Russell: pagodas, poetry and creating comic books
Dr Russell Jones is a two-time alumnus of The University of Edinburgh, having studied and researched creative writing as an MSc and PhD. He has published six poetry collections and two novels to date (plus hundreds of poems and stories in books and magazines), with another novel and a graphic novel due out later this year. He is deputy editor of the science fiction magazine “Shoreline of Infinity” and was the UK’s first Pet Poet Laureate. He lives in Edinburgh with his partner and two uber-cute spaniels.
Edinburgh degree: Creative Writing MSc, PhD, (2007, 2014)
Song of the moment: I’ve been returning to my old favourites, The Stereophonics, a lot recently. I think I currently enjoy the nostalgia and their songs about small-town life in Wales. Otherwise, I’ve been listening to Dave’s “Black” way too much.
Current treasured object: Aside from my dogs, I’d have to pick my pagoda. When lockdown started, I figured we might be inside for the long-haul. I have a small garden, so decided to create “a room of my own” (to borrow the phrase from Virginia Woolf) to provide some much-needed fresh air and sunlight. I worked with my neighbour, an engineer and builder, to design an Asian-style (for lack of geographic-specificity) wooden pagoda in my garden, fit with electricity so that I could write there and stay warm when the temperature inevitably turned “more Scottish”. When rules have allowed, I’ve even used the pagoda as a makeshift outdoor office, so it’s been a great investment.
I’ve been reading a lot of comics during the pandemic, more so than any other books. Poetry has almost dropped off my radar for months now, even though I’m most widely known as a poet. Poetry felt too serious and perhaps too “real” during a time when the whole world is struggling.
Comics, on the other hand, felt like windows into other worlds where great things could happen. I’ve enjoyed the lack of words, focusing more on the visuals and story. Good nearly always overcomes evil in comics, and I’m in the mood for optimism. Who isn’t?!
There’s still a lot of stigma around comics, from people who don’t read or understand them. It’s not too dissimilar from poetry in that regard (usually people who don’t read poetry tell me it’s “too difficult” for them, but in reality I know that isn’t true – they just need to meet the right poetry). With comics, there’s still a dismissal of the art form as being “childish”, but there are comics out there on all sorts of topics, with a huge variety of styles to choose from. They can be simple and fun, or experimental and challenging.
Whatever happened to the blue whale in 2302AD?
So comics have been my literary saviour, of sorts, during the pandemic. They’ve offered glimpses into other worlds and lives, which I’m missing at the moment. This is possibly why I’ve been working on blending poetry with comics, as a way of bringing those two existences closer together, to make a space where my old world meets my new one.
Poetry comics aren’t an entirely new venture for me. In 2015 I worked with artist and writer Edward Ross to make a short sci-fi poetry comic about a polluted world, which features in Over the Line: an introduction to poetry comics (Sidekick Books) and my pamphlet, Dark Matters (Tapsalteerie). In 2019-2020 I worked with five different artists in Scotland to create five short poetry comics that appeared in my full-length poetry collection cocoon (again published by Tapsalteerie, cocoon dealt with creating worlds as a form of self-protection… who knew it would be so topical!)
Now, I’m working with artist Aimee Lockwood to produce a full-length graphic novel. The words and story are based on my 13-part poem series The Wilds.
In this story, we follow a young girl who is struggling with the loss of her mother. Leaving home, she meets a talking bear, who helps her to survive in the wilderness and process her grief. We’re being supported by child bereavement charities, and have recently received financial backing from Creative Scotland. Aimee and I had the idea before the pandemic was even a whisper, but now we feel it’s the perfect time for a comic about grief (aimed at young people) to come out, we hope it will help a lot of people who are living with grief.