‘Iowa City is weird, you know? And I was a weirdo.’ Artist Lauren Haldeman on ghosts, puppets and pandemic comics

Lauren Haldeman via Twitter, @laurenhaldeman

Lauren Haldeman isn’t a mere double-threat, or even a run-of-the-mill triple-threat. No, Iowa City’s resident polymath has more tricks up her sleeve than I can count on both hands and a few spare toes. Working across mediums and forms — poetry, puppetry, animation, illustration, printmaking, painting, film and music, to name a few — she has created a kaleidoscopic body of work that is rooted in raw-nerve emotion and wrapped in whimsical, eccentric flourishes.

Over the past two decades, Haldeman has been seen around town rocking a zip hoodie and short “momboy” hair while writing code on her laptop; performing hybrid puppet shows and poetry readings; playing in random musical projects with her accordion, drums or guitar; and sketching illustrations in Prairie Lights’ Cafe. Throughout the pandemic, she documented our twilight zone year with comics that she posted on Twitter and Instagram, like a panel that read, “Quarantine’s Motto: There’s No Time Like the Endless Present.”

“I think I drew close to 200 COVID comics,” Haldeman said. “It was very therapeutic. You know, it was a way to structure the day and make contact with people outside of the house, through the internet. I would post a drawing and hear from all sorts of people. And that would make me feel less alone.”

Haldeman’s lifelong creative journey began in Fairfax Station, Virginia when she announced to a fifth-grade friend, “I’m going to write and illustrate books!” Like all dreams, it was easy going from there, right?

“Not at all,” she said. “It took me, like, 30 years to publish my first book. It was a long haul.”

Her hometown sits between Washington D.C. and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and it is full of deep wilderness, haunted historic locations and old battlefields. But while there are certain sense memories that trigger nostalgia for her, Haldeman considers Iowa City her home now. Her westward trek began in 1997 when she was working at a bookstore during her senior year of high school, where she came across the school rankings in U.S. News & World Report, which placed the University of Iowa number at the top of the list for writing and printmaking.

“I thought, ‘What? Iowa?’”

Poetry and printmaking were her main jams at the time, and even though she had already enrolled at Syracuse University — with a roommate and classes lined up that fall — Haldeman took it as a sign and applied for late enrollment at the University of Iowa. A few months later, the 18-year-old moved to Iowa City.

“I had never really seen a town like this before,” Haldeman said, “where you can walk most anywhere and get your groceries or a coffee or most things on foot. Where people made their own T-shirts and brewed beer and dug garden plots and just did a lot of making, instead of buying. And Iowa City is weird, you know? And I was a weirdo. I felt at home.”

Throw in a few dozen people who built their own chicken coops, mainlined coffee and books in local shops and screen-printed posters, and Haldeman realized she had found her people. It was in Iowa City where she discovered a semi-secret community of creators and self-invented artists who were all a bit odd and a little non-binary, which made her feel “normal” for the first time.

Haldeman followed her undergraduate writing degree with an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since then, she has blurred art forms by blending poetry with puppetry using a tiny theater called a “cranky”: a wooden box with two dowels and a long scroll of paper between them that reveals an illustration of a line from her poem, which she recites while cranking. It was a precursor to her recent poetry comics, and it’s yet another example of how she instinctively blurs the boundaries between art forms.

“I got into puppeteering to impress a boy. I don’t know why I thought that would work,” Haldeman explained. “I found the Eulenspiegel Puppet Center in West Liberty, Iowa, and I started interning there. I would help build sets and puppets, and I eventually became part of the shows.” Starting in 2004, she spent three summers interning at Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, staging massive puppet shows every weekend and using their wood shop to build her cranky box—to which Haldeman has been adding poetry scrolls ever since.

Poetry and puppetry don’t pay bills in our imperfect world, so Haldeman’s day job involves working as a software coder, web developer and editor for the University of Iowa’s Writing University website, along with freelance web design side-hustles.

“I figured out that coding could make me some money,” Haldeman said. “People pay you for that skill, but it is also creative. It feels a bit like poetry, because you are using this actual code to make something happen. And when you get the code right, the response is immediate. I really liked that too—instant gratification!”

Although she has taken the poetry path less traveled, her work has still achieved more conventional prestige, with publication in Poetry Magazine, Tin House, Colorado Review and Fence. She received the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry for her second book, Instead of Dying, which was a reimagining of her brother’s life if he hadn’t died, from mundane experiences to extraordinary things like becoming a deep sea diver and discovering a new element. It followed Haldeman’s first book of poetry, Calenday, which was released the same year as her exquisitely titled 2014 chapbook, The Eccentricity Is Zero. Her third collection, Team Photograph, will be published by Sarabande Books in November 2022.

“I had been drawing single poem comics for a while, from poems in my two previous books,” Haldeman said, explaining the origins of Team Photograph. “I really liked how people responded to them. It seemed like the illustrations really opened the poems up more to the reader, and I liked that. I also noticed that my kid liked them. That was a big plus.”

Lauren Haldeman’s comic for Little Village’s 2018 January Comics Issue

Team Photograph incorporates visual memoir elements with sections of poetry — a hybrid of nonfiction, graphic novel and poetry. It started as a long-simmering poetry manuscript that has been in the works for about two decades, but Haldeman felt it needed descriptor paragraphs to introduce each section, which made her realize, “I should draw these tiny narratives as comics!”

Fairfax Station was named after the train depot at its center, which acted as a triage stop during the Civil War, and the town’s spectral landscape provides the setting for Team Photograph. It opens with a graphic memoir section about the ghosts of wounded wraiths who visited Haldeman when she was a child in her family home, causing her to hallucinate while drifting between waking and sleep states. These ghostlike entities also visited her on the edges of the soccer field where she regularly played, in which metallic fragments from old battles sometimes surfaced atop the grass-covered soil.

“In Virginia,” Haldeman writes over the course of a series of panels, “in the house in Fairfax Station, I frequently saw people: soldiers, postcolonial gravediggers, women in 19th century nightgowns. During these hypnagogic visitations, everything else seems normal: The room looks the same, the light and shadows all look the same. It is not a dream world. It is the real world.”

Each of these colorfully illustrated backstories set up the grouping of poems in Team Photograph’s seven chapters (or “fields”), planting imagery in the reader’s mind that make the black and white text of the chapter all the more rich.

“I illustrated all of the graphic memoir sections myself,” Haldeman said. “They start each section and explain the poetry that follows. So, for example, there is a part of the book where the character begins to do erasure poems from an old Washington Post article. In the graphic novel section of this part, you see illustrations of the character beginning the process, and then the section that immediately follows contains the erasure poems themselves.”

With its mix of eye-popping visuals, impressionistic prose and poetic wordplay, this sui generis book blends memoir and historical nonfiction by bringing together Haldeman’s many talents. All that’s missing are songs, so I am proposing Team Photograph: The Musical, which would incorporate her cranky theater, puppetry and an accordion score — all performed by this unique artist who wears many hats. Come on, let’s make this happen!

Lauren Haldeman, from ‘Team Photograph’

Kembrew McLeod is ready for Rocktober, which culminates with Halloween, his devilish birthday. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 299.

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