“Creativity Loves Constraint”: Anders Nilsen on His New Sketchbook Compilation, Poetry Is Useless

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Multiple Ignatz Award-winner Anders Nilsen is a philosophical cartoonist, both in his approach to creation (he likes restrictions) and in the content of his work. Poetry Is Useless, newly out from Drawn & Quarterly, collects material from the cartoonist’s sketchbooks, providing insight into how he fashions raw ideas into such elaborate works as Rage of Poseidon and Big Questions. The book contains an alluring mix of dreaminess and polemics, simple and intricate, mess and neatness. Reading less-edited strata like this is almost like looking out through the artist’s eyes, and indeed Nilsen returns over and over to the idea of stepping inside someone else’s skin. He exchanged several emails with Paste to discuss his latest work.

Anders Nilsen

Paste: Can you talk a bit about the process of putting this book together? Obviously, it doesn’t have every page in your sketchbooks. So… which ones? And who picks?
Nilsen: It’s just the good ones. At some point I proposed a 400-page book to D+Q, which would have been pretty much every spread I posted on my blog, the Monologuist, for about six or seven years. But they said that would make the book, like, 60 dollars. And I wouldn’t pay that for that book, so I decided to edit it way down, which was a very good thing. It’s a much better book. Creativity loves constraint, as they say.

Paste: Are they arranged chronologically?
Nilsen: They are very roughly chronological, yeah. At times I would be using more than one sketchbook at a time, or I would wait a while before getting around to scanning spreads for the blog, so the work is very roughly chronological, but with an emphasis on pieces from the same book being grouped together, because I tend to think of each book as a kind of unit, where the pieces are growing out of one another a bit. Or I’m playing with a couple different ideas throughout.

Poetry Is Useless Interior Art by Anders Nilsen

Paste: Can you talk about your process of sketchbooking? I can gather that you made some of these while traveling and at least a couple of pages while watching the Oscars one year, but other than that, are you buckled down and focused on drawing? Are you watching Netflix?
Nilsen: I use a small sketchbook partly because it fits in my back pocket, so it is always at hand if I’m bored on an airplane, or someone says something funny over drinks. Most of my actual books evolve out of little experiments in my sketchbooks, but then become a very different animal. Sketchbooks for me are about playing and experimenting, and the best stuff comes from places outside normal life. Longer works on the other hand, like Big Questions, say, come from sitting in the studio, bringing together notes and scripts and thumbnails and focusing intently for hours at a time. I need both in my life, but they are two very different ways of working.

Paste: Do you limit yourself to red and black intentionally? Easier just to carry two pens?
Nilsen: Haha, yeah, something like that. As I mentioned with the editing process: creativity loves constraint. Keeping the color palette simple is pretty important to me. I like trying to figure out ways of making just the one or two colors compelling. I have several different thicknesses of black pen, though so usually there are four or five pens in my pocket, at least. And since finishing work on this book I have begun playing a bit with a slightly less limited palette, incorporating some gouache in my sketchbooks, in certain contexts.

Poetry Is Useless Interior Art by Anders Nilsen

Paste: Do you take a Wite-Out pen with you too? I’m kind of fascinated by the deletions and edits within the pages, done on the fly. And there aren’t all that many of them. Do you work in pen to start off with? Are you just very neat?
Nilsen: I’m pretty neat I guess. I also go back to drawings and fix them later sometimes. Leaving traces of my mistakes or blind alleys is part of what I like about the work. I like when you get a sense of watching an artist’s brain work.

Paste: It seems like you mostly work in Moleskine notebooks. What else do you use? Why?
Nilsen: I often have defaulted to Moleskines because of the size, and because they are more or less well put together. But I don’t love the paper – either the color or the way it feels – so there are several other types in there, including a few I made myself. And actually I have recently gotten much more into making my own sketchbooks, in which case I can put exactly the paper and size together that I want.

Paste: You seem especially interested in the fusion of animal and mechanical. Do you think that’s related to your repeated meditations about what it means to be a human?
Nilsen: Yeah, that’s fair. I might say the “organic: and the mechanical, because it’s both animal forms and vegetable-y, fungus-y forms. I’m interested in the ways natural forms are like or unlike the things we create to mimic them. I’m also interested in the delicate border between natural forms that register as ‘beautiful’ and forms that verge slightly over into being disgusting, or antiseptic. But yeah, I also do think of people as essentially extremely complex and subtle systems of interacting machinery. So visualizing that idea, and that tension is pretty compelling to me.

