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Comics Have Always Been Poetry: Joan Zahra Dark Interviews Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

(This was originally published on SOLRAD on 03/22/23 – find the original article linked at https://solrad.co/comics-have-always-been-poetry-joan-zahra-dark-interviews-rosemary-valero-oconnell)

I first met Rosemary Valero-O’Connell at the Small Press Expo (SPX) in 2019 shortly before her triple Ignatz Award sweep for the absolutely incredible graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (2019) she illustrated alongside Mariko Tamaki. The extremely warm welcome I received from just a first conversation as we talked about queerness in comics and how nice it was to be surrounded by so many peers has always stuck with me and very much made me a superfan from then on. 

Between Laura Dean, the mini collection Don’t Go Without Me (2020), and their new poetry chapbook hybrid from Silver Sprocket, Golden Record, I think it’s safe to say that there’s no one else putting out comics quite as intricately detailed and filled simultaneously with wonder and dread as what we’re seeing from Rosemary right now. Comics that you can stare at and still notice extra touches on a third, fourth or fifth readthrough. Golden Record, in particular, does something quite extraordinary in being such a hard book to categorize. Is it autofiction? A poetry magazine? An illustrated chapbook? A comic with poetry accompanying it? I would argue that it’s all of these things and more, with the actual classification being maybe the least interesting thing about this book compared to the larger subject matter.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Rosemary over email recently about their new book, art and real-life influences, and how we think about books that break out of their traditional “genres”. 

I’m immediately struck by how much detail there is in the cover alone and how intricate the many surreal images there are in this front and back covers It makes me think of Garden of Earthly Delights or something out of Berserk, like a beautiful double page manga spread with how much you could pour over every little detail for hours.

Thank you so much!! I was looking at a lot of Flemish still life and vanitas paintings, as well as a lot of the insectoid and biological forms that people like Hungry (a collaborator of Bjork’s and one of my favorite drag/makeup artists) have been constructing using the human face. Yoshitaka Amano’s work is also always close to the surface for me, and the resulting mixture of those influences ended up yielding this sort of grotesque I-Spy landscape. 

I very much see the Amano influence, especially in the intense use of color! You’ve talked about folks like Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, as well as Emily Carroll as some big comic inspirations for you, and it definitely shows here. Can you talk about some of your other art influences when it comes to your work?

Daisuke Igarashi and Taiyo Matsumoto are without a doubt two of my biggest inspirations when it comes to comics, and I think that influence translated to this project as well, since I can’t really think of a better word to use to describe the way they construct meaning through their visual language than “poetic”. I was also taking in quite a lot of the work of people like Mel Odom and Antonio Lopez, Hana Chatani and Sophie Margolin, Jennifer Packer and Cho Gi-Seok. Who knows how present any trace of their work ended up being in what became Golden Record, but I’ve been habitually gravitating back to all of them quite a lot recently.

Something I feel like I’ve been seeing in a lot of queer stories lately, especially lesbian stories, is this kind of monstrousness just barely held between the sensual, a careful balance to not mix one when you need the other. That definitely struck me when I was reading your poetry and I’d love to hear how you see that showing up in your writing.

The relationship between queer desire and identity and monstrousness is quite well trodden territory, right? We eroticize what we have been told we are. Othered bodies with perverted desires that go against the moral grain of society, and that alchemy allows us to both remove the power of those comparisons to denigrate us, as well as find sensuality in all the other parts of us that may have been labeled as grotesque. I have always found the spaces where the bestial and the beautiful overlap to be particularly rich terrain on both a personal and sociological scale, and I don’t think I’ve ever written about desire without including at least a touch of the abject, both domains of the body that exist in a near constant state of entwinement. 

It’s true! That sense of dread that we’re always dangling between those feelings of monstrousness or feeling grotesque in between intimate moments is something I think a lot of queer folks can relate to and you capture it really well.

You’ve talked about Spanish Catholicism before as really influential for you, growing up Aragonese and going between Minnesota and Zaragoza, there’s images of cathedrals and paintings in this book, mentions of Día de los Santos Inocentes. Can you talk more about what your relationship to Catholicism is like now and how you saw it showing up while writing this book?

Catholic imagery was both ubiquitous and somewhat devoid of the presence of spirituality for me growing up, as someone who was raised by atheist parents and devout grandparents in a culture where the imprint and rituals of Catholicism are in every single aspect of life. I am culturally Catholic, secularly Catholic if you will, in that I associate its trappings with home, family, and a personal history, but the Catholic god has never been where spirituality or divinity resides for me.

