Dream Geographies: From Dream to Screen

An interview with collaborators Judith Serin and Masami Inoue.

“Map of Dreams,” first image in the series.

For some time now, poet Judith Serin has been working on a series of prose poems about her dreams, plotting out what Freud called “the royal road to the unconscious.” At the California College of Arts and Crafts, she met the ideal illustrator for her project in Masami Inoue, a Japanese-American artist whose work draws on multiple styles and media.

When we serialized six pieces in their Dream Geographies collaboration on our website, we wanted to find out about how this relationship evolved — from first dream to final marriage of words and visual image. So during a coast-to-coast conference call in mid-June, Editorial Director Susann Cokal asked Judith and Masami about their individual methods and how they worked together.

BROAD STREET: Judith, the series began with your words — your records of your dreams. Can you tell us how you decided to start documenting your dreams and how you developed the form in which you present them?

JUDITH SERIN: There were particular types of dreams I noticed I was having, about specific dream landscapes and specific dream houses. And at some point I realized the San Francisco in my dreams was not the San Francisco in my life. I’m good friends with Betsy Davids, one of the seminal book artists, and when I was talking to her I said, “I have to do something about this.” For a while I’d been writing prose poem series about my everyday life — I wanted to get away from the drama of fiction and back to my imagistic poetry roots while keeping the rhythm of the paragraph — and these dreamscapes felt as though they’d work in that form.

When you pay attention to dreams and start to write them down, you have more and more, and you have to stop at one point. For example, the piece called “Dream Architecture: Big Houses” — I’ve had all sorts of big-house dreams over the years and was waiting to have one more so I’d get the images intense and bright. [Laughs.] It finally obliged and appeared.

Dream Architecture: Big Houses

So you were expecting to have a certain kind of dream. Would you say it was programmed somehow, the way people try to program their dream lives to be productive in a certain way?

JUDITH: No, that was the type of dream I was having. Dreams seem to like it when you pay attention to them, and they get more and more vivid. I wouldn’t say that’s programming — it’s cooperating. I wrote these down over course of a year.

Masami, what role do dreams play in your work?

MASAMI INOUE: I have a small series going on — short comics related to dreams in a way, dreams about my deceased mom. They’re dream-world-like, surreal, as opposed to realistic. I don’t take notes on my dreams, but I make comics. I’ve shown them to my friends and people liked some of them, so I keep doing them.

Judith, how did these dreams form a series, and how did it come to be illustrated?

JUDITH: Because I was having that specific kind of dream, it [a cohesive series] seemed right … It intrigued me how these dreams had their own sort of landscape, their own sort of geography. What struck me was that they were a combination of places I’d lived. That helped me sort of shape the prose poems so they had a specific meaning. It also helped that I had to figure out a kind of order in which to put them — then the poems merged in a way that seemed to make sense to me as a series.

I’ve been in a writing group meeting for forty-five years. One poet in the group said he could imagine the Dream Geographies illustrated, but I hadn’t thought seriously of it till you [Susann] suggested it. Now I couldn’t imagine the series any other way. The illustration adds so much to the dream.

How do both of you feel about dream interpretation? Do you analyze your own dreams?

JUDITH: I have many different feelings about that. I analyze dreams if they’re bad dreams. If they frighten me. When I was an undergrad in Vermont, a roommate went to a seminar in California and came back analyzing dreams. Fritz Perls [founder of Gestalt therapy] says you’re everybody in your own dream — so, for example, I would figure out what part of me was trying to change another part when someone tried to kill me in a dream.

And when I was much, much younger, I very much felt I was part of where I was and what surrounded me: a suitcase, Vermont, a river going past all these places. I think these geography dreams are part of that process, which convinces me you’re still the same person as you were when a child.

I feel a nostalgia about my dreams. I wish sometimes that I’d written them down early. When I was little, I lived in the country with woods all around. There were kids of different ages. A dream I had became a story or a legend in our little community of kids — there was something about it that was very full of action. A kid named Paul was a magician, that’s all I remember.

Most of the time, dreams are just pleasure for me.

MASAMI: I personally think my dream comics are more about me processing something that happened rather than my mother actually speaking to me, but others have said differently to me — my classmates, peers, people I’ve shown some of the stuff.

I did have a friend in high school who loved processing dreams and anything you’d remember. She had a dream dictionary. I don’t believe in reading into dreams that much; it’s more pleasurable for me, the experience. I like to leave it alone and keep it as it is.

Masami, when Judith approached you to illustrate her poems, how did you feel about translating someone else’s dreams into visual images?

