 2 hour train ride to the Bronx. Try to explain semi-colons. Grade papers on the 2 hour train ride back to Queens. Have dinner with my charming lady-companion, Autumn. Around 9pm she goes to sleep and then I draw, hopefully on my own projects, until 1:30am. Variations abound.

Out of all the poets you've read, who would you let watch your dog (or cat) if you had one?

Emily Dickenson has a nice poem about a cat. Although, I think that E.E. Cummings and my cat would probably have a lot more to talk about.

What do you hope is next for you as a poet and an all around man-of-the-world?

I think I should get out and do more readings, but I always put that off. So I suppose it would be nice to find a healthy balance between making the work and presenting the work. As a man-of-the-world? I wouldn't mind having my eye replaced with robot ones.