 I have always approached religion at large as more of a scavenger, picking out what I find meaning or beauty in, and divesting myself of what I find paradoxical or incongruous with my worldview. The cathedrals of my hometown were some of my first encounters with a magnitude of beauty so intense it felt physical, and those associations of awe remain in me to this day. With regards to this project in particular, one so concerned with the body as the host of shame and pleasure, the body of the martyr or the saint (made holy or transcendent through rituals of pain and negation) was also a rich if rather obvious metaphor to return to. 

Can you talk more about how this project came together? As we’ll get to later, I don’t think there’s anything quite like this, at least that’s being published, in comics right now.

It was originally a newsletter of sorts on my patreon where I collected everything I’d accumulated that month, from drawings to snippets of writing to photography, as well as book, film, and poetry recommendations (which was the origin of the name Golden Record-it was meant to be a capsule of both things I loved and things I’d made, preserved in amber). It was intended to be a landing place for all the creative impulses I had that didn’t fit neatly into my more conventional comics work. The primary purpose was always to allow myself a full range of playfulness, someplace where I was able to fill a page in whatever way I saw fit without being constrained by medium, editorial feedback, or even legibility to anyone outside myself. 

The short description on the inside flap of your book mentions, “exploring the body as the site and host of all pleasure and pain”, and I do see this running thread here of the limits of our physical bodies, how to best live within our flesh prisons, do you want to elaborate on that?

Golden Record was created during a time when my relationship with my body felt particularly antagonistic, and large chunks of it remain a confrontation, an exorcism, and a soothing of those feelings. I often find myself incapable of grappling with the depth of contradiction in how I relate to and inhabit my body through any means other than the abstracted world of art and poetry, so it is a frequent subject in my more autobiographical work. Making my body a presence in my art, a place to draw creative inspiration even if it’s extracted from points of pain, has sometimes helped me attach a notion of beauty to it that can otherwise be elusive to me. In that way Golden Record is one of my more selfish projects, in that the book itself is a byproduct, and the experience of making it and what that did for my ability to wring meaning from unprocessed emotions is more important to me than anything anyone else might get out of the experience of reading it. Of course any and all connection or enjoyment people find in it is deeply welcome and wonderful, but in a lot of ways this one really is just for me. 

I especially love these lines, “que poca originalidad el cuerpo, but your body is the only atlas she gave you to her burning”. Gives me a huge feeling of lamenting the bodies we’re stuck with but understanding it as our only frame of reference for what we’ve experienced/what we can experience.

Yes, exactly that. Though it is the cause and the site of some of my worst wounds, it is also the prism through which my experience of the world and all its joys and delights is filtered. It is the record of everything that has ever happened to me, and the vessel that moves me towards everything that ever will. 

This is a really unique book, not just in it being a bilingual poetry book but one that’s fully written and illustrated by you and even has a lot of real world photographs layered in alongside those illustrations. People who didn’t read Don’t Go Without Me might be surprised to see something so radically different and breaking the boundaries of what could conventionally be considered a comic book. I can guess since you made the book but how much does that distinction of what is or isn’t actually matter to you?

Making something that wasn’t immediately easy to categorize was one of the goals of the project, and one of the reasons my beloved publisher Silver Sprocket was such an ideal match! I was interested in following a thread with this book that wouldn’t land it neatly in the category of comic, poetry, prose, or art book but somewhere more ambiguous, and they were completely fine with foregoing any notion of labels and just making something that would be both beautiful to look at and beautiful to read. The way this book is put together is through a very natural synchronization of my writing process and my drawing process, and I hope I’m able to make a lot more work like it in the future. 

Did you read any poetry comics prior to or while you were working on Golden Record? I know you’ve talked about wanting to be a writer before being an artist, very curious to hear how much overlap poetry and comics had for you before this project.

A lot of my favorite zines could be considered poetry comics, and a lot of my favorite poetry books have an element of design, of a stylishness that matches their content, that I really respond to. My favorite pieces of art are always ones that commit to a strong internal logic, that are devoted to whatever language it is they are speaking both visually and verbally, so extending that to my own work feels like the most logical thing in the world. So much of the way I think is inherently visual that I think any book that I make, even if it isn’t directly a comic, will always include some element of illustration or decoration to augment whatever I’m trying to communicate through words. Why not have my cake and eat it too? 

Golden Record is coming out three years since your last “big” release with Shortbox, four years since Laura Dean and your triple Ignatz sweep, what do you think has changed for you since then? What are you hoping folks will get out of this chapbook?

Quite a bit, I think! I think every book I finish reveals a bit more to me of what I really care about as an artist and moves me closer to having the skill set to articulate it properly. I think my priorities as a cartoonist have changed, and my allegiance is much less to my own arbitrary ambition and much more to trying to spend as much time as possible drawing what makes me happiest. This book is that to a T, and I hope the people that read it will feel how much I enjoyed making it, and keep their hearts open to whatever I make next! 

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