Related Post: G. E. Gallas Invited to Speak to The Blake Society!
The following is a transcription of the talk I gave to The Blake Society on Tuesday, May 28th, 7:30 p.m. at the House of William Blake, 17th South Molton Street, London.
Firstly, I would like to very much thank Tim Heath for inviting me to speak and for giving me guidance on Blake’s London. As a graduate of New York University: Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I admire the Blake Society’s interdisciplinary endeavors and amazing foreword thinkingness; and am thrilled to be here. And thank you to all in attendance.
William Blake has been in my periphery for many years, perhaps as far back as high school when I first read, of all things, Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.” Ginsberg penned this surreal yet nostalgic work in 1955 as a modern Divine Comedy – himself as the pilgrim, Walt Whitman as Virgil, and the American suburb as their eternal damnation. But the questioning nature of this poem is not Dante’s influence, but Blake’s. Several years earlier, Ginsberg had been visited by a hallucination of Blake, causing the Beat poet to believe “…he had witnessed the interconnectedness of the universe.”
I experienced a similar interconnectedness in preparation for my senior undergraduate colloquium on storytelling when I bought a copy of Dante’s Inferno – a Penguin Classics black-spine with a Blake illustration on the cover, one in a series of haunting yet beautiful depictions of Dante’s masterpiece. It wasn’t until then that I realized how these three artists where significantly intertwined. And that’s really when my interest in exploring Blake’s works began.
A number of components drew me to Blake. In his visual work, the unique aesthetic of his figures and their placement on the page as well as his distinct use of color fascinate me. His illuminated manuscripts are of particular interest – with the combination of words and images, I consider them a precursor to the modern graphic novel. While I’m not always fond of poetry, his verses possess a flow that generates vivid images in my head.
Upon first sight, The Ghost of a Flea genuinely sparked my imagination. What was this creature and why did Blake paint its portrait? My curiosity led me to a story relayed by Blake’s Victorian biographer Alexander Gilchrist:
“Standing one evening at his garden-door in Lambeth, and chancing to look up, he saw a horrible grim figure, ‘scaly, speckled, very awful,’ stalking downstairs towards him. More frightened than ever before or after, he took to his heels, and ran out of the house.”
This recorded event in Blake’s life – whether real, imagined or anything in between – was the genesis of my graphic novel The Poet and the Flea. It was from this that I began to wonder about Blake’s visions and how they affected his interpersonal relationships, especially with his wife Catherine who most likely experienced the brunt of Blake’s episodes.
My aspiration to not only express the factual history of Blake and those involved with him, but equally important to express the artist’s vibrant imagination and possible madness prompted the necessity to “reimagine” his life. In other words, to tell Blake’s story, I am infusing historically recorded events with fantastical elements. And, by doing so, I hope to make the fantastical more believable.
For instance, the story regarding a tree full of angels, whether a figment of his imagination or not, is a recorded episode of Blake’s life. In the graphic novel, I drew on this story to explore William’s agitated state of mind and emotional dependence on Kate. Blake’s vision of The Flea, whether figment or not, is also a recorded episode. But for the graphic novel I choose to extrapolate – flesh out – this creature and William’s relationship with it. While it is recorded that The Flea haunted Blake, there is no further insight than Gilchrist’s words and Blake’s depictions. My challenge is to reimagine what conversations may have transpired between the poet and The Flea, and what sinister misdeeds The Flea may have devised to scare the poet so severely.
Reimagining Blake was also an opportunity for me to step back from 21st century technology and create more organically. Rather than computer-generated images, I consciously chose to draw by hand using relatively simple tools. Starting with Bristol board, I outline in pencil, finalize in pen, and shade with grayscale markers to completion. At which point, I return to technology only to scan and share my work, using a weekly blog post as the modern equivalent of the newspaper serial.
As some of you may know, this is my first trip to London. Within three days, I plan to see as many of Blake’s works as possible and absorb the city’s history. My hope is that this experience will give me fresh insight on Blake and thereby enhance The Poet and the Flea.
When I began this graphic novel, I felt it very important to convey my awe and admiration for William Blake and his work. But I had no inkling as to how this graphic novel would be received. I am amazed by the great enthusiasm expressed by Blake scholar and graphic novel enthusiast alike. And I hope to continue this conversation with you all, now and online.
Copyright 2013 by G. E. Gallas