MASAMI: It was definitely challenging. The writing really helped; it’s so vivid and clear. And talking to Judith helped bring out the key points and what I was thinking of illustrating. It was my first time collaborating with a writer; my other collaborations have been with visual artists. Her writing made it very easy.

“Dream Architecture: Outside/In.”

Judith, you know a lot of visual artists. How did you decide to ask Masami to be your collaborator for this project?

JUDITH: I thought of her right away because I knew she was a consummate draughtswoman with a lyrical touch. One reason I like Masami’s work so much is that some of it is like Japanese graphic arts — those using the anime and manga styles.

What I didn’t think about was that most of her work is human-, animal-, and action-oriented. So when we got down to it, we had to figure out how to work with more static images within her style. I love her watercolor-and-wash style.

How did you choose the poems to include in this first six-part series?

MASAMI: Judith and the editors chose some of their favorites, and then I went through and picked out the ones about architecture — I said, “Why don’t we do all three of those?” As Judith said, most of my work has been more organic, featuring humans and animals. So this was my way of confronting something I’d never done.

Judith, how much input did you give Masami during the illustration process?

JUDITH: The collaboration was absolutely delightful. I really enjoy working with visual artists. In this case I think what happened was that Masami came up with the actual part of the dream to illustrate.

MASAMI: Yes, that’s right. And then we worked on it together.

Can the two of you describe some of the step-by-step collaboration, the dialogue you had about the images?

MASAMI: I did the actual pen-and-inking on paper and the effects on Photoshop. The lines and washes were done by hand. If I was not sure of things, I’d leave them in pencil and get her feedback before going on with it.

JUDITH: I just love that technique — it is so dreamlike itself. The process was fun for me because I got to have input and then had someone very talented to take the input and go with it to something more. We had a lot of back-and-forth, and Masami completely understood what I was suggesting. The first time she showed me the first illustration, for example, I thought it was too solid for a dream.

MASAMI: I said to Judith, “I have organic and traditional brushes on Photoshop and I can digitally erase parts of the image and we can move the erasure around so we can see which version we want.”

JUDITH: I really wanted the Corinthian column in that first image, and it stayed. It’s a building on the Berkeley campus. On the second piece (“Dream San Francisco”), I think Masami sent me the first version and I suggested trees in the back and more erasures in front.

Early sketch of the window for “Dream Architecture: New Views.”

For “Dream Architecture: New Views,” Masami asked if I wanted the image more free-drawn, for example if I wanted the mountain to stay in the window or go outside.

Alternate versions of “New Views.”

One thing that happened early on — we picked the colors so they told a story too.

It’s probably inevitable in this era that consumers — readers, viewers, whatever you want to call them — will notice a visual image first, then use it as a gateway to the text. So the illustration shapes what the reader looks for. And that experience may be tied to a particular moment. How would you feel about seeing alternative illustrations for these poems, either done by Masami later on or by some completely different artist with a different style?

JUDITH: I’m delighted that the viewer will look at the image and it will draw them into the dream. And to share with an artist and have her vision and have them come together — it makes writing much more exciting to me.

I feel that illustrations do wonderful work. When I was a child, I read Edward Eager, C. S. Lewis, Elizabeth Enright, old books of fairy tales, and The Water Babies … Some of the illustrations were of a generation before me and my sister, and they felt just right for those books that were old to us — so much that we practically destroyed the illustrations by tracing over them.

MASAMI: With comic books, I’ve noticed that people are always redrawing, trying to get new readers. It’s been done so many times with superhero comics. Businesses think that they have to make everything new, even when it’s worked well before. They have been revamping Batman, Superman, etc., and they just redid yet another series because the first redo wasn’t successful — with all new artists.

But I can’t imagine changing it [this series]. Now those images are sealed within that poem, that work — maybe ten years from now, other parts of the poem might stand out more, but right now I think keeping the images at this moment is kind of like a dream, that you have it only at that moment.

“Dream San Francisco / Dream Path.”

— — —

Judith Serin is the author of the poetry collection Hiding in the World, and her work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Ohio Journal, Writer’s Forum, Nebraska Review, Colorado State Review, Proposing on the Brooklyn Bridge, and When Last on the Mountain. She presents these pieces with gratitude to Betsy Davids.

Masami Inoue, who also works under the name Masa, is a Japanese-American artist who has lived on both coasts of the United States. Most recently she has been studying and working in the Bay Area, where she and Serin began their collaboration. She creates both digitally and traditionally, focusing on watercolor as her primary medium.