by Eileen R. Tabios
Introduction: Patrick Rosal is a former Fulbright Fellow to the Philippines and the author of three books of poetry, most recently Boneshepherds, recognized and honored by the Association of Asian American Studies, the Asian American Writers Workshop, the Global Filipino Award as well as the National Book Critics Circle and the Academy of American Poets. His essays have appeared in Grantland, New York Times, and Hyphen, and his poems have appeared in Tin House, Gulf Coast, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. Brooklyn Antediluvian, a new book of poems, is due out in 2016. He is a full-time faculty member of the Rutgers-Camden MFA program and co-founding editor of Some Call It Ballin’, a literary sports journal. In the past few years, Patrick has also been doing sketches of breakdancers which caught the eye of OOV’s Arts Editor, Eileen Tabios. The following presents their conversation about Patrick’s drawings of breakdancers.
Eileen Tabios (ET): I know you first as a poet, but remember a few years ago immediately falling in love with your B-Boy (or breakdancing) sketches and doodles. I found your sketch line, while minimalistic, to be energetic and vibrant. I also appreciate how the figures are somewhat abstracted which, for me, makes the viewer sense movement and energy and not just the dancing figure. How long have you been doing these B-Boy sketches?
Patrick Rosal (PR): I started doing these doodles of breakers in 2010, but the doodles started sucking me in. They started to trigger my memory of own body when I used to break and I wanted to see if I could approximate some of the moves. The sketches evolved from things I could really do when I was younger into what I could barely imagine doing. That’s when it became a kind of obsession.
At one point, I stopped doing the sketches because I’d been traveling, researching, and teaching. I thought after a year of not even looking at them that I would never return to them. When I’m most productive, though, I find that I’m not just reading and/or writing. I’m also playing and making music and sometimes making these sketches. If you could see me when I’m writing, it’s like I’m moving from station to station. I’m literally playing. I might pick up the guitar or play keyboards for a little bit, then read a little bit, then write for as little as five minutes or as much as four hours. I recently hit a pretty rich imaginative couple of months and found myself back in my sketch book in between writing and learning a little bit of congas.
ERT: Do you doodle other things besides B-boys?
PR: Not really. I think I’ve tried to draw skaters. But mostly it’s B-Boys. I have a couple sketches of conga players.
ERT: Were you ever tempted to focus more or thought about focusing more on visual art versus, say, poetry? And/or, how did you go to poetry when I believe you have brothers who turned their attention to visual art?
PR: It has never crossed my mind to work in visual art. Or, I should say, I never considered myself a Visual Artist. My brother, Nick, is an incredibly gifted illustrator and painter. It seemed more like magic than a skill. He’s five years older than me, but I’m sure we drew next to one another when we were real little. I remember being amazed at his drawings and feeling frustrated that I couldn’t make my own drawings look like the thing I was trying to draw. The difference, I’m learning, between Nick and me is that he knows how to discover what he draws as he’s drawing it. I’d been too willful with the image.
And then I started doing these sketches. I think most of my life I had a real rigid sense of visual art and representation. Then I figured out that a drawing can be made like a poem, i.e. figuring out the image as you go along. That was really liberating and fun for me. I can’t really explain why my brothers are visual artists — or more inclined toward it. I was always, always curious about language and music. But I don’t want to make too much of a leap because it’s hard to compare how the three of us were processing our environments, especially since we are each five years apart–me in the middle.
ERT: Any role for color here?
PR: That’s such a great question. I’m a little scared of using color. I guess I’d like to try it. Maybe watercolors, though I know that’s a hard medium to control. One thing about doing these drawings is that it trains my eye differently than poetry. I do a little photography. I’m partial to portraits in sort of documentary style. And when I draw or shoot, there’s something different about the attention to my environment. Maybe because the process seems to skip language most of the time. I wonder if it goes from the eye to the heart–or the other muscles. Anyway, your question makes me want to pay attention to color now and think about how these sketches might use that. I did try different color markers but the black on white is stark. It also just reminds me of scribbling on walls and jeans and sneakers. It’s among the simplest in materials—ink and paper. Bad “For Sale” signs use the same media. I like that these dancers are cousins to those signs. I like the idea of these extraordinary movements of the body being depicted with really simple materials.
ERT: How do you dance nowadays?
