Off/Kilter: Interview with Poet Neal Shannacappo

Writers featured on Off/Kilter have many talents, but we’re especially lucky to show off a few at once of the multi-talented illustrator, graphic novelist, and poet Neal Shannacappo. In our interview, Neal walks us through heartbreak, healing, and fantasy elements that inspired his recent collection of poetry Through the Eyes of Asunder (Kegedonce Press) – and shares artwork that speaks to his poems, as well.


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All Lit Up: You’re a celebrated illustrator, and have collaborated with other authors and poets before, as well as written your own graphic novel. What was it about poetry in particular that allowed you to communicate what you sought to in Through the Eyes of Asunder, perhaps in a way that other media couldn’t? Or is it that various forms play off of each other for you?Neal Shannacappo: Thank you for saying that, much appreciated. I think I attempted to communicate in a poetic manner when I started my Navriss collection of comics, but found that it was really just taking too long to convey everything I could in a poem or collection of poems. I find in a poem you can create a story in as little as five lines sometimes and still convey the emotions and sense you want in the reader, where in a comic book you need many pages to tell that story. In art, like standalone artwork again, it’s hit or miss, and no one that looks at your piece of artwork sees or feels or understands it the way you meant it to be. With poetry you can make sure the reader feels what you feel, in the flow, choice of words, and overall structure of the poem. Sometimes I play with a poem and an image to help create whatever it was I wanted to convey, but most of the time I found that the image diluted or distracted from the message of the poem and vice-versa.
From Neal, about the above: The Lake of Dreams is the imagined paradise I felt whenever I visited the family cottage and the lake it sat upon. I think the illustration is also from a scene in Navriss where several versions of the past collide, and it’s also dark and somber because often the story of Navriss is morose. I’d have to go and look through the comic books again for the scene, but I think that woman represents one of the loves in Navriss’ life who was broken hearted and she holds a grudge, so in the next few pages she turns in to a dragon and attacks him in her sorrow. ALU: Before getting into the sections of poems in the collection, there is the standalone poem “You are not alone”. Why did you choose to open the collection in this way, with a poem that greets and holds the reader?NS: The book sounds like it’s about despair and hopelessness which is on purpose, but it’s not just that, it begins with hope and it ends with hope. Hope of different kinds and different levels of it. I wanted the reader to begin there, instead of delving right into the thick of it and that poem is an early poem of mine. I think the reader that picks up the book may need to hear those words just as much as I needed to write them way back when and I think now that everyone could stand to hear those words – “Take my hand, you’re not alone” – even though we live in a world of massive connection. It’s still a world of vast separation especially in our darkest of times and that too is one of the themes, or teachings of the book, “you’re not alone” no matter how dark and lonely it feels; someone out here will take your hand.ALU: These are deeply personal poems navigating heavy emotions and themes. But your sense of humour also shines through – we’re thinking in particular of the play with type and the phrasing in “Potatoes and Grit”. How do you approach incorporating humour into your poems?NS: It wasn’t something that I was consciously aware of doing, I needed to express something to my childhood friend who was coming out to their father and family. In those days it was exceedingly traumatic to do (perhaps more so than it is today), and I was living in another part of the country at the time so couldn’t be there to stand by them. I didn’t know what to say really, but I wanted them to be able to read it and apply the message to many situations in life. And, I wanted to make them smile and maybe even laugh, because there is magic in a smile and oceans of it in laughter. I wondered what metaphor I could use to say what I wanted to say and it just came to me; potatoes are ugly things, sometimes with eyes on them, covered in dirt and grit, all bulbous and yet they are beautiful, life-sustaining things. They’re full of water, they fill you up and keep you going and they don’t require all that much from you to become that life giver. You can wash that grit and dirt away and reveal a soft yellowish skinned potato that looks beautiful in its own way and they come in all shapes and sizes, and just as many flavours too. They’re a staple in many people’s diets in many different parts of the world and that means they’re everywhere, and not just that, it means they are important to us, vital even, to who we are and they have shaped our history. I wanted my gay friend to know that too, I wanted them to smile and know they were beautiful, vital and a life giver and that sometimes they’d have to scrub and scrape the grit of life away in order to come out the other side even more gorgeous than they were. So “Potatoes and Grit” is about self-care, and the love between friends and our own selves.ALU: You’ve shared some beautiful illustrations with us of your character Navriss. Tell us about the decision to have a “protagonist” in some of these poems, and how Navriss allows you to explore certain emotions or happenings.NS: Navriss as a character started out as myself in a series of illustrated letters to my sister Andrea and by the time the second or third page of drawing was completed I knew Navriss had grown into something different. I used to doodle little silly pictures of myself in my letters not just to her, but to everyone I wrote to and that eventually led to the idea of creating a comic book just for her. Like I said though, by page three that idea changed and from there the words on the pages changed and the story evolved into what it is now, that of a man who wakes up in his afterlife overlooking his grave and tombstone. He has no memories except this feeling that at the end of his life he was very much loved. By adding Navriss to my poetry I was able to continue his fictional journey in his afterlife and explore some heavy and deep situations about love, family, loss and grief as well as hope and hopelessness. Drawing comics and graphic novels takes a really long time to do and writing a poem a fraction of that time. There’s also the ability to give a face to the narrator when you have a reoccurring character in your poems and the reader doesn’t automatically tie the character to you when you give them a name. The character becomes the reader’s own idea of themselves in the situation they’re reading about without ever becoming too close.
