Caricature—beloved of 18th-century wits—still has its satirical seat in newspapers, news journals, and, of course, political blogs. But every time I look at a satirical cartoon, I feel sorry for the subject, even if it’s a centuries-dead Georgian-era moll. Another little hit on the vanity button…
Poetry catapults no one to caricaturability. But on the cover of every volume of Storyline Press’s Critical Introduction monograph series is a caricature of the subject by Herblock Award-winning political editorial cartoonist John Sherffius. You might know his work best if you are familiar with The Big Read sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Sherffius is responsible for the signature caricatures of John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Carson McCullers, among many other fiction writers.
I have to confess that I grew queasy when I learned that I would have to suffer a black-and-white portrait-lampoon, even though I was terribly flattered that mine would be the next monograph in the series. Jason Guriel, an extremely astute younger critic, was going to give my poetry a going-over. And Sherffius was going to do that to my face…. That stuff is ok for big, famous dead fiction writers, but a small, living large-nosed poet like me?
Then the cartoonist wrote and asked for my poetry. Really? Yes, and several photographs of me as well. The man seemed to be trying to understand how to draw an image from inside my words. Of course, I softened. He wanted to draw lines from my lines. A collaboration was being born.
“I do enjoy the challenge of creating a caricature that captures the spirit and personality of a subject,” he wrote in an email. “Being able to mold the facial features of someone, but at the same time have them still be recognizable, is the goal for any caricature artist.”
We had gotten kind of friendly. Eased ourselves into a bit of an exchange. Finally I popped the question that was making me so anxious. “Where do you literally draw the line between essentializing someone, say, Marilyn Nelson, and daring more of a parody, say, David Mason in his hat? Oh, please, please don’t parody me, I silently begged. I want to be essentialized, instead!
My lampooner took me seriously. Just as seriously as he obviously took his art. For it was art we were exchanging opinions about, and it was the art of the satirical drawing that I was regarding as I examined his line-portraits.
“ Singling out one or two examples to be used in a poet's caricature is difficult, as writers can touch upon many disparate themes and subjects in their work,” Sherffius explained to me. “If there is one famous, standout poem, say for example Poe's 'The Raven,' this would not be an issue.”
If only I’d written “The Peacock,” I whined to myself. “In the case of the wonderful poet Dave Mason,” Sherffius wrote, “I thought it might be fun to focus on his unique position as the poet laureate of Colorado. So I placed him in an idyllic wilderness setting. A little silly? Probably. But I'd like to think it does capture something of Mason's observations on nature (e.g., a meaning made of trees) and highlight his goal of promoting poetry in Colorado.” Now Mason in a hat reassured me.
I had never thought that caricature could be collaborative. Sherffius has sent me two drafts so far, and even in the first sketch, he got me. It’s a privilege to watch this drawing take shape. It’s not a jape. It’s amusing. The cartoonist returned my sense of humor, and if THAT isn’t a side benefit of collaborating, I don’t know what is. Here's his virtuoso Carson McCullers, drawn by the man who once was a boy who naughtily doodled portraits of his teachers...