PR: I’ve got a loft apartment, so I just let go when I can. I turn up the music and dance. I like to go out and dance, too, when I can find partners for it. But I’m also not opposed to going out and dancing alone. I can still pop a little and probably can get my signature swipes on the floor, but I’m afraid my body can’t break anywhere near like it used to. Now that I’m older, I’m in awe at my younger body’s speed, flexibility, and strength.
ERT: Can you expand on something you’ve said: “I don’t exactly know what’s going to end up in a poem until my body starts the work of writing it down.” I mean, a bodily act(ion) can trigger imagination which flows through the writing. But the way you phrased this suggests a more physical relationship — like a dance move determining a certain punctuation, or word length…but that’s my read/imagination on your words. What did you mean?
PR: I do read my poems out loud during composition and revision. I’m pretty sure that I nod to a beat when I do this. I’m also pretty sure that I stand up and sometimes walk around. My hand punctuates sounds. I think this is what I do. I’m not really conscious of it. All I know is that I can only sit still so long through the writing process. My instincts tell me that moving makes all the difference when I’m writing.
When I was in New York, I’d read new work at the open mic at Bar 13. This was such a great space to test out poems. The other bodies in the room became a part of the writing process. It’s nice to get applause for a poem, but that’s not what I was listening for. I was listening, first of all, not just with my ears, but with my whole body. There’s a kind of tremor or adrenalin, though sometimes it’s a calm feeling, when I am so inside the poem that I can feel the whole room inside the poem with me. Part of that is the moment, my performance in that instant; but part of that is the faster-than-lightning exchange among the people in the room. It’s a kind of listening that doesn’t just happen with your ears. A lot of times I think I’ll get away with a punchline ahead of time or another kind of line intended to elicit a reaction and putting that line (and the poem that it’s in) in my body and then out into the air where there are other bodies teaches me. I go back to the page and ask what’s happening in the language. What am I hiding from? What is the language hiding from me?
ERT: You’ve said, “I try to let my poetic line lead me to my subject. I don’t exactly know what’s going to end up in a poem until my body starts the work of writing it down. That feels like how I’m drawing these dancers, too.” What does the start of this doodling process look like? Maybe you can doodle a new visual, pause to take a photo of it, before continuing so we can see the beginning vs more finished product?
PR: That’s a great idea. I’m going to do that. Here are some panels from my drawings-in-progress and my descriptions of the various stages of the process:
B-Boy Sketch Panels and Descriptions
I usually start with one of five elements either hand, either foot, or the head. After I’d done a handful of these, my brother Nick pointed out that all of my sketches were in portrait orientation and I should try to do some in landscape. So this is one of my first attempts at that. I placed a hand in the bottom right corner then the other hand. I try to remember the opposable thumbs, but in these drawings it almost doesn’t matter because they’re twisting so fast, proportions relationships aren’t going to be conventional. Having parts out of place, I think, gives the guy some movement. I also put the head upside down. At this point, I don’t know what the dance move is (a little like real breaking). I’m just putting this down and seeing if I can eventually connect a few simple elements with the rest of the body.
Sometimes I like the limbs and head to be mostly balanced and in different quadrants of the drawing, but then I like a little perspective so I made the top right kick a little smaller.
The way I drew the kicks made his legs do some really weird shit. I could have changed it so that it was more “realistic” but again I like to see what kinds of contortions these dancers can get in and out of.
So I could have decided to cross the arms too, but the legs, I thought, would be enough to give the piece some action. Besides I like the long lines that the arm connected to the bottom left hand make.
I don’t really have a system for inking the drawing. I just go to what calls me first. I try to do mostly continuous moves, but a couple short broken lines are pretty interesting too. In this case, I started with his head.
After that, I started moving somewhat from background to foreground.
At this point the pencil sketch is a guide. If the marker slips or I have my hand in a funny position and I can’t finish a line in one move, I just go with it. I let the line break or I let the stray line in. One thing that I noticed about taking pictures of a drawing as I go along is that it disrupts my flow. I didn’t realize it, but it makes total sense to me that I need to let my hand flow. I’m pretty sure I thought my way through this drawing more than I usually do.
ERT: A big SALAMAT, Patrick, from me and the rest of Our Own Voice for your time in answering my questions and being a good sport with sharing a visual presentation of your sketching process!
© Eileen R. Tabios