So when Navriss is on the Celestial Stairway or on the Desert’s Edge or sitting around a campfire talking with Death and lamenting about his lot in life and his afterlife, it’s happening to Navriss and not you, but Navriss deals with regret, with stagnation of self and fear of the unknown because of past pains, and because it’s happening all to Navriss and not you. When Navriss finds his way out of the situation, so do you, but you’re free to find another path, another way that works for you. Well that was one of the ideas anyway, it was also just a way to tell a love story where by the end he remembers who it was that loved him when he died and in discovering that he rediscovers who he was.
ALU: There are incredible fantastical elements and allusions in some of the poems: the hammers of Dwarven gods, the many-eyed “Death Mist”… How do you approach incorporating the fantastical into your work?
NS: I grew up devouring every fantasy book in my family’s house, and then everything I could get my hands on in the local bookstore and school library. So for me, writing poetry was always going to take on this fantastical element. I loved especially Homer’s Illiad, and The Odyssey, also the Xanth series by Piers Anthony and sci-fi/fantasy series Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey; to me in their own ways they are the masters whom I aspire to be like. I’m far, far from that level, but one can dream right? Not all my poetry is shaped by them though, meaning not all of it tells a fantastical story of a hero, or would-be hero on a cataclysmic journey ultimately about self-discovery.
Sometimes though I need to hide my own journey of self-discovery inside such a fantasy poem because I am searching for something, I am exploring an idea looking for answers to whatever questions that poem asks and there needs to be a journey, a story needs to be told in the exploration. So I let the poem and words themselves guide me when I write. I will say this plainly though, when I wrote the poem with “The death mist” I did it entirely as if Barry Clayton (Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast) or Christopher Walken (the Prophecy) were reading it.ALU: This collection features epic, multi-page poems, and then there are poems like “To Do” – brief and extremely gutting. How do both kinds of poems – longer and exploratory versus shorter and pointed – help you communicate this idea of someone “asunder”?NS: That is a tough question to answer. I hope the blend of poems tells the story of someone who has done a lot of work in healing and who has found sources of hope along the way. I think to show that journey one has to reveal all of those emotions you go through, the heavy, the heart breaking, the soul wrenching and all the smiles, laughter and joy that go with such a journey from being broken to being healed. Sometimes you need it spell it out plainly in a short poem of a few lines and sometimes you need to follow an adventure, or a story from beginning to end and then seek out the answers asked inside yourself. Each type of poem teaches something different to those readers, just as it does when you write it, then read it later as the poet. Nahao migwetch for asking the questions, it’s been interesting to answer them.
From Neal, about the above: The illustration Asunder shows the once broken version of me, the roses in the illustration represent the love of the family of choice and the love one has that fades, and the love that is fragile even though it’s full of life. I think the character on the ground clutching their head is an image of utter grief and agony that we can all relate to, sometimes the pain in our hearts and souls feels like that as if it’s all-encompassing and all we can do is weep out and pull out our hair. The face in the darkness is the Sundered version of me that watches life pass them by and is lost in the pain of what’s lost, he’s looking out of frame because there is life ahead of him, and a future, so buried deep inside there is also hope.

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Neal Shannacappo is a Nakawe (Saulteaux) Poet and graphic novelist from Rolling River FN in Manitoba and he is Eagle Clan. He’s currently living and working in the city of Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory. He’s a stay-at-home father and part-time Indigenous Resource Consultant. Through his work, Neal celebrates the vibrant Indigenous artistic community and hopes to inspire Indigenous children and youth to see their own creative dreams through to fruition. His stories appear in the Indigenous anthologies Sovereign Traces vol. 1 – Not (Just) (An)other and Vol. 2 – Relational Constellation. His book Mashkawide’e (Has a strong heart) was published by Senator Kim Pate. He is the illustrator of If I Go Missing written by Brianna Jonnie, which won the 2021 Indigenous Voices Award for Published Graphic Novel. The Krillian Key (Kegedonce Press, 2020) is the first graphic novel of his own creation. Through the Eyes of Asunder is his first book of poetry.

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Many thanks to Neal Shannacappo for his thoughtful, generous answers to our questions, and to Kegedonce Press for connecting us. You can get Through the Eyes of Asunder at your local independent bookstore or order from us at All Lit Up.For more Off/Kilter, click here.