Montreal artist Julian Peters turns classic poetry into graphic art

Newly opened N’était-ce pas l’été is one of two Montreal bookstores selling Peters’ debut book

Bookstore N’était-ce pas l’été opened its doors in March 2021. Photo by Eva Wilson

N'était-ce pas l'été, a bookstore located on St. Laurent Blvd. that opened its doors in March 2021, is one of the only two bookstores in Montreal that sells local artist Julian Peters’ debut book, Poems to See By: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry.

Mélanie Guillemette, who dreamt of opening a bookstore since her childhood, started this project at the end of her university studies and was happy to see it come to life this year. 

Guillemette selects most of her books by following the recommendations of various publishing house representatives. However, some authors are not represented by any publishing houses, so they visit Guillemette in person and present their books to her. 

“I like having independent publications. I think it’s important to leave space on shelves for books that are a bit more marginalized,” she said.

Guillemette explained how Montrealer and Concordia graduate Julian Peters presented his book to her despite having been published with a small American publishing house, Plough Publishing.

“Julian just walked in by sheer curiosity, and it was by talking that we brought up his book,” Guillemette said.

N’était-ce pas l’été is one of two Montreal bookstores selling Peters’ debut book. Photo by Eva Wilson

Poems to See By is a graphic interpretation of classic poetry from poets such as Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Robert Hayden, and many others. Nearly every poem is illustrated in a different art form ranging from watercolor to manga. 

“Julian Peters is not the only artist to do visual adaptations of great poetry, but he is probably the best,” said Sam Hine from Plough Publishing. “He has created stunning visual interpretations of some of the world’s most beloved poems. Each poem is interpreted using a different visual style, showcasing the diversity of the poems, his dexterity as an artist, and the storytelling possibilities of the comics art form.” 

“Julian Peters is not the only artist to do visual adaptations of great poetry, but he is probably the best.” — Sam Hine

Peters described how he tries to transmit his love of poetry with his illustrations. His passion for poetry does not allow him to idly read poems.

“There’s this feeling I have to do something with it and express it somehow or work with it. Creating comic adaptations kind of satisfies that feeling and I hope it transmits some of my passion for the work and some of my interpretations that may be different from other people’s.”

Peters stressed that certain art forms fit certain poems better. He has also always wanted to create an anthology using a lot of different styles, which Plough Publishing encouraged.

His illustrations for Maya Angelou’s poem 'Caged Bird' was inspired by the quilts African-American women started creating during slavery.

“They had to make do with whatever scraps of fabric they were given in various colours, so they created these amazing abstract patterns that were later rediscovered by lovers of modern art,” Peters said. 

He was also inspired by Harriet Powers, who was born into slavery but lived through emancipation and made quilts telling bible stories. Peters describes Powers’ quilts as being easily adaptable as comics because they were already divided into panels.

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‘Poems to See By’ is a graphic interpretation of classic poetry. Photo by Eva Wilson

Peters said he was first published by Plough in their quarterly magazine. Pretty soon, they asked him if he would be willing to publish a book with them, something he had been interested in doing for nearly 20 years.

The upside of being published by an American publishing house, he said, was that they have a much greater reach than Montreal publishing houses. The downside, however, is that his book does not get a lot of press in his hometown.

Peters said that his book is only available in two bookstores in Montreal: N’était-ce pas l’été and another independent bookstore in NDG.

He said he would like to create an anthology of international poetry, such as Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese poetry that are well-known to native speakers, but translated into English. But for now, he is hoping to continue advertising Poems to See By and to finish the fiction book he started during the pandemic.

“It’s sort of like an illustrated tour of an imaginary place, so it combines writing and illustration,” Peters said. “But it’s very influenced by my psychology during lockdown and of being removed from life and looking back at it.”