Lexcalibur, a collection of poetry by Jerry Holkins with art by Mike Krahulik, may seem like an unexpected project from the Penny Arcade duo.
Filled with stories of crooked viziers, gnomish vaults of wonders, and fading words of warning, though, it captures that sense of wonder, excitement, and danger that comes with a good session of D&D with the crew of Acquisitions Incorporated. This time, however, in a manner like a children’s book of fairy tales told in rhyme.
CGM reached out to Jerry Holkins to talk to him about what drew him to poetry and these kinds of stories, talking about the writer’s longstanding love of lyrics and poems, how the form can be like a kind of game to be played, and how these works can help arm us with hope in our lives, from the very young to the writer of the works themselves.
CGM: What got you branching out into poetry with Lexcalibur?
Holkins: The funny thing is that poetry is what I primarily did write before Penny Arcade. So, most of the stuff I have written outside the site was either songs or poetry. Honestly, the distinction between song and poetry is relatively minor. You can learn one and do the other very quickly.
So, for me, that rhythmic writing – writing lyrics and writing songs – if I was going to write for myself, that was what I would turn to. That would be the normal thing I would make if I was writing to entertain myself.
CGM: What is it that draws you to that style of writing?
Holkins: It’s a kind of game, really. There’s lots of different varieties of poetry, as well as structural subsets and genres. They’re all just rules, right? There are mechanical rules that govern them, and you know you have succeeded with them if you have communicated what you wanted while following these ‘victory conditions’.
Iambic pentameter, or haiku; there’s lots of different rhyme structures. I find it to be a really fun challenge to play around with words in ways that have just enough rules. It’s kind of like how, when we write the comic strips, there’s rules in that game as well. You have three panels and they’re trying to communicate something in that specific amount of time, and you use time in a unique way based on that format. A poem is very similar in that it has fun rules and you know when you’ve accomplished them.
CGM: You’ve explored Lexcalibur’s kind of ‘adventurous children’ theme before with The Lookouts. What drew you back to this theme?
Holkins: It was only a few months before that I started divining the adventures of C-Team, which is the D&D Twitch stream we do that is connected to Acquisitions Incorporated, which we’ve been doing at shows for a while. I was already sort of in that place – in that mental zone. The basic concept I had for the book to begin with was ‘What if Shel Silverstein were your dungeon master?’.
Generally speaking, the stuff that I write is not something I can communicate to my kids at all, so it’s funny to make a kind of work I can actually show them without this feeling that I have made them worse people for it.
CGM: The book does seem to introduce a lot of the D&D & fantasy themes, but in a way that’s more approachable for children.
Holkins: They definitely have wonder. I think they’re accessible to children. I have an eight- and twelve-year-old at home, and they’ve been able to access what I was trying to get at with these poems. I think there’s poems you might understand in a certain way as a kid, or you might understand a specific way, and then if you approached it later or were the person reading it to a child, a parent might understand it in a different way.
With the idea that these poems are games, the way in which you address the poems themselves and how you understand them, has a kind of interactivity there too. There can be a joke or a twist somewhere inside the poem that is there for kids to find out and enjoy.
CGM: It’s interesting that the language of it allows it to be understood in different ways in different parts of your life, so you can draw more out of it as you get older.
Holkins: That’s it. Some of the poems are very surreal and lyrical. There’s a specific triplet maybe a third of the way through the book about a gnomish vault. Those are meant to be very lyrical and abstract and strange. Then, there’s something at the end that a more general audience could appreciate. In terms of the raw imagery, that’s something where someone who’s older might appreciate in a different way.
A lot of it is about the crossroads between adults and kids. It’s about things that kids need to learn. That’s a big theme in a lot of the work that we’ve done that’s addressed toward a general audience like Lookouts – I think that’s a good touchstone. I’m writing a sequel to Lexcalibur now that’s focused on the Eyrewood tales that’s going to bring a lot of things into relief.
CGM: Wow, that was fast!
Holkins – The truth is that I was writing this in the Summer of 2016. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the next book. When this one sold out completely in a couple of days, I felt that ‘Maybe I’m not nuts. Maybe this is something that people want. Maybe this isn’t just something I want to make. Maybe this is actually a type of work that people can use.’
That’s why the subtitle is what it is. I call it ‘Useful Poetry’ as sort of a joke. You can’t open a can with a poem. Still, I wanted it to be something you could put to work in your life. That you could apply it to certain concerns, or even just as a tool to help someone go to sleep. I liked the idea that you had this sort of book that was a swiss army knife that would unfold with manifold capabilities in it.
CGM: You do get that feel from it. It explores different tones and styles, some evoking a feeling they are like songs to be sung and the like.
Holkins: Oh, definitely. That’s very canny, actually, as ‘Guardian’s Lullaby’, a poem near the end of the book, is an actual song. I used to sing that. It’s a part of an album I was writing for.
It was a long time ago, but you remember Jam Sessions, the guitar simulator that Ubisoft put out on the DS? We used to do creative services and make comics and stuff for Ubisoft at one time, and when I heard that was coming out, I’m like ‘Pitch them a song! See if they just want me to just write a song using the DS as an instrument.’
So, I had made a song called ‘My Belruel’, which goes into these kinds of themes as well. It’s about a person who falls in love with their MMO character, basically, but it’s played totally straight. It’s not funny at all. That was part of an album I was writing that had four or five songs done for that, and ‘Guardian’s Lullaby’ is actually from that project. It was a lot of fun to sing.
To read the full interview, please pick up CGMagazine Issue #34 at your local newsstands or digitally via our online platforms.
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