The Poem as Comic Strip

Graphic novelists let loose in our archive.
By David Heatley and Diane Wakoski

Kicking off our new poetry and comics series is David Heatley, who brings his faux-naïve draftsmanship and masterful color sense to the first two stanzas of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 poem “Belly Dancer.”

Heightened language—one possible or partial definition of poetry—isn’t the first thing one associates with comics. Yet comic book artists take into account the way words appear on the page to a degree poets will find familiar. How many lines should accompany each image? How high should the dialogue balloon float? The ratio of printed words to blank space plays a role in whether a poem or strip succeeds.

The best of the daily humor strips (think Peanuts) have produced thousands of word-and-picture episodes that occupy about the same thought-space as a good short poem; the terseness can resemble haiku. Then there is Krazy Kat, George Herriman’s polyphonic masterpiece that appeared in William Randolph Hearst’s papers from 1913 to 1944 —a comic feature so blessedly idiosyncratic in its dialects that the only way to start making sense of what’s said is by reading it aloud, like a poem.

As a way to help readers discover (or rediscover) our archive, has invited some of today’s most vital graphic novelists to interpret a poem of their choice from the more than 4,500 poems in our archive, reaching from Beowulf to the present.

Kicking things off is David Heatley, best known for his meticulous renderings of his dreams, always haunting and frequently hilarious. Heatley brings his faux-naïve draftsmanship and masterful color sense to the first two stanzas of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 poem “Belly Dancer.” According to Heatley, “I picked the poem because my work tends to deal with sexuality. My book Overpeck features a teenage girl dealing with her abuse issues while coming to terms with her newfound supernatural abilities: namely, turning herself into a duck so she can hide or fly away.

“Wakoski is writing her poem for the women of the early ’60s, daring them to become more sexual and inhabit their bodies,” he continues. “I liked the tension and dissonance of translating some of those themes into my work.”

--Ed Park
Series Editor

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Originally Published: January 31st, 2007

David Heatley is the author of Overpeck, a graphic novella to be published in spring 2008. My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, a collection of dream, portrait, and diary comics will be published in the fall of 2008. His comics and drawings have appeared in The Best American Comics 2007,...

Poet and essayist Diane Wakoski was born in Whittier, California. She earned her BA from the University of California-Berkeley, where she studied with poets such as Thom Gunn and Josephine Miles. After finishing her BA Wakoski moved to New York City, where Hawk’s Well Press, the press founded by Jerome...

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  1. February 1, 2007
     Paula Cary

    I think this is a fantastic idea! What a great way to bring more people closer to poetry who would otherwise continue to overlook it. Will these renditions be displayed anywhere in particular? Please let me, and other poetry fans, know.

  2. February 1, 2007
     Jessie Carty

    I think this is a great idea as well! Makes me wish, as usual, that I could draw.

    I have sent this on to my online comic friends to see what they think!

  3. February 2, 2007
     Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

    This is a great idea! I'm looking forward to more.

  4. February 2, 2007

    If we're artists who already do this kind of thing, how can we apply to join this great project?

  5. February 5, 2007

    Thanks for putting this together. There's a small non-profit publication in Halifax called All Rights Reserved that I manage as a volunteer and we're looking to expand our visual storytelling section with exactly this sort of thing. So if anyone out there is interested, please check us out:

  6. February 6, 2007
     Ó Seasnáin

    I have a hard time accepting this idea. Poetry is not meant to be a graphic novel... It is already a picture, just with words. It is redundant to paint the Mona Lisa again. You would want to use the woman as inspiration, not the painting. I believe it takes away from the value of the art.

  7. February 6, 2007
     Harriet Tubman

    I like to bake pies.

  8. February 7, 2007
     Robert Shreefter

    I think these are great--
    I train art teachers and so to have them use
    poetry in their classrooms through making art is
    certainly a good think.

    I usually use David Morice's books--POETRY
    COMICS and the sequels.

    Will you be having more of these? I especially like
    the graphic style of these comics.

    Robert Shreefter

  9. February 8, 2007
     Diane Wakoski

    A friend told me my poem "Belly Dancer" was illustrated by David Heatley, and while I like the idea I am a little disturbed that it is only half of the poem. Where is the other half? To me, this seems creepy, as if people think this is my whole poem, with no development or revelation. Is the other half of my poem illustrated but just not published here? If so, where can I find the other half of the poem. I'd love to know what happened. Sincerelyl, Diane Wakoski

  10. February 8, 2007
     Diane Wakoski

    Dear Emily,
    thanks so much for your kind and informative response to my slightly hystical post. Forgive me. And yes, I'd rather have half out there than none. Thank you to the Poetry Foundation for sponsoring this interesting gesture of outreach. Sincerely, Diane Wakoski

  11. February 14, 2007

    i love harriet tubman. she is banging

  12. February 14, 2007
     Mike McCabe

    I absolutely love poetry, and I love the idea of poetry comics! It's very innovative. Keep up the good work guys. Oh, yea and that Harriet Tubman was a great person, don't make fun of her guys.

    P.S. I am an up and cmoing poet, but some people call me emo, what should I do?

  13. February 14, 2007
     I'wan Afuqya

    Comics are very fun to read, and make poetry much more fun and colorful.

  14. February 14, 2007
     Tad Richards

    Don't forget Walt Kelly, as a comic strip artist who chose his words with the care and precision of a poet.

  15. February 16, 2007
     Mary Lee Hahn

    How will we find these graphic renditions in the

    archives? In "Audio/Visuals-->Visuals


  16. February 17, 2007
     Matt Mason

    Great article! I love poetry comics... I found a book called "Poetry Comics: A Cartooniverse of Poems" by Dave Morice (Simon and Schuster, 1982) a few years ago at a used book store and have used it in classes to good effect (it has over 50 poems, from Shakespeare and Keats to Donald Hall and Levertov).

  17. February 20, 2007

    I am a printmaker and want to illustrate some poems (both dead and alive poets) Do I have to have their written permission? The alive ones I mean.



  18. February 22, 2007

    Not a new idea, but interesting just the same, and not exactly a reverse ekphrastic or a multiple broadside either. Of course the poem must be its own picture, but should these drawings be able to stand on their own if the words were removed, as a good ekphrastic poem must do in the absence of the painting?

  19. April 2, 2007
     muhammad younis bahtti

    these poems are nice but you should to give them a good shape of indea and is hoped it will give more advantigeous to readers and no any daze or difficulty will be more i think

  20. April 4, 2007
     Dan ONeil

    About three years ago I coined the name, Poemic. I think one poem should be produced, drawn and published as a unit, then priced and sold as such. I think this would be a great way to reach a wider audience, when properly done.

  21. April 21, 2007

    this is very cool

  22. May 16, 2007
     madelie coas

    grats on the comic strip e-mail me

  23. March 5, 2008
     Charlie Quimby

    The download link appears to be broken.

  24. July 3, 2008

    I have to say when I found this article,

    and consequently this project, I was

    thrilled and delighted! Unfortunately, this

    poem in particular has been one of my

    favorites for years and I was surprised to

    find that my reaction to the illustrated

    version was quite negative. I think it was

    a combination of the abbreviation of such

    a well crafter work and the style in which

    this comic was drawn that turned me off.

    "The Belly Dancer" feels mysterious and

    clean to me, and these drawings feel

    abrupt and scattered.