Poetry Is Useless Interior Art by Anders Nilsen

Paste: Have you seen Alan Berliner’s documentary The Sweetest Sound? If not, it features him gathering a bunch of other people named Alan Berliner together and interviewing them, as well as meditating on ideas of individuality. It came to mind when I was reading about the other Anders Nilsen in this book and then even more so when I was Googling you. Aaaanyway. The sense that chance plays by far the largest role of any factor in our lives seems a driving philosophy for you, one that’s even clearer in Poetry Is Useless than in Big Questions. Would you rather have been another Anders Nilsen?
Nilsen: No, I like being me. I feel very lucky in many many ways. On the other hand if someone could make the Norwegian EDM guy go away that would be awesome. Or maybe he could just change his name? I thought I’d be safe with this name for some reason. I actually tried to locate the guy from the bookstore, but he proves untraceable, Which makes the dreamlike quality of that moment even more palpable.

Paste: What do you think the exercise of putting yourself in another person’s shoes (or inside his/her skin) does for us?
Nilsen: Like you said, it’s an attempt to get the reader to really feel the strangeness and randomness of our circumstances, our identities. These things rely on so many unlikely chances going just the right way. We could all have been someone else very easily. Or, more likely, not been anyone at all. I’m also a big fan of empathy and compassion. One of the great contributions of literature over the centuries is helping people imagine the lives of others.

Paste: Another thing I kept thinking about, reading through these pages, was Lynda Barry’s philosophy of keeping your pen moving, no matter what it’s drawing (loops or coloring in a coloring book or whatever). It’s not dissimilar to continuing to move through the world in the absence of a bigger meaning guiding your behavior. Just keep doing what you’re doing and something will emerge (which doesn’t mean it was fated).
Nilsen: That’s a nice idea. I’m sure that’s a useful limitation in some way, but I actually like to take long pauses when I work… to sort of take the temperature of whatever is getting laid down, and listen to the drawing to see where it wants to proceed, if at all. But yeah, I’m all for working with your mistakes and accidents. In life and in art.

Poetry Is Useless Interior Art by Anders Nilsen

Paste: Do you think your comics are funny?
Nilsen: They make me laugh, so… yeah, totally. But some are very sad, too, so also: no. I just did a little book tour, reading some of the work from the book, which I really like doing, and that was probably the closest I’ll ever get to doing stand-up. People laughed, so unless they were just being polite and were extremely good actors, I’m apparently not the only one.

Paste: The monologue-driven comics in Poetry Is Useless tend to play with extremes. Is that a way of making us see the middle as a very sensible place to be? Is it just goofing around with language?
Nilsen: I like great contrasts. I think images or situations can be made more compelling or vivid by being paired with other things they are dramatically unlike. I guess I also just like to try to give the reader a sense of the vastness of the universe we inhabit—which is easy to forget when you have a single, very particular, possibly repetitive life to live. There are so many enormously different kinds of human/animal/tectonic/planetary dramas all happening every moment all over the world and the universe. It’s maybe impossible to really wrap your head around, but it’s fun to try.

Paste: There’s a lot of friction, too, in these works, between symmetry and asymmetry, sort of like that border between gross and beautiful natural forms. How much conscious thought goes into creating these sort of blobby forms?
Nilsen: The more thought that goes into them the worse they come out, probably. The best ones unfold intuitively. And usually I am playing with a certain constellation of shapes and associations, which changes a bit over time. Symmetry is usually more compelling when it is broken in some subtle way.

Paste: So for “poetry,” can we basically substitute “art”?
Nilsen: I would like to answer that question, but given various legal injunctions I’m prevented from discussing the relation of poetry to the other arts.

Paste: My theory is that only someone who actually kind of likes poetry would pick such a title for his book. Do you? What’s your favorite poem (or poems or poet)? Do you like literature with more structure or less?
Nilsen: Again, I’m not really at liberty to discuss these questions. But I will say that I love Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky.” It’s all nonsense, but at least it knows it.

Paste: Your work is pretty existentialist. Consciously or unconsciously?
Nilsen: Both probably. I don’t think about it in those terms exactly, but existentialist ideas seem to rhyme with the way I see the world, at least in some ways. Like, if you mixed them together with fairy tales.

Paste: Not to get all “dance like nobody’s watching” on you, but what would you do if you thought the world was ending tomorrow?
Nilsen: That depends. If a meteor was going to hit the earth I’d want to find out where so I could see it hit.